Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Rich Behaving Badly

Gone With the Windsors by Laurie Graham

In 1936, King Edward VIII ticked off just about every member of the English aristocracy by abdicating his throne for the love of a twice-divorced American commoner, Wallis Simpson. She wasn't particulary attractive, young, wealthy, or pleasant, but she had something that turns a king's head - the ability to boss him around.

Gone With the Windsors is a fictionalized account of how Simpson got her man, and alienated a country in the process, told through the eyes of an old school pal, Maybelle Brumby.

After being widowed, the newly wealthy and delightfully dippy Maybelle moves to London to enjoy the hospitality of her sister, Violet. Violet promises her brushes with royalty and introductions to interesting men, but can't deliver anything more than a half-witted viscount and dull holidays in Scotland. Determined to get in with a more glamorous social set, Maybelle realigns her loyalties with some old acquaintances, including Wally.

Maybelle's diary entries follow Wally's deft social maneuvering into the inner circle of Britain's royalty, and eventually, into the bed of HRH Wales. The book starts off like a cross between Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice, but turns out to be a lot more fun - imagine the cast of Clueless transported to pre-war England.

The royal gossip makes for fun reading, but Graham also sneaks in some subtle commentary on the attitudes of England's upper class, many of whom spent these years receiving Christmas cards from Mussolini and making excuses for Hitler.

As a result of her cluelessness, Maybelle makes a number of poor financial and social decisions during her time spent with the royals, but she's so endearing and goofy that it's hard not to spend the book rooting for her.

If you liked...: Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis or Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Lunchtime Poll About... Lunch

Wanting to beef up my culinary arsenal, I checked out a few Food Network books from the library today. Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking either. Page after page of recipes like Seared Scallops with Bacon, Tarragon, and Lemon, Panini with Bresaola, Endive, and Provolone, and Pork Rib Roast with Cranberry-Apricot Stuffing.

As a rule of thumb, if you can't describe it in less than five words, it's going to taste like something you get at one of those mediocre, blandly hip bistros you wander into when you and your sweetie can't agree where you want to go out, and then you wind up spending too much money on wine and wishing you'd stayed home and gotten corn dogs instead. The more different the recipe names sound, the more they taste alike.

Really, everything I know about cooking I learned from about five really good cookbooks.

New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill
Why It's Aces: High-brow and low-brow cooking co-exist in perfect harmony; pre-recipe notes that contain both interesting stories and helpful tips; charming photos
Stand-out Recipes: Katherine Hepburn's Brownies; Lee's Cold Sesame Noodles; Angela Palladino's Meatballs

Bay Tables
Cooking with the Junior League of Mobile, AL, you can have your lunch and drink it, too. Not only do southern women know how to cook, they know how to have fun doing it. Simple, elegant recipes that you can throw together in about two seconds.
Stand-out Recipes: Mixed Berry French Toast; Jambalaya; Banana Cake

The Ethnic Vegetarian by Angela Shelf Medearis
Why It's Aces: Ahem, can you say low-fat, flavorful soul food? Also includes great African, Cajun, and Caribbean recipes.
Stand-out Recipes: Hoppin' John; Muffaletta

My other favorites that you can't actually buy anymore include Outer Banks Recipes from the Blue Point Bar and Grill, otherwise known as the cookbook that single-handedly introduced recreational bread-baking to the Potts/McCoy household. Rosemary Foccacia to die for, not to mention a fine New Brunswick stew. And then there's the Madison Public Library staff cookbook. Leave it to a bunch of hippie librarians to put together a cookbook that makes Moosewood look like McDonald's.

But who am I kidding? Without the red and white checked Betty Crocker cookbook in my mom's kitchen, I never would have baked my first snickerdoodle.

What are the cookbooks you're lost without?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lost in Translation

I went to see The Black Dahlia last night, and while it was a socially entertaining evening, I have to say that the movie itself was quite possibly the worst thing I have paid to see on the big screen since Spawn.

Sometimes, when you see a bad movie, you suffer alone. You spend your two hours* bashing your head against the back of the theatre seat and praying for it to be over. But sometimes you have a night like my experience at The Black Dahlia, where the entire audience turns on the film so completely that it seems as though it must have been planned in advance.

And that, my friends, is something to see.

It began during a scene when Scarlett Johansson appears at the top of a staircase in her underwear, scowling down at Josh Hartnett**. It was supposed to be dramatic, but the cut was so weird, and the expression on her face so goofy, that everybody in the audience just busted out laughing.

