Wednesday, August 31, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 22

Day 22: Favorite Celebrity Memoir to Read Aloud to a Ever-More-Captivated (and Captive) Audience


I have only read one…maybe two celebrity memoirs so it’s hard to say which one is the most fun to read out loud. [At this point we all can just call Gianna a liar, right?]  I just don’t have that big of an interest in Hollywood to take the time out of my life and read about celebrities.

Not buying that? Yea…I read them all. I stopped reading People Magazine when they got too wordy.  I moved on to US Weekly (if there is anything better/dumber than the “they’re just like us” page, please let me know). I love my celeb gossip but it’s always better when it comes straight from the horse’s mouth. [Tori Spelling?]

Anyone who has worked at a bookstore knows that when these babies come in the back room (twss*) you must dip in. And if they are as good (as in terrible) as they seem, you must read out loud. I am sure most of you know about Celebrity Autobiography – where actors and comedians read celebrity memoirs on stage. It's hilarious but we in the book world have been doing this for decades.

I purposely avoided politicians or political “figures,” i.e. Joe the Plummer, Sarah Palin and that annoying Carrie Prejean. Ugh.

I should also note that there are a few…very few…celeb books that I have let slip by, so if you have had the privilege please let me know how they are. I am particularly interested in David Hasselhoff and certainly Naomi Campbell.

Okay, so I have nothing against this celeb but my favorite book is Melissa Etheridge’s memoir The Truth is…My Life in Love and Music. Now this book is deliciously bad for a few reasons.  First, Melissa reveals way too much (thank you!), second she tends to trash her ex with whom she shares children (tacky), and most of all she really attempts to be a bit poetic.

Let me summarize my favorite part from the book. Melissa is revealing things about her relationship with Julie Whatsherface, things that I just wouldn’t admit to, by the way. [Yet she'd make up whole fake convict romances for me.  Sigh.]  For example, apparently Julie asked Melissa, or maybe told Melissa, that she wanted to go outside of their relationship and share “special times” with K.D. Lang (I know! Super dishy).  I can’t remember if Etheridge gave the a-okay for the romp, but clearly it ends up ruining their relationship. (Personally I think if your relationship can survive your partner telling you she finds someone else so desirable she just can’t help herself…well maybe it wasn’t so strong to begin with.) Anyway, their relationship ends and Melissa mentions that they had just purchased an old house together and the house had a leaky roof. She then gets super poetic here and writes that it was like the house was crying for them. It was like the house was crying for them…wow. See, you read that and you want to share. This book is tons and tons of fun to read with your friends, but please do not read this alone.


There are people who remember a time when I wasn't above reading celebrity "poetry" over the store intercom at BookPeople.  Lookin' at you, Jewel.  You managed to destroy any passing appreciation of poetry I might have developed after four years of reading the canon in college.  William Blake has nothing on your exploration of sausages at the airport.  A Night Without Armor (or as we called it, A Night Without Protection) was pure poetic bliss.  But we're not talking about celebrity poets here.  We're talking memoirs.

And therefore we're talking about Rosie O'Donnell.  Let me tell you about Rosie's Find Me, in case you weren't one of the dozens of people who actually read it.  (I read it...and so did Gianna...and we both read it before we knew each other.)  Rosie is a huge talk show personality at the time, the "Queen of Nice," and basically she was in the business of fake-lusting after Tom Cruise and pretending that those pant suits were the start of a fashion trend.  Rosie calls a viewer one day and leaves a message, basically a "buck up little camper" for a 14 year-old girl pregnant with a rape baby.  You should know that I would not mock an abused child.  This was not an abused child, however.  It was, as Rosie later discovered after developing a long phone correspondence with the "girl" and rallying her celebri-pals for the cause, an adult woman with a mental illness and fame whore issues.  The woman didn't need Rosie's help, she needed a psychiatrist's prescription pad.  Anyway, the book was extra juicy because it was allegedly Rosie's coming out story because she made, like, two references to her partner Kelly, and it also hinted at abuse in Rosie's past (the alleged reason for her celebri-gullibility).  And Rosie is not a writer, but she's not above pretending to play one on TV.  This is a book that for totally horrible, cruel, selfish reasons makes me terribly happy.

*TWSS is the work-safe abbreviation used to denote "That's what she said," because yes, we really are that juvenile.  And TWSS makes conference calls tolerable.  "Anyone else have burning issues?"  TWSS!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 21

Day 21:  Favorite Book By a Texan or About Texas


Unlike our good friend (and part-time lover) Liz, I am not a Texan. [And I am not Gianna's part-time lover.] I’ve lived in Austin for over a decade but….Texans are pretty strict so as far as anyone here is concerned, I am a northerner. On that subject, I suspect anything over three drinks and Liz’s East Texas accent makes a big appearance. [Wouldn't you like to know.]

