Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Now You Have No Excuse

In case you've been putting off starting that masterpiece hidden way up in your brain, you should probably be aware that Slash wrote a book.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Blog Post of Justice!

Our Blogmistress, good citizen that she is, got up bright and early today to head down to the courthouse for jury duty. Most people I know approach the prospect of sitting on a jury with the kind of dread that is usually reserved for watching movies starring Mariah Carey, but not Our Heroine, who has seen 12 Angry Men more times than is probably healthy.

This got me thinking about novels about trials, and I thought I'd do a quick post of "Five Great Novels About Trials" or something. However, all I could come up with was Crime and Punishment (which isn't really about the trial), The Stranger (ditto), Milan Kundera's The Joke (kind of a stretch), In Cold Blood (not really a novel, not really about the trial) and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.*

So in lieu of that, I'll just quote this excellent passage from Ms. Lee's excellent novel and ask for suggestions of trial novels. Thoughts?

"The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is."


* John Grisham novels do not count. I said "Great" novels, and the Grish's books have always struck me as lawyer-porn for guys who took the bar instead of getting their P.I. license or becoming a biker or a shrimp boat captain or some such. Guys who spend a lot of time sitting on their back deck, drink in hand, wondering if and when they got soft, and where it all went wrong.**
** Lest my lawyer friends and relations take this amiss, I should point out the same midlife-crisis fantasy subgenre exists for academics: instead of getting involved with shadowy conspiracies and seedy Lower Alabama underworlds, the protagonists get involved with a grad student or a local pottery artist, or maybe the Dean's wife. Being the people in charge of such things, these books get to count as "literature" while Grish & Co. do not. It's what we get to make up for not making the big bucks.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Groupies: Let's Spend the Night Together by Pamela Des Barres

Let's Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies by Pamela Des Barres

Throughout Let's Spend the Night Together, there's a tone of sadness and nostalgia for a lost time. The groupies, past and present, that Des Barres interviews for the book lament that there are no longer "famous" groupies, that rock stars date models and movie stars, not fans, and that perhaps, the golden age of the groupie is over.

Between Des Barres previous memoirs and Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, there's a case to be made that the groupies of the 60s and 70s were not garden variety skanks, so much as rock courtesans, vulnerable to a great deal of heartbreak and abuse, but also not utterly disposable.

The book is organized semi-chronologically, beginning with interviews with groupie greats like Cherry Vanilla, Catherine James, and Cynthia Plaster Caster. Then Des Barres moves into the considerably darker 70s, populated by the underage set like Lori Maddix and Sable Starr, and the aging groupies who fell into drug addiction and domestic abuse. After reading Maddix's chapter, you will never look at David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Jimmy Page the same way again -- they should all be in jail.

As the book goes on, things get even less romantic and more depressing, and it becomes very apparent how far the groupie has fallen. Whatever one may think of the choices these women made, it's understandable how one could take some sort of pride in being able to say, "I slept with Jimi Hendrix," or "I slept with Keith Moon." It is, in any case, more impressive than saying, "I slept with the drummer from Slipknot."

Some of the women interviewed are very sympathetic, and some have great stories to tell. Tura Satana, Cynthia Plaster Caster, and Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira) are particularly interesting. Also fun are the interviews with the women who got out relatively unscathed and relate their groupie pasts with a shrug and a smile. These tend to be the ones who always had something creative or meaningful going on the side, and are now quite successful in their careers and personal lives.

But even the most well-adjusted among them has a horror story or two to tell. Pat Travers is a jerk, Tom Jones is a monster, and Led Zeppelin were full-out evil. Surprisingly, Gene Simmons comes out rather the gentleman.

However, one of the most train wreck draws of the book is the narration of Des Barres herself. Obviously an intelligent, funny, and sweet woman, she is also clueless, and happily unaware of exactly how clueless she is. Gail Zappa, a woman who essentially stayed married to Frank by playing perpetual hostess, taking care of the house, and waiting on him hand and foot, is set forth as the lucky woman who "became what we all wanted to be."

