Monday, November 21, 2011

Mailbox Monday: The giving thanks edition

Well, it's a few days early, but I'm ready to celebrate Thanksgiving!  It's my favorite holiday, and the only one that I never miss spending with my family.  I'm flying home to DC on the red-eye Wednesday night.  That's tough, but once I'm there, I get to stay for ten whole days!  So, I'm looking forward to seeing lots of family and friends, and eating a really great meal.  (My family can cook!)

Also, there is one thing I'm looking forward to on my red-eye flight--finally getting to read the new (and final) Michael Crichton novel, Micro.  Truthfully, my hopes aren't super high for the book, but it's still very special to me.  I never articulated it until he passed away, but Crichton was a hero to me.  I thought he was Human 2.0.  He was brilliant and talented and handsome and really, really tall!  I'd started reading his novels before I was ten years old, and they gave me decades of pleasure.  And this is the very last new one.  Sort of.  Sort of because it was finished by Richard Preston, but sort of for another reason as well...

When Michael Crichton passed away, I learned of a little-known pseudonym that I'd neither heard of nor read before.  He published eight novels under the name John Lange, and within 48 hours of his death, I'd acquired six of them.  I had one shipped all the way from England.  Hopefully, one day I'll dig up affordable copies of the other two, but for now I have a secret stash of unread early Crichtons.  I've only read one, and I'll be rationing out the remaining titles for the rest of my life.  That, my friends, is true fandom.  But for now, I'm thankful that I'll be reading his final work this week.

I am also thankful, as noted earlier today, to have joined's Top 100 Reviewers for the first time.  It was a long-term goal, and it feels good to have met it.  I'm less thankful for the miserable cold I'm currently suffering from, but if I can get through the next 48 hours, I'm golden.  I'm super thankful that my office is closing at noon on Wednesday, and that I won't have to return for 12 days!  And on that note...

I've Got Your Number
by Sophie Kinsella
Release date: February 14, 2012
Source: Paper galley from publisher

I read Confessions of a Shopaholic a few years ago and kind of hated it.  I thought the protagonist was an idiot.  But, as you've gathered, I've been desperate to lighten my reading and this fit the bill.  It was a pleasant surprise.  I started reading it as soon as I opened the package.  Review to come soon.

The Winters in Bloom
by Lisa Tucker
Release date:  September 13, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

I'm not sure why Simon and Schuster sent this book months after its release, and after I read and reviewed a galley, but, okay.  Thank you.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
Release date: August 3, 2006
Source: sale

I've been meaning to read this much-lauded novel for the past five years, and in addition to going on sale this week, I just learned that Pessl's second novel will be published this coming spring.  I now have a deadline.  Must read this book!

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
by Stephen King
Release date: June 24, 2003
Source: Free anniversary money from

Since reviewing 11/22/63 on, a bunch of strangers have been leaving comments on my review telling me that I have to read the Dark Tower novels.  I've always been a little wary of them, but I'll try to get to this one before the year is out.

Anne of Green Gables
by L.M. Montgomery
Release date:  1908
Source: $.99 Kindle purchase

I've never read this classic, and it was suggested by helpful reader friends to assist with scrubbing the Umberto Eco from my brain.  I'm reading it now and it's delightful! 

Live and Let Die
by Ian Fleming
Release date: April 5, 1954
Source: Kindle Daily Deal ($1.99)

Just over a week ago, my friends Melissa and Mike convinced me to give James Bond films another go.  They were right; the re-make of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was the best Bond film I've seen.  It was during this discussion that I said I really needed to read Fleming's original novels.  Now I'm one step closer.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
by Stephen Sondheim
Release date: October 26, 2010
Source: Finished copy from publisher

Not only does the new Michael Crichton go on sale tomorrow, the new Sondheim does, too!  It's the second volume of his collected lyrics/memoir that began with this volume last year.  I was hoping the kind folks in Knopf publicity would honor my review request, and they did.  Sort of.  Someone SNAFUed and sent me last year's book instead of the new one:  Look, I Made a Hat.  Hopefully, I'll acquire a copy soon.  Look for the bold pink cover; it'll be a popular gift title this holiday season.

Books finished this week:

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
Too Much Stuff by Don Bruns

Currently reading:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen

So, what have you been reading?   What books have you acquired this week?  What will you be reading during your holiday travel/time off?  Please let us know in the comments.  And happy Thanksgiving to you all!


I have a cold, and no two ways about it--I feel like death on a trisket.  I'd like to be at home in bed, but it's Monday morning and I'm at the office.  But there's one piece of news that's brightening my otherwise dreary day.  Today, for the first time ever, I am ranked at #100 among's nearly 9 million reviewers.  Beneath my name, there is a little badge that says "Top 100 Reviewer."

