Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hey Mister, Throw Me Something

We're off to Mobile this evening for a week of Mardi Gras madness, the Joe Cain Procession, merry widows, parades, floats, garden parties, and boat drinks.

See you next week, suckers.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

End of an Era: Y: The Last Man, Issue 60

Five years ago, I was a different kind of reader than I am now. I read NYT-approved literary fiction and important contemporary nonfiction, and I would never have been caught dead holding a detective magazine or a pulp novel. Or god forbid, a comic book.

But then, through a strange turn of events, I found myself in graduate school, working on a research project that necessitated spending a lot of time in comic book stores, interviewing customers and handing out surveys, although I knew next to nothing about comics myself. In the downtime, the staff at Capital City Comics in Madison discovered that they had an interested, uninformed party in their midst, and made it their duty to educate me about Frank Miller, Bendis, Bone, and the entire Vertigo catalog.

But my transformation to comics geek was completed the day that someone put the first trade of Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man in my hands and said, "You'll love this one. Everybody does."

And ever since, I've been trekking to the comic book store on Wednesdays to find out what happens next to Yorick Brown, Agent 355, Dr. Mann, and Ampersand. And for the past year, I've been sad every time I read an issue, because I knew that everybody's days were numbered, whether they lived to see the end of the story or not.

I didn't want Y to have its last issue set in stone. I wanted it to go on until I spent every issue complaining about how bad it was sucking, and how they should just hang it up before they embarrassed themselves.

But as things turned out, it was never going to be anything but my all-time favorite comic book, the first thing I read when I got home from the Golden Apple, the first thing I recommended to anyone teetering on the edge of comic book geekery, and it never, ever sucked. Not once.

And that's big talk. I mean, even Sandman sucked once in awhile.

Someday, I suppose another book will come along that I'll love as much as Y: The Last Man, but until then, my Wednesdays are going to be a little bit empty, and my trips to the Golden Apple a little bit less fun.

14th Way of Looking At a Possum, Redux

As some of you might remember, there was a heated possum poetry competition here this summer in honor of the blog's eternal poet laureate, Everette Maddox.

And today, perhaps a late entry?

There was nothing to be done for it. Someone
Or other probably called LAPD, who then
Called Animal Control, who woke a driver, who
Then dressed in mailed gloves, the kind of thing
Small knights once wore into battle, who gathered
Together his pole with a noose on the end,
A light steel net to snare it with, someone who hoped
The thing would have vanished by the time he got there.

- from "The Oldest Living Thing in Los Angeles" by Larry Levis (via The Millennial Pedestrian)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This Book Is for You is THIS MANY!!!!

The blog turns 2 today.

Someone get me a cookie.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bits and Pieces

While I'm officially back in Workout Barbie mode after a terribly extended holiday hiatus and a bout with the flu, I didn't do a whole lot of reading over the weekend. The only exception was getting through about half of the audiobook for Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle.

Call me a prude, but I have decided that I do not like to hear sex scenes read on audiobooks. It is awkward and weird, and does not go well with household chores like, say, cleaning the litter box.

So, until I catch up on my reading, I am going to rely on the creativity of others to make up for the slump in my own:

-A lovely interview with Sara Zarr and a review of her new book, Sweethearts. Her insightful first book, Story of a Girl, made me bawl my eyes out on the bus, and I can't wait to read this one.

- This has been up for awhile, but it amuses me to no end that Western PA has been chosen as the filming location for the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Because nothing says post-apocalyptic like the land of my birth. Fifty days of sunshine a year, folks -- it's amazing that I didn't die of ennui by the 8th grade.

- What treasures will the Beinecke dig up next?

- And some 1958 bestsellers at The Daily Mirror: Nevil Shute, Art Linkletter, and the odious Ayn Rand, who I learned this weekend, was a huge fan of the child murderer William Hickman. As if we needed one more reason to despise her.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Weekend Curiosities and Wonders: A is for Apothecary

"But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, 'O man of God, there is death in the pot!"
-2 Kings 4:40

"If you drink too much from a bottle marked 'Poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

From biblical plagues of poison quail and the treatment of venereal diseases with mercury, to history's infamous poisoners like Catherine de Medici and H.H. Crippen, there's no shortage of interesting accounts and fun facts in the annals of poison.

Dieter Martinetz's Poison: Sorcery and Science, Friend and Foe (1987) is notable for its particularly lovely collection of etchings, illuminations, Victorian advertisements, and art prints depicting poison in history. Here, I learned of the physical effects of the "flying mixture," an ointment of henbane, deadly nightshade, and thornapple which, rubbed over the chest produces the a rather dramatic sensation.

