Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Lengths a SCOTUS Junky Will Go for a Little Jeffrey Toobin Reading

(Apparently we've been slacking on our blog posting.  I know this because a vehemently anti-social media pal called me this morning to ask why we hadn't posted anything recently.  My excuse?  I'm lazy.  It's hot.  The Olympics are on and Gianna and I have exchanged more than one text debating whether synchronized diving is a sport--it's not, unless they are forcibly conjoined; then it gets interesting and weird--or just falling gracefully.  We're sorry, though.  Gianna promises to be better, and I promise...very little, actually.  We're gearing up for the fall book rush, so maybe a summer break was in order.)

Back during the spring sales conference, Doubleday announced a new book by Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst and author of The Nine.  Most of the time I nurture my English major side and read fiction, catching up on non-fiction via audiobooks in the car.  I was a History major in college too, though, and there are certain topics that turn me into a junky jonesing for the crack rock of, say, books about the Supreme Court.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes. I'm pretty sure that Elena Kagan would like to have dinner with me.  I loved The Nine, a history of the Rehnquist era Supreme Court, because Toobin is the master of writing about complex legal issues for non-lawyers.  Also, he doesn't pander.  He's smart and he writes for smart people, but he doesn't lose his readers with jargon.  Jeffrey Toobin educates, and he's a great teacher.  His new book, The Oath, had me giddy, but there was a problem: Toobin was waiting for the end of the Supreme Court term before completing his new book.

Jeffrey Toobin,
probably a great dinner date
I admit that I'm spoiled.  When one of my publishers announces a book that excites me, I normally am about three clicks away from access to the manuscript.  I'm not patient.  I'm really not patient when I am already a fan of an author's previous works.  So when the historic court ruling regarding Obama's healthcare law came down and a Doubleday editor sent us an email about the decision, The Oath, and the end of the Court term, I was twitching in anticipation.  This Doubleday editor, let's call him Evil Lord Yankees Fan, he has terrible taste in baseball clubs, but he also possessed what I wanted.  I replied back to his email stating how excited I was to read the new Toobin book and begging for the manuscript.  I sort of suggested that I would wear nothing for Yankees attire for a full week if he'd send me the manuscript. The Evil Lord Yankees Fan does have a playful side and sense of humor.  Terms were set--one week of Yankees clothes, photographic proof posted on the Facebook, no hiding inside my house and never going out in public.

Those are some ominous
clouds in the background.
Suddenly I was posting truly horrific pictures on my Facebook page and enduring many, many comments from alleged friends.  One person suggested that I be careful because Yankees fans can't be trusted since they obviously make terrible decisions (as evidenced by their taste in baseball teams).  I take my baseball seriously and I hate the Yankees, so wearing their logo for a week wasn't easy.  The Yankees represent everything that's wrong with baseball (obnoxious fans, asshole players, arrogant ownership, too much money, members of the American League) and I even rooted against them in the 2001 World Series, when the entire world beyond the borders of Arizona wanted a Series victory for the Yankees in the wake of 9-11.  Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it rained every single day that I wore the Yankees crap, and Austin's been in a drought for years now.  Even the atmosphere is upset at the notion of my donning Yankees  crap.  I really wanted to read this book, though.

Even the leaders of tomorrow know
that the Yankees suck today.
Did the Evil Lord Yankees Fan deliver?  Was it worth it?  Yes, and yes.  The day after the Yankees challenge ended, the manuscript arrived in my inbox.

The Oath examines the parallel ascents of Barack Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts, and offers a history of the Supreme Court over the last two Presidential terms.  The Supreme Court of Rehnquist's era, characterized by moderate Republican leadership and Sandra Day O'Conner as the swing vote, no longer exists.  Four new justices--Roberts, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan--now sit on the bench, and the new lines have been drawn.  There's no such thing as a moderate Republican anymore, and the new Court advocated rapid changes to laws while Obama urged caution and restraint.  In effect, Obama is the conservative here.  He's fighting to keep the court from rolling back decades of legal decisions (Roe v. Wade was passed before I was born and it's still the nation's biggest point of contention) while the new tone of the Court suggests major changes with long lasting repercussions.
That's a Harry Carey mask (Cubs), an Astros
foam paw, and an ugly Yankees shirt.
Nightmares, anyone?

To say The Oath is timely is an understatement. Gun control. Women's rights.  Healthcare.  The Tea Party. Campaign finance reform.  Corporations-as-people.  These are the issues upon which the Supreme Court is ruling.  The Court is a microcosm of the country as a whole (except populated by much, much smarter people); the issues dividing the nation are represented among these nine people.  And as I said, Toobin is the master at bringing forth the drama and significance of legal decisions so that non-lawyers can relate to what's at stake.  I can't wait to talk about it with other people...this fall, when everyone else gets to read it.

Anyone need Yankees crap?  I am accepting offers....

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Food and Books: Jenn B's Loves

Jenn B.  Not a lesbian.
One of our favorite things about the blog is guest posts. We get to hear from our old bookselling and publishing friends which is great, but more importantly we get a free blog post. We're lazy so it's a very big deal.

The latest sucker is Jennifer Burgess, who worked with Gianna at a bookstore in Florida. They also lived together but Jennifer doesn't like for people to know that because then they assume she is a lesbian. [Wait--Gianna's a lesbian?!]

[I should also remind people that Gianna and I are anti-foodies, in that she's the Italian who eats at Olive Garden and I refer to Sonic as "that tasty little bistro." So we're pretty much never going to review food books...unless it's a retelling of my time spent as a Sonic carhop one summer. How is it we don't have a book deal yet?]

Jenn's guest blog:

From a very early age I only really ever had an interest in two things: reading and eating. I like movies, I love music, but if you asked me where my passion lays it is in books and food. When I was younger one of my great joys was a bowl of any kind of food I could eat with my hands and a good book in a quiet corner. Now that I am an adult I still find one of my greatest comforts is sitting in a quiet corner in a bar or restaurant with a book and a plate of good food. 

McDonald's cheeseburger.
I grew up in restaurants, my mother working Sunday brunch shifts at a local Sheraton, manager shifts at a local McDonald's, or cooking on the line at the local Red Lobster. Food was what paid for us to eat.
Around the time of my fourteenth birthday my very poor parents told me that if I wanted money for extra things like clothes and books I would need to get a job. The only place that would hire a fourteen year-old kid was McDonald's. That is where I started. I was the weekend birthday hostess at McDonald's. [Now that has got to be a shitty job.] When I turned sixteen, I knew I wanted something more, so I walked a mile up the road and applied (in my smelly McDonald’s uniform) at the tiny Barnes & Noble in my neighborhood. After three tries they hired me. Books and food, it is all I have ever known. 

Over the years I would supplement my meager bookstore salary with stints waiting tables at various chain restaurants. Carrabba's, Applebee's, Bennigan's and even three horrible, flair-filled days at a TGIFriday's. When I was given an option to move from Washington, D.C. to Austin, TX, to possibly get a dream job at a university press I knew I needed to make more cash for the move, and I knew the only way to do that would be to wait tables. It was fast, easy money but a chain restaurant wouldn’t do; it would have to be somewhere upscale, somewhere with larger ticket food items, it would have to be fine dining. Even though I had zero fine dining experience, I was lucky, there was a new upscale restaurant close to my apartment and on New Year’s Day 2008 I walked in and begged for a job. The manager took pity on my chain restaurant experience and gave me a chance. I started at my first fine dining restaurant two days later.
I remember sitting in the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble during my shifts fondling the famed chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. Wondering how a book could be so beautiful and informative at the same time, wondering what a meal would taste like at any restaurant that would inspire a book like that. Imagining what type of home cook would shell out $75 for a cookbook with ingredients I had never heard of. [Not me.  Someone else bought the salt in my pantry. If Diet Coke isn't the paired beverage with an entree, I'm probably not interested.]
At that first restaurant I learned who those people are. I learned how to turn a simple love of food into a passion. My first night on the job, the chef/owner asked me if I liked corn bread. I foolishly thought I was telling the truth when I said “no, chef;” he then shoved this small piece of heaven he called corn bread into my mouth, force feeding me really, and telling me “trust me, you will like this” and he was right. It was light, flavorful, a little bit of heat, but the corn came through in a way I could not have expected. [Like Fritos!] I loved it. Chef taught me the importance of flavors, the importance of trying new things, and the importance of combining those things and presenting it to others so that they can experience the same emotions that I could through a well-cooked meal. The short time I worked in that restaurant, with those people (including Chef) who loved food so passionately, they were the most valuable education in my life. [Sonic trained me how to carhop in, like, seven minutes.  That's some on-the-job training.]

I eventually made it to Texas and got the job at the press. Working behind the scenes and learning how books are made and sold was another amazing experience for me. Being around people who are passionate about information and getting it out and available to everyone was a once in a lifetime experience. I was finally learning how the books I loved were made, what it actually took to bring words and worlds to life. But that job didn’t happen right away and in the meantime to afford to live I knew I could fall back on my food experience. 
West Virginia ramps.
So stinky that schools sent
kids home in the afternoon
if they ate them for lunch.

I found what I thought would be a temporary home waiting tables at a new fine dining restaurant in the new campus hotel/conference center. The incredibly talented executive chef and his team of sous-chefs continued my food education. At their hands I tried foods I had only ever read about like sweetbreads, quinoa, and West Virginia ramps (that are only in season for a very limited time each spring and taste like a strong onion mixed with garlic, whoa baby, they are good but no kissing after). I tasted tomato water, foams, and saw how an immersion bath of extra virgin olive oil could be used to cook a fillet to a perfect medium rare. ["Tomato water" is hoity-toity for "ketchup."  I'm certain about this.]

Once I got the job at the press, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up the restaurant. I loved it too much. By day I was immersed in the world of books and at night I was immersed in the world of food. It was amazing. Things rarely last forever though and circumstances changed. Unfortunately I no longer work in either of these two worlds that I am so passionate about.

