Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Other Blogging Project That's Been Keeping Me From You

A few months ago, I decided to start a writing project that would allow me to indulge my loves of cooking, history, and collecting old Junior League cookbooks.

So, I started Cooking With the Junior League, where I've been cooking a meal from a different Junior League cookbook, past and present, every week. So far, I've done chicken mole from El Paso, a surprisingly good sauerbraten from Milwaukee, a flat-out terrifying tomato aspic from Nashville, and quite a few more.

I'm not officially shuttering TBIFY, but for the time being, I'll be writing mostly about food, and not so much about books. Check out the new site if you're interested, but if you're not, look me up on Goodreads. I do keep up with my books there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

On April 21, 1999, I walked past an elementary school playground, on my way from my college campus to a convenience store, and I heard screaming. For a moment, my blood went cold. I ran up to the chain link fence and scanned the blacktop for guns or knives or boys in trench coats. But the screaming was just the screaming of kids who'd been cooped up all afternoon and were thrilled to be running around and playing with their friends. Everyone was happy. Everyone was fine.

It was the day after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold came onto the Columbine High School campus, loaded up with guns and bombs and massacred their classmates. I was a student teacher at a local high school, and suddenly, I was worried about my kids, everybody's kids, in a way I'd never worried before.

Over the next few weeks, I followed the tragedy, and formed certain impressions based on the stories I'd read - troubled, outcast boys; bullied at school; little parental supervision; trench coat mafia; violent video games; popular kids and jocks targeted.

Reading Cullen's book, it's amazing how pervasive the myths about Columbine that circulated in the media following the tragedy were, and how few of them were true. In the years that have passed, more truth has come to light; however, the nation's eye was no longer on Columbine High School, and though the ideas we held about the crime have faded from our memories, they haven't much changed.

Columbine is a meticulously researched, remarkably sensitive book that seeks to create a comprehensive, rational record of the facts. It's not sensational, and there are no photographs, a hallmark of the true crime genre. It's also not an easy thing to read.

The night I began the book, I was grateful for the lack of pictures as I fell asleep. The killers' names swam up into my head, but thankfully, I couldn't conjure their faces, or any other of the images of Columbine, and I didn't want to. The account Cullen pieces together from thousands of pages of official reports and hundreds of interviews and media accounts is disturbing enough.

Cullen responsibly explains many of the stories that evolved around the massacre, and unveils the ways in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fell through the safety nets of school, home, friends, and law enforcement without pointing fingers. He is slightly more damning, if sympathetic, about flaws in the police response to Columbine. After all, students' bodies were left where they fell more than a day after the shootings; Dave Sanders, the only teacher to die in the shootings, might have lived if SWAT teams had acted sooner; the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department hid and destroyed incriminating documents about Eric Harris.

Still, Cullen is hesitant to to assign malicious intent or blame to anyone involved in the response effort, or to families after the fact (the killers' included). Harris and Klebold are a different story, but Cullen also unfolds the dynamics of their personalities and their relationship in a responsible and well-documented fashion. It's almost possible to feel sympathy for Klebold, a suicidally depressed boy, who, had he not come under Harris's influence, might have gone an entirely different way. Harris, on the other hand, is portrayed as a young, but full-blown psychopath, adept at manipulation and bent on mass annihilation.

Columbine skips around in its chronology, never lingering too long on any one part of the shooting, the events that led up to it, or the events that followed, and perhaps that is what made me able to finish it.

When I bought this book, I felt like a sicko, that I'd even read a book about something so awful.

But when I'd finished it, I felt some sense of calm, that a crime I'd had so many false impressions about had been clarified for me, that I now understood both the sickness of the killers, but also, the bravery and struggle of the survivors.

