Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Better Ten Innocent Men Should Suffer: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Typically, the crime novel operates on the basic set of assumptions that wrongdoing has been perpetrated, and that wrongdoers must be sought out and punished to uphold a moral code, agreed upon by the state and the public. However, when the crime novel tweaks those conventions, interesting things happen.

The recent Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace deals with a detective's search for a serial killer in Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Here, the horrific crimes of one man are blunted against the backdrop of death and devastation of a less sensational and individually targeted nature.

Child 44 explores similar ideas, played out in a very different setting - the last days of Stalin's Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Like Peace's novel, the serial killer here is loosely based on a real life murderer; however, the basic premise of that human life is valuable and criminals should be punished is challenged by an entirely different set of constructs. How can the State pursue a serial killer when the State itself is guilty of murdering thousands of its own citizens? And moreover, how can a Communist state pursue a serial killer when crimes like murder are supposed to be byproducts of capitalism?

There is no crime, so therefore, no crime has been committed.

At the beginning of the book, Leo Demidov is a high-ranking official in the MGB, the State Security force responsible for investigating suspected traitors, dissidents, and spies. Leo is unwaveringly loyal to the Party and assumes that, if he's asked to arrest someone, there must be a good reason. When the son of another MGB officer turns up mutilated with soil stuffed in his mouth, Leo is sent to convince the family to keep quiet about their suspicion that it was murder.

Leo's not cruel and he takes no pleasure in the brutality of his job -- he just knows how the system works, and what happens to people who make too much noise, people who get arrested.

Though this murder and others like it are central to the story, Leo initially has very little to do with them. The first half of the book is actually devoted to the series of events leading to Leo's loss of faith in his government and his subsequent fall from the Party's grace. It's an unusual choice, but Smith isn't simply treading water here in the build-up to the murder investigation. This section of the book does an excellent job of establishing the culture of paranoia and perpetual fear, as well as shattering Leo's assumptions about nearly every aspect of his life, including his marriage.

Once Leo is in a position to begin investigating the series of murders, all children, all mutilated with soil stuffed in their mouths, the book becomes more of a straightforward thriller. However, because of circumstances I won't spoil here, the stakes are very high and the reading experience very, very tense.

There's been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and hype about Smith's Child 44, all of it deserved. There's a cinematic quality to the story (in fact, the rights have already been purchased by Ridley Scott, with Richard Price set to write the adaptation), but it never reads like a screenplay. The writing is complex, powerful, and sometimes devastating. It's a fascinating premise for a crime thriller, and Smith delivers on every bit of the story's promise.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Reason to Go to Claremont, CA

This summer at the Claremont Museum of Art, Vexing: Female Voices from East L.A. Punk:

Taking its name from the all-ages music club The Vex, once housed within East Los Angeles’ Self Help Graphics and Art, Vexing is an historical investigation of the women who were at the forefront of this movement of experimentation in music, art, culture and politics, while exploring their lasting legacies and contemporary practices.

I watched The Decline of Western Civilization tonight, which served only to remind me that the L.A. punk scene was 90% stupid and/or hate-mongering hacks. Fortunately, X and The Bags were in there (members from each are taking part in Vexing), ably representing the 10% that was awesome.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Seven Days....

Next Monday, the second incarnation of the Zombie Summer Reading Program begins. We've been browsing the shelves at our lovely (and now fully funded) local library, and have dug up some likely corpses to kick things off: the life and loves of a 1960s burlesque dancer, the Victorian criminal mind, and some very regrettable cookbooks, to name a few.

The Zombie Summer Reading Program has only two rules:

1. The book must be dusty, moldy, neglected, overlooked, and/or forgotten.
2. It must be written by someone you've never heard of.

The fun starts next Monday, and lasts all summer long.

"When there's no more room in closed stacks, the out-of-print will rise up and walk the earth."

Suburban Nightmares: The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

The Shadow Year starts off with tremendous promise, reminiscent of two terrific novellas - Stephen King's The Body and Joe Hill's Voluntary Committal (from 20th Century Ghosts).

Like King, Ford creates what is truly a child's world. Set in the early 1960s, follows three siblings through one cycle of the kid year, which always begins on the last day of summer vacation. But it's a year marked by a string of mysterious disappearances, a malevolent stranger, and a neighborhood peeping Tom, and the three children decide it's up to them to investigate. Jim is the kind of older brother everyone wants - full of ideas, wise to the ways of the world, and protective of his younger siblings. The unnamed narrator is the middle child, quieter, more observant, and always scribbling in his notebook. The youngest, Mary, chain smokes and has an alter ego named Mickey - she's in a special class because her teachers can't figure out whether she's mentally disabled or a genius.

