Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Obligatory Best Books of 2007 List: Nonfiction

1. 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose
A couple of year ago my friend, Pat Woolf, introduced me to Chris Rose's post-Katrina columns in the Times-Picayune, and I became an avid reader. This compilation of columns on life in the Big Uneasy, the oddly funny, the gut-wrenchingly sad, and the too twisted for color television, is far and away the best book I read this year. A couple of months ago, Rose was invited to appear on Oprah for her Katrina anniversary show. Problem was, they only wanted him to talk about his experience with PTSD and depression; he was explicitly forbidden from mentioning his book, which had been released the week before. Clearly, I do not have Oprah's hit-making track record with book recommendations, but if she wouldn't do it, I feel obligated to say my little bit on Rose's behalf.

2. The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski

I heard my boss talk about this book during a program at the liberry, and I think he summed it up best. So, to paraphrase him, Buck O'Neil was such a big-hearted and charming man that he's often idealized. Posnanski presents a realistic O'Neil, a man who sometimes gets tired and cranky, who wishes he'd been a better husband. However, by taking him down from the pedestal, O'Neil becomes even more admirable -- an extraordinary human being, not just a baseball figurehead. Two hundred pages isn't nearly enough time to spend with him.

3. The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond
This unbelievable true story of a woman who kidnapped poor children from their families, and sold them to wealthy adoptive families, and whose monstrous legacy impacts U.S. adoptees to this day had me gasping (and cussing) within the first five pages.

4. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
Another unbelievable and shocking account, Eddie Chapman's adventures as a double agent for MI-5 during World War II read like something straight out of a Ken Follett spy novel.

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

Roiphe's highly readable account of seven literary marriages shows how very unconventional people made a go of a very traditional institution. And how H.G. Wells was not going to win any husband of the year awards.

6. Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
The always engaging and frank Gawande turns in another stellar collection of essays. Whether you're a medical professional or a patient, it's impossible to come away from one of his pieces without a more thoughtful, nuanced perception of health care.

7. Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen
Lindeen's story of paying her dues big time in a band that only achieved mid-level success is funny, touching, and many cuts above the average rock and roll memoir.

8. Ask a Mexican: Everything You Wanted to Know About Mexicans but Were Too Politically Correct to Ask by Gustavo Arellano

While the premise of Arellano's popular syndicated column may seem, um, wrong, this collection is consistently entertaining, well-informed, and appropriately wise-assed. Whether he's dealing with xenophobic Minutemen, well-meaning gringos, or confused third generation Latinos, Arellano spins even the most offensive, empty-headed questions into cultural studies gold in 500 words or less.

9. Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

In 1997, Sheffield's wife, Renee, died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31. Sheffield reflects on her life, and the music that brought them together in this incredibly sad and sweet memoir.

10. The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh
Walsh goes the extra mile to create an account that perfectly captures the messed up, drunken angel spirit of the 'Mats, even though fans probably would have gobbled up any old thing.

I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Alex Chilton turns 57 today. How does he stay so damn good-looking?

I plan to put on Like Flies on Sherbert later tonight, and listen to his wonderfully depressing, slurry cover of "Boogie Shoes."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Death of a Prime Minister

An interview with Benazir Bhutto, from the Nov. 2007 issue of Glamour magazine:

"We have to deal with the madrassa system [of fundamentalist Islamic education]. The madrassa is supposed to be a school. But the law of the land does not allow you to teach people to kill others in the name of religion. These schools have become a decoy—they have suicide bombers, they have rocket launchers, they give refuge to militants. These people are teaching hate, and I think that should not be permitted. When I was prime minister the World Trade Center had already been attacked [this was the first attack, in 1993]. So we arrested the mastermind of that attack. We found out his connection to some of the madrassas. Then we started cleaning up the madrassas, and this is what led to the backlash against my government."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh

It's incredibly tempting to allow this review to devolve into a shortlist of my favorite personal recollections about the Replacements. In fact, the only thing holding me back is the knowledge that everybody latches onto the same things about the Replacements, and has the same sorts of insights.

