Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, May 2007

Admittedly, the themes here at Estella's Revenge are largely a result of our whims (Heather and myself) at any given time. For instance, when I came up with the theme, "truth" it was because I've been on a non-fiction kick for months. One would think, since I've been a reader for a good solid 20 years now, that I would know my own tastes, but perhaps all bibliophiles make these little discoveries on occasion. Quite simply, I've discovered that when my life feels utterly cluttered and out of control, I like reading non-fiction.

Who knew?

For years I've been staving off reading slumps--often stress-induced--by throwing myself into fiction, only to find that as soon as I open the book my attention span shrinks to the size of a peanut and I toss a number of books aside in fits of fatique and frustration. Which inevitably causes more stress. To my surprise, non-fiction doesn't have that effect on me. Particularly, I've found that I enjoy reading memoirs when my life is tough. Why not take on someone else's experience, right?

So it was this new appreciation for non-fiction that prompted this month's theme, and I'm really excited by the ways the writers have chosen to interpret the "truth." Be assured, if you're more of a fiction person, there's still plenty in this issue for you.

Before we get to this month's issue, a quick bit of housekeeping.

Estella's Revenge is currently seeking reviewers with a broad range of reading tastes. I spend a good bit of time each week soliciting review copies of books from large and small publishing houses, not to mention the review copies we receive from PR folks and authors themselves. If you're interested in reviewing for us, please read the "Call for Writers" over on the sidebar and send a writing sample to estellabooks(at)gmail(dot)com.

Note: I apologize for the lack of eye candy on some of our pieces. As I was doing final formatting for the issue Blogger decided to backfire. I'll have more images up ASAP.

Happy reading,


Table of Contents (click to go directly to a piece)


Feature Articles:




Author Interview: Joshilyn Jackson

Interviewed by Heather F.

I have thought long and hard about what to write about Joshilyn Jackson, mainly because I don't want to come off all fan-girlish and slightly insane. But I love this author and my adoration only grew after this interview. I first "met" her when her first novel, gods in Alabama, was published. It jumped out at me from the library shelf, I took it home, and I devoured it. My rave reviews got Andi to read it and she too fell for the book. Then we found the Joshilyn's blog and fell in love with her personality as well. Brilliant, warm, and wildly funny, this is definitely one author you need to check out.

HF: I read that you were a military kid growing up. How did growing up on the move affect your writing?

JJ: I have no idea. Really. I am the least self aware person alive. I almost never know what I am feeling until I see what I do, and I don't spend a lot of time looking back or trying to figure out cause and effect in my life. As an angst-filled young playwright in my early twenties, I went to therapy. Going to therapy was like wearing black or smoking clove cigarettes---everyone did these things. I was the one who dropped out after six months out of sheer, unwavering boredom.

I think I tell stories precisely because I get so bored fingering my warty little feelings as I process the events of my life. The stories I tell myself (and eventually write down) are, first and foremost, entertaining to me, but I've discovered they also very sneakily allow me to decide what I value and where I draw the line between right and wrong in the middle of all life's messy gray. It is not fiction as therapy; my books are not autobiographical and none of the characters are me. It's telling stories as a way of explaining how the world works ---the same way mythology and nursey rhymes work, but on a personal level.

As a writer, I find I am unfailingly interested by how love (and other, darker human connections) grows in a finite life span in this dangerous environment we call The World. I'm interested in grace, faith, redemption, and identity. I'm sure these abiding interests come out of my life, but I can’t draw lines from thing to thing and say AH! This character represents this phase, or that story line or idea or theme comes out of growing up as an army brat... If I could, I probably wouldn't write.

HF: What are your thoughts on Southern stereotypes in literature? How conscious are you of Southern stereotypes as you write?

JJ: Stereotypes are toys. I played with them a lot in gods in Alabama because I had the luxury of an ex-pat for a narrator. Arlene hasn't been to Alabama for close to a decade, and she presents her relatives as stereotypes. The Steel Magnolia aunt, the Belle of a cousin, the Golden Boy Quarterback…Then Arlene and Burr go to Alabama and those simple presentations begin to get twisted and turned around, because people are more than the categories we slot them into. I had a lot of fun nullifying Arlene's first simple, stereotypical presentation of the Possett people.

HF: Describe your ideal place to write?

JJ: My crocodile green office, in my house. Preferably no one is home but me and the dog and the cat. Preferably, the cat is sleeping beside me and the dog is not destroying my shoes, but I'll take what I can get.

HF: Do you have any writing habits? Rituals?

JJ: Not really! I just wrote an essay about that for the Reading Group Guide in the back of the paperback of Between, Georgia. I really don't. I just need a door that closes and a little time.

OH! I do have these things I call my Fantasy Pants. I LOVE my Fantasy Pants. They are these huge Indian print drawstring things – I have three pairs. They are very hideous and comfortable and you could climb right on in here into them with me. We could build a stage and put on a show in here. I find I work better in Fantasy Pants.

HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

JJ: I'm such an eclectic reader, and I think that's where my weird brand of humor and violence comes from. As a child I loved both classic kid-lit and pulp fiction equally. I'd read A Little Princess and then Conan the Barbarian, often in a single sitting. I'd switch between Trixie Belden's gentle adventures and then head to Barsoom or Tarzan's dark jungle with Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As an adult, I read the same way. I love all the southern Gothic greats, of course: Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Lee Smith… Flannery O'Conner is my favorite writer. I also love "Book Club" books that walk the line between lit fic and commercial fiction. I want the writing to be strong, but I DO like a great big scoop of plot, both as a writer and a reader, and yet I want characters who are multi-dimensional. Jodi Picoult and Haven Kimmel walk that line wonderfully. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants was my favorite book last year. But I also read the heck out of Manly Gunplay books, the grittier the better, the sort of thing Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Lee Child write. I unabashedly love early and current Stephen King.

HF: Who is your favorite writer that most people probably haven't heard of?

JJ: Mindy Friddle. I flat out loved The Garden Angel and I am waiting for her next book with eagerness.

HF: Do you ever re-read your favorite books? If so, which have you re-read most often? Why does that work appeal to you so much?

JJ: Oh Lord, all I DO is reread. The first time through a book, I read like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi on crack, fastfastfast, eating up the pages, simply to see what happens next. Then I am either done with the book, or I am not. If I am done, I put it in the basement. If I am not, it goes on my reread shelf. I'll reread for character, for the beauty of the language, for the humor, for a thousand reasons. After each read through. I either put the book downstairs, or back on my reread shelf.

I don't think I will ever finish reading THE SOLACE OF LEAVING EARLY or A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY or about 50 other books I could name.

HF: If you could have three (living) authors over for coffee or a rich, red wine, whom would you chose?

JJ: Oh hrm, I don't know. I've been blessed to meet quite a few of my heroes already. It's so delightful when they turn out to be lovely, you know? They mostly do. Sometimes, they do not, and you REALLY don't want them to be grumpy or self-important or have terrible gas. You don't want them to be quite human, and yet, most of the time, they are. What's weird is, I've met a writer whose work blows me away and I could not stand the writer. A vile, rude human! And yet, I found disliking the person did not ruin the work for me at all.

I'd rather pick dead ones. Can I have dead ones? I would love to talk to Flannery O'Connor. And then I wish I could go back in time and eat with a young Harper Lee and a living Truman Capote. And since Harper Lee is very much alive, I refuse to count her as my third and instead will go get wildly drunk with Samuel Beckett. Huzzah to Mother Ireland!

HF: What are some of your favorite things to do, other than writing, reading and blogging?

JJ: I like my kids. I like to go to their soccer games and ballet recitals. My husband and I are TREMENDOUS geeks and we play online games, notably World of Warcraft. I love to travel and go see stuff---I especially like medieval things. The Cloisters is my favorite museum in the world.

HF: Your blog is among my favorites. How long have you been blogging? Why did you start and why do you continue to do so?

JJ: Thank you! I've been blogging since gods in Alabama sold. I started because novelists almost have to have a website these days, and I didn't want mine to be static. I wanted to give people a reason to bookmark the site, to come back, and to be introduced to my writing---albeit off the cuff, light writing. I also wanted to be accessible and open to talking about my work and other books and whatnot with readers and with other writers.

