Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Harriet the Spy

I'll be out of town for the rest of the week, so any posting will be left to Brady, who is currently hammering out his dissertation proposal, so don't hold your breath. In the meantime, I leave you with a few gems from the incomparable Harriet the Spy. It never ceases to amaze me how excellent this book is.

"Good manners are very important, particularly in the morning."

"Rich people are boring."

"They'll never get me in a mud pack."

"I'll be finked if I'll go to dancing school."

"I may not even get married. I may go to Europe and meet a lot of generals."

"No more nonesense."

"The people who try to control people and change people's habits are the ones that make all the trouble."

"And naturally those notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don't like either one of them. 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad."

"Now that things are back to normal I can get some real work done."

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Music of Your Life

Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen

While I'd never listened to Zuzu's Petals before reading this book, I knew who they were for two reasons. First, because I knew that their lead singer (our author) was married to Paul Westerberg. Second, because I lived in Madison for a time, and everyone over the age of 30 who lives in Madison has a lot of good Minneapolis music scene stories*, some of them involving Zuzu's Petals.

Madison is a small city, but to hear it told, it experienced a sort of musical golden age in the 1990s. One of the first things anyone told me when I moved there was, "It's too bad you didn't get here when O'Cayz was still around." As the logical first or last stop on any Minneapolis band's tour itinerary, the good people of Madison, Wisconsin were bound to get the show where the band was fresh-faced and excited, or the one where they were unwashed, strung-out, and liable to go at any time. These are easily the two best shows on any tour.

Lindeen was a Madison townie who wound up at the University of Wisconsin because her school's guidance counselor had no idea how to send a student anywhere else. She flunked out several times, and left for Minneapolis without a degree, but with the burning desire in her heart to start an all-girl rock and roll band. Never mind that she didn't play the guitar, and her only musical experience involved singing second alto in the school choir.

She enlisted her college buddy, Colleen, to play bass, and the two set about finding a drummer. However, before Lindeen's band materialized, she was diagnosed with MS, which left her legally blind in one eye and largely immobile on her left side. While waiting for the disease's manifestations to go into remission, a friend brought her an electric guitar to help with the boredom of rehab and convalescence. This was, Lindeen writes, a sign.

Gradually, the stars aligned for the band. They found a drummer and a practice space and, courtesy of It's a Wonderful Life, a name. From here, Lindeen's narrative follows the gruesome and undertold story of a nobody band paying their dues**. Disasterous tours, lechy sound guys, indifferent audiences, and booking types who view all-girl acts as a novelty, or during this height of the Riot Grrrl movement, some shock rock divas liable to whip out tampons onstage or punch out the club owner. But Zuzu's Petals was not that kind of band. They were Midwestern girls with manners, a beer and pot band in a heroin age.

While I didn't always like the time-hopping narrative structure of the book, I started it last night and finished it this morning even though I had other things I desperately needed to be doing. Lindeen had me from the first chapter, where Carly Simon picks her up hitchhiking on Martha's Vineyard right through to the last shows when it officially Isn't Fun Anymore, Can We Go Home, Please.

Despite being the narrator of the story, Lindeen is very often unlikable in the book, surly when her bandmates are friendly and sweet; drunk when her boyfriends are sober. It's an unusual and sometimes off-putting choice, and yet I understood it. I have been the bad band member who complains on the road and makes everyone's life miserable. It can happen to anyone, and tomorrow, it will probably be the drummer. Rocking is great, but it does not necessarily bring out the best in people.

For Petal Pusher, I will haul out the book-describing phrase I like to use judiciously because it has become a victim of overuse -- compulsively readable. Seriously, I defy you to put it down unless you have to pee or something.

If you like...: horror stories about bands on the road like Blake Nelson's Rock Star SuperStar, Goodnight, Steve McQueen, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, or that awesome VH1 show from the golden summer of 2001, Bands on the Run, this book is for you.
* Like, I knew a guy who was once hired to "keep an eye on" Tommy Stinson before a show.
** You might say, "That story's not undertold, it's in every band biography I read." But bear in mind that those band biographies usually end with sold-out shows and Jonathan Demme making a movie about you. This is more like the Bull Durham of rock and roll biographies.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's Up With Morrissey, and Other Burning Cultural Questions

Ask a Mexican by Gustavo Arellano

In 2004, Arellano's editor at the O.C. Weekly suggested he write a column where readers could write in to ask questions about Mexicans. To some, this might seem like a suggestion in questionable taste. Well, welcome to the O.C., bitch. Arellano dubs it "the most Mexican-hating county in the country," and that's not exactly overstatement.

