Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Obligatory Best Books of 2007 List: Nonfiction

1. 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose
A couple of year ago my friend, Pat Woolf, introduced me to Chris Rose's post-Katrina columns in the Times-Picayune, and I became an avid reader. This compilation of columns on life in the Big Uneasy, the oddly funny, the gut-wrenchingly sad, and the too twisted for color television, is far and away the best book I read this year. A couple of months ago, Rose was invited to appear on Oprah for her Katrina anniversary show. Problem was, they only wanted him to talk about his experience with PTSD and depression; he was explicitly forbidden from mentioning his book, which had been released the week before. Clearly, I do not have Oprah's hit-making track record with book recommendations, but if she wouldn't do it, I feel obligated to say my little bit on Rose's behalf.

2. The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski

I heard my boss talk about this book during a program at the liberry, and I think he summed it up best. So, to paraphrase him, Buck O'Neil was such a big-hearted and charming man that he's often idealized. Posnanski presents a realistic O'Neil, a man who sometimes gets tired and cranky, who wishes he'd been a better husband. However, by taking him down from the pedestal, O'Neil becomes even more admirable -- an extraordinary human being, not just a baseball figurehead. Two hundred pages isn't nearly enough time to spend with him.

3. The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond
This unbelievable true story of a woman who kidnapped poor children from their families, and sold them to wealthy adoptive families, and whose monstrous legacy impacts U.S. adoptees to this day had me gasping (and cussing) within the first five pages.

4. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
Another unbelievable and shocking account, Eddie Chapman's adventures as a double agent for MI-5 during World War II read like something straight out of a Ken Follett spy novel.

5. Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe

Roiphe's highly readable account of seven literary marriages shows how very unconventional people made a go of a very traditional institution. And how H.G. Wells was not going to win any husband of the year awards.

6. Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
The always engaging and frank Gawande turns in another stellar collection of essays. Whether you're a medical professional or a patient, it's impossible to come away from one of his pieces without a more thoughtful, nuanced perception of health care.

7. Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen
Lindeen's story of paying her dues big time in a band that only achieved mid-level success is funny, touching, and many cuts above the average rock and roll memoir.

8. Ask a Mexican: Everything You Wanted to Know About Mexicans but Were Too Politically Correct to Ask by Gustavo Arellano

While the premise of Arellano's popular syndicated column may seem, um, wrong, this collection is consistently entertaining, well-informed, and appropriately wise-assed. Whether he's dealing with xenophobic Minutemen, well-meaning gringos, or confused third generation Latinos, Arellano spins even the most offensive, empty-headed questions into cultural studies gold in 500 words or less.

9. Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

In 1997, Sheffield's wife, Renee, died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31. Sheffield reflects on her life, and the music that brought them together in this incredibly sad and sweet memoir.

10. The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh
Walsh goes the extra mile to create an account that perfectly captures the messed up, drunken angel spirit of the 'Mats, even though fans probably would have gobbled up any old thing.

I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Alex Chilton turns 57 today. How does he stay so damn good-looking?

I plan to put on Like Flies on Sherbert later tonight, and listen to his wonderfully depressing, slurry cover of "Boogie Shoes."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Death of a Prime Minister

An interview with Benazir Bhutto, from the Nov. 2007 issue of Glamour magazine:

"We have to deal with the madrassa system [of fundamentalist Islamic education]. The madrassa is supposed to be a school. But the law of the land does not allow you to teach people to kill others in the name of religion. These schools have become a decoy—they have suicide bombers, they have rocket launchers, they give refuge to militants. These people are teaching hate, and I think that should not be permitted. When I was prime minister the World Trade Center had already been attacked [this was the first attack, in 1993]. So we arrested the mastermind of that attack. We found out his connection to some of the madrassas. Then we started cleaning up the madrassas, and this is what led to the backlash against my government."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh

It's incredibly tempting to allow this review to devolve into a shortlist of my favorite personal recollections about the Replacements. In fact, the only thing holding me back is the knowledge that everybody latches onto the same things about the Replacements, and has the same sorts of insights.

I know this for a fact because I wrote an essay about them in college, before all those Replacements essays and personal narratives were easily available on the internet. I wrote the thing in a freakin' vacuum, and although it was judged good, and published in this compilation of the year's best essays written at my school and I still think it has some nice stuff in it, it sounds exactly like every other essay that has ever been written about the Replacements.

Walsh's book, however, does not. Sure, there's a healthy sprinkling of stories from people whose big brothers and sisters passed down their 'Mats mix tapes, and people who saw a show or two; however, most of the book's interviews come from folks who were there, who knew the band, and who helped them along on the way up. It's a Twin Cities townie kind of book, and Walsh's interviews soak up that mid-80s so uncool it's cool Midwestern indie rock vibe that never really ended.

Words from Paul, Tommy, and clearly, Bob, are clipped from previously published interviews; however, there are plenty of good bits from Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap, both of whom come across as thoughtful, diplomatic, stand-up guys. Others interviewed extensively for the book include Twin/Tone founders Peter Jesperson and Paul Stark, Soul Asylum guitarist and founder Danny Murphy, band friends and family members, and Alex Chilton, who is, oddly enough, pleasant as punch and talkative, to boot.

Does the whole story get told? Of course not. It probably never will be, but All Over But the Shouting is just about everything a fan could ask of an unauthorized Replacements book. Besides, a girl's gotta have some mystery.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Obligatory Best Books of 2007 List, Which I Will Enjoy Making Way Too Much: Fiction

There's a little bit of everything here -- my favorites of the year include some horror, some crime, some historical fiction, and even a YA novel.

1. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
When I reviewed this book in June, I said it was the best thing I'd read all year. It held up. And I haven't been so thoroughly terrified by a book since I read It under the covers in 8th grade.

2. Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee
Gee's fictionalized account of the events surrounding Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" has steamy, forbidden romance, regicidal plots, and the best, wittiest dialogue of any book of 2007.

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The story of Dominican uber-geek Oscar de Leon, his family, and the bloody dictatorship of Trujillo actually lives up to all its glowing reviews, and then some.

4. World Without End by Ken Follett
Because I'm a sucker for a big fat medieval soap opera, especially when it involves the plague.

5. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
Even though it's not quite as good as its predecessor, The Lies of Locke Lamora (which made my Best of 2006 list), Lynch does things with a plot that shouldn't be possible, probable, or attempted at all by lesser writers, which is pretty much everyone.

6. The Song is You by Megan Abbott
Based on the unsolved disappearance of Hollywood bit player Jean Spangler in 1949, Abbott's second novel is pulpy, thrilling, pitch perfect L.A. noir.

7. Them by Nathan McCall
McCall's thought-provoking novel about the impact of gentrification on Atlanta's Fourth Ward never shies away from uncomfortable truths, even though its characters do -- sometimes with tragic results.

