Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

I So Wanted To Win That Pony

83 years ago today, Truman Streckfus Persons, better known as the enfant terrible, was born in New Orleans.

One of my favorite Capote stories is related by Eugene Walter in his memoir, Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet. Walter knew Capote as a child, because the latter would come to Mobile to have his underbite straightened, and the children called him 'Bulldog.' Anyway, Walter says:

In the Sunday Register there was the Sunshine Page. This lady called Disa Stone had this children's page and this Sunshine Club where children wrote and sent in what they wrote and vied for prizes. The grand prize was a pony. For his contribution to the Sunshine Page and for the contest, Truman had spied on this old man who lived up the street in Monroeville and was a real old crank. Even then he was already mixing fiction and reportage...

Anyway, he wrote this rather long piece called 'Old Mr. Busybody, by Truman Persons.' His aunt, when he told her, rushed to Mobile and went to the Register and said: 'You cannot publish that. It is too true a description of our neighbor. He'll sue us, he'll smash our windows, I don't know what he'll do. I want to take that back.' And she did. Years later when I saw him in Paris, the first thing Truman said to me was 'Oh, Eugene, I so wanted to win that pony.'

Happy birthday, Bulldog.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Screwball Abroad: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The New York Review of Books reprint of this book with a new afterword by the author has drawn a lot of attention this summer, and been compared from everything from Sex and the City and Bridget Jones's Diary to Daisy Miller and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

And there's a bit of truth to each of them. Sometimes the book is as frothy, fabulous, and self-absorbed as contemporary chick lit. However, Dundy's tale of the irrepressible screwball Sally Jay Gorce on the loose in 1950s Paris also offers biting insights on American expatriates, bohemians, and the European leisure class. And it's also damned funny.

At times, Sally Jay's breathless observations and accounts of youthful folly come so fast and furiously that it's almost exhausting. But more often than not, the book is just unspeakable amounts of fun. Also, there are a few moments when I could swear the book was actually being narrated by Gwen. For example:

I didn't quite see why I, who had done nothing wrong, so to speak, who at any rate most certainly hadn't started all this, should wind up crushed and disheveled, with a torn dress, a burning cheek and lipstick all over my face, while he, the real culprit, was suavely ushering me out, and I strove to correct this injustice.

"Now that you're free," I said on my way to the door, "you must come to America. I'm sure you can fortune-hunt on a much larger scale there than you've been able to over here. Only you'd better start quickly before you turn into just another dirty old man."

At one point, Brady came into the living room to find me chuckling over a passage and asked what I found so funny. I said:

"Well, Sally Jay had a play rehearsal in the morning, so she was going to bed early, but then she couldn't sleep and thought she'd better go over her script and make some notes. But her pencil broke, and then she broke her eyebrow pencil trying to use it, and then she couldn't sleep, so she decided to go out and get a grilled cheese and hot chocolate, but on her way she realized that one of her friends was singing at a jazz club, so she stopped in there and when she sat down at her table, men started offering her cigarettes. And then she realized that she was still in her pajamas and she was the only woman in the whole club who wasn't a prostitute."

And yes, the whole book is kind of like that.

Mr. Right vs. Mrs. Dalloway

In addition to being seriously charming, this Pia Chatterjee article in the SF Chronicle makes me feel somewhat better about my squirrely adolescent social skills.

I was 16 when I discovered that in most instances, I preferred books to boys. My epiphany occurred at a teenagers' party at the local country club, where the area around the pool had been decorated to resemble a disco. Silver balloons floated around the ceiling and the music system played "Red, Red Wine." My friend was out there on the blue tiles, having fun. Why couldn't I?

"I wish I were home with 'The Mill on the Floss,'" I thought, and was appalled at my lack of coolness.