You really cannot talk about Texas literature without mentioning The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. This novel (it is actually made up of three novellas) captures Texas politics in all its glory – think All the Kings Men with an LBJ-like character at the center. The Gay Place is a true classic that would inspire a generation of writers.

I thought this favorite would be easy, a slam dunk. But then I started putting real thought into it – I mean when you have to choose between Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy (the battle of the Mc’s). I finally decided on The Border Trilogy by McCarthy over The Last Picture Show because I am going to write about McMurtry’s book later.

All the Pretty Horses was the first Cormac book I read, and if you’ve read him then you understand when I tell you I immediately read pretty much everything he had written to that point. The plot of Horses is filled with romanticism, which is very different than his previous or most recent work (although Horses certainly is dark as well). In 1950’s Texas a teenager learns that after the death of his grandfather their ranch will be sold. Rather than move into town, he convinces his best friend to travel with him via horseback to Mexico where they attempt to get work as cowboys. Things don’t go as planned.

Please put the movie out of your head – Cormac McCarthy is one of a handful of truly great American writers. I think it is safe to say that you will never find him on a list of overrated writers. I hope you will give All the Pretty Horses a chance; I feel pretty confident that you will go on to read The Crossing and Cities of the Plain to complete The Border Trilogy.

Yes, I was born in Texas, but most Texans seem to think I'm from New England or Midwest.  I don't correct them.  I'm not a rah-rah "Texas is the greatest place in the universe" type of person.  And for the record, this topic was Gianna's idea.  That said, I have read a number of Texas books, both fiction and non. Gianna and I had decided on the topic in advance and I had a book in my head that I planned to select...and then I read what Gianna emailed me and realized that for the first time in this challenge we'd picked the same book: All the Pretty Horses
I stumbled onto McCarthy.  My boyfriend at the time read lots of Texas-themed books, but mostly the naturalists.  I found myself over at his apartment one night without reading material, and one of the few novels he owned that I hadn't yet read was All the Pretty Horses.  I picked it up, and I kept reading.  (By the way, one of the things we shared, the two of us, was that we could spend an evening reading in the same room.  This is a must for me--somehow I'm guessing that the convicts Gianna suggests for future Liz companions wouldn't be able to be still in a room and read.  Or, you know, in general, be able to read.)  This is a literary adventure story of the first order. 
I do think that West Texas and East Texas books are two distinct regional genres, however, and for that reason I would also like to give a shout-out to Rodney Crowell's Chinaberry Sidewalks.  Crowell, best known for his songwriting and country music career, wrote a brilliant, poetic memoir about growing up in '50's Houston and East Texas.  Hurricanes, family violence, music, and coming of age--this is a great read and a great addition to the Texas canon.  I can't stress enough how strong the writing is; Crowell is a wordsmith.  He's also the type of guy with whom you want to have drinks and then just listen to him spin stories.

Monday, August 29, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 20

You didn't think we could keep the book challenge going for 50 days, did you?  If you're interested in further insights into the bookish and bizarre world of sales repping, "like" our Facebook page.  Gianna sings.  Isn't that worth following?

On to Day 50, which is really

Day 20: Favorite books given, favorite books received


I think my younger brother is the only person who still has the courage to buy me a book as a gift – I say "courage," but what I really mean is that he doesn’t really care if I own the book or not. At the point that it arrives on my door, he has done his part; the gift has been given.  The thought is what counts and too bad sis if you have it already.

To his credit, he never has gotten me a double. He, in fact, gave me the best book I have ever received. [Penis Pokey?]

This past holiday he sent me the very cool Taschen (what do they publish that isn’t cool, by the way?) book, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. The book was published to coincide with Billy Wilder’s 95th birthday, and what a fantastic tribute it is. If you haven’t seen the film Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (oh how I miss Jack Lemmon), please treat yourself; it's one of the best made films ever. [Agreed--a truly great comedy.  And if you don't appreciate Marilyn Monroe, read Joyce Carol Oates's Blonde.]  Actually, it just occurred to me that this book comes with the DVD so you know…. two birds, one stone. 

Included in the book are over 50 pages of interviews with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon (one of the last interviews before his death), co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond’s widow Barbara Diamond, producer Walter Mirisch, and of course Billy and Audrey Wilder (many of these were in Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder but it is still a great companion piece). Also included are anecdotes about the film, original promotional material, the first draft, and the shooting script of the film. Of course this book wouldn’t be complete without the hundreds of photographs included; many of which are rare, candid shots of the cast and crew. [Gianna will be recreating these candid shots in the near future....]

I tend to give art books as gifts.  I mean, you can’t say you don’t like an art book – you look foolish! One of my favorite books to give is called Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America 1866-1994 Edited by Wendy Watriss and Lois Parkinson Zamora.

The book collects the images of fifty-two photographers from about ten countries. I love documentary photography; the images from El Salvador’s civil war are truly haunting and the best part of the book for me.

