Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lone Star State of Mind

I read a book this week about a girl moving to Texas from New York, but it was utterly forgettable, so I’m going to introduce you to the New Yorker- transplants-to-Texas book that remains the gold standard. I think I read Never Love a Cowboy in middle school, but I buy every copy I come across in used book stores and pass them out to friends. The author went on to write two more Sweet Dreams books, but then apparently went out of the book writing business. I like to think it’s because she finally visited Texas and died of shame.

Bear in mind that this book is set in Austin. In the 1980’s. Austin has always been a different part of Texas, less Western stereotypical than any other city, but our author likes to imagine a slightly different Austin. Bitsy moves from New York (really Brooklyn, but I’m thinking Ms. DuKore perhaps has never visited there, either, since she seems to imply that it’s downtown Manhattan) to Austin, Texas. She’s walking to school on her first day, down the street that leads directly to the University of Texas campus, and she hears a boy on a horse behind her on the street. A boy on a horse in the middle of the street near the U.T. campus, now. His name is Billy Joe Bridges (of course it is) and he’s dating teen queen Betty Lou Bender (of course he is). He knows that Bitsy is from New York and transferring to their school, as does everyone else at the high school. The hundreds of students are all waiting impatiently to catch a glimpse of the girl from the city.

They get their chance to see her up close and personal during lunch where they serve grits and black-eyed peas and collard greens, leading to the immortal line “Bitsy munched on a collard green and pondered her next move.” Yes, and then after school they ride the horse to the nearby drive-thru where they eat chiliburgers and tacoburgers. I’m going to just stop italicizing for emphasis, because it would be a stream of italics from here to the local tacoburger stand. There’s a rodeo, and all the music available is country-western, and Bitsy (who sang with a “punk-rock” band in New York, adding to the concepts our author has only heard about third-hand), sings a song, leading the bar owner (a Mr. Gonzales, so it’s totally not racist) to worry that the other patrons would riot at the idea of a cute girl “like Bitsy singing about her Latino boyfriend.” The song was called (wait for it), “Where’s My Tex-Mex Sweetheart?”

This may be the best book ever written about Texas. My dad collects Texana, and I’ve tried to get him to add it to his collection several times, but he just doesn’t recognize genius. I always wanted to invite the author to Austin when I lived there, meet her at the airport with a horse and watch her try and cross I 35 in search of a drive-thru grits stand.  I’m down to one copy, but keep your eyes peeled for this one in the used book stores – it’s worth every penny.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


You guys, I know it’s a book about teenagers with cancer. I want you to read it anyway. It’s not sappy. It’s biting and funny and sarcastic and real in a way I don’t think I’ve read before, certainly not in Young Adult and absolutely not when referring to kids with deadly diseases. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is simply outstanding.

I had high hopes for this one, loving Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines as much as I did, but I was surprised at how good it was. I didn’t see myself in the characters at all, Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac are braver and more honest than I think I would ever be, but I did love them. Prickly Hazel, determined not to get close to people and cause them more pain when she’s gone. Augustus, charismatic and and thoughtful, but not a paper saint. And Isaac, their witness, who should have been a supporting character, but who felt so much more important than that.

Hazel’s favorite book (and a major plot point) ends in the middle of a sentence. Hazel tells herself that she’s come to terms with the book just stopping, to represent the end of the narrator's viewpoint, but she’s obsessed with knowing the postscript. She wants to know what happens to the other characters in the story. Hazel is convinced that the author has imagined their future, refusing the concept that characters cease to exist when a story end. I’m a big believer that characters live past their creation and enough authors like Larry McMurtry have talked about past characters coming back to haunt them until they finished the story that I would place bets that John Green knows exactly what happens to each of his creations.

I said I don’t see myself in these characters, but there’s an early passage that is completely me. Augustus is driving Hazel for the first time and he hits the gas too hard and brakes too suddenly. He tells her the story of his driving test.

Sorry. I swear to God I am trying to be gentle. Right, so anyway at the end of the test, I totally thought I’d failed again, but the instructor was like, “Your driving is unpleasant, but it isn’t technically unsafe.”

I think I’ve heard that before.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Over There

One of the things I really love about Goodreads is that I see reviews for so many genres of books. My friends all have very different tastes, so the books they read and review are dramatically different, too. (Help! I’ve Married a Demon! meets Man Booker prize winner The Sense of an Ending. You know who you people are.) I’ve been convinced to try a few books that I never would have picked up on my own. You want to know how else to get me to try a book I might not have chosen otherwise? Have a contest and give it away.

There’s a giveaways section on Goodreads where you can win free books. It’s awesome. There are hundreds of book available, but usually there are two copies and two thousand people requesting it. (Totally not kidding.) I’m really picky with what I enter and I don’t ask for any book I don’t genuinely want to read, even though it’s tempting to ask for every book available. All you have to do is click a couple of buttons to enter, but I think it would be great if you could enter a twitter length argument for why you deserved the book most. Ooh, or a haiku!*

I know that the quid pro quo is that the sponsor would like a positive review, even though they are very careful to let you know that no review is required. I’m not sure what the best method is when you receive an advance copy and you absolutely hate it. Some people review it negatively, while others chose not to review it at all.