(link via Estella's Revenge)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Meta Before Meta Was Cool

Written on the inside cover of the copy of Allan Quatermain, Being an Account of His Further Adventures and Discoveries in Company with Sir Henry Curtis, BART., Commander John Good, R.N., and one Umslopogaas that I found in a used bookstore this weekend:

"1907 - My Time. I have seen some of this Africa, the [illegible] the Kaffir. I am glad to be able to know and realize the truth of many of these Stories. Today I say that it is thought of as just another tall tale. But most of it is true. Very Very True. And I am glad to have seen some of it. -- Does it matter who"

Well, maybe it doesn't matter. But I am, nevertheless, rabidly curious now. (This is, I assume, what whoever wrote it was going for.) Either somebody was messing with their grandkid, or they have introduced me to what is going to be my new hobby: leaving cryptic messages scrawled inside of very old books about the fantastic in order to tantalize readers of the future, and in hopes that they might fall for it.

This has the added bonus of being how the plots of 70% of these kinds of books get going, when Percival Witherforth or whomever finds a note tucked into their dead cousin's notebook - one of the only items salvaged from the carnage of that doomed Safari - and sets off for the Colonies, or the Interior, or the fleshpots of Egypt, or some such.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go find an ancient edition of King Solomon's Mines and start leaving clues as to their real location.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Hosebeast of Haute Couture

The Collection by Gioia Diliberto
Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews

Between these two recent books on the life of Coco Chanel, one an illustrated biography for small children and one a work of fiction, for historical accuracy, I'd put my money on the novel.

Understandably, biographies intended for a juvenile audience will need to omit some of their subjects' more scandalous moments, but it verges on irresponsible to whitewash the life of a Nazi-sympathizing, child labor law-breaking monster, no matter how pretty her clothes were. Other criticisms have been leveled at Different Like Coco, and Gwen's recent post covers them pretty well. In any case, as a female role model for small children, Coco Chanel probably ranks somewhere slightly above Leona Helmsly and the Bratz.

But enough of that unpleasantness, because Diliberto's The Collection is a perfectly delightful book that I highly recommend to everyone.

Set in 1919, the novel follows the naive Isabelle Varlet to Paris where she gets a job in Chanel's burgeoning Paris atelier, and quickly promotes to second in charge of a workroom. Isabelle is a talented seamstress and Paris agrees with her; however, her pilgrimage to the city is motivated more by the death of her fiance, a shy provincial baker, than by ambition.

Along with the other seamstresses, Isabelle works ten hour days, six days a week to get Chanel's fall collection ready. But along with those duties, she's also subjected to impossible clients, backstabbing co-workers, and the mercurial tempers of Mademoiselle. While the plot is a little bit thin, Diliberto is a master at well-placed historical detail, and the flurried activity of the Paris fashion world is captivating enough to carry the story.

And Diliberto's portrayal of Mademoiselle is extremely well-done, both shrill and shrewd. Much is also made of Chanel's shortcomings as a designer. Unable to draw or sew very well, she often appears as a brilliant hack. But credit where it's due, the character of Chanel also has terrific confidence in her vision and an unparalleled eye. She casts off designs and dismisses her competitors with the shrugged off comment, "Nobody wants to look like that anymore."

The Collection succeeds because Diliberto creates such a compelling uber-bitch. She's awful in all ways, but at the same time, Isabelle would rather work on her clothes than anyone else's, and it's easy to see why.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


"Tolstoy would have us believe that every happy family is happy in the same way. I for one don't buy that. It's impossible to imagine a family happy having learned their father will be released from his ten-year imprisonment in a gulag sharing the identical emotion with the family that has just won a meal for six at Pearson's Big Steer Restaurant. Tolstoy's an idiot for even suggesting it. Does he really expect us to believe that the happiness shared by the Marx Brothers, having just pummeled Margaret Dumont with body blows, is the same as that shared by the Howard brothers, Moe, Curly, and Shemp, having just extracted their dear friend Larry's head from a tight mine shaft? Tolstoy's starting to look like more and more of a jackass with each fresh example."

-- Mike Nelson, late of MST3K, on Anna Karenina and, improbably, the Baldwins.

When he's not dispensing pithy literary criticism, these days he's got a new DVD series out wherein he mocks old films, only this time somewhere in the Midwest instead of on the Satellite of Love. Mary and I checked one out the other night - Hollywood After Dark - and despite the fact that it features a prematurely-craggy Rue "Golden Girls" McClanahan as a stripper - we quite enjoyed it.

And thus concludes today's installment of "Gizmotronics Book Club".