And Des Barres interviews the decidedly unglamorous Connie Hamzy (immortalized in Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" and in the Spin article "Oldest Living Confederate Groupie Tells All") with a scarcely veiled contempt. Despite the fact that Hamzy shared a great many of Des Barres's conquests, Miss Pamela is anxious to distance herself from Sweet Connie's Arkansas drawl and willingness to service everyone from rock stars to roadies. When it serves her purposes, Des Barres sells herself as a wild child, but when it doesn't, she emphasizes her long-term relationships with rockers, and characterizes herself as a young girl who had her heart broken. Maybe both sides of the story are true, but geez, to be able to turn it on and off like a tap....

In any case, the anecdotal evidence this book offers about the groupie's decline heartens me, and I say, let the groupies of the 60s and 70s have their wacky stories and write memoirs about them, and let the misogynist nu metal bands have their girls gone wild.

And let the rest of us go about our business, periodically stopping to gawk at them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Baseball Story

In The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, O'Neil posits that the reason there are so many fathers and sons playing in the Major Leagues is because baseball is a game that fathers teach to their sons, that the very specific way a person swings a bat or fields a ball is passed down. On the road, Buck frequently asks people if they remember the first baseball game their fathers ever took them to -- everybody does.

Reading all those stories made me remember mine, which is a story about how baseball is about mothers and daughters, too.

It was the summer of 1988, and early on, the Pirates were locked in a pretty tight race for the NL Eastern Division pennant with the much-hated New York Mets. Or at least they were much-hated in western Pennsylvania.

I went to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with my parents, my sister, and our friends, Jason and Ben, although I have no idea who the Pirates were playing that day. That wasn't the important thing.

I followed the standings every day in the paper, and I watched games on television with my dad, and talked with Jason about the Pirates and how they were doing and whether they'd beat the Mets (duh, yes... although as it turned out, duh, no).

Our heroes were Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and Sid Bream, and the important thing about going to the game was meeting them. We got our baseballs, we planned how we would get their autographs, and speculated about whose would be best to get (toss-up between Bonds and Van Slyke).

We got to the stadium, and settled into our seats by the first base line. And then, an awful man with the world's foulest cigars sat down directly behind me. And proceeded to smoke the world's foulest cigars throughout the entire game.

By the seventh inning, I was woozy. By the ninth, I was nauseous. And when the game was over, I was sitting on a curb outside the stadium with my head between my legs as my sister and our friends went off to get autographs while Dad chaperoned.

Then, my mother came up to me and asked for my baseball. I handed it to her, and she said, "I'll see what I can do."

Now, it is fair to say that Mom had not been following the 1988 Pirates season as avidly as I had, didn't know Bobby Bonilla from Andy Van Slyke, and had never sought out a celebrity autograph in her life. But she was determined to get one for her kid.

She walked up to the throng of fans, and was immediately bewildered. She didn't want to push up on or bother anyone, and some of the players certainly looked bothered. Then, she saw a guy in a Pirates jacket standing off to the side by himself. He didn't look bothered or busy, so she walked up to him, stuck out my baseball, and said:

"Are you somebody?"

This is probably a terrible thing to say to a person you're asking for an autograph, but I know my mother, and can practically hear the tone in her voice as she asked. I'm sure she managed to say this in a kind voice that admitted her cluelessness, yet was somehow unwilling to take no for an answer.

The man was not offended. In fact, he laughed at her.

"I'm nobody," he said. "You don't want me."

And Mom said, "I don't care. Would you sign my daughter's baseball?"

And that is how I came to have a baseball autographed by Lanny Frattare, announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1976. Bonds and Van Slyke moved on, but Lanny is still there, and there's nobody whose autograph I'd rather have.

To this day, I still love the Pirates, I still can't hate Barry Bonds, and I still sit on the first base line any time I go to a baseball game.

So, thanks Mom.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mordor or Los Angeles?

"Far away now rising towards the South the sun, piercing the smokes and haze, burned ominous, a dull bleared disc of red. . ."

Okay, clearly, it's Mordor, but due to the haze and smoke caused by the massive wildfires, I've been half expecting Smaug or a Nazgul or something to go flying by the window. It's looked like about 30 minutes before sunset all day, and now that it gets closer to evening it's starting to look like Caprica City, if you know what I mean.

And if you do: Greetings, fellow dork! Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go flush out my sinuses. Ack.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The 'Signature' Story

I'm currently reading Joe Posnanski's The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, where the author recounts a year he spent traveling around the country with baseball legend Buck O'Neil.

