Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prayer Pimples for Hairy Fishnuts?

So here I sit, hiding from my colleagues, because the second to last "Opus" got me choked up and weepy. And now my eyes are all red and I'm dreading someone walking in and asking me what's up, to which I will have to reply, "I just saw the Starship Enterpoop, and the two hours I spent every Christmas Eve from ages 9-12 reading old Bloom County books by the wall heater before finally falling asleep came rushing back at me like a damn freight train."

(Why yes, as a child I slept with a stuffed Opus instead of a teddy bear. Didn't everybody?)

I don't think Breathed is going where it looks like he's going with this - and if he does go that route, I'm sure it will be excellent, in a heart-rending kind of way.

Or, rather, I think I know where Opus will end up, I'm just not sure how he's going to get there.

What I do know is that Opus seems to be stuck in an animal shelter at the moment, and I will probably spend some time this Sunday reading old my old Bloom County books either way. And possibly sobbing like a small child with a skint knee.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Eatin': A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis

A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis

Davis's first novel about a teenage girl with culinary aspirations is as warm, sweet, and comforting as a piece of homemade gingerbread.

Okay, that was a cheesy way to begin this, but after reading the wonderful A La Carte, I've got food on the brain, and anyways, it's true.

Lainey isn't a unique YA protagonist because she has ambitious goals for herself, or even because her dream of being a chef with her own vegetarian cooking show is so unusual (as Lainey says at the beginning of the book, "Do you know how many African-American female chefs there aren't?"), but because she's so clearly well-suited for and up to the challenge.

Her mother is a chef-partner at a local soul food-French/Asian fusion restaurant, and Lainey spends a lot of time there, whipping egg whites, chopping onions, and slowly but surely, earning her right to saute with the big dogs. And when she's not there, chances are good that she's at home testing out a recipe for vegetable latkes or poring over her old Julia Child videos (Saint Julia, Lainey calls her).

Of course, Lainey's dreams have come at a price - she's almost totally isolated from anyone her own age, and her only friend is the hot-and-cold Simeon, who only seems to come around when he needs a favor. With anyone else, Lainey is prickly and stand-offish, but she finds herself completely helpless to resist the charms of her childhood friend. And as Simeon's requests become increasingly erratic and more troubling, Lainey finds herself driven away from the people in her life who truly care about her. Though Lainey's self-imposed desert island and her doormat behavior where Simeon is concerned are frustrating, these things also make her a believable character readers can truly root for.

And did I mention the food? Each chapter ends with a recipe, each of them more delicious-sounding than the last. And these aren't the kind of glorified nachos, mini-pizzas, and brownies recipes that usually bloat the pages of cookbooks for teens. They're challenging, "think like a chef," a la Tom Colicchio, recipes that invite experimentation and improvisation, and yet they're also perfectly within the range of a curious young cook. And what's more, they're healthy, vegetarian, and not from a box.

A La Carte is a terrific read, and was recently nominated for a Cybil for Best Young Adult Novel. Well deserved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

News Flash: LAT Readers Deserve Better

When the Los Angeles Times cut its standalone Sunday book review, I was annoyed. When the Business and Real Estate sections were whittled to pale imitations of their former selves, I was confused. When scores of talented staffers and editors were laid off or offered buyouts, forcing the paper to operate on a skeleton crew, I was furious.

And now they've gone and uglied up the layout something fierce, and I've just about given up caring.

Many Angelenos angrier and better-informed than I have voiced their complaints about Sam Zell and his shameful gutting of our city's once-great paper. So never mind about the fact that I now get my book news from blogs, and preferred the New York Times's coverage of the Dodgers' postseason (and never mind that sports columnist Bill Plaschke has decided to "boycott" the World Series for reasons both mysterious and profoundly stupid - whatever).

At the heart of this is that the Los Angeles Times was one of the things that made me excited about moving to the city almost four years ago. I started reading it before the move, right around the time of the paper's Pulitzer-winning coverage about deplorable conditions at King/Drew Hospital.

I read that series and thought, that's good reporting, that's a newspaper I'll be proud to read.

And now, it isn't.

Also, it's really, really thin these days.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

At-Bat Music: A Moral Question

So, during the odious Game 5 of the NLCS in which our beloved Dodgers had their clocks collectively cleaned, we did find a moment to remark on Casey Blake's choice of at-bat music, as the Bearded One seemed to have selected some sort of emo rocker tune.

This was odd. More research was needed.

But fortunately, an enterprising soul has put together a list of off-beat at-bat music selections throughout MLB. And boy, oh boy, there are some doozies there.

For starters, since it was him that inspired me to track this down: Casey? The Killers? Really?

However, this was not the most egregious song choice on the list. Anyone who gets pumped up by the musical stylings of Creed or Collective Soul does not deserve to have music in their lives. Tom Glavine and Manny Delcarmen, I'm talking to you. And AJ Burnett, "Hangin' Tough?" Are you a 13-year-old girl circa 1990?

But there are some choice selections. Jeremy Sowers of the Cleveland Indians favors the Wilco tune, "Pot Kettle Black," Rich Aurilia of the Giants likes "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," and Jimmy Gobble of the Kansas City Royals has selected "Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle.

However, the best song on the list by far goes to Jed Lowrie of the Boston Red Sox, and it causes me pain to say something nice about the Red Sox, but when your at-bat music is "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones, all I can say is, sir, you win the prize for being cool.

As for myself, I've given the matter a lot of thought, and if, after the apocalypse, I find myself somehow qualified to play on a Major League team, my at-bat music would be "Wreck My Flow" by The Dirtbombs.

Also, "Debaser" would be cool.

So, what's your at-bat music?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Road to Anaheim: Orange County: A Personal History by Gustavo Arellano

Orange County: A Personal History by Gustavo Arellano

There's a very significant difference between me, a blandly white mutt of German and Scotch-Irish heritage, and Gustavo Arellano, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant: his family has been in the United States longer than mine has.

And while our forefathers took similarly miserable jobs, mine working in coal mines and steel mills, his picking oranges and packing tomatoes, so that their children could someday go to college and get cushy professional jobs, there's another major difference.

Nobody ever called me names, blamed me for ruining America, or tried to legislate my family out of the country. My family is American, but in the eyes of many, Arellano's isn't.

Of course, this is beyond nutso, but then again, fate would lead Arellano's family to Orange County, one of the more nutso pieces of real estate in the United States, a nest of right-wing conspicuous consumers who love the Lord, but hate the immigrants - the land of Nixon, Minutemen, and Tammy Faye Bakker.

What made Orange County this way? It's perhaps too big a question for one book, so Arellano helpfully gives us two in Orange County: A Personal History. The first story is an irreverent, mightily refreshing history of Orange County that stands in stark contrast to most of the dry, whitewashed local histories of the region. Arellano tracks the settling of Orange County from its mission and orange grove days to the massive postwar migration, and then traces all its present-day conservatism, fundamentalism, isolationism, and racism right back to its roots. In his hands, Orange County is wittily dissected as postsuburbia, the Ellis Island of the 21st century, and "a petri dish for America's continuing democratic experiment."

But the second story, told in alternating chapters, is the story of the Arellanos in America, from his great-grandfather, chased out of town by a herd of potato-slinging youths to the author himself, and his transformation from geeky OC pocho to politically-conscious and sometimes controversial author of the syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican!"

Arellano is heartbreaking, sometimes cruel, and not always easy to read when talking about his parents' limited education ("I don't want to be like you and my mom, Papi"), his father's alcoholism during his early childhood, and the typical callousness of adolescence (none of the Arellano kids went to, or much cared about their father's citizenship ceremony). But it's all in the spirit of that all-too-rare a thing, thoughtful reflection on the past and the truthful memoir. And despite the distance he's travelled from his family's roots, it's also clear that Arellano takes a great deal of pride in their journey from the rural village of El Cargadero to Anaheim.

One small bone to pick, however. Though Arellano admits he's been called immature, perhaps a bit the result of sharing a bunk bed with his younger brother until well into his 20s, there are times when he describes women that I want to roll my eyes, and perhaps toss him into an ice bath or whack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. When a woman tells you she's not particularly fond of your column, it's probably not okay to write in your book, "Chula, I wasn't too fond of the spare tire around your midsection," nor to discuss a girl by saying, "Then I actually met her - I'm not going to describe the gal since she's very much a sweetheart, but let's just say she wasn't my type," nor to describe a crush as possessing "hips that moved like hydraulics." Sort of icky.

That tiny bit aside, I adored every minute of the book, as I do just about anything that Arellano writes. You'll have fun, you'll learn something, and if you're a pinche gabacho, you may just come a step or two closer to understanding why we as a nation need to stomp out this nastiness about immigration once and for all.

As Arellano says:

"As Orange County goes, so goes my family, and as my family has traversed through a century or assimilation and resistance, so will the United States - not the easiest of transitions, but always moving forward. Toward the fruit of knowledge - not an apple, but an orange. Picked by a Mexican, of course."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spy on the Luce: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant

To begin, let me just say that I am sapped, utterly sapped, after watching the Dodgers lose game 4 of the NCLS in the most heartbreaking manner possible. If I'd turned off my television/radio combo (Vin Scully on the radio, Fox announcers on mute) after the sixth inning, I'd honestly say it was one of the best ball games I'd ever seen. But then, it all just went to pot, and I am totally pinning this loss on Joe Torre, who pulled the smokin' Hong-Chih Kuo for absolutely no good reason.

Now that is off my chest, I am going to put on a brave face, and talk about this lovely book.

Roald Dahl wrote extensively about his wartime experiences, especially considering that he was invalided out of the RAF very early in World War II and saw little combat. However, it was in Washington, D.C., where Dahl was stationed as an attache for the British Embassy, that his writing career got its start.

Dahl hated the Embassy, hated the work, and hated his boss, the British pastoral relic, Lord Halifax. However, he quickly discovered that he liked the United States a great deal, and quickly began to move in powerful and influential circles thanks to his new-found mentor, the newspaper magnate Charles Marsh. As Dahl was a newly published writer, and cut a fine figure in his RAF uniform, he found himself in a position to befriend a variety of Washington insiders.

This brought him to the attention of William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, director of Britain's shadow embassy, the British Security Coordination (BSC). Since 1940, Stephenson had engaged a number of British agents inside the United States in an effort to encourage U.S. involvement in the war both by disseminating propaganda to foster sympathy for the British plight, and to discredit prominent isolationists like paranoid Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Dahl came on board with the BSC around 1943, its most important work had already been accomplished. Still, alongside agents who included Ian Fleming, David Ogilve, and Noel Coward, Dahl managed to make a mark. He befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace, among others, and in fact, lost the very first paycheck he ever earned from a story in a poker game with Harry Truman.

In addition to Dahl's powerful friends, the BSC was not above extracting intelligence through some good old-fashioned pillow talk, and set Dahl's dashing good looks to the task of seducing isolationist Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce (whose name I always enjoy saying in the voice of Mr. Burns).

Reporting back to base on that affair, an apparently exhausted Dahl complained, "That goddam woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddam nights." Quite reasonably, his superiors told him to lie back and think of England.

It's bits like these (and there are plenty of them) that make The Irregulars such a delight to read. Conant manages both a thorough and complex narrative of wartime Washington, and a wicked, gossipy scandal sheet of social gaffes and misdeeds.

It's awfully interesting, and awfully fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Speaking of Poetry and Baseball. . .

John Newbery's 1744 children's book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer, reminds us that B is, of course, for Baseball.*

And maybe it's just because I've been reading Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism, but the "moral" linking British mercantilism to base running is cracking me up something fierce.


*Also, recall the wisdom of Uncle Shelby: "X is for xylophone, because X is always for xylophone."

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Extemporaneous Poetry of Vin Scully

We've been slack of late, I know. The reason? The Dodgers.

Apropos of the playoffs, the other night Mary and I were discussing whose jersey we would purchase, were we so inclined (and moneyed - those things are like 200 bucks, and that's cash that could be better spent on tickets). Mary was leaning towards Garciaparra - a classy guy, indeed - but there's only one name I'd want on mine: Scully. He is, after all, the poet laureate of baseball and one of the patron saints of this blog.

Seriously, imagine for a moment the yarns that would be spun at a dinner party made up of Vin Scully, Eugene Walter, Everette Maddox, and Elaine Dundy. The mind boggles.

Some might deride ol' Vin for rambling on at times, being too "flowery", or talking too much.

Heathens, all.

Consider this, from the third and final game against the Cubs last week:

(transcript via LAist - we were too busy gnawing our fingernails off to take such good notes)

"And the Dodgers are one out away. One sweet beautiful marvelous out away. They will take it any way shape or form. Strike out, ground ball, fly ball, fair ball, line drive, any way they can get their hands on it. That precious thing called the final out.

Broxton delivers, swung on and missed. And now it’s not one sweet precious out, it’s one sweet precious pitch. Listen to this crowd.

No balls and two strikes to Soriano. Broxton ready. Half swing strike three called and the Cubs are dead! [...]

And as the Dodgers mob each other traditionally out in front of the mound, the lost Cubs - a lot of them, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee - sitting motionless in the dugout, just staring like kids outside a candy store or like the uninvited to the party. Just staring, waiting, watching, knowing there’s nothing left but go back to the dressing room and fly back to a disappointed Chicago."

I swear, the man's voice is a time machine that takes me back to the years before steroids, ridiculous salaries, and the @)#&^% designated hitter.

So in the spirit of October goodness, here's Vin Scully's play-by-play for Sandy Koufax's perfect game in 1965 against the Cubs.

And better still, here's audio of Vin calling Hammerin' Hank Aaron's big hit - he starts at about 54 seconds in, after two lesser broadcasters whoop it up for a bit.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

No Doubt About It

Apparently, today is going to be a day where I write about everything except books.

I just heard that Lanny Frattare, the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates for 33 years, is retiring.

Frattare is a big part of the reason I'm a baseball fan today, partly because I used to listen to him on the radio, and partly because he signed a baseball for me.

But mostly, it's because he was once very nice to my mom. I wrote that story down about a year ago, and you can read it here.

The Potluck Foods of Civic Engagement

Tonight, Brady and I are going to watch the vice-presidential debates with some friends. This got me thinking about the debates of my youth. Bush and Ferraro, Quayle and Bentson, and my favorite in 1992: Quayle, Gore, and some other guy... I think it was Phil Hartman:

So, I wanted to bring some snacks for tonight, and all this thinking about those other debates made me realize that these snacks absolutely had to be deviled eggs and that vegetable pizza you make with crescent roll dough and cream cheese.

Two loose cannons, a live broadcast, and 80s food. I can't think of any other way I'd rather spend my evening.