Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

I swear, I won't make a habit of this, but I was kinda proud of the way this review turned out. Plus, if I hadn't already written about it somewhere else, it's exactly the kind of book I'd write about here. Such a good story, and nine kinds of fun.

In other news, I recently found myself in the unfortunate position of wanting to wear sandles to work but discovering that my toenail polish was horribly chipped. Then, I remembered an article I'd read in this month's Glamour about how to touch up your nails in two minutes while you're wearing your sandles. And it worked!

Let it be noted for the record that Glamour magazine impacted my life in a very real and immediate way, something that the novels of Philip Roth have not done even once.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Real Lady Lazarus

Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook*

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath once took a poetry class together, and were paired up at some point for a class exercise. In Plath's journals, she writes about this as "an honor," then proceeds to fret about needing a better haircut and to "get fixed up."

I love that Sexton could unleash Sylvia Plath's inner girly-girl.

The two are often compared, but for my money, Anne Sexton is the quintessential lady poet of the 20th century (with all the baggage, good and bad, that goes along with that). For starters, she was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking knock-out who gave sultry readings in a tight red dress. She was the poster child for The Feminine Mystique. And of course, she was suicidally crazy, carrying around a purseful of what she called her "kill me pills" (so I guess Courtney Love is a fan).

Middlebrook is an ideal biographer because she somehow managed to get all the relevant parties onboard for the project. Linda Gray Sexton, Anne's daughter and executor of her literary estate gave Middlebrook full access to everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything right down to her taped therapy sessions. On top of that, Middlebrook does a good job of balancing a thoughtful analysis of Sexton's deceptively accessible poetry with the more salacious aspects of her life. And despite the fact that Sexton was a self-absorbed, child-abusing, philandering confessional poet (shudders), she was also a sympathetic charmer, passionately devoted to her craft.

If I could choose any person, living or dead, with whom to get trashed in a hotel bar in the middle of the afternoon, it would totally be Anne Sexton.

If you ever went through a confessional poetry stage in college, if you're interested in the plight of pill-popping middle-class women in the 50s, or if you appreciate psychoanalysis in a retro-kitschy kind of way, this book is for you.
* I've seen many photographs of Anne Sexton wearing this halter dress. I covet this dress.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

In-Flight Entertainment

In about 7 hours I will be on my way to Pennsylvania to see the folks, the sibling, and her brood. I am incredibly excited, although not so much about the red eye flight with two layovers.

I once read that Connie Chung can fall asleep anywhere - like, in a warzone, in a helicopter, you name it. I cannot even fall asleep on the couch, much less an airplane. As a result, when I fly, I stock up big time. My reading for this trip includes:

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane W. Middlebrook
Cotton Comes To Harlem by Chester Himes

And for when I need a break, I also have the new issues of Glamour, Vanity Fair, Harp, and Premiere.

A good book can make five hours in an airplane seem like an evening at the movies. One time, reading Little Women and another time reading Revenge by Stephen Fry (a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo), I didn't even notice when the plane landed.

What are your favorite airplane books?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Things Fall Apart

The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity"

-"The Second Coming" -- W.B. Yeats

As Hurricane Katrina was gathering force in the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005, my husband and I were glued to the news and worried sick. Worry turned into fear when it hit. Then fear turned into grief when the levees failed and New Orleans flooded.

And then over the next few days, worry, fear, and grief slowly turned into rage.

Watching the news that week, you got the stories, but they were fragmented and filled with confusion and misinformation. Brinkley's book has just enough distance, time-wise, from Hurricane Katrina to put all the facts in order and provide the kind of comprehensive coverage that you couldn't get from even the best news sources in the thick of things.

Unfortunately, it's even worse than you thought. Rapes, sniper fire, cops turned bad, bureaucracy at its inefficient and indifferent worst. There were many heroes to emerge from the storm, and Brinkley really gives them credit where it's due, especially the Coast Guard, the Louisiana Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the medical professionals who chose to stay behind with patients too ill to evacuate.