It's a stupid thing.  When I wrote my first review about five and a half years ago, I'm sure I didn't even realize that Amazon reviewers were ranked.  But as you start moving up in the rankings, it's hard not to notice or care at least a little.  Getting to #100 has been a goal for a while.  It was hard work.  I'll probably slip back out of the top 100 by tomorrow, but then I'll get back in.  I don't know how hard I'll try to stay in the top 100.  But for today I'm in and I feel proud.

Thanks for every "helpful" vote that helped me on my way!

Friday, November 18, 2011

33 years later, it’s still inconceivable

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
by Julia Scheeres

On November 18, 1978, the day of the Jonestown massacre, I was nine years old.  I vaguely remember the news stories, but I’ve always wanted a more adult understanding of these inconceivable and tragic events.  I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown seemed like exactly what I had been looking for.

The book takes its title from an eerie 1975 Jones quote, “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.”  And it delivers on what it promises in the title, starting with “hope.”  Scheeres describes Jones’s early life in Indiana, and the way he was drawn to the church from childhood.  By the time he was a teenager, he was preaching on street corners.  And he was preaching a fairly radical (for the times) message of inclusion, integration, and racial tolerance.  This was the philosophy on which he founded his first church in Indiana in 1954.  Reverend Jones’s attitudes about race were ahead of his time, and he quickly built up a devoted, multicultural flock.

Alas, it didn’t take long for “deception” to enter the picture.  Jones was a practitioner of faith healings.  While some may claim to have been genuinely helped by the man, his trickery in bringing about his so-called miracles is well established.  In addition to simple cons, Jones was a master manipulator.  He utilized all kind of tactics—from inducing paranoia to actually drugging people without their knowledge—all the while increasing his sway over his church-goers.  A few years after the Indiana church was established, he convinced a healthy percentage of them to pick up and relocate to rural Northern California to avoid a predicted nuclear explosion in Chicago.  The relocated People’s Temple thrived in Redwood Valley, California, before it eventually relocated yet again to San Francisco.

Scheeres reduces the epic tragedy to a human scale by introducing the reader to several individual church followers.  Dating all the way back to the Indiana church were sisters Hyacinth Thrash and Zipporah Edwards.  In Redwood Valley, grief led the entire Bogue family to the church.  In San Francisco, juvenile delinquent Stanley Clayton stayed on the straight and narrow because of the church community.  And Edith Roller, a well-educated, 61-year-old “opinionated loner” came to the church as an agent of social change.

Scheeres writes, “The world seemed to be imploding in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his message struck a nerve.  The headlines were saturated with death: Vietnam, nuclear war, murdered civil rights leaders, and student protestors.  Americans of every stripe were angry, insecure, afraid.  Gone was the Leave It to Beaver complacency.  The establishment fissured along with its enabler—mainstream religion—and people turned for solace to alternative sources of supposed wisdom, including gurus, spiritualism, astrology, and self-help.  The time was ripe for a self-appointed prophet like Jim Jones.”

Scheeres details the events that led inexorably to the Temple’s final move to Guyana and the shocking tragedy that occurred there.  She is assisted in this effort by new information in the form of thousands of pages of FBI documents that have recently been declassified.  The full perversity of what went on with Jones for years, and the crimes he perpetrated against his followers, is staggeringly difficult to believe: the sex, the drugs, the madness, and the abuse of power.  It’s a terrible, terrible story, and yet the book is a quick read—in part because the last 40-some pages of the book are made up of end-notes than can be easily skipped.

I think that Scheeres has done a reasonable job of relating the history in as impartial a manner as anyone could.  Following specific Temple members closely and watching their eventual fates unfold was an effective way to tell the story.  Where I felt let down was in trying to understand with any real depth the psychology of those involved.  I especially hungered for more information on what was going on inside Jones’s head, but that may be something we will never know. 

You couldn’t sell this story as fiction; it’s simply too unbelievable.  Looking back seems worthwhile, but in the end, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to have learned.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mailbox Monday: The thankfully short edition!

Yes, it's my favorite thing--a short Mailbox Monday post!  I've hardly acquired any books this week, and one is a leftover I forgot to list last week.  But that's okay; I don't think I'm going to run out of literature any time soon.

So, as you can see, I did get to the Peter Orner event last week, but didn't make it to Gregory Maguire over the weekend.  I had plans all set up, but I was visiting with a sick friend, and she needed me more than Mr. Maguire did.  I don't think there will be any other lit events of note before December at this point, or at least there aren't any currently on my radar.