I know this for a fact because I wrote an essay about them in college, before all those Replacements essays and personal narratives were easily available on the internet. I wrote the thing in a freakin' vacuum, and although it was judged good, and published in this compilation of the year's best essays written at my school and I still think it has some nice stuff in it, it sounds exactly like every other essay that has ever been written about the Replacements.

Walsh's book, however, does not. Sure, there's a healthy sprinkling of stories from people whose big brothers and sisters passed down their 'Mats mix tapes, and people who saw a show or two; however, most of the book's interviews come from folks who were there, who knew the band, and who helped them along on the way up. It's a Twin Cities townie kind of book, and Walsh's interviews soak up that mid-80s so uncool it's cool Midwestern indie rock vibe that never really ended.

Words from Paul, Tommy, and clearly, Bob, are clipped from previously published interviews; however, there are plenty of good bits from Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap, both of whom come across as thoughtful, diplomatic, stand-up guys. Others interviewed extensively for the book include Twin/Tone founders Peter Jesperson and Paul Stark, Soul Asylum guitarist and founder Danny Murphy, band friends and family members, and Alex Chilton, who is, oddly enough, pleasant as punch and talkative, to boot.

Does the whole story get told? Of course not. It probably never will be, but All Over But the Shouting is just about everything a fan could ask of an unauthorized Replacements book. Besides, a girl's gotta have some mystery.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Obligatory Best Books of 2007 List, Which I Will Enjoy Making Way Too Much: Fiction

There's a little bit of everything here -- my favorites of the year include some horror, some crime, some historical fiction, and even a YA novel.

1. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
When I reviewed this book in June, I said it was the best thing I'd read all year. It held up. And I haven't been so thoroughly terrified by a book since I read It under the covers in 8th grade.

2. Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee
Gee's fictionalized account of the events surrounding Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" has steamy, forbidden romance, regicidal plots, and the best, wittiest dialogue of any book of 2007.

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The story of Dominican uber-geek Oscar de Leon, his family, and the bloody dictatorship of Trujillo actually lives up to all its glowing reviews, and then some.

4. World Without End by Ken Follett
Because I'm a sucker for a big fat medieval soap opera, especially when it involves the plague.

5. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
Even though it's not quite as good as its predecessor, The Lies of Locke Lamora (which made my Best of 2006 list), Lynch does things with a plot that shouldn't be possible, probable, or attempted at all by lesser writers, which is pretty much everyone.

6. The Song is You by Megan Abbott
Based on the unsolved disappearance of Hollywood bit player Jean Spangler in 1949, Abbott's second novel is pulpy, thrilling, pitch perfect L.A. noir.

7. Them by Nathan McCall
McCall's thought-provoking novel about the impact of gentrification on Atlanta's Fourth Ward never shies away from uncomfortable truths, even though its characters do -- sometimes with tragic results.

8. Dancing to 'Almendra' by Mayra Montero
Not technically a 2007 release, since it was published in Spanish in 2005; however, Montero's story of a young Cuban reporter tracking down the connections between a gangster gunned down in a New York barber shop and a hippo gunned down in a Havana zoo is too good to leave off the list.

9. Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki
In addition to medieval soap operas, I'm also a sucker for big messy family sagas. Farooki's story of a Bangladeshi-Pakistani family bound together by an almost congenital penchant for deception and betrayal delivers big drama with a light, almost whimsical touch.

10. Beige by Cecil Castellucci
The bland, shy Katy is shipped to Los Angeles for the summer to live with her ex-junkie punk rock dad, and big city hijinks, unlikely friendships, and un-lame personal growth ensue. Why were young adult novels not this cool when I was growing up?

Next week, the best nonfiction of 2007.


Out of idle curiosity, I decided to find out how many books I've reviewed this year.

Turns out, there were 95 of them in 2007. This does not count books Brady reviewed that I did not read, cookbooks, various comics rants, books I plan to review before the end of the year, or books I reviewed for other places. Throw those in, and it's at about 130.

I'll admit, I did experience a brief moment of "Holy crap, I have no life." But then I thought about all the things I did this year that did not involve books, and realized there were a whole lot of them, many involving the company of other people. And then I felt better.