I've continued for a lot of reasons…Mostly because it'’s a nice wake up exercise that gets my brain ready to do my real writing. Also because a strange little community has built up on the blog. The FTK Regs, aka My Best Beloveds, and I value that community. I'm an extrovert, and I have chosen a job that puts me alone in a room for hours at a time with a host of imaginary people and no heartbeats but my own and sometimes the cat's. FTK is a way to bring real people into my office. I like feeling connected.

HF: What is one thing not many people may know about you?

JJ: It's my secret dream to own a little slice of land in some tiny southern University town where I can have goats. And chickens. And a pony! AND A MONKEY! And a red hot super fast internet connection.

HF: So, what are you currently working on now?

JJ: Less than three weeks ago, I finished a book called THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING. It's a ghost story and a mystery and what I call a love story for married people. It's about these two sisters who grew up in a family that had a very literal skeleton in the closet. The oldest, Thalia, is an actress and she is about as unconventional as they come, while Laurel has buried all the Gray family's dark strangeness in favor of a pretty and regular life—a marriage she thinks is solid, a beloved daughter, a successful career as an art quilter…

One night, Laurel wakes to find the ghost of a young neighbor, Molly Dufresne, standing by her bed. Molly was her daughter's best friend, and she leads the way to her own small body, floating lifelessly in the backyard pool. Molly can't rest, and Laurel is not equipped to decode the cryptic messages of ghosts. She has to call in her strange and estranged sister, but asking for Thalia's help is like walking into a frying pan protected only by a thin layer of Crisco. Meanwhile, Molly has opened a door, and that long buried family skeleton comes walking right through it…

I'm really proud of this book. It's a helluva ride.

I am just now beginning to peck around in a new book---it may end up being called TEXAS ROSE RED. It depends. Right now Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo are very important, but that may change.

Be sure to check out Joshilyn's latest book, Between, Georgia, out in paperback on May 2nd. And be extra special sure to read her near daily posts at her blog, Faster Than Kudzu.

Author Interview: Louis Theroux

Interviewed by Andi

When a very kind publishing rep contacted me a few months ago to inquire about whether or not I'd like to review The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, I was more than pleased to do so. What I hadn't expected was to stumble upon not only a new favorite book, but a delightful interview opportunity with the author himself, Louis Theroux.

Son of American novelist and travel writer, Paul Theroux, Louis is a gifted writer, storyteller, television personality, and all-around interesting guy. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

AM: Since The Call of the Weird is your first book, what would you say was the most challenging part of the writing process? The most rewarding?

LT: The hardest part was finding a structure and a shape for the material. The urge to write the book was the result of ten years of making documentaries on off-beat subjects – porn performers, neo-Nazis, gangsta rappers and so on – and specifically my sense of curiosity about what had happened to some of the odd folk I’d made programmes about. So I took this six-month trip around the states to seek them out. But when I came to write it, it was hard to figure out how much back story I needed to provide to make readers care about the characters – how much should come from the shows I made and how much from my “reunion tour”.

Also, I’m used to working in television, which is collaborative, so I had to make the adjustment to working on my own. But struggling through these problems is exactly what makes it all rewarding. And the solution, in the end, was just to trim and trim and trim the material – the chapter about my relationship with Ike Turner was more than ten thousand words at one point and I just chopped it right down until it was a little over four thousand.

AM: I—and I think most readers would feel the same—was vicariously uncomfortable for you as I read The Call of the Weird. Were there any particularly memorable moments that still make you shudder?

LT: If you mean physically uncomfortable – as in feeling threatened or at risk – it really wasn’t bad. The only time I was nervous was before attending a skinhead music mini-festival (a “hatenanny”, one of them called it) – particularly since I’m sometimes told I look Jewish. If you mean emotionally awkward, then yes, I found my involvement in the world of porn tricky. I went to a couple of unsavoury shoots – the nature of the sex acts has become so wilfully extreme and strange – and I felt a bit self-conscious about being there.

AM: On the opposite side of the coin, I loved that you really cared about many of the people in the book. What was the most rewarding part about interacting with the unique and interesting people featured in The Call of the Weird?

LT: I think it was helpful for me personally to level the playing field a little bit between myself and the people I cover by seeing them a second time and giving them a kind of right of reply. Most of the people I tracked down had seen the programmes I’d made about them, and so they had a more informed opinion of who I was and what I was doing, and it was good for me to understand how they felt. I spent months getting in touch with a prostitute I’d met while making a documentary about a legal brothel in Nevada. Since our last encounter, she’d found religion and got out of the business, and when I saw here again I realized she wanted to be my friend but not especially my subject, so I was forced to think about my own motivations – why did my urge to be her “friend” come with a proviso that I would be writing a book? Then there were people like the two survivors of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who you’d think would be among the most extreme in terms of beliefs, but they were just warm, likeable people whose company I enjoyed.

AM: You are undoubtedly a very talented storyteller so my question becomes, what does it take to tell a great story? Is it a talent that can be taught?

LT: That’s very kind of you. I found that crafting the chapters involved a lot of trial and error. I went through numerous drafts. I’m sure there are people to whom it comes very easily, but I’m not one of them.

AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have a particular way that you like to approach writing? Any unbreakable habits or writing rituals?

LT: Not really. I got into a bad habit of saving all my drafts, so I’d be on Chapter 7 Version 14, and then when I was cutting a lot of material out I would start worrying that I might want to end up using it so I’d save “offcuts”, so all these documents would be multiplying. The most helpful thing in the end was having my girlfriend around to read drafts and tell me when it was working and when it wasn’t, to provide some perspective. Otherwise there were time I was just spinning my wheels.

AM: Did you always know you wanted to write at some point?

LT: My father is a writer and I think he always wanted me to be a writer, and I grew up knowing that, so it was kind of an assumption.

AM: Why American subcultures? Are Americans inherently weirder? Disclaimer: I've read in various interviews that you have mixed feelings about the word "weird."

LT: I don’t think Americans are inherently weirder than anyone else in the world. But the kind of weirdness I look at in the book is behaviour that isn’t just outside the mainstream and morally questionable but that is also unabashed – these aren’t secret forms of weirdness, they’re codes of behaviour that people passionately believe in. And among Americans – much more than among the British, I’d say – you find a spirit of candour and openness and unselfconscious enthusiasm which means that it’s much easier for a journalist to find an entrĂ©e into these worlds and to find someone who will guide him and explain the world to him. Basically, Americans are more open about it, and there is also enough physical space and prosperity to allow these subcultures to flourish.

On the weirdness question, as a term, it’s a blunt instrument, but a necessary one. When I use the word, I usually just mean behaviour that runs against the grain of mainstream morals – here in the Western World in the early 21st Century. But I also see weirdness in the broad sense as part of the fabric of everyday life for everyone in the world. Humans are weird – the human condition is weird.

AM: Are you done with weirdness or do you have plans to further explore its many faces?

LT: My most recent projects have been back in the world of TV documentary, but I’ve been trying to examine forms of behaviour that are closer to the mainstream, and which represent something more significant in terms of power and influence. Last year I spent several weeks living at a large Las Vegas casino to find out about gambling and I’m also keen to get a story going inside a large US prison. These are fascinating areas of our culture that are both off-beat and yet also close to home.

AM: Do you read for pleasure often and if so, what genres or writers are your favorites?

LT: I try to read every evening when I go to bed. I read probably more non-fiction, especially literary journalism. Some of the books I looked to for help when I was writing The Call of the Weird were George Plimpton’s Shadow Box (about his immersion in the world of pro boxing), Jon Ronson’s Them (about the paranoid conspiracy theorist subculture), and Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (about English football hooligans). I recently finished reading Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. She was married to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and it’s an account of their persecution by Stalin. It’s totally fascinating – a tragic anatomy of a police state, an examination of the artistic life, and also a love story.

AM: Who has influenced your work the most?

LT: I talk in my book about my father, who is American, and his attempts to put an American stamp on us every Summer, with our annual pilgrimages to Cape Cod. I think he also taught me in artistic matters to take the best from high and low, finding the merit in a reality TV show or a sitcom and also reading the classics… For my TV career, I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Moore for giving me my break, and it was really him (and the TV Nation environment generally) that showed me how you could find humour in very raw documentary encounters with people.

