Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Mary Is Now +2 to Strike

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

I really loved this book. And if, like me, you don't read any fantasy except for the horribly obvious titles, this is not a half bad place to start, especially if you're on the lookout for Harry Potter methadone.

Despite not reading much fantasy I had certain, not entirely unfounded ideas about it -- books thick enough to stop bullets, populated with humorless muscle-bound D&D characters and serving wenches in leather bikinis wielding elven blades. Gag.

But not only can Scott Lynch pull together an ass-kicking and eminently charming Ocean's Eleven-esque plot, the man also appears to be a card-carrying feminist.*

Can anyone recommend more titles like this? Low magic fantasy with strong female characters, and more focus on the brains than the brawn? I'd be ever so grateful for your assistance in facilitating my transformation to Queen of the Geeks.
* Check out his post on the new Bond movie, reminding critics that before they get all misty-eyed about the franchise's return to Ian Fleming's Bond, they would do well to remember that Ian Fleming's Bond is a misogynist rat.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Funsies

Not since I got Myrna Loy in the Classic Dames Test have I been so pleased with the results of a personality quiz.

I'm Nicola Tesla! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt!
Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Leaving the Ivory Tower

If you'll allow me to deviate from our regularly-scheduled programming for just a moment, I'd like to point you towards this, the instant in which the rarefied world of Barthes and Bloom meets that of Brangelina and Benniffer:

Camille Paglia in US Weekly discussing Jennifer Aniston.

Now what I really want to know is: Just what does Stanley Fish think about Seth and Summer breaking up in real life?


Link via Defamer.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

$0.25 A Day, Plus Expenses

Brown Harvest by Jay Russell

The famous boy detective vowed he would never return home. But when his former partner and best friend is killed, he returns to Ideaville to find it very much changed from the idyllic small town of his youth. His father, Ideaville's former Chief of Police, is a gin-soaked laughingstock, software baron Roach Blackwell has the town under his thumb, and Ideaville is so corrupt that perhaps the only way to clean it up is to burn it down.

In this Encyclopedia Brown/Red Harvest mash-up, Russell is daring enough to pay obvious homage to everyone from the Boxcar Children to Cherry Ames to A Wrinkle in Time, and clever enough not to get sued.

The book is not without its problems. For one thing, it actually borders on being too explicit for my tastes. While I appreciate the archetypes of hardboiled fiction, and have made my peace with what that tends to mean for female characters, still, I don't relish finding a beloved fictional heroine from my childhood turned into a road whore. This is all made worse by the fact that the sex scenes read like X-Files fan fiction. Bad X-Files fan fiction.

Still, Brown Harvest is an inventive parody with unexpected twists and some fun shout-outs. If you like...: Confessions of a Teenage Sleuth by Chelsea Cain or this, this book is for you.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Stirring the Chicken Feed

Maybe Baby by Tenaya Darlington

A former boss from my circulation clerk days gave me the following advice on keeping book displays looking fresh and well-stocked: "Patrons are like chickens, and you have to keep stirring the feed so they'll peck at it." We recently bought a much-needed bookshelf, our biggest one having been loaded up with three rows of books on each shelf. Moving some of these to the new bookshelf was kind of like an archaeological dig, as I uncovered a lot of titles that I hadn't seen in over a year, including this sweet, quirky, and very funny book.

In it, a young couple finds themselves accidentally knocked up, and announces to the family their intention to raise a gender-neutral child -- no Tonka trucks, no Barbies, gray onesies, and the child's sex will only be revealed when the kid's five. Much to their surprise, everybody completely freaks out.

It's weird to think about - when someone's having a kid, they always say, "Oh, I don't care what I have as long as it's a healthy baby." Then immediately following its birth, a child's sex becomes incredibly important. It shouldn't matter if, at the grocery store, you mistake some stranger's baby boy for a baby girl. But I've done it before, and know the kind of sharp looks I got.

An old acquaintance of mine from Madison, Ms. Darlington was a journalist who would write these intensely personal, in-depth feature articles for the Isthmus, and you'd wonder, "how'd she get that interview out of them?" Her book has that same kind of attentiveness to the tiny details of human behavior, and as a result, stands out from your typical domestic Midwestern fiction. Fun stuff.

If you like...: Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler or the short stories of Judy Budnitz, this book is for you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It Makes Learning Fun!

First off, I want the world to know that the uber-literate proprietress of this blog is currently watching the America's Top Model finale and saying things like "CarrieDee's gonna lose; she's an actress, not a model."

Highbrow, I tells ya.

In that spirit, I bring you Shel Silverstein's Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Adults Only. I'd always heard Uncle Shelby didn't actually like small children very much, and that he hung out at the Playboy Mansion quite a bit when he wasn't writing A Light in the Attic or The Codependent Tree or whatever. Rereading the ABZ book, originally published in the pages of Playboy, it all makes sense.

What can I say about a book that ends by telling the young reader that the pages are really made of paper candy, one that points out that the fireman in his Red hat with his Red engine (all of which are super keen) only come to houses where there are fires?

Uncle Shelby really goes the extra mile here, writing not just a ribald or snarky primer but one that leaves him open for several wrongful death lawsuits. It has a coupon inside for a free pony, redeemable at your local grocer. In short, it's great fun, and giving it to a niece or nephew for Christmas will secure you "favored relative" status among your younger kin. Quicker, even, than teaching them swears or how to make sparkler bombs will.

I'll leave you with this quote, the last line of which has become an all-purpose consolation around our house.

"O is for Oz.
Do you want to visit the wonderful far-off land of oz where the wizard lives and scarecrows can dance and the road is made of yellow bricks and everything is emerald green?

Well, you can't because there is no land of Oz and there is no tin woodsman and THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!

Maybe someday you can go to Detroit."



PS: Oh, and CarrieDee just won. Shows what Mary knows.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

G.I.F.T. Challenge: 1 Naughty, 3 Nice

Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings has issued a Christmas challenge which I could not resist. A Yankee living in Los Angeles needs all the help she can get to fortify her Christmas spirit. The challenge is as follows: partake of 4 Christmas-type things, including movies, novels, short stories, poems, traditions, and memories, then post about them. Here's what I came up with:

1. Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
As a child, this Jim Henson Christmas special was one of my very favorites, but I only learned recently that it was actually adapted from a children's book by Russell Hoban, the man responsible for another of my childhood favorites, Frances the Badger. The illustrations are adorable with with the power of a thousand suns, and the story has a hint of Gift of the Magi about it, so all the elements of a perfect Christmas warm fuzzy are right here. Plus, the book contains the completely unexpected and awesome-for-grown-ups line: "We never had much even when Pa was alive, what with him being a traveling man."

2. "The Birds for Christmas" by Mark Richard (in Charity)
"Fuck Frosty," Michael Christian said to me. "I see that a hunrett times. I want to see "The Birds," man. I want to see those birds get all up in them people's hair. That's some real Christmas TV to me." This story of two hospitalized, abandoned, and unloved boys who want to watch a Hitchcock movie on Christmas Eve is a downer, but incredibly memorable and affecting.