The nice thing is that I don’t have to worry about that issue, because the book I won was Mr. Churchill's Secretary: A Novel and I really liked it. It’s set during the beginning years of WWI, before America enters the war, and Maggie Hope enters the secretarial pool for Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Maggie has a brilliant mind for mathematics and is frustrated at being part of the clerical staff when she could support the war efforts better through code-breaking, but there are lots of secrets being kept from her. It’s a fast-paced mystery/spy novel, but it’s an equally compelling historical account.

It’s a beautifully researched novel, with details of WWI in London and snatches of Churchill’s most stirring speeches. The author’s respect and fondness for Churchill shine brightly and his brief forays into the story are special. The story focuses on Maggie, but her group of friends and flat mates are interesting enough that I’d love to see the same time period and events seen through each of their viewpoints. If MacNeil wrote those books as engagingly as Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I would read each and recommend it as highly as I do this one.


*My Haiku
Tired man puffs cigar
War has come in the winter
Give me a free book

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Baby, Baby, Oh.

One of the books I was so happy to get from my wishlist was Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have). I don’t know if you guys do this or not, but I’ll see a book cover or read a blurb and get all excited about a book. Then, I finally get my hands on the book and I’m all, What? What was I thinking?

The cover guy looks like Justin Bieber and the plot is a mish-mash of Y.A. talking points. Parents who want to be your friend instead of a parent? Pressure to have sex? Bulimia/Exercise addiction? STD? Teen alcohol abuse? Oh, baby, it’s in there. Along with a dozen other clich├ęs.

I don’t know what an author does that makes you care about a character. (If I did, I’d have the biggest mansion on writer’s row!) I’m a fan of characters with a viewpoint, even if it’s dramatically opposed to my own. Does a relatively blank character (like Bella in Twilight, sorry Gina) allow girls to put themselves into the story? If she’s not different from me, by being too much of anything, then maybe I’ll feel like she’s similar to me? April is a pretty blank slate, so maybe this book will be a runaway hit. I liked several of Sarah Mlynowski’s earlier books, but this one was a bust for me.

On the plus side, my stock pile has a whole bunch of Katie Fforde books in it, so I’m working my way through them. I just finished Living Dangerously and liked it a lot. Katie Fforde is like Meg Cabot, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Mauve Binchy for me. If they write a manual about auto repair, I will buy it, I will read it, and I give it 5 stars on Goodreads.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


I’m old enough that I should be ashamed to admit that my favorite book of the week is The Ghost and the Goth, but I obviously have no shame. Teen Queen Alona Dare gets hit by a bus and dies, wearing, to her great mortification, her P.E. uniform. Waking up day after day in the spot where she died, Alona is confused and mad. Self-centered at the best of times, this is not the best time for her, and Alona wants to know why she’s stuck in this place wearing these clothes. And why is her best friend kissing Alona’s boyfriend.

Will Killian (he’s not really a goth – his sweatshirt is navy) makes the mistake of reacting to Alona one day, letting her (and the dozens of other spirits populating the school) know that he can see ghosts. Alona c0-opts Will, using him to help her get out of limbo, but Will has his own problems. His “talent” to see ghosts has led everyone to assume he’s mentally ill and he’s one step away from a mental hospital. His principal is a jerk, his mom is secretly dating his shrink, and the ghosts are getting more demanding.

I love that Alona softens only in degrees, and very small degrees at that. Positive energy is a key to staying viable for ghosts, so making pictures of you fall off the wall to interrupt your cheating boyfriend and former best friend makes you fade fast. You know, if you were inclined to do stuff like that. Watching Alona dig deep to find a sincere compliment she can use to add to the positive energy is great – She finally manages to tell Will his teeth are nice.

I love that she’s tough and he’s fragile - It’s a nice twist on the teen book norm. Go read it. It won’t change your life, but it’s a fun afternoon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gimme Gimme

I never get to have a book stockpile. I read fast and I’m way too cheap to spend much on books that only take a day to read. I get a chunk of my books from the library, but they only belong to me for two weeks, so I read them as fast as possible. And the thing about library books is that for every ten books you check out, maybe one or two are books you really long to read. I’m glad to have quantity, but the new releases are few and far between. So, anyway, Amazon had a sale. Barnes & Noble had sales. I got gift cards. I haz stockpile.

It almost makes me giddy, to have two dozen unread books on the shelf (and the Kindle!). I don’t know what I did to please the Barnes & Noble gods, but they sent me coupons this year for 50% off one book (Yay, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution), then 50% off any teen book (Will Grayson, Will Grayson), then 50% off unlimited teen books (these four, plus three more!).

It seems weird to pimp Amazon links for books that Barnes & Noble was kind enough to discount for me, but Amazon has an associates program that I’m part of. I get a few pennies for each link you guys hit through to Amazon, if you buy something. The best part is that what you buy doesn’t even have to be what I recommended for me to get credit, so I’d love it if you’d all go to Amazon through my site and let me keep the stockpile going. It makes me feel dirty rich!