When Scarlett Johansson in her underwear elicits laughter, it's fair to say that your movie has problems.

From there on out, it was like we, as an audience, had forged some unwritten agreement that it was okay to call shenanigans on this crapper of a flick. We laughed in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. We yelled instructions to the characters onscreen. Some, including the gentleman seated next to me, voiced their displeasure loudly. His remark probably got a bigger laugh than anything that was intentionally written into the script.

People around the theatre were bashing their heads against the backs of their seats, praying for it to be over, but it was okay. Because we had spent $14 for our swanky Arclight seats, and we were all in this thing together.

As a sidenote, The Onion gave this thing a good review, lending credence to my long-standing theory that their film reviews should be lumped in with the satire section.

So yeah... don't go see this movie. Pick up James Ellroy's Dahlia instead. And if you've already seen Brian De Palma's monstrosity and need to calm down in a hurry, rent L.A. Confidential, watch until the giggling/rage subsides, repeat as needed.
* Who made the rule that all movies need to be at least 2 hours long? It's gotten out of control.
** This man is handsome, and his hard-boiled voiceovers in both Dahlia and Sin City are great. He has the face. He has the voice. Yet, something very, very important is missing.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Way Down in This Subbacultcha

Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz

I started listening to the Pixies around the same time I started listening to the Replacements, which is to say, about ten minutes after they broke up. From that point on, I've always felt that I missed out on quite a bit of rock and roll fun by not having been born about eight years earlier than I was. That, and say, maybe having grown up in Boston or Minneapolis instead of western Pennsylvania.

The time and place in which the Pixies found themselves was kind of an odd one, in good ways and bad. On the one hand, the music industry hadn't gotten completely disgusting yet. On the other, by making records in the years before grunge, the Pixies wound up in that thankless Velvet Underground role of influencing practically every decent band in the 90s, and making very little money while they were actually together.

Fool the World is most interesting when its subjects are talking about the Pixies' early years - how they met, the Boston scene, their first studio recordings, first European tour, etc. What's especially funny is how almost everyone interviewed, from tour managers to record label folks to studio engineers remarks upon what a "polite" and "normal" group of people they were. Kim Deal used to come to gigs straight from her office job and play songs like "Caribou" dressed like a secretary, and Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis) called everyone "sir."

The years leading up to the Pixies' break-up are pretty well documented and much speculated upon. In this book, it's all much less dramatic, which makes sense, because the story isn't that interesting. Bands break up all time, usually for about the same reason - it's not fun anymore. This part of the book is handled very matter-of-factly, and without any gossip or sensationalism. And finally, there's a nice section on the Pixies reunion tours and a "where are they now" chapter on all the folks who helped the band out over the years.

If you're a Pixies fan, this is a no-brainer, but if you like...: oral music histories like Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk or band biographies that are all about the music like Guided By Voices: A Brief History, this book is for you, too.
As a postscript, I tried to restrain myself, but my love of making Top Five lists is entirely too strong. Five best Pixies songs:

HM: Letter to Memphis, Monkey Gone to Heaven
5. Gouge Away
4. Holiday Song
3. Debaser
2. Dig for Fire
1. Bone Machine

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Run, Don't Walk

Pride of Baghdad written by Brian K. Vaughan
art by Niko Henrichon

After a 2003 bombing raid in Iraq, four lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. This book is about them, and it's great.

Vaughan's previous comics haven't shied away from sensitive issues, up to and including 9/11 (see Ex Machina). The problem that many writers have addressing hot button, polarizing issues is that they either bland it up with mushy platitudes that offend or please no one, or they sink their teeth so deeply into an ideology that it's hard to find the story behind the grand prouncements.

Vaughan's work doesn't have these problems. And needless to say, Pride of Baghdad is about a whole lot more than lions.

As added endorsement, let me add that this graphic novel was released today. At approximately 6:50pm, I was at Golden Apple Comics, having my copy signed by Brian K. Vaughan himself. By 8:45, I had finished it, and ran right over to the computer to write this.

If you liked...: WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely or Watership Down by Richard Adams, this book is for you.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rachel Cohn Is Cooler Than You

Shrimp by Rachel Cohn

In the beginning, there was S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, and lo, the teens were portrayed realistically, and the parents were ticked and the school boards were informed of their displeasure. And the teens did eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and learned that they were not alone in their dysfunction and ennui. And lo, it was pretty good.