3. "Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" by John Cheever (in The Collected Stories of John Cheever)
A story of Christmas hospitality gone horribly awry. I hadn't read this story in about ten years, and realize now that much as I like Cheever, his writing is better when it's about the disaffected and alienated upper classes.

4. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Several years ago, I went on a huge Truman Capote bender. Read every book and biography I could get my hands on. And as interesting as it was to read about his exclusive parties and hobnobbing with Manhattan socialites, I'm partial to little Truman's early years, when he lived in Monroeville, Alabama, raised by a flock of eccentric maiden aunts. Two of his best stories draw a little from this period of his life. One is "The Grass Harp," and the other is this one. A genuinely touching story about the friendship between a little boy and his elderly aunt.

Bonus: a family tradition since I was wee - the viewing of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott. Accept no substitutions.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

If Stephen King Says It's Creepy...

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I have a bad habit of judging a book by its author bio and photo.* So, when I picked up Sharp Objects, I thought, "Oh, a mystery novel by a young, attractive person who writes for Entertainment Weekly. This should be daffy fun." And that is how I learned a valuable lesson about rushing to judgment and underestimating an entertainment writer's capacity for darkness and depravity.

This book is not what it seems. On the surface, it is the story of a young reporter working for a crummy Chicago newspaper who returns to her hometown to cover the story of two little girls murdered there. Now, that is not even the half of it, but it's all I'm willing to say here because it is all too good and unexpected to be spoiled.

In his blurb for Sharp Objects, Stephen King writes, "I found myself dreading the last thirty pages or so but was helpless to stop turning them." This is currently where I am in the book, and feel pretty much the same way. Flynn's narrative voice is harsh, ugly, and completely merciless, yet somehow, this doesn't keep you from wanting to finish Sharp Objects in a single sitting.

If you liked...: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson or Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, this book is for you.
* Still, I stand by my assessment of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It wouldn't have made the slightest difference to me if Marissa Pessl was a pock-marked crone with a back hump. That book is just no darn good.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Go Buy Things

Everyone is already doing their Best of 2006 lists. I am waiting until mid-December, like a decent person would.

It is not too early, however, to do a holiday shopping guide, or to be more truthful, a list of things I want for myself. But surely something on this list will appeal to the book nerd in your life.

1. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris
Graceful entertaining with Amy Sedaris? That sounds like everything I want to be a part of.

2. Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman
Pricey. But so wonderfully, wonderfully pretty.

3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
One of those books I'd like to own, but since I've already read it, can never justify buying when I have some precious Borders money to blow on shiny new hardbacks.

4. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
The waiting list at my library is long for this one. And despite the fact that I work there, I've never been like those patrons who, puma-like, stalk the online catalog holdings as if they were a troop of well-fed Boy Scouts. As a result, I'm something like 112 on the list and I don't think I can wait that long.

5. No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory 1915-1935
There is a place in Los Angeles called The Museum of Jurassic Technology. It is the kind of museum where you might expect to see a narwhal skeleton or a man with a waxed mustache shouting, "For God's sake, man, cover the cage! There are women and children present!" Based on an exhibit here, this book contains letters from very sincere quacks about how they have uncovered the mysteries of the universe, and why the scientists must believe them.

The fate of the world may hang upon it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Awesome Blog

Via Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed), I found this, the blog-memoir of a woman who worked in the comics industry and barely got out intact.

The series of posts entitled "Goodbye to Comics" reveal a decent hunk of the comics industry to be as creepily hostile to women as you've always suspected.

Check it out - she's a great writer, and you will be so righteously pissed at those comic book guys who pretend to be feminists, but whose ideas about feminism are generally limited to ass-kicking babes who keep their mouths shut and do what they're told, like the one you see here.

Don't even get me started on the messed-up gender politics of Preacher.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Rake at the Gates of Hell

Hang out long enough in stores that sell Fantastic Four t-shirts and scale models of Hellboy's stone fist, and you'll likely hear the rallying cry of "Comics: Not Just For Kids Anymore!". What is usually meant by this is that there are works that cover serious themes in fairly "literary" ways; not everyone in a comic, in other words, has a cape, web-shooters, or adamantium claws. Books like Art Spiegelman's Maus or Craig Thompson's Blankets, two recurrent poster children for the "comics-are-high-art" camp, are often then held up as evidence of the aesthetic maturity of comics/comix/sequential art.

But there is another sense in which comics are not just for kids anymore: some parents might take it amiss if their kids read a series whose protagonist's defining moment involved botching an exorcism and condemning the soul of a little girl to an eternity of torment in Hell.

(He did try to pull her back out of the clutches of the damned and all, but he only managed to grab her arm. And it kind of...uh...came off.)

John Constantine: Hellblazer is a comic, but it's certainly not for little kids.* The title character, initially created by Alan Moore in the pages of Swamp Thing, is a working class mage, a kind of populist Merlin in a shabby trenchcoat with a penchant for lager and Silk Cuts by the carton, a hard-bitten cynic rooting through the ruins of Thatcher's England whose outlook on life would make Raymond Chandler blanch. He is not exactly a good person, but for fans of noir antiheros, he's an endlessly engaging character.**

In Mike Carey and Leonardo Manco's All His Engines - a standalone graphic novel published for the benefit of non-readers who saw and maybe liked the Keanu Reeves film adaptation (which you and I will just pretend didn't happen) - Constantine finds himself traveling from London to Los Angeles investigating a mysterious illness that's leaving people in comas in both cities. Sleazy Hollywood demons, Aztec death gods who have emigrated north with their followers' grandkids, and Constantine's long-suffering driver/best friend/muscle Chas all come together in a plot that finds Constantine out of his element and right in it at the same time, double-dealing with the forces of evil while learning the hard way that L.A. ain't London.

All His Engines is a good introduction to the larger series; it requires very little in the way of knowledge of the series' mythology or backstory and provides a guide to the collected editions that Vertigo has culled from the series, which now numbers in the 200s. It also hits its marks in such a way as to suggest what the broader Constantine narrative holds, without simply rehashing the older, now classic stories.

Finally, the art is damn creepy, doing what prose often can't in the horror genre: squicking one out without becoming overwrought in the depiction of viscera and gore. I'm thinking here of the scene in which John is sucked into the chest of a demon who's made his body out of cancer cells. Gah.

If you like...
Stephen King and Ray Chandler in equal measure, or Firefly's Captain Mal in his darker moments, this book is for you.


*I do have to admit, though, that sometimes I daydream about sending copies of Hellblazer to the children of the parents who are trying to ban Harry Potter, just to show them what they should be worrying about.

**On the one hand, he once tricked the devil into drinking holy water (in the form of a pint of Guinness) to save the soul of a buddy who'd sold it for the world's greatest collection of intoxicating potables. On the other hand, while John is smart and John is crafty, John is also prone to getting out of trouble by asking you to hold his place in the Infernal Beatings line for a minute or two while he nips out for another pack of smokes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

For Plain Grain Shed

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has digitized portions of the original manuscript for Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, aka the most awesome children's book ever written.

The exhibit also includes Raskin's working notes, which includes character clues, traits, and the Last Will and Testament of Samuel W. Westing. My day is so made.

