Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Wholly Off-Topic Post

Okay, this has less than nothing to do with the stated mission of this blog, but here goes anyway:

I'm not saying how we procured VIP Box Seats for the Arcade Fire show earlier tonight at the outdoor amphitheatre in Griffith Park, but I will say this: go see them if you have the chance.

Also, there will be no book review post tomorrow morning because our schedule kind of filled up at the last minute tonight.

Also, thanks!

(You know who you are.)

If I Was Less of a Raging Gentile, There Would Be All Manner of Cool Yiddish Slang in This Review

Seeing as how there's been quite a bit of ink/pixels/whatever spilled on the subject of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I will be brief.

Damn, it's good.

Reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I was reminded of that Dylan tune from the Wonderboys soundtrack, "Things Have Changed".* It ain't the greatest thing ol' Bob ever done, but it's damn fine songwriting and perks along at a zippy pace - a seemingly effortless little tale that is a lot harder to write than it looks. It gets stuck in your head for days, and even if it maybe doesn't quite measure up to his earlier stuff it's just a pleasure to enjoy something made by someone who's so good at what they do.

Chabon gives us a world where, instead of Israel, the displaced Jews of WWII got a chunk of Alaska called Sitka. Our Hero - Sitka homicide detective Meyer Landsman - has recently had a truly wretched divorce and is living in a fleabag hotel, deep into a romance with a shot glass and a bottle of slivovitz. When a junkie a few rooms over turns up dead, shot execution-style in the back of the head with a half-finished chess game on the table next to his bed, Lansman takes it personal and sets out to find the killer.

Things in Sitka are often not what they seem, and it is - in an oft-repeated phrase around the town - "A strange time to be a Jew". Mysteries deepen, thuggish Orthodox "Black Hats" are up to something, and the long-planned date of "Resettlement" is fast approaching, when the Jews of Sitka will have to hand the place back over to the Feds.

I won't say much else about the plot, as is only fair with a detective story, but I will say this: it almost - but I would say not quite - goes off the rails towards the end.

On the other hand, it's a hell of a yarn and it's written like gangbusters. Chabon can string a sentence together like few else out there. It is simply a blast and a half to read the man's prose, and for that, I'll forgive just about anything.

If I had to sum up the novel's appeal - its heady blend of "What if...?", hardboiled Judaica and masterful writing - I'd do it with the following sentence, in which Landsman is struggling with a suspect for his gat.

"He yanks his sholem loose and turns it around, and the world pulls the trigger on all its guns."

Seriously. It's good.

*This flick, philistine that I am, was my first introduction to this Chabon feller. Also, Alan "Wash from Firefly" Tudyk played the janitor/former student of the protagonist in the film. And now you know.

Monday, May 28, 2007

If It's Good Enough for Hugh and Liz...

The Magic Faraway Tree (1943)
Five Have a Wonderful Time (1952)

Note: These books may not be quite undead enough, as they come back into print every few years in the UK (with hip covers, and the racist and sexist bits taken out), but I'd never heard of Enid Blyton until my colleague and fellow L.A. true crime afficianado, Greg, suggested she might be a good subject for this project. The book titles were so silly and the premises so weird that I couldn't resist. Apparently, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley came together over a shared childhood obsession with Blyton's books.

Before J.K. Rowling was born, the biggest name in children's fantasy literature was another Brit by the name of Enid Blyton, and none of this waiting around 2 years for sequels with her. During her career, which spanned from the early 1920s until the late 60s, Blyton published around 600 books, and edited and wrote her own magazine. The year she died, Blyton's output was a little sluggish -- only 7 books.

However, while Rowling is lauded by fans and critics alike, Blyton's books received a frostier reception, particularly from librarians who thought her formulaic, monosyllabic stories were something for children to grow out of as quickly as possible.

I don't know, though. I read two of Blyton's best-known books, and really, I'm kind of surprised that a Leary/Burroughs-esque circle hasn't formed around them.

The Magic Faraway Tree is the story of three children who live next to a forest that happens to contain a magical, faraway tree crawling with forest friends like Moon-Face, Silky the Elf, and the Saucepan Man. At the top of the tree is a freakin' portal to alternate dimensions that change every few days. These include: the Land of Topsy-Turvy; the Land of Take What You Want; the Land of Do As You Please.

When Dick, their sort of naughty cousin, comes to visit, the first thing they do is spend two days telling him all about it, and promising to take him there once their parents allow them to stop farming. My heart really goes out to Dick those first two days. I mean, he's sent into indentured servitude on a farm with a bunch of batshit crazy cousins who are really excited about dragging him into the woods without adult supervision to commune with elves. I'm sure it crossed his mind that he was going to spend his summer vacation being sacrificed to Satan.

