Category Archives: Books

Tell Me a Story About…

Watercolor by Victoria Beckert

While I didn’t love Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (read my review here), I really liked this one activity she described doing with her lover Felipe. No, not that kind of activity; it’s more a storytelling exercise.

She’d ask him to tell her a personal memory built around a trigger word, a random one from the top of her head. When she asked for a story about fish, Felipe told a poignant tale about fishing trips with his father when he was six.

I wanted to try this out so I asked hubby to give me a random word. He said, “Socks.” I immediately went to a memory of when I fled Vietnam at the end of the war and my mother said I could bring only the bare essentials. I brought one change of clothes but forgot socks.

So I wore the pair I had on when we left—white bobby socks with a red flower embroidered on the cuff—for over two weeks, until they turned brown with dirt and stiff with sweat. They could stand upright by themselves. I eventually ditched them somewhere and went bare in my Mary Janes the rest of the way.

Hubby and I used several more trigger words and told each other stories, some about things we hadn’t thought about for a long time. It proved such an interesting exercise, I decided to try it out here.

Tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “socks.” It doesn’t have to be a long or life-changing tale. Any random thought or memory qualifies. I just want us to flex our creative muscles and learn fun things about each other.

If I get a lot of comments, this might be a regular feature, maybe once a month or bi-monthly, with a different trigger word each time. But meanwhile, let’s talk about socks!

Advertisements

Nerd Chat with FACES OF THE GONE Author Brad Parks

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I don’t do interviews with stuffy people. If I’m gonna sit down to a lunch interview, have a phone conversation and exchange a bunch of e-mails with someone, that person had better be interesting, funny, smart and look good in a Speedo. Brad Parks is three out of four so I heartily welcome him to Pop Culture Nerd.

Brad "I'm too sexy for furniture" Parks

Brad is the debut author of Faces of the Gone, a mystery about Newark newspaper reporter Carter Ross investigating the case of four dead bodies found in an empty lot with execution-style bullet holes in their heads. The novel provides an unflinching look at life on inner-city streets and in the newsroom, leavened by a healthy dose of humor.

For intimate details about Brad and to see him in a turtleneck, visit his website. But first, read on for our nerd chat.

Pop Culture Nerd: You’ve been all over the blogosphere promoting your book and given shout-outs by everyone from the New York Times to the Sun-Sentinel. Since this is our first time together, I gotta ask: Have you been tested?

Brad Parks: You know what they say—when you blog, you’re not only blogging the blogger, you’re blogging every person they’ve ever blogged. So I might be a bit dodgy, yes. I mean, just blogging at Jen’s Book Thoughts alone probably made me filthy. That skanky ho Jen Forbus gets around.

The infamous Jen Forbus with her niece

PCN: Hose yourself down with Lysol, man! She’s been with everyone in the crime fic community, male and female. But I’ve got my hazmat suit on so we can continue. What was the biggest thrill for you on pub day? Did you go to stores, point to your book and yell at strangers, “That’s me!”?

BP: Honestly? While my pub month was a string of incredible, wonderful, I’ll-never-forget-them happenings, my actual pub day was a bit crushing. In my mind, December 8, 2009 was something I had been building up for years—behind perhaps only my wedding and my kids being born (but ahead of, say, college graduation) in terms of significant days in my life. But to everyone else it was just a Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I got dressed up in my best author outfit, stuffed a Sharpie in my pocket and charged out the door to meet my public. I first went to my local independent bookstore, where the owner (who is a friend) had been so busy with the holiday rush, she hadn’t had time to put my book on the shelves yet. Next, I started in on the chain stores.

Now, mind you, I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the front of these stores—that’s something you’ve got to earn. I wasn’t expecting to be face out on the New Mystery shelf, because that’s valuable real estate, too. But I’m with St. Martin’s Press, a reputable publisher, so I was thinking each store would have at least one copy. Even if it was stuffed in a musty corner somewhere, I would proudly sign each one, whereupon Cherubim and Seraphim would strike a heavenly chord, even if I was the only one who could hear them.

