Friday, August 24, 2012

Please Shut Up. ...What? We Said Please!

Giving a book talk to a group of parents. There's a
good chance I was inappropriate.
The most frequent question we receive is "What's wrong with you?"  Number two: "Is there a diagnosis for what you have?"  But third is "Why don't you do stand-up?"  (Yeah, we know; we think it's a stretch too.)  We regularly give presentations for work, and let's just say that our default presentation style is irreverent.  Funny presentations keep people engaged, and humor is a resource to draw upon when we're nervous.  When both of us worked for Random House (and before Gianna abandoned me), we gave book talks to the staff at BookPeople, two in one day.  For an hour we'd talk books and Gianna might pelvic thrust when talking about skiing and I'd quote Celine Dion songs, and then two hours later we'd do it all again for a second group of booksellers.  What most people didn't see was the break in between the presentations.

Another question we're asked (or at least I, Liz, am asked) is "How could you stand to travel together?"  We used to drive to Mississippi for work several times each year, basically spending a week on the road in almost constant contact during waking hours.  We would also drive to Amarillo and Oklahoma together.  We once called the Dr. Laura show to ask how anyone could be married to that woman.  We absolutely will  turn around and drive four miles back in order to take pictures at the giant Jesus shrine.

Here's the thing, though: we are introverts.  This is why we aren't stand-up comics.  This is why we find quiet spots to recover in between presentations.  This is why we can ride together for hours in the car--we sometimes don't speak for hours and that's perfectly fine.  Yes, our jobs involve social interactions and presentations, sometimes in front of large groups, which we can perform and even enjoy, but we also work from home and spend many hours alone.  For me, those alone periods--whether at my desk or traveling--are when I am able to think about projects and focus on my goals.  I've known my whole life that I need this time to concentrate without distraction.  I am a huge fan of the long soak in the bathtub.  I do my best thinking there.  Nothing makes me crazier than crowded rooms with multiple voices talking over each other, like at airports or parties.

Quiet author Susan Cain
speaking at a TED conference.
I have never questioned my introversion, as it's just who I am, but this is a world designed for extroverts.  For that reason, I found Susan Cain's book Quiet to be a valuable read, and one that I can't get out of my head.  Gianna read it earlier in the year, and she too is a fan, calling it "an instant classic."  Cain, herself an introvert who gives speeches to companies but still feels the twinges of stage fright, manages to present the world of introverts in an illuminating and practical manner.  Throughout the book I felt like she was talking about me.  If you were to ask any of my college professors, you would learn that I hated to speak in class--so much so that one actually applauded when I spoke up for the first time during the second-to-last week of the semester.  I know that I communicate better in writing.  Eleven people are coming over to my house tomorrow night, most of them my closest friends...and that's still a strain for me since they will be in my safe space and I am uncomfortable in groups of more than about four people.  Sales conference is my definition of torture: going from an airplane to a conference of nonstop large group interaction during all waking hours for days on end.  It's the price I pay to be able to spend the rest of my work life designing my own style to best sell Random House books.

Introvert.  No, really.
What Cain does so brilliantly in her book is that she captures the world of the introvert without placing judgment, and shows how introverts thrive, even in extrovert-designed environments.  For introverts, it's a read that provides permission to find ways to exist in our bubbles but still stretch the boundaries of those bubbles.  For extroverts, it offers insights into how introverts best function, because I guarantee that everyone reading this post knows some introverts, even if closeted ones.  People who only see the public performance version of me might question my declared introversion; I can be loud and assertive and I play up my awkwardness for laughs. Last February, I was asked to sit on a panel at the Random House sales conference and speak in front of several hundred colleagues (including the Random House CEO).  I knew what I needed to say, and even had the encouragement of one of the high ranking bosses to be funny.  I was the second person in line to speak, and according to another of the bosses, I looked "petrified" as the first person was presenting, but then I just "flipped the switch into performance mode."  That's sort of what happened, except that I wasn't so much petrified as uncomfortable being observed while not actually speaking.  I wasn't in performance mode until I was actually speaking, and that boss noticed that I wasn't the smart ass in that space before my turn.  I can fake extrovert when called upon, but given the choice I want to go unnoticed in the back of the room.

Introvert. And hero.
How do I want to spend my Friday nights?  I want to stay home and read, and occasionally I may want to play board games with a small number of friends.  I describe my life as monastic, and that's comfortable for me.  Susan Cain's Quiet is a battle cry for all of the book nerds out there, and the people who like to stay in and watch movies instead of going to a club, and the people who hate the open office layouts and long for walls, and the people who feel overwhelmed in the midst of lots of activity or noise.  It's a book for the sensitive (in the psychological sense, "sensitive" refers to people who are more easily stimulated, so they tend to be moved more by works of art and are more likely overstimulated by chaos) and empathetic.  It's an explanation of how we can go from Gianna sitting in my lap at a staff presentation and fake kissing me to both of us sitting in corners and not speaking right after the booksellers leave.  Most of all, Quiet is a liberation book for all of the quiet kids who are content to play by themselves, and the adults those kids become.  Introversion isn't a pathology, it's just a different personality type, and without introverts this world would be a psychopathic and self-destructive mess.  Bless us, both intro- and extroverts, for making the world a varied place.  Let me find peace in my national parks and I'll let you attend your concerts.