What's also weird about the book is that the parents (or at least the mother; the father is never really seen) are not only aware of their children's rich fantasy life, they also accept it as gospel truth, instead of assuming they'd all been out licking toads.

Now, Blyton's Famous Five series, featuring the adventures of Dick, Julian, Anne, George (a tomboy), and her dog, Timmy, is perhaps her most (in)famous. Blatantly sexist, snobbish, and anti-gypsy, The Famous Five Have a Wonderful Time is the eleventh book in the series, and clearly, Blyton had just run out of titles by then.

The book starts with the entirely implausible scenario of the children and their dog going on holiday by themselves to stay in a caravan surrounded by a campground of circus people. While the boys run off and play, little Anne and George spend their mornings tidying up and shopping for provisions. Anne actively loves housewifery, and is about as much fun as an instructional video.

The circus folk are super cool, and eat fire and throw knives and tame snakes, but for some reason, they don't warm to the wealthy children summering alone on their turf. The Famous Five are mystified ("But we're not like other children"). Then their old pal Jo, a little gypsy girl they befriended on a previous adventure, appears, and just happens to be related to the fire-eater and his wife (she is also frequently described as "filthy" and "dirty"). The circus folk are all deeply ashamed of how they treated the Famous Five, and they all become great friends. Jo even sleeps under the Famous Five's caravan. What a sport that filthy little gypsy girl is!

Somehow, tied up in the whole thing is a plot about a kidnapped scientist trapped in a nearby castle. Sure, why not.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, if you're a little kid who can't get drugs, reading the stories of Enid Blyton will tide you over until you can go to the magical, faraway tree all by yourself. Thanks again, Greg.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"You Think You Deserve That Pain, But You Don't"*

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

The disproportionately talented Miranda July has a flair for creating scenes of cringe-inducing awkwardness between characters. In her first feature film, Me, You, and Everyone We Know, it's hard not to look away as the film's damaged and lonely characters try to connect with one another, yet their hearts are so genuinely good and trusting, it's also hard not to root for them.

In No One Belongs Here More Than You, July's characters are equally damaged, lonely, and looking for human connection; however, they are far less cuddly than July's film creations. There is the sense that most will never find the love they seek, and some may not even deserve it. This is off-putting and unsettling, though not necessarily a bad thing.

July demonstrates an impressive range here in the types of stories and characters she is able to write. Less impressive, however, is her narrative voice. Whether the character is a young woman or an old man, the voice is the same - clipped, detached, and willfully precocious. For some characters, such as the love-addled teen turned sex worker in "Something That Needs Nothing," this voice works admirably, but some others just don't ring true.

Still, July can tell a story, and even old, frequently-told ones are fresh in her hands. "Mon Plaisir," a story about a new age couple that attempts to rekindle their failing romance with haircuts, meditation, and background acting, is both affecting and funny, and "The Swim Team," my favorite story of the bunch, is a poignant little slice of perfect.

If you like...: the stories of Lorrie Moore, Amy Bloom, or Mary Gaitskill, this book is for you.
* a line from Me, You, and Everyone We Know, in reference to uncomfortable footwear

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood, Unless of Course They Mess It Up

I don't know who I need to talk to about this, but if someone is in fact going to make a film version of Ross MacDonald's The Galton Case, I'd like to write the screenplay. Because if Freudian flatfoot Lew Archer gets the Black Dahlia treatment, I don't know what I'd do. Maybe I'd chain myself to the Hollywood sign and go on a hunger strike, or sneak onto the Warner's lot and moon the responsible parties. Either way, it wouldn't be pretty.

Lunchtime poll for your inner Casting Director: We all know that Clive Owen was genetically engineered to play Chandler's Marlowe, but who should the Powers that Be tap to portray our favorite humanist shamus? I'm tempted to say Aaron Eckhart, but he's too smarmy. Maybe Gary Oldman could pull it off, if somebody kept him on a tight leash. (I would suggest Clarke "Lester Freamon" Peters from The Wire, but I'm saving him for Easy Rawlins.)


Friday, May 25, 2007

The Undead Hand of the Market

We here at TBIFY got bored the other night and, being indecently pleased with ourselves as regards the graphic for the Zombie Summer Reading Program, e-moseyed over to CafePress. And we made a coffee mug.

As we are sticklers for quality control, we ordered one to make sure it wasn't crap. And lo and behold, it's not. It is my new favorite mug, next to my treasured P&H mug, and I am sorely tempted to brew up a pot of coffee, despite it being three in the afternoon.

And thus we have set up a shop and made it available to all. For twelve bucks.

