Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Guest Post: Shamuses, Chiselers, and Mugs (Oh My)

(Dear Reader,
This is the first in a series of several posts covering some of the greats of the hardboiled detective genre. It was supposed to be one post, and it was supposed to be done a couple of weeks ago, but I got to running on at the keyboard, and now it's a series of guest posts.

the lesser half of the webmistress.)

A year and change back, I ditched the cold midwest and pointed the grill of the car towards the promised land of California. When I got here, I moved into a shoebox of a studio apartment in a building built in the 1920s, in what is now Koreatown, and commenced to missing my better half something fierce.
Our old apartment, picture courtesy of our old landlords. Don't sue us.
The first night, I went to sleep in an apartment with no furniture, listening to car alarms and police helicopters, and - like Gob on Arrested Development - I thought "I've made a horrible mistake." A few nights later and still a bit shellshocked, I settled in with a stiff drink (to dull the pain and all) and looked for something to read.

One of the books I'd brought with me was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and, reading it, I realized that Marlowe was prowling streets I knew. I dug out some Ross MacDonald collections I'd been given by a friend, to whom I now owe a major debt, and there was Archer: driving down Sunset towards Alameda, or heading up the 101. As someone weaned on a diet of Southern Lit, where place is all and protagonists often imbibe more than is healthy, this was pretty much a sign from the Universe that L.A. would not suck, and that I'd even get out with my soul intact.

So, here's a brief tour through the best of the hardboiled genre. We'll start with Dashiell Hammet, progenitor of the genre, lunger,* and sometime screenwriter.

Of Dashiell Hammett much has already been written on this blog in regards to The Thin Man. To Mary's note about the author who brought us Nick Charles, a detective that (as Mary put it) is "not so much hard-boiled as he is happily pickled in gin," I would only add the following brief remarks and a few suggestions:

Hammett was a detective who turned to writing more than he was a writer of detective stories. He worked as a Pinkerton operative before WWI, then enlisted in the U.S. Army as an ambulance driver, where he caught the Spanish Flu and then tuberculosis. He took up writing (and serious drinking) relatively late in life, deciding to write what he knew best: the grimy, unglamorous work of the average detective. Sam Spade, unlike Sherlock Holmes, was not so much brilliant as dogged, armed more with a deep appreciation of human fallibility than with, say, the knowledge of the type of ash produced by every major brand of cigar. He made a nice chunk of change turning his books into scripts for Hollywood but a love of scotch and the ponies ensured that Hammett stayed broke pretty much all the time.

(And no wonder the Warners' loved him: his dialogue demands to be turned into a screenplay. He writes like Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell, and Carey Grant talk. Urkel, reading Hammett aloud, would sound like Charlie Parker.)

Hammett's prose is both lean and lively. Hemingway, that other WWI ambulance driver turned writer, was a big fan and arguably influenced by Hammet's writing. His dialogue crackles, and his plots twist like a burlesque dancer with a bad case of the jake-leg.

The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon are the most well known of Hammett's books, and both are stellar, but for my money you can do no better than Red Harvest.

Red Harvest follows Hammett's "Continental Op," a detective agency operative who - in the course of dozens of short stories and books - is never named. In it, the Op lands in Personville (called Poisonville by its residents) only to discover that the man who hired him is, according to a local hustler, "gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don't mind looking at bullet holes." The Op, naturally, feels a professional obligation to find out who bumped off his client. This obligation intensifies when he realizes that the recently departed was the one stand-up guy in a town so corrupt it makes D.C. look like Mayberry.

The initial murder is solved in about sixty pages. The next 150 or so find the Op on a one-man crusade, turning gangster against politico against gambler against crooked labor bosses and more crooked management bigwigs, getting so deeply caught up in the proceedings that by the time the dust settles he's arguably as culpable as the rest of them where the escalating body count is concerned. The climax finds our hero so jangled by the whole thing that he worries he's going "blood simple" and, in desperation, gets loaded on laudanum and gin to knock himself out. I'll leave the plot description at that, as saying anything more would be criminal.

Initially considered unfilmable for its cynicism and violence, it's the only of Hammett's novels without a legitimate bigscreen version and remains his great, relatively lost, cult novel. (Salon has a nice essay on it here that points out that the producers of Deadwood should be sending the man's heirs a royalty check.) Do yourself a favor and check it out: if this one didn't bear the critical mark of Cain, aka "the genre novel", it would be on college reading lists alongside of classics like The Jungle, Sister Carrie, McTeague, or The Great Gatsby.

