Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Week of Southern Lit, Part 2

Welding With Children by Tim Gautreaux

Big Bad Love by Larry Brown

The writings of Tim Gautreaux and the late Larry Brown are not so different on the surface - both write about the day-to-day struggles of lower and working class Southerners, both write with humor that is dry and wry, and both seem to view the writerly world of retreats, fellowships, conferences, and readings as one big circle jerk.

The major difference is that Gautreaux's stories leave you believing that humanity is basically decent and capable of redemption, and that even if you're a complete fuck-up there's a social network in place that will either save you from yourself or prevent you from hurting anyone else too much.

He once said, "No story is interesting unless it deals with matters of values. Or else you end up with nothing but a slew of New Yorker stories, all nihilism and meaningless pauses."

On the other hand, after reading Larry Brown, you will believe that all people are only about two paychecks and a failed relationship away from being capable of pretty much anything.

Larry Brown once said that after a year in therapy, his shrink told him, "Maybe life isn't for everyone."

If you like Larry Brown, you might find Tim Gautreaux sentimental, and if you like Gautreaux, you might find Brown's work to be sloppy and misanthropic. I love them both, and find myself returning to their stories whenever I'm in the mood for reading, but nothing on my bookshelf looks good.

If you like...: Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, or The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, one (or both) of these books are for you.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Week of Southern Lit, Part 1

The Last Girls by Lee Smith

The Goods: At one point in this book, a character remarks that there are really only two stories in all of literature: "someone goes on a trip," and "a stranger comes to town."* This book is both. First, it's the story of four middle-aged women, former college roommates, who reunite for a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi to scatter the ashes of their friend, Baby (who dies under mysterious circumstances). Interspersed are flashbacks to their college days, when they made a similar trip down the Mississippi by raft, Huck Finn-style, and the way their lives were changed when they meet Baby, a wild, beautiful, and unstable girl.

Thoughts: During the short track speed skating races last night, an announcer said of 1000m bronze medalist Yang Yang, she's probably the 10th fastest woman in this race, but because she's a smart and experienced skater, she took third. Lee Smith is a lot like that. There are better writers than Lee Smith, but she writes better books than most of them: sympathetic and rich characters, clean narrative style, page-turning plots, and no stylistic tricks cluttering the thing up.

Just a good old-fashioned story about the last group of women to go through college in the pre-women's movement years - the last 'girls' - and what became of them.

If you liked...: July, July by Tim O'Brien, The Group by Mary McCarthy, or Uncommon Women by Wendy Wasserstein, this book is for you.
* I actually tested this theory out on my bookshelf - it holds up remarkably well.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Con Safos

Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. by Luis J. Rodriguez

The Goods: Part memoir of the Mexican immigrant experience, part gangland horror story, part cautionary tale, and part bildungsroman of a Chicano activist, this book does many things and does them well. After moving to Los Angeles, Rodriguez's family eventually settled in a barrio community in East L.A., where the schools' solutions to Spanish-speaking students was either to ignore them or place them in special education classes. In middle school, his innocent schoolboy clique is absorbed by an established gang, and Rodriguez becomes a member of Lomas's Animal Tribe. As the book focuses on Rodriguez's high school years, it also focuses on the tension between the two Luises. One is a gangbanger, the other tries out for school mascot and is active in his school's Chicano student association, organizing walk-outs and protests. Eventually, Rodriguez leaves gang life behind, which is not to say that the book's ending is anything approaching happy.

Thoughts: Rodriguez writes of his childhood in East L.A. with both lyrical romanticism and righteous anger. Los Angeles is beautiful and Los Angeles is full of the worst kinds of ugliness, and although 30 years has passed since the events of Always Running, not enough has changed.

If you like...: Complex nonfiction about gang life like 8 Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangs by Gini Sikes or The Killing Season by Miles Corwin, an equally complex look at gang violence from the POV of Los Angeles homicide detectives, or if you like novels about Mexican American families like Face of an Angel by Denise Chavez or Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, this book is for you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sex Ed

Before Bust magazine's "One-Handed Read," we had this.

