Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shall We Sup, Shall We Soup?: Two More from the Inimitable Eugene Walter

Jennie the Watercress Girl: A Fable for Mobilians and a Few Choice Others

Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes

If Everette Maddox is the unofficial poet laureate of the blog, Eugene Walter is its resident Puck. We're big fans, and when Brady returned from his research trip to the Gulf Coast, he brought me back two hard-to-find Eugene Walter reprints.

Walter's first book, Jennie the Watercress Girl was an effort to revive the lost art of pamphleteering. After returning to Mobile from Alaska, where he worked as a cryptographer during World War II (well-documented in Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet), he discovered the city had much changed in his absence. And not for the better.

This playfully illustrated little fable begins when Jenny Heynonny's family is ruined by the 1929 stock market crash, and little Jennie resolves to support them by selling watercress. And so, she departs for Bienville Square singing the refrain:

"Watercress, watercress, who'll buy my watercress?
Watercress sweet and shy,
Watercress wet and dry,
Oh, who'll of my watercress, watercress buy?"

Here, she befriends all the town characters, talking critters, too, and discovers her true calling as a ballet dancer. After years on tour, she returns to Mobile to find that the city has embarked on a course of PROGRESS. The trees are gone, the architecture is bad, and the pretty corners of the city are now littered with parking lots and filling stations.

And Jennie's heart is utterly, irreparably broken.

Of course, no city plots its course by broken-hearted ballerinas, or by the druthers of Eugene Walter; however, even today, Mobile has an interesting relationship with its quirky side. Though surrounded by suburban wasteland and industrial sprawl, in the core of the city you'll find cars sporting "Keep Mobile Funky" bumper stickers, independently owned shops, and historic preservationists who laugh in the face of termites and hurricanes. Starbucks only came to Mobile recently, and even its walls are plastered with local art.

So, maybe Eugene accomplished a little something after all.

A good bit giddier than the fate of poor Jennie is Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall, perhaps the most charming cookbook ever to grace my shelves.

Termite Hall, another marvel of Mobilian historic preservation, still stands despite its name. And Eugene wrote of it, "The Hall has always been a place where people came for a week's visit and stayed a year, where everybody read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it is haunted, delightfully so."

And so the cookbook begins with a ghost story, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Then, the recipes. It's rare to read a cookbook by a writer, and there probably has never been one by a writer who was so much fun to read as Eugene Walter. He manages a kind of playful 19th century elegance, with a healthy dose of southern vernacular thrown in as well. One recipe calls for "8 big fat sassy ripe tomatoes," but I fell in love on the first page, a recipe for a "Clear Soup of Greens." After his instructions for the broth, Eugene writes:

"Into this you can toss shredded lettuce, or young cabbage, or watercress, or baby collards, or baby mustard greends, or baby radish leaves (Yes, I did say radish!) or spinach or half spinach and half young sorrel leaves or whatever greens you fancy... Pretty and Very Good. With croutons or dumplings such a dish takes on resonance."

When he gave me the books, Brady pointed out the title of the second chapter, "Shall We Sup, Shall We Soup?" and said, "I saw that, and I thought that you and Eugene probably would have been great friends."

This may be the best compliment I have ever received.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Q&A with Debut Novelist Mercedes Helnwein

The Potential Hazards of Hester Day by Mercedes Helnwein

Novelist Mercedes Helnwein has always been a writer, but until recently, was better known for her visual art, which has been called "an exciting mixture of purity, mysticism and raging beauty that follows the concept of no rules." And now, she's written a novel, which has gotten nice write-ups in Los Angeles Magazine and PW, to boot.

In The Potential Hazards of Hester Day, we meet the lovably disillusioned Hester, recently graduated from high school, and anxious to get out of a pit commonly known as Florida. If Mommy had her druthers, young Hester would be off to become a brain surgeon, but Hester knows that any proper escape has to be on her own terms.

After arranging a hasty marriage of convenience to her arch-nemesis from the public library, a prickly amateur scholar named Fenton Flaherty, Hester finds herself in hot water. So, she leaves home with the only decent member of her family, her 10-year-old cousin, Jethro, and hitches a ride in Fenton's camper.

Soon, the unlikely trio is off on a road trip through the South and Midwest, embracing the eccentric and the surreal with open arms. Of course, none of this can end well, and certainly not as our heroes expect.

