Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #25

Gianna, who is going to make fun of me for my relationship with my cat:

Awkward Family Pet Photos
Mike Bender and Doug Chernack
Three Rivers Press
Touch my monkey...

Each holiday season I like to have three or four copies of a really good but inexpensive humor book that I can give away as gifts to, you know, people that I forgot to get a gift for, or a grab bag, or for a crying child. Well there is nothing I don’t love about this book or the first edition, Awkward Family Photos. These pictures will make you cringe, scream, and very possibly barf in your mouth just a little bit (examples below).
Zorro's long lost brother.
I didn't know Gianna's
dad had a snake!

I suspect some of you will recognize a piece of yourself in these photos (you know who you are), and the next time you snap another photo of you and your dog, snake, bird, hedgehog, cat, bunny, or god help us all…your monkey, you will certainly think twice about the appropriateness of your pose (or if your cat is really a willing participant in the photo (looking at you Sullivan)).  [Zorro loves to have his picture taken.]
Zorro. (Not in the book.)


Vaclav & Lena
Haley Tanner
The Dial Press

I love first novels; the good ones feel like a special discovery.  Vaclav & Lena caught me in just that way.  Vaclav and Lena and both Russian immigrant children, learning English and struggling through school.  After school, though, they are best friends, and Vaclav wants to be a great magician and Lena will be his lovely assistant.  Author Haley Tanner absolutely nails the voices of these characters--read the first few pages and you'll be hooked.  Anyway, Vaclav's mother, a terrific character, parents both children until a fateful day when Lena is sent away.  Spring forward to high school aged Vaclav and Lena, teenagers who've acclimated to American culture.  That special bond between them still exists, though.  

Haley Tanner
Book groups and fans of the superb The Night Circus.  Also, in Book Land booksellers are always keeping an eye out for books that will crossover between adult and young adult audiences.  Vaclav & Lena  lands squarely in that sweet spot.  Haley Tanner is a writer to watch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #26

You know what's fun about associating with Gianna?  The various ways such a connection pops up in my life.  Random House recently launched a cool book recommendation site called Everyday eBook, and our RH pals asked if they could use some of our blog's reviews on their site.  Who are we to say no?  However, it was a real delight for me to discover that the site also pulled Gianna's biographical statement off of our blog, and it reads:
i am the sales manager for the university of texas press. previously i worked as a sales manager with random house for about 8 years or so until liz sullivan made my life so miserable i had to change jobs. we are now married, have 9 children and vote republican. we are not happy.
It's my fervent hope that everyone I know now knows of my miserable love with Gianna, so you should follow Everyday eBook (even if you don't read eBooks; they have great picks that are available as print books too).  Anyway, moving on to our picks....

Best of 2011 Countdown: #26


Close Your Eyes
Amanda Eyre Ward
Random House

This dark novel was inspired by an actual double murder that happened in the author’s neighborhood when she was a teenager. Ward grew up in a small, quiet town (Rye, NY where I have attended a couple of Random House sales conferences…I could have been killed!), and the fact that such a brutal (and for many years, unsolved) crime could happen would be enough to shake you. As it would turn out, the crime was committed by a drunk teenager that Ward and her group of friends actually knew. The specifics of that crime are bizarre enough that you will want to read about it, trust me, so here is a link to Amanda Eyre Ward’s website where she explains the murder (and there is a picture of Amanda at the tender age of 17…worth the trip to the website).

Amanda Eyre Ward
(the adult version)
Close Your Eyes doesn’t use that plot exactly; it takes that idea and makes it more intimate. Young Lauren and Alex are sleeping in their tree house when their mother is brutally murdered. Their father is convicted of the crime and their lives are forever changed. The books moves ahead twenty years and while the sister and brother remain close (who else would understand this kind of life?), Lauren is convinced that her father is guilty while her brother is sure he is not.  While it would of course be easier for Lauren to try in some way to move forward with her life--her attempts at normalcy--she begins to dig into the past, and things get…interesting.