Things are going to be a little hit or miss on my end for the next few weeks as well.  I'm leaving on a brief business trip this afternoon, and I'll be back on Wednesday night.  I'm in town for a week, and then I'm flying to the east coast to spend Thanksgiving (and the week following it) with my family and friends back home.  I've always got the best of intentions of keeping up my blogging while I travel, but my track record is abysmal.  So, if posting is kind of erratic for the next few weeks, you know what that's about.

Right now, I'm in search of a feel-good, happy book, or my head is going to explode.  I tossed aside the hateful Umberto Eco novel to read the awesome Stephen King novel in two days, but then I found myself doing anything to avoid finishing the cursed book.  I read David Benioff's excellent and horrifically disturbing and depressing City of Thieves--which was also chock-full of anti-Semitism, I might add.  Then, to lighten things up, I read a non-fiction book about the Jonestown massacre, A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres.  Finally, I just bit the bullet and plowed my way through the The Prague Cemetery.  Seriously, it was torturous--and not because it was a bad book, either.  You'll see a review soon.  The point is, I need to read something light and cheery.  I am open to suggestions!

by Hillary Jordan
Release date: March 4, 2008
Source:  Purchased at Books, Inc.

I probably won't get around to this in the immediate future, but maybe in 2012?

by Stephen King
Release date: November 8, 2011
Source: Purchased with credit

Yeah, yeah, this is old news already.  Does anyone else wonder why they didn't release this book two weeks later on 11/22/11?

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry
Release date: January 5, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

The tagline for this satire is:  High fashion and homeland security clash in a masterful debut.  That sounds worth checking out to me.  My friend Nicole is going to have a quandary, however.  Gilvarry is being compared to Gary Shteyngart and Junot Diaz--one of her most favorite and one of her least favorite authors.  What to do?

City of Thieves
by David Benioff
Release date: May 15, 2008
Source: Library

I remember all the buzz this novel had when it was published a few years ago, but it was my book group member Rachel who convinced me to read it.  It is as good as she said it was, but rather more disturbing than I expected. 

 Books finished this week:

11/22/63 by Stephen King
City of Thieves by David Benioff
A Thousand Lives: The Untold story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Currently reading:

I don't read anymore.

Okay, what awesome books did you acquire this week?  What have you been reading?  Please let us know in the comments!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Peter Orner gets launched San Francisco style

Earlier this week, I spoke of heading over to the Booksmith on Haight Street because novelist Peter Orner had a Wednesday night reading there.  You don't exactly have to twist my arm to get me over to the Booksmith, where everybody knows your name, and you're greeted like Norm every time you walk in the door.  (Do my references date me?)  And independent of my own interest, my BFF Jon called and said, "Have you heard about a reading by Peter Orner..."  So, it was decided.

I left work a little earlier than usual, and arrived at the bookstore about half an hour before the event.  The first person I saw upon entering the store was the charming and delightful Andrew Sean Greer.  I said "hi" to Andy, and we chatted for a moment before another gentleman approached him and I drifted off.  The staff were still setting up chairs--a lot of chairs--and then setting up setting up tables with beer and wine and food and sweets.  I hadn't realized until then that the event I was attending was the official launch party for Love and Shame and Love, and the Booksmith was really making an event of it.

Jon arrived as they were setting the final chairs, and we grabbed seats front and center in the first row.  I was enjoying chatting with Jon and the store staff and owners.  One of them, Christin, introduced me to the gentleman who had been talking to Andy Greer earlier.  His name is Evan Karp of the excellent Litseen website (along with several other media outlets in the city).  He was super friendly, and it was a pleasure to meet him.  I'm only shocked that we'd never met before. 

There's one thing I'll say about the San Francisco literary scene--they support their own.  It seemed like every writer in the city attended Peter's book launch.  The place was packed!  As always, it was fun people-watching.  I haven't read the novel yet--though that may be rectified over the weekend--but it's getting raves everywhere.  Nor had I ever met Peter Orner or heard him speak before, but both Jon and I found him delightful.  His personality comes right through on the video below, and he's kind of adorable.

After the reading and Q & A, Jon and I snarfed some food, and chatted with people we knew and people we didn't.  I found myself talking yet again to the ubiquitous Danny Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).  When I commented that he's at the Booksmith every time I come there, he made jokes about being held hostage.  He said, "They treat me very well."  So, the Stockholm syndrome has kicked in.  Jon bought a gift book for a friend, and I finally got into the lengthy signing line.  I had a really pleasant chat with Peter when I got to the front of the line.  I apologized for sticking a Flipcam in his face as he was reading, and handed him my blogger card, explaining that I would post the video on Friday.  Peter said very kind things about the role of book bloggers in this day and age, and when he signed my copy of the book, he wrote, "With thanks for the work that you do!"  What a mensch

