Allison Block

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An unscrupulous marine biologist with "Ken-doll good looks" and "priapic affability," Chaz Perrone was sure he'd seen the last of his wife when he pushed her over the railing of the Sun Duchess cruise ship off the coast of Florida. But Joey Perrone, a former championship swimmer, survived the fall and clung to a bale of Jamaican hashish long enough to be rescued by retired cop Mick Stranahan. Joey wants to know why her husband wanted her dead (he feared she was on to his scheme of doctoring Florida Everglades water samples at the behest of ruthless tycoon Red Hammernut). Then, with Stranahan's help, she wants to drive him crazy.

From politicians to paparazzi, no reprobate escapes the satirical eye of Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, who writes like the love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Evelyn Waugh. In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen serves up his trademark cast of skewed characters, including old favorites Skink, a shower cap-sporting curmudgeon and former Florida governor with curious carnivorous tastes, and part-time private investigator Stranahan, whose six failed marriages have left him less than optimistic about love. Among the new arrivals: agribusinessman Red Hammernut, who sports a flap-happy hairpiece more dubious than his M.O., and Tool, a hirsute, painkiller-addicted thug with a bullet lodged in a decidedly cheeky place.

As always, Hiaasen sets the action in steamy South Florida, where the moist air seems to foster morally despicable displays. Like Hiaasen's nine previous novels, Skinny Dip offers a message amid the mayhem: we need to respect our natural resources before it's too late. As the novel draws to a close, Chaz must face the karmic consequences of his crude, polluting ways: "[He] crossed the breeze-swept marsh with a puckering fear that he was being stalked by Red and his shotgun-toting goon; by voracious disease-bearing insects; by needle-fanged cottonmouth moccasins, blood-slurping leeches and deer ticks; by hydrophobic bobcats and in-bred panthers; by the gators whose husky mating calls fractured the brittle silence."

 

An unscrupulous marine biologist with "Ken-doll good looks" and "priapic affability," Chaz Perrone was sure he'd seen the last of his wife when he pushed her over the railing of the Sun Duchess cruise ship off the coast of Florida. But Joey Perrone, a former championship swimmer, survived the fall and clung to a bale […]
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Denny Roman, the protagonist in Rachel Cline's honest, heartwarming debut novel, may seem like any other preteen in suburban Ohio, preoccupied with boys, bras and a part in the school play. But trouble lurks beneath the girl's bubbly exterior, as she struggles to communicate with her divorced mother Lily, a brilliant neuroscientist utterly devoid of maternal inclinations.

Presented in three distinct parts, What to Keep is a smart, wry commentary on "how easy it is to screw things up with the people you love." While Lily may be her biological mother, Denny's world revolves around a quirky agoraphobic named Maureen, the eye in the hurricane of her daily teenage life in the wake of her parents' separation. Fourteen years go by, and Denny, now an aspiring actress in Hollywood, returns to her childhood home to decide "what to keep" before her mother and new stepfather relocate to New York. Unearthing old memories fills Denny with both nostalgia and dread. "She pictures the denuded living room floor. . . . Though she learned to crawl, walk, skip, dance, and God knows what else in that very room, it will soon look like she was never there."

A decade later, Denny has moved to Manhattan, where she's taken to writing plays rather than auditioning for them. Days from the opening of her first production on Broadway, she receives news that Maureen has died. When Maureen's 12-year-old son, Luke, appears at her door, Denny ponders the possibility of adopting the young man to honor the memory of the most pivotal person in her life.

Writers are often instructed to write what they know; Rachel Cline has followed that lesson to the letter. Born to a brainy, distracted mother, she herself did time in the trenches of Hollywood before returning to New York on what she calls "the dark side of thirty-five." Her brisk, refreshingly candid novel will ring true to anyone whose family doesn't quite fit the mold.

 

Denny Roman, the protagonist in Rachel Cline's honest, heartwarming debut novel, may seem like any other preteen in suburban Ohio, preoccupied with boys, bras and a part in the school play. But trouble lurks beneath the girl's bubbly exterior, as she struggles to communicate with her divorced mother Lily, a brilliant neuroscientist utterly devoid of maternal inclinations.
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Most people spend their lives seeking to understand the purpose of their existence. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald, the protagonist of Jodi Picoult's latest novel, has never for a moment questioned hers: she is the genetically perfect "match" brought into the world to keep her leukemia-stricken sister Kate alive. Physically and emotionally depleted from life in the shadow of her sibling's illness, the strong-willed Anna lashes back at the parents who conceived her out of desperation, not desire she sues them for the medical rights to her own body.