Amanda has hit a home run with this novel. It's dark, it's creepy, the characters are rich, and the story is perfect. A good comparison is Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places or Sharp Objects…and if you didn’t like those two books, well, what the heck is wrong with you?


Your Voice in My Head
Emma Forrest
Other Press

I admit that I am fascinated by memoirs that are heavily psychological.  Just like I'm drawn to damaged characters in fiction, I am most intrigued by memoirs that are more internal, and at the risk of being flippant, the crazier the better.  It's the same reason that I love the HBO series In Treatment, too.  What can I say?  I've got my issues.  So there was no question that I'd be reading Your Voice in My Head when I heard the editor discusses it at our sales conference.  It didn't disappoint.

Emma Forrest
Emma Forrest has composed an intimate--sometimes uncomfortably so--memoir about the two major relationships in her life at a time when she was most vulnerable.  She was 22, living a furious existence in New York that spiraled out of control and toward depression and suicide.  Salvation came in the form of a psychiatrist, a man who became her touchstone as she began to dig herself out of the psychological hole into which she'd slipped.  In the meantime, Forrest meets and falls in love with another man, her "Gypsy Husband," an A-List Hollywood actor (Google Emma Forrest and you'll find out who it is).  Their romance is intense and idyllic...and then troubled.  One day Forrest attempts to make an appointment with her psychiatrist, only to discover that he's died.  The Jiminy Cricket on her shoulder, this man who'd seen into her darkest thoughts without flinching, the voice in her head, was gone, and she realized she'd never known anything about him.

Your Voice in My Head belongs in the same category as Girl, Interrupted and The Glass Castle, though I think that Emma Forrest is a more talented writer.  It's unsettling, loving, moving, and brilliantly written.  I love this book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #27


The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press

How famous would you have to be in order for your 1863 wedding to knock the Civil War off the front pages of newspapers all over the country? Well, you would have to be 32 inch tall Lavinia Warren about to marry General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) in front of 2,000 guests.
Think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt without the Jennifer Aniston controversy. Think Kim Kardashian, but a marriage that lasted two decades longer.  Think Lindsay Lohan and that girl DJ (but without the ankle monitors, drugs, and alcohol). Think Liz and Gianna…adorable right? [Not really.]

Anyway, Lavinia was the most photographed woman of her lifetime. Let me say that again, she was the most photographed woman of her generation. Every other famous person on the planet, including kings, queens, and Presidents, knew her. Lincoln gave a reception at the White House for the newlyweds (think Bono minus sunglasses).  But why, if Mrs. Tom Thumb was so famous, don’t we know her today? Well, take note reality TV star wannabes: maybe because she became famous because of her stature, not because of a talent or works, her legacy didn't endure. And that is the tragic part of this novel, that such a wonderful woman--a brave, strong, optimistic, smart (so smart) woman--could be lost in history. She chose the life she had, she sought out the limelight, but for her it was a way foreword; she couldn’t have known that it would lead to what had to be a good amount of loneliness (especially after the death of her younger sister). She had visitors daily, but they paid to see her.  They certainly had no personal investment in her, they didn’t care about her. It's an interesting footnote that tombstone next to General Tom Thumb merely reads “his wife.”
Well Lavinia has the last laugh now because she’s on Facebook!

Benjamin has managed to write one of the most interesting historical novels I think I have ever read. It's an absolute page turner. At its core this book is a fascinating travelogue of America, a who’s who and lesson on every page.  If you read and enjoyed Ragtime by Doctorow, I think you will like this as well.  


The Gap Year
Sarah Bird

What would a best of list be without an author from our neck of the woods?  Every Sarah Bird novel is different, but the common bonds among them are 1. her outrageous sense of humor, and 2. a Texas-sized heart.  (You'd think that some of this compassion for people would rub off on my pal Gianna, but no.  We technically don't even work together and still she tortures me with emails that say things like "Fuck the comma!" Do you know how hard I work to proofread her posts before flinging them onto the web?  You need that comma, I need that comma, but why must I suffer for her?  Why?! Moving on.)  Sarah Bird is at her absolute best when her stories draw from her own life, and such is the case with her newest book, The Gap Year.  Sarah channeled her anxieties about her child going to college into her latest novel.