(Yes. The Great Gatsby.)

Bonus read: For another less conventional story that also delves into the incredibly corrupt early 1900s political scene detailed in social histories like Triangle, check out The Glass Key - a sordid little novel about a local ward boss, a Senator's son on the wrong end of a blackjack, and a gambler who learns to be a detective as he goes along. It's Tammany Hall, but with blackjacks and such. Also good for fans of Miller's Crossing.

* A lunger, fyi, is somebody with TB. If they are appearing in a detective story, odds are they're a mug with a bright red complexion who coughs into a hankerchief a lot and doesn't seem particularly afraid to die. On the bright side, a coughing fit is a good time to sap the no-good fourflusher and make a break for the door. With that cough, his aim'll be off and he'll nick the doorframe instead of perforating you. See? Educational!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

How To Write a Left Wing Manifesto

I realize that, as a good leftie, I am the target audience for the glut of Bush-bashing books on the market. I'm supposed to love them, but I don't.

Why? Because most of them are hysterical, smug, and crappily written. It might seem nit-picky to dismiss a lot of these books over their execution when I support the politics. However, I'm not going to make excuses for bad books that make progressives look as wacky and unstable as Ann Coulter.

Plus, it doesn't have to be this way. If progressive writers would follow a few simple guidelines, they could write meaningful, influential books that reach a wider audience than the choir.

1. Stop trying to be funny if you're not (Dude, Where's My Country anyone?). Simmer down, Michael Moore, and stick to the facts. You're extremely good at certain things, but you're not as clever as you think you are. Also, you're not Jesus. The cover of this book makes me want to hork.

2. We understand that you might like to make some money off of this whole thing, but for the love of God, don't be so damn obvious about it. Books that seem like they were written in two weeks and researched entirely on the internet are just whorish.

3. While I don't care for him much either, I like books that give their readers a little more credit for appreciating subtlety and formulating complex opinions. I do not like books that envision their readers as left-wing automatons, running around in circles, frothing at the mouth, and shouting, "Bush is the devil" at regular intervals.

Some of these books are very very good, however. Two in particular are widely reviled in my household because they are the reason we do not eat meat. Bushwhacked by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser are well-researched and well-written books. They blend hard facts and numbers with in-depth investigative research that finds a human angle. And Bushwhacked in particular is charming and funny. This is how good activist writing is done.

I haven't read any similar books from the right (though I probably should), so I don't know if there are any good ones. Does such a thing exist, or is it all O'Reilly and Hannity-esque hacks and nutjobs? If you can think of any, let me know.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What Should I Read Next?

It has been brought to my attention that my blog has been "dour" and "no fun" this week, which is kind of true. That said, I defy you to read about slavery and Joan Didion's dead family back-to-back and be any happier about it than I was.

I think that a theme week would totally cheer up my reading habits. Any suggestions?

Also, coming next week:

Brady has some interesting things to say about detective stories, if he would ever finish writing them down.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

'England is a Nation of Starers'

Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud

The Goods: Chase-Riboud, in addition to being an acclaimed sculptor and poet, writes meticulously researched historical novels that tell the stories of history's oppressed and voiceless. She has previously written about Sally Hemmings, a harem girl of an Ottoman sultan, and the Amistad slave ship. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud follows the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi* woman born in South Africa during the Dutch and English colonization. Her family and her lover are killed by the Dutch, and she goes to Cape Town where she becomes a maid to a Dutch family. Her master's brother buys her with the plan to take her to England to exhibit her.

For the next 5 years, millions of people in England and France came to gawk, poke, and prod at a caged Saartjie, hoping to catch a glimpse of her 'Hottentot apron,' the traditional genital mutilation of the Khoikhoi. She was sent before the 'greatest' minds of France - naturalists, scientists, phrenologists and artists, all products of the Age of Enlightenment - who determined that Hottentots are not only inferior, they must be a different species altogether.

Saartjie died at the age of 27 in France, her body sold and dissected, and her skeleton displayed alongside animals well into the 1970s. In 2002, her remains were finally returned to South Africa.

