Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Miss America Meets Little Miss Mini Maid

Gianna cozying up with the judge
Miss Elizabeth from Romper Room
People often say that I have a former beauty queen vibe, that I am a picture of pure feminity.  The truth is, they’re right; I was born to ride the pageant train. I knew at the tender age of four as my tiny fingers wrapped around that bouquet of runner up flowers (rot in hell adorable winner #10!) the pageant loss would haunt me forever (and by haunt I mean scar).

Kate Shindle
I tell you this as an introduction to a book that I should have written but, unfortunately, Kate Shindle beat me to the punch. When I look at Kate it’s like looking in a mirror.  A couple of old pageant broads! Me, fresh from (in some circles forty years is still mighty fresh) the world famous Little Miss Mini Maid Contest (sponsored by Carson Pirie Scott – talk about fresh) and Kate, the 1998 Miss America Pageant winner. Like looking in a mirror…

Kate’s book, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, is part pageant history and part memoir. For example you’d be surprised to know that the pageant was started pretty much for the same reason Facebook was started: to ogle women and advertise stuff.  In the book, Kate insinuates that the pageant is a bit antiquated. As an example she tells the story of traveling to communities all over the country to talk about HIV and AIDS prevention (her platform in 1998 and still her passion today). The Pageant thought that was great but they asked her to not use the word "condom." I know, what’s so antiquated about that?  She also thinks having women parade around in bikinis in order to receive a college scholarship is…. I want to say antiquated again, but let’s just say, icky. Like we say in the Little Miss Mini Maid circles, "why in the world is someone over the age of seven even in a bikini?"  Weird.
I was robbed! (of a childhood)

I like to call Being Miss America a thinking woman’s history of the pageant. It’s not dismissive of pageant history, nor the platform and opportunities it afforded Kate, including helping pay her way through Northwestern University (yea, Shindle’s no dummy).  Her relationship with winning Miss America is complicated to say the least. She is thoughtful, fair, and honest in this really well written memoir. Oh, and now that the book is out in the world, she is totally on the Miss America Pageant’s shit list…which I sort of love her for.

Kate created a stir by not wearing
the crown in this official photo
Speaking of loving her, Kate came to Austin to meet with the publicity and marketing departments at the press. I am in the sales department but you can bet I hightailed my lesbian ass right on into that meeting.  I sat close enough to her to hold hands…which in hindsight I can see  that it made her uncomfortable every time I stretched my hand out and tried to touch hers.  Anyway, I would say we were about seven minutes into the meeting when Kate dropped the F-bomb. I couldn’t help but think…put a Johnny Walker in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and man o man, I could absolutely fall in love. Now that’s a Miss America I can get behind (but have been asked to stay at least 500 yards from. And by "asked" I mean ordered by a court).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Every year the American Library Association, schools, publishers, libraries, and bookstores around the country year Banned Books Week to draw attention to censorship and challenges to freedom of speech. Every year hundreds of books are challenged by people who have (hopefully) good intentions but think that their good intentions outweigh others' ability to make decisions for themselves. Long before I ever worked in the book industry I must have had an inkling of my future; I wrote my freshman high school research paper on the issue of censorship even as my high school refused to teach I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Because this is Banned Books Week, I think it's appropriate to feature the most divisive book I've encountered in quite awhile, Merritt Tierce's debut novel Love Me Back. If it's not being challenged yet, wait a year.

I don't think it's possible to read Love Me Back and not react powerfully. Reviewers have described it as "raw," "blunt," "dark," "uncompromising." It's compulsive reading even when you don't want to follow where it's leading. Sometimes it hits too close to home. Often the book is harrowing. Divisive books, though, are the ones that push us to grow individually and as a society. I thought it was brilliant (and disturbing); I have colleagues whose opinions I value who were repelled.

Here's the deal: Love Me Back is the story of Marie, a waitress working through a series of restaurants in Texas until she lands at a high end steak house in Dallas. She's incredibly good at her job, mechanically serving celebrities and businessmen and sports stars each night. She's also a girl (and I deliberately use "girl" instead of "woman" because Marie seems emotionally stuck after events derailed her college plans) with demons and prone to dangerous behaviors.

