Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Great Baseball Reads from Them in the Know

If you're interested in books about baseball, there are a ton of them listed today at Baseball Toaster.

Bob weighs in with his top ten list, and has never once steered me towards a baseball book that I haven't loved (The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America and The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920).

Now I just need to buckle down and read that big, fat, scary-looking Branch Rickey biography.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Brave New World: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Lahiri's third book begins with this lovely and apt epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House," and sets the tone for a collection of short stories that feels familiar, yet more troubled and troubling than her previous work.

Many of Lahiri's touchstones are present in Unaccustomed Earth -- Bengali brides who make their peace with life in Boston and its suburbs, sullen teens dragged to India for summer vacations, arranged marriages, mixed marriages, and the conflicts present in each. However, these plot points feel lived-in, not tired. And while Lahiri's characters tend to go through similar life experiences, this is a very different book from Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

The title story is the first, and my favorite of the eight collected here. It involves a woman whose recently widowed father comes to spend a week with her and her son in Seattle. During his visit, she comes to realize how much she needs him, just as he's realizing that he doesn't want to be part of another family.

Another stand-out is "Only Goodness," a story about a woman who quietly puts together the pieces of a successful life in the shadow of her screw-up younger brother, and her opportunity to welcome him back into the fold.

The three intertwined stories in Unaccustomed Earth, "Once in a Lifetime," "Year's End," and "Going Ashore," follow the lives of Hema and Kaushik, who meet as children and are brought together again years later. These stories have been singled out as the collection's high point, and while I agree that they are the most emotionally complex and searing thing that Lahiri has written, their bleakness keeps me from thinking of them as "favorites."

It seems silly to write at length about a book that's been so widely and well-reviewed in recent weeks, particularly when I agree with the bulk of those reviews. Fans of Lahiri's previous books will be pleased with Unaccustomed Earth; however, they should be prepared for stories that are less warm, less likable than her previous work. These are stories that deal with the pricklier, more unpleasant sides of marriage, parenting, growing up, and growing old. Still, it's good to see that a remarkably talented writer isn't standing still, but forging ahead into undiscovered, if hostile, countries.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Weekly Geeks #1: Discover New Blogs Week

I just joined a lit blog group, The Weekly Geeks, which introduces a different blogging theme for each week. The first one was easy enough: find five blogs among the participants that are new to you, drop by to say hello, then make with the linky goodness.

Here are a few of my new favorites:

1. A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: She's looking forward to reading The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr, one of the best books I've read so far this year.

2. Mysteries in Paradise: Oh ho! I see you like crime novels.... I like crime novels, too.

3. Rebecca's Sunday Confessions cracked me up. Hey, in some places Guinness IS a breakfast food!

4. The Biblio Brat: Sug, you had me at the E.B. White quote.

5. Adventures in Reading, which features excellent writing and sexy pictures of Jack London in his swimmin' britches.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Teen Vampire Taste Test, Part 2: Wherein I Do Not Get It

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

"What is this shit?" -Greil Marcus, on Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait

I'm not one of those people who believes that YA literature is a slum for writers who can't cut it writing for adults. Writing for teens is hard -- cases in point, Michael Chabon and Carl Hiassen, both fine writers whose attempts at YA were only moderately good. And I don't believe that teen readers tolerate crap books any more than adults do. That said, I'm completely baffled by the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, it is about an ordinary teenage girl who moves to Forks, Washington to live with her father. There, she falls in love with a vampire named Edward, becomes entangled in his strange adopted vampire family, and finds herself in grave danger as a result.

And I disliked it more intensely than I have ever disliked any book, with the possible exception of The Scarlet Letter.

My reasons:

1. It is incredibly boring. It takes about 200 pages for the vampire love story to kick in, and up until that point, Twilight is just a really unmemorable high school story.

2. Bella is quite possibly the dullest 17-year-old girl who ever lived. Her only remarkable trait is that she falls down a lot, and she reminds me of Anne (aka Bland) from Arrested Development.