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Pretty Girls Go Insane*: Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

"Whatever you think this is going to be like, it's going to be worse." -Gretchen Lowell

Like Los Angeles and Wisconsin, the Pacific Northwest is serial killer country, and Cain's tense, grisly novel seems right at home in the dreary Portland climate. And while it might seem far-fetched for a book to feature not one, but two fiends in a city of just over 500,000, this is, after all, the region that gave us the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy. So I buy it. I've only been to the area once, but the place gave me serious Wisconsin Death Trip bad vibes.

For ten years, the Beauty Killer task force sought to capture one of the Pacific Northwest's most prolific serial killers, operating on the assumption that they were dealing with a white male between the ages of 25 and 45. However, their man was really Gretchen Lowell, a psychopath with Breck Girl hair, heart-shaped face, and a flare with a scalpel.

At the end of her psycho-tenure, Gretchen kidnaps the head of the task force, a detective named Archie Sheridan, and tortures him for ten days before calling 911 to turn herself in. The book opens with a truly horrific scene, Gretchen pounding nails into Archie's ribs. Later on, the nails begin to look almost pleasant.

Archie lives, but is now a shell of his former self. He's hooked on Vicoden, separated from his family, and when he thinks no one's looking, he reaches into his shirt to trace the heart-shaped scar that Gretchen carved on his chest. And if that isn't creepy enough, he also visits her in prison every Sunday.

You may think I'm giving stuff away left and right here, but kids, that's just the backstory.

Because, you see, two years later there's a new killer terrorizing Portland. He preys on high school girls, rapes them, strangles them, and soaks their bodies in bleach before dumping them. The Beauty Killer task force is regrouped, and Archie is taken off disability leave to lead it.

For curious reasons that are gradually revealed, a pink-haired, emotionally damaged newspaper reporter is also welcomed to the task force. Susan Ward has been assigned to write a series on the "hero cop," warts and all, and she's equal to the task.

And though the novel has been drawing a number of comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs, these don't really hold up. Gretchen Lowell isn't helping them solve the current case; in fact, most of her scenes are torture scene flashbacks. Still, she's a diabolically intelligent manipulator, and a compelling villain, even behind bars.

The ending wrapped up a little more neatly and quickly than I would have liked -- I'd really anticipated something much darker and messier; however, Heartsick is a highly original thriller and impossible to put down.

If you liked...: the gruesome bleakness of Gillian Welch's Sharp Objects, this book is for you.
* with apologies to Outrageous Cherry, who were surely writing about girls who are "fun crazy," not "tear out your guts with a crochet hook crazy"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tater Chip Books

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths about Our Health and the World We Live In by Anahad O'Connor

Sometimes one wants a book to pick at rather than to read. This can be Herodotus's Histories, or more likely, it can be a book like the two here, which are books written by very smart people who are obsessed with trivia and know that the rest of us are, too. However, they are, essentially, also books that could have been written by anyone with a library card.

Our authors here are very different types of writers, but both have major media affiliations, which goes a long way towards separating them from the herd, as trivia books go.

O'Connor is a recent Yale graduate who landed a gig writing for the New York Times (damn those young overachievers!), including a popular health and science column titled "Really?" The feature largely proves or debunks a variety of old wives' tales, popular wisdom, and that article you read on Yahoo! News two years ago where scientists said something that you've been using ever since to justify your chocolate, latte, or exercise habits.

Whereas, the authors of The General Book of Ignorance are a producer and a writer from the popular BBC comedy-quiz show QI (Quite Interesting). The program(me) is hosted by Stephen Fry, English television personality and comedian (and author of one of my favorite books, Revenge), and also seeks to debunk commonly accepted answers to popular trivia questions. Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone, but does anyone really know the name of the man who did (well, unless they read The Book of General Ignorance)? Since correct answers are rare, points are awarded on the basis of the interesting-ness of incorrect ones and deducted for simply regurgitating common misconceptions. QI says, "It's okay to be wrong, but don't be obviously, boringly wrong."