In the age of abstinence-only education, recreational reading is more important than ever before. And anyone who ever crouched in the back corner of the public library reading the dirty bits out of Judy Blume books knows what I'm talking about. And anyone who ever found Peyton Place tucked on the family bookshelf knows it, too.

Pick any two hormone-riddled adolescents, and plop one down in front of books like The Group by Mary McCarthy and Ken Follett novels and the other in front of Girls Gone Wild, and I guarantee you, every single time, the pervy reader will come out more well-adjusted.

It doesn't have to be good. There's just something to be said for using your imagination.

Teachers, parents, church leaders: In 1943, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was published, and tucked within this classic tale of a shy girl raised by a scrubwoman and an alcoholic are some of the best-reasoned arguments both for and against premarital sex that you could throw at a young teenager.

Even then, Betty Smith was better-prepared to speak frankly and honestly to your children about sex than you are today.


Monday, February 20, 2006

People Who Died

On this day in 1967, Kurt Cobain was born. Based on my age demographic, Nirvana should have been a very important part of my life when I was 16, but like The Beatles, they're just one of those seminal bands that I don't like for a variety of non-specific reasons. That said, I'm crazy about the Charles Cross's biography of Kurt, Heavier Than Heaven. Biographies of musicians are an odd beast because if you like the band, it doesn't really matter if the book's all that great, and if the book's great, it doesn't really matter if you don't like the band.

So, I had that thought, and then I talked to a friend who'd just finished reading the biography of the New York Dolls, then I listened to the Drive-By Truckers cover of "People Who Died," and I figured that God must be telling me to make a list.

Allman Brothers (Duane Allman and Berry Oakley): Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band by Scott Freeman

D. Boon, Bob Stinson: Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad

Tim & Jeff Buckley: Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne

Sam Cooke: You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke by Daniel J. Wolff, S.R. Crain, Clifton White, and J. David Tenenbaum

Darby Crash: Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs by Brendan Mullen

Ian Curtis: Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis

Nick Drake: Nick Drake: The Biography by Patrick Humphries

Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man: Life and Death of Marvin Gaye by Steve Turner

Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens: The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens by Larry Lehmer

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock by Gene Odom

Freddie Mercury: Freddie Mercury by Peter Freestone

New York Dolls (Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane): Too Much Too Soon: The New York Dolls by Nina Antonia

The Notorious B.I.G.: Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G. by Cheo Hodari Coker

Elvis Presley: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

The Ramones (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee): Ramones: The Complete Twisted History by Dick Porter

Otis Redding: Otis!: The Otis Redding Story by Scott Freeman

Bon Scott: Highway to Hell: The Life & Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott by Clinton Walker

Tupac Shakur: Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur by Michael Eric Dyson

Hank Williams: Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Trying Real Hard To Be the Shepherd

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

The Goods: Socrates Fortlow has spent most of his adult life in prison for a murder and rape he committed as a young man. Now near 60, he lives an invisible existence in Watts, squatting in an abandoned apartment and working at an L.A. grocery store, written off by almost everyone as just another shiftless ex-con. Each story in this book is an episode in Socrates' hard-won quest for redemption and his attempts to bring justice to his violence-torn neighborhood.

Thoughts: While the stories are great, what really makes this book tick is Mosley's complex and engaging rendering of Socrates Fortlow. Here's a man with a tremendous capacity for violence, compassion, vengeance, and wisdom, and also with the force of will to keep the contents of his soul in balance. It's kind of how I imagine Djay, the pimp turned rapper from Hustle & Flow, might be if the movie caught up with him twenty years down the road. Socrates is no longer a bad man, and he's not yet a good man - and Mosley raises the possibility that his past crimes may make that impossible - but he's trying to put something good out there in the years he has left.