(link via Oz and Ends)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

In The Value of X, Poppy Z. Brite shifted away from her usual horror turf, and introduced Rickey and G-Man, two New Orleans teenagers crazy in love with each other and with cooking.

In Liquor, the Lower Ninth Ward boys are all grown up, but still working as lowly line cooks in tourist traps and old man bars until they run into Lenny Duveteaux, a thinly veiled Emeril-type who wants to give them a shot. Rickey wants to start a restaurant where everything on the menu contains alcohol, a perfect fit for NoLa diners, and Lenny smells profit.

Improbable as it may be, watching Rickey and G-Man work up their menu, lease a space, and fool around in the test kitchen is addictive reading and a foodie's fantasy. Brite throws in a few side plots involving a gangland killing, a vengeful ex-boss, and a curmudgeon trying to stop the restaurant, but honestly, a few more pages spent the describing the prosciutto-wrapped figs marinated in Calvados would have been okay by me.

There is one big problem with Liquor, the problem being that Rickey and G-Man seem more like very good friends than lovers. Sure, they've been together for ten years and a life in the restaurant business doesn't exactly lend itself to quiet evenings snuggling on the sofa, but their relationship is virtually passionless. Even the Dewey subject heading in the book's library catalog record reads "Male Friendship - Fiction."

Brite has written two more books in this series, Prime and Soul Kitchen, the latter having been completed the night before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I'm looking forward to catching up in time for the next installment, and hope that I pick up Prime to find that the restaurant has done really well, and that Rickey and G-Man saved up some money and run off to Cabo for a couple weeks to rediscover their love.

If you like...: novels about New Orleans, liquor, and food, this book is for you. Total no-brainer.

Monday, November 13, 2006

December Boys Got It Bad

Alternative Atlanta by Marshall Boswell

Atlanta, 1996. Gerald Brinkman, grad school drop-out and music columnist for Alternative Atlanta, the free weekly paper, is a 30-year-old man-child with a crappy apartment, too many CDs, and a job that is cooler in theory than in practice.

At first, this seems like another story about a white boy who wakes up one day to realize that he has nothing but credit card debt and a string of bitter ex-girlfriends to show for his misspent youth. And this is where, plot-wise, a lot of writers would stop.

But there's more to Gerald's life than that. There's his friend, Nora, who may or may not have married disasterously, and who Gerald may or may not be completely over. And there's the possibility of a job at a high profile music magazine. And then there's Gerald's father, Paul, who shows up in Atlanta announcing that he's sold all his possessions and plans to move in for good.

Believe it or not, Gerald's relationships become much more complicated from here, in ways that are both surprising and emotionally gripping. Alternative Atlanta is much better than most "shiftless 20-something" books because in addition this emotional depth, it has characters that are richly drawn*, natural, effervescent dialogue, and an actual, honest-to-god plot. Who could ask for more?

If you like...: Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, or Curtis Sittenfeld, this book is for you. Also, Boswell's short story collection Trouble With Girls is a great read in the same vein.
* Though he only appears in three scenes, pot-smokin', bathrobe-wearin', sci-fi readin' grad student Jeff Flibula somehow became my third or fourth favorite character in the whole book.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Friendly Advice

1. When one funnels the traffic from two Southern California freeways into a single lane and closes off all possible detour routes, how many hours until the research subjects lose all hope and purposefully drive through guardrails?

Under the guise of "road construction," social psychologists have undertaken this experiment between Barstow and Los Angeles on the 15 South. In the name of all that is holy, stay away from there.

2. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl is much, much less good than you have been led to believe. Its stylistic conceits do not work. Its characterizations are flat and tiresome. Worst of all, it is as annoyingly precocious as a 4-year-old who attends private kindergarten and calls her parents by their first names.

I feel that the reviewers are held hostage on this one, for it was determined that this book would be a big friggin' deal and that Marisha Pessl would be the next Zadie Smith since before it was published. Still, they're trying to warn us, even if it means resorting to code.

Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times begins:

"Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated."

Roughly, this translates to:

"Maisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a fleshed-out creative writing assignment by an Ivy League-educated twenty-something who finished Infinite Jest, and understands IMPORTANT THINGS much better than you ever could."

I realize I am being way harsh. This is partly because it took me 2 hours to move 10 miles down the side of a mountain today. But it is mostly because I spent 2 months waiting on the library holds list for a book that was supposed to be good, and wanted to spare others my disappointment.

Recently, it was brought to my attention by my co-contributor that I am a "hater." I do not hate on things by nature. Moreover, I want to like young, innovative writers, but this plucky, perky, precocious thing is just not working for me. Can anyone out there recommend any "Bicentennial Baby" types who have not been contaminated by McSweeney's?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

For Your Post-Election Hangover

Watching the election night results come in used to be like Superbowl Sunday to me. Then I moved to Calfornia, where the propositions are invariably more interesting than the candidates, yet somehow, everybody from the Insurance Commissioner to the Green Party State Assembly candidate seems vaguely awash in corruption or minor sleaze. I remember the days when I could go down to my polling place at the Madison Public Library and vote for Russ Feingold. Those were simpler times.

But for those of you who live in more politically interesting areas than I do, and need another month or so to come down from the effects of that alternately sweet and bitter drug called democracy, here is some reading to round out the end of your year.

I felt no need to reinvent the wheel on political fiction book lists, as there are many fine ones out there on this subject. Here are two of the best:

Nancy Pearl's "The Best in Political Fiction" for NPR
Political Fiction on Overbooked

And some of the most interesting-looking political nonfiction to come out this year:

The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality by Nick Bryant
While something like 17,572 biographies of JFK were published in 2006, this one stands out from the pack by focusing on Kennedy's approach to civil rights, an approach that mainly entailed courting the black vote, then standing idly by.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg
Between the excerpt from this and that feature on grunge fundamentalists, Salon has been chilling me to the bone of late.

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America by Philip Jenkins
Everybody knows it - the 70s were a dark, ugly time. A look at how the hippies lost their idealism and became neo-cons terrified of everything from Communists to Satanic cults, this book seems wonderfully bleak and interesting.

Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction by David Kuo
Kuo came to work at Bush's controversial Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, convinced he could use his Christian faith to make a difference in how politics was done. This did not turn out to be the case. I saw an interview with Kuo on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and he was so darn sincere both about his belief in God and in the U.S. government that I can't even imagine what must have happened to break him.

Conservatize Me: How I Tried to Become a Righty with the Help of Richard Nixon, Sean Hannity, Toby Keith, and Beef Jerky by John Moe
Somehow, I doubt this book is anything approaching subtle. Still, its premise has that appealing Morgan Spurlock 30 Days vibe, rather than that annoying Morgan Spurlock Don't Eat This Book vibe.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

We Have Met the Spacemen, and They are Graduate Students

Hari Seldon is the Scotty of the social sciences: a science fiction character who embodies our particular brand of geek's idealized sense of self, the ultimate in wish fulfillment for the Chi-Square crowd. While Montgomery Scott taught the indoor children of the physics persuasion that sometimes the engineer saved the ship, got the girl, and beat the hell out of a bunch of Klingons who couldn't hold their liquor, with the Foundation series, Issac Asimov teaches us that we, the bastard children of Cassandra and Emil Durkheim, were right all along, and if everyone would listen to us, we could fix society.

