Saturday, December 22, 2012

DIY Christmas Fun in Book Land

I like to think that Gianna and I place lots of thought into our Christmas gifts to each other. She went to great lengths to find a Talking Dr. Laura Doll one year.  I had already picked up a book for her, but I wanted to give her something more personal too.  Something that speaks to the friendship we have.  Last night I was browsing a link from the Book Riot website and came across an idea for do it yourself magnetic poetry.  It hit me: I could do that!

This morning I set off to create a handmade gift for my pal.

Step One: Materials.  It turns out that making your own magnetic poetry is really easy.  All you need are magnet sheets (obtainable at a craft store), a book, and scissors.

The perfect book
for this project
Step Two: Pull pages out of a book.  Normally I oppose the destruction of books for craft projects, no matter how cool the craft might be.  I don't really think that books should be turned into iPad case or purses.  In this one instance, though, it immediately occurred to me that there was one perfect book that encapsulated 2012....and in this particular instance, with 60 million copies in circulation, one deconstructed copy isn't going to break down the social order. (Don't destroy books.  Oppose censorship.  And many, many thanks for all of the Fifty Shades sales this year.  Seriously.)

Page from the book with the margins trimmed

Step Three: Remove the backing from the magnet sheets and stick the selected pages to the magnets.

Magnet sheets.  See how easy this is?

Step Four: Cut out phrases, verbs, nouns, articles, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

Lots of juicy phrases to select...
Innocent phrases can be selectively edited to sound
filthy: "He's just given me a..."

Step Five: Presentation.  I stole a sandwich baggy from the friend who, due to pregnancy related bed rest, was a captive assistant in this project.

Fifty Shades of Fridge Poetry

Step Six: Class is in the wrapping.

Stick the tacky gift with the classy one.
The recipient will be more forgiving.

Step Seven: Delivery.  I texted Gianna and asked if I could come over to exchange gifts.  She replied that I never had to ask to bring presents.

"This is something that someone in a mental hospital would do."

How did Gianna respond?  Gianna knows quality when she sees it. Here's the word-for-word conversation as she unwrapped her gift:

Gianna: What is this?....
Gianna: Wait...Is this from Fifty Shades of Grey?
Liz: (Snickering) Yeah.
Gianna: (pause as she sorts through some of the words)..."Dark"...."foamy lather"....
Gianna's girlfriend Natasha: Those are going up on the fridge tonight.
Gianna: Uh, you know this is something that someone in a mental hospital would do, right?
Liz: I am aware of that.
Gianna: This is the coolest thing ever.

As Gianna continued to sort through the pile of words ("agonizing orgasm," "he thrusts," "husky"), I opened the envelope she had handed me.  My gift from Gianna?  A gift certificate for Kiva, the micro loan foundation that is working to eradicate poverty around the world.  While I am sensitively loaning a woman in Burma the money to buy a goat, Gianna will be snickering over titillating fridge art.  We're always classy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 5

Chris Ware's Building Stories. Better than Jane Seymour's jewelry.
I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that anything we've featured on our Best of 2012 lists would make a better gift than any item from Jane Seymour's Open Hearts collection of jewelry.  How can I be so bold?  These books are original works that offer a variety of perspectives on the world and tell stories that need to be told...and they don't stink up a joint like the world's worst celebrity trite crap.  On a related note, guess what I'm getting Gianna for Christmas?  Anyway, here's the wrap-up to our week of favorite books.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo,
National Book Award winner.
 This is my favorite book of the year, in any category. The writing alone is simply gorgeous. Like Mountains Beyond Mountains or Cutting for Stone, ultimately this book is inspiring. Boo, not satisfied with the cliché exotic descriptions of a quickly changing India, wanted a more realistic portrayal--a gut check of sorts--of how this nation was changing the lives of the poor.

Boo spent over three years following residents of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum of 3,000 people just outside of the Mumbai International Airport. While India’s fortunes are certainly changing for some, Boo focuses on the lives that go unchanged for the most part. The hustle of the slum is unimaginable; nuns at an orphanage selling expired donated foods to poor women, who then in turn resell it at roadside stands. Abdul, who you will come to love, is a trash picker who supports his entire family, and he dreams of a better life. You won’t forget him.

