Books: Challenge Yourself

IMG_0209I’m not a fan of reading books for “bragging rights”. Making your way through “Infinite Jest” or “Finnegans Wake” just to say you did is silly. They don’t give out reading awards to people over the age of ten. You should be reading long or challenging books for the pleasure of reading them, not to seem cool. And reading DFW does the opposite of making you look cool.

So why read challenging books at all? Why not just read Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, YA, and John Grisham? They have easy words, easy plots, and are quick and easy to digest. But… that doesn’t sound fun to me. Or stimulating. Reading only easy books will make your mind complacent and lazy. The more “candy” you take in, the harder it will be to digest “real” material. So why not challenge yourself with a book which has difficult vocabulary or themes? How about picking a book with an uncomfortable or difficult subject matter? Maybe challenge yourself by reading a book where the author plays with form and style? If you have never asked these questions of yourself, then I’d bet you are not challenging yourself as a reader. If you don’t consider form and style when you choose a book, or you don’t think about complex themes… ask yourself why not? Reading isn’t always comfortable, nor should it be. Growth hurts. It can be painful. But challenging yourself is the only way to grow.

The following books demand something from the reader. Nothing will be spoon-fed. No silly plot twists just for the sake of it. What you will find are rich and complicated storylines, beautiful, strange, or ugly language, uncomfortable themes and characters. And hopefully some new favorite books!

*As always, my lists are made up of ONLY first-hand knowledge. That means, no books appear on this list which I haven’t read. Sorry!

  1. A Bloodsmoor Romance, by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the book the prompted this entire post. I have read MANY books by JCO. I adore her. I could put any of her books on this list because she is an incredible writer. But this book is different. Almost like she is showing off. JCO writes the entire book in a Gothic style, and Victorian language! At 700+ pages, it is taking me forever to read, but it is SO GOOD! It’s like… Stephen King writes Little Women. Kind of. It defies categorization (yay!) and tackles racism, feminism, the golden age of invention, cross-dressing, spiritualism and… hell… just read it. If you dare. It isn’t easy, but it sure is fun. I really want Guillermo Del Toro to read it and make a movie of it, if that helps. 
  2. Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill – Tough girls. Tough streets. Drugs. Sex. Violence. The short story which inspired the lovely film, Secretary can be found in this slim volume of stories. Gaitskill is a master of gritty and uncomfortable, and her writing is subtle and dotted with humor. A character in the story “Connection” has this to say about careers. “I want to work at Dunkin’ Donuts when I get out of school. I want to get fat. Or be addicted to heroin. I want to be a disaster.” How can you not want to read that?
  3. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron – This book wrecked me. For weeks after I couldn’t pick up another book. So painfully vivid and raw, I dare you to read it without crying.
  4. Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox – 81lrmJgwuKLThis novel, written in 1970, took me completely by surprise. The novel follows Sophie and Otto, early Gentrifiers of New York in the late 1960’s, long before the word was a word. They are a childless couple caught up in a changing world: Too old for the rebellion, and too young not to feel tormented by it. Otto dwells on images of filth and disease, seems to hate the young and is on the verge of rage. But it is really Sophie who pushes the novel forward in an uncomfortable progression of bad choices. A simple cat bite makes for a compelling story. Sophie and Otto would be amazed to see the world today! The prose is economical, short and worthy of Faulkner or Tolstoy. “He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.”
  5. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad – The horror! The horror! Dense, and layered with symbolism, challenging vocabulary and extensive literary devices, this slim little book is not as easy as it looks. An unsettling look at imperialism and the horrific human consequences of such savagery. 
  6. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber – Mr. Faber doesn’t write the same book over and over again.He doesn’t even come close. All of his books are challenging, but The Book of Strange New Things is masterfully done. It’s a scifi book, but it is also very literary. Times reviewer Marcel Theroux calls it, “an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence.” There.
  7. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess – This book has a glossary in the back even though it is written in “english”. The nasty lads in this novel have their own slang, and it takes a while to get used to it. It’s a rough and exhausting little novel, but well worth the read. I showered like.. twice after.
  8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – This awesome book is a challenge on every level. The paperback weighs in at 1006 pages, and I’d say a hefty amount of those pages is dedicated to footnotes. This book is so much fun, but you have to put the work in. Magic has returned to London… or has it? The two magicians of the title are entwined in a battle for power (magical power!) and fairies and other magical beings are afoot.Clarke seamlessly blends fiction and reality to the point where you aren’t really sure if magic isn’t real.
  9. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I like to be in a locksongofsolomoned room with cushioned walls, and no distractions when I read Toni Morrison. She takes for granted that her readers are educated enough to understand the way she uses unconventional approaches to both plot and style. She mixes past and present in the form of different… persons. The narrator is present and an observer, but also able to see inside the characters. And, a cool bit of trivia about this book: The protagonist, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, was the inspiration for the band “The Dead Milkmen” to take their name. Toni Morrison thusly (partially) responsible for one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.
  10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  by Jon Le Carre – I still have no idea what happened in this book. I even watched the film and it just made me more confused. The book is about spies, right? And all spies have code names, right? Right. And each agency has it’s own code-names. And double agents have double, code-names. Even places have code-names. Anyway, I read it and it was really hard. Really hard. Like, don’t read it on a bus, hard. I’ve read a few of his other books and found them very enjoyable, so I gave this one a second chance. It’s well worth the read if you like intrigue, but keep a cheat sheet of code names handy. Seriously. 

Books: A Year in Reading 2014

bandits-book-art

This poster is from Anagram Bookshop in Prague, where I used to work. It was a great little shop.

I am a book stacker. When I die I expect my body to be found under a pile of books. I stockpile. There could be some sort of book shortage, or even worse, Book Zombies! I’ll only have access to what is in my home! I’ll need variety. But seriously folks, I never know what I’ll want to read next. I choose what book to read based purely on my mood. When I finish a book like Lawrence Wright’s AMAZING Going Clear, which EVERYONE SHOULD READ, I like to follow it up with something a little lighter, like Stephen King or Joe Hill. I like variety so I read everything. Reading only one type of book is like listening to only one type of music – boring. We read to have new experiences and learn new things. And we can’t do much of either if we read the same kinds of stories over and over. That would be the equivalent of wearing the same outfit every day for the rest of your life. And nobody wants to be that guy.

I started out 2014 on a road trip from Texas to California with a Stephen King book tucked in my bag. Today I type this from a tiny studio in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, while Ray Bradbury’s lovely Dandelion Wine sits next to me patiently awaiting completion. I looked at the books I read this year and couldn’t find a common theme. Some books were about solitude and loneliness, and others about love seeking robots. There were flesh-eating zombies and murderous humans. There was even a mansion in a trash heap. I learned everything I need to know about Scientology and cheese, and reminisced about London with the incomparable Zadie Smith. I read historical fiction set in Texas and the Appalachian Mountains. I read a somewhat funny book about a not so jewish dentist, and an even funnier book about a whiskey drinking’ duck named Fup.

