Interview with Don Lee, author of “The Collective”

In 1988, Eric Cho, an aspiring writer, arrives at Macalester College. On his first day he meets a beautiful fledgling painter, Jessica Tsai, and another would-be novelist, the larger-than-life Joshua Yoon. Brilliant, bawdy, generous, and manipulative, Joshua alters the course of their lives, rallying them together when they face an adolescent act of racism. As adults in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three friends reunite as the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective together negotiating the demands of art, love, commerce, and idealism until another racially tinged controversy hits the headlines, this time with far greater consequences. Long after the 3AC has disbanded, Eric reflects on these events as he tries to make sense of Joshua ‘s recent suicide. With wit, humor, and compassion, The Collective explores the dream of becoming an artist, and questions whether the reality is worth the sacrifice.

“Heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny.”
—Stephan Lee, Entertainment Weekly

Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel The Collective. He is also the author of the novel Wrack and Ruin, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize; the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction; and the story collection Yellow, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. All of his books have been published by W. W. Norton.

He is a third-generation Korean American. The son of a career State Department officer, he spent the majority of his childhood in Tokyo and Seoul. In Tokyo, he attended ASIJ—the American School in Japan. He received his B.A. in English literature from UCLA and his M.F.A. in creative writing and literature from Emerson College. After graduating, he taught fiction writing workshops at Emerson for four years as an adjunct instructor, then began working full-time at Ploughshares. He was an occasional writer-in-residence in Emerson’s M.F.A. program and a visiting writer at other colleges and universities.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Don on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

This Week in the Bookshop – Tons of New Children’s Books

You would think that just having come back from Disney that I would be sick of all things kids but when I walked into the Bookshop upon my return and saw all of the new books we have in our beautiful children’s area I couldn’t help but get sucked in. 

Creative New Stories

Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes by James Dean and Eric Litwin

Pete is this really cool cat that has bright white shoes.  One day Pete goes for a walk and steps into all kinds of things that cause his white shoes to change color.  Being the laid back cat that he is Pete doesn’t let it get him down.  This book was a huge hit at our Storytime yesterday morning.

Little Sweet Potatoby Amy Beth Bloom and Noah Z. Jones

This is a sweet (pun intended) story about a little sweet potato that gets thrown out in the world and finds out that not everyone is sweet like he is.  He runs into all kinds of mean and silly plants before finally finding where he fits in.  This is an a cute picture book about appreciating others and oneself.

Twisted Classics

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaursas retold by Mo Willems

If you know and love Mo Willems (Knuffle Bunny, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and many more award winning children’s picture books) this story will not disappoint!  I found my self chuckling as I read along.  This is the story of Goldilocks retold with dinosaurs instead of bears.  The dinosaurs set a trap of chocolate pudding in the hopes of catching a chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbon.  However, they forget to lock the back door and she gets away.  In true Mo Willems style this book is one that you will read to your kids again and again.

Goldilocks and Just One Bearby Leigh Hodgkinson

One day Bear gets lost and finds himself in the big, noisy city.  To escape all the noise he goes into a high rise apartment for a bit to eat and a brief rest.  While he is sleeping the owners of the apartment return home and find him.  Once bear opens his eyes he sees a familiar face, it is Goldilocks all grown up and the Mom of the family.  This is a cute take on the classic.

Historical Picture Books

First Mothersby Beverly Gherman and Julie Downing

Fun stories about the women behind the White House, the presidential moms.  Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s mother was a wrestler?  With interesting facts and fun illustrations Gherman and Downing make learning history entertaining.

Electric Benby Robert Byrd

Any thing and everything you could want to know about Benjamin Franklin all in a picture book!  Living in Philadelphia (or nearby as we are here in the Bookshop) you cannot get away from the presence of Ben Franklin.  Byrd shares with youngsters the world of Ben Franklin through interesting facts and vibrant illustrations.

Beautiful AnimalBooks

The Conference of the Birdsretold by Alexis York Lumbard and illustrated by Demi

This 800 year old classic is retold with beautiful illustrations.  This story of a flock of birds looking for their king teaches the reader about conquering one’s faults and practicing the virtues of humility, patience, and courage.  Did I mention the beautiful illustrations?  This is definitely a book that you will want to have in your collection and as well as give as a gift.

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animalsby Helene Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt

Did you know that there was a Pennsylvania Bison?  Where did all of the Passenger Pigeons go?  In this beautifully illustrated book Rajcak and Laverdunt share some strange and interesting animals that used to roam the earth.

These are just a few of the great new books we have so stop by and check them all out!

“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed

“There are some things you can’t understand yet.  Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.  It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again.  And again.  You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years.  Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

Before she was the author of the best-selling memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed was “Sugar”, the anonymous advice columnist for the online magazine, The Rumpus.  Tiny Beautiful Things is the collection of her columns – letters from people baring their pain and souls.  Strayed’s responses are raw as well as sweet and poignant.

Cheryl Strayed has no formal psychology training and plenty of adverse experiences to leave her more than a little damaged, but her responses are insightful; cutting to the quick of the clarity the letter writer so desperately seeks.  Directness, tapered with boundless compassion, is Sugar’s gift, with most writers affectionately referred to as “Sweet Pea”.   Strayed’s responses are like having the best of best friends listen to you and reassure you that everything will be ok, because you are more than ok.  Naturally you believe every word she says, since she is the brightest, most articulate friend you have.  You leave the conversation buoyed by her advice and brimming with new found confidence.

More though, than a collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things is really a memoir.  Strayed reveals as much, if not more, of herself through this small book of collected letters as she does in Wild.  Sometimes painfully uncomfortable, I wanted to put the genie back in the bottle and tell her to stop revealing such ugly, personal stuff.  It was, however, all this ugly, personal stuff that soldered strong connections to some of the sorry souls desperately seeking Sugar’s advice and comfort.

This was a difficult post to write.  This book is not for everyone and yet I loved it so much that I bought several copies for friends.  It reminded me a little of a slightly tamer Augusten Burroughs.  I thought Anna Holmes, in her New York Times book review, captured Strayed’s spirit.   Check out her review or even better, stop by the Bookshop and check it out for yourself.

~ Donna

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

“This is the hardest part,” confides one of the untrustworthy narrators in Gone Girl, the latest novel to disappointment me in a string of summer blahs this summer, “is waiting for stupid people to figure things out.” There’s no need to rub it in, because Gillian Flynn’s latest novel of psychological suspense will confound anyone trying to keep up with her and her diabolical rules of play. That would be a great trait of the thriller- if I cared.  The problem was I could not care less. The longer I read the harder it was for me too keep blundering through the chapters and feign off resistance to picking up something else- as I would gaze longingly at my bedside table at “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter.  (I am reading it now. It’s marvelous.)  

Not that there’s anything underhanded about her intentions: she promises to deliver an account of the troubled marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, who alternate as narrators, and so she does.  But it’s not a novel about marriage, like many critics say, it is about two people with sociopath tendencies that make each miserable- including the reader, little old me.

It begins with Nick’s description of his morning on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary. Nick and Amy were once bon vivant magazine writers in New York, but the print media implosion put an end to their posh Manhattan life, and for a variety of reasons (“Blame the economy, blame bad luck, blame my parents, blame your parents, blame the Internet, blame people who use the Internet”) they end up in Carthage, Missouri with Nick running a dive bar (using the remainder of Amy’s recently obliterated trust fund) with his sister Margo. Later that day, Amy disappears from their house, leaving behind signs of a bloody struggle. Oh my!  The police, and eventually the TV viewers around the country, come to suspect Nick as his wife’s murderer.

The second chapter is from Amy’s diary, seven years before her disappearance, in which she giddily describes meeting the handsome and funny Nick at a party in Brooklyn. And so the chapters go, alternating between Nick’s account of his life after Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diaries entries leading up to the “event”.  This is a suspense novel and things aren’t necessarily what they seem (or are they?) and there are major twists and surprises along the way. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Even as a straight-ahead thriller, Gillian Flynn’s novel succeeds with a tight plot that’s easy to follow but far from rich. However, I will concede to enjoying Flynn’s dark sense of humor and cultural observations.  I especially enjoyed and related too Amy’s rant about “cool girls.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men — friends, coworkers, strangers — giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them”.

 However, as messed up as Flynn’s characters are, they are still not believable, or unpredictable (even to themselves) or complex, and that doesn’t keep things interesting. They feel like freakish caricatures.  Unlike Tony Soprano (a thug murderer), or Mad Men’s Don Draper (a manipulative jerk) who still reveal a shred of humanity often enough so that you can relate to them, Amy and Nick float on the surface and even in their darkest moments they’re still too shallow.  Hey I like dark, I like reading unlikable characters, the problem is- you have to like to unlike them. Does anyone know what I mean?  Yes, we all have some element of a dark side in us and relating your darkest bits to macabre characters can be extremely illuminating to oneself- but this is not the case in Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Why am I using T.V. characters as an analogy? The novel reads like some teleplay from a bad Lifetime movie.  Oooo ouch.  FYI: Reese Witherspoon just bought the movie rights!

As much I enjoyed being inside a psychopath’s head (sorry no spoiler’s here) I am still befuddled by its popularity.  Instead I recommend reading Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut– a true thriller about a dysfunctional marriage, that makes the reader squirm, unlike Flynn’s where it is just the characters squirming) because the darkness he presents is possible in all of us and frighteningly relatable.

I am willing, however, to pull my reviewer lens back and pontificate on this book’s vision of romantic love briefly. In most romance novels, intimacy is the treasured goal. No matter what the era, men and women find their bliss when they know and are known for who they truly are. But, in the “real” world, intimacy is more fraught. As lovers grow closer, they become less the people they want to seem and more the people they actually are. Sometimes this is marvelous. Sometimes it creates utter ruination. Many times, it’s just hard and couples get through it. We are a flexible species–always adapting to meet our needs–and we recalibrate our views and expectations of that someone we’ve chosen to love. In Gone Girl, Amy’s and Nick’s ultimate goal is to show the reader the real person the other is.  I wish that were the case here, but unfortunately I believe you’ve all been tricked- it doesn’t come close to revealing a darn thing.  But then again who am I? I despised The Paris Wife and I put Fifty Shades of Grey in the store bathroom.


Stephen King’s 11/22/63

If you were ever a reader of Stephen King novels, you’ll probably remember his earlier works as being quite different from writings that came later in his career. I loved his early novels, but stopped reading him a while back—sometime after It I think. He just got weird. There was no more of the psychological thriller stuff that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, no more of the “who IS this guy” kind of characters. Things started coming out of sinks and clowns were doing despicable things and it just got too weird and creepy and bloody. So I stopped reading his books.

Then in 2009, Under the Dome was published and I started hearing talk that this book was more like his earlier works, more like The Stand and The Shining. People who, like me, had given up on King were reading him again and liking what they were reading. I didn’t read it…I wasn’t convinced enough to plow through 1,074 pages just to discover it was more weird stuff.

Fast forward two years to 2011 and along came King’s latest novel, 11/22/63.  Like Under the Dome this book was getting very positive reviews. As soon as I saw the book and read the premise behind the story, I wanted to read it. But at 842 pages I put it on my to-read list and looked longingly at it from time to time, thinking “When will I ever find time to read THIS?” Fast forward another year to spring of 2012, when my neighborhood book club chose 11/22/63 to be our September selection. I had found my opening! Thank you book club! It was a great read and I was through it in no time-I didn’t want to put it down. 
The story centers around time travel which is a difficult concept to wrap my head around. This time travel is even stranger to comprehend because when the protagonist, Jake Epping, steps through a time portal into 1958, he always steps into the same place and it’s always exactly the same time. And no matter how long he stays in the past, when he returns to the present, only 2 minutes have gone by. Lastly, each time Jake returns to 1958, the past has reset itself!
Of course the reason for his trip back in time is the real story. Jake is going back to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63. It’s also a wonderful tale showing how life can change in a split second….how one short moment in time, one small change, can alter a whole lifetime.

Jake returns to 1958 in Derry, Maine and begins his life there as George Amberson. Before beginning the long involved journey that will eventually lead him to Dallas, George decides to prevent the murder of an entire family he had learned about from one of his GED students in 2010. He only manages to accomplish part of his task and begins to discover that the obdurate past is going to resist change in very dramatic ways. George must make a hasty retreat “back to the future”. When he once again steps through the portal into 1958, he begins to notice very slight differences—and the reader begins to wonder what affect George’s changes to history will have.

Because time resets itself when he returns to 2010, George can go back and this time successfully complete the job he set out to do in Derry. He is now able to begin his preparation for stopping the event on 11/22/63 that he knows will change the world. His planning involves following the activities and life of Lee Harvey Oswald, his family, and his acquaintances. Paramount to his plan is making sure that Oswald acted alone that day. So a lot of actual history is revisited in this novel.

George insinuates himself into life in a small suburb of Dallas. He begins to really become a part of the community and the time and therein lies a mess of really big problems. 

Without spoiling things and revealing how the story ends, I will say that King’s vision of time travel does take into account the fact that changing something in one reality will certainly bring change to another reality. The changes may or may not be for the better.

So readers, if you were a Stephen King fan go back and give him another chance. If you’ve never read his work, this is a good one to start with. King actually started this book back in the 70’s so you’ll be treated to a thriller very similar in style to those early works—the ones that made the hair on our neck stand up. And I promise….it doesn’t feel like 842 pages!! 


Happy Labor Day – Rebroadcast of Interview with Adam Johnson

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am Sam will interview Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son.

An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. His other works include Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. He lives in San Francisco.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Alexis on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

Interview with Charles Yu author of “Sorry Please Thank You Stories”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Charles Yu author of Sorry Please Thank You Stories.

The author of the widely praised debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe returns with a hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly original collection of short stories.

A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date … A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly computer-generated landscape … A company outsources grief for profit, their tagline: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.” Drawing from both pop culture and science, Charles Yu is a brilliant observer of contemporary society, filling his stories with equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and piercing insight into the human condition. He has already garnered comparisons to such masters as Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, and in Sorry Please Thank You, we have resounding proof of a major new voice in American fiction.

Charles Yu is  is the author of the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collections Third Class Superhero and his latest Sorry Please Thank You.

How to Live Safely was ranked the year’s second best science fiction novel by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas — runner up for the Campbell Memorial Award.

His fiction has been published in a number of magazines and literary journals, including Oxford American, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and cited for special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXVIII. He received the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award for his story, “Class Three Superhero.

If you miss an interview you can always catch it at Wellington Square Books or on the Avid Reader at iTunes.