Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Days of Love...and Lack Thereof, Day 6


American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I think I speak for everyone when I say, “You ain’t been in love until you’ve been in love with a Republican!” Especially if you’re a Democrat, am I right ladies? There’s got to be an ex-Gingrich or three that knows what I’m talking about! [Don't look at me.]
Curtis Sittenfeld
Alice’s life changes at the age of seventeen when she is involved in a fatal car accident. She becomes a serious, bookish (a librarian actually), quiet woman. When she meets Ivy Leaguer Charlie Blackwell from a prominent wealthy Texas--geesh--Wisconsin family she isn’t impressed. He’s self-centered, juvenile, not as smart as she is, and he likes the ladies and to party. Also, she’s a Democrat and he is a Republican on the political fast track. But alas, she becomes smitten with Charlie; he is, after all, charming, and handsome, and they have some major chemistry (yeah, you’ll picture George and Laura, but try to get over it). When his career catapults him to the Presidency and some of his policies become unpopular (two wars and reproductive rights), Alice must make a choice. Does she continue to stay in the background and let people assume she too agrees with her husband’s policies, or does she speak out? And can the marriage survive if she publicly disagrees with her husband while he is vulnerable? 

I found this an incredibly interesting idea given the political differences between George and Laura Bush. Laura came out in favor of gay marriage and pro choice after Bush left office, but you know…those two kids are doing all right. 


Get cozy and flip on the Celine Dion soundtrack, this book is going to put you in the mood for...something.  Once again I am going to discuss a book that is now, sadly, out of print.  It's just wrong.  If you read this crappy little blog at all, you know that A. I love books, and B. I love Canada, and C. I love a violent animal.  Zorro is a cat, of course.  Let's talk bears.

Stick with me here.  Bear by Marian Engel won Canada's Governor-General's Award and Margaret Atwood called it "a strange and wonderful book."  It's legitimately good literary fiction.  Here's the premise: a librarian, a lonely, timid woman, takes a job cataloging the library of the deceased Colonel Cary.  He lived on a remote island in the northern woods of Canada, and soon the librarian discovers that among his secrets is a pet bear.  The bear, she decides, will make good company.  She talks to the bear the way that she's never been able to talk to other people.  The bear becomes a pet...and then more of a companion as she becomes more isolated.  And then, well, yeah, it goes there.  Things I learned from Bear: 1. Don't have sex with bears. 2. Bears have bones in their boners. 3. You are NEVER so lonely that bestiality is a good idea. 4. A bookstore will go a full year without selling a copy, and as soon as you put up a staff selection saying that a woman sleeps with a bear, you'll sell out in a week.

Did I mention that Bear is an award-winning work of literary fiction?  I just thought I should state that again.  Also, who would have bet that I brought up the animal fornication before Gianna?  Anyone?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Days of Love...and Lack Thereof, Day 5


Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand may very well be the most romantic, in the best and purest sense of the word, book that you’ve read in years. This novel will take you by surprise; it will steal your heart. Unless of course you have a heart of stone like a woman I know, I won’t say her name but it rhymes with Liz Sullivan.

Brace yourself because you are going to fall a little bit in love with retired Major Ernest Pettigrew. [Says you.] I know, you never thought you could feel this way about an older man, especially one named Ernest. Call him Ernie if it helps because honey I am telling you it's done, you’re going to love him. [Nope.  Not capable.] He is completely old school, he is very opinionated, and he is beyond modest in his lifestyle. He is the quintessential proper Englishman. [Like Christian Bale?  Hmmm....] Pettigrew lives a quiet life in a picturesque village located in the English countryside, recently widowed and with a son who seems to have little time for his aging father. Pettigrew spends most of his time alone until the day when he meets a beautiful Pakistani shopkeeper from their village named Jasmina (also a widow). Both, still nursing the loss of a spouse, find that their love of literature and all things proper gives them comfort and unexpectedly puts them on a course of friendship and love.

Helen Simonson’s writing is flawless, and, while not stealing from classics, it certainly has the feel of being written long ago. I highly recommend Pettigrew for your book group or a romantic getaway…just you, a young masseuse, a barrel of wine, and Major Pettigrew.  [Like Liz and Clive Owen.  Mmmm....Clivey Poo....]


Let's talk about loving oneself.  Gianna can tell you all about self love.  It's important for a modern woman.  Sadly, the book of female empowerment about which I write is currently out of print, but I encourage everyone to find a used copy.  The book?  Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi.

Our protagonist, Bella, is a woman beaten down by society.  She is a victim living in constant terror.  A man starts threatening her basically because he can, and then finally one day Bella wakes up and decides that she's had enough.  She rides her wave of newly discovered self-love to a quite impressive killing spree.  Mess with Bella?  Bella's going to mess with you.  Victimize women?  Get ready to die.  Act like a jerk?  You better make amends with your god.  Fail to satisfy your mate in the boudoir?  That Viagra isn't going to resuscitate you.  Sorry.  

Helen Zahavi wrote the delightfully rage-driven Dirty Weekend as a response to the misogyny of American Psycho.  It's a hoot, and it provides context for what could drive a woman over the edge.  This is my kind of serial killer.  (In related news, yes, I am still single.)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Days of Love...and Lack Thereof, Day 4


I think that if you are making a list of romantic books, as devastating as she can be, you must include at least one Amy Bloom book. My Amy Bloom book is the epic tale Away.
Amy Bloom

Lillian Leyb’s parents, husband, and presumably her three-year-old daughter Sophie were brutally killed in Russia. Lillian escapes from Russia to New York in 1924 where she finds work as a seamstress in a Yiddish theatre. She soon becomes lovers with the lead actor of the troupe and his powerful father. After whispers that her daughter may still be alive and living in Russia, Lillian begins planning her trip back home. With little help, she begins an epic journey across the country: a train to Chicago, then to Washington, culminating with her walk across the Alaskan wilderness to find her daughter.  This novel is incredibly rich with full three-dimensional characters that you won’t be able to forget. Away is one of the most powerful, well-written novels I have read, yet completely accessible. This novel may not be romantic in a Valentine sort of way, but trust me, it is romantic in a bold way.

Side note: Away was inspired by Lillian Alling who attempted to walk home to Russia from New York in 1927. 


Ah, Cormac McCarthy.  No one tells a love story quite like you.  You're a modern Jane Austen.  Who else could take a story of the bleakest post-apocalyptic world ever written and turn it into a love story?  The Road is full of beautiful writing, charming scenery like that basement full of half-dead zombie people, passionate interactions with roving bands of humans who love romantic dinners of humans (mmm....cannabalism....), and the most wonderful ode to a soda ever written.  Trust me, this novel is great.  At its center are a father and son walking along a road with only a gun and two bullets to save them from true horrors.  In spite of the bleak setting, The Road actually really is an uplifting story of parental love...even if you'll want to use that last bullet on yourself after reading it, it's just that upbeat.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Days of Love...and Lack Thereof, Day 3


Rita Mae Brown
This one goes out to the ladies. More specifically to the ladies who love ladies. Even more specifically to the ladies who love ladies who love to read about ladies loving ladies. Actually... dudes may like this as well. 
Oh Rita Mae Rita Mae...how you saved my sixteen year old ass with this book. Rubyfruit Jungle was Rita Mae Brown's "It Gets Better" message to me. Molly Bolt is adopted by a poor southern couple who aren't so keen on their unapologetic, smart ass, athletic daughter who also beats up boys. In high school, Molly dated a hot cheerleader and then was thrown out of college for terrible morals (oh but man oh man what a way to get kicked out). Molly eventually  moves to New York and you know how it goes...it gets better. She dates many lovely ladies, pursues a film career and meets other 'mos along the way. Yeah, it go a lot better. Oh, and she never becomes a Yankees fan so this novel is safe to read.

Great gift for your obviously gay daughter. Just give in, Ellen is making everyone gay and there is nothing you can do about it. 


One of my all-time favorite writers is Joyce Carol Oates, and one of my all-time favorite books from the prolific Ms. Oates is We Were the Mulvaneys.  Oates is known for exposing the American dream and its shortcomings, often violently.  She is a dark writer, but she also writes with great emotion.  Many of her books are contemporary masterpieces, most are also entertaining, and if there were any justice she'd win a Nobel Prize for her many contributions to the American literary canon. But let's talk about the Mulvaneys.

Joyce Carol Oates
We Were the Mulvaneys actually starts with the All-American family--loving parents and three kids living on a bucolic farm as the kids attend high school, the boys playing football or graduating as valedictorian, and the daughter, Marianne, becoming a popular cheerleader.  They are a family who love each other, would do anything for each other.  And then, on prom night, Marianne is assaulted.

The novel is narrated by the adult youngest child, Judd, as he tries to piece together how his loving family disintegrated into lonely, lost souls.  Marianne is sent away because her father can't overcome the horror of what happened to her.  She takes her beloved cat, her only companion from the life she used to live.  Throughout, she longs for the family she once knew even as she manages to find a sort of peace and resolution.  The farm is gone, the Mulvaneys scattered, but once, once they were a family.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Days of Love...and Lack Thereof, Day 2


[Gianna is so filled with love that she picked two books today.  Me?  I'm so full of gas that I decided to pass on the refried beans for dinner.]

Mary and O’Neil

Just as one would suspect of Justin Cronin, bestselling author of post-apocalyptic novel The Passage, he once wrote a love story. In fact, it’s a really wonderful love story with exactly zero vampires (although the body count is moderate).

Mary and O’Neil is a thoughtful book about finding love and solace when you least expect it. At times these interlinked stories can be heartbreaking, at other times sweet and funny. You come to realize pretty quickly that Mary and O’Neil are people you probably know, each nursing private hurt and tragedy. O’Neil has never really gotten over the sudden death of his parents and Mary has yet to completely heal from a pregnancy she chose to end years before. These two teachers meet while working at the same school when they are in their mid-thirties, never thinking that they had yet to find the love of their lives. Cronin flawlessly weaves these stories together, slowly revealing each of their past lives. 

Vaclav & Lena
I have written about this excellent book a couple of times; it made my Top 10 of 2011 where I believe I described it as a perfect love story. I am sticking by that statement. Non-asinine love stories are really hard to find, and this truly heartwarming story of two immigrant Russian children will be hard to top AND it's available in paperback Feb 7th. 

Both Mary and O’Neil and Vaclav & Lena are couples you won’t soon forget. They will make you believe in love again. Or make you believe that a romantic book doesn’t have to be silly.


Many authors are plumbing the horrors of suburbia in their fiction.  Jonathan Franzen was featured on the cover of Time for his efforts on the subject.  One of the best books on the subject, and one of the best reads of the 20th Century, is Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road.  You know what's romantic?  Reading this book (or watching the intense and unsettling movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) while pregnant.  No, I'm not and never have been pregnant, but I've heard it can mess with an expectant parent's head.  I'm all in favor.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple in love, a couple with dreams of returning to Europe, of writing, of living Bohemian lives in the manner of the Lost Generation.  And then Frank, the husband, discovers that he's not as apathetic about his office job as he thought.  He and April, his wife, buy their house in the suburbs on Revolutionary Road and betray their dreams and each other.  This novel is a masterpiece--if you like Mad Men I absolutely guarantee you'll like this book--and it's a chilling unraveling of a fairy tale relationship after April discovers she's pregnant.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Days of Love...And Lack Thereof, Day 1


Men are hard to find. I’ve been looking for a good man (a good enough man) for my pal Liz for over two years now. Yeah, men are hard to find. And then once you have them, you got to hold on to their asses! They are forever wanting to get out and about and when they are out of the house, how do you know where they are…or when they’re coming back? Hard to find, hard to keep, hard to keep track of, hard to live with, the list goes on. I’ve said it before, ladies--I have the solution: dudes in lockup. Easy to find, easy to keep, and you don’t have to worry about anyone missing the bowl…let that be his cellmate’s problem. As you can read here, my efforts on Liz’s behalf have been exhaustive, but she isn’t having it. [More exhausting than exhaustive.] You know who is having it though? Bridget Kinsella.

Bridget Kinsella
Visiting Life by literary agent Bridget Kinsella tells the stories of women who love (and some who marry) men in prison, her own story included. It’s a truly original book. Kinsella was urged by a writer who taught a class at Pelican Bay to read some writing done by one of his students named Rory. Kinsella was blown away by what she read. Soon she found herself frequently corresponding with him, then visiting him, and eventually falling in love with him. The best parts of the book, however, are other women’s stories. The women are open and generous, and perhaps cherish an opportunity to talk.

I wanted to include Visiting Life on my list because it is filled with love stories from a sub culture that mostly goes unnoticed, but they are love stories nonetheless.


And from the other side of the spectrum:

What could be a better Valentine's Day read than a book about a wedding night than can be (and should be) read in one sitting?  A couple so in love, a couple who have their dream wedding, a couple who take their honeymoon On Chesil Beach....
Ian McEwan's taut novella is amazingly good.  On Chesil Beach is basically the story of two innocent newlyweds in the 60's before, shall we say, test drives were the norm.  They are new to the bliss of carnality and, well, let's just say that the honeymoon doesn't go well.  It goes so unwell, in fact, that (SPOILER!) it basically ends the marriage.  It's an uncomfortable read with an extra helping of awkwardness, but McEwan masterfully captures an era and the heartbreak of fairy tales destroyed by reality.  Read it to your potential lovers, or your kids, or whatever.  Just read it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Introducing Love, Liz and Gianna Style

If you’ve ever met Liz or me (especially Liz), the thing you get right away – the vibe – is that we believe in love, we believe in romance, and we believe in soul mates. [Gianna also believes the children are the future, but I do not.] We ooze love (the good kind); it can’t be denied and we can’t help it. If we weren’t publishing sales reps, we would probably be matchmakers or prostitutes. [Do prostitutes live like crazy cat ladies?] We know romance is all I am saying. Candles, roses, wine, The Notebook, long walks on the beach, Penthouse Letters VI, Sex and the City 2, WWE Raw, Nights in Rodanthe, and of course syphilis. [I know my brain is rotting just reading this post.]

People looked to us after the Seal/Heidi breakup 36 hours ago in order to restore their faith in love, marriage, and Project Runway. While we can’t help you with Project Runway [Go Mondo!], we promise we can rebuild your belief in love. That’s right--while certain people are trying to ruin the holiest of holidays (looking at you Ashton), we will bring back the sanctity and dignity of Valentine’s Day. [I put the saint in St. Valentine's Day.]

We offer you 21 Days of Love, or Lack Thereof…a romantic book a day for 21 days.  We launch this Love Boat tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Sales Rep

Generally there's a perception that publishing sales reps sit around reading books all day and then occasionally visit a store and possibly hang out with an author (or else people think we're frantically hunting for a different career, but self-preservation isn't a common trait in the book business).  I (Liz) decided that I'd keep a record of my day today, a fairly typical day in many respects.  I think it's worth noting now that after I finish typing this blog piece, I'm returning to work. I have a meeting and flight tomorrow and I'm not yet prepared for either.  Here we go.

6:29 AM--Get up and check email. Look at the orders that came in yesterday.
6:35 AM--Tub time!  I love my bath. A long soak is necessary to A) keep up with my reading, and B) avoid killing anyone during the day.
7:45 AM--Ponder schedule and debate wardrobe.  End up in jeans and a t-shirt.  Again. I class it up a bit in case Gianna calls; she usually asks if I'm wearing a bra.  I don't like to lie.
Zorro likes to sleep in.
8:00 AM--Stare at Shelf Awareness, the daily industry e-newsletter.  Amazon is opening a new warehouse in South Carolina.  Same state that voted for Newt.  And seceded.  Something to contemplate.
8:05 AM--Check Twitter and Facebook. Retweet some stuff. Try to think of something witty and original.  It's not happening.
8:10 AM--Check the blog stats.  Wonder why people choose our blog to cure their insomnia. Decide they are probably all British. Hellooooo Brits!
8:12 AM--There are 305 messages in my inbox. Decide that's acceptable.  Read a few. Delete and file others.
8: 34 AM--Look at calendar again. One appointment in the afternoon. Must prepare for appointment and flight tomorrow. Must prepare for week-long trip next week. Contemplate returning to the tub for another soak.
8:37 AM--iTunes shuffle plays "You'll Never Walk Alone." I realize that my life is sad. Zorro, by the way, is still in bed.
8:38 AM--Begin working on creating suggested orders in Edelweiss, the electronic catalog system Random House is adopting.
9:28 AM--Realize I haven't eaten breakfast.  Lizzie needs her Diet Coke.
9:49 AM--Place the order I took at my appointment yesterday afternoon.
10:15 AM--Answer more emails.
10:30 AM--Book a presentation at a high school parents meeting in May.
10:55 AM--My progress on my Edelweiss orders is derailed by an account needing tracking on orders.
11:28 AM--Phone call from the boss.  Zorro is still in bed.
11:30 AM--Place another order.
11:49 AM--More email, and finally returning to my Edelweiss catalogs.
I'm just like the real Dr. Laura,
but without the racial slurs and
11:53 AM--Going cross-eyed, I ask my Talking Dr. Laura doll for advice. Talking Dr. Laura says "A good man will swim through shark-infested waters to bring you a lemonade." Why the hell would I want lemonade? If I were in shark-infested waters, I think I'd want, obviously, a bigger boat.
12:41 PM--Zorro emerges, eats, poops, waddles to his chair, goes to sleep.
1:14 PM--Lunch. Today it's peanut butter (no jelly) on toast, barbecue potato chips, Diet Coke. Zorro thinks that he wants peanut butter, claws me, then decides it's not chicken and goes back to sleep.
1:58 PM--Inbox is up to 349 items.  I'm losing the battle.
2:03 PM--"Creep" is on iTunes.  I'm so fucking special.
2:09 PM--And now "The Rainbow Connection" is playing on iTunes.  It's also time to prepare for my meeting at 2:30.
3:56 PM--Finished with phone appointment. I haven't even started preparing for my trip tomorrow. Zorro has requisitioned my lap.
4:52 PM--Finish my fourth suggested order of the day on Edelweiss.  379 messages in my inbox.
5:47 PM--Computer system I need isn't working.  I'm improvising...by inventing new profanities.  Email count: 397.
Zorro...since 1:14 PM
5:56 PM--Gianna sends me an idea for the blog.  We think it'll be funny.  It starts on Thursday.
6:31 PM--Dinner. Talking Dr. Laura says, "Be the kind of person YOU'D like to come home to everyday." Maybe this is why I'm single.
6:49 PM--Oooh! Law & Order: SVU marathon.  Back to work.
7:21 PM--Right. I was going to update the blog before the State of the Union. Talking Dr. Laura and I will be remarking upon the speech.  She says, "What magic do you think is going to transform your life without your participation?" I take this to mean that I should start playing the lottery again.
7:43 PM--Posting blog.  Back to work. The inventor of Excel should be shot.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Charley Carroll

Charley Carroll is the Community Relations Manager at the Barnes & Noble in the Arboretum in Ausitn, Texas.  Also, and more importantly, she is someone really good to know around Texas Book Festival time.

When you first meet Charley (or someone like her), you immediately realize how very uncool you are. Now granted, Liz and I have come to terms with our un-coolness (Liz simply refuses to get even one tattoo so, you know, it doesn’t help). [In spite of the fact that Gianna has no way of actually confirming that I have no tattoos, she's right--not into the mutilation here.] And then you get to know this very cool person and she turns out to also be incredibly smart and over the moon sweet. This, of course, makes you realize that, you know, maybe you're sort of dumb and you are definitely not nice. [Definitely not nice.] We wanted to profile Charley because she makes us feel terrible about who we are, and we really think that knowing that will make her feel bad too. So take that Charley! Not so cool now are you? Wait…does that make you even cooler? [I'm so uncool that I don't understand any of this paragraph.]

Generally Horrible Questions: Charley Carroll

1. How did you get into the bookselling game?
When I walked into my first bookstore (ever!) and submitted an application at the ripe old age of 18. I started two days later. [So....high standards there?  I (Liz) am just bitter because obviously Gianna thinks you're cooler than I am.  Humph.]

2. What are your three desert island books?
a. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants
b. The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook
c. SAS Survival Handbook, Revised Edition: For Any Climate, in Any Situation

3. What are you currently reading?
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (thanks to Gianna’s top 10 list) and Buddhism: Plain and Simple

4. What is the best part of your job?
That would be my position on the Texas Book Festival author selection committee!

5. I’ve never seen (any) Star Wars movies and I am so ashamed…or am I? [That makes two of us that haven’t seen them, and let’s keep it that way - Gianna]
Charley and hunk.

6. Percent of people who think you are a dude before they meet you?
94.7%…but only 52.1% admit it. [Odd, but those are the same exact percentages that think Gianna is a dude AFTER meeting her.]

7. Hottest author that you’ve ever met?
The guy on the cover of Kresley Cole’s newest book…he signed my book so I will consider him an author.

8. What book or books changed your life?
The Big-Ass Book of Crafts; The Big-Ass Book of Crafts 2 [I guess it took us up until this exact moment to really believe that cool people do craft…]

9. Liz or Gianna?
No, I have not read that book yet. Can you get me a free copy? [Gianna: it’s a picture book, and yes.] [Liz: Seriously?  The answer is ALWAYS 'Liz.'  Always.]

10. I wanted to be a rainbow when I grew up. [This answer gets you one ass beating from Gianna.]

11. Which author would you most want to land a book signing with?
Hunter S. Thompson (RIP) on his Hell’s Angels tour [This must have been after you realized you couldn’t be a rainbow.]

12. Book you are hand selling the most right now?
The book in my hand the most is The Hunger Games because people will NOT stop asking for it…I like to hand sell any Patrick Rothfuss books when I can.  
Charley and her angels

13. All time favorite book?
Really?! No. [Hmmm…guess you aren’t a sucker.]

14. Favorite book to movie?
The Bee Season

15. Charlie Chaplin, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Sheen or a Charlie Horse?
Me with my Angels: Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell [HOT!]

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Group Picks to Kick Off 2012

Now that we've shaken off the holiday season, it's time to grudgingly associate with acquaintances while pretending to care about their children and drinking lots and lots of wine, all under the pretense of reading the same books together.  I think if Gianna and I had a book group and I got to name it, I'd call it "Dear God I Resent You People."  In other news, yes, I'm still single.  Still, we love the idea of book groups because we love the idea of people buying and reading books.  We want to stay employed.  Here are some of our top book group picks, new or coming out soon in paperback, for the first three months of 2012.

Gianna's Picks:

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Random House
Paperback out now

For those keeping track, this is the 147th time that either Liz or I have blogged about this book. That is only one fewer than Let’s Take the Long Way Home (which is also an excellent book group choice). The Tiger’s Wife is textured, compelling, mystical, and multi-dimensional. It is a heartfelt work of serious literary fiction that only comes around once every few years. I’ve said this before, but Tiger’s Wife will be read for generations. I would say that if you are in a book group that truly cherishes literature, this is a must.

Open City by Teju Cole
Random House

This absolutely stunning work by Teju Cole has several built-in discussions/themes for book groups: the Holocaust, slavery, 9/11, genocide, and the invasion of Iraq are a few that will keep the discussion going late into the evening…so, you know, bring extra wine.

Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House

Blood, Bones, and Butter is quite simply one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, while officially it may actually be a food memoir. Memoirs can be very hit or miss for book clubs, but I would put this in the hit column. The writing is as fine as anything you will read. I would compare it to All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, or Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (a huge book club favorite).
Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
Random House

I wanted to include a really good yet more commercial book on my list and Lisa See immediately came to mind. She brings timeless themes to every book: belonging, love, family (particularly sisters and mothers and daughters), and what it means to belong. Dreams of Joy is an outstanding sequel to Shanghai Girl; I highly recommend both books for clubs.

Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby
University of Texas Press

Oh, how I love this book. I’ve read it three times and each time I find something new, something meaningful, something to hold on to. While the story of a small town in Texas, this small marvel of a book could have been nearly anywhere in this country. Themes are numerous and include: race, war, gender, family, change, the impact of pop culture, and what it means to live in a small American town. Utopia is a mix of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Last Picture Show. That’s a big statement, I am standing by it, and you know where I live.  Okay, if you actually know where I live that’s sort of creepy, but you know what I mean. [I'll send you Gianna's address for cash.]

Liz's Picks

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Random House
Paperback available now

Who doesn't love a good, creepy ghost story that echoes classics like Rebecca?  Who doesn't want to see the Harry Potter kid's new movie?  The Woman in Black is a chilling read that has the added bonus of being Daniel Radcliffe's first starring film role since he went wizard.  Here's a great opportunity to read the book and then see the movie as a group.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
Random House

The surprise Booker Prize finalist offers lots of discussion material for groups.  Modern Russia, dishonest women, the mob, the black market, bodies in the snow--this isn't your mama's book group pick.  It's a contemporary con novel and rumination on truth in a country where everything is relative.

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard
Random House

I'm actually a fan of the idea of memoirs for book group picks.  The added reality of a true story adds another level to the conversation, and House of Prayer No. 2 offers lots.  Mark Richard grew up with physical problems that had him relegated to hospitals and special needs schools even though he was plenty smart.  He also was a wayward youth searching for purpose who spent time working as a fisherman, painting houses, and loafing.  How he became a writer's writer is a story worth reading.

Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell
Random House

I think I've mentioned this book almost as much as Gianna has written about The Tiger's Wife.  It's my favorite non-fiction book of 2011, a spellbinding, beautifully written memoir of growing up in a low income family in Houston in the 50's.  Crowell has the ability to bring humor and love to a story that's also full of hardship and violence and kooky religious fundamentalism.  He writes like a poet.  I love this book.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Random House

I've written previously about this slender novel as well.  The Buddha in the Attic was deservedly nominated for the National Book Award last year.  It's the story of the women who came to the US as mail order brides to Japanese immigrants.  It details culture shock, struggle, and perseverance in the years between the turn of the century and the start of World War II.  The writing is impeccable and because there is no one protagonist, the structure itself adds to a discussion.  And it's really, really good.  Trust me.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon
One of our favorite authors, Dan Chaon, has a terrific new short story collection called Stay Awake going on sale in a few weeks.  Gianna reviewed it here.  We had the privilege of meeting Dan when he was touring Texas for his last book, Await Your Reply, and yet for some reason even after meeting us, Dan agreed to answer our questions.  Luckily Dan is the type of guy who, you know, appreciates the twisted.  In addition to being one of the best writers working, he's a huge music fan and teaches at Oberlin.  He's far too cool to be contributing to our blog, but we're grateful for his slumming.

Generally Horrible Questions: Dan Chaon

1. What author or book should we all be reading?
Lint by Chris Ware. Most mind-blowing book of 2011, hands down.

2. What book have you re-read more than any other?
Probably The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, closely followed by Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (though I haven’t actually read The Hobbit in about 30 years. Maybe now that the movie is coming out I should revisit it?)

3. Favorite three bands? 
Idaho; Modest Mouse; Arcade Fire. (At least right now.) All time favorite artists: Tom Waits, David Bowie, Rickie Lee Jones.

4. I have never read ________ and I am so ashamed
Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust. (I’ve read the famous Madeline passage, but nothing else.)

5. What do you tell your writing students to never do, but sometimes do yourself?
The great Borges...
not a spring chicken even
in 1951, when this was taken.

6. Gianna or Liz?
There’s no way to answer this question. It’s like “Cake or Ice Cream?” [Our two favorite food groups! We also assume Liz is the ice cream due to her cold nature.  Also, Liz is always the correct answer.]

7. Coolest writer you’ve ever met?
Jorge Luis Borges [We are incredibly impressed.  Of course, we can't call him to verify....]

8. I have read ____ and I am so ashamed
Dude, all things must end, but we're
sorry for blowing it.
“Lostpedia—the Lost Encyclopedia” in its entirety; as well as “Bad Twin” by Gary Troup; as well as Doc Jensen’s “Lost” blog for Entertainment Weekly. I was a huge fan of the TV show “Lost” and I still feel very betrayed and bitter about how they screwed it up. I know it’s been a long time since it mattered, but it still galls me. [We feel as if we opened a huge can of worms here. Apologies.]

9. Your last name is pronounced “Shawn” which made us wonder who your favorite Shawn is. Sean Penn, Sean Combs, Shawn Carter (Jay Z to the unhip), Sean Connery, Shawn Colvin, Shawn who sat next to Liz is high school calculus, or Shaun of the Dead?
Gianna's favorite book
of 2010.
What about Sean Bean? He’s maybe my favorite Sean of the moment. But if I have to choose from your list, Shawn Colvin would be fine. As for the rest of your group…if they changed the spelling to Chaon, we could talk. “Chaon Combs:” that would be awesome. [...Or we could call you Dan Diddy?  No?]

By the way, if you do a Twitter search for “Chaon” you will find that it is an Urban Dictionary type slang word. People say that something is “off the chaon!” And that means that it is cool and funky. Right on! [We think this is going to take off way beyond Twitter, for chaon.]

10. Can you name five things creepier than twins (Liz is a twin, so think creepier)?
a. Rick Perry;
b. vegetable drawer full of forgotten potatoes that have begun to sprout tiny human eyes and fingers;
c. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, esp. Taylor; [This makes us worry for our Dan that he can name a wife…worry and love that is.]
d. the corpse of your dead grandma, somehow animated, somehow alive, rotting and crouched in your closet, a sick smell that wafts over you when you are sleeping and then you open your eyes in the dark and you can hear her breathing, wetly chewing on something with her toothless mouth, and you try to convince yourself: Grandma loved me. Grandma wouldn’t hurt me. This is not real.
e. That awful thing that is constantly staring at the back of your head but when you turn around it’s not visible.

11. What's the strangest or most awkward thing to happen to you on book tour (bonus points if you admit it was meeting Gianna and Liz)?
I don’t remember anything awkward happening when we met, Gianna and Liz. I thought we had a nice time together. Didn’t we? [Clearly Dan didn’t notice Gianna nearly going in for a kiss.]

Look for Dan's newest story
collection in stores in February.
Usually the most awkward moments on book tour have to do with no one showing up to a reading, and having to face the bookstore employees afterwards. Sitting in silence. Listening as the front door is locked and the “closed” sign is put over the door. Signing stock so they can’t return it to the publisher. That one hipster employee, straight out of Middlebury or Oberlin or Swarthmore, that guy who obviously loathes you and who has been spending his days trying to handsell Henry Miller novels, clears his throat and looks at you reproachfully and judgmentally.

Not that this has happened to me, mind you. There are always crowds upon crowds at my bookstore appearances.

12. Liz and I are starting a band; can you suggest a few names?
Cocoa Ono
Craniopagus Parasiticus!
Mamas Who Let Their Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
The Uncircumcised Girls [Clear winner…Dan must have a real sense of what our band will be like.]

Thanks Dan!  You're the chaon!