Sarah Bird
The Gap Year follows a single mother and her daughter through the course of the girl's senior year in high school.  Cam, her mom, is doing the motherly thing and looking at colleges for Aubrey.  Both Cam and Aubrey are anxious about this major step looming, but for different reasons.  Cam is facing that empty nest thing, while Aubrey doesn't know what she wants to do with her life.  She does know, though, that she wants to spend as much time as possible with Tyler, the golden-boy quarterback with mysterious roots.  The Gap Year is a traditional coming of age novel, but with distinctly Sarah Bird touches.  Remember how I mentioned Sarah's sense of humor?  Cam, she's a lactation consultant, and the scenes involving Cam's profession and her lactation classes are full of humor and warmth.  As someone who's vehemently anti-baby, I was squirming a bit, but also laughing.  

Your book group should be reading The Gap Year.  Fans of The Gilmore Girls?  You'll like The Gap Year.  And when you're finished with The Gap Year, go back and read The Yokota Officers Club, another book that draws from Sarah's life.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #28


Don't Make Me Go to Town: Ranchwomen of the Texas Hill Country
Rhonda Lashley Lopez
UT Press

"My husband says every now and then, 'well, I can hardly get her to town.' I just dread the days I have to go. My life is so full. I have the livestock to tend to plus all the other things. I can stay out here three or four weeks and be happy."
—Joan Wagner Bushong

"I don't have any brothers, so I've done the boy stuff. My sister plays the piano. She stayed in the house with Mom and I'd stay in the pasture with my dad. . . . When I was ten or eleven years old, I would drive the pickup while Daddy pulled the sucker rods out of the wells and releathered them. I learned to drive the pickup just so I could pull the windmill."
—Lorelei Hankins

When I first moved to Texas, I guess I romanticized what it meant to run a working ranch. I guess I thought it would be amazing to spend most every day outside, to work with animals, live in solitude, and have casual Friday every day. Turns out the only thing I am really built for is casual Friday every day. [By "casual Friday" we all know that Gianna's talking about not getting dressed at all, right?]

Don’t Make Me Go to Town profiles and photographs eight woman ranchers in the Texas Hill Country (basically between San Antonio and Austin).
Their ages range from forty years old to over eighty years old. Yeah, if there is anything to wake you up from the ranch dream, it is the stone cold fact that you will be working that ranch in freezing temperatures, in a heat wave, and in the pouring rain when you are eighty years old.

These oral histories (and really that is what this book is, eight oral histories, as the author has transcribed the interviews pretty much word for word) are priceless, as this way of life is disappearing, and with the brutal drought this winter it is easy to understand how difficult it is to keep the land viable when you are at the mercy of the weather.


Hemingway's Boat
Paul Hendrickson

I admit that I'm one of those people who really doesn't enjoy Hemingway's novels.  He's always been too...shall we say "testosterone frenzied?"...for my tastes.  Too much barbaric yawping and manly men and pulling the marlin in with his bare, bleeding hands.  What do I know of Hemingway the man?  I know he was married a bunch of times, and that he served in World War I, that he hung out in the best years to be in Paris, that he settled in the Florida Keys and then killed himself.  He liked six-toed cats or something.  Most of this information is from the literature major's form of gossip in college.  Recently I read The Paris Wife, a novel about the young Hemingway and his first wife, but it...wasn't my kind of thing.  Some of my vast Hemingway lore comes from that book, but I'm not trusting the source.

