Monday, November 9, 2009

Can You Sign It As "Liz, Will You Marry Me?"

Texas Book Festival 2009! A couple of weeks ago I rose at an unholy hour to drive the three hours to Austin in order to attend the annual Texas Book Festival, held every year on the Capitol grounds. I have a love/hate relationship with the Book Fest, going back to its creator (Laura Bush; sorry, not a fan) and the days when I worked it with a bookstore in the tents and it was invariably rainy, freezing, alternately stifling hot, and my favorite, tornadic. I also would prefer that the Texas organization chose to support Texas businesses in their book sales. Nonetheless, Texas Book Fest hosted over 200 authors this year, including some of my all time favorites. I've skipped the event in years past, but this year two of the four "If I Lived Near You, You'd Issue a Restraining Your On Me" authors were in attendance. I would have hit the road any hour hour to bask in their awesomeness.

I arrived at the Capitol at 9:50 am, just in time to hear Richard Russo kick off the festival by reading from his terrific novel THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC. Russo's event was large enough that the organizers had placed him in the sanctuary of the Methodist church that's next to the Capitol. The place was packed. I was supposed to meet my boss Valerie there, but there was no way I would find her in the crowd, so I took a seat in the back (close to the door in case my presence in a holy place peeved a heavenly entity into some divine retribution lightning strikes). Russo took the pulpit after a brief introduction and kicked off his reading with an apology; his selected reading contained choice words normally not uttered in a House of the Lord. Words that I would use...and one of the reasons I'm not a minister. Or nun. Anyway, he was great--hilarious, charming, a strong reader, and he held the crowd for a full hour as he read of the travails of a son negotiating his divorced college professor parents' strained relationships. If you haven't read this book, find it and buy it and read it. It's classic Russo--humane, funny, poignant--but at a third the page count of some of his tomes. This book is my rare exception to my "I hate beach chairs on book jackets" tenet.

After the Russo event, still unavailable to locate Valerie, I instead found Gianna in the bowels of the Capitol building, where she was waiting to hear Dan Chaon, author of the amazing AWAIT YOUR REPLY (previously mentioned on this half-assed blog). Gianna and I had eaten dinner with Dan a couple of nights before, the day his book was named one of the 10 Best of the Year by Publishers Weekly (well-deserved). Dan is the antithesis of the jerkwad author; he's a delightful dinner companion and reader, and the kind of guy with whom you just want to sit around and talk books. He was part of a panel at the Book Fest, and as the room filled to capacity I relinquished my seat and set off to find my lost boss instead, leaving Gianna after a brief hello. I did find Valerie, though, and we walked through the tents of exhibitors. Unlike just about every other year, the weather was perfect and the Festival was actually festive. I ran into more friends that Saturday than I've seen since, say, the days when I was in college and saw all of my friends (and enemies) every single day. We strolled, gossiped, and then ate lunch with one of Valerie's old friends. Then Valerie said good-bye and I went off to stalk authors.

Specifically, I drove to Austin to see two people: Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood. Recently Gianna sent me an email asking me what my five favorite books of the 2000's were. I sent her a list and she sent me hers in return. The common thread? JOHN HENRY DAYS by Colson Whitehead. Everyone should read this book. I love it. Anyway, because lunch took awhile, I missed his reading, but like any good stalker I knew where to catch him in the signing tent and I was fourth in line, camera ready. The line attendant asked me if I'd like for the author to personalize my book. I answered, half-jokingly, "Will he write, 'Will you marry me?'" The woman laughed nervously and walked on. On the one hand, I like making people uncomfortable. On the other, I do work for his publisher and should mind my manners. When I introduced myself as his sales rep, though, he was generous and thanked me for my work on his books. He didn't propose...perhaps because I think he's already married and because he probably didn't know he was supposed to...but I still love him.

And from the wondrous Mr. Whitehead's presence, I walked down to the Paramount Theater, a few blocks from the Capitol, because if I had to maim children, I would in order to see Margaret Atwood speak. I can't think of an author I more revere. She's a tremendous writer, she's crusty and funny, and she's from Canada. I love Canada. I collect her books as a chronicle of my life--where I was and what I was doing at the times I first read them. I sometimes pretend that she's my grandma. We get along swimmingly in my imagination. And I love Canada. Anyway, I was thirty minutes early for the event and here's what I saw when I arrived: (left)
I, apparently, am not the only Atwood fan out there. The theater, once we were allowed to enter, quickly filled to capacity, and in the dark the place bubbled with anticipation. Finally, there she was. My granny, my elder Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every literary way. The format of the program was a Q & A with a moderator, Ben Moser, who happens to be the son of the manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston. Ben, who is the books editor for Harper's, held his own versus the feisty Atwood, and both had the crowd laughing and engaged in the perils of global destruction (the cautionary tale of Atwood's latest novel, the dystopian THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD). I was enthralled. People aren't supposed to take pictures inside the Paramount, so I only took seven. Having already read and sold the book, and already a follower of Atwood's blogging and Twittering (she's a big fan of organic coffee), there wasn't a whole lot that was said that I didn't already know, except for the people who were there. I found their reactions to this author's work surprising. For example, it never even occurred to me that their aren't happy endings in Atwood's novels. She made a point of saying that none of her books is Hamlet, in which only one person is alive at the end. I guess I never read books expecting a happy ending. I consider that desire for cheery resolution a bit immature and simplistic. The real world isn't like that (or at least, my version of the world). I'm regularly surprised by readers who want happy endings. I tend to dislike books that end this way. Anyway, after the stage portion of the event, Atwood moved to the balcony area of the theater and began to sign books. I somehow managed to end up four people from the end of the line, and therefore had a ton of time to kill by talking to the other people waiting...and waiting...and waiting. We waited for almost two hours. The staff members working the event after a long day of big authors (Buzz Aldrin was at that venue before Atwood), looked like they would tackle people for a cocktail. Finally, though, I was standing next to her, talking to her, bumbling before her. And she was taking down my name for the restraining order. I'm quite convinced that Canada will confiscate my passport the next time I attempt to cross that border. I'm willing to risk Canadian jail though. Mounties are cute in those uniforms, ay?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 3

Oh god, that meal.

Let's start with something I forgot to mention during the appetizer course. Valerie, my boss, tried to order onion rings as one of our appetizers, but Trevor the waiter returned to tell us that The Big Texan was out of onion rings. I worked for a summer as a Sonic carhop--the third worst job I've ever had--and one of my responsibilities in the morning before the Sonic opened was to assist in the making of onion rings. As mentioned earlier, I still eat at Sonic, even after working in one for three months. I don't think I'll be returning to The Big Texan without coercive methods. Anyway, it's not hard to make an onion ring, and since the whole menu was swimming in batter, the issue must have been that either A) they were out of onions, or B) they were too lazy to hack up some onions and dip them in the vats of batter. The onion rings weren't the only missing items from the menu that night.

We ordered. Chris the Bottomless Stomach, who had already ordered the 32 oz beer, ordered the second largest steak on the menu, a 36 oz slab of cow, the "Houston Cut" ribeye, that made me feel nauseated at mere contemplation. Most of the others ordered cow products, though Gianna ordered a baked potato with everything but the bacon bits, her best option as the table's vegetarian. Not a cow eater, I narrowed my choices down to either the fried chicken strips for $15.25 or the fried shrimp with "Buck-a-Roo Cocktail Sauce" for $16.95. I thought that it was outrageous to charge over $15 for chicken strips, and I (wrongly) guessed that if they were willing to cute-ify the name of the dipping sauce that the shrimp were the better choice. On the other hand, Amarillo rests about 800 miles from an ocean. I asked Trevor if the shrimp were frozen, which I didn't really care about, but sometimes I watch Gordon Ramsey's "Kitchen Nightmares" show and he's always going on about fresh ingredients. Trevor basically guaranteed that the shrimp were from the deep freeze, but I humored the "how bad can they be?" thought and ordered them anyway, along with a salad and mashed potatoes. Valerie ordered a steak, mashed potatoes, and another side, and Alan, who had talked about ribs for ten minutes, ordered a rack.

