Monday, April 30, 2012

Another Awkward Conversation About FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Gianna, as far as I know, is still plugging away at the "it" book of the moment, the erotic tale Fifty Shades of Grey.  No one's going to claim this series--there are three Fifty Shades books--ranks among the great works of the Western Canon, but I can say that my real estate agent talked more about Fifty Shades of Grey today than she did the house I was buying.  (I bought a house today.  I'm painting the walls grey.  Or not.)  Many, many people are reading and discussing the books in a variety of ways.  Naturally, Gianna won't leave me alone either.  If you missed our first text conversation about this book, here's the link.  If you haven't yet seen the brilliant Ellen DeGeneres spoof of the book, check it out here.  In the meantime, here's another uncomfortable exchange.  You should know that I really don't have many options in the friend department (I'm quirky), so I tolerate a lot from Gianna.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison--or TMo as I like to call her--is having a pretty good spring.  She's going to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US, along with some no names like Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, and John Glenn.  (On a side note, this round of award-winners includes three of my hero types--TMo, Dolores Huerta the civil rights activist, and the winningest coach in basketball history, Pat Summitt.)  Aside from the accolade, though, and more importantly, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning Morrison as a new book going on sale May 8.

Medal of Freedom
Home, like the rest of Morrison's fiction, is a short narrative that manages to pack every sentence, every paragraph, every page with unparalleled writing and emotional depth.  However, I'm stating it now--Home is the best Toni Morrison novel in a decade.  This is the Toni Morrison who wrote Beloved and Sula, two of my all time favorite books.  This is TMo proving that she's still the best writer in the United States.

Here is the story of Frank Money, an angry veteran trying to readjust to life in the United States after fighting in the Korean War.  Frank, though, as an African-American, is moving from the equality of a desegregated army into the harsh, segregated world of 50's America.  He's once more a second class citizen and he's suffering from his experiences in Korea.  And Frank needs to get across the country.  He needs to go home to help his sister--the only family he has--escape from a bad relationship.  As Frank travels from Seattle to Georgia, he encounters both kindness and hostility, and he experiences the rages of PTSD.
Toni Morrison

What sets Home apart from other Toni Morrison novels is that it's contemporary.  It's set in the 20th Century and it addresses issues at the forefront of modern American society.  Race relations are explored even as the radical right rails against our black President.  The plight of traumatized soldiers transcends the decades from that war to the ones fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as soldiers come home.  And women; women still fight for equality in relationships and in society.  This is an important book, and it's a beautifully crafted one.  If I had to place a bet on the front runner for next year's Pulitzer Prize (assuming one is awarded...sigh), my money's on TMo.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy St. George's Day!

What do you get on Shakespeare's birthday?  You get two blog posts in a single day!  It's like getting a round on the house, but without the soothing properties of alcohol that would make this blog, you know, quality reading.  Or quality anything.  Here's the deal--we've supported the idea of St. George's Day for years and couldn't pass up the opportunity to promote this tradition.  In Spain, on St. George's Day you're supposed to give a favorite book and a rose to a loved one.  That's beautiful.  So I suggested to Gianna that we write about the books we could/would/will exchange.  We're bookish soul mates, after all...except for Gianna's taste for "mommy porn" S&M.


Today is the day you give a book to someone you love. I wondered how I would narrow it down. I mean, I love so many people. I know...who am I kidding, no one comes close to the way I absolutely love Liz Sullivan. So much so that it leaves zero room for me to love anyone else. I’m not complaining, trust me (don’t leave me Liz!), it's just that it's an all-consuming, unconsummated love because of a certain cat named Zorro. I’m not jealous, really. It’s just that it’s an uneven relationship at best. Liz seems to dote on Zorro and Zorro seems to … well Liz recently got six stitches in her foot. I’m certainly not saying that Liz should give up on the relationship; really I’m not. She’s put a lot of years in, a lot of blood (literally), sweat (from picking him up – he’s huge) and tears (I mentioned the stitches right?), and you can’t just walk away from that.

Well, I have found the perfect book for their imperfect relationship ("dysfunctional relationship" is so ugly to say). What I am suggesting is learning how to have a relationship, how to “play” without anyone getting hurt. Liz Sullivan, I give you  Ira Alterman’s classic instruction manual.

Enjoy yourself. 


