Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bridget Jones of the 1950s: The Dinner Party by Gretchen Finletter

The Dinner Party (From the Journal of a Lady of Today) by Gretchen Finletter (1954)

Every now and again, one stumbles onto a book about The Rich and Their Problems, and though these problems are annoying in that they are both trifling and particular to the rich, one sits back and begins to enjoy reading about them.

One of the many things I enjoy about books about this class from this time period is the habit of somewhat Arbitrary Capitalization that their authors tend to favor. Even the reviewers seem to fall prey to it. In the review of The Dinner Party that appeared in Time in 1955, the author writes, "Dinner Party is charming chatter, with just a lemon-twist of real wit. It is the kind of book a woman likes because it is So True, and may even beguile an idle husband."

The author of the journal, and our narrator, is a perpetually bewildered woman in her 40s, who has moved to the country with her husband who is working on His Book. Though she generally means well, and tries her best to embody the virtues of gracious living, our narrator is a hopeless case, terrified of confrontations with the cook, flustered by the prospect of hosting a dinner party, and never quite taken seriously by anyone, even her own family.

However, the jams that our lady finds herself in are frequently hilarious. In my favorite of these, she is given the task of managing the bake sale for her daughters' school. In order to drum up extra business, she commissions her next-door-neighbor to pose as an Egyptian fortune teller and set up a tent behind the bake sale table. I won't spoil how it happens, but suffice it to say, she nearly succeeds in getting her neighbor (who is neither Egyptian nor a fortune teller) vaccinated and deported.

Her journal entries are written in the crisp, breezy prose of a woman who has things Under Control, but like her Less Fortunate descendant Bridget Jones, the contents reveal a woman who is anything but. In one entry, the lady writes,

"Make up my mind to be clear-headed and authoritative and write out on pad what I plan to have for dinner party. Will then go into kitchen and simply Tell Roza. Rehearse conversation. Must not begin with 'Oh by the way, Roza, we are having a few people in,' which is cowardly, nor 'Give me your suggestions, Roza,' which is craven, but go into kitchen, say 'Good morning,' bring out my pad and list, and tell her, pleasantly of course, that we are going to have a small dinner of about eighteen people...

Decide instead to go to Mary Jane's Beauty Shoppe. Know it is several days before the party but do not wish Mrs. Pullman to imagine that the dinner is so important to me that my hair has been especially waved for it, and feel it is more worldly to have it on the night either a bit over-ripe or under-done."

Like Ms. Jones, the narrator is a woman who is constantly plagued with doubts about her appearance, her abilities, her relationships. However, the narrator of The Dinner Party would probably trade places with Bridget in a heartbeat. Despite her foibles, Bridget Jones is a singleton who eventually realizes that if she is not her own champion, no one else will be, while the narrator is a married, settled, and moneyed woman who, despite her privilege, is always in danger of becoming invisible and taken for granted.

And unlike Bridget Jones, our narrator does not possess the Inner Resources to pull herself up by the bootstraps. She can only face her future with self-deprecating wit, a brave face, and a healthy measure of resignation.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Readathon Shoutouts

Readathon is going on today, with over 60 lit bloggers and devoted bibliophiles committed to reading for 24 hours straight.

I meant to sign up to be a cheerleader for participants, but forgot. Therefore, I am going to cheerlead in an unofficial capacity. Here are just a handful of folks doing Blogathon today. If you get a chance, stop by, see what they're reading, and lend them some moral support:

So Many Books, So Little Time and Books Are My Friends: Mother-daughter book bloggers! How cool is that?

Biblio File: a librarian whose last post was about As I Lay Dying; if she's reading Faulkner for Readathon, she is a brave woman indeed.

This Redhead Reads
The Inside Cover
A Striped Armchair
Tripping Towards Lucidity
Books I Done Read

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books I Hate

There was an interesting feature in the Times Online this week where critics wrote about their least favorite books. Whether these titles were actively loathed (such as Ian McEwan's Atonement) or just frequently given up on (more than one person chose Crime and Punishment), I didn't see anything on the list I disagreed with. But I feel the need to add a few of my own:

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Listening to teenage girls talk about Edward, I begin to think that Elvis might have had more luck with the ladies had he been a brooding fictional vampire. I paid little attention to Edward's charms, being unable to look past the lazy writing, dull plot, and annoyingly passive and bland narrator. My intense hatred of Twilight is more thoroughly documented here.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

I'm prepared to catch hell for including this one, but let me just say that I don't *hate* The Moviegoer, I just fall asleep every time I try to read it.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The year I taught 11th and 12th grade English my top priority was to teach my students how to write well. My second priority was to protect them from The Scarlet Letter and to do all that was in my power to keep it out of the curriculum. We read The Crucible instead, and everyone was grateful.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The pervasive sexism is bad enough, but the thing I could never get past in this book is that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are basically the 1950s equivalent of suburban white boys who sit around listening to 50 Cent and talking about how they are all gangsta and whatnot.

Any book by Philip Roth that is not Goodbye, Columbus

I find his writing to be uniformly nasty, ugly, misogynist, and willfully unlikeable, though I will always have a soft spot for "The Conversion of the Jews."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Johnny Come Lately

From a sort of recent Publisher's Weekly, "A Day in the Life of a Book Publicist":

8:30 a.m. Stop at Starbucks. Order venti latte and think about how ridiculous it is that the store sells The Kite Runner. Who hasn't read that yet?

8:46 a.m. Get on subway. Notice that the person sitting across from you is reading Eat, Pray, Love. Again, who hasn't read that yet?

I thought of this while sitting on the bus today reading Eat, Pray, Love, which I recently received as a gift from my oldest and dearest childhood friend. She wrote a lovely inscription, admitting that, yes, this was totally a commercial Starbucks kind of book, but that in it, Elizabeth Gilbert reminded her of a cross between the two of us. It was so sweet and thoughtful, how could I not pick it up immediately?

Still, I couldn't help but feel that at least one of my fellow commuters was probably judging me.

The Precision of Language

I recently heard about Ammon Shea's new book coming out this August, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. In it, Shea documents the most bizarre, obscure, and lovely words and definitions to be found in the behemoth dictionary.

Today, I stumbled upon one myself. A patron called the library to ask whether the word "handsome" could be used to describe a girl.

"Yes," I said. "Well, you probably wouldn't use it to describe a girl. You could use it to describe a woman, though."

"Why?" he asked.

I couldn't exactly put my finger on that part, so I turned to the OED, and found among the definitions one that explained the connotation perfectly:

Handsome: "beautiful with dignity."

"So, that wouldn't apply to a girl?"

"Not usually," I said.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Not Hilarious, But Who Cares?: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
by David Sedaris

Note: I meant to write a short footnote about the problems associated with reading David Sedaris books in public, but accidentally wound up posting one of my most Sedaris-esque life experiences here. While I could hope this would land me an appearance on TAL, I believe they already did a segment on the disturbing lives of relay operators.

Even as people rush out by the thousands to purchase the new book by NPR darling and New Yorker enfant terrible, the needling has already begun: he's mined all of his material, Hugh isn't as funny as Lou, Lisa, and the Rooster, and what if he exaggerated his stories?

On the first point, yes, he has possibly run low on stories about his family, but this new collection certainly isn't short on new stories to tell about, you know, his life as a grown-up.

On the second, it's true that I experienced no moments where I truly embarrassed myself while reading the book in a public place.*

However, I smiled broadly on many occasions, in an airport, no less, and no one smiles broadly in an airport unless they are reuniting with a long lost friend or unless they are reading a David Sedaris book. And besides, I don't require Sedaris to be a nonstop hoot; in fact, I rather like his explorations of longterm monogamy and find the periodic one-liners and nice turns of phrase to be as satisfying as the story of Dinah the Christmas Whore.

As for the third, I truly couldn't give a shit.

But getting to the collection itself, I found myself enjoying Sedaris most in the essays when he appears to be at his most solipsistic, as in "Crybaby," where he is seated in first class with a passenger who is loudly grieving for his dead mother, or in "Town and Country," where he finds himself passing judgment on a lewd cab driver. In his essays, Sedaris is excellent at whipping himself into a good, self-conscious, yet self-righteous lather before turning the hose on himself in a way that exposes more generally applicable human shortcomings.

However, my favorite essay in the collection is "Road Trips," which begins when Sedaris goes to a function back in his old North Carolina neighborhood hosted by the family of a flamboyantly gay teenager. Having come of age before the existence of high school GSA groups, when coming out was murky, uncharted territory, Sedaris marvels at this comparative openness in a passage that contains my favorite line from the book:

When I was a kid, you'd be burned alive for such talk. Being a homosexual was unthinkable, and so you denied it, and found a girlfriend who was willing to settle for the sensitive type. On dates, you'd remind her that sex before marriage was just that, sex: what dogs did in the front yard."

From here, Sedaris springboards into a creepily funny story about the first people he comes out to, a pair of aging swingers who pick him up hitchhiking. This leads to another story, which Sedaris also sets up as creepily funny; however, the essay's last few paragraphs reveal far more, and do so in the most unexpected, poignant, best writing Sedaris has done yet. I loved it, and have come back to it more than a few times since first reading the book.

It won't split your guts, but then, there wouldn't be such a fuss about David Sedaris if all he did was tell funny stories. In this collection, Sedaris allows humor to become the background music for the other aspects of his writing that keep us coming back.
* I was in a 2-week job orientation for exactly the kind of position Sedaris might have held during his cleaning service/moving company days, and the orientation was filled with boring speakers and lots of downtime in between them. During one of these, I was reading the essay "Jesus Shaves" from Me Talk Pretty One Day, and came to the part when Sedaris's fellow students in a language class attempt to share how people in their country celebrate Easter in stunted French vocabulary.

At the line, "They nail the good man to two morsels of wood," I completely lost it, and then was called upon to explain to the rest of the class what exactly was so funny.

As a postscript, the position was as an operator for a telecommunications service, ostensibly for the deaf, where I would have messages typed to me by a caller, then relay them to the other party. However, this being 2001, they had not yet figured out how to bill for these calls. Quickly, people around the world realized that they could use our service to obtain free long distance, so long as they weren't particular about the voice coming through on the other end of the line.

And that is how I came to be the madam of a Pakistani brothel for a day.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Zombie Summer Reading: It's People! PEOPLE!

I'll admit it: Almost nothing makes me happier than the literary equivalent of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If Tom Servo and the gang ever started recording commentary on audio books, I'd probably keel over from sheer joy.

Mary knows of my addiction, and from time to time she picks up some truly sublime crap for my amusement. A couple of weeks ago, she emailed me from work - indecently pleased with herself - to tell me that she'd be bringing home Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, perhaps better known as the book upon which they based that most often mocked entry in the Charlton Heston oeuvre, Soylent Green.*

Oh happy day.

So imagine my surprise and consternation when I finish the book and nowhere in it has anyone screamed "It's people!!" In fact, there is no sinister plot in which people are ground up and pressed into tasty wafers at all. The titular green crackers are made from seaweed, and "It's made of Kelp! KEEEEELLLLLLP!!" just isn't very likely to inspire much dread or revulsion.

In fact, the only soylent in Make Room! Make Room! comes in the form of soylent steaks (soylent = soy + lentil). I can get those at the Ralph's down the street; again, not so scary unless you count the price of corn these days. (Zing!)

All griping aside, it may turn out that the price of corn actually is the scariest thing about Harrison's novel. Written at a time when the population explosion was the apocalypse du jour, the book's dystopian vision of the U.S. in 1999 - overcrowded, starving, and Hobbesian in the extreme - is certainly unnerving: homeless families crowded into abandoned parking garages to live in abandoned cars, water shortages, food shortages, utterly overwhelmed civic institutions, refugees living on fleets of cargo ships permanently converted into floating cities in the NY harbor, etc.

The plot - your basic cop-on-a-murder-case story - is pretty unremarkable and serves mostly an excuse to explore Harrison's starved new world. Likewise, the characterization is also fairly underwhelming. Our Hero is a bit of a cipher and the rest of the players relentlessly conform to stock types: fallen woman with a heart of tarnished gold, honorable mob bodyguard, crotchety old man sidekick, impoverished kid in over his head. Like a lot of third-tier science fiction, this is a novel written at the intersection of "pretty great idea for a book" and "not the world's greatest writer."

Still, it's worth taking on the bus if sci-fi dystopia is your thing. For one, it makes for an interesting noir companion to Issac Asimov's trio of Elijah Bailey novels. Harrison has a far more bleak vision of a terminally overcrowded Earth than Asimov, but it's interesting to see what the two writers do with the same basic premise.

And of course, given that the book and the film part ways around page 50 you can go into it without knowing the ending, which - sadly - is not this:

*Also, oddly enough, this makes another movie adaptation of the work of a Zombie Summer Reading author that stars Edward G. Robinson as a cop. He's the Kevin Bacon of the golden age of cinema, apparently. I think that we must schedule a Soylent Green/Harness Bull double feature.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Of Course, It Took a Journalist to Figure This Out About Libraries

Chicago Tribune writer Julia Keller has an excellent article in the May issue of American Libraries (though the article itself isn't available online), about how the gooey warm feelings of yesteryear that tends to surround most library testimonials has nothing to do with the institution of the library as it exists today.

"Such nostalgia is touching but ultimately perilous. This sentimental approach contributes to the image of libraries as antiquated placed, places sealed off like time capsules circa 1943."

And, as Keller writes, "Nostalgia won't pay the electric bill."

She should know, because newspapers are in the same boat, the victims of sepia-toned tableaus involving the whole family circled around the breakfast table listening to Father rant about the day's headlines.

And believe me, I know all about it. As a librarian, I've heard my share of tales from people involving misunderstood youth who found their solace lurking in the stacks, and of beautifully transcendent library reading rooms that filled a person's heart with silent awe. And sure, I love these stories, but they have very little to do with what I actually do on the job, and who I help on a daily basis.

Around this time last year, I participated in Blogathon to raise money for the ALA Hurricane Katrina Library Relief Fund, and as part of this, I asked people from the libraries affected in those areas to write about what their libraries meant to them.

Their stories had nothing to do with finely waxed fixtures or childhood nostalgia. They were real and immediate and vital.

From Jefferson Parish, one library patron wrote, "The Jefferson Parish Library opened soon after was a welcome home to many. No carpets, few staff, but the books were ok, and the computers were in full use. This was great, when so many people couldn't get into their homes."

From New Orleans, one patron wrote about the librarians at her local library who traveled into the midst of the destruction after Katrina to check on the local history resources. She wrote, "I remember the first day the library opened after Katrina. There was a rush to enter and people were lined at the door. There were no need to speak words of thanks, we could tell in each other's eyes, the smile on each other faces, the firm hugs we received, that we were all where we needed to be."

The Hancock County Public Libraries said: "Immediately after Katrina, many residents needed to contact family and friends by using the satellite telephones or the computers with wireless Internet access. Others needed copier and fax services or a table to spread out documents and fill out forms, or just a quiet, air conditioned building with clean restrooms. Some just needed a respite from the devastation outside and came in to read a newspaper, find out about friends, enjoy the air conditioning and the clean restrooms."

That's what the public library is all about, Charlie Brown.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Hard Road to Justice: Wicked City by Ace Atkins

Wicked City
by Ace Atkins

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

A sleazy hive of bootlegging, illegal gambling halls, houses of prostitution, political corruption, and dirty cops who turned a blind eye, Look magazine called Phenix City, Alabama the "wickedest city in America." The town's innocent citizens were too afraid to challenge the status quo until 1954, when the Democratic candidate for attorney general, a reformer named Albert Patterson was gunned down in an alley by persons unknown.

Patterson's death marked the beginning of the end for that status quo. It was too egregious, too much of a finger in the eye to ignore, and it was undeniable proof that the good could not live alongside the wicked in Phenix City and do nothing.

Though Atkins's account is fictionalized, the major events are true and many of the principal characters are real. In a short note that prefaces the novel, Atkins writes, "No author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it."

It's good that he says it, because the extent of the vice that Atkins is about to describe boggles the mind with its sheer audacity. Young women and girls picked up for loitering are taken to prison, where the inside of their lower lip is tattooed, and their names are taken down for the Sheriff's records -- he gets a cut of their future profits when they're conscripted into prostitution. Madams, law enforcement, club owners, and elected officials form a twisted alliance of civic leadership, and everyone gets a cut.

Powerful and harrowing, Wicked City is not without flaws. Characterization emerges slowly, and it's difficult to distinguish many figures from one another, particularly the corrupt officials. Atkins also makes a narrative choice that I didn't care for, interspersing limited omniscient points of view with the first person narration of Lamar Murphy, a former boxer and filling station owner who becomes Phenix City's interim sheriff. Sometimes these changes in perspective occur within the same chapter, which is distracting and clumsy-feeling. However, these quibbles become less important, charging towards Phenix City's inevitable, yet satisfying purge of evil and vice.

Atkins's website features some excellent orientation to the real Phenix City of the 1950s, including newsreel footage of some of the key figures and images of its greatest villains and heroes.

If you liked...: Hell At the Breech by Tom Franklin, this book is for you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Music Writer Just Ruined My Life

My good buddy - aesthetic ninja, culture warrior, and all around raconteur Stephen M. Deusner - just introduced me to the Magical 1990s MTV Simulator.

Clearly, it's a good thing that I've just finished reading my second Zombie Summer Reading pick.

Because I will never get anything done or read ever again.

But it got me thinking...decades have albums that go along with them pretty indelibly in the minds of music junkies. And it's the same way with books, I'd wager - whether the author is being held up as the voice of a generation (cough...breteastonellis...cough) or not.

So here's a fun game for your next erudite cocktail party or bar conversation: match 1990s books with 1990s albums. You can do it on the basis of how they fit into their respective aesthetic landscapes, or on any other axis - similarities in themes, styles, or maybe you just read one while listening to the other.

I'll start: Howard Stern's Private Parts and Joey Lawrence's Joey Lawrence. Both were evidence that you should probably dance with the one that brung ya, artistically speaking, and both of 'em sold a hell of a lot of units to people who liked saying things like "Bababooey" or "Whoa!".

Also, both make me weep silently into my hands.

Surely someone else can do better?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, 1922-2008

Cyd Charisse passed away today in Los Angeles at the age of 86.

Those moves. That green dress. Those legs. Always sultry, always classy.

Oddly, my introduction to Cyd Charisse came not from her best-known role in Singing in the Rain, but from the Gingerbread series by Rachel Cohn, featuring a mucho fabulous teen hellion named after the dancing legend.

I think I'll be checking Gingerbread and Shrimp this evening. It's a strange tribute, but a fitting one, I think.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Last of the Love Goddesses: The Zany Adventures of Liz Renay

My Face for the World to See (1971)
My First 2,000 Men (1992)

In most people, self-awareness is a good quality, but thankfully for us, and probably for her as well, Liz Renay never believed herself to be anything other than a fabulous glamour girl just on the verge of becoming the next big thing. Until her death in January 2007, Renay frolicked through life with happy-go-lucky aplomb, even after a series of setbacks -- treacherous husbands, bad boyfriends, gangsters, grand juries, jail time, a thwarted film career, and family dramas -- that would have sent most people spiraling into depression and self-doubt.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who don't yet know Miss Liz, a little background, described far more colorfully in My Face for the World to See. Born Pearl Dobbins in Chandler, Arizona, our young heroine was raised by strict evangelical parents, but fell away from the church at an early age after her first visit to the local skating rink, which she's been told was "Satan's palace." Renay writes, "In one wave of nausea, my religious belief was swept away. Every value the church had taught me was crushed under the rolling wheels of those innocent skates.... This place was not evil or sinful or wrong. Common sense made that obvious."

Heady with freedom, Renay went a little wild, running around with soldiers stationed in the area, marrying two of them, and giving birth to two babies before the age of 18.

However, Renay's love affair with notoriety began in earnest in the 1950s when the newly single mother began dancing burlesque in New York City to pay the bills, and caught the eye of Tony "Cappy" Coppola, bodyguard for Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia. After letting Cappy down easy, Liz hoped to break into the movies, and headed to Los Angeles where her gangster buddies arranged for Mickey Cohen to help her settle in. The two hit it off immediately, and Liz got off to a promising start, captivating no less a person than Cecil B. DeMille.

Unfortunately, Liz made the mistake of loaning Mickey Cohen some money, which landed her in front of 13 grand juries on both coasts and into the headlines of national newspapers as "Mickey Cohen's girlfriend." Eternally naive, she enjoyed the attention and photo ops, but got her testimony mixed up in front of one of those juries, and found herself pleading guilty to perjury. She was given probation, but wound up having to serve a three year sentence at Terminal Island after pleading guilty to an unrelated charge of disturbing the peace*.

Between the jail time, the mobster associations, and the fact that she was pushing 40 by this time, no major studio would touch Renay. Undaunted, she went back to dancing burlesque, painting, appearing in B-movies like The Thrill Killers and Blackenstein, and her favorite pastime, men.

My Face for the World to See was published in 1971, but germinated during Renay's prison term. In fact, the portions of the book devoted to this period are the high point, as we see Renay leading the prison's theatre and art classes, painting portraits for her fellow inmates, fighting off the attacks of the "Butch Broads," and getting locked in solitary over a fight for religious freedom behind bars (Renay does apologize for her harsh words against homosexuality in My First 2,000 Men).

Renay's second memoir is just as entertaining as its predecessor, but only if you skip the chapters where she's giving romantic advice and stick to the ones where she's telling tales about her lovers. Another reason I find myself utterly enchanted by Renay is that, although she certainly bedded a number of celebrities, and even devotes a chapter to them, she's no groupie and no star chaser. She writes about the men who treated her best, were most generous, most bizarre, most exciting, and a few who were just oddballs and perverts, and fame or lack thereof seems to play no part in how Renay feels about her conquests.

And how can you not love a book that begins, "There've been so many talented, charismatic men in my life, it's hard to know where to begin. I'll start with Burt Lancaster."

Though self-absorbed and unselfconscious, Liz Renay was a giddily irrepressible barrel of fun, and her memoirs are, too. Definitely worth a skim.
* Renay really got a bad deal on this count, and again, her naivete got her into trouble. She went to a hotel for what she believed to be a "photo shoot," and discovered that the photographer had ulterior motives. There was a ruckus which drew the police, and Renay was charged with disturbing the peace. Bobby Kennedy was under some pressure to get mobster convictions and harsh sentences, and though Renay's actual involvement with the mob didn't go beyond dating its membership, she got three highly undeserved years in the pokey.

I was reading these books around the time that the 40th anniversary of RFK's assassination was being commemorated, so it was rather a surprise to come across sentences like, "My greatest contempt was for hypocrites like Robert Kennedy," and "It sure is awful about poor Marilyn. I'm sure that jerk Robert Kennedy had something to do with this."

Friday, June 13, 2008

In Case You Didn't Know

Author David Hajdu (The Ten Cent Plague) popped up on the Colbert Report the other night.

Also, according to the episode, giraffe is now considered kosher.

Who knew?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

TBIFY Summer Reading Round-up Extravaganza

I'll be out of town for the rest of the week, basking in the considerable cuteness of my niece and nephews, and enjoying long runs in the rural countryside without fear of being sideswiped by some fool trying to text while driving. It'll be nice to get out of L.A. for a few days.

And, of course, getting a jump start on my summer reading on the flight to Pennsylvania. In my absence, here are a few of this summer's best-looking books, some for now, and some to look forward to.


What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Definitely this summer's What the Dead Know.

The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani
"With wit and fierce honesty, an epidemiologist talks about sex, drugs, and the mistakes surrounding international AIDS prevention. Pisani reveals how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions from "objective" data and how much money is spent so very badly."

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
"In essay after essay, Sedaris proceeds from bizarre conundrums of daily life to the most deeply resonant human truths. Culminating in a brilliant account of his venture to Tokyo in order to quit smoking, his sixth essay collection is a new masterpiece of comic writing."

The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes and Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients by Lucy H. Spelman and Ted Y. Mashima
"A moray eel diagnosed with anorexia…A herd of bison whose only hope is a crusading female doctor from Paris…A vet desperately trying to save an orphaned whale by unraveling the mystery of her mother’s death…This fascinating book offers a rare glimpse into the world of exotic animals and the doctors who care for them."


The Last Embrace by Denise Hamilton
"Lily Kessler, a former stenographer and spy for the OSS, comes to Los Angeles to find her late fiancé's sister Kitty, an actress who is missing from her Hollywood boardinghouse. The next day, Kitty's body is found in a ravine below the Hollywood sign. Unimpressed by the local police, Lily investigates on her own. As she delves into Kitty's life, she encounters fiercely competitive starlets, gangsters, an eccentric special-effects genius, exotic denizens of Hollywood's nightclubs, and a homicide detective who might distract her from her quest for justice. But the landscape in L.A. can shift kaleidoscopically, and Lily begins to see how easily a young woman can lose her balance and fall prey to the alluring city's dangers"

Real World by Natsuo Kirino
"Psychologically intricate and astute, dark and unflinching, Real World is a searing, eye-opening portrait of teenage life in Japan unlike any we have seen before."

Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer
"Television reporter Riley Spartz is recovering from a heart-breaking, headline-making catastrophe of her own when a longtime police source drops two homicide files in her lap. Riley suspects a possible serial killer and stages a bold on-air stunt to draw him out."

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
"By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, this memoir is both for fans of this masterful yet guardedly private writer and for the exploding population of athletes who find similar satisfaction in distance running."

The King's Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II by Susan Holloway Scott
"Nell Gwyn has never been a lady, nor does she pretend to be. Blessed with impudent wit and saucy beauty, she swiftly rises from the poverty of Covent Garden to become a sensation in the theater. Still in her teens, she catches the eye of King Charles II, and trades the stage for Whitehall Palaceand the role of royal mistress."


The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
"A Dickensian cast of characters in 19th-century New England comes brilliantly to life in this wondrous debut novel about an orphaned boy and the colorful con man who claims to be his brother."

Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea
I'm going to bring this one home just to listen to Potts complain about it. Yeah, I know, Sherman was a thug.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Just the facts, man: Homicide by Leslie T. White

I came to Leslie White's Homicide by way of the Black Lizard Book of Pulps, or as I like to call it, "the Bible of Awesome." White's short story "The City of Hell" was...well, it was like a caper/heist flick mixed with Red Harvest and written on an ultimately wholesome bender. Sure, some yeggs get new buttonholes in their coats, and there is much talk of rats devouring certain characters' faces, but our heroes don't drink that much and won't let the family men in the group take the real risks. I quickly flipped to the little author blurb to discover that Mr. White also wrote novels, Homicide and Harness Bull (the basis for the film Vice Squad, in which Edward G. Robinson plays the cop for a change) among them. He also wrote Me, Detective in which he presents his own take on the Doheny murder case, having worked it as an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

Me, Detective was clearly the book I had to read for this week's Zombie Summer Reading.

Well, sometimes you brain the zombies and sometimes the zombies eat you. Me, Detective only made it through the first edition and is thus a little pricey if you can find a copy, and the reference copy at the library was A.W.O.L.

Homicide nevertheless made a dandy substitute: burglary cop Steve Muttersbach is detailed into a murder investigation when a nightclub owner/lady of ill-repute is found strangled in her coupe, shortly after he investigates a break-in at her apartment.

Sure, it's a little hacky. The prose is nothing to write home about, the plot is a parlor mystery in hardboiled clothing, and it lacks the inspired lunacy of "The City of Hell."

But what it lacks in style it makes up for in concept: the chapters are a series of letters and telegrams from our clearly-out-of-his-depth hero to a retired Homicide Detective buddy, with interview transcripts, police reports, and newspaper clippings attached. (Someday, somewhere, a graduate student will use the novel as evidence that postmodernism was blossoming in the pulps before it ever hit the academic presses.)

And there's something charming about Muttersbach, a cop whose chance to step up to the show came a few years too late but who nevertheless dives into the investigation like a catcher with bad knees and one last shot at the pennant.* The comic subplots involving a flirty tabloid reporter, Muttersbach's increasingly estranged relationship with his wife, and the indignities visited upon our hapless flatfoot by his superiors when he roughs up a politically connected suspect, also liven up the proceedings considerably.

All in all, Homicide reads like the source material for what could have been an excellent Warner Brothers B-picture, which I guess is kind of what it is. It's not a lost classic by any means, but it reminds me of a number of records by local bands that never really went anywhere: the production isn't so great, the songs aren't all quite there yet, and they should never have let the bass player sing on that one track. But it's quirky and odd, and clearly a labor of love by a talented amateur, and - despite what Harlan Ellison thinks - it's evidence that "not very good" can be worthwhile in its own right, if it's done with care.

* Why yes, I did enjoy Major League when I was a kid.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Don't Diss My Dodger Dogs

This weekend, the NYT's Peter Meehan wrote an ambitious and cholesterol-packed feature on the highlights and atrocities of ballpark cuisine, complete with a super cool, drool-inducing interactive map laying out best and worst bets at 30 major league baseball stadiums.

DO NOT look at this right before lunch, as even the plastic cheese nachos and soggy BBQ sandwiches will start to look good to you.

While I was not particularly astonished that Dodger Stadium didn't come out on top, I was horrified by Meehan's description of the park's legendary Dodger Dog as "contemptibly bad (salty, greasy and tepid)."

I beg to differ, as Dodger Dog cravings carry considerable weight each time Potts and I debate whether to shell out the dough to attend a Dodgers game. I've never found a Dodger Dog to be either greasy or tepid, and aren't hot dogs supposed to be salty?

Meehan's winning stadiums include San Francisco, Seattle, and Milwaukee, and while I can vouch for the bratwurst at Brewer Park, I suspect our palettes may differ somewhat. The Seattle Sea-Dog (a cod hot dog), which he loved, sounds like poison to me, and I would never, ever in a million years eat sushi at a ballpark unless I was in Japan.

Alongside Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore fared poorly with a crab cake sandwich at Oriole Park written up as "the worst dish I had the displeasure of sampling at a ballpark."

After checking out the map, though, I'm suddenly inspired to travel to St. Louis for the sole purpose of going to Busch Stadium for a "bratzel," a bratwurst wrapped in a pretzel and served with spicy mustard. I looked at a picture of it over 12 hours ago, and haven't stopped thinking about the yummy-looking thing since.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Husband of the Year

How do you rate as a husband or wife of the 1930s? I'm actually a little surprised that I scored so highly in wifery, and flat-out astounded that I'm a "Very Superior" husband.

It's more difficult to score high as a good 30s wife on this test because you get points for doing things ("Keeps self dainty, perfumed, and feminine"), while "husband points" are mostly earned by not engaging in oafish behavior ("Fails to brush teeth regularly or keep nails clean.")


As a 1930s wife, I am

Take the test!


As a 1930s husband, I am
Very Superior

Take the test!

Via Shaken & Stirred

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Tragedy: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Two weeks after Hannah Baker commits suicide, her classmate and one-time crush Clay Jensen receives a box of cassette tapes in the mail, tapes Hannah sent out the day she died. Clay puts in the first tape, and hears Hannah's voice:

"I hope you're ready because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why."

Hannah goes on to give two instructions: everyone has to listen, and everyone has to pass the tapes on to the next person on the list. "Hopefully," she adds, "neither one will be easy for you."

And it isn't.

Hannah unfolds a series of slights and betrayals, each one more serious and troubling than the last, and each implicating another person in Hannah's death.

Although the haunting premise might lead the reader to expect a mystery, the story stays firmly rooted in the world of high school.

It's a story about how Hannah perceived those slights, disappointments, and betrayals, which probably didn't mean much to their perpetrators, and how they affected her. But more than anything, it's a story about the dark, tunnel-vision world of a suicidal person who doesn't want to be rescued -- or doesn't believe she can be. Hannah doesn't kill herself to teach anyone a lesson, or expose any hidden scandal. Hannah kills herself because she wants to die.

In the book, it's easy to look at the incidents Hannah pinpoints as those that led to her suicide and think of people you know who have moved past worse. And it's easy to let many of Hannah's friends and classmates off the hook. They couldn't have known, so they couldn't have helped. However, that's not the point.

By incorporating Hannah's voice, Asher examines a suicidal person's frame of mind, and the ways that isolated incidents matter, as well as the ways that they don't. Asher also turns this premise into a way of exploring the guilt and remorse of those impacted by a friend or family member's suicide, with Hannah's tapes pointing towards a common survivors' experience -- what was the moment, the missed opportunity, when you could have made that person change their mind?

The approach is a daring one, and it usually works, though at times the conceit of the tapes glamorizes teen suicide more than I'm sure Asher intended. However, Thirteen Reasons Why is a haunting and thought-provoking book, tightly written and difficult to put down.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where's MacGyver When You Really Need Him?: Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

By page 7, there's a body on the floor and a villain. But that's not the only body, and not the only villain that Severance Package has to offer - they multiply like bloody, diabolically evil bunny rabbits.

The book's premise is simple, yet inventive. One Saturday morning, David Murphy summons seven critical employees to the 36th floor of a blandly modern Philadelphia office park. There, he reveals to them that their office is a front company for a government intelligence agency that is being deactivated, and as a precautionary measure, he has to kill all of them before offing himself.

Now, David has gone to the trouble of whipping up poisoned mimosas that will dispatch each of them quickly and painlessly, but to stifle any troublemakers, he's also set the elevator to bypass their floor and rigged the fire stair doors with sarin gas bombs.

As one might expect, the employees do not take the news well. However, it's not a simple case of joining forces to outwit their murderous boss. These are, after all, employees of a secret government intelligence agency, and each one has his or her own agenda, vendetta, or mission to carry out.

Mostly. There is one employee who never quite fit in with the others, one who doesn't carry himself with government-trained killing machine competence. Even David Murphy isn't quite sure why this man has been included on his kill list.

His name is Jamie Debroux. He's a happy husband and new father. He writes press releases. And now, he is marked for death. Our Jamie is no MacGyver, no John McClane, no Jack Bauer. He is a soft-bellied office schlub with no previously untapped resourcefulness, bravery, or ingenuity. Jamie is screwed, or he would be, if not for an ace up the sleeve so secret and perverse, even Jamie doesn't know about it.

Duane Swierczynski is a relatively new voice in the neo-pulp genre, and it's a voice that is lurid, violent, cinematic, and big as day. And also, it is wicked awesome. Though I've never read a book with action quite so relentless, Swierczynski also paces everything brilliantly, with a twist ending that I guarantee, you'll never see coming.

Alongside Child 44, Severance Package is my top recommendation for a hardcore summertime read.

If you've ever secretly imagined that if the bomb, the zombie apocalypse, the killer bees, the rogue virus, the Big One, ever hit, YOU'D be the one to escape with all your loved ones, pets, and precious momentos intact, this book is for you.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Yes, this has nothing to do with books, but so what?

Okay, clearly I'm getting far afield of the stated purpose of this blog, but if you can't take a moment to memorialize Bo freakin' Diddley, what's the point of the internet?

Oh, right: it's so that stuff like this is easily available:


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Arsenic and Axes: Blood in the Parlor by Dorothy Dunbar

Blood in the Parlor by Dorothy Dunbar (1964)

While half the fun of the Zombie Summer Reading Program is finding the weird books yourself, when the recommendation comes from Donna Tartt, it's worth following up on. A recent Village Voice feature asked writers to list their favorite obscure books, and while there were many fine contributions, Tartt's caught my eye:

My mother has had this book since I was a little girl, but no one else I know has ever heard of it, and it's almost impossible to find. Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I'd love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.

I was intrigued, and delighted to find a very ratty copy available at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Like the inimitable Edmund Lester Pearson, Dunbar has a very particular vision of what makes a "good murder." Weary of "I'll-blow-your-guts-out" detective stories and 20th century crime in general, Dunbar longs for the evildoers of a more gracious age, a time when murderers were more likely to employ an axe or a bottle of chloroform than a revolver. But the 19th century crimes she chooses to write about interest her because of their distinctive Victorian quality. Dunbar writes, "In most Victorian murders, murder is the act of removing an ugly fact to maintain a pleasant fiction, the grim reality of a dead body, or bodies, contradicting the fantasy of high-flown or obscure motives."

Medical students are likely criminals, as evidenced by the tale of Scott Jackson, a Cincinnati dental student who dispatched his inconveniently pregnant mistress, saving her head for his own research, or by Theodore Durrant, a monstrous medical student/church librarian who seduced pretty young women and stashed their bodies in the well-ventilated church belfry.

Though Dunbar isn't so obsessed with murderesses as Pearson, the Victorian period certainly had a number of fascinating ones, including Florence Maybrick, who may actually have been innocent, and Lydia Sherman, who certainly wasn't. And of course, no book would be complete without some discussion of Lizzie Borden, whose guilt Dunbar doubts not for a moment.

Blood in the Parlor was Dunbar's only book, which is a shame because she's an intelligent, wry, and very funny writer. In her account of the Lizzie Borden murders, Dunbar writes,

"There are many elements of horror in the Borden case, but one of the worst was the August fourth breakfast - mutton, sugar cakes, coffee, and mutton broth."

Her introductions to each chapter tie the cases, in grandiose terms, to classic myths, obscure historical facts, and literary and historical figures. All are giddily over the top. Combined with the book's occasional typos and factual errors, the enthusiastic result is rather endearing.

I had a great time with my first pick for the Zombie Summer Reading Program - next week, the two memoirs of that irrepressible streaker, Liz Renay!