Poetic treatment of prickly topics is the trademark of Picoult, whose past bestsellers address such topics as statutory rape and teen suicide. Alternately narrated by each of its major characters, My Sister's Keeper revolves around Anna and the life-altering consequences of her very adult decision. As the novel begins, the courageous teenager enlists the legal assistance of Campbell Alexander a relentless cynic known for suing God who soon serves the subpoena that splinters the Fitzgerald family. Mother Sara, who gave up her law practice to render round-the-clock care to Kate, comes to her dying daughter's defense, while husband Brian sides with Anna. With the trial date drawing near, and Kate on the verge of kidney failure, Anna teeters on an emotional tightrope. How can she reject the person who has defined her from day one? At the hospital, Anna climbs into Kate's bed and rests her head on her chest: "I didn't come to see Kate because it would make me feel better," she says. "I came because without her, it's hard to remember who I am."

Hope and heartbreak fill the pages of My Sister's Keeper, which Picoult describes as a sort of Sophie's Choice for the new millennium. "If you use one of your children to save the life of another," the author asks, "are you being a good mother . . . or a very bad one?" Blending science, philosophy, morality and ethics, this is a thought-provoking thriller that grips and won't let go.

Allison Block reviews from Solana Beach, California.

Most people spend their lives seeking to understand the purpose of their existence. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald, the protagonist of Jodi Picoult's latest novel, has never for a moment questioned hers: she is the genetically perfect "match" brought into the world to keep her leukemia-stricken sister Kate alive. Physically and emotionally depleted from life in the […]
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After a summer of slick, steamy thrillers, Canadian writer Frances Itani's first novel is the literary equivalent of a cool autumn breeze. War and peace, language and silence, and separation and attachment are among the themes embraced in this American debut set in early 1900s Canada.

Scarlet fever robbed red-haired Grania O'Neill of her hearing at the tender age of 5. Her mother, Agnes, holds herself responsible for the illness, because she took Grania "the night she was so ill, through the open passageway in winter so that she could keep her close, watch over her, keep her on a cot in the hotel kitchen while she worked." While Agnes prays for a miracle to restore her daughter's hearing, Grania's grandmother, Mamo, knows the sensible solution is to enroll the child in a special school. At the Ontario Institution for the Deaf, 9-year-old Grania will learn sign language and speech, but she'll be separated from younger brother Patrick and beloved big sister Tressa. Grania thrives in school, and after graduation takes a job at the school hospital, where she meets a kind-eyed hearing man named Jim. Through Itani's vivid imagery and lyrical prose, we enter Grania's world as she communicates with her new companion, both by watching his mouth and putting her hands to his lips. Grania and Jim fall in love, but their bliss is cut short when Jim is called to serve in the First World War. Apart from her husband for two years, Grania feels "a loneliness so brittle, she believed that she would break in two." It is only when her soulmate returns safely that the young woman's fractured heart is whole once again.

Against a backdrop of war, Deafening is a celebration of personal victories, both large and small. When Kenan, her brother-in-law and childhood companion, returns from the front, so traumatized from the experience he is unable to speak, Grania's gestures and emotional generosity help him regain his voice. She is a woman who knows how to listen even though she cannot hear.

Allison Block is a writer and editor in La Jolla, California.

 

After a summer of slick, steamy thrillers, Canadian writer Frances Itani's first novel is the literary equivalent of a cool autumn breeze. War and peace, language and silence, and separation and attachment are among the themes embraced in this American debut set in early 1900s Canada. Scarlet fever robbed red-haired Grania O'Neill of her hearing […]
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Ghost-pale Karen Lowens is a convicted murderer on death row, awaiting execution at a women's prison in Gatestown, Texas. Brassy young Texas librarian Celia Mills is the widow of Karen's last victim. Franny Wren is the kind-hearted physician caring for Karen, who is dying of AIDS. In Sleep Toward Heaven, gifted writer Amanda Eyre Ward intertwines the lives of three women in a poignant tale of benevolence and brutality, whose compelling images resonate long after the final page has been turned.

