Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Buttering Me Up

On the acknowledgments page of Denise Hamilton's new book, The Last Embrace, she writes,

"Hurray for librarians everywhere, those wonderfully sly, subversive supporters of literacy who are the unsung heroes of American letters today."

I promise that this bit of flattery will not prevent me from writing a fair and impartial review of the book when I finish it.

Then again, it's a book set in 1940s Los Angeles, has a nice noirish grime about it, features wayward starlets and thuggish gangsters, and was inspired by the 1949 disappearance of Jean Spangler.

The chances of me not liking this book are practically zilch.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Southern Girl's Guide to Gracious Living: Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my mother wasn't a debutante, that I was never forced to go to Cotillion classes, and that when my freshman year roommate asked me if I was going to rush, I had no idea what she was talking about (after she told me how many dresses it involved, I decided against it).

Still, there's something about the southern debutante that I find myself powerless to resist, a certain trashy mystique. After all, it's not every woman who can smoke a Marlboro Light in white cotton gloves or puke up a liter of Jim Beam without messing up her lipstick.

Sarah Walters is a Charleston-born and bred deb, though she isn't very good at it. She's a little bit plain and shy, and though good manners and heavy drinking come easily to her, things like female friendship and husband-hunting are more elusive.

Girls in Trucks follows Sarah as she ditches Charleston for a lackluster career in publishing and journalism in New York, and as she embarks on one disastrous and wrong relationship after another. She keeps in touch with her fellow, former debs, Annie, Bitsy, and Charlotte, but don't let the names fool you - these are no Sex in the City-esque ladies who lunch and dish. Their lives and problems would have made Carrie Bradshaw trade in her Jimmy Choos for a rural nunnery.

Even though their lives aren't perfect, the other three still manage to have problems glamorous and interesting enough to match their successful lives. Sarah, on the other hand, is a floundering wreck, her problems the products of self-absorption and a frustrating inability to make good life choices.

And that's the biggest problem with Girls in Trucks. Because Sarah sees herself as mediocre, plain, and a failure, the reader will, too. And while I found myself rooting for every tertiary character in the book, I couldn't root for Sarah because I knew she'd find a way to defeat herself no matter how promising her prospects. There are lovable losers, and then, there are just losers.

Still, I read the book in a single sitting (or rather, during a long day of subway connections and doctor's office waiting rooms), and really enjoyed Crouch's descriptions of debutante culture and social class hierarchies in the South.

If you like...: books about southern life and love like Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, or books about women who just can't seem to get it together like The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld, this book is for you.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mad Men, Season 2, Episode 1: "For Those Who Think Young"

"I realized that watching Mad Men each week had become one of those rare delights, like watching The Simpsons from Season Two to Seven, or Lost in Season Four, where I approached each new episode the way I might approach a wrapped gift." - Noel Murray, The Onion's TV Club

Not only do I approach each new episode of Mad Men like a wrapped gift, I approach them like a book I've been looking forward to for a long time, and have finally laid hands on. It's like the way I feel when I find out there's a new Megan Abbott book coming out, except that it happens every week.

The end of summer has officially, and unthinkably, become the most wonderful time of the year.

Thoughts on the first episode of the new season:

1. If there isn't already one out there, some enterprising seamstress should start selling reproductions of anything Christina Hendricks wears on the show. They would make a killing, and I would be first in line.

2. Tonight, Brady bought a box of Junior Mints in honor of the Junior Account Executives on the show. I hope none of them are phased out in favor of hipper, younger fellows in fishermen's sweaters because I'd only just started to love Harry, Paul, and good ole Cosgrove.

3. And then, there's Pete Campbell, the Junior Account Executive who will never be loved by anyone except his wife, and even she's probably rethinking things. He is a low, nasty sort. Even before he told his wife to open the chocolates because he wanted one, I was, like, "You got your wife a box of chocolates for Valentine's Day? You incredible tool!"