But it's never okay when Gianna sits in my lap.  Never.

Are you an introvert? 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Kristen Iversen

As we promised in our last post, Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden, as stepped up to the challenge of answering some of our horrible questions.  Full Body Burden tells the story of Kristen's childhood growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Flats facility near Denver, Colorado, a place where plutonium triggers for bombs and the waste associated with their production were hidden from the general public for years.  Fires at nuclear facilities?  Check.  Toxic waste improperly handled?  You betcha.  This is a story people need to read, and one of our favorite nonfiction books of 2012 (Spoiler for the end of year list?  Maybe....).  Kristen is traveling extensively to promote her book, and you can catch her at BookPeople on September 8, or at one of her other tour stops around the country. Here's your next author/victim, Kristen Iversen:

1. What book changed your life?
It’s hard to choose just one. [Other than Fifty Shades of Grey?] Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. That’s a start! [Okay, we love all three of these books.]

2. How far did you live from Rocky Flats?
When I was very young, we lived about seven miles from Rocky Flats. When my father’s law practice began to grow, we moved out to a new subdivision called Bridledale, just three miles from the plant. It was an idyllic place to live in many ways; my parents thought they were raising their kids in the perfect environment. We had dogs, cats, birds, all kinds of pets, and my sisters and brother and I were outdoors all the time. We swam in Standley Lake and the water canals, and rode our horses in the fields around the plant. We didn’t know Rocky Flats was a nuclear bomb factory. We knew nothing of plutonium and carbon tetrachloride, the two primary contaminants released into local neighborhoods and beyond.
Little Kristen, a kitty, and a pretty scary
cloud in the back ground.  Run kitty!

3. Can you give us a short description of what was going on at Rocky Flats; was your mother’s theory that they were producing Scrubbing Bubbles true?
When I was a kid, Rocky Flats was operated by Dow Chemical and the rumor in my neighborhood was that they made household cleaning products. There were other rumors about what Rocky Flats produced, everything from glass doorknobs to fertilizer. Workers weren’t allowed to talk about their work, and the plant was shrouded in secrecy. But Rocky Flats wasn’t making Scrubbing Bubbles, as my mother thought. For nearly 40 years, Rocky Flats produced more than 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs, the heart of nearly every nuclear weapon in America. Each pit cost more than $4 million, and contained enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.

4. Can you compare the two fires at the plant, the fire in 1957 and then the fire in 1969? Is it possible to know which fire expelled more plutonium into the atmosphere?
Picture from the 1969 fire.
Both fires were concealed from the public; there was no warning, no evacuation, and very little information made available to local residents afterwards. Both fires caused extensive offsite radioactive contamination in the Denver area. The 1957 fire burned through 620 filters—filters that had not been changed in four years—and significant plutonium contamination was found at a school 12 miles away. The next two years showed a jump in childhood leukemia. In 1969, when we were living in Bridledale, the radioactive cloud from the fire traveled right over our heads. We had no idea. That fire was the costliest industrial accident in the U.S. at that time, and high levels of plutonium were detected as far away as 30 miles from the site. It’s difficult to know exactly how much plutonium traveled off-site during either of these fires, as most of the measuring equipment was destroyed. All we have are estimates, and they vary widely, partly because the DOE has not been entirely forthcoming about what happened and what was released—although they will say that the 1957 fire was the most dangerous. The worst aspect of both of these fires is that we came dangerously close—unbelievably close—to a Chernobyl-like accident.

5. What is the last great book you’ve read?
I just reread Anna Karenina. I’m currently quite caught up with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. [Gianna bakes brownies for authors who pick titles we sell.  Good job.]

6. Full Body Burden begins as your family is moving into a bigger house, living the American dream. That visual is juxtaposed by the insidious work at Rocky Flats (and then of course the fire). I was only about 50 pages in but felt completely exhausted. Did you know that you would start the book this way?
I reworked that chapter so that the reader would know about Rocky Flats and the fire, even though my family has no idea. (Of course, we didn’t learn about the fire until years later.) There is something horrifying about the betrayal that happens in this opening chapter: the innocent family pursuing the American dream at the same time that their government, and corporations like Dow and Rockwell, are knowingly putting their lives at risk.

