Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson

Integration is slow to arrive in Revere, Mississippi, population "20,000 and sinking" It's 1966, and Reverend Streeter is still waiting for service at the River Cafe lunch counter, 10-year-old Willie "Critter" Tate still has to drink from the "Coloreds Only" drinking fountain, and the well-coiffed Deanie Jackson can't work at Pearl's dress shop -- she can't even shop there.

However, the larger picture of the segregationist South that Johnson portrays is more nuanced and complicated than these now notorious images of Jim Crow. In The Air Between Us, integration becomes an issue that cannot be satisfactorily resolved through freedom riders, Northern "agitators," or the federal government -- change is inevitable, but the people of Revere have to bring it about themselves if they want to save their town from an equally inevitable ruin.

The book begins with a scene that perfectly captures the cadence of segregation as it exists in Revere. Billy Ray Puckett, one of the poor whites who lives on the outskirts of town, shoots himself in the gut while setting up his tree stand, and is discovered by Critter Tate, who drives him to Revere's hospital. First he tries to drop Puckett off at the hospital's black entrance, and is turned away, then has trouble getting the nurses to admit him to the white side.

After Puckett dies, the Sheriff's department orders an investigation, and begins to uncover the uneasy secrets about the true nature of relationships between Revere's black and white residents. At the center of the story are Cooper Connelly and Reese Jackson, the hospital's two doctors, Connelly is white, Jackson is black. The two work together closely, but have a strained relationship which is explained during the course of the Puckett investigation.

All the while, discontent is brewing over the mandated integration of Revere's hospital and schools, which is soon to take effect. Much to everyone's surprise, Connelly has progressive views on integration, and his efforts to bring about change peacefully draw the venom of reactionaries and racists statewide. As the ugliness builds and turns violent, the people of Revere have to make a decision about the future of their town.

Johnson's thematic thrust is buttressed by a strong cast of supporting characters, like Reese Jackson's unhappy wife, Deanie, and her next-door neighbor, Melba Obrensky, a light-skinned fortune teller with a mysterious past. While the book's idealistic ending may seem a little rushed and fanciful, The Air Between Us is an interesting and engaging look at how a town's black and white residents choose to deal with the ugly legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

If you like...: books about middle and upper class black families set during the height of segregation like Love by Toni Morrison, this book is for you. And if this book sounds up your alley, you might also like the most recent winner of the Bellwether Prize (an award for literature that addresses issues of social justice), Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bits and Pieces

I have a cab to the airport in an hour, and decided it would be more productive to stay up than try to sleep. So, here's what's been entertaining me:

- The American Book Review has compiled a list of the 100 best first lines from novels and the 100 best last lines from novels. The Catcher in the Rye made both lists, and although I liked the book a hell of a lot more when I was 16 than I do now, I have to admit, Salinger totally nails both the take-off and the landing on that book.

- The seven deadly words of book reviewing: I'm guilty of four of them, two in the past week.
UPDATE: Ha! But a great finger in the eye to Bob Harris's Paper Cuts post at CLEWS.

- A Sweet Valley High relaunch? Although I'm disturbed that the Wakefield twins' "perfect size 6" has been done over as a "perfect size 4" (since 6 is apparently no longer "perfect"), I have to say this for the SVH series: it saved my social life. By third grade, I was taller than my teachers. And then SVH taught me about fashion, and I learned that hunched over and awkward was no way to go through life. So, I grant them that.

- The always-up-for-a-challenge Carl has a great one this spring: Once Upon a Time 2, where participants agree to read at least one book from the fantastical subgenres of fantasy, mythology, folklore, or fairy tale... or all of the above, topped off with a June reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I may just do either way.

- I watched one season of American Idol before I realized that I vastly preferred letting others watch it for me. I used to swear by Ang's recaps, but she doesn't seem to be doing them this season. So instead, I enthusiastically recommend Keith's.

Have a lovely weekend -- more when I return from Birmingham.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From the Lab to Macy's: The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr

The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr

While many luxury items -- cars, handbags, designer sunglasses, and the like -- seem utterly gauche to me, there's still something genuinely elegant and luxurious about a bottle of good perfume. Because unlike those other fetish items, a good perfume doesn't scream "Notice me!" (though a bad one does); it turns your head without giving you whiplash.

For this book, Chandler Burr, the scent critic for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, was granted access into the highly secretive world of perfume creators and manufacturers, and follows two very different fragrances from the planning stages to the retail counter. The first is the second fragrance in a series produced by legendary French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermes, Un Jardin sur le Nil. The second is a celebrity fragrance, Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely, for Coty, which is unique in that Parker played an active role in all stages of the product's creation.

And though I have no real aptitude for chemistry, no interest in marketing, don't speak French, and have not purchased a bottle of perfume for myself since the 8th grade*, I still found this book completely fascinating.

Burr is extremely knowledgeable, yet also accessible and delightfully opinionated. The discreet, yet barbed comments of industry insiders are fun, but some of the book's best moments come when Burr tells us how he really feels, with the bulk of his contempt reserved for men's fragrances on the market, Hugo Boss in particular. He describes Hugo Boss Number One as follows: "If a cat had morning breath, then ate kible, then licked its anus, then licked your hand, and if you then smelled your hand, it would smell like this."


If you liked...: Bringing Home the Birken: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello, this book is for you.
* Granted my favorite scents in the 8th grade were Cover Girl's Navy and Revlon's Xia Xiang, I also had a thing for Ralph Lauren's Safari. But alas, I could not afford it on my babysitter's salary, and had to settle for stealing squirts from department store testers. I think this is when I gave up on perfume -- I couldn't go back to the cheap stuff, but couldn't afford anything better.

After reading Burr's book, though, I've decided to use some of my tax refund to go out and purchase something good. I dislike florals, am wary of musks and spicy fragrances, so I think I'm leaning towards something green -- perhaps Estee Lauder's Private Collection, if it's not too WASPy.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Content and Form: The Learners by Chip Kidd

The Learners: The Book After "The Cheese Monkeys" by Chip Kidd

On the surface, The Learners has a lot going for it. Of course, it's no surprise that a book by a designer of Kidd's renown is absolutely gorgeous from cover to typeset. And like Kidd's previous effort, The Cheese Monkeys, it's cleverly written and often extremely funny. Also compelling is the book's setting, a New Haven advertising agency in the early 1960s. And best of all, Kidd situates our hero, the hapless Happy, smack dab in the middle of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment, where subjects were directed to administer what they believed to be harmful or lethal charges of electricity to another person.

After graduation, Happy is hired by the New Haven advertising firm that employed his former mentor, Winter Sorbeck. And for his first solo gig, he's enlisted to design the newspaper ad soliciting volunteers for the Milgram experiment (a graphic of the ad, accompanied by ironically analytical annotations of the designer's concerns with its form is a highlight of the book).

After a cryptic meeting with his former classmate, the Holly Golightly-esque Himillsy Dodd, and a tragedy that leaves Happy with many unanswered questions, he decides to become a subject himself, and acquires some devastating insight along the way.

Despite its promise, however, the book is badly flawed. Unlike The Cheese Monkeys, which is driven by the charisma of Winter and Himillsy, the characters who populate Happy's ad agency are lifeless and grating. And while Kidd depicts Happy's participation in the experiment and his encounters with the researchers vividly, the scenes in the ad agency never quite gel.

Kidd is at his best when he's going for funny; however, the darker themes addressed in The Learners allow less room for comedy, and Kidd can't deliver the emotional resonance and introspection that Happy's personal tragedies need.

In the end, the book's form is a success, while its content is not. Those interested in graphic design and rabid fans of The Cheese Monkeys should check it out, but other readers probably won't find much to sustain their interest. If you're interested in fictional accounts of famous/notorious scientific and psychological studies, however, I'd suggest T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle, an excellent and racy account of Alfred Kinsey's research.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Giving the Muse a Jolt

I'm a little bit behind on my stack of brand new shiny books, because I'm currently working on David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which is as excellent as it is dense. And I'll admit, I'm savoring it, even if it means that the new Chip Kidd book will have to wait until next week for a review.

As I was having trouble thinking of something to blog about in lieu of review, I was reminded of a question someone asked me at the library the other day. The patron had heard there was a writer who, when struggling for the right word or turn of phrase, opened his desk drawer and took a whiff of the rotten apples he kept there for just that purpose. Something about the aroma gave him just the right jolt.

Turns out, this was the German poet and playwright Freidrich von Schiller. During last summer's Zombie Summer Reading Program, I learned that pulp crime writer Edgar Wallace couldn't write without gallons of hot tea with cream and sugar and about 80 cigarettes.

An interesting article by Diane Ackerman, published in the New York Times in 1989 details some other peculiar habits of writers.

D.H. Lawrence indulged in naked tree climbing, while Colette picked fleas off of her cat before sitting down to write. Another cat lover, Poe, is alleged to have written with his cat perched on his shoulder. Truman Capote described himself as "a completely horizontal writer," Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, and Benjamin Franklin wrote in the bathtub.

When you have to write, and nothing comes out, do you have any tricks you use to get yourself going?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Newspaper Lit Blogs: A Study in Mixed Feelings

The book blogs of most major newspapers started off, well, not so good -- infrequently updated, with stale content. I'd written most of them off, figuring I'd stick to Bookslut, Book Ninja, and Shaken and Stirred for my lit world round-ups, and at least they'd amuse me in the process.

However, I've noticed marked improvement on several fronts lately.

Ever since Carolyn Kellogg of Pinky's Paperhaus signed on as lead blogger for the L.A. Times lit blog, Jacket Copy, it has gotten really, really good, managing both international coverage and a strong local flavor.

For awhile there, the NYT's Paper Cuts was among the worst offenders, almost pathologically boring; however, they too seem to have stepped up their game.

The Washington Post's Short Stack doesn't usually write about new books, but its Top-5 list format is fairly irresistible, and a great introduction to overlooked titles.

However, others like the Boston Globe's Off the Shelf seem to be struggling along with a skeleton crew, posting mostly calendars of literary events and bestseller lists. And the Orlando Sentinel called it quits with theirs last year.

I was surprised that many papers, while hosting literally scores of staff blogs, didn't have lit blogs -- the Chicago Tribune (which has blogs on theatre and religion, but no books), the Baltimore Sun, and even the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Not in the famously book-loving Seattle? Shocking.).

As many newspapers are scaling back the book coverage in their print editions, are newspaper lit blogs stepping in to fill the gap, and are they doing a sufficient job? And are there any other good newspaper lit blogs that I've missed?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Escape from East Egg: The Madeline Dare Series by Cornelia Read

A Field of Darkness (2006)
The Crazy School (2008)

Madeline Dare comes from a family whose money "is so old there's none left." However, since her debutante days, she's traded in WASP-y breeding for a working class husband and a home in the decidedly unglamorous Syracuse. She's happy with the former, less so with the latter.

The first book, A Field of Darkness begins when Madeline's beloved, moneyed cousin, Lapthorne Townsend, is linked to a decades-old double murder. She decides to sniff out the evidence before ratting out a family member, and quickly finds herself in over her head. There are plenty of people in Syracuse who'd rather keep the case buried, and Madeline's discoveries prove dangerous, and sometimes fatal, to the people who help with her sleuthing.

Though the prose sometimes gets a little rangy and ponderous, Read's first novel introduces a snarky, sharp heroine made of surprisingly tough stuff. Add to that some really nice observations about how the very rich are different from you and me, and a plot that consistently ventures into the unexpected, and I was eager to see what the lovely Mrs. Dare would get up to next.

In The Crazy School, Madeline and her husband, Dean, have left Syracuse in the wake of events from the previous book, and Madeline is working off her survivor's guilt by teaching at a school for disturbed teenagers.

The school is run by the creepy, yet charismatic David Santangelo, who insists that students and staff alike submit to group and individual therapy and a bevy of odd restrictions -- no caffeine, no use of the "f" word (Santangelo lets them cuss a blue streak in class, but believes the word "fuck" is "fundamentally linked to violence against women").

Madeline cares deeply about her students, but finds herself stymied by colleagues who seem to have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, and are only marginally more stable than their charges.

Then a student confides in Madeline about his pregnant girlfriend, Fay. Fay is days away from turning 18, and then the two of them can leave the school and try to start a life together -- but only if their secret stays safe. Madeline agrees to help them, but on the night of Fay's birthday, the couple is found dead in what initially appears to be a suicide pact. However, Madeline thinks otherwise and goes to the police with her suspicions, only to be arrested for the murders.

When she's released on insufficient evidence, Madeline sets out to clear her name and find the real killer, despite the advice of her well-heeled attorney (wealthy connections sometimes have their advantages). With the help of a few colleagues and students, none of whom she's entirely sure she can trust, Madeline begins to dig up dirt on the school, and discovers enough hidden agendas and ugly secrets to fill a truck -- but everything depends on which version of the story is true.

Read does an excellent job of casting suspicion on all of the book's supporting characters, which is especially effective since Madeline isn't the most circumspect of crime heroines. Each time she confides in a colleague or a student, you'll be cringing with worry over which of them will use the information to stab her in the back.

I was introduced to Read's work through her story, "Hungry Enough" in the recent noir collection A Hell of a Woman, a nasty little piece of intrigue about Hollywood wives. In the Madeline Dare books, Read's gift for pithy dialogue, edgy plots, and suspenseful twists can stretch out and get comfy -- although no promises that readers will be. Very tense stuff.

If you like amateur sleuth novels, but prefer them out of the rose garden and into the alley, this book is for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Been Workin' Every Day Since I Was 20: A Job Meme

Last night, I was kept awake until approximately 5 with a throbbing headache and an overly busy brain. After an hour or so of staring at the ceiling, I tried to come up with a chronological list of every job I've ever held.

NOTE: This absolutely DOES NOT work as a sleep aid; however, it was rather interesting, because in all, there are nearly THIRTY different paying jobs on my list, some of which I'd completely forgotten.

I may be shiftless, but I'm exceptionally hard-working.

So, needing to mine a little something of use from my insomniac night, here's a little work meme for y'all -- tag, you're it:

Three jobs at which you were effortlessly talented:

1. hotel maid (I was the fastest maid on our crew, probably because I was the most desperate to clock out and go home.)
2. high school teacher (I believe I reached most of them, except perhaps for the child who brought a gun to school.)
3. information architect (I just know where stuff's supposed to go, although one would never guess it to look at my home.)

Three jobs at which you were hopelessly incompetent:

1. waitress (never could figure out how to hold the big tray on my shoulder)
2. assistant to interior decorator
3. artists' model (though I DEFY any of you to hang upside down off the back of a chair for two hours in front of a class of art students while dressed as a circus performer... actually, come to think of it, I acquitted myself rather well)

Three jobs you've had that people are always really curious about:

1. grape picker (easily the most painful, back-breaking job I've ever had)
2. relay operator for the deaf (easily the most soul-crushing, although this had more to do with my employers than the job itself)
3. hotdog vendor (easily the most insane co-workers)

Two depressing life lessons found in your resume:

1. Even if you have a masters degree, you can still wind up slinging hotdogs.
2. I made more money harvesting grapes for a week than I have ever made writing.

One lesson about human nature you learned on the job:

1. While working as a HoJo's maid, I learned that one man staying by himself in a hotel room will barely turn back the covers, and will disturb little more than the remote. Two or more men staying in a hotel room will completely trash the place.
And here's my list of chronological work experience. The jobs in bold are the ones that resulted in the best stories:

lawn girl, babysitter, cleaning lady, barista, library clerk, hotel maid, artists' model, office assistant, museum volunteer manager, painter of dorm rooms, receptionist, barista again...

and THAT's just before I got out of college...

high school teacher, assistant to interior decorator, bookshop clerk, fundraiser for public television, bass player, waitress, bartender, grape picker, relay operator for the deaf, library clerk again, information architect, website designer, hotdog vendor, librarian

Foobpocalypse Now

Well gag me with a hockey stick, folks, the "Fall of Elizabeth Patterson" just hit its nadir: the proposal we obsessive comic strip fans knew was coming and dreaded like ALF: The Movie has come to pass.

Proving once again how very wrong it was for her to move out of her hometown - nay, her parent's neighborhood - and date strangers, Liz and her high school boyfriend/sometimes mustachioed accountant have decided to "be engaged" in what must be the least romantic proposal to hit the comics since Andy Capp popped the question in a drunken dust-up with his soon-to-be long-suffering enabler.

This merely completes the downward slide that started when she left her teaching job in Canada's northern hinterlands, so it shouldn't really be a surprise for those of us - sad souls, all - who've been following For Better or For Worse lately. (I mean, they've already started drawing her to look like her brother, the "novelist".)

Still, I'd so hoped there'd be a late-in-the-game plot twist. But, alas.

You're dead to me now, Lizardbreath.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Woman Without a Country: The English American by Alison Larkin

The English American by Alison Larkin

Pippa Dunn was born to American parents, but adopted by a British family as an infant. Now 28, Pippa has a posh accent, a boarding school education, and uneasy feelings about the differences between herself and her adoptive family. They're tidy and proper and reserved, while Pippa often has some trouble assuming the proverbial "stiff upper lip," and more in assuming a life that could be called tidy or proper.

Despite a loving relationship with her family, Pippa has issues with abandonment and rejection. She dates men she doesn't really like so she won't care if they leave her, and takes jobs she doesn't care about, trying to forget her dream of becoming a playwright.

When the book begins, Pippa's been having dreams about her birth mother, and contacts the adoption agency in the hopes of reuniting with her. Her curiosity and desire to be understood by the woman who's described in the non-identifying adoption file as "well-spoken, lively, highly intelligent" runs her headlong into the infuriating legalities of the U.S. adoption system. Eventually, with the help of a sympathetic private researcher, Pippa is able to contact her birth mother, Billie, a dramatic, creative woman who's every bit as untidy as Pippa.

Immediately, Pippa travels to the United States, and feels an immediate connection to Billie, and later, to her birth father, Walt. She allows herself to become enveloped in their lives, moving in with Billie and taking a job for her "creativity consulting" business. In the U.S., Pippa also begins to rediscover her own creative side, and begins taking the train to New York to perform in a gay bar, where her "British redneck" act is a huge hit.

However, as Pippa learns more about Billie and Walt, their happy reunion becomes cloudier and more complicated. While she'd longed for acceptance and a sense of belonging with them, the further she's drawn into their worlds, the more she loses herself.

While reading the first few chapters, I kept putting The English American aside, thinking it another piece of overly gloopy chick lit -- British singleton, messy personal life, chance for self-discovery, obvious "perfect man" that our heroine is too blind to see, etc.

However, I kept picking it up again, and eventually found myself completely won over and charmed by Larkin's witty writing and shrewd observations about the difference between Yanks and Brits.

Best of all, though, is Larkin's depiction of the relationship between Pippa and her birth parents. Though there are plenty of subtle warning signs early on, Pippa is too excited to notice their flaws or the unreasonable expectations and demands they place upon her until it's nearly too late. As Larkin explores the dark sides of these characters, Pippa's inability to see the reality of the situation never becomes frustrating because it's so believable.

If you like...: fiction about the complexities of adoption like Girls in Trouble by Caroline Leavitt or Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope, or humorous fiction about British expatriates, this book is for you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Wire withdrawal, day 2: The shakes aren't so bad, and there's less bugs crawling around under my skin than there were last night, so that's good. On the other hand, I'm still only answering to "Bodie" or maybe "Bunk" and this morning I set up surveillance on one of the cats, whom I suspect is holding.

But what's this? Over at The House Next Door, a list of Wire-related and Wire-esque books for those who, like me, are jonesing something fierce in the wake of our beloved show's cancellation?


Monday, March 10, 2008

Beyond Words: The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

"There was a purity to silent films that can never be recaptured in this clamorous age of sound effects and talking. We who made them knew that the most vital parts of the stories -- as of life -- can never be reduced to mere words. We understood that moving images are the catalysts of dreams -- more eloquent when undisturbed by voices."

During a time when Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles could only live in a few designated neighborhoods, and whites agitated for a Constitutional amendment to bar Japanese immigrants (and their American-born children) from attaining citizenship, Jun Nakayama becomes one of Hollywood's biggest and most unlikely stars. He appears in over 60 films, tours cross-country selling war bonds, appears on the cover of Photoplay, and makes women swoon in the theatre aisles.

But then in 1922, shortly after the murder of acclaimed director Ashley Bennett Tyler, Jun's career suddenly, mysteriously ends. Jun becomes a recluse, his old friends abandon him, he never appears in another film -- and he never tells anyone the reason why.

When the book begins, it's 1964, and little has changed for Jun; however, everything is about to. A silent movie theatre is opening on Fairfax, and an eager reporter named Nick Bellingham approaches Jun for an interview about the old days. Jun refuses outright, but Nick is persistent. Eventually, he reveals the real reason he's been pursuing Jun -- he's written a screenplay, has a studio interested, and wants Jun to star. The role is exactly the kind that always eluded Jun during his film career -- dignified, complex, sympathetic -- and he's intrigued enough to sit down with Nick.

The silent film historians who have written about Jun by 1964 blame his disappearance from the screen on a lack of good roles for Asian actors. However, no one knows the truth, and when a studio head begins digging up dirt, Jun realizes he can't relive his glory days without revisiting their darker moments.

Discovered in a theatre in Little Tokyo, Jun quickly becomes a sex symbol, enjoys the company of white starlets, and frequently plays villainous characters that offend the Japanese-American community.

Though he prides himself in avoiding the worst kinds of "houseboy" roles, his career stands in sharp contrast to his friend and foil, the Japanese actress Hanako Minatoya. At first, Hanako is his idol, then his mentor; however, their friendship becomes strained as the anti-Japanese sentiment in Hollywood grows more virulent. Hanako knows the score, and isn't afraid to stand up to the studios, while Jun lives in a state of denial, believing that his stardom will spare him.

In the end, though, it can't. And while many clues signal the cause of Jun's downfall in advance, his inability to see them for himself make the eventual revelation as shocking for readers as it is for Jun.

The narrative voice Revoyr creates for Jun is masterful, stretched taut with restrained emotion, longing, and lost opportunity. Revoyr also depicts early Hollywood with exquisite detail, rendered even more so by Jun's attempt to revisit some of his old haunts only to find them turned derelict. Though the book is many things -- an examination of racial prejudice, a murder mystery, an account of a too-forgotten era of moviemaking -- each element of the story fits together seamlessly.

And although it's the story of a man who has lost nearly everything, it's not a book that dwells in shadows and loss; the resolution is such a piece of beauty and four-square perfection, it will take your breath away.

If you liked...: The Remains of the Day, this book is for you.
Note: The character of Jun Nakayama is very loosely based on the actor Sessue Hayakawa, who was also "discovered" performing in a Little Tokyo theatre, and had a successful silent film career. However, unlike Jun Nakayama, Hayakawa transitioned to the talkies, and in response to a lack of roles for Japanese actors, formed his own film production company. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957 for his role in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Like Something Out of Kafka

There are a few things for which I am grateful each and every day: family, friends, the critters, good health. In addition to these incredibly important, yet fairly typical things, I am constantly reminded how grateful I am that I am no longer a public school teacher.

From a recent episode of This American Life, I learned about "the Rubber Room," a sort of Kafkaesque holding pen for NYC public school teachers who are awaiting disciplinary hearings. They report here for the workday, and sit, doing absolutely nothing -- sometimes for months or even years. It is not required that they be told the charges against them.

Some of these teachers clearly should not be allowed back in the classroom, but some people are there on dubious charges, and some merely had personality conflicts with school administrators. Though the BOE won't discuss it, it is estimated that somewhere between 600-900 teachers are currently assigned to these facilities.

Five Boroughs Productions is currently making a documentary about it -- here's the trailer.

UPDATE: Ugh. As if I needed another reason to be grateful. Sure, my institution's materials budget may have been cut by 75% for the remainder of the fiscal year, but at least my job is safe.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Assimilation As Revolution: Incognegro by Mat Johnson

Incognegro written by Mat Johnson, art by Warren Pleece

"Race is a strategy. The rest is just people acting playing roles."
-- Incognegro

Near the beginning of Incognegro, the protagonist Zane Pinchback is arguing with his editor at the New Holland Herald. It's the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and Zane is itching to cover art and culture, and maybe turn out a little of his own. And he'd like, for once, to publish something under his real name.

As things are, Zane's name and face have to remain hidden from readers, who know him only as Incognegro, a light-skinned black man who uses his ability to "pass" to investigate lynchings in the South.

In the book's opening panels, we see Zane at a lynching he's powerless to stop. Instead, he walks poker-faced down the line of men waiting for their souvenir postcards of the murder, taking names and addresses. When his cover is blown, he narrowly escapes with his life, and returns to his newspaper determined never to return to the South again.

But then his editor confronts him with a news story off the wire -- Zane's brother, Alonzo, is being held in a Tupelo jail for the murder of a white woman. And Zane knows he'll have to go undercover once more, and this time he knows he has to bring back more than a list of names.

As Zane stands before a mirror, straightening his hair and making a few subtle alterations to his appearance, he says, "My camouflage is provided by my genes; the product of the southern tradition nobody likes to talk about. Slavery, rape, hypocrisy... Since white America refused to see its past, they can't really see me too well, either. Add to that a little touch of Madame C.J.'s magic and watch me go invisible. Watch me step outside of history. Assimilation as revolution."

It's a testament both to Johnson's writing, and to Pleece's evocative illustrations that meditations like these fit seamlessly into a heavily action-driven book.

Zane's friend, Carl, a fast-talking gambler with a flair for theatrics, insists on coming to Tupelo with him, and isn't prepared for what the Jim Crow South holds. However, while Zane is subtle in making his plots, Carl poses as an Englishman looking to buy land, and quickly makes connections among the town's residents, despite Zane's warnings to keep a low profile.

Gradually, the two begin to piece the case together -- Alonzo's bootlegging operation with a white woman, their secret relationship, Alonzo found kneeling by her mutilated body in the woods. But that doesn't even scratch the surface of things.

Zane has to navigate a landscape of Klansmen and hill people, where even the whites who fall outside the boundaries of "racism as the norm" have their own self-interested motivations for wanting to see the case disappear.

Incognegro succeeds on many levels -- as a work of accurately detailed historical fiction, as an examination of race and identity in the United States, and as a hard-boiled sleuthing story. Pleece's black and white illustrations are rich and precise, capturing the noirish feel of the book, while capturing subtle characterizations.

In an author's note, Johnson describes his inspiration for the book as growing up "a black boy who looked white." He and his half black, half Jewish cousin played games as children where they pretended "to be race spies in the war against white supremacy." Then, in college, Johnson learned about Walter White, a former leader of the NAACP, who posed as a white man to investigate lynchings in the South. Johnson writes, "It was as if my little childhood fantasy had come to life."

Check out the recent interview with Johnson at Racialicious, where he discusses the possibility of a film adaptation, cultural amnesia, and why Incognegro is not a "tragic mulatto" story.

The Dickensian Aspect

As the last episode of The Wire looms ever larger - seriously, if I had a time machine that could only go forward in time, I'd make it Sunday already and consider the intervening days acceptable losses - I thought I'd throw the following out into the ether:

It became very popular for a while to describe The Wire as "Dickensian" - so much so that the creators wrote some snarky little digs into the current season as regards the use of the word as shorthand by lazy journalists. David Simon, in recent interviews, has pointed out that his show looks much more like a Greek tragedy, in which hapless protagonists are pushed around by forces that are out of their control and utterly indifferent to their fate, only with, say, bureaucratic inertia or unfettered capitalism instead of randy old deities with lightening bolts and spouses who have had enough of their betrothed's swanning about.

So perhaps it's time to put the Dickens comparisons out to pasture. That said, I'd like to humbly submit that if we are going to keep that little trope alive, Hard Times is far closer in spirit to what Simon and Co. seem to be up to, and almost as close in execution as the oft-cited Bleak House.


The New Pull List of Maturity (and Crime)

A funny thing happened when we got home last night after our weekly trip to the Golden Apple. First, staring at the stack of books, I realized that - with the exception of the new Buffy* - our entire haul this week was made up of crime books. Looking at our comics shelf, I then realized that "capes and tights" books make up the smallest chunk by far of our monthly buys.

Of course, genre is a tricky thing: does a book like Powers count as a crime-book-with-superheroes or a superhero-book-in-police-procedural-tights? (With Powers, I settled on the former; Peter David's X-Factor, a mash-up of noir detective with Marvel mutants, I would peg as the latter, if only because it gets hijacked every so often for company crossover slugfests.)

I have to admit I was a little surprised at first, and maybe a little saddened: it was, after all, Spidey, the X-Men, and (sigh) the West Coast Avengers that got me hooked on the medium. But on my recent trip home I had the occasion to haul a box or two of comics out of the attic and flip through them, and it pretty much confirmed the conventional wisdom that the early 90s were not such a great time for spandex and eye-beams, at least where the big two were concerned.

But then I looked down at the stack of floppies we had brought home and snapped out my nostalgia-funk immediately: there may not be much in the superhero genre that's doing it for me these days, but we're in the middle of an excellent crime comics boom-let.

So coming soon: crime comics reviews galore, where we'll be checking in with some old favorites and checking out some new obsessions.

Now if y'all will excuse me, I've got to track down this mope and make with the chin music until he canaries. . .

. . .oh, who am I kidding? I've got to get back to coding old newspaper editorials.


* As regards a certain surprising (if not wholly unexpected) plot twist: I can't resist the easy joke. To wit: "I'll be in my bunk."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Memoir, Schmemoir

There's been a great deal of talk about the faux memoir scandals of late, some of it both interesting and insightful (like this this, and this).

However, scandals like this obscure what I think is a more significant problem with memoirs right now, which is that everyone seems to think that their life experience necessitates one.

Recent issues in Publishers Weekly have braced me for the gripping stories of....:

Someone who was addicted to drugs!
Someone who gave up sex!
Someone who had too much sex!
Someone who got pregnant when she was 23, and was not quite ready to deal with it!

No. You do not get to write a memoir for doing any of these things unless you are famous, renowned, or widely respected for doing something that is notable. It does not get to be your first book, and it probably shouldn't be your second.

That is just how I feel about it.

Then again, it might be precisely that feeling that tempts people to fabricate wild, implausible stories about waking up on an airplane with a hole in one's cheek, joining the Bloods, or hiding from Hitler in a wolf pack.

Another thought on the fake memoirs of late -- to read about it, you'd think this kind of thing had never happened before. It just doesn't seem like there's been such an outpouring of shock and indignation when this kind of thing has happened in the past with books like Mutant Message Down Under, The Education of Little Tree and Go Ask Alice.

I find the last one particularly disturbing since it is still in print, still credited to "Anonymous," still on school reading lists, and still attracting teen readers, despite its epic crappiness.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Q&A with Investigative Journalist and Author M. William Phelps

If Looks Could Kill: Money, Marriage, Adultery and... Murder by M. William Phelps

On June 16, 2001, a motorcyclist drove up to Jeff Zack's car, parked outside of BJ's Wholesale Club in Akron, Ohio, and shot him in the face. Although the shooting took place in broad daylight and in view of many witnesses, police were unable to make an arrest for nearly a year. Zack led a messy life, and had more than a few enemies. However, when the circumstances surrounding Zack's death began to unravel, police discovered a trail of deception, manipulation, and betrayal.

Zack had been involved in a long-term affair with wealthy Akron socialite Cindy Rohr-George, the wife of a restaurant owner and mother of seven. George was eventually arrested for conspiring to kill Zack with John Zaffino, also her lover. However, the wild testimony that emerged during the trial, and its shocking outcome still have Akron reeling.

M. William Phelps, investigative journalist and author of Murder in the Heartland and Lethal Guardian, conducted over 100 interviews and studied police reports connected with the case. In If Looks Could Kill, he cuts through the sensationalized myths surrounding the case -- gun smuggling, drug dealing, and domestic abuse, for starters -- to discover the truth.

Phelps was kind enough to chat with me via email about his research for the book, upcoming projects, and the dangers of cybersleuthing. The insights he shares about the case, and about everything else, are incredibly interesting.

This is a case where what is known, or what is thought to be known, has been constantly changing since Jeff Zack's murder, nearly seven years ago. At what point did you begin to follow the story, and what in particular interested you about it?

Actually, the facts have stayed pretty much the same throughout. It’s the interpretation of them through the media and the Georges which beckons confusion for everyone. But the case itself has never changed. This was a classic whodunit.

In my author’s note, I talk about how I became involved. Without giving it all away: I was on an Ohio radio show promoting Murder in the Heartland in 2006 when this story—and a very important source—literally dropped into my lap. (There’s always someone out there that wants to get the truth out!) What interested me about this story at that early stage was the fact that when you look at it, you’d think the logical way for this to unfold would have been: Cindy George, beautiful wife of a wealthy (much older) restaurateur, mother of seven kids, becomes bored with her life, finds a lover and together they murder the husband and take off with his money. That is a classic true crime plot (something Ann Rule, in other words, would be all over).

But that’s not what happens here, as you know. The story unfolds quite a bit differently from the norm. This hooked me right away. I am always looking for classic cases with a special twist that changes the entire dynamic of everything and everyone involved. And let’s be honest: whenever you have good looking rich people in a suburban setting, adultery, steamy sex, drugs, guns, murder and two trials, you’ve got one heck of a true crime case that is very marketable. And what most budding authors in this genre don’t understand is, marketing is a major part of choosing cases (which is another conversation all together, maybe for another time).

Regardless of her guilt or innocence, I'm amazed that George's family members remained so loyal to her throughout the trial, her imprisonment, etc. In your research, what kind of person did you find Cindy Rohr-George to be?

A master manipulator. Someone who understands and even studies others’ weaknesses to use that knowledge to her advantage. Those pregnancies of Cindy’s where she was bedridden taught her a valuable lesson for later on: people who love you will do anything for you if they believe you’re sick and/or hurting.

Cindy was able to draw on the sympathy of those around her and use that to her advantage for whatever purpose she needed. Remember, Cindy was from a just below middle class family in North Canton, a neighborhood of rather post-World War II cookie-cutter homes. From early on, because she was so stunningly gorgeous (although this is certainly not the case now), things started to come to Cindy. As she grew, she wanted more and more and more. Look at it this way: the garage attached to the house Cindy lives in with Ed George and her seven children outside Akron is bigger than the house she grew up in.

The George family are devout Catholics. All the kids went to Catholic schools. They all went to Mass regularly. They love her. They believe in her. They stuck by her—and still do—because that is what Jesus Christ would want them to do. And again, this divine devotion is something Cindy used for her own selfish needs.

How did the people of Akron respond to the George and Zack families during all of this? How did people seem to feel about the outcome of the trials?

People are devastated that Cindy got out of prison and can never be tried again. They feel her wealth bought her a get out of jail free card. Akron has a reputation for being a “money can buy you happiness” city of wealth and status. There’s always been some sort of controversy brewing in town. I spent a week there while I was in Ohio researching If Looks Could Kill and experienced it myself. There’s an “us against them” feeling in town: Us being the working class, Them being the rich. Moreover, Ed George knows a lot of people. He has been in the restaurant/cabaret business for decades. When you know that many people, things come a bit easier to you. The world you live in treats you differently.

The Zack family left the area. Now that is a family I feel for. Bonnie Zack and Jeff’s son and Jeff’s family in Arizona really didn’t ask for any of this. They were drawn into a mess of a life Jeff created. As a cautionary tale, this case proves—if nothing else—how infidelity in a marriage can truly cause a ripple effect that is, in many ways, being felt years after the actual affair ended.

Also, how did they respond to you when you began your research - how willing were they to discuss Zack's murder?

It’s the same with every book. You have those who will talk and those who absolutely won’t. Then you have those who sit on the fence and watch, listen, and ultimately come to you when they feel you’re doing a decent enough job and your only goal is to tell the truth.

The Georges, of course, wouldn’t talk to me. As I point out in the book, the Georges carefully picked who they spoke to—and wouldn’t speak to anyone until they needed a certain “story” to get out into the press—and timed those interviews with pivotal moments in Cindy’s case. Cindy gave one newspaper her only face-to-face interview, where she spewed all sorts of rhetoric that she had never said before.

I had a lot of anonymous sources come forward during the process and give me some solid information. But let me say this: the documents I was able to obtain—which no one beyond key law enforcement has yet to see—tell quite the story, and truly show who is lying and who is telling the truth, not to mention how far the Akron PD took this investigation. The Akron PD got pretty beat up during the trials. The Akron PD Crimes Against Persons Unit, however, did one of the most thorough jobs I have ever seen in a murder investigation. They left no stone unturned. And the truth is, whenever they turned a stone over, Cindy’s face was right there staring back up at them.

You had mentioned in an email to me something about Iranian gun smugglers potentially being involved in this story. You see, that was a tale put out there. I got to the bottom of it and found it to be a lie. Wait until you see the credibility of the person who made this accusation. You won’t believe it. Jeff Zack was a lot of things and not a very nice person. But he was not a gun smuggler or drug dealer. Nor is there any evidence that Jeff Zack ever abused Cindy George, as she now claims.

Do you think the book is closed on the Cindy Rohr-George and John Zaffino cases?

Yes. From Cindy’s position it’s a done deal.

Although, I do think John Zaffino will, someday, come forward and tell all he knows. I spoke to John. I detail that correspondence in the beginning of the book. John is a funny guy. Brute of a man. Drunkard. All those things you’d expect a killer of his caliber to be. I tell his complete story—which is very interesting. Makes you wonder how Cindy ever ended up with John and, more important, why. Where they meet, for instance, is as telling as a phone conversation they have one night as John is standing in the Cuyahoga Falls National Park woods with a gun waiting to kill Jeff Zack.

Many of your books, this one included, have taken on very recent criminal cases as their subjects. However, you have a book on the American spy Nathan Hale coming out, and I read on your website that you're working on two other Revolutionary War-era subjects. That's quite a departure - could you talk a little about your interests here?

I also co-wrote a book with Thomas Craughwell titled Failures of the Presidents (it’ll be out on September 1). I don’t consider my subject choices as much of a departure as others might. When you write books for a living you need to focus on a lot of different aspects of the publishing business. You have to view your work as a job, and pay attention to what the market demands. For me, I follow my heart and see if that fits into what publishing is looking for at the time. I consider myself a nonfiction book author and journalist. Period. If someone wants to label me a true crime author, that’s fine. I don’t mind. But I just follow my heart and listen to what my business manager, Peter Miller, tells me. Peter is my coach. We talk about ideas and he advises me on which way to go.

I approached Nathan Hale the way I approach any other project: studying documents and getting the story into my head and then going out and finding other “sources” to fill in the gaps. Whether we’re talking about a police report or a journal from 275 years ago, it really makes no difference when you approach it as a storyteller and writer.

There has not been a biography of Nathan Hale written for some eighty years, so my book will be the first “true” biography of an American icon we have all heard of, but know very little about.

I am interested in whatever moves me. I like to tell people that my literary calling is American history. But I also write about contemporary true crimes cases (my day job, if you will). Some authors choose to teach at colleges and write books in their spare time. I choose to write all day (and night, lately). To me, one is not more important than the other; but all of us have our own vision of who we want to be, and we try to live that out in what we do. I am so grateful that I am able to get up every morning and do this for a living. I never forget that. I thank God for that blessing every day and for also having so many loyal readers. I worked hard, sure. But I’m also very lucky and very fortunate to be able to do this. And I never forget that.

I'm also curious, what do you like about the process of historic research versus investigative journalism? What challenges do you find with each?

The two are interconnected. I think “investigative journalism” sometimes is viewed as some sort of mysterious, intriguing job we do while wearing a trench coat, fedora and sunglasses, sneaking around, meeting people in back alleys. I’ve done my share of digging through Dumpsters and meeting people secretly, etc. But a lot of this is reading documents and putting the pieces of a puzzle together via interviews. The other part is getting your hands on documents others haven’t seen. For example, in the Cindy George case, I was able to get hold of hundreds of pages of documents no one outside law enforcement had ever seen. This changed to the entire scope of my book.

The challenges I face are the same: getting people to help. If people aren’t willing to open up and lend a hand, you’re stuck.

The other part of this is staying away from the Internet. Too many people today think that investigative journalism is about searching the Internet for Websites and old MySpace pages and emails and things left behind in Cyberspace. And granted, some of that may help. True investigative journalism is about picking up the phone and calling people and tracking down documents and sources and filing F.O.I.A.s until you just cannot stand to write another one. Cybersluething and investigative journalism are two totally different things and shouldn’t be confused.

One of the worst things you can do for a story is rely on what cyberspace provides. I cannot stress this enough in today’s Internet world of instant information. I would suggest, for anyone looking to grasp a further understanding of what I mean, that you read James B. Stewart’s book, Follow the Story. I don’t know him, by the way. So I’m not shilling for a friend. But in that book, you’ll notice that the Internet is not even discussed as a serious investigating tool for a working journalist. We have to watch out with what’s happening right now. Information is too interchangeable and stepped on. You do not know what you’re getting off the Internet. I’ve gotten hard copies of magazine and/or newspaper stories and matched them up to their Internet counterparts and noticed that they’ve been changed or added to or even edited. That scares me. Moreover, how can we rely on a MySpace page as fact? Anyone can publish anything about anyone. There’s no fact-checking process involved with this sort of research—which is really terrifying from a true journalist’s point of view.

IF LOOKS COULD KILL is being released today. For more information, visit M. William Phelp's website.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Farewell, My Lovely: The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman

A few months ago, I went to visit the duplex on Highland Avenue where Raymond and Cissy Chandler lived in 1929 (though I called her Pearl, her given name). After reading Judith Freeman's The Long Embrace, a highly intimate biography of Ray and Cissy, I learned that, of the approximately two dozen homes they shared in Los Angeles and Southern California, this one may have marked the lowest point in their marriage.

During the years this was listed as their address in the Los Angeles city directories, Ray rarely lived there. Instead, he was in the process of drinking himself out of a job, dividing his time between a room at the Mayfair Hotel, and an apartment he'd rented for a secretary at Dabney Oil, with whom he was having an affair.

Finally, the affair and the job came to a nasty end, and Ray returned home. He would spend the next few years learning how to be a writer, and trying to make it all up to Cissy.

Before Freeman's book, little was known about Cissy, other than the fact that she was 18 years older than her third husband. And only a few tangible scraps remain of her -- Chandler insisted that all their letters be destroyed (Ray hinted that a few of them were "rather hot"). However, Freeman embarked on the book hoping to piece together what little remained, and to discover something about what Cissy was like.

The result is as much an account of Freeman's literary sleuthing as it is a biography of the Chandlers. At first, I bristled at Freeman's insertion of herself into the story, her accounts of the places in Los Angeles where she'd lived, the apartment buildings and bungalows she visited while tracking down the elusive Cissy through the homes around the city where the Chandlers lived.

However, it was in a passage about an evening Freeman spends at the HMS Bounty, my favorite bar in Los Angeles, that I realized what she was up to.

Not only was her description of an elderly waitress who worked at the bar when I began going there (and who was rumored to have once roomed with Jane Russell) entirely accurate, it was also reminiscent of Chandler in one of his careful, incisive character studies, given to even incidental characters. And suddenly, I realized that Freeman's trips back and forth across the city, and her descriptions of them, mirrored Philip Marlowe's own.

Of course, this is the only way the book could have been written. And of course, it works beautifully -- it just took me a little time to see it.

And Freeman does find Cissy, in a manner of speaking. She was beautiful, sensual, charming, and gracious. She read Ray's books and stories, and made notes on them, but wasn't really a fan. After a happy and relatively sober decade with her husband in the 30s, her health began to decline; however, shortly before her death in 1954, she mustered the strength for a trip with Ray to England. She may have enabled his drinking to a certain degree, but in this trip, she also enabled him to leave California after she died -- which I suspect is what allowed him to live as long as he did without her (even so, less than five years).

But more than anything, what comes across is that the Chandlers' marriage was a complex one. It was like nothing out of a storybook, the couple had their troubles -- the age difference between them, their reclusive habits, the moves from one furnished apartment to another, Ray's drinking and Cissy's health problems, and Ray's movie work, which probably took a steeper toll on the marriage than even his days with the Dabney Oil Syndicate.

Still, through Freeman's research, we also see a portrait of a couple who loved, understood, and nurtured one another very deeply throughout their 30-year marriage. Their need for one another is both touching and terrifying.

Of Cissy's last year, which he spent mostly caring for her in their La Jolla home, Ray wrote,
I watched my wife die by half-inches and I wrote my best book in the agony of that knowledge, and yet I wrote it... And late at night I would lie on the eight-foot couch reading because I knew that around midnight she would come quietly in and that she would want a cup of tea, but would never ask for it. I always had to talk her into it. But I had to be there, since if I had been asleep, she wouldn't have wakened me, and wouldn't have had her tea.

Do you think I regret any of this? I'm proud of it. It was the supreme time of my life.

Judith Freeman recently spoke with Denise Hamilton as part of the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library. Although it's not up as a podcast yet, it should be soon, so keep checking.