Friday, October 29, 2010

They Were Robbed! Part 2

Ask me what my favorite novel of the year was, and the answer is simple and fast to my lips: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.  I read it almost a full year ago (it went on sale in June) and yet it still sticks with me, one of those books that ruins reading anything else immediately afterward.  For that reason I was truly peeved that this wonderful book wasn't nominated for the National Book Award, so I'm hereby nominating it as a Slappy Award recipient.  As discussed in our last post, the Slappy is our fake award--you get a trophy! (there is no trophy)--for the best books of the year that weren't nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, and named after the Liz and Gianna dorky antics making fun of Gianna's short stature while at sales conference last March.  Gianna is definitely not a basketball player with that pathetic vertical leaping ability.  I mean, I'm not THAT tall.  She's should put a little effort into that flailing leap of hers and high five a woman.  Sheesh. 

Where was I?  Right.  Orringer.

I loved The Invisible Bridge.  It's an epic story of a young Hungarian who wins a scholarship to study architecture in Paris during the 1930's.  While there he falls in love with a fellow Hungarian expatriate, a dancer, and they wed.  With the advent of World War II, though, their lives are thrown in turmoil, and when they need to renew their visas, they find themselves trapped in Nazi-occupied Hungary for
the duration of the world.  I should mention that they are Jewish.  This is a war story, a Holocaust story, a love story, a family saga, but the book transcends these pigeon-holing categories.  There are so many places where the story or characters could veer off course and effectively ruin a fast-paced, engaging, literary reading experience, but Orringer deftly navigated the pitfalls and kept her story moving while building tension and making her characters both sympathetic and realistic. 

I struggle to find a fault with The Invisible Bridge.  The critics loved this book, I loved it, book groups should devour it for years to come, and I only wish the National Book Award judges had granted my clutched-to-my-heart wish that Julie Orringer walk on stage in November to accept her award.  Sigh.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

They Were Robbed! Part One

It's a swing!...and a miss. Poor Gianna.

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced a couple of weeks ago, and like any other list, everyone has an opinion about this one, too, including your intrepid book reps.  I will not condemn the books that made the list--I haven't yet had much of an opportunity to read the non-Random House titles (I have read Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey's historical fiction of an Alexis de Tocqueville-like character and his rascal companion).  Before the list was announced, though, Gianna and I had speculated on the books we read this year that we felt were worthy of consideration for one of the top literary prizes of the year.  Let's call our award the Slappy after the dorky high five Gianna and I shared on stage at our sales conference last March, as the diminutive Gianna flailed at my freakishly tall, fully extended arm.  We are not above company-wide dorkiness, particularly when lots of wine and barely edible conference food contribute to a sense of either ephemerality or indestructibility.

The first Slappy nomination for fiction published in 2010 goes to:

Jennifer Egan for A Visit from the Goon Squad.  We had the pleasure of meeting Egan at the Texas Book Festival a few weeks ago, and I'm pleased to say that she was personable, modest, brilliant, and charming.  Even if she'd been a Russell Crowe with her admiring public, though, I would still love her as the woman who wrote one of my favorite books of the 2000's, Look at Me.  That earlier book was nominated for the National Book Award (the same year that Jonathan Franzen won for The Corrections and other nominees for fiction included Dan Chaon, Louise Erdrich, and Susan Straight) and her latest, a group of linked short stories, received strong bookseller and review praise.  One of my booksellers at BookPeople in Austin even bet me that Egan would win the NBA this year. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad loosely centers around a music executive, Bennie, and his kleptomaniac girlfriend Sasha.  The stories reveal the characters' through time and across continents with a musical undercurrent binding them together.  Egan is a masterful creator of engaging characters and she doesn't shy away from telling stories innovatively; one story is told as a Power Point presentation, for example. 

Another reason Jennifer Egan is cool--check out her website:  The site includes lots of tidbits about how and where she wrote A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as songs that accompany the stories in the book.  From Led Zeppelin to Coldplay to Pink Floyd to George Michael to Bjork, the music that influenced the writing adds a depth to her process.  Not to mention that you have to give credit to a woman who would publicly reveal that she listened to David Gray (or am I the only one who finds him whiny?).  She's a gutsy, amazingly astute writer and definitely deserving of an awkward, flailing high five from a freakishly tall rep.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Texas Book Festival 2010: Doing THE WAVE with Susan Casey

Even though my beloved author crush Colson Whitehead did not propose to me last year (in his defense, he wasn't aware that I was expecting a ring because he didn't know who I was), I opted not blame the Texas Book Festival for my continuing lack of a social life or spousal bliss.  Sigh.  The book festival occurred this weekend, the fifteenth anniversary of the book lover's dream event, and I taped together my broken heart and drove to Austin for the fun.

