Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.
Friday, August 31, 2007
This would have been a Zombie Summer Reading Program review, save for the fact that Dawn Powell is probably the best-known writer that no one has heard of. Her books come back into print every few years, and she was once name-checked on Gilmore Girls (in the season 2 episode where Jess comes to Starr's Hollow)*. She was also one of Hemingway's favorite writers. Allegedly, he once told her, "You are the best woman writer I know and I don't mean woman writer." Gee, thanks Hem.**
A Time to Be Born is a deliciously nasty and gossipy novel, that nonetheless has some heft to it, being set in New York shortly before Pearl Harbor. Our anti-heroine, Amanda Keeler Evans, has evolved from the daughter of an Ohio beautician to the wife of one of the most powerful newspaper publishers in the United States through brilliant and calculated scheming. After snatching Julian Evans away from his wife and making him her own, she sweet talks him into publishing her ghastly novel (and he makes sure it receives nothing but glowing reviews). Then she fashions herself as a celebrated war and relief organizer, taking in European refugees, then pawning them off on Julian's first wife. Amanda is simply too important and too busy to be expected to entertain a bunch of grubby refugees.
Enjoying the fruits of her ill-got gains, Amanda is hesitant to revive any of her contacts with old school chums. However, when Ethel Carey, a grasping Midwestern socialite, shows up at Amanda's house and entreats her to take another old friend under her wing, Amanda agrees. She has her reasons.
Enter Vicky Haven, a clueless Sister Carrie-meets-Dottie Renfrew. When her fiance runs off with her business partner, Vicky becomes the laughingstock of Lakewood, Ohio until she receives a seemingly out of the blue invitation to come to New York. Under Amanda's watch, Vicky gets a magazine job, a swanky studio, and an escort to some fine dinner parties with her betters. And of course, Amanda has her reasons, charity not being top of the list.
I'm not sure whether it's more fun to watch Vicky Haven muddle through the New York social scene, unintentionally making all the right moves, friends, and power plays, or watching Amanda squirm when her scheming finally catches up with her, but it's a great read.
If you liked...: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe or The Group by Mary McCarthy, this book is for you.
* Although the last couple seasons of Gilmore Girls were awful, I miss watching television that includes semi-obscure literary references on a regular basis. There's a pretty staggering list of books mentioned on the show here, although it only seems to cover the first couple of seasons.
** Needing the money, Dawn Powell once considered selling her correspondence with Hemingway, but decided against it, saying, "I wouldn't dare to. He said such really awful things about other writers."
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher is about a tough as nails girl desperate to get "sent up" so she can join her mother behind bars. She lives with her grandmother, who runs what is quite possibly the most negligent daycare center in the world, and spends a good bit of her time defending Grandma's charges (aka "the crumb snatchers") from her. This interferes with Harry Sue's JD aspirations, as does her particularly good heart.
Maybe it's just me, but this sounds (potentially) like a cross between Louis Sachar's kiddie jailbreak tale, Holes, and Rian Johnson's high school noir, Brick.
Here's a little snippet:
"Time was running out on my becoming a juvenile delinquent. The really impressive cons started their rap sheets by nine or ten. Unfortunately, I had a heart condition that needed fixing before I could begin a serious crime spree.
Yes, Fish, my heart was as lumpy and soft as a rotten tomato. I couldn't stand to see things hurt, especially anything weak and defenseless. Watching Jolly Roger and his road dogs pull the legs off a spider made me grind my teeth down worse than if I slept with a mouth full of sandpaper. When those boys clicked the little kids on the bus, I had to sit on my hands just to keep from breaking theirs.
In the joint, where I was headed, I'd need a heart filled with cement and covered in riveted steel. I was working on it. But so far, I wasn't making much progress."
Thanks to Leila at Bookshelves of Doom for pointing this one out as her Recommendations from Under the Radar pick.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The story, set in the 1950s, involves an American girl who drops out of college and runs off to conquer Paris and avoid the cruel fate of becoming a librarian. She takes up with a married man, tries to make it as an actress, and lurks around the city's nightspots with an assorted cast of bohemians and artists. And apparently, it's hilarious. Here's a little snippet that amused me:
"Now here's the heavy irony. So I went back to New York to become a librarian. To actually seek out this thing I've been fleeing all my life. And (here it comes): a librarian is just not that easy to become. I'd taken my lamb by the hand to the slaughter and nobody even wanted it. Apparently there's a whole filing system and annotating system and stamping system and God knows what you have to learn before you qualify. So I finally found a little out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-track library downtown and they let me put the books away.