John Denver.
Plutonium free?
7. Choose only one: “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver, “Good Life” by One Republic, “Your Wild Colorado” by Johnny Cash, “Telluride” by Tim McGraw, “Man of Constant Sorrow” by Bob Dylan, or “Colorado” by The Rentals? This answer will follow you around for the rest of your life…be careful.
The answer, of course, is “Rocky Mountain High.” When we were kids, my family went on Sunday drives through the Colorado mountains. My parents were completely awed by the beauty of Colorado. While they enjoyed the scenery, my siblings and I were scrunched in the backseat of our station wagon, fussing and pinching each other. To calm the chaos, my parents would get us to start singing, with my dad taking the lead. What did we sing? “Rocky Mountain High.” I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I know the lyrics to all John Denver’s songs. [Um...we will try to get proof of this when Kristen comes to BookPeople…stay tuned.  And yes, we will be including the Muppets Christmas album in the quiz.]

8. Jim Stone is one of the heroes in this book, a whistle blower. Will you talk a bit about his concerns?
Jim Stone was a long-time employee of Rocky Flats, beginning in the 1950s. One of his first concerns was the decision to locate the plant on land immediately upwind from Denver. There was an error in the engineering report—it was based on wind patterns from Stapleton Airport, on the other side of Denver, rather than the Rocky Flats site itself. The location could not have been worse. Fast-moving chinook winds travel down from the mountains and across the Rocky Flats site, picking up contaminants and carrying them directly into the Denver metro area. Jim Stone noticed the error. He was ignored. [The same wind patterns carry contaminants from Liz's house to Gianna's.]

Stone’s other concerns included pondcrete, an unsuccessful attempt by Rocky Flats to stabilize plutonium by mixing it with concrete. More than 8,000 pondcrete blocks, the size of small refrigerators, were produced and allowed to stand out in the open. They never solidified. Workers called it “The Jelly Factory.” Radioactive material seeped into the soil and water and traveled into local neighborhoods.

Jim Stone reported many other problems as well. He was eventually fired. He won a whistleblower lawsuit, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court, based on a small technicality.

Valley of the Dolls.  Nice.
9. I have read ____ and I am so ashamed.
Valley of the Dolls. I stole it from under my mother’s bed when I was a kid. Delicious, naughty reading for a good church-going girl. [Possibly the best answer we’ve ever gotten to this question.]

10. Could the cancer clusters, and other chronic health issues such chronic fatigue in the areas around Rocky Flats, be just coincidence? What about the cancer in children after the 1957 fire?
If you ask the Department of Energy, or even the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, they will say that there is no connection between illnesses and the plant. No one doubts the fact that plutonium from Rocky Flats traveled off-site—that has been proven again and again. The debate centers on how much exposure to plutonium is “safe.” The DOE (previously the Atomic Energy Commission) stated as early as 1945 that a millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer. And yet, practically in the same breath, they say that the levels of plutonium in areas around Rocky Flats are not harmful. This is a kind of government double-speak that I find very troublesome. We’ve seen the same thing in Japan, with the Fukushima accident. 
2005 "clean up" at Rocky Flats

Many studies have confirmed cancer and health problems in areas around Rocky Flats. In 1996, Richard Clapp of Boston University found high rates of cancer, particularly lung and bone cancer. He wrote that the area shows “a continuing excess of cancer and ongoing health effects.” And, as you note, this was demonstrated by a jump in childhood leukemia in the two years following the 1957 fire.

I believe the government and corporations who run nuclear facilities are dealing with this in a way similar to the tobacco industry, years ago. They say, okay, maybe there’s a higher rate of cancer, but prove to us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there’s a direct link to Rocky Flats (or any other nuclear facility—it’s the same story in other areas around the country). The burden of proof falls on the victim.

And it’s not just the government, or old-style Cold War secrecy. The area around Rocky Flats is prime real estate. It’s a beautiful location, just minutes from Boulder and Denver. There’s a lot of money at risk for business and the homebuilding industry when people start asking questions about levels of plutonium in their yards and gardens.

11. What was your job when you worked at the Rocky Flats plant?
I worked in the administration area, typing weekly reports that were sent to Washington, D.C. and other DOE sites around the country. I worked with various managers and project managers and wrote about problems and spills and “incidents.” No one ever used the word “accident.” There were some successes, too, of course, as the plant tried to move from shutdown to potential re-start to cleanup, or a cleanup of sorts.