The first event I attended featured Susan Casey, executive editor of O The Oprah Magazine and author of a new book entitled The Wave.  I read The Wave months ago when preparing for a March sales conference, but the scenes from the book have stuck with me--stories of huge cargo ships swallowed by the sea, a fishing boat in Alaska that survived a 1,700 foot wave (!!), and, incredibly, the surfers who try to ride the monsters.  I was not a fan of the ocean before reading the book (an encounter with a jellyfish when I was 12 and my inability to mentally block the idea that I'm swimming in fish poop killed any desire I might have possessed to swim in the beautiful briny sea), but Casey's book offered a new dimension to my ocean issues.  She manages to capture the potential destruction and terror of these huge waves without losing her undeniable love for the water.  She knows that the awesome force of waves could tear apart the strongest structures--the waves contain massive amounts of energy--and yet she cannot resist the opportunity to follow the extreme surfers like Laird Hamilton as they track and ride 80 foot waves. 

Susan Casey describes monster waves.
David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes interviewed Casey for her Book Fest event, and at one point he asked her what she wouldn't do, her limits in immersing herself in her research topic.  She never reached a point where she backed away from an adventure, though.  She swam with Laird Hamilton around Jaws, the wave break outside Hamilton's home in Maui, and she actually rode down the face of several monster waves with Hamilton on a jet ski.  She already knew the threat--the first big surfing day she covered for the book ended with a couple of surfers dying--but she's passionate about the ocean and her story. 

On top of being a fascinating speaker, Susan Casey proved to be a great sport, generous with her time and supporters.  After signing books for the Texas Book Festival crowd, she walked over to BookPeople, the Austin independent bookstore ten blocks away, in order to sign books and talk to booksellers.  She even hung around a bit to shop, buying copies of the Gillian Flynn thrillers Sharp Objects and Dark Places, great choices in my humble, Random House-pimping, opinion. 

There are always the horror stories about authors who treat readers and booksellers poorly.  I certainly have milked the drama of a celebrity author's crazy wife over the course of the last year (the woman alternately thought I was the driver even though I introduced myself, and then the person who should hold her purse while she took her time in the restroom, and the five hours I spent in her presence have scarred my fragile psyche) and have my own list of unpleasant personalities *coughDr.Philcough*.  Alternately I keep a list of the great authors, the ones who appreciate that their writing is meaningful for their readers and are grateful, humble.  Susan Casey is the kind of writer easy to celebrate, the kind for whom I cheer when I see The Wave on the bestseller lists.  Meeting her and hearing her speak about killer waves was a great way to start my Book Fest trip this year.  She's cool.  Oh, and her book?  PERFECT for fans of Born to Run or Into Thin Air, a great gift for the holiday season. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Long Way Home

From Gianna:

It is a question booksellers and book lovers ask each other often, “What book has changed your life?” The answer, of course, changes with age, with what we’ve read, and with life experience. Occasionally, or maybe not even that often, there is a book that you want to push from your mind and can’t seem to move from your nightstand at the same time. For me that book has been Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. It is subtitled “A Memoir of Friendship” which is pretty innocuous at first glance. A memoir of friendship to be sure, but the level of this friendship is spiritual and as committed as the best of marriages. It is the gorgeous story of Gail’s friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp (author of the two classics: Drinking A Love Story and Pack of Two ). The book begins with these lines: “It’s an old , old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that , too.” As women we are bombarded with false reports and bullshit polls that women don’t get along, and of course the media loves to portray us with our “claws” out – after each others' men or jobs...or are we simply jealous of each others' boobs? It is such a lie, such a crappy lie, but worrisome that some of us are buying into it. Women do have lifelong, meaningful, important friendships; we always have. Gail and Carol’s story is just one of many, as is mine.
I’ve lived with this book for the better part of two years now; I can not shake it, but it has weighed most heavily on my mind this past month.

I have a very close friend; she in fact was my first girlfriend. I was 18 years old when I met her; she told me I wasn’t funny and of course…I was smitten. About four years ago she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. And as that diagnosis does – it takes your breath away – but we live in a time where this is often called a manageable disease. And it is.  It’s not fun, but it is a constant battle. And then like metastasized breast cancer does…that little fucker spreads. Sometimes to the liver, lungs, bones, or the brain among a zillion other nooks and crannies, and for us we got bones. My friend took it in stride, fought on, chemo and radiation ,and just carried on. Recently tumors were found in her brain. So then came radiation on her entire brain, and more chemo of course. Things looked good, the doctors were still talking managed care, so we started planning a road trip from her home in Florida to Las Vegas, stopping here in Austin for a few days to rest. My friend has a small gambling issue – she won’t admit it – but, you know, it’s all she loves to do anymore.  She’s no good at it and I’ve never actually known her to win…but that’s another story. Anyway, we began planning. Then, just a few weeks ago, her Johnny-on-the-spot doctor didn’t like the way she was walking, ordered a CAT scan, and there you have it …more tumors.