Then we sat back and waited. We waited for the two people from our account to join us, as they had been delayed by an event. We waited for the food. Everyone continued to drink, except for Brenda who never received her margarita, and we heard detailed descriptions of the flights from Maryland (our logistics people) and Minnesota (Alan). Trevor somewhat regularly found his way to the table to bring more beer, but not the food. After about 45 minutes of waiting, the appetizer trays scraped clean, we heard a commotion downstairs. A waitress announced that someone was attempting the 72 oz steak challenge. A large man sat at a table in the middle of the first floor with a slab of cow smothering a plate. The waitress explained the rules; eat the whole steak, the baked potato, the salad, the rolls, and three shrimp in an hour and they are free. She didn't point out that if he failed he would pay almost $100 for the meal, or that a vomit bucket sat on the floor beside his table. People gathered around to wish him luck, and lots of people snapped pictures, and the freak show nature of the joint intensified. And back at our table, Valerie and Alan began to grow impatient for our food. The logistics team was still on East Coast time and we were all hungry. Plus, Chris the Stomach was already on his second 32 oz beer. We needed our food.

As Chris the Wannabe Kobayashi criticized steak guy's strategy for downing the massive cow hunk ("You have to eat 75% of it in the first 20 minutes, before your stomach realizes what's happening"), Valerie got up to track down Trevor and our dinners. As soon as she stood, naturally, he appeared with our entrees. He served most of the main courses. I can't speak about the quality of the food down on Gianna's side of the table, though I do know that Gianna's baked potato "with everything but the bacon bits" arrived as only a potato, nothing else, and she knew that it wasn't hot because Trevor picked up the foil-wrapped potato and set it down in front of her without the assistance of a hot mat. Or a plate. I repeat, she didn't receive a plate.

As for my end of the table, well, we weren't impressed by the quality. Valerie's steak was very cold, and Alan's ribs looked awful, with the sauce congealed across a grayish matter that was allegedly meat. Across from me, Kathy cut into her "medium well" steak, which was described on the menu as "no pink, cooked throughout," and blood pooled in her plate. She looked stricken and sent the plate back with Trevor to experience the phenomenon of fire. And then there were my shrimp. I could tell right away that something was off about my shrimp. It was that the top three were fried together as they obviously had been removed from the freezer, stuck together. The cook hadn't bothered to separate them before dropping them in the fryer, and then he hadn't bothered to hide the horror underneath the other shrimp. They were on top, like a prized nugget. Also, I've had good-though-frozen shrimp that were good quality. These little shrimp were obviously not high quality. They were pulverized flat to make them seem larger than the medium-to-small size they actually were. No shrimp exist like that in nature. The tasted pretty nasty, too.

About the time that people began sending their food back to the kitchen for heating/cooking, the two people joining us from our account arrived. They greeted everyone, sat down, and ordered drinks. Meanwhile, Chris the Cow Compactor had torn into the huge steak on his plate. I am very glad that I wasn't sitting next to him, because he's a nice and highly entertaining guy, but watching that cow consumption would have required a bucket for me too. As Chris ate, though, it quickly was obvious to all of us that he was putting the 72 oz challenger downstairs to shame. As Beefy T downstairs was giving up, Chris was mopping up his plate. And because I found my shrimp disgusting and my sides had yet to arrive, I was taking pictures. As the big guy packed up about 2/3 of his steak, Chris all but licked his plate. The waitress presented the challenger with an "I Surrender!" t-shirt, and people cheered the attempt, and I'm guessing that the guy was thinking that the shirt probably tasted better than his steak. If you look closely at the picture, he managed to eat ALL of his salad. Gianna screamed down to my end of the table, "Liz! Look! NO WEDDING RING!" She's constantly on the look out for a future Mr. Liz, and I probably don't show my gratitude properly. Anyway, if you look at the plate behind Chris's juicy remains, you'll notice huge cuts of onion. Guess that answers the onion ring question.

While we were making fun of the guy who failed to eat the 72 oz steak, Trevor stopped by and we quizzed him on the challenge. He told us that about 15 people attempted it each day, and that often it ends with the challenger using the puke bucket. Worse, they don't tell the regular diners that the contestant next to them might ruin the whole dining room's meal by retching four and a half pounds of cow into a metal bucket. I'm glad that we were sitting in the balcony.

In the meantime, we were still waiting on our sides, and after Valerie asked for the third time--I think she wanted SOMETHING to eat and was hoping that the mashed potatoes would compensate for the cold and congealed cow on her plate--the potatoes arrived. They were vile, and possibly the worst "food" on the table. The consistency of glue and adhering to the dishes (I flipped mine upside-down and tried to jar them loose, with no success), they were flavorless, luke-warm, and very, very bad. If you saw the movie The Matrix, and you remember the gross protein substance that Keanu and his pals ate for breakfast, imagine that glop after it has solidified. Those were our potatoes. And after still more pleading, we finally received our second sides, in my case a salad. Now, I normally treat salad as a necessary evil before the good parts of a meal, and I regularly state that I don't eat twigs and shrubs, but that salad was the best thing I ate that night. If only I hadn't waited almost three hours for it to arrive, I might have enjoyed the food portion of my Big Texan experience more. I should make clear that I had a blast taking in the absurdity of the entire scene, but the food was terrible and the service appalling. I don't blame Trevor--he seemed flustered and overwhelmed the whole time, and we found out that he'd only been working there for about two weeks. And it wasn't his fault that starving refugees would have hesitated to eat that food. On the whole, though, I couldn't believe that the restaurant was featured on the Food Network. Valerie, feeling obstinate, demanded that they serve us the dinner rolls we should have received about two hours earlier, and though I didn't eat one, the consensus at the table was that the rolls were good.

And then we ordered dessert. Chris-Who-Ate-Amarillo ordered a slice of cheesecake, and in an attempt to find some food over going back to the hotel hungry, Valerie, Alan, and I shared a piece of chocolate cake. A couple of other desserts were ordered for the other end of the table. Alan ordered black coffee, and Annette ordered decaf. A minute later, Trevor came back and announced that they were out of regular coffee. I lost it. I was laughing hysterically and Valerie questioned my mental state as I openly guffawed at the whole evening. Then she joined me laughing. What kind of a restaurant doesn't have coffee? And wouldn't you send someone to go buy some coffee before admitting that you're out to a table of 11 whose orders have been mangled from the time they sat down? How is this place still open?? When the desserts arrived, Alan immediately sent back our chocolate cake so that they could add the ice cream, whipped cream, nuts, and cherry that were shown in the picture on the dessert menu. They had sent out a slab of cake on a plate with no garnish, and for that matter, no clean utensils. As Trevor tried to hand us forks, he himself, pulled back his hand because he didn't think that the handful of utensils had been washed. And then we heard the laughter from the other end of the table. After a meal of oversized excess, Chris's slice of cheesecake was shockingly small, smaller than the fare at the Olive Garden down the road, smaller than the cheesecake sold in the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru.

God, what a meal.