Merritt Tierce
In scattered chapters throughout the book, we discover Marie's back story. A good Christian girl growing up in a good Christian home, she participates in a youth mission trip to Mexico. While there, she sleeps with a boy on the trip, and--let's just assume she received the Texas school sex ed--she becomes pregnant. Instead of going to college and fulfilling the track of good white girls from good Texas church-going families, she stays home, marries the boy even though she barely knows him, and has a baby. She's set adrift by the abrupt turn her life has taken and, unable to right the ship, she accepts the restaurant culture of booze, drugs, and sex. Marie is a fractured person, but she still manages to function enough to keep from either breaking down completely or finding help.

Merritt Tierce was named as one of the 5 Under 35 authors to watch, a big deal in the publishing world because it signals that here is a new voice that will challenge readers and the state of books. It's like being named ESPN's #1 high school football recruit with the expectation that the player will become the next Peyton Manning. This recognition will guarantee that critics take Merritt Tierce seriously. She's talented. She deserves that respect. However, what more impresses me is that she is a talented woman who's written a fairly autobiographical novel that challenges a ton of the controversial topics that mostly people attempt to ignore, particularly in the mannered South and Texas.

Photo credit: Getty Images
What is Marie's story if she lived in a place with easy access to birth control and accurate sex ed? What is her story if she lived in a place where sinners aren't shamed and condemned? I think Love Me Back digs in and addresses those questions in a way that hasn't been attempted in a long time. Marie reminded me of girls I knew in high school, girls I knew in college, the women I worked with at almost minimum wage after I graduated and didn't have a career trajectory and felt lost myself. Are there really so many steps from my life now as a moderately successful woman with a house and a cat and a pretty good job and a handful of amazing friends and the Liz that could have been? I worked a crappy restaurant job one summer (fast food, Sonic carhop, no roller skates), and apart from the high school girls working part time for gas money, my coworkers were women in their 50's who'd each had numerous marriages and multiple kids in and out of wedlock and their daughters were then pregnant with their first babies and you could look at them and wonder what they'd dreamed about doing when they were good kids in high school.

Love Me Back is a restaurant book. Merritt Tierce actually worked in the Olive Garden in Abilene where Gianna once locked my keys in the car. Fans of Kitchen Confidential will recognize types like the managers and owners and cooks and wait staff. Love Me Back is a Texas book, rooted in the traditional values of religion and shame. Love Me Back is a feminist book that doesn't flinch from the label. Love Me Back is the kind of book that censors love to hate. Love Me Back is powerful, compulsive, obsessive reading that dares you to flinch. Is this a book that everyone will like? God, I hope not. I think it pushes buttons that need to be pushed and that's going to upset a lot of people. But Love Me Back is also a book I champion. I want it to upset people. Maybe upset people will see the invisible Maries of the world and question how they came to be.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Sight I Can't Unsee

It's been way too long since our humble little blog has ventured into the, shall we say, scatological, and probably even longer since we've shared an adventure from the road. I don't want to lose our edge, let any of you loyal readers down in terms of topics for future therapy sessions, or let Gianna off the hook. It's been awhile since she's posted and maybe a rapid slide into the gutter might serve as encouragement for her more genteel musings on Book Land.
Going nowhere fast.

I just entered the travel portion of my selling season for the Spring 2015 list. There are some great books coming and it's a pleasure visiting my assorted bookstore pals around my territory. Happy thoughts, etc. I spent Monday and Tuesday morning in New Orleans, and then planned to drive to Jackson, Mississippi, in the afternoon in order to meet with the Lemuria Books staff at 7 pm. I had about five hours to make the three hour journey, so everything was looking good. At 4:35, I had passed a sign saying that Jackson was ten miles away. No problem. Right?