Following a 1954 experiment, Siegbert Ferckel reported that after applying the ointment, "the walls and ceiling began to undulate and to crash together with a loud bang... Faces came towards me out of the darkness... I soared upwards at great speed..., and I saw hazily, through a pink veil, that I was floating above the town."

Equally curious and entertaining is the Howdunit Book of Poisons, a book for writers that details the exact toxicity, symptoms, and treatments for hundreds of poisons, including case histories about how various poisons have been used in literature and in real crimes and accidental overdoses. Here, I learned that both the leaves of the rhubarb plant and the bite of an adder will cause bleeding from the nose and eyes. Additionally, I found what is quite possible the weirdest use of poison in literature:

"Someone at the picnic had really given Thea an oleander branch. With three notches in it.. to let the deadly sap escape?... And she skewered her frankfurter on it?"
-Lucille Kallen, The Piano Bird

According to our authors, poor Thea would shortly thereafter face unconsciousness, respiratory paralysis, and death.

And fans of true crime and historical oddity will enjoy Peter Macinnis's Poisons, a highly readable collection of accidental and criminal poisonings in history.

Take the tragic story of Humbug Billy, a sweets vendor in Bradford, England in the mid-19th century. A poor confectioner, Billy stretched the sugar in his peppermint candies with a powdered filler of limestone or plaster of paris called "daft," -- perhaps dishonest, but certainly not dangerous. Until the day that the local druggist accidentally substituted Billy's daft with a sack of arsenic. Approximately 200 people became ill, and 20 died from the sweets.

And with that little tale, I leave you for the weekend. May all your foods be pure, and your cordials unadulterated.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Best New Horror: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill*

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

I reviewed Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box about a year ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But 20th Century Ghosts is even creepier, darker, deeper, and better.

Usually I don't gush about collections of short stories -- they make me fidgety and impatient. While I'll give a novel a few chapters to lure me in, if a short story doesn't grab me on the first page, I ditch it. I only ditched one story in this collection, "Pop Art," and it's been so universally praised and singled out in every review I've read that I'm willing to chalk it up to a lapse of judgment on my part.

These stories run the gamut from the titular ghost story to surrealist gore, real life horror, and touching explorations of family relationships, and there are too many standouts in the collection to mention individually without spending all night on it.

My favorites in the collection included "The Black Phone," about a kidnapped boy trying to escape from his captor's basement, and "Last Breath," about a curator of dying breaths, and one family's varied reactions to his strange collection. Appealingly offbeat is "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," about two high school sweethearts reunited while working as extras on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. And the title story, about a small town movie theatre and the ghost girl who selectively visits its patrons, is hauntingly beautiful.

There's not a dud here, and I can't wait to see what Hill does next.
* The post title refers to the lead-off story in the collection, a skin-crawling little ditty reminiscent of that X-Files episode, "Home," as well as to the book's general awesomeness.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tokyo Teen Sleuth: The Devil's Whisper by Miyuki Miyabe

The Devil's Whisper by Miyuki Miyabe

In his 16 years, Mamoru Kusaka has experienced more than his fair share of suffering. When he was 4, his father, a civil servant, embezzled 50 million yen in public funds before vanishing. Living as outcasts, Mamoru and his mother continued to live in Hirakawa waiting for Toshio to return to them.

When his mother dies of a stroke, Mamoru is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Tokyo. However, for the first time in his life, things seem to be looking up for Mamoru. They welcome him into their family, and treat him as a son.

But then, Mamoru's uncle, a taxi driver, is charged with manslaughter when a woman runs out in front of his cab. Hoping to find a witness who can clear his uncle's name, Mamoru begins to investigate, and discovers two other strange deaths. One young woman runs off the roof of a building, while another steps in front of a train. It turns out, all three were part of a scam to sponge money off of lonely men by pretending to fall in love with them. All three were featured in a now-defunct porn magazine.

Then there are the strange phone calls, the raspy voice on the other end of the line that tells Mamoru, "Thank you for taking care of Yoku Sugano. I'm serious. Thanks for killing her. She had it coming." The man continues to contact Mamuro, making it clear that the deaths were no accident.

When Mamoru discovers that a fourth girl featured in the article is still alive, he realizes that she's in terrible danger, and sets out to find her.

The Devil's Whisper is a tremendously compelling story, like a combination of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and The Manchurian Candidate, with a complex coming of age story seamlessly worked in. The teenage protagonist's sleuthing reminded me of a Veronica Mars plot -- high stakes and a capable, haunted hero whose youth is never used to trivialize the story's tension. And like Neptune's Lady Marlowe, solving the mystery doesn't mean happily ever after for Mamoru.