8. Dancing to 'Almendra' by Mayra Montero
Not technically a 2007 release, since it was published in Spanish in 2005; however, Montero's story of a young Cuban reporter tracking down the connections between a gangster gunned down in a New York barber shop and a hippo gunned down in a Havana zoo is too good to leave off the list.

9. Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki
In addition to medieval soap operas, I'm also a sucker for big messy family sagas. Farooki's story of a Bangladeshi-Pakistani family bound together by an almost congenital penchant for deception and betrayal delivers big drama with a light, almost whimsical touch.

10. Beige by Cecil Castellucci
The bland, shy Katy is shipped to Los Angeles for the summer to live with her ex-junkie punk rock dad, and big city hijinks, unlikely friendships, and un-lame personal growth ensue. Why were young adult novels not this cool when I was growing up?

Next week, the best nonfiction of 2007.


Out of idle curiosity, I decided to find out how many books I've reviewed this year.

Turns out, there were 95 of them in 2007. This does not count books Brady reviewed that I did not read, cookbooks, various comics rants, books I plan to review before the end of the year, or books I reviewed for other places. Throw those in, and it's at about 130.

I'll admit, I did experience a brief moment of "Holy crap, I have no life." But then I thought about all the things I did this year that did not involve books, and realized there were a whole lot of them, many involving the company of other people. And then I felt better.

In fact, I felt sort of awesome.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dorothy Parker on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key

Stumbled upon this tonight while idly browsing through The Complete New Yorker DVD Set I got for Christmas last year, from the April 25, 1931 issue:

"It is true that he has all the mannerisms of Hemingway, with no inch of Hemingway's scope nor flicker of Hemingway's beauty. It is true that when he seeks to set down a swift, assured, well-bred young woman, he devises speeches for her such as are only equaled by the talk Mr. Theodore Dreiser compiled for his society flapper in "An American Tragedy." It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn. And it is also true that he is a good, hell-bent, cold-hearted writer, with a clear eye for the ways of hard women and a fine ear for the words of hard men, and his books are exciting and powerful and - if I may filch a word from the booksy ones - pulsing. . . Brutal he is, but his brutality, for what he must write, is clean and necessary. . .He sets down only what his characters say, and what they do."

The Glass Key, however, she describes as a bit labored. Fair enough, but it (and Red Harvest) did make a heck of a movie.

Also, come to think of it, Hammett and Parker would have been a great team in a screwball comedy.

* If there is a nerd in your life, you should seriously consider getting them The Complete New Yorker. Thanks, dad!

Monday, December 17, 2007

"There Goes the Neighborhood": Them by Nathan McCall

Them by Nathan McCall

In Nathan McCall's examination of the dark side of gentrification, Barlowe Reed is a printer who lives in Atlanta's Fourth Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pushing 40, Reed decides it's time to settle down and sets about trying to buy the house he rents from his evasive, white landlord.

The reason for the landlord's reluctance soon becomes clear as realtors begin snooping around the neighborhood, and striking deals with its residents. Soon, "For Sale" signs start popping up in front yards, and moving vans carting white middle class suburbanites and their Pottery Barn furnishings begin to appear in front of the houses. And whitey has some definite ideas about how "their" new neighborhood ought to be shaping up.

Longtime residents of the historically black Fourth Ward are initially wary of their new neighbors, and vice versa; however, these feelings quickly evolve into something much uglier. Reed strikes up a tentative friendship with his next-door-neighbor Sandy Gilmore, a well-meaning, if annoyingly naive white woman. Sandy is determined to fit into the Fourth Ward, while her husband, Sean, adopts more of a siege mentality. While Reed and Sandy attempt to broker some kind of peace in the neighborhood, Sean throws in, almost gleefully, with their "us versus them" white neighbors.

The book is strangely reminiscent of Tom Perrotta's suburban wastelands, with national dramas being enacted on a local scale. McCall does an excellent job of handling all sides of the class and race warfare that erupts in the book, and hints at the idea that the source of the problem lies more with the faceless realty companies and civil bureaucracies (entities which Reed uniformly refers to as "Caesar") than with individual players. Additionally, Reed is a fully realized and wonderfully complex character, whose attitude towards the future of his neighborhood shifts believably during the course of the book.

Supporting characters, unfortunately, are a bit more wooden and sometimes fall into caricature. However, McCall still carries out that delicate task of writing a book that addresses big, sometimes abstract issues head-on without sacrificing the personal struggles of most characters and their stories to didacticism. It's one of my favorite books of the year, and dare I haul out the term, an important one.

Bits and Pieces

The always incredible "David House" in Hancock Park is aglow in all its holiday splendor.

The 1947project offers a selection of gift ideas for the criminally minded.

In a rant against the wussy, oversexualized Disney Princesses, Barbara Ehrenreich stops just short of calling the Disney Corporation a bunch of pederasts.

And finally, Arthur C. Clarke reflects upon the space age, extraterrestrial life, his 90 orbits of the planet here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Filing Is My Forte": Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

As she prepares to graduate from high school, pep squad captain Lois Lenz is feeling awfully mixed up about her future and about her feelings for her gorgeous best friend, Faye. However, she's resigned to attending the local community college, pledging a sorority, and settling down like a good 1950s girl. Or, that is, until the school guidance counselor singles her out for her remarkable organizational skills, and offers to set her up with a secretarial position.

Despite her mother's fears of Communists, white slavers, and other threats to the virtue of small town girls, Lois strikes out for Bay City and the prestigious advertising firm of Sather & Stirling. As one concession to her worried mom, Lois does move into a women's boardinghouse, the Magdalena Arms. She's thrilled to be surrounded by vivacious career girls like herself, although she can't help noticing that they all seem a little, well, queer.

But that's nothing compared to life at Sather & Stirling, where no one is quite what they seem and everybody has something to hide. Lois soon finds herself swept up in blackmail plots, missing persons, and sinister filing schemes, with a predatory boss and duplicitous co-workers, to boot. Armed only with her wits and her copy of the Standard Secretary's Desk Reference, Fourth Edition, Lois must prove that she has what it takes to make her way in the business world. But surely there's time for a little bit of love and self-discovery along the way?

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary may have a saucy premise, but somehow manages to be steamily PG-13. Nolan focuses more attention on a colorful cast of characters, and a terrifically fun plot that embraces the tropes of lesbian pulp and runs with them. Not just for a gay audience, Lois Lenz will appeal to lovers of all things pulp, camp, and cult.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cookbooks for Music Lovers

It's time for another fresh-baked batch of cookbook gift ideas. While each of these books include a few sad bachelor/strung out junkie/demented 50s housewife recipes, you'll be surprised who pulls their weight in the kitchen. Pearl Jam and Young MC can cook for me anytime. Annette Funicello, not so much

Rappers' Delights: African-American Cookin' With Soul by Al Pereira

It's my belief that any cookbook that contains Flavor Flav's recipe for Rice Pilaf is worth checking out. Especially when the instructions end, "Then it's ready for Flav, I'm tryin' to tell you right now!"