And that's why I would encourage people to read it. Columbine is an example of investigative journalism at its best. It's an effort to make sense of a tragedy, relying upon a foundation of talking to and understanding the people impacted by it. It was a terrible story that needed to be told responsibly and comprehensively out of respect to those who lived through it, and Dave Cullen has done that.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Children and Steamboats: The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

I love Tim Gautreaux's dedication pages. In his debut short story collection, Same Place, Same Things, he writes, "For my wife, Winborne, and our two sons, Robert and Thomas. I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Arts. I suppose I could have thanked them first, but they haven't ever baked me biscuits." Welding With Children, the second collection, is dedicated "To my teachers, who knew that every fact is a coin." And in The Missing, Gautreaux offers this dedication: "For my father, Minos Lee Gautreaux, who taught me to love children and steamboats."

These three dedications say a good deal about the kind of stories Gautreaux writes, old-fashioned tales where the best characters are not those who achieve great deeds, but those able to happily inhabit modest lives, enjoy simple pleasures, and act in a spirit of decency, kindness, and responsibility towards their fellow travelers in the world. In Gautreaux's universe, these qualities bring about their own rewards, while their inverse invite a host of miseries.

If this vision sounds impossibly naive and wholesome to you, then you've clearly never experienced the joy of reading a Tim Gautreaux book. It works because Gautreaux isn't prone to dewy-eyed nostalgia for a golden small town America, and he understands that even the best of us can't save ourselves from loss, pain, and the hundreds of small meannesses that people enact upon one another.

Sam Simoneaux, the protagonist of The Missing, is a man who has known that kind of loss. When he was a baby, Sam's entire family was gunned down in a vengeance killing, himself spared only because his father managed to hide him in a cold furnace. At the book's beginning, he and his wife have just lost their infant son to a fever. And then, on his watch as a floorwalker in a New Orleans department store, a little girl named Lily is kidnapped. It's 1921, and between spotty local law enforcement, slow communications, and widespread shady adoption practices of the time, the chances of recovering her are slim.

After the kidnapping, Sam loses his job, and guilt-ridden, tracks down Lily's parents and offers to help find her. The girl's parents are performers on a steamboat that specializes in pleasure cruises up and down the Mississippi. Suspecting someone might have noticed Lily on one of these cruises, Sam joins the crew as a third mate, responsible for frisking passengers for weapons, breaking up fistfights, and playing piano with the band whenever their itinerary takes them to a backwater where the boat's black orchestra might be in danger.

It's in these parts of the book that Gautreaux's writing feels most colorful and lived in, which isn't surprising as his grandfather was a steamboat captain and his father, a tugboat captain. All along the river, Sam puts out feelers, makes connections, and ventures into territories populated by generations of violent outlaws who operate outside the jurisdiction of any law enforcement.

As Sam's quest brings him closer to finding Lily, it also brings up old questions about his family's fate, and he faces the problem of how a good man can earn justice when the law is corrupt or indifferent, and the lawless go unpunished. The answers are hard-won, and the book's conclusion is both satisfying and bittersweet.

I checked this book out from the library, but after reading it, I plan to go out and buy a copy. Like all of Tim Gautreaux's books, I suspect this is one I'll be reading and re-reading for years to come.

And if you haven't read Gautreaux's short stories, "Floyd's Girl" and "Died and Gone to Vegas" are two of our favorites. My favorite story, "The Courtship of Merlin LeBlanc," isn't available online, but it's in Same Place, Same Things, and is well worth your time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney

Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney

When Debra Gwartney's two oldest daughters turned 13 and 14, they began running away from home. At first, they'd stay out all night, then they'd leave for a few days at a time, hanging out with punk rockers and street kids in Eugene, Oregon. Then, after a year of tough love, wilderness retreats for troubled youth, and family counselors, the girls hopped a freight train to San Francisco, and disappeared.

Recently, This American Life rebroadcast the episode, "Didn't Ask to Be Born," which features Gwartney, and her daughters Amanda and Stephanie, telling the story of the rebellion, unhappiness, and family conflict that led the girls to run away from home, and Gwartney's efforts to hold the rest of her family together, not knowing if her daughters were dead or alive.