And also: we would have spaceships and nuclear blasters.

Seldon is the inventor of "psychohistory" - a kind of demography/political sociology/ group psychology on an interplanetary scale that can predict the broad sweep of history with amazing accuracy. Crunching the numbers shows him that the Empire is about to collapse and galactic society is about to fall into a dark ages that will last 30,000 years. However, Seldon has also figured out how to shorten that interregnum to 1,000 years via subtly planning out the course of the future, and establishes a foundation of scholars on a tiny planet out in the galactic boonies to carry out "the Seldon Plan".*

Overall Seldon is more of a mythic figure than a protagonist per se and he may be a bit of a trickster, as it becomes more and more clear that he arguably set up a double-blind experiment where the outcome is the fate of humanity and the confederates are hard to tell from the dupes. The series follows several centuries of the Plan, and if anyone can be said to be the hero of the story arc it's the Seldon Foundation itself. Over the course of the series, several forces arise to challenge the Foundation, and not all of them were predicted by Seldon.

Of the books, my favorite are those that cover the early leaders of the Foundation, as they resort to ever-sneakier and more inventive diplomacy to take on interplanetary warlords, the remnants of the dying Empire, and internal political intrigue. Asimov also does a nice job keeping the characters engaging, which is very necessesary when one of the basic conceits of your story is that the mass actions of humanity render their individual choices and actions more or less irrelevant.**

Plus, at the end of each crisis the Foundation faces, a little Hari Seldon hologram pops up in their town hall and explains how he'd had all of this predicted with an alpha = .05, given that he set up the Foundation when, where, and how he did. The series eventually starts to exhibit diminishing returns, but I think it stays pretty solid all the way up to Foundation's Edge.

If you like...
States and Social Revolution by Theda Skocpol,***
Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse by Jared Diamond,****
those old Star Trek episodes where Kirk and the gang find some planet run by a computer, or an alien dressed up like a 19th century dandy, or the Romans or something,

These books are for you.

*In regards to the amazing predictive power and causal heft of Seldon's Plan, he's also kind of the Golden Fleece of sociology as well, but that's neither here nor there.
**The duality of structure, determinism vs. agency - does this sound familiar to anyone else?
*** Come to think of it, given the logic of the plot, admirers of Barrington Moore might like it more.
****This Jared is not, FYI, the Subway guy.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Murdered On the Interstate

Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer, America's Deadliest Serial Murderer by Ann Rule

I'd never read a true crime book before, and I settled on this one for two reasons. First, I wanted it to be an Ann Rule book, as she is the undisputed queen of the genre. She got her start writing for True Detective magazine, then worked her way up to a book deal about a series of killings in the Pacific Northwest. These murders were eventually linked to Ted Bundy who was, at the time Rule was researching the book, her co-worker at a suicide hotline. Now, I doubt that God routinely goes around telling people to become true crime writers. However, I think that having America's skeeviest serial killer buy you doughnuts is sort of equivalent to a burning bush or an angel who shows up in your bedroom.

Bundy was not Rule's only up close and creepy encounter with a murderer. In Green River, Running Red, Rule discovers that the Green River Killer came to her book signings on a fairly regular basis. I guess that's the downside of being a famous true crime writer. Every psychopath on the block wants you to write a book about them.

When I remembered the Neko Case song "Deep Red Bells" on Blacklisted, narrowing down which Ann Rule book to read was easy. Between 1982 and 1984, the Green River Killer committed most of the 48 murders for which he would eventually be convicted, and Case was a teenager living in Tacoma, Washington. In a recent interview with the A.V. Club, Case said:
"I remember I cried really hard when he got caught. It was opening up a chapter in my life. I grew up while he was killing women, and on the news, they never talked about them like they were women. They just called them 'prostitutes.' Myself and other little girls in my neighborhood didn't make that distinction; we thought the Green River Killer was going to kill us. We were scared of him. We'd go to school with steak knives in our pockets and stuff."

I think back to when I was a little kid, and we all lived in terror of the blue van that would surely pull up at our neighborhood playground and lure us into the windowless back with promises of candy if we were not unfailingly vigilant and watchful. Then I think about what growing up would have been like if my neighborhood had been stalked by a real menace instead of an urban legend. I can't imagine how scary that would have been.

Having now finished a true crime book, I don't think I'll be reading another one any time soon. They make me feel bad inside. Still Green River, Running Red is a well-written book and Rule pays careful attention to the victims' lives, depicting them as women, not prostitutes, and not bodies dumped in the woods. This is sort of dubious praise to give a book, but I realize it's not for everyone.

I also realize that I haven't said much about the book itself, but if you want to read it, Rule's narrative style actually works well if you're not familiar with how a case turns out. And if you want to know more about the Green River Killer without reading a depressing, scary book, here's a link to his Wikipedia entry.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chick Lit With a Body Count

Dead Clever
In Your Face by Scarlett Thomas

While Thomas would go on to write more ambitious books like The End of Mr. Y and PopCo, her first books were the three Lily Pascale mysteries (the third being Seaside, which I've not yet read), a quirkily charming series with a surprising amount of gore and depravity.

After dumping her vapid boyfriend and giving up on an unpromising acting career, Lily leaves London and moves back home with her mother to take a lecturing job at the local university.

Lily finds it a little odd that she's able to waltz into a position in the literature department with only a phone interview. Then she arrives at the school and finds that she's the third lecturer her classes have had in a term, and that a student on her roster recently showed up in the woods minus a head.

Then another of her students turns up dead behind a club - a drug overdose - except (yes, you guessed it) things don't add up. Lily's soon on the case.

While Dead Clever is a satisfying read, In Your Face is much better. Here, Lily receives a phone call from a former schoolmate with disturbing news. Jess, a freelance journalist, submits a piece on stalking to the women's tabloid, Smile! The day the magazine hits the newsstands, all three women featured in the article are savagely murdered in a spree killing. And when Lily gets to London, her friend is nowhere to be found.

Despite the gruesome crime, the Lily Pascale mysteries are of the cozy mystery variety. However, Thomas does some nice things with the conventions of the genre. She's excellent at setting up red herrings and surprise endings, and the crimes committed are bizarrely inventive. Thomas is a scarily smart and interesting writer, and her books just keep getting better - it's nifty to watch her hone her craft in these early works.

If you like your female sleuths a little younger and hipper than Agatha Raisin, or if you're looking for a chick lit heroine who is refreshingly uninterested in being fabulous, this book is for you.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Nature vs. Nurture: The Case of Courtney Love

Her Mother's Daughter: A Memoir of the Mother I Never Knew and of My Daughter, Courtney Love by Linda Carroll

Sometimes you feel like reading Crime and Punishment, and other times, you stumble upon a tell-all memoir by Courtney Love's mother and clear your schedule for the day.

Over the years, Courtney Love has said some pretty awful things about her mother, so it's understandable that the woman would want to tell her side of the story. Carroll was married three times before she was 30, and dragged her children from San Francisco to Oregon to New Zealand, and back again, creating what was surely an unstable and weird environment for them. As one of her marriages crumbled, she took in a foster child; then left him with another family in New Zealand. When they left the United States, Courtney was left with one of Linda's friends. And so on, and so forth... hippie parenting at its most permissive and most horrifying.

