General blog posts

Ode to a Poet: An Interview with Sharon Olds

It’s hard to intimidate me. But give the universe a dare, and it will call your bluff. This past week, I drove Andrés Neuman to the airport and spoke on the phone with Sharon Olds. Can anxiety be measured? In my car, the memory of Neuman digging in his fanny pack for his glasses to help with directions; at the bookstore, hiding behind a case pack of alkaline water in the back office while the line connects Texas to New York.

Odes Cover Image
ISBN: 9780451493620
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - September 20th, 2016

ODES, published in September this year (four years after STAG’S LEAP), is just that, odes on everything from her sister to her whiteness, from tampons to the penis. In other words, the opposite of STAG’S LEAP, but is it a joke?

“The way it works for me, which is not the way it works for every poet, is that I don’t write books,” Olds says, “I write poems.” She writes them all in “a grocery store notebook” with a ballpoint pen, wide lines. She writes them all out, one at a time, by hand because ink is “not percussive like hitting piano keys, like typing is,” and “my thumbs are too big to dance on that little screen, on my phone.”

After five years, give or take, she goes through the “collection” she’s created, to see if it is enough or if any threads emerge. During the writing process, she might type some of them up, but not all of them, and even that step is more of a thinking-through. The transition from page to screen is not just transcription, but an editing process.

“Once I type it up, I change it for the better, I hope,” she says. In the case of STAG’S LEAP, she “tried to rewrite each one to get it right.” When arranged in chronological order of events, the poems told a story, and that story became the book.

“I write poems,” she says. “That’s what I do.”

We talk for a minute about her teaching, but after that, she wants to know if there’s anything else I’d like to ask about, any subject. And it’s hard because I do have one question, but it’s not one I think is smart or even fair to ask. It’s a question I have for her not as a faux journalist or fellow poet but as a human being. Olds waves her hand at me with her voice and says that I am free to ask her anything; it’s her choice whether or not she would like to answer.

Again, I did not think that this moment would ever materialize so when it does, the words come out like a postcard she might receive from an elementary school student: “Are you still sad?” She pauses for a moment, intrigued that I think of STAG’S LEAP as a sad book, then offers this: “It seems to me that each of us in a lifetime has some real mourning to do.”

Already, she goes on to say, “Children have things to mourn!” but I am so moved by her first answer, this idea that grief is not a punishment but a task that each of us completes, a thing that no one escapes. Somehow, it makes it smaller and larger, at the same time. “Citizens of this country are in a time of fear and mourning,” she says, “and fear of future mourning.”

If STAG’S LEAP has a thesis, it is this: “Sadness and anger are just as important as joy and happiness.” When she says it, it’s so simple, and not a concept that I think anyone would dispute, but Olds wrote it out regardless, in a book that is not meek, maudlin, or morose. It captures a time, this ugly awful time, and paints it as just that: layered. It says, “You are allowed,” the way that Olds says to me now despite the distance between us, in years and miles.

For ODES, Olds says, “There isn’t a test. There isn’t a correct amount of humor to respond to.” Instead, “it’s meant to be a gift.” Not a free one, of course—“that’s how I can afford to pay my rent,” she says—but “what I care about is that you have whatever experience is right for you about the book. We want each other to get whatever each of us can get out of what we give each other in a work of art.”

I was promised fifteen minutes with Olds but she gave me twenty. Before I had even dialed the number, I knew that her other callers slated for her afternoon may well be The New Yorker or The Atlantic, somewhere—someone—more worthy. However, she uses our last minute to ask if there is one more, anything else that I would regret not saying if she were to hang up now, and that kindness and generosity is so pure that I can only say no and thank her for taking the time that she did. She says she is looking forward to meeting me, we say goodbye, and here come the tears.