Other drool-inducing soul food entries include Queen Latifah's Royal Turkey Cutlets, Kool Moe Dee's Shrimp Scampi, and Just-Ice's Hot Curried Goat.

The Country Music Cookbook by Dick and Sandy St. John

The St. Johns have compiled two music cookbooks, both of which attempt to mash the title of a hit song by the musician in with the name of the recipe. As a result, you wind up cooking stuff like "Achy Breaky Garlic Bread Sticks" and "The Devil Goes Down to Georgia for Charlie's Diet Chili."

Silly, yes. However, their hearts were in the right places, as all proceeds from the book went to the National Music Foundation. And they got a really nice turnout, with all the big country stars submitting in force. So, if you've ever wondered what Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton make for dessert, now you can know.

The Rock and Roll Cookbook by Dick and Sandy St. John

And I've saved the wackiest for last. Following the same format as the Country Music Cookbook, Dick and Dee Dee have assembled a truly bizarre assortment of musicians for this collection (which includes a forward and recipe by Pamela Des Barres).

The contributors include a large number of doo-wop and R&B groups and 60s teen heartthrobs, but then you'll turn the page and find a cornbread recipe from Fred Schneider of The B-52s or Kurt Cobain's recipe for squash soup or Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols instructing you to eat his recipe with your fingers. And then there's some artists who would only be included in a cookbook published in 1993: The Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum, and yes, Hammer (as in, please don't hurt 'em with your barbecued ribs).

And again, the recipe titles are great. A couple of choice ones include: "All I Really Want to Do Is Make You Salade Nicoise" and "My Boyfriend's Back 'Cause He Loves My Mocha Cheesecake."

Hey la, hey la.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sadly Beautiful: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

"It's about a married couple, Ambrose and Zappora, but everyone calls her Zipper. And they're a team, and they've been married for years, but are still in love. And when Ambrose is 50, he goes to the doctor for a physical and finds out he has a month to live."

"Now, when Ambrose was a little boy, he was obsessed with travel, and he'd always write letters to the embassies in other countries saying he was planning a visit, and would they please send him 'any and all information concerning their fine country.' So when he finds out he's going to die, he and Zipper go on a trip to all the places in the world they found most beautiful or special, in alphabetical order. A is for Amsterdam, B is for Berlin, C is for Chartres."

"They go to all these wonderful places and do romantic things, and they try to have fun. But it's too sad, and they can't help getting crabby with each other even though it's the last trip they'll ever take together. And when they get to Istanbul, they have to go home because he gets too sick..."

And at that point in recounting The End of the Alphabet to Brady, I burst into tears.

It's a tiny book, barely over 100 pages. However, the sadness is packed in tight, and not a word of it is banal or corny or emotionally manipulative. It's a beautifully written book.

If you liked...: About Alice by Calvin Trillin or Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield, this book is for you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Gentleman Spy: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Okay, this one is total Dad-bait, but Macintyre's account of Eddie Chapman, a small time crook, safe blower, and Lothario turned double agent, is one of those thrilling true stories that actually reads like fiction.

While being held in a German prison camp in France, Chapman's criminal past and vocal hatred of Britain attracted the attention of the Abwehr. He was recruited and trained as a Nazi spy, and dropped into the English countryside with a radio, British currency, a cyanide capsule, and a mission to destroy a British aircraft factory. He'd warmed to his Abwehr mentors, and they to him; as far as they knew, Chapman was a loyal Nazi spy.

However, the first thing Chapman did when he landed was to surrender to the British Secret Service. And the MI-5 had plans for him.

What makes the book so captivating is the complexity of Chapman's character. He was, before the war, an uneducated crook, yet he never failed to charm and enchant those who met him. When deciding what to do with the captured Chapman, a Secret Service agent asked Chapman's old buddy filmmaker Terence Young (who would go on to direct three Bond movies) for a character reference.

Young told him, "One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probably that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out."

If he'd been born in another time, who knows what would have become of Eddie Chapman? But war, which frequently makes monsters of men, gave Chapman's considerable talent for treachery and deception a legitimate outlet, and arguably, turned him into a hero.

If you like...: the spy novels of John Le Carre or Ken Follett (especially The Eye of the Needle, which resonates more than a little with the details of Chapman's life), this book is for you.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Cookbooks for Eccentric Friends and Family

Cookbooks make holiday great gifts, especially if they're selected with the personality of the recipient in mind. A Food Network cookbook can appeal to anyone, and is hence, a lousy gift, while something like The Official Three Stooges Cookbook or The Ethnic Vegetarian will win you major thoughtfulness points. Here are a few hand-picked goodies -- perhaps one will be perfect for the oddball in your life.

For the historical re-enactor:
Festive Feasts Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

Everything you need to craft ten themed period dinner parties, including a meal at the court of Lucrezia Borgia, a banquet with the Mughal Emperor, or dinner with Queen Elizabeth I. Published by the British Museum, the illustrations are exquisite.

For the surrealist:
The Futurist Cookbook by F.T. Marinetti

At once a manifesto and an epic joke, the meals formulated by "Futurist Aeropoet" Marinetti lean more towards revolutionizing pre-Fascist Italy than the table. At least 2/3 of the introduction is a rant against pasta, but the menus themselves are something to see: the Extremist Banquet, the Heroic Winter Dinner, and the Declaration of Love Dinner, in which the courses are named for the stages of a seduction. Hot stuff.

For the lover of kitsch:
Liberace Cooks!: Hundreds of Delicious Recipes for You from His Seven Dining Rooms as told to Carol Truax

When Carol Truax asked Liberace, "What do you do with seven dining rooms?" Liberace replied, "Come to Hollywood, and I'll show you." The book is divided into sections, each including recipes that would be appropriately served in one of Lee's dining rooms: the club room, the terrace, the formal dining room, or even in the television room. The recipes will make you wish you could have been a fly on the serving dish at one of Liberace's cookouts on the loggia or heaping a plate at one of his Vegas-style buffet dinners. However, my favorite is the "Do It Yourself and Eat It Yourself" chapter, which is bachelor cooking at its most refined. We mere mortals would consider these dishes the makings of a fine brunch, while Liberace probably just whipped them up for himself and ate them over the stove.

Bon appetit! More to follow...