Then the Law of Liz kicked in. I am the source of all woe and ridiculousness in the universe. I-55 is under construction in this stretch of highway, so most of the exits are closed and there are concrete barriers on either side of the two lanes going each direction. I was trapped, in other words, just as a power line fell across the highway a couple of miles in front of me and the whole interstate shut down. GRINDING HALT. I was fine--I always keep water in my car and I still had a couple of hours before my presentation, and I texted my colleague Toni to let her know that I might be late. Mostly I was bored.
I may be ugly, but I didn't go to the trouble to make a
stupid window sign and then misspell "you're."

A few people in front of me hopped out of their cars, walked across the southbound lanes of the highway (which were empty), and then climbed up an embankment to a gas station along the road that crossed over the highway close to where I was parked. I'm assuming they needed to pee. The woman behind me never once hung up her phone. The man in front of me smoked. I listened to an audiobook and stared out the windows.

And then I noticed that there was a homeless man sitting up underneath the overpass. I hadn't noticed him earlier because he wasn't moving. I did notice him, though, when he stood up. I noticed him even more when he turned around and dropped his pants so that I was looking at butt cheeks. And then he proceeded to poop in front of the stalled rush hour traffic. The man obviously didn't suffer from any sort of body shaming. I was sitting there watching a homeless man poop and thinking 1. I can't wait to tell Gianna about this, and 2. I should take a picture and send it to Toni, and 3. I absolutely am putting this shit on the blog...and then the turd started to slide down the concrete embankment. I'm not kidding. Here's the text conversation I was having with Toni at the time:

Coincidentally, a truck full of Port-a-Potties drove across the overpass about two minutes after the Great Pooping of 2014, providing a perfect example of my biggest pet peeve about the South: they are always late for everything. After a good ten minutes, the man did finally cover his cheeks with the pants around his ankles and eventually walked up the side of the highway. He could walk away from the sight. Sadly I could not.

And now I've shared the story with the world. You're welcome.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Testing Belief with Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan, perhaps more than any other writer these days, regularly addresses the moral and On Chesil Beach to the political deceit in his Cold War literary thriller Sweet Tooth, to the sweeping family drama and questioning of perceptions in Atonement, Ian McEwan is going to question how we make decisions and point out that life isn't black and white. That brings me to his newest novel, released this week, The Children Act.
ethical ambiguities of "civilized" society. From the conflicted feelings and revelations exposed to a newly married couple in his pithy, classic

I think The Children Act is McEwan's best work in a decade, and I say that as a fan who has enjoyed most of his books. I also think that The Children Act is shockingly relevant to ethical questions that seem to be becoming the center of the cultural conflicts. It's short, like On Chesil Beach, and there's something to be said with just spending a day or two with a book rather than slogging through, say, Infinite Jest (I feel obligated to remind the world how overrated I find Infinite Jest, lest the world begins to think that I'm a softy and/or aging alterna-teen kid of the 90's). It's also shocking in the way that Atonement pushed boundaries.

Booker Prize winning author
Ian McEwan
The main character: an aging family court judge in the UK named Fiona. Fiona takes her job home with her, pondering cases as well as her childlessness and her relationship over the last 30 years with her husband. Just as the stability in Fiona's personal life is shaken when her husband asks for an open marriage, she finds herself at the center of a court case that challenges her belief in the law.

The case: a 17 year-old boy named Adam is suffering from leukemia and will die without a blood transfusion. With the transfusion, though, the doctors believe he has a good chance at recovering and going into remission. The problem, though, is that Adam is a Jehovah's Witness and his religious faith forbids blood transfusions. He, as teenagers tend to be, is resolute in his absolute belief in the will of God, as are his parents and preacher. The hospital, though, sues to have custodial rights since his life is at stake and he's still a minor. This is the case that Fiona must decide--to side with personal faith or ethical duty.