Mary also has a strange ability when it comes to Botch Town, and here's where the Joe Hill comes in. Botch Town is Jim's miniature re-creation of their neighborhood and the people who live in it. When the peeping Tom appears in the neighborhood, they make a figure for him and move it around the board to the houses he's visited. When the narrator notices he's being followed by a white car with fins, they add that to the board, too. However, Mary seems to know where to move figures around Botch Town that she shouldn't, and what's more, she knows where the stranger in the white car is going to turn up - and who he's watching.

The build-up is terrific, but unfortunately, Ford doesn't carry it through. Interesting plot lines fizzle out, characters that never quite gel are added late in the story, and the last 50 pages are so disappointing that it's almost like reading an entirely different book. The writing gets clumsy here, too, and though I suspect Ford had a very clear vision in his mind of what was happening to his characters, the action and intensity of the final scenes is a hard-to-follow muddle.

I'd recommend reading The Shadow Year, but only if you stop around page 225 and make up your own ending.

For Your Memorial Day Lazing About

The good people over at Black Mask magazine have put a number of old stories online in .pdf format, with the original artwork.

THRILL to the fevered fisticuffs and boisterous brawling!

GASP at the horrors of the unknown!

SNICKER at some of the more ludicrous plot twists!

And, if you're like me, FERVENTLY WISH that more of this stuff was available.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Q&A with American Eve Author Paula Uruburu

Earlier this week, I reviewed Paula Uruburu's American Eve, and it knocked my socks off.

The story of America's first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit, her tragic relationships with architect Stanford White and coal heir Harry Kendall Thaw, and the brutal crime that thrust her into the public eye in a way her photographs never had would appeal to any true crime fan or history buff. However, Uruburu's account digs beneath the sensation and spectacle to uncover much more -- not only the circumstances leading up to the 1906 murder, but also a critical side of the story that's previously gone untold -- Evelyn's.

Uruburu, an English professor at Hofstra University, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, and on top of that, she also sent some wonderful images that didn't make it into American Eve (including one of Harry Thaw's very scary mother). Enjoy!

Even though the events of American Eve took place over 100 years ago, your narrative has a very intimate, in-the-moment feel -- the scenes where you describe Stanford White's parties for Evelyn come immediately to mind. Was there a moment in your research when you began to understand the figures in this story on a deeper level, and if so, what brought it about?

Ghosts can be very instructive if one pays attention. It also helps to live so close to Manhattan where so much of the story takes place and have a passion for true crime and -- I would hope -- a sensitivity to gender issues and what I call in the book “the currencies of power” that saturate and define American culture – power, money, sex, beauty and celebrity. After spending ten years with Evelyn’s own writing in memoirs and letters, tons of contemporary newspaper accounts and subsequent articles, family reminiscences, the original trial transcripts (which had not been seen in 100 years) I really did begin to live in the period and put Evelyn into the larger cultural context she herself could not see while in the moment.

It also helps that as an English professor with a specialization in the Gilded Age and turn of the century literature and culture, I already had an intimacy with the language of the times, the social milieu, etc. I have a background as well in art history and theater, which also helped me write about a world I felt I knew on a deeper level and wanted to recreate as faithfully as possible. I eventually got to a point where I wanted a steak and glass of champagne from Delmonicos.

How did you track down the photographs, postcards, and ephemera used in the book, and of these, what was your most exciting find?

I had to become what I call a stealth detective, often entering into dark dusty places off the beaten track (and as I say in my notes, in a pre-Ebay, pre-internet world). My research required a lot of traveling to libraries, historical societies, archives, various sub-cultures of different kinds of collectors, to finding people who knew Evelyn, even to the former asylum Harry was in which is now a correctional facility in upstate New York. I have a great deal more material than is even evident in the book, and almost think I need to write a book about the experience of writing American Eve (think Flaubert’s Parrot or the film Adaptation).

My most exciting find early on was the original first trial transcript (all 6000 pages) which the generous grandson of the original judge in the case let me copy. The other exciting find has to be uncovering the private collector who had 400+ letters that Evelyn wrote. He also generously let me use them as source material for the book. Just seeing her own handwriting, her incredible wit and sense of humor in these letters helped me continue when I realized she never gave in to the idea of being a victim. They made me want to reveal the human being behind the myth and the Mona Lisa smile.