3. The relationship between Edward and Bella is creepily intense, but entirely without passion. The source of their attraction seems to be that he's very pretty, and that she smells very good to him. After he rescues her from a few sticky situations, he becomes very protective and possessive, sometimes to the point of sitting in her room and watching her sleep. I think there's a name for that, when your boyfriend starts isolating you from your friends and won't let you out of his sight, and I don't think it's "love."

4. The book's big climax is unnecessarily elaborate and convoluted. I have no idea why an evil vampire would go to such lengths to kill Bella, when she could easily be done in by a frayed electrical cord or perhaps a plastic bag left laying around.

I would have found explicit sex or wanton drug abuse or splattery violence less offensive that the implied message of the relatively "wholesome" Twilight, which is:

1. Girls are helpless, and need to be rescued... almost constantly.

2. Teenage girls should strive for unhealthily obsessive relationships because that's what true love is.

I can't discount the opinions of hundreds of thousands of readers who clearly adore this series. However, I have no idea why people like it when it is clearly awful.

A Dubious Hats-Off

To James Ellroy, for being the only living male writer who could criticize the speech habits of a woman he just met, and not get slapped.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Friday Funsies: Authors A-Z

I saw this on bookeywookey, and felt compelled to steal it. I'm a sucker for the book list:

A is for Dorothy Allison: Cavedweller
B is for Larry Brown: Big Bad Love: Stories
C is for Raymond Chandler: The High Window
D is for Roald Dahl: The BFG
E is for James Ellroy: L.A. Confidential
F is for Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy
G is for Tim Gautreaux: Same Place, Same Things: Stories
H is for Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest
I is for John Irving: The Cider House Rules
J is for Thom Jones: The Pugilist at Rest
K is for E.L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
L is for Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies
M is for Ross MacDonald: The Galton Case
N is for Frank Norris: McTeague: A Story of San Francisco
O is for Flannery O'Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find
P is for Ann Patchett: Truth & Beauty
Q is for quite impossible to think of
R is for Nina Revoyr: The Age of Dreaming
S is for Anne Sexton: Complete Poems
T is for Scarlett Thomas: Popco
U is for Upton Sinclair: The Jungle
V is for Brian K. Vaughan: Y: The Last Man
W is for Alice Walker: The Color Purple
X is for xylophone, because as Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book taught us, "X is always for xylophone!"
Y is for Steve Yarbrough: The End of California
Z is for Ruth oZecki: My Year of Meats

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Teen Vampire Taste Test, Part the First: The Society of S Series by Susan Hubbard

The Society of S and The Year of Disappearances by Susan Hubbard

Now that Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series has amassed a Prisoner of Azkaban-sized following, I got curious about how the series stood up to its contemporaries. And while Meyer doesn't have any serious challengers to the teen vampire throne these days, I wondered if she should.

So first up, The Society of S series.

Ariella and her father, Raphael, live in Saratoga Springs, depicted with such a strongly gothic sensibility that it took a chapter or two to become clear that the book was set in the present, and not the 1880s. Ariella's mother disappeared shortly after giving birth, and since then, the girl's life has been extraordinarily sheltered. While her education includes Latin and the writings of Bertram Russell, she's never had a friend her own age or bought her own clothes at the mall... or eaten meat.

As Ariella begins taking stabs at a normal teenage life, she begins to suspect that she's different from other people. There's no single moment of revelation. The pieces come together over the first half of the book from her own observations, her internet research, and the stories about the past that Raphael tells her in starts and fits.

Ariella eventually discovers that she's a half-breed, part vampire and part human. While some vampire sects support the colonization of the human race, her own family belongs to the Sanguinists -- a sect of ethical vampires who do not feed on humans.

Perhaps it moves too slowly, but Hubbard's writing is so lush and lovely that I didn't mind, and I'm not usually one to be distracted from other shortcomings by nice prose.

