Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Nora, Nicky, and Asta, Too

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The Goods: Sophisticated married couple dashes around New York getting soused, cracking wise, and solving crime. I should be so lucky.

Thoughts: Although Nick Charles is often lumped in with other private dicks of the era like Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and Philip Marlowe, he is not so much hard-boiled as he is happily pickled in gin, which is probably why I like him a little bit more than those dour tough guys. And let's not forget the lovely Nora, who in any other book would almost certainly be described as "long-suffering." But Nora just kind of doesn't care that she's married to a man who's content to be idly rich and drink martinis with his morning bacon. For that matter, Nora's pretty content to do the same.

Okay, in the real world, they'd be odious people - overgrown trust fund kids mindlessly and selfishly consuming - but in the book, it's all quite witty and charming.

Random aside: Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner. Separated at birth?

You decide.

Monday, March 27, 2006

And Speaking of Re-Reading...

Over at the BSC Headquarters, a woman who gives her location as "Stoneybrook, CT" is blogging her way through one of the formative series of my childhood.

Which club member was your favorite?

Claudia: she of the "almond-shaped eyes and creamy complexion," hoarding junk food in her bedroom and dreaming of becoming an artist
Stacy: the chic diabetic from New York with her perfectly fluffed blonde perm
Kristy: the tomboy jock with the millionaire stepfather and the big mouth
Mary Anne: the shy, bookish girl with the dead mother and the father who dresses her like she's six
Dawn: the crunchy granola California chick with long straight shiny blonde hair

And I guess there were a couple other girls added in later, but I never really cared much about them. They were, like, fifth graders or something.

I always wanted to be a Claudia, but sadly, I was a Mary Anne. However, it was this book from the series that convinced me that I might not die alone.

At least a third of all Babysitters Club books are devoted to describing outfits in excruciating detail, and this blog does not skimp on rehashes of the suspenders, squiggle pins, and lobster earrings. See here and here.

If you participated in the Pizza Hut Book It! program or owned Electric Youth (the perfume or the album), this blog is for you.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Books You Can Read 100 Times: Part 2

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I first became aware of Jhumpa Lahiri when I read her story, "Sexy," in the New Yorker back in 1998. This incident also stands in my memory as the last time I enjoyed reading anything in the New Yorker.

"Sexy," the story of a young white woman's affair with a married Indian man, and what she realizes about it after she is forced into an unexpected day of babysitting is an excellent, perfectly written story, yet it is not the best one in this collection by a long shot. Other standouts include:

"A Temporary Matter," wherein a doomed couple share a few scheduled moments of perfect honesty during the last week of their marriage

"Interpreter of Maladies," wherein a wretched American family takes a trip to India and breaks an old man's heart

"This Blessed House," wherein a Hindu couple moves into a house where the previous owners have left behind a wild and ludicrous assortment of Christian icons

and most especially, "The Third and Final Continent," wherein we meet the book's only happy couple and a delightfully crazy old woman

Number of years I've been re-reading this book: 6

If you like...: books about the second generation immigrant experience (and Lahiri's novel The Namesake is another terrific one) or books about unhappy couples permeated with a certain sad sweetness, this book is for you.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Books You Can Read 100 Times: Part 1

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

The Goods: The Bedloe's are one of those families who seem to go through life with perpetually good nature, turning even the bad times (which are never really that bad) into cute little anecdotes that become part of the happy family narrative: "How Ian Got Suspended From First Grade," or "How Claudia Totaled the Car."

Therefore, nothing in life has prepared them for the episodes entitled:

"How Our Eldest Son Married a Woman With Two Small Children and a Third On the Way Which May or May Not Be His," followed by

"How Both He and His Wife Died Unexpectedly and Our Youngest Son Blamed Himself for Causing It," and finally,

"How Ian Joined a Storefront Holy Roller Church and Convinced Himself That the Only Way to Make Amends for What He'd Done Was to Drop Out of College and Raise the Orphaned Children."

Number of Years I've Been Re-Reading This Book: 12

Why I Keep Coming Back To It: While it's Ian's story, several of the chapters are told from the children's perspective, and their thoughts on having the teachings of a low rent, slightly pitiful church thrust upon them hit rather close to home. Plus, in keeping with the idea that redemption takes a long damn time, the book follows the family for about 20 years. Everybody knows that what Anne Tyler does best is write amazing characters, and the Bedloes are her very best ones - warm, complex, and surprising - and 20 years is not really a long enough period of time to spend with them.