The coolest thing about this book is that some of these photographers have never been in print before – this is the first time they can be viewed by a large audience.


I have received some great books as gifts even though most of my friends are scared to give them to me.  I am not above making lists of the books I want when the holiday season rolls around.  I get it.  It's hard to shop for someone who has access to the Random House catalog AND regularly buys books from the other publishers too.  Back when my discretionary money for books was hampered by my need to eat, though, my sister bought me a book while we were on vacation in Oregon.  It was the first time that I'd ever been to Powell's, but we only had about an hour to spend in the store.  I picked up a book as a souvenir--a signed copy of John Henry Days--but what I really wanted was the signed first edition of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing that I saw in a case.  I wanted it so much that I even asked the bookseller to open the case and let me look at the signature, hold the book that Margaret Atwood had held.  My sister, seeing my love for this book, went back and bought it for me.  It was a selfless act, and it wasn't attached to a holiday.  And Surfacing is a terrific book, by the way.  It's about a group of four people taking a trip to the north woods in Canada.  I do love my Canadian fiction.

I tend to give books that I've read before so that I know that they're good, and therefore I tend to give mostly literary fiction and narrative history.  I do believe that if you love a story, you should have a special copy to represent that love.  Last year, in August, my friend Elizabeth mentioned that she'd never even seen the hardcover first edition of People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, one of her favorite books.  I made a note and tracked down a copy, then gave it to her for Christmas.  I think that "No fucking way!" meant she approved. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 19

Time to sharpen that toothbrush into a shank, it's

Day 19: Favorite Prison Books

Somehow you knew this day would come, right?  How could we resist? 


I likes my prison books, that’s no lie. I also enjoy prison TV (I was no stranger to Cell Block H), so I am pretty excited about this question.

I have read two or three really great books about prison.

The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison by Pete Earley is the most recent prison book that I have read. Hot House was recommended to me by Tracey K. with the promise that I wouldn’t be able to put it down and she was absolutely right. This is the oldest of my choices, published in the early 1990’s; it is based mostly on interviews with inmates and guards, although you do get the history of Leavenworth. Although the writing is not of the same caliber as my next two choices, I definitely put this on the must read list for anyone who likes true crime.  

You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish by Jimmy Lerner is a fantastic chronicle of his first year in prison on a manslaughter charge. Before his crime Lerner is a model citizen, middle class with a good white-collar job. He describes prison in great detail: the violence, the corruption, the living conditions, the racism and the boredom. [The soap-dropping?] Lerner’s longtime cellmate is Kansas, a white supremacist who takes a strong liking to him and serves as protector. The beginning of this book sets the tone when Lerner describes what happens to a teenager when he is put in with the general population.  [Birthday party with balloon animals?]

My favorite prison book is Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award). The author’s original desire was to follow a new guard for several months and write this book from that vantage point. His request was denied. Not one to give up, Conover actually ends up applying for and eventually getting a position as a guard at Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison. Conover exposes rampant drug use, gang violence (outright gang wars really), rapes, and the very real dangers that face prison guards every hour of every day. Conover comes to the conclusion that while the idea of prison guards is to care for and control prisoners – what is really happening is that they are simply warehousing people without even a hint of real rehabilitation.


While Gianna went for nonfiction, I'll take on the prison fiction.

Sarah Waters is better known for her books Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, but it's the book she wrote in between, Affinity, that I prefer.  Affinity is a dark story set in a 19th Century prison, the story of a Selina, a woman sent to the slammer because she's a medium and her last seance didn't go according to plan, and Margaret, one of those Victorian prim-and-proper types who comes to the prison to counsel the criminals.  Selina may or may not be a con artist, but the women's relationship develops nonetheless.  Waters offers a masterfully ambiguous narrative, and who can resist a 19th Century jailhouse and spiritualists?

Austin author Amanda Eyre Ward's first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, takes on the women's maximum security prison in Texas.  One character is loosely based on Aileen Wuornos (remember the Charlize Theron character in Monster, and that super-gross hair?), a woman with a troubled past who ultimately becomes a killer.  One character is the mentally fragile doctor at the prison.  And one character is the widow of one of the victims.  Every book group in the country should read this book, and then read all of Ward's other books for good measure.

Sticking to the women-in-jail theme, Susanna Moore's The Big Girls has everything I love in a prison book.  First, it's set in a prison.  Second, the main characters are a psychiatrist at the prison and her mentally ill patient, fulfilling my unending fascination with shrink books.  Third, the prisoner is there for drowning her kids, echoing the Andrea Yates case.  This book is dark, but beautifully written.  It also may be evidence of the many psychological problems that warp my mind, that I liked it so much.