Unfortunately, action is a problem for Hubbard because once she gets going -- here, with the grisly murder of Ariella's best friend -- the story takes off on a wild, uneven trajectory that isn't reined in until the last chapters.

This is a problem in both books. Although the premise of the series is engaging and the world of the Sanguinists is inventive, I was consistently bothered by the directions Hubbard chooses to take her characters.

Despite some missteps in the middle, The Society of S finishes strong, and leaves a lot of intriguing loose ends to be explored in the next book.

Unfortunately, The Year of Disappearances doesn't do much with this incredible set-up. Instead of learning more about herself and her unique condition by interacting with other vampire characters, Hubbard inexplicably sends the 14-year-old Ariella off to college in this book. Hubbard also weaves plotlines involving politics, environmentalism, and bio-terrorism into the fabric of the vampire sects. Much of it works better than I'd expected, but it's simply too much for one book, and spread too thin.

Though the book's violence is minimal, the body count is high. But whether the characters make it to the book's end or not, it hardly matters. The cast has gotten a little too big by this point, and the supporting characters, a little too disposable. I wouldn't suggest getting too attached to any of them.

The Society of S succeeds as a stand-alone, and is definitely worth checking out. However, the forthcoming Year of Disappearances is messy, scatter-shot, and really only for those invested in the series.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Something for National Poetry Month and the PA Primary

Last week,Pages Turned dedicated a poem to Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. I thought that on this, the day before the primary of my semi-beloved home state, I'd put it up again:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter—bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.

--Stephen Crane

Plus, best last lines ever in a poem, except perhaps Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man":

And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

That one always gets me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Home-Spun and Foursquare: The Blue Star by Tony Earley

The Blue Star by Tony Earley

Those who like Tony Earley have praised his wholesome, sincere, simple prose, while those who don't dismiss his writing for those same qualities. I think his book have been perhaps over-praised, which is not to say I don't think they're good.

Earley's first novel, Jim the Boy (2000), tells the story of a ten-year-old boy raised by his mother and bachelor uncles in a small North Carolina town during the Great Depression. In The Blue Star, it's 1941, and Jim is a high school senior who's fallen hopelessly in love with a half-Cherokee girl named Chrissie Steppe.

However, Jim can't really enjoy simple things like being BMOC or being in love, because bigger troubles loom on the horizon. With the nation on the brink of war, boys from his class are enlisting, and Jim is torn about that decision. To add to his troubles, Chrissie already has a boyfriend. Bucky Bucklaw is one of Aliceville's favored sons: he comes from a wealthy, respected family, and he's serving his country aboard the USS California. However, Jim can't stand Bucky for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with Bucky's girlfriend. Add Chrissie to the mix, and Jim's dislike boils into pure hatred, a feeling that our good-hearted protagonist has a hard time stomaching.

The book takes a few chapters to get going. Earley has described the Jim books as "children's stories for adults"; however, at first, The Blue Star is too slow-moving to appeal to teen readers, and covers territory too well-worn to engage adults. But about halfway through, things become more complicated, and Jim is forced to confront issues that are somewhat above his maturity level. If the first half of the book nests Jim and his friends in the safety of small town teen life, the second half is about how adulthood is suddenly thrust upon them, and the decisions they make about the kinds of men and women they want to become.

If you liked...: Plainsong by Kent Haruf or Ferroll Sams's Porter Osbourne trilogy (Run With the Horsemen, The Whisper of the River, and When All the World Was Young), this book is for you.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"You Can't Have a Negro": The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu

On one side were Americans dizzied by Red paranoia and terrified by the perceived threat of juvenile delinquency. On the other, a burgeoning field for young artists that offered nearly total freedom and creative control. Postwar America was just the right place for the gory, irreverent horror, crime, and romance comics, and at the same time, no place at all.

For years, the hundreds of titles produced by publishers like EC, National/DC, Marvel, and Timely were devoured by young readers, and either ignored or dismissed by the adults who weren't writing and drawing them -- something juvenile, but benign that kids would eventually grow out of. But then, the grown-ups started to pay attention, Fredric Wertham published the methodically shoddy, but polemically brilliant Seduction of the Innocent, and things got messy.

Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague is a cultural-historical examination of the crackdown against comics and the emergence of the Comics Code, which lamed everything up good and proper. This is what the book purports to be about, but it is also the least interesting part.

What makes The Ten-Cent Plague worth checking out is its exploration of the rise of the comics publishing houses, and the writers, artists, and publishers who determined their courses and individual styles. After the Comics Code put many titles off the rack and publishers out of business, literally hundreds of people were forced out of the comics business for good. For the book, Hajdu interviewed over 150 of these individuals, as well as comic book readers -- the very people who were excluded from the studies of the 1940s and 1950s that "proved" a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

The brightest spot in the book is Hajdu's account of EC (Entertaining Comics), the most notorious of the horror and crime comics publishers. Formerly Educational Comics, EC became the home of Shock SuspenStories, Weird Fantasy, Tales from the Crypt, and most enduringly, Mad, when science teacher Bill Gaines took over the business after his father's death. Gaines was an unlikely, and at first, unwilling leader, but he gradually became caught up with the fervor of his artists, and eventually became one of the industry's biggest defenders and champions. When the CMAA told him to edit one of his stories, saying, "You can't have a Negro," Gaines called up its head, Charles F. Murphy:

"Gaines said, 'Fuck you,' hung up on Murphy, and published the story intact.

'That was Bill's last act as a comic-book publisher,' said [Al] Feldstein."

Though EC's gruesome illustrations (for example, a baseball player hitting a ball with a severed limb) were found notably offensive by Wertham and Co., their war comics, edited by Harvey Kurtzman, refused to glamorize war. Hajdu writes, "Parents no doubt watched their children reading Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat and figured that the kids were being spoon-fed jingoism, unaware of the books' diet cynicism toward the American military and sensitivity to the impartial cruelty of war."

And how could you not love a company that sent out the following call for writers?:

"You should know this about our horror books. We have no ghosts, devils, goblins or the like. We tolerate vampires and werewolves, if they follow tradition and behave the way respectable vampires and werewolves should.

We love walking corpse stories.

We'll accept an occasional zombie or mummy.

We relish the contres cruels story...

No cops and robbers stories. Virtue doesn't have to triumph over evil."

Really, I would have loved an entire book about this. Leave out the pseudo-science, the Congressional hearings, the comic-book burnings hosted by misled youth, but then again, you can't tell the story of EC, and other publishers like them, without them.

Hajdu seems to realize this, and Wertham and the Comics Code encompass only the last 75 pages of the book, and really seem a little thin compared to his vibrant chapters devoted to the writers themselves.

All I can say in the end, and unlikelier words have never passed through my lips, is, "Ah, to have been a 12-year-old boy in 1951." It would have been good readin'.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Calling All Library-Loving Angelenos

The Los Angeles Public Library has been hit hard by the City budget shortfalls, and already, approximately $2 million has been cut from the budget for new materials. Additionally, the Board of Library Commissioners recently approved new fees for basic library services.

Starting July 1, LAPL users will be charged $1 for inter-branch loan requests. In a city the size of Los Angeles, the holds service is the only thing that makes the amazing resources of the library system accessible to everyone.

You can help by writing a letter to Mayor Villaraigosa, the Board of Library Commissioners, and City Librarian Fontayne Holmes asking them to keep library use free for the people of Los Angeles.

If this system isn't free, many people in Los Angeles will be unable to afford access to the library books they need.

And if you'd like to do more than just write a letter, you can submit suggestions to raise money for the library without taking free services away from those who need them most.

Visit the Save the L.A. Public Library website for more ideas about how you can help.

Everette Maddox Website Returns!

The Poetry of Everette Maddox, an online reference to the life and work of New Orleans's eternal poet laureate is back up and running.

The site includes the complete text of hard to find Maddox poems from the increasingly rare and pricey Everette Maddox Song Book, as well as his later titles.

Even more exciting are the audio files of interviews and poetry readings, tribute poems, letters, and a good bit more.

Three cheers to Tom Woolf for compiling this truly awesome site. And to those of you who wonder why we never shut up about Maddox here, you can finally see for yourself.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I Love Hamlet in the Springtime, I Love Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the Fall

One of my quirkier reading habits is that I enjoy re-reading certain books during certain seasons. 100 Years of Solitude is a fall book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is for spring, and I like to pick up some Ann Patchett books in the summertime. Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love is another summer book, and I usually get a hankering for Tim Gautreaux in the winter.

But my favorite seasonal read is Hamlet, which I weirdly associate with springtime. Or perhaps not so weirdly. In high school Brit Lit, Macbeth was the winter Shakespeare, and Hamlet came around in March.

A few years later, when I found myself teaching 12th grade English at the ripe old age of 22, I held to the pattern. I had so much fun teaching Hamlet that year that now, it always makes me think of spring.*

Does anyone else do the "a book for all seasons" thing?
*One of my most vivid memories of teaching it was holding a press conference from Elsinore, where I had a few students play the roles of the principal characters, and the rest pretended to be the paparazzi. Good times at Wooddale High.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stimulus/Response: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

I've learned to live with it.

The taste of peppermint makes me sneeze, the sound of Anthony Bourdain's voice makes me fall asleep, and reading Sara Zarr makes me burst into tears.

I've given up on trying to understand the first two things, but I've been giving some thought to the Sara Zarr situation. I don't have much in common with the protagonists of either Story of a Girl or Sweethearts, and I can't particularly identify with their experiences. However, Zarr is so masterful at conveying a teenage (and more generally, human) sense of isolation, frustration, confusion, and powerlessness that it's impossible not to identify with those feelings, if not with the circumstances that gave rise to them.

At the beginning of Sweethearts, we meet Jennifer Harris in elementary school, an overweight girl with a lisp, a 10-year-old who washes her own clothes in the apartment laundry room while her mom's between work and nursing school so the other kids don't tell her she stinks, an outcast who's tormented by everyone in her grade.

Except for Cameron Quick.

The two outcasts bond together, but it's not the usual kind of outcast childhood friendship, born out of exclusion from every other corner. They take care of each other, understand each other, and what's more, they truly love each other.

And then one day, Cameron disappears. The teacher tells her he moved, the bullies tell her he died, and Jennifer's mother won't say anything to confirm or deny either suggestion.

Flash forward eight years. Jennifer Harris is gone, and Jenna Vaughan has taken her place. Jenna has lost the weight and the lisp, she's enrolled in a new school, her mother has remarried a genuinely decent man, and the outcast Jennifer has been replaced by a pretty, popular teenage girl. Still, Jenna isn't comfortable with her new self, and she holds her new friends at bay with clever small talk and a happy, uncomplicated demeanor.

And then, Cameron Quick comes back, and everything changes.

Jenna is now old enough to ask hard questions, and begins to understand more about the harrowing circumstances of Cameron's home life then, and why they were kept from her. And she's also forced to reexamine painful and frightening memories in their shared past, as well as her own transformation to the person she is now. How much can people change? Can you ever really escape yourself? The answers here are hard, but also hard-won.

When I read pre-pub descriptions of Sweethearts, I was skeptical. The plot just seemed too bizarre to be realistic, and yet, it is. I tried to find a passage from Sweethearts to demonstrate what makes it so emotionally powerful, but that's not how Zarr works. As in Story of a Girl the language is fairly unadorned, and there's no one paragraph that encapsulates it all.

The book's exceptional resonance is accumulated gradually, painfully, and realistically, and in the end, it feels like you've experienced the long-repressed build to a good cry alongside the protagonist, rather than the emotionally manipulative line that sets you off.

Zarr's books will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen (Someone Like You, The Truth About Forever) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Prom), but her ability to strike deep, immediately recognizable chords of feeling in her readers sets her above even these YA fiction stars.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

My New Favorite Author: Southland by Nina Revoyr

Southland by Nina Revoyr

In the wake of the Margaret Seltzer faux-gangster memoir scandal last month, novelist Denise Hamilton wrote a column for the Times recommending a book to wash away the bad taste of that whole mess: Understand This by the wonderful Jervey Tervalon. The book focuses on the lives of eight teens living in South Central Los Angeles, and is, Hamilton writes, "as haunting and painful and tough and tender and true as Seltzer's memoir is false."

Alongside Tervalon's book, I'd also suggest Nina Revoyr's Southland, which captures an altogether different, and seldom examined side of South Central -- its history as one of Los Angeles's first racially mixed neighborhoods.

The book's main character is Jackie Ishida, a fourth generation Japanese-American woman whose parents' drive towards assimilation and upward mobility have effectively divorced her from her family's past. Though she's a UCLA law student and her parents are doctors, her grandfather, Frank, owned a grocery store in the Crenshaw district and raised his children there until the 1965 Watts riots.

When Frank dies in 1994, Jackie discovers an old will among his papers, leaving the store to Curtis Martindale, a man she's never heard of. A little investigation leads her to Curtis's cousin, Jimmy Lanier, who gives her some shocking news. Curtis Martindale was one of four African-American boys found locked in Frank's walk-in freezer after the riots. The murders were never reported to the police, since the neighborhood's beat cop, a white officer who frequently brutalized the black and Japanese residents, was seen leading the boys inside the store. Jackie and Jimmy decide to put together enough evidence to bring a case against the white officer, and begin tracking down people from the old neighborhood.

Revoyr intertwines this search with flashbacks spanning six decades, and told from a variety of character POVs. We see the Japanese-American interment camps of World War II and the segregation that exists for black workers in the Long Beach shipyards. But we also see the Family Bowl, frequented by Japanese and African-American Crenshaw district residents alike, and racially integrated neighborhoods where people are genuinely neighborly.

Revoyr doesn't view the past idyllically, but she's able to see a brief moment in time where Los Angeles could have moved in a much different direction. Here, and in her equally terrific The Age of Dreaming, she provides devastating historical accounts of racial prejudice in Los Angeles's sometimes white-washed past.

Although I've come to Revoyr's writing only recently, I can't recommend her enough. She's too good to miss.

Not Shocking

Pastrami vs. knowledge? In Los Angeles, pastrami wins.

Langer's ousts Central Library in LA Magazine's kinda weird "64 Greatest Things About L.A." showdown.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How to Make a Doctor Smile

Me: (upon being told that all was essentially well and curable) Oh, Dr. _______, thank you! I spent five minutes on WebMD this morning, and had myself convinced that I had a hole in my eardrum and was going deaf. Then I decided I should probably find out from a real doctor. Thank you so much!

Doc: (beaming) Well, um, that's the downside of WebMD.

(Note: a slightly modified version of this dialogue also works with librarians)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Glorious Grits from Termite Hall

We've written about this book before, but now that we've had time to try out a few recipes it seemed like a good time to revisit it. Termite Hall is full of the author's signature wit and charm - and it's a heckuva read for a cookbook - but we'd hate to mistake the garnish for the main course.

Though we've only made a handful of dishes to date, each has been a winner. Granted, we've studiously avoided some of the more esoteric dishes - I'm pretty sure I can die happy having never tasted aspic - but the more gelatinous courses are definitely in the minority.

Of the recipes we've tried, my favorite by far is the first one we made: grits and corn pudding. We followed Eugene's advice and fried up some sausage and pears (with a little brown sugar added), and then served them over the pudding. It was nineteen kinds of awesome. And better still, the next morning we hauled out the cast-iron skillet and made fried grits with the leftovers. And that, friends, was good eatin'.

So, we thought we'd share - bon app├ętit!

Grits and Corn Pudding from Eugene Walter's Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall.

Cook 1 cup grits in 4 cups water, 1 tsp. salt, stirring constantly. When grits come away from side of pan, remove from fire, let cool awhile. Add 1/2 cup milk, tin of creamed corn, tablespoon unsalted butter, pinch of salt, dash of cayenne as well as freshly-ground black pepper. Add one cup grated sharp cheese. Fold in thoroughly 3 beaten eggs, pour into buttered casserole, dot top with pea sized dabs of butter. Bake in moderate oven 30 or 40 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Good with pork sausage and fried hard pears for Sunday brunch.

Dang. Now I'm hungry.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The 1947project Is Dead!

Long live the 1947project!

The L.A. historic true crime-a-day project has morphed into something new and wonderful, a house-by-house exploration of a lost Angeleno neighborhood:

"For the next year, we will be exploring the lost neighborhood of Bunker Hill in all its permutations. Yes, we'll be reporting on the crimes upon the hill, but we'll also look at architecture, social life, notable residents, transportation, redevelopment, its mysteries and what small survivors remain from the glory days. With this project, we intend to shine a light on a community that was displaced by a well intentioned but misguided slum clearance plan that tore the heart out of L.A.'s downtown, a blow the city still staggers from."

Swing by the new digs.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

In Defense of the Seven Deadly Words

Last week, I expressed some chagrin over my use of what Bob Harris of the NYT's Paper Cuts called the seven deadly words of book reviewing.

The 200+ snarksome, pissy comments generated by the post set forth a ton more. Apparently "sweeping epic," "tour de force," "page-turner," "readable," "wickedly funny/darkly comic," "nuanced," and "rollicking" are making people want to "claw their eyes out" in droves.

Yes, there are a few bits of book-reviewese that I dislike immensely: luminous, dazzling, and wise, to name a few. And while I feel that literary criticism is probably ill-served by the overuse of this language, I also believe that book reviewing needs it. And I'll stand on Michiko Kakutani's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say this.

What I do, what many other lit bloggers do, and even what most "legitimate" book reviewers do isn't literary criticism, it's readers' advisory. We're telling our readers why they might or might not want to pick up a book, and those readers are possessed of an understandably short attention span. After all, why would anyone waste their time reading about a book that they don't want to read?

So, we have to work fast.

However, overused the word "taut" may be, it tells the reader something about an author's writing style in the same way that "rollicking" tells us something about the pacing and tone, and "page-turner" about the general reading experience. These words are shorthand, a kind of secret readers' code that lets us know as quickly as possible whether we want to pursue a book.

And I happen to like books that are "poignant."

I used to write 1000-word reviews for venues more legitimate than my own sorry little blog, but eventually the process began to feel like an empty exercise in saying something that hadn't already been said, using far more words than needed to be used in the first place.

Because in nearly every case, I'd decided that I wanted to review the book by reading a 150-word review in PW or Library Journal or Booklist.

A book review needs to serve the interests of the reader, not the ego of the reviewer. And while there's a place for the dense and linguistically classy review, I'll usually opt for the populist approach in my review-reading and review-writing. Hell, it's what all the kids are doing anyways, even the NYT.

It's more "readable."*
* The only "Seven Deadly Words" comment that actively annoyed me was the one that read, “'Readable.' I don’t know what that means. Is the work grammatical? Is it a comment about the book’s typeface?"

I happen to love this word, which describes a piece of writing with qualities that appeal to a wide range of readers. The librarians at the Madison Public Library have done an excellent job of tapping into this appeal with their "Too Good to Miss" and "Beyond Bestsellers: Best of the New" book lists.

Um, don't miss them.