(Full disclosure: filthy capitalist running-dog lackeys that we are, we get a dollar for each mug. I plan to compose an ode, or at least a limerick, to Antonio Gramsci, in penance.)


Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Hearty "Barhah" for Guest Zombie Larry Harnisch

Our friend Larry Harnisch has leapt into the Zombie Summer Reading Program with the kind of masochistic glee that is usually reserved for blue-lipped children at the community swimming pool on Memorial Day weekend. Check out these treasures(?) he rescued from the scrap heap.

A disclaimer: I haunted thrift shops for many years, so although I haven't necessarily read lots of obscure authors, I've at least handled their books long enough to know they're not coming home with me.

Through the years, I refined the multi-part Larry Harnisch unreadability test. I mention this because I turned myself loose on the "last chance shelves" at the South Pasadena Public Library and came home with a $2 armload of books.

In picking my eight books, I awarded bonus points for inscriptions such as "Xmas 1944" and threw back any Book of the Month Club printings.

Here's my harvest, in chronological order:

"Riding Down," by Harris Patton, 1932, pulpy printing by the Goldsmith Publishing Co. of Chicago. This already has "stinker" written all over it, but what's this? It's part of the Young Eagles Series. Time for the crucial Opening Paragraph Test:

"Dick Davis, one of the ace pilots of the mountain division of the Red Arrow transcontinental air mail and passenger line, had a premonition of trouble when he stepped into the hangar at Sheldon that bitter January night. For the life of him he couldn't tell just what it was but he was restless, anxious to be in the air and climbing toward the snow-crested top of the Continental divide."

I don't need to read another word to know what this baby is going to be like.

Next is "American Saga," 1939, Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill. Uh-oh. It's subtitled: "The history and literature of the American dream of a better life."

Perhaps I'm being too hasty. The hinges are loose as if someone actually read this book. On the other hand, "American Saga" appears to have pretensions of grandeur that are thankfully absent in "Riding Down."

Time for the Opening Paragraph Test:

"These states were settled by people with ideals. From the first gentlemen loafing on the shores of Virginia to the latest immigrant seeing the Goddess of Liberty emerge from the mists, the persons who have come here have been seeking a better life."

I may be too hasty here, but I'll wager this is the work of a Yankee writer. Virginians do not loaf; they are the aristocracy of the South. Note that the author says nothing about blacks or Native Americans.

The remaining six are clustered between 1944 and 1949.

"Pleasant Valley," Louis Bromfield, 1943, Harper and Bros. I chose this one because a valentine was being used as a bookmark--on Page 18.

As for the First Paragraph Test:

"This book is a personal testament written out of a lifetime by a man who believes that agriculture is the keystone of our economic structure and that wealth, welfare, prosperity and even the future freedom of this nation are based upon the soil."

"As the car came down out of the hills and turned off the Pinhook Road the whole of the valley, covered in snow, lay spread out before us with the ice-blue creek wandering through it between the two high sandstone ridges where the trees, black and bare, rose against the winter sky. And suddenly I knew where I was. I had come home!"

Next, "The Building of Jalna," Mazo de la Roche, 1944, Little, Brown and Co.

First Paragraph:

"Adeline thought that never, never in her life had she seen anything so beautiful as "The Bohemian Girl." The romance of it transfigured her mind, as moonlight a stained-glass window. And the music! Words and tune possessed her, making her feel like one in a dream. As she hung on Philip's arm on the way out of Drury Lane the ground seemed unsubstantial beneath her feet, the crowd about her to be floating like herself."

Now "Jalna" has real stinker potential. The author is not only clumsy in setting a scene. The author is just plain clumsy.

Time for the Last Page Test:

"Then Philip exclaimed--'See the pigeons, Adeline! They are going south! Gad, what a horde of them!' With her head on Philip's shoulder, Adeline slept."

I'm supposed to slog through this just to read about some stupid pigeons? Stinker!

"Winter Wheat," by Mildred Walker, 1944, Harcourt Brace and Co. This bore (ahem) the name of Capt. Ben Klauman, M.C." and appears to be unread. However, some spilled coffee or other foodstuff indicates a reader to got to Page 230:

"The light bulb in the barn was mirrored in the cows' big dark eyes. I'm out of practice but I like milking. May turned her big head and looked at me and I could see myself perfectly reflected in her eyes. She was easy to milk. The milk poured down evenly into the pail. I gave May a pat on the flank and set the pail on the shelf where it was safe and moved to Belle. The cows' names were May and Belle and Dunya. Dad had named the first cow they had on the ranch Dunya after a girl they knew in Russia to tease Mom and we had had one by that name ever since."