AM: Do you keep a journal? Do you record daily life, ideas for projects, etc.?

LT: I do not keep a journal. I sometimes jot ideas down but not in any systematic way. I am a fanatical clipper of intriguing stories from newspapers and magazines, and though I live in London I try to keep up with American cultural matters by subscribing to US magazines (the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books).

AM: Is there anywhere in the world where you have not been, but would really like to go?

LT: So many places, but especially the far East. I was born in Singapore but have no memory of the place. I’d love to visit Vietnam , China, and Japan.

AM: Do you have anything in the works right now? Books, television or other projects?

LT: Right now I’m focusing on making some new programmes for the BBC. I did think about trying to make a feature-length documentary for theatrical release but that would mean several years committed to a single subject and in the end I preferred to have the luxury of dipping into a number of different areas of life. For me my work is still a kind of holiday from daily life – it affords me an opportunity to look at worlds that are far removed from my own – and the first sign a story might work is that I have a basic curiosity about it and an enthusiasm to experience it first-hand. I do love going to these places, and it’s wonderful that I can do it several times a year. I consider myself very lucky.

Many thanks to Louis Theroux for his time and thoughtful responses to my questions.

Louis Theroux graduated from Oxford University, where he wrote for the satirical magazine Spy. After working on Michael Moore's Emmy-winning TV Nation, he hosted his own BAFTA-winning shows in the United Kingdom, "Weird Weekends" and "When Louis Met..."

Visit his website at http://www.louistheroux.co.uk

Interview: On the Inside with an Independent Bookseller

Interviewed by Melissa

I recently sat down with Sarah Bagby, Managing Partner of Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kansas to talk about the challenges of running an independent bookstore in Kansas, connecting to the community, and books in general.

MF: What's it like operating an independent bookstore in Wichita?

SB: Watermark's celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. The business has changed a lot since we opened. Presently, it's a business that includes a cafe, so we're actually running two businesses, which keeps everybody on their toes constantly. We're always trying to integrate the food side with the book side. But they fit together so well, because both provide a sense of community and connection.

You ask what it's like running a bookstore. I'm active in the
industry, and because of our geography, and because most of the
publishing and decision making is in New York City, it requires
travel to make the connections necessary so that we can be included
in some of the national decisions that are made for author tours and
that sort of thing.

MF: People don't necessarily think of Wichita, Kansas when they're
planning a book tour?

SB: Well, the east coast is far away. Not a lot of people have been
to Kansas. Technically, the midwest starts in Ohio, so when you say
you're from the midwest, they think it's close by. And really, we're
not. We're clear across the country. So, you have to at once be very
involved in both the publishing community and the local community.
Getting those two to come together in a way that works for both is
both a challenge and at the same time very exciting.

MF: Why?

SB: Because you get to find out what's new. Because it's a business
that's relevant to people's lives. And while there's a tendency in
publishing and bookselling to go after the "next hot thing", there's
also a level of commitment to culture that is relevant. And I think
people are looking for relevance right now. When you look at how many
book clubs there are, and how people gather around writing, and
writers, and ideas, we fit into that really well.

MF: How did you end up at Watermark?

SB: I was in college studying art history and I got a part time job
at Watermark. In my house growing up, books were more important than
furniture, so this was a comfortable place to be at a time in my life
when there weren't many comfort zones. And sort of by default I ended
up in the position of running it, and then I became a partner. Now
I'm sort of entrenched and I like it. The business and the challenges
have changed so much in the time that I've been here. I'm not running
the same business that I was running 20 years ago.

MF: What's the best part of working here?

SB: The feeling of creative possibilities. Connecting a book to a
reader. The possibilities are endless of what you can do there. The
staff that I work with is amazing and dedicated. And the product is,
well, first class. And even if you don't like one, you can still sell
it and sell one you love later.

MF: And the down side is?

SB: You can never do everything you want to do. Because every season
there's the next new book to read, and you probably didn't get
through the stack from last year. It's the nature of the business.
We're just getting caught up with the spring list, and the fall one's
just coming out. At this point in the year, publishers are sending us
stuff that they want to know if it's any good that won't be out for
another year. The lag time that is kind of hard. We have a reading
journal (http://www.watermarkbooks.com/reviews.html) on our web site where our staff can write about what we're reading, as we finish, which helps so much.

MF: How do you deal with the challenges of being an independent
bookstore in the age of box stores and Amazon.com?

SB: Well, we get to choose our product. You can find the
blockbusters, and certain other types of books, at the box stores and
wholesale clubs at a price that we have to buy them for. So, we
intentionally look for the books that are not going to be in those
stores that are just as good, and that we can convince people to
read. That gives us the ability to create relationships with our
customers and develop a reputation that they rely on: that if they
only have so much time to read, they know that if it's from us, it's
really good. We also keep in close touch with local opportunities
that may not be available to the national chains because their
decision making process isn't here in town.

Additionally, the cafe and the bookstore working together is unique.
They cross over and that contributes to the profit margin. It's a
good mix. It just wouldn't have the same effect if we didn't have both.

MF: Can you give me an example of local opportunities?

SB: We take local author's books without question. In those, are
always opportunities to resonate with the community, either just
because of the person's friends, or, for example, because it's a
history of the local area. There's always a connection there. We also
carry books for instructors for local colleges.

MF: You do a lot of community outreach -- book groups, story times, author events -- it can't just be good for business. Why do you feel it's important?

SB: I think it helps the culture of the community. Because of our
connection to the national and local scenes, we can bring them
together in ways that no one else is doing. There are no real lecture
series in town that bring in big names. If we weren't doing it, I
don't know who would be. We're bringing in Anna Quindlen, and Kahled
Hosseini this year, both who are nationally-recognized writers. What
we do provides relevance, again. Books are things that people are
passionate about, and we give the citizens of Wichita a way to

MF: Are your book groups well attended?

SB: Yeah. We had one that just started --Shakespeare Out Loud -- and
we had eight people. That was a good amount, because everyone's
reading out loud, everyone's participating. And for a first time idea
that's different, we felt it was successful. The groups range in
attendance, some have more than others. On average, there are at
least ten people for book clubs. We also have a monthly literary
feast that sells out. That's thirty people who, once they've bought
tickets and the book, have invested $50 in the event. I think the
book groups are well-attended because everyone can participate.
They're not so big that it becomes a lecture, and it gives us a way
to highlight books that we think are good to read. We sell many more
copies than people who come, so it's obviously reaching a broader
base than we could otherwise.

MF: Do you feel like your other efforts are well received?

SB: Absolutely. We have good attendance for our events. We hear a lot
from speakers who come to Wichita that their best event was ours.
When I get quotes I got from authors, I sometimes think, "Are they
really talking about us?" They feel a connection to readers, they
feel like they came and talked to people who were interested and who
knew their work. The people who are coming to our events are readers,
and they love meeting the author and express that to them. If that is
all we've done, it's great.

I was recently interviewed for an article in Publishers Weekly -- they're doing a series on independent bookstores across the country (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6433828.html )-- and my
quote was something like: you can predict what we like to read in Kansas but don't try to pigeon hole the market because you'll be surprised.

MF: Do you get that a lot? People trying to pigeon hole Kansas?

SB: Before I started to develop personal relationships with the
publishing world in the past few years, I was just "Wichita". Now I'm
"Sarah", so they'll call me for advice and information. Now that I
understand what they're doing, they are more willing to understand
ours. I had to be concerned about their world so I could insert my
own in there. If I were to wait for them to come to me, it would have
never happened because of the distance. I don't begrudge anybody
that. But having the personal relationships have really helped the
quality of my business.

MF: Have you ever done something that was just a complete flop?

SB: Oh, yeah. But we haven't had one in a long, long time, because
it's too painful for them and for us. And the publishers aren't
interested. So, we figured out how to make them work. We'll sometimes
have just a handful of people come, but it's not empty. We have
several people who are good friends that will come and help us if
they know, because they understand how hard it is.

MF: What's your favorite book?

SB: I don't know that I have a favorite book.

MF: What's the best book you've read lately?