I couldn't believe how quickly public sentiment turned against Stanford White during Harry Thaw's trial, especially considering how unsympathetic a figure Thaw was. Of course, White wasn't around to defend himself, but why do you think the people chose to stand behind a madman who brutalized chorus girls and was shunned by most of the upper crust?

“Timing is everything” as they say -- and it is also the reason why I think the book is incredibly relevant today -- tragically and depressingly so. Not only did new technology make it possible for the Thaws to wage a media war in Harry’s defense, led by the indomitable Mother Thaw and her dead husband’s millions, but it was a culture in crisis. The so-called new Century of Progress was ripe for change and class wars -- and social/culture clashes were inevitable. The Thaws, with their well-paid alienists and spin-doctors, created a media blitz (using everything at their disposal including sheet music, postcards, pulp-type accounts, film, etc.) that the old-money old guard would not have sullied themselves with -– and as you said, Stanford White wasn’t around to defend himself. Those who might have tried to defend him high-tailed it out of town to avoid any guilt by association.

In addition, the invention of the female force of reporters that I describe in the book (the sob sisters) saw an opportunity in Evelyn’s pathetic tale to break into the newspaper business, playing initially on the melodramatic, almost operatic aspects of a battle of the sexes being played out in public for the first time. It took a while for people to realize that Harry was not the knight in shining armor but rather something much, much darker and that White was not the wholesale villain the Thaws wanted to promote to save Harry from the electric chair.

You mention in the acknowledgments that Evelyn's surviving family members were very supportive in helping you with this project. What were their thoughts when you first approached them, and what do they think of the book, now that it's finished?

When I contacted the person I thought was Evelyn’s son, Russell, it turned out to be Evelyn’s grandson, also named Russell (his father had passed away a decade before). He was initially reluctant to talk to me, having been burned in the past by unscrupulous collectors and “just plain kooks” every time Evelyn resurfaced in the popular culture (first in Doctorow’s Ragtime and again in the 1981 film –- he was too young to remember much about the time when The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing came out starring Joan Collins as Evelyn).

But I eventually gained his trust (it helps to be sincere and have credentials as a university professor) and he then invited me to visit, to look through family artifacts, home movies, photos, etc., and to talk to his mother, whom Evelyn lived with for twenty plus years. I was of course very anxious about the family’s reaction but am happy to say they appreciated it on several levels —- in fact Russell really liked it (including the writing style), saying that at first it was very weird, looking over my shoulder into his own family’s history and his grandma’s life and the “wicked, wicked” circumstances that always threatened to engulf her. He also thanked me for showing how she was the victim of powerful men and social forces and not the vixen she has been made out to be historically. It was extremely rewarding and quite a relief.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century, Riverhead, May 2008

Also, American Eve is on YouTube -- more great images from the book.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Quick Detour Into the Exciting World of Exploitation Film: She Shoulda Said No!

After reading about Evelyn Nesbit in American Eve, her story reminded me of another beautiful young woman sacrificed on the altar of fame and celebrity scandal, Lila Leeds.

At the beginning of 1948, Leeds was poised to take Hollywood by storm. She'd had a small role in Lady in the Lake, and her looks drew comparisons to Lana Turner and Jean Harlow.

But then police busted up a marijuana party at her Laurel Canyon cottage, hauling in Leeds, and much to their delight, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum and Leeds were both convicted and sentenced to 60 days in prison. Both feared their careers were over; when Mitchum was asked to state his occupation for the police report, he replied, "Former actor."

However, Mitchum's studio rallied around him, and though some disapproved, the arrest gave his bad boy reputation even more cred.

Things would not go so well for Leeds, who was thrown under the proverbial bus. Even her agent, Louis Shurr said, "She had a promising career and was headed for success, if she had only behaved differently. It looks now as though she's blown her chances sky high."

Still, Leeds got one little break after prison - the chance to star in a sensationalized anti-drug movie in the spirit of the oft-mocked Reefer Madness. There was some trouble settling on a title. It was initially called The Devil's Weed, and for its Los Angeles premiere, it was titled Wild Weed, but the title was eventually changed to She Shoulda Said No!.

And sure, it bears many classic marks of the anti-drug exploitation film: teens smoke a little pot, get frisky, and smash up their cars; people go into marijuana "withdrawal," and a jittery fellow tries to throw himself out a window. However, She Shoulda Said No! is actually a pretty little terrific film, mainly because of Leeds's performance.

Leeds plays Anne Lester, a good girl working as a dancer to put her lazy, mooching brother through art school. Of course, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, Marky, stops by the dressing room to give the girls their fix, and wants to meet Anne the moment he lays eyes on her. One of Anne's dancer friends throws together an impromptu party, Marky gets Anne high, and before you can say Jack Robinson, she's his drug-dealing sidekick.

Leeds is perfectly lovely as a good girl, but it's once Anne Lester turns bad that the character really starts to shine.

When the cops try to pressure her into giving up Marky, Anne tells them where to stick it with such venom and contempt that it's almost like watching an interrogation scene from The Wire. Obviously, Leeds's memories of prison are still fresh here, but it's also clear that the gal has some acting chops.

In most movies like this, the Anne Lester character winds up a martyr, a junkie, a jailbird, or a repentent, wounded little sparrow, but She Shoulda Said No! avoids resigning her to any of these fates. And that's the best part of all.

Unfortunately, Leeds herself wouldn't be so lucky. Shortly after the release of She Shoulda Said No!, all the acting jobs dried up, and Leeds left California for over 15 years, during which time she was repeatedly arrested for drug possession and soliciting. For a time, she found an unlikely savior in the figure of Chicago madam Kay Jarrett, who helped Leeds hide from the press and care for her infant son shortly after she'd been abandoned by the child's father.

The story has a semi-happy ending, though I haven't yet uncovered the bulk of it. In the 1960s, Leeds returned to Los Angeles, sober and working as a minister with an evangelical church. She died in Canoga Park in 1999, and I'm still trying to fill in a lot of those missing years.

But in the meantime, add She Shoulda Said No! to your Netflix queue. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Scandal in the Garden: American Eve by Paula Uruburu

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the 'It' Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

During her brief tenure as the most beautiful, enigmatic, and desirable woman in America, Evelyn Nesbit would be called "the modern Helen," "a fresh and fascinating theatrical find," and "the little Sphinx." But within the space of a few years, the press had given her dramatically different names -- "the lethal beauty," "the woman whose beauty caused death and ruin," and most famously, "the cause of it all."

The story is now a touchstone in the annals of true crime. In the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, Pittsburgh coal heir Harry Kendall Thaw approached architect Stanford White and shot him twice in the head in front of hundreds of witnesses. "The cause of it all" was Thaw's wife, Nesbit, who had been White's underage mistress during her days as a model and chorus girl (between the ages of roughly 14 and 20), and had been ushered into that role after White raped her. Thaw's counsel claimed he was driven mad by learning of White's attack on his bride, and Evelyn's harrowing testimony saved her husband from the electric chair.

However, Thaw was mad long before he clapped eyes on Evelyn Nesbit. He was prone to laugh at inappropriate moments, and often drifted into baby talk. He was a staunch supporter of morality laws, and often wrote letters to Anthony Comstock; however, Thaw also enjoyed luring aspiring actresses and young boys into hotel rooms where he beat them with dog whips, bound them, and in at least one case, scalded them in the bathtub -- which is how he earned the nickname of "Bathtub Harry." His improprieties were legion, but as Harry was possessed of both family fortunes, and an indulgent mother who would pay off any battered chorus girls who threatened to bring charges, Harry Kendall Thaw walked free.

It's a story so meaty that it's difficult to break away from the facts of the case and the circumstances that brought them about to discuss what Uruburu accomplishes in her telling of it.

And that bears discussion, because it's a masterful telling.

Previous accounts of the murder have focused on Thaw and White, leaving Nesbit as a child vixen able to whip men into feats of frenzy without opening her mouth. First and foremost, Uruburu's account gives Nesbit a voice and a face more substantial than the heavy-lidded nymphet with the Mona Lisa smile that we see in her portraits. To do so, Uruburu relies heavily on Nesbit's two memoirs, but she does so with meticulous care and responsibility.

Her patience in sifting through variously unreliable and sensational accounts in the press and in Nesbit and Thaw's memoirs uncovers credible explanations for Nesbit's sometimes puzzling actions -- why she became White's mistress after he raped her, why she married "Mad Harry" when she knew him to be unstable and violent, and why she provided the testimony that saved his life.

She also shows how a crime that was clearly the story of two privileged men with sick, well-concealed perversions somehow came to rest on the shoulders of a young model who had been abused by both men.

Uruburu's writing style is also a marvel, invoking the purple prose of the era alongside the fictional icons that would figure heavily into Nesbit's photographic studies and her life -- Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Persephone, and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. Of the affair that developed between Nesbit and White, Uruburu writes,

"In the months following Evelyn's Dionysian initiation, Stanny behaved as if he had to possess her as completely as humanly possible... Like the perfect champagne grape, he had picked her at the sweetest moment of her development, when she would be at her most deliciously erotic, susceptible to decadence, but without a sexual history and no equipment for passing sour judgments."

In the months leading up to the book's publication, Uruburu has frequently been called upon to provide commentary on celebrity stories involving the likes of Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, and it's not surprising. In her memoirs, even Evelyn Nesbit would write, "I do not know that to be brought into the public eye so young is the happiest of experiences."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Weekly Geeks #4: Adoption Law and History

For this week's Weekly Geeks, the challenge is to choose a political or social issue, and compile a list of books on the subject.

My interest in adoption law and history is motivated by a few really great books I've read on the subject, coupled with the ways it's impacted the lives of people around me -- from my cousin and his partner, who have spent the past four years navigating the murky waters of adoption through the County of Los Angeles, to a friend who is legally prohibited from receiving medical history information about his biological parents. Our system of adoption in the United States is a troubled, and troubling one.

A few recommended reads:

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler

Fessler's book contains the oral histories of unmarried women who became pregnant, entered homes for unwed mothers, and surrendered their babies for adoption during the 1950s and 60s. It's a truly moving, tragic, and horrifying social history from people in the adoption equation whose stories are often overlooked.

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Georgia Tann brokered over 5000 adoptions out of her Memphis orphanage, and raked in over $1 million doing it. Her methods were monstrous, and involved tricking unwed and poor mothers into signing away legal custody of their children, kidnapping children from poor families, and falsifying birth certificates so they'd be impossible to track down once she sold them across state lines. Raymond's harrowing account of Tann's practices, and how she got away with them is not to be missed.

The English American by Alison Larkin

A bit lighter than the first two books listed here, The English American is about Pippa Dunn, a young woman born to American parents, but adopted by a British family. When Pippa decides to contact her birth mother, she runs headlong into the infuriating legalities of the U.S. adoption system, but is eventually reunited with Billie, a dramatic, creative woman with whom Pippa feels an immediate connection. However, as she gets to know Billie, and her birth father, Walt, their happy reunion gradually becomes cloudier and more complicated. Though the premise plays out in sometimes fanciful ways, the relationships and emotions explored here always ring true.

And here are some others I haven't read yet, but am interested in:

Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950 by Julie Berebitsky

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption by Barbara Melosh

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Literary Political Tickets

Following an interview with Barack Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic writes:

Obama told me that his sensibility was partially shaped by the books of Philip Roth. This obviously has profound implications for American foreign policy, and for shiksas, as well.

And so, a reader contest. In a couple of pithy sentences, tell us what the first 100 days of a Roth-influenced Obama presidency would look like. I'll post the best responses. First prize is a piece of liver.

This leads me to ponder, what other literary pairings would make for interesting times in these United States?

The Junot Diaz/Chuck Klosterman ticket:

Most entertaining, profanity-laced State of the Union addresses ever.

The Anne Rice/Stephen King ticket:

A chicken in every pot, a hearse in every garage.

The James Ellroy/Bret Easton Ellis ticket: (Brady's suggestion)

Even Kim Jong-il would quake in mortal terror.

The J.D. Salinger/Thomas Pynchon ticket: (also Brady's)

A return to small government we can all enjoy. AKA, the Milford School ticket.

The Judy Blume/Cecil Castellucci ticket:

Actually, that would be kind of awesome.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Snakes and Snails and Femme Fatales: In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo

In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo

Recently, one of my colleagues did a program at LAPL about mystery novels from South and Latin America. I picked up a few books, but the one that Jim put into my hands personally was In Praise of Lies, a story of romantic intrigue, criminal schemes, and spousal homicide that's every bit as nasty as it is funny.

The narrator, Jose Guber, is a novelist who churns out pulp crime novels on two week deadlines. In an effort to sneak a little bit of intellectual betterment into his unsuspecting readers, Guber lifts his plots from the likes of Poe, Camus, and Dostoevsky. One of my favorite pieces of business in the book is the correspondence between Guber and his editor. In one of these exchanges, Guber sends a proposal that's basically Crime and Punishment, and the editor replies, "How are we going to arouse the spirit of revenge in readers by killing some mangy, undesirable old woman? When an old woman like that dies, people cheer."