So I felt I was accomplishing something."
In other news, the new Ann Patchett book is coming out soon, and I'm a little nervous about it. I read absolutely everything Patchett writes: Bel Canto is one of my desert island reading books, I adored Truth & Beauty, and I really enjoyed watching her tear into the douchbags who tried to get her book banned from Clemson, and be absolutely classy and ladylike about it.
So, I was a little surprised to find that I'm not loving the premise of Run. It sounds like the plots of five books mashed together, yet somehow, it also sounds a little dull. Am I going to read it anyway? You betcha. A writer who's never disappointed me before deserves the 50 page test, at least. I just wish I was a little more excited about it.
I guess it's to be expected, given that the strip has previously featured talking rocks and talking leaves, but if that cat starts hanging out outside of Lisa's room, well, I think we all know what happens next.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Thursday, August 23, 2007
And given that the new semester doesn't start until Monday, and seeing as how I had the new New Pornographers album to keep me company, it seems that completion was the better part of valor.
Now, I can't really say much about the novel now in terms of a full-blown review, because Mary hasn't read it yet and the merest suggestion of plot points or spoilers will land me in marital stocks, so to speak, like a Pilgrim who mooned Plymouth Rock. But I can say the following:
A) I laughed aloud (p. 534, 2nd paragraph from the subheading break).
B) I teared up (the paragraph that spans p. 509-510).
C) The Lies of Locke Lamora (the preceding novel in this series) was great fun, but this one does what Lies did and then some. The beats of the former novel were quite inventive, but in the long run somewhat familiar. This one found me - someone used to the usual plot twists in novels like this - wholly adrift and wondering what the heck could happen next at several points, and when it did tread familiar ground, it did so with perhaps a page and a half of warning in a manner that, in retrospect, I realize was set up chapters and chapters before.
D) This is, to pull a wholly lame reviewing trick, the Pulp Fiction to the previous novel's Reservoir Dogs. (I use this particular analogy because the author has a rather Tarantino-esque facility with jumping around temporally inside of a story.)
Sure, I'm gushing. It's late, I put Red Seas down about fifteen minutes ago, and I'll admit that my credibility as a reviewer is thus somewhat suspect. Even worse, I may be guilty of the kind of reviewing that sets up future readers for inevitable disappointment. If the latter is the case, let me say the following about my tastes and critical acumen: I sincerely and unironically love Neil Diamond, the laziest and most phoned-in of Dash Hammett's writing, the Star Trek episode where Kirk and company meet Abraham Lincoln, and certain tracks on the Gin Blossom's second album. I am, as it turns out, a cheap date at times.
Still, in closing:
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
King also scores pretty high on the cool-o-meter for invoking the spirit of Frank Norris, whose best-known novel is like a naturalist Cujo but with a dentist, thusly:
"Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: "What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth." And that's always been the bottom line for me."
*The title of this post, of course, has nothing to do with Stephen King. It is my favorite sentence from McTeague. It might even be my favorite sentence from the 1800s, beating out such popular favorites as "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" or "Done because we are too menny".
Monday, August 20, 2007
I'm wracking my brain, but when it comes to U.S. writers of magical realism, I can only think of one: Daniel Wallace.
There's something about the fact that his books are set in the American South that makes the appearance of circus freaks, witches, and fertility rites almost entirely believable. If Robert Johnson can sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, it makes sense that a 10-year-old boy can sell his in exchange for magic.
Like Wallace's first novel, Big Fish, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is about the mysterious life of a complicated man, and the struggle to tease out the truth from the tall tale. Though it's a less successful novel than Big Fish, Wallace sets up an irresistible premise here.
The book begins on May 20, 1954, when Henry Walker the Negro Magician, is led away from the circus where he performs by three violent teens who mean him no good, and disappears.
Well no, actually, the book begins with a letter to an unknown party from someone named James, explaining how he tracked down Henry's friends to learn about his final years.
But really, the book begins with a young boy who lives in a grand hotel with his sister and his father, the hotel janitor. And then, one day, he meets the Devil in Room 702 and sells his soul in order to become a great magician. But the Devil takes something else, too. One day while performing a magic show for his father, Henry makes his sister, Hannah, vanish. Only he can't make her reappear again.
And the book also begins when Henry Walker becomes a Negro Magician who isn't actually black.