12. Tell us about the FBI and EPA raid of Rocky Flats. What became of the case?
Based on tips from workers, and photos taken by an FBI plane indicating a strong possibility that radioactive materials were flowing from the site, in 1989 the FBI and the EPA raided Rocky Flats. The raid led to a two-year grand jury investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the grand jury wanted to indict several Rockwell and Department of Energy officials, and hold the plant accountable for past and ongoing radioactive and toxic contamination. Instead, in a surprising turn of events, U.S. attorney and Department of Justice prosecutor Mike Norton refused to sign the indictments. A deal was cut with Rockwell: not a single company or government official was indicted, despite the fact that more than 400 environmental violations had occurred for decades. Dumping and incineration charges were dropped. In exchange, the company agreed to plead guilty to criminal violations of the federal hazardous waste law and the Clean Water Act, admitting to five felonies and five misdemeanors, and pay an $18.5 million fine (a smaller amount, by the way, than what the corporation had collected in bonuses for running Rocky Flats and meeting production quotas for that single year). The jurors were incensed and wrote their own grand jury report, feeling that the public needed to know about past offenses and—most importantly—ongoing contamination. That report was sealed by the judge, and the full report remains sealed to the present day.

13. In 1995, it was stated that cleanup would take over 70 years. That turned out to be closer to 10 yrs. That’s not suspicious, is it?
That’s the first good reason not to let your first-grader go on a field trip to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The original estimate to clean up the 6,000-plus acre site, back in 1995 when I worked at the plant, was that it would take $36 billion and 70 years, and the DOE wasn’t sure they had the technology to do it. There was never any discussion of cleaning up areas beyond the plant boundaries. That figure was nearly impossible (and remember, we’re talking taxpayer dollars). The company Kaiser-Hill came along and said they could do the cleanup in less than 10 years, for a final cost of less than $7 billion.

How did they do it? It all depends on how you define “clean.” Yes, a great deal of plutonium was moved offsite during the cleanup. But much remains. The cleanup agreement allows 50 picocuries per gram of soil in the top three feet of soil; 1,000 to 7,000 picocuries per gram from 3 to 6 feet; and essentially no limit below 6 feet. Rocky Flats had more than 800 buildings, many of them built underground, with extensive pipes and tunnels running between the buildings to transport materials.

In the words of many former workers and scientists, Rocky Flats has not been cleaned up, it’s been covered up. 1,300 acres are so profoundly contaminated that they can never be open to the public. (Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. It’s going to be around for awhile.) The rest of the site is slated to open for public recreation including hiking, biking, and possibly hunting.

Plutonium has been found in cattle, deer, rabbits, and mice, and there’s plutonium uptake in the grass and trees. I’d sure think twice before heading out for a picnic. Some scientists and environmentalists believe the site should be declared a “national sacrifice zone” and remain permanently closed to the public.
[Still think Liz should take me on a picnic.]
I glow in the dark.

14. I have not read ___ and I am so ashamed.
I’ve been stuck on page ten of Finnegan’s Wake for two decades. [Many say it takes a few decades to really get to the meat of this novel]

15. Liz, an avid nature lover, is really excited that part of Rocky Flats is now an animal refuge, and soon more land will be made available for hiking, camping, school trips and deer hunting. How yummy will that deer taste?
A deer contaminated with plutonium would likely taste the same as an uncontaminated deer. You can’t see, smell, or taste plutonium. And it’s hard to keep those deer on the Rocky Flats site. They meander down into the fields near the housing subdivisions, or head up into the mountains. You wouldn’t necessarily have to go deer hunting directly on the Rocky Flats site to end up with something on your dinner plate that had a little extra seasoning.
When I worked at Rocky Flats, there were plenty of jokes about plutonium in food. People would say, “Watch out for the guacamole in the cafeteria!” Later, there turned out to be some truth to the rumor, although it wasn’t the guacamole. [Liz has always been rather suspicious of avocados.]

16. MUF--WTF?
One of the more astonishing acronyms I came across when I was working at Rocky Flats was “MUF.” I eventually learned that “MUF” stood for “Missing Unaccounted For” plutonium. How much plutonium was “lost” at Rocky Flats? In 1994, the Department of Energy admitted to roughly 3,050 pounds lost between 1952 and 1993. That’s a rather astonishing figure when you consider the fact that one millionth of a gram can cause cancer.

How did plutonium escape the plant? There were fires, and a waste-burning incinerator, and leaks into the soil and streams. One of the most egregious examples is the 903 Pad, where more than five thousand oil drums filled with radioactive waste stood out in the open for more than 11 years. The bottoms rusted out, and material leaked into the soil.

The DOE has tried to account for some of this missing plutonium by noting that in the past records were poorly kept or incomplete, and some of the MUF may be due to administrative errors. I’m not sure this is comforting. [It's not.]

17. Standley Lake is still a water source for the area, and it’s also fun to swim in, right?
Standley Lake is a great place to swim or waterski. And it’s very conveniently located, surrounded by housing subdivisions, with a great view of the mountains. Just be careful not to kick up the sand or stir up any sediment. Plutonium is a heavy metal and as it’s carried into the lake, it sinks into the sediment, where, according to officials, it’s supposed to stay. Unless someone steps in it.
Standley Lake. Not your average swimming hole.