Now, anyone who saw O'Neil in Ken Burns's Baseball, or read interviews with him knows that the man had a gift for storytelling as prodigious as his gift for baseball. And an entire book devoted to a combination of the two is beyond wonderful.

Many of the stories that appear in the book were new to me, but I'd heard a lot of them before: the story of getting out of Sarasota, the Easter Sunday he hit for the cycle, then met his wife, and his signature story -- why Satchel Paige always called him 'Nancy', which is told or referred to in one way or another at least five times.

But I'm loving these well-worn, well-loved stories, the kind that hold up to repeated tellings. And I love how the telling changes, depending on what kind of mood O'Neil's in and how he feels about the person he's telling it to.

Everybody has a story like that, the one that all your friends know, and the one that you look forward to unrolling whenever you meet someone who isn't a friend yet, but probably will be.

You can tell Brady likes you if he tells you the story about the time his old band, The Dillingers, went to Chicago, or about the time he met Paul Westerberg. And if you know me long enough, I will inevitably tell the story about my parents and the donkey basketball team.

So, I'm curious. Does anyone else out there have a "signature" story to tell? Gwen, I know you've got a million of them, but if you had to pick just one...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poetry Noir: Black Maria by Kevin Young

Black Maria: Poems by Kevin Young

Like Jessica Seinfeld sneaking spinach into her kids' brownies, Kevin Young has tricked me into reading contemporary American poetry with the kind of page-turning delight I usually reserve for my sleazy crime novels.

As any Tom Waits fan can tell you, Black Maria ("rhymes with 'pariah'") is slang for either a hearse or the paddywagon. Young's collection is a film noir in five "reels" of verse, featuring the misadventures and near-misses of a private eye named AKA Jones and Delilah Redbone, his femme fatale, a struggling actress who's fallen in with bad company.

One of my favorite writers, Megan Abbott, has said some interesting things about the problem of writing noir today when all the tropes of the genre approach parody, kitsch, or cliche. Through his collection, Young provides an interesting solution to the problem. The language of noir has been trodden into a soft-boiled mush, but by placing that language into verse, it once again reverberates with the melodramatic heft that makes classic noir work so well.

The couplet form that Young prefers is particularly well-suited to a genre that milks one-liners and terse, staccato dialogue for all they're worth. And like most of my favorite noir films, the caper itself is less important than individual scenes, or in this case, lines.

A few of my favorites:

I've given, like gin
Her up, again


If despair had a sound
it would be: DO NOT DISTURB

If despair has a sound
it's the muffled, raised

Voices of the pair next door
who've lived here

In One-Star Manor forever
yet still pay by the week

--Love's an iffy lease--


He'd taught me how

to fall, to cry
on cue, & now

that's all I do.

It's a smoldering, badass read, and really, when was the last time someone said that about a collection of poetry?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ernest Withers, 1922-2007

Memphis photographer Ernest Withers passed away this week at the age of 85. Instead of flowers, his family has requested donations that will be used to preserve and restore his astounding body of work: Ernest C. Withers Sr. Historical Photographic Foundation, P.O. Box 152, Memphis, TN, 38101

Withers's photographs documented the heyday and the last days of Negro League baseball, the Beale Street music scene, and the Civil Rights movement, including the Emmett Till murder trial, the integration of Central High School, and the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis.

Collections of his work include:

Negro League Baseball (2004)
The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs (2001)
Let Us March On!: Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers, 1955-1968 (1992)

More of his work can be seen at Panopticon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Holy Grail of Indie Rock Oral Histories

Last night, after wresting her birthday presents out of me on the pretense that it was her birthday in the state where she was born, Mary turned to me with a gleam in her eye and let drop the single greatest bit of literary/rock and roll news since Levon Helm sat down to call out Robbie Robertson for being such a goon: the forthcoming publication of Jim Walsh's The Replacements: All Over but the Shouting, An Oral History.

Judging from the pictures and the sample pages at the Voyageur Press website, I think that we are all in for some cracking good yarns.

My favorite quotes so far, from the sample pages:

Peter Buck (REM): "More people bring that up to me than anything else. And I mean way more than anything else: You played on 'I Will Dare.' What was that like?"