It was a harrowing, compelling story, and after listening to it, I ran out and picked up Live Through This. While the This American Life segment includes more details about the girls' time on the streets, the book focuses more on Gwartney's struggles on the homefront. I admire that she doesn't say much about what her daughters did while they were away, that she respects these as their stories to tell or not tell. As a result, it's not an exploitative story of how bad and wild and out of control her kids were. Instead, it's a very frank, introspective, and honest account of a worst-case family scenario.

Reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Linda Carroll's memoir about raising Courtney Love, Her Mother's Daughter, though only by its stark contrast. While Carroll tends to absolve herself of some highly ill-considered parenting decisions (e.g. sticking her kid in foster care while she moved to New Zealand to find herself, etc.), Gwartney doesn't shy away from the hard, ugly parts, the things she did wrong, the times she could have tried harder or better or differently.

And Gwartney's not a "bad mother" - far from it, in fact. She's loving, steady, smart, and supportive, and yet still completely powerless to stop her daughters once they've made up their minds to live on the streets.

It's a great book, with a powerful, hard-won resolution. Check out this interview with Gwartney to learn more about the book, and what's happened with her family in the years since Amanda and Stephanie ran away.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Laudanum is a Hell of a Drug: Drood by Dan Simmons

Drood by Dan Simmons

When I've been telling people about this book over the past few weeks, it usually goes something along the lines of, "Oh my god, it's about Charles Dickens and a train wreck and mesmerism and Egyptian death cults and this shadowy, nefarious creature named Drood, and the whole thing is narrated by an unhinged, laudanum-addicted Wilkie Collins! It's great!"

The weird thing is, people seem intrigued. Either that, or my slightly manic pitch just unnerves them enough to nod their heads and smile so I'll settle down. But I'm inclined to go with the former. After all, Drood's premise is pretty irresistible.

Simmons extrapolates a fantastic and, at times, very frightening tale from true events in the lives of Charles Dickens and his friend, Wilkie Collins, particularly Dickens's last years. On June 9, 1865, Dickens was riding by rail with his young mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother when their train crashed horrifically, killing 10 and injuring 40. After the crash, Dickens's writing fell off dramatically, his health suffered, and he spent much of his last five years giving strenuous reading tours in Great Britain and the United States.

Those are the facts, but Simmons introduces a sinister figure whose presence in the story gives a dark, eerie cast to Dickens's final years. This is Drood, whom Dickens first meets in the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash. Along with Dickens, Drood is seen giving aid to the wounded... or perhaps not. Afterward, Dickens becomes obsessed with Drood, venturing into London's darkest corners, sewers, crypts, opium dens, pursuing danger, courting death, and more often than not, dragging along his good friend, Wilkie Collins.

Though lesser known, Collins was a writer and frequent collaborator of Dickens's (and his two masterpieces, The Lady in White and The Moonstone have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years). Collins flouted convention, living openly with one mistress, while fathering three children with another. He also suffered from a number of health problems, which he self-medicated with huge amounts of laudanum. A tincture of opium meant to be ingested a few drops at a time, Collins drank the stuff by the glassful, which sometimes resulted in hallucinations (Collins claimed he saw, among other things, recurring visions of his own double as well as a green-skinned woman with tusks).

In the genius stroke of the novel, Simmons makes this hallucinating, drug-addled, perpetual second fiddle the story's narrator. Jealous, paranoid, and particularly susceptible to the dark allure of Drood, Collins is the perfect voice for this surreal story. As his confessions become more shocking, and Drood's endgame becomes clear, the reader gradually becomes aware of exactly how unreliable a narrator Collins really is. What's true about his tale and what's not? Simmons leaves that all maddeningly, deliciously up in the air.

At nearly 800 pages, Drood is something of an undertaking, but fear not. It's also packed with action, scandal, devilry, and what Brady likes to call high-grade nightmare fuel - 800 pages are rarely this much fun.

Also, I should mention that if this book sounds at all interesting to you, you might enjoy this episode of Doctor Who (a different, but somehow not all that different take on Dicken's last days).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Working on a Long, Creepy Book

I'm presently in the midst of reading Drood by Dan Simmons, a nearly 800-page fictionalized account of the last years of Charles Dickens, and his obsession with a mysterious, nefarious figure. As narrated by Wilkie Collins.