"Each novel I write is a shadow life, running like a river beside my own," says Ward, an award-winning short-story writer and reporter for the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas. In lean, luminous prose, Ward taps into her own chilling experiences visiting one of the state's women's prisons. Her sharply drawn characters ponder life's capital-letter concepts: Guilt, Vengeance, Forgiveness. As Mills says, while driving to witness Lowens' execution, "The fact is that in the abstract, I do believe in mercy. . . . I believe people make mistakes, and that they should be given a chance to atone. But I also feel that something was taken away from me . . . and that I deserve something back."

Although Ward paints a vivid portrait of Lowens' childhood abuse and adult life immersed in a world of prostitution and drugs, her tone is masterfully restrained, impassioned without being preachy, and darkly humorous. When Wren warns a desperately ill Lowens of the dangers of taking too much morphine, the condemned woman responds: "Oh yeah. I might die." Wren battles her own set of demons, including her insistence on a bone marrow treatment for a young cancer patient with no hope for survival. "She could have died in peace," she laments to a stranger at the girl's funeral, "at home, with her family. But I wouldn't let her."

Surging swiftly toward the inevitable, Ward's astonishing debut blends pathos and suspense into the rarest of fictional breeds—a literary page-turner. The haunting tale dazzled actress Sandra Bullock, who purchased it for her production company, Fortis Films. She'll need some powerful leading ladies to join her in filling such spirited roles.

Allison Block is a writer and editor in La Jolla, California.

 

Ghost-pale Karen Lowens is a convicted murderer on death row, awaiting execution at a women's prison in Gatestown, Texas. Brassy young Texas librarian Celia Mills is the widow of Karen's last victim. Franny Wren is the kind-hearted physician caring for Karen, who is dying of AIDS. In Sleep Toward Heaven, gifted writer Amanda Eyre Ward […]
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Imagine having the capacity to calculate every prime number up to 7,057, but an utter inability to express anger, love or fear. That's the brilliant, bewildering reality for Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon's whimsical first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

An autistic savant who finds comfort in contemplating the solar system and doing "maths," Christopher Boone lives with his father, a good-natured handyman, in London. In some ways, the young boy's life is that of a typical teen—he enjoys caring for his pet rat, Toby, and dreams of being an astronaut—and in others, it is rigid and ritualistic. He refuses to eat yellow or brown foods, or foods that have touched each other on his plate.

When Christopher discovers his neighbor's dog Wellington impaled on a garden fork, any semblance of normalcy in the child's existence comes to a screeching halt. Inspired by his hero, whodunit doyen Sherlock Holmes, Boone sets out in search of clues to the canine conundrum. What begins as a quirky mystery quickly transforms into a moving coming-of-age tale in which a child comes to terms with his parents' troubled marriage.

A creative writing professor at Oxford University, London-born Haddon worked with autistic savants as a young man. Add to that his vast experience as a writer and illustrator of award-winning children's books—his drawings, from constellations to a depiction of the time-space continuum, are sprinkled throughout the text—and you have all the makings of a crackling cinematic success. It's little wonder that Harry Potter producers, Heyday Films, in conjunction with showbiz veterans Brad Grey and Brad Pitt, snapped up the film rights faster than you can say "Elementary, Watson."

Allison Block is a writer and editor in La Jolla, California.

Imagine having the capacity to calculate every prime number up to 7,057, but an utter inability to express anger, love or fear. That's the brilliant, bewildering reality for Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon's whimsical first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. An autistic savant who finds […]
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“I can not live without books,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. Avid readers Sara Nelson, Nancy Pearl and Michael Dirda happily share the celebrated statesman’s sentiment. From tales of childhood to thoughts on Tolstoy and Twain, a trio of new books by these literature lovers reflects the perks and quirks of their page-turning obsession. Recreation for some, therapy for others, books can enrapture, enrage, envelop and amaze as these talented authors demonstrate.