Bob Stinson, on repaying REM for taking Our Heros on tour: "They did give us like beer and we'd wait until they'd go on stage and. . .their dressing rooms - there was no lock, boys. We ate all their food and drank their booze. They're like doing one of their real pretty hit songs and we're just sitting there drinking their booze. And they're playing in front of a thousand people. You can't stop and come and grab it from us. We really had mean fun with them."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Tonight, Susan Faludi is speaking at the Los Angeles Public Library. And tomorrow, I will officially be in my 30s. These things seem unrelated, but they are not.

Because, you see, when I was about 15, I was the world's biggest fan of the show thirtysomething, and watched all the reruns on Lifetime. I'm not sure why I liked it, as I was certainly not the target audience. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the actress who played Nancy went to high school with my dad. Or maybe it was that everybody on the show seemed so old to me, but it still seemed like they were playing at being grown-up.

Then I turned 17, and picked up a copy of Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, in which thirtysomething does not come off well.

At first, my hackles were up because this was, after all, my very favorite television program. But by the end, I realized, "She's right! They made Melissa all man-crazy and pathetic and Ellyn had to go to a shrink, and everybody hated Susannah because she didn't want to stay home with the baby, and meanwhile, good, perfect Hope was good and perfect because all she did was clean up baby puke and do things for Michael. This show sucks!"

So, thank you, Susan Faludi, for hopefully helping me to be a much better thirtysomething than I might have been otherwise, even if I am skeptical of the premise of your new book.

And another thing about thirtysomething, it does not hold up well. Watch the advertising agency brainstorming scene above, compare it to any episode of Mad Men, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Homes of Historic L.A. Writers: Another Black Mask Boy

He went by the name of Paul Cain for his hardboiled crime fiction, and Peter Ruric for his Hollywood gigs, but he was born George C. Sims, and that's how he's listed in the 1929 Los Angeles City Directory. Today's search for the homes of historic Los Angeles writers led me to a sunny courtyard apartment just north of Sunset where I snapped some shots of 1522 N. Serrano Ave.

Cain/Sims/Ruric lived here three years before he penned the short stories for Black Mask magazine that would become his groundbreaking hardboiled novel Fast One. However, Sims spent the 1920s working as a set decorator and production assistant, and running around with an "artistic avant-garde" set that included a struggling actress named Myrna Williams.

Sims suggested that she change her last name to Loy.

Around the same time his career with the pulps was taking off, he also started to get some writing work with the local studios. During the early 1930s, he wrote The Black Cat, which paired stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Fast One was published as a book in 1933, and featured one of the first hardboiled anti-heroes, gambler and gangster Gerard Kells. The New York Times said of it, "Publishers' blurbs are prone to overestimate the virtues of their respective products, but with the accompanying statement that 'Fast One' is 'the toughest, swiftest, hardest novel of them all,' we almost concur. It is in truth a ceaseless welter of bloodshed and frenzy, a sustained bedlam of killing and fiendishness, told in terse staccato style . . . there is no minute's let-up in the saturnalia of 'black-and-blue passion, bloodlust, death.'"

Very little is known about Sims, although it is generally acknowledged that he drank a bit. After several jaunts to New York and Europe, Sims died in Los Angeles in 1966.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Things That Are Lame

Now this is really getting far afield of the ostensible aims of this blog, but here's the deal: in a fit of early 90s nostalgia inspired by an evening spent watching The Adventures of Pete and Pete on YouTube, Mary and I found ourselves involved in a game of rock and roll onedownsmanship. Having found all the good videos we could think of, we started looking for the worst that we could find. And lo, YouTube did not disappoint.

While viewing the slouching horror that is "The World I Know", we had the following exchange:

Me: "How can you not love Collective Soul? They're like Candlebox and the Goo-Goo Dolls, only suckier. That's hard to do."
Mary: "You know, we complain a lot about how MTV doesn't show videos anymore. I think, instead, we should say: Thank you, MTV, for not showing the narrative videos. Do we really need Collective Soul to tell us stories? Do we really need Axl Rose to tell us stories?"

(See how I did that? Brought it back to storytelling. My blog-fu is, indeed, mighty.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Charles Baxter, Lost Books, and Hippies in Balloons

I've been thinking of writing a letter to Charles Baxter to let him know that I liked The Feast of Love so much I've bought it three times.

