Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up

Ernie Banks

I love Ernie Banks and my Chicago Cubs. When I was around eight, or maybe ten years old, I had a not-so-detailed but what I thought to be a winning (insert joke about the word "winning" used in reference to Cubs…I dare you) plan that I was certain would land me on the Cubs roster. [, Charlie Sheen's definition of winning?]  I won’t go into the plan but let's just say I always carried a baseball and glove with me in case the scout drove down Tulip Drive (ABPB...Always Be Prepared Baby!). Spoiler alert: I never made it on the team. I know your thinking that the Cubs are so stinky that I should give it another try.  Yeah, maybe.
Something happened though when I hit the age of twelve or thirteen. [Your womanly hormones?] I began to lose my confidence. I no longer felt that I could compete with boys, although in reality I still could, but the confidence was gone. I wanted to be a professional baseball player a few years before but now…I was sort of being steered toward other careers like nurse or, god help the children, a teacher. I remember at some point mentioning that I wanted to be an airline pilot.  I was quickly steered toward being what we called then an airline “stewardess.” Had I been a boy, no one would have doubted my ability (although to be fair, my god I would be a terrible pilot).
Peggy Orenstein

Of course I didn’t realize any of the above until I read what remains to this day as one of the most important, life-changing books I have ever read; Schoolgirls by Peggy Orenstein.  For an entire school year Orenstein shadowed and interviewed eighth graders from two different communities in an attempt to discover when girls first begin to doubt themselves. What she finds is not only heartbreaking but somewhat shocking.
Not long after reading Schoolgirls I went to hear Naomi Wolf speak at a conference. She asked the entire audience to think about what they wanted to be when they grew up at the age of five, then seven, then nine…some women shouted out their dreams: spy, priest, explorer, and inventor are the ones I remember.  And then Wolf asked, “Well what happened?”  The room fell silent. For the first time I asked myself, what did happen? [You would have been a terrific priest....]

Naomi Wolf
Everyone (yes, I said it) should read Schoolgirls and Flux by Peggy Orenstein (she also has a new book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and you don’t have to be a parent to get that reference). Naomi Wolf has written several books; The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities are both excellent.

And while perhaps it is too late for me to play for the Cubs, it’s certainly not too late to learn how to fly.


I wanted to be Hakeem Olajuwon.  Then I injured my ankles.  I wanted to be writer.  I still sort of secretly harbor that ambition but at least I work in my chosen field.  I believed in certain inalienable rights guaranteed to all humans...and then I went to college.  

Backing up, there are many, many things about growing up in a tiny town that I resented and against which I've struggled for most of my life.  It's an invisible cloak that, for better and worse, I will never shed.  Small towns--and I'm talking a town of 2,500 residents--are gossip factories and offer limited resources.  At the same time, though, I am well aware that, though I couldn't take Latin in high school, I could participate in any activity I chose.  Sure, there were the mean girls who terrorized junior high and high school as detailed in the wonderful Queen Bees and Wannabes and Tina Fey's adaptation Mean Girls.  By the fifth grade, though, I threw down, told the worst to go to hell, and though junior high had it's petty, girl-on-girl spats, I mostly worried about other things.  Like band.  And basketball.  And academic competitions. And pretty much any activity in which I chose to participate.  One of the good things about small towns is that in order to have teams and activities, everyone has to play, and there weren't stigmas about being a band geek or jock or whatever.  The drum majors for the band were also captains on the football team and stars in the one act plays.

These images are all over the web...
and they are appalling.
When I arrived at college, though (and again, this was a small university of 1,250 students), I encountered both more opportunities and open minded approaches to the world...and the backlash.  Sure, I could now take a greater variety of classes and participate in more activities, and I took advantage of many of those opportunities.  I majored in English and History, took a zillion hours worth of Women's Studies courses, worked on the Residence Life staff, was an officer in several campus organizations, and played intramural sports.  I also encountered the a minority of women and more of the men who were buying into the backlash against feminism.  Girlfriends cleaned their fraternity boyfriends' frat houses.  What the fuck?  Women worried about working out because they might sweat or get muscles. Women talked about wanting families and babies.  There's nothing wrong with families and babies, but I never understood how these could be the limits of one's ambitions.  I myself suddenly worried about the way I was perceived.  I panicked about speaking in class.  I worried that I wasn't good enough to compete against big city-educated students, and I worried about the ways I was perceived outside of the classroom.  It was a gut check.  This was supposed to be a liberal university and the feminist professors were an extremely vocal, powerful group on campus.  Why were the students pushing back against them?  It baffled me, and to an extent it silenced me.  (College friends who might read this entry will guffaw at the idea of me being quiet, but there was a time when I was afraid to state that I liked a book or movie or song for fear of judgment.)