Instead, I got this succession of blank stares from store managers, and it quickly became clear to me that until I darkened their doorstep, they had no plans on stocking my book. After the fourth no-show, I gave up and bought myself a cheeseburger, which I ate alone. It tasted a lot like humble pie.

PCN: But then all the rave reviews and best-of year-end mentions started pouring in. Has your head blown up to melon size? How has your life changed since you became a published author?

BP: You may ask Brad Parks this question, which Brad Parks will be glad to answer, since you clearly acknowledge that He is a Better Person than you. No, seriously, the reviews have been lovely. And there have been some Sally Field you-like-me-you-really-like-me moments, when I’ve felt the warm glow of knowing my words were appreciated somewhere. Other than that, I don’t feel all that different. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my wife complains I talk about myself too much, but she did that before I was published, too.

PCN: Any interesting tour anecdotes you can share?

BP: Well, I wrote about this one for Shelf Awareness. To give you the Cliffs Notes version, it basically involves me white-knuckle-driving my way through an ice storm to a bookstore, where I figured I’d end up sitting in front of a large pile of my books in an empty store. But then…aw, heck, I won’t ruin it. Just click on the link if you’re curious. And promise you’ll come back to PCN when you’re done!

PCN: Thanks for sending both my readers over there. Now I’ll have to pay two other people to read this. You’ve said Carter is a lot like you, but if you could be like any character in crime fiction, who would it be?

BP: This answer probably changes on a daily basis. But today I feel like being Jack Reacher, who has spent all summer digging ditches and has puffed up to 250 heavily muscled pounds. And then I’d go play pick-up basketball. Having otherwise gone through life as a scrawny white guy, I’d like to be able to set a pick that means something for once.

PCN: Did you tell Lee Child about your Reacher daydreams when you fetched him a Coke at last year’s Bouchercon?

BP: I did tell Lee I daydream about being Reacher. Then he replied, “That’s funny, I dream of being Carter Ross.” Then we bro-hugged. Then I woke up.

PCN: What other authors turn you into a gushing fanboy?

BP: I would say Harlan Coben. I’ll know I’ve really arrived when I can spend time with Harlan and not have this little voice in my head—it sounds like an 11-year-old girl—constantly going, Omagod, omagod, I’m hanging out with HARLAN COBEN, omagod! Hasn’t happened yet.

PCN: I like how you equated the process of writing to open-water distance swimming in one of your guest blogs. What do you do if you get a cramp? Or jump in then realize you’re not a distance swimmer? And are Speedos or trunks better for that kind of swimming?

BP: I’ll take the last part of this question first, because it’s important to state—before any bad images get planted in anyone’s head—that I am a trunks-only man. No one needs to see my upper thighs.

As to the rest of the question: Obviously, you ought to have some minimum level of swimming competency, built in the safety of shallow backyard pools and municipal swimming holes. (Or, to extend the metaphor back to writing, stories in school literary magazines, articles in local newspapers or entries in personal journals).

But once you have that, I believe you need to throw yourself in over your head and make yourself swim for your life, cramps and all. That’s the whole point of open water distance swimming. You can’t just stop and walk. You have no choice but to keep going. And I think writers with unfinished manuscripts—know anyone like that?— would be well-served to think of their work that way.

PCN: One of your characters, Tee, has a booming business making R.I.P. T-shirts for gangbangers who get gunned down. The idea is both horrible and savvy. Is it based on something you encountered for real?

BP: Yep, that one is, as they say on Law & Order, ripped from the headlines. As a journalist working in a depressed inner-city, I was constantly fascinated (and saddened and appalled) by the culture of death that surrounds young people in areas with high murder rates. One day, I saw a set of R.I.P T-shirts wrapped to a telephone pole at a housing project in Newark—three kids, all killed before their 21st birthdays. I started poking around and learned there was a whole cottage industry of creating and displaying these shirts. Kids would actually wear them on the anniversaries of the days their friends got killed. So I wrote a story about it.