4. That face Don Draper makes when Betty walks down the stairs of the Savoy for their Valentine's Day date: that is the face of a man who is doing penance, whether his wife knows it or not.

5. Oh, Miss Peggy Olson. You had a rough first year at Sterling Cooper, and I wish only good things for you now. And if you have to become a little bit of a monster to accomplish that, I absolve you completely.

6. Oh, Salvatore. That's not going to end well. Same goes for you, Joanie.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

True Crime and the Smart Set

I've been reading Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, the 1985 true crime classic about the Baekeland family, heirs to the Bakelite fortune. For those unfamiliar with the story (or the 2007 film adaptation starring Julianne Moore), in 1972, Barbara Daly Baekeland was murdered by her son, Antony.

After the murder, all kinds of horrifying things came out about the family. Barbara had enlisted women to bed her son, who was gay, in an attempt to "fix" him, and there was some speculation that Barbara had seduced Antony herself. And then there was Barbara's husband, Brooks, who ran off with one of Antony's "girlfriends." That barely scratches the surface, but you can Wikipedia that business to learn more.

The surprising thing about the book is that Robins and Aronson got access to court proceedings, confidential medical records, Antony's letters written from prison and mental institutions, and pretty much the entire Baekeland family and their smart set friends for the book, which is edited as a compilation of these papers and interviews.

The interview subjects are like something right out of Cheever, bon vivants, idle rich jet-setters, wealthy artistic sorts, and the tossers-off of the well-placed beau geste. While talking about the crime, their stories are peppered with meals eaten, art purchased, places summered, parties thrown. As for the murder itself, it's spoken of as though it were an unfortunate, unpleasant thing, not a brutal, twisted crime. And Tony, that poor lamb.

Despite this tone, most of the subjects are rather keen to chat and make a good showing in the story. To read their accounts of the murder, you'd think that they'd personally been stabbed in the chest in a London kitchen, but that the whole thing had been rather a nuisance.

I haven't decided whether this is interesting or highly annoying yet, but I'll give it a few more chapters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Punk, 1924-Style

From the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 27, 1924

Monday, July 21, 2008

Happy Birthday Poppa

Were he still alive, Ernest Hemingway would be 109 today.

Wrap your mind around that one.

Also, check out these photos from the 28th Annual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, held at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West. Why my father-in-law has not ever entered this, I do not know. He'd walk away with the title.

I celebrated Hemingway's birthday by reading some Dawn Powell, his "favorite living writer," and going out for a cocktail after work with friends. The odd thing is, while I was doing these things, I had no idea that it was Hemingway's birthday.

Clearly, Poppa Hemingway commands me from beyond the grave.

Eatin' Crow, Staying Positive

Going to veer from the stated Purpose-of-Blog for a sec:

The new Hold Steady album is so good it makes me feel bad about snotty things I may have said about the previous ones.

It is like a Midwestern Decoration Day.

Like Cameron's dad's car, it is so choice.

In short, it is eight thirty in the morning and I've already listened to it all the way through.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm All Lost in the Supermarket: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost is partly a mystery and partly a ghost story, but more than anything, it's a story about characters whose lives should have turned out otherwise.

At the heart of it, is a precocious 10-year-old girl and aspiring detective named Kate Meany, who lives with her grandmother in a Birmingham neighborhood full of shops, but no families or children her own age. Largely unsupervised, Kate spends her days stalking the nearby Green Oaks Shopping Center for potential jewel thieves and ne'er-do-wells, a stuffed monkey named Mickey and a notebook at her side.

Her only friend is Adrian, a young man who returns home to work in his father's newspaper shop after college, and Kate spends hours in the shop talking to him. Until the day she doesn't come home. Unable to find other leads, suspicion falls on Adrian, though police never press charges. Still, the moment he can, Adrian disappears, too.

After a remarkable beginning, the book jumps ahead 20 years to 2003, where we meet Lisa, Adrian's sister. Like most other working people in Birmingham, Lisa was unable to avoid the mind-numbing stability of Green Oaks. She's the assistant manager of a record store, a job she initially took for a year to save up money to travel -- now, she's been there for years, working for a petty tyrant boss, and is living with a co-worker boyfriend she neither likes nor dislikes. Alongside Lisa is Kurt, currently serving the thirteenth year of his sentence at Green Oaks as a security guard. Kurt is haunted by the death of his wife, and by the image of a little girl with a stuffed monkey who appears on the security cameras.

Predictably, their stories come together; however, the secrets that are revealed when they do are markedly unpredictable. O'Flynn spends a good deal of time in the day to day lives of the shopping center employees, an endless cycle of cramped breakroom lunches, malfunctioning elevators, cold wars with annoying customers, and the threat of unannounced mystery shoppers who never arrive. The accounting of this tedium, which will ring true to anyone who's ever worked retail, lulled me into believing that nothing important could possibly happen here.

However, it does, and it will snap you out of your shopping mall stupor in nothing flat. The resolution is perhaps too abrupt and quickly handled, but O'Flynn's eye for detail and storytelling chops make What Was Lost more than deserving of its many accolades and awards (the book was first published in the U.K. in 2007).

If you liked...: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson or What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, this book is for you.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My History Hysteria

Did anybody else catch Andrew Ward on The Daily Show the other night, promoting his new book The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves?

(Oh, who am I kidding, we watched it on Hulu yesterday afternoon. Cable's for suckers.)

As Ward described his book I turned to Mary and said something along the lines of "Holy crap, I must read this immediately, as of yesterday, stat!" I think I may have startled her, actually. But my eyes were popping out for a good reason: not only does Ward's book look painfully interesting, but I'm guessing it makes a nice corrective to the time-honored "great man" approach that old-school Civil War historians reliably trot out, towards which my sociologically-trained brain is somewhat suspicious.

I think I'll put it, along with Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was About: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War - an examination of Union and Confederate soldiers' attitudes towards slavery as a cause of the war, as evidenced in their letters, diaries, and regimental newsletters - on a new summer reading list.

Better still, this would be the perfect opportunity to read the rest of Shelby Foote's military history (I've only read the one on the Siege of Vicksburg, which is probably grounds for familial excommunication, but there you go). I suspect the comparisons will be enlightening, to say the least.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What Do You Do With an Anorexic Eel and Other Quandaries: The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes

The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes: And Other Surprising Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients, edited by Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM

If you ever dreamed of being a veterinarian when you were little, chances are pretty good that you didn't think about restraining fractious tabbies or using a rectal thermometer on a gerbil or palpating an arthritic cocker spaniel. No, you probably imagined yourself living with the gorillas or swimming with the dolphins or shooting an anesthetic dart into the lion with the thorn in its paw.

One summer scooping kennel poop in a clinic is usually enough to steer all but the very hardcore away from the job. And even for those that decide to go through with it, the relative stability of a small animal clinic usually looks more appealing than the prospect of moving to Botswana, or of working insane hours with dangerous creatures in a zoo. But still, there are some who opt for these careers and the lifestyle that comes with it. And those are the vets writing about their experiences in The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes.

There's the vet who climbs into a habitat with a wide awake, unrestrained 17-foot crocodile for the express purpose of scraping off a few diseased scales. And there's the one who transports two full-grown whale sharks to Georgia from Taiwan, and another who tracks the nearly extinct Bactrian camel in the Gobi Desert.

Of course, not all of the stories are about exotic and rare animals. Many of the vets write about trying to do things that stretch the limits of medicine, as well as the imagination. Like, say, the difficulties associated with giving an octopus an MRI, or anesthetizing a poison dart frog.

I will warn you, a lot of the essays are pretty badly written, but I hesitate to fault the authors too much. After all, with most of their writing experience coming in report or academic journal form, it's unlikely that many have been asked to engage in much formal storytelling. However, the stories themselves are so fascinating that it's not that difficult to overlook the clumsy passages.

The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes is one of those potato chip books that you can dip into, and pick at to your heart's content. I found it to be excellent subway reading, and was happy to recommend it to my friend who's currently in vet school. She was quite excited about it, but then again, she spent last summer castrating bulls in Zimbabwe, and can probably relate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Weighing In On the Whole New Yorker Thing

Tons and tons of people have had their say about the satirical New Yorker cover, saying that it's racist or offensive, that it fueled popular misconceptions and flat-out untruths about the Obamas, that it didn't succeed as satire for any number of reasons, or that it did succeed as satire, and would everybody just shut up already.

So far, my favorite has been Carolyn Kellogg's post at Jacket Copy about all the fiction writers, poets, and journalists whose work this week will reach a wider audience than it otherwise would have.

As for me, I didn't care for the cover. Is it satire? Sure, mission accomplished, crystal clear. But New Yorker cartoons and covers always strike me as decidedly smug, humorless, unfunny, dull, and most of the time, irrelevant and dated.

Cartoons in the New Yorker are like the jokes your rich, yet progressive Baby Boomer uncle saves up to tell at Thanksgiving dinner, and he thinks he's being so outrageous and such a card, so everyone just has to humor him and chuckle politely because it's Thanksgiving, and it's an institution and no one wants to cause any unpleasantness. So you quietly turn to Dad for Current Affairs, or maybe to Cousin Margot for a little Fiction, but as soon as you do, your uncle is right there interrupting the story with another crummy joke.

Actually, I think the artwork might have worked as the cover of a whole bunch of other publications, but because it was on front of the New Yorker, it just took on some of that publication's smug, humorless, unfunny taint.

For me anyways. I loathe New Yorker cartoons.

Brady says it's because I don't get them. I say, are they not funny because I don't get them, or do I not get them because they're NOT FUNNY?

Context is important to consider, though. If this artwork had appeared on the cover of the National Review or The New American, I imagine the outcry would have had a slightly different flavor.

Or maybe the NYT is onto something when they say that, with the exception of Stephen Colbert, white comedians and political humorists simply haven't figured out how to make Obama funny yet.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Science With a Rock and Roll Heart: The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani

The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani

In her exceptionally candid, accessible, and fascinating book, Pisani talks about her work in the field as an epidemiologist, studying patterns of HIV infection in Indonesia, China, East Timor, and the Phillipines, and developing policies to combat it. The book is filled with conversations, both enlightening and troubling, with waria, heroin users, sex workers, and the employees of public health organizations, and ventures into methodone clinics, red light districts, and needle exchange programs.

But despite the diverse range of people and places Pisani comes into contact with, the book's most important idea is a simple one: outside of East and South Africa, most new HIV infections are contracted through the buying and selling of sex, unprotected, unlubricated anal sex, and the sharing of needles; however, most of the billions of dollars that governments and other organizations provide for prevention and treatment do little or nothing to target the groups most at risk.

Because, as Pisani puts it, there are no votes and no political goodwill to be gained by doing nice things for junkies, prostitutes, and gay men.

In the mid-1990s, money for HIV and AIDS research became plentiful, when it was feared that the disease would rampage through the general population (despite the fact that in most of the world, this wasn't the case). However, much of that money came, and continues to come, with strings attached. While Pisani lauds the Bush administration for actually putting the money on the table and persuading other governments to do the same, she is scornful of abstinence-only prevention programs and governments' refusals to fund needle exchange programs. In developing Christian and Muslim countries, it's much more difficult to achieve high levels of consistent condom use among at-risk populations because governments stand in the way.

She is equally frustrated by programs adopted to slow the transmission of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa that target the disease as a "development problem," focusing on gender inequality and poverty. In truth, she says, HIV in Africa is spread because most people aren't circumcised, older men have sexual relationships with young women, spreading the disease across generations, and people tend to have "nets" of sexual partners, rather than "strings." Many Christian African governments don't want to talk about these sexual behaviors, and other organizations believe these ideas to be racist; however, many programs currently in effect on the continent will do nothing to prevent people from dying of AIDS for the sake of religious and political ideology.

It's tempting to go on about more of Pisani's arguments and observations, but I'll save the rest of those for readers. Instead, I should probably mention Pisani's writing style, which may put off the prudish or those who believe these are issues that should be spoken of with grim faces and finger-wagging. She's frank, foul-mouthed, and sometimes, funny. Also, it's important to remember that Pisani is concerned with public health, which is more concerned with national and global patterns than in individual cases. At times, this may seem impersonal and callous, but Pisani is not. Her in-depth work with at-risk populations and her obvious compassion for the individuals she works with should make that much clear.

Pisani doesn't flinch, doesn't judge, and is passionate about the collection of good, reliable data and the use of HIV/AIDS funding where it will do the most good - she's a scientist with a rock and roll heart.

A Baseball Top 10 and Bottom 5

We here at the blog have been attending Dodgers games like mad this month, thanks to a massive sale on tickets. Seats that would ordinarily cost $30 were going for $6, so we took advantage. Baseball on tv is okay, but there's something about going in person... mostly good and a few bad.

Favorite things about baseball games:

1. Heckling
2. Base stealing
3. the Kiss Cam
4. Double plays
5. Dodger Dogs
6. Hero/villain players (the Nomar Garciaparra/Andruw Jones effect)
7. Watching pitchers bat
8. Odd facts learned about players on the Jumbotron (did you know that Paul Hoover is fluent in American Sign Language?)
9. High-fiving strangers
10. singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as loud and off-key as I can

Least favorite things about baseball games:

1. the Wave
2. People who get up in the middle of every inning to get food
3. Walks
4. Foul balls
(#3 and #4 tend to lead to increased instances of #1 and #2)
5. When the person who sings the National Anthem goes for the extra high note on "land of the free"

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Half a Review and Some Other Stuff: Who Hates Whom by Bob Harris

I'm feeling sort of obligated to post, on account of it's been nearly a week. And yet.

I have no books to review because I spent the past week re-reading World Without End, that big, fat medieval Ken Follett book, which I checked out from the library because I thought I'd be on jury duty (alas, summoned, but not called to serve).

On a second read, I noticed one annoying little thing. Follett has this habit of describing minor characters with a single distinctive trait (e.g. strapping arms, a rat-like face, a jolly bosom), and then mentioning that trait every single time the character appears in the book. In a 1000-page book, this begins to grate.

I'm currently reading Who Hate Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris, author of a book much-loved on the blog, Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Harris admits from the get-go that this is not the book he intended to write. He'd had something in mind along the lines of odd sports and recreation of the world, but his editor nixed it. Then he casually mentioned how useful he would find a book that explained "which parts of the planet are currently explosive and why," to which his editor said, "That's not a bad idea, actually."

And while the fact that this was not Harris's first choice for a book does come across a bit in the writing, it is proving to be an exceptionally handy little book. Harris is a smart dude, and very good at explaining complex things in succinct, funny, and brain-sticky ways without grossly oversimplifying things (and when he does, he's the first to announce "by the way, I'm grossly oversimplifying things here"... as the title of the book itself might suggest).

Between it and Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, I now understand the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan with far more sophistication than what was provided to me by the news I read and watched. And I haven't even gotten to the regions of the world that aren't in the news every day. What's going on in Liberia?

Soon, I will know.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Civilized Oddities

While I post the occasional link to Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities, I cannot urge you strongly enough to stick this link in your bookmarks, your Bloglines, your Google Reader, or just drop by every now and again. I promise you will not be disappointed.

It's the blog of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and the posts highlight interesting documents and artifacts from their collection, and nearly every one is my new favorite.

However, it may take some doing to top The Book of Accidents: Designed for Young Children (1831). Imagine a 19th century Edward Gorey without a sense of irony - I've never laughed so hard.

Hats off to Tim Young and Nancy Kuhl, curators of the blog (among other things), whose finds consistently delight and amaze.

Deja Vu All Over Again. And Again.

Yes, he *was* a crook.
I've had Richard Milhous Nixon on the brain lately, and that is no way to live. Between my dissertation and the research job I've taken for the summer, I see that jowly crook everywhere, which is why Kim McQuaid's The Anxious Years was such a pleasant surprise, being the fourth book concerning Watergate I've read in the last two weeks and a heck of a read at that.

Actually, McQuaid's book is about much more than Watergate. Starting with the Democratic Party's self-induced Vietnam meltdown and the string of assassinations of civil rights leaders and Kennedys in 1968, McQuaid shows how a combination of American hubris, institutional failure, and political fecklessness put the country in a mess that, the attentive reader will notice, has never really gone away. As the Vietnam War dragged on and the New Left imploded, McQuaid argues, Nixon and his cronies brought the lessons they learned in the foreign policy area into the domestic arena and voilĂ : guerrilla war becomes guerrilla politics.

(Seriously, read up on 1973. It will depress the hell out of you and feel shockingly familiar.)

While the academic in me would recommend the book for its trenchant analysis and thorough, yet concise, recounting of key events in the titular "anxious years," the reader (and rabble-rouser) in me has to mention the prose itself: McQuaid takes some deft and well-deserved potshots at American civil religion, which as often as not in recent years has been expressed as a peculiarly optimistic and aggressively xenophobic self-righteous nationalism. It's not quite a polemic, but McQuaid has some justifiable axe-grinding to do, and it makes for a fiery read. (Well, for a history professor it does.)

Consider, for instance, this passage regarding the prospect that (gasp!) we might not "win" Vietnam as easily and bloodlessly as we'd blithely assumed, relying on our technological might and American know-how and resolve to carry the day:

"What did American leaders intend to do if fortune was not with them, if victory was not as easy or automatic as almost all presumed it would be?. . .Should contingency plans be formulated for such a disengagement? All this would follow the common sense maxim that one who plans only for victories and never for defeats is either a raving optimist or a fool.
"Raving optimism and foolishness, however, it was. The Best and the Brightest trapped themselves in a war they could not win - on any limited basis that had any meaning - but which they also could "not afford to lose." Official Washington's bland assurance of victory was followed, all too predictably, by lavish anxieties about possible defeat. Defeat- what to do next if things went badly - had never been conceived of as a possibility by the upper reaches of the foreign-policy elite. Here, truly, was a price tag for the Arrogance of Power.
"By early 1968...the widespread sense of social emergency and panic that flowed from these misperceptions and unasked questions was a feverish factor in America's domestic and international affairs. Americans faced a profound shock to their sense of identity and self-esteem, to their view of themselves as citizens of a uniquely favored land that "had never lost a war," and to their belief that they and their leaders had the know-how and know-when to apply U.S. principles quickly, concisely, and compellingly throughout the world."
What can I say? I'm a sucker for good history with a populist bent. McQuaid combines a willingness to call shenanigans when he sees it with astute cultural and political analysis to produce a book that I found not only enlightening but fairly rage-inducing, given that nobody seems to have learned a damn thing.

PS: Also, the term "ratf**king"? Coined at USC (Go Trojans!) by a couple of Young Republicans to refer to their dirty tricks and student election fraud. One of them later wrote the Canuck Letter. Charming. Better still, that led to Edmund Muskie's famed "crying speech," which helped lose him the election. Muskie, of course, is all over my dissertation by way of his participation in the Hurricane Camille Relief and Recovery Senate hearings. It's all connected!