The editor is also fond of invoking Van Dine's "20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories".

But enough about the nice touches - let's get to the murder.

Guber decides that he'd like to write a novel in which the murderer uses snake venom to kill his victims, and seeks out an expert for help. Enter Melissa, a herpetologist with a carefully selected collection of rare, deadly, and in some cases, illegally obtained snakes. She and Guber begin a steamy affair almost immediately, complicated by Melissa's marriage.

She hates her husband, wants him dead, and pressures Guber to help murder him so they can be together. She hatches an elaborate plan inspired by Guber's snake venom story, and Guber goes along with her, half-transfixed and half-terrified. Hasn't Guber read enough James M. Cain to realize these things never turn out well?

And it doesn't, though not in the ways you'd expect.

Melo's writing is clever and sharp, and while she relies on well-worn tropes from classic crime fiction, she bends these conventions to her own very surprising ends. In Praise of Lies is a quick read, less than 200 pages, but you'll savor every one of them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Return of the Zombie Summer Reading Program

Last summer, I found x-rays of human teeth in a weird, old library book, and a dream was born. A dream to uncover the dustiest, creepiest, strangest books that time ever forgot.

Brady and I read memoirs by the most notorious madams of the 20th century, Bolshevik science fiction, 1950s Junior League cookbooks, and some weird-ass children's books, and had ourselves a fine old time.

We'll be kicking things off June 1, so this summer, join us in seeking out the dankest corners of your local library or used bookstore, and share your findings most foul. There are only two rules:

1. The book must be dusty, moldy, neglected, overlooked, and/or forgotten.
2. It must be written by someone you've never heard of.

Contact me if you'd like to contribute a post, join our group on Facebook, or feel free to use the image and concept on your own blog. The fun starts June 1, and lasts all summer long.

"When there's no more room in closed stacks, the out-of-print will rise up and walk the earth."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekly Geeks #3: Favorite Childhood Reads

Of course, I read a lot of Judy Blume and E.B. White and Roald Dahl when I was little, but for the latest Weekly Geeks challenge to write about our childhood favorites, I decided to dig out some of the more obscure, weird, hard-to-find titles that I loved as a child. Remember any of these?

Overlooked and Forgotten Childhood Gems

1. The Owlstone Crown by X.J. Kennedy
Still one of my favorite books, even after all these years.

Timothy and Verity Tibb are orphans who live on a farm with the evil Grimbles, who force them to farm parsnips in the dead of winter, and spend countless hours sticking labels onto bottles of a quack home remedy made of... parsnips. Life is bleak. Until one night they are visited by Lewis O. Ladybug, an insect private investigator, who tells the kids that their grandparents are alive, if not well, and living in a parallel universe. The kids sneak over to Other Earth, determined to rescue their grandparents, and the world from an evil dictator named Raoul Owlstone.

This book has great characters, an amazingly inventive plot, and references to stuff like Hamlet and Ross MacDonald that I didn't catch until I was much older.

2. The Island Keeper by Henry Mazer
Rich, overweight, spoiled, and generally useless, Cleo runs away from home to escape her overbearing family and memories of her dead sister. Cheesy set-up, typical 80s kid lit trauma-drama, but it gets better.

There's supposed to be a cabin there. But when she arrives, she finds it's burned down. She stocks up on food from a camping store, but her supply is quickly ransacked by animals. Her canoe is destroyed, winter is coming, and suddenly, what started as a somewhat bratty adolescent rebellion becomes very high stakes.

3. The Sara Summer by Mary Dowling Hahn
A book about Emily, a boring, well-behaved preteen girl who makes a "bad" friend. Emily is drawn to Sara's charisma, fearlessness, disregard for authority, but she also feels a little uncomfortable around her; however, she's also too spineless to stand up to Sara when she goes too far. What I liked most about this book is that it doesn't come to any easy conclusions about these kinds of friendships -- Emily isn't simply dragged down by Sara's influence, she also learns some valuable things from her.

4. Invisible Lissa by Natalie Honeycutt
Kind of like Blubber, only told from the point of view of the girl who is ostracized by her classmates when they form an exclusive club called FUNCHY (which stands for "fun lunches"). In a scene that I remember vividly, the narrator wants to stay home from school so badly that she sucks down the remains of a medicine lollipop left over from when she had strep throat. Invisible Lissa perfectly captures the arbitrary cruelty of elementary and middle school cliques, and really deserves to come back into print.