I'm trying to decide what roles Gianna and I would take if we were cellmates, and what crimes would land us in the joint.  On the one hand, I am significantly larger than G and have 35 years of swallowed down rage looking for an outlet.  On the other, Gianna is feisty and can be a bully.  Regardless, though, I call dibs on the top bunk.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 18

Day 18: Strangest Place You've Read a Book

I once read a book in the parking lot of a fundamentalist church at 11:45 pm after a Kathy Griffin performance in Austin while I waited for a guy to change my tire after I ran over what looked like shrapnel.  Book lovers read everywhere.


I will get right to it. The strangest place I have ever read a book is in a public library. Well...more specifically: in the bathroom of a public library. Yep, about twice a week I would go to the library, go through the six books on gay and lesbian culture, take one down and go hide in a bathroom stall to read it.  [I'm here, I'm queer, I'm proud of it?]

Oh, sure I had tried the book-behind-a-book, but it stressed me out to no end. The bathroom gave me a sense of privacy where I could read The Well of Loneliness or various Rita Mae Brown titles. I expanded my reading from here. I found Gertrude and Alice, Jane Rule’s “classic” Desert of the Heart (which was made into a “classic” film called Desert Hearts starring Mrs. Roper), Orlando by Woolf, Lillian Hellman (who I became slightly obsessed with) and I devoured everything by lesbian icon, Danielle Steel. I mean Quentin Crisp (I always get those two confused). [I'm sure that happens frequently.]

Anyway, that’s my odd place that I read, the bathroom of our public library. In other words I hadn’t yet come across anything called “gay pride.”

Kids today don’t know how good they have it. They can just sit and read Danielle Steel wherever they want.


When I was a senior in college, my father decided that we should take a family vacation.  Fine, right?  Except that he decided that we should go the week of Thanksgiving.  Never mind that both my sister and I were knee deep in end of semester projects.  Forget about that thesis that wouldn't write itself--we needed to go to Washington DC and reconnect!  I packed twelve books for that five day trip, not to mention the notebooks, and pens, and crap like clothing.

The "high point" of the trip was the jaunt over to Colonial Williamsburg for Thanksgiving itself.  First, it was cold.  Second, 90% of the place was closed, and the few buildings that were open were the places where testicle-scratching "peasants" were insisting that women cook them their mutton and such.  I was not amused.  Eventually, tired of my outrage, my father suggested that I wait outside, and that's exactly what I did.  I sat outside, on a metal bench in 35 degree weather, reading the book shoved in my coat pocket, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  The whole scene made for a memorable story in my Women's Studies class the following week, even if the book-imitating-life parallels were lost on my father.

Friday, August 26, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 17

Tag Siebzehn: Favorite Books from Non-English Speakers


A different person would pick Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Leo Tolstoy, or even that Stieg Larsson fellow. However I wanted to choose a book that doesn’t get much attention, but that I count as one of my favorite reads.

Marguerite Duras was a French writer and film director born in Saigon in the early 1900’s. After her father’s death, Marguerite and her family lived in near poverty in Indochina. Both her mother and one of her brothers abused Duras, in fact her story is quite dark (she battled terrible alcoholism most of her life). At an early age, perhaps 15 years old, she became sexually involved with an older Chinese man. Her story is recounted in her award-winning book The Lover (L'Amant) written in 1984. While her life is obviously compelling, it is her writing that sustains the book. Her writing is sparse, dreamlike, almost detached (incredibly effective when recounting her sexual encounters with her older lover), and most of all it is beautiful.

Duras continues her story in three other books: The Sea Wall, Eden Cinema, and The North China Lover. The Lover remains my favorite; in fact, The North China Lover actually contradicts bits of The Lover. I predict if you read Duras you will want to dip into at least one or two of her other books.

If you are inclined an excellent film adaptations was made of The Lover in the 1990’s.


Other Press

I am a big fan of the Russian masters.  I love Dostoevsky, I love Turgenev, I love Gogol.  Most of the reading I've done by non-English speakers before about five years ago came with from my Russian buddies.  Since I joined Random House a few years ago, however, I have had the pleasure of also selling an independent publisher that Random House distributes, Other Press.  I quickly learned to trust the press's selections, particularly when it comes to foreign language fiction.  If Other Press selects a book for publication, you can rest assured that it has something to offer.  Theirs are books for smart readers who appreciate psychological complexity as well as beautiful writing and a good story.  They have published several of my favorite books of the last few years, including The Glass Room and Galore.

A couple of years ago, Other Press published a Spanish novel (Spanish the language and Spanish as in "from Spain") by Manuel de Lope called The Wrong Blood.  Set right before the Spanish Civil War in the Basque Country, two women--one a newlywed and the other a barmaid brutally raped--both find themselves alone and pregnant when war erupts.  Years later, the grandson of the newlywed returns to the village to spend the summer studying for law school exams.  His presence there, though, digs up the buried past and the ghosts that haunt the earlier generation.  I love the writing in this book, and I love the way the story unfolds.  I also love that this is a book a window into a region and historical period I don't read about every day.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 16

This day is brought to you by Zorro.

