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.