OK, time for the Last Paragraph Test:

"I honked the horn. It grated noisily on the bright spring day.
'Come on!' I yelled. 'It won't grow while you watch it!'
Mom waved.
'Hold your horses!' Dad yelled back. They came up the field together.
I had not always been glad that I was their child, but today I had a kind of pride in being born to them.

Into the slush pile.

"The World, the Flesh and Father Smith," by Bruce Marshall, 1945, Riverside Press, Cambridge.

I grabbed this one because it had a book plate: Leona L. Wise.

First Paragraph Test:

"As he freewheeled down the long hill, Father Smith remembered with irritation that, as a member of the League of Saint Columbia, he had promised to say a Pater, an Ave, and a Gloria daily for the conversion of Scotland. There was no dispensation either on Sundays, not even for priests who had to bicycle twenty miles on an empty stomach to say two Masses and preach two sermons in separated parishes, who had their office to recite as well and another sermon and benediction to give in the evening. 'Our Father, who art in heaven,' he began but gave it up before he had proceeded more than one or two clauses, because the rain was dripping down the back of his neck and because he felt.....

I can't even get through the first paragraph. Fired!

"Lovely Is the Lee," by Robert Gibbings, 1945, E.P. Dutton. I bought this one because there was a note being used as a bookmark indicating that the recipient got to Page 54:

Dear Sue,

Maybe you or your folks would enjoy this book about County Galway, Ireland,



Obviously neither Sue nor her folks gave a rip about this little jewel.

Page 54:

"Beyond the sand pit there's a corner where 'many a man gets a weakness. 'Tis there they'd put down the coffin for a rest when they'd be carrying it to the churchyard.'"

The hinges are a bit loose. Maybe somebody read it. Perhaps it was "Laurie W. OstsXXX? of 4210 SW 4th St.," who wrote her name in the front.

And finally "Prairie Avenue," Alfred Meeker, 1949, Alfred A. Knopf. This one also has a bookplate (Juliet Voorhees) and the spine is faded, indicating it spent many years on a shelf somewhere in the sun.

First Paragraph Test:

"Then it's decided," said Mrs. Ramsay. "Ned is to spend the winter with Hiram and Lydia in Prairie Avenue."

Last Paragraph Test:

"Drawing his coat collar higher to ward off the bitter cold, Ned thrust his hands deep in his pockets and strode on in the gathering dusk."

All pretty dismal.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Bunch of Parsley the Size of a Bouquet of Violets

Cooking With Pomiane by Edouard de Pomiane

I know you're always hearing about the French cookbook that changes everything, but really, this one does. It did in the 1930s, and it's just as good today, even if I can't even imagine how I'd follow Pomiane's instructions to buy mussels from a fishmonger I trust. I don't trust anything that comes out of the water around here.

Pomiane offers instruction in the art of entertaining that impresses without busting your wallet or your gut (really, do you need a fish course and a meat course?). He espouses making simple foods, but making them perfectly with a few well-chosen side dishes. And he does so in a quirky, lyrical style that's part Romantic poet, and part Shel Silverstein. I like to think of him as "Uncle Pommy."

Uncle Pommy doesn't care if you've never fasted a snail to make escargot before. In fact, he warns you, "Let the snails fast for 48 hours. Lift the lid. It is a horrid sight. The volume of excrement seems almost as big as that of the snails." And he has a sense of humor devilish enough to know how much you'll enjoy murdering the vile brutes: "The liquid boils. Throw in the snails. Poor things. They will do no more damage to the vegetation."

Uncle Pommy concludes each of his recipes with an endearing little finish like, "I simply can't go on. It makes me too hungry," or "Serve it as it comes from the oven, golden-brown and steaming, with a glass of white wine which should not be too dry. And don't forget to drink to my health."

We wouldn't dream of it, Uncle Pommy. Thanks to Sheryn at LAPL for putting me on to this charmer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Forget it Jake, It's Koreatown.

Of the various mythical versions of LA out there, my favorite would have to be Noir Angeles. I don't know if it's the suits, the architecture, the snappy patter, the combination of glamour and seediness or what, but I'm a sucker for anything set in the first half of 20th century Los Angeles. If it features morally ambiguous protagonists cast adrift in a sea of bad choices of their own making, better still. If somebody wakes up in a Mid-City flophouse with an armful of junk put there by a loved one who needed them out of the way and out of an alibi? Gravy.

Happily, Akashic Books' Los Angeles Noir brings the bleak in spades, in stories that take full advantage of the staggering sprawl of the Southland to work out traditional noir themes in new settings. As Denise Hamilton - editor and contributer of a nasty little tale of marital double-crossing in San Marino - puts it in her introduction to the book: "L.A.'s just a noir place."