Mumbai slum.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I know you’re tired of hearing about it. I know. It took my own girlfriend a year to finally decide to take me up on this recommendation, so I get it…but come on, don’t you want to be better than my girlfriend?
This is the novel that you will read, and then immediately want to talk to someone about, and then you call that someone and they haven’t read it and you realize…you can’t talk about the book without giving it away. And then you get pissed off at your friend for not having read the book. See, books divide friends and family.  They are evil!

A wife goes missing, the husband lies to the police (don’t ever lie to the police), his lie is revealed, and he is now the suspect. Just when you think you know who did this woman in…well, just read the book.  
Starring in the movie of Gone Girl


Building Stories by Chris Ware
Is it possible that the most accomplished work of fiction this year is a graphic novel?  Yes.  Usually I don't go for that "a picture is worth a thousand words" saying.  I'm a word person.  I actually frequently dream in type, where instead of speaking, conversations are typed like manuscripts.  I'd rather have a thousand words that express nuance and beauty and turmoil.  In the case of Chris Ware, he is capable of detailing the slightest twinge of emotion in every illustration panel.  This book is a masterpiece.

Chris Ware
Consider Building Stories like a short story collection of interconnected narratives.  These are stories that together form a larger tale about the residents of a three story Chicago apartment building.  The women of this building live lives of quiet desperation with occasional moments of beauty and humor.  And the bee that lives outside offers a different perspective on the world they all inhabit.  Ten years in the making, Building Stories is the most innovative, creative, beautiful book of the year.

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
The upside of a book coming out in the spring is that it isn't as packed with holiday titles and mega hits, so a book has a better chance of getting noticed.  The downside is that sometimes the spring releases are forgotten when the critics compile their annual lists.  Gods Without Men was a March title; human embryos have gone to term and squirted into the world since this title went on sale.  Nonetheless, it's a 2012 release and one of my favorite books of the year.

It's no secret that I'm a David Mitchell fan, and when I read Gods Without Men, I remembered how much I loved Cloud Atlas when I first read it.  Hari Kunzru's novel weaves together multiple stories across decades, geographically centered around a rock formation called The Pinnacles, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  It's a sacred site for Native Americans, a gathering place for hippies and new age spiritualists, and a tourist attraction inside a national park.  
Hari Kunzru

Gods Without Men starts with a family hoping for a miracle in the desert.  On vacation, Jaz and Lisa are hoping to save their marriage.  Their relationship has been strained by the public outbursts of their autistic son Raj, and one morning they hike to The Pinnacles with Raj.  And then Raj disappears.  What starts with the disappearance of a child in the wilderness snakes back to the religious group that worshiped at the site during the 60's, and to the people who live in the area in the present day.  It weaves in drug dealers with Coyote the Trickster legends.  I love this book.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 4

Right about now, I'm trying to figure out what Gianna is giving me for Christmas.  I am sure she's debating between Zorro related first aid accessories and a trip to Banff National Park.  It's a tough choice.  Anyway, here are a few more of our favorite books of the year.


Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Kristen Iversen
The term "full body burden" refers to the amount of radioactivity which can be safely tolerated by a human body through its lifetime.  These are the things you learn when you live downwind from a top secret nuclear weapons plant, as Iversen did. This is a fascinating account of Rocky Flats, the plutonium factory just outside of Denver.

I love talking about this book; it's an absolute page turner and completely riveting. It's what I like to call a ‘holy shit’ book. "Wait, there were barrels of plutonium sitting outside the plant for years and years…and they were leaking? Holy shit! Wait, there is literally tons of plutonium missing? Holy shit!" See?  [Look! Gianna bought Liz a first edition of Mrs. Dalloway, signed by Virginia Woolf in her signature purple ink? HOLY SHIT!]

This book has everything: government cover ups, nuclear accidents, plant fires, poisoned water, birth defects, and cancer. Don’t worry though, all ends well; Rocky Flats is now a wildlife refuge. You can camp there. Have fun.

The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo
Juan Rulfo
While not a new book by any stretch of the imagination, it is a new translation with two original stories restored in this version.

I’ve written about this book a bit, but I think it's worth repeating that I had never read Rulfo before, but this short collection is one of the best I have read in years. This book immediately went on my all time favorite list.  


Sometimes good things happen to good people.  The Random House world was buzzing about Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail--the anti-Eat Pray Love--months before it was released, and booksellers seconded our enthusiasm.  What we didn't know at that time was that Cheryl had been writing the "Dear Sugar" advice column for The Rumpus anonymously, and that what started as a standard advice column would become wise, compassionate ruminations on love.  We didn't know that Sugar would be revealed as Cheryl, that Vintage would publish the "Dear Sugar" essays as Tiny, Beautiful Things, and we didn't know that Oprah would restart her book club and select Wild as her first pick.  We certainly didn't know, either, that Cheryl would be relentless in her desire to meet readers and sign books.  I think she toured for about a year, all told, and she's hitting the road again when Wild comes out in paperback in 2013.
Cheryl Strayed

What we didn't know is Cheryl, but many of us had the opportunity to meet her in person, and many, many more readers had the opportunity to meet her through her writing.  As detailed in Wild, Cheryl hit rock bottom after her mother's sudden death (a rapid decline from cancer), the break-up of her family support, dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, and self-medicating.  On a bit of a whim, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Arizona to Oregon, alone.  Through mishaps and pains and the drudgery of placing one foot in front of the other, she begins to pull herself back from the edge.  Along the way, she sees beautiful landscapes and meets other hikers and comes to terms with her demons.  And the Cheryl in Wild is, from what I can tell, the real Cheryl--tough, wise, compassionate, and an author for whom we all cheer.  She's good people.

In Between Days by Andrew Porter
I love this novel.  I love this novel so much that I've written about it, like, three times before on our little blog.  Here's what I said one of those times:
Set in Houston (how often can you say that about literary fiction?), Porter's novel is the story of a family imploding.  Long married parents have split, the older son--a recent college graduate who wants to be a poet--is working food service and attending reckless parties at night, and the younger daughter, Chloe, has been asked to leave her college under mysterious circumstances.  The story gets rolling with Chloe coming home and refusing to discuss why she's no longer welcome at school.  Here is a classically told, great novel along the lines of a Raymond Carver or John Cheever, and I'm willing to state it here: one day Andrew Porter will win a Pulitzer or National Book Award.
Andrew Porter
Andrew Porter is a literary writer on the ascent, and my fervent hope is that he'll continue writing so that I can continue raving about his work.  I also sort of hope that he wins major awards so that reputable sources of information discover that we harassed him with our Generally Horrible Questions.  I want a writer to give an interview with Barbara Walters and state that his/her biggest regret wasn't the sex tape, it was the foolish decision to choose between Liz and Gianna (and the correct answer is still "Liz").

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 3

Hey there, we're more than halfway there!  Remember, we aren't ranking these titles, just picking our favorites all willy-nilly.


Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid
Author Jan Reid
Well this little book is just selling and selling. To be honest, I completely underestimated this title when we were talking about our marketing plan. I thought that it would sell in Texas, but outside our state no one would really know or remember her. Wrong!

I’ve written about this book at least two other times on the blog so all I will say is that this is a full biography of the coolest ass person to ever work in politics.

For fans of politics, history, and Texas.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
If you consider yourself a book lover, or even the slightest of serious readers, yet you haven’t read Alice Munro, you’re kidding yourself. Munro is probably definitely the best living short story writer on the planet.  She is the master of pulling you along an intentionally plain story, giving you little indication that in just a few pages she will take your breath awayDear Life is special in that the final four pieces come under a sub-section entitled “Finale,” and Munro has noted that these four stories may be the closest she has ever come to writing about her own life. Munro is in her early 80’s and perhaps this is a sign of retirement. I hope not.

For fans of Ian McEwan, Louise Erdrich,  Richard Russo, and even Barbara Kingsolver. 

Alice Munro, literary genius


The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Dear Leader Kim Jong Il:
nut job
Way back in January I declared The Orphan Master's Son the best book of the year, and so I'd be (more of) a liar if I didn't include it in our best of the year list.  Even after the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea remains the most interesting and disturbing and delusional nation in the world.  Did you know they found a unicorn lair there recently?  It's a country that The Onion couldn't make up.  So it's pretty much a guarantee that a novel set in the mysterious realm would be a wild ride.

Here's the story of a man, Jun Do, who begins life as the son of an orphan master (hence, you know, the title), and then variously is a soldier, a kidnapper, a prisoner, a general, and the husband of a movie star.  North Korea is a country where the emperor has no clothes and the masses rave about his wardrobe, where the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il's perceptions are the mass delusion that serves as law.  It's crazy, it's strange, it's the joke that could lead to another global war.  I love this novel.  It was my first "Holy Crap!" book of the year (and I mean that in a good way).

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
When Will Schwalbe's mother was diagnosed with cancer, Will found himself accompanying his mother to endless doctors' visits, chemo treatments, and hospital stays.  They knew what they were facing--her prognosis was originally six months, though she lived two years.  Taking the time they had left together, Will and Mary Anne Schwalbe spent that time reading books together.  They were lifelong readers, and this was the natural way for them to face life's moments.

Will Schwalbe
I wrote about this book a couple of months ago, and it is a book that is special for me.  I am a sucker for books about books and reading anyway, so there's that.  I also love memoirs, even if they don't involve crazy people and/or prisons (my usual weaknesses).  Mary Anne and Will, though, are human in the best sense; they are people who believe in making the world a better place and believe in kindness, compassion, knowledge, and love.  These are the type of people you want to be around in the hope that their humanity rubs off.  I think this book should be required reading for every book group, every cancer patient, every child facing the loss of a parent.  It's a book full of dignity and, of course, other books.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 2


I am going to reach all the way back to the beginning of 2012 for today’s top 10 selections.

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
Get this book for anyone who has read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Get this book for anyone who has read Justin Cronin’s The Passage or The Twelve. Get this book for anyone for anyone who loves Flannery O’Connor, Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Stewart O’Nan, or Daniel Woodrell. Get this book for yourself.  

Our pal Dan Chaon
My two favorite selections from Stay Awake:

"Bees," in which a father’s life begins to spiral out of control with the onset of his child’s night terrors, and now his own inability to continue to repress the memories of his secret first wife and child that he abandoned so long ago. This story is riveting.

My favorite selection is the title story, "Stay Awake." A young couple gives birth to a baby who has a parasitic twin.  I have long been fascinated by this incredibly rare medical condition (I believe there have been less than a dozen cases) and I have not been able to get the images of this story out of my head. At once heartbreaking and creepy, you won’t be able to shake this story for days.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Introvert champion
Susan Cain
 I refer to this book as a classic although it’s not quite a year old. It's groundbreaking, it's smart, and there really is nothing else out there like this. Cain argues that we are undervaluing introverts, and often try to change introvert behavior, as it's seen as a negative. This book is filled with inspiring stories of introverts, examples of major contributions to society by introverts, and probably my favorite part of the book, advice on parenting and empowering an introverted child.

Quiet is a great gift for readers of Oliver Sacks, Nate Silver, Eric Weiner (Geography of Bliss), and Malcolm Gladwell. 

Lizzy Poo:

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham
How do I describe this book?  I like reading short stories, but I often find myself grappling with ways to present collections.  I think it's the same reason that short story collections typically don't sell as well as novels; how do you relate seven separate narratives on a staff selection card or a 30 second spiel in a presentation?  How do you say "These stories struck a chord, all of them," but then struggle to pinpoint exactly why?  

Let me start with the back story.  I have a rep pal who's great about sharing his reads, and he latched onto The News from Spain early.  I read it, I agreed that it's a marvel, and we talked about it.  And then throughout the year we've continued to mention it.  Isn't that the sign of a great book--one that stays in your head for the right reasons?  I feel connected to these stories, and protective of them.  If you hated this book, I would be hurt (but you won't hate it).

Joan Wickersham
The News from Spain is a collection of seven stories, all dealing with a theme of love.  They are also all titled "The News from Spain," binding them together further (though they aren't set in Spain...but it could be that the character's lover received news from Spain, etc).  These are stories that make you think about the nature of love, and how flawed and utterly human an emotion that is.  

My favorite story in the collection (it's called "The News from Spain," so that doesn't really help) comes in the middle of the collection and involves a gay dancer who works as a caregiver for woman who no longer has the use of legs.  Her husband is a serial cheater, and to cope with her heartache, she and her caregiver imagine the autobiography her cat would write.  Here is love betrayed and a different sort of love binding two people together. 

Booksellers love this book too, and it may be the best kept book secret of the year.  I highly recommend visiting the Boswell Book Company blog, where owner Daniel Goldin wrote this great, obsessive piece and also snagged a terrific interview with the author.  How The News from Spain isn't on every best of the year list is a huge mystery to me.

The Long Walk by Brian Castner
I'm tempted to state that the market for Iraq/Afghanistan War books is saturated--they are EVERYWHERE--but then I read one like The Long Walk and know that there's always space for a great book, regardless of the topic.  Kevin Powers's first novel The Yellow Birds received lots of attention this year, but it fell short of the hype for me, in part, I think, because I had already read The Long Walk.  

Brian Castner was the guy who volunteered to walk up to the explosive devices.  If you saw The Hurt Locker, that was Castner's job.  He dismantled bombs, and he knew what it was to face his own mortality every day even as he thrived on the adrenaline rushes.  And then he came home.  This is the memoir of a man who knew danger first hand, but only felt imperiled after his return and the Crazy that lived in his head.  Alternating chapters describe Castner's war experiences and the post-war attempts to rejoin civilian society, where a trip to take his kid to school could result in a crippling panic attack.

I think what truly distinguishes The Long Walk, though, is the quality of the writing.  Castner writes a memoir reminiscent of The Liar's Club or This Boy's Life, with echoes of Michael Herr's war classic Dispatches.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 1

You know you've been waiting for us to add to the zillions of end of the year lists floating around the internet.  We can't disappoint our dozens of loyal readers (plus Gianna hates lists and making her compile them is my delight).  Today and the rest of the week we'll be highlighting our ten favorite books published in 2012.  These aren't in countdown order; we're not playing Sophie's Choice here.  If it's on the list, we loved it.  Ready?


One non-fiction and one fiction

Last Launch by Dan Winters (University of Texas Press, October 2012) 
This book really won me over. I am not a NASA or space geek by any stretch of the imagination, but this book really made me a convert. While Winters is probably best known for his celebrity photographs, the space program is his passion. His knowledge of the subject is inspiring and never ceases to be interesting, but the details of these photographs (from the description of the camera set-ups to the surprising results after a lift off he never thought would happen) is jaw dropping. 

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu (Random House, September 2012) 
This novel had been sitting in my 'to read' pile for about six months, and I passed it over several times for other books. That was a mistake; this turned out to not only be the best book in that stack, it easily makes my fiction top ten list.  I feel very comfortable comparing this to Tea Obreht's National Book Award finalist,  The Tiger's Wife. It's not only because it's an astonishing debut novel, but because these young women are writing about things that matter (refreshing, no?).  I suppose if I had to categorize this book, I would say it's a coming of age novel because it is about three young Israeli girls, bored with their teenage lives, not unlike teenagers in many places. However, after high school they are conscripted into the army, where their lives change instantly (somewhat inspired by the author's mandatory service).  While it seems as though so many coming of age books published today are frivolous, throw away novels, Boianjiu's book is incredibly thoughtful and serious. It will live with you for years.

Also a non-fiction and a fiction pick.

The Oath by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, September 2012)
Jeffrey Toobin...
Liz is single.  Call me?
It's an epic drama.  Two young men, both ambitious leaders with brains out the wazoo, set on a collision course testing ideologies.  The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.  One is a conservative, one is a liberal seeking radical, unprecedented changes.  The polarized masses watch in anticipation and trepidation.  And it's a battle occurring right now.  If the Supreme Court is my crack addition, Jeffrey Toobin is my crack pipe.  He makes complex legal matters fascinating and never loses sight of the real people who both make these historic decisions and those impacted by them.  At the center of The Oath are Barack Obama, the conservative trying to preserve legal precedent, and John Roberts, the legal liberal pushing for major policy shifts.  With a supporting cast that includes Ruth Bader Ginsberg (my favorite Justice), Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor (and the other Justices), here's the legal showdown unrolling every day that the Supreme Court is in session.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon, February 2012)
One of my favorite novels of the year is this historical fiction account of the Watergate scandal.  Thomas Mallon has done his homework--even as a history major I struggled to piece together all of the machinations and players that contributed to Watergate.  Here are all of the major figures, and the book is told from the points of view of seven of them, and here are all of the major moments.  On top of that, Mallon offers motivations and humanity to these people (except for Gordon Liddy, who's generally a weirdo nutball).  Pat Nixon is a bad ass, for example.  What we get is a Paradise Lost for the 20th Century, and Richard Nixon a sympathetic Satan who falls from grace.  I think this novel is fine, first class fiction.