Then there's Paul Hendrickson's Hemingway's Boat.  Hendrickson has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and is an elegant, engaging writer. He focuses on the last thirty years of Papa's life, but the peak of his writing successes to his eventual suicide, using Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar, as the focal point.  It's a fascinating way to conceive a biography.  The boat was the constant in Hemingway's tumultuous life, the place where he thought, raged, played, challenged his manliness against giant fish, entertained, drank, seduced women, spent time with his children.  It was where, in his later years, he struggled against his waning life and abilities (Can you imagine Papa on Viagra?  Shudder).  Hemingway seems to be a popular book topic right now, and Hendrickson's book should be at the top of any pile for people interested in this American author.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #29


The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine Books

This debut novel weaves past and present to tell the story of a young girl named Victoria who has spent her entire life in the foster care system In and out of thirty-two different homes (the author is a foster
parent) she is to say the least....damaged.  Cut off from the world and homeless at the age of eighteen, Vicoria's only solace are flowers. Her connection with flowers is her gift and the only way of communication she can muster. Soon discovered by a well-known florist, she begins to touch people's lives with her talent. Probably the most commercial book on my list, this is a perfect choice for book groups. Themes include motherhood, the foster care system, homelessness, redemption, and of course a history of the meaning of flowers.  A very cool touch is the flower dictionary included as an appendix in the book.

In many ways this is a perfect book for Liz to read.  It takes us back to Victorian times when we would rely on flowers to say just how we felt; we never had to speak the words. For example, Liz would give me red roses. Lots and lots of red roses. And I of course would give  her a single hibiscus. [I actually prefer the common thistle.]

Link to dictionary:

The Snowman
Jo Nesbo

What I love about this book: 
1. It's a great police procedural thriller.
2. The crimes are creepy and unnerving.
3. I like snow.
4. The detective's name is Harry Hole.

Imagine the joy I take in presenting this book to a room full of readers.  I get to say "Harry Hole" over and over and over, and then giggle like an idiot.  The Snowman is a great read, and a strong follow-up read for all of you who read the Stieg Larsson trilogy.  The story begins when a mother and son find a snowman in their yard, but facing the house and seeming to stare in.  That night, the son wakes to find his mother gone, but the snowman has some of her possessions.  Then women begin to show up...decapitated.  Creepy, right?  Harry Hole (heh) is a fun character with whom to tag along as he works to track down the killer.  It doesn't hurt, either, that Jo Nesbo is a bit of a hunk.  I wonder if he's single?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #30

Thanksgiving has passed, so it's time to get down to the business of the Best Books of 2011.  This year we've decided to countdown to our #1 picks over the course of a month.  Our fan seemed to like our 30 Day Book Challenge, and it's a pleasure listening to Gianna whine about posting everyday even though it was her idea.  These are our favorite 2011 books from the publishers we sell.  Don't argue with us if you don't see, say, Haruki Marakami's 1Q84 on the list.  I haven't read it.  No doubt it will appear on bunches of best lists, but those people have staffs and we're just two lowly book reps trying to get by.  (We take bribes, so if you're an author and stumble upon our blog while doing a Google search for "Bobby Hill eats a steak"--that's a real search--send us your leftover pie.  Liz doesn't eat pumpkins or other gourdy nastiness.)

Best of 2011 #30


West of 98
Edited by Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland
University of Texas Press

Sixty-six writers share what it means to be a Westerner through essays, poems, and stories. From Texas to North Dakota these pieces cover race, politics, landscape, and what home really means. Rick Bass, Louise Erdrich, Jim Harrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, David Guterson, and Walter Kirn are among some of the writers included. Here is an excerpt from the really wonderful essay by Larry McMurtry reminiscing on his cowboy days and what it means now:

“My experience with Lonesome Dove and its various sequels and prequels convinced me that the core of the Western myth – that the cowboys are brave and cowboys are free – is essentially unassailable. I thought of Lonesome Dove as demythicizing, but instead it became a kind of American Arthuriad, overflowing the bounds of genre in many curious ways.”

Many of these are contradicting; each writer seeming to have his or her own view of western life and connectedness with landscape and history.   Unsentimental and often brutally honest, this was a great collection to start off my career  at University of Texas Press.