Better still, in the stories of Los Angeles Noir it's a bunch of noir places; the authors in this volume are all over the map, from Mullholland Drive (in one of my favorite stories in the book) to East LA, with side trips to Commerce, the Valley, and the Belmont Shore. It expands the fictional geography of Noir Angeles in a way that's been done on film and television but less often in print, and for that alone it's worth picking up.

Not every story in the volume hits the mark but those that do hit it right in the small of the back. (Gary Phillips' "Roger Crumbler Considered His Shave" knocked my socks off and stole my shoes.) And LA residents will likely get a morbid kick out of seeing bodies pile up in familiar places, especially since they'll probably all be torn down and replaced with condos in fifteen years.**

All in all, Los Angeles Noir is a long overdue and worthy entry into the noir canon. And it's chock full of local writers, to boot! Everybody wins (except the characters).

The birthplace of noir is all growed up, and it grew up mean.

* Neal Pollack's writing style, for instance, doesn't gel so well with the overall tone of the collection, aiming for hardboiled homage but coming up poached. (This may just be my current frustration with McSweeny's Entirely Too Precious And Ironic Internet Concern rearing its cranky head, I suppose.) And I'm not sure that Hector Tobar's otherwise excellent "Once More, Lazarus" really fits the bill as Noir Proper (tm), but these are minor quibbles.
** I must confess to cackling with joy when the HMS Bounty, the official watering hole of TBIFY, made an appearance.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Joe Strummer Knows Somethin'. Joe Strummer Knows EVERYTHING!!!*

When Joe Strummer passed away in 2002, I felt the weird mass-mediated punch in the gut that members of my generation were supposed to have felt when a certain resident of Seattle punched his own ticket eight years prior.** Joe Strummer made great music, fought the good fight, and seemed to be a genuinely decent human being. He's one of my (very few) heroes and - to borrow a line from Opus the penguin - "Joe Strummer isn't supposed to end."

Anyways, Popmatters has a series of excerpts from the new Strummer bio by Chris Salewicz.

You can check out part one here.

* In case you were wondering, the title of this post refers to the final rhetorical flourish of a rather one-sided shouting match (re: the function of criticism) I once witnessed between Robbie Fulks and John Murry. It's become a phrase that we use here at the home office when someone is losing an argument, but is nevertheless right about whatever it was that they are arguing about.
** I had just discovered the first two Big Star records when Nevermind came out, which probably explains why I never much cared for grunge. Also, Mobile is too damn hot for flannel.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Just Lucky, I Guess": Madam Memoirs

A House Is Not a Home by Polly Adler (1953)
Sex Is a Private Affair by Kay Jarrett (1966)
The Lady of the House by Sally Stanford (1966)

This week for the Zombie Summer Reading Program, I dipped into the prostitution section in the Social Science Department at the Los Angeles Public Library (351.764, in case you wondered). It was an educational experience.

For starters, I learned that "Just lucky, I guess" is the punchline to a joke, an answer to the top prostitute FAQ, "How'd a nice girl like you get into this line of work?" For all of the madams here, the real answer is, more or less, accidentally. For Adler, it was a better deal than factory work. Jarrett saw an untapped niche market in Chicago's travel and tourism industry. And Stanford figured that since the legitimate hotel she ran was already assumed to be a brothel, she'd show the city a real brothel.

Adler's book is the best-known of the three, due partly to her notorious dealings with mobsters, partly to her frequent arrests, and partly to the fact that after retiring from the brothel business in the late 1940s, she shocked everyone by enrolling in college. In the book, we learn there are three things Polly Adler really hates: drugs, pimps, and double-crossing cops, and A House Is Not a Home pulls no punches in detailing the unglamorous, violent life of a prostitute, even one working in a relatively classy establishment. Aside from Adler's juicy stories about cozying up to the mob, the best thing about the book are her accounts of the girls who worked in her house. For every girl who gets out and goes legit, there are scores more who fall victim to one of the three banes of Polly's existence. However, Adler lets herself off the hook pretty easy for these lost girls, saying that she never hired a girl who wasn't already "in the life," and that she encouraged them to open savings accounts, "take the cure," and get out young. The book was adapted into a 1964 film starring Shelley Winters, and a new edition was published in 2006.

Jarrett was technically not a madam, as she operated an escort service where the girls did not "live in." She arranged dates over the phone and her apartment served as a meeting place. Instead of prostitutes (and Jarrett is quick to insist that her girls were not prostitutes), the rooms of her apartment were filled with stray dogs she'd adopted. Sex Is a Private Affair is neither as well-written, nor as interesting as A House Is Not a Home. Jarrett tells many stories about her girls, but they tend to be unnecessarily long and rambling. However, the book has two things going for it. First is Jarrett's riveting account of taking in disgraced starlet Lila Leeds (best known for getting busted with reefer alongside Robert Mitchum in 1948) while she was pregnant, and helping to raise her infant son when the baby's father proved uncooperative and Lila proved to heroin-addled. Second is the fact that Jarrett wrote at least some of this book from prison, and she is piiiisssed about it. Jarrett's diatribes about the legal system, freedom of expression, and the criminalization of prostitution are chock-full of passion and bile, and make the book worth a skim.