This is just an aside, but you guys need to check this out – It’s called Old Love and it’s photos of famous people who used to date. I’m in deep love with it right now. There are couples I had completely forgotten about, striking a mortal blow to my reputation as pop culture maven, and some people who dated around a lot (Samantha Mathis, I’m looking at you, trampy.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Okay, I’m usually not too sad that I don’t have any kids of my own. I have lovely nieces and a nephew and I get to cuddle babies for an hour each week and that’s usually plenty for me. I get out before the back-talk and clean-your-room yelling has to start. I read a book this week that made me want to snatch up the next surly teen boy I saw on the street and take him home with me to coddle forever.

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Doug Swieteck moves to a new town with his kind-hearted, but defeated mother, drunken, violent father, one delinquent brother gone off to fight in Vietnam and another busy living up to everyone’s low opinion of his future. Doug weaves himself into the landscape of the town, finding allies and enemies and mostly turning his enemies into allies despite himself.

You want your heart broken? Doug gets an autographed cap from a Yankees player named Joe Pepitone. (And a testament to the power of this book is that I now know who Joe Pepitone is. And I love him. Even if he did pose naked for a magazine called Foxy Lady and (this is my favorite)pretend to be injured all the time when he was playing in Japan, only to then show up dancing every night in discotheques, leading to his name becoming slang in Japan for “goof off.”) Anyway, Doug gets a signed cap from Pepitone and his brother steals it from him and it gets ruined.

But once, it was the only thing I ever owned that hadn’t belonged to some other Swieteck before me.

Doug’s brother is questioned in the break-in of a local store and most of Doug’s burgeoning friends and allies withdraw their kindnesses, assuming that he must be like the rest of his family.

Doug Swieteck,” Mr. Ferris said, “do you know the basic principle of physical science?” A trick? “No,” I said, sort of slow. He rocked Clarence. “The basic principle of physical science is this: two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Do you understand that?” “I think so,” I said. “Do you understand what that principle means? I shook my head. “It means, Doug Swieteck, that in this class, you are not your brother.”

I cried more at this book than I have in a while. I sobbed – ugly sobbed – more than once. Your heart breaks for this boy over and over again, but it’s a very, very funny book, too. Schmidt has a marvelous turn of phrase and sense of hyperbole that he gives almost entirely to writing Doug’s inner monologues. Doug gets a part in a play where he has to scream offstage like a madwoman,

I’m not lying. I got good at this. If you had heard me shrieking, you would have thought someone was being murdered too. It was so eerie, you might have thought that someone who had been murdered was shrieking. You might even have thought that someone who had been murdered had come back and was murdering the murderer, who was shrieking. That’s how good I was.

And then it’s time for the performance and guess who shows up for the play? (Here’s a hint – He’s foxy!)

And you know what I was going to do? I was going to shriek like an insane woman who has been locked in an attic for a great many years.

In front of Joe Pepitone.

You know what that feels like?

You can’t know what that feels like, because no one has ever had to shriek like an insane woman who has been locked in an attic for a great many years in front of Joe Pepitone.

Go read this book! Run fast to get it. Run fast like Joe Pepitone running to the Japanese discotheques!


*The title fit too well not to use, but if you people knew how much I hate Fogerty & CCR…Shudder

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

This Year’s Girl

I wish Mindy Kaling was my friend and we could talk on the phone all the time. Mindy is writer, director, and actor (Kelly Kapoor) on The Office and she’s written a terrific book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). It’s as funny and cute and likeable as Mindy seems to be, herself. It’s not pure fluff, there’s a deep seriousness that shows up whenever good comedians talk about the business of being funny, but it is light. I could quote from it all night, and probably will be chasing people down to “listen to this one thing” for a while, but this may have been my favorite -

Another old saying is that revenge is a dish best served cold. But it feels best served piping hot, straight out of the oven of outrage. My opinion? Take care of revenge right away. Push, shove, scratch that person while they’re still within arm’s reach. Don’t let them get away! Who knows when you’ll get this opportunity again?

Certain comics come up in Kaling’s stories, like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Amy Poehler. I like almost everything Tina Fey has done, (including not being totally ashamed that I saw Baby Mama in a theater), but I’ve never gotten any sense of how she is as a day-to-day real person, even after reading Bossypants. I have, for some reason, zero interest in Kristen Wiig. I don’t know why she doesn’t stick with me – I don’t dislike her work or anything. Something just occurred to me that is probably fightin’ words to Kristen Wiig. I think everything she can do, Christina Applegate can do better, so we don’t need her. She’s Christina Applegate light. But Amy Poehler. I don’t know if Kaling’s stories made me like Amy Poehler more than I already did, because she’s pretty high on my girl-crush list, but I would stand in line to read her autobiography. While you’re waiting for that book to come out, though, grab Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? It’s a good read and, like Mindy says -

This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It’s mostly pink. If you’re reading this book every night for months, something is not right.