The first segment below is a warm introduction from novelist Tom Barbash.  As Mr. Barbash points out, Love and Shame and Love has been awarded the trifecta of starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.  And guess what?  If you want a signed, first edition of this novel, I know a great independent bookseller where you can get one.  Other than that, I'm just delighted to share footage from a really enjoyable evening with you...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The past is obdurate

by Stephen King

Stephen King started publishing books around roughly the same time I started reading them.  It was the mid 70s, and I was a precocious young thing.  I was fearless, and man I loved what he was writing!  I haven’t read nearly all of his novels in the decades since, but enough to have a pretty good familiarity with the universe that his works share.  Now entering my more fearful middle age, I can tell you there is, oddly, something deeply comforting about submerging myself again in his rich, folksy world where heroes are heroic, all stories come full circle, and pretty much all nagging questions are eventually put to rest.

The hero of 11/22/63 is Jake Epping, and early on in this novel he is presented with something inconceivable, a sort of wormhole in time.  It leads from 2011 Maine to September 9, 1958.  You can visit the past for as long as you like—years—but when you return to the present it’s always exactly two minutes later.  Every subsequent visit is a “reset.”  You can change the past (and consequently the present), but as Jake learns, “the past is obdurate.”  It resists.

There’s more to the set-up, of course, but that’s all you really need to know.  Because with this portal to the past, Jake is set on a mission that would probably be the goal of most every person of a certain age—to stop the Kennedy assassination.  I don’t think it resonates quite so strongly with those of us who weren’t around to remember Camelot, but, sure, 11/22/63 was one of the most pivotal days in this nation’s history.  It’s a day that surely scarred the psyche of every American alive who remembers it.

For long-time readers like myself, there are some wonderful Easter eggs to be found in 11/22/63, tying back to past novels, and probably to future ones as well.  It’s amazing how King does that.  Characters I haven’t seen for decades make cameo appearances and gosh it’s great to see them.  If Mr. King has one skill above all, it’s the ability to breathe life into his characters.  No wonder they live on long after their stories end.  And it’s not just the characters that feel like old friends, it’s merely inhabiting the King-verse with its familiar town names, attitudes, and themes.  Like I said, comforting.

So, if it’s not obvious already, I loved this novel from start to finish.  Heck, I read 849 pages in less than 48 hours.  But Mr. King might have written this one just for me.  I have a thing for time travel stories.  In fact, 11/22/63 has several similarities with an old favorite I recently re-read: Replay, by Ken Grimwood.  The ideas of this novel are pretty compelling, and it’s not surprising that others have explored them.  Reading the two so close together made for an interesting counterpoint, and did disservice to neither novel. 

One more thing…  In recent years I’ve read enough Amazon reviews to see readers of more right-wing political ideologies decry Mr. King for letting his somewhat more left-wing politics and social agenda bleed into his work.  If that’s the sort of thing likely to bother you, be forewarned.  The man’s a bleeding heart (and I’ve got no problem with that).

Thirty-seven years and several dozen novels after his first, Stephen King is still finding fresh stories to tell in inventive ways.  Yes, those familiar echoes are there, but somehow Mr. King is keeping his prolific output fresh.  11/22/63 is a blast from the past.  I’m glad I got to travel there with a dear old friend.

NOTE: I am not averse to shilling.  If anyone feels inclined to give this review a "helpful" vote on, I will gratefully accept it HERE.  Thanks!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Science of Science Fiction

San Francisco's Mission District, it seems, has become addicted to "crawls."  Just a few weeks ago they hosted the huge Lit Crawl that ends the LitQuake Festival, and this past Friday night they hosted a Science Crawl.  What are they going to think of next?

My final stop on the Science Crawl was essentially the same as my final stop of the Lit Crawl, except this time I stopped a the bookstore side of Borderlands Books and Cafe.  Regular readers of this blog have heard me sing the praises of this independent specialty bookstore many times, but I won't let that stop me from doing it again.  Let me just say, if you have any interest in fantasy, science fiction, or horror, this store or their website should be destination shopping for you.  I'm not even especially fond of any of those genres, and I still consider it one of my very favorite spots in all of San Francisco.

In addition to the friendly setting and the interesting subject matter, there was another compelling draw to this particular event.  The three panelists were awesome!  I'd actually heard Scott Sigler speak very entertainingly at another Science Fest event earlier in the week.  The popular Porchlight Storytelling Series had half-a-dozen story-tellers (including a physicist, a neurologist, and a mathematician) speak on the subject of "epic fail."  Scott had told a story that wasn't science- or science fiction-related, but it was an epic fail.  (And if you're really curious about those stories, you may view them on my You Tube channel here.)