But if the ills of racism can be cured by education and a dialogue to promote understanding, this Mexican was game. As the son of an illegal immigrant and the recipient of a masters degree in Latin American Studies, he had more than a little insight on the subject. Plus, he figured, no one would read it. Arellano penned this for his debut:

Dear Mexican, Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?
Dear Gabacho, Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos.

And a star was born.

The column is now the Weekly's most popular feature, and this book collects the most probing questions posed to The Mexican. These come from sensitive liberals, Minutemen-loving xenophobes, and perplexed second-generation Latinos alike, and a good hunk of them are absolutely horrifying.

But for every pinche gabacho asking, Why do Mexicans stand on the side of streets trying to get jobs? Why can't they just get real jobs?, there's a reader desperately trying to understand why Mexican candy is covered in chile, how the Mexican postal system works (answer: it doesn't), or what's up with all the Guatamalan-bashing.

What's most fun about this book is watching Arellano spin the most offensive, empty-headed questions into cultural studies gold in 500 words or less. You'll learn about la raza cosmica, the regional differences in Mexican popular music, and the intricacies of Mexican and U.S. immigration policies.

An added bonus for English speakers: you will learn a lot of good, new swears.
An added bonus for everyone: you will read the sardonically heart-warming story of how porn saved Arellano and his friends from gang life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Another Childhood Classic Revisited

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald

Most of us are Watsons, not Holmeses; the fish, not the Cat in the Hat; the Beezuses, not the Ramonas. Always the supporting character, never the hero.

I spent the weekend perusing these old childhood favorites about a progressive, brainy Catholic family living in Mormon country at the turn of the century*. John D. Fitzgerald's books are semi-autobiographical reminiscences of his older brother, Tom, otherwise known as the Great Brain. Where Tom is shrewd, crafty, and able to wring a dollar out of most situations, young John is easily outsmarted, usually at the moment he thinks he is being most clever.

Sometimes Tom uses his powers for good, as when he teaches a boy with a wooden leg how to play with the other children, but mostly he spends his time swindling his peers and running mental rings around their parents. For my money, the best book in the series is The Great Brain at the Academy, wherein Tom is sent to a Catholic boarding school in Salt Lake City, and terrorizes a bunch of priests.

If you like...: boyhood tales of young scamps like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or stories about charismatic, ingenius leaders as told by their followers, this book is for you.
* Gwen will be amused to learn that whenever a character in the books must go to the city for provisions, they go to Cedar City.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In Defense of Word Balloons

So Mary's feeling a little let down by the world of comics lately. Fair enough.

I agree with her in regards to The Walking Dead's little foray into exploitation - the response to which Kirkman handled about as well as a freshman in an intro Soc class trying to argue his way out of Census data that shows that, in 2007, men still outearn women by a significant amount for no good reason. And yes, She-Hulk has been treading narrative water of late. But as the alpha geek in our house, it falls to me to rebut as regards my sweetie's take on the state of the sequential art coming into our house these days. To wit: the following titles that are, or have recently been, kicking all kinds of comic fanny.

First off, Elk's Run was awesome, but that's a tale for a future post.

And yes, Y the Last Man is winding down but Ex Machina is really picking up the pace in recent issues, and I'm waiting for the next issue of both series the way that New Englanders used to queue up at the docks for the next Dickens installment.

Those caveats aside, here's what we at TBIFY have been reading and digging the heck out of lately.

David Petersen's Mouse Guard. The initial run of this series followed a trio of mice who patrol the borders of the mouse territories in the distant past, fending off snakes, crabs, and political insurgents. The first six issues are coming out in a collected volume this month, and there's a new run starting soon. The art is excellent, the concept and story are engaging, and I really can't say enough about this little series that could.
If you liked Watership Down, this book is for you.

Next up we have one for the social theory/philosophy geeks only, but one that both of us have enjoyed greatly: Action Philosophers. Like the "For Beginners" series, but funnier and more inventive, this one is for people who understand why "Plato Smash!" may be the funniest summing-up of Mr. "Myth of the Cave" that ever there was. And the issue where Jacques Derrida appears as the Deconstructionator (the last panels dissolve into photos of the artist and writer, as Jacques vows "I am always already back") is another favorite of ours, along with "You're a Good Man, John Stuart Mill." If you like very abstract reasoning, but wish that Das Capital came with more pictures of Karl chucking grenades at bankers, this book is for you.

Finally, DC/Vertigo's DMZ has upped the ante for politically astute comics, without sacrificing story for ideology. The series, set in the near future where Manhattan Island has become a demilitarized zone following a militia-led revolt against the Feds, follows a journalism student who inadvertently becomes an embedded journalist in the next US Civil War. As the series progresses, the scales fall from our hero's eyes and readers are treated - if that's the word - to a thoughtfully written "What if...?" story that imagines what it'd be like if we did to ourselves what we're currently doing elsewhere. If you liked Pride of Baghdad, 1984, or Brave New World, this book is for you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Comics Are Letting Me Down

I can't help but wonder if my days as a comics nerd are numbered.