So far, it's fantastic, but it may take me a little time to get through it, and I want to save some of it for my red-eye to Pittsburgh this weekend.

So, until next week...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Staving Off the Battlestar Galactica Twitchies: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Though this book's been out for a couple of years, I just heard about it from Bookshelves of Doom, and it sounded like good methadone for The Hunger Games series.

I had no idea it would help me get through the next 24 hours until the series finale of Battlestar Galactica.

Like The Hunger Games, Unwind is set in a futuristic, post-war United States. Only here, the "Heartland Wars," were fought between pro-life and pro-choice factions, who eventually settle upon a highly untidy compromise.

Abortion becomes completely illegal, but when children are between the ages of 13 and 18, their parents or guardians can choose to have them "unwound." Unwinding doesn't end a "life" because, technically, the child's parts are surgically implanted into a living human being - organs, limbs, skin, hair - 99.4% of the kid will wind up somewhere else. Transplanting and grafting have become so technologically advanced that the sky's the limit. Need a lung? They can do that. Want a new arm, a different color eyes, a full head of hair? They can do that.

Kids who get unwound tend to fall into a few different categories: juvenile delinquents, wards of the state, unwanted children, and, children born into certain religious sects, called "tithes."

In Unwind, Shusterman follows a number of these kids on a journey that ought to lead immediately to a "harvest camp," but doesn't. One way or another, the kids here escape, go AWOL, and either through their own ingenuity or the kindness of strangers, end up somewhere quite different. I don't want to say too much more about the book, because it's quite twisty and suspenseful, but this leads us to Battlestar Galactica.

Let's just say that there's a character in the book called The Admiral.

And he's taken it upon himself to shepherd a number of scared, refugee kids slated for certain doom. And he puts them up in a place that's secure, though harsh and physically demanding. And his face is marked with scars, and he has perfectly straight, white teeth, and he is possessed of a demeanor that is stern, yet eminently warm and understanding. He has known great pain and great loss, and is somewhat damaged as a result. He doesn't always trust the right people, but he has an instinct for character.

I could not read Unwind without imagining The Admiral as anyone other than Edward James Olmos, aka, Admiral Adama. And that made the book all the better.

I don't know if Shusterman is a BSG fan, but if he is, this is a great homage (a tribute, and most definitely NOT a rip-off). If he's not, well, then he should be. I think he'd dig it the most.

It's a terrific book that delivers big action while at the same time providing nuanced ideas about where life begins, where it ends, and what it all means.

So say we all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crimes of the Centuries: True Crime: An American Anthology

True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter

Among true crime writers, there are those who pride themselves on their lack of literary flourish and color, and those who sensationalize every gory detail. Some focus on the victims, and others on the perpetrators. Some present a crime story with objective balance, while others are more than willing to serve as judge, jury, and executioner to perpetrator and victim alike.

In True Crime: An American Anthology, literature professor, novelist, and true crime writer Harold Schechter plucks examples from all of these types, and creates a loosely chronological record of American true crime writing over the past 350 years, from Puritan leaders William Bradford and Cotton Mather, to recent pieces from James Ellroy and Ann Rule. The anthology also includes selections from a number of figures you'd never consider to be true crime writers: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Calvin Trillin, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Some of the cases are still well-known today, some have faded from recent memory, and others were obscure and ignored, even in their time. Hurston's piece, "The Trial of Ruby McCollum," about an African-American woman accused of murdering her white lover, a prominent, married physician, with whom she'd had a child, is one of the collection's high points. Hurston focuses on how the black and white communities gradually come to the same consensus about how justice ought to be served (though for very different reasons), and on the show trial that's more about placating the community than uncovering the truth.

Meyer Berger won a Pulitzer for "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street," an account of the shooting spree carried out by a psychologically unhinged man named Howard Unruh against people he believed had "talked about him." The piece is masterfully written, and Berger's minute-by-minute account of the massacre is chilling, especially given some of its similarities to murders committed by Michael McLendon in Alabama this week.