Now, I had the pleasure of hearing Mira Grant read at the Lit Crawl, where she definitely piqued my interest in her work.  So much so that I've already read and very much enjoyed Countdown, the novella that's the prequel to the series she's speaking about in the videos to follow.  It's only a matter of time before I break down and read Feed.  (And, yes, for a woman who claims not to be interested in zombies, I do read an awful lot of zombie books.)

Finally, there's Jeff Carlson, the author of one of the best opening lines of all time: "They ate Jorgensen first."  I ask you, how do you read that opening sentence and not want to read on?  Oh, you may not want to admit you want to read on, but you do.  Incidentally, that is the opening line to Plague Year, the first novel of a kinda fabulous nanotech trilogy.  As it happens, nanotech thrillers are one of my favorite things, and I went to a signing--at Borderlands Books, in fact--of Plague Year several years ago.  At that first signing, Jeff and I hit it off famously.  We discovered that we had several friends in common, and we have stayed chummy (mostly over email) ever since.  I have always been shocked that a guy who writes such sick, sick stuff is such a very, very nice guy.  Jeff and I hadn't had a chance to catch up face-to-face in literally years, so it was especially nice to see him.  (Sorry we went on and on, Mira!)

BTW, you'll be seeing more about Jeff on the blog in the near future.  I've got some books I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing shortly, and I also have an excellent story to share in a separate blog post.  It will be entitled:  How I tricked Jeff Carlson into killing me.  Look for it soon.

But enough about me and my murderous friends.  Let's get to the good stuff!  This was an awesome panel discussion!  Truly, it was the perfect way to end my Science Fest week.  I was so very happy to have a front row seat for this fascinating discussion among peers, and I'm so happy to be able to share the event with you.  These three writers are being billed as science fiction authors, but I think you could make a case that they're thriller authors and horror authors and probably many more classifications.  And if you're not interested in science fiction, thrillers, or horror, I'd recommend watching the first couple of minutes of this video just to see Frost, the coolest bookstore cat ever.  (When the video wobbles a little in the first section, it's because Frost is climbing up my shawl.)  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Starts with a whimper, but ends with a bang

The Time In Between
by Maria Dueñas

I have to admit that Simon and Schuster piqued my curiosity about this title simply because they promoted it so heavily prior to its publication.  In my mind, that’s a huge vote of confidence from the publishing house.  And, apparently it has been a bestseller in Europe, where it was originally published.  Alas, my own response to The Time in Between was mixed.  It got off to a rocky start, but ended much stronger—which is a better situation than had it been the other way ‘round.

With regard to the “rocky start,” the first-person narrator of this 600-page epic is Sira Quiroga, a young seamstress from Madrid with a modest background.  Unfortunately, she makes a terrible initial impression.  Virtually the first thing we learn about her is that she is an inconstant woman.  She behaves deplorably towards a man she’s supposed to love, and then runs off to Morocco with a man slicker than Teflon.  On many, many levels, her behavior is unforgivably stupid.  Truthfully, I wanted to slap her.  (Note to Authors:  Having your protagonist repent and/or wise-up eventually does not justify making us hate her in the beginning.)  And this whole opening drama takes up about the first hundred pages of the novel.

Which leads us to issue number two…  God, I felt like it took forever for this story to really get going!  No way did this novel need to be over 600 hundred pages long.  I would have written a far more positive review had it been condensed by a good 200 pages.  The overly drawn out introduction (that made me sort of hate the heroine) could have been condensed so that we could get to the meat of this story so much sooner.  As it is, the plot described in the jacket copy of this novel doesn’t even come into play until well past the half-way point of the novel. 

And that plot involves Sira working on behalf of the British Resistance in the early days of WWII.  But, given that that doesn’t even get broached until page 355 of my galley, there’s a whole lot that goes on before the excitement kicks in.  And I don’t mean to imply that it’s all bad or boring.  I think that Ms. Dueñas is going for a picaresque quality to Sira’s story, with a series of episodic adventures.  Some parts were more successful than others for me, but stuff does happen.  I wouldn’t call it fast-paced.  What I liked much, much more than the drawn out plot were the many supporting characters that bring life and interest to the story.  They’re an excellent and entertaining supporting cast.

And as the novel goes on, the pace does pick up, the main plot kicks in, and from there on out it’s a different book.  There is romance, excitement, suspense—all the things I would have enjoyed seeing more of in the first half of the novel.  So, The Time In Between ends on a high note.  Heck, the door is even open for a sequel.  By the end, Sira is a far more appealing protagonist.  The prose throughout the novel is acceptable, but not what I’d consider a selling point.  The North African setting of much of the tale, however, is unusual and adds its own level of interest.

I would recommend this debut to readers who are fans of long novels, and who are willing to have a little patience.  I would also recommend it to fans of these types of stories—of the time, the place, the war.  If the flaws I described sound like deal-breakers, you’re probably better off skipping The Time In Between.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Get out the vote! Tomorrow is Election Day!

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
by Jim Lehrer

40-Some years of water cooler moments

While as a Washingtonian I have always considered myself a political person, this is not a subject I have ever chosen to read about in books.  It was hearing Jim Lehrer speak about Tension City at a conference, I think, that got me to pick it up.  That, and the unintimidating page count.  Still, I’m almost surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. 

One of the things that worked for me is how personal the subject matter is to journalist Lehrer.  This isn’t just a book about famous moments (and their aftermaths) in the last 40-some years of political debates; it’s about Lehrer’s personal experiences as moderator of 11 presidential or vice-presidential debates since 1988.  To that extent, Tension City has elements of memoir, and a strong undercurrent of journalism within the subject matter.  Lehrer reflects on the highs and lows of his performances and those of his colleagues over the years.  I now have a far greater appreciation of the role of a debate moderator, and doubt I will watch future presidential debates with the same eyes.

Still, it’s the politics and history that were most riveting, because these debates did change history.  Had he answered one question differently, might Michael Dukakis have had a shot at the White House?  We can never know, but there is room for speculation.  I so clearly remember so many of the moments that Lehrer singles out over the past several decades.  They were the water cooler moments that the entire nation was talking about the next day.  But here we have the added perspective of time as we look at these famous exchanges.  Plus, Lehrer has the prestige and the relationships to get the major players to speak frankly about events of the past.  So, for example, Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle share recollections of “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” 

This is the history of my lifetime.  I was fascinated.  Tension City is a brief book, and many serious political and history junkies will be looking for something more in-depth.  For them, this book might work as a light companion volume.  But for this reader, Mr. Lehrer’s book was the perfect introduction to uncharted literary territory.

Mailbox Monday: I can't think of an edition edition

So, last week was chock full of excitement between the Bay Area Festival of Science and the literary events.  Man, I was busy!  My two loves converged at the end of the week with a completely awesome panel discussion entitled The Science in Science Fiction held at the completely awesome Borderlands Books.  The panelists were Scott Sigler, Mira Grant, and Jeff Carlson.  I could try to describe to you at length, just how awesome these three were, but why don't I just post video of the whole thing later this week?  And folks, I got good video for once.

So, I haven't had a chance to write up my dead mules in Southern Literature follow up yet, but I did receive nice notes from both Hillary Jordan and Bookseller Bob from Books, Inc. subsequent to my post about our evening together last week.  Very, very nice.

There are a couple of cool lit events going on here in SF this week that I might try to hit.  Local author Peter Orner is at The Booksmith on Wednesday.  I just acquired a copy of his novel Love and Shame and Love that I'm looking forward to reading, so it would be great to hear him speak.  Also, Gregory Maguire is going to be at The Booksmith on Saturday night.  Perhaps it'll be less of a mob scene because it's a Saturday?  Anyway, we'll see if I make it to either event.  I've been pretty run down lately and really need to pace myself.  Tonight I will go straight home after work like a good girl.

You may have noticed that I'm trying to catch up on the book reviews I've been slacking off on for the past few months.  So, expect more of them this week.  In addition to the backlog, I did read The Time in Between, which goes on sale tomorrow and which Simon & Schuster has been promoting so heavily.  I wanted to jump right into Eco's The Prague Cemetery right after, but I was defeated on my first attempt by the staggering outpouring of pure hatred in the opening pages of the novel.  The character actually articulates the philosophy, "I hate, therefore I am."  It's funny, but very tough to take.  So I set it aside and got distracted by I YA novel which is the funniest thing I've read since I don't know when!  It was Libba Bray's Beauty Queens.  What a pleasure over a dreary weekend at home.  Of course, I finished it in a day, and launched back into the Eco.  God, it's tough going!  Will this man defeat me again?  I've never made it through one of his novels.  I've about a quarter of the way through The Prague Cemetery, and I've already read each page at least twice.  And on that note...

Out of Oz
by Gregory Maguire
Release date: November 1, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

As noted previously, I have only read the first book in this series.  I'm not sure yet if I'm prepared to catch up on the intervening books.  Perhaps going to hear Maguire speak will help me decide.

Hard Target
by Howard Gordon
Release date: January 3, 2011
Source: Paper galley from publisher

Howard Gordon has all sorts of television writing/producing cred, and this is his second novel, a follow-up to Gideon's War.  I have a galley of that one, too, but the book descriptions sound a little macho for my tastes. 

The Time in Between
by Maria Duenas
Release date: November 8, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

Yes, another copy.  Meanwhile, I read this last week and had a mixed response.  It's been a big bestseller in Europe.  It will be interesting to see if S&S can duplicate that success here. 

Beauty Queens
by Libba Bray
Release date: May 24, 2011
Source: Audiobook from Library

First, best cover ever, am I right?  This is an over-the-top high-concept comic novel about a planeload of teen beauty queens who crash onto a mysterious island.  I won't guarantee that this book is for everyone (humor is so subjective), but I had a blast listening to this!  I also noticed this morning that PW named it one of the top books of 2011.  Take that, Umberto Eco!

Ashes to Dust
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Release date: March 27, 2012
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

Wow, you don't see a name like that on a book cover every day.  I think I'll have a Guess How to Pronounce it Contest in my face-to-face book group, with a winner chosen by our Swedish member.  Anyway, I do not even remember what this novel is about, but I know that I was quite interested in reading it.

The Odds
by Stewart O'Nan
Release date: January 19, 2012
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

O'Nan is one of those authors that I hear nothing but good things about.  I know that he is a real favorite of my BFF, Jon.  This will be the first work of his that I've read, and I'm really looking forward to it!

Besides the titles above, there were about 125 books from the NCIBA show.  I haven't organized a list of them yet.

Books finished this week:

Why Read Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Time in Between by Maria Duenas
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Currently reading:

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

So, what books have you acquired this week?  What exciting (or not so exciting) books are you reading?  Have you successfully read an Eco novel?  Please let us know in the comments!

Friday, November 4, 2011

My evening with Hillary Jordan, or sometimes it's worth making a little effort

Last night did not go the way that I expected.  I took a break from the science festival because after reading her novel, When She Woke, I was really interested in hearing author Hillary Jordan speak.  It’s a meaty, substantive book worthy of discussion.  So, not only was I looking forward to hearing from the author, but also to hearing the responses of other readers.

Anyway, my thought was, This is going to be a popular reading; I better get over to Books, Inc. as fast as I can!  I arrived almost half an hour early for the event, and was somewhat surprised to see that I was the very first person there.  Fine by me.  I browsed for a few minutes, but I really wanted to keep my excellent seat, so I plopped myself down with my Kindle and read my book.  I saw Hillary escorted to the backroom by the bookseller, Bob, and I could hear the two of them chatting quietly back there.  came and went, but still I was the only person sitting in the seats.  There were plenty of browsers in the store.  I wondered if perhaps they were there to hear Hillary, and were waiting for the event to start.  They gave no indication if that were the case.  Eventually Bob came and told me that they’d wait just a bit longer and see who showed. 

Well, by , it was still just me.  I felt kind of bad.  I mean, I was really happy to be there, but that’s tough for an author on tour.  Clearly, you can’t put on the whole dog and pony show for one person.  So, Hillary pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.  Bookseller Bob and his associate (whose name I failed to catch) also pulled up chairs.  And Hillary and I just began chatting, like real people.  It was lovely!  I didn’t tape or record our conversation in any way.  It wasn’t an interview.  It’s hard to be present in a conversation with a person if you’re trying to take notes, but I’ll share what I remember.

(NOTE: I don’t believe there are any plot spoilers for the novel below, but we do talk some about the world she has created.  If you’d prefer not to know anything going into the book, you’ll probably want to save this until after you’ve read it.)

I told Hillary all the things I’ve told you guys: how much the book scared me, how it really pushed the buttons of my personal fears.  Then I got to ask her the question that I’ve been wondering ever since I read When She Woke.  I said, “I only remember one reference to any religion other than Christianity.  It was a fleeting reference to a Mormon spree killer.  What happened to the rest of America?  Where are all the Jews?  The Hindus?  The rest of the melting pot?”

Well, first, she quite rightly reminded me that Mormons are Christians, too.  D’uh.  I forget.  I’m just a Jewish girl, what do I know?  But then she also clarified that while the boundary between church and state had been broken in her novel, the entire US hadn’t become fundamentalists.  Her character Kayla was a good illustration of that.  And she reminded me that abortion was not illegal in all the states in her novel, a fact that I had noted when reading it.  So, when I jokingly asked again where all the Jews were, she smiled and said, “New York and California.”  And that really is it.  In her fictional future, things are just that much more polarized than they are today.  It’s the same gulf between San Francisco and Amarillo, but multiplied many times over. 

Hillary spoke of how this country is always swinging back and forth on the issues brought up in her book.  Right now, things are pretty conservative, but there is reason for optimism.  Marriage equality is gaining ground.  Don't Ask, Don't Tell was defeated.  Hillary reminded me that despite McCarthyism, Jim Crow laws, and other episodes in our past, the country always seems to do the right thing eventually.  It was nice to see that despite her dark subject matter, she's an optimist at heart.

