Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Best Moment on the 2008 Campaign Trail

There's an interesting round-up on Politico, of scholars, pundits, lobbyists, and heads of think tanks, all recalling the moment in this Presidential campaign that was most memorable for them.

I know mine, no question, and only one other person mentioned it: the beautiful, thoughtful, nuanced speech that Barack Obama gave in the wake of the Reverend Wright "scandal," the best political speech I have heard in my lifetime.

The person who pointed it out, Eric Liu, said of the speech, "Under even ordinary circumstances, to have offered such a transcendent meditation on race and American identity would have been remarkable; to have created it under attack and when his campaign was in grave danger was stunning."

Here's just one of the many best parts of that speech:

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prayer Pimples for Hairy Fishnuts?

So here I sit, hiding from my colleagues, because the second to last "Opus" got me choked up and weepy. And now my eyes are all red and I'm dreading someone walking in and asking me what's up, to which I will have to reply, "I just saw the Starship Enterpoop, and the two hours I spent every Christmas Eve from ages 9-12 reading old Bloom County books by the wall heater before finally falling asleep came rushing back at me like a damn freight train."

(Why yes, as a child I slept with a stuffed Opus instead of a teddy bear. Didn't everybody?)

I don't think Breathed is going where it looks like he's going with this - and if he does go that route, I'm sure it will be excellent, in a heart-rending kind of way.

Or, rather, I think I know where Opus will end up, I'm just not sure how he's going to get there.

What I do know is that Opus seems to be stuck in an animal shelter at the moment, and I will probably spend some time this Sunday reading old my old Bloom County books either way. And possibly sobbing like a small child with a skint knee.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Eatin': A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis


A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis

Davis's first novel about a teenage girl with culinary aspirations is as warm, sweet, and comforting as a piece of homemade gingerbread.

Okay, that was a cheesy way to begin this, but after reading the wonderful A La Carte, I've got food on the brain, and anyways, it's true.

Lainey isn't a unique YA protagonist because she has ambitious goals for herself, or even because her dream of being a chef with her own vegetarian cooking show is so unusual (as Lainey says at the beginning of the book, "Do you know how many African-American female chefs there aren't?"), but because she's so clearly well-suited for and up to the challenge.

Her mother is a chef-partner at a local soul food-French/Asian fusion restaurant, and Lainey spends a lot of time there, whipping egg whites, chopping onions, and slowly but surely, earning her right to saute with the big dogs. And when she's not there, chances are good that she's at home testing out a recipe for vegetable latkes or poring over her old Julia Child videos (Saint Julia, Lainey calls her).

Of course, Lainey's dreams have come at a price - she's almost totally isolated from anyone her own age, and her only friend is the hot-and-cold Simeon, who only seems to come around when he needs a favor. With anyone else, Lainey is prickly and stand-offish, but she finds herself completely helpless to resist the charms of her childhood friend. And as Simeon's requests become increasingly erratic and more troubling, Lainey finds herself driven away from the people in her life who truly care about her. Though Lainey's self-imposed desert island and her doormat behavior where Simeon is concerned are frustrating, these things also make her a believable character readers can truly root for.

And did I mention the food? Each chapter ends with a recipe, each of them more delicious-sounding than the last. And these aren't the kind of glorified nachos, mini-pizzas, and brownies recipes that usually bloat the pages of cookbooks for teens. They're challenging, "think like a chef," a la Tom Colicchio, recipes that invite experimentation and improvisation, and yet they're also perfectly within the range of a curious young cook. And what's more, they're healthy, vegetarian, and not from a box.

A La Carte is a terrific read, and was recently nominated for a Cybil for Best Young Adult Novel. Well deserved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

News Flash: LAT Readers Deserve Better

When the Los Angeles Times cut its standalone Sunday book review, I was annoyed. When the Business and Real Estate sections were whittled to pale imitations of their former selves, I was confused. When scores of talented staffers and editors were laid off or offered buyouts, forcing the paper to operate on a skeleton crew, I was furious.

And now they've gone and uglied up the layout something fierce, and I've just about given up caring.

Many Angelenos angrier and better-informed than I have voiced their complaints about Sam Zell and his shameful gutting of our city's once-great paper. So never mind about the fact that I now get my book news from blogs, and preferred the New York Times's coverage of the Dodgers' postseason (and never mind that sports columnist Bill Plaschke has decided to "boycott" the World Series for reasons both mysterious and profoundly stupid - whatever).

At the heart of this is that the Los Angeles Times was one of the things that made me excited about moving to the city almost four years ago. I started reading it before the move, right around the time of the paper's Pulitzer-winning coverage about deplorable conditions at King/Drew Hospital.

I read that series and thought, that's good reporting, that's a newspaper I'll be proud to read.

And now, it isn't.

Also, it's really, really thin these days.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

At-Bat Music: A Moral Question

So, during the odious Game 5 of the NLCS in which our beloved Dodgers had their clocks collectively cleaned, we did find a moment to remark on Casey Blake's choice of at-bat music, as the Bearded One seemed to have selected some sort of emo rocker tune.

This was odd. More research was needed.

But fortunately, an enterprising soul has put together a list of off-beat at-bat music selections throughout MLB. And boy, oh boy, there are some doozies there.

For starters, since it was him that inspired me to track this down: Casey? The Killers? Really?

However, this was not the most egregious song choice on the list. Anyone who gets pumped up by the musical stylings of Creed or Collective Soul does not deserve to have music in their lives. Tom Glavine and Manny Delcarmen, I'm talking to you. And AJ Burnett, "Hangin' Tough?" Are you a 13-year-old girl circa 1990?

But there are some choice selections. Jeremy Sowers of the Cleveland Indians favors the Wilco tune, "Pot Kettle Black," Rich Aurilia of the Giants likes "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," and Jimmy Gobble of the Kansas City Royals has selected "Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle.

However, the best song on the list by far goes to Jed Lowrie of the Boston Red Sox, and it causes me pain to say something nice about the Red Sox, but when your at-bat music is "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones, all I can say is, sir, you win the prize for being cool.

As for myself, I've given the matter a lot of thought, and if, after the apocalypse, I find myself somehow qualified to play on a Major League team, my at-bat music would be "Wreck My Flow" by The Dirtbombs.

Also, "Debaser" would be cool.

So, what's your at-bat music?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Road to Anaheim: Orange County: A Personal History by Gustavo Arellano


Orange County: A Personal History by Gustavo Arellano

There's a very significant difference between me, a blandly white mutt of German and Scotch-Irish heritage, and Gustavo Arellano, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant: his family has been in the United States longer than mine has.

And while our forefathers took similarly miserable jobs, mine working in coal mines and steel mills, his picking oranges and packing tomatoes, so that their children could someday go to college and get cushy professional jobs, there's another major difference.

Nobody ever called me names, blamed me for ruining America, or tried to legislate my family out of the country. My family is American, but in the eyes of many, Arellano's isn't.

Of course, this is beyond nutso, but then again, fate would lead Arellano's family to Orange County, one of the more nutso pieces of real estate in the United States, a nest of right-wing conspicuous consumers who love the Lord, but hate the immigrants - the land of Nixon, Minutemen, and Tammy Faye Bakker.