Bits and Pieces

From Judith Freeman's excellent-looking The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, a map of Chandler's 35 homes, 24 of which were in Los Angeles, and one of which I recently visited.
(Via LAist)

And from today's recipe round-up:

Christmas Cookies from Around the World: Food Blogga's diabolically clever scheme to acquire cookie recipes. I feel strangely compelled to make Finnish Christmas Tarts.
Sweet Potato Scones
Shrimp and Grits (and they're cheese grits, too!)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Children for Sale: The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

A friend of mine once had Victorian-style business cards made up that read, "Joe Leo, Purveyor in Fine Human Infants." Hilarious, right? I always thought so, until I learned about Georgia Tann, a woman who kidnapped and sold children out of her Memphis orphanages from the 1920s until her death in 1950.

At the turn of the century, adoption wasn't terribly popular, as orphans and illegitimate children were considered to be innately inferior. Children most likely to be adopted on the Orphan Trains that took loads of children west were older boys who looked like they could do heavy labor.

Georgia Tann helped make adoption appealing to American families, even if they only happened to be wealthy or middle class white ones. Children were adopted to be children, not unpaid labor, which seems to have been her only positive contribution to the institution.

Tann brokered over 5000 adoptions during her tenure in Memphis, and raked in over $1 million doing it under the legitimate front of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Her clients included state and local officials, judges, and Hollywood stars, including Dick Powell and June Allyson and Joan Crawford. Undoubtedly, she liked associating with these types, but even more, she enjoyed the leverage this gave her over them. These placements allowed her to run her dirty business without oversight or censure, and also allowed her to have laws changed when they hampered her methods. Having the notorious Boss Crump in her corner didn't hurt either.

Tann believed that adoption was good for orphans. She also believed it was good for children born out of wedlock. And she also believed it was good for children whose parents happened to be poor. She tricked unmarried women in labor into signing "routine forms," which severed their custodial rights, or bribed nurses to tell mothers that their babies had been stillborn. She hired spotters to find poor families, snatched the youngest and prettiest children from their homes, and enlisted one of her pocket judges to sign away the parents' rights, citing "poor living conditions" (apparently, the living conditions were not so poor that ALL the children had to be taken away).

And the suffering didn't end there. Conditions in Tann's homes were abysmal. Children were beaten, starved, dehydrated, and sexually abused by Tann and her staff. She made no effort to place children with loving families -- wealth was enough. As a result, many children were mistreated and abused by their adoptive parents, and some were "exchanged," if they weren't working out.

Also horrifying were the ads Tann ran in the local newspaper, featuring exploitative photographs of children up for adoption: "A solemn little trick with big, brown eyes, Madge is... five years old and 'awful lonesome,'" one ad reads.

To hide her crimes, Tann changed the birth certificates of the children she sold, and had the originals sealed. This policy seeped into legitimate organizations, and to this day, adoptees in many states are forbidden access to their birth records -- it's the law.

In the book, Raymond interviews men and women who were sold by Tann, and recounts their stories of being kidnapped from their parents, tortured in her facilities, and herded off to new families. She also interviews Memphis citizens, many in their 80s and 90s, who knew what Tann was up to, but were powerless to stop her and the Crump machine.

At first, the structure of the book is frustrating. Raymond jumps around in her narrative, and just when it seems she's about to sink her teeth into her subject, she turns her attentions somewhere less painful. It's almost as if Raymond can't face the monstrosity of Georgia Tann all at once, but has to confront her in bits before she can tackle the whole package.

However, by the end of the book, Raymond finds her courage and exposes Tann's crimes. It's a heartbreaking story, and almost unbelievable that one woman could destroy so many lives. That it happened here, and that it happened so recently, that the crimes were so blatant and heinous, and that no one stopped it. Then again, that's U.S. history, more or less.

If you liked...: (although "liked" isn't quite the right word for it) The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler, this book is for you.
Creepy Note: I just looked up the address of Tann's House of Horrors on Google Maps, and discovered that my apartment was 4 blocks away from it when I lived in Memphis.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Baltimore Saves

Underneath It All by Traci Lords
Grace After Midnight by Felicia "Snoop" Pearson and David Ritz

If suicide "gave Heather depth, Ram, a soul; Kurt, a brain," Baltimore, that charming whipping boy of a city, gave Traci Lords a chance and Felicia Pearson a future. Although the subjects of these two memoirs don't share many similarities on the surface, the fact that Baltimore and show business play such large role in their respective redemptions gives the books a surprising symbiosis.

Lords, who was a Penthouse centerfold and star of at least 20 X-rated movies before the age of 18, was in the midst of untangling herself from the porn industry when John Waters cast her as a juvenile delinquent (and Patricia Hearst's daughter) in Cry Baby. As she recounts in the book, the role not only introduced her to her first husband, but also to a wacky family of people who accepted her. In tears over being subpoenaed by the FBI on the set, Waters comforts her saying, "Traci, I bet everyone here has had a run-in with the law," raising an eyebrow at Patricia Hearst. Then everyone in the cast and crew sits around sharing stories about "previous incarcerations."

Love John Waters. Just love him.

After the first 100 pages, Lords's book turns into the glowing post-slipper part of the Cinderella story, focusing on career highs and (mostly) positive relationships. However, Pearson spends very little time talking about her acclaimed and chilling role on The Wire. Grace After Midnight focuses instead on Pearson's tumultuous youth. Born to a crack-addicted mother, Pearson finds a home with a loving foster family. However, their nurturing isn't enough to keep her off the streets, and at the age of 15, she is arrested, and eventually convicted for second degree murder, and sent to prison until the age of 20. Throughout the book, Pearson also speaks frankly about her homosexuality, her family, and her street family, the latter providing a number of surprisingly positive role models.

After experiencing a revelation of grace in prison, Pearson is released with the intention of going straight. However, she's repeatedly fired from legit jobs once her criminal record comes to light, and goes back to dealing until she's discovered by Michael K. Williams (aka the unspeakably awesome Omar Little).

Both memoirs document the long, hard road to redemption well, but with each, there's a sense that the authors are omitting important details, more concerned with putting their best face forward than in providing true insight. The difference between Pearson's lurid accounts of her fellow inmates' crimes and the disclaimer-filled version of her own are telling. And despite her history of abuse and her coercion into the sex industry, Lords glosses over the fact that she obtained the fake ID that said she was 22 on her own.

Still, I'm inclined to come down on the side of our authors here, as both were under the age of 16 when they met their notorious fates, and there were circumstances surrounding each that were, to say the least, extenuating. If you have any doubts, read the Human Rights Watch report on child offenders serving life without the possibility of parole. A child in California is currently serving life for a crime in which no one was even injured.

Plus, cheesy as it is, I like the idea that people can turn their lives around, and if you do as well, these books are for you.
One additional note, Lords's book has taken no small quantity of flack for being "poorly written." I don't agree at all. Sure, it's conversational and sometimes downright chatty, but it's not sloppy. Plus, I think it takes a certain amount of balls for a woman with not so much as a GED behind her to tackle a memoir without a ghostwriter.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Life and Times of a Dominican Uber-Geek

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Since the book's publication a few months ago, no one has had a bad word to say about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because there isn't one. It's actually perfect.

At first, Diaz's story of an orc and elf-obsessed ghetto nerd, obsessed with becoming the Dominican Tolkien seems fun, if light. However, it's about something much bigger than a sexually frustrated kid who never leaves his room.

Enter Trujillo, aka El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, Fuckface, and the Dominican Republic's own personal Sauron.

If your knowledge of Dominican history only extends to that Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos movie, if that far, it's okay. Diaz includes a number of provocative and irreverent footnotes designed to get you in the loop as the story leaps from 1980s New Jersey to the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's bloody dictatorship.

The book starts with Oscar's formative years, as he morphs into an obese, spotty troglodyte prone to walking up to attractive women and saying, "If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!"*

From there, we learn about the teenage rebellion of Oscar's tough, endearing sister, Lola, and the harrowing adolescence of his mother, Beli, who takes up with a Trujillo thug, and has to flee the country. The narration switches between characters, but most of the story is told by Yunior, a brainy Dominican playa who rooms with Oscar in college, and becomes deeply invested in, and in a way, bound to Oscar's fate.

Because as you might have gathered from the book's title, Oscar doesn't make it. There's some bad juju hovering around the de Leon family (or fuku, as it's called), possibly laid on them by Trujillo himself (who was said to harness the curse and unleash it against those who crossed him). And our hero is somehow bound to make horribly self-destructive choices in life and love, playing into the curse even as he grows closer to understanding it.

Diaz flawlessly blends historical events and figures with his fictional world, and the book's narration is original and infectious (not since Trainspotting have I caught myself thinking in a character's voice after reading a book).

You owe it to yourself to check this one out.
* It's a role-playing game thing.

Call Me June

As we speak, I'm baking Christmas cookies and watching Leave It To Beaver on the KTLA Retro Marathon. The Twilight Zone is on next. Score!

Wally was fussing with his hair, and someone just asked him, "Who do you think you are? Rock Hudson?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

nobody, not even the rain has such small hands

I couldn't suggest a finer accompaniment to your turkey coma tomorrow than Hannah and Her Sisters, one of Woody Allen's best and perhaps the greatest Thanksgiving movie ever made (granted, there's probably not a large pool of those).

In one of the most inept flirtations in screen history, Elliot (played by Michael Caine) buys Lee (the luminous Barbara Hershey) a collection of ee cummings poetry, saying that "I read a poem of you the other day and thought of him." Then tells her to read "somewhere i have never travelled". Smooth.

The film also contains one of my all-time favorite movie lines: "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

In the holiday recipe round-up today: no-knead dinner rolls and a pumpkin praline cheesecake that may just be the prettiest dessert I've ever seen.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

UPDATE: Hannah and Her Sisters may be the post-dinner Thanksgiving movie, but the best Thanksgiving movie to put on while you're cooking is definitely The Last Waltz.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Owen Brennan, Elephant Feet, and a Mynah Bird

Love and Dishes by Niccolo de Quattrociocchi

Quattrociocchi's memoir/cookbook is eccentric, flamboyant, and utterly hilarious. In the first half, he recounts the story of how a young Sicilian man found himself rather at loose ends at the end of World War I, and made his way to Hollywood, romanced his way to New York, and started El Borracho, one of the city's most beloved restaurants.

In one of the best bits, he's preparing for El Borracho's opening and decides that the place needs a mynah bird. "The notion of opening a restaurant without one was repulsive to me -- almost un-American. I at once set forth to inquire about one."

Of course, the bird turns out to be a foul-mouthed letch that says inappropriate things to dining society women. It is a big hit with the waiters.

But the recipe section is truly something to behold. Quattrociocchi hit up all his celebrity chef buddies for recipes from the swingingest joints in the U.S. during the 1940s, complete with classy old restaurant logos. Cocktails from Trader Vic's, cheese blintzes from Dinty Moore's, shrimp remoulade from Owen Brennan's, and Chicken Portolla from the Pump Room in Chicago, to name a few.

Quattrociocchi narrates the proceedings with a delightfully cosmopolitan zaniness, and does indeed provide a recipe for roasting an elephant's foot. However, he also includes useful hints about discreet tipping, table etiquette, and determining the freshness of fish: "If the eyes are clouded and sunken, have nothing to do with the fish. It has probably lived a loose life."

The perfect gift for aficionados of old-school dining out, particularly if they enjoy dishes like Beefsteak Milanese, Bordelaise Chicken, and Lobster Thermidor.

Can She Make a Cherry Pie, Charming Billy?

Between the approaching holidays, and finally getting a working refrigerator in the apartment (after three long weeks of Healthy Choice frozen dinners), I've had food on the brain.

For the next few weeks, I'm going to write about interesting and unusual cookbooks, perfect for gifts (no, I'm not dropping hints) or for tracking down novel things to bring to office potlucks. In the spirit of things, I've added a few new folks to the sidebar.

Today's recipe-blogger highlights: Smoked Beer Can Turkey, Carrot-Herb Rolls, and Pecan, Walnut, and Golden Syrup Tartlettes.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Los Angeles Field Trip

This afternoon, I went to Hollywood in search of literary history and snacks, and found both.

First, I drove up to 1817 Ivar St., a little Tudor-style apartment building best known for being the hole where Nathanael West shacked up to write The Day of the Locust. Back then, it was called the Parva-Sed-Apta (translates to "Small but Sufficient"), and was inhabited by failed actors, prostitutes, eccentrics, and vaguely criminal types.

Apparently, it's been cleaned up some since 1935, because it looked rather lovely from the street.

West isn't listed in the Los Angeles city directories, but I found the address in Lionel Rolfe's Literary L.A., a highly entertaining read. On West, Rolfe includes the delightful little nugget that West frequently loaned his car to the prostitutes who lived in his building because it tickled him to hear their stories when they brought back the keys.

Unfortunately, I arrived at Parva-Sed-Apta to find that Potts had drained the batteries on the camera and not recharged them (lame!), so I left without photos. However, it turns out that Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) lived in the neighborhood a couple decades prior, so I'll be headed back for photos later.

After that, I drove a few blocks to the Monastery of the Angels at 1977 Carmen Ave. The cloistered nuns here operate a gift shop that sells all kinds of stuff -- everything from hand-knit baby blankets to Christmas ornaments -- but they're particularly known for their pumpkin bread and their Christmas candy.

I wanted to stock up for Thanksgiving, so I turned into the monastery parking lot, making sure to pull my skirt down to knee length and turn off the Afghan Whigs cd playing in the car (I don't know that they've come out and said it, but I'm pretty sure that Greg Dulli is considered an enemy of the Catholic Church). Then, I went up to the gift shop and rang the doorbell to be let in.

After selecting my purchases (2 loaves of pumpkin bread and a box of caramel almond chocolates), the woman who helped me said, "I'll get the Sister to ring up your items."

Now, one of my best friends lived in a convent for a year after college (long story), so I know that nuns these days don't usually wear their habits and come from all sorts of backgrounds and are generally awesome. Still, none of this had prepared me for the Sister.

She was not much older than me, had purple hair, and I totally wanted to swap outfits with her. Which maybe I could have -- she LOVED my skirt.

So, an afternoon of Hollywood food, culture, and shopping, Mary-style. Highly recommended if you're in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Before & After

In the spirit of our favorite Jeopardy! category, I offer you the following children of Mary's weird brain and my love of Photoshop.

Clue: Plucky young sex columnist moves to Chicago, shacks up with older man. She sleeps around and gets famous; he dies.

Question: What is Sister Carrie Bradshaw?


Clue: Conniving but fabulous Inuit trophy wife sneaks off on a yacht with her previous husband, only to be shipwrecked on the Tundra - and then led home by a taciturn kid from Juneau who was raised by Arctic wolves.

Question: Who is Julie Cooper of the Wolves?


Clue: Open war breaks out in the streets of Baltimore between two factions of the largest East Side drug ring. The cool, calm, and business oriented former second-in-command emerges the victor.

Question: What is For Whom the (Stringer) Bell Tolls

And of course, please post your own in the comments.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All Aboard the Purity Train: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

The premise of Perrotta's new book pits a liberal sex ed teacher against a fundamentalist church, and the whole thing sounds too easy and ripped from the headlines to be any good. But I know better than to underestimate Perrotta's ability to mine the suburban wasteland, and somehow come up with fascinating nuggets of human drama every time.

For over a decade, Ruth Ramsey has prided herself on her frank manner of demystifying sex for the confused adolescents in her charge. But when a student from the Tabernacle compares oral sex to "French-kissing a toilet seat," Ruth's reply unleashes an evangelical maelstrom, complete with threats of a lawsuit. And as a result, Ruth finds herself strapped with a factually shoddy abstinence-based curriculum and a perky "Virginity Consultant," who I swear, you'll just want to slap.

Being a chastened educator, a divorced mother, and a middle aged woman who still looks good in a miniskirt and drinks on school nights makes Ruth a morally dubious figure by Stonewood Heights standards, and she's outraged about being persecuted by the religious right and abandoned by the town's like-minded citizens. So, when her daughter's soccer coach gathers the girls together to pray after a game, she snaps, and drags Maggie out of the circle.

Perrotta uses the ensuing confrontation with the soccer coach to switch the book's focus to his story. Tim is a former bassist and addict who hit rock bottom and found peace and redemption at the Tabernacle. The books finds Tim at a spiritual crossroad, dissatisfied with his new marriage to a spineless Tabernacle member nearly half his age and at odds with his church's forays into the political fray.

Tim and Ruth's complicated feelings about each other are interesting, but more time is spent dwelling on the events in Tim's past, and the temptations that threaten his faith and sobriety. Perrotta's depiction of Tim is thoughtful and complex, but I looked forward to the moments when the story returned to Ruth's adventures in single mom dating and abstinence training.

However, The Abstinence Teacher is filled with great character interactions and scenes that get the blood up, and like all of Perrotta's books, it's an exceedingly amiable read.

If you like...: even-handed books about evangelical Christian characters like Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe or portrayals of small town domestic life that don't descend into boring middle aged malaise like Empire Falls by Richard Russo, this book is for you.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

TBIFY is a Pro-Union Zone

Much of the coverage of the WGA strike has focused on which celebs are walking the picket lines, which shows are canceled, delayed, or suspended indefinitely, and how much it's going to cost the entertainment industry.

What's getting lost in all this is the fact that this is a strike over the somehow controversial idea that when people create content that yields revenue for a company, they deserve to be paid for it. This seems to me like an eminently just reason to walk a picket line.

Especially when the corporate baddies are being so transparent about their reasons for opposing the new contract.

Michael Eisner called the strike "stupid", and claimed that there was no money to be made in digital distribution.

Summer Redstone of Viacom shrugged and said, "Look, we've been preparing for this for a long time," Redstone said. "We're certainly not happy about it and we hope that it is settled amicably, but we feel we're pretty well positioned to live with a strike."

And unfortunately, I think that Jon Baitz of Brothers and Sisters is pretty much on the ball when he suggests, "It is my sad conclusion that there is a faction within AMPTP that wishes to break the guild or at very least, gore it, and wait this out, so as to cynically write off an entire season of unprofitable programming decisions and lay the way for future gains. In other words; to let the strike go on for months."

I know it's easy to dismiss all of this because it's Hollywood people, but there's a reason that writers and actors form unions alongside Teamsters and civil servants and public school teachers: without unionization, people in these professions are powerless and easy to exploit.

So, as part of the 10% of the U.S. workforce lucky enough to belong to a union, I say, power to the people, down with the man, and all that good stuff.

AFSCME represent!

Historic Homes of L.A. Writers: Ray Bradbury

I've called previous posts of this nature "Homes of Historic L.A. Writers," but since Mr. Bradbury is still writing, and still living in Los Angeles, I had to switch it up a bit.

In 1938, Leonard, Esther, and 18-year-old Ray Bradbury lived in this lovely home at 1619 S. St. Andrews Place.

Young Ray was a bit of a homebody, and was still living with his parents in 1942 when they moved to a house at 3054 W. 12th St., just a few blocks away.

Monday, November 05, 2007

This Is Petty, But....

I finished my marathon 45 minutes faster than Katie Holmes.

That said, Holmes donned high heels and went to Tom's movie premiere afterwards, while I only managed to drink half a beer before passing out with the lights on. So, good on you, Katie.

Glory Be!: World Without End by Ken Follett

World Without End by Ken Follett

It's easy to see why Ken Follett waited 18 years to write a follow-up to his bestselling medieval epic The Pillars of the Earth. It's a tightly plotted, meticulously researched masterpiece of popular historical fiction with a rabid fan base that would likely flay Mr. Follett alive if the sequel was no good.

But World Without End isn't a sequel, strictly speaking. Like Pillars, it's set in the priory of Kingsbridge, and covers all walks of feudal life from serfdom to nobility, but the action picks up 200 years later. However, the Middle Ages weren't known for wacky things like change and progress, so much will be familiar to readers.

In fact, many characters in the book have near-identical Pillars counterparts: there's a lusty red-headed master builder in love with a strong, clever woman who refuses to bend to convention. There's a wicked nobleman who can nurse a grudge for decades. And of course, there are tons of corrupt men of the cloth.

Though the character types are familiar, they're engaging, and Follett gives them terrific storylines. And for readers who grew weary of all the architecture talk in Pillars, there's surprisingly little of that here. Instead of cathedral-building, the most important plots here center around the Black Plague, witch trials, and medieval medicine. Even more interesting is that Follett creates a cast of strong female characters who make the ones in Pillars look like shrinking violets.

Follett has a remarkable talent for knowing exactly how far he can push the tension, and how many terrible things he can pile on his characters without frustrating the reader. World Without End may be 1000 pages long, but there's not a bit of fat.

This makes it incredibly difficult to put down. I cannot recommend starting World Without End when you have a lot going on, because you will be powerless to resist churning through the book to get to those incredibly satisfying last 100 pages where everybody gets exactly what he or she deserves.

So fear not, Pillars fans. You'll love it.

Bad Taste

It's literary week over at the Onion A.V. Club, and they're kicking it off with "20 Good Books Made Into Not-So-Good Movies", as well as an interview with Alice Sebold, whose The Lovely Bones is getting the Peter Jackson treatment at the moment.

I'm assuming it's going to be more the "Heavenly Creatures Peter Jackson" than "Dead Alive/Meet the Feebles/Lord of the Rings/King Kong Peter Jackson". Then again, I think we'd all agree that what the adaptation of Sebold's haunting novel really needs to make the transition from page to screen is a massive battle scene where the bereaved father takes on a horde of zombies, cannibal aliens, carnivorous worms, and very lewd muppets with a lawn mower.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

We Are Weird About Funky Winkerbean

Brady's right -- something absolutely horrific must have happened to Funky Winkerbean between the ages of 36 and 46 because he looks a lot worse than he ought to. Behold.

Young Funky:

30-something Funky:

Gray-Skinned and Paunchy Funky:

Maybe he's drinking again.

Dorian Winkerbean

If you don't follow this sort of thing, you may be unaware that Tom Batiuk has jumped Funky Winkerbean forward about ten years. (Which somehow makes it now set in the present, which is really confusing, because Funky's cousin Wally was deployed in Afghanistan a few years back, so I guess now he was fighting the Soviets or something.)

Anyways, long story short, the main characters in FW are now in their forties. Today marks the first appearance of the titular Winkerbean, and all I can say is that the new character sketches did not prepare me for this:

If Funky is supposed to be a stand-in of sorts for his creator, I can only assume that Batiuk is looking great these days.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Now You Have No Excuse

In case you've been putting off starting that masterpiece hidden way up in your brain, you should probably be aware that Slash wrote a book.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Blog Post of Justice!

Our Blogmistress, good citizen that she is, got up bright and early today to head down to the courthouse for jury duty. Most people I know approach the prospect of sitting on a jury with the kind of dread that is usually reserved for watching movies starring Mariah Carey, but not Our Heroine, who has seen 12 Angry Men more times than is probably healthy.

This got me thinking about novels about trials, and I thought I'd do a quick post of "Five Great Novels About Trials" or something. However, all I could come up with was Crime and Punishment (which isn't really about the trial), The Stranger (ditto), Milan Kundera's The Joke (kind of a stretch), In Cold Blood (not really a novel, not really about the trial) and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.*

So in lieu of that, I'll just quote this excellent passage from Ms. Lee's excellent novel and ask for suggestions of trial novels. Thoughts?

"The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is."


* John Grisham novels do not count. I said "Great" novels, and the Grish's books have always struck me as lawyer-porn for guys who took the bar instead of getting their P.I. license or becoming a biker or a shrimp boat captain or some such. Guys who spend a lot of time sitting on their back deck, drink in hand, wondering if and when they got soft, and where it all went wrong.**
** Lest my lawyer friends and relations take this amiss, I should point out the same midlife-crisis fantasy subgenre exists for academics: instead of getting involved with shadowy conspiracies and seedy Lower Alabama underworlds, the protagonists get involved with a grad student or a local pottery artist, or maybe the Dean's wife. Being the people in charge of such things, these books get to count as "literature" while Grish & Co. do not. It's what we get to make up for not making the big bucks.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Groupies: Let's Spend the Night Together by Pamela Des Barres

Let's Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies by Pamela Des Barres

Throughout Let's Spend the Night Together, there's a tone of sadness and nostalgia for a lost time. The groupies, past and present, that Des Barres interviews for the book lament that there are no longer "famous" groupies, that rock stars date models and movie stars, not fans, and that perhaps, the golden age of the groupie is over.

Between Des Barres previous memoirs and Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, there's a case to be made that the groupies of the 60s and 70s were not garden variety skanks, so much as rock courtesans, vulnerable to a great deal of heartbreak and abuse, but also not utterly disposable.

The book is organized semi-chronologically, beginning with interviews with groupie greats like Cherry Vanilla, Catherine James, and Cynthia Plaster Caster. Then Des Barres moves into the considerably darker 70s, populated by the underage set like Lori Maddix and Sable Starr, and the aging groupies who fell into drug addiction and domestic abuse. After reading Maddix's chapter, you will never look at David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Jimmy Page the same way again -- they should all be in jail.

As the book goes on, things get even less romantic and more depressing, and it becomes very apparent how far the groupie has fallen. Whatever one may think of the choices these women made, it's understandable how one could take some sort of pride in being able to say, "I slept with Jimi Hendrix," or "I slept with Keith Moon." It is, in any case, more impressive than saying, "I slept with the drummer from Slipknot."

Some of the women interviewed are very sympathetic, and some have great stories to tell. Tura Satana, Cynthia Plaster Caster, and Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira) are particularly interesting. Also fun are the interviews with the women who got out relatively unscathed and relate their groupie pasts with a shrug and a smile. These tend to be the ones who always had something creative or meaningful going on the side, and are now quite successful in their careers and personal lives.

But even the most well-adjusted among them has a horror story or two to tell. Pat Travers is a jerk, Tom Jones is a monster, and Led Zeppelin were full-out evil. Surprisingly, Gene Simmons comes out rather the gentleman.

However, one of the most train wreck draws of the book is the narration of Des Barres herself. Obviously an intelligent, funny, and sweet woman, she is also clueless, and happily unaware of exactly how clueless she is. Gail Zappa, a woman who essentially stayed married to Frank by playing perpetual hostess, taking care of the house, and waiting on him hand and foot, is set forth as the lucky woman who "became what we all wanted to be."

And Des Barres interviews the decidedly unglamorous Connie Hamzy (immortalized in Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" and in the Spin article "Oldest Living Confederate Groupie Tells All") with a scarcely veiled contempt. Despite the fact that Hamzy shared a great many of Des Barres's conquests, Miss Pamela is anxious to distance herself from Sweet Connie's Arkansas drawl and willingness to service everyone from rock stars to roadies. When it serves her purposes, Des Barres sells herself as a wild child, but when it doesn't, she emphasizes her long-term relationships with rockers, and characterizes herself as a young girl who had her heart broken. Maybe both sides of the story are true, but geez, to be able to turn it on and off like a tap....