While both books have their charms, O'Connor's didn't say a whole lot that isn't already known by the discerning reader. We know that chicken soup is good for what ales you, that a poppyseed bagel can make you fail a drug test, and that the key to losing weight is generally to eat less and move more. However, I did learn some interesting things from him about seafood and scabs. The book includes a handy chart, listing the seafood with the most Omega-3 and the lowest concentrations of toxins, which I've now committed to memory. Also, everything your mom ever told you about treating a boo-boo is probably wrong; they ought to be covered, kept moist, and (yes) picked at occasionally.

On the other hand, I learned a ton of things I had no idea about from The Book of General Ignorance, including the technological contributions of the Scottish, the fashion contributions of the Croatians, and the culinary contributions of the French. And there's also a very funny story about Napoleon and a rabbit hunt gone bad.

Still, despite the cranky Guardian digested read about the latter, you couldn't go wrong with either if you need a good public transit, airport, doctor's waiting room, or bathroom book, and I suppose that's fairly high praise. Nobody says that kind of stuff about Sister Carrie.

Setting New Standards in Off-Topic Posting

Okay, this has as much to do with books as does Funky Winkerbean with chuckles these days, but after a week or two of catching up with Mad Men and the latter part of an evening spent scouring YouTube for 90s era music videos, we at TBIfY have the following to say:

If Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs doesn't join the staff at Sterling Cooper Advertising by May sweeps, there is no justice in the world.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Then I Remembered That This Is America

I read the post at Bookninja titled Arts Pages Abuzz With Frey, and the whole James Frey thing seemed so long ago and far away and unequivocally over, that for an instant I actually thought the headline was referring to Joss Whedon's Fray.

Because in that instant, it made more sense to me that the NYT and the Guardian would be writing about a comic book that's four years old and putting a typo in the headline than dragging this thing out again.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

While on our honeymoon in England, Potts and I picked up a collection of Roald Dahl's short stories to read on the train from Falmouth to London. We came upon one story that involved a beekeeper, his wife, and their frail infant daughter. The baby refuses to eat until the beekeeper comes up with a very creepy plan to make her gain weight. And to this day in the Potts/McCoy household, one of us need only utter the title of this story to make the other break out in shudders: "Royal Jelly."

So here's to the works of Roald Dahl, skeeving out children and adults alike for over fifty years, in the best way possible.

From The Witches:

"Grandmamma," I said, "if it's a dark night, how can a witch smell the difference between a child and a grown-up."
"Because grown-ups don't give out stink-waves," she said. "Only children do that."
"But I don't really give out stink-waves, do I?" I said. "I'm not giving them out at this very moment, am I?"
"Not to me you aren't," my grandmother said. "To me you are smelling like raspberries and cream. But to a witch you would be smelling absolutely disgusting."
"What would I be smelling of?" I asked.
"Dogs' droppings," my grandmother said.
I reeled. I was stunned. "Dogs' droppings!" I cried. "I am not smelling of dogs' droppings! I don't believe it! I won't believe it!"
"What's more," my grandmother said, speaking with a touch of relish, "to a witch you'd be smelling of fresh dogs' droppings."
"That simply is not true!" I cried. "I know I am not smelling of dogs' droppings, stale or fresh!"
"There's no point in arguing about it," my grandmother said. "It's a fact of life."

To celebrate Dahl Day yourself, take a quiz, use the word 'gobblefunk' in a sentence, or read up on Dahl's short stories for adults. And check out "Royal Jelly." Eek.

In other news, not everyone is happy about Roald Dahl Day.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Behind the Rape of the Lock: The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

One fatal stroke the sacred hair does sever
From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

I was immediately struck by the clever premise of The Scandal of the Season, but wondered, really, how interesting was a book that fictionalized the events surrounding Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" going to be? Along with Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Pope's mock epic is one of those works that sounds hilarious to high school students when it's explained in modern language. What they don't expect is that they're going to have to hack through some truly dense 18th century verbiage to get the jokes. Most give up, which is not to say that the hacking isn't worthwhile. There are always two or three kids in the class whose eyes light up when they get to Swift's sentence about baby ragout.

And Sophie Gee's novel is not only clever, it's absolutely delightful, peppered with witty banter, forbidden trysts, and Jacobite plots to murder the queen. The book begins with the young Pope traveling to London with the Blount sisters, partly to drum up some publicity for his latest poem and partly to woo the elder Blount, Teresa. She'll have nothing to do with him, though, and is holding out for a wealthier prospect, preferably one without a hunchback.

Though the Blounts have a good name, they're deeply in debt, and the girls have this season alone to snare mates before word of their financial ruin leaks out. Teresa relies on the friendship of her beautiful and well-connected cousin, Arabella Fermor; however, Arabella has lived in the city long enough to see Teresa for the grasping nobody she is.

And Arabella has other things on her mind, not least of which is the attention of Robert, Lord Petre, one of London's most eligible bachelors. Despite her good judgment, Arabella becomes Robert's lover and believes he'll marry her even though he's financially out of her league. And Robert isn't a total rake - he loves Arabella and believes he can convince his family to approve the union. Meanwhile, Pope watches the affair unfold at masquerades and garden parties, and uses its doomed end to compose his best-known work.

Gee's eye for historical detail is rich and precise, but it's her dialogue that sells the story. Characters live and die by their wit, which goes a long way towards explaining how a middle class Catholic with a hunchback could gain access to London's elite. And despite living in a superficial society where much is expressed in euphemism and pun, the relationships between the characters are surprisingly deep, and sometimes moving.

If you liked...: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos or the work of Jane Austen, this book is for you.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Lovely Luddite Weekend

I was feeling a tad washed out by the internets, and decided to spend a few days without blogging, checking my email, or engaging in any surfing whatsoever. I even did my writing longhand.

Now, I think I've managed to get a little sun on my cheeks and wipe the monitor glaze from my eyes. Potts and I even got up early this morning and had a breakfast picnic in Griffith Park and took a hike.

That's right, Potts hiked. And liked it.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What a Life! What a Dame!: Life Itself! by Elaine Dundy

Life Itself! by Elaine Dundy

The more I read about my fellow Angeleno, Ms. Dundy, the more I want to take her out for tea. Then again, to a woman who befriended Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, and Vivien Leigh, I'd probably be comparatively dull company.

Dundy's autobiography is a star-studded spectacle, but the author's own life never takes a backseat to the figures of the page, stage, and screen who populate her story. In fact, given the effusive, larger than life woman who springs from the pages of Life Itself!, it only makes sense that she'd surround herself with similarly big personalities.

Born to a wealthy New York family, Dundy splits for California, the Deep South, and finally, Paris, to escape her tyrannical father, but also to have a go at a life on the stage. After achieving some modest success, she moves to London where she meets, and soon marries, theatre critic Ken Tynan. Their relationship is a stormy one, hampered by Tynan's sadomasochistic proclivities (which he only reveals to her after their wedding)*, emotional manipulation, and the extramarital affairs of both parties.

Despite trading in one tyrant for another, Dundy manages to enjoy a relatively successful career in television and radio -- she abandons the stage, after growing weary of directors joking that they'll "get a bad review" from Ken if they don't cast her. And after the birth of her daughter, Tracy, Dundy moves from acting into writing, with a bibliography that includes everything from plays to novels to a biography of Elvis and his mother.

The book is full of great stories, including a lively party Tennessee Williams threw for his mother, the "Hemingway Code" as it applied to young women in his company, and the time Ava Gardner showed up at the flat asking for cab fare, but Dundy's writing shines even when describing the mundane. While reading, I constantly regaled Potts with lines from it, and atypically, this was more to his amusement than his annoyance. A few of my favorites include:

On giving a disasterous class presentation on "arson": "When you have got it firmly lodged in your head that arson is a chemical, a batch of newspaper clippings with headlines such as: 'Ten Die in Warehouse Blaze - Arson Suspected' is not going to dislodge it."

On discovering rampant anti-Semitism at Sweet Briar College: "My shit list was growing apace and I had only been there for two months."

On not buying a jar of peanut butter: "I was the only one in our household who ate it and the thought struck me with force that our marriage was not going to last before I finished it."

If you're a fan of 50s theatre, screwball leading ladies, and stories of women who live life to the hilt, this book is for you.
* There's a great line in the book when Dundy is telling a friend about her marital troubles, and he responds, "Of course Englishmen love flagellation. It's the only time they ever get touched as children."