But then something unfortunate happened. In the interest of creating realism, young adult fiction lost its way, and by the mid-80s, you couldn't swing a cat in the Waldenbooks without hitting a rack full of depressing trash filled with divorced parents, 13-year-old smack addicts, teen prostitutes, dead siblings, dead best friends, dead boyfriends, and dead ponies. My teen angst bullshit now has a body count, indeed.

In the past ten years, things have gotten a lot better and a lot less grim. One of my favorite authors who has had something to do with that is Rachel Cohn, who exploded on the scene in 2002 with Gingerbread, and has pretty much published two books a year ever since. Cohn's books teeter on the brink of self-conscious hipness, but manage to speak a language that resonates with teen readers. Additionally, Cohn does a good job of balancing ugly realism with the kind of escapist fantasy worlds that girls might actually want to inhabit.

In Gingerbread, our heroine Cyd Charisse has been expelled from boarding school and is back at home with her loathsome and loaded stepfather and mother, Sid and Nancy (no lie). She's a sullen, spoiled ingrate. But she's also dealing with some very bad, very serious stuff that her parents don't know about. On top of all that, she's been dumped by her surfer dude, coffee-slurpin', spiky haired soul mate, Shrimp. Fed up with her hellion antics, Sid and Nancy decide to send Cyd to NYC to spend a few weeks over the summer with her real dad. While she's there, Cyd Charisse meets her dad and half-siblings, learns about her complicated family history, and in the process, a great deal about herself.

This post has already dropped one Heathers reference, but here's another. Cyd Charisse's older half-brother plays in a band with his partner called My Dead Gay Son and runs a coffee shop where they have lunchtime polls with the regulars. I love this character so much I wish he were real.

Gingerbread is all about Cyd Charisse learning to deal with her family issues. Its sequel, Shrimp, is about Cyd figuring out what to do with the aforementioned soul mate as they start their senior year of high school and try to patch up their relationship. It also addresses another of Cyd's problems, the fact that she has no female friends other than an elderly nursing home resident named Sugar Pie. In the first book, Cyd learns how to be a daughter. In the second, she learns how to be a friend.

But, you know, without all that icky "I learned a valuable lesson about life" kind of tone to the writing.

If you like...: New Wave, punk rock, espresso, combat boots, and big cities on both coasts, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Whatever You Do, Don't Think of an Elephant

The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd is best known as a highly successful and influential graphic designer who has done book covers for everyone from David Sedaris to Donna Tartt to Haruki Murakami. If Chip Kidd does your book cover, it will a) look awesome, and b) probably result in you selling more books than you would have otherwise.

Then, just because he's a show-off, Mr. Kidd proceeded to write a book that has no business being as good as it is. The Cheese Monkeys had me at this sentence: "Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch that if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government."

Our narrator quickly falls in with a bad crowd, most notably one Ms. Himillsy Dodd, a kind of art school Holly Golightly, with whom everyone is in love. However, the book doesn't really kick in until second semester, when our narrator and his buddies find themselves enrolled in Introduction to Graphic Design with an eccentric and ill-tempered instructor named Winter Sorbeck. Class sessions with Winter are not quite standard for an Eisenhower-era state university (imagine Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets' Society with a penchant for cheap booze and verbally abusing students).

For one class assignment, Winter tells the kiddies to design a sign that would get them picked up by a passing car if they were stranded miles from campus in the middle of winter. Then he packs them up into a bus with their signs and strands them miles from campus in the middle of winter.

The book turns a little ugly at the end, but class assignments are so much fun to read, you almost wish the book consisted of nothing but various scenes of Winter tormenting his students with madcap graphic design problems. There are two kinds of college art/drama/creative writing classes: the ones where the professor gives everyone A's for showing up and not eating the paste, and the ones where everyone sits around after class pulling at their hair, chain smoking, and asking, "for the love of God, what does the woman WANT from us?"

Some art is definitely good, some is definitely bad, and some is just a matter of opinion. And watching a bunch of students try to figure out what's good this semester (e.g. "throw in some unresolved ambiguous sexuality," "do the sleepwalking scene like a drug-addled 50s housewife with a Southern accent," or "glue some coffee grounds on it and call it 'mixed media'") is always fun to watch.

If you liked...: Dan Clowes' Art School Confidential (comic or film), this book is for you.