18. Liz or Gianna? 
Okay! Liz. [You’ll regret it!]

19. What is the most shocking thing that you discovered while researching Full Body Burden
I am shocked, and continue to be shocked, by how little people know about Rocky Flats. Few people around the country know the story, and even in Colorado—especially in Colorado—few people know much, if anything, about Rocky Flats.

The story of Rocky Flats is hugely important to Colorado, to the country, to the world. It’s not just a story of secrecy, injustice, and environmental contamination, but it raises all sorts of questions about how the operators of nuclear facilities—and I’m talking about nuclear power plants as well as nuclear weapons sites—may put our lives and our health at risk. Can we trust them to be truthful and transparent? Can we trust these facilities to be safe?

Rocky Flats, sadly, is not an unusual story or situation. There are similar stories at other sites around the U.S., including Hanford, Fernald, Oak Ridge, and the Savannah River Site. Internationally, there’s Mayak in Russia, the “sister” of Rocky Flats, and of course Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The book is attracting a lot of interest in the UK and in Japan. At a recent anti-nuke rally in Tokyo, a woman carried a sign with the cover of Full Body Burden on it.

I wrote a book about what happened in my backyard, but I’m really talking about everyone’s backyard. We’re all in this together. We need to pay attention.
[Liz just buries bodies in her backyard.]
Kristen Iversen

20. You are the editor of The Pinch, one of the most respected literary journals around. Why are literary journals so important and what is the secret to the success of The Pinch, which has been around for over 30 years?
I feel quite passionate about literary journals. It's been increasingly difficult for small journals to stay in print. Literary journals are dedicated to the art of writing, to the leading edge of what's happening in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, in ways that set them apart from the rest of the publishing world. They find and nurture talent; they take risks; they create a space for engaged, ongoing dialogue about writing and literature. The Pinch (previously called River City) has been successful only because so many people--students and faculty and our many readers and supporters--have been willing to devote time and energy, with little or no compensation, to the pursuit of excellence in the art of writing. It's as simple as that. Working with The Pinch has been a great privilege for me, and I'm very proud of all the writers we've published over the years.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Full Body Burden

(Gianna) There are usually one, maybe two books a year that I know I will be talking about for years to come. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell are two examples. I must have written about these two books a dozen times each (conservative estimate), which I am sure became annoying. Well, prepare to be annoyed yet again, I’ve found my next book. 

My old Random House boss gave me an advance copy of Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen, and said, “This is right up your alley.” I thought "Great, porn!" While no Fifty Shades of Grey, Iversen had me hooked by page three. I’m not making that up; I just double-checked: page three. “Full body burden,” by the way, refers to the amount of radioactivity which can be safely tolerated by a human body through its lifetime, and that comes up several times in the first fifty pages.

The Rocky Flats facility in Colorado.

Full Body Burden is Kristen’s story of growing up just a few miles away from Rocky Flats. I have asked several people if they know what Rocky Flats is, or had heard of it. Most people said that it sounded familiar, but not one person knew for sure what it was. In fact, in the 1950’s when the facility was being built there were many theories of what Dow Chemical was up to. Iversen’s mother thought perhaps they were making scrubbing bubbles (top secret scrubbing bubbles). Spoiler alert…they weren’t. New hires, and there would be thousands, were sworn to secrecy as employees, and in fact many workers didn’t realize what they were helping make for many months.

Plutonium trigger.  Don't lick it.
The facility at Rocky Flats made plutonium “triggers” for nuclear bombs. While it was the only plant in the country that made these triggers, there were thirteen other plants throughout the country doing various and cool top-secret government bomb building. Here in Texas, for example, the Pantex plant in Amarillo actually encased the triggers in traditional explosives, making it an official bomb. So while the workers at Rocky Flats (once they realized what exactly they were doing) could sleep at night with the thought that they weren’t really making the bomb. Oh, and Amarillo is still in the nuclear weapon and radioactive waste business. After Rocky Flats was closed down, the Pantex plant had to take their waste (by the way, Amarillo has made quite a business in general from burying waste from dozens of other states). [That explains Cadillac Ranch!] Just this April a load was buried on the border of Amarillo and New Mexico (shhhh….don’t tell New Mexico!). Anyway doesn’t matter, it’s completely safe. Seriously, it’s completely safe. Oh, that reminds me…it's not always safe. It’s hard to imagine something in Amarillo stinking more than cow shit, but alas….
Kristen Iversen

Okay, so back to the book. This book took about thirty pages to have a holy crap moment. Iversen takes us inside Rocky Flats during the 1969 fire (not the first fire, by the way) and I have to tell you, I put the book down twice because I was completely and utterly stressed out. The fire came incredibly close to a Chernobyl size disaster. Perilously close. It isn’t conclusive how far the fallout travelled but what is clear is that the government and Dow Chemical lied to workers and residents of Colorado for years. The mantra was, it's safe, it's safe, it's safe. Well, after the 1969 fire, the public began to doubt this as truth and would finally begin to ask questions and insist on answers.