Another excellent piece is John Bartlow Martin's "Butcher's Dozen," about the police investigation of the Cleveland "torso murders," where the murderer was never caught, and most of his victims never identified. Martin, later an ambassador and a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, focuses on police efforts to infiltrate the most poverty-stricken parts of Depression era Cleveland - shantytowns, hobo camps, and clapboard rooming houses - both to find the killer, and to protect the city's most vulnerable residents from becoming victims themselves.

Schechter collects an exceptional range of pieces in this anthology, and some very good, thoughtful, complex writing at that.

Friday, March 06, 2009

I'm on a Richard Yates Kick, Apparently: The Easter Parade

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

Before I get to The Easter Parade itself, it's worth remarking that Richard Yates is criminally underrated as a writer. And I guess I'm not talking about criminally underrated when it comes to being a master of plot or character or dialogue, though he's certainly good at all of these things. I'm talking about sheer writing technique, and that's not a thing that usually catches my eye, at least to a point where I'd remark upon it.

Nine times out of ten, give me some crackling dialogue, and a story that moves, and I'm happy. But with Yates, I'm happy to sit back and just let the words wash over me, never mind that the stories and their characters are largely steeped in troubles that have lost some of their freshness in the literary imagination.

The Easter Parade is about two sisters who couldn't be more different, but somehow wind up equally doomed. Sarah is the more conventional sister, who falls into a great romantic love affair with an Englishman who looks like Laurence Olivier, settles down with him, and raises a family. Her happiness with Tony seems almost decreed by the Fates themselves. They "meet cute," have a stirring courtship from which the book gets its title, and engage in the endearingly annoying custom of intertwining their arms as they take their first sips from a cocktail. But over the course of the novel, it gradually becomes clear that their romance is anything but storybook.

And then, there's Emily, who fervently strikes out on her own path as a Barnard coed, a burgeoning intellectual, a career girl, and a serial siren. Though Sarah plays a large role, the story is really Emily's, and follows her through her careers and her men, each of which eventually proves to be singularly disappointing and unsuitable.

Sarah chooses marriage and family, and it goes bad. Emily chooses career and romance, and it goes bad. Unlike other books from this period, which have some agenda about what women ought to be doing with themselves to avoid malaise, Yates takes the more interesting view that certain people just aren't cut out for happiness. The happiness part is in the details, and in Yates's universe, characters are very good, and certain, at managing their major life choices, and not so good at making them work out in the day to day.

The last 50 pages of the book are among the most inevitably, quietly heartbreaking you'll ever read.

Which leads me to wonder, if you're sitting down to adapt a Richard Yates novel to film, why on earth would you choose Revolutionary Road with The Easter Parade around? While the former might have been nominated for a few awards, the latter would have swept them. Which is not to say that The Easter Parade is a discernibly better book, just that it'd make a much better movie.

Unlike Revolutionary Road, where you're trapped in a suburban house waiting for the moment when everyone cracks up, The Easter Parade moves around, and gets out in the world a little bit.

And proves that suburbia doesn't have the market cornered on unhappiness.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Widget is Fractious: Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

We call our little family the Potts/McCoy house, but really, it's the Spike/Widget house. They run things around here. Potts and I can't force each other to make coffee in the morning or clean the bathroom, but the kitties can, and routinely do. If the food bowl is empty in the morning, Widget climbs into bed and pulls my hair until I get up and feed her. If I've let the litter box go a day or two without scooping, Spike will take a spiteful tinkle on the kitchen floor to alert me to the problem.

They're not our children, and they're certainly not our "furbabies" (gag), but when we took them in, we made an unwritten oath to take care of them and make them as happy and secure-feeling as possible for the rest of their lives.

Temple Grandin's books on animal behavior are uniquely useful because they seek to bridge the gaps between scientists, non-academics who work in the field with animals, and anyone who has animals in their lives, which is pretty much everybody. Grandin's insights are also unique because she is autistic, which informs her observations about animal behavior. She's said on many occasions that autism makes her think in pictures rather than words, and causes her to become highly attuned to the small details in her environment -- and these thought patterns place her more closely in synch with animal behavior than most other people.