Only a handful of issues remain in Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man.

She-Hulk never quite extricated itself from this summer's Civil War crossover. Now, it's like all the other mushed-up Marvel universe comics I don't want to read.

Powers lost me when they made Deena psychotic.

I haven't quite forgiven Robert Kirkman for writing a ghoulish rape scene into The Walking Dead, then being a dick when a reader called him out on it in the "Letter Hacks" section of Issue 32.*

And lately, Bill Willingham is on my list. I love Fables - lots of women do. I can only wonder if Willingham suddenly discovered that he was writing a "girl comic," and then immediately set about trying to alienate his female audience to toughen up the book or something. Check out the recent set of posts on Girls Read Comics (and They're Pissed) for more on this (plus, a fun game of "Anti-Comics Feminist Bingo).

I guess I still have Buffy, but it seems like the magic's gone between me and my funny books. Sniffle.
* The reader criticized Kirkman for having a strong, black, female character brutally raped by a white man (and yes, I agree with the reader on this one... it was unnecessary and a typically gratuitous comic book rape scene). Kirkman responded by saying things like, "I can't be held responsible for how black women have been treated in comics in general," "But when a white male is raped, I hope you're just as upset," and "Do you REALLY want every African-American character to be SAFE because I don't want to look like a racist?" Ugh.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Family Affair

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Prior to penning The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz's claim to fame was writing a mob farce called Plan B that spent ten years in development hell, and writing about it for Salon. Sadly, more people probably read this article than heard of Plan B.

But Lutz is a tough cookie who made her peace with the whole debacle, and went on to write this very snarky, clever book about a family of private investigators who behave worse than the people they tail.

The narrator, Izzy, is a rehabilitated juvenile delinquent who still lives with and works for her parents (who met during separate stake-outs). Older brother David managed to escape the family clutches and become successful; however, Izzy is stuck in a sort of stunted adolescence, doing background checks on all prospective boyfriends and occasionally passing out on the front lawn. Her little sister, Rae, is another story altogether. Part Harriet M. Welch, part Veronica Mars, part Ramona Quimby, Rae is a strangely endearing little pill who is entirely too smart for her own good. Ole Golly would be calling Nanny 911 if Rae were her charge.

But despite the fact that the Spellman's all do surveillance on each other and are generally awful people, you can't help but grudgingly love them.

The action of the book takes quite awhile to kick in, as Lutz spends a good deal of time introducing her characters and establishing the family's history. This is, oddly, the best part of the book. The main plot, which involves Izzy taking on "one last case" before planning to leave the family business for good, is a little thin. However, the Spellman's antics are funny, maddening, and genuinely inventive enough to carry the book.

If you liked...: Harriet the Spy, The Royal Tenenbaums, and David Sedaris's essays, this book is for you.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Another Good Baseball Story

The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920 by Mike Sowell

In 1920, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the prime of his career and of his life. He was handsome, amiable, and beloved by teammates and fans alike. He and his wife were expecting their first child.

Then, during an August 16 game with the New York Yankees Chapman was struck in the head by a wild pitch thrown by Carl Mays, and became the only player in the history of major league baseball to die from injuries sustained on the field.

While Chapman was a wildly popular player, Mays was sullen and disliked by his own teammates. Early in his career, he purposely beaned so many batters that even Ty Cobb thought he was crazy (although Mays always swore he had 'control problems').

While the stories of Mays and Chapman are captivating, what makes this book a page-turner is Sowell's account of the 1920 baseball season, during which the Indians, Yankees, and White Sox were sometimes ranked less than a game apart in the league standings. The fact that this was also the season when the White Sox shenanigans in the previous World Series would come to light seems almost beside the point in the midst of all the action.

Sowell also throws in plenty of juicy tidbits, like the Indians pitcher who had the dubious distinction of a) having designated "drinking days" written into his contract, and b) having been struck by lightening while on the mound (then getting up and pitching the rest of the game).

ESPN magazine calls this "the best baseball book no one has read," and they're not wrong. Thanks to my boss for the recommendation.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Corporate America Must Die, but Probably Won't

So, last Thursday, a representative from the Evil Empire Cable Company comes knocking at our door during the dinner hour and presents us with an unpaid bill addressed to a woman who has never lived in our building.

Brady says, "Um, that's not us."

Evil Empire representative says, "Do you have cable?"