Susan Faludi wrote a classic book, Backlash, about the movement to tear down what advances Second Wave feminists made in the 60's and 70's.  While it was at play while I was in college in the 90's, I fear that it's only grown worse in the 15 years since then.  Women are called "chicks."  Worse, they accept that label.  Sarah Palin.  That's a whole backward trend wrapped within the facade of "liberated woman" in and of itself.    Women's healthcare is toxic and women on birth control are called "sluts." Preteen girls are sexualized, often encouraged by their mothers who want princesses and mini-Barbies.  Rick Santorum pretty much wants women wearing burkas.  What the fuck? The things about which Susan Faludi wrote in the 80's, and which Margaret Atwood predicted in her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, have either grown worse or eerily become reality.

I am proud of my job. I work in a field that was a childhood dream--I always wanted to be involved in some way with books (assuming that I'd never be Hakeem).  I am proud of my sister, who always wanted to work in the space program and now is an aerospace engineer in a male-dominated field.  I'm proud to work for a company where I see women at the top ranks of the management and make up a significant part of what was a boys club back in the day.  I am treated as an equal with my male counterparts.  Books are tricky, though.  I also see what's selling, what the general reading public wants to read.  I wonder if there's a chicken-and-egg argument going on here--do publishers print books glorifying submissive women because that's what readers want, or do readers want books about making the husband the focus of one's life because that's what we suggest is correct as publishers of the material?  I think it's probably some of both.

This is a weird, weird, imperfect world.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Karen Hayes

Our pal Karen Hayes (left) and her business partner,
author Ann Patchett.
Karen Hayes is the slightly less famous co-owner of the new bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books.  (The other owner is some author named Ann Patchett.)  Karen has long been involved in the book business and worked with us at Random House, but she's new to the other side of bookselling--the part where you run the bookstore and help the customers.  Since Karen is a woman business owner and we're saluting the dames for the rest of March, we asked her to answer our questions.

Generally Horrible Questions: Karen Hayes

1. We are pretty sure the following musicians/singers have some connection to Nashville…pick your favorite (we think we know who you will pick it rhymes with Hiley Byrus). Black Keys, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Ke$ha, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Dwight Yoakam, Jack White, Earl Scruggs, Taylor Swift or… Donna Summer?
It is so hard to choose!  I guess it would have to be Ke$ha, cause you know I’m all about the $.  That’s why I’m in the book biz.  [Finally someone comes clean about all the money floating around the book business!  Apparently it's all in Tennessee....road trip!]
A busy day at Parnassus Books

2. Your business partner is Ann Patchett, so you sure as hell better have read all her books. What’s your favorite? It’s okay, she doesn’t read this blog…be honest.
Thank god she won’t be reading this, because I haven’t, as of yet, read all her books.  Please don’t tell her.  I love State of Wonder (and no, it is not the only one of hers I’ve read).  [Gianna has read nearly all her books and Truth and Beauty is her favorite. Liz's favorite is Bel Canto...not that anyone asked.]

3. As you may know, Liz and I are starting a band which Dan Chaon has named The Uncircumcised Girls. We want to debut in Nashville. What is the coolest venue in town?
Parnassus.  We can set you up.  But you must bring Dan Chaon with you. [Of course he will come with…he’s our roadie!]

A brownie troop visiting the store.
4. We are looking for that book…it was on TV last week (I can’t remember what show)…it’s about a woman who might be sad…it’s blue, oh, and “The” is in the title. Can you find us that book?  No, but I will try. [Oh yea..its about 300 pages long, that should help.]

5. Who is your favorite person you ever got to train at Random House? Gianna, of course 

6. Author you most want to sign in your store? Is it Stephen Colbert? Because we think Ann nailed that down when she was on his show.  He would be the one.  That would be so much fun.