Day 16: Favorite Books Featuring Animals

So yeah, I'm obsessed with my cat.  I am.  We're codependent and he's my abusive lover.  But there are many great books with animals in them if you think about it.  What is Jaws without the shark?  What is Moondogs without the blind, cockfighting rooster named Kelog? (Seriously, you people need to read Moondogs.)  What is Moby-Dick without the whale?  Boring, boring, and boring.  Without animals, Rita Mae Brown wouldn't have launched her super successful cat mystery series and have been reduced to writing about lesbians and stuff.


My favorite book about animals is an easy pick. Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature: Includes 32 Delicious Recipes. [Rabbit is tasty.]

Okay, I made up the last part of that title, but even without it…crazy. I had no idea that rabbits were misunderstood. Are they capable of doing things that I don’t know about? I know they are really excellent at pooping on everything but I am excited to hear about possible hidden talents or uses. [You would approve of their procreational propensities.]

Rub my belly. I dare you.

I refuse to write about any book that has talking animals – as it creeps me out (sorry Yann Martel and Daniel Quinn…. I tried). Animal Farm doesn’t count because these guys mean business and are scary. Scary talking animals are okay. If only Cujo could talk.

Spoiler alert if you haven’t read Old Yeller – STOP reading - I don't want to Marley and Me your ass. Ooops.

I have no idea what my favorite book about an animal is (Liz picked this question and I will just assume her cat Zorro had some input). [Zorro is my god.]  I tend to avoid books about animals as I am still recovering from Old Yeller. [G, you should steer clear of The Yearling, then, too.  People eat deer.] I am working my way through the grief process but seem to be stuck on denial. And the sequel starring Yeller’s pup, which I am sure was meant to cheer up the millions of scarred sobbing children.... Well guess what, Fred Gipson, it didn’t work. I just focused on the fact that Old Yeller was killed when she had little babies to care for. Terrible. [Yeller was a bitch?  How did I miss that?]

I’ve never read Charlotte’s Web – I assume it is also devastating. I mean I know the one pig gets to live's a farm and the animal body count is likely to be pretty high. It's best I avoid it.  [Animals talk.  Creepy.  And the spider dies.]

But I am about to get pretty unoriginal because truly the best book I have ever read about an animal is Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. I am not a horse person and certainly not a horse race person (unlike my father who let me know in the bluntest of ways that if I didn’t know the story of Seabiscuit then I didn’t know history at all…awkward). I read Seabiscuit the day my father informed me that I was an idiot. The book is just phenomenal. Hillenbrand is quite simply an incredibly gifted writer; you really will not be able to put this book down. Just the imagery of the thousands of fans travelling for miles, all over the country, to see this horse run is breathtaking. He was the hope of a nation, he helped bring a broken country together in a terrible time; can you imagine that? [Just like Zorro!] A not so good looking horse. Now that is a happy story. If you’ve seen the movie, trust me when I tell you the book is so much better. I also had this on audio, read by Campbell Scott, and it's one of the best audio books I have ever listened to (and yes I am including the Harry Potter books too).  [Campbell Scott is the audio book god, but Zorro is the universe's god.]

It just now occurred to me that when I was a child I loved watching re-runs of Mr. Ed The Talking Horse...does this have anything to do with my disdain of talking animals? Too much Mr. Ed too soon? So curious.


Guess what?!  I'm a cat person.  I don't dislike dogs, but since I was seven years old and Fluffinella entered my life, I've related best to cats.  We understand each other and share eccentricities.  Dogs are easy, but you must work to earn the devotion of a cat.  So I'm sticking to books about cats.  They are the most beautiful creatures in the world, after all.

I am cat, destroyer of worlds.
And toys.

The Tiger by John Vaillant features the largest cat in the world, the Siberian Tiger.  Set in post-Soviet Russia, Vaillant recounts the true story of an 800 pound kitty that, out of desperation and revenge, becomes a maneater.  This tiger was shot by a poacher, but wasn't killed.  He tracked down the hunter, waited for him at his hunting cabin, and destroyed him.  The guys who discovered the "body" were able to place the remains in a backpack.  Tigers are highly intelligent and lethal, but they don't normally seek humans for prey.  This particular tiger, though, developed a taste for the other white meat, and several days later killed another woodsman.  The Russian version of a game warden was charged with tracking and removing this tiger hunting the members of a remote village. 

The Tiger details the complexities of this region of Russia, and this period in history (late '90's), as well as the reasons tigers are poached.  This is a humane book about the most dangerous game and the moral ambiguities of an animal lover hunting a cat capable of destroying a person with a swipe of its paw.  It's great adventure writing and it's a great cat story.