Fiona and Adam are both remarkable, fully realized characters, and both show a respect for the opposite that are absent in, say, my own furious reaction to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and anything uttered from the lips of Ted Cruz. Or in the evangelical conservatives' reactions to Obamacare and Terry Shiavo. This is an intimate novel that questions the institutions we rely upon for security, be it a marriage or the law or God. The Children Act looks for that point where divine intervention and human knowledge intersect and then pushes readers to see both sides of an issue with no easy answer. It's a novel that should be read and discussed and challenged. I'm a big, big fan of this book.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Reading shouldn't be a chore. Reading should enlighten. Reading should delight. Reading should expand our worlds. Reading should be entertaining. If you bother to read this blog, either you're a lifelong reader or Gianna has naked pictures of you (not judging). Readers are made when they find books that capture them, usually in childhood, and the greatest pleasure for adult readers comes in hints of that magic again even as grown-ups. For my colleagues at Penguin Random House and me, Station Eleven is that book. We believe in this book. We love this book. We think that you will love it too. Here's why:
  1. Station Eleven is dystopian fiction, and yes there are a ton of end-of-the-world books out there, but this one is different. Set 20 years after a global flu pandemic has wiped out much of the population, this book is more about what survives than what's destroyed. 
  2. Station Eleven plays with Shakespeare. The whole premise of the narrative is that a girl who was performing in a version of King Lear when the flu hit belongs to a theater troupe whose mission is to bring Shakespeare and music to the communities that have survived. 
  3. Station Eleven is therefore a love song to literature and music and the power that can be found in storytelling. I recently watched Monuments Men (not a great movie) about the small group of art historians who scoured Europe to recover the stolen works of art that the Nazis looted in World War II. Why risk your life for a painting? Civilization exists through our arts. To destroy a group of people, destroy their art and music and writing. Station Eleven gets that. 
  4. Station Eleven is a great story. The Traveling Symphony moves into a town hoping to rendezvous with two of their members who'd stayed behind a couple of years earlier in order to have a child. When they arrive back in the town, though, they find no sign of their friends and are threatened by the new leader of the community, a man known as The Prophet.
    Author Emily St. John Mandel
  5. Station Eleven has compelling characters. From Arthur, a Hollywood star whose career has slipped to the point that he's the headliner in a regional production of King Lear, to Jeevan, the paramedic who tries to save Arthur when he collapses on stage, to Kirsten, the girl in the play who ends up joining The Traveling Symphony, to the woman who created "Station Eleven," the graphic novel that pops up throughout the book, to The Prophet. You want to spend time with these people. 
  6. Station Eleven is a celebration of what we take for granted everyday, from clean water to electricity to fresh produce in grocery stores to the clothes we wear. What would you miss most if the world came to a screeching halt tomorrow? (I'm guessing your answer is not "this blog.") I think I'd miss reading light in the evening. Flickering light gives me migraines, so I probably wouldn't be able to read by firelight. 
  7. Station Eleven captures an idea I think about a lot, that we create our own families and are sustained by these relationships. While I am often comfortable alone, I need other people to pull me out of my head and remind me that the world is bigger than just my own interior craziness and the antics of a spoiled cat. I don't need an apocalypse for me to realize this fact, but I appreciate books that remind me that I can't be the recluse I sometimes fantasize about becoming.
  8. Station Eleven is written by a super-talented writer who deserves to have a megahit bestseller. Emily
    Emily St. John Mandel dropped by the Penguin Random House
    warehouse to sign copies for our bookstores. She signed a
    few thousand books that day.
    St. John Mandel has been a bookseller favorite for years, but it's time that the rest of the world figures out how incredible she is at spinning a great story.
  9. Station Eleven is a book you won't want to end. I rarely say that about any book, but in this case it's the truth.
  10. Station Eleven is the book that ALL of my fellow sales reps loved. This never happens. We are a bunch of jaded readers who sometimes slog through books like they are homework rather than recall that we get to read books and work with books all the time. The last time we shared such enthusiasm for a book, it was The Night Circus. The hive mind has been waiting for the release date of Station Eleven for months. It's here. It goes on sale on Tuesday, September 9. 
I implore you to read Station Eleven. I hope you love it as much as I do.