But I saved the best for last. Sally Stanford's The Lady of the House is hilarious, and a delight to read. The prose is peppered with great lines like "Madaming is the sort of thing that happens to you -- like getting a battlefield commission or becoming Dean of Women at Stanford University," and "I was raised -- most kids are 'reared,' but I was 'raised'-- on a God-awful, fertile-as-the-Sahara, close-to-nowhere farm outside of Baker, Oregon. There was my poor mother, my ineffectual but well-intentioned father, my three brothers, two sisters, and myself -- six light-hearted and raggedy-assed kiddies fighting starvation and poverty in an Oregon gulch. We were so poor we envied everyone we ever heard of."

Rather than writing about her girls, Stanford has a great deal of fun writing about the customers who came to 1144 Pine St., everyone from curious teenagers to the founding delegates of the United Nations. When Stanford got out of the business, she went legit with a vengeance, eventually becoming the mayor of Sausalito, CA at the age of 72. You can read her obituary here. What a broad!

We've received a number of recommendations from readers this week, and the first batch will be up on Friday. If you have an unloved and musty title to recommend, send it to

Friday, May 18, 2007

Publish, Profit, and/or Perish?

In light of this very nifty article over at LA Weekly about the independent booksellers here in our beloved and sprawling metropolis, I thought I'd drop a plug for Laura J. Miller's Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.

I'm only a chapter or so into it, and I'm reading it for dissertation-related reasons, but so far it looks like a corker. It's dense, to be sure, but well-researched and informed by the best current sociological thinking on the intersection of culture and economics.

(If that last nerdgasm doesn't convince you, the good people at Skylight books have it on their "Staff Recommends..." shelf.)

This One's a Thinker

My friend, Gwen, just read Pride of Baghdad, and totally hated its guts.

I always thought Brian K. Vaughan was beyond reproach when it came to the gender stuff. In the sexist world of comics writing, he's one of the good guys - he wrote Runaways, for cripes sake! However Gwen's reaction to the rape scene that takes place in Pride of Baghdad made me wonder, is Vaughan no better than the likes of Robert Kirkman and Brad Meltzer when it comes to "rape as plot device?"

On a first read, I didn't agree with her at all. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought the matter deserved more careful consideration.

Bookslut agrees with Gwen, its reviewer making the comment, "the rape is unnecessary for establishing Safa's jaded attitude towards freedom." Other reviewers had no problem with the scene. Karen Healey of Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed) was surprisingly silent on the issue.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Oh, Ms. Cecil, You Magnificent Dame

Beige by Cecil Castellucci

It's hard to imagine artsy nerd rocker Cecil Castellucci blending into a crowd. However, when she first moved to Los Angeles and found herself surrounded by the city's larger than life characters, she felt completely "beige" by comparison. What would it be like, she wondered, "if you were plopped into a scene that wasn't yours," a kid immersed in the So Cal punk scene when she'd rather be reading?

Castellucci's previous books have focused on cool L.A. kids who are outsiders by choice, so a book about a character who is decidedly uncool is something of a departure. The narrator, Katy, is the product of a punk rock drummer and an 18-year-old junkie - music brought them together, but heroin tore them apart. Katy's mom turns her life around, and is in the process of working on her dissertation when the book begins. But instead of going to Peru to do research with Mom, Katy is shipped to Los Angeles for the summer to stay with her newly sober dad, Beau Ratner, aka the Rat, drummer for the famously unfamous band, Suck.

While most teenagers would leap at the chance, Katy is more of a Rory Gilmore type, a girl who defies genetics to become tidy and obedient and good. And to her, the Rat is a slob who smells like cigarettes and needs to get a real job, though of course, she's too polite to say any of this to his face. Despite her plans, however, it's just not possible to stay locked in your apartment with a pile of library books. Los Angeles beckons, and it's a weird, crazy, beautiful place if you give it a chance.

Castellucci writes characters who are not only cool, but also do cool things. Whether that's volunteering at the Egyptian Theatre or going to an all-ages show at the Armenian Cultural Center, or silk screening your own band posters, her characters are always much more than the sum of their angst. What's more, she's amazing at allowing teenagers characters to change gracefully. Nothing seems rushed or fake.