Jerusalem: The Biography
By Simon Sebag Montifiore

With my love of Russia, I had previously read Simon Sebag Montifiore's biographies Stalin: Court of the Red Czar and Young Stalin.  (I like my crushes in red military uniforms.  I love Mounties!)  He is a wonderful writer who has the ability to keep histories featuring numerous figures and events enthralling.  I was somewhat nervous about this new book, though, because I wasn't an internally inclined to the subject in the way I am to the sweet Soviet.  Nonetheless, I found Jerusalem rich and enlightening, a worthy and successful attempt to capture the holy city on paper.  How did this one outpost city become the center of three religions and the key to Middle Eastern peace and perhaps eternal salvation?  Here are the players, from Herod to Disraeli, Caligula to Churchill.  Jerusalem is the epicenter of our world and, depending upon what you believe, Apocalypse HQ.  This is a terrific book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best of 2011: Liz's Picks From Publishers We Don't Work For

As Gianna mentioned yesterday, we're spreading out our Top Picks list for the next month or so.  On the one hand, our dozen of fans seemed to like the 30 Day Book Challenge format.  On the other, do you understand how much [little] effort we put into coming up with blog post ideas here?  Literally minutes every month are spent agonizing over topics.  If we drag things out, you'll love us and we can maintain our lovely half-assedness.  Continuing where Gianna left off yesterday, it's my turn to pick my favorite books that don't involve our corporate shilling.  This is really difficult for me.  I hope you all understand that I'm an insufferable company whore.  I'm half-tempted to recommend crap so that the books I sell look even better.  In case you were wondering, I also cheat at Monopoly and Scrabble.  I wouldn't say that my parents are proud.

Liz's List of Best Books from Publishers for Whom We Don't Work [Unlike Gianna, I am pretentious enough to be disturbed by the whole ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition thing.  Do not email me about the title of this post.  I know how it reads.]

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Patchett just opened a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books, with our pal Karen Hayes, so I'd be placing her on this list based on that tidbit of coolness anyway, but I actually really liked her book too.  State of Wonder is an adventure story, a mystery, a morality tale, and a highly entertaining read.  Scientists researching fertility find an indigenous tribe in the Amazon Basin in which the women give birth their whole lives.  One scientist goes missing, and his colleague is sent to find him and to ascertain why her mentor in med school has quit communicating with corporate headquarters.  Let's go back to that fertility thing, though.  Imagine squirting out a kid at the age of 70.  Hell no.  I'd much rather go the Pet Sematary route and make Zorro immortal, and it's pretty obvious that he's already a demonically possessed creature.  So anyway, State of Wonder is a fascinating and entertaining and thought provoking read, and Ann Patchett is awesome.

2. Bossypants by Tina Fey.

Yes, Gianna placed this book on her list too.  We have similar tastes.  I also think that Tina Fey may actually be my alter-ego, and she's most certainly going to star in both the Lifetime TV Movie of my life, A Liz to Replace All Lizzes, and the SyFy Channel flick, Hellcat: Revenge of Fat Zorro.  Tina has already begun stretching herself so that she'll be six feet tall.  If Meryl could do it to play Julia Child, Tina can do it to play me.  And Amy Sedaris and Amy Poehler are genetically fusing themselves with Mama Fratelli from The Goonies in order to accurately portray Gianna.  Moving on.

3. Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Gianna also picked this book.  While my general disdain for people is well known and the tales of my codependent relationship with my cat are the stuff of urban legend (all true), I actually like most animals.  Hate people, love animals.  It's the flaw in my quest for sociopathy.  Orlean's chronicle of the beloved "Rinty," her own quest to understand an American icon, and the relevance to a society disillusioned by the status quo make Rin Tin Tin a terrific read.  I was somewhat familiar with Rin Tin Tin's beginnings because the novel Sunnyside a few years back used it as a plot line. This book, though, is more Seabiscuit in its scope.  And I love German shepherds.  They are great dogs.

....Whose idea was it to come up with 10 books?  I don't really get a chance to read non-RH books until the holiday break.  Lists are hard.  I hate Gianna.  She's a bully.

4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

First, there's the baseball.  Secondly, it's a Franzen-reminiscent without the ugly stink of Franzen's public persona to ruin it.  Third, I think my colleague Jason liked it, and he has better taste than any of us.  And it's most likely going to win the Pulitzer Prize next April.