At first glance, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates isn't about animals at all.  The book tells the story of a seemingly All-American family that is torn apart one night when the daughter is attacked.  Her father can't cope with the assault on his precious girl and she's sent to live with relatives, then eventually lives on her own.  It's a devastating book about the ways families betray each other, and it's beautifully written.  Why am I mentioning it here?  First, We Were the Mulvaneys is one of my favorite books.  Second, when Marianne Mulvaney is sent away, the only part of her family who accompanies her is her cat.  The cat provides companionship and love in her worst moments.  The cat becomes her family, and Marianne even goes so far as to look into kitty dialysis when her pet's kidneys begin to fail.  I would have done the same for Fluffinella, back in the day.  And let's just all hope that Zorro is immortal.

Yes, I am the world's greatest cat.  Obey me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 15

Day 15: Favorite Books about Friendship


I am the nerd...who is Gianna?
 The greatest book I have ever read about friendship is The Breakfast Club. It is the intricate and moving story of five students in detention who couldn’t be more different. Ninety minutes later, I mean 400 pages later, they realize they are all the same at heart. They are each the brain, the athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and the National Book Award in 1985, and the author John Hughes went on to become the Nobel Laureate a few years later and then the King of England. The End.

Okay …

The best book about friendship is Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail damn Caldwell. End of story. I wish you people would stop making me write about her book! Annoying.  [I'd normally link to other blog posts in which Gianna mentioned this book, but seriously, it's about every other post.  Take some initiative.  Read through them yourself.]

Here are some other favorites that have great friendships at their core. Not all of the friendships last if memory serves….

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – this is the story of four friends and it is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Set in India during severe government crackdowns, the book tells the story of four very different people brought together by the changes in India. Great book. [One is a brain, and one is a jock, and one is a basket case....]

I feel I should mention The Color Purple by Alice Walker, but that was more like a “friends with benefits” situation (that’s what the kids call it).

Another favorite is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (pronounced just as it is written). This is a really lovely story of best friends who are sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution in China. They fall in love with the daughter of a local tailor. The two friends decide that they will help educate the seamstress with forbidden foreign books that they have hidden. This has a bit of a twist at the end. This is also one of my favorite book jackets.

You know, I always thought that the best friends to have are the types that help bury the body (Colleen, Stephanie and Liz all have shovels at the ready). But I now realize that a good friend is also the type who puts you out of your misery when needed. Liz often asks me to help her in these situations, but so far I have not been that good of a friend to her. Of Mice and Men –George and Lenny. Now those two were great pals. [I like to watch the rabbits.]


Rarely would my mind turn to children's books first, but in the case of this category, my two favorite books about friendship both fall into that category for younger readers.  They also happen to be the two books I most often re-read as a wee Liz.

Anne of Green Gables is all about trying to find connections and family through friendship.  It's about finding community when you're an outsider, and being accepted and loved even though you have fiery red hair and lack social graces and like to read.  It's about forgiveness and supporting each other and learning to belong.  I suspect that the children who read and loved L.M. Montgomery's series as children know how to be stalwart friends as adults.  I certainly count Anne fans among my closest friends now.

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson struck a chord with me growing up.  In the summers, my sister and I formed an alliance with the boy on the other side of the neighborhood, and the three of us created adventures in the woods that stretched for miles behind our neighborhood.  We had our own worlds, clubs, perils, and discoveries, and though school was a different world entirely separate from our summer escapades, we remained close.  It's not a childhood you've have in an urban area, and though I have many, many, many criticisms about the town in which I was raised, that pastoral freedom is never on the list.  The Bridge to Terabithia reminded me of those adventures and that friendship from my small town.  The book has a tragic ending; my friendship faded with time and divergent paths in high school and college. 

On the adult book front, I think that Toni Morrison's Sula is one of the greatest books ever written about the complexities of friendship between women. It one of the reasons this is the book I've re-read most often.

I also loved To the End of the Land by David Grossman, and since it's new in paperback, I encourage everyone to add it to their reading group lists.  To the End of the Land is a pilgrimage book; a mother and her childhood best friend--a former soldier suffering from PTSD--set off on a trek across Israel because the mother is terrified that her son serving in the Israeli army will be killed in the latest uprising.  This is a mature book about friendship, loss, love, and the uncertainty of living in a perilous world.  It's also beautifully written.  I struggled with To the End of the Land as I read it, but more than a year later I still regularly think about this story. 

These are the types of friends who, according to Gianna, would help you bury the body.  Or, you know, send you a dirty joke when you're having a bad day, no questions asked.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 14

Well, we certainly ruffled some feathers with our overrated authors list.  I do enjoy a little literary sparring now and again.

Day 14: Favorite Books From (Relatively) Unknown Authors


I will finish with one or two writers that are relatively unknown who I am really high on, but I did want to mention a few others that I love who aren’t exactly household names (yet?).