We rode the hideous limos back to the hotel, and on the ride we figured out that Chris had eaten 36 ounces of cow, his salad, the cheesecake, and consumed a full gallon of beer, and he hadn't even used the restroom. Chris swore that on his next visit to Amarillo, he was tackling the 72 oz monster. I hope I'm not there. I would vomit.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 2

...We entered the restaurant in all its magnificence. Even though we had a reservation, our table wasn't yet ready, so we perused the extremely classy gift shop. Want your own longhorns for your Cadillac? They're $400 at The Big Texan gift shop. Want a Frisbee that looks like a cow paddy? Check! The visiting warehouse people were impressively captivated by the Texas-sized array o' crap.

And in case you might believe that the crap was confined to the gift shop, let's talk about the interior of the restaurant. Here's what a patron encounters as soon as s/he enters the building: The stuffed bear, the slot machines, the random flag-type stuff shoved in already cluttered areas, the ad for Elvis Impersonator Night--classy. And lest you think that Smoky the Bear was the only taxidermied beast in The Big Texan, think again. I think that they might even stuff anyone who takes the 72 ounce steak challenge and then suffers a terminal coronary in the process, at which point they preserve the dead glutton, prop him against a wall, and proceed to neglect dusting him for about twenty years. The place was covered in carcasses and the carcasses were covered in dust. That elk on the wall? That's not chin hair. That's a dust-covered cobweb. And because Valerie reserved a table upstairs looking down on the main floor, we were eye level with the corpse of Bambi's mom for most of our time in the restaurant. Did I mention that Gianna is a vegetarian? I don't think that The Big Texan's decorating choices swayed her from that path.

As we sat down, nine of us from the publisher present, with the two people from our account running late but expected to join us shortly, we ordered a smattering of appetizers--fried jalepenos, fried mushrooms, and potato skins with brisket on them--and our cowboy-dressed waiter, Trevor, took our drink orders. Chris, the bottomless stomach, ordered a 36 ounce beer, and most of the members of our table likewise ordered beer in large steins. I don't know their thinking, but I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that they were hoping that alcohol would distract them from the roadkill all over the walls. Brenda (the children's book rep) and Gianna were sitting on the far end of the table from Valerie, Brenda's boss Alan, and me, and the folks from our operations/warehouse staff plus the two empty chairs for our guests were in between. I found out later that Brenda ordered a margarita, it being the official cocktail of Texas. I was worried about triggering a migraine, having not slept for about four days and feeling a little loopy already, so I ordered a Diet Coke. Now, I understand that some restaurants stupidly accept the Pepsi incentives for carrying their products over Coke products, but here's the thing: Diet Pepsi is NEVER a suitable alternative to Diet Coke. I know that some people are polite and will settle for Diet Pepsi, but no one ever prefers Diet Pepsi to Diet Coke. And I am not one of those polite people. I suggested to Trevor that he send one of the limos to pick up some Diet Cokes from a convenience store and I'd wait, but I think Trevor knew that with a party of eleven his gratuity was included in the bill and he didn't seem willing to go the extra mile (literally) to help a junky out. I settled for water, and I think the restaurant itself gasped in disbelief that a diner wasn't choosing a beer that came in a mug that was twice the size of my fish bowl (I once kept a beta named Elvis Fauntleroy IV, until I acquired Zorro the cat and Zorro liked to drink Elvis's water). I don't think I fit in with the Big Texan mystique.

...Next, the meal, or, "Sorry we're out of (blank)."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 1

I am not a foodie. I'd just as soon eat at Sonic (bless the Sonic) as any place that features cloth napkins. Gianna, too, isn't snooty in her cuisine choices, and she's a vegetarian, so when we're on road trips together the restaurant choices are pretty low brow. Recently I drove from Houston to Austin, picked up my fellow rep, and then we drove to Amarillo, and three days later we reversed the trip--roughly 22 hours of driving total. On this four day trip that spanned the entire state of Texas, we ate at classy establishments like the Olive Garden in Abilene, the Subway in Amarillo, and we really splurged on lunch at the Taco Bell in Lubbock. My monthly credit card statement must appall my colleagues in New York, but we tend to go with fast over haute dining. I have as many saved phone numbers for various Macaroni Grills on my cell phone as I do members of the Sullivan clan, and generally I prefer the Macaroni Grill to my family. The car-side servers are more polite generally.

The exception to the quick, boring schlock upon which we regularly dine arises when that obligatory anomaly pops up--the work dinner. While in Amarillo, several members of the publishing universe we inhabit descended from our central offices and warehouse to discuss operations with our Amarillo account. One cannot stroll through the Rick Husband/Amarillo "International" Airport (they fly to Mexico) without seeing advertisements for The Big Texan, the home of the 72 ounce steak. One cannot drive from the airport to downtown Amarillo without passing the actual building in its yellow-rose-of-Texas color scheme and gaudy aesthetic offensiveness. The Food Network even featured the establishment in one of their programs that promotes oddity over quality (Man Vs. Food, I think). There's even a classic episode of one of my favorite TV shows ever, King of the Hill, in which 13 year old Bobby Hill eats a 72 ounce steak at a Big Texan-type restaurant to tweak his nose at his vegetarian ex-girlfriend. The Big Texan is an Amarillo and Texas landmark.

In spite of the alluring tackiness that would normally tempt someone with my love of absurdity (particularly because The Big Texan has a terrifically absurd gift shop), I had never stepped into the building. Gianna is a vegetarian, after all, and because of throat problems and general taste issues, I can't and won't swallow beef except in hamburger form. We'd never been there, and more tellingly, the people we called on in Amarillo never wanted to go there. However, one of our colleagues flying in for operations meetings last week desperately wanted to experience The Big Texan. Our boss Valerie, a great organizer and the type who can juggle personalities skillfully while indulging the crazy guy who wants huge slabs of cow, arranged for a group of us--eleven people in total--to dine at this Texas institution. She even arranged for the Big Texan limos to pick us up at our luxurious Hampton Inn accommodations. In case you were wondering, yes, there are longhorn antlers on the front of the limos. Guessing from all of the talk of alcohol consumption, I figured that I wasn't the only person feeling ambivalent about this dining experience. But I do love the spectacle and the ridiculous, and as we rode to the restaurant I snapped pictures.

A note about the limos--they weren't nice. They reeked, and the upholstery was missing from the side of one of them, and I'm pretty certain that our little party is the only group ever to ride in the limos and not ask to visit a strip club after our meal. I would bet that we're one of the few groups not to vomit in them. Moving on to dinner.

One of our visiting colleagues, a guy named Chris, is one of those high metabolism guys like the hotdog eating champion Kobayashi--wiry and twitchy with energy. I suspect that he may have driven his second grade teacher to the nervous hospital back in the day. Chris had talked big about eating the 72 ounce steak before boarding the plane from the East Coast to the Texas Panhandle, but after eating a big burger for lunch he chickened out. He, by the way, was the one who had seen The Big Texan on the Food Network and I mostly blame him for this excursion. Other people present included other warehouse/logistics staff/publishing supply geniuses Kathy, Annette, and Flo (sounds a bit like the names of phony receptionists on infomercials from my childhood, when every single person with a headset was named "Nancy"), children's rep Brenda and her boss Alan, Gianna, Valerie our boss, me, and two members of the book team from our account in Amarillo, Matthew and Sylvia.

We walked into the restaurant after fifteen minutes of inhaling the aromas of our pimpin' limos...

...more to come shortly...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Road Hazards

So my thought that I would update the blog from my vacation obviously went kaput. Sorry. The quick recap--eight days in California, four baseball games, one totally surreal version of the "Star Spangled Banner" from this guy: Grandpa Elliot, who wailed out that song for over five minutes, effectively icing the Dodgers' bats. It was awesome. For ballpark enthusiasts, PETCO Park in San Diego is ideal, but I was surprised by the experience at Angels Stadium in Anaheim. It's a great place to watch baseball...too bad that American League baseball is fairly strategically moronic. I did indeed visit Disneyland, and unlike my last trip to Disney World, I wasn't asked to leave any buildings at this version of the happiest place on earth. The most surprising experience of the whole trip involved elephant copulation at the San Diego Zoo, but attempting to keep this blog PG-13, I won't include the photos of the elephant with two trunks (wink, wink). Here's one of a giraffe with two heads instead. I did have a great vacation and escape from the hot hell of Texas in the summer.

