Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Liked Atreyu Before It Was Cool To Like Atreyu

I'm putting together a snazzy little display of books that were adapted for the screen at my library, and have come upon quite a number of titles that I never knew existed in book form.

While none of these titles will strike you as the least bit obscure, some of their original authors might. And while a couple of these don't meet the Zombie Summer Reading Program "40 years old" rule, I was just so darn startled to find them that I felt compelled to share.

Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1952)
The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett (1949)
Johnny Guitar by Roy Chanslor (1953)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (originally published in German, 1979)
Wild At Heart by Barry Gifford (1990)
Midnight Cowboy by James Herlihy (1965)
MASH by Richard Hooker (1968)
The Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter (1954)
The Searchers by Alan LeMay (1954)
The Graduate by Charles Webb (1963)

I'm so reading Wild At Heart. And upon further reflection, I admit that it was never cool to like Atreyu.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Beach Reading Stand-bys

Some people use the summer to catch up on all the big fat classics and IMPORTANT books, but my reading tastes get pretty populist in the heat. Right now, I'm reading Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman, and I think it rocks. Plus, there was no waiting list for it at the library, and there's something to be said for getting what you want immediately without having to pay for it.

If you've resigned yourself to the fact that you're not getting The Yiddish Policemen's Union in time for your trip to Destin, here are a few good stand-bys to take on the plane with you, with reviews in ten words or less. No waiting, guaranteed.

Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison
Overlooked gem by the author of Bastard Out of Carolina.

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo
There's a shark in the children's swimming hole! Holy crap!

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen
Artificial sweetener, betrayal, and the mob, in one tasty package.

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
Never have I been so captivated or skeeved out.

Revenge by Stephen Fry
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, only modern and shorter.

Different Seasons by Stephen King
By turns, hilarious and sad. Also includes the Lardass story.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderios de Laclos
As juicy as the movie. Juicier, in fact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora
Like Ocean's Eleven in fantasy novel form.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil
Iggy Pop gets the clap! Heroin everywhere!

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
You should look away, but you won't.

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton
Hmmm... a lot of those women owned land. Interesting.

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
Patchett came up with this story while working at TGIFriday's.

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Hasidic boy wrestles with the sacred and the profane.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
My whole book club liked it, even the boys.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kurosawa * Chandler = "the Zany"

I kind of suspect that Sam Noir: Samurai Detective is one of those books that it's almost pointless to review. Odds are, all I have to do is say: "There is a book called Sam Noir: Samurai Detective" and those of you who might want to seek out such a thing will know immediately. You will wonder if this, at long last, is the piece of your soul that's been missing lo these many years, leaving a tiny rip in the fabric of your life that you didn't even recognize until now, but that is none the less painful for that.

The rest of you will roll your eyes and click over to see what's going on in Funky Winkerbean or France or somewhere. Fair enough.

If your immediate reaction to the concept of a hardboiled Samurai detective existing in some indeterminate time period is - like mine - "Why did it take us all so long to think of this?" then the title is really all you need to know. (Well, that, and it's black and white, a la Sin City, but digitally painted and a bit more lush in spots. Also, there's no strippers.) The humor is a little broad at times, but it's such a lark I couldn't help but be drawn into the story, slight though it may be.

The creators' glee is infectious, and while it doesn't reinvent any wheels it does have a lot of fun with the concept, mostly during Sam's never-ending voiceovers; this is kind of an easy - even lazy - course to follow when playing with the hardboiled genre, but the voiceovers contain some of the best bits (as when Sam, having defeated the giant-but-stupid-and-slow henchman, the creepy-tall-skinny-blind-and-therefore-definitely-scary henchman, wonders to himself where the little sneaky guy who will complete the archetypical goon-squad trio is hiding).

The first trade paperback collects two storylines: In the first, Our Hero is out for venegance after a woman he's been tailing for a mysterious client catches some throwing stars in the back, while the second finds Sam on a "Ronin Holiday". There are Voodoo Priests, Pirate Detectives, and best of all for Sam, lots of rum.