In any case, the anecdotal evidence this book offers about the groupie's decline heartens me, and I say, let the groupies of the 60s and 70s have their wacky stories and write memoirs about them, and let the misogynist nu metal bands have their girls gone wild.

And let the rest of us go about our business, periodically stopping to gawk at them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Baseball Story

In The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, O'Neil posits that the reason there are so many fathers and sons playing in the Major Leagues is because baseball is a game that fathers teach to their sons, that the very specific way a person swings a bat or fields a ball is passed down. On the road, Buck frequently asks people if they remember the first baseball game their fathers ever took them to -- everybody does.

Reading all those stories made me remember mine, which is a story about how baseball is about mothers and daughters, too.

It was the summer of 1988, and early on, the Pirates were locked in a pretty tight race for the NL Eastern Division pennant with the much-hated New York Mets. Or at least they were much-hated in western Pennsylvania.

I went to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with my parents, my sister, and our friends, Jason and Ben, although I have no idea who the Pirates were playing that day. That wasn't the important thing.

I followed the standings every day in the paper, and I watched games on television with my dad, and talked with Jason about the Pirates and how they were doing and whether they'd beat the Mets (duh, yes... although as it turned out, duh, no).

Our heroes were Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and Sid Bream, and the important thing about going to the game was meeting them. We got our baseballs, we planned how we would get their autographs, and speculated about whose would be best to get (toss-up between Bonds and Van Slyke).

We got to the stadium, and settled into our seats by the first base line. And then, an awful man with the world's foulest cigars sat down directly behind me. And proceeded to smoke the world's foulest cigars throughout the entire game.

By the seventh inning, I was woozy. By the ninth, I was nauseous. And when the game was over, I was sitting on a curb outside the stadium with my head between my legs as my sister and our friends went off to get autographs while Dad chaperoned.

Then, my mother came up to me and asked for my baseball. I handed it to her, and she said, "I'll see what I can do."

Now, it is fair to say that Mom had not been following the 1988 Pirates season as avidly as I had, didn't know Bobby Bonilla from Andy Van Slyke, and had never sought out a celebrity autograph in her life. But she was determined to get one for her kid.

She walked up to the throng of fans, and was immediately bewildered. She didn't want to push up on or bother anyone, and some of the players certainly looked bothered. Then, she saw a guy in a Pirates jacket standing off to the side by himself. He didn't look bothered or busy, so she walked up to him, stuck out my baseball, and said:

"Are you somebody?"

This is probably a terrible thing to say to a person you're asking for an autograph, but I know my mother, and can practically hear the tone in her voice as she asked. I'm sure she managed to say this in a kind voice that admitted her cluelessness, yet was somehow unwilling to take no for an answer.

The man was not offended. In fact, he laughed at her.

"I'm nobody," he said. "You don't want me."

And Mom said, "I don't care. Would you sign my daughter's baseball?"

And that is how I came to have a baseball autographed by Lanny Frattare, announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1976. Bonds and Van Slyke moved on, but Lanny is still there, and there's nobody whose autograph I'd rather have.

To this day, I still love the Pirates, I still can't hate Barry Bonds, and I still sit on the first base line any time I go to a baseball game.

So, thanks Mom.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mordor or Los Angeles?

"Far away now rising towards the South the sun, piercing the smokes and haze, burned ominous, a dull bleared disc of red. . ."

Okay, clearly, it's Mordor, but due to the haze and smoke caused by the massive wildfires, I've been half expecting Smaug or a Nazgul or something to go flying by the window. It's looked like about 30 minutes before sunset all day, and now that it gets closer to evening it's starting to look like Caprica City, if you know what I mean.

And if you do: Greetings, fellow dork! Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go flush out my sinuses. Ack.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The 'Signature' Story

I'm currently reading Joe Posnanski's The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, where the author recounts a year he spent traveling around the country with baseball legend Buck O'Neil.

Now, anyone who saw O'Neil in Ken Burns's Baseball, or read interviews with him knows that the man had a gift for storytelling as prodigious as his gift for baseball. And an entire book devoted to a combination of the two is beyond wonderful.

Many of the stories that appear in the book were new to me, but I'd heard a lot of them before: the story of getting out of Sarasota, the Easter Sunday he hit for the cycle, then met his wife, and his signature story -- why Satchel Paige always called him 'Nancy', which is told or referred to in one way or another at least five times.

But I'm loving these well-worn, well-loved stories, the kind that hold up to repeated tellings. And I love how the telling changes, depending on what kind of mood O'Neil's in and how he feels about the person he's telling it to.

Everybody has a story like that, the one that all your friends know, and the one that you look forward to unrolling whenever you meet someone who isn't a friend yet, but probably will be.

You can tell Brady likes you if he tells you the story about the time his old band, The Dillingers, went to Chicago, or about the time he met Paul Westerberg. And if you know me long enough, I will inevitably tell the story about my parents and the donkey basketball team.

So, I'm curious. Does anyone else out there have a "signature" story to tell? Gwen, I know you've got a million of them, but if you had to pick just one...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poetry Noir: Black Maria by Kevin Young

Black Maria: Poems by Kevin Young

Like Jessica Seinfeld sneaking spinach into her kids' brownies, Kevin Young has tricked me into reading contemporary American poetry with the kind of page-turning delight I usually reserve for my sleazy crime novels.

As any Tom Waits fan can tell you, Black Maria ("rhymes with 'pariah'") is slang for either a hearse or the paddywagon. Young's collection is a film noir in five "reels" of verse, featuring the misadventures and near-misses of a private eye named AKA Jones and Delilah Redbone, his femme fatale, a struggling actress who's fallen in with bad company.

One of my favorite writers, Megan Abbott, has said some interesting things about the problem of writing noir today when all the tropes of the genre approach parody, kitsch, or cliche. Through his collection, Young provides an interesting solution to the problem. The language of noir has been trodden into a soft-boiled mush, but by placing that language into verse, it once again reverberates with the melodramatic heft that makes classic noir work so well.

The couplet form that Young prefers is particularly well-suited to a genre that milks one-liners and terse, staccato dialogue for all they're worth. And like most of my favorite noir films, the caper itself is less important than individual scenes, or in this case, lines.

A few of my favorites:

I've given, like gin
Her up, again


If despair had a sound
it would be: DO NOT DISTURB

If despair has a sound
it's the muffled, raised

Voices of the pair next door
who've lived here

In One-Star Manor forever
yet still pay by the week

--Love's an iffy lease--


He'd taught me how

to fall, to cry
on cue, & now

that's all I do.

It's a smoldering, badass read, and really, when was the last time someone said that about a collection of poetry?