In fact, I felt sort of awesome.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dorothy Parker on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key

Stumbled upon this tonight while idly browsing through The Complete New Yorker DVD Set I got for Christmas last year, from the April 25, 1931 issue:

"It is true that he has all the mannerisms of Hemingway, with no inch of Hemingway's scope nor flicker of Hemingway's beauty. It is true that when he seeks to set down a swift, assured, well-bred young woman, he devises speeches for her such as are only equaled by the talk Mr. Theodore Dreiser compiled for his society flapper in "An American Tragedy." It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn. And it is also true that he is a good, hell-bent, cold-hearted writer, with a clear eye for the ways of hard women and a fine ear for the words of hard men, and his books are exciting and powerful and - if I may filch a word from the booksy ones - pulsing. . . Brutal he is, but his brutality, for what he must write, is clean and necessary. . .He sets down only what his characters say, and what they do."

The Glass Key, however, she describes as a bit labored. Fair enough, but it (and Red Harvest) did make a heck of a movie.

Also, come to think of it, Hammett and Parker would have been a great team in a screwball comedy.

* If there is a nerd in your life, you should seriously consider getting them The Complete New Yorker. Thanks, dad!

Monday, December 17, 2007

"There Goes the Neighborhood": Them by Nathan McCall

Them by Nathan McCall

In Nathan McCall's examination of the dark side of gentrification, Barlowe Reed is a printer who lives in Atlanta's Fourth Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pushing 40, Reed decides it's time to settle down and sets about trying to buy the house he rents from his evasive, white landlord.

The reason for the landlord's reluctance soon becomes clear as realtors begin snooping around the neighborhood, and striking deals with its residents. Soon, "For Sale" signs start popping up in front yards, and moving vans carting white middle class suburbanites and their Pottery Barn furnishings begin to appear in front of the houses. And whitey has some definite ideas about how "their" new neighborhood ought to be shaping up.

Longtime residents of the historically black Fourth Ward are initially wary of their new neighbors, and vice versa; however, these feelings quickly evolve into something much uglier. Reed strikes up a tentative friendship with his next-door-neighbor Sandy Gilmore, a well-meaning, if annoyingly naive white woman. Sandy is determined to fit into the Fourth Ward, while her husband, Sean, adopts more of a siege mentality. While Reed and Sandy attempt to broker some kind of peace in the neighborhood, Sean throws in, almost gleefully, with their "us versus them" white neighbors.

The book is strangely reminiscent of Tom Perrotta's suburban wastelands, with national dramas being enacted on a local scale. McCall does an excellent job of handling all sides of the class and race warfare that erupts in the book, and hints at the idea that the source of the problem lies more with the faceless realty companies and civil bureaucracies (entities which Reed uniformly refers to as "Caesar") than with individual players. Additionally, Reed is a fully realized and wonderfully complex character, whose attitude towards the future of his neighborhood shifts believably during the course of the book.

Supporting characters, unfortunately, are a bit more wooden and sometimes fall into caricature. However, McCall still carries out that delicate task of writing a book that addresses big, sometimes abstract issues head-on without sacrificing the personal struggles of most characters and their stories to didacticism. It's one of my favorite books of the year, and dare I haul out the term, an important one.

Bits and Pieces

The always incredible "David House" in Hancock Park is aglow in all its holiday splendor.

The 1947project offers a selection of gift ideas for the criminally minded.

In a rant against the wussy, oversexualized Disney Princesses, Barbara Ehrenreich stops just short of calling the Disney Corporation a bunch of pederasts.

And finally, Arthur C. Clarke reflects upon the space age, extraterrestrial life, his 90 orbits of the planet here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Filing Is My Forte": Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

As she prepares to graduate from high school, pep squad captain Lois Lenz is feeling awfully mixed up about her future and about her feelings for her gorgeous best friend, Faye. However, she's resigned to attending the local community college, pledging a sorority, and settling down like a good 1950s girl. Or, that is, until the school guidance counselor singles her out for her remarkable organizational skills, and offers to set her up with a secretarial position.