But while the evidence against her parenting style is pretty damning, Carroll is an extremely persuasive writer and manages to come out of the story without seeming like an irresponsible flake. What's more, as a memoirist, she's very fair, compassionate, and forgiving. Despite the fact that Carroll's father molested her and her mother unfailing introduced her as "my adopted daughter, Linda," her depictions of them are, shockingly enough, filled with understanding and even love.

And yes, there are many instances that show little Courtney to be a selfish, manipulative, and deceitful bad seed; however, Carroll balances these moments with many examples of Love's creativity, intelligence, and generosity.

Carroll's search for her birth mother, who turns out to be acclaimed children's writer Paula Fox, is crammed into the book's last few pages, and the account of Carroll's life after the family returns to New Zealand is rushed. Still, it's an absorbing memoir about a woman you can grudgingly respect, even as you thank God that she wasn't your mother.

If you like...: memoirs of godawful childhood like The Liar's Club by Mary Karr and Augusten Buroughs Running With Scissors, or about women who rise above their youthful indiscretions like Beverly Donofrio's Riding in Cars With Boys, this book is for you.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hail to the King, Baby

So. Here we are. Mary has decided to make me an official contributer.

She is smart, and she is well-read, but sometimes her judgement is lacking.

All kidding aside, I'm unduly excited about hitching a ride on this train, and I've worked up an extensive and (hopefully) interesting list of books to post on for starters, ranging from "Accessible Academia" to comics to more traditional novels to the sci-fi that Mary won't read (Hello, Heinlein!). But for my inaugural post, I've decided to range a little far afield of the type of book usually featured on This Book is For You, because that is how I roll.

Mary and I brought back a number of things from our honeymoon, which we spent in the U.K.: nifty Celtic knot cufflinks, fond memories of the night we spent in Chelsea toasting Joey Ramone in the King's Head and Eight Bells, and - for all I know - a nasty case of Mad Cow Disease that will probably crop up in the middle of my dissertation defense. But the most precious keepsake of those magical two weeks in which the webmistress and I traipsed hither and yon over the stomping grounds of Shakespeare, Hardy, and Coleridge is, in fact, Horrible Histories: Cruel Kings and Mean Queens by Terry Deary, illustrated by Martin Brown.

Part of a much larger series, written in order to get kids interested in history by focusing on the bizarre and the gross, CK&MQ has been an endless source of pleasure in the Potts/McCoy household. It is, quite possible, the greatest "I have ten minutes to kill and cannot go without some form of stimulation" book in the history of publishing. Need something to read during the commercial breaks of Veronica Mars? Check out the section on royal sporting habits. (Henry VIII got in a game of tennis while Anne Boleyn got the axe, as it turns out.) Can't fall asleep? Amuse yourself by matching popular nicknames to monarchs in one of the quizzes sprinkled throughout the book. (John I? Soft-sword. Apparently, he stank at war.)

It's laid out as a series of very short, abundantly illustrated chapters about each monarch, covering their "Claim to Fame," factoids both "Funny" and "Fantastic," and then capped with a "Did you know?" There are also various tangents interspersed throughout, and of these the bit on royal medicine - or what I like to call "Adventures in Bloodletting" - is my hands-down favorite. The writing is a strange cross between UK tabloid-speak and a textbook as written by a member of Monty Python, only a Python past their prime. Groaners abound, but on the other hand you do you get to enjoy all that swotty British slang.

It is by no means literature, and I understand the series has sparked some hand-wringing and at least one lawsuit back across the pond. (Note: the Scots do not take kindly to having their haggis mocked.) That said, having done a little research on the series for this post, it is my new mission in life to find a copy of the Civil War book they published.

If you like:
The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick
The Sun, or The News of the World
...this book is for you.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Making Some Changes

I am pleased to announce that Brady will be joining in the posting around here.

He's tired of writing his blog, and I'd like to update this one more frequently than I am able to on my own. Everybody wins.

But you, dear reader, are the biggest winner of all. Because not only is my mister a shrewd observer of things literary, he also reads all kinds of things that I don't.

Can't wait to see what he decides to write about first.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fat Books

In preparation for my recent camping trip to the Sequoia National Forest, I checked out some library books on the subject, mainly because I was sort of terrified of being devoured by a bear or a mountain lion.

One of the camping books I picked up from the library offered some unusual advice about reading in the wild. The authors suggested bringing along one really long book and burning pages as you read so you don't have to carry the weight of the book on your expedition. While the latter hunk of advice seemed extreme, not to mention distasteful, I was intrigued by the idea of bringing one big, fat book on the trip.

For the record, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is A-1, primo reading for a camping trip. It's about a man who finds himself in the middle of a war between the old gods carried over to the United States by immigrants and the newer, slicker American gods. And when you're on top of a mountain with no electricity, it is surprisingly easy to get behind the idea of Odin and Anansi running around wreaking havoc.

The fat books advice probably also applies to long plane rides, jury duty, road trips, and sick days. Here are a few others to look up, should you find yourself in any of these situations:

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Queenie Was a Blonde

The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, illustrated by Art Spiegelman

This dirty little poem about vaudeville types and their low-life friends boozing it up and falling into bed indiscriminately was banned in Boston after its initial publication in 1928, then faded into semi-obscurity. Art Spiegelman's delightfully saucy and wicked illustrations steal the show, but even on its own, the verse crackles with a glorious depravity:

"The party was getting under way
Stiffly, slowly.
The way they drank was unholy.
They hovered around the glass-filled tray
Like birds of prey.
White, intense;
With mask-like faces
Frozen in rigid, gay grimaces.
They chattered and laughed

They drank swiftly, as though they might
Drop dead before they were properly tight."

If you like...: the works of Edward Gorey, this book is for you.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Two Words: Vigilante Justice

Hell At the Breech by Tom Franklin

One night, Arch Bedsole, an aspiring politician from a tract of Alabama wasteland known as Mitcham Beat is gunned down. His cousin, Tooch, claims that with his last breath, Arch said the murder was committed by "folks from town." To avenge his cousin, Tooch rounds up a posse of men from the Beat, forcing them to sign an alliance in blood. Those who don't are lynched. Those who do are quickly whipped into a frenzy of greed and blood lust, more deadly than Clarke County's drunken, aging local sheriff can manage.

Franklin's novel is loosely based on true events, and his details of poor sharecropper life in the post-Reconstruction South are grisly and unforgettable. Life is cheap, murder is easy, and even the good guys don't come out clean in this gripping story of violence and mob mentality.

If you liked...: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or the Drive-By Trucker's backwoods feud song "Decoration Day," this book is for you.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

2 Cool 2 Be 4 Gotten: Part 2

The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer

For some reason, small children go crazy for wilderness survival stories. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Call It Courage, Hatchet, The Boxcar Children... it probably has something to do with stories like this taking place in a parentless world that doesn't go all Lord of the Flies-y. It's also interesting that stories like these (particularly the first three) can be so exciting when there's only one human character.