I flew out again as soon as I could – our mutual best friend had to leave for a work trip so I would be in charge of caring for her. My friend is a lot to be in charge of without cancer by the way – she is a bit of trouble; add cancer to the mix and I had my hands full. We had scheduled an MRI and I have never been as nervous sitting in that doctor's office with her and our mutual friend (who had come back from her business trip) waiting for the results. We were positive, however; we thought from the CAT scan that we were dealing with one very treatable tumor. Turns out, CAT scans are so inferior to MRI’s that it shocked us when the sheer number of actual brain tumors was revealed. Numerous very small tumors all over her brain, and a few larger (but still small) tumors were also in the mix and these would be our focus. So we march on.

Today my friend is headed in for her fourth day in a row of Gamma Knife radiation – it's what it sounds like, extremely precise – you have a mask made of your face and are pinned down while you get zapped. I was with her when her mask was made and I at that moment thought How does she doe this – day in – day out? How? Anyway, so day four is today and she is in Florida and I am back in Texas and all I can think about every moment is how to get back to Florida – to get back to being useful. I miss making her meals (I am a terrible cook but she’s kind about it), bitching at her to drink more water, reminding her to take her pills (okay so once I forgot to remind her and claimed I did tell her but her chemo brain made her forget – not proud but it’s the truth), and it turns out….she thinks I am pretty funny.  So I miss not only making her laugh, because I can do that on the phone, but making her laugh in person because sometimes she comes really close to peeing her pants and that stuff is best in person.

So this is friendship, the entire thing. It’s about how we spend our time, and I am sorry for being corny but it is about taking the long way home.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Betting on Nobel

This year's Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced on Thursday and the various book industry news venues are posting almost daily updates speculating on which esteemed writer might win this year's prize.  While I have no doubt that every source is, well, full of it, I do love the annual Nobel Prize build-up because it focuses attention on so many great authors.  And leave it to the Brits to take pleasure in betting on who'll win a literary award.  The British bookmaker Ladbrokes posts the top odds for the world's current literary giants ( 

It's a fascinating list, but really, does the Nobel Prize for Literature mean anything?  I do think that award recipients are worthy, and considering my career I'm always in favor of any event that will generate book sales.  But how does one go about selecting the pinnacle of lifetime literary achievement each year, the one writer whose life work outshines the other six billion people on the planet?  It can't be done, and so the award tends to rotate from country to country, genre to genre, honored as much for the political climate of the year as for the author's body of work.  When Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005, speculation was that the outrage over the US invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's treatment of detainees kept the selection committee from picking the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993.  It's a weird prize that lends itself to stereotyping, a single individual representing a whole group of people, a whole country.  There's the Chinese guy, the Holocaust survivor, the Irish poet, the South African, the Gulag survivor, the African-American's a little insulting to the talented writers representing their demographics, but the award also calls attention to important works.  Is it a good thing?  Is it wrong?  Maybe it just is.

So who are the bookies picking this year?  The popular choice is for a poet to win since the last decade or so of winners have been novelists or playwrights.  The favorite right now is Tomas Transtromer at 4/1, followed by Adam Zagajewski, Adonis, and Ko Un all at 8/1.  Generally I don't read much poetry and am only familiar with the work of Adonis.  For me the list becomes far more interesting with the 11/1 writer, Haruki Murakami, and then a cluster of my favorite writers hovering at 18/1.  The odds go all the way to the dark horse popular "poet," Bob Dylan, at 150/1.  Here are some highlights from the list of the world's greatest living writers, authors worth reading regardless of whether they ever actually go to Sweden.