I should warn you: this book is goofy and fun, which may not suit you if you were hoping for some kind of grim, super-bad-ass protagonist in a bloody tale of honor and revenge or some such. There isn't any of that, for the most part.

Well, it is bloody. I mean, Sam makes Beatrix Kiddo look like Ghandi doped to the gills with Thorazine, but it's "funny bloody".

That, or maybe I just need counseling.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A 1950s Bestseller You Can Enjoy Unironically

The Devil's Advocate by Morris L. West (1959)

In my exploration of the closed stacks for suitable Zombie Summer Reading Program material, I've come upon a lot of schlock, which is about what I expected. But deep down, I've been hoping to uncover some forgotten classic. The Devil's Advocate ain't it, but it comes close. Which gives me hope for what the rest of the summer holds.

Morris West was an Australian writer who almost became a priest, decided to become a writer instead, had a nervous breakdown about it, became the Vatican correspondent for the Daily Mail,then went on to pen over 25 novels and a number of plays before his death in 1999. As you might expect, the church figures heavily in his work.

The Devil's Advocate is about a Vatican priest named Blaise Meredith who is sent to a remote Italian village to investigate a candidate for beatification. The would-be saint was an English deserter named Giacomo Nerone who mysteriously appeared in the village and became its most beloved citizen, at least until the villagers turned him over to a firing squad.

When Meredith arrives in the village, he's just been diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only a few months to live. In addition to suffering almost constant pain, his investigation is stymied by the tight-lipped residents of the village, hesitant to speak of their complicity in Nerone's death, even as they place remnants of the bloody shirt he died in over the bellies of women in childbirth.

Meredith's greatest allies are the Jewish doctor living in exile, both Nerone's closest friend and fiercest rival, and Nerone's lover, a village woman who bore him a bastard son. His enemies are the Contessa, an English woman who suffers from some kind of hysteria caused by her overly passionate nature or something, and Nick Black, a homosexual English painter living under her patronage. West's characterizations of these two suffer from prevailing attitudes of the times. The Contessa's troubles are nothing a loving husband or a good dose of the Lord wouldn't fix, and Nick is suspected of trying to seduce Nerone's teenage son throughout the book. Despite these stereotypes, however, West's depictions of the two are not without sympathy, and the eventual resolution of Nick's relationship is handled with far more subtlety than I expected.

The question of Nerone's canonization is similarly subtle, and suitably shrouded in mystery. While I did skim over many of Meredith's long-winded meditations on faith, The Devil's Advocate is a page-turner with compelling supporting characters and just a touch of the miraculous and the mystical.

And it's a fair sight better than Enid Blyton.

Monday, June 18, 2007

More Early Competition for the Best of 2007

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

After reading Baltimore Noir, the collection from Akashic's city noir series edited by Lippman, I knew she was a writer I wanted to follow. And then, conveniently, What the Dead Know was published. If reading Baltimore Noir was like receiving a sampler from See's Candy, What the Dead Know was like being deeded the title to the whole damn store.

On Easter weekend 1975, the Bethany sisters went to a Baltimore mall, snuck into Chinatown, got kicked out, and were never seen again.

Thirty years later, a dazed woman involved in a hit-and-run on a Baltimore freeway claims to be the one of the missing girls. Using the story to stay out of jail, and teasing out its details bit by tantalizing bit, Heather has the police, the hospital social worker, and even her own lawyer wrapped around her little finger. From the beginning, they suspect she's lying. Most of her answers lead to dead, unverifiable ends, and all of them wrap up a little too conveniently. Still, she has information about the case that was never made public, knows things that only a Bethany would know.

Lippman introduces so many plausible leads and angles, that I rarely got through a chapter without thinking I had the whole thing wrapped up. At one point, I actually came to the correct conclusion, although I discarded it in favor of another suspect almost immediately, and didn't think of it again until the end of the book.

But Lippman isn't just good at the twists. What places this mystery among the truly top-shelf is her ability to explore her characters' dark interiors and back stories. Kate Atkinson did this in Case Histories, and much less successfully in One Good Turn (sometimes a little back story goes a long way), but Lippman's characters ring absolutely true in ways that Atkinson's sometimes don't. What the Dead Know is a terrific, disturbing puzzle with terrific, disturbing human emotion at its core.

If you liked...: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn or Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, this book is for you.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reality Schmeality

I'm waiting for my copy of Cait Murphy's Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History to arrive at the library, so on Saturday I picked up a used copy of Pennant Races: Baseball At Its Best by Dave Anderson to tide me over.

Later that day:

Mary: "This book has an anti-Pittsburgh Pirates bias."
Brady: "Well, reality has an anti-Pittsburgh Pirates bias."

On Good Dads

There's a thread going on over at Fark on "What's the most important thing your dad taught you?" And the answers are just depressing. Lots of answers like "Don't get her pregnant," "Don't trust anyone," and "Love is conditional." I guess there are lots of crappy dads out there.

But I have an exceptionally good dad. Here are a few of the important things he taught me:

1. Don't rule out the Star Trek guys. They have a lot of love to give, and are frequently adorable.
2. Once you factor in your time, it costs about the same amount of money to change your own oil as it does to pay someone else to do it. But you should still know how to do it yourself.
3. Work in the public sector so you don't have to worry about getting fired, getting health insurance, or retiring broke. Work sucks enough as it is.
4. Along those lines, the only reason to have a job is to have money to pay for the things you really like doing.
5. There's absolutely no reason why girls shouldn't play football at recess. And when you get a bloody nose, pinch and lean forward.
6. My father once hitchhiked 40 miles to give my mother a birthday cake. After being married to her for over 30 years, he still makes these kinds of grand, romantic gestures on a regular basis. They are always appreciated.
7. Be the kind of person who speaks rarely, but wisely. As DBT said, "Just cuz I don't run my mouth don't mean I've got nothin' to say."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Going to the Dark Side

Today, Potts and I purchased a new laptop, our first PC, which we promptly named Lappy (it's the Madison or Ethan of computer names). And this purchase made me imagine the following dialogue:

Mac: Hi, I'm a Mac.
PC: And I'm a Toshiba.
Mac: Bwwahhahahahaha!! (cough) I mean... um, really?
PC: That was really mean, Mac.
Mac: Sorry, it's just that, wow, that's really lame, being a Toshiba and all. Sorry.
PC: I'm an affordable option for civil servants and graduate students, which is more than can be said for you.
Mac: But can you make pretty pictures? Cuz I can make pretty pictures. And I'm hip and stuff.
PC: Can you download audiobooks and movies from the library?
Mac: No. But who wants to do that? Probably only weirdlingers.
PC: Can you do Rhapsody?
PC: Well, can you?
PC: Because Rhapsody is the single greatest contribution to the human race since penicillin, you know.
Mac: Vista sucks!
PC: That may be so, but Mary is willing to overlook it because she can now play that James tape that melted in her car in 1999, like, on demand.
Mac: They loved me first. They'll come back.
PC: Maybe when they're rich.
Mac and PC: Bwahhhahahahaha!
Mac: Good one, Toshiba.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Your Dad Would Like This Better Than a Necktie

The Second Objective by Mark Frost

In the winter of 1944, the Nazis were staring down Allied armies on German borders, and defeat looked eminent. In a last-ditch effort, Hitler ordered an offensive that would later become known as the Battle of the Bulge, and included a plan called Operation Greif.

The operation involved approximately 2000 English-speaking German troops dressed in the uniforms of dead or captured American and British soldiers, and their objective was to sneak behind Allied lines and switch their road signs, take their bridges, and generally screw with their day. However, for a tiny group of these German soldiers, there was a nefarious second objective. All the soldiers involved in this second objective were either captured or killed... except for two, who were never accounted for.

Mark Frost's book is a fictionalized account of those soldiers, and of the NYPD detective turned military police who has to stop them.

