Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

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?


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.