So, what's the real story? Wallace gradually unfolds Henry's life through journal entries, stories told by circus folk, newspaper clippings, and the investigations of a private detective. Each one brings the reader a little closer to the truth, but in the end, many questions go unanswered. In fact, the last chapter slams to a halt so abrupt that I paged past the acknowledgments, not quite believing that there wasn't a conclusion lurking around somewhere between them and the author bio.
That's not a completely bad thing. In fact, I suppose it's the whole point.
Henry Walker is a man who walks along the boundaries of life and death, black and white, illusion and reality, magic, the Devil, and hard, ugly, truth. What it makes him, however, is a bit of a void. And while Wallace makes it clear that he's done this purposefully, Henry isn't an easy character to deal with as a reader. And while I understand the necessity of leaving some questions unresolved, the manner in which Wallace chooses to do so is not entirely satisfactory.
Still, I wonder if I'd still feel this way if I read the book over again. Which, despite my criticisms, I may actually do.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
The sporran is the man-purse of Scotland, and is an incredibly useful place for a kilt-wearer to stash a wallet or keys.
This weekend, I was a bridesmaid at my childhood best friend's wedding. Since her new husband is from Scotland, the groom, the men in the wedding party, and a fair number of the men in attendance rented kilts instead of tuxes.
My fella also joined in on the fun, and did the Scots one better.
You see, during World War II, some soldiers from my hometown served with a regimen from Scotland. They all became great friends, and after returning home, the Western Pennsylvanian soldiers formed a Highland marching band using the tartan of their war buddies.
My dad would later join this band, and so bagpipes at cookouts, knives worn in socks, parades, and men in skirts with dead animals around their waists were a big part of my childhood.
Dad offered Brady the use of his regalia for the wedding, and with some trepidation, Brady accepted. A small part of that trepidation probably involved worries about spending a day in Chicago in a kilt, but I suspect that that some of it centered around my dad's somewhat eccentric sporran.*
One traditional sporran style is the animal mask, which uses the taxidermied head of the animal as the flap. The sporran for my dad's kilt looks something like this.
To any animal lovers reading, I know this is cruel and wrong, but Dad's sporran is about 30 years old, and far more tasteful looking than the one pictured here.
And Roscoe, as Brady dubbed his taxidermied sidekick, was a huge hit at the wedding. The Scots in attendance loved the sporran, and Brady was cornered by the wedding photographer at several points during the evening so that Roscoe could be documented in the wedding album. Regarding this, Potts had only the following to say: "Kind of weird to have people taking pictures of your groin all night, but what the hey."
* Brady, looking over my shoulder, insists that this is not the case. For evidence, he submits the following toast, delivered at our wedding by his uncle Charlie:
So, a guy from Pennsylvania finds himself in a bar in Alabama. The locals, rightfully suspicious, ask what he does for a living. He says, "I'm a taxidermist."
"What the heck's that mean?" is the reply.
"Well," he says, "I mount dead animals."
And after a quick huddle, the assembled slap the visiting Yankee on the back and say, "It's all right, boys; he's one of us!"
And Mary, that's how we feel about you.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Percy Jackson doesn't exactly have the makings of a hero. He's ADHD, dyslexic, and has never lasted an entire year at any school. He's not bad - chaos just seems to erupt around him.
But at his most recent school, a boarding facility for troubled youth, things are a little weirder than usual. Any school year when your math teacher tries to kill you on a class field trip qualifies as a little out of the ordinary. Then, Percy discovers that his best friend, Grover, is a satyr, that his Latin teacher is a centaur, and that he has to leave school immediately for the safe haven of Camp Half-Blood.
Because Percy is a demigod, the bastard son of Poseidon, and not a few Furies, hell hounds, and major deities want him dead.
At Camp Half-Blood, Percy meets the children of Dionysus, Athena, and all of Ares's horrible, violent little brats. But his time there is fairly short, because bad things are stirring on Mount Olympus that could lead to all-out celestial warfare. And though he's only just come into his powers, and barely understands them, Percy is sent out with Grover and Annabeth, one of Athena's daughters, to save humanity and the heavens.
The story of a young chosen hero, his two best friends, a brainy girl and a doofy boy, sent off on a quest to save the world and defeat great evil may sound a little familiar. However, The Lightning Thief owes more to Neil Gaiman than to J.K. Rowling, kind of an American Gods for the preteen set. But while it's a bit derivative, it's very funny, very exciting, and very well-written. The Lightning Thief has a distinctive, fresh voice that will appeal to Rowling fans, and never feels like a rip-off.