Early in her career, Grandin was best known for her work in slaughterhouses, which puts some people off right away. However, it's worth looking closer. Grandin observed that in many slaughterhouses, cattle were going to their deaths in a state of terror and panic, forced along with electric prods. So, she designed the center-track restrainer, which nearly every cow will walk straight through without fear. It's now used in most slaughterhouses in the U.S.

If we're going to eat meat, she reasons, we at least owe the animals that we eat the best life possible, and a humane death.

In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin expands her scope to include domesticated animals, wildlife, and animals in zoos, as well as a wider range of livestock, including horses, pigs, and poultry. The premise of the book is that animals do experience four core emotional behaviors: RAGE, FEAR, SEEKING, and PANIC (Grandin always writes these out in all-caps in the book). Our job is to encourage the positive seeking and play behaviors, and to properly manage animals' environment so that FEAR, PANIC, and RAGE play as small a role in animals' experience as possible.

With a well-socialized, easy-going dog that gets a lot of attention and exercise, this is pretty easy to do. With a large animal confined in a zoo, it's a lot harder.

Grandin's chapter on zoo animals is particularly upsetting, especially when she's talking about the conditions faced by the large animals. For example, polar bears are ranging animals that will travel over 5 miles a day in the wild. So, when they're confined in zoos, it tends to affect them badly. One polar bear she writes about would spend up to 80% of his waking hours engaging in what Grandin calls "stereotyping," or abnormal repetitive behaviors. After an animal behaviorist was called in to enrich Gus the polar bear's environment, the zoo was able to get his stereotyping down to about 10%. However, these kinds of observations really call into question the ethics of keeping large animals in zoos.

On a happier note, if you have dogs or cats, you'll likely learn a great deal about their own behavioral quirks, what you can fix, and more importantly, what you probably can't.

Grandin writes that animals with light skin and eyes tend to be a little more neurotic than those with darker skin and eyes - they're recessive traits. When I read, "I've noticed that neutered orange males and females can be very affectionate. Some orange cats will rub on you all day. However, orange cats startle and scare easily," I looked up at Spike and said, "She's TALKING about you." And then Spike nuzzled my hand, and ran away. And when I read, "Sarah Hartwell, a shelter worker in England, calls black cats "laid-back blacks" and tortoiseshell cats "naughty torties," I looked up at Widget and said, "Now she's talking about YOU." And then Widget stuck her butt in my face and started to attack my feet for no good reason.

Ah, my little darlings.

It's an engaging, thought-provoking book, which I recommend to anyone who has animals in their lives, which once again, is everybody. Here's Grandin talking about the book and her work:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Throw Me Sumthin'

Over at Sociological Images today, I've got a guest post up on Mardi Gras and Margaret Brown's film The Order of Myths, if you're inclined towards such a thing.

Being painfully sober and working on Fat Tuesday probably constitutes some kind of venial sin for me, so I thought I'd festive up the joint with a couple of historical images from The Chattanooga Bakery's webpage. Get over there and order yourself a box of the single deckers - chocolate's the classic, but I prefer the banana.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Original Mr. and Mrs. Draper: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wish I could know what it would have been like to read this book in 1961, when the ideas of suburban hell and thwarted, if vague, creative aspirations and painfully loveless marriages hadn't been dissected and exorcised in books to the point where they'd practically become cliches. Would the story of Frank and April Wheeler living the life they never wanted, in a neighborhood that suffocates them, with friends they secretly hate, and jobs they openly despise have seemed fresh and honest then?

But then, I wonder if the suburbs weren't already something of a cliche in 1961. In the Los Angeles Times's "Worthy, Though Neglected, Novels of 1961," John W. Aldridge wrote that Revolutionary Road was "a rare example of an effort to be honest about suburban life in the face of the almost irresistible pressure to dress it up in one of the fashionable, ready-to-wear cliches."