Thoughts: Those are the facts; however, most of the story is told by Saartjie, though occasional chapters are narrated by the men who enslave her, as well as those who try to save her. Through her narration, Chase-Riboud creates as real and immediate sense of what exploitation feels like, and the psychic devastation that comes with being human property. The white men in the book are also well written, displaying fleeting moments of humanity and compassion - just enough to enable them to manipulate Saartje - but despite these lapses, they are monsters. And whatever emotions overtake them as they cart the 'Hottentot Venus' around the countryside, guilt is never one of them.

A good deal of their dialogue is lifted directly from the writings of thinkers of that age. Reading it, you'd think that 19th century science had nothing to prove other than the superiority of the 'white race.' Then again, I suppose that kind of obsessive search for an inferior being was the only way they could sleep at night. When Saartjie is raped by her captors, the justification they repeatedly use is, "Hottentots have only one word for virgin, woman and wife." It doesn't matter to them, so why should I afford her any respect?

Ugh ugh ugh. Not a happy read, but an excellent book.

If you like...: well-researched historical fiction like The Crimson Petal and the White or heart-wrenching postcolonial literature like Things Fall Apart and The God of Small Things, this book is for you.
* The name 'Hottentot' was given to the Khoikhoi by Dutch colonists and means 'stutterer.' Of course, the fact that the Khoikhoi learned Dutch fairly easily completely escaped their grasp. As far as the Dutch and English were concerned, the Khoikhoi language was nothing but gibberish. Many went so far as to say it was not a language at all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Disturbing Thoughts on Grief and the Elite

As I have mentioned before, I often do not like "good" books, which is to say, books that are well-reviewed in the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, and generally latched onto by well-educated, bookish members of the upper and upper-middle classes. Zadie Smith. Nicole Krauss. Ian McEwan. Writers who make people tilt their heads to one side, furrow their eyebrows, nod, and make contemplative little 'mmmm' sounds. There has been some talk about this kind of writer over at Ang's blog.

And actually, that comment thread is the reason I'm writing this. It was just too oddly timed. I started this post a few days ago, the purpose being to write about the problems I had with Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking. If you're not familiar with the book, it is a memoir of the time during which Didion's daughter is critically ill and lying in a coma. After returning from the hospital one night, her husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, has a heart attack and dies. It is tragic and heartbreaking, and it is a memoir of Didion's grief.

I've always liked Didion's writing. Everything she describes just sounds beautifully scorched and wasted. She is a precise and brutally honest writer. However, reading about the grieving process of a member of the intellectual and economic elite, I realized, is a jarring and oddly unsympathetic endeavor.

Right after I started to write about it, I read an interview with Didion from the L.A. Times, printed shortly after the book's publication. During this time, Didion's daughter had relapsed and died at the age of 39. Didion was frail, her weight had dropped to below 80 pounds. She was ravaged by loss.

After reading this, I thought, what kind of monster would I be to find fault with this book? Especially when these faults are not so much flaws as nagging class issues that stuck in my craw while reading it?

After Dunne's death, one of the first phone calls Didion makes is to a friend at the L.A. Times to arrange for Dunne's obituary. Something I hadn't known before working at a large public library is that most people living in major metropolitan areas don't get obituaries. Obituaries are reserved for important people. And I have to explain to at least one person a day that their loved one is not important enough to have an obituary (though I do it more gently). Of course, it makes sense that in a city of over 3 million people, not everyone who dies can have a recounting of their life in a paper of record. Still, it is unpleasant to consider the implications of this - who matters and who doesn't.

Other parts of the book included elements of the grieving process that were utterly foreign to me. Didion holes up at the Beverly Wilshire, a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, while her daughter is being treated at one of the finest hospitals in the country. At one point, she leaves the hotel and cruises the streets of posh, celebrity-filled Brentwood, devastated that she can't find her old house.

This is how the wealthy grieve, and I am not sure why this bothers me. It's not as though The Year of Magical Thinking is an instructive piece - it's a highly personal memoir.

Yet, I wonder if the idea that the personal is political applies here, or if I'm just, as I fear, a monster who lets the author's wealth and privilege interfere with my ability to empathize with her suffering. I wrote empathize here, but the words that popped into my head first were enjoy the book, which is obviously inappropriate. If the book is not meant to be instructive, nor to be enjoyed, it is meant to do something else.