5. You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

I credit my Lemuria bookselling pals for turning me onto this great short story collection.  Relying on her firsthand experience of the lives of army wives at Ft. Hood, these semi-connected stories capture the difficulties of the women left behind.  This is one of those books that receives some acclaim, and then in several years you can brag to your friends that you were all over Siobhan back before she was a literary wonder.

6. Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III

Gianna's going to kick herself when she realizes that she forgot to include Dubus's memoir on her list yesterday.  There are no redos, LaMorte.  The memoir tells the story of the author's difficult childhood and the problems with being the author Andre Dubus's son, who was absent much of the time.  It's a dark, tough book, but what's a best-of list without a tortured author memoir?

7. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

I'm a sucker for books with sleep and brain disorders.  Here's a suspense novel with a Memento-like twist. Every morning when Christine wakes, she doesn't know where she is, who she is, and she's at the mercy of her husband to fill in the gaps.  What caused her amnesia?  What happens when you can't even trust your own head?  Imagine getting up every morning and not understanding that Zorro will attack if you put your hand on the back of the sofa.  That's living dangerously.  Oh, and S.J. Watson is a first-time novelist.  We love those.

8. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

This book gets my vote for coolest book jacket of the year.  On top of that, it has literary chops, having made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.  And it's a literary Western, one of my favorite sub-genres (think All the Pretty Horses as an example of the category, but this book is decidedly funnier than Cormac McCarthy).  Violence, 1850's American West settings, and the bond between brothers (Eli and Charlie Sisters)--good stuff.

Seriously?  Two more?  Sheesh.

9. These Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

Just like Gianna picked I Want My MTV, I'm going to pick an oral history-type book that captures great television culture.  Picture me on the road for more than 40 days a year, and sitting in a hotel room alone.  It's 6 am.  If I start working, my boss will come to expect me to regularly work that early.  My pal Elizabeth won't let me play Words With Friends when she's sleeping because her iPhone will ding and wake her up.  What to do?  Sportscenter.  I can watch the broadcast loop for hours.  I love sports, particularly baseball and basketball, and I find the ways sports are reported fascinating.  Some of it is annoying, some of it is moving, some of it is top-rate.  There's no question that ESPN is synonymous with quality sports broadcasting, but that's only happened in the last 25 years.  Fascinating stuff.

10.  A Shore Thing by Nicole Polizzi

Snooki wrote a novel.  Allow me to quote some of the customer reviews out there on the interweb:

Marxius writes, "This is by far the best assisted suicide novel I have ever read. I was literally cutting my wrists as every page was turned. Bravo Snooki!!"

Goodcustomer writes,
"As a door stop, it lacks heft.
As a smoking adjunct, the paper lacks pliability.
As bird cage liner material, it doesn't lay flat.
As fish wrappers, it lacks breadth.
As an accessory to self-abuse, it lacks absorbency.
As compost, it's toxic.
As a weapon, it lacks a reliable grip.
As a comedy, it's too tragic.
As a tragedy, it's too pathetic.
As a book, the hardcover edition is 304 pages too long."

And Marcopolio shares this:  "I noticed that there are used versions of this on here, meaning someone bought it. The only saving grace to my mind is that the ones who did probably opened it, realized they couldn't read and put it back down."

Guess what Gianna's getting for Christmas. And thank the good lord I didn't have to sell this book.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Best of 2011: Gianna's Picks from Publishers We Don't Work For

It’s that time of year when every idiot with a computer posts a Top 10 or Top 20 or God forbid a Top 30 list! Hell, the New York Times Book Review picks 100 notable books. We love that time of year and we too are idiots so we are proud to announce our Top 30 books from either UT Press or Random House....starting the day after Thanksgiving. First, though, we will write up a sweet, little warm-up list of our Top 10 books from other publishers. That’s 40 books people! We will not be posting on Thanksgiving for fear our blog will make you nauseous. You’re welcome. [This blog is better than my cooking. There's a turkey and cheese Hot Pocket I highly recommend!]

Gianna’s List of Best Books from Publishers We Don't Work For [and yes, I know this is grammatically incorrect, but "for whom we don't work" sounds way too pretentious for Gianna's #10 pick]

1. Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman.