All these years, Gianna has been trying to find me a mate, and all these years she's been looking at institutions of higher incarceration, at bus stops and stop signs (usually at the guys urinating)...she even once suggested I chase after the mentally ill man escorted by security out of an Astros game.  And really, I just love Gianna.  It's unrequited because she refuses to rub my feet.  Zorro, he rubs my feet.  Still, I wanted to find the perfect gift for Gianna that both expresses my feelings for her and the uncomfortable position in which I find myself.  Love Gianna, or love Zorro?  I must choose...and that's why I choose Sophie's Choice.

By the way, this is the book that Gianna suggested I pick for her:
What's wrong with Gianna?

World Book Night America

Gianna, her pimpin' UT Press car, and her book pick
to give away for World Book Night.
Today is the International Day of the Book, also known as St. George's Day, and now also known as World Book Night.  The idea is basically the same--share your love of books and reading by giving away books.  World Book Night America distributed 1,000,000 books to 50,000 givers to be distributed to people all over the country.  These were books donated by publishers and include some great reads--The Poisonwood Bible, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even The Hunger Games.  Gianna was selected as a giver, and here's what she did with her 20 books to give away.


Gianna picked up her books
from BookPeople in Austin
Well it's here. World Book Night (except that it's day right now). Like most people who were chosen as givers I thought long and hard about where I wanted to hand out my twenty books. That’s not really true; I knew almost immediately where I would send my books.

books, bookmarks,
and candy for US soldiers
Books for Soldiers  is an organization that allows soldiers from all over the world to request books, or movies, or, as is often the case, just a letter. We often have the image of soldiers receiving piles of mail from their large supportive families and communities. That isn’t always the case. I took a long time trying to find the right soldier and in the end settled on a guy who was posted under ‘forgotten soldiers’ – meaning soldiers that get very little in the way of mail. Well good old, let's just call him David, who is part of a 100-person unit, will be helping me pass out copies of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It’s a book I only recently read but quickly shot to the top of my favorite book list.

Oh, and I threw some candy in the box as well…give the people what they want is what I say. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Honor of the Nomination

It's been a rough couple of weeks in Book Land.  If you've been hiding under rocks, you might have missed the Department of Justice using anti-trust secure a monopoly in the e-book market.  No, really.  By suing five of the "big six" publishers for collusion with Apple in setting e-book prices--the Agency Model in publishing which has provided a level playing field for e-book retailers for the last two years and ending the price wars that were devaluing books and threatening the survival of bookstores and publishers alike--the DoJ has given Amazon the ability to undercut book prices once more.  (Random House, the sixth of the "big six," was not involved in the suit.  Several publishers have settled, but Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin are fighting.)

And then yesterday the Pulitzer Prizes were announced...and the board failed to select a fiction winner.  Apart from the travesty of not naming an outstanding book in a year that included some terrific books like Open City, The Art of Fielding, The Buddha in the Attic, Salvage the Bones, The Tiger's Wife, bookstores and the winning book's publisher have lost millions of dollars in book sales and readers have lost a focal point for book discussions. It's a shame.  The jury did select three finalists for the prize--Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, and Karen Russell's Swamplandia!  I (Liz) loved Swamplandia!, making it my second favorite book (and tops by an American) for 2011, so I'm a bit bitter. I really wanted it to win, but as one of my booksellers pointed out, Karen Russell is super-young (29 years old), this was her first novel, and she's going to be writing brilliant fiction for a long, long time to come.

So here's what I think we should do in this year of no winner.  Let's go back and read the finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction.  Unlike the National Book Award which names finalists in advance of the award, the Pulitzer finalists aren't announced until the award is given (or withheld).  The finalists selected each year are some of the best books written--and not just in the book's year of publication--but often are forgotten.  They don't receive seals on their covers stating "Pulitzer Prize finalist."  They become footnotes.

Here you go--the list since 2000.  Pick a book.  Read it.  Share it with a friend.  Let us know what you think.

  • The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2012)
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (2012)
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2012) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (2011)
  • The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (2011)
  • Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (2010)
  • In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (2010)
  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (2009)
  • All Souls by Christine Schutt (2009)
  • Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (2008) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • Shakespeare's Kitchen by Lore Segal (2008)
  • After This by Alice McDermott (2007)
  • The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2007)
  • The March by E.L. Doctorow (2006) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (2006)
  • War Trash by Ha Jin (2005) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • An Unfinished Season by Ward Just (2005)
  • American Woman by Susan Choi (2004)
  • Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins (2004) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • Servants of the Map: Stories by Andrea Barrett (2003)
  • You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett (2003) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2002) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead (2002) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (2001) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams (2001)
  • Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx  (2000) Liz and Gianna recommend
  • Waiting by Ha Jin (2000) Liz and Gianna recommend
There are many other great books dating back further, and you can see the full list on the Pulitzer Prize website, here.  Happy reading, and let's celebrate these great books.  Sometimes it really is an honor just to be nominated.  And hopefully the Pulitzer board will get their act together next year.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: An Awkward Exchange