Back at work, back to the adventures of selling books. As hopefully you are already aware, Kathy Griffin, comedic genius and fame whore, has a new book coming out this fall called Official Book Club Selection. Gianna managed to get tickets to Kathy's show in Austin and I joined her and a few booksellers at the performance. Why do I love Kathy Griffin? Reason #1: she'll make fun of Michael Jackson within two weeks of his death. She glided onto the stage in full moonwalk to start the show. Reason #2: In shameless and brilliant self-promotion, she handed out fans with the book jacket printed on them before the show started. Reason #3: she'll mock her aging, boxed wine-chugging, "Law & Order SUV" watching mother in front of millions of people. I make fun of Attila, my mother, all the time, but my audience never really exceeds the tens. I didn't even hesitate to drive the three hours to Austin for an 8 pm show, even knowing that I would have to drive back to Houston after the show because I needed to help with an event in Houston the next morning. I am a road warrior. I am also an insomniac. "Getting home at 1:30 in the morning isn't so bad," I thought. "I'm up anyway at that time so I might as well be driving," I thought. "It'll be a quick trip, there and back," I thought. Sigh.

I neglected that I am Liz, and part of the deal with fate when I was born was that nothing would ever be simple or hassle-free. After dropping off a bookseller at her house, I hit the road at 11:15, which would have placed me walking through my apartment door in Houston at 2 am. And then half a mile from that bookseller's house, my car suddenly sounded like a Harley Davidson in need of a tune-up and I struggled to steer or accelerate. I pulled over into the parking lot of the Victory Christian Center, the karmic oddity of the location not lost upon me, and jumped out to examine the exterior of my car. Flat tire. On the one hand, at least I was still in Austin and not somewhere between cities on the side of the road. On the other, it was 11:20 and I was in a vacant parking lot at one of the busiest intersections--I-35 and Hwy 183--in Austin and alone. Because I drive a Random House fleet vehicle, I have 24 hour roadside assistance, and I found my paperwork and started calling people. Three calls and Dave from Pop-a-Lock was on his way, but I had time to kill. I sat under a street light and tried to read manuscripts for the upcoming spring season on my Sony Reader, but was mostly distracted by shadows and cars and possible threats. My favorite, though, was when the sherriff's deputy drove by TWICE without stopping to see why some random woman was sitting in the parking lot of the Victory Christian Center at midnight. I felt well-protected.

Dave showed up and changed my tire. As soon as he turned over the flat it was obvious why my car sounded like a Harley--a metal shard was hanging out of the tire. Every time I drove over the metal bracket it dug into the pavement, making a terrible clatter. Dave the tire-changing guy was helpful and fast, and I was on the road again, but it was then 12:45 am and I still needed to drive 3 hours. I set off down the road, but about 20 minutes on down the road my cell phone rang. It was 1:07 in the morning?! It turned out to be a computerized survey to rate the quality of my roadside assistance. I'm driving, it's dark, I'm tired, and I'm trying to punch in numeric responses to the computer voices commands, but Eunice (my name for the generic compu-woman's voice) absolutely would not accept one of my answers, to the question of "What time did your assistance arrive?" I entered 11:45 pm, but Eunice snarkily informed me that time had not yet occurred. Thoughts of time warps entered my mind as I retyped it, then again, and then I thought about throwing my phone out the window. It took me far too long to realize that it was after midnight and thus a new day. I entered 12:01 am and thought that would be the end of the call. I was driving, after all, and should have been focused on the herd of deer on the side of the highway looking at my headlights. "What you like to take a short survey to rate overall satisfaction with the service provided?" ARGH! NO!

Home arrival time: 3:45 am. Number of times I heard a Taylor Swift song on the various radio stations between Austin and Houston while driving home: 8. Amount I dislike Taylor Swift: my loathing is like the sands of the Sahara. Number of expletives uttered on the trip home: possibly under 100, but not by much.

I solemnly swear to update this blog more frequently, or make Gianna throw in a piece about hiding from a tornado under an overpass or working an event with Buzz Aldrin. But more soon, I promise.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Breakfast Not Included

Last week I took my final trip of the selling season, and for the first time I actually remembered to grab my camera. Sure, I could have taken pictures of the scenic Texas Hill Country as Gianna and I drove out to Fredericksburg, or I could have photographed the wildlife, but really I love what makes a place unique (and even better if that diversity includes a bit of absurdity). Gianna and I were visiting a book distributor in Fredericksburg, Book Marketing Plus. We arrived in town about 20 minutes before our appointment, so instead of cruising the touristy areas of historic Fredericksburg with the peaches and the Germans, we wandered around the back roads and came upon this gem of a sign for accommodations. In this age of cost-cutting and recession, I'm a bit surprised that no one seemed to take advantage of this great offer. Sleep five for $39 a night and fully furnished? Is the "no breakfast" the problem? As we pulled forward to the property, though, we realized that "beautifully furnished" might be a bit of a stretch. Granted, we did not go inside (or even get out of the car), but Gianna kindly leaned out of the driver-side window and snapped a picture of the beautiful exterior. Even more impressive was the recreational area outside between what turned out to be two mobile homes. Never mind that mowing (scything?) wasn't part of the rigorous maintenance provided by the people living in the white house on the corner. I wonder how long that table has rested on its side? Decades?

As I mentioned before, I grew up in the boonies, and I confess that I have some low brow tastes. I'm not classy. I think that Tremors is one of the three best movies ever made. I asked for a Snuggie last Christmas and didn't get one, so I'll be asking for one again this year, in the maroon color because it looks most cultish. I prefer Sonic Drive-Ins to Ruth's Chris Steakhouses. Actually, I prefer Sonic to just about every restaurant there is. I even worked at Sonic as a carhop one summer during college. So I feel like I show a greater appreciation for rural treasures like the Bed & No Breakfast than I would if I'd grown up going to places like malls and libraries and museums and bookstores. For that same reason, though, places like the Bed & No Breakfast make me love the unique nature of independent business--you'll notice I haven't posted a single photo from the assorted Hampton Inns I frequent regularly. Sure, it's an eyesore that would destroy the property value of the house across the street (if there were a house across the street), but it's also adding character and depth to a town that has become such a tourist Mecca that it might as well be Branson with peaches. I guess I like the stuff that makes a town distinct, even if it is absurd. Do you think you'd have to give a vehicle description to the concierge when checking in at the Bed & No Breakfast?

I am officially on vacation this week. My sister and I are flying to California (if ever a state straddled the territory of majestic and absurd), and then working our way through the Major League Baseball stadiums there for a week. Like the mobile home-as-hotel accommodation, the baseball parks add character to towns. I stopped by one of my Houston bookstores last week and overheard a conversation between a customer and a bookseller about the Astros versus the Pirates. When the bookseller offered sympathy for the customer's support of the Pirates (who haven't posted a winning season in about 14 years), the righteous customer flew into a (good natured?) rant about how PNC Park in Pittsburgh is at least a "real" ballpark, as opposed to either the Astrodome or Minute Maid Park in Houston. I would have been all, "I have two words for you: World Series, so I'll take my ridiculous ballpark" but to his credit the bookseller didn't break into open taunting. He's right, though. The quality of the ballpark weighs into the appreciation of its location, and the Houston park sold corporate sponsorship of the foul poles, for crying out loud.