I loves me some Scientology.
Oh, full disclosure, I visited the Scientology Center the same month that I first moved to Austin. You have to understand I didn’t know anyone here! I was lonely and someone asked if I wanted to watch a free movie and I mean honestly, I love movies, and free movies? Sold. Turns out, it was overpriced. Anyway, after the “movie,” I was invited up to take a test, like a personality test. Well shit man, I love those too! So about an hour later I find myself sitting at a table in a room with what I assume to have been three homeless men trying to get out of the rain by agreeing to learn about Scientology (not worth it). I was given a test, for what I don’t remember, but I do know I was suppose to tell a story with a paperclip, a rubber band and a tiny block. I said I had to go to the bathroom and never went back. I still get junk mail from them. [This could be because I signed Gianna up for a bunch of mailing lists after she left Random House.] I have called several times trying to get the mail to stop but for all of their wizardly ways…they can’t seem to remove my name from a mailing list. Oh, I didn’t say anything about this book. Reitman’s book is based on five years of research. She interviewed current and ex-Scientologists and had access to confidential documents, all of which she makes completely readable and compelling. I think I read this in a day. So delicious.

2. Bossypants by Tina Fey

I read this and listened to it on audio. I looked like a complete dope walking around listening to this on my iPod, twice doubling over laughing. What is really great about Fey’s book is she covers all the personal stuff (the chapters about her daughter are priceless), but you also get an excellent dose of work related chapters, the ins and outs of comedy writing, her stint at SNL, and of course 30 Rock. This is one of my favorite books from any publisher this year.

3. Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

I found this collection of stories at BookPeople here in Austin. I'd never heard of it, nor Frank Bill, but I am a sucker for a good title. I would have to say this is the best blind buy I have made in awhile. Gothic in the best sense of the word, he is in the company of Daniel Woodrell, Flannery O’Connor and a little bit of Cormac McCarthy (think No Country for Old Men). These stories are a force. They are violent and gritty and nothing, I say NOTHING holds this author back. Great read.

4. I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

Gianna: Use this picture!
Liz: Who are these people?
Gianna: ...Seriously?  Sheesh.
I remember exactly where I was when I saw "Thriller" for the first time. I was in school. More precisely I was in my school’s gymnasium where they were showing the movie to each class. I still consider it the best day of school ever. Yeah...I didn’t do that well in school. In the vein of one of my all time favorite books, Live from New York, this book draws on a cast of characters to reflect on MTV. Yep, you got your Pat Benatar, your Big Daddy Kane, Lars Ulrich, Mick Jones, George Michael, MC Hammer, Gerardo aka Rico Suave, and all your original VJs. This book was $30 and worth every last penny. You are so lucky, Clint. [Clint is the bookseller at BookPeople who convinced Gianna she needed to read this book.]

5. Life Itself by Roger Ebert

I grew up watching Sneak Previews and then At the Movies with my younger brother. I wrote Roger Ebert off so many times for liking movies I didn’t like, I swore over and over that I would never read or listen to another review. I never stopped. As I got older I learned to respect him (although when he gave a thumbs up to Into the Blue with Jessica Alba…well, I hated him so much for a bit), and it pains me now to see him having to review the latest Twilight movie. Life Itself is Ebert’s only memoir and when you read it you realize how very overdue it was. What an amazing life and what a beautiful writer. The best chapter is on Studs Terkel; amazing.

6. Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

If you don’t cry when reading this book…your name is probably Liz Sullivan. In short, this is a story about America. Rin Tin Tin is what America is supposed to be, the promise of it I guess. It is also about the bond we have with our dogs (and Liz with her cat [Unholy?]), our faithful companions who are the first to greet us and the last to leave us. A couple of really interesting things I learned from this book: first, that dogs as companions is relatively new. It wasn’t until the mid 1900’s that these pizza-eating dogs were even allowed indoors (Is it just my dog that will sneak an entire pizza from the table? She’s a real lady). And second, there were almost a dozen incarnations of Rin Tin Tin. If someone had asked me I would have said maybe two. That’s nine more Rin Tin Tins than Darrens on Bewitched. I have always identified Orlean as the writer who made orchids interesting. She is now the woman who brought Rin Tin Tin back. Well done, Susan; we need him.

7. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This is it. This is the big American novel of the year. You can have Franzen by the way…I will take Harbach. If you like John Irving (older Irving for sure), or Michael Chabon, and yes, John Franzen…please don’t miss this wonderful first novel. And by the way, if I didn’t love baseball this book would still be on my list…but oh how sweet that this book has that theme. Go Cubs!

8. We the Animals by Justin Torres

I bought this book for three reasons. One, it has a great Dorothy Allison quote on the back. Two, it has a great Marilynne Robinson quote on the back. Three, Michael Cunningham called it "brilliant and ferocious." Personally, I found this 125 page book to be sparse, raw, and heartbreaking [like Gianna's rashes]. You want a book you’ll never forget for under $20, this is it.

9. After the Apocalypse by Maureen F McHugh

As some of you regulars may know, I have a thing for short stories. And some of you may also know…I am at a loss when it comes to the zombie craze. I don’t get it. However, I can now officially say I have read and loved a book (at least a story) that is (kinda sorta) part of the zombie genre. McHugh focuses on the near future, bleak future. Her writing is stark, sleek, balls-out hardcore apocalyptic. My favorite story is “Useless Things,” about a troubled doll maker. Oh, and here is a little snippet from her bio: McHugh has also worked on alternate reality games for Halo 2, The Watchmen, and Nine Inch Nails, among others. That, my friends, is called street cred.

10. Dollhouse by Kardashians

Holy macaroni is this book good. Touche, William Morrow…you landed this big fish of a family. What a coup the Kardashians first novel is (I doubt with writing chops like these it will be their last!). Kamille, Kassidy, and Kyle are the three heroines of this tour de force of a book and boy-oh-boy do they have some conflicts to manage. In fact, I don’t hesitate to say in three different hands of three different sister novelists, this book would have been dead on arrival. However, in these six skilled hands, the multi-talented klan hit a home run. I would be amiss if I didn’t talk about how brave this book is, as it discusses forbidden step-sibling attraction. It goes deeper than the Brady Bunch so hold on tight. The Kardashians dare us to guess if this book is based on one (or more) of their lives! Spoiler Alert! You won’t give a shit.

Monday, November 21, 2011

10 Cool Things: South Congress Books

South Congress Books is a new-ish addition to the Austin, Texas, bookstore environment, but the store has quickly developed the reputation for housing, well, some really cool books. Welcome to the neighborhood, SoCo!

1.    South Congress Books has managed to achieve the holy trinity of good bookstores; modern yet with an old school feel, extremely knowledgeable about books, and they are not pretentious douche bags. Amen.

2.    They specialize in rare, out of print, first editions, (some quite affordable), and they carry new books as well.  Basically if you want it they will get it, so don’t cry. Seriously, don’t cry. If you can’t help but cry Sheri will hold you for up to 15 seconds.

3.    South Congress Books is coincidentally located in the hippest place in Austin…on South Congress. Crazy but true.

4.    Co-owner Luke Bilberry (clearly a made up name right?) seems extraordinarily English…yet he is from Texas. It’s weird, and totally worth a visit to the store to see what I mean. Make him hug you. I suspect he may hate it. [Obviously Gianna is writing this.  Liz would never suggest unwelcome hugging.]

5.    You know who is super cool and shops here all the time? Robert Louis Stevenson! Wait, no Robert Plant … almost as cool as Stevenson…but you can’t have it all. [Gianna: Do you know who that is?  Liz:...Some sort of musician guy?]

Sheri and Luke kicking out their
first customer. 
6.    Yes, they have kids books…very cool kids books, which make excellent gifts.

7.    Co-owner Sheri Tornatore is Italian.  You’ll get that vibe right away.  I dare you to steal from her place….I dare you.

Sheri explains how to turn book pages.
8.    Really nice SoCo t-shirts for sale (too bad the print is slightly different on the white than it is on the black…oh well)

9.    Free Chinchilla with every purchase!

10. Two words: Haunted Bathroom