If you like...: coming of age stories about growing up crazy religious like Blankets by Craig Thompson, or family stories with engaging characters like Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson or Pigs In Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver, this book is for you.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

May I Have Your Attention Please

Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson

Stop what you're doing, and go get this book. Then clear your schedule because you won't be able to do anything else until you finish it.

There's a Tom Waits live album where he says, "To answer that, we're going to have to go all the way back to the Civil War." Tyson goes back even further than that to answer the question of why, on a night in 1970, a young black man named Henry Marrow was murdered by three white men in cold blood as he begged for his life, and how that, and everything that happened after was possible in a supposedly post-integration South.

And that's all I'm gonna say, because I don't think I can do the rest justice.

The main problem with "history" is that the word implies that it involves something that happened a long time ago, then never happened again, and that's kind of how it's studied. But Tyson takes a long, hard look in the spirit of Faulkner when he said, "The past is never over. It's not even past."

If you like...: books that change your life, this one is for you.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

There's No "I" In Apocalypse

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

It's important to bear in mind that bringing the son of Satan to earth in human form in order to launch a war between heaven and hell and wipe out the human race is very much a team effort. It takes a convent of Satanic nuns, angels, demons, and the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Death, and Pollution... when penicillin was discovered, Pestilence threw up his hands and quit in a huff).

At the same time, trying to stop the Apocalypse are an angel and a demon stationed on earth who have, over the years, become rather good buddies, a band of small children, a witch-finder, a witch, and a handy little book of nice and accurate prophecies written by one Agnes Nutter, an exceptionally batty Dark Ages prophetess.

In addition to being a ripping good yarn, and gut-bustingly funny besides, this book makes me wish that Neil Gaiman had written about twenty more novels that I could run out and buy right now, and makes me glad that Terry Pratchett has.

If you liked...: Douglas Adams, the funny bits of Tom Robbins books, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and other works of fiction that aren't afraid to take a detour by way of the footnote, this book is for you.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lust For Life

Punk Rock Aerobics: 75 Killer Moves, 50 Punk Classics, and 25 Reasons To Get Off Your Ass and Exercise by Maura Jasper and Hilken Mancini

The Goods: The title pretty much sums it up. Apparently, these broads were a couple of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, flabby 30-somethings who one day got the brilliant idea to become licensed aerobics instructors. Once certified, they started offering punk rock aerobics classes in the beer-soaked basement of the Middle East restaurant in Boston. The book contains a ton of moves that are easy to follow and fun to do in your living room, interviews with indie rock types like Mike Watt, John Doe, and Thurston Moore, and goofy pictures, including one of J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. doing a move called the "Face Down Butt Lift." The best part is making yourself a workout mix on iTunes, all the while thinking, "Oh dear... if Richard Hell knew what I was doing with 'Love Comes In Spurts,' he'd never stop throwing up."

Thoughts: The Los Angeles Marathon is this weekend, and I was checking their website for street closures when I discovered that walkers are allowed to enter the race. This gave me an idea. Because while I am fairly certain that I could not run 26.2 miles, really, I am only interested in being able to say to people, "Did you know I finished a marathon?"

So 2007 Los Angeles Marathon... here I come, with a little help from Maura, Hilken, and Iggy. Maybe I'll even be able to run, like, a quarter of it.

If you like...: the general idea of exercise, but feel that fitness has been co-opted by loathsome, bouncy-haired women who do not sweat, look pert and kicky in athletic shorts, and seem perfectly at ease doing the grapevine step, this book is for you.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why I Love Wednesdays

In addition to being Veronica Mars night and the only day of the week that my husband and I both get home from work at a reasonable hour, Wednesday is also the day that I make a trip to The Golden Apple for my weekly pile of shiny new comics.

Here are a few I love:

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

In Brief: A plague wipes out every living male mammal on the planet, save one Yorick Brown and Ampersand, the helper monkey he's attempting to train. Yorick just wants to find his girlfriend, who's currently halfway around the world, but is instead placed in the protective custody of a secret agent named 355 and a geneticist to track down what caused the plague.

Angry Republican widows attempt to overthrow what remains of the U.S. government. Militias, pirates, and a cult of Amazons terrorize survivors. Travelling across the country takes months because most of the pilots, train conductors, and ship captains are dead, and the freeways are clogged with the cars of people who died during rush hour. And nerdlinger extraordinaire Yorick is not exactly the person you'd entrust with the repopulation of the earth.