My reading list was all over the map, just like I was.

Since people are always asking me to give them book suggestions, I have put together a doozie for ya. Here is the best of what I read this year. In no particular order. I divided them into helpful categories because I work in a bookstore, and that’s what we do. I left out the few clunkers I read so you don’t have to suffer needlessly. You’ll have to look them up for yourself, or go to your local bookstore and take a look. Just write down the title and author before you go. We thank you in advance.

FICTION

  1. N-W, by Zadie Smith
  2. Serena, by Ron Rash
  3. The Wilds, by Julia Elliott
  4. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly
  5. Hold the Dark, by William Giraldi
  6. Fup, by Jim Dodge
  7. The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta
  8. Mildred Pierce, by James M. Caine
  9. You Must Remember This, by Joyce Carol Oates
  10. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, ed Kate Bernheimer
  11. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  12. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
  13. The Children Act by Ian McEwan
  14. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Be warned. This book has an almost intolerable narrator. A good book, but man. Paragraphs go on for PAGES with no interruption.)
  15. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

NON-FICTION

  1. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright
  2. The Telling Room, by Michael Paterniti
  3. Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

HORROR/THRILLER

  1. Bag of Bones, by Stephen King
  2. Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess
  3. Horns, by Joe Hill
  4. *The Quick by Lauren Owen
  5. Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
  6. Her by Harriet Lane
  7. Crooked River by Valerie Geary

*This title is in horror only due to subject matter and style. It isn’t horror like Stephen King. It is literary like Dracula, or Haunting of Hill House. 

KIDS

  1. Heap House (Iremonger, #1) by Edward Carey
  2. The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

The Most Detestable Ladies of Literature

urlI just finished reading Serena by Ron Rash and it rocked my world. The title character is a Scarlet O’Hara type, obsessed with land and willing to do anything to get it. She gets what she wants by any means necessary. I loved the book so much it lead me to think about all the other lecherous yet awesome females of literature, and how they are far more memorable than any princess will ever be.

In honor of Serena, here is my list of the most detestable ladies of literature. PS – This may include spoilers. No endings are given away, but I do let you know some of the more colorful aspects to these characters. 

  1. Serena (Serena by Ron Rash)- This lady makes Scarlet O’Hara look more like Melanie Wilkes. Serena is a take no shit woman who gets what she wants. No matter what the price. Oh and she also has a trained eagle she keeps with her. Like a boss. Jennifer Lawrence will be playing the role on the big screen (against Bradley Cooper, of course) in February, so you heard it here first. Read the book! I promise it won’t disappoint. Ron Rash is a fantastic writer and the Appalachian mountains come alive with his lovely style and prose. Oh, and guys! this is NOT some chick lit romance, so don’t let the cover fool you. It’s about timber loggers in the 1930’s and it has lots of death and killing and intrigue. You’ll dig it, I promise.
  2. gone-with-the-windScarlet O’Hara (Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell) – While Scarlet brings to mind thoughts of romance and swelling music, Scarlet O’Hara is not a nice person. She is admirable on one hand, doing what needs to be done, but on the other hand completely loathsome. I mean, Ashley Wilkes is a simple dullard so he almost deserves the treatment Scarlet forces him to endure. But she is horrid. She deliberately steals her sisters man. She deliberately hires convicts to work in her factory in order to save money. And she beats them. She is selfish and spoiled, rude and entitled. Yet we all love her for her spunk and tenacity. For me her drive and determination make all the rest seem okay. It’s not her fault she’s smarter and prettier than her sister.
  3. Beatrice Lacey (Wideacre by Philippa Gregory) – 61I7PIe1MLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Like the two ladies on this list ahead of her, Beatrice Lacey is obsessed with her land and will stop at nothing to keep it. Adultery and murder are all in a days work for Beatrice Lacey. The things that Beatrice does in this book will make you slam it closed in horror only to open it again just as quick to see what happens next. It is so much fun! But be warned, this book is not for the faint of heart. Incest and bondage are just a few things to look forward to in this crazy book. The first in a trilogy that will have you hooked from beginning to end. If you can endure the crazy, that is.
  4. 230-MThe White Witch (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis) This bitch killed Christmas. It doesn’t get much worse than that. She banished all sense of happiness and hope, and She turns her enemies into stone. That’s wicked cool. Pun totally intended. Whats more, she isn’t a nice person. She’s cold and dispassionate, cruel and mean. She uses her magic to terrorize anyone who crosses her. She’s alluring, proud, and cruel – a deadly combination when you take into account her army of demons and dark monsters. Seriously. She had dwarfs and giants working side by side with wraiths and minotaurs. MINOTAURS! It’s always winter and never Christmas, and you won’t be getting any gifts this year. I’m Tilda. Bitch.
  5. Annie Wilkes (Misery by Stephen King) – dreams-as-inspiration-stephen-king-185x300I’m a big fan of Stephen King, but I would never kidnap him and force him to write stories for my approval. Or would I? Come to think of it, that sounds kind of awesome. I mean I wouldn’t torture him or anything, just make him watch Thinner and Maximum Overdrive on replay until he makes up a better ending to Under the Dome. I think that is a just punishment. Anyway, Annie Wilkes subjects poor Paul Sheldon to psychological and physical torture for a really long time. And she kills people. Oh, and then we find out that she’s an infamous serial killer. She stabs a state trooper with a wooden cross and runs him over with a lawnmower, after having chopped Sheldon’s foot off with an axe, setting it alight with a blowtorch. See, I’m nice compared to Annie Wilkes.
  6. Rebecca-Baylay-CoverMrs. Danvers (Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier) – Mrs. Danvers is pretty much the scariest person I can imagine sharing time with in a creepy gothic mansion. She’s tall and gaunt and pointy looking. In the novel she is often described as having a white skull face. See? Creepy. She wears all black and she’s mean as they come. She’s like a vampire, all death and decay. She’s always creeping around some dark hallway, spying on someone with her ear to the door, or her eye to the key hole. She’s a sneaky manipulative bully and downright nasty. I won’t divulge any more because she’s a pretty fun part of the book, but just steer clear of any open windows when she’s around.
  7. Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) – philipp-dornbierer-1Let me start by stating up front that I am not a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his books about rich people problems. That being said, I rather liked The Great Gatsby. And I liked it largely in part to Daisy Buchanan. Although every single character in this novel deserves a punch in the face, Daisy deserves just a few extra ones for being such a coked-up, self-absorbed brat. Is there a more insufferable character in all of literature? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with Daisy Buchanan any time soon. Sure she may not be as repugnant as her husband Tom, but if that is the best thing we can say about her, then there is an issue. Daisy embodies all of the garish shallowness of the 1920’s and flaunts it with pride and ease. I mean come on, anyone who says this deserves a punch in the face. “I hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
  8. Gone-Girl-by-Gillian-Flynn-gone-girl-37441442-1181-1810Amy Dunne (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) – This is the only book on the list which I have not actually read. I did however see the movie and was told it stays pretty faithful. That being said, Amy Dunne is a bad, bad woman. She goes well beyond bitch, tackles bat shit crazy and goes for the title of all out psychopath. On the surface Amy Dunne is the quintessential, all American “Girl Next Door”. She’s beautiful, funny, smart, and people want to be around her. Some people. She was the inspiration for a (fictional) children’s book series Amazing Amy. She’s famous. But underneath the Amazing Amy exterior is a crumbling marriage hiding a multitude of secrets. While we might understand why Amy is a total head case, it doesn’t excuse the absolute cold manor in which she manipulates everyone around her. The most dangerous thing about Amy is that she will do absolutely anything- lie, cheat, steal, kill – to get her way.
  9. Veda Pierce (Mildred Piece by James M. Cain) – fee16efd06a6dc540df9d81dc27267c6If there is a worse child in all of literature than Veda Peirce, then I’d like to see them in a death match. And my money would be on Veda. Veda is annoying for starters. She wants to hang out with the cool, rich kids in Pasadena, but they live crappy, crappy Glendale. Thanks a lot, mom! (Having grown up in Pasadena, this part of the plot had me in stitches.) Veda blames her poor, workhorse of a mother for everything bad that happens in her life, then manipulates her with emotional blackmail. And that’s just for starters. Mildred tried to give her daughter everything; voice lessons, piano lessons, a piano, new clothes, but nothing was ever good enough for Veda. Her insatiable appetite was only matched by the pleasure she took in torturing her mother. Which is hard to endure as a reader. You just want to shake Mildred until she wakes up and sees Veda for what she is: a total nightmare. But Mildred is always forgiving, and that is exactly what Veda counts on. For Mildred, what other choice is there but to just get stinko?
  10. Little-WomenAmy March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott) – Okay, this might be a little unconventional, but I stand by my choice. First off, Amy is the youngest child which makes her annoying by default. She is a beautiful little girl who grows into a beautiful young woman and she knows it. A blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty who is a little obsessed with her own good looks. Except for her nose. She would totally have a nose job if she were living today (#nosejob) Amy uses her feminine charms to her advantage, a stark contrast to her much cooler and more homely sister, Jo. She is also obsessed with all things upper crust. She is keen to move up in the world and marry well. (Yawn). As a young girl she gets in trouble at school and vows never to return. And doesn’t! She gets home schooled, which is exactly what she wants. Later, her sisters don’t invite her to play with them, so as revenge, she burns Jo’s manuscript! Burns it! No computer back ups. All hand written. Seriously, if you burn my manuscript I might just let you drown in that frozen pond. Brat. I’d like to see Amy, and Daisy and Veda living in a house together Real World style. I would totally watch that show.