7. Gianna or Liz?  Liz, of course. [Obviously.]

8. I’ve never read _________________ and I’m so ashamed.  There are way too many to choose from, including the aforementioned books by Ann Patchett.  [We are starting to think that Karen hasn’t read ANY Ann Patchett books and she is desperate to cover her tracks….]

9. What book(s) changed your life?  There are many books that have altered my perceptions, but the only book I can say that truly has changed my life would be State of Wonder.  The change came, not through the reading of the book, but through the timing of the publication.  Ann’s tour for the book gave her the platform to talk about the store (and independent bookstores in general).  I’m sure the store would have been a successful local bookstore if Ann had been in between books, but it would never have gotten such national attention.

10. How’d you end up owning a bookstore with Ann Patchett?  When/where did you first meet her?  We had met very briefly earlier, but the first time we really talked was April last year.  I sat down to lunch with her and a mutual friend of ours to present an idea I had to get a bookstore coop started.  I was hoping that she would join with some other friends and interested parties to help with the fundraising.  She said she was not too fond of committees and that maybe we should just do the whole thing ourselves.  I said alright. [Committees are awesome! They are simply the best way to not get things done.]

11. In honor of Women’s History Month, who’s your favorite ballsy dame?  I think you could probably guess who it is.  Hint, she is the only person I’ve seen stop Colbert in his tracks twice in one interview. [It's obvious you’re talking about Bill O’Reilly and we think YOU'RE ballsy for calling him a dame.]

12. What are you currently reading?  The Hunger Games.  My book group is reading it. [...Never heard of it.]  What upcoming book has you giddy with excitement?  I’m excited about The Unexpected Guests which has the best handle of the year from my Harper Rep, Kate McCune…Downton Abbey meets Edward Gorey.  [Dammit Karen! Would it kill you to at least once mention a Random House book, or god forbid a UT Press book? You're lucky our bosses don’t read this blog!]

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Ballsy Dame's March: WILD by Cheryl Strayed

Since we've dedicated the rest of March to the ballsy dames of women's history, I think it's only right to call attention to a modern day woman of courage.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of memoirs.  I'm also--as Gianna pointed out in an earlier post, a national park junky.  Last spring I started reading books that would be coming out this spring, and there was one book that had the sales force buzzing.  I kept hearing "Have you read  Wild yet?" Alternately, I kept hearing, "It may be tough for you to read Wild."  The people talking to me knew that I loved great narratives, but the ones who really knew me also knew that my mother was, at the time, dying of cancer.  The book isn't an impersonal read.
Cheryl Strayed

What am I talking about?  Cheryl Strayed's memoir is the story of her breakdown after the sudden loss of her mother to cancer, a loss that ripped apart her family and left her reeling.  She had a failed marriage, she was abusing alcohol and drugs, she worked as a waitress, and didn't see a way out of the hole into which she'd sunk.  One day, walking through a REI in Minnesota, she saw a hiking guide that called to her.  Months later she set out--almost broke, woefully under-prepared, and completely alone--to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  The PCT is the West Coast equivalent to the more famous Appalachian Trail, running from Mexico to Canada, from 100 degree deserts to snow covered mountains, traversing some of the most beautiful and dangerous wilderness on the planet.  Hell, Gianna freaks out when she's driving alone on a back road; can you imagine her hiking it?

Cheryl wasn't a hiker when she set off in the California Desert, walking north toward her endpoint, the Columbia River Gorge separating Oregon and Washington, a thousand miles away.  She crammed 80 lbs of gear into her backpack, dubbed 'Monster,' and then she couldn't actually lift that backpack.  She lost her hiking boot off the side of a mountain, for crying out loud.  Along the way she lives with the fear of bears and snakes and mountain lions, and strangers on the trail, and storms.  Her feet hurt--really fucking hurt--and she's trudging 20+ miles a day on them.  The hike is her test.

Along the way, Cheryl meets an amazing group of fellow hikers, and they form a community winding in and out of her story and helping her continue her journey.  She doesn't so much contemplate the state of her life as hike her way out of her head.  Nothing really appears as she had imagined it when she was still in the Midwest, but that's not the point.  The point, of course, is the journey.  The point is survival.