I am a big fan of the idea of bookstore tourism, too, and bookstores helping to define the character of a place. Is Oxford, Mississippi, the same place without Square Books occupying three buildings around the courthouse square? Isn't visiting the Tattered Cover one of those "must do" destinations when spending time in Denver? When my family took a vacation to Oregon several years ago, my father asked me what I would like to see. The only request I made was "Powell's." It seems to me that the successful bookstores are the ones that distinguish themselves in some way--as tourist destination, as cultivator of great book groups, as premier experts in a field, as passionate readers who know how to talk about books, as local leaders in community organization. Great bookstores add depth to their neighborhoods and towns.

My sister and I fly out tomorrow morning. I hope that I'll be able to update the blog a few times along the journey, as I drag her to bookstores and she drags me to the beach.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rural Reading

I grew up in the sticks and I rep places like Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, so I think I'm a little touchy about the fine line one must walk when writing about rural America. I once got in an argument with a coworker about the, in my mind ridiculously inaccurate, representation of East Texas by an author who claimed to know the area but exaggerated the idiosyncracies for "comedy." You know how you can disparage your family all day long until someone else takes a crack and then you're ready to kill? That's the way I feel toward rural areas.

Still, books that manage to capture life in remote areas and small towns without sensationalizing make me extra happy and become favorites, like Bastard Out of Carolina or The Liars Club. I also loved childhood classics that typically involved dead pets as well--Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and my favorite, The Yearling. I recently read a novel that's coming out in paperback this August (and is available now as a hardcover from Poisoned Pen Press) called Sweeping Up Glass. Good? Yessiree. It starts with a woman and her grandson trying to stop the slaughter of a pack of wolves and to figure out who--and why--these wolves are being killed. Then the story flashes back to the woman's childhood, and there are echos of Scott Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird in her, Olivia's, adventures in town and with her veterinarian father growing up in rural Kentucky. Olivia's mother is absent in her early years, sent to a mental hospital, but returns to antagonize the girl through the rest of her life. There are sinister workings within the town as well; shady dealings, injuries, and deaths that are on the periphery of Olivia's life but hovering in the background, waiting for attention. The characters in this book are truly special--warm, hardworking people who are flawed and full of humanity. The author, Carolyn Wall, teaches creative writing to children in Oklahoma, and she's working on her second book now. That's a book I look forward to.

After finishing Sweeping Up Glass, I started reading another first novel, this one called Bloodroot and set on the side of a mountain in Tennessee. I am a couple hundred pages into it now and think it could be big. Telling the story of several generations of people living on the side of this mountain, this is rural fiction at its finest--full of big characters, folklore, humility, humor, and tragedy. This book is scheduled to come out in spring 2010. I don't know why I'm suddenly finding myself inundated with Appalachian lit, but for now it's a good place to be.

Traveling--Last week I visited Dallas and Oklahoma to sell fall books to my stores there. I found myself intrigued by the town of Edmond, Oklahoma, on this trip, even though I've visited Edmond half a dozen times now. Edmond is the home of gymnast Shannon Miller, for starters. I fully admit I'm a nerd, and I do follow my gymnastics for the same reasons I follow figure skating (the horrific flops and crashes--it's my NASCAR). I never was much of a Shannon Miller fan, preferring Kim Zmeskal...not for much of a reason really; I just liked the name Zmeskal. Oh, and because I always had the impression that Shannon Miller was probably a whiney cryer I'd endlessly torment if we'd attended high school together. She looked a little like the whiney cryer in my class. Anyway, the road I usually take to my store in Edmond is under construction, so I found myself driving through town for the first time. I turned onto a road called "Boulevard," and it is indeed a boulevard, but the name of the road is just Boulevard. No, Jackson Boulevard, or Edmond Boulevard, or even North Boulevard, or Boulevard Street. Just Boulevard. That's weird, right? I mean, what if it were something like Boulevard Lane, or Boulevard Road, or even Boulevard Boulevard? When I asked the booksellers at my store they couldn't explain the street name, but they did give me directions back to the highway that didn't involve taking Boulevard back. It might have been deliberate. I have decided I like Edmond, though, because I found this place called Eileen's Gigantic Cookies. I now kneel before Eileen, whoever she is. Bless her.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Identity Issues

It's eerie how often Gianna and I agree on books. Considering that we barely knew each other a little over two years ago (she actually walked up to me at Book Expo several years ago before I worked for Random House and I didn't have a clue who she was until she reminded me that we'd met before), we nonetheless seem to love many of the same books. We'll have these discussions where she'll call me and ask if I've read a book that I haven't thought about in years and I'll remember that I loved that book, and it turns out that she loved it too. So when Gianna recommends that I read a book, when she's so enthusiastic that she's sputtering with delight, I KNOW that I must read that title. She doesn't steer me wrong.

Back in January we began to find out what titles Random House planned to publish for this coming fall, and it's a phenomenal list to say the least. Gianna found out that there will be a new book from Dan Chaon, so she called me to see if I had read his previous books, AMONG THE MISSING and YOU REMIND ME OF ME. Of course I had, and of course I loved them. Chaon is one of the best writers out there and in a just world he would be a literary superstar and I would read about him on my cousin's Facebook posts instead of...the gagging drivel she reads and claims is "profownd" (sic). The new book, Gianna told me, was called AWAIT YOUR REPLY. Because it was on her side of the company, and because I needed to read about 15 other books before sales conference, I refrained from diving into the new Chaon book, the dessert to my meal of books that I would actually sell myself. Gianna kept teasing me, though. She sent me the first page of the manuscript, and she constantly asked, "Have you started it yet? You need to read it. I need to talk about it. Read it, read it, read it...."

So finally I read it. Holy crap! I love this book. The early comparisons among the sales force are authors like Patricia Highsmith (Talented Mr. Ripley series) and Flannery O'Connor, and in the acknowledgements Chaon mentions writers who've inspired him such as John Fowles and Joyce Carol Oates. AWAIT YOUR REPLY contains elements of all of these masters of fiction. The novel focuses around identity and what it means to exist (or not) in this world. The opening page Gianna sent me? Let me set the scene for you. A son is cradling his arm and drifting in and out of consciousness. His father is driving the car and trying to reassure the kid that they'll make it to the hospital. And sitting between them in an ice chest is the boy's hand, cut off at the wrist. AND the boy isn't convinced that his father's even taking him to the hospital. Who doesn't want to keep reading a book that starts this way?

There are three stories swirling around each other through AWAIT YOUR REPLY, and what Gianna didn't tell me when she kept harassing me about reading the book is that one story line focuses on a set of twins. Twins are freaky and weird and a bit of an obsession for me and I'll read just about any book that features the multiples. It makes lots of sense that twins feature prominently in Chaon's book, too, since the theme is identity. Without giving away too much of the story, how do you know who you are? Say you don't have your name. Are you the same person? What if I weren't named Liz? Wouldn't I be a totally different person if I went by, say, Stephanie? I would have missed out on all of the elementary school "lizard" names. And people named Liz, in my experience, are smart asses. Nice, vapidly sweet Elizabeths are usually shortened to Beth. I am not a Beth. So twins further complicate self-identification. Here's your carbon copy(if you're identical, but to a lesser extent the same holds true for fraternals), yet you are two distinct people. At the same time, though, you cannot separate your identity from that of your twin. Twins know each other before they even meet their mother and they grow up with a mirror image of themselves against which to measure. Your life is a jumbled mess of identity politics. It's fascinating...and weird...and perfect for Chaon's book.

So, confession, I am a twin. I sometimes hate it, but I cannot imagine my life otherwise, and I hate to think of a world in which my twin no longer exists. I look at her and marvel that we're even siblings (she's an aerospace engineer) and I try to imagine what I would be like if I had followed her course in life. I still respond to her name when someone calls it because growing up people constantly confused us even though we're fraternal and she's friggin' blonde for crying out loud. More often we were just "the Sullivan twins." So I personally related to the parts of AWAIT YOUR REPLY that deal with twin brothers on different paths, seeking each other and running away. What if my twin were a hustler, or a Broadway singer, or Lindsey Lohan? Wouldn't I have a different identity if she were someone else? (The answer is yes.)

Dan Chaon is a terrific writer. I can't emphasize this point enough. This book works on so many levels--literary exploration, character study, thriller--and both Gianna and I are giddily anticipating the publication in August. AWAIT YOUR REPLY may be the best book I read this year.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Babes in Fur Clothing

On the road again! Gianna and I headed off like Thelma and Louise today, driving from Austin to Amarillo in order to sell books to our pals at Hastings. What is there to see as one drives across this part of Texas? Roadkill, mostly. Towns with mockable names (Bangs, for example). Plenty of places to dump a body. Good times.

We drove Gianna's car on this trip because her newer model vehicle has the Sirius Radio, and there are huge, gaping holes in tolerable radio in places like Goldthwaite, Zephyr, and Lomena. We don't have cell signals either for much of this drive, ruling out staying in touch with accounts through our phones or Blackberries. Gianna and I share a fondness for absurdity, and "schadenfreude" is my favorite word. Satellite radio is a dream come true for those of us who love the human train wrecks that are the publicly dysfunctional individuals who call in to talk shows. Pure delight.

Before we stopped at this fancy little bistro known as The Olive Garden for lunch in Abilene, we were reveling in the awe-inspiring skills presented on a call-in show known as Animal Intuition. Check it out--a pet psychic. This woman named Sonya Fitzpatrick, who sounds like Mrs. Doubtfire with an ever-so-quaint English accent, takes calls from pet owners and "communicates" with the kitties and pooches. Apparently she has a show on Animal Planet too. According to her website biography, this woman talked to the animals at her house growing up in Merry Old England, but "turned off" her ability to chat up the critters when her father slaughtered three of her friends (geese) for a family feast. Heh. And I don't follow psychics, but is it normal (using "normal" exceedingly loosely, given the context) for a psychic to switch on and off her powers? Seems weird to me. Anyway, goose-free young Sonya became a fashion model, the career of choice for all shut-down pet paranormals I'm sure, but when she moved to these United States and ended her modeling career, she took up her pooch patter once more. Really, her story is the American Dream. She throws in lots of cute British expressions and refers to callers as "Dahhhhhhling." She described a caller's five dogs "babes in fur clothing." It was magic. Every pet loves his or her current owner, about half of them have changed their food at some point, and dogs can't tell us how old they are because they've never attended school and therefore can't count. (I would argue that most of the people from my hometown did attend school and can't count either.) My favorite caller told Psychic Sonya that her dog was nervous going on walks and asked why, and Psychic Sonya said--are you ready for this?--the dog was scared of something. Most excellent.

What could top a couple of hours of mindless pet drivel? How about multiple hours of the Dr. Laura Schlesinger Show?! Oy vey. She yelled at the callers, and I mean every single one, and not one single caller was correct. Her show is brilliant in a warped Woody Allen sort of way. Only people looking for abuse would want to talk to her seriously (as opposed to Gianna's and my desire to call her ironically), so it's alright for Dr. Laura to belittle her callers because they are screwed up. Dr. Laura yelled at a woman whose mother was dying, she yelled at the woman who didn't want to divorce the husband who spent too much time with his friend, and she yelled at another woman who complained about her husband spending too much time with his friends since she didn't want to support her man. It's horrible and sad, but we listened to the nonsense for hours.

I would love to listen to a blend of the crazy pet psychic woman and the crazy pseudo-shrink verbal abuse of Dr. Laura. Can you imagine a woman calling in to figure out what her cat is thinking, only to have "the cat" scream at her for not standing by her man and not buying the right kind of kibble? I would listen to that...but only if I'm on a road trip where Lubbock is a high point. And I can just imagine what my cat would have to say to me through Dr. Laura as the medium.

Bless the Sirius Satellite Radio. I can't wait to hear the offerings during our drive home.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Help

We're between publishing seasons right now, wrapping up the summer sell-in and having just completed a teleconference to review books coming out in the fall. In a couple of weeks Gianna and I will hit the roads once more to sell the fall books, and what an amazing list it is--E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Kathy Griffin (LOVE HER!!), and a terrific novel from Dan Chaon on Gianna's side, and great books from Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, Richard Russo, John Grisham, and, ahem, DAN BROWN on my side of the company. But that's a couple of weeks away. Right now we're sorting through mountains of material so that we can pretend to know what we're talking about when we walk into bookstores. These are office days. Our offices are located in our homes, and that means that we "enjoy" the company of our office mates. Mine is Zorro, the 25 lb. feline taskmaster who keeps me screwing everything up.
Teleconferences tend to last for several days, and we're on the phone all day. It's exhausting and I'm a bit phone-phobic (which is a handicap considering my job), but the saving grace comes in the form of a headset. I cannot imagine sitting for four days on the phone without one. I may look like an idiot from Star Trek with the thing hooked over my left ear, but I'd beat myself unconscious with the phone if I didn't have it to free my hands and shoulder and neck from the strain of 6 hours per day with a receiver held to my head. The only problem with my headset, though, is that the office mate, Zorro, seems to possess a bizarre headset fetish. I keep it out of sight when I'm just normally working at my desk, but I have made the mistake, on occasion, of leaving it out overnight between two sales conference days. Zorro likes to play with my headset. He likes to hide it (which is fairly remarkable, considering how lazy he normally is, and such devious actions require, well, action). One morning I dialed in to the call, reached for my headset, then discovered it missing. I found it, with just a minute to spare before a full day of title reviews with publishers, in my kitchen sink. First, it's amazing that the cat can even jump up to the kitchen counter. Second, why would he drag a headset to the kitchen, and in particular the sink? It's weird. I also found it buried in his litter box once...and replaced it with a new one that day.

Most of the time Zorro sleeps in his chair in my office, where he is now. (He snores.) He likes to play in the boxes that arrive, and chew on the bubblewrap and plastic packing material, and he LOVES the UPS delivery guy, running to the door to greet him. Trying to keep books and files organized is nearly impossible because of his "help," which usually involves sitting on things I need, or jumping in a box and clawing me when I attempt to remove the contents from under his girth, or shoving advance readers off my shelves so that he has the room to nap. What's worse, I confess I'm a bit scared of my cat. Most of the time he's sweet, and I will say that his ample posterior makes a great bookrest when he's sitting on my lap, but the cat has a bit of a violent, psychotic streak. He clawed my eyeball once in the middle of the night, which is a freaky way to wake up. He also has a nervous tic, where if you scratch his back right above his tail, he neurotically MUST lick his front paws. It's crazy. My sister will send me emails at random points throughout the day that say simply "Make Fat Zorro lick his paws!" (She calls him "Fat Zorro" but his name is just Zorro. What I call her dog's politically incorrect and I won't repeat it here.)

