Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Chimps in the Hands of an Angry God

God's Grace by Bernard Malamud

The Goods: The significantly named Calvin Cohn and his chimp, Buz, emerge from their submarine at the bottom of the ocean to find that God has destroyed all of His creation. Or rather, allowed it to destroy itself in a thermonuclear war. God comes to Cohn to deliver a message, which is, "I regret to say it was through a minuscule error that you escaped destruction." Cohn makes a rather convincing case for his survival - he did, after all, study for the rabbinate. But God is not swayed. No Noah this time.

God does, however, agree to give him a little bit of time before killing him. And Cohn decides to use that time to prove to God that humanity deserves to exist.

This is perhaps the least fantastic part of the book. I guess when God decides to destroy the world for its wickedness, all bets are off, because Buz starts talking. Then a bunch of other chimps show up on the desert island, and they can all talk, too. And Cohn decides to teach them the Torah.

The chimps get into it, although they're not always the most obedient pupils. Some of them are decidedly New Testament chimps and find the Hebrew Bible to be a real downer. But still, they manage to form something approaching a moral society. Cohn even writes up a set of commandments for them (although there are only seven, including 'Blessed are those who divide the fruit equally'). However, Cohn's society is tenuous and when it breaks down, it breaks down horribly.

Thoughts: This was Malamud's last novel, and it is nothing like anything else he ever wrote. It is gruesome and cruel. It is not a nice book at all. However, it is magnetic and engrossing and it is very very good. And really, sometimes you look at the world and think, "God is love. God is good." And other times, you hear about something that just makes you go, "If God exists, He's just messing with us."

This book is that side of the story.

If you liked...: Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, Y: The Last Man, or the infamous issue #31 of Powers by Brian Michael Bendis, this book is for you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nothing Else Behaves Like Me

Guided By Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll by James Greer

The Goods: Guided By Voices was, for all practical purposes, a rock and roll band from Dayton, Ohio led by a former elementary school teacher named Bob Pollard. They are best known for their prolific output, their absurdly short songs with nonsensical yet strangely evocative lyrics, their constantly rotating line-up, their electrifying live shows, and their love of beer.

Bands as the subject of biography tend to fall somewhere within what I like to think of as the 'VH1 Behind the Music Go-Go's to Goo Goo's Rock Scandal Continuum.' At one end of the spectrum you have bands whose appeal as the subject of documentary lies largely in their drug habits and abuse of groupies. At the other end, you have the drama that focuses on in-fighting and getting screwed over by one's record label.

Both are appealing, in their way, although the drugs are usually more interesting.

Guided By Voices falls somewhere in the middle of said Continuum, having nothing that qualifies as a true SCANDAL on either side, but flirtations with both. That said, if you pick up the book thinking, "Oooh, Guided By Voices. I hear they drank a lot and fought with Kim Deal, and Bob Pollard kicked people out of the band just for looking at him funny," you will be sorely disappointed.

Sure, there are tons of great 'drink was involved' stories. It's just that they're probably not much crazier than your own 'drink was involved' stories. And I suppose that is part of the great appeal of Guided By Voices - the sense that despite their brilliance as musicians, you might have done a kegstand with them in high school.

If you're looking for high throttle Cobain-style drama, this is not the place. However, if you are the kind of person who enjoys having a few pitchers with friends and debating the exact moment that Matador began to go downhill or whether "Sweet Child of Mine" or "Welcome to the Jungle" is, in fact, the finer Guns N' Roses song, this book is for you.

And, by the way, the correct answer is "Sweet Child of Mine."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Books About Sharks = Awesome

Close To Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo

I spent something like two years sleeping in the fetal position as a small child because I was convinced that a great white shark was going to bite my feet off while I slept, just like that skinny dipping woman who wound up clinging to the buoy in Jaws.

Sharks scared the bejeezus out of me, so of course, I was obsessed with them. When I was 8, I attended a lecture given by Jacques Cousteau's son. My dearest aspiration was to become a marine biologist so I could throw chum off the side of a boat.

And then, I discovered boys and indie rock and Sassy magazine, and forgot about sharks for many years. Until I read this book, and suddenly, the mania returned.

It goes down like this. Americans have overcome their Victorian ways enough to put on an ankle-length bathing suit, and are just discovering the joys of the seaside vacation, when a great white shark gets caught in a current and is swept into a popular Jersey beach resort where it proceeds to eat a lot of people. Then it gets really crazy. Not having had a full meal in a week, the shark goes out of its mind, leaves the ocean, and swims up a stream to where the children's swimming hole is.

I won't tell you the rest.