5. Autumn Street by Lois Lowry
As I once wrote in a post about this relatively obscure Lois Lowry book, "I don't want to live in a world where future generations can't read Autumn Street and be emotionally scarred by it."

6. With Magical Horses to Ride by Winifred Morris
Sadly, I remember very little about this book despite the fact that I checked it out at least twice a year from my local library between 1985 and 1987. Basically, it's about a girl who hangs out in a cemetery with a boy she thinks is an elf. Also, there is a bunch of stuff about tarot cards, and my parents would have totally taken this book away from me if they'd known what wicked sorcery it contained.

7. The Hawkeye and Amy series by M. Masters
Kind of the poor man's Encyclopedia Brown, the Hawkeye and Amy books followed a similar format. The twist, however, was that the answers to each case were printed backwards and you had to hold the book up to a mirror to read them.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sir William the Bloody

Chances are good that you never studied the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall in school, and that his work is not available at your local library. This 19th century Scottish poet is an overlooked gem, though not for the usual reasons.

To call McGonagall a dreadful poet does not quite do him justice, because the marvel of his work is in how inventively dreadful it is. Rather than describe it, I'll let the work speak for itself.

From "An Address to Shakespeare":

Immortal! William Shakespeare, there's none can you excel,
You have drawn out your characters remarkably well,
Which is delightful for to see enacted upon the stage
For instance, the love-sick Romeo, or Othello, in a rage

From "Calamity in London: Family of Ten Burned to Death":

Oh, Heaven! if was a frightful and pitiful sight to see
Seven bodies charred of the Jarvis' family;
And Mrs Jarvis was found with her child, and both carbonised,
And as the searchers gazed thereon they were surprised.

Fires are a popular topic in McGonagall's work. From "Burning of the Exeter Theatre":

It was the most sickening sight that ever anybody saw,
Human remains, beyond recognition, covered with a heap of straw;
And here and there a body might be seen, and a maimed hand,
Oh, such a sight, that the most hard-hearted person could hardly withstand!

And my favorite, "The Pennsylvania Disaster," on the Johnstown flood:

And when the merciless flood reached Johnstown it was fifty feet high,
While, in pitiful accents, the drowning people for help did cry;
But hundreds of corpses, by the flood, were swept away,
And Johnstown was blotted out like a child's toy house of clay.

All you ever wanted to know about William Topaz McGonagall and more is available at McGonagall Online.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Gary Phillips At the Memorial Branch Library

The Memorial Branch is one of the Los Angeles Public Library system's smallest, oldest, and most beautiful branches. But lately, they've been pulling out the big guns for their "Meet the Author" series, and proving that you don't need the Mark Taper Auditorium to host a great talk.

We just got back from a Q&A with Gary Phillips, author of The Underbelly, Politics Noir (ed.), Monkology: the Ivan Monk stories, Bangers, Shooter’s Point, The Jook and too many other projects to name.

Phillips discussed his writing process, how he keeps the language and tropes of noir fresh, and Citizen Kang, the political suspense serial he's currently writing at The Nation to an audience that included a group of students from Los Angeles High School.

I'm told that in upcoming months, the Memorial branch library will be hosting talks with writers including Paula Woods, John Shannon, Denise Hamilton, a line-up that should have any fan of L.A. crime fiction doing the happy dance.

I'll post more details when I get the dates, but in the meantime, I can't say enough nice things about the Memorial branch library, and their ability to drag a girl out of her house on a Monday night and show her a nice time. I'll definitely be going back.

What a Life! What a Dame!: Elaine Dundy, 1921-2008

Elaine Dundy, author of The Dud Avocado, passed away last week at the age of 86.

Though best known for the semi-autobiographical adventures of Sally Jay Gorce, an American screwball on the loose in Paris, Dundy was also the author of several other novels and Elvis and Gladys, a study of the relationship between Elvis and his mother, described as "the best Elvis book yet."

My favorite of Dundy's works is her memoir, Life Itself!, which is quite simply the loveliest, liveliest, wittiest, most eyebrow-raising, side-splitting memoir I've ever read. Here are a few of my favorite moments from it:

On giving a disastrous class presentation on "arson": "When you have got it firmly lodged in your head that arson is a chemical, a batch of newspaper clippings with headlines such as: 'Ten Die in Warehouse Blaze - Arson Suspected' is not going to dislodge it."

On discovering rampant anti-Semitism at Sweet Briar College: "My shit list was growing apace and I had only been there for two months."

On not buying a jar of peanut butter: "I was the only one in our household who ate it and the thought struck me with force that our marriage was not going to last before I finished it."

On the kinkiness of the British: "Of course Englishmen love flagellation. It's the only time they ever get touched as children."

Some other remembrances of Dundy can be found at:

Elvis News
Quiet Bubble: "Roy Turner, her old friend and late-period amanuensis, said that “she died doing exactly what she loved most: she had a heart attack in mid-conversation with someone famous and interesting.”
A Different Stripe

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Dear Abby, Dear Abby

Here's your chance to help a lit blogger with an ethical dilemma in her life:

Dear Reader:

I've gone to the same beautician for the past three years, and during that time, she's given me great haircuts at reasonable prices. When I go to her salon, there's no techno music, no display of Bumble & Bumble hair products, no bored, vindictive hipster stylists. We just watch true crime programs and Princess Di biography special on cable, and discuss them at great length. I always look forward to going to her. Until yesterday.

I walked into the salon in the morning, and discovered the beautician drinking a beer from a can in a paper bag. I was somewhat startled, but allowed politeness to override my good sense, and let her cut my hair anyway. However, it turns out that the woman was not merely hungover, but still somewhat drunk.

My new haircut reflects this state. I had to do a little creative trimming when I got home to salvage it.

So, should I go back to her again? I like this woman and she's always done a good jo in the past. I really don't want to find another place to get my hair cut. What should I do?


Still Kind of Uneven in the Back

Friday, May 02, 2008

Reason #482 Why The Hobbit Needs the del Toro/Jackson Treatment

Did you ever notice that in the animated version of The Hobbit, Smaug sounds like somebody's drunk uncle?

Don't believe me? Baby, I have evidence:

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I Guess It's Just My Week To Be Grumbly About YA Lit

You Know Where To Find Me by Rachel Cohn

It almost causes me physical pain to speak ill of a Rachel Cohn book when it was her writing that sucked me in to the awesome renaissance of YA lit in the first place. Unfortunately, Cohn's You Know Where To Find Me is several steps down from thoughtful, funny, and unpredictable work like Gingerbread, The Steps, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

The book centers around Miles, better known as "8 Mile" at her predominantly African-American school -- "white trash with the wide load, capable of an occasional decent rap." Like many of Cohn's characters, Miles belongs to a non-traditional family, and this one is particularly complicated.

It begins with Jim, a middle-aged gay man who decides he wants to be a father, so he and his lover have a daughter through a surrogate. Then, the lover commits suicide, leaving Jim to raise Laura on his own. Shortly after this, the lover's twin sister shows up on Jim's doorstep with the infant Miles. Miles and Laura are raised together, almost like sisters, and the best of friends until Laura, like her biological father, commits suicide.

All of this takes place in the book's first chapter.

The rest of the book follows Miles as she contends with Laura's death, her feelings of inadequacy and ugliness, and also with her own burgeoning addiction to prescription drugs -- hydros, Perks, and Oxys, if it's a special occasion. She struggles with her weight, is considering dropping out of school before her senior year, and is in love with her best friend, though he's in love with someone else.

There's a lot going on here. Too much.

Add to that a subplot, conducted mainly through dialogue, involving Washington, D.C.'s mind-boggling electoral situation of taxation without representation. In her previous books, Cohn has occasionally thrown out a line or two that is clearly her, expressed through her characters. Here, she abandons all restraint and uses her characters to go off on tirades against religion, neo-con politics, the electoral process, and all manner of other things.

Let me be clear -- it's not Cohn's beliefs that offend me here, it's the clumsiness with which she instills them in her characters. It's incredibly jarring to read dialogue like the following coming out of a character's mouth:

"But he has, in fact, traded support on certain measures with several Maryland representatives in order to line up their recommendations for a retrocession measure to study whether D.C. could become part of Maryland. Retrocession would allow for a capital city around the Mall for the federal government, but extend Maryland's borders inside the District so that its citizens are granted the same state's rights -- and responsibilities -- as citizens in any other state."

It's not the fact that these words are coming out of a teenager's mouth that makes them unbelievable. It's that people don't talk like this unless they're the kind of people with jobs that require them to hire speech writers.

Again, I'm a fan of all of Cohn's other books, and would enthusiastically recommend them to anyone. But You Know Where to Find Me takes on too many themes, and addresses them sloppily.