I guess the story of people rebelling against conformity, complacency, and the uneasy comfort that those two provide is always a cliche. It's all in how it's done. On Mad Men, the trappings of the Draper household -- the high-powered city job, the heavy drinking, smoking, and womanizing, the housewife's malaise -- are all cliches, but the characters of Don and Betty Draper aren't. They're compellingly doomed.

Richard Yates makes Frank and April Wheeler a little too bound up in, and too self-aware of, those constructs. However, they're compelling in a different way. They're compelling, because they're also aware that they're completely ordinary, not particularly talented or creative individuals who were, somewhere along the line, led to believe that they were special and deserving of extraordinary lives. But then their ordinariness butts in and gets in the way, and fouls everything up.

The way the book is framed is particularly effective. It begins with the Wheelers at the height of their ordinariness, their nasty squabbles and their contempt for one another. And then, there's a glimmer of hope. They just might love each other, take a risk, and escape it all. And then, well, you've seen all the distraught, teary, sweaty-faced movie trailers with Kate and Leo...

Though Sam Mendes's adaptation is the first to see the light of day, Paul Wendkos, best known for directing several Gidget movies and numerous episodes of numerous television programs in the 1960s and 1970s, planned to make Revolutionary Road under the entirely inappropriate title, Love's Lovely Game in 1964. However, the project fell apart. Maybe it was the whole extramarital affair/aspiring home abortionist thing that did it in.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm inclined to agree with the friend who gave me Revolutionary Road, and say that while it's a good book, it might make for a dull film adaptation. It's a very dialogue and interior monologue-heavy book, and while it moves along at a very nice clip on the page, I just don't think that kind of thing translates very well to the screen.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Found Objects: Telephone Service and the War Effort

I found these ads in the 1944 Southern California Telephone Company phone books for West Los Angeles. While I knew about victory gardens, war bonds, loose lips, and butter rationing, this was a new one on me.

Text: "Night-time is about the best time a service man has to call home. That's a good point to remember when you feel the urge to make a Long Distance call between 7 and 10 P.M. If it isn't important, we hope you won't make it. Let the men in service have first call on the wires."

Text: "We appreciate the help you are giving us in keeping the Long Distance lines open for war calls. The production of munitions... the movement of troops... the building of ships and bombers... have put the Long Distance lines squarely up against their biggest task. Materials for building telephone lines are no longer available -- they are needed on the fighting fronts. That is why we ask that only really necessary calls be made to war-busy centers. Thank you for your fine cooperation."

(This one says pretty much the same thing as the one above)

Text: "The trained eyes and fingers of telephone operators are needed, these days, at the switchboards that are heavily loaded with war calls. Telephone equipment of every kind is deep in the war task. Will you help us to make every bit of equipment count? Here is one way: Please look in the Directory for any number you are not sure of. Please look there first before you call 'Information.' Thousands of calls daily, in which 'Information' is asked to help, are for numbers that are IN the Directory. Our foremost job is the war job. It just is not feasible to do all the things for our customers that we were able to do in peace time. We appreciate your understanding and your friendly cooperation.

Quotable Quotes

"Maize is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, botanical terms that don't begin to describe the beauty and wonder of corn sex."

Who said it?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No Happy Endings: City of Nets by Otto Friedrich

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

City of Nets begins with Sid Grauman, ends with Ronald Reagan, and in between, drops in on nearly every historical personality, event, and movement that figured into the tumultuous and transformative decade.

The title comes from Bertolt Brecht's libretto for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, about a town of "gin and whiskey, girls and boys" that begins as a hedonist's paradise, but ultimately falls to destruction. Brecht himself turns up periodically in City of Nets, and his own Hollywood story is detailed by Friedrich. It's a doozy -- flight from Nazi Germany, various unsuccessful turns as a Hollywood screenwriters, and finally, a summons before HUAC.

There aren't very many happy, Hollywood endings for the people Friedrich writes about, but there are some great stories -- Bette Davis running the Hollywood Canteen; Olivia de Havilland's battles with Warner Brothers; the madcap life of Preston Sturges; the sad decline of Charlie Chaplin.

The book is also packed with stories of happy accidents, near-misses, and half-truths turned legend. Casablanca became one of the best-loved pictures of all time, despite the fact that no one involved with the film really wanted to be there. George Raft's inability to recognize a good role if it bit him on the face gave us Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Fred MacMurry as Walter Neff. And it will probably never be known who really stole the body of John Barrymore and propped it up in Errol Flynn's favorite chair, but Friedrich tells both versions of the story.

And then there's the labor battles and the Hays Office, the War and the war at home, the Red Scare and HUAC. Chandler, Faulkner, and Billy Wilder's awesome telling-off of Louis B. Mayer.

There's never a dull page, and chances are you'll be loading movies into your Netflix queue the entire time. City of Nets provided my happy introduction to Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is a smart-assed finger in the eye of the Hays Code and just about the funniest thing I've ever seen besides.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's ON!

Well, we were all thinking it - even my teenage cousins who've read all the Twilightbooks - but Steven King came right out and said it.


Now I'm just waiting for Meyer to make a snide remark about hackneyed "folksy" dialogue and then maybe Wordloaf or whatever it's called can sponsor a cage match or knife fight or something. Me? My money'd be on King, even after the van accident. He's got the background knowledge, clearly is not troubled by gore, and, I dunno, seems like he'd be handy with a pig-sticker.

Although, if we're being honest, King really isn't in a position to criticize anyone's writing of what he calls in the interview "the physical side" of writing. I mean, I've read IT - you ain't foolin' me on that one, Uncle Stevie.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Battle Royale: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Do young readers like dystopian fiction because they're morbid little buggers, or do they like it because it's the most consistently solid and inventive little sub-genre in the YA universe? Lois Lowry, Scott Westerfeld, Nancy Farmer, M.T. Anderson have all done terrific work with the subject matter, but Suzanne Collins's new series introduces readers to an even grittier, scarier, more complicated world.

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic United States that looks more like the Dark Ages. The country has been divided into twelve territories, each singly devoted to producing particular goods and services for the convenience and comfort of those in the wealthy, dictatorial capital. After a failed revolution, those in the territories suffer more than ever, and as a reminder of their defeat, each year the Capital demands a tribute of two children from each territory, their names drawn from a bowl.

The children are then whisked away to the Capital, styled into pint-sized warriors, and then pitched into a fight to the death that's televised nationwide. Twenty-four tributes enter the battlefield, only one leaves. While some territories groom their tributes from an early age, others are unlucky, malnourished, weak, and very young (your name starts going into the hat at 11).

Katniss is a wily and hard-hearted 16-year-old from the poorest territory of Panem, roughly defined as our Appalachia. When her younger sister's name is drawn for the tribute, Katniss volunteers herself instead, and is forced into an uneasy alliance with Peeta, the other tribute from Panem.

The Hunger Games is a gripping, brutal book that succeeds because it neither underestimates its readers nor devolves into gratuitous gore. The story is sophisticated enough to appeal to an adult audience as well - I liked it better than most of the "adult" fiction I read this year, and had a hard time putting it down to do things like eat and not miss my bus stop.

One word of warning: it's best if you, unlike me, know that this is only the first book in a series going in. My reaction upon finishing The Hunger Games amused Brady to no end:

"End of Book One? END OF BOOK ONE?!?!?"

Back By Semi-Popular Demand

Somehow, my little break from blogging turned into a big break. I was thinking about hanging the thing out to dry except that, over the past three months, just about every single person who reads it has asked me when I'm going to start posting again. So, I may not have many readers, but y'all are loyal and sweet and I appreciate you.

And what with the news that the Washington Post is killing "Book World" as a standalone section, well, if newspapers don't see fit to attend to this business, somebody ought to do it.

The New York Times better not get any funny ideas, or I may have to fashion a newsprint sackcloth and take to the streets ringing a bell and raving about the end times.