Originally published in Japan in 1989, I hope that more of Miyabe's work finds its way into English translation. However, Miyabe's terrific plots might be better served by a different translator -- my only criticism of The Devil's Whisper is that the prose is rather stiff. Still, this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story -- Mamoru is one of the best teen protagonists I've encountered in fiction in quite some time.

1947project Nominated for a Capote Award

My other home on the internets, the 1947project has been nominated for a Capote Award for Best True Crime Blog of 2007, and we're in some very impressive company, including Jill Leovy's Homicide Report and Laura James's CLEWS.

If you're in the neighborhood and feeling a bit daffy, you can vote for us (and many other fine folks) at In Cold Blog.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Girl Friday Takes the Case: Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards

Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards

Katherine Pangborn can host a dinner party, play the piano, ride a horse, and coordinate a wardrobe for any occasion. But after the stock market crash of 1929, and her father's subsequent suicide, she's reduced to living as a boarder in her childhood home on Bunker Hill. Desperate for money, she lands a job working as a secretary for Dexter Theroux, a boozy Los Angeles PI, and spends most of her workday trying to make his operation look semi-respectable. No longer Miss Katherine, she's Kitty now, and Kitty takes the Red Car.

When the book begins, the voluptuous red-haired Rita Heppelwaite strolls in, and pays Dex to tail her married boyfriend, the newly moneyed Harrison Dempsey. Dex and Kitty find a body in Dempsey's tub, and assume the worst. But when the body disappears, and Dempsey's widow tells them that their supposed corpse was in San Francisco at his estimated time of death, the plot thickens considerably.

The lit, though likeable, Dex is no match for this case, and Kitty shakes loose the vestiges of her finishing school upbringing to reveal a woman capable of wily and resourceful detecting.

In a recent interview, Richards said:

“I spent a chunk of time a few years ago reading a lot of the classics of noir fiction. Hammett’s work from the 1930s. Chandler’s early stuff. Even some Damon Runyon and some Ross Macdonald. And I lifted my head from it realizing that the lifestyle described was completely impossible. The way those guys drank and carried on – especially Hammett’s detectives, and Chandler’s – it was simply not possible for them to have solved any of those cases on their own."

And it's true. Boozing aside, Philip Marlowe spends a good hunk of each Chandler novel getting knocked out. There had to be some plucky young assistant out there digging up the hot leads while our hero sat in the office nursing an Alka-Seltzer with a steak on his eye.

When she's not trailing shady broads through underground casinos, Kitty is also a captivating and insightful narrator. Though saddened by what the Depression has cost her, she is also aware that it's provided her with a unique opportunity to forge a life outside the constraints of the upper classes. Her finishing school classmates may be jaunting off to Europe, but their lives aren't half so exciting as Kitty's.

Despite its fair share of gangsters, gun shots, and jaded dames, Death Was the Other Woman doesn't have a gritty neo-noir feel. It's a caper story, more Nick and Nora than Sam Spade. But what it sacrifices in dark gloom, it makes up for in good fun.

If you liked...: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett or Die a Little by Megan Abbott, this book is for you.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Weekend Curiosities and Wonders

Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities by Russell Ash and Brian Lake

I read about this book at Weekend Stubble a few weeks ago, and was immediately smitten. So, imagine my delight when Brady brings it home as a prize the other day. He felt bad that I trudged off to my gloomy office while he spent the day doing his dissertation reading at the beach.

Tonight I spent a happy hour on the couch, giggling at titles both ill-conceived and unintentionally hilarious. A few choice ones include:

Eleven Years a Drunkard, or, The Life of Thomas Doner, Having Lost Both Arms Through Intemperance, He Wrote This Book With His Teeth as a Warning to Others by Thomas Doner
Why Not Eat Insects? by Vincent M. Holt
Gunrunning for Fun and Profit by Ragnar Benson

...and everyone's favorite, Scouts in Bondage by Geoffrey Prout

I'm going to start posting various Curiosities and Wonders on Fridays. What exactly constitutes a curiosity or a wonder remains to be seen, but I work in a huge library, and I'm thinking something along the lines of narwhals, ley lines, and interesting poisons for starters.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Charles Webb, You're Trying to Seduce Me

Home School by Charles Webb

Before The Graduate made Dustin Hoffman a star and Mrs. Robinson a household name, it was the first novel of a recent Ivy League graduate named Charles Webb. Published in 1963 to lukewarm reviews (the Los Angeles Times described it as "repetitive, pointlessly detailed melodrama," while others called it "inept" and "ridiculous"), Webb sold the film rights rather quickly. Unfortunately, he received only a one-time payment of $20,000 -- while the film went on to gross over $100 million.

