Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

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.