If you're feeling beige or if you just need more Fugazi in your life, check out the punk rock playlists from Cecil and her friends here. Also, she'll be reading at Skylight Books this Saturday at 5pm. I've heard her read before, and she is simply adorable. I wouldn't miss it, and you shouldn't either.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Zombie Summer Reading Program: Week 1

Terror Keep by Edgar Wallace (1926)

Even if my copy of Terror Keep had not contained x-rays of human teeth, it would still be a great title to kick off the Zombie Summer Reading Program. Still, I'm a little embarassed that I hadn't heard of Wallace earlier.

An immensely prolific writer, Wallace was the author of 173 novels, thousands of short stories and serializations, and uncredited co-writer of the original King Kong. It was estimated that, in the 1920s, one of every four books purchased in England was written by Wallace. Today, however, his books are out-of-print and seldom sought out due to their formulaic plots.

Terror Keep is considered to be one of his best efforts, and I certainly enjoyed it.

The book begins with John Flack's escape from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Flack is a fiendishly clever, if nutso, murderer who also happens to specialize in bullion theft. Before his escape, he swears revenge on the three men who had him locked away, one of whom is our protagonist, J.G. Reeder.

Reeder works for the office of the Public Prosecutor, and though only 48, is described as "elderly-looking" by virtually everyone who meets him. Despite his unfashionable haircut and bad clothes, Reeder has somehow managed to win the heart of the young and lovely Margaret Belman. Upon hearing of Flack's escape, he encourages her to take a job out of town, which turns out to be the most dangerous place she could possibly be.

Though indeed formulaic, the book has great chase scenes, real tension, and a heroine who doesn't simper. More importantly, it's really funny -- the book is filled with weird little nuggets like this one:

"Mr. Reeder was a very methodical man; he was, moreover, a careful man. All his life he had had a suspicion of milk. He used to wander round the suburban streets in the early hours of the morning, watch the cans hanging on the knockers, the bottles deposited in the corners of doorsteps, and ruminate upon the enormous possibilities for wholesale murder that this light-hearted custom of milk delivery presented to the criminally minded. He had calculated that a nimble homicide, working on systematic lines, could decimate London in a month."

You can join the Zombie Summer Reading Program by sending your blurbs to, or post on your own blog and send me a link.

When there's no more room in closed stacks, the out-of-print will rise up and walk the earth.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Introducing the Zombie Summer Reading Program

While digging through the closed stacks at my library, I came upon a strange old book with lovely spine art. Now, I watch Angel, and I know that opening strange old books in Los Angeles libraries leads to portal-opening and getting sucked into creepy demon dimensions. Still, I pressed on.

And found tucked inside the front cover no evil portals, but rather, a small envelope filled with x-rays of human teeth. This gave me an idea.

This summer's blockbuster hit is next year's $5.98 remainder at Barnes & Noble, so I wonder, what happened to the smash beach read from 1938 that currently languishes in your grandmother's attic? Is there some unsung classic waiting to be sold by the pound at your neighbor's yard sale?

This summer, I plan to slog my way through the forgotten books of the twentieth century, and you are cordially invited to join me in the Zombie Summer Reading Program. Email your most ghastly, obscure finds to, and I'll post your blurbs.

There are two rules for selecting a book:

1. It must be over 40 years old, and ideally, have a whiff of mold or neglect about it.
2. It must not be written by anyone you've ever heard of.

Will we find the Great American Novel? Will we find actual human teeth?

Stay tuned, dear reader.

When there's no more room in closed stacks, the out-of-print will rise up and walk the earth.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

No Gun Moll, She

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

If Abbott's first book, Die A Little, was a perfectly mixed old-fashioned, and her second, The Song Is You, a Porterhouse, medium-rare, then Queenpin is somewhere between dessert and a Dunhill.

Like her previous work, Queenpin follows the story of a woman drawn to the dark end of the street, half-seduced, half a willing party in her own corruption. But this time, Abbott abandons the neon-noir of Hollywood for 1960s Vegas.

Our narrator is cooking the books in a two-bit joint called Club Tee Hee when she meets the legendary Gloria Denton, a gangster who can hold her own betting at the track, throwing back with Lucky Luciano or gutting a double-crossing stripper with a straight razor. Gloria sees something she likes, and takes her under wing, where our girl proves a quick study.

As much as she relishes Gloria's approval, her wing is a suffocating place to be, and the narrator takes refuge in the arms of exactly the kind of man Gloria warned her about. Getting away with that kind of rebellion makes her hungry for more, causing her to test the limits of her loyalty. She's smart - but smart enough to pull off a double-cross? Don't bet your britches. Or bet 'em. Either way, you're in for a surprise.