  • 11/1: Haruki Murakami.  Murakami is the best known Japanese writer in America, a post-modern writer who draws heavily from Western culture and music.  He's also an avid runner and recently completed his first ultra-marathon.  What to read: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which infuses music, the fantastic, and violence around the story of a seemingly boring man whose cat runs away, kicking off a chain of event.s  Also, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami's nonfiction account of his life as a marathoner and triathlete.
  • 18/1: A. S. Byatt.  Antonia Byatt is a British writer who won the Booker Prize for Possession.  Her most recent novel, The Children's Book, was one of my favorite books of 2009, a rich, historical novel revolving around a writer and her seven children in turn of the century rural England.  It's a book about family, secrets, love, and the loss of innocence children--and nations--experience as they mature, culminating in the outbreak of World War I. 
  • 18/1: Joyce Carol Oates.  Probably the most prolific writer of literary fiction alive today, Oates not only has cranked out dozens of books, essays, and short stories, they almost all been high quality.  She isn't afraid of violence and regularly pursues the darker corners of the "American Dream."  She won the National Book Award for her novel them (and should have won for Blonde, a finalist four decades later).  Oates also wrote my favorite short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"  Check out We Were the Mulvaneys, a moving, dark story about the disintegration of a "perfect" family after the only daughter is attacked one night and her father can't cope with the violation of his daughter.  I also love Blonde, Oates's fictional life of Marilyn Monroe; I had no interest in Monroe at all until reading this book.  The same is true for The Falls, a novel that begins with a new husband committing suicide on his honeymoon at Niagara Falls, a tourist site which also didn't interest me until JCO immersed me in her story.
  • 18/1: Margaret Atwood.  I admit that I love Canada and therefore love Margaret Atwood all the more.  Atwood writes great literary fiction, great historical fiction, great speculative fiction set in a dystopian future.  She is known for her social conscience as well as her humor and lately has become an avid Twitter user (Tweeter?  Twitterer?).  Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000 and The Handmaid's Tale is required reading in many high schools and universities.  More recently Atwood has written two linked near-future novels, Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, that predict apocalyptic catastrophe with the destruction of the environment and rampant genetic engineering.
  • 20/1: Cormac McCarthy.  He's dark, he's twisted, he's reclusive, he's Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for his post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and literary critic Harold Bloom called his novel Blood Meridian "the greatest single book since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying."  Two great places to start for readers wanting to try McCarthy--No Country For Old Men, which inspired the Academy Award-winning movie, and All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award.  Both books are superb examples of McCarthy's writing style but aren't quite as bleak as some of his other books.
  • 25/1: Maya Angelou.  Poet and memoirist (and cookbook writer) Maya Angelou is best known for her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her story of growing up in rural Arkansas.  The book is required reading for many grade school students and I feel like it's sometimes dismissed because of the school-aged audience.  The best memoirs, though, seem to come from poets--Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, and also the first of the confessional memoirs, Caged Bird.  Angelou also composed and read a poem at Bill Clinton's first inauguration and is pals with Oprah.
  • 45/1: Chinua Achebe.  The Nigerian born Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart.  The book, about a tribal man whose life is complicated when Christian missionaries arrive in his village, has sold over 8 millions copies and is the most translated work of African fiction in the world.
  • 50/1: Ian McEwan.  A crafter of fine characters and stories, McEwan achieved a new level of fame after the release of the movie version of his novel Atonement struck box office gold.  A war story and love story, Atonement centers around a girl misinterpreting an encounter she observes between her older sister and a servant's son, leading to the young man's arrest.  When war erupts across Europe, he leaves to fight.  McEwan also won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam, and his most recent book is a humorous, amoral romp through global climate change called Solar.
  • 66/1: Michael Ondaatje.  Ondaatje, another one of my Canadian crushes, won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, which was later made into the Oscar-winning film.  The book is a sweeping love story set before and during World War II, and like most instances, the book is even better than the movie.
  • 75/1: Atiq Rahimi.  I admit that I wasn't really familiar with Rahimi until last year, but one of the cool aspects of the Nobel Prize is that it does have the potential to expose audiences to great literature from around the world.  Rahimi is definitely a great writer.  Born in Afghanistan, Rahimi lives and writes in France now, where he works as both a novelist and film-maker.  In 2008, Rahimi's novel The Patience Stone won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award.  The book tells the story of an Afghani woman caring for her wounded husband who lies comatose in a bed as war rages in the streets outside.  She's angry at her husband for deserting her via gunshot wound and slowly begins to tell him about her life for the first time, releasing her frustrations at her life, marriage, and the constraints placed on women in the Taliban-governed country.
  • 100/1: Peter Carey.  Australian novelist Peter Carey is one of the most gifted storytellers writing these days.  He's twice won the Booker Prize, for Oscar & Lucinda in 1988 and The True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.  His latest book, a historical novel based on the real-life social critic Alexis de Tocqueville, is entitled Parrot and Olivier in America, and it too is shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Who will win?  I myself think that it's about time a Canadian wins, so I'm crossing my fingers for Atwood, Ondaatje, or short story writer Alice Munro (also at 18/1 odds).  Unlike other prizes such as the National Book Award or Man Booker Prize, we won't have an inkling of the shortlisted books in advance.  In fact, the Nobel Prize doesn't reveal  finalists until 50 years after the presentation of the award.  It really could almost anyone walking away with the 10 million Swedish kroner and medal.