PCN: And then you wrote two more, books 2 and 3 in the Carter Ross series. The second one is called Eyes of the Innocent. Are you branding this as the body parts series, a la Sue Grafton’s alphabet books? What happens when you travel south of the beltline?

BP: Yeah, the body parts thing is going to be my schtick. And as I’ve told my agent, when we reach Thumbs Up My Ass we’ll know it’s time to quit.

PCN: Okay, so let’s just stay north of the nipples for now. You mentioned in another interview, #817, that you might write a non-fiction book one day. Would it be true crime or something else?

BP: That was actually interview No. 788. Please try to keep count. And, sure, I might write non-fiction someday. Maybe true crime. Maybe ghost-writing for some famous person. Maybe history. Maybe something else entirely. My curiosity is fairly boundless, and I started writing for newspapers when I was 14, so non-fiction is still pretty comfortable for me. More than anything—having gone back and forth between fiction and non—I find they’re a lot more similar than most folks realize.

At the end of the day, it’s all about telling a story. The only difference is whether you have to find the pertinent facts or make them up. Which, I would argue, are roughly equal in difficulty.

PCN: Lying, er, making up stuff is so NOT difficult for me. If you had to choose between writing books that sell 50 million copies each but are critically lambasted (I’m not mentioning names), or those that win busloads of awards but have only modest sales numbers, which would you prefer?

BP: Oh, this one’s easy: Give me the 50 million copies. And then give me 50 million more. Go ahead and shake your head and say, “Brad! How whorish!” And I am. But as commercial as that sounds, there are real, artistic reasons behind it.

See, I’ve never really written for myself. For me, the joy in the creative process has always been in the sharing, and in the reaction it provokes. I write with the hope my words have an impact on people, whether it’s to inform, to entertain, or just to make them shake their heads at something. I want that impact to be as broad as possible.

And it’s not about money. I get just as much of a charge from the fan letter that starts “I bought your book at the store and…” as I do from one that begins, “I got your book at the library…” Do I want critics to like my books and to win awards? Of course. But ultimately it’s because I know those things will increase the size of my audience. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Bookmark and Share

Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s COMMITTED

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love three years ago, I became almost evangelistic about it, discussing it nonstop with others, buying copies for friends, etc. Wish I could do the same for her follow-up, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (out today). Because I think Gilbert is such an engaging writer, it pains me to say I didn’t love this book. **Mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t read EPL.**

The events here follow what happened at the end of EPL, specifically her meeting her Brazilian lover Felipe in Bali and their pledging love to each other with promises to never get married. (Both are shell-shocked survivors of divorce.)

At the beginning of Committed, they’ve been living together in Philadelphia when the Department of Homeland Security throws a monkey wrench into their non-wedded bliss by denying Felipe re-entry into the U.S. after an overseas trip. A sympathetic officer says the fastest way for Felipe to get a permanent visa is for the couple to marry.

Filled with dread, they nevertheless apply for the necessary papers then spend almost a year traveling through Southeast Asia (where the dollar stretches farther) while awaiting approval. Gilbert also uses the time to obsessively research the history of marriage and its different customs throughout the world in order to better understand the institution and hopefully reduce her fear of it.

Gilbert’s conversational style is winning; she’s smart, funny and not afraid to reveal her deepest fears and flaws. She still comes across as someone I’d love to have lunch with. But while EPL is charming because it’s her personal story, the author spends much of Committed delving into the origins of marriage, drumming up everyone from Greek philosophers to early Christian leaders to feminists, causing entire chapters to read textbook-y. The conclusion she finally reaches about marriage is interesting, a perspective I hadn’t previously considered, but I wish the focus stayed more on her relationship with Felipe.

Nerd verdict: Not totally Committed to this

Bookmark and Share

Nerdies for Favorite Things of 2009

Hope you all are enjoying the holidays. Me, I’m having so much fun with family, I need more gigabytes in my brain to store all the memories being made.

I get grateful this time of year for 1) making it this far and 2) all the wonderful experiences I had in the last 12 months. So, between all the eating and social gatherings, I present to you my Nerdy Awards for favorite things this year.

Most Valuable Preposition: Up. Apparently, the best way to make sure a movie is good is by putting this two-letter word in the title. Up and Up in the Air tie for best movie I saw this year. Both are perfect blends of comedy and poignancy, light and dark, entertainment and explorations of what makes us human.

Best Reasons for Staying Home Wednesday Nights: Glee, Modern Family and Cougar Town. Wednesday nights are always a party in my house, as I sing along to Glee then laugh my face off with Family and Cougar. You’ve probably heard plenty about the first two but may not know that Cougar‘s cast, led by the game Courteney Cox, has really gelled into one hilarious ensemble.

Most Unique New Voices in Crime Fiction: Chet the Jet from Spencer Quinn’s Dog on It, Pietro Brwna from Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Stella Hardesty in Sophie Littlefield‘s A Bad Day for Sorry. The field is crowded with cops and detectives but this year, I met fresh new characters starting with Chet, a dog who narrates the adventures he has while solving crimes with his human partner, Bernie. Brwna is a hit man turned jaded medical intern who uses a deadly weapon I’ve never seen used before. And Littlefield introduced us to a 50-year-old, slightly overweight woman who helps abused women keep their partners in line partly by using S&M restraints. These books are all first in a series so discover them now before the next installments come out (Chet’s new case, Thereby Hangs a Tail, arrives January 5).

Best Noir Debut: Richard Lange‘s This Wicked World. This is Lange’s first novel but it reads like he’s been writing them forever. Worthy of a place on my shelf among the genre’s greats.

Best Avoidance of Sophomore Slump: Gillian Flynn with Dark Places. Her debut, Sharp Objects, was so stunning, I wondered if her second novel would measure up. I was thrilled, then, to find Flynn delving even more deeply into the female psyche’s dark, twisted side in Places. Few writers can write about damaged, prickly women and make them so mesmerizing.

Fattest Books I Finished in Shortest Time: I got lost in Kate Morton’s gothic, 560-page The Forbidden Garden for 3 days, while my eyeballs were glued to the 512 pages in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire for 34 hours, finishing it in almost one sitting, minus a few hours of sleep.

Most Soul-Shaking Book: Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. This non-fiction tale of a star football-player-turned-soldier gunned down by friendly fire in Afghanistan ripped me apart and made me re-evaluate how I live my life. A searing read I won’t forget anytime soon.

Funniest Person I Least Expected to Be: Brian Williams on 30 Rock. The veteran NBC Nightly News anchor made me laugh hard when he unexpectedly showed up on Rock, telling Tina Fey he wanted to audition for her show within the show by doing a stand-up act. The punchline wasn’t funny at all but Williams’s hammy, goombah delivery was very much so.

Favorite Movie Trend: Women 45 and over kicking ass at the box office. Sandra Bullock had two big hits (The Proposal, The Blind Side), Meryl Streep had three movies (Julie & Julia, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, It’s Complicated), one of which may win her a third Oscar. And Sigourney Weaver returns as sci-fi queen in Avatar. I hope this trend continues so I can stop watching actors get older while their female co-stars get closer to infancy every year.

Best Performance by Any Actor, Male or Female: Mo’Nique in Precious. Not so much a performance as a terrifying inhabitation of a nightmarish character.

Most Memorable Movie Quote: I just met you and I love you.” —Dug the talking dog in Up.

What were some of your favorite things this year?

Winners of THE FIRST RULE Giveaway

After I plugged everyone’s names into Random.org, giving extra entries to those who qualified, the website drew Sophie Littlefield as my first winner. Sophie, you get an ARC of Robert Crais‘s The First Rule (pub date 1/12/10), which will be sent to you directly from Putnam. Please e-mail me your address. My friend Lydia there said she’ll also throw in some temporary red arrow tattoos so you can be like Joe Pike!

Random.org selected a second name for the autographed set of photo cards and that winner is le0pard13. I’ll ship you these with some red tats as well. Both you and Sophie will have to send me pictures after you try them on! (Mine’s below.)

Many, many thanks to all those who entered and shared your tales of heroism. It was inspiring to hear about all those good deeds, especially during this season. I always knew there are superheroes among us.

Me, Pike-like

Book Review: U IS FOR UNDERTOW

I’ve been reading Sue Grafton for a quarter century now, starting in high school when I found her books in the school library (I spent a lot of time there). I devoured the “A” through “C” Kinsey Millhone adventures like an ex-con having his first meal on the outside. Over the years, the books were uneven but I kept reading out of obligation, as if Kinsey had become an old friend whose imperfections I accepted. I listened to her tales even if she rambled a little.

I was thrilled, then, to find her latest adventure, U is for Undertow, utterly captivating. After only a few pages, I knew Kinsey was back on track and I could dive in out of pure pleasure.

The case begins when Kinsey is approached by a young man named Michael Sutton who suddenly remembers something that happened when he was six years old. At the time, Sutton attached no significance to the incident but, after reading a newspaper article about an unsolved 21-year-old kidnapping of a little girl, he believes what he saw were two people burying the child.

After Sutton hires Kinsey to investigate, the story moves back and forth between 1988 (Kinsey’s present) and 1967, when the kidnapping occurred. Grafton deftly juggles multiple POVs; besides Kinsey’s, the author doles out pieces of the puzzle from the perspectives of several characters who are directly and tangentially involved in the crime, painting a full-bodied portrait of each. The plot turns in unpredictable directions and though it might be obvious early on who did it, Grafton keeps you guessing about the why.

The case is complex enough to keep Kinsey busy, but she’s also grappling with personal issues after making startling discoveries about her past which destroy her long-held perceptions of certain family members. Because the books are told in first person and I’ve sided with Kinsey for years against the relatives who abandoned her as a child, these new revelations threw me for a loop as well. Kinsey won’t be able to change overnight but at the end of this book, she takes brave, hopeful steps towards what could be an extreme life makeover.

Nerd verdict: Strong Undertow will pull you in

Book Review: THE LINEUP

It was cold this weekend in L.A. so I wore everything I own, causing my husband to say I looked homeless, but it was good because it made me stay in. I slept, read, drank lots of coffee, watched reruns of Fantasy Island without knowing why. And I finally wrote this review of The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler.

This is a collection featuring some of crime fiction’s most successful writers—Robert B. Parker, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Robert Crais, among others—discussing the creation of their popular characters. Michael Connelly’s revelation that a real tunnel near his childhood home inspired Harry Bosch’s tunnel-rat background is both chilling and enlightening. Crais has a funny yet poignant conversation with Elvis Cole about their mutual fears and sense of hope, and gives a glimpse of Joe Pike’s inner world (it’s green!). Carol O’Connell’s badass ‘tude reminds me I gotta pick up another Mallory book. And though I’d heard most of Jack Reacher’s origin story at Child’s signings, it retains its charm in print.

Some of the other essays aren’t as successful. A few are too earnest and one outright creeps me out (not in a good way), but this is a great intro to the crime fiction world for those of you who haven’t taken the plunge. If you’re already a junkie like me, you’ll enjoy learning more about your favorite detectives while meeting those you’re not familiar with. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Ken Bruen, but after experiencing his blistering, profanity-laced piece (love his description of an Irish sport called hurling as “a cross between hockey and homicide”), I will rectify that situation.

I also want a hurly.

Nerd verdict: Insightful collection from great Lineup of writers