“Books get to me personally,” says New York Observer publishing columnist and self-proclaimed readaholic Sara Nelson. “When things go right, I read. When things go wrong, I read more.” In her new book, So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading (Putnam, $22.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0399150838), Nelson takes the reader along for a year’s worth of literature and life, offering funny, wise commentary on the ways in which the two intersect. Nelson, who had originally intended to select 52 books for 52 weeks of reading, says her plan fell apart almost immediately. “In reading, as in life, even if you know what you’re doing, you really kind of don’t,” she says. In week one, she set out to read Ted Heller’s Funnymen, a book about stand-up comics, while staying in a Vermont home once owned by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But Heller’s gags didn’t play well in the snowy, somber setting, says Nelson. From that point forward, she says, books seemed to choose her as much as she chose them. So Many Books, So Little Time is jam-packed with memorable moments, including the unlikely writing lessons gleaned from culinary bad boy and Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps most memorable of all are Nelson’s musings on a reader’s right to stop reading a book he or she doesn’t like: “It’s the literary equivalent of a bar mitzvah or a communion,” says the author. “The moment at which you look at yourself and announce: Today I am an adult. I can make my own decisions.'” For the record: Nelson now allows herself to toss disappointing tomes at page 20 or 200.

For many, reading is escapism. For writer and Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, books were nothing short of salvation. Raised in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Detroit, Pearl says her family defined dysfunction long before the label came to be. “All I knew then was that I was deeply and fatally unhappy,” says Pearl, author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason. During childhood and early adolescence, Pearl sought refuge at the Parkman Branch Library, where friendly librarians introduced her to books resonating with realities far brighter than her own. “It is not too much an exaggeration if it’s one at all to say that reading saved my life,” she says. Providing recommendations and revelations for more than 100 categories of books, from “Road Novels” and “Russian Heavies” to “Fabulous First Lines” and “Food for Thought,” Pearl’s approach is direct. The author of several professional books for librarians, including Now Read This, she highlights some of her favorite scribes in the category “Too Good to Miss,” offering an eclectic assortment of authors, including Robert Heinlein and Jonathan Lethem. With its short, snappy chapters, Book Lust is a must for any serious reader’s bedside table, a literary nightcap sure to prompt sweet dreams. “All that kid wants to do is stick his nose in a book,” lamented steelworker Eugene Dirda about his son Michael, a shy, bespectacled boy who preferred the pages of Thoreau to dating or sports. From humble beginnings in the Ohio rust belt town of Lorain to a top post at one of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers, Dirda’s world has always percolated with words. Both witty and wistful, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (Norton, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0393057569) pays homage to a bookish youth spent in small-town America. Woven throughout the text are references to books and authors who inspired, intrigued and rankled Dirda, who is now Senior Editor for The Washington Post Book World.

Dirda gives a grateful nod to the educators and friends who influenced him in his early adult years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist also makes peace with the man he considered impossible to please: “I forgave my father everything: He could be overbearing and worse, but his soul-deadening labor gave me the time to read and to know that my life would be privileged compared to his.” Books, it seems, can also offer redemption. Allison Block writes from La Jolla, California.

 

“I can not live without books,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. Avid readers Sara Nelson, Nancy Pearl and Michael Dirda happily share the celebrated statesman’s sentiment. From tales of childhood to thoughts on Tolstoy and Twain, a trio of new books by these literature lovers reflects the perks and quirks of their page-turning obsession. Recreation for […]
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For romance novelist Jennifer Crusie, inspiration for a new book is as inexplicable as love itself. "I can’t tell you where my ideas come from," says the Ohio resident, whose sharp wit and keen insight into human nature are showcased in such best-selling titles as Fast Women and Faking It. "They just show up." The author of 15 books, Crusie has learned to trust her instincts, knowing better than to dismiss those "aha!" moments, no matter how or where or when they appear. "If something comes knocking at the door," she says, "I let it in."

From lovable, flawed men to a mother who counts every celery stick that passes her lips, colorful characters abound in Crusie’s new novel, Bet Me. In a word, these characters are real. At the story’s center is Min Dobbs, a smart, spirited insurance executive who forever laments her ample body’s swerves and curves. Society’s obsession with thinness is a hot button for Crusie, and one she pushes frequently. "American culture is so soaked with the ideal of feminine beauty being about 40 pounds underweight," Crusie says. "Min is healthy, with a good attitude, but every once in a while she gives into the pressure and begins to think she’s fat."

From the start, Crusie tackles the weight issue with characteristic levity. When Min tries to make chicken marsala without olive oil, the results border on the inedible. Crusie’s message is clear: in cooking, as in romance, there’s no substitute for the real thing. "Cooking and love are very similar," she says, "You invest a lot of time in each, and you get out of it what you put into it." On a deep level, Min’s repeated efforts to render a low-cal version of the rich Italian dish are attempts to deny who she really is—a vibrant, full-bodied woman.

In Bet Me, handsome Calvin Morrisey is not smitten with Min at first sight; he only notices her striking blond and redheaded friends. When he asks her out, the cynic in Min suspects it’s simply to win a wager placed by two of his pals (that’s the "bet" in Bet Me). But as Cal falls in love, he begins to see Min as beautiful. While his transformation may seem like a fantasy to some women, Crusie insists such men really exist, and that finding them isn’t as difficult as pop culture would have us think. "A lot of men may be trained by society to go for the Victoria’s Secret model," says Crusie. "But let’s face it: they don’t marry the Victoria’s Secret model."

Though praised by critics for her wicked wit, Crusie hardly considers herself the queen of quips. "I’ve never deliberately written to be funny—nobody slips on a banana peel in my books," she says. "I think my characters just have a particular kind of sense of humor. They use it the way a lot of people do, to cope with the absurdities of life." When people make a list of things they seek in a partner, a sense of humor is always in the top five, says Crusie. "Instinctively people know that those with an ability to see the humor in a situation are mentally sound; they can roll with the punches."

Frank feedback from longtime friend and critique partner Valerie Taylor helps Crusie keep her own life—and prose—in perspective. "We’ve been working together for so long now, I don’t know if I could write a book without her," she says. Taylor’s assessments can be both brilliant and blunt. "There was a sentence in Bet Me, where Valerie wrote in the margin: ‘Who wrote this, your reptile brain?’ It was really a bad sentence, and I thought: ‘Oh hell, she’s right.’"

Recently, Crusie has also teamed up with her 29-year-old daughter Mollie, a production assistant in the film industry. The two hope to adapt one of Crusie’s books into a screenplay. The business partnership is worlds away from Mollie’s college days, when she’d sit around with her friends, laughing as they read steamy passages from her mother’s books. "Her friends would say, ‘Your mom wrote that . . . that’s so cool!’" remembers Crusie.

Beyond those well-phrased fits of passion, what makes romance novels so popular? It’s the one genre where you are guaranteed to find a woman at the center, says Crusie. "Romance novels are an affirmation, an antidote to all that stuff on TV, where the woman is the assistant D.A., and the story is really about the D.A., who’s a man. Or the woman gets kidnapped and raped and tortured." In those shows, even when a woman is in a position of authority, they still make her a bimbo on the side. "That doesn’t happen in romance. She’s never on the side. She may be a bimbo," says Crusie with a laugh, "but it’s her story."

A self-proclaimed "narrative junkie," Crusie advises aspiring romance writers to read everything they can get their hands on. "Story is so phenomenally interesting," says Crusie, who holds two master’s degrees in English literature and has completed everything but her dissertation in the Ph.D. program at Ohio State. "The first thing you say when you sit down with somebody you haven’t seen in a while is, ‘tell me what’s happening.’ It’s so basic to the human condition." Among Crusie’s favorite writers: Dorothy Parker, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer and Terry Pratchett.

Crusie is currently at work on a murder mystery in the spirit of Agatha Christie (she wrote her first master’s thesis on women in mystery fiction), and a ghost story. While her tales may center on specters or suspense, Crusie will always write through the prism of romance. "It’s such an elastic genre, you can put anything into it," she says. And there’s never a shortage of material about the rocky road to love. "Dating is so full of pitfalls," says Crusie. "That’s why it makes such good fiction fodder."

Allison Block writes from La Jolla, California.

 

For romance novelist Jennifer Crusie, inspiration for a new book is as inexplicable as love itself. "I can’t tell you where my ideas come from," says the Ohio resident, whose sharp wit and keen insight into human nature are showcased in such best-selling titles as Fast Women and Faking It. "They just show up." The […]
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On a recent visit to friends who have a 14-month-old child, David Sedaris marveled at the attention garnered by one tiny little being. "When you go to their house, everything is about the baby," says the best-selling author with the inimitable nasal voice. "The baby eats, and you watch the baby eat, then you watch the baby knock the telephone off the table." While Sedaris says he and his five siblings were by no means neglected, their early years were hardly the 24-hour-a-day tactile experience that seems de rigueur today. "Sure we were fed," he says, "but we weren’t followed around from room to room and congratulated for existing."

These days, there’s no shortage of praise for the National Public Radio humorist who has spun his Greek-American family’s hang-ups into pure comic gold. This month, fans can rejoice in the release of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which includes essays that originally appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker and on NPR’s "This American Life." As in his previous collections, Naked, Barrel Fever, Holidays on Ice and Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris’ tales crackle with the quirkiness that has become his cachet.

Though Sedaris, 47, may be inclined to embellish, the characters featured in his stories are very real: his sister Tiffany dumpster-dives for frozen turkeys, then cooks and eats them; and his mercurial late mother once locked her children out of the house on a snowy winter day because she wanted to be alone. Also in the spotlight is sister Amy, a popular actress and brilliant mimic who has collaborated with her brother on numerous stage plays. "My family isn’t really all that different from anyone else’s," says Sedaris in a phone conversation from his London flat. Then, pausing to reconsider, he adds, "Well, maybe they’re a bit more entertaining."

Sedaris profits from his family members’ peculiarities, but he is also sensitive to their feelings. When his sister Gretchen told him she felt uncomfortable being the focus of some of his stories, he respected her wishes, and now only mentions her in passing. He backed out of a lucrative movie deal for Me Talk Pretty One Day because he didn’t like the idea of someone else handling material about his family. Yet the temptation to tap into a seemingly endless font of freakish behavior is nearly irresistible, says Sedaris, and his family knows it. "My sister Lisa now prefaces every story with: ‘You can’t repeat this to anyone,’ says Sedaris. "And I’m trying to earn her trust."

Brother Paul Sedaris, who operates a North Carolina-based floor sanding business, is one family member who clearly relishes the attention. And he gets plenty of it. "I never imagined that people would phone him at two in the morning and say, ‘Do the rooster, do the rooster,’" says Sedaris, referring to the verbal tirade his 5-foot-4-inch brother unleashes in self defense, rendered so memorably in the Me Talk Pretty One Day essay, "You Can’t Kill the Rooster." For brother Paul, the publicity makes dollars—and sense. "People who’ve heard me talk about Paul now hire him to sand their floors," says Sedaris.

The new book’s title, which publisher Little, Brown describes as "willfully enigmatic," has no significance at all, says Sedaris. In fact, he says, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim sounds like something really boring you’d find in the sewing department of a store. Regardless of how they interpret the title, readers will find themselves in stitches over Sedaris’ delirious accounts, which include a humiliating strip poker game, a pet parrot with a pitch-perfect imitation of a milk steamer and an eyebrow-less nine-year-old neighbor named after an alcoholic drink.

A little more than a decade ago, David Sedaris was an unknown Chicago-based performance artist and house cleaner whose career took a life-altering turn when "This American Life" host Ira Glass attended one of his performances at an area club. "Ira introduced himself," says Sedaris, "and about a year later when I moved to New York, he called me and asked if I had anything Christmas-y." Sedaris submitted "The Santaland Diaries," the unforgettable tale of his experiences working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. Glass produced the piece for "Morning Edition," and the rest, as they say, is history.

"If I hadn’t met Ira Glass, I’d still be cleaning houses," says Sedaris, who now delivers lectures and readings to standing room only crowds from San Francisco to St. Paul. "I sure as heck wouldn’t be writing my fifth book." Despite his success, Sedaris remains a mass of insecurities. He says introductions loaded with praise just make him nervous. "I’m standing backstage thinking, Oh, don’t say that, don’t say that," he says. "You’re being set up in a way."

Though Sedaris spends large chunks of time touring in the U.S., he lives abroad, dividing his time between London and France (the latter is the site of many of his laugh-out-loud linguistic misadventures in Me Talk Pretty One Day). Those lucky enough to see the humorist in action know that he frequently takes notes while delivering a story, marking where people laugh or don’t respond. The feedback helps in the writing and editing process, he says, adding that a story can change significantly over the course of a tour. Audience reactions—like the dismay elicited from a description of submerging an injured rodent in a bucket of water in the new collection’s "Nuit of the Living Dead"—are often surprising.

"For some reason, you can get on stage and talk about punching your sister in the stomach and nobody bats an eye, but if you talk about pulling the wings off a fly or drowning a mouse, the audience just goes, ohhhhhhhhhh." In truth, what the author covets most is not the giggle, but the gasp ("I love that sound, just an intake of air") prompted by a truly outrageous anecdote. Happily for Sedaris and his fans, life as he knows it has produced a seemingly endless supply.

 

Allison Block’s own family includes a musician who "plays" the armpits and a portly pit bull who has trained his owner to fetch.

On a recent visit to friends who have a 14-month-old child, David Sedaris marveled at the attention garnered by one tiny little being. "When you go to their house, everything is about the baby," says the best-selling author with the inimitable nasal voice. "The baby eats, and you watch the baby eat, then you watch […]
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Two survivors of love catalogue the claws of attraction “Love is merely a madness,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In her latest offering, humorist Merrill Markoe carries that sentiment to the extreme. Co-written with veteran singer/songwriter Andy Prieboy, The Psycho Ex Game is a mordant study in two-part disharmony, in which a pair of jaded Angelenos engages in a battle of online one-upsmanship to establish who has suffered more in the name of romance. Plumbing the depths of dark humor is nothing new for Markoe, author of six books, including the raucous It’s My F ing Birthday, and one of the creative forces behind “Late Night With David Letterman.” Both acerbic and sweet, the Los Angeles-based writer is wired to barb. “I think people figure out early in their lives what currency they can work in,” she says. “Some people know that they are so adorable looking, all they have to do is smile and dress up and they get plenty from that. Then there are some of us who, early on, see that that doesn’t work. So we joke about it.” In The Psycho Ex Game, successful screenwriter Lisa Roberty and indie rock musician Grant Repka meet after one of Grant’s shows, a comic operetta about the doomed romance between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. While romantic sparks don’t fly, the two are interested enough in each other to exchange e-mail addresses. Inspired by Grant’s hit song, “My Psycho Ex,” they begin sharing excruciating details of romantic bliss gone bad.

Written in alternating “he said/she said” chapters by Prieboy and Markoe, The Psycho Ex Game delivers a deluge of narcissistic, sadistic, venom-drenched displays. The dysfunctional showdown pits tales of Grant Repka’s former lover, the multiple-personalitied “Junkie Queen of Darkness” against the bad behaviors of Lisa Roberty’s ex, a lobster-hurling actor and director widely known as “Mr. Summer Box Office Record-Holder.” Throughout the game, Repka and Roberty attribute numerical values to their suffering; the greater the trauma, the higher the number of points. The book was inspired by a real-life literary correspondence between Markoe and Prieboy, before the two became romantically involved. “It was so florid, not sexual in any way, but just detailed,” Markoe says. “At some point, Andy and I started playing a game: who had the more horrible previous love life?” She says The Psycho Ex Game is based both on actual experiences and observations: as a 25-year resident of Los Angeles, she’s gathered a wealth of material on the megalomaniacal. A veteran television writer, Markoe was earning laughs long before her prickly humor saw print. In the early ’80s, she teamed up with then-boyfriend David Letterman to create a morning show that would go on to become “Late Night with David Letterman.” The morning show won a couple of Emmys, says Markoe, but it was considered too deranged for the early A.M., when sweet housewives were watching TV. “It was live, and great, weird things happened,” she says. Markoe ended her relationship with “Late Night” and Letterman in 1987, but made amends seven years later when she appeared on the show to promote her second book, How To Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me. “It was a dark joke that appealed to my sense of humor,” says Markoe. “You would not speak to somebody for a very long time, then get all dressed up and put on tons of makeup and go see them on their show. It was a lot of fun.” Among Markoe’s “Late Night” legacies is “Stupid Pet Tricks,” an idea she and Letterman generated for the original morning show. (Though Markoe stays mum on the topic of Letterman himself, her kinship with canines is showcased in What the Dogs Have Taught Me, in which she describes her overly excitable pawed pal, Lewis, who suffers from a “greeting disorder.”) Enamored as she is of mutts, Markoe hasn’t written off humans. Not yet. In The Psycho Ex Game, amid remembrances of psychos past, Lisa and Grant discover truths about each other and themselves. Might the pair become romantically linked in their log-on, log-off-again lives? After documenting the demented, it seems only fitting that they should fall madly in love.

Two survivors of love catalogue the claws of attraction “Love is merely a madness,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In her latest offering, humorist Merrill Markoe carries that sentiment to the extreme. Co-written with veteran singer/songwriter Andy Prieboy, The Psycho Ex Game is a mordant study in two-part disharmony, in which a […]

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