Books: 13 Badass Babes From Literature

normanrockwell-4When I decided to make a list of kick-ass female characters from literature, I wanted to use only characters from adult fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. It’s fairly easy to find awesome female characters aimed at making young girls believe they can grow up to do or be anything. Katniss, Hermione, Violet Baudelaire – all of them are awesome and smart and feisty. But they are also all teenagers. Every list I found of “The Best Female Characters in Books” was full of YA or children’s characters. Aren’t there any cool female characters who are all grown up? Answering that question proved a little harder than I hoped. It made me angry that every literary female cited was under twenty.

Unfortunately the adult world of literature favors men. MEN have adventures. MEN fight dragons. MEN go to war. And MEN live full lives. Perhaps it’s because girls are encouraged to be active, seek adventure, and be daring. Women are encouraged to make babies and seek a husband. How dull. How sad. But I managed to put together a list of thirteen of the most badass ladies in literature despite the stereotypes. The only criteria: 1. It must be a book that I have read. Personally. 2. Must be a book aimed at adults.

  1. Jo March (Little Women) – Smart, impulsive, argumentative, tomboyish, and hot-tempered. Jo March loves life and wants to participate. Much like the author Louisa May Alcott, Jo was a rebel. She is forced to live a life that doesn’t suit her and soon yearns for more. She is a writer, and her main focus is writing. Not romantic love. Although she does have romance in her life, it isn’t what defines her. I love Jo. My good fellow. 
  2. Jane Eyre9780143106159She’s my favorite character of the Brontë universe. Throughout the novel Jane possesses a sense of self-worth and dignity.  She’s only a mouse, but underneath she is a tiger. Her integrity is tested over the course of the novel, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself. She’s self-reliant and never expects to be “rescued” from her circumstances. Jane Eyre has always been a hero of mine. A woman trying to find balance between her need for freedom and her yearning for love, and often voicing radical opinions on sex, gender, religion and social class. Bad. Ass.
  3. Elphaba Thropp (Wicked) – Even before this book became a hit musical with songs that annoy karaoke participants to this very day, I was singing its praises. Long before TV and movies got on board with the “new twist on classic tales” idea, Gregory Maguire had it nailed. He created a Wicked Witch of the West that was vulnerable, kind and funny. A true hero. She’s tough, smart, sassy and green. And like the song says, it’s not easy being green.
  4. Marian McAlpin (The Edible Woman) – Margaret Atwood tells the story of a young single woman who works for a market research company. Unable to foresee a fulfilling career, she begins to worry about her future and about what she might become. She soon realizes that her relationship with her boyfriend Peter is more serious than she would like. Yet when Peter proposes marriage, Marian accepts. A story I whole heartedly related to when I read it. Marian has an affair and develops one of the best eating disorders I’ve ever seen in print. A woman, like Emma Bovary in some ways, has to determine her own worth and her place in her own life.
  5. Miss Jane Marple – She’s not what you think of when you think of detective, but she’s one of the best. Long before Jessica Fletcher was out solving crimes, Miss Jane Marple was doing it better. A shrewd observer and a natural genius, Miss Marple proves herself a match for every murder she meets. Sure, I’m more of a Poirot fan, but even I have to give props to Agatha Christie’s tour de force, Miss Marple. A cheerful person who always expects the worst. How can you not love her?
  6. Scarlet O’Hara – A dark-haired, green-eyed, spoiled brat of a beauty takes center stage in this novel of the south. screen-shot-2013-06-29-at-4-32-01-pmShe’s not nice. And that is exactly what I like about her. Scarlet gets shit done. And if you are in her way, good luck to you. She proved to be strong, smart, and even a shrewd business woman who always gets what she wants. She embodies the old and new south, and struggles with those ideas internally. She adapts to what life throws at her and doesn’t just survive. She thrives.
  7. Mildred Pierce – At first glance, Mildred Pierce is a dumb woman who lets people manipulate her. But that’s not all Mildred Pierce is. The story takes place right after the depression in Southern California, and Mildred finds herself needing to work for the first time ever. Her spoiled daughter is embarrassed of her. Her best friend tells her to use her femininity to her advantage, use men for what she can get out of them. But Mildred instead chooses to start her own business, earn her own money and take control of her own life. Bad. Ass.
  8. Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) – All that we know of Catherine is second-hand, filtered through diaries and memories. 2c0ad9efeee96800985915d822546939She is a literal ghost at the opening of the novel. She is a woman torn between two loves and two worlds – Edgar and Heathcliff. Her choice of husband is the turning point of the novel, and when the nastiness begins. She manages to become a “lady” – a snobby brat who gets her way – but underneath is still that strong, wild woman who wants love and freedom. She’s a ghost for the majority of the novel. That says something about the strength of her character.
  9. Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) – A is for Adultery. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter is ostracised in 17th-century Boston for giving birth to a daughter out-of-wedlock. This story shines a bright light into the world of suffocating American puritanism that still exists today.  Hester endures shame and scorn for a situation she could hardly control, and a situation she was not alone in. It takes two to tango, ya know. Hester was forced to marry an old man and while waiting for him in to come to Massachusetts, she meets a charismatic minister and has an affair with him. I wonder who gets punished for that one? I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t the minister. Hester is an independent woman, and a free-thinker in a time when none of that was okay to do. If you were a woman.
  10. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) – A poor orphan of low birth, Becky Sharp is a born hustler and social climber who manages to raise herself to the upper limits of high society and wealth. Evil doer or misunderstood woman ahead of her time? 20111017071648-vanity_fair_coverThackeray never actually reveals whether she is guilty or innocent of the crimes that cause her reputation’s crash. Sure, she is constantly stealing from her creditors, allowing Rowden’s gambling to disrupt her friendships, and pulling con jobs, but somehow the narrator makes these sound comical rather than evil. I feel like Becky only committed crimes of circumstance or survival. Any woman in her place would do the same thing. Okay, she’s not the best mom in the world, but not every woman wants a child. And I don’t think Becky wanted to be a mother.
  11. Claire Fraser (Outlander series) – She’s a no-nonsense nurse and all around badass. Oh, and she also time travels. Cool, right? I read the Outlander series back in 1992, and I’ve been recommending them ever since. See, she’s married to a guy in the 20th century, but meets an even hotter guy when she is transported back to the 18th century. Claire has a quick tongue, a hot temper and she’s smart. Sure she gets into trouble, but watching her get out of trouble is half the fun. It was the first time I had read a book where a woman was having the adventure, time traveling, and making decisions that changed the course of the story. And history.
  12. Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) – Okay, she might be a sociopath, but given the circumstances of the novel, I feel alright with that. She’s a feisty, world-class computer hacker with a photographic memory, and she’s also the survivor of an abusive childhood. That’s why she’s anti-social. And why she has just a teeny, tiny violent streak. If you fuck with Lisbeth Salander, you better be a fast runner.