But then there are the villains. What Brinkley really does well is to document their crimes, separating the incompetent from the actively evil. Ole "heck of a job" Brownie may have been Katrina's scapegoat, but he barely holds a candle to the NOPD, Mayor Ray Nagin, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (perhaps the biggest bad of them all), and the people of Gretna, Louisiana who prevented hurricane survivors from entering their city at gunpoint.

Get ready to scream, and then to sink into a deep, deep depression about the country you live in. That said, if you are an even semi-engaged resident of the United States, you ought to read this book.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


What Would Jackie Do?: An Inspired Guide to Distinctive Living by Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway

For once I agree with Publishers Weekly, who asks in their review of this book, "what would Jackie think about having her name attached to this...?" Still, I, for one, am glad this book is out there. Effortless etiquette is a skill that too few of us possess.

Plus, as style icons go, no celebrity or First Lady can touch her.

Take this, for example. Then think about every celebrity you've seen wearing oversized sunglasses in the past two years. While Jackie O looks classy, yet trendy, the same look on Nicole Richie just makes you want to reach for a can of Raid.

And Laura Bush might be the closest thing to a classy-looking First Lady we've had since 1963, but it doesn't change the fact that she has crazy eyes (and yes, if you do a Google image search for "laura bush crazy eyes" you get results).

If you like...: Go Fug Yourself, or quirkily amusing self-help books like Nerve's Guide to Sex Etiquette for Ladies and Gentleman (a very funny and useful book peppered with hilariously prim etiquette book-speak like "only the vulgarian would..."), this book is for you.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Roman à Chef

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski

I used to think about going to culinary school, until I realized that being a chef requires not only that you love cooking, but also that you love the manic, testosterone-fueled world of restaurant kitchens, insane work hours, and the psychotic segment of the human race drawn to professional kitchen culture.

After two days working in the kitchen of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, I learned that I don't love it. But I sure love reading about people who do.

The Perfectionist is ostensibly about the life and tragic death of master French chef Bernard Loiseau, who, plagued by debt, mental illness, and an obsessive fear of losing his Michelin stars, committed suicide in 2003. However, it's also about the grueling apprenticeship system through which French chefs were traditionally trained, the history of the Michelin Guide Rouge, and the transformation of French cuisine in the 20th century from haute to nouvelle to terroir.

Despite the difficulty of watching Loiseau's downward spiral for the last 100 pages, it's also the kind of book that makes you want to save up your money and spend a month eating and drinking your way through the French countryside with gluttonous abandon.

If you like...: Anthony Bourdain's books (the food ones, not the mystery ones) or The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute by Michael Ruhlman, this book is for you.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thanks Are in Order

To the apple of my eye, the Nick to my Nora, Brady, for his fact-filled and action-packed detective novel posts last week.

Thanks, sug.

Finding the Decent Genre Book in a Minefield of Steaming Crap

I'm a librarian, so in addition to reading a lot of books that I want to read, I also try to give genres that wouldn't ordinarily appeal to me a fair shake.

That said, I can't do chick lit. In my attempts to understand and appreciate the genre, I have thrown the following books across the room because I could actually feel them making me dumber:

Fashionistas, Sex in the City, Shopaholic, The Devil Wears Prada

Then, I found one I kind of like, Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. The book begins with our hero, Cannie, discovering that her ex-boyfriend has written, for a popular women's magazine read by everyone she knows, a column about their relationship entitled "Loving a Larger Woman." From that unpleasant shocker, an assortment of wildly unbelievable things happen to Cannie - from befriending an A-list celebrity to getting knocked up by her odious slug of an ex to a few others I won't spoil.

The thing is, as much as you may try to resist the book, it's eminently likable and punctuated with nice, poignant moments to balance out the ludicrous plot twists. And it must be said that those ludicrous plot twists, if you're feeling amenable to such a thing, do a nice job of providing the reader with some really satisfying vicarious wish-fulfillment.

You read, and think, "Yes, if I was in this horrible situation, I would be every bit as graceful and awesome as Cannie, and everyone would love me and see how grievously I was wronged, and all the bad people would suffer and pay for what they had done to me."