Leaky drum of radioactive waste.
Don't lick it.
We are posting a Q&A with Kristen Iversen in the next couple of days, and we will get into some more about the book, but let me end with three more holy crap things I learned from Full Body Burden:
  • In the forty years that the plant was operating they produced 70,000 triggers for nuclear weapons. 
  • Leaking barrels were found out in the open at Rocky Flats. Yep, rusted out, leaking barrels which sat there for over a decade. And yes, it also contaminated the water supply. 
  • Missing plutonium. [Ooh!  Treasure hunt time!]
Kristen is going to get into more nitty gritty plutonium fun, and trust me when I tell you that you must read this book. It is absolutely unputdownable.

The effects of radiation on humans.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Polling the Masses: Picks from the Random House Phone Sales Team

Stacey's Pick--The Healing
Today is both Friendship Day and International Forgiveness Day, so it seems appropriate that we pick on some of our pals and hope they're forgiving, right?  I (Liz) spend my office days sharing space with Zorro at home and safely removed from my colleagues around the country, but Random House also has a telephone sales department.  These reps manage thousands of accounts across the country, an incredible task, and they also have to be social and interact in a real office environment.  I'd last about 20 minutes before committing a fire-able offense.  I thoroughly enjoy the company of the phone sales reps and seek out their company at sales conferences; they are a twisted group of weirdos who know how to take a joke, recognize bullshit when they see it, and possess passion for both books and the stores with whom they work.  I also enjoy emailing one phone sales rep with instructions to pick on someone else in the group.  (And this is why I'm stationed 1,500 miles away.)  I thought it might be a hoot to see what books have stuck in their heads as great reads and then share them here.

Stacey at sales conference
with John Grisham

Stacey shares some of my geographical territory--the Deep South--and obnoxiously good at various iPhone word games.  I don't like losing.  She speaks Italian and likes to vacation in Branson, Missouri, even though she'll photoshop herself into pictures of coastal Mexico and argue that that's where she went for her trip.  Here's Stacey's pick:

The Healing by Jonathan Odell is a wonderfully powerful book with some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered. It’s the story of a young slave named Granada, and her journey to find her true self with the help of mysterious healer, Polly Shine. The story is beautifully written, with characters who will stick with you long after you’ve finished the final page. But what I love most of all is the book’s message:  sharing our stories is our most valuable gift.

Pam's cat Fred. Trying to
clean something that, well,
no longer exists.
Let's talk about Pam.  Pam loves Chuck Palahniuk books (Fight Club, etc), and she owns a cat that recently had, as Stacey phrased it, "sex change surgery."  Pam's cat Fred (Frida?) had a penectomy, and she's now sending me emails that say things like "Fred now tinkles like a girl."  I'm not making any of this up. See why I love these people?  Pam recommends a new release and one of my favorite books for this fall:

The Dogs Stars by Peter Heller is seriously one of the best books I ever read. Some have compared this to The Road and I can see that comparison, for its post-apocalyptic story. But this is an entirely different reading experience. The Road is a much darker read, and I was never able to get close to McCarthy’s characters. While reading The Dog Stars, I not only felt close to Heller’s characters, I embraced them and felt completely connected to them. These people are so real and so damaged, but at the same time resilient and strong. I loved all of them, and will think of them for a very long time. There is heartbreaking beauty in the scenery, but the sense of loss is evident on every page. Do yourselves a big favor and pick up a copy of The Dog Stars at your local independent bookstore on August 7th. 

Sherri is an integral part of the Random House sales team as a whole, sending out reports every week to all of us that allow us to actually do our jobs (it's the little things that make a huge difference).  Sherri is my pick from the phone sales team as "most likely to secretly be a serial killer."  She's friendly and professional and hard-working and she has a corpse hidden in her cellar.  Her neighbors are quick to tell reporters that she was so quiet and friendly....

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall
Sweeping Up Glass is a mystery filled with love, devotion and the devastating damage caused by bigotry and secrets. A powerful story of great depth and beauty that you won’t want to end.
[Gianna and I both loved this book too.  Got a book group?  This would be a great choice.]

Sarah is the lone children's book expert working out of the Random House Westminster, Maryland, offices.  That's a formidable amount of work, yet she was considerate enough to send a recommendation for this piece.  That's some bookish dedication.  That she picked a Texas author too suggests that maybe she's trying to win brownie points over here in Book Land, to which I say "Yes!  I absolutely can be bought! Sarah is, without question, the greatest sales rep in the country, by which I mean 'the universe.'  Gianna is getting herself knocked up just so that she can name her child after Sarah (boy or girl, doesn't matter).  We also accept chocolate and cash as bribes."  From Sarah:
Texas boy grows up and writes a heck of a good kid’s book – author Lee Bacon grew up in College Station, Texas, and though he has moved away he certainly got his writing skills started there.