If You Liked...: Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins detective novels and want to branch out, Ida B. by Karen E. Quinones Miller, the story of a Harlem community who bonds together to save their home and solve a horrifying murder, or Yesterday Will Make You Cry by Chester Himes, an autobiographical novel from the 50s about the racism, corruption, and random violence of prison life, this book is for you.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Fifteen

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

The Goods: Liz Hall awakens on an ocean liner to discover that she is dead and on her way to a place called Elsewhere where people age backwards (which makes getting a tattoo pretty much pointless), choose avocations instead of vocations, and dogs can talk (turns out, they could on earth, too). While this all might seem nice to a recently departed elderly person, to tell a fifteen-year-old that she's never going to be anything but a child... well, that's just disheartening.

Thoughts: The way Zevin unfolds the detailed and fully imagined world of Elsewhere is half the pleasure of reading the book, and giving away any more of the particulars here would be like making a six-year-old watch a PowerPoint presentation outlining how Quidditch is played. However, this is less a book about what happens when you die than it is a book about what life means. It's a quick read, but miraculously, the big ideas aren't shortchanged or rushed. On top of that, the story is genuinely good, and not just a vehicle for Zevin's philosophies. Echoes of Milan Kundera are obvious, and no doubt intentional. This being, however, a YA novel, there is much less infidelity and fewer mediatations on shit.

If you like...: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Giver by Lois Lowry, or anytime Death shows up in the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, this book is for you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Vietnam for Valentine's

What am I doing for Valentine's Day? I'm watching The Deerhunter. This is partly because Netflix is apparently 'throttling' me, and partly because I want to.

The Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones

The Goods: A collection of gritty, uncompromising, and richly drawn stories populated by haggard, war-torn anti-heroes, amoral assholes, and pitiful suckers. Thom Jones writes primarily about Vietnam, epilepsy, and boxing, and if you're very very lucky, he writes about them all at the same time.

If you like...: unflinching and horrifying stories about war and what it does to a person, like The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, or books written with swagger like The Liar's Club by Mary Karr, this book is for you.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

One Book, One City: Lists

While they could have picked To Kill A Mockingbird or Fahrenheit 451 like everybody else, these libraries got a little crazy with their 'One Book, One City' picks for 2006. In a good way.

Inspired Picks for 2006 One Book, One City: (I gave up on adding links partway through, after Firefox crashed for the second time causing me to lose a good hunk of this post for the second time... I'll never learn)

Santa Monica Public Library: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer - When I first heard about the premise of this book, I really really wanted it to be good, especially because I almost liked Everything Is Illuminated, but not quite. This book is at least twice as good.
Indiana University South Bend: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Bowling Green, Kentucky: In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason - I always like it when a library picks something by a local girl/boy who made good
Oxford Hills community, Maine: Suburban Safari by Hannah Holmes - Encouraging your community to read a thoughtful book about the environment? Gutsy. Gutsier? Winona Public Library, whose book is Silent Spring
New Hanover County and Wake County, NC: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson
Eugene and Springfield, OR: Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
Seattle Public Library: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

And if you're going to pick a classic, these libraries did it right:

Victoria Public Library, TX: Giant by Edna Farber
Bartlesville Public Library, OK: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Davenport Public Library, IA: The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

And consistently picking good 'One Book, One City' Books (though many of them haven't yet announced their choices for 2006... and for all I know one of them will go with Frankenstein or The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time or whatever the hell it's called):

1. Buffalo, NY
2. Rochester, NY
3. South Bend, IN
4. Lawrence, KS
5. Ashtabula, OH
6. Austin, TX
7. Eugene, OR
8. Seattle, WA
9. Racine, WI
10. Bowling Green, KY

Finally, big love to the three public libraries I found who chose, either this year, or in the past, comics for their One Book, One City programs: Seattle, Miami, and Bucks County, PA (who chose Maus, and that is just too cool for words).

Which of these will I be reading next?: Giant, followed by Crescent, and then Blood Done Sign My Name

One Book, One City

"A precocious child is more interesting than a repressed firefighter." -Director of the Omaha Public Library, on why To Kill A Mockingbird is superior to Fahrenheit 451 for Omaha Reads 2006

After the success of the Seattle Public Library's pioneering "If All Of Seattle Read The Same Book...," 'One Book, One City' events have been popping up in public libraries around the country with mixed results. While the programs have thrived in some communities, they've fizzled in others. A little research on the topic led me to countless libraries whose programs started with a bang in 2001, only to disappear without a word by 2003.