Despite her mother's fears of Communists, white slavers, and other threats to the virtue of small town girls, Lois strikes out for Bay City and the prestigious advertising firm of Sather & Stirling. As one concession to her worried mom, Lois does move into a women's boardinghouse, the Magdalena Arms. She's thrilled to be surrounded by vivacious career girls like herself, although she can't help noticing that they all seem a little, well, queer.

But that's nothing compared to life at Sather & Stirling, where no one is quite what they seem and everybody has something to hide. Lois soon finds herself swept up in blackmail plots, missing persons, and sinister filing schemes, with a predatory boss and duplicitous co-workers, to boot. Armed only with her wits and her copy of the Standard Secretary's Desk Reference, Fourth Edition, Lois must prove that she has what it takes to make her way in the business world. But surely there's time for a little bit of love and self-discovery along the way?

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary may have a saucy premise, but somehow manages to be steamily PG-13. Nolan focuses more attention on a colorful cast of characters, and a terrifically fun plot that embraces the tropes of lesbian pulp and runs with them. Not just for a gay audience, Lois Lenz will appeal to lovers of all things pulp, camp, and cult.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cookbooks for Music Lovers

It's time for another fresh-baked batch of cookbook gift ideas. While each of these books include a few sad bachelor/strung out junkie/demented 50s housewife recipes, you'll be surprised who pulls their weight in the kitchen. Pearl Jam and Young MC can cook for me anytime. Annette Funicello, not so much

Rappers' Delights: African-American Cookin' With Soul by Al Pereira

It's my belief that any cookbook that contains Flavor Flav's recipe for Rice Pilaf is worth checking out. Especially when the instructions end, "Then it's ready for Flav, I'm tryin' to tell you right now!"

Other drool-inducing soul food entries include Queen Latifah's Royal Turkey Cutlets, Kool Moe Dee's Shrimp Scampi, and Just-Ice's Hot Curried Goat.

The Country Music Cookbook by Dick and Sandy St. John

The St. Johns have compiled two music cookbooks, both of which attempt to mash the title of a hit song by the musician in with the name of the recipe. As a result, you wind up cooking stuff like "Achy Breaky Garlic Bread Sticks" and "The Devil Goes Down to Georgia for Charlie's Diet Chili."

Silly, yes. However, their hearts were in the right places, as all proceeds from the book went to the National Music Foundation. And they got a really nice turnout, with all the big country stars submitting in force. So, if you've ever wondered what Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton make for dessert, now you can know.

The Rock and Roll Cookbook by Dick and Sandy St. John

And I've saved the wackiest for last. Following the same format as the Country Music Cookbook, Dick and Dee Dee have assembled a truly bizarre assortment of musicians for this collection (which includes a forward and recipe by Pamela Des Barres).

The contributors include a large number of doo-wop and R&B groups and 60s teen heartthrobs, but then you'll turn the page and find a cornbread recipe from Fred Schneider of The B-52s or Kurt Cobain's recipe for squash soup or Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols instructing you to eat his recipe with your fingers. And then there's some artists who would only be included in a cookbook published in 1993: The Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum, and yes, Hammer (as in, please don't hurt 'em with your barbecued ribs).

And again, the recipe titles are great. A couple of choice ones include: "All I Really Want to Do Is Make You Salade Nicoise" and "My Boyfriend's Back 'Cause He Loves My Mocha Cheesecake."

Hey la, hey la.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sadly Beautiful: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

"It's about a married couple, Ambrose and Zappora, but everyone calls her Zipper. And they're a team, and they've been married for years, but are still in love. And when Ambrose is 50, he goes to the doctor for a physical and finds out he has a month to live."

"Now, when Ambrose was a little boy, he was obsessed with travel, and he'd always write letters to the embassies in other countries saying he was planning a visit, and would they please send him 'any and all information concerning their fine country.' So when he finds out he's going to die, he and Zipper go on a trip to all the places in the world they found most beautiful or special, in alphabetical order. A is for Amsterdam, B is for Berlin, C is for Chartres."

"They go to all these wonderful places and do romantic things, and they try to have fun. But it's too sad, and they can't help getting crabby with each other even though it's the last trip they'll ever take together. And when they get to Istanbul, they have to go home because he gets too sick..."

And at that point in recounting The End of the Alphabet to Brady, I burst into tears.

It's a tiny book, barely over 100 pages. However, the sadness is packed in tight, and not a word of it is banal or corny or emotionally manipulative. It's a beautifully written book.

If you liked...: About Alice by Calvin Trillin or Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield, this book is for you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Gentleman Spy: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Okay, this one is total Dad-bait, but Macintyre's account of Eddie Chapman, a small time crook, safe blower, and Lothario turned double agent, is one of those thrilling true stories that actually reads like fiction.

While being held in a German prison camp in France, Chapman's criminal past and vocal hatred of Britain attracted the attention of the Abwehr. He was recruited and trained as a Nazi spy, and dropped into the English countryside with a radio, British currency, a cyanide capsule, and a mission to destroy a British aircraft factory. He'd warmed to his Abwehr mentors, and they to him; as far as they knew, Chapman was a loyal Nazi spy.

However, the first thing Chapman did when he landed was to surrender to the British Secret Service. And the MI-5 had plans for him.

What makes the book so captivating is the complexity of Chapman's character. He was, before the war, an uneducated crook, yet he never failed to charm and enchant those who met him. When deciding what to do with the captured Chapman, a Secret Service agent asked Chapman's old buddy filmmaker Terence Young (who would go on to direct three Bond movies) for a character reference.

Young told him, "One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probably that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out."

If he'd been born in another time, who knows what would have become of Eddie Chapman? But war, which frequently makes monsters of men, gave Chapman's considerable talent for treachery and deception a legitimate outlet, and arguably, turned him into a hero.

If you like...: the spy novels of John Le Carre or Ken Follett (especially The Eye of the Needle, which resonates more than a little with the details of Chapman's life), this book is for you.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Cookbooks for Eccentric Friends and Family

Cookbooks make holiday great gifts, especially if they're selected with the personality of the recipient in mind. A Food Network cookbook can appeal to anyone, and is hence, a lousy gift, while something like The Official Three Stooges Cookbook or The Ethnic Vegetarian will win you major thoughtfulness points. Here are a few hand-picked goodies -- perhaps one will be perfect for the oddball in your life.

For the historical re-enactor:
Festive Feasts Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

Everything you need to craft ten themed period dinner parties, including a meal at the court of Lucrezia Borgia, a banquet with the Mughal Emperor, or dinner with Queen Elizabeth I. Published by the British Museum, the illustrations are exquisite.

For the surrealist:
The Futurist Cookbook by F.T. Marinetti

At once a manifesto and an epic joke, the meals formulated by "Futurist Aeropoet" Marinetti lean more towards revolutionizing pre-Fascist Italy than the table. At least 2/3 of the introduction is a rant against pasta, but the menus themselves are something to see: the Extremist Banquet, the Heroic Winter Dinner, and the Declaration of Love Dinner, in which the courses are named for the stages of a seduction. Hot stuff.

For the lover of kitsch:
Liberace Cooks!: Hundreds of Delicious Recipes for You from His Seven Dining Rooms as told to Carol Truax

When Carol Truax asked Liberace, "What do you do with seven dining rooms?" Liberace replied, "Come to Hollywood, and I'll show you." The book is divided into sections, each including recipes that would be appropriately served in one of Lee's dining rooms: the club room, the terrace, the formal dining room, or even in the television room. The recipes will make you wish you could have been a fly on the serving dish at one of Liberace's cookouts on the loggia or heaping a plate at one of his Vegas-style buffet dinners. However, my favorite is the "Do It Yourself and Eat It Yourself" chapter, which is bachelor cooking at its most refined. We mere mortals would consider these dishes the makings of a fine brunch, while Liberace probably just whipped them up for himself and ate them over the stove.

Bon appetit! More to follow...

Bits and Pieces

From Judith Freeman's excellent-looking The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, a map of Chandler's 35 homes, 24 of which were in Los Angeles, and one of which I recently visited.
(Via LAist)

And from today's recipe round-up:

Christmas Cookies from Around the World: Food Blogga's diabolically clever scheme to acquire cookie recipes. I feel strangely compelled to make Finnish Christmas Tarts.
Sweet Potato Scones
Shrimp and Grits (and they're cheese grits, too!)