Joshua Dread coming out September 25 is clever, fast paced, and funny. This book is the reverse side of all those PERCY JACKSON books, with Joshua having to hide the fact that his parents are supervillains (The Dread Duo), enduring his friend’s adoration of Captain Justice (his parent’s enemy), and finding himself suddenly having inexplicable powers to burn things!

Laugh out loud scenes with interesting interactions between Captain Justice and the Dread Duo and Joshua and an unexpected friend saving the day.

Don’t miss this middle grade book for all your readers.

Scott. Questionable
taste in baseball teams.
Scott is the token man in the phone sales department.  I hope for his sake that his desk isn't close to Pam's (see above).  Scott and I share some accounts, which I can only describe as a terrible strain that has aged me grotesquely.  He is great about following through with my dastardly plans to create office turmoil (by kicking Stacey's or Pam's chairs for me), but I think he's still within the hazing period for newish reps (Random House does not have a hazing period and condemns such acts), so at some point I'm going to have to pick on him at sales conference.  Scott recommends:

I just finished The Last Policeman by Ben Winters and I can't wait for the other two books to come out!!

 At first I must admit my reservations in reading this book. I thought to myself "How could I get into any other pre-apocalyptic books that would rouse me as did the catastrophe in The Age of Miracles (the slowing)?" Well, it did because the lead protagonist Detective Hank Palace is quite a character. He is hellbent on investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week. The story takes place in Concord, New Hampshire. This investigation is different, though, and Hank is determined to solve what he believes is a suspicious murder. The big picture is there is an asteroid en route to the earth with about six months left until impact. People are taking their own lives, giving up like there is no chance left, but not Detective Hank Palace. He is the only cop who cares and will stop at nothing to find out who murdered the late Peter Anthony Zell, a thirty-eight year old, Caucasian male, insurance salesman.

Thank you Quirk Books and Ben Winters for this wonderful new adventure in mystery, sci-fi, whodunit.

Judy?  Well, Judy loves the Baltimore Ravens.  Like LOVES them.  She believes in the power of wearing purple on Fridays.  She also wants to get a tattoo to honor her father...who hates that she has tattoos.  She's also the category specialist for audio and large print, travel, and information books.  I think there's a chance that someday Judy's body will be the one found in Sherri's cellar, identified by her purple boots and fairy tattoo that she swears is actually an angel. Judy picked this audiobook:

Drift by Rachel Maddow
Read by the author, so the timing and inflection is natural and even funny at times; this is great storytelling mixed with simple to understand descriptions of complex policies.

Cheryl and Emily poses with
The Night Circus display.
Cheryl is the mystery specialist, but she reads all kinds of books and has great taste.  Don't think she's the exception to this group of freaks, though.  She's a twin.  Twins are extremely disturbing.  Cheryl is also passionate about horses, which would make me inclined to like her, except again there's that twin thing.  Cheryl offered up a selection of great picks:

The River Wife by Jonis Agee
This oldie but goodie is my “go to” when gal pals ask me for a book suggestion. This epic historical fiction is about 5 women connected to Mississippi River pirate Jacques Ducharme. The writing is beautiful and if you’re a sucker for historical fiction, be prepared to get lost in this rich, atmospheric read. 

The Road to Valor by Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon
Think Unbroken for the cyclist fans – this is the story of Gino Bartali, Tuscan peasant and two time Tour de France winner who sets out to save Italian Jews during WWII. Bartali is brave, loyal, and has so much inner strength he was able to carry himself through the difficulties of WWII. The authors are a sibling team who have created a magnificent story. The history, facts, and mere story telling are fabulous. In fact, this is the required history reading I wish I had in school! 

The Eighty Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts 
Based on the life of a Dutch immigrant who saves a plow horse, this extraordinary story is about an unlikely hero who stole the heart of the our nation during the 1950’s. This book will appeal to history lovers, readers of animal stories, or anyone who simply loves a good book!

Emily is tall, and I don't like tall people.  She also has a decidedly geeky side and loves uber-geek read Ready Player One by Ernie Cline and things like experimental aircraft at the Smithsonian.  I think that there will come a time when Emily and I are pitted against each other in a cage match for ultimate domination, and because of this inevitability I think it's best to harbor a strong, unfounded hatred toward her.  Emily performed the penectomy on Pam's cat.  (I may be making up some of this stuff.)  What really pisses me off is that Emily picked a book that I absolutely love, which is further proof in my mind that she's trying to usurp my position as most beloved rep ever [Gianna: Really?  Does anybody really believe that Liz is beloved?] [Liz: The answer is always 'Liz.']  Here's Emily's pick:

Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell 9780307740977
I have nothing in common with Rodney Crowell, who turns out to be a pretty famous country music composer and singer. Country music to me is what my husband sings when he really REALLY wants to annoy me. But I fell in love with Crowell after reading his incredible autobiography Chinaberry Sidewalks. Really it is a biography of his hard-drinking, abusive, but loving parents. Crowell’s father always wanted to be a famous musician but the most he accomplished were bar gigs where his wife would tackle the women-of-loose-morals that undulated in front of him during gigs.  Rodney took up the guitar and, for himself and his father, achieved the fame that had eluded his family for so long. From a house in Houston with paper thin walls and cockroaches that ran for cover when the lights came on, to marrying the daughter of Johnny Cash, Crowell lived a life that all of us can learn from.