Earlier this month, one of my (Liz's) publishers published a book that had already become an internet and self-publishing sensation, the first part in an erotic trilogy called Fifty Shades of Grey.  You may have seen the book on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.  It's also perched at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.  Oh yeah, and it was conceived as erotic Twilight fan fiction.  I'm sure if you read this blog semi-regularly, you can guess how we feel about Twilight.  If you're doing a keyword search, you might have better luck using "fucking Twilight."  Now, it turns out, irony smacked me upside the head, as all I've done for the last few weeks is sell the porny version of Twilight.  Never one to miss an opportunity, though, I sent a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to Gianna.  What follows is the actual text conversation we had regarding this book. (Gianna's in gray, I'm in blue.)

Now that's a burrito.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


Gillian Flynn is a bit twisted. Twisted in a good way, like Dan Chaon is twisted. She is a smart, original, and truly gifted writer. But my God she is twisted.

Daniel Woodrell
 Last year I read an excellent biography of Patricia Highsmith.  After I finished it, I immediately bought and read  (I had not up to that point read any of her books) Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Price of Salt.  It is only now occurring to me after reading Flynn’s third excellent novel that she has Highsmith talent. She is that good.

Patricia Highsmith
I often think I have genre blindness. I always forget that Daniel Woodrell  (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red) and even Kate Atkinson are mystery writers; in the same way I never really realized that Gillian Flynn is a mystery writer. Technically they are so good it doesn’t really matter, I guess, but I wouldn’t hesitate to put Flynn in with this group of top tier writers (and I am including Chaon in here, as I think he is an excellent comparison for those who like a more cerebral mystery).
Flynn has you by page one. She does, so, you know, don’t fight it, just give in. She had me on page one of Sharp Objects and Dark Places and she will get you too. Cancel your weekend plans, call in sick to work, order a pizza, and read. Her books have insanely good hooks, and much like Highsmith and Kate Atkinson, oh, the twists and the turns. [Liz here--I like her better than Kate Atkinson.]
Gone Girl is a literary novel, a thriller, a mystery, a book club pick that won’t disappoint when the discussion begins, and a beach read all at the same time. And if you want to talk "unputdownable," a completely overused made-up word in publishing; I feel no shame in using it for this book. Not only could I not put it down, but I was actually stressed out all the way through. I mean, it's great when a book entertains…but don’t you really want to be stressed out over a holiday weekend? I know I did.

The wonderfully twisted
Gillian Flynn.
A wife missing. A husband whose lies catch up with him one by one as he becomes the only suspect.  A novel where nothing is what it seems. Oh, and planning a wedding? This will give you pause.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin
Gianna here.

Melanie Benjamin is able to do what very few authors are able to do (and if you are an unpublished historical fiction writer - read her books, follow  her on FB and Twitter). Melanie takes a little known piece of history and crafts a fully developed, complex, and intriguing page-turner. Most writers hit one or two off that list. Alice I Have Been is  the story of Alice Liddell who became Lewis Carrol's 'muse' as he wrote Alice in Wonderland (I was the only one on the planet that hadn't heard the rumors by the way). The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the truly fascinating story of two-foot eight-inch tall Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump. This novel takes you on a ride of the twentieth century; anyone who was important met with Tom Thumb and  his bride. This magnificent and dignified story made my 2011 best-of list. I highly recommend both of these for your book club--so much to discuss.

Melanie has two national bestsellers under her belt, is finishing up a third novel for Random House, which sure to be another bestseller...yet things aren't so great right now for this author.  You see, baseball season is now underway and Melanie is a Chicago Cubs fan. As the summer trudges on we ask that you keep her in your thoughts and maybe every now and again if you could throw a little "Go Cubs" her would be appreciated. [For the record, the Astros are ranked dead last for the second year in a row.  We don't have the Cubs fans' fortitude.  Go bourbon.  Lots and lots of sweet bourbon. Let's blay pall!]

Melanie was naive enough to agree to do our Horrible Questions. She won't make that mistake again.

Go Cubs.

1. What book are you always trying to get people to read (besides your own…that’s our job)?
Galore by Michael Crummey. It’s a tough one to categorize but it’s absolutely wonderful and magical and stays with you a long, long time. [This gem is Liz's #1 book of 2011, so obviously Melanie has excellent taste.]

2. What is the single most interesting thing you’ve learned researching your books?
That authors were concerned with sales figures even as far back as Lewis Caroll and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland! [Luckily Disney really brought this book to life.  I mean, who read if there's a Disney movie to watch instead?]

3. I’ve never read ____ and I am so ashamed!
Faulkner. [We know people in Mississippi and we're telling on you.]

4. What book (or books) changed your life?
Gone With the Wind. I was a voracious reader, always, but Gone With the Wind was the first adult book I read (even though I was probably 11 or 12 when I read it). I’d never been as transported into a different time and place, as I was with that book. I think it’s probably what led me to write historical fiction, to tell the truth. I remember reading it on a long car trip from Indiana out to Colorado; I was in the back seat of the family station wagon, and I don’t think I looked at a single bit of scenery the entire trip, I was so sucked into that book. [Imagine a long debate between Gianna and Liz about the racial and/or gender implications of acting out scenes from Gone With the Wind.  Suffice it to say that Gianna should be involved in the delivery of babies and Liz will never go hungry again.]

5. Are there movie plans in the works for either Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb or Alice I Have Been? You can tell us, no one reads this blog.
A wonderful actress named Meredith Eaton has optioned The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. She wrote me the most beautiful letter sharing how much the book meant to her, an actress with dwarfism, and how it’s now her greatest ambition to bring the story to the screen. I hope she can! [That's pretty awesome.]

6. Best and worst book tour experiences?
Back before I was with Random House, I had two other books published to little fanfare, so I organized some tours on my own. Now I know, when it’s the author behind a tour (instead of a publisher), bookstores don’t really take you very seriously. There’s a tendency to just stick you up by the front door so you can accost everyone who comes in, begging them to buy your book. On one such occasion I was told to circulate throughout the store handselling the book. So I did; I went up to one woman with a game smile on my face but before I could even say hello, she hissed, “Go away! I will NOT buy your book!” Afterwards, I sat in my car weeping as I stuffed a huge chocolate chip cookie in my mouth, and I called my husband and wailed, “I’m never going to another bookstore as long as I live!”

Now that I’m with Random House and writing historical fiction, my experiences have been MUCH less humiliating! I think my favorite booksigning recently was at Prairie Lights in Iowa City; it was packed with students attending a journalism boot camp at the university, and their assignment was to cover my appearance. So during the talk, they were all Tweeting about it, and afterwards I was swarmed by students asking to interview me – it was all so much fun. And such a treat to read their pieces the next day, up on the seminar’s website. It was just so lovely to see students excited about their future careers; it was a privilege to be a part of that experience.
[You were kind to grant them all interviews, though we think you should nurture your inner diva and hiss cruel things at them.  Like Gianna hisses at Liz.]

7. I have read _____ and I am so ashamed.
The Bridges of Madison County.  [Holy God.]

8. Liz or Gianna?
Both! [The Random House employee who "works" on this blog is now dutifully offended.  The correct answer is always Liz.  Always.]

Mrs. Tom Thumb.
The tall guy is P.T. Barnum
9. Melanie, please think long and hard before answering this question. We all know that the Cubs are awesome (in a heartbreaking sort of way). Who is the most awesome Cub ever? Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, or Billy Williams?
Ron Santo! Unfortunately, I only moved here 16 years ago, so I didn’t grow up a Cubs fan (or a baseball fan, really; I grew up in Indianapolis, a town with no professional baseball team). But I have grown to love the game and it’s primarily because I listen to the WGN radio broadcasts, and of course, Ron Santo was the color guy until his death last year. So Ron Santo became real to me, in a way those other players have not. [Before Gianna abandoned Liz for UT Press, when we took road trips together, we brought Gianna's satellite radio along in order to listen to Ron and the Cubs broadcasts...and debate his level of intoxication.  RIP.]

10. Just a small hint of what you’re working on next…please?
It’s called The Ambassador's Daughter, and it will be out in 2013. It’s the story of the marriage between Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Charles Lindbergh, and it’s absolutely the most difficult book I’ve yet to write – and also, I think, the best. (She said, modestly.) What an epic, complex, exhilarating and heartbreaking story they shared! Anne had a strength I’m not sure is always evident in the writing she left behind; that’s the Anne I wanted to share with the world. [Hurry it up already!]

Thanks Melanie.  We hope your career isn't too damaged by associating with the likes of us.