Despite the grim scenario, this series is remarkably charming, sweet, and funny, as are its unlikely heroes.

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

In Brief: Zombies!!!!!!

Another apocalyptic comic that makes Y look like a Sunday school picnic. The story picks up with a ragtag assortment of individuals who have survived the first wave of brain-eating, and are trying to find a safe place to settle down.

You know how in most zombie movies you can tell pretty quick who's safe and who's doomed? In The Walking Dead, all bets are off. Something like a third of the characters have been zombified so far, and Kirkman has said that he can and will kill off anyone, including the hero. So don't go getting attached.

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello

In Brief: Imagine that The X-Files and The Sopranos bonded together to raise the illegitimate child of Frank Miller, and that's kind of what it's like.

Boiled down, this book is about getting revenge. Agent Graves appears on the doorstep of some severely wronged people and hands them a briefcase. The briefcase contains the identity of the person who ruined their life, evidence proving this, a gun, and 100 untraceable bullets.

It gets a lot more complicated, so I recommend buying this one in trade form rather than issue by issue. This comic is mind-bogglingly great, and it's easy on the eyes, too - arguably the best drawn, coolest-looking comic out there.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why People Who Say That U.S. Workplaces Are Overregulated and Unions Have Destroyed Corporate America Are Evil Incarnate

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle

The Goods: When I was in high school, I remember reading a paragraph in my history textbook about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, and thinking, this sounds important, we should study this. But no, there were wars to be covered, and if we were going to make it to Vietnam by the end of the school year, there was no time to spend dallying around with labor movements, workers' safety and Tammany Hall.

As a result of my gap-filled history education, I am a huge sucker for any U.S. history books that deal with domestic happenings between 1865 and 1914, 1918 and 1941, and 1945 and 1965.

Triangle deals with the circumstances that led to 146 people burning, suffocating, or leaping to their deaths because they were locked in the factory workroom. And why would you have hundreds of people working in your factory and only one exit, you might ask. Why, to make sure none of those working class women were smuggling stolen shirtwaists home in their handbags, of course.

Although the disaster led to a massive overhaul of workplace safety regulations (a lot of which are currently being dismantled), the factory owners were aquitted of all criminal and civil charges, and in fact, wound up with an insurance settlement that surpassed their monetary losses.

This is also a book about corrupt Gilded Age politics and the struggles of female factory workers for fair wages and humane working conditions and socialist newspapers and strikebreakers with no compunctions about beating up women in dark alleys. After reading Triangle, you will be running to your local library with a list of at least five things that you want to learn all about.

If you liked...: highly readable histories like Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson, this book is for you.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

He Did It All*

In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. by Wil Haygood

Tonight at the 78th Academy Awards, Hollywood got defensive. Although they cut off the producer of the Best Picture winner in the middle of her speech, time was set aside for a montage of epic films, the purpose of which was, I guess, to convince viewers at home that Netflix is a poor substitute for paying $10 to sit in uncomfortable chairs and eat cold popcorn with strangers.

After saluting his fellow nominees, George Clooney went on to get defensive about Hollywood's politics in his acceptance speech. And I was right on board until he lauded the Academy for giving Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 "when blacks were still sitting in the back of theatres." Apparently, Hattie McDaniel was initially seated in the back of the room the year she won the award (the producer of Gone With the Wind eventually arranged for her to be moved to a better table). I appreciate the sentiment behind Clooney's speech, but let's not kid ourselves and say that Hollywood is a great place to be a black actor.

Take a look at Sammy Davis, Jr., arguably the greatest performer and entertainer of the 20th century. His talents were limitless - actor, singer, comedian, impersonator, drummer, and dancer. He was the most literate member of the Rat Pack by a long shot, yet he never attended a day of school in his life. And Hollywood was not exactly sweet to him.

Haywood's biography doesn't spend much time on Davis's years with the Rat Pack, but treats extensively his lost childhood (he began performing in vaudeville shows when he was about 6), his Broadway career, and his struggles for acceptance in both the white and black community.

And Haywood's portrait (constructed out of exhaustive research and over 250 interviews) is not entirely flattering - Davis was immature, emotionally needy, insecure, a womanizer, an absent father, a spendthrift, a reluctant latecomer to the civil rights movement. But he was also generous, disciplined, and by all accounts, not a person who met him didn't instantly adore him. The best parts of the book detail Davis's stage performances. While it's no substitute for being in the audience at the Copacabana, the writing still leaves you breathless at the capacity of Davis's talent.

If you liked...: Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy, Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle, or books about the rise and fall of vaudeville, soft-shoe, and great nightclub performers, this book is for you.
* Inscription on Davis's gravestone

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Week of Southern Lit, Part 5

The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor

The Goods: Peter Taylor is kind of like Woody Allen. Hear me out. If you want to learn about the customs and rituals of educated, upper class New Yorkers, Woody Allen is your go-to guy. And among writers who lay claim to a certain time, place, and people, Peter Taylor is the undisputed authority on the world of wealthy Memphians in the 1930s and 40s.

One might ask, are stories about the trials and tribulations of stuffy cotton brokers and their spoiled families really filling some void in the literary universe? And to that, I reply, perhaps you've heard of a broad named Jane Austen...

The title story centers around Nat Ramsey, a well-to-do young man who is very complacently about to wed an appropriate girl and embark on a soul-sucking career in the family business. In Nat's social circles, it is common for men to carry on flirtations and friendships with girls who stay in boarding houses and frequent juke joints, in many cases, right up until their wedding days.

Nat is involved in a minor car accident with one of these women the week before his wedding, but before the police arrive, she runs away into the Overton Park forest and disappears. Suddenly, the situation becomes delicate, as Nat's boring future, his fiancee's honor, and the Ramsey family name all hang on finding a woman who does not want to be found before his wedding day.

Nobody does the Southern novel of manners better than Peter Taylor. If you liked The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, or any story where a woman can find herself shamed, ruined, or wholly undone with the flick of a fan, this book is for you.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Week of Southern Lit, Part 4

Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Sometimes I wonder if the sophomore slump actually exists or if it's convention invented by critics that allows them to create a Hollywood-style arc for writers who manage to recover from the reviews of their second book. Or maybe there's just some unwritten rule among critics that if you jizz all over someone's first book, you have to show a little restraint the second time around.

Two cases in point are Cavedweller and The Little Friend, books that are unjustly overshadowed by their predecessors (Bastard Out Of Carolina and The Secret History, respectively), when they are, in fact, just as good.

Neither of these books got bad reviews. However, critics picked at them, sounding sort of like the princess with the pea under her mattress.

It's no big deal, I guess. It's what critics do, which is to say, hate on stuff.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Week of Southern Lit, Part 3

During his lifetime, Everette Maddox was the unofficial poet laureate of the French Quarter and founder of the Maple Leaf Bar reading series, which has been going strong since 1979, and even in these post-Katrina days, convenes each Sunday at 3pm.

After Maddox died in 1989, a memorial was placed on the patio at the Maple Leaf which reads simply: "He was a mess."

Maddox's poems call to mind Tom Waits' drunken reels and ballads, steeped in Berryman, Stevens, and Wordsworth, with a little Keatsian melancholy thrown in for good measure. Even the titles of the poems are great - "Joseph Conrad Meets All My Friends," "Thirteen Ways of Being Looked At By a Possum," "God's Last Words To the Stars," but my favorite one is this:

by Everette Maddox

I'm not going to
dignify Mozart
or metaphysics
any longer by
pretending they touch
me. I won't even
say I like these leaves
except as they swirl
against a special
emptiness. Nothing
is relevant since
losing you is what
my life is about.

Maddox published three collections of poetry during his lifetime, but never achieved widespread success or renown; however, his work and his legacy are well-remembered by the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and have spawned a documentary, a play, and two posthumous collections, none of which you will be able to see or lay your hands on very easily.

It is goddamn tragic that we live in a world where the pretentious and unreadable works of Jorie Graham are readily accessible, but Everette Maddox is out of print.

I have tracked down a few places where you can acquire his work in piecemeal:

1. Rette's Last Stand, a posthumous collection of his works, some previously unpublished, is available for a very reasonable price at Abebooks. (The Everette Maddox Songbook is also available here, if you're willing to drop $150 for it)
2. American Waste, another posthumous collection, and The Maple Leaf Rag, a collection of 100 writers from the Maple Leaf Bar Reading Series, are available at Portals Press, out of New Orleans.
3. Several works are included in The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry
4. The 1994 Fall/Winter issue of the New Orleans Review features a Maddox interview, several essays, a series of letters he wrote to a friend, and several poems, and can be ordered here.

So little published poetry actually matters. This stuff is worth finding.