Annalia Luna is currently the shipping & receiving manager at Brazos Bookstore, and a contributor at HTML Giant. She earned her B.A. in Literature & Music from Butler University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, & Heavy Feather Review. She lives & writes in Houston, TX

Gifts Spotlight: Journals

There are many uses for what we affectionately call a journal. I, for one, have and continue to use a journal for logging notes, keeping track of my orders for the store, and occasionally trying (without much success) to use a guided journal. Many people have very strong feelings about the uses for their journal: To some, it is the keeper of all things personal. To others, it is the place they list the books they have read and for others a place to list favorite new restaurants.

642 Things to Write Journal Cover Image
ISBN: 9781452105444
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Chronicle Books - April 11th, 2012

642 Things to Draw: Journal Cover Image
ISBN: 9780811876445
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Chronicle Books - September 1st, 2010

For those who want a weekly list guided journal for insight about yourself, Moorea Seal’s 52 LISTS FOR HAPPINESS is the way to go. Last year, we carried her 52 LIST PROJECT, which had been gifted to me from a friend. One of the many responses was that you had a week to fill out the prompt, and you are just listing items. Again, as a person who only uses a journal for note taking, this gives someone an opportunity to make a list from the prompt a week before you move on to the next one.

52 Lists for Happiness: Weekly Journaling Inspiration for Positivity, Balance, and Joy Cover Image
ISBN: 9781632170965
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Sasquatch Books - September 20th, 2016

The 52 Lists Project: A Year of Weekly Journaling Inspiration Cover Image
ISBN: 9781632170347
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Sasquatch Books - September 8th, 2015

Working in a bookstore and working with several of our Kids Specialists, I wanted to find something that would fit between the guided journals for adults and the ones we carry for Middle Grade kids. What I discovered was WRITE HERE, WRITE NOW. One of the main things that drew me to this guided journal, outside of the quirky prompts, was that it created a place where you could draw, explore and really have some fun with the journal, all while being creative.

Write Here, Write Now Cover Image
ISBN: 9781452129396
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Chronicle Books - August 18th, 2015

I know that there are strong feelings on the topic of guided journals and their place in the world of journalling, but with all of the choices out there, this is just a sample of what is available.

Staff Chat: The Horror.... The Horror...

The Books: Spooky stories, new and old
The Plots: No spoilers, but monsters, killer clowns, zombies and haunted places figure prominently
The Chatters: Keaton Patterson (Buyer), Lydia Melby (Events Coordinator)

K: All right so here we are to discuss the horror genre, because it’s that most wonderful time of the year.

Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus Cover Image
ISBN: 9781632060785
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Restless Books - June 14th, 2016

L: Oh yeah, that’s a good one.

K: I could read it over and over again. It’s new every time, and it’s classic gothic horror, but it’s got a psychological aspect that a lot of literature at that time didn't have. It was very modern in that sense, and that’s always been what I really gravitate towards, this horror of the mind more than the good ol’ blood and guts.

L: Yeah and I think FRANKENSTEIN does a lot with the far-reaching consequences that you don’t always see a lot of, even in modern horror. You know you have the monster coming at you, or the moment where something jumps out at you and it’s all very present and immediate, but in FRANKENSTEIN the monster is haunting him and keeps coming back—it’s this one choice he made that he’ll never get away from, it just keeps coming back and you have this building, hopeless dread that’s really perfectly done.

I never got into Stephen King though. I have a lot of friends whose taste I trust who rave about him and always talk about that feeling they miss of sitting in the treehouse or on the basement couch and reading King, but I think you have to get into his stuff at the right part of your life, when you’re a kid or a teenager because I’ve tried to come back to him as an adult since he’s kind of a mainstay of this genre I love, but I just can’t get into him. But I have to say, it’s not very welcoming for readers outside of what you’d generally think of as your regular horror crowd—women, people of color, queer people. So, I’ve always wanted to have that experience of reading King for the first time that I’ve heard people talk about, but I’ve never found it.