Abbott not only writes hard-boiled, she's a damn scholar in the field with a PhD from NYU to boot. As such, she is keenly aware of the tradition in which she works, and has plenty of intelligent things to say about it. Check out her post about "noir-kitsch" on The Rap Sheet, where she addresses the question, "How can you engage the reader to identify if he or she feels like it’s all a quaint exercise in nostalgia?" Also worth checking out is her recent interview on Noir Writer where she says the best thing I've read in weeks: "Others have said it better, but basically I feel that all fiction is genre fiction, or none of it is."

We love her.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bourbon Street Is For Children

Reading The French Quarter is very much like listening to your sketchy great-uncle tell a story about his youth. The book, by Herbert "The Gangs of New York" Asbury, is long, meandering, and peppered with a few truly cringe-worthy statements about women, people of color, and human nature. On the other hand, it's a hell of a story, full of all kinds of entertaining depravity; somewhere in it there is probably someone named Fanny Sweet or Stumpy Jed LaRoux, and they probably come to a bad end.

Though it's a book of history, there are a few things in it that I suspect are not exactly true. And our narrator is at times, shall we say, not so much the progressive though, to be fair, the Progressive Era had only just started when he was writing.

But then again, this thing reads like Tom Waits' bible.

The French Quarter is full of river bullies, rakes, bounders, mashers, bawds, grafters, grifters, drifters, madams, madmen, and all manner of heels - well-heeled, round-heeled, or otherwise. Better still, it's also full of fascinating details about life in the Big Easy, from its swampy foundings to the closing of Storyville.

It's not all lowlifes and petty vice, though. There's plenty of political corruption, international intrigue, and otherwise high class shenanigans throughout the book. For example: there was a very famous (at the time) block of row houses where the sons of the gentility kept mulatto mistresses until they married a more "proper" lady, at which time the new husbands signed the property over to said mistresses and broke off their relationships.* Classy.

My favorite chapters were those on "Voodoo," "Gamblers Afloat and Ashore," "Hell on Earth," and "Some Loose Ladies of Basin Street". And while the chapter that largely centered on Jean Lafitte and a few other Gulf Coast/Mississippi River pirates was a little

Last but not least, bonus points go to the author for giving credit to Mobile for introducing modern American Mardi Gras to New Orleans.

If you want a glimpse into the shady but very interesting past of one of the few great old cities in the nation that wasn't founded by crabby WASPs

Or, if you want to learn more about the boxer with the ball and chain attatched to the stump of his left arm

...this book is for you.**


* Or, you know, so they said.
** And don't be put off by the first chapter, which read like my 9th grade Alabama History textbook, and had me thinking I'd made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Something for Everybody

- Atul Gawande's new book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance is as good, if not better, than its predecessor, Complications. Standouts include "The Score," an essay about innovations in the area of childbirth; "The Bell Curve," about what separates an average hospital treatment center from an excellent one; and "What Doctors Owe," a piece about malpractice.

- As we come to that beach reading time of year, may I direct you, gentle readers, to the work of Ken Follett? As a teenager, I came to Follett's books for the ubiquitous dirty bits, but stuck around for the taut pacing, high adventure, and well-researched historical settings. On my travels last week, I re-read Pillars of the Earth, a 1000-page behemoth about cathedral-building, corrupt bishops, pillaging earls, and a prior who's crazy like a fox. That I finished it in a L.A. to Pittsburgh round-trip speaks both to Follett's skill as a writer and just how badly the airline messed up my flight (in the form of a 5-hour layover in Detroit).

- My review for the new (and sadly, last) Larry Brown novel, A Miracle of Catfish is up at PopMatters. A great book from a much-missed writer.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Lunchtime Poll

As Mary noted below, I'm in the thick of diss proposal writing. So - late for work and lacking the time for a proper review - here's my stab at Internet Meme Immortality (tm), in which I rely upon you, Dear Reader, to write this post for me. But I was thinking about this last night as I browsed the shelves at the local megabookstore and literature emporium:*

If you could change one thing about your reading habits, what would it be?

I ask because I had this horrible realization last night that I have almost zero interest in reading quote-unquote Literary novels. I blame the Iowa Creative Writing Workshop for most of this, perhaps unfairly, but there you go. I used to love the modern American novel, but lately I'm tired of the small victories of soul-deadened suburbanites and would much rather read something where, I dunno, stuff happens.

(This also probably has something to do with the heroin-like pulp habit I've picked up since moving to L.A.)

Anyways: comment, forward, link, discuss.

EDIT: Mary tells me I shouldn't blame Iowa for my issues with contemporary American fiction. Poetry, sure, but not prose.


*Yes, yes, shame on me, but they were open, and my fave mom and pop stores weren't.