One small warning: we can't possibly know what was going through the shark's head, but this does not stop Capuzzo from trying. So yeah, there are a couple of chapters written from the shark's point of view, which is dumb, but I am willing to overlook it because the book is awesome in all other ways.

If you like...: Victorian American history, and harbor a piece of your soul that is 8 and thinks dinosaurs and piranhas are, like, the best things ever, this book is for you.

Monday, April 17, 2006

If They Don't Win It's a Shame

The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove

This may be the second book about L.A. baseball that I've written about in less than three months, but it's that time of year, and I adore baseball despite the fact that my ignorance on the subject is staggering. I used to fancy myself something of a baseball nut. I played baseball as a kid, I played softball as an adult, I attend at least one major or minor league game a year. I have watched a few episodes of that Ken Burns documentary. But you know what they say about a little bit of knowledge...

Anyway, one night I was at a party and the topic turned to Hank Aaron. Thinking that I remembered a fun fact from ole Ken Burns, and wanting to weigh in on the subject, I said quite innocently, "Wasn't he in the Klan or something?"

A stunned silence filled the room for a moment, then someone leaned over and whispered a clarifying fact in my ear. And then everyone pointed and laughed.

Turns out, I'd been thinking of Ty Cobb. Who was also not in the Klan (although he was, by most accounts, a racist and a terrific asshole).

But I digress.

The Ticket Out starts off with the 1979 Crenshaw High School baseball team, one of the most talented in the history of the LAUSD, and then picks up more than 20 years later to find out what happened to them.

Nearly every starting player on the 1979 team was being checked out by agents and scouts. Several were drafted right out of high school, including Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry was by far the most successful member of the original team (although, based on the memories of his former Crenshaw teammates and coach, not the most talented), but even he left baseball a man broken by drug addiction, financial problems, and cancer. As for the others, some adjusted to life after baseball. One player became a high-profile kosher chef, another joined the Navy and writes hooks for rappers in his spare time.

But other players never got over the anguish of having their baseball dreams taken away. Things turned out particularly tragically for one man, who becomes a casualty of California's ludicrous 'three strikes' law.

This is not your typical story of 'the redemptive power of baseball to bring people together and correct the wrongs of the world if only for an afternoon.' Still, through Sokolove's interviews, the love that that players of Crenshaw have for the game and for the high school glory days it gave them are evident. Baseball may have betrayed them, but they haven't turned their backs on it. What's interesting is that the only men who don't seem to feel this way are Darryl Strawberry and Chris Brown, both of whom had careers in the majors.

If you like...: There's a certain formula in fiction and non-fiction wherein a group of people are drawn together by certain events, split up, and then are brought back together years later to resolve unfinished business. It's been used in everything from Stephen King's It to Chris Colin's What Really Happened To the Class of '93 to The Big Chill, and it is an eminently appealing device. If you like books like this, this one is for you.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Muse On This

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired by Francine Prose

The Goods: Nine mini-biographies from four centuries, and all kinds of variations on the idea of woman as muse - from women who worked as partners with artists to women who were artists and thinkers in their own right to the poor souls who were seduced, sapped and discarded.

The Women:

Hester Thrale: kept Samuel Johnson sane

Alice Liddell: received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University for inspiring Charles Dodson to write Alice in Wonderland

Elizabeth Siddal: husband and pre-Raphaelite asshole extraordinaire dug up her corpse to retrieve a book of poems he'd buried with her in the hopes that it might revive his career

Lou Andreas-Salome: serial muse; recipient of Nietszche's hottest pick-up line; convinced Rilke to change his name; called 'the great understander' by Freud

Gala Dali: inspired much of Salvador's work; masterminded his PR and marketing campaign, then encouraged him to sign hundreds of blank canvases to be lithographed (the Surrealist sell-out)

Lee Miller: by the age of 30 had modeled for Vogue, apprenticed with Man Ray and modeled for his best-known works, invented solarization, become an established photographer with her own studio; later became a war photographer

Charis Weston: went from model to muse to cast-off art wife

Suzanne Farrell: her dancing inspired choreographer George Balanchine to compose his best work

Yoko Ono: inspired John, and vice versa

Thoughts: In most ways, the idea of the muse is outdated and a little bit insulting. Prose writes early on, "Certainly, feminism has made us rethink musedom as a career choice." At the same time, the lives of the muses (and the muses themselves) are typically regarded as glamorous, dramatic, enviable. It is probably not a coincidence that biographers of muses spend endless amounts of time speculating about their sex lives.

Prose doesn't really offer much more in the way of a thesis than this: muses are as different as the women who become them, and then go on to be and do other things. Yet, what they do is quite interesting - and the quality that makes a woman fascinating to an artist makes her fascinating to others, too.