Amy Bloom has a wonderful book of stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, that I sometimes will go back to and re-read one or two stories from. Blind is a good starting place if you haven’t read her. If you prefer a novel, the book Away is excellent.  [Bloom is one of my favorite authors for her psychologically astute writing.  It should be; she's a trained psychoanalyst.]

Daniel Woodrell was recommended to me by our late and greatly missed friend David Thompson. I first read the novel Red Tomato, then Winter’s Bone – both are fantastic and original. Winter’s Bone is a good start (and yes it is the novel that the movie was based on). [Winter's Bone always sounds like a "That's what she said" joke.]

Gillian Flynn is such a fun and creepy read. I love recommending her. She only has two books; start with Sharp Objects.

Why isn’t Aimee Bender super-famous? [She gets lost among the dozens of Kardashians?] Start with her best, which is her latest, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but An Invisible Sign of My Own is excellent too.

Adam Haslett is truly gifted – You Are Not a Stranger Here is one of the finest collections I have ever read. In fact it is probably the best book in the post. [Gianna has no idea which books I'm going to discuss, so assume this comment is directed to her side of the post.]

Rebecca Hunt, Paul Murray and Suzanne Rivecca are all up and comers who are really original. And you all know how I feel about Gail Caldwell, Dan Chaon, and of course Tea Obreht. I won’t bore you by writing about them yet again. But seriously read The Tiger’s Wife.

There are two young writers who most have not heard of that I am sort of in love with. The first I will mention briefly because I have written about her novel in an earlier blog I believe: 28 year-old Haley Tanner’s Vaclav and Lena. I just think she has written a really lovely, fully realized, commercial novel. A great summer read actually.

My favorite young sort of unknown writer working right now is Stefan Merrill Block. He has written two novels – both based on his family. What I love about Block is he that wrote a really wonderful first novel and then came back with a completely different but really excellent second book. His first book was beautiful and touching, his new book is heartbreaking and dark. The Story of Forgetting and The Storm at the Door … you’ll be happy you discovered him.


I feel like there are numerous books I love which fly under the radar and yet not a day goes by without someone walking into a bookstore and complaining that s/he can't find any "good" books.  I feel like I'll never have enough hours in the day to read all of the good books out there.

No book was more beloved by the Random House sales force its season than Thomas Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus.  Unfortunately, this terrific novel was lost amidst the most incredible fall season I've witnessed since I've worked in books, and with such huge names publishing that year, the unknown author's special book was overshadowed.  The good news is that it's not too late to pick up a copy of Waiting for Columbus, and it's not too late to recommend it to your book group either. 

The story is lovely and mysterious.  A man washes up on short from the Strait of Gibraltar and is taken to a Barcelona mental hospital after he insists that he is Christopher Columbus.  While in the institution the therapists are confounded by Columbus (who also won't wear clothes; I do love nudey head cases), but he begins to tell his story to one of the nurses.  Columbus meets with the Queen, and Columbus falls in love, and eventually Columbus reveals his actual story.  It's a great book.

German children's classic

There's a book that came out several years ago, and I've never actually met anyone else who actually read it.  98 Reasons for Being by Clare Dudman is a brilliant novel of psychological depth...and I don't think it's even still in print.  It's a shame.  The novel focuses on a historical figure, the head of a Frankfurt asylum, and a young Jewish woman committed to his care for nymphomania (Gianna would relate to that....).  In the 1850's treatment for mental disorders involved peppy methods like the application of leeches, but after these conventional treatments fail, the doctor, lacking other options, talks to Hannah.  The reader hears Hannah's thoughts through an interior monologue, and the hospital staff and patients also play roles in the story and doctor/patient relationship.  The doctor, by the way, was an actual person, psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann, and he is best known for writing a children's book called Struwwelpeter (Shock-Headed Peter), and Hoffmann's own troubled past and book weave into Hannah's story.  I loved this book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 13

Don't forget to check out updates on Gianna's current road trip to West Texas on our Facebook page.  It's an adventure to say the least. 

Day 13: Overrated authors.


Most overrated author as a topic is sure to make people angry, so let's do it!

My first instinct was to say Norman Mailer, but the problem with that is I have read two of his books and attempted another three. Basically he is two for five in my book; which means the Cubs would pick him up and over-pay him. But at the end of the day I am not sure he ranks as overrated. I will say, however, that I disliked the man and avoided reading about him or interviews with him….but did really love The Executioner’s Song.

Liz and I will probably pick a few of the same authors here and I doubt the name Franzen won’t show up (no matter what Time Magazine says). And you know what? Since I am drunk right now I will say Hemingway just to get some hate mail. I am on a roll…I do not get the fascination with Salinger. And if we are going to pick on some bestselling contemporary authors….Jodi Picoult. I have tried three times and I just don’t get it. I mean I get it but I don’t get why people love her so.

Now having said all that…one author’s popularity and critical acclaim is just beyond me. Chuck Palahniuk.  If he'd stopped four books back, he wouldn't be on this list.  He's catering to adolescent boys now.  Yuck. 

Send all hate mail to Liz.


First, yes, I absolutely agree that J.D. Salinger is terribly overrated.  Also, Hemingway.  My favorite Hemingway is Muriel.  I'll say it: David Foster Wallace.  I think he's a fascinating personality, but I don't want to read his books.  

My pick for most overrated author, though, is Jonathan Safran Foer.  I think he presents interesting concepts with design and form, but I don't understand the hoopla over a guy who's really just written two books, and of those two, I only really liked a third of one (the guide's voice in Everything is Illuminated).  His second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, feels derivative and his wife's book, Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, has a similar plot but significantly better writing.  Foer falls into a category that really bothers me--clever writers who choose style over emotional connection with readers.

Send the hate mail.  We're not afraid.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

30 More Days Book Challenge: Day 12

Day 12: Books That, in a Perfect World, Would Be Bestsellers


Generally speaking, if I love a book, I mean go nutty over it, the book is doomed to not make it very high up or at all on a major bestseller list. The odds are not good. The last book I had right was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. For the most part my picks don’t become blockbusters. I don’t get angry anymore; I really have made peace with it (not really I just I take medication now). What I have stopped doing is declaring to the world that books are going to be huge bestsellers, or that a book is going to win every major award and change your life. Well I have almost stopped doing that.

In an effort to not repeat too much I won't pick books that I have already written about, but I will say that why Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon wasn’t a number one bestseller is beyond me. And why people can not just fall in line and read Gail Caldwell’s A Strong West Wind so they can bask in her artistry makes me nutty. Okay now that I have started…. was Lying Awake by Mark Salzman a bestseller? [Yes, and most deservedly so.] It should have been. Oh, and that book I wrote about a few days ago Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds…oh man total bestseller had that not been released on 9/11/01! Horrible timing for that book. Do I sound too bossy and a tad angry? Who wants to date me? [...No one?] I also decided not to pick a book that won a major award because…isn’t that better than a bestseller list?

I am going to go back a few years for this book, oh and for sure I shot my mouth about how it was going to be a huge bestseller.  [You?  Flap your gums?  Never!] And while I think it did well…it just didn’t do what I thought. I am talking about Max Berry’s hilarious near future tale called Jennifer Government (published 2003).

In the near future the world is run by corporations (like that would ever happen) and employees take the name of the company you work for. Liz would be Lizzy Random House and I would be Gianna University of Texas Press (mine is almost long enough to sound royal!). So obviously Jennifer works for the government. The police are now a publicly traded security firm, so if you want a crime investigated, you have to pay them (oh, taxes are now illegal).

A guy named Hack Nike works in merchandising but is pretty low on the totem pole at work, so when his bosses John Nike and John Nike offer him a contract, a raise so to speak, he signs without reading it. He later finds out his contract involves murder to build up street cred for Nike’s new line of $2,500 sneakers. The idea is that if someone is murdered for the shoes they will be all the rage. Marketing baby. [If I kill Gianna over a book, will it be a bestseller?  Hmmm....] So Hack goes to the police and they assume he wants to subcontract the deal so they lease it to the NRA (also now a publicly traded security firm). Pretty soon Hack is being pursued by Jennifer Government who is a consumer watchdog and who takes her job very seriously (Jennifer, by the way, has a tattoo of a barcode under her eye – which you will see on the book’s cover).

So Jennifer Government is my pick for a book that should have been a bestseller. I loved it. Very smart, so very funny, and a little creepy. If this book were a tall man it would be perfect for Liz! [Hell yes.  And check out Max Barry's latest release, Machine Man.  Barry is uber-talented and cool.]


What does it take to make the bestseller lists?  Commercial appeal helps, and an unusual premise, and marketing.  Word of mouth.  Controversy.  Take, for example, American Psycho.  This book was a huge bestseller and still a popular read 20 years later.  Then there's my pick for this category.

Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi was written as a response to the gender violence presented as entertainment in American Psycho.  It's a novel of role reversals.  It's violent, controversial, darkly funny, commercial...and it's not even in print any more. 

I admit that I had a tough time with Dirty Weekend.  The first time I read it was for my contemporary gothic literature class in college, and I threw my book across my dorm room four times in the first thirty pages.  It disturbed and angered me....and then it turned a corner.  The book follows the main character, a timid woman named Bella, as she becomes the focus of a stalker.  Bella is the consummate victim, waiting for a violent fate (hence my frustration).  And then one day Bella has enough.  Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, she develops her own way of lashing out at a culture, and Bella finds her inner strength through who degrade her.  It's sort of awesome, actually.  It's a shame that this book isn't even available in the US for purchase.