  13. Auntie Mame (Auntie Mame) – This is the story of a ten year-old boy who is sent to live with his zany aunt. And before I go any further, I want to state that I think the world needs more zany aunts. 1549471_10152037290632496_1516082930_nAuntie Mame is a worldly, hilarious, irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, and all around awesome guardian of her little nephew Patrick. Mame’s life is filled with parties, travel, bathtub gin, caviar, Broadway stars and Indian mystics. The perfect environment for raising a well-rounded kid. No. Seriously. Mame believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they’re bound to be more interesting, and being yourself no matter what the assholes of the world think of you. These are valuable lessons to learn at any age. My life motto is from this book: “Life is a banquet” she says, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (The picture here is my vey own first edition of “Around the World with Auntie Mame”)

Books: 2014 Reading Challenge (So Far)

Paterniti_TheTellingRoom-200x300I challenged myself to read 50 books last year and I came up short. Life and travel and television got in the way. But I don’t make excuses. I just set better goals. This year my challenge was to read twenty-five books and I’m already finished with nineteen of them. I think working in a bookstore helps.

So here are the nineteen books I’ve started and completed this year. In the order I read them. I gave each book a “star rating” and a brief review.

  1. Bag of Bones by Stephen King (736 pages) – **** I devoured this book. This is a ghost story and it’s scary. A writer must face his own demons, and maybe some actual demons in a small Maine town. Of course. Fans of King will enjoy this book, and non fans will see what all of the fuss is about.
  2. N-W by Zadie Smith (296 pages) – ***** SO GOOD! Zadie Smith writes about London in a way only a true Londoner could. She uses slang, style and prose to make this book come alive. It’s the story of four adult Londoners who tragically and comically adapt to life as grown-ups. Smith is a master of style, tone and prose. Lovely.
  3. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (576 pages) *** – I only gave this three stars because there are a few (very few) stories in here that didn’t make the grade. All in all though, this book was a lot of fun. Great retellings of classic fairy tales and written by some great writers like Michael Cunningham and Joyce Carol Oates.
  4. The Apothecary by Malie Meloy (384 pages) *** – This was a fun adventure for kids. It follows a young girl and her family as they flee from the Red Scare and Blacklisting that is going on in America. Full of history, magic potions and adventure, this book will make you smile. The first in a series aimed at intermediate readers.
  5. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (258 pages) – *** As a bookseller I felt I had to read this. It was a cute little book filled with inside jokes for avid readers. Nothing complex here in language, style or theme, but a good little book.
  6. Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (240 pages) *** The story of a family living together in a small Bombay apartment. Mom is slipping deeper and deeper into maddness and dad (The Big Hoom) is just trying to keep going. A surprisingly funny book that was tender and heart felt at the same time.
  7. Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (304 pages) ** – Eh. Another book for middle readers, but it was just alright. I would pick a dozen books over this one for kids, but at the same time the message was a good one: It’s okay to be different. But there are plenty of better books out there with the same message.
  8. Monday, Monday by Elizabeth Crook (352 pages) – * I was SO disappointed in this book. It tells the story of a group of people all brought together by the tragic shooting at U of T in the sixties. It was overwrought and completely predictable. If you want a family saga that spans decades, read Joyce Carol Oates instead. Skip this book.
  9. You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates (436 pages) – **** Oates is a master of epic family drama. This book tells the story of one family and their struggle to make it in America in the 50’s. It captures the decade perfectly. The story follows one family in up state NY and delves into each of their lives. Of course there are sexual taboos, violence and even boxing. What else would you expect from JCO?
  10. The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver (448 pages) – ** Bored. I’d never read Deaver before and I doubt I will again. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it was just basic. This book didn’t challenge my intellect and it was fairly predictable. There are better detective mysteries out there.
  11. Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins (384 pages) – ***** Yes. Just, yes.
  12. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (386 pages) – ***** I read this a few months before it’s US release and I predicted that people would be disappointed and a little pissed at this book. Why? Because Murakami has somewhat of a cult following and this book isn’t really what the fans are expecting. There is no other world. No cats. No deep wells. It is a minimalist book in style and content. Almost stark and cold. Now that being said, I loved it.
  13. Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (387 pages) – *** I’ve reviewed this a couple of times here on my blog, but here you go. This book was full of unlikable people doing very nasty things. Like in  The Dinner, Koch uses friendship as the foundation for the moral questions that arise. This book is fast paced, well written and pretty gross. I enjoyed it.
  14. The Quick by Lauren Owen (544 pages) **** – Gothic, dark, and paced like a gothic novel, The Quick is a slow study in horror. I enjoyed the different POV’s throughout, and I enjoyed the world that was created here. Fans of Penny Dreadful should check this out.
  15. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (352 pages) *** – Ugh. I guess I went though a phase of reading books about unlikable people. This was one of them. A dentist gets his entire life hacked. Someone creates a FB page for him, his business and uses it as a platform to make some pretty ugly remarks about Jewish people. He struggles with getting people to believe that it wasn’t him. But you almost don’t care. There are page long paragraphs about inane things – like a woman putting her hair in a pony tale. Seriously. It got to be a little much. The idea was good, but it was a struggle near the end.
  16. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta – **** I had to read this before the show started. (The show is incredible. If you are not watching it you are missing out) Perrotta is the master of writing suburbia (Election, Little Children) and he doesn’t disappoint here. What would you do if people suddenly disappeared? Perrotta looks at life after and it is often comical and uncomfortable. A great read.
  17. The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti (368 pages) ***** – Perhaps my favorite book of the year. It’s a delightful and funny read that will make you want to travel and eat cheese. A memoir of sorts, it tells the tale of one man (the writer) and his quest to discover the secrets of the world’s greatest piece of cheese. Just read it. You won’t be sorry.
  18. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (298 pages) – ***** I loved this book! It’s been a film favorite of mine for years, but I never got around to reading the book til now. I followed it up with the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet and it was pretty much word for word. This is a feminist story about a strong woman who trusts the wrong people. Super fun and super fast read. AND, it takes place in Pasadena, where I grew up.
  19. Crooked River by Valerie Geary (320 pages) – **** This was a coming of age story wrapped up in a murder mystery. I read it pretty fast and enjoyed the characters. The book is told from the POV of two sisters. Their mother has just died and now they are living in a meadow with their bee keeping dad, Bear. It’s was exciting, fun and kind of a page turner. I figured out “who dun it” by page thirty, but it didn’t ruin the trip for me.

O Captain! My Captain! Remembering Robin Williams

Like many people around the worldrobin-williams-by-Samerry[206123], I grew up watching Robin Williams. I watched him go from Mork on Happy Days to becoming an Oscar winner. He was one of the funniest men to ever live, and a great actor. He was quick, biting, clever and still had the ability to make us all feel. He was a human before he was a movie star. And it showed on screen. His movies taught me about life and love and joy and being able to laugh even when things are bad.

The only way I have of honouring his life is to talk about it here. I can honestly say that everything I need to know in life, I learned from one of the greatest. These are ten of my personal favorite Robin Williams films, what they meant to me, and what they taught me.

  1. Popeye (1980) – When I was just six years old, I managed to win tickets to the premeire of Popeye. No one in my family seemed quite as excited as me, but it was my fantastic coloring work that won those tickets. There was a red carpet and cameras and Robin Williams. It was something. The movie got panned, but I still remember that night and that movie. Even though you hate spinach, you gotta eat it. “I hates spinach!”
  2. The World According to Garp (1982) – The John Irving novel is one of my favorite books. I read the book before I saw the movie, so of course I hated the movie. And I hated it for a while. I re-watched the film some years later and I fell in love. Robin Williams played the role of Garp perfectly, quietly and gave life to him. The movie gave me hope as a fellow writer who has a crazy family of her own. “You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”
  3. Good Morning Vietnam (1987) vietnamI pretty much had this movie memorised. It was the first of Robin Williams as Teacher roles, and I ate it up. I wanted to have a teacher like him! But of course, there aren’t a lot of teachers that can do really great John Wayne impressions. It was also one of the first times we see him as activist. Standing up for what’s right no matter what the consequence. The lesson: “Okay, if someone is not telling the truth, you say that they are full of… (Vietnamese Class: Shit!) If someone has made you angry or angrier, they have…(Vietnamese Class: Pissed me off!)
  4. Dead Poets Society (1989) o-captainIn what way did this movie not change the way I look at life? I was fifteen years old when this came out and I wished, prayed and tried to figure out a way to go to boarding school. In the 50’s. I know, I know. Impossible. But even as a smart ass kid, I understood the message – Carpe diem, boys. Rip up the instructions, fuck the rules, and live life! Suck the marrow from the bone! And, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” I still believe that. And I’m standing on my desk for you.
  5. The Fisher King (1991) TheFisherKingRobinWilliamsPTSonyPicturesStill one of his greatest films. And the life lesson here is pretty simple. “There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.”
  6. The Birdcage (1996) – For me this movie was the perfect storm of awesome. You get Robin Williams being hilarious yet holding back because you just have to hold back when you are next to Nathan Lane. And you also get Gene Hackman, who can do no wrong. Together they gave this movie just what it needed to work: heart. “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”
  7. Good Will Hunting (1997) – This movie is filled with so much greatness, and most of it is due to Robin Williams. When he says, “It’s not your fault”. You believe it. And you keep believing it. “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. anigif_enhanced-buzz-13392-1384973721-10_previewBut you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart.”
  8. Death to Smoochy (2002) – I think this movie is fantastic and totally underrated. You can have your Jumanji and your Patch Adams. I’ll take a little movie that’s really about making kids happy. And you know what I learned? “Even when you’re squeaky clean, you can still fall in the mud.” Oh, and I also learned that every movie is better with an iceskating dance number at the end. I love you Rainbow Randall. 
  9. One Hour Photo (2002) – I loved creepy Robin Williams. I was happy that he (mostly) stopped doing half assed comedies and did more dark stuff. He was good at dark. His character in this film was sad and frightening. “Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”
  10. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – I bet you haven’t seen this one. It was fantastic and completely overlooked. It was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. It’s a little hard to look at now, seeing the way that Robin Williams took his own life. But I’ll never forget the scene at the end when he jumps in the pool. I hope he found the freedom he was looking for. This is how I’ll remember you. “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” *Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen this film, then don’t watch this clip. It’s awesome, but also a huge spoiler. You have been warned. * 

Movies: 10 Best Food Movies

big-nightI just saw John Favreau’s new film Chef. While it was fun and enjoyable to watch, it wasn’t anything special. Here is a film that had every opportunity to say something about food, food culture in America, “food bloggers” and other dilettantes in the industry. But instead of taking a stand they took us on a road trip… in a food truck. Eh. In the end it was just a pretty movie filled with missed opportunities. I was disappointed. Here are ten that hit the mark and made me hungry.

  1. Big Night (1996) – Stanley Tucci co-wrote, co-directed (with Campbell Scott!), and starred in this beautifully crafted, delectable little film about two restaurateurs who hope Louis Prima will save their family business. Aside from Stanley Tucci being an all around badass, this movie makes italian food look so good, so delicious, that’ll you leave wanting to eat like an Italian, drink like an Italian, and just BE Italian. My brother saw this back in 1996 and he’s been pretending to be Italian ever since. I’m so not kidding.
  2. Chocolat (2000) – armandes-party3Take the beautiful and talented Juliette Binoche, (as a single mother who moves to a tiny French village in the 1960s) add a pinch of Johnny Depp, (as a sexy riverboat-dwelling drifter) stir in a little Alfred Molina (as the towns moral compass), and of course a certain sweet, cacao-based quintessence that will open the closed hearts of the suffocating villagers. The cast is full of greats like Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, and the great Leslie Caron. Oh, and Dame Judi Dench as a grumpy grandmother who curses and tells gore filled stories to little kids. It’s a charming movie that will make you happy and hungry in equal measure.
  3. Ratatouille (2007) – imagesThis movie captures the Foodie attitude perfectly. An adorable rat (who loves to prepare and eat good food) enters the human world where good tasting food is only for those who can afford it. Yes, fine dining with a rat. I can’t think of a better way to give the finger to food snobs than this sweet little movie. Good food should be for everyone, not just industry professionals and foodies. Oh, and an evil food critic named Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole. Yes please!
  4. Like Water For Chocolate – (1992) 3112406_origSex and food. Love and Death. These are the things that make life worth living. And these are the things worth living for in this delightfully sensuous Mexican film based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.  (Directed by her husband Alfonso Arau.) This movie is an aphrodisiac. It’s hot and spicy, sweet and salty. It’s the perfect balance of food and story.
  5. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) – Ang Lee draws from his own life as he tells the story of Chinese master Chef Mr. Chu, his three daughters and their Sunday night dinners. It’s a heart warming movie that looks at generational clashes and how families grow apart as they grow older. And the food? Wow. Just… wow.
  6. Julie & Julia (2009) – julie and julia2Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Stanley Tucci as Paul Child. Jane Lynch as Julia’s sister, Dorothy. Directed by the late, great Nora Ephron, this movie tells the story of a struggling writer who decides to cook the entire French Cooking cookbook that Julia Child wrote. The movie weaves in and out of present day NY and 1960’s France seamlessly. And Meryl Streep is a joy to watch. Even when she’s just chopping onions.
  7. Food, Inc. (2008) – This movie blew the lid off of corporate farming in America. It shows viewers the reality of processed foods and how those foods are made. Not only is it ruining life for animals, it is harming the humans who farm them. It is an eye-opening film that deserves to been seen by anyone who eats. Yes, that means you.
  8. Mid August Lunch (2008) – static.squarespaceThis movie is about a guy who doesn’t have to do much. He’s a slacker who loves food. His only real responsibility is taking care of his mother. When his friends ask him to look out for their mothers over a long weekend, we get treated to great laughs and fantastic looking food. Four italian mothers at one dinner table = greatness.
  9. Hot Coffee (2011) – In 1994 Stella Liebeck filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s after spilling a hot cup of coffee on her lap. She was an elderly woman when it happened, and the case quickly became a joke for every late-night talk show. But the facts surrounding the case are not as frivolous as they sound. In this movie you get to see the photographic evidence of the injuries she sustained. And it’s bad. If this was YOUR grandma, you’d be pissed. Director Susan Saladoff offers a glimpse at the PR machine a fast-food behemoth like McDonald’s has at its disposal to maintain a positive public image. (Amazon, does this sound familiar? Hmmm?)
  10. The Trip (2010) – The-Trip-007Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon star in the hilarious movie as fictionalised versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of northern England. As is the case in most road movies, the trip becomes an occasion for philosophizing, and talking about real life. It’s a journey inward and out as the friends banter and joust – improvising and entertaining each other. We are even treated to Coogan’s hilarious, spot on imitations of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. They also eat. They eat often and they eat well. They dine in restaurants with incredible views and service, and in places where the dishes are extravagantly conceptualized and prepared.

Books: Book Snobbery

MisterBooksellerBooksellers are asked “What do you read?” on a daily basis. I am always happy to answer the question even if some people are not happy with my answer. But, I’m not a book snob. Not really. My rule of thumb is, I’ll read anything as long as it’s well writtenNow that may seem “Duh”, but you’d be surprised what passes as good these days. I’ll read sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, bio, history… you name it. But don’t bore me, and don’t use simple langue and have zero style. We elevate our intellect when we challenge ourselves while reading. I strongly believe that.

I’ve been a bookseller on and off since my teen years and never before have I encountered such blatant Book Snobbery. Maybe it’s the rise of self promotion tools like Twitter and FB. Maybe it has something to do with needing to feel important. I don’t know. But I hear people call books they like (or love!) “My book”, as if they had something to do with writing it or they were the only person to have ever read it. Here, I’ll use it in a sentence. Have you noticed that my book sold out? Again!? The speaker didn’t actually write the book, and they get no commission if it sells, and yet they take responsibility for both. Gross.

It’s hard. A bookstore can be a place of subtle, unspoken competition, and inflated egos. And I’m over it. Who has read the most books? Who’s staff recommendations have sold the most? Who read the new hot title first? It’s all pretty juvenile and silly. Taking ownership of someone elses work is absurd. Feeling a sense of pride when a stranger chooses a book you like is pretty weird. Judging a book by its popularity with your peers is silly. And it is all a form of Book Snobbery. Our job isn’t to get as many people as possible to read our favorite book. Our job is to help the customer find something they might enjoy.

And it all comes down to this: People should read. Reading is good. Books are good.

syntax-booksellerOne of the reasons people turn to satan Amazon is because of book snobbery. Nobody wants to walk into a bookstore and see the bookseller roll their eyes at their choices. Projecting a type of ownership over certain types of books but not others is just another form of snobbery. And I get it. Bookstores are inherently snobby places. It’s the same kind of snobbery says that jazz and pino grigio and golf and “locally sourced” anything are for me, but not you. Absurd! There is snobbery of “Literature” over genre, of adult books over YA fiction, of “serious” over “funny”, of “real life” over dragons and unicorns and wizards, of Haruki Murakami over Stephen King. And it is lame. And silly. And pretty stupid. If books ever die, snobbery would be standing nearby with a smoking gun in its hand, and a smile on its face.

So, I have a message for all of you book snobs – stop it. You are defeating the purpose. We want people to read, not feel bad about reading. When someone wants the latest Oprah Book club book, I’m happy. At least they are reading! And who am I to judge anyway? She has recommended plenty of great books. Try having an open mind and watch your world expand. But, if that doesn’t happen – here is a list of things you can tell the next book snob you encounter – whether it’s in a bookstore or in your own home.

  1. Many of the world’s greatest writers wrote books for children. So stop making fun of it.  (Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, C.S. Lewis, Judy Bloom)
  2. People shouldn’t feel bad about what they choose to read. When they feel bad about what they read, they’ll stop reading.
  3. Matt Haig said it best, “Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.” Yep. What he said.
  4. Don’t discount a book simply because it is a best seller. Lot’s of popular stuff is actually good. (ABBA. Bacon. Internet cat videos. Cupcakes. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. Stephen King.)
  5. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or its shelf talker. Or who happened to recommend it. The only way to accurately judge a book is by reading the words inside.
  6. Have an open mind. Murakami said, if you only read what other people are reading, you’ll only think what other people are thinking.
  7. Proudly proclaiming that you only read literary fiction makes you sound ignorant. Well rounded people want to know about the world around them and the people who shaped it. Knowing your past is part of knowing you.
  8. Snobbery is prejudice wrapped up in a better sounding name.
  9. Genre shaming is lame. Get over it. There are some great books just waiting to be found in Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and historical romance. I promise.
  10. You can have your opinions about books, but just remember having opinions isn’t the same as being right. 

The 20 Coolest Authors. Ever.

Truman CapoteEverybody has their idea of what cool is. It’s a vibe. A feeling you get from someone. Being cool requires one to have a rebellious attitude, be an underdog, or one of societies outliers. Think bikers, but bikers from the 1950’s, not bikers from today. Today’s biker seems violent and rude rather than cool. But you get the idea. Fonzie was cool. Jim Morrison was cool. Wanda Jackson and Peggy Lee were cool. Kermit the Frog is cool. Einstein was cool.

James Blunt is not cool. Kim Kardashian is not cool. Either is Morrissey or Kanye West. David Foster Wallace was not cool. Brent Easton Ellis isn’t either. Writing a “cool” book isn’t what makes you cool. Having the most Twitter followers doesn’t matter either. It’s how you live your life. And obviously how much you like cats.

What follows is a list of who I think are the 20 coolest authors. Ever. I have intentionally listed 10 dudes and 10 ladies because I’m tired of reading lists about literature that do not equally include women. And yes, I am aware that there are more than just twenty super cool authors, and maybe I didn’t pick yours, but these lists take time and effort to create, so I kept the number reasonable. Fee free to add your picks in the comments. Politely.

  1. Truman Capote – Because he gave zero shits about what people thought. He said what he wanted. Wrote what he wanted. Because In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Because he liked cats pre internet. Cool Quote: “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”
  2. 50459320Margaret Atwood – Because The Hand Maid’s Tale and Alias Grace. Because she went toe to toe with Norman Mailer on gender issues and came out on top. He said that men were intellectuals first, writers or poets second. Women were not. Atwood pointed out, in a speech, that she had herself attended Harvard, and therefore had “a smear of intellectualism.” Cool quote: “Another belief of mine; that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”
  3. Maurice Sendak – Because Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Because In the Night Kitchen was BANNED in America on account of the little boy in the book is naked and therefore inappropriate for children. ‘Merica! Because he was on The Colbert Report right before he died spreading the message for LGBT equality. Cool quote: “Fuck them is what I say. I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead. I won’t give a shit.”
  4. Joyce Carol Oates – Because she has published over fifty novels exploring themes of gender, violence, race, monsters, and the darker elements of being alive and human. Because she’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize three times. Because she writes horror that will keep you sleepless. And because she kind of looks like Shelley Duval and Olive Oyl. Cool quote: “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.”
  5. ahem2Ernest Hemingway – Because Ernest once took a urinal from his favourite bar and moved it into his own home, arguing that he had “pissed away” so much of his money into the urinal that he owned it. Because he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Because he once caught seven Marlin in one day. Because he loved cats. Cool quote: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
  6. Mary Shelley – Because Frankenstein. Because she hung out with Lord Byron and had picnics with him. Because she wrote the seminal gothic novel. Cool quote: “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
  7. Tom Robbins – Because he has lived an outlaw life. Because he met Charles Manson and told him he wasn’t up to snuff. Because Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, and Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Because he was suspected of being the Unibomber. Cool quote: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”
  8. Patti Smith Because she’s as good on stage as she is on the page. Because she lived for many years at the epicenter of cool, the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. Because Horses. Because her nickname is “The Godmother of Punk.” Because she co-wrote a play with actor, playwright, and my fantasy Granddad, Sam Shepard. Cool quote: “To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.”
  9. haruki murakami and kittenHaruki Murakami – Because he is 65 and he is a dedicated marathon running Iron Man. Because he loves cats. Because he writes food and music better than anyone else. Because he refuses to write blurbs for the back of novels. Because 1Q84, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. Cool quote: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
  10. Agatha Christie – Because she was “Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds pretty badass. Because she created the best detective ever, Hercule Poirot. Because she wrote over sixty mysteries and they are all fun. Cool quote: “Any woman can fool a man if she wants to and if he’s in love with her.”
  11. Roald Dahl – Because The BFG. That’s why. Because he didn’t pander to children. Because he wrote dark, funny books which may or may not have a happy ending. Because when I met him as a kid, he was indeed the Big, Friendly Giant. Cool quote: “So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.” 
  12. Zadie Smith – Because she changed her name (as a teen) from Sadie to Zadie because it sounded more exotic, and Sadie means Princess – she didn’t like the association. Because On Beauty. Because she was in TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. Not bad. Because she wears cool turbans. Because she is rumored to be working on a musical of Franz Kafka’s life. Cool quote: “An English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world.”
  13. Stephen KingStephen King – Because more of his books have been adapted into films than any other author, so sayeth Guinness Book of Records. Because Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Lisey’s Story and On Writing. Because he survived a near fatal car accident and kept going. Because he writes NY Times book reviews. Because he was in a band called Rock Bottom Remainders with Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Matt Groening, and Scott Turow. Cool quote: “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
  14. Octavia E. Butler – Because she was the multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards – the highest praise for science fiction writers. Because she was born and raised in Pasadena, California… just like other cool women like me and Julia Child. Because she attended my alma mater, Pasadena City College for her AA, and eventually moved to Seattle. Because she called herself a hermit, and because I met her and she was awesome. Because Parable of the Sower and Kindred. Cool quote: “Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”
  15. John Waters – Duh. He is the epitome of cool. Cool quote: “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.”
  16. George Elliot – Because she was a badass feminist in Victorian times. Because, like the Brontë sisters, Mary Ann Evans created a pen name so the sexist assholes of the times would take her seriously. Because Middlemarch. Because she had a twenty year-long relationship with a married man. Because she wrote what many say is the greatest novel in the english language. Cool quote: “You may try, but you cannot imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” 
  17. 251550_523966377619405_374295507_nMark Twain – Because he was a riverboat pilot. Because his BFF was Nikola Tesla. Because A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Because he loved cats, and played pool with them. Because the awesome Hal Holbrook did a one man show AS him. Cool quote: “One cannot have everything the way he would like it. A man has no business to be depressed by a disappointment, anyway; he ought to make up his mind to get even.”
  18. Ursula K. Le Guin – Because her first name is Ursula. Because she is considered to be the best science fiction writer alive. Because The Dispossessed.Because her books tackle complex subject such as alternative worlds, politics, natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality and ethnography. Because she submitted her first story for publication at age 11. Cool quote: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”
  19. Alexandre Dumas – Because he wrote about the most badass dudes ever, namely The Three Musketeers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Because he was a world traveler and a ladies man said to have fathered at least seven children from some forty affairs. Because he was a well liked dude of his times described as, “the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.” Cool quote: “Never fear quarrels, but seek hazardous adventures.”
  20. Susan Sontag – Because her nickname was “The Dark Lady”. Because she was admitted to college at age 16, and married her professor two weeks after meeting him. Because her book On Photography (1977) did not contain a single photograph – as specimen or illustration. Favorite quote: “I don’t like America enough to want to live anywhere else except Manhattan. And what I like about Manhattan is that it’s full of foreigners. The America I live in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through.”

Books: 10 Mid-Summer Reads

jaws_bg_0June is called “mid-summer” even though it is technically the beginning of the season. It’s the month of weddings, graduations, and pool parties. This is my first summer in almost eight years that I am not landlocked. Austin was just hot and steamy. Prague is pretty rad, but it doesn’t have an ocean or bay. Summer just isn’t the same without open water and a book to read.

Here is a list of books for your own Mid-Summer enjoyment and relaxation. Best if enjoyed near open water! (You can get any of these books at your local library, or Independent Bookseller.)

Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974) – You’ve seen the movie. It scared you from going into the water for years. Now read the book. It is quite possibly the greatest beach read and the one that will keep you from putting even a toe into the ocean again.

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (2014) – imgresIn his follow-up to The Dinner, Koch once again delves underneath the smiles and laughter of friends sharing a summer together and pokes at it with a stick. Until it bleeds. And oozes. It’s a summer book with a real dark side. The narrator is a Doctor who find his patients disgusting. The book opens with him looking back at the events that have unfolded, wondering what he could have done to avoid it. Any of it. It’s a great read, but if you are looking for a “light summer read” this isn’t it. This is a book about the underbelly of human beings. The puss. The nasty, filthy things that go unsaid are said here. And it’s pretty dang good.

 

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses  (2014) by Kevin Birmingham – MDBcover021314I have not read James Joyce’s classic Ulysses. I admit it. That book is really long and really hard to read. I had no idea that the book struggled for publication for nearly fifteen years because of the controversy surrounding it. Ulysses was considered “poor taste” when it was written, and because of shameful things like female sexuality it was banned. Banned! This book explores why it was banned and how it eventually got through to the public. Any book that could make me actually want to go back and attempt to read Ulysses has got to be good. The book is funny and has a light tone considering the weight of the subject matter.

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (2014) by John Waters – John Waters is one of my favorite people in the world. Ever. If I were to write a book like his book Roll Models, he would be in there. He has made a career of breaking taboos and bringing the perverse to the mainstream. His books are as funny as his films, if not more so. “Waters, who is now 68, was looking for an adventure he could write about. So he decided to hitchhike cross-country from his home in Baltimore to his co-op apartment in San Francisco.” Hilarity ensues.

Tibetan Peach Pie (2014) by Tom Robbins – Speaking of my all time favorite people… Tom Robbins has a new book out. It is a memoir… of sorts. He doesn’t call it that. Of course he doesn’t. This is Tom Robbins we’re talking about. He writes about his childhood, growing up in Appalachia in the 1930’s, and how he came to be the bad boy of the literary world. Tom Robbins was my personal introduction to Zen ideas and what it meant to be a Bohemian. I think I (unconsciously?) lived my life like one of the fiercely zany female leads from one of his novels. Reading Tibetan Peach Pie made me laugh out-loud more than once and remember why I fell in love with outlaws, literary and otherwise, in the first place. Long Live!

jamesandthegiantpeach1James and the Giant Peach (1961) by Roald Dahl – No summer reading list is complete without at least one great adventure. James and the Giant Peach is a perfect summer read. When a crazed rhino kills his parents, James is sent to live with his horrid aunts Sponge and Spiker. Dahl delights in writing wicked, truly horrid adults in his books for children. And these are two are the worst. James gets a little help from a little man and soon grows a rather large, let’s call it a giant, peach that squashes his aunts and sets him on big adventure. If you haven’t read this before, or since you were a kid, then give it a try. The least you will do is smile. “James decided that he rather like the Centipede. He was obviously a rascal, but what a change it was to hear somebody laughing once in a while. He had never heard Aunt Sponge or Aunt Spiker laughing aloud in all the time he had been with them.” 

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998) by Susan Orlean – {98130EFB-3E0D-4065-90A2-D786959FAA00}Img100This is one of those books that you read and you can’t quite believe that what you’re reading really happened. I get the same feeling when I read anything by Eric Larson. (Devil and the White City) The book started as an article Susan Orlean was writing about the 1994 arrest of John Larouche and a group of Seminoles in south Florida. They were stealing Orchids so Larouche could clone them. What follows is Orleans journey through the odd world of plants and the people who cultivate and kind of worship them. The book was later made into a movie (kind of) and creates its own awesome journey of flowers, passion and truth. A great book and equally great movie.

Outlander (1991) by Diana Gabaldon – imagesIf you like historical fiction, sexy sex, time travel and evil villains, then this is the book for you. The story follows a 1940’s war nurse who accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland. I know. It sounds ridiculous. It is. But it is also addictive and awesome. Outlander is the first in a series of eight novels. I only read the first three or four, but I loved every minute of them. Here is a quote from Diana Gabaldon, the author. “In essence, these novels are Big, Fat, Historical Fiction… However, owing to the fact that I wrote the first book for practice, didn’t intend to show it to anyone, and therefore saw no reason to limit myself, they  include…history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, herbs, horses, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…” The eighth (Written in My Own Hearts Blood) was released just a few weeks ago, and the Straz series based on the books airs August 9th so you better get crackin’ if you want a head start on the next big thing.

Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell – Set in the Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest coast of Florida, Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, and centers around the smart and precocious Ava, daughter of famed of alligator wrestlers who live on Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling theme park. The book is beautifully written and I couldn’t put it down last summer. It’s one of those special books that stay with you long after you’ve closed the cover for the last time. Inside the world of Swamplandia! there is mystery, magic, seances, water slides, ghosts, tragedy, a boy named Kiwi, love and loss. It is a fantastic book with one of the most likeable narrators in recent memory.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) by Haruki Murakami – hard-boiled-wonderland-and-the-end-of-the-worldMurakami has a new book coming out in August called Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’ve read it, and it is beautiful. But since that book doesn’t come out for another few months you should read this one. You could read any of his novels and walk away happy, but this one is the most… Murakami of all his books. It takes place in the real world… for the most part, and in a fantasy world. It’s part science fiction cyber punk and part dreamlike fantasy. It’s like reading a surrealist painting. The story is split between two parallel narratives: Hard-Boiled Wonderland (odd chapters), and The End of the Wold (even chapters). This is a great introduction to Murakami and his lovely, weird, sad, funny, and ultimately wise characters.