SB: The best book I've read lately, probably was... Oh, I've been
reading so many good books. I love to read, and that's why I'm here.
The new Kahled Hosseini was powerful, a very good book. I'm reading a book right now called The Secret of Lost Things that is set in a bookstore in New York City. It's a great book for someone who works in a bookstore, and for those who love books. I read a first novel by AnitaAmirrezvani, an Iranian-American, called
The Blood of Flowers. It will be a great summer read. It's one of those books that I couldn't put down.

MF: What do you think the future holds for Watermark, and for
independent bookstores?

SB: I think independent bookstores are tough. They are opening all
the time, though they're not opening big stores, say 10,000 square
feet. The Internet is a huge competitor. Probably bigger than other
stores, I think. So, we'll just continue to seek out a product that
will be relevant, and provide that to our customers and present it in
a way that's unique and personal and lasting. It's not like we're
getting rich here; it's a struggle, there are really low margins of
profit. But it's a business, and experience helps.

Melissa and Estella's Revenge wish Sarah Bagby and Watermark all the best.

Book Tour: Wichita, Kansas

Most people don't associate Wichita, Kansas with anything literary. But then, many people don't really associate Kansas with anything in particular. Usually, when I tell other book-minded folks I'm from Wichita, all I get is semi-blank stares.

"Kansas?" they say. "Isn't that the place where Dorothy's from?"

Well, yeah. It is set in Kansas, but L. Frank Baum wasn't actually from here.

"Okay, I know. Truman Capote wrote that book right? The one Capote's about?"

Uh-huh. But that's not Wichita, and we really don't want to be known for a book about a serial murderer, no matter how good it is, do we?

They think and think, but nothing springs to mind. "Okay, I give. What is there that is literary in Wichita, Kansas?"

The answer: not much, at first blush. Our current connections with the famous are that the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, hails from here, as does Phil Stacey who's on the current season of American Idol (but interestingly, he doesn't say that he's from Wichita). In fact, in a perusal of interesting people from Wichita as listed in I found that there was not a single literary person on the list.

Undaunted by these facts, I set out to see if I could prove that Wichita is indeed a literary town. If we can't produce notable authors, at least we can appreciate them, right?

I looked up bookstores in the Yellow Pages (always a good place to start), and after winnowing out the box stores, explicitly Christian stores, and adult bookstores (who lists adult book stores under books? If I were going to buy that stuff, I wouldn't look for it under the book listing), I was left with nine stores to visit. Of those nine, there are three that are worth mentioning (the rest? two were typical big-city used bookstores, three didn't exist -- being private houses on back roads, and one was a new-agey bookstore with limited hours).

The first store, Delano Book Room is not your typical used book store. Sure, they have the usual used-book fare: mostly horror, sci-fi, romance and mystery, with a smattering of really good books (ones that I wonder why on earth people would want to get rid of). Even though their children's section left something to be desired, my children (all four of them) each managed to find something to curl up with in one of the many cozy chairs scattered around the store. But the store is so much more than that. It's located in the historic Delano district in Wichita, a local hot-spot for clubs, live music, and cafes. Admittedly, being there on a Monday afternoon with my kids, I wasn't able to experience all that. But the number of community events offered through the store impressed me, and shows how well integrated they and the Delano neighborhood are. The store has both an open-mic poetry night and a "No Podium Poets" night for those microphone-shy every week. There's a mystery book club, an American history book club, and a story time that each meet once a month. In addition to all that, the store puts on several special events over the course of the year. Most recently, they had a Shakespeare's 443rd Birthday celebration (alas, I wasn't able to attend). I've never seen a used-book store that is so involved in the community. Very cool.

Next is Wichita's biggest independent bookstore, Watermark Books and Cafe. Watermark is one of those places where you just feel hipper walking in to -- the buzz of conversations at the cafe, the welcoming atmosphere, the staff's friendly smile -- and I immediately wanted to be a part of it. It's been a fixture in Wichita for 30 years, originally part of the downtown area. They moved to their current location -- on the east side -- in 1996 and expanded to include a cafe. It's a welcoming place; there are comfortable chairs scattered throughout the store, and the cafe has ample places to sit and enjoy a coffee while perusing books. My daughters (only the youngest two this time) made a beeline for the children's section, mostly to play with their Schleich princess toys. While they played, I wandered. Watermark has an amazing collection of reader-oriented stuff: glasses, bags, dolls, cups, footnotes, magnets, all of which I wanted to buy. Their books are an eclectic collection: not much of the hot-new-bestseller ones, but rather tables of staff-recommended books, books for their store-sponsored book groups, and a few best-sellers. Not only do they sponsor book groups (to be expected), but they put forth the effort to be Wichita's link to the wider literary world, bringing in authors, sponsoring lectures, and connecting the community to books. I was surprised and impressed with the number of authors they've had in: Lane Smith, Tomi DePaola, Jan Brett, Linda Sue Park, T.A. Barron have all signed the wall in Watermark's basement meeting room. They've got Anna Quindlen scheduled to do a reading and a signing for the paperback release of Rise and Shine as well as a visit from Khaled Hosseini during is book tour for A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's not only the biggest independent bookstore in town, but the best one I've visited in a long time.

The last store worth mentioning, and possibly the most unique, was Eighth Day Books. It's situated just east of Wichita's downtown in a lovely old house. Once inside, it's like nothing I've ever seen before. It's a cozy, crowded place: all available wallspace is covered in bookshelves and religious icons. There's benches, tables, and chairs to sit that look inviting for reading or discussing. There are books everywhere: rooms full of classics, poetry, religious studies, philosophy, and Kansas authors. I chatted for a while with Josh, one of Eighth Days' three employees, who told me that the store has been part of the Wichita literary scene for 18 years. They sell both used (labeled "recycled") and new books, specializing in good literature, Christianity (though there's a world religion section) and philosophy. While they don't have any book groups, and only occasionally have author signings (they hosted Scott Cairns a recent weekend), they do open up their space to anyone who wants to meet and discuss books. We were even more pleasantly surprised when Josh said that there was a children's room in the basement. We headed past the "hobbit hole" sign (love that!) to find a little space filled not only with an extensive collection of picture books on saints, but assorted other picture and chapter books. While my girls enjoyed the books, I think the best part for them was going down the stairs to get them. We didn't have the time to thoroughly browse the stacks (that would take hours), so I'll definitely be heading back there.

So, there. I have presented the evidence for Wichita's literary status. Personally, I was disappointed that there weren't more stores for a city of 300,000 people, but I found that their small numbers are more than made up for in quality. There are both readers and owners working to build a literary community here, and I respect that and want to be a part of it. Come and see for yourself sometime.

Snazzy Stuff

Ever want a man who would actually help you read instead of complaining, getting in the way and generally annoying you about it? Well, look no further! Uncommon Goods has got the guy for you! That's hot.

Chicago's "Open Book" Project for Literacy

By Lisa G.

These days, when good news seems a lot harder to come by, it's easy to fall into despair thinking there's nothing good happening in the world anymore. But when a project like this one comes along, it's encouraging to know there are still unselfish people out there working very hard to help make their own corners of the world a little brighter.

Open Books is just this sort of organization. When they open their doors in 2008 they will have the distinction of being Chicago's very first non-profit literacy bookstore. Their plan is to sell books on the first floor of the shop, and use the proceeds from that to fund literacy programs on the second floor.

A very ambitious undertaking, but from the sounds of it Becca and Stacy, the two dedicated women who are organizing the project, have things very well in hand. Right now they're busily collecting book donations from all around the Chicago metro area, from the kind of people who care about the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. My own library has, I'm proud to say, donated books to the Open Books project. If you're in the Chicago metro area please encourage your library to do so, too. Or, if you have books of your own to donate, please consider this very worthy cause. Becca and Stacy pick up large donations, so it's not even a matter of getting to them. If you're local, and have books to donate, let them know and they'll come to you.

Open Books has a goal of opening their doors with a 50,000 book collection. Right now they have in the neighborhood of 20,000 + books. Their dedication and drive are so impressive I have no doubt they'll meet or surpass their goal by the time the ribbon is cut and the doors are opened. Of course, the more benevolent souls who donate, the better their chances will be.