"Nope, not television. Just internet."


Five minutes later, we discover that Evil Empire representative has disconnected our internet. Whether this was done out of stupidity or spite, I couldn't say. Brady immediately calls Evil Empire customer service, and the representative schedules an appointment to have our internet service restored seven (7) days later.

Which they finally did today.

You might say, "Mary, switch your provider!" But that's the funniest part of all, because, you see, there is no other provider that offers service to my neighborhood (silent weeping).

I've had it. I'm totally moving to the woods and setting up a survivalist compound. Anybody wanna come?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Bottle of Your Best $9 Champagne, Please

Step back to a simpler time when you could get an old fashioned and a lobster with drawn butter for about $3 and beautiful girls would dance for you while you ate, but not in a gross lunch buffet at the strip club kind of way.

I love historic menu collections. While San Francisco's has a prettier webpage, I must say the Los Angeles Public Library's is nothing to sneeze at. Check out the 1930s wine list from the Biltmore Hotel - stains included.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Odds and Ends

- I just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Geez... I mean, it's really good, but I have a hard time believing that post-apocalyptic cannibals are among Oprah's "favorite things."
- An interview with Gillian Flynn, author of the sublimely chilling Sharp Objects at Bookslut
- The release party for Elk's Run will be held at Meltdown Comics April 4 at 7pm. An idyllic small town in West Virginia turns to vigilante justice - I can't wait to get my shiny new copy.
- Did you know that the New York Public Library will send you awesome book lists for free? New stuff, stuff that's been featured in the news, and most of all, stuff that hasn't been written about to death. I lurve it.
- This is an older post, but these speculations on what Victoria Beckham's book club could possibly be reading are comedy gold.

L.A. Excerpt

The late Bebe Moore Campbell's 72 Hour Hold is a thought-provoking examination of the inadequacies of mental health services in the United States. Keri's daughter, Trina, suffers from bipolar disorder, and their formerly happy lives have become a tangle of missing persons reports, support group meetings, and "72 hour holds," the maximum amount of time Trina can be held in a hospital against her will. When Trina's behavior becomes uncontrollable and the system won't allow Keri to do what's best for her, she takes matters into her own hands. Despite the book's heavy subject matter, it's highly readable, has great characters, and is, at times, darn funny.

However, I just loved this little throwaway narration from Keri near the beginning of the book:

"As he added up numbers in his head, a young white couple behind me chatted animatedly. I heard the words 'screenplay,' 'producer,' and 'green light' and turned to see the requisite bony blond girl and her handsome, scruffy boyfriend... In Los Angeles, Hollywood hopefuls are as ubiquitous as the lattes grandes they slurp. There is no escaping their driving ambition. Irritation swept over me. Just looking at them, I wanted to slap both those faces, to knock away the self-assurance that was etched there."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Trying Hard Against Unbelievable Odds

Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop by Rob Jovanovic

In 1972, Big Star released #1 Record, a flawlessly written and recorded power pop gem. They seemed poised to become one of the decade's biggest and most critically acclaimed bands, but then suddenly, they weren't.

Blame it on the band's drug and alcohol abuse, problems with the record's distribution and promotion, or just trying to play 3 minute songs in an era of self-indulgent noodling and bloated arena rock - Big Star was simply the right band in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jovanovic's book is the first to take a comprehensive stab at unraveling Big Star's history, as well as the myths that have surrounded it: the notorious recording sessions for Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers; guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell's tragic and mysterious death in 1978; and Alex Chilton's self-imposed exile from music in the 1980s to wash dishes in New Orleans.

The first chapter made me nervous, as Jovanovic's writing is not strong. However, he got great interviews, and lets the likes of Jim Dickinson, Andy Hummel, and John Fry do most of the telling. The result is thoroughly illuminating without dipping into sensationalism. It's likely that some of Big Star's mysteries will always remain that - Chilton is obsessively private, and those who knew Chris Bell are tight-lipped about his alleged homosexuality, as well as the possibility that his death was a suicide. It's probably better that way, less tawdry and tell-all.*

The core of Big Star was four Memphis guys. However, when you add in the Memphis frat and garage rock bands the members rattled around in before joining up, their subsequent efforts, and the slew of bands they influenced**, the cast of characters here can be a little daunting unless you know a little about the band already. Then again, if you don't, it's doubtful you'd be picking up this book anyway.

If you liked...: This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century by David Bowman, or Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad, this book is for you.
* However, there is one question I'm glad this book answered. Chris Bell went to my alma mater, and there was always this legend that he'd submitted #1 Record for his final project in a class. This turns out to be completely true.
** The Replacements, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick - the Velvet Underground has nothing on Big Star.