I'm sure that a lot of this is due to budget cuts or a general lack of interest in the community, but when I look at the uninspired book choices made by many libraries, I have to wonder, are scarce library funds really serving the community best when they're being used to encourage people to read Pay It Forward? Many of the lists look like a cross between an 11th grade English syllabus, the New York Times bestseller list, and a doomed attempt to reclaim the turf staked out by Oprah's Book Club.

That said, a lot of libraries are forced to bow to outside pressures. Like, if the Mayor tells you that she wants to pick Seabiscuit and nothing else will do, goddammit, you can't exactly tell her to stick it in her ear even though you know every interested party has already read it or seen the movie.

And a ton of public libraries do a great job picking books that are truly representative of and interesting to the communities they serve. The best ones pick books that manage to be well-written, yet accessible, relatively unknown, yet appealing, provocative without offending community sensibilities, and classic without being coma-inducing. A mighty tall order.

And the weird thing is, the cities that do it best are the absolute last ones you'd expect. Best Of/Worst Of lists to follow.....

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

From My Desert Island Reading List

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

The Goods: In an unnamed South American country, a band of terrorists raids the birthday party of a Japanese businessman in an attempt to kidnap the President, who has, at the last minute, decided to skip the party to watch his favorite soap opera. Thwarted, the terrorists hold the partygoers instead. To call the haunting and dream-like hostage scenario that ensues Stockholm Syndrome would be entirely inaccurate. It's so much better than that.

Thoughts: Most writers that I love, I love selectively. That said, every book that Ann Patchett has written is marvelous, and this one is her best. It is also one of a handful of books that has made me cry while reading it (on an airplane, surrounded by strangers, no less).

Actually, that reading experience says a lot about Bel Canto. It's 2002 and I'm reading a book about terrorists on an airplane and all I can think of is how beautiful and sad it is. That, my friends, is a fine book.

If you like...: books where an ensemble of characters comes together so seamlessly, it's like a choir - like The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter, or the high lonesome magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this book is for you.

And check out other books by Ann Patchett, too. Especially her memoir of her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Do Women Like To Cook?

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro

The Goods: The post-war marketing campaigns that attempted to groom the American palette to embrace prepackaged foods took it on faith that the answer was, "no." Shapiro examines what started off as an attempt to unload a surplus of field rations onto American kitchens and led to the rise of such odious dishes as the Snow Ball Sandwich and Gourmet Crab*, and the American love/hate affair with convenience foods.

Thoughts: This is an odd book, in the respect that its too-broad focus actually contributes to its charm. It contains, to name a few things:

1. a brief history of the Pillsbury bake-off (someone needs to write a comprehensive history of this event... it's a great story)
2. short biographies and discussion of the contributions of foodie celebrities ranging from Alice B. Toklas to Poppy Cannon (the Half-Assed Gourmet of her day, but very famous) to Julia Child
3. a look at housewifery in the 50s, including the rise of the domestic chaos memoir and the impact of women in the workplace
4. the strange, but eventually not-so-crazy assertion that Julia Child and Betty Friedan could be described as parallel forces in the feminist movement

Some of the discussions are oversimplified, but that doesn't stop this from being one of the most fun and interesting books about the 50s that I've read.

If you liked...: Books that examine popular assumptions about the post-war era, like The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz and The Fifties: A Women's Oral History by Brett Harvey, or fun foodie books about the 50s, like The Gallery of Regrettable Food: Highlights from Classic American Recipe Books by James Lileks, this book is for you.
* Snow Ball Sandwich: "two-layer circular sandwiches, one layer of tuna fish and the other of crushed pineapple mixed with whipped cream, the whole frosted with cream cheese and garnished with a cherry" (223)
Gourmet Crab: canned crabmeat, Cheez Whiz, cream of mushroom soup, and frozen spinach (67)

A Superhero Comic for People Who Don't Like Superhero Comics

She-Hulk: Single Green Female
She-Hulk: Superhuman Law
written by Dan Slott, drawn by Juan Bobillo and Paul Pelletier

The Goods: She-Hulk has just been kicked out of the Avengers house for her partying ways when she is hired as a lawyer in the Superhuman Law division of Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg, & Holliway. Oddly, her new bosses don't want She-Hulk. They want her mousy, civilian alter ego, Jennifer Walters, to try the cases. Jen finds this hard to believe, on account of the fact that She-Hulk is a powerful, confident It Girl and Jen Walters is... well, kind of a loser.

Thoughts: I tend to shy away from Marvel Comics, because, unless you've been reading them since approximately 1975, keeping up with the story arcs and continuity (or lack thereof... how many freakin' Marvel characters have come back from the dead anyway?) seems to require a reference manual and your own personal Comic Book Guy.

She-Hulk is different because the writers are aware of the ludicrously lovable nature of the Marvel universe, and write stories that pay homage, while simultaneously poking fun at it. And whenever a really wacky precedent needs to be established in court, She-Hulk simply pays a visit to the law firm library, aka "The Long Boxes" where her own personal Comic Book Guy helps her pore over old Marvel comics. These, being stamped with the seal of the Comics Code of America, are legal documents admissible in any superhuman court of law. Of course.

The writing is clever, the characters are appealing, and the stories are funny, sometimes hilarious. Better yet, Dan Slott keeps the plots moving and avoids the Marvel pitfall of never-ending story arcs.

If you like...: books that zanily deal with the bureaucracy and infrastructure of the fantastic like Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter books, the Spiderman movies, or a good courtroom potboiler, this book is for you.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Life In Fours

I'll play. I, too, am having a bored day.

Four jobs you've had in your life:
1. Maid at truck stop Howard Johnson's
2. 12th grade English and creative writing teacher
3. Writer and soliciter of donations for Memphis public television
4. Reference librarian

Four movies you could watch over and over again:
1. All About Eve
2. Heathers
3. Bull Durham
4. The Philadelphia Story

Four places you have lived:
1. Los Angeles
2. Madison
3. Memphis
4. Grove City, PA

Four TV shows you love to watch:
1. Veronica Mars
2. The Office
3. Scrubs
4. Gilmore Girls

Four websites you visit daily:
1. The Superficial
2. Bookslut
3. L.A. Times
4. my friends' blogs

Four of your favorite foods:
1. Falafel
2. Squash and feta pizza
3. Vegetable curry
4. Katharine Hepburn's brownie recipe, served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream

Four places you'd rather be right now:
1. In a rap video
2. Reading on the couch
3. Prague
4. at the P&H Cafe

Four favorite places you've ever been in the world:
1. anywhere the Drive-By Truckers are playing live
2. Memphis
3. the Los Angeles Public Library
4. Seaside, FL

Four bloggers you'll be tagging:
Brady, so he has a reason to update his blog

Thursday, February 02, 2006

For the Nerdy Girls

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci

The Goods: Remember how you felt about the freaky girl in high school who wore a cape and shaved her head and had no friends? Well, Victoria, aka Egg, is that girl and she does not care how you feel about her. She hates you. And not in that "I'm really just lonely and my cynical contempt is a shell I build around myself to protect myself from rejection" kind of way. She really hates you.

And then she meets someone she doesn't hate. And this forces some self-examination, and some icky realizations about the kind of person she is.

Reservations: I know, I know... this is a YA novel where someone realizes something about herself.

The Good News: At the end of the book, it's not like that part of The Breakfast Club where Ally Sheedy puts on a white camisole and some eyeliner and suddenly isn't a freak anymore. Victoria is still a freak at the end. But she's a better freak. The changes are subtle and believable, and even when Victoria is annoying the hell out of you with her self-defeating, bitchy ways, you still love her.

Added Bonus: It's set in Hollywood (in my neighborhood, in fact), and Victoria's parents are both industry people, so there's plenty of fictionalized celebrity cattiness.

If You Like...: comic books, Peter Jackson movies, Star Wars, and you are a girl, you will find a lot to relate to here - this book is for you.