In another writer's hands, this book could have been disjointed and clunky. However, Prose writes like gangbusters and is snarky as hell. It's not every biographer who would describe the moanings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "the language of the gifted teenage contributor to the high school literary magazine."

It's a fun book, filled with juicy little tidbits that may not provide comprehensive biography, but serve as a good springboard to further reading. I picked up Lee Miller: A Life because of Lives of the Muses and totally love it even if the accomplishments and daring of Lee Miller do fill me with jealousy and the vague sense that I should, like, do more stuff.

That said, I guess I'm a muse. If inspiring your husband to finish his Ph.D. out of fear of what you'll do to him if he doesn't qualifies one for musedom.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Because I Love Zombies

Today in The Morning New's Tournament of Books: ZOMBIE ROUND!

(wherein two previously eliminated books rise from the dead to compete in the finals)

I have been faithfully following this thing, despite the fact that I liked very few of the best books of 2005. Really, it's just been making me doubt myself.

What's wrong with me that the premise of The History of Love sounded like something I'd read before and hadn't liked then? That I only made it through 25 pages of Home Land before falling into a slightly annoyed coma? That I only liked Veronica and On Beauty about half as much as I'd hoped to? That my favorite book in the whole thing was by Neil Gaiman, and was eliminated in the first round?

Sigh. Apparently, I am lacking in good taste. Or what passes for good taste in Publishers Weekly.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Theoretical Elevators

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

The Goods: The drama in this noirish urban landscape centers around the city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, divided into Empiricists who look for problems the old-fashioned way, and the more controversial Intuitionists, who... well, intuit them. It's creepy. They just step into an elevator and know what's about to bust. Lila Mae Watson is the city's first black female elevator inspector and an Intuitionist with the highest accuracy rate in the department until an elevator that she inspected only days before goes into freefall. It's election time, it's clearly sabotage, and Lila Mae makes an excellent scapegoat for the Empiricist candidate. So Lila Mae starts poking her nose where it doesn't belong, and uncovers the corrupt world of the elevator inspection, along with a lot of other things.

Thoughts: First, this book is not for everybody. You have to be willing to get behind the weird, and see where Whitehead is going with it. Second, this book is about a whole lot more than elevators and their proper inspection.

You might also enjoy this book if you've ever been a civil servant and understand the high drama that the people in city government tend attach to their bureaucratic hive. Or if, like me, you've ever lived in a building with an elevator that hasn't been inspected in about a million years, makes horrible sounds when it ascends, and has a placard inside that has been altered to read, 'If doors fail to open, become alarmed.'

If you like...: Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka, noir with lots of corruption and hired thugs, or Homicide: Life on the Street, this book is for you.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Cooking! To the Death!

Iron Wok Jan by Shinji Saijyo

The Goods: In this so-ludicrous-it's-awesome comic, a group of teenage Japanese chefs perfect the art of Chinese cookery and battle one another in one cooking competition after another for... hmmm... actually, it's never made entirely clear what they're battling for. Maybe glory or something. Our anti-hero, Jan, is the biggest douche you'd ever hope to meet. He's merciless to his rivals, worse to his friends, and isn't above poisoning the occasional judge. And each book includes recipes.

Thoughts: Actually, I loathe manga. I find it skeevy. However, knowing how much I love cooking and foodie stuff in general, a friend promised me I'd love this one, and she was not wrong. Saijyo throws enough twists into each contest to keep the bake-off premise fresh, the plots are goofily fun, and the female characters don't have that manga-Lolita thing going on.

If you like...: watching Iron Chef, this book is for you.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Good Trash

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities by Alexandra Robbins

Reading this book is kind of like going to a horror movie knowing that the plucky teens will die horribly at the hands of a deranged psycho killer, but still wanting to see how it happens. A reporter goes undercover into sorority houses at schools around the country and find that the 'secret' life of sororities involves busloads of casual sex, binge drinking, eating disorders, back-stabbing, and general superficiality. Of course, this is a tremendous surprise to us all.

Still, I have recommended this book to a number of intelligent, well-read individuals, the kinds of people who manipulate Census data and build websites and read Sartre for fun. And you know what? Each and every one of them freakin' loved reading some debauched tales of skinny rich girls bombed on Grey Goose.

It's not all vomit and shoe-shopping, though. Sometimes you really feel bad for them. Some of them are decent human beings who make bad choices or wind up in bad situations. Some of it is just sad.

Every once in awhile your brain hurts and simply refuses to process anything too deep. And as everyone but the biggest culture snobs know, books don't have to be good to be good.

If you like...: the occasional pop psychology, true crime, or bodice-ripper, and aren't the least bit ashamed of it, this book is for you.