The location of the Open Books facility will be 1449 S. Michigan Avenue, in the South Loop of Chicago. The building is currently being remodeled to suit their needs, with a goal of opening about a year from now.

You may contact Becca and Stacy via their website at www.open-books.org If you'd like to get involved give them a call or shoot them an email. Book donations are greatly needed, and though I'm not sure about other specific volunteer opportunities I'm sure they'll be glad to have every pair of willing hands they can get.

Open Books will be working with Literacy Chicago: www.literacychicago.org in order to bring literacy programs to those in need.

Media Contact

Becca Keaty
Director of Marketing and PR

The Truth of Lies

By Charles Dodd White

Just a couple of weeks ago I was shocked to learn of Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic gross fest, The Road, for her book club. Not because it’s not a great book, but rather because it is. In fact, the Pulitzer committee gave its sanction as well, obediently falling in line with Mistress Oprah’s benediction, lest they incur the wrath of her displeasure.

Now, I know some of you will say, “Okay, granted O. can be a bit of a bore, but really, shouldn’t we be encouraging more people to read good books, regardless of whatever celebrity affiliation might be made?” And you’re probably right. I mean, sure, reading is something most people interested in words are going to want to encourage. If for no other reason than it increases the market for whatever we might want to publish in the future.

So, good for Oprah—she’s a regular cultural dynamo and altruist. Now, is The Road a very wise selection for her book club? Probably not. You have to
wonder how many women who make up the vast majority of her show’s
demographics--especially if they're fans of her previous women's fiction and dysfunctional family picks--will enjoy reading about a single weak-willed female character
who abandons her son and husband through suicide. Nor will they particularly
like the cannibalistic adventures and gut-wrenching imagery that seems like
an absurdist blending of Dante’s Inferno with the Nick Adams Stories.

A bit of a downer, when compared with giving away free cars.

So, I began thinking, why in God’s name she would have chosen such a book.
Had she recognized McCarthy’s singularly beautiful prose? Was there a
message within the story that spoke to some universal desire for existential
validation? Had she suddenly developed an overwhelming hunger for the sweet
flesh of humans?

No! (Well, at least I hope not).

She wanted to reclaim legitimacy. Legitimacy lost with the James Frey
debacle and his book, A Million Little Pieces.

Most of you probably remember this little Oprah foible, but for those of you who might not, Frey was the mealy-mouthed guy who claimed all sorts of trials and tribulations involving drug addiction and recovery in a memoir published by Anchor Books. He is purported as saying that he intends to be the “greatest writer of his generation.” A short sample from the opening of
A Million Little Pieces to let you judge for yourself:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut…I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.
So, uh, there you go. Surely you can see why Oprah would decide this is indeed the work of genius.

But, you see, there was a problem. Seems like Jimmy exaggerated his story a
wee bit. Prison stays that were only three hours long turned into three
months. Busted faces were only light bruises in doctor’s records. There was
a touch of the melodramatic in Frey’s story, though no one could ever have
guessed that from the book’s restrained, understated opening. But boy, O’s
peeps got pissed.

He lied, they said. This dirty little bastard made something up and they
felt cheated because they identified with his story of addiction and
redemption, only to discover it had been a trick, an untruth.

At first Oprah backed Frey, saying that she stood behind her authors. Until
she started catching criticism. O. doesn’t like criticism. It makes her
corporate capital go down. So she told Frey to get his ass on national
television in order for her to berate him like a spaniel that shit on Mama’s
favorite rug. Which he accordingly did. With tail tucked submissively.
Oprah said he was a liar, a dirty sonofabitch that let everyone down and
Frey obediently agreed. It was perhaps the most uncomfortable interview I
have ever seen. It was a fucking crucifixion.

But there was a small problem with all of that. Memoirists have never been
charged with recording facts. They are responsible for Truth. And there is a
hell of a difference between the two.

Authenticity might please the readers of a hard news story. However, if we
want to know what it was like inside the Virginia Tech massacre, the simple
description of “32 people killed by lone gunman” fails to capture the horror
a first-person account of someone on the scene would, even if we allow for
subjective and unavoidably non-factual perspectives of the incident. The
truth is often impossible to get at unless we allow for some invention, some
coloring of the incident that communicates the nuances and personal details
of a narrative. Frey might not have literally experienced everything written
in his book, but he undoubtedly felt strong enough about his experiences
that he rendered them in such a way that many people who had endured
addiction felt a connection with him. Frey was wrestling with demons of some
kind, and he wrote convincingly about them to give meaning to his life.

But that wasn’t good enough for Oprah. She’s only interested in the facts.
She’s a gatekeeper, making sure we aren’t exposed to anything that isn’t
good for us. She’s very maternal that way, you know.

Aren’t you glad that O. is there looking out for your best interests?

God knows what we could do without her.

Truth and the Historical Novel

By Stuart Sharp

I’m sure that at some point, most of us will have been told to “stop making things up,” probably by well meaning parents. In addition to prompting the question of how many authors find themselves suffering from vague feelings of guilt every time they write, it does raise the issue of whether truth and fiction are really that far apart.

Take the field of History, for example. At first glance, it seems pretty straightforward. On the one hand, there are books of serious History, designed to inform, and which rely on facts. For the most part, they aren’t that interesting. On the other, there are books of historical fiction, designed to entertain, which rely on made up things.

If only the situation were that simple.

For a start, who decided that history books couldn’t be entertaining? As far back as Bede, there were historians who understood the need to include all the juicy stories so that people would keep reading. If someone asks, for example, about the history of the Third Crusade, they’re probably more interested in hearing about how Phillip II of France developed a sudden ‘illness’ so that he could go home and take large parts of Richard I’s Norman lands than in the fine detail of the logistics.

There are more modern historians who understand that, of course, and for the non-historian looking for an entertaining historical introduction to a particular period, a biography of one of the major figures of the period is usually a good way to go. Philip Mansel’s biography of Louis XVIII, for example, is about as good a guide to late eighteenth and early nineteenth century France as you can get, because it manages to convey the facts in a way that is actually readable.
That seems important. After all, telling the truth about history must surely require that someone is listening. Just finding things out isn’t enough. If we don’t tell people what happened, what’s the point?

All this comes before we get onto the tricky theoretical issue of whether it’s even possible to tell the truth about the past through history. A lot of people have spent time arguing along postmodernist or narrativist lines to explain that it’s impossible for historians to do their jobs. Admittedly, the historians have then done the perfectly sensible thing and ignored the arguments completely, mostly because that way we get to keep our jobs. It does suggest, however, that the foundation of ‘fact’ on which historical writing is built is a little shakier than we’d like to think.

More to the point, why should historical novels necessarily involve huge liberties being taken with the facts? Sure, most of the characters will be made up, or made to behave in ways that they didn’t, but almost by definition, historical novels are written by people with an interest in history. They might not have the fine detail of research that a non-fiction history book would have, but they do tend to be backed up by research.

Take Domini Highsmith’s books, which are set around the town of Beverley in the central Middle Ages. I was doing some research on Beverley Minster’s history when I first ran into a copy of Master of the Keys. I found myself slightly embarrassed when I realized that a couple of events it mentioned had actually happened, and that I’d completely failed to notice them in more conventional sources the first time around.

Of course, there are times when this goes wrong, and people end up believing that a best-selling author’s grand conspiracy theory is the truth, but most of the time, fiction provides a pretty good view of the past. In particular, one of the best ways to get a feel for a particular point in time is to read a novel set at that time, or better yet, one written then.

A few years ago, when I was an undergraduate history student, a lecturer of mine surprised everyone by including only one book on the reading list for the first week’s seminar on the Franco-Prussian war. It was Emile Zola’s Debacle, and it probably did more to convey a sense of time and place than any textbook could have. In a similar vein, reading a few translations of Old French chansons de geste is a great way to understand the society of medieval Europe.
Like most pieces of fiction, they try to convey a sense of place, and they also try to comment on the society around them. Where they try to hold a mirror up to life, we get to see the reflection a few hundred years on. They have the added advantage of mostly being great stories, too.
The Old French work Raoul de Cambrai is a good example of this. On the surface, it’s mostly a story of revenge, where the hero, Bernier, ends up killing his lord over a series of wrongs done to him. But it was also intended to be a commentary on duty, lordship, the nature of obligation, and kingship. To make those comments, the book shows Raoul technically doing all that is required of him as a lord, while still managing to be a complete monster. From a historical point of view, that’s like gold dust, because suddenly we have a guide to the kind of relationship that was expected between a lord and his vassal.