So yeah, if you're in that kind of a mood, you should totally read Good in Bed. Also, if reading the late Judith Moore's Fat Girl made you feel like throwing yourself off of something very high, Good in Bed goes down like a happy handful of Paxil by comparison.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Shamuses, Chislers, and Mugs Pt. III: The Truth Will Out

(Note: In writing this, the final installment of my increasingly long-winded series on classic hard-boiled private dicks, I would be remiss if I did not mention one Bob Koch. Besides being a Jack-of-All trades who is equally adept at harmonizing, the Glockenspiel, and writing obituaries, Bob's the guy who introduced me to Ross MacDonald. And several other fine pulp writers and filmmakers, for that matter. Also, he wrote a song with perhaps the finest title ever: "[Bob] Seger's Got a Knife".)

When I was asked what I would say about Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels and short stories, I replied thusly:

If we were to draw an analogy to punk rock (and why not?) it would break down like so.* Hammett is the Ramones or maybe the Sex Pistols, in that he was lean, mean, and to the point. His is the blueprint from which all others build. Chandler, on the other hand, is like the early Clash, say around "Complete Control." He picked up the gauntlet that had been dropped at his feet and proceeded to make it more complex, more vital, and, er, louder. This brings us to Ross MacDonald, who would be Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros or mid-to-late-period Replacements when they aren't messing about with reggae or saxophones, respectively: a little older, a little wiser, more reflective, but still brilliant. By the time MacDonald took it up, the genre was well-established. He writes within the confines of the genre while stretching and testing the boundaries, self-consciously perhaps but never in a winking or self-referential manner. In short? Class, all class.

Hammett gave us insight into what a detective actually does, and Chandler added a depth to the character of the detective. MacDonald, on the other hand, digs into the psyches of the criminals and the victims - who are often one and the same. He's much more interested in what makes the antagonist tick; Archer is often along for the ride, sometimes more a witness to the wreckage of human failings than an investigator. He's introspective, and ruminates over the costs of secrets and human weakness, but the focus is squarely on the guilty.

(The guilty parties here are pretty much everybody, in one way or another, even if it's only by virtue of having been twisted by something in their past that was out of their hands at the time. That said, it's no excuse - as far as Archer sees it, though he may sympathize - for killing to keep what happened to you a secret.)

Also, unlike Marlowe or the Op, Archer is usually found in a more middle- or upper-class milieu. And much like Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Archer's a little old to be getting involved in such shenanigans and gets knocked out a lot.

Based in Los Angeles, that noir standby, Archer haunts the entire "Southland" - the sprawl that stretches from (at the time) beach towns like Santa Monica and Venice, through Hollywood and the Central City, up to Pasadena, and over to the Inland Empire, Newport, and so on. Aside from the plotting, his novels are invaluable time capsules into that period of time when L.A. crossed over into the sixties. Archer himself is a shamus cast in the mold of Marlowe, but the birds he's chasing tend to be whacked out on bad acid or "reefers" instead of heroin and bootleg whiskey.

Typically, he's called in to do something along the lines of digging up dirt on a suspected golddigger who is allegedly after some family fortune, and then ends up exposing a decades-old crime that money and power had previously hushed up, although both tend to be ineffective in the long run. Archer's cases are like Greek or Shakespearian tragedies, where everyone is doomed for something that happened a while back and set into motion a chain of events steeped in guilt, innocence, and retribution like some Goldberg device driven by the engines of Fate and Freud.

As often as not, his cases span generations and are driven by the kinds of secrets that the wealthy and indolent hoard along with their jewels and stock portfolios. In MacDonald's hands Southern California looks a little like the decline of Rome, but everybody's tan and the femme fatales have studied French, while the heavies and mugs tend to be chauffers, or else kept men who failed to develop as businessmen or artists.

Of the many Archer novels out there, my favorite has to be either Find a Victim or The Drowning Pool. While the former finds Archer wrapped up in a suspicious fire in the hills overlooking L.A. and the latter involves a whole host of familial and psychological/sexual tangles, both are vintage MacDonald. In them, Archer is as much historian as snoop and the whodunit only becomes clear when he figures out the whodidit.