Don’t feel bad for me though. I keep up to date with both by reading and eating, and when I can, reading about eating. Chefs and food writers are my rock stars and I devour books about the food world. Books by Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, Frank Bruni, Ruth Reichl and Phoebe Damrosch line my shelves and I will read any other book about food I come across. 

I watch chefs I have come to know and respect open new restaurants and perform on shows like Chopped and Top Chef. I can’t walk through a bookstore without looking at the cookbook section and fondling The French Laundry Cookbook or Ad Hoc by Thomas Keller. I dream of the day I can go to these chefs' restaurants that are so real to me in the books written by and about them. [There's a lot of fondling in here for a blog post that isn't about Fifty Shades of Grey.]

When I opened a package from Gianna and Liz last week and it contained the new memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, chef of Red Rooster in Harlem, I almost cried with joy. I have admired Marcus Samuelsson since seeing him on Top Chef Masters a few years ago. Reading about his life and ambition makes him less celebrity chef to me and more human. 

Chef Marcus Samuelsson
The memoir is well written and filled with depth. It is an accurate portrayal of what it takes to be a success in the world of fine food. The hotel and restaurant kitchens of Chef Samulsson’s life mirror kitchens I have seen in my time in food. There is a downside to ambition in this world and Samuelsson doesn’t make excuses for it. There is a lack of satisfaction in not having a place to truly belong, and his search for his place in the world drives his passion and very much shapes the chef and man he becomes. Samuelsson owns up to his choices in life and his contributions for what they are, good and bad. There is a little gossip in there too. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Chef Samuelsson confirmed for me that my opinions about a certain loud mouth celebrity chef were right on (and also a certain bad ass president may or may not enjoy a hug after a good meal).

If every chef I have loved in my life writes a memoir as good as Yes, Chef, I won’t have time to mourn for the professions in books and food that I no longer have. I will be a very happy reader for a very long time.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer Reading: Waiting for Columbus

It's not a sales conference dinner without
dozens of glasses on the table at the end of the night.
(Liz) As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week attending sales conference at the Random House offices in New York.  One of the cooler things about conference is a dinner with reps and editors.  For nerdy book types, editors can become celebrities themselves.  You know what a Steven Spielberg movie is, and a Martin Scorsese, and a Christopher Nolan, and a Penny Marshall, right?  I know what a Robin Desser book is, and I tend to read, for example, Robin Desser new books because I've previously loved the books she's edited.  (There's a good chance you know what a Robin Desser book is, too, and you just don't know it.  She's edited Cutting for Stone, The Emperor's Children, Please Look After Mom, Wild.  She's edited Jhumpa Lahiri, David Guterson, A.S. Byatt, Jane Smiley, and Sandra Cisneros.)  Editors are the directors of the book world and their tastes emerge in the books they choose to champion.

So last week I sat at a table with Gerry Howard who edits Fight Club author Chuck Pahlaniuk, and Jenny Jackson who bought us Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan and the forthcoming (and amazing) Dog Stars by Peter Heller, and Allison Callahan who edited Ann Patchett before coming to Doubleday and The Night Circus, one of our favorite books of 2011.  While talking to Alison Callahan, I mentioned one of my favorite books she edited, Thomas Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus.  This book came out a couple of years ago during a fall season with some huge books by authors like Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem.  Alison was and remains passionate about this book, and I know that many of my colleagues loved it too.

Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern
and editor Alison Callahan
One of the frustrating parts of our jobs is that we necessarily have to focus on new books.  We strategize for months on the best ways to position new books when selling them to our bookstore buyers.  We don't, however, have as much time to focus on the thousands of older books that deserve reader love.  If there were any justice in book sales, Waiting for Columbus would sit atop the paperback bestseller lists next to Cutting for Stone and The Kite Runner and every book group in the country would add it to their reading lists, and Alison Callahan, who is a lovely person and great lover of books, would have a belated but worthy bestseller to celebrate.  This pick for summer reading, therefore, is my feeble attempt to begin to spread the word about this great book that almost no one read.

Waiting for Columbus is the story of Christopher Columbus, a man who washes up on shore near Barcelona on the Spanish coast.  He's naked...and he's claiming to be Columbus the explorer even though it's the 21st Century.  Unsurprisingly, Columbus finds himself in a Barcelona mental institution, where he refuses to engage with his psychiatrist and also, well, refuses to wear clothes.  (There's some humor here, see?)  One of the nurses, Consuela, takes a special interest in Columbus because he tells her his stories of wooing the queen in order to fund his expedition to the new world.  Obviously this man isn't the real Christopher Columbus, but who he is and how he ended up inside this asylum is a great mystery that engages Consuela and the reader alike.  Madness, identity, history, the treatment of mental health patients, the bond between nurse and patient, family, nudity (heh), and memory--this is a great book that begs for great conversations.

Holy crap, I love this book.  Have you read it?  Do so, and then let me know what you think.  Spread the word, too.  We have the power to make a bestseller; crazier things have happened.  And then keep an eye out for the next Alison Callahan book.  She edits some terrific ones.