This is the kind of old man book I usually stay far away from; however, Mark Frost was a co-creator and executive producer on Twin Peaks, so I made an exception. And I'm very glad I did.

Frost hones in on a single squadron chosen for the second objective and follows their actions without either losing sight of or getting bogged down in the huge battle that rages around them. And on top of that, it also manages to be pulpy as hell without either trivializing the war or turning it into a "Greatest Generation" love-in. It's just a good old balls to the wall, high stakes nail-biter with scary villains, a Bogey-tough hero, and a police procedural vibe that works surprisingly well with the war story.

I loved it, Potts loved it, and I suspect you will, too.

If you liked...: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont or The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, this book is for you.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

On "New Reader Friendly" Comics

Invincible #42, written by Robert Kirkman, art by Ryan Ottley

I've mentioned before that I feel somewhat betrayed by She-Hulk of late. You see, I ignored my staunch "No Marvel" stance to read about the wacky adventures of Jen Walters, and her foray into the world of superhuman law. And until last summer's Civil War crossover thing, the series did an excellent job of keeping the story focused, fresh, and funny.

But I should have known better. There's a reason I stay away from the boys and girls in tights, and it is that I have neither the time nor inclination to keep abreast of things that S.H.I.E.L.D did five years ago. I barely know who they are now, yet She-Hulk keeps insisting that I TRY to know, which is not what I signed on for.

But apparently, the comics industry is aware of this problem, and is taking steps to remedy it in the form of "new reader friendly" comics. These aim to catch readers up quickly, within the context of the ongoing story. Brady brought me the latest of these for the Image comic, Invincible, as an experiment to see what a mythology-hatin' comics reader would think.

I think it sucked.

The first five pages involved a bunch of astronauts talking about the main character, a college kid who happens to be, well... invincible. It was like reading the first chapters of the Babysitters' Club #482, Mary Anne and the Tainted Lunchables, where we learn that Kristy's stepdad is loaded, that Claudia has a creamy complexion despite her junk food addiction, and that Mallory is lame.

While Invincible #42 did manage to pack a huge amount of information in a relatively small space, it didn't do so in a way that made me want to buy the next issue. Which was probably the important part.

Weirdly, at the end of the issue there was a synopsis of the series written in straight-up prose that was actually good. Maybe if this went at the beginning there wouldn't be a need for so much clumsy establishing dialogue. Then again, if this went at the beginning, a new reader might just skip it.

In the sixth grade, all my friends were obsessed with a soap opera called Santa Barbara, which featured a huge and screwy cast of characters not entirely unlike the Marvel Universe. Tired of being left out of their lunchtime speculations about Cruz and Eden's kidnapped baby, I began to tune in. For the first two weeks, everything was terribly confusing, but I perservered, motivated at first by external factors (my friends), then later, by a genuine investment in the stories and characters.

So, I guess what I'm saying with that little anecdote is that "new reader friendly" comics are not the answer because becoming a fan of something has to take place naturally. You pick up a comic book because you like the reviews or your friends are all reading it or the art appeals to you, and after a period of initial confusion, you catch on. If the comic book is worth its salt.

Invincible only has 40-something issues, and that was too much to be handled gracefully. I'd hate to see what one of these issues would look like in Marvel-land. Then again, that's why they just restart the books every few years. All I'm sayin' is even Santa Barbara never resorted to such crude mercenary tactics.

Scariest, Best Book of 2007 So Far

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

George Davies is a new father who finds he can't bear to touch his infant son. At first, his wife is willing to laugh this off as new-dad jitters, and George acts like he's just a "man's man" dad, not the type to change diapers and play "This Little Piggie." However, it quickly leads to serious marital strife, and George's wife issues him an ultimatum: go to therapy, or your family is leaving you.

In his first therapy session, George reveals that he's seen a therapist once before, when he was 11, and that he hasn't thought about that time in his life for many years. The therapist encourages him to explore those childhood memories by keeping a journal, warning him to "be ready for what comes out. When you lock something in a box for twenty years... it begins to stink."

This turns out to be something of an understatement.

The reviews I've read of this book turn cryptic after this point in the story, alluding to the mysterious death of George's father, imaginary friends, mental illness, and demonic possession, but giving up nothing concrete. After reading the book, I'm afraid I'm going to have to join those reviewers and keep mum.

But I will tell you this much. First, its comparisons to Donna Tartt's The Secret History and to The Exorcist are apt (I'd also include The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova in those comparisons). Second, when I got into bed last night, I looked under it first. I also checked the shower and closets. I'm not proud.

Gwen recently posted about reading The Historian, and about the irrationality of being an educated adult who is still terrified of vampires. As an educated adult who finds any horror story involving religion to be petrifying, I can totally relate.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza

Drive an hour east of Los Angeles, and most likely, you'll want to keep on driving. However, in his debut novel, Espinoza settles into daily life in Agua Mansa, a fictionalized town in San Bernardino County, and transforms it into a place you don't mind visiting for a couple hundred pages.

At the center of the novel is Perla, a woman in her 70s who runs the Botanica Oshun. Here, you can buy a love potion, an herbal tea, or a rosary. The candle you buy at Botanica Oshun might be used for prayer, or it might be used to drive off your roommate's junkie girlfriend. Whether Perla is a bruja, a curandera, or a saint depends on how her customers perceive her, but she helps them all.

Point of view alternates between Perla and the residents of Agua Mansa, and structurally, the novel is reminiscent of Walter Mosley's Socrates Fortlow books. Some characters are recurring, while others step into the spotlight for a moment, then disappear. Memorable among them are Azucar, a transvestite who finds herself thrust into motherhood, and Rosa, an insecure, overweight teenager who forges an unexpected friendship with a sensitive ex-con.

More chilling, however, is the story of Rodrigo, a desperate teenager who begins showing up in Perla's store. What we eventually learn about Rodrigo and how he came to be in Agua Mansa speaks to the idea that some evil is bigger than God and magic combined.

It's appropriate that the real Agua Mansa is now a ghost town, because overarching each story in the sense that the town is changing, and not necessarily for the better, and the decisions characters make to adapt or leave is at the heart of the book. While dark, the book is not bleak, and Espinoza punctuates the most disturbing moments with warm, realistic scenes of domestic and community life.

If you like...: intimate stories of community life like The Women of Brewster Place and The Bean Trees, this book is for you.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nobody Reads in L.A. Book Club Kick-Off

I suspect Lucinda Williams was not talking about Arturo Bandini when she sang, "Some kind of savior singing the blues/A derelict in your duct tape shoes," but the fictional poet laureate of Bunker Hill is definitely one of L.A.'s homegrown drunken angels.

If you're into the literature of Los Angeles, particularly those downtrodden realms haunted by the likes of John Fante and Charles Bukowski, stop by the inaugural meeting of Nobody Reads in L.A. at Lost Souls next Wednesday, June 13 at 7pm.

The first book up for discussion is John Fante's Ask the Dust, and I hear tell that if you're a "friend of Bandini," Metropolis Books will hook you up with a little discount on this classic.

Also, you can check out photos of the house where Fante wrote Ask the Dust here. The Koreatown duplex at 826 Berendo is currently inhabited by squatters and slated for demolition, but there is a movement afoot to have a historic marker placed there. After all, a section of Berendo is named for another notable L.A. figure, L. Ron Hubbard. It would only be fair to honor the legacy of somebody who was actually cool.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Stuck Inside of England With the Denmark Blues Again

The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

Young Phillip's father is dead, killed in a car accident. Uncle Alan is moving in on Phillip's mom and the family business more quickly than decorum would permit. Then the ghost of Phillip's father appears to him to explain that his death was not an accident, but in fact, murder, and that his soul will be devoured by Terrors unless he is avenged.

You can see where all this is going.