What made Orange County this way? It's perhaps too big a question for one book, so Arellano helpfully gives us two in Orange County: A Personal History. The first story is an irreverent, mightily refreshing history of Orange County that stands in stark contrast to most of the dry, whitewashed local histories of the region. Arellano tracks the settling of Orange County from its mission and orange grove days to the massive postwar migration, and then traces all its present-day conservatism, fundamentalism, isolationism, and racism right back to its roots. In his hands, Orange County is wittily dissected as postsuburbia, the Ellis Island of the 21st century, and "a petri dish for America's continuing democratic experiment."

But the second story, told in alternating chapters, is the story of the Arellanos in America, from his great-grandfather, chased out of town by a herd of potato-slinging youths to the author himself, and his transformation from geeky OC pocho to politically-conscious and sometimes controversial author of the syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican!"

Arellano is heartbreaking, sometimes cruel, and not always easy to read when talking about his parents' limited education ("I don't want to be like you and my mom, Papi"), his father's alcoholism during his early childhood, and the typical callousness of adolescence (none of the Arellano kids went to, or much cared about their father's citizenship ceremony). But it's all in the spirit of that all-too-rare a thing, thoughtful reflection on the past and the truthful memoir. And despite the distance he's travelled from his family's roots, it's also clear that Arellano takes a great deal of pride in their journey from the rural village of El Cargadero to Anaheim.

One small bone to pick, however. Though Arellano admits he's been called immature, perhaps a bit the result of sharing a bunk bed with his younger brother until well into his 20s, there are times when he describes women that I want to roll my eyes, and perhaps toss him into an ice bath or whack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. When a woman tells you she's not particularly fond of your column, it's probably not okay to write in your book, "Chula, I wasn't too fond of the spare tire around your midsection," nor to discuss a girl by saying, "Then I actually met her - I'm not going to describe the gal since she's very much a sweetheart, but let's just say she wasn't my type," nor to describe a crush as possessing "hips that moved like hydraulics." Sort of icky.

That tiny bit aside, I adored every minute of the book, as I do just about anything that Arellano writes. You'll have fun, you'll learn something, and if you're a pinche gabacho, you may just come a step or two closer to understanding why we as a nation need to stomp out this nastiness about immigration once and for all.

As Arellano says:

"As Orange County goes, so goes my family, and as my family has traversed through a century or assimilation and resistance, so will the United States - not the easiest of transitions, but always moving forward. Toward the fruit of knowledge - not an apple, but an orange. Picked by a Mexican, of course."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spy on the Luce: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant


The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant

To begin, let me just say that I am sapped, utterly sapped, after watching the Dodgers lose game 4 of the NCLS in the most heartbreaking manner possible. If I'd turned off my television/radio combo (Vin Scully on the radio, Fox announcers on mute) after the sixth inning, I'd honestly say it was one of the best ball games I'd ever seen. But then, it all just went to pot, and I am totally pinning this loss on Joe Torre, who pulled the smokin' Hong-Chih Kuo for absolutely no good reason.

Now that is off my chest, I am going to put on a brave face, and talk about this lovely book.

Roald Dahl wrote extensively about his wartime experiences, especially considering that he was invalided out of the RAF very early in World War II and saw little combat. However, it was in Washington, D.C., where Dahl was stationed as an attache for the British Embassy, that his writing career got its start.

Dahl hated the Embassy, hated the work, and hated his boss, the British pastoral relic, Lord Halifax. However, he quickly discovered that he liked the United States a great deal, and quickly began to move in powerful and influential circles thanks to his new-found mentor, the newspaper magnate Charles Marsh. As Dahl was a newly published writer, and cut a fine figure in his RAF uniform, he found himself in a position to befriend a variety of Washington insiders.

This brought him to the attention of William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, director of Britain's shadow embassy, the British Security Coordination (BSC). Since 1940, Stephenson had engaged a number of British agents inside the United States in an effort to encourage U.S. involvement in the war both by disseminating propaganda to foster sympathy for the British plight, and to discredit prominent isolationists like paranoid Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Dahl came on board with the BSC around 1943, its most important work had already been accomplished. Still, alongside agents who included Ian Fleming, David Ogilve, and Noel Coward, Dahl managed to make a mark. He befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace, among others, and in fact, lost the very first paycheck he ever earned from a story in a poker game with Harry Truman.

In addition to Dahl's powerful friends, the BSC was not above extracting intelligence through some good old-fashioned pillow talk, and set Dahl's dashing good looks to the task of seducing isolationist Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce (whose name I always enjoy saying in the voice of Mr. Burns).

Reporting back to base on that affair, an apparently exhausted Dahl complained, "That goddam woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddam nights." Quite reasonably, his superiors told him to lie back and think of England.

It's bits like these (and there are plenty of them) that make The Irregulars such a delight to read. Conant manages both a thorough and complex narrative of wartime Washington, and a wicked, gossipy scandal sheet of social gaffes and misdeeds.

It's awfully interesting, and awfully fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Speaking of Poetry and Baseball. . .

John Newbery's 1744 children's book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer, reminds us that B is, of course, for Baseball.*



And maybe it's just because I've been reading Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism, but the "moral" linking British mercantilism to base running is cracking me up something fierce.

---------------------

*Also, recall the wisdom of Uncle Shelby: "X is for xylophone, because X is always for xylophone."

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Extemporaneous Poetry of Vin Scully

We've been slack of late, I know. The reason? The Dodgers.

Apropos of the playoffs, the other night Mary and I were discussing whose jersey we would purchase, were we so inclined (and moneyed - those things are like 200 bucks, and that's cash that could be better spent on tickets). Mary was leaning towards Garciaparra - a classy guy, indeed - but there's only one name I'd want on mine: Scully. He is, after all, the poet laureate of baseball and one of the patron saints of this blog.

Seriously, imagine for a moment the yarns that would be spun at a dinner party made up of Vin Scully, Eugene Walter, Everette Maddox, and Elaine Dundy. The mind boggles.

Some might deride ol' Vin for rambling on at times, being too "flowery", or talking too much.

Heathens, all.

Consider this, from the third and final game against the Cubs last week:

(transcript via LAist - we were too busy gnawing our fingernails off to take such good notes)

"And the Dodgers are one out away. One sweet beautiful marvelous out away. They will take it any way shape or form. Strike out, ground ball, fly ball, fair ball, line drive, any way they can get their hands on it. That precious thing called the final out.

Broxton delivers, swung on and missed. And now it’s not one sweet precious out, it’s one sweet precious pitch. Listen to this crowd.

No balls and two strikes to Soriano. Broxton ready. Half swing strike three called and the Cubs are dead! [...]

And as the Dodgers mob each other traditionally out in front of the mound, the lost Cubs - a lot of them, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee - sitting motionless in the dugout, just staring like kids outside a candy store or like the uninvited to the party. Just staring, waiting, watching, knowing there’s nothing left but go back to the dressing room and fly back to a disappointed Chicago."


I swear, the man's voice is a time machine that takes me back to the years before steroids, ridiculous salaries, and the @)#&^% designated hitter.

So in the spirit of October goodness, here's Vin Scully's play-by-play for Sandy Koufax's perfect game in 1965 against the Cubs.

And better still, here's audio of Vin calling Hammerin' Hank Aaron's big hit - he starts at about 54 seconds in, after two lesser broadcasters whoop it up for a bit.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

No Doubt About It


Apparently, today is going to be a day where I write about everything except books.

I just heard that Lanny Frattare, the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates for 33 years, is retiring.

Frattare is a big part of the reason I'm a baseball fan today, partly because I used to listen to him on the radio, and partly because he signed a baseball for me.

But mostly, it's because he was once very nice to my mom. I wrote that story down about a year ago, and you can read it here.

The Potluck Foods of Civic Engagement

Tonight, Brady and I are going to watch the vice-presidential debates with some friends. This got me thinking about the debates of my youth. Bush and Ferraro, Quayle and Bentson, and my favorite in 1992: Quayle, Gore, and some other guy... I think it was Phil Hartman:



So, I wanted to bring some snacks for tonight, and all this thinking about those other debates made me realize that these snacks absolutely had to be deviled eggs and that vegetable pizza you make with crescent roll dough and cream cheese.

Two loose cannons, a live broadcast, and 80s food. I can't think of any other way I'd rather spend my evening.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mad Men: "Six Month Leave"

This week's episode of Mad Men made me think of a Sharon Olds poem from her collection The Dead and the Living.



"The Death of Marilyn Monroe"

The ambulance men touched her cold
body, lifted it, heavy as iron,
onto the stretcher, tried to close the
mouth, closed the eyes, tied the
arms to the sides, moved a caught
strand of hair, as if it mattered,
saw the shape of her breasts, flattened by
gravity, under the sheet
carried her, as if it were she,
down the steps.

These men were never the same. They went out
afterwards, as they always did,
for a drink or two, but they could not meet
each other's eyes.

Their lives took
a turn--one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him--a place where she
would be waiting,

and one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary
woman
breathing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

File Under: Comics I'm Not Reading Anymore


Under the able hand of Dan Slott, She-Hulk was easily one of my favorite current comic books.

There are so many reasons I shouldn't have liked it: it was a Marvel book, for starters, and a superhero one at that, and it was totally cheesecake (though always in a fun way, never a gross one).

But She-Hulk used to be so cool. It was weird and goofy and funny and meta. A good deal of this had to do with its focus not only on the brash, hard-partying She-Hulk, but on her meek, brainy, human alter ego, Jen Walters. She-Hulk fights in the streets, but Jen Walters, practices superhuman law, which is much cooler.

Except now, she doesn't. After Peter David took over the book last year, Jen Walters all but disappeared, as did the terrific setting at Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway, her superhuman law firm, and along with it, most of the best characters there.

And now She-Hulk is a stupid bounty hunter, and the book is no longer weird, goofy, fun, or meta. It's just another stupid Marvel superhero book.

And by stupid Marvel superhero book, I mean something very specific. I've long been annoyed by Marvel's insistence in forcing its readers to engage not with a single superhero and their storyline, but with the entire Marvel universe in a very sustained and geeky way.

The old She-Hulk, at its best, would often bring in other Marvel characters (often on trial for something), but it would do so in a way that someone who only read She-Hulk would enjoy.

Not no more.*

So, can I get on some kind of mailing list to be notified when Jen Walters comes back, and she and She-Hulk go back to practicing law? Because, until that happens, I just don't even care.**
________________________
* Okay, Dan Slott was responsible for some of that, and really, the book never quite recovered from the "Civil War" crossover stuff a summer or two ago. But if I haven't completely soured you on the book, the first two trades, Single Green Female and Superhuman Law, are just about the funniest, most entertaining superhero comic books you can lay hands on, and I recommend them without reservation.
** I just re-read this post, and realize that I sound like a raving, loser nerdlinger, but I am just too broken up about how much She-Hulk sucks these days to care.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Novelty Cookbook Round-Up: Presidents and Rock Stars


Politics & Pot Roast by Sarah Hood Salomon
I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen With Your Favorite Bands by Kara Zuaro

With either of these two fun little cookbooks, you would expect interesting stories and factual tidbits, though perhaps not the tastiest of cuisine. However, both offer a surprisingly well-rounded collection of recipes one might actually make, despite a few stomach-churners (a la Death Cab for Cutie's Vegetarian Sausage with Peanut Butter, which they swear is good).

Salomon's is composed of brief entries for each of the 43 Presidents, including a little detail about the entertaining and family dining style of each First Family, as well as a handful of favorite dishes served in the White House during the administration.

As I read through the book, I found myself assigning Presidents to one of three groups:

Presidents with whom I would drink:

James Madison (Whiskey Sours)
James K. Polk (Bishop, Archbishop, or Pope; port, claret, or Burgandy w/ cloves and citrus)
William McKinley (a fan of the booze-soaked watermelon, which I thought was favored only by frat boys)
George Washington (mint juleps, of course)

Presidents with whom I would sup:

Andrew Jackson (Rachel Jackson's Famed Grape Salad and the adorably named Hedgehog Cookies)
William Henry Harrison (Pork Chops with Spiced Apples - Harrison was particular about his cuts of meat, and enjoyed doing his own marketing)
Zachary Taylor (Jambalaya, Corn Friters, Hominy Cheese Grits)
Theodore Roosevelt (Squash or Pumpkin Biscuits)

Presidents with questionable diets:

Grover Cleveland (his favorite dish was Bubble and Squeak, a corned beef and cabbage dish named both for the sounds it makes when you eat it, and the sounds your guts make after you eat it)
Martin Van Buren (a lover of stewed beets)
FDR (enjoyed moose w/ grape jelly; martinis with scrambled eggs)

I also found myself noticing patterns that would be described in today's media as elitism in the kitchen. To judge them only by their larders, James Buchanan was an elitist, as were the Grants, the Arthurs, the Wilsons, the Kennedys, and the Fords.

On the other hand, the Eisenhowers appeared to consume nothing but red meat and fudge, the Truman kitchen was delightfully down-to-earth, and the Carters and Clintons ate like it was Sunday dinner at grandma's house.

The rock stars were far better cooks than I would have imagined, although to be fair, most of them are indie rockers, who strike me as more likely to dice and sautee than say, Fred Durst.

Many of the recipes included in I Like Food, Food Tastes Good are surprisingly fancy-pants, though. I am very keen to try out The Rosebuds's recipe, Zucchini Slippers (a cheese, herb, and bread crumb-stuffed baked zucchini boat), as well as Camera Obscura's Vegetarian Paella.

If you're veggie or vegan, there are a lot of options for you here. But then, of course, there's The Hold Steady, bringin' it like the Midwestern rockers they are with a recipe for a Wisconsin staple, the beer brat.

And Gwen will be pleased to know that not only are the Drive-By Truckers included in this collection, but their recipe is for none other than banana pudding.

Don't worry, Gwen, as soon as I post this, I am emailing you the recipe.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Raised on Wicked Witches, and I Turned Out (Mostly) Fine

Interesting article in the Boston Globe over the weekend about what happens to fairy tales when you take out all the grim, twisted parts.

The author, Joanna Weiss, describes this version of "Rapunzel," which came with a doll set she bought for her daughter:

"The book went on to spin the tale of a charmed girl named Rapunzel, who spent her days in the tower sewing dresses with a friend. She loved when the witch came to visit and teach songs, including one that made Rapunzel's hair grow longer. But tension arrived: One day, Rapunzel looked out the window and saw a fair in the village nearby. She wanted to go, but the witch was off tending to her garden and couldn't let her out. Fortunately, a prince riding by in his carriage called up to her, 'Rapunzel! Why aren't you at the fair?'"

As a good little Gen X-er raised on dark children's fare like The Dark Crystal, The Rescuers, and The Secret of NIMH, I find this both baffling and horrifying.

But I also feel lucky that popular culture and the political climate of my youth prepared me for a future where life is dark and scary, nothing is to be trusted, and I will never get to retire.

Maybe it is in our best interests as a nation to focus on scaring the bejeezus out of the kiddies every now and again.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ken Follett Is My Gateway Drug

As I mentioned in the previous post, the NYT book blog, Paper Cuts, has a piece up about the books that serve as a gateway to lifelong reading. I want to play.

First: The BFG by Roald Dahl, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

And then, those books that bridged the gap between kids' books and grown-up books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

And then the "good" books: A Farewell to Arms, the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, Hamlet, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984

And the ones that made me realize that genre fiction was cool, too: It by Stephen King, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

But perhaps none so important as the books from the next category.

Started reading for the dirty parts, stuck around for the story: Loving Women by Pete Hamill, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

I was not permitted to watch PG-13 movies (and a lot of PG ones), but I did have a library card and an imagination.

Bits and Pieces

- 100 Awesome Blogs for History Junkies: after reading this, I have to update my links because there is some good stuff here. In addition to one of my regular reads, CLEWS, I found blogs that taught me where the word "codswallop" comes from, who was executed on this day in history, and of the existence of a song about the McKinley assassination entitled "White House Blues".

- The Boston Globe has a review of Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, which sounds like a humdinger.

- This should be in poor taste, but somehow isn't.

- The NYT's Paper Cuts asks, Which books were your gateways to the hard stuff?

In a few short hours, I'm bound for Chicago, where I will see my in-laws, my childhood best friend, and hopefully, the Cardinals tearing up the Cubs at Wrigley Field (although Bob has warned me to keep it on the down low, as Cubs-Cards games tend to be drunk and rowdy). I am terribly excited. Happy weekend!

How to Make a Villain


Case study: Noboru Wataya of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Why We Hate Him:
1. the narrator and his wife (Noboru's sister) name their cat after him, and have a good laugh about it
2. he is accused of defiling a woman
3. he may have a thing for his dead sister
4. he has written a dull and obtuse book about economics
5. he has become famous, in a tv pundit kind of way
6. he is mean to our narrator
7. he is seen to wear green-tinted sunglasses indoors

I have never wished a minor fictional character so ill, so hats off to Haruki Murakami, who knows it's as much about the little details as the big things.

Additionally, I have never enjoyed a book so much where so little appears to be happening. Or really, where lots of things appear to be happening, but then you realize that it is a story about a man who barely leaves his house looking for a lost cat. Or is it?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Paging Dear Abby

A quick diversion from the usual bookery, as I turn to you, gentle reader, for some etiquette advice.

I'm a woman with a professional career, and here, and in many other jobs I've held previously, I've wound up spending a good portion of my workday on the phone. On a near-daily basis, people that I speak to on the phone will call me "honey," "sweetie," or "dear," despite the fact that my speaking voice is neither childlike nor particularly cute.

I am not easily offended, but these interactions tend to get my blood up.

It's not just men, and it's not just people who are a great deal older than I am (in fact, with the latter, I have no problem with letting it slide) -- this happens with men and women, young and old, and it happens a lot.

So, is there a polite and inoffensive way to advise people against this behavior when it occurs?

I once asked a co-worker of mine about this, and she sighed and said, "Well, I just tell myself, they could be calling me a lot worse." I'm afraid that this might be the only Miss Manners-approved way to deal with the situation, but I'm looking for suggestions.

And as a general PSA, gentle reader, please tell everyone you know that these terms of endearment are wonderful and warm and perfectly acceptable for use between family members, significant others, and close friends. But when you use them with strangers, it's condescending, uncomfortable, and rude.

And when you use them with me, it is taking every fiber of professionalism and will in my being not to hang up on you.

That is all.

Signed,

Not Your Sweetie

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace: The Patron Saint of the Class of 1998

Shortly before I learned of David Foster Wallace's death, I'd been talking to a co-worker about his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." We were debating the merits of cruise ship vacations, and I vowed I'd never do it, citing Wallace's essay as my reason. They're tacky and unimaginative and nouveau riche.

But the coffee's really good. That's how they get you.

DFW was much discussed among my fellow English majors during the late 90s. Many of us had attempted to read Infinite Jest, though few succeeded, and I was not among them. My friends who read the book in its entirety tended to be self-disciplined, self-consciously intellectual men, the sort who had been hopeless throughout puberty, but blossomed in their college years.

And if you didn't finish it, there was more debate -- was it the book, or was it you?

A friend of mine came up with an excellent concept for a New Yorker-style cartoon: a man sidles up to a woman in a bar, and says, "You know, I've read all of Infinite Jest." It was a very 1997 kind joke, but in 1997, what you thought about Infinite Jest said a lot about you.

In 1997, I wanted confessional poets and southern grotesques and naturalism and Vietnam fiction. What I wanted was muscles and blood. What I did not want was cerebral weightiness and agility. I wanted boxing, not tennis.

Many of my friends became... I hesitate to use the word disciples, because it sounds too slavish, and I don't want to say fans, because that's too casual, but something in between the two. And I eventually found my happy point of entry to Wallace's work through his essays, which were accessible to me in a way his prose wasn't. Which is not to say his prose is inaccessible, just that it is inaccessible to me.

Wallace was a tremendously important figure, but perhaps most important to the aspiring writers who were just beginning to flex their writing chops in the 1990s. I was particularly struck by something that LAT Book Editor David Ulin said: "He really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything."

For a young writer, that's an exhilarating and liberating idea, but it's also a terrifying one. David Foster Wallace made us realize that we could do anything in a book that we wanted, but also that maybe we couldn't, that we wouldn't be talented, smart, or hard-working enough to pull it off. And it's probably good for people who want to be writers to have someone like that, scaring them off of writing for good, or posing a challenge to try harder and do better.

He did that, and as for the rest, all I can really say is that it's sad, and that I'm sorry.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Friday Top 5: Poems I Will Read Recreationally

5. "Hurt Hawks" by Robinson Jeffers

Sure, it's a little melodramatic, a little over the top in its exultation of the rough, rugged, and arrogant; but with language like this, it's hard not to get caught up in the idea.

4. "Stella oft sees the very face of woe" by Sir Philip Sidney

Ever get disgusted with yourself when a stupid movie makes you cry, and real life stuff doesn't? You know a poem is great when it's as true today as it was in the 16th century -- and the last three lines get me every time.

3. "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright

If you grew up in a small industrial town where all the factories and plants and mills were shutting down one by one, and that town had a high school football team, then you will understand why I love this poem.

2. "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens

I still remember running into my friend, Dave Wheat, the day after we studied this poem in college:

Me: Dude! Wallace Stevens!
Dave: Dude, nothing that is not there!
Me: And the nothing that is!
Together: Hell yeah!

1. "Thirteen Ways of Being Looked At By a Possum" by Everette Maddox

Because the best poems aren't the ones that are trying to say big and important things in big and important ways. Reading this always makes me wish that more poets weren't terrified of being funny.

And yours?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Acquire a Void: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami

Though running marathons and writing novels require a similar skill set, people respond very differently when you tell them you do one or the other. Tell people you've written a novel, and they will likely be impressed, as it's something that a good number of people wish they could do themselves. Tell them you run marathons, and they will also be impressed; however, it will be as though you've told them that you hold the Guinness World Record for being covered in bees. They may think your accomplishment impressive, but also slightly insane and pointless.

As Murakami writes, "I've never recommended running to others... a person doesn't become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they're meant to."

For over twenty years, Murakami has run for an hour nearly every day, more if he's training for a marathon, which he does once a year. In recent years, he's added triathlons to his repertoire. And on top of that, he's also one of Japan's most celebrated and inventive authors, his work translated into 42 languages.

The book is less a collection of essays than journal entries, in which Murakami describes how he got into distance running at around the same time he decided to become a novelist. In some sections, he's talking about writing, in others, he's talking about running, but really, he's always talking about both -- and in doing so, he's talking about the kind of life that he's chosen to live.

Some things have fallen by the wayside, like the late night social life he enjoyed as the owner of a Tokyo jazz bar in the early 80s. It's a solitary, contemplative life, but he's found that it suits him.

Writing takes talent, which he acknowledges, cannot be acquired; however, it also takes focus and endurance, which can be. You can't run without these things, and you can't write without them either. In fact, he says, "Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day."

As a distance runner (and a modestly unsuccessful writer), I found Murakami's observations both immediately familiar and reassuring. People often ask me what I think about when I'm running, how I keep myself from getting bored. I've always had trouble answering this question, because although running keeps my mind occupied and focused, I'm never quite sure what it's focused towards.

Murakami writes about this, saying,

"But really as I run, I don't think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void... As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I'm not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says."

It is a pretty wonderful thing, and a pretty wonderful way of talking about it.

If you liked...: On Writing by Stephen King, and/or if you're a distance runner, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Past Isn't Over, It's Not Even Past: The Turnaround by George Pelecanos


The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

I suppose it's probably for the best that George Pelecanos took a break for most of the fourth season of The Wire to work on his previous novel, The Night Gardener. Heartbreaking as that season of television was, if Pelecanos had been there, it would have been emotional carnage.

This isn't to say that he was the best writer on that show (in that crowd, it's nearly impossible to pick), but in all of Pelecanos's writing, he demonstrates an almost preternatural ability to turn his characters inside out, sparing the reader nothing. It's not just the characterization, though. Pelecanos's characters exist in a moral universe that's guided by a strong sense of what it means to be good, what it means to have done wrong, and what it means to live with choices and mistakes made.

The moral crisis at the heart of The Turnaround begins on a summer night in 1972 when three white teenagers, buzzed on beer and weed, goad one another into driving through a black D.C. neighborhood. One boy shouts a racial slur, and another throws a fruit pie out the window. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, they drive down a dead end street, where they are confronted by three black teenagers from the neighborhood.

One of the white boys runs away, another is given a beating that disfigures his face, and the third is shot in the back and killed. Two of the black teenagers are sentenced to prison terms. No one gets out unscathed.

The book moves forward 35 years, and from here, focuses mainly on two of the men involved in the incident. All charges were dropped against Raymond Monroe, a hot-headed youth who'd begun running with a bad crowd. After that night, Monroe leaves his old ways behind, and goes on to become a physical therapist at the Walter Reed Hospital. His only child is serving in Afghanistan, and helping veteran amputees learn to use their artificial limbs allows him to feel he's doing something to help, even if it doesn't help to soothe his fears for his son.

The other man is Alex Pappas, the boy who was beaten, the boy who sat in the back of the car and did nothing. His scarred face and ruined eye are the visible penance for his inaction, but Pappas lives most of his life as though he's still being punished for what happened all those years ago. He, too, had a son serve in the Middle East, but now that son is dead.

Pelecanos manages to bring the surviving characters together in a way that isn't contrived -- this isn't the sort of thing that can be resolved with a talk. Some characters are seeking oblivion and escape from the past, others want payback, and the resolution that Pappas and Monroe are looking for doesn't come easily.

Unlike Pelecanos's other books, The Turnaround isn't a crime novel in any traditional sense of the genre. There is crime, and a worthy villain, but more than anything else, the book is about the hard-won redemption of ruined lives. How things are eventually resolved is somewhat predictable, but the route there is anything but.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Refreshing! A Girly Book That Isn't Girly: It Takes More Than Balls


It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls' Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball by Deidre Silva and Jackie Koney

Before he asked me if I wanted to do "dueling reviews" of It Takes More Than Balls, I'd always thought that Bob (he who mans The Griddle at Baseball Toaster) had a possibly unhealthy obsession with tracking instances of catcher's interference.

But thanks to Silva and Koney's book, I now know what it is, and more importantly, why it is interesting.* So, Bob, I'm sorry I doubted you.

It Takes More Than Balls is a concise, entertaining, and snarkily written overview of the sport and how it's played. Silva and Koney do a nice job of illustrating different aspects of the game, as well as the characteristics that separate the good from the great players, with examples plucked from all eras of baseball history.

There's the heartwarming story of Connie Mack agreeing to start aging pitcher Howard "Bob" Ehmke in the first game of the 1929 World Series after Ehmke said, "Mr. Mack, there is one great game left in this old arm." And sure enough, there was. And I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of respect for scrappy Pete Rose, who I learned routinely sprinted to first base when he got a walk, just like the coaches made us do in Little League.

But it's not all heartstrings and the soundtrack from The Natural. Silva and Koney also get in some nice digs at Manny, A-Rod, and the home run derby steroid sluggers, and have a good time (if a kinder one) rolling out stories of notorious errors, regrettable trades, and player foibles.

I do have one small beef with the book, which is that I'm not sure which part of it is for "savvy girls." This really has more to do with the book's packaging, as I really appreciated the absence of overtly girly content in Silva and Koney's approach. No "Omigod, my boyfriend is so into baseball, and I so totally do not know what is going on!" moments -- they respect their readers' intelligence and interest in the sport. However, aside from the memories and testimonials shared by female fans at the end of each chapter (most of which are horribly bland), this is really a book for any casual, yet enthusiastic baseball fan.

I enjoyed it, learned a few new things, lapped up some interesting baseball stats and stories, and was able to add a new piece of ammo to my unwavering, semi-irrational argument that the National League is superior to the American League.**

However, most "savvy guys" won't, because they will not buy a book with a pink cover and a title like It Takes More Than Balls.

I don't blame Silva and Koney for this -- I blame their publisher. And society.
_____________________
*Baseball-Reference.com describes catcher's interference as "a situation where the catcher hinders a batter's ability to hit a pitched ball by touching his bat. The call is automatic as long as the batter was standing inside the batter's box, as it is considered the catcher's responsibility to place himself so as to allow sufficient space for the batter to swing the bat unimpeded."

That is well and good, but I prefer the way the ladies describe it: "The batter is given first base, while the catcher is left writhing on the ground wondering why he didn't become a dentist, like his mother wanted."

**I will fight with total strangers about this. This, and my equally unwavering, semi-irrational argument in favor of "Sweet Child O' Mine" over "Welcome to the Jungle" as the superior GNR song.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Twitchy With Anticipation: Orange County by Gustavo Arellano

Within a matter of days, Gustavo Arellano's new book, Orange County: A Personal History will be on sale, but that's little comfort to me because I want to read it now.

Fortunately, I have been able to tide myself over with the first chapter. Unfortunately, it's so good that it only makes the waiting worse.

Now, in nearly every case, I'm very skeptical of (and not very polite about) anyone under the age of 40 who writes a memoir. But Arellano has my blessing because, based on what I've read about the book, there isn't going to be a lot of navel-gazing in this personal history. It's a history of Arellano's family (who started sneaking across the border to work thankless jobs for meager wages in 1918), and a history of Orange County, a region of the country that will terrify and amaze you, no matter which side of the culture wars you're on.

And if you read Arellano's weekly syndicated column, Ask A Mexican!, then you know he is occasionally crass, frequently hilarious, and nearly always the smartest guy in the room.

Sometimes he writes passages like this one:

There's no real reason why what you just read and anything that follows relating to my personal life should ever have been published (reviewers: there's a pull quote for ustedes if ever there was one!). The immigrant saga, the coming-of-age rebel yell, the portrait of the artist as a young hombre -- the memoir portion of this book uses those clich├ęs of American letters to tell its tale. But the sad beauty of this country is that we forget. We forget that dumb ethnics assimilate, that they share the goals and dreams of any Mayflower descendant. It takes a snot-nosed, presumptuous minority to kick the United States in its amnesiac britches every couple of years -- consider this your ass boot.

And then mixes them with stuff like this:

Meanwhile, American historians have long dismissed [Orange County] as America's fundamentalist wild, reviled as the place that spawned Nixon, ridiculed for the perfection that drew so many to find lives of leisure. We're historical ether -- invisible but dangerous.

And I am so, so, so excited to read more.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Back To Business

Due to the Olympic Games, illness, and a generally scrotty state of mind brought about by the latter, I just haven't felt much like writing book reviews this month. Now that I'm mostly better (kids, don't EVER have an allergic reaction to a drug, because it can take weeks to get over it), I still don't feel much like writing book reviews.

Or at least good book reviews involving sustained, semi-critical thought and analysis. This week is dedicated to catching up, so first up: Nixonland

When I was in junior high, and giddy with my new-found love for Janis Joplin and tie-dyed t-shirts, I asked my mother to tell me what the 60s were like. I expected some tales involving Volkswagen buses and fighting the power, but all she said was, "It was an ugly, ugly time."

At the time, I thought, "Gee, you must have been a total no-fun-having square" (although she did tell me a pretty good story about sneaking into Easy Rider underage). But after reading Nixonland, I now understand that my mother's response to the 1960s is the only appropriate one.

Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is kind of like taking a nature hike that turns into a forced march. Though it only covers the years between 1965 and 1972 -- starting with the Watts Riot and Johnson's sweeping civil rights and domestic policy legislation, and ending with Nixon's landslide defeat of McGovern and the beginnings of the Watergate investigation -- it feels like too much for one book.

Perlstein's a thoughtful and engaging writer, though perhaps a bit too enthusiastic a researcher. The book is at its best when it's focused on the dirty shenanigans of its titular namesake, and it's also very good when discussing the rise of the "Silent Majority" and the nasty backlash of whites nationwide against the civil rights movement.

It's amazing to realize how inaccurate the popular narrative of the civil rights movement is -- you'd think the whole thing ended in 1964, and that segregation and racial discrimination only happened in the South. And by the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate," many whites and most of the conservative establishment regarded him as a riot-starter, a Communist, and a terrorist.

Ugly times, indeed.

However, on Vietnam and the anti-war movement, and the political shake-ups during those years, Perlstein's account sometimes gets bogged down by the sheer messiness of everything that transpired.

I haven't even gotten to Nixon himself, but let's just say that this book is directly responsible for two nightmares I had in the past week involving the jowly old crook and his cronies.

And also, I've realized one major difference between the Nixon administration and our current one, which are in all other significant ways, identical. One got caught and was punished. The other got caught and didn't suffer a whit.

So, ugly as that era in American history might have been, they'll always have that on us.

Nixonland is interesting, horrifying, entirely worthy of your time; however, a) Nixon nightmares, b) super depressing, and c) forced march. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In Enemy Territory


I was so horrendously ill last week that I couldn't even be bothered to update my Facebook status, much less write a review.

I will be back to reviewing next week, but for the time being, I am firmly entrenched in Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, a fat, dense, depressing, yet awesome book about American political culture in the 1960s.

And when I say I'm entrenched, I don't mean that lightly. Last night, I had a nightmare that Nixon was wiretapping me.

I sat bolt upright at 4am, and when I went back to sleep, it started up again. Apparently, I'd acquired some sensitive documents, and although I don't remember what they said, they were neatly typed on onion-skin paper, in a Courier font, and Bob Haldeman and Henry Kissinger were hellbent on my ruination.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Original Country House Murder: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale


The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

On the morning of June 30, 1860, the residents of the Kent household woke to discover that 3-year-old Saville Kent had gone missing from his bed. After a feverish search of the ground, the little boy's body was discovered, smothered, stabbed, nearly decapitated, and stuffed down the privy in the backyard.

After a largely botched investigation by local law enforcement, a new kind of police officer was dispatched from Scotland Yard, a detective by the name of Jonathan Whicher. Though detectives are now synonymous with the famed agency, the division had only been created in 1842, and Whicher was one of only eight detectives there. In the years leading up to what would be known as the Road House Murder, Whicher had made a name for himself solving spectacular crimes -- the theft of a priceless da Vinci painting, a rash of bank robberies, a jewel heist. He was the obvious choice for a murder so grisly and high profile that it would later inspire works by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

Unfortunately for Whicher, the investigation would also bring about his downfall. After piecing together the little evidence that remained, Whicher announced his suspect, a member of the Kent family. By this time, the press and the public had already decided who they thought to be the guilty parties, and Whicher's reports laid out a very different scenario. By the end of 1860, charges against Whicher's suspect had been dropped, Whicher was vilified, and the murder remained unsolved -- and would continue to be until several years later.

Summerscale does an impressive job of piecing together newspaper reports and archival materials to create an account that reads with as much suspense and horror as a Victorian detective novel. She draws a full and likely portrait of the Kent family and its odd, reclusive dynamics, and also conveys the intrigue that surrounded the new figure of the Victorian-era detective and the public's awe and enthusiasm for such individuals.

However, there's one problem with the book, and perhaps one that would be insurmountable to any responsible writer of historic true crime. The characteristics that made Jonathan Whicher a good detective - elusiveness, inscrutability - make him a frustrating subject for a book. While snippets from letters and reports show Whicher to be a wry, inquisitive, and decent sort, Summerscale never really gets a handle on the central figure of her book. The Road House Murder may have been solved, but the detective who solved it remains as much a mystery as ever.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"It's Toasted": The 60s Ad Campaigns Behind Mad Men

There's no denying that the writers and researchers at Mad Men do their homework, incorporating meticulous period detail as well as some of the most famous advertising campaigns of the 1960s.

I picked up a few books on advertising history, and while some titles were more informative than others, Taschen's The Golden Age of Advertising: The 60s is by far the glossiest, packed with page after page of the most enduring, most beloved, and most horrifying ads of the decade.

It's fun to see where the fictional world of Sterling Cooper crosses paths with history. There's a throwaway line in "For Those Who Think Young" about Freddy Rumsen's work on the Maidenform account (though it seems that will be visited in more detail later this season). Here's one of the ads from Maidenform's famous "I dreamed I was... in my Maidenform bra" campaign. Nice work, Freddy!:



The scan turned out badly, but I thought these were reminiscent of the scrapped Bethlehem Steel ads from "New Amsterdam." Similar concept, though I preferred Sal's WPA-style art:



And remember that Volkswagen ad that Don Draper hated so much in "The Marriage of Figaro?"



Well, turns out not all of those VW ads were so cute after all.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mistakes Were Made: My Bad by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin


My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin

Since it's Olympics time, I've been finding myself very much in need of potato chip books that I can pick up at every commercial break (can someone explain to me why McDonald's is such a big Olympics sponsor - it would seem that they are working at cross-purposes), but then just as quickly toss aside when Nastia takes to the uneven bars.

And for that purpose, My Bad is perfect reading, with chapters compiling the most shameful moments from television, radio, sports, politics, and so forth. Of course, it's rarely the apologies themselves that are notable. These tend to be fairly bland and rehearsed, unless, of course, the penitent in question is clearly not sorry, or unless the person in question is Wade Boggs, who likes to apologize in the third person.

For example, this apology offered by John "Class Act" McCain in 1998 is rather unremarkable: "I made a very unfortunate and insensitive remark. It was the wrong thing to do, and I have no excuse for it."

What prompted it, however, was that McCain said that the reason Chelsea Clinton was "so ugly" was that she was "the child of Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno."

Some chapters get a little repetitive, like the one on sports figures, for example. Apparently, there are three kinds of sporting gaffes: flipping off/physically assaulting your fans and/or opponents, committing a criminal act off the court/field, or saying appalling, racist/sexist things in interviews and then being completely surprised when people are offended.

Still, I had completely forgotten at least half the things that former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott had to apologize for.

Along those lines, what's most entertaining about the book is realizing how quickly most scandals fade from memory as they're replaced by others. Rev. Jesse Jackson's anti-Semitic remarks in the 1980s? Forgot about them. Allegations that Gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger groped a whole bunch of women? Slipped my mind. Howard Stern? Dr. Laura? Actually forgot that they ever existed.

And it's also interesting to see how American ideas have changed in the past 25 years about what constitutes appropriate punishment for the transgressions of public persons. While sleeping with a 17-year-old girl might have necessitated an apology in 1983, it did not necessitate a resignation (see former Rep. Daniel Crane).

But some things never change. There's fairly steady representation through the decades of judges who make comments about the attractiveness of rape victims, journalists and reporters who fake news stories, and talk radio personalities who make Don Imus look like Mother Teresa.

If you need something to keep you entertained during Michael Phelps's 83rd interview, or if those Visa commercials stopped being inspiring and started being annoying by Wednesday, this book is for you.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Counting My Blessings

As petulant, hateful, and baffling as some of the folks I dealt with today were, at least I didn't have a library encounter like this one.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Last Good Day: Antediluvian Tales by Poppy Z. Brite


Antediluvian Tales by Poppy Z. Brite

During my baby doll dress-wearing, 'zine-swapping, poetry slamming alterna-teen days, I was aware of Poppy Z. Brite, and though I'd never read one of her books, I did not like her. Part of this can probably be attributed to my teenage disdain for the goth aesthetic, but looking back, I think I was mostly just jealous that someone not that much older than me was already so successful and driven as a writer.

And then, ten years later, I was assigned to review the Courtney Love book Dirty Blonde, and picked up Brite's excellent biography for background research. Reading it, I realized that I hadn't given Brite a fair shake. So, I picked up her trio of Rickey and G-Man books, Liquor, Prime, and Soul Kitchen, and by the time I was through with them, not only was I shamed by my youthful rush to judgment, I had a new favorite author.

I love everything about Brite's writing. I love her dark humor, her lovably debauched, soul-searching characters, and her insights into the restaurant business and tantalizing descriptions of food. I love the way she writes about New Orleans. I love her range as a writer, and though it sounds a bit melodramatic to phrase it as such, her integrity to her craft.

Everyone in New Orleans was impacted by Hurricane Katrina, to understate it by a mile. And as the city rebuilds (or doesn't) and as people move back (or don't), it's clear that New Orleans will always be New Orleans, but it won't be like it was. Though it's only a small part of the social fabric, it's interesting to see what that means for writers and artists like Brite, whose work has always been so rooted in the city.

Antediluvian Tales doesn't spell out what that means for Brite, but in her introduction, she makes it clear that things are going to be, will have to be, different:

"After the events of 2005, though, I couldn't see pairing stories I'd written before the flood with those I'd written after; for better or worse, my life, my outlook, and, necessarily, my work has changed forever... Whatever else they may be, the stories in this little collection now seem almost impossibly innocent to me."

The characters will be familiar to those who know Brite's fictional universe. Five of them are about the Stubbs family, and two about the author's ambiguously gendered alter ego, Dr. Brite, coroner of New Orleans. However, their arrangement is eclectic. Although Brite includes an appendix which allows the stories to be read chronologically, the stories are arranged in the order she found most pleasing.

Though I liked them all, the Stubbs family stories are the strongest in the collection. Brite struck gold when she created this family, a sort of Yoknapatawpha County, NOLA-style (i.e. all the pain without any of that pretentious, beholden-to-the-past southern stoicism, which isn't as dignified as it's cracked up to be).

Standouts include "The Feast of St. Rosalie," where G-Man's lonely, divorced sister considers the connection with her beatific namesake, and "The Devil of Delery Street," a comically sinister story where the Stubbs family is haunted by a ghost that's both malicious and attention-starved. The collection also includes a nonfiction piece, "The Last Good Day of My Life," where Brite contemplates a day she spent birdwatching, eating, and adventuring in Cairns, Australia shortly before Hurricane Katrina. It's one of those seemingly insignificant, yet rare and perfect days, the kind that Brite says, "you probably only get a half-dozen or so in a lifetime, and that's if you're lucky."

And then days after that perfect day, life changed forever. While memories of that trip helped her get through much of 2005 and 2006, she's also found that since then, she has trouble leaving the city now. Brite says, "Until I overcome this, there will be no more truly good days no matter where I am. No more cassowaries or mudskippers... No more adventures except maybe the kind you're forced into. No more coming home."

However her work may change in the future, I'm glad that Brite found a home for the stories in this book. It's a slim, yet wonderful collection that ends one chapter in a writer's career, but leaves the door open for a great deal of exciting and much-anticipated work. It's also worth noting that Brite's future Rickey and G-Man books (she has planned three more for the series) will have a different, though as yet unspecified publisher. In "The Last Good Day of My Life," Brite alludes to an editor who attempted to exploit her Katrina experiences. Though I'm not sure about the particulars here, Brite ended her relationship with Three Rivers Press shortly after the publication of her last novel, Soul Kitchen.

Silly editors. Don't ever ask a southerner to exploit anything about their southern-ness, natural disasters included. Haven't they ever listened to "Outfit" by DBT?

Quarantine!

Okay, so, here's the deal: Mary's been out of town since Friday, and I'm pretty much trying out for "Superflu Victim #8,432" in the Broadway version of Stephen King's The Stand here.

You know, Jaws never ruined swimming for me, but King's plague epic has pretty much ensured that every time I catch a cold or my sinuses try to kill me, there's at least a few minutes where I'm convinced that there is a superflu, it has gotten loose from some hush-hush military installation, and I've somehow managed to become Patient Zero.

Then I get ahold of myself and bust out the Neti Pot, but it's always a fun minute or so of fever-driven existential terror.

So, just for fun, here's the trailer for the 1994 TV miniseries adaptation which had a heck of a cast (Ossie Davis! Gary Sinese! Shawnee Smith!* Dr. Kelso! Kareem Abdul Jabbar!) but not so much of an ending or a script.



----------------------------
* Becker aside, I've had a soft spot for Ms. Smith ever since the remake of The Blob, which I was so not supposed to have seen at the time when it came out.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Onion AV Club: Reviewing Stuff So I Don't Have To

A while back I borrowed a friend's copy of Steve Martin's recent memoir, Born Standing Up. I had intended to write about it here, but after reading it I realized I had very little to say about the book.

This was not because I didn't like it (I liked it fine) but rather because - like a lot of Martin's prose work - it is a book that is so meticulously written that it's almost standoffish. I read it, I enjoyed it well enough, but whatever that element is that engages the reader and makes the experience of "reading a book" a mutually constitutive process, a gestalt that has more to it than simply reader + text, just wasn't there (for me, at least).

Anyways, don't take my word for it - take Nathin Rabin's over at the Onion AV Club, for a much deeper and more generous take on the book. And it probably goes without saying that if you are a fan of stand-up comedy or Steve Martin, you'll probably find it an interesting - if maybe bloodless - time.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Trading Dreams At Midnight


Trading Dreams at Midnight by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Spanning three generations of women, Trading Dreams at Midnight is a story about the way family relationships shape identity, and how one can and can't escape them.

Most of the story focuses on Nan, a woman who comes to Philadelphia in the late 1940s to find work as a seamstress, and falls in love with a man who brings her pain and joy in almost equal measure, and on Neena, the eldest of Nan's two granddaughters. However, the character at the book's center is one who is largely absent.

This is Freeda, Nan's beautiful, charismatic, and mentally ill daughter. After giving birth to two girls, Freeda twists in and out of their lives, leaving them with Nan during her unpredictable dark periods. Her presence is both exciting and terrifying. Sometimes she's lighting up rooms with her smile and painting the walls of her apartment bright pink, and others, she's hearing voices and compulsively eating box after box of Argo starch. When the girls are adolescents, she leaves for good, and disappears completely.

While Nan loves her granddaughters, she's washed her hands of Freeda, and encourages the girls to do the same. This is easy for Tish, Freeda's youngest daughter, who aligns herself with Nan, goes to college, and lands a perfect job and perfect man, never once looking back.

For Neena, though, finding Freeda becomes a lifelong obsession. She drops out of college, and spends the next fifteen years, tracking down any clue, any rumored sighting, no matter how vague or shady. As she looks for her mother, Neena pays the bills by hustling married men and shaking them down.

When Tish is hospitalized during her sixth month of pregnancy and risks losing the baby, Neena returns to Philadelphia, only to be told by Nan that her presence would probably do Tish more harm than good. Nan knows she shouldn't play favorites, but she's never been able to help herself when it comes to Tish.

Eventually, McKinney-Whetstone reunites these characters, but the journey that gets them there, and the changes they go through in the process are more important.

It's a compelling story with richly drawn characters (even McKinney-Whetstone's supporting characters are fully realized and immediately recognizable).

If you like...: frank depictions of families dealing with mental illness like 72 Hour Hold by Bebe Moore Campbell or African-American fiction with an old-school feel like The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, this book is for you.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Cookbook Round-up

Larry just sent me a link from the NTY blog, The Moment, featuring a list of the favorite cookbooks of cooking professionals.

Of course, Julia Child is well-represented, as is Irma Rombauer (The Joy of Cooking, but I was also happy to see the original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and the New York Times Cookbook on the list.

As for the former, I've been lucky enough to hold a copy of the first edition in my hands.

And as for the latter, I just got up to check, and the pages for Lee's cold sesame noodles and Katherine Hepburn's brownies fall open by themselves, I've made them so many times.

But no Pomiane? Uncle Pommy's the best.

Since my last favorite cookbook round-up, I've added a few new favorites. The 1952 Memphis Junior League Cookbook is terrific reading, though I'm too scared of all the raw eggs involved with an icebox cake to attempt one. And for Christmas this year, my little sis got me the 1959 Milwaukee Junior League cookbook, Be Milwaukee's Guest. It is a little hope of mine to obtain a Junior League cookbook from all 50 states (do they even HAVE the Junior League in Alaska?). So far, I'm doing well with southern states, but need to branch out a little more.

My birthday is in a couple of months... just so you know.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Killing Time Meme

I'm killing time while I wait for Mad Men to download from iTunes, so how about a little meme (via Bookeywookie). It's long, so I cut out the questions where my answers were boring.

1. My uncle once: misinterpreted the voicemail my mother left saying I was getting married, and instead thought I had gotten knocked up (let's just say my mother worded the news in an odd way).

He called back and began the conversation by saying, "Aw Karla, we'll love it no matter what it is."

2. I will never forget: to be grateful that Warren Zevon cancelled his show at the New Daisy, and inadvertently caused me to get married

3. Once I met: Christina Hendricks. We chatted amiably outside of a bar for a few minutes, and I had no idea who she was until about two minutes after I went inside.

4. There’s this girl I know: who used to practice karate naked

5. If only I had: thicker hair

6. When I turn my head left I see: a bunch of guitars and a well-stocked bookshelf

7. When I turn my head right I see: a framed photo of my favorite bar in Madison

8. You know I’m lying when: I'm lying. I'm notoriously bad at it.

9. What I miss most about the 80s is: Mary Lou Retton

10. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be: Prince Hal

11. By this time next year: I'd like to have finished a draft of my novel

12. I have a hard time understanding: money. Like, that episode of "This American Life" where they explained the subprime loan thing in plain language was awesome. For a brief, shining moment, I understood everything, and then it was gone.

13. If I ever go back to school, I’ll: probably go for something related to history and/or urban planning. But I don't think that's very likely. I like my job, but I really hated grad school.

14. Take my advice, never: as a youth, try to tan if you are pale and freckled. You will be mad at yourself when you're 30.

15. My ideal breakfast is: anything at Cafe Verona

16. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you: eat at Cafe Verona, see the Bradbury Building (it's architecture that's truly soul-uplifting), go on an Esotouric bus tour, and cheer your head off at a Dodgers game

17. Why won’t people: take public transit? Or fund it?

18. If you spend a night at my house: you will comment on how cool our historic landmark apartment is. Everybody does.

19. The world could do without: stretch Hummers

20. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: shake hands with Karl Rove

21. My favourite blonde(s) is/are: my curly-headed, precociously-vocabularied 4-year-old niece

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Weekly Geeks #13: It's Time for Name! That! Author!

I've been neglecting Weekly Geeks lately, but this one looked really fun. I haven't been able to guess the authors on any of the posts I've read so far, so I'm going to follow MizB's lead and provide hints.

How many can YOU name, boys and girls?

1. Favorite author

HINT: She's only written two books since her 1992 debut, but they're both killer.

2. Author of the book I'm currently reading



HINT: The English translation of her latest book was just released in July.

3. An author I've met in person, albeit briefly



HINT: I think the stuff hanging on the walls behind him should be hint enough.

4. A YouTube clip of an author I've heard speak



5. The author of the book I've most recently finished



HINT: She's a former LA Times writer.

6a. Hottest authors (male)



6b. Hottest authors (female)



HINTS: In addition to being highly photogenic, both authors released incredible books in 2008, one set in Soviet Russia, the other in 1920s Hollywood.