The Island Keeper is a terrific example of the genre that is usually overlooked, and I think, currently out of print. Rich, overweight, spoiled, and generally useless, Cleo runs away from home to escape her overbearing family and memories of her dead sister. Cheesy set-up, typical 80s kid lit trauma-drama, but it gets better.

There's supposed to be a cabin there. But when she arrives, she finds it's burned down. She stocks up on food from a camping store, but her supply is quickly ransacked by animals. Her canoe is destroyed, winter is coming, and suddenly, what started as a somewhat bratty adolescent rebellion becomes very high stakes.

Cleo's transformation is compelling, not only in the way she learns to fend for herself, but also in the way her relationship with nature changes as nature gets brutal. The Boxcar Children go back to being normal kids after their pine needle bed ordeal, but Cleo changes in some very serious ways that almost seem like they belong in a Rick Bass novel, not a children's book.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Suitable for Filming, But Not Filmed Yet

With the cost of living in Los Angeles being what it is, we are often forced to make our own fun here at the Potts/McCoy house. Sometimes we cook elaborate things or write or play Scrabble. And sometimes we have Craft Night.

Once, irritated by issues of co-opted "authenticity" in the art world, we invented an outsider artist named Caleb Doheny*. His seminal work, "Nehemiah 8:11," now serves as a book cover for my dictionary.

We also made a board game called Punk: The Game out of a cardboard box and some index cards. By role of the die, you become one of 6 punk band archetypes, and go on tour. Depending what cards you draw, you might get the clap, sell a bunch of t-shirts, or get in a fight with Richard Hell. Due to a completely unintentional, though seemingly genius, design flaw, it is almost impossible to finish the game with any money, although most players wind up in jail or the hospital at least once.

However, our traditional "quiet night at home" activity is the composition of the Top 5 list, a la High Fidelity. Last night's topic seemed semi-relevant for the blog, and since I'm between decent books right now, here's mine:

Top 5 Books That Should Be Adapted Into Film

5. the short stories of Tim Gautreaux (preferably done by Altman)
4. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle
3. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
2. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan
1. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Reading over this, I realize that the alleged "point" of this post did not exactly need the amount of lead-in I gave it. Still, I'm leaving it in. I hadn't thought about Punk: The Game in years, and now I kind of feel like playing it.
* Caleb Doheny is a painter and collage artist from West Virginia. He began creating art after his wife, running off one night to meet her lover, drowned in the river. Ever since, he has woken up each morning and painted a picture of her before making up a cooler of ham sandwiches, which he drives up to logging sites and sells to lumberjacks. This is how he makes money to buy his art supplies. His canvases are paper bags. Doheny's admirers include Sean Penn, Jennifer Aniston, and JT LeRoy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

She... Had To Leave... LOS ANGELES

Paint It Black by Janet Fitch

Unlike Fitch's last novel, White Oleander, it is unlikely that Paint It Black will be finding its way into Oprah's heart and onto the big screen. For one thing, it wouldn't make a very good movie. For another, it's the bleakest thing I've read all year, which is not to say that it's not also very good.

The book is set in the early 80s, right around the time that the L.A. punk scene was devolving into a skinhead jamboree. Josie Tyrell is a punk rock club rat who ekes out a living by modeling for artists and appearing in the occasional student film. She and her artist boyfriend, Michael, live in an idyllic little cottage in Echo Park, growing mint in the backyard and painting Parisian scenes on their bedroom walls. Very le vie Boheme. Except it's not.

Michael disappears at the beginning of the first chapter, and blows his brains out in a Twentynine Palms hotel room. Everything good we see about him comes from Josie's memories, as she cruises around Los Angeles in a vodka haze of grief to a soundtrack of the Germs, X, and Brahams.

Of course, Josie blames herself for not being able to save Michael. And on top of dealing with the overwhelming guilt, Josie has to contend with Michael's overbearing and unstable mother, Meredith, who blames her as well. A wealthy and accomplished concert pianist, Meredith is both diabolical and irresistible. One moment she's throttling Josie at her son's grave, the next, she's inviting her over for Christmas. Much as she hates Josie, the girl represents all of Michael that she has left and she's determined to pry out every detail.

At the same time, Josie needs Meredith's information, too. Meredith knew another side of Michael... the side who had private tutors, summered in San Tropez, and attended Harvard. As Josie learns more about her lover, and as more time passes, the flashbacks to their happy life become less happy. Fitch gradually teases out the events behind Michael's depression and suicide, but is subtle enough not to spell it all out.

If you liked...: Charles Baxter's crazy in love punk kids, Chloe and Oscar in The Feast of Love, Josie and Michael are the poison pill to their blissed-out, but similarly tragic story.

Also, if you enjoy books with a strong sense of place, you'll love traveling through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with Fitch. From flophouses on Franklin, to the ominous swank of the coyote-infested Hollywood Hills, the woman knows her backstreets like Phillip Marlowe.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Best Book I've Read This Year

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

Alice Butler has the enviable job of designing products for one of the world's largest toy companies, PopCo. She's designed kits called KidCracker, KidTec, and KidSpy, for kids who want to be code-breakers, detectives, and spies, respectively. PopCo is one of those "no-collar," ping pong table in the break room kind of workplaces, where the "creatives" are given time off to research ideas and paid monstrous wages to occasionally come up with something brilliant.

Alice is pulled away from her latest project to spend a few weeks in the country working with PopCo's best and brightest on designing some kind of killer app that appeals to teenage girls, a demographic with which the company has been bombing. Staff from every division from virtual worlds to plush toys come together for the project. As they engage in a variety of annoying marketing seminars and teambuilding exercises, Alice begins to realize that her job is less about creating interesting products than it is about successfully marketing them to children. Understandably, this creeps her out, as does the discovery that PopCo utilizes sweatshop labor and engages in outsourcing.

Throughout the book, Thomas works in a fascinating back story about Alice's childhood. Raised by her grandparents, one a cryptanalyst, the other a mathematician, Alice's early years are spent immersed in secret codes and axioms. Her grandfather is obsessed with cracking a particular coded message, possibly leading to treasure, that has stumped codebreakers for centuries. How Alice is drawn into this mystery, and how it links up with her work for the evil PopCo, is one of the most satisfyingly inventive plots I've ever read.

PopCo is one of those remarkable books that tricks you into learning about fifty things you'd never given much thought to before. You never realize in school how fascinating math is. What you get to do at the grammar school level amounts to plugging numbers into formulas without any consideration of the theory behind it (usually because your teachers don't understand any of it either).

When I was 17, I had a calculus teacher who could unfold a proof, and make it seem like a cross between a ballet and the best mystery novel ever. It was like I'd spent years missing out on the things math could do besides help with your taxes and balancing the checkbook. The way Thomas explains code and mathematical mysteries in PopCo makes me feel like I'm back in Mr. Taylor's class.

If you liked...: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Rich Behaving Badly

Gone With the Windsors by Laurie Graham

In 1936, King Edward VIII ticked off just about every member of the English aristocracy by abdicating his throne for the love of a twice-divorced American commoner, Wallis Simpson. She wasn't particulary attractive, young, wealthy, or pleasant, but she had something that turns a king's head - the ability to boss him around.