It doesn’t have to be this particular work. I picked it mostly because I had a copy to hand. Cretien de Troyes’ works achieve much the same effect, as indeed do the works of a lot of other historical authors. The only thing to watch out for is the historical author who is writing about something still further in the past. Just as we wouldn’t use Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to understand Rome, so too we must be careful of something like the Song of Roland, featuring Charlemagne but written centuries after his death.

So it isn’t foolproof, but when this approach works, it works well. I’m willing to bet that most people’s understanding of Louis XIV’s France owes more to Dumas’ words than those of the historians that have followed.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anybody with an interest in history should just ignore history books and reach straight for fiction. Since I am mostly a historian, I’m not sure that would help my job prospects much. What I am suggesting, instead, is that the clear definition between the ‘truth’ of historical research and the ‘fiction’ of the historical novel isn’t all that clear. Instead of ignoring half the picture because it’s either ‘boring’ or ‘made up’ it’s far more useful, and fun, to dip into both sides of that divide.

Truth and Consequences

By April D. Boland

Can a memoir contain the absolute truth about a person's life? James Frey certainly got many people asking this question last year through his whole "I embellished my story, I'm a writer, that's what I do, though I marketed it as non-fiction" fiasco.

I love creative nonfiction, which blurs the line between truth and reality, and consequently, I read a lot of memoirs. Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. These are just some of the people I have gotten to know through their writings about themselves and their lives. But how much can I trust to be true when it is, after all, autobiographical?

I have started and stopped and started and stopped while writing my own autobiography, and I run up against the same difficulties that every writer does: Do I really want to portray [this character] in this way? Do I really want to portray myself in this way? It is really hard to be completely impartial when you write of yourself and the ones you love, but even the writers who have it down can run into other problems. For example, just because the writer perceived an event as happening in such a way does not mean it happened that way at all. Perception colors everything we view and experience, like 3D glasses or a pair of shades. Can we really trust the author of the memoir? Do memoirs even belong in the nonfiction section?

The memoir is an interesting genre, and works within it are perhaps only true as examples of what authors experienced and how they felt about their experiences. For me, that is more interesting that what actually happened, otherwise I would spend all my time reading history books and not memoirs. I love that space in between the textbook and the novel - it's a beautiful space in which truth is fluid and malleable and fun. We should probably just take it for what it is rather than push it to one end of the spectrum or the other.

Comic Book Death

By Chris Buchner

In Captain America vol. 5 #25, the star-spangled title character was gunned down by an assassin and reportedly killed. This event has had the comic community split, one half in mourning or shock over the loss of one of Marvel’s oldest characters and the other convinced that one day Cap will return. That return is part of the concept of the comic book death.

Not only limited to but mostly utilized by comics (the most famous non-comic example being television’s Dallas when Bobby Ewing was resurrected an entire season after he died), comic book death is when a character is killed off only to be resurrected again at a later time with some kind of explanation. However, that’s not to be confused with the concept of a legacy character; a different character who adopts the same identity of a dead character; a recent example being former Gotham Police Officer Renee Montoya becoming the new Question in DC’s 52.

Two of the most famous comic book deaths are Dark Phoenix/Jean Grey and Superman. When Dark Phoenix was killed, it was always intended to be permanent. Somewhere down the line the decision was changed to have Jean Grey alive and well and Phoenix a separate entity that replaced her. Much like her codename, Phoenix, Jean would be killed and resurrected multiple times. Superman, however, was always intended to return, his death just an over-hyped gimmick to boost sales.

Some common instances for a return include:

-A character who died off-panel could never truly be confirmed to be dead. Magneto during “The Collective” arc of New Avengers was supposedly killed when a helicopter he was being taken away in was destroyed. However, Marvel has made plans known of his eventual return to comics.

-A character who died on-panel found some cover, was somehow removed from the situation at the last instant, or posses an unknown ability to withstand death. In the “Death of Superman” storyline, Superman clearly dies in Lois’ arms after fighting Doomsday for several issues. His return was later explained by stating his alien physiology made it possible for him to enter a hibernation-like state. It’s also been revealed that even though he can eventually die, his normal lifespan may last for centuries.

-The character who died was either a clone or impostor. Aside from Dark Phoenix, Spider-Man’s Aunt May who died in the heralded Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #400 was revealed to be a genetically modified actress paid by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. The real May was being held on the Osborn estate where Spidey would rescue her during the “Gathering of Five” storyline.

-Resurrection either intentionally or by accident through mystical or scientific means. During the recent "Infinite Crisis" storyline, Superboy Prime’s punches that alter reality, Jason Todd, the second Robin ruthlessly killed by the Joker (at the bequest of fans through a phone-in vote) in the story "A Death In The Family", is revived and escapes the confines of his coffin until events lead him to become the Red Hood and later a second Nightwing.

-A disruption in the time/space continuum that either brings the character into the present from the past, future or alternate reality. Marvel’s Captain Marvel contracted cancer and died in the first Marvel graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel. A few decades later, Civil War: The Return finds Captain Marvel running the inter-dimensional super human prison as a warden, something plucking him out of the past just before his cancer started to effect him and dumping him in the present.

-They just got better. Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, was impaled by his goblin glider when Spider-Man ducked it’s remote controlled attack in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #122. Over 20 years later, Osborn returned to the spider titles during the “Revelations” storyline sporting a scar on his chest and reports of a new healing factor through the goblin formula, and that all his time was spent on a tropical island somewhere recuperating and plotting.

So what causes comic book death? There are many elements. One way is a writer on a particular title dislikes a character so severely, rather than write them out during their tenure they kill them off. Once that writer is replaced by another who happened to like that character, they’ll work at bringing them back somehow. Another way is a company decides to kill off one of their characters, but a large fan response causes them to reverse that decision. At times there are also continuity errors, where a writer will try to use an obscure character without realizing they’re dead. Or it’s just a big creative decision to give an old character a new lease on life.

Comic book death does more harm than good sometimes. While yes, it keeps favorite characters around, it ends up taking away all fear for them. Many readers are able to connect with the plights of the characters they spend so much time reading. Comic book death happens so often, that all fear or caring fades because they know no matter what happens their character will return one day. Sure, they’ll still be annoyed that they die and they have to wait, but in the back of their mind they’ll know. Also, whenever a character is given a send-off in a poignant and touching story, that story effectively becomes worthless leaving readers feeling cheated they expended so much emotion on it.

Comic book death can lead to interesting resurrection stories, make no doubt about that. When a creative and passable explanation is given, the return can be overlooked and appreciated. But, when used too much readers become jaded. When it comes to death in comic books, the only original direction left is to actually keep a character dead. However, so long as a deceased character has loud fans or an idea comes along to bring them back, they will find themselves revived. Good thing? Bad thing? That’s something the reader will have to decide.

What the Writers Read: "Truth"

Compiled by Andi

One of the most joyful parts about editing Estella’s Revenge is the sheer amount of recommendations I receive and the amount of chatting about books that I’m able to do on any given day. For some time now I’ve had it in mind to mine the ER writers—all hopeless bibliophiles—for their recommendations to go along with the month’s theme. Since this month is “truth,” I surveyed our book-loving contributors to find out about their favorite non-fiction picks. Here’s what they had to say…

Chris Buchner, our resident expert on comics says:

I'd hafta give it up for the Bruce Campbell auto, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. The book was just a great read cover to cover, because it was written in the dry, sarcastic wit Bruce is known for. Ever since being captivated by the Evil Dead Trilogy, I've become a total Bruce whore. I'll watch anything he's in at least once because he's in it. The dude is just funny as all hell, and even though he's unfortunately never risen above B-movie status he can improve anything he's in with a snappy one-liner (minus the movie Alien Apocalypse...nothing could've saved
that). The book gives his history, from childhood to acting with humorous
anecdotes and tales, as well as a lot of background info on the Evil Dead
flicks. It's a book no Evil Dead or Bruce fan (of which I am both) should
be without.
Melissa, monthly contributor and May’s Book Tour author writes,

The best non-fiction book I've read lately is Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey. (Click HERE to read Melissa’s review.)
It is a memoir of her childhood in India during the 1930s and
1940s. It's an extremely well-written memoir, at turns exotic,
evocative and funny. And, above all else, it's made me brave enough
to try Indian food.
BadgerDaddy, regular writer and reviewer says from across the pond,

Favourite non-fiction to date is Nathaniel Hawthorne's In The Heart Of The Sea. A great mix of fact and the author's own conclusions, dredged up from historic material of the incident which inspired the young Melville to write Moby Dick. It's utterly gripping, informative and pretty damn sexy.

Oh, I also love and adore The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, probably the greatest football book out there. An American writer spends a season with an Italian Series B team, which is spending its first season in that division. It reads like the most unbelievable but most human soap opera. It's beautiful, funny, tragic and, for a sports fan, ultimately devastating, much like football (real football, that is...) itself.
Mizbooks undoubtedly offers up the most intriguingly titled suggest when she says,

My fave nonfiction book is Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell. It's a very out-of-the-box Christian book that talks about different aspects of Faith. I love it because Rob doesn't "pussy-foot" around issues... he just tells things with plain honesty, and to me that's refreshing. I like that he gives insight into Jewish culture at the time Jesus walked the earth, and how he uses funny stories throughout the book to "lighten things up".
And in a fit of indecision (which I can more than relate to), Jodie offers three favorites for you to drool over:

I think probably my favourite three would have to be Chris Bonnington's collected autobiographies, A Short History of Everything by Bill Bryson and my absolute favourite is Making the Cat Laugh by Lynne Truss. It's hilarious! How can anyone not laugh at sentences like 'I have spent about 80 per cent of my adult life in proper committed relationships, yet at the moment all I can clearly remember is that I once startled my boyfriend by asking, out of the blue: 'Why aren't you a pony?' One of my favourite parts is about the author's encounter with a man during a blackout. In bullet points she concisely points out how this simple incident shows exactly what is wrong with the male mind. A book full of laughs and indignation by a truly happily odd woman makes for great reading.
Quillhill, “From the Bookshop” columnist writes:

My favorite non-fiction book is probably The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. This is a very entertaining and gripping history enriched by stunning photographs. The story is better than fiction, full of conflict, courage, friendship, heroism, and the sheer will to survive. Just when you think the worst has happened, something twice as bad occurs--again and again. When I first read this book, I was amazed that I had never heard of the events before, and wowed by what the crew of this ship accomplished. For me, this is the ultimate story of survival.
Heather F., co-editor, technology guru and interview goddess (see this month’s interview with Joshilyn Jackson) chimes in with one of my personal favorite non-fiction books:

It is hard to pick a fave non-fiction. I don't read a whole lot of it (even though I have lately, odd) and a lot of it doesn't stick with me. But, I thought about it a lot this weekend (I was weeding books) and I remembered Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I would have to say it is, by far, my favorite. It has stuck with me the longest with its macabre subject, yet witty and humorous delivery.

A couple other faves would be A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (almost made me want to hike the Appalachian trail) and Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.
Feature writer, April Boland picked a classic:

I'm gonna say In Cold Blood even though that's probably cliched. I can't help that I read it for the first time when all of this Truman Capote interest surfaced. I love it because it felt like a novel, only my emotions ran so much deeper because these people were real, and these things really happened. I like the literary applied to reality, and that book has been hailed as the very first example of creative nonfiction (or the nonfiction novel), a genre I am hoping to work in myself one day.
Nancy Horner came to a bibliophilic realization recently. She loves memoirs! Particularly:

Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini - Cellini's life story may be embellished, somewhat, but it reads like an adventure novel in the Alexandre Dumas vein. He was in and out of favor with royalty, sometimes wealthy, occasionally imprisoned or forced to run for his life. His description of the aftermath of a storm with bowling-ball sized hail is just awesome.

Stand Before Your God by Paul Watkins - Writer Paul Watkins was sent to England to attend boarding school as a child, and his memoir tells not only of his experiences and his growth but his aching for home and family, the loss of his father, and the beginnings of his writing life. I was impressed by his strength of character.

To Hell and Back by Audie Murphy - I love this book as much for the incredible sense of atmosphere - you can almost hear the bombs falling all around - as I do the fact that he was a tremendous raconteur and when one of his friends' deaths is described, you feel the pain because you've come to know each of his comrades so well. The fact that he was uncommonly courageous is also awe-inspiring.

Those are just a few favorites. I think The Sex Lives of Cannibals (by J. Maarten Troosth) just hit the all-time favorite memoir list.
Lisa G., The Bluestalking Reader herself, chose a book I’ve been hearing rave reviews about all over the blogosphere:

Fave NF book, one of the best I’ve read in the last year or so was Elizabeth Gilbert’s absolutely edible memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s coming to terms with the aftermath of a messy divorce in this book, and she’s fortunate to have been able to be paid to travel and work out her life issues, writing a sort of travel/self discovery/new age/self help memoir in the process. She has so much wisdom to offer about grieving, not in this case the loss of a life but the loss of a way of life, and she does it all with honesty and humor. Definitely a favorite book of mine.
And, I can’t help but throw in my own two cents-worth of non-fiction love. Like Nancy, I’ve realized in the last couple of months that when my attention span is nil and life is swirling uncontrollably around me, I really enjoy living someone else’s life between the covers of a book. Some recent favorites include:

The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama – While I’m sure my politics are showing (giggle) I can’t help but adore Obama’s centrist political views and seemingly genuine concern for this country and its populace. And on top of everything, the man is a fantastic writer!

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, by Louis Theroux – I was taken enough with this book to trip all over myself trying to get an interview. Luckily for me, Mr. Theroux was kind enough to grant my request and the result is the illuminating set of answers he submitted to my dolty questions. To see my complete thoughts on the book you can browse back through the April reviews, but I will certainly say that this book won’t be leaving my brain (or my house) any time soon.

I’m in total agreement with Nancy (bookish soul mates it seems) on J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue, The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, and I was equally delighted with his second offering, Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu. Again, you can read my wordy burblings of praise in last month’s issue. Don’t hesitate to go buy both and read them in one swoop.

Snazzy Stuff

Enjoy the New Yorker? Wish you could read every piece ever written for it? Well, now you can have all 80 years at the touch of a button and it's on sale! Check out Levenger's website for this one of a kind archive set.

From the Bookshop..., May 2007

Contributed by Quillhill

Excerpt from The Enemies of Books by William Blades, 1888

"It was summer time--the country at its best--and with the attraction of an old book, I decided on a day's holiday, and eight o'clock the next morning found me in the train for C----, and after a variation in my programme, caused by my having walked three miles west before I discovered that my destination was three miles east of the railway station, I arrived at the rectory at noon, and found assembled some thirty or forty of the neighbouring farmers, their wives, men-servants and maid-servants, all seemingly bent on a day's idling, rather than business. The sale was announced for noon, but it was an hour later before the auctioneer put in an appearance, and the first operation in which he took part, and in which he invited my assistance, was to make a hearty meal of bread and cheese and beer in the rectory kitchen. This over, the business of the day began by a sundry collection of pots, pans, and kettles being brought to the competition of the public, followed by some lots of bedding, etc. The catalogue gave books as the first part of the sale, and, as three o'clock was reached, my patience was gone, and I protested to the auctioneer against his not selling in accordance with his catalogue. To this he replied that there was not time enough, and that he would sell the books to-morrow! This was too much for me, and I suggested that he had broken faith with the buyers, and had brought me to C---- on a false pretence. This, however, did not seem to disturb his good humour, or to make him unhappy, and his answer was to call `Bill,' who was acting as porter, and to tell him to give the gentleman the key of the `book room,' and to bring down any of the books he might pick out, and he `would sell 'em.' I followed `Bill,' and soon found myself in a charming nook of a library, full of books, mostly old divinity, but with a large number of the best miscellaneous literature of the sixteenth century, English and foreign. A very short look over the shelves produced some thirty Black Letter books, three or four illuminated missals, and some book rarities of a more recent date. `Bill' took them downstairs, and I wondered what would happen! I was not long in doubt, for book by book, and in lots of two and three, my selection was knocked down in rapid succession, at prices varying from 1_s_. 6_d_. to 3_s_. 6_d_., this latter sum seeming to be the utmost limit to the speculative turn of my competitors. The _bonne bouche_ of the lot was, however, kept back by the auctioneer, because, as he said, it was `a pretty book,' and I began to respect his critical judgment, for `a pretty book' it was, being a large paper copy of Dibdin's Bibliographical Decameron, three volumes, in the original binding. Suffice it to say that, including this charming book, my purchases did not amount to L13, and I had pretty well a cart-load of books for my money--more than I wanted much! Having brought them home, I `weeded them out,' and the `weeding' realised four times what I gave for the whole, leaving me with some real book treasures.