It makes me think of the concept used to save the murderer from execution in His Girl Friday, 'production for use.' Didion is a writer; therefore, she writes. Her writing often takes the form of the personal essay, so it makes sense that she would write about something so profound and tragic as the death of her husband, and do so in an honest, cathartic way. Loss is ugly. Anyone who has ever watched their family members reduced to greedy animals when dividing up a dead loved one's personal possessions knows this.

My final thoughts on the matter, having worked through all of these thoughts? I'm not sure, but I don't feel very well about reading a memoir so gut-wrenching and awful, yet feeling so much about it that seems indecent and lacking in humanity.

You never know what's going to touch you or move you to tears. Sometimes it comes at the wrong times, and sometimes it doesn't come when it should. In Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, the speaker describes his love who gets wrought up reading the equivalent of 16th century dime novels, but doesn't understand her lover's pain. In the end, he says,

Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover's ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.

I think that makes a good deal of sense.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


According to Nancy Pearl, you ought to give a book 50 pages to win you over, and if it's not working for you by then, set it aside. That happened to me a lot this week, and sometimes, I didn't even make it to 50 pages.

First, I started to read If You Want Me To Stay by Michael Parker. This is one of those books that potentially falls under the category of 'Right Book, Wrong Time.' It's about three little boys who live with their mentally ill father, and lock themselves in the family truck when he's having an episode. During one of these episodes, he takes one of the kids hostage and cuts off his earlobe, so the other two drive off to find their mother a few towns over. It wasn't bad, I just didn't like the narrator's voice or the pacing.

Next, I took a stab at How I Became Stupid by Martin Page, which has an interesting premise: clever young man decides to abandon intellectualism in an attempt to become stupid enough to function in modern society. Unfortunately, it is one of those annoyingly precocious books by a young author who does not do a very good job of separating his own identity from the protagonist's. This results in lots of moments where you suddenly feel like you stopped reading the novel and stumbled instead onto the author's unedited journal entries. Yawn.

Then, I picked up Lancelot by Walker Percy, which was the most frustrating experience of all because this book is almost terrific, and the film, American Beauty, owes a lot to it. The story is told to an unknown listener in the narrator's room at the psych ward, and it's about a failed civil rights lawyer who, upon discovering his wife's infidelity and the fact that another man fathered his child, becomes free. Suddenly, he sees himself as a man who's been hibernating for years and has let himself go slowly to seed, and starts to remedy some of this. As much as I liked parts of it, I had to put the book down after about 150 pages because it's pretty racist. Maybe Percy was doing this on purpose, but I didn't stick around to find out. The whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, in desperation, I picked up Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer. This is the first book in a successful series that went on to become the highest rated program on PBS. I only lasted 10 pages into this one because, although I like cats and peppermint tea, I am not a senior citizen. Also, it turns out that I am not a fan of books about stodgy English barristers with domineering wives.

So much disappointment this week, but I am not discouraged. I returned to the Fiction department at the library during my lunch break today, and emerged with four more books. Surely, one of them won't suck. I really hate not having something good to read.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Girl Detectives Are the New Vampire Slayers

Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls by Bennett Madison

This Tuesday on Veronica Mars, our favorite girl detective will solve the bus crash mystery, and sadly, season 2 be over. Season 2 has had its problems, but the last few episodes have really cooked, and I'm totally baffled as to who the villain will be... there are so many likely candidates. All I know is, they'd better not kill Wallace.

After all the drama is over, I suspect I'm going to need some girl detective methadone to tide me over until September.

Enter Lulu Dark, a sharp-dressed dame from Halo City who is dragged against her will into the world of teen sleuthing when her Kate Spade knock-off is swiped at a rock show. Quickly, things become more sinister. At one point, Lulu muses, "There was the missing purse, the anonymous phone call, the weird girl known as Sally Hansen, the disappearance of Berlin Silver, and - scariest of all - the dead shark girl. They had to be related to one another - except maybe Sally Hansen - but for the most part, I couldn't figure out how."

As you can probably judge from the cover, the book has some annoying chick-lit tendencies including the cutely dippy best friend, the painfully obvious 'perfect guy' whom our heroine only sees as a friend... until the end, and of course, lots and lots of fashion fetishizing.

Still, it's a funny book, and surprisingly, a pretty darn good mystery story, too. The stakes aren't anywhere nearly as high as Veronica Mars, but Lulu Dark has a body count, stakeouts, chase scenes, and even a few red herrings thrown in for good measure.