K: For me, it’s his short stories and novellas where he really excels, like FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT. His short stories are always on another level as far as his writing goes. But he writes so much—he throws out books all the time that aren’t always good, but he’s got some real classics too. MISERY is maybe the first novel I read that really frightened me. IT, not the book but the original miniseries with Tim Curry, that gave me nightmares for at least a couple of weeks. Killer clowns, you know, they’re always freaky.

But King was really more of a springboard for me—his book were what I read first and he’s always great for introducing you to other writers too. It was from King that I learned about Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, and started reading more of the horror tradition, and then I found FRANKENSTEIN and that was all she wrote.

Of all the genres though, I think horror gets the short end of the stick most of the times. It’s really not considered literary, and other genres get that too, like science fiction. I think of genre literature as sort of like poetry—you can have poetry that’s free-form, or you can have poems that are very defined by their form, like a villanelle or a haiku. And that’s how I see genre, as writing with constraints, writing within a designated form, and then of course you can stretch that form or play with it, break it, subvert it however you want. And that’s when you really get the genius writing I think.

But horror really is a wonderful genre, to investigate the unknown and unnamable, what we don't like to deal with or talk about, whether that’s the things that go bump in the night or the possibility that your next-door neighbor may be a serial killer.

L: I agree, I think a lot of other genres like science fiction or fantasy or mystery, people give them more grace, saying “well this counts as literary instead of genre, we can call this literature and teach it in schools” and I think a lot of that goes back to the purpose. For example, the purpose of writing and reading sci-fi has always been to push the boundaries of what we know, to satirize or to reflect present society in this future world, and people can see value in that. But what’s the intended purpose of horror? Why do we read it? Are we just gratifying our basic nature, do we just want to see whatever gross darkness is inside us thrown against this dark mirror? Is it cathartic? It’s pretty indulgent a lot of the time, but there is a purpose to it after all.

K: There’s definitely a level of catharsis in reading horror. I think people naturally have a desire to face their fears, at least to understand them. And there’s a purpose in that. And also with horror as well as sci-fi, I like what you were saying about how the purpose is satirizing or making a social commentary about our world. I think horror and science fiction especially really allow for that to a greater degree that straightforward, realistic literature.

L: Yeah, those “Serious” books.

K: Take Colson Whitehead’s great zombie apocalypse novel that came out a couple years ago, ZONE ONE.

Zone One Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307455178
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Anchor Books - July 10th, 2012

It’s a tremendous horror novel, but it’s also an allegory for gentrification. He could have approached that in so many ways, there are a lot books on the subject I’ve read—John Lancaster’s CAPITAL pops into my mind—that are straightforwardly about gentrification as a social issue.

But there’s something a little more affecting when you throw the living dead in there, and now you have to go clean them out to build your new shining city.

L: That’s a good point. Something you said earlier too that I wanted to come back to was that you tend to gravitate more towards the horror of the mind. I do that as well, like if I want to something scary or horrific, I don't always pick up the “monster” books, even though I love a good monster here and there. But there’s something more terrifying and haunting about the monster being in your mind, and being something you don't know if or when you’ll ever get away from it.

Something my friend and I were talking about recently as we were watching another great “monster” show, Stranger Things. He was saying that he thought it was decently scary until somewhere around the fourth episode I think when you finally get a good look at the monster, this really well-put together CGI monster who has no face. Spoiler alert, I guess. And from then on, it becomes more of an adventure story, where the characters are venturing into this sort of underworld, and it’s still a really well-written story, but it’s not scary anymore.

Once you’ve seen the monster and you’ve seen it has a physical form, it’s not as frightening anymore. It’s like, ok we’ve seen it, we can try to figure out how to kill it, but even if it’s right behind me or hiding there in the shadows, we know where it is.

Whereas if you look at something more psychological—and here’s where I have to bring up Dan Chaon—if you look at something like Dan Chaon’s collection STAY AWAKE or his new book ILL WILL coming out in March, you see those “monsters” don't exist in the real world. They’re much harder to escape.

Ill Will Cover Image
ISBN: 9780345476043
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Ballantine Books - March 7th, 2017

K: I think also that not seeing the object of horror, the object of fear, really heightens that experience and makes the terror more potent. Another cinematic example is Spielberg’s JAWS. You barely see the shark in that movie—they didn't plan it that way, it’s because the shark broke and they couldn't get it to work half the time.

L: But it’s a much better movie because of that!

K: Right, it’s much scarier because you can see the shark, you just know it’s lurking there in the water under you where you can’t see it. But really what people fear more than anything is the unknowable, the thing they can’t quite name. Facing that is really the point of horror, I think.

One of the best examples of this horror of the mind is Shirley Jackson. We’re celebrating her 100th birthday this year so it’s fitting to mention her, but I really think THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is really the height of that sort of horror. The title says it’s a haunted house book, but really it takes place inside the characters’ minds and the reader is just watching people go crazy, little by little, and it’s truly frightening.

L: That’s a great example, I really love Shirley Jackson. I actually just read WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE for the first time last year, and that’s another great example of a horror story that bends the usual tropes.

Staff Pick Logo
We Have Always Lived in the Castle Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143129547
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Books - October 18th, 2016

If you’re paying attention as you read, you know who the murderer is, who the real monster in this story is, from the first few chapters. You have a classic set up, with this narrator who’s twelve or thirteen with a sweet, naïve voice, whose best friend is a cat and who lives in an isolated, rotting old mansion with her sister and dying uncle, and the town hates them because of their tragic past. And then the stranger comes to town, and then there’s complications, but you start to realize the monster in the story has manufactured this situation, and for the entire book you’re watching her just tighten her grip. You realize there really is no escape, and when you get to the end of the book, the thing you thought would happen happens, but it’s amazing watching it.

K: And it takes so much skill to do that, to let the reader know at the beginning how it’ll turn out, but still keep them riveted, that’s real talent.

L: She’s the queen.

K: There’s a lot of really great new stuff coming out that I’ve stumbled across that has really blown me away. COLLAPSE OF HORSES by Brian Evenson is a stellar collection of horror and scifi and other surreal stories. BLOOD CRIME was really great too—have you heard of that?

Blood Crime Cover Image
By Sebastia Alzamora, Martha Tennent (Translator), Maruxa Relano (Translator)
ISBN: 9781616956288
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Soho Crime - September 13th, 2016

L: I have but haven’t gotten to read it yet.

K: It’s this riveting Spanish Civil War era vampire story, with elements of a detective thriller mixed in. This vampire, not your typical sort of just undead guy but an immortal being of pure evil, is taking advantage of the chaos and bloodshed of the civil war to kill people and add to the horror. If you read the first page and you’re not sucked in, it’s probably because you don’t have a soul, because this monster just ate it.

L: Ha! Yeah, you’re one of the dead already.

K: I also love when the author works in a good deal of comedy too, like in that new book, MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM—this totally 80s exorcism that hilarious at points. He wrote that HORRORSTOR book too, that IKEA store book.

My Best Friend's Exorcism Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594748622
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Quirk Books - May 17th, 2016

L: A haunted store is such a perfect extension of the haunted house story, I’m so glad that book exists.

K: I think it’s also a good point to make, that horror is a genre with constraints and tropes, but it’s also very expansive, you can stretch and subvert those tropes in all sorts of different ways. There’s always something new to be afraid of.

From Shame to Strength: An Interview with Monica Youn

There are exceptions to everything but for the most part, living artists are the be all, end all for me. I like the connection and contradiction between a piece of art and the person behind it. The only type of surprise I savor: the one where somewhere in Houston, I am waiting to hear the speaking voice of a writer I don’t know.

Blackacre: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977504
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Graywolf Press - September 6th, 2016

Monica Youn will read in store on Friday, November 4 at 7PM.

Annalia Luna is currently the shipping & receiving manager at Brazos Bookstore. She earned her B.A. in Literature and Music from Butler University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, & Heavy Feather Review. She lives & writes in Houston, TX

Asking What It Means to Be THE MOTHERS: A Q&A with Brit Bennett

This week marks the release of one of the most buzzed-about novels coming out this fall: Brit Bennett’s THE MOTHERS. This book is one of those exciting debut novels that not only deserves every ounce of preceding hype, but also announces a brilliant new author we’re all looking forward to seeing more from.

From the first page, the rousing choral voice of the church mothers, who narrate from a perceptive but not-quite omniscient viewpoint and provide one of the many reflections of motherhood in the book, grabs you by the wrist and pulls you in.

The Mothers Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399184512
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Riverhead Books - October 11th, 2016

Brit Bennett signs THE MOTHERS on Friday, October 14 at 7PM. Order your book now and we'll have it signed for you.

#BrazosBest: A Rock-n-Roll Indie Press

The Book: THE GLOAMING by Melanie Finn, our October #BrazosBest
The Plot: A young woman abandoned by husband, involved in horrible auto accident, has her sense of reality upended; she disembarks to Tanzania, where she wanders into nowhere on a morbid journey of self-discovery
The Chatters: Keaton Patterson (Buyer) and Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director), talking over tacos and beer

Ben: All right. So we’re chatting about the October Brazos Best pick, THE GLOAMING.

The Gloaming Cover Image
ISBN: 9781937512477
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Two Dollar Radio - September 20th, 2016

Ben: A lot of their books do that. A lot of them even mix genres, you know, or use generic tropes. This one plays with horror and thriller stuff, but makes it literary. Older books do that too. Grace Krilanovich’s THE ORANGE EATS CREEPS is a vampire story, and last year there was Colin Winnette’s HAINTS STAY, which is a Western that uses those tropes but fucks with them.

Keaton: HAINTS STAY is kind of an acid Western in that sense. And with ORANGE, I mean, it’s teenage meth head vampires: you can’t get much more out there and creepy than that. THE GLOAMING represents something Two Dollar Radio does well: they publish literature that pushes the boundaries of acceptability, so to speak. Their highbrow but down-and-dirty, just like Brazos.

Ben: Yup. That’s what we like. They fuck shit up on the regular. I’ve always thought they’re a fantastic press, right down to their branding. They don’t do the same thing over and over again, but their books all feel of a piece. I’ve always thought of them like an indie rock record label from the 90s, or something, like Elephant 6.

Keaton: They’ve got Radio right there in their name, right? I consider them the most rock-and-roll indie press. They’re a great small operation. It shows what you can do when you’re simply dedicated to good books.

Ben: How do you think THE GLOAMING fits into their catalogue? Does it remind you of their other books?

Keaton: Um, I mean, it’s definitely a piece of its own, for sure. It’s very psychological, all in the head of the protagonist, Pilgrim Jones. I mean, that name—“pilgrim.” You know there’s an allegorical aspect.

Ben: Sure, sometimes you don’t have to be subtle.

Keaton: For sure. And what’s interesting—and I don’t know how often Two Dollar Radio does this—but this book was originally published in the UK, a year or two ago. They called it SHAME.


Keaton: Yes. And that’s what it’s about: dealing with guilt, and shame, and obsession, and how our actions resonate throughout our lives. All the chances and lack of chances we have for redemption.

You know, when I first picked up this book, I was a little worried it might devolve into Chinua Achebe’s criticism of HEART OF DARKNESS: that Conrad uses Africa as a metaphorical backdrop for the disintegration of a European mind. But Finn definitely avoids doing that. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that she was born and raised in Kenya, then moved to the states, went to school and everything, and now she lives in Tanzania. I think she runs a medical clinic, and she and her husband make nature documentaries. THE GLOAMING reminded me of TRAM 83 (from Deep Vellum), which paints a portrait of post-colonial Africa that doesn’t hide extreme aspects of the content: superstition, murder, crime, the plight of poverty, corruption—those kinda things. The characters that Pilgrim meets are all fully fleshed out, very complex. Nobody’s all good, and there’s a lot of bad people, but nobody is a stereotype. You’ve got mercenaries, doctors without borders—a motley cast all around.

Ben: Yeah, the book is very grounded in reality, in place. You feel the grit of the land. You feel your feet on the ground. But at the same time, it’s a novel of ideas. Two Dollar Radio is very good at books like this: they’re intellectual and work in theoretical spaces, while never devolving into whimsy or flights of fancy the way some other books do when you think about “philosophical fiction” or whatever. THE GLOAMING deals with very big themes, but through concrete actions, settings, and characters. It reminds me of Sarah Gerard’s BINARY STAR, which is about big, metaphysical stuff, but remains anchored in the body ultimately, since it’s about a woman with an eating disorder. It’s always concrete.

Keaton: I would agree. BINARY STAR is a great example of that, and THE GLOAMING is too. One word that always springs to mind when I think about their books is “viscera.” The books are very much informed by the messiness and meat of life. You’re always within the setting, but also within the humanness of the story.

Ben: Oh, they also did the Scott McClanahan book, CRAPALACHIA.

Keaton: “Crapalachia”: that’s fun to say.

Ben: It is. So who the hell will like THE GLOAMING?

Keaton: I think people who love psychological thrillers, stuff along the lines of Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

Ben: One of your favorites.

Keaton: Yeah. It’s for people who love books that can very easily slip between internal and external storytelling, in ways that come off natural. It’s a scary read, but it ultimately has reassurance at the end.

Ben: That’s important.

Keaton: Yeah, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Ben: I never feel Two Dollar Radio books are devoid of hope. The worlds in their books are complex ones. I think it’s just as uncomplicated to make a piece of art that is totally bleak as totally happy. They’re equally simplistic notions, even though we prize the former quality in the critical world over the latter. But Two Dollar Radio books show you up close the horrors of the world—there’s rough shit in their books—but they work through it or something. They don’t leave you in despair.

Sidelines Spotlight: Magpie and Jay

Halloween is not technically part of the holiday season but is still one of my favorites. This month, to highlight my love of dark, creepy things, we are featuring vintage-inspired pieces from Magpie and Jay’s New Curios collection.

Last year, when we introduced Magpie and Jay to the Brazos repertoire, we featured their nervous system mugs and journals. The items were cartoonish and had bold colors, but offered something beyond literary merchandise. This year, I wanted to focus on the New Curios line, which has more of a gothic, hand-painted look.

The Best NEWS OF THE WORLD You'll Find This Year

The high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing glides out of the central station. We pass the distinctive Chinese buildings fast, and then faster, speeding out of the urban din. I imagine what the countryside will look like, anticipating dramatic Asian art inspired mountains or rice fields. Instead, about an hour out of the station, when the city and the suburbs finally begin to subside, the countryside seems more familiar than not.

I’ve brought along an advance copy of NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles to read on this segment of my journey. I’m not very excited about it.

News of the World Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062409201
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow & Company - October 4th, 2016

Paulette Jiles will launch her book tour at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, October 4.

Translation Spotlight: Open Letter Books and Deep Vellum Publishing

No secret: all of us at Brazos have a little thing for literature in translation, and two of our favorite publishers are Open Letter Books and Deep Vellum Publishing. Next week, we’re hosting two of their authors: Josefine Klougart (ONE OF US IS SLEEPING) on Monday, September 26; and Ananda Devi (EVE OUT OF HER RUINS) on Tuesday, September 27.

Lying to Children: A Meditation on Banned YA Fiction

At the end of the day, censorship of children’s books is almost always about one--or all--of four things: Sex. Religion. Language. Violence. That’s basically what it comes down to. (Note that I put violence last. That’s because people complain about the least, which is its own story for another day). For librarians and teachers, it can be a complex issue to keep books on shelves, to support and encourage free speech and sharing of ideas while at the same time respecting the standards of the community, whatever that means to those who use the phrase.