This is the first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The second and third titles, The Sea of Monsters and The Titan's Curse were released in 2006 and this May, respectively.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
To everyone looking for Victorian pornography, all I have here is a review of All Will Be Revealed by Robert Anthony Siegel. Titillating, to be sure, but probably not what you're looking for.
And all that talk about "survivalist compounds" was just me blowing off steam over my stupid cable company.
And to the people looking for the "narwhal skeleton," um, sorry.
Seriously, that last one comes up, like, a lot more often than you would think.
Despite its sensationalist title, Murphy's book provides a surprisingly level-headed look at the similarities and differences between the Roman Empire and the United States. More importantly, it is a highly accessible point of entry to those whose knowledge of said Empire is limited to Caligula, Hadrian's Wall, lead poisoning, vomitoriums (a myth!), and gladiators.
Sadly, I am one of those people. I blame my high school teachers, who started every school year with an obligatory week on Native Americans, followed by Jamestown, and petering out around World War II in mid-May. In 11th grade, we made it all the way to Vietnam, and that was pretty cool.
But as much as I enjoyed Are We Rome?, it's possible that I appreciated Murphy's extensive bibliography even more. I know what I'm reading next to fill in the shameful gaps in my education.
More knowledgeable reviews by people with a better classics background than I are available at Salon, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. Murphy was a managing editor of the Atlantic for many years, but almost more impressive is his 25-year stint as writer of Prince Valiant. How's that for a resume?
It is a zombie choose your own adventure.
And now my life is complete...er, literally. Dang zombies.
Your Score: Red Shirt
You killed 18 zombies and earned 14 manliness points!
You've contributed heavily to the excitement of the story, but ultimately died in the end. What can I say? I guess you weren't the main character.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a work of chick lit must be in want of a noose.
Yet somehow, I found myself checking this frothy novel out of the library and reading it in a day. Hey, it's a very short book, and besides, I loved Mr. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice.
Jane is a Manhattan singleton in her early 30s who keeps the BBC's Pride & Prejudice, starring perennial singleton crush Colin Firth, hidden in her apartment. One afternoon Jane receives a visit from a wealthy, elderly aunt who spots the DVDs, and immediately infers that Jane is a pathetic sap with unrealistic expectations about finding 19th century love in 21st century New York.
Then Aunt Carolyn dies, and leaves Jane a 3-week, all expenses paid vacation to Austenland, a Regency estate where guests dress in period clothing, swoon, play whist, and meet handsome landed gentry, played by actors. Jane hopes she can use the trip to separate her own romantic ideals from reality, and put the Mr. Darcy daydreams behind her once and for all.
The estate and its guests are weird and sad, and at first, Jane is keenly aware of this. However, she's read her Gothic romances, even Northanger Abbey, and finds she's exceptionally good at playing her role. She minces, she bats her eyes, she banters wittily, all the while reminding herself that none of it is real. Until she meets an unsuitable gardener, and a sullen, darkly handsome man who is, of course, infuriating.
The first 20 pages of the book are almost unreadable, but once the improbable set-up is out of the way, Austenland becomes rather charming, with fun period details and spirited dialogue. However, the characters are a little flat and underdeveloped, even our protagonist, whose ideas about romantic love seem more rooted in the 7th grade than the 19th century.
Still, it's fun, and enough off the beaten path of standard chick lit tropes that it doesn't feel tired. If you liked Bridget Jones's Diary, you'll get a kick out of this.*
* A note on the original singleton, Ms. Jones. I tried to read Bridget Jones's Diary when I was about 20, and I practically threw it across the room. Then, I tried it again a few years later, and thought it was adorable. I'm still not sure if this means that I became a bad feminist after college, or if I just lightened up a little bit.
A word of advice for all you out there who are considering fictionalizing crimes you've committed: don't make the murder/crime exactly like yours. Mix it up a little. Maybe you could add a sidekick?
Also - and I can't stress this enough - don't include details that only the cops and the culprit could know. That's a rookie mistake, like leaving part of your clown suit at the crime scene.
My question is...does this make anyone who read it an accessory after the fact?
I'm going to go with "Yes. Yes it does."
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
I posted this review during the Blogathon, but since the post was only on top for 30 minutes, and since the book is astonishingly good, very important, and soon to be released, I thought I'd reprint it.
A reporter for the Times-Picayune since 1984, Rose has covered everything from the city's crime to its nightlife, and despite being a Yankee transplant, it's hard to imagine anyone with deeper pride in and love for New Orleans.
