Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where the Boys Are

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman

Let's go back in time to 1991. In Mobile, Alabama, an adolescent Brady was hunched over a guitar in his bedroom trying to figure out how to play Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, and Booker T & the MGs songs. Meanwhile, somewhere in western Pennsylvania, the big-haired, acid-washed jeans-wearing girl who would later become his wife was playing her Zeppelin records backwards and slow dancing to Skid Row's "I Remember You" at the YMCA.

Sure, in 1992, I would start listening to The Replacements, and gradually wean myself off of Warrant, but my love for the heavy stuff never quite went away. So, at first glance, Chuck Klosterman's book was most definitely for me.

Fargo Rock City has some truly inspired moments, such as the "jack factor" chapter, wherein Klosterman creates a list explaining how much money he would have to be paid never to listen to specific metal records again, and why. This stems from a mistrust of "essential records of (insert musical genre here)" lists, because no record is truly "essential" and if you were really stranded on a desert island, you'd want a screwdriver and potable water, not a stack of Radiohead albums.

Also nice is the chapter where Klosterman explains the use of satanic imagery in heavy metal, and why Marilyn Manson is kind of brilliant ("It was easy for a vocal minority to turn drugs into the postmodern Lucifer... However, Marilyn Manson was the first metal guy smart enough to capitalize on a new era in spook rock: In the 21st century, Satan can be smoked, snorted, and shot").*

So, reading this book was like being told that everything I thought about music in the 8th grade was not only right, it was genius. And I like being told that I was cool in 8th grade, because in reality, I was probably not, and wouldn't have been regardless of whether I was listening to Paula Abdul or AC/DC.

But, if you're going to write a book about heavy metal, at some point, you're going to have to address gender, and here is where Klosterman fumbles big time.

(BIG DISCLAIMER: This beef encompasses a mere two chapters in a book I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed. So let's not throw the Warrant out with the Whitesnake.)**

First, he sets up straw phalluses like the Whitesnake video for "Here I Go Again," then seems to expect brownie points for pointing out that it's sexist. The conclusion he comes to on the whole issue of sexism in heavy metal is: "Life makes art. Life makes heavy metal. To attack sexism in the latter is no different from pretending it doesn't exist in the former."

As an argument, this is about as convincing as saying, "Since God created man, and man made the Transformers, the Transformers are like a gift from God."*** Klosterman is just side-stepping the question.

However, this is not my main problem with the book. My main problem with the book is Klosterman's barely concealed contempt for female metal fans (or music fans for that matter). He seems to believe that men are somehow hard-wired for band loyalty, while women are fickle, mindlessly squealing for the next flavor of the month. At one point, he says, "Bands who depend on support from females inevitably crash and burn." Sure, this may be true of bands who depend on support from teenage females, but then, those groups aren't even "bands."

About six years ago, I wrote an essay about how female rock and roll fans are regarded. It was late one night, and I was feeling crabby about some lyrics in a Who song. I buried it in the blog here, because it's kind of long, but you can read it if you wanna. It sums up all my feelings about Fargo Rock City and gender.

That aside, if you ever slow danced to Skid Row at the YMCA and liked it, or played your Zeppelin records backwards, or knew all the words to "You Shook Me All Night Long" without actually knowing what they all meant, this book is for you.
* I firmly believe that the cautionary video Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock N' Roll created far more metal fans than it deterred.
** "Down Boys" is a really good song.
*** Thank you again, Clerks 2

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

More True Crime Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Posting has been, and will continue to be slow for the next week. Life is busy, and currently, very full of true crime.

Thursday, March 29, at 12:15 a colleague and I will be giving a talk on Los Angeles true crime. We got yer grisly murders, yer missing persons, yer vice cop scandals, you name it, some L.A. punk tried to get away with it and probably did. More event details here.

In the meantime, my new crime blogging gig over at the 1947project starts tomorrow. I will be offering grisly, day-by-day accounts of life in 1927 Los Angeles each Wednesday. Be there, or be square.

We'll be back next week with stunning commentary about Chuck Klosterman's seriously annoying take on gender, the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner, and all the pulp novels we have procured of late.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This Does Not Make Me a Bad Person, Right?

I don't get cable. This is not because I'm morally superior, it's because I have student loans, and also because I don't trust myself to not watch it constantly. But still, I don't ever want to be one of those people who misses all the pop culture references because I'm too smug to own a television set.

And also, there's some bad tv that I really, really like. I haven't gone to the Golden Apple for new comic book day since Cycle 8 of Top Model began because I might miss the first five minutes. I may be a nerd, but I'm also a lady.

Brady and I are totally rooting for Jael, who reminds us of Janice from the Muppets. After every episode, we do Janice's best line from The Great Muppet Caper, as spoken by Jael after her photo shoot: "It's my life, okay? If I want to throw my leg up over a giant dish of ice cream, that's nobody's business but my own."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

He's Got His Daddy's Prose

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

This book by Stephen King's son has been getting diabolically good reviews. That's for a reason. This kind of John/John Quincy literary event can only take place when the spawn in question writes a book that is really really good, or really really bad. And this book is not really really bad. This book is really quite enjoyable and quite well-written. But let's not lose our heads about it.

Jude Coyle (real name Justin Cowzynski) is a man who ran screaming from his rural Lousiana horror show of a family with a guitar slung over his shoulder, and never looked back. When the book begins, Jude is the kind of aging rocker that King might have dreamed up had his legends been Trent Reznor and Ozzy instead of Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger. Jude collects morbid curiosities, like cannibal cookbooks and snuff films. So when a haunted dead man's suit comes up for auction on an eBay knock-off, he bids in a heartbeat.

What he doesn't know is that the ghost is very real, and that the whole thing is a set-up. The ghost-suit was designed for the explicit purpose of wreaking harrowing, life-ending destruction upon Jude and anyone who holds him dear. Jude knows what he did, and that son of a bitch has it coming.

The book takes Jude, his ex-stripper goth girlfriend, Georgia, and their dogs on a road trip into the heart of the South to find a way to stop the murderous ghost. And as they learn more about the man who's haunting them along the way, Jude becomes less a villain, and more an avenging hero.

Hill does a great job of taking two stereotypically flawed and damaged people, and gradually giving them hidden depths, and surprisingly, the capacity for goodness.

Once I read the line, "Jude had worked his way through a collection of Goth girlfriends who stripped, or told fortunes, or stripped and told fortunes, pretty girls who he always called by their state of origin, a habit few of them cared for, because they didn't like to be reminded of the person they were trying to erase with all their living-dead makeup," I thought I knew all I needed to know about Georgia. But don't rule Georgia (aka Marybeth) out too early. The girl's got heart.

Still, some of the death-rocker, Goth-girl tropes were a little too pat for me, sometimes bordering on misogynistic. That said, the book is well-plotted, surprising, and tinged with hope. Hill writes in a style and tone similar to King, but does something King never does. I won't say how ('cuz you'd never believe me), but he gives his characters the happy endings that they don't deserve, and it never feels like a cop-out. Also, in places, it's full-on petrifying.

It you like...: dogs, Southern Gothic, and heavy metal, this book is for you.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Further Adventures of Everyone's Favorite Little Hellion

Cupcake by Rachel Cohn

When we left Cyd Charisse in Shrimp, she'd just graduated from high school and turned down a marriage proposal from her coffee-slurping, vegetarian surfer boyfriend, Shrimp. Soulmates or no, she decides that she needs some time to follow her own dreams without being tied down to his. And those dreams are all pointing her squarely in the direction of culinary school in New York.

However, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Shortly after arriving in town, CC breaks her leg and winds up spending six weeks cooped up in her half-brother Danny's fifth floor walk-up playing Rear Window with the neighbors. Then, despite her family's encouragement (or pressure) to attend culinary school, she realizes that she hates it.

But despite her inability to handle school, CC is more ambitious than she seems. She gradually carves out a place for herself, helping to turn around a failing neighborhood diner, working as a clutter counselor for a crotchety neighbor, and helping Danny with his cupcake business.

Just when things are starting to work out, Shrimp shows up on her doorstep, his own dreams of surfing and painting in New Zealand having crashed and burned. And once again, CC has to make some difficult decisions about what she wants and where Shrimp fits into it all.

Cohn has done a good job throughout the series of maturing her characters realistically. What's more, she's taken on the fairly daunting task of crafting compelling storylines for a very large cast of quirky supporting characters. Fans of the series will enjoy seeing how Danny and Aaron's relationship works out, what happens to Helen and Autumn after graduation, and how Sugar Pie and Fernando are faring as newlyweds.

Like its predecessors, Cupcake is one big love letter to New York City and San Francisco, and Cohn's exhuberant details of the hard-to-find corners of these cities will make you want to hop on a plane and go on a quest for the perfect cup of espresso, bowl of noodles, or veggie burrito.

Good Things To Those Who Wait

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande (release date: April 3, 2007)

About four years ago, I read Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, and immediately set out with my library card, dead set on reading everything else Atul Gawande had ever written.

But there was nothing else.* Until now.

From the publisher comments:

"Gawande’s gripping stories of diligence, ingenuity, and what it means to do right by people take us to battlefield surgical tents in Iraq, to labor and delivery rooms in Boston, to a polio outbreak in India, and to malpractice courtrooms around the country. He discusses the ethical dilemmas of doctors’ participation in lethal injections, examines the influence of money on modern medicine, and recounts the astoundingly contentious history of hand washing".

Sounds good to me.
* I know, he writes quite a bit for the New Yorker, but it's not the same as reading a book.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Proof That Everything Is Connected

In Fran├žois Truffaut's remarkable movie about making movies, Day for Night, leading man Alphonse flees the set after experiencing emotional trauma, and is summarily rounded up at the go-karts.

In Kevin Smith's remarkable movie about making movies with your friends (and sneaking in digs at Peter Jackson), Clerks II, leading man Randal Graves flees Mooby's after experiencing emotional trauma, and is summarily rounded up at the go-karts.

Was this an homage to Truffaut, I wonder, or do go-karts just have some sort of universal "centering" effect of which I am unaware?

Friday, March 09, 2007

King of the Dirty Old Men

I just finished watching Bukowski: Born Into This, then toddled over to the computer to look at Fark, where I learned that Charles Bukowski died 13 years ago today.

Spooky, eh?

I have mixed feelings about Bukowski's work, as I find myself completely unable to take him as a flawed, but complete package. He makes me laugh, but he's a pig. But not completely. And the punk kids are always stealing his books from the library. But at least they're reading them. And he was a lay-about wastrel. But that's just my Protestant work ethic talking. Aw, at some point, I just throw my hands in the air and decide the guy's alright in my book.

I like this poem a lot. Also, I once heard a clip from one of his readings, a poem about being in bed with a woman and farting so loudly that it wakes her up. There's a line that goes something like: "I fart more often than I f***. I am pleased to be mistaken for a foghorn passing in the night."

It cracked me up, but I can't seem to find the poem. Send me the citation, along with your address, and I will send you a shiny prize.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Best Served Cold

The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox

Edward Glyver is the son of a drunken lout and a woman who pens sentimental novels to eke out an existence. His parents die young, his education is cut short, and his prospects are limited. None of this, however, should have happened to Edward Glyver.

Going through his mother's papers, Glyver stumbles onto some shocking truths that suggest he was born to something better than his current lot. As he seeks to uncover the truth about himself, Glyver learns that the source of all his troubles lies in the person of a former schoolmate, Phoebus Daunt. Glyver's quest for justice gradually turns vengeful, and leads our anti-hero from the opium dens and whorehouses of 19th century London to a pastoral estate called Evenwood, and back again.

Employing tropes from the gold standard in revenge stories,
The Count of Monte Cristo, Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night also throws in a few new twists. Rather than introducing us to a virtuous man gradually driven to obsession, the book begins right after Glyver has committed a seemingly senseless murder and is doped to the gills on laudanum. As the story progresses, however, Glyver emerges as a strangely sympathetic and admirably resourceful narrator.

The book is written as Glyver's own account, anonymously donated to the Cambridge University Library years after later and edited by a "Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction." Through the fictional editor's footnotes, Cox's knowledge of Victorian England shines, blending a good yarn with well-researched settings and figures from the period.

Don't be put off by the book's length - it's a surprisingly speedy read.

If you liked...: the setting and narrative structure of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the plot of Nicholas Nickleby, or like a good revenge story like The Count of Monte Cristo (or Revenge by Stephen Fry), this book is for you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Turn for the Worse

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson's follow-up to Case Histories picks up about a year after that novel left off. Jackson Brodie has retired from the private eye business, bought his dream house in France, and has taken up with the flighty, chain-smoking actress, Julia, whose missing persons case he solved in Case Histories.

One Good Turn begins with a seemingly random episode of road rage, wherein a man is nearly beaten to death after a fender bender on a crowded Edinburgh street. An unassuming and hopelessly dweeby mystery writer named Martin steps in as a Good Samaritan, throwing his briefcase at the assailant. This sets into motion a series of events involving a corrupt real estate mogul, a shady "cleaning service," a hitman set on tying up loose ends, and the antics of a ballsy Russian call girl who goes by the name of Jo Jo.

My love for Case Histories is steadfast and well-documented on this blog, and I've been looking forward to reading One Good Turn for months. Perhaps a less excitable reader will find more to like about it than I did.

While the plot is satisfyingly twisty, it's not enough to make up for the book's many flaws. The uneasy relationship between Julia and Jackson seems to have been manufactured simply for the purpose of giving the latter a reason to be in Edinburgh in the first place (watching Julia perform in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Worse, however, are the unsympathetic and grating supporting characters whose stories eclipse Jackson's -- we are subjected to long interior monologues and back stories from each of them.

Atkinson revisits some of her favorite themes -- ambivalence towards motherhood, the damage inflicted by family secrets, and how sometimes it is too late to have a happy childhood -- and she does this well, and darkly. However, after Case Histories, a novel that gracefully bridged the gap between the crime novel and literary fiction, One Good Turn is a disappointing sequel.