One copy got loaned to a friend in Memphis. I didn't remember who I'd given it to, and then I moved to Wisconsin. So that pretty first edition hardback is gone. The second copy got lost at the beach. The third copy I loaned to a friend who was going through some epically bad times, and one passage in the book hit him so hard that he tore it in half and threw it against the wall.

Maybe this has been up for ages, but Baxter has an excerpt from an unpublished novel called In Hibernation (1977) up on his site. It involves a couple chasing a hot air balloon full of missionary hippies around St. Paul, and is pretty funny:

"We want to go for a ride!" Lorraine said suddenly. "Could you take us up? Only five minutes?"

"Little lady," Xavier said, "that might be hard to do. I am thinking about it. All right. Here's what. Two conditions. First, I got to talk to your old man here, alone. Second, all I can take up is you. He gotta stay down here with Lone Star and the woman."

"Why can't you take him?" Lorraine asked.

"On account of God don't like two males in the gondola."


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Into the Woods

LA's a heckuva town, but sometimes the endless miles of strip malls and roving hordes of paparazzi get you down. In such times, the only thing to do is to call up some friends and light out for the territories, Huck-style, and spend a little time halfway up a mountain where the air is thin and the trees are the size of skyscrapers.

That said, our trip to the woods was, at times, predictably literary. Mary spent her down time in between hiking and cooking mountain pies nose-deep in Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller, and my head lamp spent most of its time illuminating Dashiell Hammett short stories (instead of the dense French social theory I had vowed to revisit while we were there).

And then there was the campfire brainstorming session in which we and our co-woodspersons came up with perhaps the greatest children's literary franchise since Harry Potter. It is, in fact, so groovy that I am unwilling to describe it on a website, lest some nogoodnik steal our awesome.

So until then I'll leave y'all with the following photo of our blogmistress swaggering through the woods, confident in the knowledge that librarians rock and that we'll soon be swimming in the profits from the tote bags, action figures, and coloring books that will no doubt be pouring into our bank accounts as soon as Scholastic gets on board with our granola-fueled kid-lit shenanigans.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Down a Not-So-Mean Street

In 1929, Raymond Chandler was Vice-President of the South Basin Oil Company, part of the Dabney Oil Syndicate (how's that for a band name), and living with his wife, Pearl at 1024 S. Highland. You can also check out their listing in the city directory.

The house is in a lovely little neighborhood called Longwood Highlands, just south of Olympic. While the neighborhood was developed in the 1920s, I'm not 100% sure this house is the actual building where the Chandler's lived. The L.A. County Assessor's Office has a listing for 1026 S. Highland, the other half of the duplex, which dates to 1947, but no listing for 1024. While I think it's likely that the house was simply hacked in two in 1947, it's possible that an entirely different building was there in 1929.

Larry, any ideas?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Heinlein Wuz Here

The Los Angeles Public Library recently made a selection of its city directories available online, so I got to poking around to see if I could find any listings for writerly types.

And the first bit of gold that I struck was none other than a listing for Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein moved to California in the early 1930s, and pursued graduate studies in physics and mathematics at UCLA. He married his second wife, Leslyn, in 1932, got into real estate sales, and set up housekeeping at 905 N. La Jolla, where the couple lived in 1936. He was 29 at the time.

Within a year or so, the Heinleins moved to swankier digs in the Hills, and it was while struggling to make mortgage payments that Heinlein settled on the idea of writing science fiction to earn some extra cash.

I felt a little weird driving around Los Angeles today taking pictures of people's houses, but nobody told me to stop or anything. I like to think that maybe I was mistaken for a very incompetent private investigator.

More writers and their "before they were famous" houses to follow. Potts and I are off to the mountains tomorrow for a bit of hiking, stargazing, and lollygagging around the fire pit. Hope y'all have a lovely weekend.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wedded Bliss Amiss: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe

It goes without saying that many of our grandparents', and even our parents' ideas about what makes for a happy marriage seem less than desirable to us today. Even among members of our own generation, arrangements like stay-at-home fathers or mothers, same-sex parenting, and open marriages don't hold anything that resembles a consensus. And while the Mommy Wars and the furor over gay marriage have made intimate relationships a public issue, the subtle give and take that shapes relationships occurs, to a certain degree, on a case by case basis.