In the days immediately following Katrina, Rose and other reporters returned to the city to put out a paper, covering the news from their bicycles. By now, everyone has seen the images from the Lower Ninth Ward and the Superdome, and knows about the colossal, nightmarish tragedy of incompetence that followed on the heels of the storm. But what Rose writes about in his columns is a tragedy of a different sort.
After the Convention Center and the Superdome were evacuated, after the floodwaters subsided, the remaining population of New Orleans set about the task of putting their lives back together. The columns, published between 2005 and 2006, compiled in 1 Dead in Attic describe exactly what that process means, and the toll that it took on those who chose to rebuild in the face of civil unrest, civic inaction, and several kinds of bureaucratic hell. And to read Rose's columns is to watch a witty, intelligent, empathetic man slowly crack up under the burdens of stress, heartbreak, frustration, and loss.
In a straightforward and unapologetic voice, Rose writes about the "thousand yard stare" of survivors, the uncontrollable crying jags. The gamut of ugly, messy human emotion that rears its head after "the Thing" has range as well as teeth, and Rose's stories embody the gratitude, gallows humor, sadness, desperation, pettiness, and rage welling up in himself and those around him. Some of these stories are easier to get through than others.
In "Enough To Feed an Army," Rose describes finding a freezer-full of perfectly intact and gorgeous steaks a week after the storm, which he and friends cook up for the California National Guard to say thank you. It's a sincere, beautiful story, devoid of any schmaltziness. And there are other stories where Rose can't help but wonder at the wonder of it all. To be alive, to have hope, to go to Jazzfest is sometimes enough. Except when it isn't.
Despair peeks around the corners of a seemingly humorous column about going through airport security with a suitcase containing 15 naked Barbie dolls for his daughter while she and the rest of his family stay in Maryland with his parents. Later in the book, as post-traumatic stress and depression set in, Rose's humorous stories become scary-funny.
He accosts a random stranger he catches littering, participates in a passive-aggressive neighborhood refrigerator-dumping war, blacks out while covering a story and spends an afternoon on a sidewalk drifting in and out of consciousness. Rose milks these stories for laughs, and sometimes you catch yourself smiling even as a little voice in the back of your head says, "This isn't funny."
These stories culminate in Rose's widely syndicated essay on his decision to get help for depression, "Hell and Back." It's a remarkable piece of writing, and you can read it here.
The book is a must-read for those seeking to understand the aftermath of the storm, beyond FEMA trailers and the Superdome - the real day-to-day in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Tucked in there as well is a subtle message to the rest of the country about what New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast need today, almost two years after the storm.
In one column, Rose writes, "Tell them that New Orleans is still the best city in America. Tell them to come see for themselves, that we're happy, hopeful, joyful, and celebratory still. Then tell them this: New Orleans is a broken, suffering mess, weakened and scared... Got that? It's simple: Everything is fine here. But it's not fine."
More of Rose's column are available at http://www.nola.com/rose.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
I don't expect anyone to come out of this book smelling like a rose, but my money's on Clapton for being the true stinker, having basically stolen George Harrison's wife. Granted, George didn't seem to get the whole "matrimony means no extra girlfriends" thing, but writing and recording a song about your best friend's wife is just tacky.*
The Daily Mail has an excerpt here. I especially like the part where Clapton tells her, "Run away with me or I'll start doing smack" and then spends the next three years on the nod.
* Also, "Layla" is kind of an overrated song, if ya ask me. Blah blah "got me on my knees" noodley-noodle, wanky-wank, LAYYYYYYYlla, piano outro and fin. It's no "London Calling" or "Born to Run" is all I'm sayin.
Monday, August 06, 2007
Ah, YouTube. What would I do without you? (Work, probably.)
Check out this clip in which an audience member at Comic Con asks Neil Gaiman how he got his imagination, apparently hoping that Neil will let slip the source of his Secret Writer Mojo (tm), so that said audience member can also become a well-regarded writer of fantasy novels, comics, screenplays, etc.
Gaiman, of course, fails to give the guy a straight answer. But then again, everybody knows that the best way to take someone's powers and add them to your own is to pluck their heart out of their chest, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Omnumshibah!) So you can see why Neil might not want to broadcast that sort of thing.*
Don't forget, Stardust (based on an enjoyable, if somewhat twee Gaiman novel) opens up this weekend.
* You know, this was funnier in my head. As it is, it kind of reads a little weird. Ah well.
(Note to Mr. Gaiman's lawyers: I'm totally kidding about the whole "Temple of Doom" thing. Besides, if a few semesters of college Anthropology taught me anything, it's that shrinking heads is actually the best way to gain the powers of your foes.)