Gone With the Windsors is a fictionalized account of how Simpson got her man, and alienated a country in the process, told through the eyes of an old school pal, Maybelle Brumby.

After being widowed, the newly wealthy and delightfully dippy Maybelle moves to London to enjoy the hospitality of her sister, Violet. Violet promises her brushes with royalty and introductions to interesting men, but can't deliver anything more than a half-witted viscount and dull holidays in Scotland. Determined to get in with a more glamorous social set, Maybelle realigns her loyalties with some old acquaintances, including Wally.

Maybelle's diary entries follow Wally's deft social maneuvering into the inner circle of Britain's royalty, and eventually, into the bed of HRH Wales. The book starts off like a cross between Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice, but turns out to be a lot more fun - imagine the cast of Clueless transported to pre-war England.

The royal gossip makes for fun reading, but Graham also sneaks in some subtle commentary on the attitudes of England's upper class, many of whom spent these years receiving Christmas cards from Mussolini and making excuses for Hitler.

As a result of her cluelessness, Maybelle makes a number of poor financial and social decisions during her time spent with the royals, but she's so endearing and goofy that it's hard not to spend the book rooting for her.

If you liked...: Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis or Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Lunchtime Poll About... Lunch

Wanting to beef up my culinary arsenal, I checked out a few Food Network books from the library today. Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking either. Page after page of recipes like Seared Scallops with Bacon, Tarragon, and Lemon, Panini with Bresaola, Endive, and Provolone, and Pork Rib Roast with Cranberry-Apricot Stuffing.

As a rule of thumb, if you can't describe it in less than five words, it's going to taste like something you get at one of those mediocre, blandly hip bistros you wander into when you and your sweetie can't agree where you want to go out, and then you wind up spending too much money on wine and wishing you'd stayed home and gotten corn dogs instead. The more different the recipe names sound, the more they taste alike.

Really, everything I know about cooking I learned from about five really good cookbooks.

New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill
Why It's Aces: High-brow and low-brow cooking co-exist in perfect harmony; pre-recipe notes that contain both interesting stories and helpful tips; charming photos
Stand-out Recipes: Katherine Hepburn's Brownies; Lee's Cold Sesame Noodles; Angela Palladino's Meatballs

Bay Tables
Cooking with the Junior League of Mobile, AL, you can have your lunch and drink it, too. Not only do southern women know how to cook, they know how to have fun doing it. Simple, elegant recipes that you can throw together in about two seconds.
Stand-out Recipes: Mixed Berry French Toast; Jambalaya; Banana Cake

The Ethnic Vegetarian by Angela Shelf Medearis
Why It's Aces: Ahem, can you say low-fat, flavorful soul food? Also includes great African, Cajun, and Caribbean recipes.
Stand-out Recipes: Hoppin' John; Muffaletta

My other favorites that you can't actually buy anymore include Outer Banks Recipes from the Blue Point Bar and Grill, otherwise known as the cookbook that single-handedly introduced recreational bread-baking to the Potts/McCoy household. Rosemary Foccacia to die for, not to mention a fine New Brunswick stew. And then there's the Madison Public Library staff cookbook. Leave it to a bunch of hippie librarians to put together a cookbook that makes Moosewood look like McDonald's.

But who am I kidding? Without the red and white checked Betty Crocker cookbook in my mom's kitchen, I never would have baked my first snickerdoodle.

What are the cookbooks you're lost without?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lost in Translation

I went to see The Black Dahlia last night, and while it was a socially entertaining evening, I have to say that the movie itself was quite possibly the worst thing I have paid to see on the big screen since Spawn.

Sometimes, when you see a bad movie, you suffer alone. You spend your two hours* bashing your head against the back of the theatre seat and praying for it to be over. But sometimes you have a night like my experience at The Black Dahlia, where the entire audience turns on the film so completely that it seems as though it must have been planned in advance.

And that, my friends, is something to see.

It began during a scene when Scarlett Johansson appears at the top of a staircase in her underwear, scowling down at Josh Hartnett**. It was supposed to be dramatic, but the cut was so weird, and the expression on her face so goofy, that everybody in the audience just busted out laughing.

When Scarlett Johansson in her underwear elicits laughter, it's fair to say that your movie has problems.

From there on out, it was like we, as an audience, had forged some unwritten agreement that it was okay to call shenanigans on this crapper of a flick. We laughed in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. We yelled instructions to the characters onscreen. Some, including the gentleman seated next to me, voiced their displeasure loudly. His remark probably got a bigger laugh than anything that was intentionally written into the script.

People around the theatre were bashing their heads against the backs of their seats, praying for it to be over, but it was okay. Because we had spent $14 for our swanky Arclight seats, and we were all in this thing together.

As a sidenote, The Onion gave this thing a good review, lending credence to my long-standing theory that their film reviews should be lumped in with the satire section.

So yeah... don't go see this movie. Pick up James Ellroy's Dahlia instead. And if you've already seen Brian De Palma's monstrosity and need to calm down in a hurry, rent L.A. Confidential, watch until the giggling/rage subsides, repeat as needed.
* Who made the rule that all movies need to be at least 2 hours long? It's gotten out of control.
** This man is handsome, and his hard-boiled voiceovers in both Dahlia and Sin City are great. He has the face. He has the voice. Yet, something very, very important is missing.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Way Down in This Subbacultcha

Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz

I started listening to the Pixies around the same time I started listening to the Replacements, which is to say, about ten minutes after they broke up. From that point on, I've always felt that I missed out on quite a bit of rock and roll fun by not having been born about eight years earlier than I was. That, and say, maybe having grown up in Boston or Minneapolis instead of western Pennsylvania.

The time and place in which the Pixies found themselves was kind of an odd one, in good ways and bad. On the one hand, the music industry hadn't gotten completely disgusting yet. On the other, by making records in the years before grunge, the Pixies wound up in that thankless Velvet Underground role of influencing practically every decent band in the 90s, and making very little money while they were actually together.

Fool the World is most interesting when its subjects are talking about the Pixies' early years - how they met, the Boston scene, their first studio recordings, first European tour, etc. What's especially funny is how almost everyone interviewed, from tour managers to record label folks to studio engineers remarks upon what a "polite" and "normal" group of people they were. Kim Deal used to come to gigs straight from her office job and play songs like "Caribou" dressed like a secretary, and Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis) called everyone "sir."

The years leading up to the Pixies' break-up are pretty well documented and much speculated upon. In this book, it's all much less dramatic, which makes sense, because the story isn't that interesting. Bands break up all time, usually for about the same reason - it's not fun anymore. This part of the book is handled very matter-of-factly, and without any gossip or sensationalism. And finally, there's a nice section on the Pixies reunion tours and a "where are they now" chapter on all the folks who helped the band out over the years.

If you're a Pixies fan, this is a no-brainer, but if you like...: oral music histories like Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk or band biographies that are all about the music like Guided By Voices: A Brief History, this book is for you, too.
As a postscript, I tried to restrain myself, but my love of making Top Five lists is entirely too strong. Five best Pixies songs:

HM: Letter to Memphis, Monkey Gone to Heaven
5. Gouge Away
4. Holiday Song
3. Debaser
2. Dig for Fire
1. Bone Machine

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Run, Don't Walk

Pride of Baghdad written by Brian K. Vaughan
art by Niko Henrichon

After a 2003 bombing raid in Iraq, four lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. This book is about them, and it's great.

Vaughan's previous comics haven't shied away from sensitive issues, up to and including 9/11 (see Ex Machina). The problem that many writers have addressing hot button, polarizing issues is that they either bland it up with mushy platitudes that offend or please no one, or they sink their teeth so deeply into an ideology that it's hard to find the story behind the grand prouncements.

Vaughan's work doesn't have these problems. And needless to say, Pride of Baghdad is about a whole lot more than lions.

As added endorsement, let me add that this graphic novel was released today. At approximately 6:50pm, I was at Golden Apple Comics, having my copy signed by Brian K. Vaughan himself. By 8:45, I had finished it, and ran right over to the computer to write this.

If you liked...: WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely or Watership Down by Richard Adams, this book is for you.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rachel Cohn Is Cooler Than You

Shrimp by Rachel Cohn

In the beginning, there was S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, and lo, the teens were portrayed realistically, and the parents were ticked and the school boards were informed of their displeasure. And the teens did eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and learned that they were not alone in their dysfunction and ennui. And lo, it was pretty good.

But then something unfortunate happened. In the interest of creating realism, young adult fiction lost its way, and by the mid-80s, you couldn't swing a cat in the Waldenbooks without hitting a rack full of depressing trash filled with divorced parents, 13-year-old smack addicts, teen prostitutes, dead siblings, dead best friends, dead boyfriends, and dead ponies. My teen angst bullshit now has a body count, indeed.

In the past ten years, things have gotten a lot better and a lot less grim. One of my favorite authors who has had something to do with that is Rachel Cohn, who exploded on the scene in 2002 with Gingerbread, and has pretty much published two books a year ever since. Cohn's books teeter on the brink of self-conscious hipness, but manage to speak a language that resonates with teen readers. Additionally, Cohn does a good job of balancing ugly realism with the kind of escapist fantasy worlds that girls might actually want to inhabit.

In Gingerbread, our heroine Cyd Charisse has been expelled from boarding school and is back at home with her loathsome and loaded stepfather and mother, Sid and Nancy (no lie). She's a sullen, spoiled ingrate. But she's also dealing with some very bad, very serious stuff that her parents don't know about. On top of all that, she's been dumped by her surfer dude, coffee-slurpin', spiky haired soul mate, Shrimp. Fed up with her hellion antics, Sid and Nancy decide to send Cyd to NYC to spend a few weeks over the summer with her real dad. While she's there, Cyd Charisse meets her dad and half-siblings, learns about her complicated family history, and in the process, a great deal about herself.

This post has already dropped one Heathers reference, but here's another. Cyd Charisse's older half-brother plays in a band with his partner called My Dead Gay Son and runs a coffee shop where they have lunchtime polls with the regulars. I love this character so much I wish he were real.

Gingerbread is all about Cyd Charisse learning to deal with her family issues. Its sequel, Shrimp, is about Cyd figuring out what to do with the aforementioned soul mate as they start their senior year of high school and try to patch up their relationship. It also addresses another of Cyd's problems, the fact that she has no female friends other than an elderly nursing home resident named Sugar Pie. In the first book, Cyd learns how to be a daughter. In the second, she learns how to be a friend.

But, you know, without all that icky "I learned a valuable lesson about life" kind of tone to the writing.

If you like...: New Wave, punk rock, espresso, combat boots, and big cities on both coasts, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Whatever You Do, Don't Think of an Elephant

The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd is best known as a highly successful and influential graphic designer who has done book covers for everyone from David Sedaris to Donna Tartt to Haruki Murakami. If Chip Kidd does your book cover, it will a) look awesome, and b) probably result in you selling more books than you would have otherwise.

Then, just because he's a show-off, Mr. Kidd proceeded to write a book that has no business being as good as it is. The Cheese Monkeys had me at this sentence: "Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch that if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government."

Our narrator quickly falls in with a bad crowd, most notably one Ms. Himillsy Dodd, a kind of art school Holly Golightly, with whom everyone is in love. However, the book doesn't really kick in until second semester, when our narrator and his buddies find themselves enrolled in Introduction to Graphic Design with an eccentric and ill-tempered instructor named Winter Sorbeck. Class sessions with Winter are not quite standard for an Eisenhower-era state university (imagine Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets' Society with a penchant for cheap booze and verbally abusing students).

For one class assignment, Winter tells the kiddies to design a sign that would get them picked up by a passing car if they were stranded miles from campus in the middle of winter. Then he packs them up into a bus with their signs and strands them miles from campus in the middle of winter.

The book turns a little ugly at the end, but class assignments are so much fun to read, you almost wish the book consisted of nothing but various scenes of Winter tormenting his students with madcap graphic design problems. There are two kinds of college art/drama/creative writing classes: the ones where the professor gives everyone A's for showing up and not eating the paste, and the ones where everyone sits around after class pulling at their hair, chain smoking, and asking, "for the love of God, what does the woman WANT from us?"

Some art is definitely good, some is definitely bad, and some is just a matter of opinion. And watching a bunch of students try to figure out what's good this semester (e.g. "throw in some unresolved ambiguous sexuality," "do the sleepwalking scene like a drug-addled 50s housewife with a Southern accent," or "glue some coffee grounds on it and call it 'mixed media'") is always fun to watch.

If you liked...: Dan Clowes' Art School Confidential (comic or film), this book is for you.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Kids Are Not Alright

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

I reviewed this for PopMatters earlier this week, but wanted to mention it here since I know one or two readers of this blog are huge Pledged fans.

You might wonder if nervous, panicky, grade-obsessed high school kids could be even half as interesting as drunk, promiscuous sorority girls, but believe it or not, they are more so. As much as I liked Pledged, I've got to say, this book is a little bit better.

And it's every bit as sad. Even though the kids go to an exceptionally good public school and have quite a few life advantages and opportunities (internships at the NIH and the Supreme Court, computers at home, supportive parents), they're broken little people. Most of the kids have been programmed to believe that unless they go to an Ivy League, they might as well be dead. They throw themselves into their extracurricular activities and studies with a dutiful joylessness. No one really seems to have genuine interests or a love of learning - it's all about impressing the admissions staff at Stanford.

Despite all of this, the kids that Robbins studies are quite likeable and sympathetic, and because she follows them around for an entire school year conducting in-depth interviews, you get to know them pretty well. You wish them well. But mostly, you just wish they'd loosen up and enjoy being young.

It's a mighty thick book, but very accessible and a page-turner besides. Aside from that, I learned a lot of very illuminating things about standardized tests, college admissions, and how college rankings are tabulated. Really, kids should throw out their U.S. News & World Report rankings and use a more humane source like Colleges That Change Lives (where, I am pleased to say, my own alma mater receives a very nice little write-up).

Robbins says that students should be encouraged to find a school that fits them, rather than contorting themselves to fit a school. Sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised.