Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Nature vs. Nurture: The Case of Courtney Love

Her Mother's Daughter: A Memoir of the Mother I Never Knew and of My Daughter, Courtney Love by Linda Carroll

Sometimes you feel like reading Crime and Punishment, and other times, you stumble upon a tell-all memoir by Courtney Love's mother and clear your schedule for the day.

Over the years, Courtney Love has said some pretty awful things about her mother, so it's understandable that the woman would want to tell her side of the story. Carroll was married three times before she was 30, and dragged her children from San Francisco to Oregon to New Zealand, and back again, creating what was surely an unstable and weird environment for them. As one of her marriages crumbled, she took in a foster child; then left him with another family in New Zealand. When they left the United States, Courtney was left with one of Linda's friends. And so on, and so forth... hippie parenting at its most permissive and most horrifying.

But while the evidence against her parenting style is pretty damning, Carroll is an extremely persuasive writer and manages to come out of the story without seeming like an irresponsible flake. What's more, as a memoirist, she's very fair, compassionate, and forgiving. Despite the fact that Carroll's father molested her and her mother unfailing introduced her as "my adopted daughter, Linda," her depictions of them are, shockingly enough, filled with understanding and even love.

And yes, there are many instances that show little Courtney to be a selfish, manipulative, and deceitful bad seed; however, Carroll balances these moments with many examples of Love's creativity, intelligence, and generosity.

Carroll's search for her birth mother, who turns out to be acclaimed children's writer Paula Fox, is crammed into the book's last few pages, and the account of Carroll's life after the family returns to New Zealand is rushed. Still, it's an absorbing memoir about a woman you can grudgingly respect, even as you thank God that she wasn't your mother.

If you like...: memoirs of godawful childhood like The Liar's Club by Mary Karr and Augusten Buroughs Running With Scissors, or about women who rise above their youthful indiscretions like Beverly Donofrio's Riding in Cars With Boys, this book is for you.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hail to the King, Baby

So. Here we are. Mary has decided to make me an official contributer.

She is smart, and she is well-read, but sometimes her judgement is lacking.

All kidding aside, I'm unduly excited about hitching a ride on this train, and I've worked up an extensive and (hopefully) interesting list of books to post on for starters, ranging from "Accessible Academia" to comics to more traditional novels to the sci-fi that Mary won't read (Hello, Heinlein!). But for my inaugural post, I've decided to range a little far afield of the type of book usually featured on This Book is For You, because that is how I roll.

Mary and I brought back a number of things from our honeymoon, which we spent in the U.K.: nifty Celtic knot cufflinks, fond memories of the night we spent in Chelsea toasting Joey Ramone in the King's Head and Eight Bells, and - for all I know - a nasty case of Mad Cow Disease that will probably crop up in the middle of my dissertation defense. But the most precious keepsake of those magical two weeks in which the webmistress and I traipsed hither and yon over the stomping grounds of Shakespeare, Hardy, and Coleridge is, in fact, Horrible Histories: Cruel Kings and Mean Queens by Terry Deary, illustrated by Martin Brown.

Part of a much larger series, written in order to get kids interested in history by focusing on the bizarre and the gross, CK&MQ has been an endless source of pleasure in the Potts/McCoy household. It is, quite possible, the greatest "I have ten minutes to kill and cannot go without some form of stimulation" book in the history of publishing. Need something to read during the commercial breaks of Veronica Mars? Check out the section on royal sporting habits. (Henry VIII got in a game of tennis while Anne Boleyn got the axe, as it turns out.) Can't fall asleep? Amuse yourself by matching popular nicknames to monarchs in one of the quizzes sprinkled throughout the book. (John I? Soft-sword. Apparently, he stank at war.)

It's laid out as a series of very short, abundantly illustrated chapters about each monarch, covering their "Claim to Fame," factoids both "Funny" and "Fantastic," and then capped with a "Did you know?" There are also various tangents interspersed throughout, and of these the bit on royal medicine - or what I like to call "Adventures in Bloodletting" - is my hands-down favorite. The writing is a strange cross between UK tabloid-speak and a textbook as written by a member of Monty Python, only a Python past their prime. Groaners abound, but on the other hand you do you get to enjoy all that swotty British slang.

It is by no means literature, and I understand the series has sparked some hand-wringing and at least one lawsuit back across the pond. (Note: the Scots do not take kindly to having their haggis mocked.) That said, having done a little research on the series for this post, it is my new mission in life to find a copy of the Civil War book they published.

If you like:
The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick
The Sun, or The News of the World
...this book is for you.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Making Some Changes

I am pleased to announce that Brady will be joining in the posting around here.

He's tired of writing his blog, and I'd like to update this one more frequently than I am able to on my own. Everybody wins.

But you, dear reader, are the biggest winner of all. Because not only is my mister a shrewd observer of things literary, he also reads all kinds of things that I don't.

Can't wait to see what he decides to write about first.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fat Books

In preparation for my recent camping trip to the Sequoia National Forest, I checked out some library books on the subject, mainly because I was sort of terrified of being devoured by a bear or a mountain lion.

One of the camping books I picked up from the library offered some unusual advice about reading in the wild. The authors suggested bringing along one really long book and burning pages as you read so you don't have to carry the weight of the book on your expedition. While the latter hunk of advice seemed extreme, not to mention distasteful, I was intrigued by the idea of bringing one big, fat book on the trip.

For the record, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is A-1, primo reading for a camping trip. It's about a man who finds himself in the middle of a war between the old gods carried over to the United States by immigrants and the newer, slicker American gods. And when you're on top of a mountain with no electricity, it is surprisingly easy to get behind the idea of Odin and Anansi running around wreaking havoc.

The fat books advice probably also applies to long plane rides, jury duty, road trips, and sick days. Here are a few others to look up, should you find yourself in any of these situations:

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Queenie Was a Blonde

The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, illustrated by Art Spiegelman

This dirty little poem about vaudeville types and their low-life friends boozing it up and falling into bed indiscriminately was banned in Boston after its initial publication in 1928, then faded into semi-obscurity. Art Spiegelman's delightfully saucy and wicked illustrations steal the show, but even on its own, the verse crackles with a glorious depravity:

"The party was getting under way
Stiffly, slowly.
The way they drank was unholy.
They hovered around the glass-filled tray
Like birds of prey.
White, intense;
With mask-like faces
Frozen in rigid, gay grimaces.
They chattered and laughed

They drank swiftly, as though they might
Drop dead before they were properly tight."

If you like...: the works of Edward Gorey, this book is for you.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Two Words: Vigilante Justice

Hell At the Breech by Tom Franklin

One night, Arch Bedsole, an aspiring politician from a tract of Alabama wasteland known as Mitcham Beat is gunned down. His cousin, Tooch, claims that with his last breath, Arch said the murder was committed by "folks from town." To avenge his cousin, Tooch rounds up a posse of men from the Beat, forcing them to sign an alliance in blood. Those who don't are lynched. Those who do are quickly whipped into a frenzy of greed and blood lust, more deadly than Clarke County's drunken, aging local sheriff can manage.

Franklin's novel is loosely based on true events, and his details of poor sharecropper life in the post-Reconstruction South are grisly and unforgettable. Life is cheap, murder is easy, and even the good guys don't come out clean in this gripping story of violence and mob mentality.

If you liked...: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or the Drive-By Trucker's backwoods feud song "Decoration Day," this book is for you.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

2 Cool 2 Be 4 Gotten: Part 2

The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer

For some reason, small children go crazy for wilderness survival stories. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Call It Courage, Hatchet, The Boxcar Children... it probably has something to do with stories like this taking place in a parentless world that doesn't go all Lord of the Flies-y. It's also interesting that stories like these (particularly the first three) can be so exciting when there's only one human character.

The Island Keeper is a terrific example of the genre that is usually overlooked, and I think, currently out of print. Rich, overweight, spoiled, and generally useless, Cleo runs away from home to escape her overbearing family and memories of her dead sister. Cheesy set-up, typical 80s kid lit trauma-drama, but it gets better.

There's supposed to be a cabin there. But when she arrives, she finds it's burned down. She stocks up on food from a camping store, but her supply is quickly ransacked by animals. Her canoe is destroyed, winter is coming, and suddenly, what started as a somewhat bratty adolescent rebellion becomes very high stakes.

Cleo's transformation is compelling, not only in the way she learns to fend for herself, but also in the way her relationship with nature changes as nature gets brutal. The Boxcar Children go back to being normal kids after their pine needle bed ordeal, but Cleo changes in some very serious ways that almost seem like they belong in a Rick Bass novel, not a children's book.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Suitable for Filming, But Not Filmed Yet

With the cost of living in Los Angeles being what it is, we are often forced to make our own fun here at the Potts/McCoy house. Sometimes we cook elaborate things or write or play Scrabble. And sometimes we have Craft Night.

Once, irritated by issues of co-opted "authenticity" in the art world, we invented an outsider artist named Caleb Doheny*. His seminal work, "Nehemiah 8:11," now serves as a book cover for my dictionary.

We also made a board game called Punk: The Game out of a cardboard box and some index cards. By role of the die, you become one of 6 punk band archetypes, and go on tour. Depending what cards you draw, you might get the clap, sell a bunch of t-shirts, or get in a fight with Richard Hell. Due to a completely unintentional, though seemingly genius, design flaw, it is almost impossible to finish the game with any money, although most players wind up in jail or the hospital at least once.

However, our traditional "quiet night at home" activity is the composition of the Top 5 list, a la High Fidelity. Last night's topic seemed semi-relevant for the blog, and since I'm between decent books right now, here's mine:

Top 5 Books That Should Be Adapted Into Film

5. the short stories of Tim Gautreaux (preferably done by Altman)
4. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle
3. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
2. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan
1. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Reading over this, I realize that the alleged "point" of this post did not exactly need the amount of lead-in I gave it. Still, I'm leaving it in. I hadn't thought about Punk: The Game in years, and now I kind of feel like playing it.
* Caleb Doheny is a painter and collage artist from West Virginia. He began creating art after his wife, running off one night to meet her lover, drowned in the river. Ever since, he has woken up each morning and painted a picture of her before making up a cooler of ham sandwiches, which he drives up to logging sites and sells to lumberjacks. This is how he makes money to buy his art supplies. His canvases are paper bags. Doheny's admirers include Sean Penn, Jennifer Aniston, and JT LeRoy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

She... Had To Leave... LOS ANGELES

Paint It Black by Janet Fitch

Unlike Fitch's last novel, White Oleander, it is unlikely that Paint It Black will be finding its way into Oprah's heart and onto the big screen. For one thing, it wouldn't make a very good movie. For another, it's the bleakest thing I've read all year, which is not to say that it's not also very good.

The book is set in the early 80s, right around the time that the L.A. punk scene was devolving into a skinhead jamboree. Josie Tyrell is a punk rock club rat who ekes out a living by modeling for artists and appearing in the occasional student film. She and her artist boyfriend, Michael, live in an idyllic little cottage in Echo Park, growing mint in the backyard and painting Parisian scenes on their bedroom walls. Very le vie Boheme. Except it's not.

Michael disappears at the beginning of the first chapter, and blows his brains out in a Twentynine Palms hotel room. Everything good we see about him comes from Josie's memories, as she cruises around Los Angeles in a vodka haze of grief to a soundtrack of the Germs, X, and Brahams.

Of course, Josie blames herself for not being able to save Michael. And on top of dealing with the overwhelming guilt, Josie has to contend with Michael's overbearing and unstable mother, Meredith, who blames her as well. A wealthy and accomplished concert pianist, Meredith is both diabolical and irresistible. One moment she's throttling Josie at her son's grave, the next, she's inviting her over for Christmas. Much as she hates Josie, the girl represents all of Michael that she has left and she's determined to pry out every detail.

At the same time, Josie needs Meredith's information, too. Meredith knew another side of Michael... the side who had private tutors, summered in San Tropez, and attended Harvard. As Josie learns more about her lover, and as more time passes, the flashbacks to their happy life become less happy. Fitch gradually teases out the events behind Michael's depression and suicide, but is subtle enough not to spell it all out.

If you liked...: Charles Baxter's crazy in love punk kids, Chloe and Oscar in The Feast of Love, Josie and Michael are the poison pill to their blissed-out, but similarly tragic story.

Also, if you enjoy books with a strong sense of place, you'll love traveling through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with Fitch. From flophouses on Franklin, to the ominous swank of the coyote-infested Hollywood Hills, the woman knows her backstreets like Phillip Marlowe.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Best Book I've Read This Year

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

Alice Butler has the enviable job of designing products for one of the world's largest toy companies, PopCo. She's designed kits called KidCracker, KidTec, and KidSpy, for kids who want to be code-breakers, detectives, and spies, respectively. PopCo is one of those "no-collar," ping pong table in the break room kind of workplaces, where the "creatives" are given time off to research ideas and paid monstrous wages to occasionally come up with something brilliant.

Alice is pulled away from her latest project to spend a few weeks in the country working with PopCo's best and brightest on designing some kind of killer app that appeals to teenage girls, a demographic with which the company has been bombing. Staff from every division from virtual worlds to plush toys come together for the project. As they engage in a variety of annoying marketing seminars and teambuilding exercises, Alice begins to realize that her job is less about creating interesting products than it is about successfully marketing them to children. Understandably, this creeps her out, as does the discovery that PopCo utilizes sweatshop labor and engages in outsourcing.

Throughout the book, Thomas works in a fascinating back story about Alice's childhood. Raised by her grandparents, one a cryptanalyst, the other a mathematician, Alice's early years are spent immersed in secret codes and axioms. Her grandfather is obsessed with cracking a particular coded message, possibly leading to treasure, that has stumped codebreakers for centuries. How Alice is drawn into this mystery, and how it links up with her work for the evil PopCo, is one of the most satisfyingly inventive plots I've ever read.

PopCo is one of those remarkable books that tricks you into learning about fifty things you'd never given much thought to before. You never realize in school how fascinating math is. What you get to do at the grammar school level amounts to plugging numbers into formulas without any consideration of the theory behind it (usually because your teachers don't understand any of it either).

When I was 17, I had a calculus teacher who could unfold a proof, and make it seem like a cross between a ballet and the best mystery novel ever. It was like I'd spent years missing out on the things math could do besides help with your taxes and balancing the checkbook. The way Thomas explains code and mathematical mysteries in PopCo makes me feel like I'm back in Mr. Taylor's class.

If you liked...: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, this book is for you.