It's more Chinatown than The Maltese Falcon. For fans of Veronica Mars, this is more like the second season's mystery than the first season's Chandler-esque puzzle. If you're new to the genre, you might want to start out with Hammett or Chandler, but once you've gotten the steps down, MacDonald waltzes with the best of them.

* Other analogies that were considered but ultimately tossed out:

Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::Early Modernism:High Moderns:Postmodernism
Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::Flying Burrito Brothers:Uncle Tupelo:Son Volt/Wilco
Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::the first Star Wars movie:Firefly:Battlestar Galactica

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Shamuses, Chislers, and Mugs Pt. II: Trouble Is His Business

Next in a direct line from Hammett is Raymond Chandler. Chandler grabbed the baton from Hammett, doused it in kerosene, struck a match, and lit his cigarettes off of it. The Faulkner to Hammett's Hemingway, Chandler writes like Tom Waits sings and in reading his stories I often get lost, focusing on the words and losing track of the plot.*

As far as his prose goes, his trademark was the similes that later hacks would ape as they tried to write hard-boiled:

"Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off."

"The old man nodded, as if his neck was afraid of the weight of his head."

His most notable creation is, of course, Philip Marlowe. Chandler took the template laid out by Hammett and added a considerable depth of character to "the detective," who is more fully formed in Marlowe than in Nick Charles, the Op, or even (arguably) Sam Spade.

Marlowe is the quintessential noir gumshoe, all hard lines, hard knocks, hard knuckles, and a soft touch for the dames, the innocent, and the dead. An ex-cop, Marlowe is more likely than any of Hammett's creations to end up in serious trouble with the law for witholding evidence, either to protect a client or so the bulls don't muck up the case. He also drinks a bit, often on the job, mostly because he finds the whole "sifting through the mean and small details of human fallibility" thing a little depressing.**

All of this sounds pretty standard for a shamus, but that's mainly because it's become so deeply ingrained in the genre. And Marlowe's a cynic, sure, but he's not (100%) hopeless about it. He knows who he is and what he does, and he knows what the nasty corners of the world are like. Then he goes ahead, trudges through the muck, and solves the case whether he's been asked to or not, because somebody has to do it. He does it because deep down he's a moral and honorable guy who, once he takes on a case, pursues it to the end, usually at great physical and psychic cost to himself. Ever the philosopher, he sums it up at the end of a particularly nasty case:

"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now."

As far as I'm concerned, you can't go wrong by starting off with The Long Goodbye. In it, Marlowe (older now than in Farewell, My Lovely or The Big Sleep)does a drunk a nice turn and then gets drawn into a brutal murder case that leads from the mansions of Los Angeles to flophouses in Mexico, stopping off at a writer's colony and a number of clean, well lit places where they make a mean gimlet. As in the last post, I'm leery of revealing much more of the plot; instead, I'll just say the following and leave you with another quote. (It's hard to resist when the language is put together like it is in this one.)

At every turn, Marlowe does the right thing and gets nothing but trouble for it. It's part character study, part detective story, and part meditation on the nature of a certain kind of male friendship. When it came out, the NY Times described it as finding Marlowe more on the search for "some evidence of truth or humanity" than for a criminal.

And though the writing and the protagonist are here less fiery than in his earlier works, we still get nuggets like:

"She opened a mouth like a firebucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. I couldn't hear the laugh, but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed."

If you're a fan of anti-heroes, particularly those that are less Han Solo than Mal Renoylds, you will dig this book.

* When Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart were filming Chandler's The Big Sleep, they called him up to ask if a certain character had suicided or been murdered, and if it was the latter, who had killed him. Chandler's response was something along the lines of "Hell if I know." Having read the book, I think Chandler's inability to answer had more to do with his prodigous intake of Scotch than poor plotting; Marlowe figures it out.
** That, or he's been hit in the head a lot and needs a quick jolt. Ah, noir medicine: Pistol-whipped? Scotch. Possible concussion? Scotch. Fractured skull? Scotch. Drugged scotch? Coffee. New - well, only - friend turns out to be a bit of a bastard and leaves you hanging to answer for a murder rap? Gin. Scotch, after all, is for head injuries.