Zorro also loves when I'm on the phone in the morning, when he's most likely to be conscious. Every Friday our division of reps has a conference call to go over business. It's how we function (as best we can) as a group when we live all over the country. Anyway, Zorro will hear my voice and waddle over, then jump into my lap...which is a bit like dropping a bag of rocks on your lap, held to your legs with 20 claws. I feel like I must gasp in pain quite a bit on the phone. He will sit on my lap purring, loudly, and rubbing his cheeks against the phone. Sometimes I'm saved when the UPS guy shows up, but most calls involve a point where I try to convince my companion that proper office conduct does not include sharpening his claws in my thigh.
Am I alone in my devotion and indulgence of an unhealthy office environment? Definitely not. My boss has a Jack Russell terrier, Bonnie, who yaps like the building's on fire during at least one call per week. Gianna has a herd of dogs, one of whom ate the leather cover off of her Sony Reader recently. I rarely had to worry about an officemate plopping down in my lap before I joined Random House (though it actually did happen a few times before, weirdly enough), and I certainly never had to worry about the IT department yelling at me for the amount of grey and white fur in my keyboard. And while my previous colleagues threatened violence, they never actually cut me. It's a tough life we lead, and I'm getting to the point where I'm ready to hit the road again. A four day road trip might be time enough apart to put the cat in his place.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Left My Heart in San Francisco (Gianna's First Post!)

…and my underwear in Amarillo. Many times. Not just Amarillo, but I think I have left a belt in Jackson, Mississippi, one good Mussano running shoe in Oklahoma City (could have been Dallas), and someone in the teeny tiny town of Greenwood, Mississippi is wearing my black knit hat that says Chicago on it…I just feel it in my bones. Anyway, I lose things on the road and I would be hard pressed to explain why it seems to be mostly underwear but it is. I don’t need to tell you underwear aint cheap (okay, sometimes I go with the cheap stuff…who are you to judge?), my point is this, where does it go? If I had to guess I would say I have lost oh, five to eight pair of underwear in four to six states.

Is it just me? When Lucinda Williams tours or Hillary Clinton sets off on a five day trip to the Middle East…do they come back with what they packed? I mean, I assume Lucinda comes back with a lot less weed, but clothing wise, does she come back with two boots? Does Hillary come back with all her under garments? Suck it up, losing things on the road is just one of the hazards, yes I get it, okay…there are worse things….like forgetting things.

Sometimes you forget to pack things. Like maybe the day you are packing in Texas its 75 degrees out and in your mind you think, why wouldn’t it be this warm everywhere? Then you drive for 10 hours and get out of the car and its 37 degrees and you have no coat. None. No coat. You are in Mississippi and its late and choices are….limited….very limited. You try to look professional but you also want to avoid hypothermia so you make a choice. You buy it. You buy the $9.99 (on sale for a reason) wintery vest thing that in any other style, or color really would be less offensive….hip even. Like I said this thing was on sale for a reason. It is a mylar, silver looking shiny…terribly terribly shiny vest thing with just a hint of lining; just enough to make you think you are warmer with it on. If I were to put it on stand perfectly still and put a tin cup at my feet I could pass for one of those silver robot people that “perform” in cities…you know like the tin man.

I want to clear up one thing that Liz posted in her previous blog regarding me and clothing. She stated that I wore two different shoes to a trade show once. I wanted to point out that it was by accident. I wish I could say it wasn’t true, I wish I could say I noticed it as I was leaving the house, I wish I could say I noticed it on the way to the airport. Truth is I noticed it about ten minutes before boarding the flight. Also they weren’t that different. Other than color, style and brand name they were the same.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Well I Never!

It's been awhile. I beg forgiveness. Gianna is working on something for the blog that involves her tendency to scatter underwear like Johnny Appleseed across hotels far and wide, and I do hope that I'm earning double Hilton Honors Points every time I pass through a hotel where Gianna has previously stopped. It seems only fair considering what I might find.

Anyway, recently I've been playing with an idea that popped up when Doubleday announced the publication of THE ANGEL'S GAME, the new book by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. He's the guy who wrote SHADOW OF THE WIND, and I know there are a ton of fans for SHADOW. I've actually never read the first book, but I did read and enjoy ANGEL'S GAME. It's published in June and should be humongous. The book, like SHADOW, is set in Barcelona and is full of book lover delights like the cemetary of lost books, a catacombs of books left and taken. You bring a book to leave, you take one that calls to you. It's a great idea. Here's another great idea: Spain has a holiday, La Diada de Sant Jordi, or St. George's Day, where it is customary to give a book and a rose to a loved one, on April 23rd. We need this holiday in the US! Gianna and I have been playing with this idea of lost books and rediscovering books that aren't lauded on Good Morning America or Oprah here and now. How great would it be if every bookstore in the US set up a display for this St. George's Day, and sold their favorite books to give to loved ones? It's like Christmas, except in my case I'd get something I actually want.

All of this lost book thinking led me to all of those books out there I've never read. For example, in the last few months we've started selling to a terrific mystery book store in Houston, Murder By the Book. I actually haven't read many mysteries in my life. As a kid I read mostly American lit classics because those were the books I could get in podunk East Texas without a bookstore or Amazon. In college I focused mostly on the English masters and came late to the wonders of contemporary literary fiction, which is one of my two book passions. While I enjoy mysteries as movies (and the darker the better), I'm just now coming to the genre in book form. I've read read Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or James Cain. I just last week read my first James Ellroy book (BLOOD'S A ROVER, which releases in fall 2009). In the last year, with Stieg Larsson's amazing thriller GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and a book about to come out called THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, I'm really starting to embrace mysteries into my literary comfort zone.

There are other authors whose company I have yet to keep. There's a new biography out called CHEEVER, about the life of John Cheever, and though I should have, I've never read any of his stories or novels. In fact, many of those masters writing between World War II and, say, 1990, are new to me. I think I was born too late to read them on release and too early for them to be taught in my college classes, so there's a gap. I've read some Updike, but not the Rabbit series, just the last few novels. I've never read CATCH 22. I've read more of the women writers from that time, and Joyce Carol Oates, Muriel Spark, and Margaret Atwood are some of my favorite writers.

This St. George's Day, I'm going to celebrate by giving a book to a loved one (me), and reading one of these books that I've missed thus far in my journey. I don't know what yet--I'm willing to take suggestions. Maybe I'll read one of Gianna's favorite books, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. It's supposed to be terrific. Never read it.

Random sighting while traveling in Lewisville, Texas, yesterday: I passed an out of business barbecue joint called Sugar Babies, which looked like a barn and featured a morbid, cartoon pig feasting on a rack of ribs (isn't that cannibalism?) on its sign. Sugar Babies also had one of those marquee signs where you can advertise specials. The specials were still posted, and the first was "'Sonic' like ice, only 99 cents!" So, the best lure this restaurant could come up with was that they had an ice machine that spewed crunchy ice like that found at Sonic Drive-Ins? No wonder the place went under. Awesome.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Navel Gazing at 73 mph

Monday was Presidents Day. Naturally, being averse to the idea of idleness, I completely expelled the information that we were off for the "holiday" and worked three hours before realizing that it was awfully quiet and emailing Gianna.

My email: subject: Stupid Question
Text: Dude, are we off today?

Gianna: subject: re: Stupid Question
Text: Yeah, so quit emailing me.

I spent the rest of the day hanging out with my sister and playing the Nintendo 64 version of Mario Kart (also known as "what I really majored in during my senior year of college). What I didn't do was pack for my trip to Oklahoma on Tuesday. Mario Kart is a cruel taskmaster. The Kart kept me out of Phi Beta Kappa, and the Kart kept me from departing at 8 am for my seven hour drive to OKC the next morning.

I was going to Oklahoma in order to sell books to two accounts--Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City proper, and Best of Books in Edmond, which is basically a suburb of OKC and recently in the news for the tornado that tore through town last week. (I'd called ahead and asked that they delay any future violent weather until after my visit.) After selling to these two stores on Wednesday, I drove to Plano, the Stepford of Dallas, spent the night, and then sold my summer season books to the large, new store that recently opened there, Legacy Books. And from Legacy I drove the 4+ hours back to Houston. Even though I drove more than 700 miles on this trip, this little three day excursion is actually a fairly easy trip in terms of road fatigue, so Gianna and I didn't travel together. Coincidentally, though, Gianna happened to be selling to the same accounts this week, just in reverse order. It's nice when you see an account just before her. I like to leave her little notes tucked into my buyer's catalogs, to be discovered when she arrives, or encourage my buyers to give her a hard time. And since my buyers are book people and therefore at least mildly deranged and sadistic, they often oblige (they are awesome).

So, I had about 16 hours worth of driving to ponder my existence while chugging along at 73 mph with the cruise control. Here are some random thoughts, observations, insights, statistics, etc.
  • Number of giant, inflatable creatures on top of buildings between Houston and Dallas, the dullest drive I make every season: 19
  • I wonder how many times the giant statue of Sam Houston, along the highway outside of Huntsville, TX, has been struck by lightning. I love ridiculously large statues randomly inserted along highways.
  • By far the coolest, most intriguing business I pass between Houston and Oklahoma City is the Oklahoma Horseshoeing Academy, South Campus. How many campuses are there?? And what sort of degrees do they offer? And don't you feel sorry for the horses used as their practice ponies?
  • After hearing this song called "Jesus Take the Wheel" on the radio, I email (while driving, which is a no-no) one of my buyers saying that I'm literally taking this advice. I learn that I need to have my tires aligned soon before regaining control of my vehicle. I also need to change the radio station.
  • Number of ways I imagined killing another driver while on this trip: 7
  • Dallas radio plays some Ryan Seacrest radio program every afternoon. This fact will join the one about the Texas Rangers being an American League team as two reasons I don't live in Dallas.
  • Why are they called "Sooners?"
  • I learned that Earth Day is also Land Grant Day in Oklahoma. I'm sharpening my stake for a symbolic property grab for this April.
  • Why do Texans feel the need to promote Texas while inside the state already? There is a whole series of Ra-Ra-Texas billboards along I-45 lauding the state. The King Ranch is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Texas has two of the three largest universities in the US. As a Texan, I don't care. And I would think that Rhode Islanders don't care either. I mean, don't you think that they are hooting it up that they also get 2 Senators for their pint sized state and can therefore negate the second most populous state in the union by block voting against our Senators?
  • Number of times I had to rewind the audio book I was listening to (A Mad Desire to Dance by Elie Wiesel) because I was contemplating unusual roadkill: 2

Book news--I've started reading for our fall season and the fall line-up is pretty amazing. I just started the new Margaret Atwood novel, The Year of the Flood. One of the pros on my list when I was considering whether to work for Random House is that they publish Margaret Atwood. I love her. This new novel is very much like another of her speculative fiction, post-apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake. I'm not far into it yet, but what I have read I liked and I'll be spending the weekend reading this book.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We Must Be Crazy (Or, How This Thing Started)

No sane person would enter the book business right now. Stores are closing, the daily industry newsletters tell of little but cutbacks and lay-offs at the publishers, and let's face it, I hear more discussion of Lost than I do of any book even when I'm in a bookstore. I entered the book business in 1998 after graduating from college with exactly $328 and no career aspirations whatsoever. I thought I would go to graduate school, but I couldn't afford it either financially or spiritually. I was burned out with school. So, moving to Austin, Texas, I decided to spend a gap year by working at a bookstore, if I could get a job, and recharge for my future enrollment in even more education. I started work at BookPeople, the large, independent bookstore in downtown Austin, on June 15, a week after my 22nd birthday, and earned a whopping $5.40 an hour. I was too economically ignorant to realize how stupid I was to take this job, but I've never really been motivated by money. I am a book nerd. I wanted to spend my days surrounded by the stories that inspired me to be an English major before over-analysis drove away the joy I found in reading. I also wanted to be around smart people and thought that a bookstore might be a mecca of well-read, fascinating thinkers. At the time I didn't realize that all booksellers are a bit nutty.

I spent almost 9 years at BookPeople, working my way from lowly closing shift bookseller to buyer and inventory operations supervisor with an office. It was a great education into a business I found more and more fascinating, at a time when the industry grudgingly was coming to terms with inevitable change (as it still is), from economic challenges to the digital revolution. I had the pleasure of meeting booksellers from around the country as well as publishing execs from New York, but by 2007 I found myself weighing my options. Stay at BookPeople and continue to make it the best bookstore in the country (indeed, it won Publishers Weekly's Bookseller of the Year in 2005, a fact for which I'm quite proud), or expand my horizons? When a Random House sales representative job came open in the Texas territory, I swallowed back my overwhelming fear of change and leapt. I moved to Houston, set up an office in my apartment, and spent many nights wondering if I was a complete idiot.

Random House is the biggest publisher in the world, and the company publishes a hell of a lot of books each year. On top of this, the sales force also acts as a representative for smaller publishers that aren't actually owned by Random House--houses like National Geographic, the art publisher Rizzoli, DC Comics, and fantasy giant Wizards of the Coast. We're talking thousands of adult books that need selling, so there are two sales reps per territory "out in the field" (the people selling the books to stores who don't live in New York and rarely visit the home office). When I joined Random House, I signed on to sell books in Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, which geographically is a huge territory. My partner, selling the other half of the adult books, is Gianna, another Austin resident but Chicago native who found her own way through the book business ranks. We didn't know each other well when we started working together, but we're both book people, and one can always talk about books. About the time I started at Random House, we were instructed to start driving more and flying less, and as people who value our jobs, we followed orders. It's a long way from Houston to Amarillo--about 12 hours if you stop to pee or eat--and a long way from Austin, where Gianna lives, to Jackson, Mississippi--again 12 hours by car. For sanity and safety, we started making these long road trips together, so three times per year to each location, we'd load up a car with advance reader copies of the soon-to-be-published books and hit the road to bookstores far and wide.

Road trips have the potential to ruin even the soundest relationships. You're packed in a sardine can for hours on end with a radio and another person and the scenery outside providing the only distraction to the thoughts in your head. It turned out, though, that Gianna and I travel very well together. We both have a fine appreciation for the absurdity of situations, have similar interests in books and movies, and frankly, know how to shut up. We aren't gabbers. In fact, we're both introverts, but with senses of humor. And to dispel any visions of what kind of reps we are, I should point out that book reps are nothing like, say, the pharmaceutical sales reps who audition for Survivor and hook up with the "aspiring actors" after 27 days without showering. I would say that as a group, book reps are, like most book folk, introverted, semi-awkward, non-models. At least, that's me. Anyway, we started recounting stories of our travels, and typically the reactions from friends and colleagues alike started with gap-jawed disbelief that we would travel together in this way, followed by laughter at what we saw or experienced, and then came the inevitable "you should write a blog." So here you go, our blog.

What you'll find here--thoughts on the book industry as it goes through a period of great, perilous transition, commentary on the books we love both new and old, stories from the road and the stores we visit, and frankly anything else that captures our fancy but won't get us fired. There is a strong possibility that I will comment on the proliferation of giant, inflatable creatures that storm the tops of buildings between Houston and Dallas, or Gianna will recount how she once joined me in Amarillo wearing two mismatched shoes (classy), or we both speculate on what, exactly, is sold at a business called "Unclaimed Furniture" outside of Oxford, Mississippi, or ponder how many horseshoeing campuses there are in Oklahoma as we pass the south branch on our way to OKC. No doubt we'll highlight our favorite restaurants, our quirky routines, what we do to amuse ourselves after four days of almost constant driving, what shenanigans our office mates (meaning our pets--we work from home when not traveling) have pulled, and, of course, we'll talk about books. If nothing else, at least we won't hear "you should write a blog" again. Be careful what you ask for.