"Some weeks afterwards I heard that the remainder of the books were literally treated as waste lumber, and carted off to the neighbouring town, and were to be had, any one of them, for sixpence, from a cobbler who had allowed his shop to be used as a store house for them. The news of their being there reached the ears of an old bookseller in one of the large towns, and he, I think, cleared out the lot. So curious an instance of the most total ignorance on the part of the sellers, and I may add on the part of the possible buyers also, I think is worth noting."

Judging a Book?, May 2007

By Fence

So far all my comment about book covers have been positive. I think it is time for a change, so for this article I’m going to talk about two covers I hate. The first is one for a book I have yet to read; Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor.

Just look at those garish colours! And what you can’t see from that picture is how shiny the cover is. It all gives a terrible impression of cheapness. Of a tacky book. Plus it makes me really hope that the blade in the foreground is blunt, either that or the holder has extremely tough hands.

But not only is the picture itself off-putting, but the cover is covered with attempts to gain any and all attention. The combination of announcing that the novel is a Hugo winner coupled with the selection of praise hints at desperation to me. One would have been more than enough, preferably the Hugo announcement. Those strategically edited extracts from reviews always remind me of the fact that they could be taken out of context. Even if they weren’t I don’t need all that “Pick me! Pick me”.

I can’t be too critical however, I still bought the book didn’t I? Yes, that was because I’ve read other novels by the same author and enjoyed them, but also because it was fairly cheap. So here is hoping that Baen, the publisher, saved a heap of money on cobbling together this hideous cover.

The other cover that I’m going to complain about is that of Sherri S. Tepper’s Grass:

There is nothing quite as horrific about this one. It simply doesn’t appeal in any way to me. However, the large font indentifying the author more than does it job, so any Tepper fans can easily ignore the picture. I like the general idea of the cover. Big blue skies and the hero in the coloured grass that gave the book its name, and the strange planet that much of this sci-fi story is set on. But the figure in the centre just doesn’t work for me. She seems far too young to be the character of Marjorie, but I can’t really think who else she might be. And then there is the outfit she is wearing. Parts of it I understand, but it just looks wrong.

Science fiction and fantasy novels are often guilty of poor design. Maybe because they aren’t really treated as “proper” books, or maybe because the publishers think that readers like these weird images. Scantily clad damsels in distress are often a feature, these two covers don’t fall into that cliche, but that doesn’t make them any more visually appealing.

From my point of view a cover should draw the reader in. Make them wonder what the story will be about. It should delight the eye, not make you wince as the cover to Cordelia’s Honor does. It should not be instantly forgetable as Grass’s cover is.

Sure, I Know the Queen, May 2007

By Jodie

Sure, I can get a little novel obsessed. It’s something that can happen to anyone with a reading habit. The serious literati encourage readers to believe that novels offer a highly refined version of truth that replaces dry facts with deeper knowledge, analysis with insight and narrative with imagery. They would have you believe that the end result of a novel is an extremely polished opal filled with shimmering, swimming words known as "the truth", something more intense and brilliant than the reality of non-fiction. It’s easy to get addicted to this potent substance and the glamour of its packaging.

The Non-Fiction Five Challenge, hosted by Joy at Thoughts of Joy, begins in May and will encourage readers to cut their fiction with a measure of fact. If, like me, you don’t watch the news regularly you’ve probably learned most of what you know about Afghanistan from novels like The Kite Runner, Shantaram and The Far Pavillions. It’s debatable how much truthful analysis is available in non-fiction publications about this and other current political events but reading the factual along with the fictitious can only be helpful when you consider how it expands your field of reference and better enables you to make your own deductions.

My own choices for this challenge all relate to Britain in some way. Every British citizen needs to be well informed of the empire they’re descended from in order to give themselves greater perspective on the attitudes others hold towards us. Too many arguments today are based on a simplified version of British history where, depending on your ill-informed point of view, we either monstrously enslaved everyone or heroically conquered everyone. Of course when people refer to Britain in this way they usually mean England and are including Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the column labelled "down trodden" that they’ve painstakingly drawn up in their exercise book. When I went to university in Wales I had no knowledge of Welsh history and so was ill-equipped to debate England’s oppressor status with my passionate housemates. I’m ashamed to say I only read one Welsh book while studying at Swansea and it wasn’t even Dylan Thomas. I still know nothing beyond their assertions and what I’ve managed to grasp on my own (if you want a real example of the English language as a colonising force I suggest you look at Wales before you start getting indignant about books that are donated to African programs). So I hope that Welsh Wars of Independence by David Moore will lay the foundations for future learning about Wales.

What could be more British than Stonehenge? Perhaps Rupert Everett, we shall see. Two biographies Stonehenge:Biography of a Landscape by T.C. Darvill and Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins line up to fight it out. Red Carpets was published just before Everett started turning up on tv wearing baggy ‘artists’ jumpers (that is being kind) so Stonehenge still has the weight advantage (that is not) but Rupert Everett is such a typically English high class, low talking actor and he has all the dirt to dish in his deliciously catty way. In these early stages I feel it is unlikely to be a tie.

Some of the best history can reveal shocking secrets. The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation by Ian Mortimer offers to fling the monarchy’s secrets into the street. Edward II previously assumed to have been murdered by the graphic method of a red hot poker being inserted up his arse may not have been killed in this fashion. By now you may have grown tired of books that effortlessly dispel folkloric versions of history. I had begun to wonder if there was anyone really evil or weak left in history apart from Hitler. Mortimer’s book promises much more than that, making the contention that not only the method of assassination may be inaccurate but also the idea that a Edward died prematurely. The shocking revelation that his beloved son may have known and willingly conspired in this fiction is rigorously debated. More intriguing than The Da Vinci Code or Diana.

Finally I picked The Rise and Fall of the Arab Empire by Rodney Collomb because it’s such a topical issue. To be able to say anything about the current Muslim society it is necessary to learn about their history, especially if you plan to say something out loud, in public, around decent people. Until you understand the ancient foundations of present cultures you can fully appreciate where arguments and beliefs come from which means you are in no place to pass comment, let alone judgement. Also the outline of Collomb’s book seems weighted towards the negative view of an Arab society that descended into a dark age as the West grew and expanded. I’d like to see if his arguments hold up, especially as historians have been explaining for some time why the West’s own Dark Ages weren’t so gloomy after all.

Would you believe that this is just a fraction of the British non-fiction I have gracing my bedroom floor? I even received a new package of biographies, mostly relating to British personalities this week. I couldn’t resist the stories of some spirited British females such as Jane Austen, Gertrude Bell and Emma Hamilton, who is bizarrely being billed as pre-Jordan. I’m excited about the first mammoth volume of Micheal Palin’s trilogy of autobiographies. Books about medieval times, mountain climbing, mammals and pirates cluster in piles.

If only non-fiction books didn’t demand so much attention; bypass a sentence in a novel and you are poorer, skip one in a history book and you are lost. Evaluation is made up of all the tiny facts collected along the way and the analytical arguments gather strength from each other, miss or misunderstand one and you have to march back to the beginning if you want to fully comprehend. Challenges like The Non-Fiction Five are just what the complacent mind, thick with fictitious love needs to spur it on to create new neural pathways. The factual is like the gym, getting to it is the hardest part.