Roiphe's highly readable accounts of seven marriages show how very unconventional people made a go of a very traditional institution, and in their own way, tried to make it work for them. Each section begins with a moment of conflict that threatens the union in some way, then goes on to describe how the couple resolved (or failed to resolve) it.

Some of the marriages seem not so uncommon as just plain miserable. H.G. Wells and his wife, Jane, had an agreement that allowed him to pursue extramarital affairs as he wished and frequently to live apart from her, provided that he never left her altogether. Similarly, when a young nurse threatens the 18-year relationship of Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, Una chooses to integrate the woman into their relationship rather than risk losing Hall to her for good.

Other unions stretch the imagination a bit more, like the unlikely household of painter Vanessa Bell, her husband Clive, her lover, Duncan Grant, and occasionally, his bisexual lover, Bunny. In a creepy twist, Bell's daughter with Duncan would later marry Bunny without knowing the truth about her parentage. A strange paradox exists in many of the relationships, couples who are uninhibited about sex, while remaining somehow naive and frightened of discussing it too much.

While the marriages Roiphe explores aren't enviable, they're certainly captivating. This is, in part, due to the fact that many of the couples and their lovers were friends or distant relatives, or at least had their books reviewed in the same papers. It's such an incestuous little circle, one marvels that the children weren't all born with tails.

And despite the sometimes gloomy tales of love gone bad, Roiphe is an engaging and very funny writer. When describing Katherine Mansfield's husband, the odious John Middleton Murry, Roiphe writes that he was the kind of "artistically inclined man who milks the idea of being 'promising' well into his forties," and goes on to say, "In order to avoid conscription, Murry found... a demanding job in the War Office (though one should note that Murry found all of his jobs demanding, and constantly complained of being dangerously overworked)."

If you liked...: Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, this book is for you.

You're a Good Man, Charles M. Schulz

Lowlights and Good Grief moments from the tragicomic life of Charles M. Schulz at Mental Floss:

“You never do get over your first love,” Schulz said. “More than having your cartoons rejected or three-putting the 18th green, the whole of you is rejected when a woman says: `You’re not worth it.’”

You can also win a t-shirt by submitting your most Charlie Brown-esque moment, although I think I would need a lifetime supply of t-shirts before I'd consider turning over any of my Charlie Brown moments to be judged by strangers.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Southern-Fried Magical Realism: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Every once in awhile, I come across a book that doesn't appear to have a lot to recommend it, yet for some reason, I am helpless to resist its charms. From Bridget Jones's Diary, which all but the dour can agree on, to Raymond Chandler's The High Window, which I seem to be alone in preferring to all other Chandler books, sometimes knowing that a book is good-not-great takes all the pressure off. It's truly pleasure reading. Along those lines, Garden Spells didn't shake the very foundations of my belief system, but I had a very hard time putting it down. Its charms are considerable.

Claire Waverly is a 34-year-old emotionally stunted caterer whose meals have strange effects on those who eat them, while her elderly cousin, Evanelle, feels compelled to give people things they'll need later -- sometimes it's a box of Pop Tarts, sometimes it's a box of condoms. And then there's Sydney, the wild younger sister who left town after high school like something out of a Warrant video, and shows up on Claire's door ten years later with her six-year-old daughter and a pile of big secrets.

The two sisters have never been close, and most of the book centers around their efforts to piece together some kind of relationship out of their wreck of a childhood together. The subplots, however, are what give the book its momentum. Some work, like the story involving local sexpot Emma Matteson, who believes that Sydney has come back to town to reclaim her old flame, now Emma's husband. It's a nicely realized character study about adults who never really leave high school.

Sweet, though less successful are the book's love stories. There's the burgeoning relationship between the awkward Claire and her art professor next-door-neighbor, the gay grocery store owner struggling to win back his long-time partner, and the oddly matched Sydney and her childhood friend, Henry, a farmer. It's through these relationships that it becomes clear that the characters and their motivations are not as well developed as they might be.

That said, it's an exceptionally pleasant book to read, and the folksy, slightly magical lull of small town life is enchanting and irresistible.

If you're looking for a less edgy Dorothy Allison, or heck, even a less edgy Lee Smith, or if you like the food-magic of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, this book is for you.