Since The Graduate, Webb's unusual biography has eclipsed his literary career, the latter being steady, if relatively uncelebrated. And when it came out that Webb would publish a book that clued readers in to what became of Benjamin and Elaine after they hopped the Santa Barbara bus, folks pricked up their ears. However, once they got past the initial novelty of the book's premise, the reviews have not been kind.

And I suppose this one won't be either. However, it's got nothing on David L. Ulin's recent LAT review, quite possibly the most decisive pan I've ever seen in the book pages of a periodical.

Home School suffers from a lack of focus, silly 70s caricatures, and an artless over-reliance on dialogue. Benjamin is an insufferable, priggish dilettante, Elaine is a passive-aggressive shrew, and their children are annoyingly precocious. The cloying, manipulative Mrs. Robinson is far and away the book's most likeable character.

However, it is not without its redeeming qualities.

In fact, once I resigned myself to these problems, and to the fact that I wished painful and sustained misfortune upon each of the book's characters, I actually began to enjoy it a bit.

When the book begins, Elaine and Benjamin have moved to the other side of the country to escape Mrs. Robinson, and are illegally home schooling their children. Benjamin wants them to grow up without being poisoned by the institutions that led to his post-graduate shiftlessness. But eventually, the school system catches up with the Braddocks, and forces the children back into public school. Apparently, this is ominous enough a threat for Benjamin to contact Mrs. Robinson and ask for her help. But once Nan, as she's now called, is in their house, the problem becomes how to get her to leave.

Conveniently, it was right around this point that I made my peace with Home School, because Webb ratchets up the conflict, old secrets come out, and things get truly nasty.

While I can't entirely recommend Home School, the moment I learned of its existence, I set about tracking down a copy. And for curious fans of The Graduate, it's certainly worth checking out.

Some books shouldn't have sequels, simply because they end precisely where they ought to. If an archivist turned up a copy of a lost Flannery O'Connor story detailing the further adventures of the Misfit, I know it would be awful, as sure as I know I'd be first in line to read it. We ought to let (un)happily ever after well enough alone, yet morbid curiosity will always keep us turning the pages on literary icons.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Amazing Bunion Derby of 1928

C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America by Geoff Williams

I spent New Year's Day 2007 running 12 miles from one end of Dauphin Island to the other. And I spent the first day of 2008 finishing Geoff Williams's utterly charming book about a crew of guys who would have viewed a 12 mile run as a picnic.

Sometime in 1927 (a year I know far too much about), the "P.T. Barnum of sports promotion," C.C. Pyle, cooked up a scheme for the marathon to end all marathons, from Los Angeles to New York City with a $25,000 prize to the first finisher. 199 runners from around the world paid their $125 entry fee for C.C. Pyle's First Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, dubbed the Bunion Derby, and set out on March 4, 1928. Astonishingly, despite inclement weather, poor footwear, careless motorists, and Pyle's abominable management of the event, 55 runners finished on May 26, 1928. More astonishingly, no one died during the event.

Williams follows the stories of the race's competitors, an eclectic mixture of world class athletes, desperate types, and fame-hungry eccentrics. There's Andy Payne, the part Cherokee Oklahoma farm boy who ran to save his family's farm and to impress the girl of his dreams, and Lucien Frost, a cult member and Hollywood bit player with a foot-long beard. Then there's Tobie Cotton, a 15-year-old African-American boy with a paraplegic father, whose family bought a $50 touring car to follow him across the country.

The runners faced immeasurable hardships during the race. The roads were bad, and athletic equipment for competitive runners was primitive. Underdog Frank Von Flue began the race wearing a pair of baseball shoes from which he'd removed the spikes, but quickly switched them out for a pair of patent leather street shoes. Another runner wore lumberjack boots. However, much of the runners' suffering was caused by Pyle himself. Trying to eke a profit out of his poorly planned venture, Pyle saved money by having runners sleep on the ground in tents, and half-starving them.

It's an unbelievable, wacky tale of the period with loads of colorful figures and amazing anecdotes. If you're a fan of endurance contests of the 1920s, Route 66 lore, or the general loneliness of the long distance runner, this book is for you.

Also, if you like this sort of thing, check out my post today on the 1947project, detailing chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.'s ill-advised January ocean marathon from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes. It's a story that involves a plucky young Canadian, fabulous prizes, and full frontal nudity.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pennsylvania Bound

Potts and I are abandoning Los Angeles, and the blog, for the next week as we venture east to see the family.

While packing, we suddenly remembered that summer afternoon in Madison, WI when we donated all our sweaters to the Salvation Army while laughing maniacally and dancing to the theme song from The O.C..

Kinda wish I still had some of those sweaters now.