At first, the idea of an 11-year-old British boy carrying out the role of Hamlet seems like a zany laugh-fest, and at first, it is. Spotting all the little Bard shout-outs like Phillip's pet angelfish, Gertie, and his closest friends, twins named Ross and Gary, is a hoot. But the book follows the play closely, and the further you read, the more you realize that no one is going to come out of this story well.

What really makes the book click, though, is Haig's willingness to go beyond sight gags and dig into the play. Some nice parallels with ancient Roman history are also made. Phillip spends a lot more one-on-one time with his dad's ghost than Hamlet did, which makes the kind of internal conflict that occurs in the play seem plausible in a modern adolescent. I loved it, and read it all in one go.

If you liked...: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, or obviously, Haig's source material, this book is for you.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Gruesome Death, and How To Recognize It

Note: Kim Cooper of 1947project and Esotouric joins us for today's Zombie Summer Reading Program guest post, and her offering should be just the thing to help you unleash your inner coroner. As every discerning zombie knows, a brain laced with hydrochloric acid just doesn't have that nice, brainy zip.

Post-Mortem Appearances by Joan M. Ross (Oxford Medical Publications, 4th edition, 1939)

There are some things you need to know, although you might not realize it. But it becomes obvious, when you open this peculiar little purple book and begin to read the strangely poetic descriptions of the physical signs of disease, infection and poisonings, that Miss Ross was a chronicler of a most compelling set of human mysteries.

From Post-Mortem Appearances, I have learned that a person who has frozen to death will upon first examination exhibit remarkably red flesh, similar to carbon monoxide poisoning, a result of hemoglobin's retaining its oxygen at low temperatures, and the blood remaining arterial. As the body warms, more typical darkening of the skin is seen.

Any metal objects on the body of an electrocuted person may become magnetized. A starved person's viscera is nearly transparent.

A drowned person's lungs behave abnormally during autopsy, bulging out from the thorax is a manner called "ballooning." When a woman is burned to death, the last organ to char is her uterus.

If you wish to hang yourself but leave a good-looking corpse, use a soft handkerchief as the noose rather than stiff cord. The former leaves a soft, white mark, the latter a dark impression stiff as parchment.

Mustard gas, as used in warfare, results in injury to the stomach when the victim swallows caustic snot and saliva. Chronic lead poisoning makes the arm and shoulder muscles whither.

Before it kills you, hydrochloric acid can produce a markedly fatty liver.

Drink Lysol or other phenols and when they open your bladder, it will be full of smoky green urine with the characteristic disinfectant smell. Also, cyanide does taste like bitter almonds, and smells like them, too, when its victims are autopsied.

Would-be saints are advised to take sulfuric acid or antimony internally to delay post-mortem putrefaction. Or just don't die.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Future Comic Geek Cred

It always bugged me that we got into (f'rinstance) Y the Last Man starting with #12 or thereabouts. It's either the indie snob in me or the mylar-bagging comics nerd in me, but I likes to get in on the ground floor.

Which is why I am now going to plug Guttsville and put you, dear reader, in a position to say "I liked that before it was cool."

The book, by Simon Spurrier and Frazer Irving, is set in the belly of Leviathan, where a group of convicts/settlers (swallowed on an ill-fated trip to Australia back in the day) have managed to survive, if not thrive, for several generations. They refer to that forgotten period before the giant fish thingy ate them as "The Drytime" and they are convinced that, like Jonah, they are being tested by the Lord. The wicked, in Gutsville, are hung over bile ducts by the Town Elders and digested by the creature. Our hero - the son of the town Ratcatcher - may have just found a way out, but it's a certain digesting for that kind of blasphemy and sedition.

The art in this six issue miniseries is murky and grotesque (in a good way) and the premise and writing are super inventive. The characters are a little stock, at least so far, but the issue ends with a twist that promises much fun ahead. All in all, a really nifty book.

The first issue is out on stands now, and those looking for a new high-concept comic that's a bit off the beaten path should check it out - especially if you ever thought Pinocchio kinda had a neat thing going there in the belly of that whale.