Lori Zook is the intrepid manager of the phone sales department, and is responsible for this group of reps.  I include her last name here because she's legendary for casting a "Zook Look" at people when she's annoyed.  I strive to receive the Look, but sadly every encounter I've ever had with Lori has been pleasant.  Usually she's laughing at me.  She's worked for Random House since she was, like, seventeen years old or something, so she's pretty much seen it all.  Some of Lori's reps revealed to me that she's scared of birds, which helps to explain how someone so seemingly level-headed and kind assembles this team of oddballs.  Lori was on vacation when I asked if I could feature her department on our blog, but she bothered to respond to my query anyway with her blessing.  Then she asked if she had to pick a Random House book (never a requirement for our blog), but then didn't get back to me with her actual selection.  So I'm picking a book for her.  I'm sure she would approve.

Inspired by the Cold War and the threat of Soviet attack in the aftermath of World War II, The Birds by Daphne DuMaurier was a 1952 novelette that became the basis for the famous Hitchcock film.  It's the story of a farmer and his family who come under attack by seagulls assaulting them from the sky.  It's the best book I've ever read.  I read it before I go to sleep each night.

[Not featured: Amiee was on vacation while we were gathering picks, and I can only hope that, in the spirit of International Forgiveness Day, she doesn't believe that her exclusion is a reflection of anything other than that we needed to post something on the blog and this is what I had in my file. I mean, if anything, I would have excluded Emily, because she's shifty and troublesome. Or Pam, because she chopped off her cat's wee-wee. Sorry Amiee. Or consider yourself lucky?]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympics Reading

Hey, we can be topical with our recommendations!  I'm sure it's not hard to guess that Gianna and I are fans of Olympic sports (and "sports"--looking at you, skeet shooting).  There are a lot of text message conversations, such as this one from the women's gymnastics team competition:

Let's just say that I scrolled through quite a few conversations that even I'm not dumb enough to post online. Things to consider: the men's Italian archery team is not pretty, fencing is a ton of fun to watch, and Lizzie firmly resides on Team Phelps (as opposed to Team Lochte, mostly because of Ryan's interviewing skills and shoe fetish).

While we're objectifying the athletes and eating brownies, though, I realized that now would be the perfect time to talk about one of my favorite novels from a few years ago.  Swimming was Nicola Keegan's terrific debut novel, and it's the ideal read for the summer games.  This coming of age story follows Pip, an awkwardly built girl growing up in Kansas, about as far from the spotlights and media attention as a kid can get.  She's tall, she's flat, she has crazy big feet, and she's at that awkward age for girls.  Think Gianna in her post-Little Miss Mini-Maid stage.  Or Liz, from age nine until the present (Will you people EVER hit your growth spurts?  It's lonely up here).  Pip has a few friends and is in many ways just a girl growing up and attending Catholic school.  Then her father and sister are killed, and her mother retreats into herself, isolating Pip.  Redemption and escape come in the water.

Pip is a female Michael Phelps of a sort, finding quiet while churning through the water at record pace.  That awkward frame is ideal for this girl dolphin, and as she grows up, Pip becomes the sensation that a Phelps or Lochte or Natalie Coughlin or Missy Franklin personifies.  If fiction and Freud have taught us anything, though, it's that you can't run (swim) from your past forever.

Nicola Keegan
Nicola Keegan is a gifted writer, adding literary merit to an already engaging story and giving Pip a pitch perfect voice.  When Swimming first came out, The Boston Globe wrote, “Keegan’s energy jumps off the page. . . . Swimming is a wonderful coming-of-age story, a richly detailed account of a young woman channeling her rage, grief and insecurity into a passion to win. The voice Keegan has invented for Pip is sarcastic, thoughtful, elegant, irreverent.”  The New York Times called the book "gorgeous," and The Washington Post "marvelous."

Haven't read it yet?  Why wait?  You're already sitting around watching way too many hours of Olympic coverage, so why not dive in whole hog?  Also, Swimming makes a terrific book group pick.  There is plenty to discuss, as it's not just a sports book and not just a coming of age book and not just a death-of-a-parent book.  I'm firmly on Team Pip.