If you liked...: Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn or Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (just imagine Miss Harriet M. Welch trading in her hooded sweatshirt and utility belt for hot pink cowboy boots), this book is for you.

And if you need more V. Mars methadone, over at Bookslut, Colleen Mondor is featuring girl detectives this month in her YA lit. column, Bookslut In Training. Bookslut rules.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Your Body is a Wonderland

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

Before reading this book, everything I knew about the medical profession came from either television or my friends' horror stories about medical school. Therefore, in my mind, surgeons were either the most arrogant, self-righteous doctors in the hospital, or they were like Chris Turk(leton) from Scrubs.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon who is neither of these. For one thing, he doesn't crack a single joke for the entire book. Not even a pun. I don't think he even describes himself smiling or laughing a single time. He's a bit of a grind, but a fascinating one who writes with as much honesty (and as little arrogance) about his successes as about the patients he nearly kills.

In a way, reading these essays makes you pray you never ever have to entrust your life to a doctor. The first section of the book is entitled "Fallibility," and includes essays about the mistakes that surgeons make. Turns out, they make a lot because of the unfortunate Catch-22 that you have to train new doctors to save lives, but in order to train new doctors, you're going to have to let them cut on people when they don't really know what they're doing.

The book also contains essays about medical mysteries that make you marvel at the strangeness of the human body. I mean, science has allowed us to transplant organs and fix bum tickers, but we still don't really understand everyday things like blushing, overeating, and nausea.

To most people, medicine is shrouded in mystery and doctors are scary. This book isn't really a sensational expose of what really goes on behind the knife. It's more of an attempt to bridge the gap between patients and doctors, and once you get past the stories about the intern who botches a central line or the girl who dies having her wisdom teeth removed, there's oddly, a kind of understanding at the end.

And Gawande's writing style is a little dry and methodical, but it's never boring. You just feel like you're in the hands of an extremely competent and thorough professional, and you hang on his every word. Which is, I guess, why he's a surgeon.

If you liked...: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, prepare to have a new favorite book because while Complications is similar, it absolutely kicks the shit out of Stiff.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Perfect Books, With a Grain of Salt

Late last night, the mister and I were chatting and I asked him, "What do you think is a perfect book?" We had previously been discussing the canon, postmodernism, sociology, and the ignorance of these kids today, so I should have known better than to expect a straight answer.

The intrepid sociologist replied, "For there to be a perfect book there has to be some external criteria against which the book is judged that everyone agrees on, which isn't gonna happen, so instead our definitions of the perfect book always adhere to some institutionalized guidelines, like the standards of the literary intelligensia, which just reproduce their elite status and are ultimately arbitrary anyway."

Long pause.


"I only wanted to know what is a perfect book to you."

"Oh. Right. Sorry."

So, we then proceeded to make a list of perfect books for the next hour. It came out something like this:

Most All-Around Perfect Book
Brady: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Mary: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Perfect Childhood Classic:
Brady: To Brooklyn With Love by Gerald Green
Mary: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Perfect Book You Didn't Quite Get At First, Then Realized Was Hilarious
Brady: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Mary: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Perfect Tearjerker
Brady: A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
Mary: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Perfect Shakespeare
Brady: The Tempest
Mary: Hamlet

Perfect Mystery
Brady: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Mary: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Perfect Book Featuring a Plucky, Precocious Heroine
Brady: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Mary: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Perfect Historical Sociology/Social History
Brady: Learning to Labor by Paul Willis*
Mary: Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro

Perfect History Shocker
Brady: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Mary: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson (runner up: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson)

Perfect Comic
Brady: Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Mary: 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Perfect High School Required Reading
Brady: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Mary: 1984 by George Orwell

Perfect Short Stories
Brady: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
Mary: The Grass Harp, Including A Tree of Night and Other Stories by Truman Capote

Perfect Malaise
Brady: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Mary: didn't like The Moviegoer, doesn't care for malaise

There were more, but these lists are probably much more fun to make than they are to read. And having said that, I think I understand more fully why the traditional canon is a racket.

* Brady wishes it to be known that, despite his endorsement of Dr. Willis's fine book, he has serious reservations both methodological and theoretical in regards to LTL. Still, it's damn funny in parts.