Last spring, while hiking in Yosemite National Park,
I took this picture--the place where my trail intersects
the Pacific Crest Trail. I hesitated...why not just keep
hiking?  I finally had to turn back.  Maybe someday....
Last fall my sister went to the Smokey Mountains for a friend's birthday party trip.  We had lost my mother, and we were all (and still are) working through our grief.  My sister, like me, loves national parks, and she planned to hike in the mountains and break away for awhile from her group of friends.  I had given her an advance reader's copy of Wild to read on the plane.  Her reading tastes and mine aren't always the same--I read more international and literary fiction and she reads more adventure fiction and nonfiction.  This book, though, affected both of us.  It's a story that's about what to do when the pieces of your life break apart, and it's also the damn funny account of how to sort of cram them back together and lug them 1,000 miles in a too big backpack.

I've been waiting for this week for almost a year now, the week that Wild finally goes on sale.  Now I can encourage everyone--men and women, memoir fans and nature fans, fish out of water book fans, and even people like Gianna--to read this book.  This isn't Eat, Pray, Love--this is Cheryl Strayed, who packed a box of condoms for the trail, you know, just in case.  This is Cheryl who fantasizes about Snapple.  This is Cheryl who was just revealed as "Dear Sugar," the advice columnist for The Rumpus.  This is Cheryl, warts and beauty marks and all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Setting the Rules for Women's History Month

[We all know going in that I--Liz--had nothing to do with the following post, right? This thing is 100% Gianna. That said, we ARE going to be focusing on the ladies for the next couple of weeks.]

Okay, folks, it's time to get your “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” bumper sticker out: we are talking women’s history for the remainder of March. Relax, you know Liz and me….we’ll never bring up feminists, feminism, equality, or boobs again. Wait, what?

The authors of The Rules
To kick off our two weeks of feminist musings, I would like everyone to pour their energy into finding Liz a husband. I’ve got a bit of a jump-start by reading the incredible book, The Rules, by two powerhouse ladies who are well known in feminist circles, Dr. Ellen Fein and Dr. Sherrie Schneider. I say "doctor" because these two have a PhD in finding love! They really know how to help women trick men, and in my opinion once you trick your future spouse, there is nothing you can’t do. Girl Power!

Here are some “Rules” that I have Liz starting immediately:

1. “Be a Creature unlike any other.” Am I right folks or does Liz have this “rule’ sewn up already? Great job Liz! [Sigh.  Thanks?]

My golden Hunter....
2. “Show up to parties, dances, and social events even if you don’t feel like it.” Well, if I know my Lizzy like I think I do, not only does she love to dance, but try keeping her out of a party! Seriously you should try. I am calling this “rule” done!  [I've worn pajamas all day and haven't brushed my hair since Saturday.]

3. “It’s a fantasy relationship unless a man asks you out.” Wow, incredibly deep, and incredibly true. Hunter Pence hasn’t called yet, Liz, has he? Stop telling people you two are engaged. [You can't make me!]

Tall socks are hot.

4. “In an office romance, do not email him back every time he emails you unless it is business related.” I love this advice. Men love games. They love it. They like to be confused and irritated. Liz, stop emailing every man you work with and you’ll be married by the end of the year. I am picking out my maid of honor dress now! [...Flipping through the Random House/Bertelsmann Code of Conduct now....]

5. “When considering whether to use personal ads or other dating services, you should place the ad and let men respond to you.” I think this is an important “rule” for any woman who really wants to let a man know she is submissive and lacks the confidence to approach a man. Liz and I were just discussing how she wants a man that she can truly not be herself with. Isn’t that the dream ladies…to fake it from the start? [I fake friendships too.]

Please forward any ideas, helpful hints, and phone numbers of men Liz can ignore, to us. Lets finally make Women’s History Month mean something!

…..aannnd scene! 

I hate The Rules. Worst. Book. Ever.
He may be a Phillie now, but he'll always be mine.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Colleen and Frank: An Irish Identity Story

Colleen with her favorite ginger writer, Fannie Flagg.
Colleen Devine is one of our favorite people and we are really trying not to hate her for writing our best blog so far.  She has worked in the book biz for over a decade and is currently the Publicist at the University of Texas Press. Colleen's favorite beverage is anything with Bailey's in it (but in a pinch, she has been known to drink a Guinness or three).  

Here's Colleen's rumination on her favorite Irish author.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Colleen, Shawn, and
My father raised us to consider ourselves “Irish.” Not Irish-American, or any hyphenated bullshit like that, but that we were direct decedents of, and cousins to, people who lived on the isle of Erie. We believed him. He started a collection, encouraging us to donate any money we had, towards a trip to the homeland (he used that word a lot.). We saved for what seems like my entire childhood.

Then the day came: The Devine family went to Ireland for the first time in 1982, when I was 11 years old. Finally, a chance to be reunited for the first time with our extended family whom we had never met!

Back then, flying internationally was like traveling by wagon train. We had to drive from Baltimore to New Jersey and stay with my Aunt Laura (also the first time we visited New Jersey), spend the night at her house, and the next day my cousin Tony drove us to JFK airport in New York.  This was one of the three airports in the US at the time from which Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, went directly to Ireland. We then flew eight hours to Shannon airport on the West coast of Ireland.  From there, we rented an economy-sized car( for five people and luggage). After not dying but coming close many times as my dad tried to get the hang on driving a stick shift and on the other side of the road (this was so long ago that it wasn’t cliché to talk about how hard it is to drive on the left side, or to say you were going ‘across the pond’), we set out for our accommodations.  Eventually we made it to the hotel in Dublin, which is literally on the other side of the country from the airport. So, door to door, traveling from Baltimore, Maryland to Dublin, Ireland, in 1982 took nearly four days. Yes, we slept in the car one night.
Smile for the camera!  The Devines:
Ed, Shawn, Colleen, Brian, and Kitty Devine (real name!)

So, we figured out pretty quickly that we weren’t Irish, we were AMERICAN and everyone in Ireland knew it; they not only had seen our kind before, they had built an entire tourism industry on us.  All the Irish kids we met who were our age were better educated, better behaved, and even knew more about the U.S. than we did(oh, Ireland is smaller than the U.S.? A lot smaller?  Are you sure?). At one place we stayed, we had to milk a cow in order to have any milk, and then skim the cream off the top for our tea.  It took maybe half a day for my brothers and me to become totally enthralled with the place, the entire country, every person we met.  Thank God they weren’t like us! Thank God they were so damned Irish! (On the God thing, we went to church many times on that trip, and it was nothing like church at home; it was more like going to a play. Thank God again!)

Castle Matrix (possibly made
up name) in Limerick,
This is a lot of background to introduce my favorite Irish writer.  I just want you to understand where I’m coming from when I say that I’m excited to have the chance to talk about Frank McCourt. Yes, a writer born in New York City, who lived the majority of his life there, is one of my favorite Irish writers. Write your own article if you want something on Joyce or Synge (and guess what, it’s already been said).

Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996. It was the tale of a wrenchingly poor Irish family who had traveled to New York to find the American dream, but when the father drinks the dream away they return to Ireland in 1934.  Their lives were many years of hunger, exposure, grief, and abuse, that somehow endured and created a close and loving family in the end (there’s much more, like kids dying and priests behaving badly, read it if you aren’t familiar). Maybe you remember 1996 – if so, you might also remember that Angela’s Ashes took the U.S. by storm.  It was as if every person who identified as themselves as Irish-American took McCourt’s story as their own history: it became the collective memory of 40 million(or more? Or less?  It’s too late for me to look up the real number) people in a very short time.   Angela became Irish-America’s mother, and we all wanted to give her something savory to eat and some peat for the fire.  Frank became a member of all of our families.  Then we found out that his brother Malachy was a soap actor and been in many of our living rooms for years, but we still liked Frank better.
The next year Angela’s Ashes went on the win the Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller(in hardcover! Never going to happen again unless James Patterson ‘writes’ Alex Cross’s memoir) for another two years, and was also made into a film, which was possibly more depressing and horrific than the book.  Movie theaters were packed for weeks. It was our time; we had a national identity and it was hungry and in need of a bath. There was the small issue of both Angela and Malachy publicly disagreeing with Frank’s version of this classic Irish tale of woe and bare feet in winter, but we politely ignored the controversy for the sake of the family. My own family embraced the McCourts fervently, and came to love Frank more than some of our actual relatives (still accurate to this day).
Frank McCourt

I believe that Frank McCourt, who was truly a lovely man and lived a life that I find to be both admirable and inspiring (not enough room to go into his own struggles to become educated, his 30+ years of teaching kids to write, etc., just trust me, he was very cool) actually wrote the catharsis of the Irish-American story. We no longer needed to band together for an identity; most of us were not all that Irish anyway, maybe a great-great grandparent on one of our parents’ side, but no one we ever knew. And we realized what they had left long ago, and what they hoped to find in America.  Guess what?  Many of us found it; and not only did we have the American dream, but we had inherited the dream from the previous generations in our families. Frank McCourt would remind us that we have done it, left poverty and unimaginable hardships behind, but that these oppressive conditions still exist for others who may identify themselves as Americans, people who live in Detroit, or Memphis, or New York City, not in Ireland.  He might say we’re all Irish when it comes to hardships.  I don’t really know, he’s the guy with the Pulitzer. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why You Should Read Flann O'Brien (and Give James Joyce the Finger)

Victoria in Dublin pretending
to break up with the statue of writer
Patrick Kavanagh. They are, however,
still seeing each other.
Official Bio: Victoria Davis holds a PhD in Irish Literature and is a manuscript editor at the University of Texas Press. "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues is her karaoke jam. Clearly she is Irish.

What we dug up: Victoria Davis is a member in good standing with the Covenant Of Copy Editors. They worship the Chicago Manual of Style (they read it backwards over the graves of writers in order to raise them from the dead to spread the word on the proper use of the semi-colon). 

Oh, and THIS is actually her karaoke jam:

Continuing our Irish focus, here's a guest piece from Victoria Davis.

Why You Should Read Flann O'Brien (and Give James Joyce the Finger)

“We are not making any Ireland. We just live here... some of us even work here.”
--Flann O'Brien

Victoria after her covenant meeting.
Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, was a civil servant, journalist, novelist, and playwright who wrote about Ireland during the decidedly unromantic period of the 1930s–1960s. This was not the Ireland of Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival, lousy with noble bards speaking the pure Gaelic, hotly chaste warrior queens, and wacky cattle raids. Instead, it was an economically depressed and socially repressed fledgling nation trying to navigate problems both inside and outside its borders while wearing the heavy mantle of revolutionary ideals. In short, it was the kind of place that writers left. Writers like Joyce and Beckett. The guys who couldn't stand the heat, and yet get all of the attention. Wankers.

Flann O'Brien
Yes…yes... Yeats and his ilk inspired a revolution with their creation of a glorious, yet pretty dang fictional past for Ireland. Joyce made the map of Dublin synonymous with modernism. Beckett replaced the city with an existential crisis. Revivalist, modernist, postmodernist…literary critics call O'Brien a "failed" dabbler in each of these movements. Why? Well, I could go on and on about all of that, but I think the short answer hinges on the long shadows cast by these other figures and that troubling word, "parody." O'Brien did indeed parody all three movements (and writers), but with a highly sophisticated grasp of their structures and tropes. And, he used these structures and tropes to critique the Ireland in which he lived and worked. AND he did it living under state censorship and the restrictions imposed upon him as a civil servant.

So, that's much of why you need to read Flann O'Brien… Now here's what you need to read:

1. An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), 1941. An Béal Bocht is widely considered one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the twentieth century. (For those of us who don't read Irish, an English translation by Patrick C. Power, with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, was published in 1996.) This darker-than-dark comic novel parodies the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) autobiographies that were used in the Irish school system to teach the Irish language and which were known for their depictions of unrelenting misery.

2. At Swim-Two Birds, 1939. At Swim-Two Birds is O'Brien's best-known work, and it is regarded as one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction. (If the word "metafiction" hasn't gotten you all excited, Dylan Thomas famously said that At Swim-Two-Birds was "just the book to give your sister--if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.") The book is narrated by a college student who sets out to write a book with three beginnings--one involves a very urbane devil, the Pooka MacPhellimey; another involves John Furrisky, the fictional "son" of a disreputable and equally fictional writer of Westerns, Dermot Trellis; and the last involves the resurrection of Irish legendary figures, particularly Finn Mac Cool and Sweeney. Eventually the three main threads interrupt each other and become hilariously, sometimes violently, intertwined.

3. The Third Policeman, 1967. The Third Policeman was written between 1939 and 1940, but it wasn't published until after O'Brien's death. To put it simply, The Third Policeman is a vision of hell set in the rural Irish midlands and peopled with a narrator (an amateur scholar of a questionable scientist named DeSelby), three mysterious policemen who bend the rules of physics, a one-legged bandit, and "Joe," the narrator's soul. There is, seemingly, one storyline, but that soon becomes engulfed by footnotes explaining DeSelby's theories on various phenomena. Again, a very dark and hilarious book… and, it was featured in a 2005 episode of Lost!

Enjoy, and happy St. Patrick's Day! 
Victoria's threat to us all.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Seamus McGraw (Irish Guy)

It’s that time of year where we get all Irish on your asses. For the next several days we will be all Irish all the time. That’s full time, full throttle Irish! Liz will also be using a fake Irish accent just like James Joyce did for all those years.

Seamus McGraw is an award-winning journalist published in Radar, The Forward, Readers Digest, and Playboy among others. We had the great fortune of selling The End of Country (which was on Gianna’s best of 2011 list) for Random House. The End of Country is a incredible book about what happened when the natural gas industry landed in McGraw’s hometown in 2007.

1.    What are you reading?
My wife, who exclusively reads thrillers, went to the library the other day and I asked her to surprise me. She came back with David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed In Flames because she figured he had enough syllables in his last name for me to take him seriously. I'm enjoying it. The other stuff I'm reading are various threads online that might help explain why my MacBook turned on me, and ate the last two years of my notes. [Guess who isn’t going to get a free MacBook from Apple?]

2.    Is  “The Halliburton Loophole” as fun as it seems? 
Oh, yes. But then again, I find naked displays of corporate arrogance strangely arousing. [When we read what the Halliburton Loophole was … we were turned on too.]

3.    I’ve never read _______ and I am so ashamed. 
I've never made it all the way through Finnegan's Wake, but if I admit that to my mother, she'll have the family bust me all the way down to a Welshman. [My God, this dude is Irish.]

4.    Seriously…do you read Playboy for the articles?
Seamus McGraw
I really do, but that's because I kind of prefer women who look vaguely like real women. I mean most of the women in my past have barely been touched by a hair brush let alone an airbrush. Actually, when I first started writing for them from time to time, my youngest daughter was still an infant. When the first issue came in the mail, my wife hid it. I asked her why and she explained that she didn't want Seneca to be exposed to it because it would lead her to body image issues. I told her I agreed with the sentiment, but I pointed out that Seneca was still breast feeding and that as far as she was concerned Playboy might just as well be a menu.

5.    What book are you always trying to get people to read?
Seriously, for the past four years, I've been trying to get everyone I know to read or re-read The Grapes of Wrath.   [We love this answer!]

6.    Phillies or Pirates? 
My wife was the first female baseball columnist for the New York Post. I, on the other hand, have very little interest in watching fat juicers chase little balls around a fake grass field in their pajamas, no matter what city they visit for home games. There's a great scene from an old movie from the seventies called The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, in which Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson, watches his first baseball game. A fly ball soars through the air, and a character turns to Younger and says, "It's the great American past time." Younger takers aim with his rifle and blows the fly ball out of the air. "Shootin's still the great American past time," he says. That pretty much sums up my attitude about baseball.. [We hate this answer. Go Cubs!] [Liz: I hate Gianna's comment. Go 'Stros!]

7.    I have read ____ and I am so ashamed (don’t say Playboy
My father in law left one of Glenn Beck's books here once…..Give me a minute to compose myself…. [Talk about arousing…Helloooooooooo Mr. Beck!]

8.    Liz or Gianna? 
That depends entirely on which one of you is going to be reading these answers first. [Ahem.  The correct answer is now and forever-more LIZ.]

9.    We think "Men in Granny Panties: A Love Story" (available exclusively for the Kindle at a steal by the way) is one of the best titles ever. Did you sort of predict Rick Santorum? Why would you do that? 
Liz has never heard of this band.
It was an accident. What I did was take a number of Santorum quotes from the last two decades. I cobbled them together, and tried to fashion a totally fictitious character who would be so culturally tone deaf, so dull witted and yet megalomaniacal that he would strain credulity. How was I to know that Santorum himself would come back from the political dead and top me? 

10. U2, Sinead O’Connor, Enya, Van Morrison, The Pogues, The Frames, or Thin Lizzy? 
Black 47. Neither of you are Irish, are you? [Awkward.  Liz's last name is "Sullivan."]

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Semi-True Conversation between Gianna and Liz

This really happened.

Gianna: We should do a few blog posts about Irish writing for St. Patrick’s Day.

Liz: …Okay.  I am drawing a blank though.  I’m not sure that I can think of many Irish writers.

Gianna:  Sheesh.  Of course you can.  Everyone knows at least a few.

Liz: What about Larry McMurtry?

Gianna: Is he Irish?

Liz: MCMurtry—gotta be Irish.  And in Lonesome Dove Captain Call was born in Ireland, and there were the two Irishman—the one bitten by the snakes and the other one who went to the brothel with Newt.  And Gus’s last name is McCrae.  MC-Crae.  And McMurtry is from the Dublin of Texas, Archer City.

Gianna: That sounds about right.  (Sarcasm?)

Liz: Okay, then there’s Cormac McCarthy. 
Joyce is Irish.

Gianna, reading from the internet:  “He renamed himself ‘Cormac’ after the Irish king.”

Liz: Heh.  There are you kings in Ireland.  Queen Liz rules all.

Gianna: You’re going to get us in trouble.

Liz: What about Joyce?

Gianna: Definitely Irish.

Liz: ….Carol Oates.  Upstate New York is just like Ireland.  Tim O'Brien?  Dr. Phil McGraw?

Gianna: You’re getting pale people confused with Irish people.

Liz: I think I hate you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sale Conference, More Awkwardness from the Land of the Socially Inept

Liz again here.  I returned from Florida and the Random House sales conference late on Sunday, and then have tried to recover and soothe the raving, blood-thirty beast (the cat).  Gianna says that I should post some more thoughts about sales conference.  I'm too scared of her not to follow her directions.

What's sales conference like?

Dr. Seuss hats for all!
Dignity for none!
  • There's a lot of sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and for a conference at which books are discussed round the clock, there's never any time to actually read.  
  • The bar in the hotel is designated as a hospitality suite, and if you wear your name tag you can drink as much as you want.  There are always a few people who think that gettin' sloppy with the colleagues is a great finish to a day...and there are always a few people who think that spending time in the hospitality suite is its own ring of hell.  
  • Every company has its inside jokes and jokesters.  Some are actually funny.  More are not.  
  • I always feel sorry for the tourists who are staying at the resort and are surrounded by hundreds of Random House employees.  That said, these people have the pool all to themselves all day.  I did have a view of the pool from my hotel of course I took a bunch of pictures of the people with the man boobs testing the theory of water displacement eight floors below me.  
  • Sonny Mehta is there.  Sonny is the Editor in Chief of Knopf.  We follow him into the bookish abyss with reckless abandon.
  • Oh yeah, and we talk about a bunch of books, some of which are truly exciting.  
Here's an early tease for a book coming out this fall:

Andrew Porter teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, and though Trinity is the hated rival of my alma mater, Southwestern University, I set aside petty rivalries of liberal arts institutions with Division III NCAA status (no scholarship athletes) for local authors.  Andrew wrote a brilliant short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, a couple of years ago, which ended up winning the Flannery O'Connor Award.  Now he's delivered his first novel, In Between Days.

Andrew Porter
In Between Days echoes John Cheever or Richard Yates, and I mean that as the highest compliment.  Much fiction these days either is post-apocalyptic or else off-putting-ly clever (clever for the sake of cleverness), and while I admire some narrative manipulation, it can also become tiresome.  Andrew Porter simply writes beautiful sentences about normal people in normal times...if one can claim that these are normal times.  His novel is set in Houston and is centered on a family coming apart.  The father, Elson Harding, an architect, has divorced his wife of 30 years, Cadence.  Their son Richard is adrift, still living at home after graduating from college and dabbling at writing poetry.  He's full of angst, naturally.  Their daughter Chloe suddenly has to come home from her East Coast college, though, and the circumstances around her arrival pitch the family into turmoil.  There's a tension here, as well as an attention to detail without getting lost in the details, that makes In Between Days one of my favorite upcoming novels.  I know it's very early, but jot down this title for the fall.  You'll thank me.

That's it from Florida, but here's one last picture for you: