Thursday, December 12, 2013

Holiday Gift Picks 2013: Viva Tequila

Okay, I am about to make your holiday season perfectly stress free. Not possible? Oh but it is. All you have to do is serve your family a few recipes from Viva Tequila: Cocktails, Cooking, and other Agave Adventures. You may have been thinking that you could only get shit faced from slamming a few shots of  tequila, turns can eat the stuff too.

So not only will you be able to maintain a nice holiday buzz, but you can mellow out the in-laws too! Viva Tequila offers recipes from appetizers to desserts, I mean  you can literally keep the kin liquored up for days on end for a mere $35!

Seriously, this is a truly interesting book that not only includes agave recipes, but the history of agave, and some fascinating stuff about tequila in general (like how to pick good brand, what the color means, and you know... sip it!).

Friday, December 6, 2013

Holiday Gift Picks 2013: One Summer

Here's why I like Bill Bryson: he can talk about anything and he's interesting, charming, rambling, funny. Anything. He's proved this point with his travel memoir-type books like A Walk in the Woods and his histories like A Short History of Nearly Everything and his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. He's an American with an English accent who isn't afraid to make fun of himself for being an American with an English accent. The guy, at least based upon his books, is the person you want to be seated beside at the dinner party full of strangers.

Lucky Lindy
Bryson's latest book is One Summer, an effervescent romp through the summer of 1927. You might think "Why should I care about 1927?" and the answer is that it was the height of the Jazz Age and a ton of cool stuff occurred. Let's start with Charles Lindbergh. Here was a guy who was just a kid pilot who showed up in New York when several teams of pilots raced to be the first to fly from New York to Paris. While they were the most famous pilots of the day and the media hounded them for constant updates, Lindbergh planned to fly solo (the other planes held several man crews), in a plane that was stripped down to the bare essentials of food and fuel. When Lindbergh landed in Paris, he instantly became the most famous man in the world. His accomplishment eased American/French tensions after World War I. His victory tour of America led to airports springing up across the country and pushed America to the forefront of global aviation. Lindy was a pregnant Princess Kate mixed with twerking Miley mixed with Edward Snowden mixed with Pope Francis. Nothing was bigger.
The Babe

...Except maybe for Babe Ruth. 1927 was also the year that Ruth and Gehrig kicked off the first home run race in baseball history and Ruth eventually hit 60 dingers. Some whole teams didn't hit 60 home runs that season. Only one player since 1927--Roger Maris--has matched this feat without steroids. And you can't overlook the popularity of baseball in 1927. Radio broadcast games around the country, and in places where there weren't teams, actors would recreate the games in real time for crowds.
Bill Bryson

And the summer of 1927 was Al Capone's time to shine as a gangster and liquor distributor, keeping booze flowing freely into Prohibition America. It was the summer that anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted. The Jazz Singer was filmed, forever changing movies by adding sound. Jack Dempsey popularized boxing, turning a tavern sport into one that could fill Madison Square Garden. Four bankers met and planned the financial strategies that would ultimately lead to the Great Depression.
On top of the events of 1927, Bryson is the master of the fascinating tangent, and One Summer is full of them. When writing about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Bryson takes the time to recount the story of the executioner who figured out the proper way to electrocute a human. If you read/watched The Green Mile, you will recall that barbecued convict is traumatizing for all and best avoided. The book is full of these fun moments that make cultural history interesting and relatable. It's pretty easy to see how a fad like a guy sitting on the top of a flagpole in 1927 morphs into David Blaine's stunts. I admit it: I watched Blaine almost drown to death on live TV. I would have gawked at Shipwreck Kelly perched on a flagpole.

One Summer is good stuff. It's a great gift choice for a wide variety of readers, from dads/uncles/brothers who only read nonfiction, to pop history readers who liked Eric Larson's books, to my friend Tracy's dad's special lady friend Maggie who likes smart but readable books, to people who miss their really interesting college lecturers. And for commuters, Bill Bryson is audiobook gold.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Holiday Gift Picks 2013: The System

See here's what happened. I was traveling and then caught a nasty cold when a four year-old painted my nails (he blew on them to help them dry and I'm pretty sure he had Ebola), and Gianna, well, she forgets we have a blog unless I'm naggy. So we ignored you for a month. Quit whining. You think you have it bad? Zorro is throwing fits every night. He bit my boob. Not kidding. On a related note, I'm writing a BDSM erotica book called Fifty Shades of Grey Cat. It's about a woman who is desperately lonely and the cat who abuses her every night. I swear it's fiction. (It's not fiction.)

Anyway, it's that time of year when one must set aside private book hoarding in favor of book buying for loved ones. This is why I try to keep my loved one list to the bare minimum. I hate sharing. Unrelatedly, I'm also watching Pitch Perfect for the fifth time in two weeks right now. I very well could start calling people "aca-bitches" at any moment. Moving on.

My first pick for holiday giving this year is The System by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. This is the book for every college football fan on your list. More than that, though, it's a book for any sports fan, period. I am not particularly a football fan (though I keep up with the Longhorns because one is obligated to do so when living in Austin), but I played sports and watch baseball and basketball. The language of athletic competition transcends the sport. But really, The System is an in-depth look at college football, from the coaches to the athletic directors to the donors to the players to the scandals to the games.

Coach Mike Leach
Authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian have done their homework, and this is one of the best sports books written in years and the best written book about football. What is it like to be coach Mike Leach, a law school grad who turned his back on a legal career to pursue his love of football? How did Leach take Texas Tech to the top of the AP Polls, and what happened with the Adam James scandal that cost him that job, and how has Leach turned around the struggling Washington State program? Fun fact: when Leach was hired at Washington State, the college had to upgrade their payroll software because it couldn't process a salary as large as Leach's.

Ziggy Ansah
How did Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah go from life as a teenager in Ghana to a walk-on at Brigham Young University who'd never played a day of football in his life to the top draft pick by the Detroit Lions in last
year's NFL draft? How did Alabama steal Coach Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins? How corrupt is the recruiting game? (Very.) How did Oklahoma State convince T. Boone Pickens to give $165 million dollars to their athletic program, and how did that money rocket OSU to the top of the polls?

One of my favorite chapters in this book focuses on the College GameDay show that airs on ESPN every Saturday morning. I have a cousin who has worked in television sports journalism for a decade, and I knew that she worked crazy hours and had to negotiate the constant challenges of live sports broadcasting. Anything can happen, and that's why we love sports. Can you imagine working that Alabama/Auburn game on Saturday?? That was insane! So here are these guys on College GameDay, and every single week they up their game, creating a perfect sports show that covers everything that a football fan needs to know in preparation for the Saturday games. I know people who watch the show every week. I heard from three of them last week regarding Kirk Herbstreit's haircut. The System gives a great glimpse inside an iconic program.

Yes, there are scandals and hard topics covered in The System. Donors overstep boundaries, players commit terrible crimes, injuries end athletic careers, coaches are megalomaniacal assholes. Benedict and Keteyian don't hide the ugliness that plagues college football, but they are also fans of the sport. This desire for honest reporting mixed with an appreciation for the game makes The System completely engrossing reading from start to finish. I have no idea why this book isn't the bestselling book in the country right now.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark

I’ve read Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark in three different incarnations. First, as a pretty rough manuscript--the letters weren’t annotated and there weren’t that many photographs.  The second time was after editorial put the final touches on it and included some great photos by Johnny Dark. I actually hadn’t planned on reading the finished book, but when I held it in my hands and starting looking at what the designer had put together, I just couldn’t help myself. The end pages, the touches of color introducing each letter, and the accompanying copy of the actual handwritten letters are perfection.  I have never had the experience of following a book this closely; it’s been incredible watching this book take shape and I honestly think it is the best trade book the University of Texas Press has done.

Sam,  Johnny, and Jesse
(Shepard's son) mid 1980's
This book of letters, which covers the forty plus year friendship of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard and his best friend Johnny Dark (best friend and father in law of sorts, Sam marries Dark’s stepdaughter). I often describe this book as a coming of age story about two men who never really grew up.  While the letters back and forth are sometimes light-hearted, the bulk of these are introspective and brutally honest. Each man searching for some sort of success and happiness, whether it is love, work, or a sense of freedom. Shepard, to put it mildly, is a complicated man. It’s his drinking that costs him most, but when you get a glimpse of his relationship with his father, Shepard seems to be waiting for some sort of acknowledgement and love from his father, but it’s elusive. It’s clear that this is what has shaped the man he is. It’s a heartbreaker.

Jesse and Sam 1979
The letters begin just as Shepard is ramping up a career as a playwright, they cover his affair (and life long friendship) with Patti Smith, and then his decision to leave his wife and child and begin a relationship with Jessica Lange. The letters are current; in fact they not only cover Shepard’s painful separation and later divorce from Jessica Lange, but the emotional toll putting the book together takes on Shepard and his friendship with Dark. Take a look at the book trailer here.

One last thing; a documentary called Shepard and Dark was filmed while Sam and Johnny were putting the book together. It’s a fascinating look at these two vastly different but forever-linked men. I highly recommend it. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Betting on Nobel, 2013

The Nobel Prize for Literature is expected to be announced on Thursday, so it's time to place your bets. While the politics of the Nobel Prize don't necessarily mean much (as I mentioned last year here), the people in Book Land need something to debate, so here we are. The good people at Ladbrokes, everyone's favorite literary odds maker, have once again taken bets on who will win the Nobel Prize, so let's break down the favorites.

Haruki Murakami: 5/2 odds
Why this pick would be okay: No one has done more to popularize Japanese fiction worldwide, and Murakami's books already have tons of fans. His last book, 1Q84, provided the name inspiration for my brother's cat. What? Isn't that enough reason to give the guy an award? The cat? How about that 1Q84 sold 1,000,000 in its first week on sale in Japan and was a bestseller in the US too? I root for the booksellers here...and it doesn't hurt that I work for Murakami's US publisher, Knopf. Also, Murakami has a new novel that is being translated right now and will go on sale in 2014. The Nobel committee seems to favor writers who are still publishing works.
Where to start reading: Norwegian Wood is the book that made Murakami famous, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle moved him to the forefront of Japanese literary authors. It's more indicative of the surrealistic elements found in the author's work.

Grammy Munro
Liz's fictitious grandmother
Alice Munro: 4/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: First, a Canadian has never won the Nobel Prize, but there are several celebrated Canadian authors reaching that age where lifetime achievement awards are handed out. Alice Munro, along with being my imaginary grandmother (but with less racism than the real version), recently announced that she's retiring from writing, and in the last two weeks she's climbed the Ladbrokes odds list. And Grammy Munro writes short stories, a genre typically unheralded by prizes. An award for Grams would be a validation of the format as equally worthy as longer fiction and poetry. Alice Munro plumbs the humanity of her characters. Right, and she's also published by my company, so she's obviously worthy.
Where to start reading: Since Munro writes stories, diving in isn't a time commitment. One place to start would be Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, one of my favorite collections.

Svetlana Aleksijevitj: 6/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Yeah, I have no idea who this is. Hang on a second.... ah. Svetlana is an investigative journalist from Belarus, according to my sources (Wikipedia; if it's good enough for Jane Goodall to plagiarize, it's good enough for this blog). She writes about Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and women. I've heard of one of her books, Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of my favorite nuclear meltdown. This pick would be okay because I'd have the joy of hearing booksellers try to say her name. That's one of the secret joys of the Nobel.
Where to start reading:  Maybe Voices from Chernobyl since it's at least available in English?

Joyce Carol Oates: 8/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: I'm not going to lie. If JCO wins, I'm doing the butt dance of joy. The prolific US writer could break the 20 year drought on American winners, and though she's starting to get up there in years, she hasn't really slowed in her writing routine. No one embodies the idea of a writer in my mind like Joyce Carol Oates. She actually might just keel over if she stopped writing. Recently she's taken to Twitter, too, and her tweets are more interesting than yours. Not debatable. She's won the National Book Award, won or been nominated for every major award, and has spent a life trying to uncover America the violent, be it boxing, serial killing, abducting, family dysfunctioning, celebrity chasing/obsessing. Oh, and she wrote my favorite short story ever, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," a story that totally warped my perspective of the world from a very early age.
Where to start reading: The aforementioned short story is a quick treat and captures Oates's need to dig out the darkness from American culture. I also loved Blonde, her novel about Marilyn Monroe. Or check out Black Water, the fictional exploration of the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident.

Peter Nadas: 8/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: The world should be exposed to Hungarian literature? Peter Nadas writes a lot about death, and who doesn't love that? His parents were Communists in Nazi-occupied Budapest, which is intriguing at the very least? Not going to lie--I've never read Peter Nadas.
Where to start reading: I'm not sure, but since I own A Book of Memories, since it's about 1,000 pages long, and since it's compared to Proust, that seems like an excellent place to immerse yourself. Tell me how it is.

Jon Fosse... probably
no relation to Bob Fosse.
Jon Fosse: 9/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Jon Fosse is a Norwegian author and playwright. I' nothing. I'm sure he's terrific. He's written many, many plays, as well as novels and essays. I am starting a rumor that he's related to Bob Fosse.
Where to start reading: Seriously, no idea. This is the type of pick that makes booksellers crazy because no one will rush right out to scoop up the numerous dramatic works of a Norwegian guy.
Ko Un...probably no relation to
Kim Jong Un.

Ko Un: 10/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Ko Un is a South Korean poet who has been among the Nobel favorites for many years now. I am not a poetry reader, but I like the idea of Ko Un winning because it would undoubtedly piss off Kim Jong Un, and I love the North Korean crazy.
Where to start reading: It's poetry. You should know better than to look to us for advice on poetry.

Ngugi wa Thiog'o
Ngugi wa Thiog'o: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Ngugi! Love this guy. He's a Kenyan writer who started a new form of
theater in Kenya back in the 70's which encouraged spontaneity and audience participation. It was a huge success until the authoritarian regime in Kenya decided that Ngugi should be imprisoned for his outspoken questioning of convention. While he was in prison, he wrote a novel on prison toilet paper. How can the Nobel ignore a political prisoner? Ngugi fled to the US after he was released from the clink and has taught at places like Yale and written a pooty load of books.
Where to start reading: Go with his memoir, In the House of the Interpreter or his novel Wizard of the Crow.
Thomas Pynchon (?)

Thomas Pynchon: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Meh. I'm not a big Thomas Pynchon fan. However, I would LOVE to see the media storm around a Pynchon victory. Would the famous recluse show up? I'd watch that show.
Where to start reading: The Crying of Lot 49, since it isn't Gravity's Rainbow? Or just watch The Simpsons episode in which cartoon Thomas Pynchon wears a paper bag over his head.

Assia Djebar
Assia Djebar: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Assia Djebar is an Algerian writer known for her feminist stance and whose work often deals with women's struggles. This would be an interesting pick politically since she's a Muslim woman who's been outspoken about women's rights and education. She was one of only two girls to attend her grade school. Assia Djebar is a pen name she adopted because she feared her father's disapproval (her real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayen). She now teaches in the US.
Where to start reading: I am not sure, but I want to read this woman's biography if one exists. She seems like a bad ass.

Adonis: 14/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Adonis is a Syrian poet, and the Nobel committee loves to play political games with the prize. He's been an odds favorite for a bunch of years, so it may just be a matter of time before he wins the prize. He too was imprisoned for a period, and when released moved to Beirut, until the Lebanese civil war drove him to Paris.
Where to start reading: It's poetry. Have I mentioned that I gave up poetry for Lent? Poetry readers are pretentious. Yeah, I'm stereotyping.

Other favorites include Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Javier Marias, Margaret Atwood.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Trust me, I understand the weirdness in discussing The Circle, the new novel by Dave Eggers, on the internet. The whole book is a cautionary tale about the perils of the digital world. Part dystopian near future story, part psychological horror, part loss of innocence tale, Eggers has written a deceptively simple story that offers lots of material to ponder.

Dave Eggers
Here's the premise: Mae Holland is a 20 something with no real direction in her life. Her college friend Annie snagged a great job at the Circle, though, and uses her connections to land Mae a job in the customer service department. What is the Circle? Imagine a mix of Facebook and Google, an online world that increasingly dominates both internet and real world experiences. All of one's online interactions are connected through the Circle. Watch TV online on the Circle. Chat with friends on the Circle. Rate your favorite restaurants on the Circle. It's easy. It's convenient. It's fun.

Mae is a bit of a climber and naive, and she's easily influenced. Through a series of successes and a brush with authorities, Mae becomes the guinea pig for being "transparent," the Circle's attempt to document a person's entire life. Imagine if politicians can't have secret meetings with lobbyists. No corruption, no government shutdowns, no lies. No missing children, because children will have chips implanted, and the world is a safer place. Right? Mae lives on the Circle campus, and though going transparent has led to some awkward moments (walking in on her parents' lovemaking is a zillion times worse when four million people are watching along with you), she's become the face of the Circle.

Maybe Big Brother is already watching....
Eggers is making a statement about the lack of privacy in the digital world. In the world of the Circle, can not go kayaking on the bay without the whole world commenting on it, watching it, rating it, taking a survey about it. How much is too much? Eggers isn't arguing against the digital world, but he is making the case for sanity. Grumpy Cat is okay, but bullying people to death (literally) is too much. And the world Eggers paints isn't so far fetched. Just today, there was an article--which of course I read online--about the proposed walled-in community being developed for Facebook programmers. It's a brave new world.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens went on sale this week. It's my favorite Lethem book since Motherless Brooklyn, his most autobiographical work, and a literary novel that sits in one of my personal sweet spots (from the Depression to the Red Scare, with the rise and fall of the Communist Party in the US--love it). Here are ten reasons why you should read this book.

Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Dissident Gardens

  1. It has a killer opening sentence: "Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party." Well that's an attention grabber. I mean, Gianna says similar words to me everyday, but it's a line worthy of note in a novel. Who's delivering the message, and who's receiving it? How is a black cop connected to a Communist woman? This opening line is so great that the venerable New York Times printed the f bomb without astericks. Boom.
  2. The cover. You can judge this book by it. 
  3. One of the main characters, Rose, is the cranky lady in your neighborhood who screams at the kiddies, but instead of screaming because they trample the flowers, she screams at them for not adopting her extreme leftist politics.
  4. Rose's husband was too much of a pushover to hang with her. So she sleeps with the black cop and helps raise his son. Let's face it: Rose cannot and will not just let things lie. Sort of like Gianna.
  5. Miriam, her daughter, rebels by becoming a Beatnik/hippie type. Rose may or may not shove Miriam's head in an oven within the first chapter or so.
  6. Right. Jonathan Lethem is working his way through every neighborhood in New York. He's the quintessential New York writer of this generation.
  7. Also, Lethem based Rose on his granny, who really was a big ol' commie. Let's spend a moment picturing J. Edgar Hoover examining pictures of little Johnny in his grammy's file. (Eh...maybe not. That's creepy.)
  8. Lethem works some magic with this novel, so while on the one hand you get an epic family saga, on the other you get a framework for connecting radical political thought in the United States, from the Communist Party to the Beatniks to the hippies to the Quakers to the university academics.
  9. It's a good story too.
  10. Could this book win a Pulitzer Prize? Yes. Yes it could.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Best Book of the Year So Far: Michael McCarthy

How can a film with running
in it ever be boring?
Well this is posting is very awkward. Michael, a bookseller at BookPeople decided to become my mortal enemy by not loving the film, Frances Ha. After his scathing Facebook review referred to it as,“boring,” I couldn’t bring myself to even look in his direction. We haven’t spoken in six months! Well, I mean we haven’t spoken with the exception of me asking him what his favorite book of the year has been so far (or anytime I see him at the store, or if he answers the phone when I call).  Anyway, his choice sounds boring!! Not really, I am a pretty big Willett fan. 

Here is Michael McCarthy’s pick for best book of the year so far:

2013 has brought many gifts to the reading fanatic. My favorite so far is "Amy Falls Down" by Jincy Willett. Like most of Willett's work it is hilarious and wise. There's an undercurrent of sadness, too. The plot is simple - Novelist Amy Gallup lives with her dog, teaches a writing class, and keeps her engagement with the outside world to a minimum. Then she falls down and hits her head while working in her garden. A local writer interviews her while she's still suffering from the effects of hitting her head so hard, and her loopy responses to the idiotic questions she's being asked are quoted verbatim in the article. The article attracts a lot of attention and completely changes her life. All sorts of stuff happens and I've forgotten some of it so it looks like I'll have to read this delightful book again.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Best Book of the Year So Far: Seamus McGraw

Seamus McGraw 

I became only a little obsessed with Seamus McGraw after reading his fantastic book, End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone. My obsession became full blown when I realized that Seamus and I both shared a passion for the wind in our hair and the open road. He rides a Triumph Thruxton (it's a real thing) and you can find me roaring up and down the highways of Austin on my Yamaha (more precisely my Yamaha Vino which even more precisely is less of a motorcycle and more of a scooter with a maximum speed of about 60mph ....65mph downhill bitches!). Anyway,  I guess we're kind of soul-mates. 

Here is Seamus' pick for best book of the year so far:

If, like Michael Pollan, you have the luxury of being able to spend time in a Connecticut convent learning how nuns make cheese, or hand rubbing cabbage and burying it in your backyard to make your own kimchi, chances are you have both too much time and too much money and would be unlikely to do either.

In that case, you might want to be buy a copy of Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and give it to your personal chef.

If you’re more like me, however, with too little time, too little money and much more modest ambitions, you might want to pick up a copy for yourself. There’s still something in the book for you. With his typical self-effacing wit, Pollan reminds you that even the simplest act of cooking – a basic sauce or stew for example - is an almost mystical act of transformation. And it is also an act of rebellion against a top down culture of corporatism that constantly seeks to strip us of the power to do even the most basic things for ourselves. All in all, its a good read, peopled with interesting characters, among them a monk like bread baker, and its even got a few decent recipes thrown in.

I recommend it. I do not, however, recommend making kimchi at home. 
We have people for that.