At one point, I said something about the comparisons her novel is getting to The Handmaid’s Tale and she rolled her eyes.  I called her on it and asked what that’s about.  Clearly, it wasn’t disrespect for Margaret Atwood.  So, Hillary listed a few similarities between the two books (which you can discover for yourself), but then she noted several significant thematic differences.  She had a point, and I can certainly see how hearing the same comments over and over again—which is exactly what happens on book tours—can get pretty old.

Around this time, another woman showed up.  She was a former colleague and friend of Hillary’s from 20-some years ago.  Apparently the parking situation was brutal that night.  Hillary’s friend hadn’t finished the book yet, but she joined in the conversation, and shortly thereafter Hillary’s cousin Robert arrived, followed later by her media escort and two more cousins.  Each person had the same issue, parking.  Made my modest bus ride feel downright brilliant.  Anyway, as each new arrival joined in, our circle discussion became a little bigger, but still very casual.  I was the only person there without a personal tie to her, and I didn’t want to drag things out too long to keep her from her social time.  I’ll mention only a few more things we wound up discussing.

I commented on the fact of criminality being depicted by skin color, and the racial overtones inherent in the idea.  “You think?” said Hillary, with a hint of snark in her voice.  I asked if there had been much discussion of this among the readers as she toured.  Some, but not too much.  She told us that she’d actually had conversations with doctors and geneticists about whether you could dye a person’s skin like she’d proposed.  Apparently, it wouldn’t be that hard, and you could probably do it, if not today, then in the very near future.  This didn’t surprise me at all, and I commented that if you could transfer the bioluminescent qualities of a jellyfish to a pussycat to make it glow in the dark (It’s been done.), then dyeing a human red shouldn’t be a problem.

Hillary reminded me that her first novel, Mudbound, was all about race.  I said, “Yes, I haven’t read it, but my online friends have been raving about it.  (You know who you are, PBTers.)  I asked Hillary to sell it to me. (‘Cause clearly given the circumstances, I wasn’t going to walk out of there without purchasing a book.  Why?  Because we love our independent booksellers, right?  And we also like nice lady authors who take the time to chat with you one-on-one.) 

So, Hillary gives me a nice description of Mudbound, during which, oddly, she highlights that it features a dead mule.  Perhaps I or others looked perplexed, because she then told us that she had read an article, years ago, in The New Yorker or some other publication, about all Southern literature featuring a dead mule.  She said that she’d love to read it again, but she’s never been able to find it.  Someone asked if she’s Googled it, and people started suggesting search parameters.  Hillary said, “Am I an idiot?  Of course, I Googled.  It wasn’t there.”  And this will segue to a whole follow-up post, because this one is already far too long.  Suffice it to say, Hillary told me if I could find the article, please drop her a note.  So, of course, I was going to look into it.

Someone asked if a film of When She Woke had been optioned.  Not yet.  Producers can be skittish about financing films about abortion--The Cider House Rules, excepted.  What she did share was an idea of creating a television series set in the world she'd created.  It wouldn't have to feature Hannah, it could be about all sorts of different people in her dystopia.  She suggested calling it "Chromeville."  You know, it's a pretty awesome idea.  How amazing would a series like that from HBO or AMC be? 

I don’t even know how long we’d been chatting, but by this time, there were nine people in the circle.  Hillary’s girlfriend said, “Hey, are you going to read?” and so at that point, Hillary read the first chapter of When She Woke, and with her permission I recorded her.  Once the camera was off, she recited from memory something very funny.  She’d referenced earlier a very successful speech she’d made to a large crowd in Austin.  (We’d been discussing how the book had been received in Texas.  Fine, apparently.)  She said there’d been one part that brought the house down, and after she read her opening chapter, she performed a self-parodying version in which Hannah doesn’t find her hands covered in blood, but in bloody Mary, and then the horror of discovering that it’s virgin Mary.  In the nature of nightmares, this one segued into a scene in Hooters involving Rick Perry and several other Republican leaders.  You’ll thank me for not describing it further, but I can assure you that it was as big a hit in San Francisco as it was in Texas.  It was the perfect note to end our evening on.

I asked Hillary to sign my galley of When She Woke and my new copy of Mudbound, which I’m looking forward to reading.  She nicely inscribed both copies, and I left her to her friends and family.  Hillary and I had exchanged cards earlier in the evening, so our follow-up contact will involve me seeing a lady about a mule…

A final note, if you have not yet read When She Woke, I highly recommend the novel.  And guess what?  They have signed copies at Books, Inc!  You should totally order a copy from them, right now.