I recently got to chat with Mercedes about the book, her research road trip to the South and Midwest, and the connection between writing and fine art.

There's a lot going on in The Potential Hazards of Hester Day -- a spontaneous, unconventional marriage, kidnapping, makeshift families, and a road trip, to mention a little of it. Was there any particular spark or idea that served as your point of entry to the story?

The entry point to the story was definitely based on the characters. Hester was developed fully in a short story called "Amazing Grace". I knew immediately that I had to write a lot more for this character -- I was far from done using her. And this was paired with the idea of putting her into a mismatched but genuine friendship with a ten-year-old kid. For some reason that was enough to let loose the rest of the novel.

What drew you to writing about the Midwest and the South?

I got into the blues when I was about 14 and immediately became obsessed with this music. I fell in love with the lyrics and felt that it was the first time I heard something that was completely honest.

I also read "Huck Finn" around the same time and a little later got into Steinbeck. All these things were about old America in the South and Midwest -- different angles and views and layers of it, but somehow the same thing.

I'm very old-fashioned when it comes to ideals and aesthetics. I think this modern age has lost a lot of qualities that were once naturally part of every-day life. Going through the Midwest I was kind of looking for traces of Good Old America -- proof that it existed and maybe still does in places.

I also understand that you took a road trip through the Midwest as research for the book. What kinds of things did you discover, and what was your favorite stop along the way?

Yes, in the winter, just like in the book. This was the first time I had ever gone through the Midwest/South, so I was extremely ecstatic and, to be honest, it really didn't take much to fascinate me.

There are a few things that come to mind. Crossing the Mississippi for the first time. Driving through the Kentucky hills on a quiet Sunday morning, and seeing people walking to an old, white-washed country church. Getting lost in the extreme middle-of-no-where Kansas. Visiting Mark Twain's boyhood home. Eating a weird lunch in this tiny restaurant off the side of a road in Kentucky, where everyone knew each other.

Even just seeing a barn for the first time. As I said, it didn't take much. I was easy to impress.

At one point in the book, Hester tells another character that all she wants is to embed herself in situations that are surreal; however, she seems to gravitate with equal enthusiasm towards what is romantic -- is there a connection between the two?

Yeah. I think that just depends on the person gravitating towards the romantic. In Hester's case, she's odd enough to where the romantic could be the surreal for sure.

What is the relationship between your writing and your visual art? Does your work in one medium inform the other? And are there things about the creative process that are the same (or different) for each?

It's related, and yet it's not. The two of them compliment each other extremely well. The fact that I do all this visual work, helps me in my writing and vice versa. Subject matter-wise, I'm not sure if there are that many similarities. Some people say there are. For me personally it's hard to tell, because the two activities are so different; I'm in very different mind-sets for them. But at the same time, they do kind of inspire each other, so I guess there are ties between them.

What are some of the things that inspire your writing?

Old American folk songs and blues songs. Music in general. Anything weird enough to grab my attention -- conversations, bumper stickers, commercials, viewpoints, news stories. Great sentences no matter where they come from.

What are you reading now?

I'm reading through a collection of Bukowski poems. Open All Night.

What are you working on right now, writing or otherwise?

I'm working on a new series of drawings for a solo show in L.A. this September at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery.

I'm also working on a new novel, as well as a screenplay. It's a very interesting combination of work going on all at once. I definitely never have nothing to do.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Kindred Spirit: Edmund Lester Pearson

Thanks to Laura James at CLEWS, whose enthusiastic words on librarian and true crime pioneer Edmund Lester Pearson led me to track down Studies in Murder and Masterpieces of Murder: An Edmund Pearson True Crime Reader.

Just a few stories in, and I already feel like I'm having fireside chats with a very dear, very morbid old friend.

You see, as my colleague, Greg, and I were tracking down "crimes of the heart" stories for our Valentine's Day-themed true crime program at LAPL, we had an interesting conversation about what makes a "good murder." We had no trouble finding stories that fit the bill -- Angelenos have been killing their loved ones since the city was founded.

The challenge was to find the stories that were unusual without being outright downers, or otherwise too grisly to discuss over lunch. There had to be some zaniness, some audacity, and at the risk of sounding callous, even some humor to them.

If a woman stabs her husband, it's a tragedy. If a woman stabs her husband, then claims he sustained the wound while making himself a ham sandwich, it's a tragedy, and something else as well. Something that, as Pearson might say, appeals to "the collector" of such stories.

In "What Makes a Good Murder?" Pearson explains, "The good murder, the really desirable performance, beloved by the collector is committed not by an habitual criminal but by someone of blameless life... Interesting, because unaccountable." The murder that is carefully planned and carried out for purposes of monetary or other gain resonate more than the stick-up turned tragic or the crime committed in the heat of the moment "because it is the most wicked."

Pearson's opinionated style may put some off -- he's cynical of insanity pleas, bullish on the death penalty, and openly fascinated with murderesses. However, he has all the goods that characterize the best true crime writers -- a sense of justice, a researcher's whimsical curiosity, a storyteller's instinct, and most importantly, a boundless desire to get to the bottom of things.

Some may find this kind of fascination distasteful, but to them I put Pearson's words, "Eight out of ten people are interested in murder, and of the two, one is a pretender."

As one of the eight, I can't wait to read more.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Stuff

Various Bile:

I hate the indulgent smiles that the studio royalty give to the people who win stuff like Best Documentary Short Subject, like "look at her, so cute, making her cute little speech." This also applies to the "look at him, so funny, making his funny little speech with his funny little accent."

I'm also annoyed by pretty young actresses who can't read the nominees off a teleprompter without going to bits -- pull yourselves together, you get paid for this stuff.

Morbid Curiosity:

Brad Renfro was not included in the memoriam to industry folk who died during the year - I'm wondering why.

Lighter Notes:

That was so nice of John Stewart to get Marketa Irglova onstage so she could say her thank yous.

Why do I always find myself getting totally choked up at least once during the Oscars? At least this year I didn't wind up getting tipsy and practicing a teary-eyed acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror. So there's that.

I dearly want to see that lost Coen brothers gem, Henry Kissinger: Man on the Go.

She's Not There: Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique

Gilded Lili: Lili St Cyr and the Striptease Mystique by Kelly DiNardo

As I sit here, writing and half-watching the Oscars, I'm struck by the irony that the subject of this book herself never bought into the mystique of the silver screen. Lili St. Cyr only did movies when the money was good and the work was easy; otherwise, she'd rather be dancing at Ciro's. And although she turned the heads of Humphrey Bogart and Anthony Quinn, she never aspired to appear alongside them onscreen.

Alongside the poetry-reading Gypsy Rose Lee and fan-dancing Sally Rand, Lili St. Cyr was one of the last queens of burlesque, dancing in theatres across North America from 1940 until 1970. Her stripteases tended to tell stories, often plucked from mythology, literature, and even religion -- Salome, Cleopatra, and once, even The Picture of Dorian Gray served as inspiration for her acts.

In an increasingly youth-besotted culture, it's amazing to realize that St. Cyr's career didn't really take off until she was in her mid-30s, and that she really hit her stride, headlining in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Las Vegas, in her 40s, finally hanging up her G-string for good at the age of 53.

Despite a compelling subject, DiNardo's Gilded Lily never quite compels, hampered by dry writing and padded with a rather shallow analysis of 40s and 50s American society. However, the book's biggest problem is that DiNardo never taps into Lili as a person, much less an interesting one.

In the book's epilogue, DiNardo writes, "Lili was neither Madonna nor whore, neither saint nor sinner, neither exploited pinup nor scheming gold-digger. She was neither mentally shallow, nor intellectually subversive, neither socially unimportant, nor dangerously vital." DiNardo says who Lili St. Cyr was not, but never manages to capture who she was. Perhaps in life, St. Cyr was one of those elusive shapeshifters, unknowable by even her friends and lovers; however, what we see of her here is a benign, flat arrangement of names, places, and dates -- more an itinerary than a life.

Still, the book provides detailed information about relatively unmined territory, particularly in its descriptions of early days on the Vegas strip, nightlife in Montreal, and the shticks and calling card performances of famous stripteasers. Although it falls short, Gilded Lili will be indispensable to aficionados of burlesque history.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find video of Lili's most famous performance, wherein she took a bubble bath onstage. But along those same lines, here's another, billed as "spectacular, erotic, and slightly shocking," a slightly NSFW promo for Lili's Bedroom Fantasies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Going Where There's No No Depression

Due to falling ad revenues, No Depression announces that its last issue will be published this spring.

Geez, this is turning out to be a crummy week for magazines I like. Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up to discover that the offices of Bust have been egged, and that the entire editorial staff of The Atlantic Monthly has collectively burst into tears, locked itself in a bathroom stall, and will not come out.

(via Kathy)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


As you may or may not know - or care, for that matter - I've forsaken L.A. for Lower Alabama for a few weeks to do some research for the forthcoming smash hit, Brady's Dissertation: Eight Or So Chapters That Changed A Very Small Subfield of Sociology for a Few Years Until Cultural Analysis Falls Out Of Fashion, If It Hasn't Already.

In the hours in which I'm not giving myself motion sickness with a microfilm reader or driving all over south-central Mississippi in search of transcripts of speeches and interviews, I've been hanging out with the family, eating well (oh oysters, you magnificent sea boogers - how I'll miss you when I leave), and getting book recommendations from the kinfolk. Here's a couple that I've started on:

Mea culpa: I'm only about forty pages into each of these, but in the interest of actually posting for a change, I thought I'd share the contents of my bedside table.

Nonfiction-wise, my uncle Charlie recommended John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. (Ha! Another one!) I'm several chapters in and it's a corker of a story so far, full of turn-of-the-century engineering/hubris and fascinating/horrifying political shenanigans.
If you are an Isambard Kingdom Brunel groupie, or enjoyed The Great Deluge you will probably find this to be right up your floodplain, so to speak. I'm not far enough along yet to tell if the flood really Changed America, but given that a young Herbert Hoover made his name on the national stage in the course of the recovery efforts, I'd say the book probably earns the subtitle.

On a walk downtown the other day, my dad and I stopped in at Bienville Books, where we happened upon Flashman at the Charge, one in a series of books that he and all of his friends have been devouring like eighth-graders on a Harry Potter binge. Flashy, as our protagonist is sometimes called, is a lot like Blackadder, only randier, more venal, and even more cowardly. (There is, so I hear, a Blackadder character who's an homage to ol' Flashy.) Flashy may be a little much, though it's too soon to tell; unlike Blackadder, you rarely get the sense that you're in on the joke along with the protagonist, and George MacDonald Fraser's humorous prose is about as subtle as if it were painted purple and dancing naked on top of a harpsichord singing "Subtle Prose Is Here Again."** Still, what it may lack in finesse it makes up for in a wealth of historical detail, and if you appreciate bawdy humor you might enjoy this one quite a bit, even as you find yourself appalled by every third sentence or so.

In short, if your dad has a birthday coming up, odds are either of these would probably be a perfect gift.

* This may in fact be the worst pun I've ever used in a title. I'm pretty pleased with myself.
** Paraphrased with apologies to the good writers over at the BBC.

Hasn't the Oxford American Already Suffered Enough?

Right up there with people who steal library books and picket funerals: this dame.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Teenage Wasteland: Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

By turns harrowing, profane, pornographic, and tragic, Beautiful Children is not for the faint of heart. But, as a book about the darkest corners of Las Vegas, populated by a cast of disaffected and irreparably damaged urban nomads, how could it be anything else?

At the book's center is the disappearance of 12-year-old Newell Ewing, and the dissolution of his parents' marriage as they struggle to come to terms with their loss. The book's narrative jumps around in time, gradually revealing the events of what may be Newell's last night, as well as the aftermath of his disappearance.

Pieced in as well are other characters' stories: a stripper named Cheri Blossom, her wounded and sinister boyfriend, Ponyboy, and a host of teenage runaways living on the streets of Vegas, including, most memorably, Lestat, a gaunt and delicate boy who has taken a pregnant runaway under his wing.

Gradually, the shadowy social network that holds these characters together becomes evident. The porno book store where Newell's father buys videos receives its deliveries from the former teen hustler turned porn courier, who goes home to sponge off of his stripper girlfriend. She goes to work, and performs a lap dance for the overweight, unloved comic book artist, who earlier that day, signed books and chatted with Newell and his gawky, older friend, Kenny.

We are all connected, however uncomfortable those connections may be.

Whatever their demons, Cheri, Ponyboy, and the Ewings all exercise some control over their place in the world. The runaways don't, and when Bock turns to them the book is at its most heart-breaking. In scenes that might turn exploitative and voyeuristic in another writer's hands, Bock unfolds the day-to-day survival of these street kids, and the things that keep them trapped there, with great empathy.

Also well-handled is Bock's portrayal of Kenny, a sexually confused teenage boy who clings to the edges of the visible world. An aunt who takes him in, artistic talent, his friendship with Newell are the only things keeping him from joining the ranks of the lost children, yet he doesn't fit anywhere else either. In the scenes describing his night out on the town with Newell, he's at once an outcast, a goony, unwanted mentor, a predator, a chum, but always on the verge of breaking into pieces. Bock allows him to hold together, and fall apart, in a way that's frustratingly open-ended, but also feels very real.

The book suffers some from its dizzying narrative structure, and more from rambling interior monologues and occasional prose freak-outs that tend to take the reader away from the plight of Bock's characters. However, it's these characters that ultimately bring the book back to earth -- each one is a fully realized masterpiece, and their stories and personal horrors make Beautiful Children a staggering and unforgettable work.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

An Open Letter

To the authors of political biographies, war stories, microhistories, and excruciatingly detailed accounts of sporting events:

Please stop giving your books wildly self-aggrandizing, melodramatic subtitles.

If I see one more book with a title that includes the phrase "Changed America," "Changed the World," or "Changed X Forever," I will barf right in the middle of a Borders display table.

Yours truly,


I noticed today that the title of Greg Mortenson's wonderful Three Cups of Tea underwent a change between its hardcover and paperback editions.

Originally titled Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations... One School At a Time, the paperback edition is entitled Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School At a Time.

Apparently, Mortenson himself pushed for the change, saying, "The public is interested in peace, just as much as fighting terrorism. So far, no politician seems to have their finger on that pulse."

Let this serve as an example to others on how to turn a ludicrous title into a good one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Brady and Mary's Infinite Playlist

"The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. Anyway... I've started to make a tape... in my head... for Laura. Full of stuff she likes. Full of stuff that makes her happy." - High Fidelity

Check out the awesome playlist Brady sent me from afar for Valentine's Day, full of stuff I like, stuff that makes me happy, even if it meant bucking up and purchasing a Semisonic song on iTunes*, and admitting defeat, if only for one day, in our longstanding "Sweet Child O' Mine" vs. "Welcome to the Jungle" feud.

If that's not love, I don't know what is.

"Tennessee Blues" - Steve Earle
"River Deep, Mountain High" - Ike and Tina Turner
"Bring It On Home To Me" - Sam Cooke
"Way Down in the Hole" - Steve Earle
"My World Is Empty Without You/I Hear a Symphony" - Afghan Whigs
"You're Not So Easy to Forget" - Carol Sloane (from Song of the Thin Man)
"Closing Time" - Semisonic
"Dark End of the Street" - Afghan Whigs
"Caledonia" - B.B. King
"You Send Me" - Sam Cooke
"Chick Habit" - April March
"Sweet Child O' Mine" - Guns N' Roses
"Hey! Little Child" - Alex Chilton
"Troubled Times" - Fountains of Wayne
"Botch-A-Me" - Rosemary Clooney
* In 1998, I knew who I wanted to take me home, and it was the lead singer from Semisonic.

This Blade for Hire: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

First-time novelist Alex Bledsoe's The Sword-Edged Blonde is a genre mash-up of hardboiled detective and fantasy quest novels, which sounds odd until you consider the similarities that these kinds of stories tend to share share: grizzled, wise-cracking, fiercely independent protagonists who live by their own code, and spend a good quarter of any book being knocked unconscious. And whether it's the Pasadena mansions, flophouses, and seedy bars of a Chandler novel or the castles, alehouses, and rogues' dens of a fantasy novel, our heroes have to traverse their landscapes, uncovering the right secrets and cracking the right heads to achieve their ends. Bledsoe's clearly onto something here.

Like many classic hardboiled heroes, Eddie LaCrosse has cut himself off from the past in an effort to shake off the personal demons lurking there, and is holed up in a seedy, backwater town taking any job that comes his way. The book gets off to a shaky start when Eddie is enlisted to track down a kidnapped princess, an exposition-heavy plot thread that's, fortunately, tied up rather quickly.

The real fun begins when Eddie is contacted by his childhood best friend, now the ruler of a neighboring kingdom, for some discreet assistance in solving a grisly crime. The king's infant son has been horribly murdered (it's gruesome), and the queen is the most likely suspect. And despite her insistence to the contrary, Eddie just can't shake the feeling that he's met her somewhere before, under bloody circumstances.

In order to solve the mystery of the Queen's identity and her son's murder, Eddie has to reexamine his past, venturing to places on the map, and in his own psyche, that he hasn't visited in years. Through the effective use of flashbacks, dark secrets are gradually teased out, and old wounds opened, and Eddie realizes that the evil he's trying to track down is older, deeper, and more unbelievable than he'd ever imagined.

Once this plot gathers its momentum, it's unstoppable, and filled with fantastic twists and surprises, and a satisfying finish. However, the book's success is hampered by that most insidious quality of fantasy fiction, the casual sexism. I almost hate to single Bledsoe out for this, as I've encountered it in most of the depictions of female characters in science fiction and fantasy written by men, but it bothered me enough that I felt it was worth remarking on.

Considering that Eddie's character isn't established as a rake or a letch, it's odd that he ogles nearly every female character in the book that crosses his path, in prose that's often cringe-inducing. Upon meeting one of the book's more incidental characters, Eddie thinks, "For such a prolific breeder, Shana Vint was still very attractive in an earthy, sensual way that went well beyond physical appearance. I imagined that, had I married her, she'd have spent a lot of time knocked up, too." Another character is described as wearing a dress "so tight you could count her freckles" (what does that even mean?).

This type of description extends to the book's central female characters as well, relying on that well-worn trope that a woman in fantasy can be tough, independent, and strong, provided that's she's also gorgeous, sensual, and hot for our hero.

The conventions of gender and objectification in fantasy fiction are done to death, and Bledsoe is too fine a writer to be taking them up. In The Sword-Edged Blonde, he's crafted a memorable world, an engaging hero, and a tight, razor-sharp plot. I hope that, in his next book, we see a lot more of this, without all those stale, busty serving wenches.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bureaucracy in Action

This account of trying to cast a ballot in Los Angeles on Feb 5 is simultaneously the funniest and most rage blackout-inducing thing I've seen all day:

"I'm sorry, we didn't bring our booklets." This was true. We didn't.

"SIGH!" Sighed the grumpy poll worker.

No seriously, I swear to god, this poll worker sighed and we could actually hear it articulated and everything. There was even a word balloon. We're in a war and the economy's tanking but apparently, having to spend more than 5 seconds talking to confused voters is the cross too heavy for even Jesus Christ himself to bear."
(via LAist)

It gets much much worse.

And apparently, I wasn't the only Angeleno disenfranchised by bureaucratic tomfoolery. I never thought I'd say this, but wow, I miss living in Wisconsin.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Broads, Dames and Twists No More: A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir

A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, edited by Megan Abbott

If there's one thing in this world that I'm sure of, it's that any project with Megan Abbott's name on it may as well be stamped with the damn Good Housekeeping Seal. Well, maybe -- if that Seal was sepia-toned and smeared with a few bloody fingerprints, and if the woman throwing it into her shopping cart had dark circles under her eyes, and a few darker secrets behind them.

The noir world is scattered with the corpses of pretty young things, femme fatales, and brassy, boozy hellcats, mostly portrayed in thin, played-out sketches, mostly by men. Abbott's work (Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin) has consistently turned these stock noir caricatures on their heads, and the exceptional work collected in A Hell of a Woman does that, and then some.

The section headings that situate the collection's 24 stories draw upon these character types ("Minxes, Shapeshifters and Hothouse Flowers," "Housewives, Madonnas and Girls Next Door," "Gold-Diggers, Hustlers and B Girls," "Working Girls, Tomboys and Girls Friday," and "Hellcats, Madwomen and Outlaws); however, if you think you know these women, you don't. The greatest joy of this collection is watching each author defy conventions of the genre, and create characters that are fresh and unique, yet quintessentially noir.

The book's contributors are a varied bunch, from critically acclaimed veterans like Sandra Scoppettone, Ken Bruen, and SJ Rozan to relative newcomers like Lisa Respers France and Sarah Weinman; however, there's nary a dud to be found. I found myself lingering over each story, and thinking about them, sometimes uneasily, as I fell asleep.

Particular standouts include "Blue Vandas" by Lynne Barrett, a terrific Hollywood whodunit about bit actresses, bigshot producers, and a lowly gardener who learns more about the seedy underbelly of show business than she'd bargained for. If you're a fan of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

"Cherish" by Alison Gaylin, the story of a mentally ill movie theatre usher and her unhinged obsession with a movie star is unforgettably disturbing, and made more so by its knockout twist of an ending.

However, the book's best plot twist comes in Donna Moore's "Bumping Uglies," about a purse snatcher who discovers a murder plot in a Prada handbag. When she decides to blackmail the purse's owner, things get delightfully nasty.

And then just when it looks like the fun is over, there's more. The book's appendix includes 36 odes to the women of noir -- actresses, characters, and authors. There are some well-known inclusions like Phyllis Dietrichson, the iciest blonde ever to hatch an insurance scheme, and Patricia Highsmith, but also some obscure and overlooked gems, such as noir writers Delores Hitchens and Helen Nielsen, both of whom I'm now eager to track down.

Busted Flush Press has a real winner in A Hell of a Woman -- it's simply one of the strongest, tightest fiction collections I've read in a very long time.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Weekend Curiosities and Wonders: B is for Bud and Beulah

Here's your bit of odd text for the weekend.

I've recently been preparing for another Los Angeles true crime program at the library focusing on historic crimes of passion. And it's hard to talk about L.A. crimes of passion without spending some time on the lurid, notorious, god-awful trial of Bud Gollum and Beulah Louise Overell, never mind the fact that the pair were acquitted and that the trial took place in Orange, not L.A., County.

It is the quintessential big nasty of love gone bad.

To sum up, on March 15, 1947, a yacht belonging to Beulah's parents exploded in the Newport Beach Harbor while the teenager and her boyfriend, Bud, sat ashore eating hamburgers. An investigation revealed that the adults were beaten to death before the explosion, and dynamite was rigged aboard the yacht. Bud and Beulah were charged with the murders (a brief, but informative summary is available here).

While the pair awaited trial in their respective prisons, they exchanged a series of sometimes steamy, mostly hysterical, melodramatic letters, which were subsequently snatched up by prosecutors and leaked to the now-defunct Los Angeles Examiner. Other L.A. papers quoted the juicy bits (e.g. "If necessary, I'll kidnap you and carry you off somewhere so that no one will ever be able to find us and there I'll make passionate and violent love to you," and "Oh my darling, oh my Pops, Popsie, darling, my beautiful, handsome, intelligent Pops. I adore you, always, eternally. Your slave, Louise"), but the Examiner actually printed images of the letters.

Well, I had to see that. So, I rolled up my sleeves, dug out the microfilm, and went to town.

I particularly admire Bud's sketch of a proposed jailbreak route, as well as his turn of phrase: "Please draw the route to your cell from the elevator. I love you, my dear. I adore you."

Unsurprisingly, the couple's love affair did not survive the trial.

In most cases involving grisly death, I refrain from making light. However, the sensational trial, and even more sensationalized news coverage it received make it hard to take seriously. Additionally, without reasonable guardians to keep a lid on her, the behavior of the teenage Beulah Louise was frequently shocking. She somehow seemed to interpret all the attention as "good" attention, and flirted shamelessly with the press and signed autographs. Other times, she had odd emotional responses, like this picture, taken while she views the site where her parents died.

A guilty party, or merely a 1947-era Britney?

I've added other selected portions of the letters on Flickr for interested parties. Honestly, if the circumstances surrounding them weren't so grim and awful, they'd fit right in at Mortified or PostSecret.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Cats Are Mad

I arrived home from a week of Mardi Gras revelry to find two very angry, emotionally needy cats, an absentee ballot, which the good people at the County Clerk's office failed to send in time for me to actually vote (grumble), and a truly awesome batch of books to review.

So, at least the last part is good. Now, I need to go pay attention to the cats, lest they decide to seek revenge by crapping outside the box. Or worse.