This is starting to weird me out...

Speaking of synchronicity (see the review below which I wrote last night), today I wake up to find that Milan Kundera has a new book out. And, if this essay over at Salon is to be believed, it is indeed brilliant but also insufferably smug.

If I start to hear Emma Thompson narrating my day, I'm lightin' out for th' territories, as Huck said.

UPDATE: My weird day continues. Check it out - I got trolled. This, friends, is a banner day. I want to buy him (or her, heck, who knows) a little bridge to live under.

(Yes, I know the phrase comes from trolling, the verb, as in fishing. I just like the image of a little troll.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest

Of the books I read while Mary was out running very long distances, Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time proved to be both a great read and an unexpected case study in - with apologies to Sting and Carl Jung - synchronicity.

Ever pick up a book that perfectly and succintly speaks to a time and place in a way you weren't expecting, elegantly placing the capstone on some seemingly unrelated series of events in a manner that makes them meaningful in a new way?

If you have, then you'll understand why When the Levees Broke + The Wire + my increasing addiction to hardboiled fiction + Los Angeles + Mary's marathoning + Dubya/Hillary = this excellent memoir.

Or maybe you won't. Lemme 'splain real quick, and then I'll get right to the good stuff.

In short, the cumulative failure of our social institutions, political leaders, and public imagination to do anything but natter on in increasingly insular enclaves while New Orleans sinks, the icecaps melt, Iraq crumbles, and the filthy rich do any damn thing they want has had me on a bit of a glum streak for some time now. Britney's in rehab, the wolves are at the door, and the water has hit the top step, so smoke 'em if you got 'em friends, cause the bastards have finally won and we're all one dune buggy from Mad Max out here.

This is, you might guess, no way to live.

So imagine my delight when I read Scoundrel Time, which is a valuable document of one of our past national freakouts that is eerily prescient, from the dirty tricks to the failure of the majority of the intelligentsia to do anything but stand around with their soundbites in the wind.

What happened was this: Hellman was called before the House Committe on UnAmerican Activities and kept her head when all about her were naming names. She politely told them she would answer any question about her own activities they cared to ask. She then added, in the classiest way possible, that when it came to discussing any of her friends they could go to hell.

For this, she lost her house, the blacklist ate her career, her phones were tapped and her passport restricted, she was audited and penalized by the IRS, who also looted her bank account, and she was put under surveillance by the CIA while living as an expatriate.

(Hammett was less polite, and they did the same to him, but they threw him in jail too.)

Lillian Hellman was an amazing woman for many reasons. She was a hell of a writer, for one, and she also put up with Dashiell "TB and a gambling problem is no reason to quit drinking" Hammett.* And if this was just a book about "How I stood up to Joe McCarthy" that would be a fine accomplishment in itself. Her letter to the committee is a model of principled dissent that should be required reading in every political science, political sociology, or ethics class. But where this slim little book becomes a masterpiece is in the way she describes life in the crosshairs where, in her memorable phrase, "Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels."

Nor is this simply a story of the big bad right wing come to blow down the house of the virtuous leftist. As any student of the period knows, most fellow travellers folded like a Vegas cardsharp when push came to shove; Hellman writes of many an ostensible radical whose convictions turned out to be less dear to them than did their swimming pool. She does this for the most part without rancor, forgiving if not forgetting, and she brings the same level of scruitiny to bear on herself and Hammett as well. It is a story that is heartbreaking, chilling, and ultimately inspiring, without being sappy or self-righteous, and it's told by a master essayist whose humility is only exceeded by her insight.

If "speaking truth to power" seems to you to have come to mean "preaching to the pundit choir"...
If you need to be reminded that sometimes basic human decency is more powerful than rhetoric, Senators, and public opinion combined...
And if you think Milan Kundera is brilliant, but sometimes insufferably smug...

...this book is for you.


* In fact, the only thing of hers I had read prior to this was an essay about her life with Hammett, which moved me to tears. I am now committed to rectifying this glaring oversight.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Women Who Run With the Elvis Impersonators

Today, I ran the Los Angeles Marathon. Now, I hurt everywhere. It took me 4 hours, 44 minutes, and 52 seconds. Also much to my surprise, I finished with the top 5000 runners (out of about 25,000), and was the 1100th woman to cross the finish line.

Mad props to Brady, coach extraordinaire, who got up early every weekend for the past 2 months to drive me to the beach for my long runs, and who always had a taco waiting for me at the end. And sometimes flowers.

These guys ran, too. And it was really hot outside, so my heart went out to them. I saw one of them around mile 15, and he had sweat clean through his jumpsuit.