Monday, September 01, 2014

The Liars' Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr (1995)

I had a mental block against reading The Liars' Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr (1995) since 1995 was right in the heart of my time working at Barnes and Noble and The Liars' Club was a runaway best seller. Anything that was a best seller in the late-1990s makes me wary after all the time I spent sticking on and taking off 30% and 20% off stickers and restocking the shelves at the front of the store. My DAFFODILS book club, however, decided to read something from the 1990s and when this was was suggested, the nearly 20 years since I had to deal with those discount stickers disappeared and I finally felt ready to dive in.

This, the first of Karr's three published memoirs (along with other essays and books of poetry) tells the story of her mother, her father, and the childhood she and her sister had in Southeast Texas and (for a short period) in Colorado. Karr grew up near Port Arthur, close to the gulf, and right in the middle of the oil industry. Her father worked for the oil company, as did most of the people in her town (fictionally called Leechfield, but actually the town of Groves, between Port Arthur and Beaumont). Her mother was an enigmatic artist and voracious reader from west Texas who lived for several years in New York City and did not mix well with the other women in the town. Her father was a favorite among his friends at the Legion and known for his ability as a storyteller and his propensity for fighting (and for undoubtedly winning those fights). Both of them drank and both of them had tempers, but what really made things unstable was the depression and mania of Mary's mother, Charlie.

The action of the book takes place mostly in the early sixties, when Mary is about 6-8 and her sister, Lecia, is about 8-10, although the hard things that happen to them and their resourcefulness and (particularly in the case of Lecia) stoicism, often make them seem older. While there are plenty of pleasant and often funny memories of their time together as a family, the burdens placed on Lecia and Mary to hold their mother together, Mary's sexual abuse by two men outside the family, and Charlie's several very real (and dangerous) mental breaks can sometimes make this a pretty rough read.

The storyteller, of course, is a grown up Mary Marlene Karr and she never really lets the reader forget that she is a grown woman looking back on her childhood. She also admits when she doesn't remember something, when she might be remembering something differently than how it happened, and when her sister would undoubtedly correct what she was saying -- this gets around one of my big problems with many memoirs: the adult writer's tendency to make things seem better (or worse) than they really were and the reliance on memory (particularly a child's memory) as if it were fact.

The last section of the book jumps forward to the 1980s and brings some adult context to the lives of Mary and Lecia and some explanation and mellowing of her mother and father. I'm interested to read Karr's other memoirs, one of which covers her adolescence and early adulthood and the other her recovery from alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism. If the straightforward, funny, and sometimes brutal narrative voice of The Liars' Club is any indication, the following memoirs should be just as piercing and full.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fear is the Same by Carter Dickson (1956)

The pulpy cover of my copy of Fear is the Same by Carter Dickson (1956) along with the back cover copy that screams: "Many men held her body -- did any man hold her heart?" would make one think that this is a classic 1950s crime novel. Instead, it's an unusual time-travel / historical romance / murder mystery / adventure novel. While some readers of the genre might be upset about the bait and switch, I rather liked the unexpected story.

Jennifer has unexpectedly found herself living in a house in the Regency England of 1795. It is unexpected because, while she can't remember all the details, she knows she comes from far in the future (from the 1950s, in fact) and that she was fleeing some kind of danger when she was apparently sent back in time. A body must have been waiting for her because everyone knows who she is. She slowly starts piecing things together when she sees a familiar face, Phil, who she recognizes as her great love from the 1950s. Phil is also starting to realize that he has been plopped down into the past, in his case into the body of a Lord who is widely known as being a sickly wimp married to a headstrong and beautiful bitch named Chloris. As their memories slowly come back, Jennifer and Phil realize that they were lovers and that Phil had been running from a false murder charge that seemed impossible to beat. Unwittingly, they set off the same set of events in their new time zone when a murder takes place in Chloris's locked bedroom and every clue points to Phil as the murderer.

Interspersed with Jennifer and Phil's quest to prove his innocence is really quite a bit of boxing (apparently both old and new Phil have secret bare-knuckle boxing skills that they use to get out scrapes and earn money), some detailed history of the Whigs and the royal family, and some pretty great scenes where Jennifer and Phil are trying to find landmarks in a much more rural London based on their 20th century mental maps of the city. This book is occasionally more complicated than it needs to be and frequently reveals its author's delight in the details of the Regency period, but it pulls the reader along with the action sequences and has some unexpectedly great character development. I could have asked for a slightly less abrupt ending, but the book holds together well as a whole.

Carter Dickson is one of the multiple pen names of John Dickson Carr, a prolific writer of mid-century detective novels. Based on the twists and turns and energy of this one, I'd definitely take another one of his books out for a spin.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

My Debbie Downer book club decided to read something about World War I this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and since none of us had read Hemingway's Very Important Novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929) before, and we knew it had a sad ending, it seemed like a good pick.

I had never read any of Hemingway's novels before, although I had read quite a few short stories and I had an idea of what I thought about Hemingway and his writing style going into this (important, influential, but also super masculine and difficult for me to really grasp onto). I won't lie, I didn't love this book, and I guess I knew I wouldn't really love it going into the thing, but I do love having read it, since I think it's an important part of American literature and now I can say I don't really like Hemingway with the authority of someone who has actually read a whole novel.

A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Frederic Henry, an American man who is serving as a Lieutenant in the Italian army's ambulance corps, before the U.S. has entered the war. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, a British nurse serving in a hospital in Italy, and they soon fall in love. After Henry is wounded in the knee, he is transferred to Milan to convalesce and Catherine nurses him back to health and ends up pregnant. After a series of disillusioning adventures, Henry ends up going AWOL, reuniting with Catherine, and escaping to Switzerland. You probably already know how the book ends, and it is not happy. 

Someone asked me if this book was a romance and my answer is that I think Hemingway thought it was supposed to be, but I don't see how any woman could read the character of Catherine and think she was a) a realistic portrayal of a woman, b) that she actually loved Hemingway, or c) that anyone could actually love her. The classic brusque Hemingway dialogue means that the scenes between Frederic and Catherine are clipped and forced. She alternates between inexplicable moodiness at the beginning to an even more inexplicable complete surrender to anything Frederic wants to do at the end (with a brief bit of fire and irritability when she is actually in labor, but we see where that gets her). Frederic is apparently devoted to her but also seems just as devoted to drinking and (at first) the war effort and (later) avoiding any mention of the war.

It's easy to see why this was an important and popular book when it was released in 1929, ten years after the war. It would appeal to veterans, to their families, and to all the people who now felt the same disillusionment and fatalism as Frederic. I don't think the book ages well, and with the (lack of) character of Catherine, it doesn't hold much appeal for at least this 21st century American woman. 

And I'm not discounting Hemingway entirely -- I would totally give The Sun Also Rises a fair shot.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Today is Here by Don Blanding (1946)

I won this signed copy of Today is Here by Don Blanding (1946) in a raffle at an archives conference. I'd never heard of Blanding before, but this was a lovely little book of poems and drawings and I figured my reading it was meant to be.

Little did I know, Don Blanding (1894-1957) was quite a man. In fact, according to a fan's web site, he was "Author of such classics as Vagabond's House, Hula Moons and Drifter's Gold ~ Hawaiian Poet Laureate and Founder of Lei Day ~ Artist ~ Restless Vagabond ~ Designer of Vernon Kilns Dinnerware, Greeting Cards and Hawaiian Clothing ~ Songwriter ~ Theatrical Actor, Director and Producer of Musicals ~ Soldier ~ Lecturer ~ Radio, Film and Television Personality ~ Newspaper Columnist." That's a pretty amazing life! Blanding was born in Oklahoma and studied art in Chicago for a couple years before serving in WWI. After the war he studied art in Europe and then settled in Hawaii where he wrote poems for advertisers in a newspaper. His poems became very popular on the island and after locally publishing a few volumes of poems and art, he got a New York publisher and became famous, married a socialite, lived all over the world, got divorced, and never lost his passion for Hawaii (he is, indeed, known as the poet laureate of the island and founder of the holiday Lei Day).

The poetry in the book alternates between goofy and overly serious, and often has the plodding earnestness of something you might find in Reader's Digest. That being said, this was popular stuff in the mid-1940s and while it might not be super literary, there is a definite appeal to Blanding's writing style. Today is Here shows how deeply WWII affected Blanding and many of the poems are reactions to the atmosphere of war. The drawings, on the other hand, are more consistently enjoyable than the poetry to a modern eye. Beautiful, crisp, black ink drawings -- some are of people but many (and the best) are nature scenes, some of which move into pleasing repeating patterns. The drawings really make the book something you want to own and return to.

As a taste of one of my favorite non-serious poems in the book, here is the first verse of "Hollywood Boulevard" (and the verses just get better from here):

Hollywood Boulevard... Hollywood Boulevard
Quite unbelievable, gay-wild-and-woolyvard.
Overgrown Main Street, slightly inane street,
Frivolous, drivelous, frothy and vain street.
Not quite as bawdy and gaudy as Broadway
But far better known than that publicized Fraud-Way.
Simple, in some ways, as any small village street
And yet it's as hardboiled as New York's big thrillage street.
Diamonds and dungarees, barefoot and wedges,
Satin brocade that is frayed at the edges,
A funny fantasia, frantic and furious,
Blending of genuine, phony and spurious.
Hollywood's Super-Colossal production
Of pathos and beauty, of sin and seduction.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere, you have probably heard of Gillian Flynn's best selling novel, Gone Girl (2012), soon to be released as a David Fincher film. I'm always interested to know what all the fuss is about, so when I heard that my friend Corie had the book, I asked to borrow it.

And folks, there is a reason this book is so popular -- it's a damn compelling read with unpredictable twists and deliciously unreliable narrators. Those narrators are our protagonist/antagonists Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who are celebrating the fifth anniversary of a rocky marriage when Amy suddenly disappears under suspicious circumstances and Nick becomes the center of a police investigation and media circus that have all but convicted him as his wife's murderer. The first half of the book alternates between Nick's experiences starting the day of Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diary entries going back to when the two of them first met in New York City. They were both writers at the time -- Nick for glossy popular culture magazines, and Amy doing quizzes for glossy women's magazines. Amy is the daughter of two extremely popular (and rich) children's book authors (the Amazing Amy series which is loosely based on her life) and has a trust fund that means she doesn't really have to work, but she does anyway. When the economy tanks, both Nick and Amy are laid off, Amy's parents need to borrow on her trust fund to stay afloat (Amazing Amy books aren't selling they way they used to) and since Nick's mother is dying of cancer, the two of them move to an isolated McMansion in Nick's small hometown in Missouri. Things were already going pretty poorly between them and the move and isolation from Amy's friends and family don't help things. In fact, Nick looks pretty suspicious from every angle, even his own. Until about halfway through the book when the first twist hits.

I'm not going to spoil what happens (although as a person who flips forward in a book to check out the structure, the chapter headings gave a bit of it away to me right away), but I will say that everyone is a little more complicated than they are originally presented and things just get muddier and muddier and more page turning as the book goes on. The ending is nice and ambiguous with no real comeuppance or tied up loose ends, which is just the way I like them. This isn't a work of great literature, but it is good at what it does -- sometimes all the buzz can really lead you in the right direction...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni (2013)

One reason I like Robert Antoni's As Flies to Whatless Boys (2013) may be that it features some fictional correspondence with the Director of the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives. The reason that I loved the novel, though, is because the archivist has fictional sex with the "Robert Antoni" character, but still refuses to let him make photocopies of the diary he is using to write the story how his great-great grandfather came to Trinidad. PHOTOCOPIES ARE AGAINST THE RULES, DUDE! She will, however, gladly continue to have sex with him while he is in town.

Antoni's relatives came to Trinidad from England in 1845 as part of a group attached to the eccentric German inventor John Adolphus Etzler, who has taken their investments to begin a utopian commune in rural Trinidad where they can all make their fortunes. Fifteen-year-old Willy has come with his parents and three sisters. Also on the long boat ride to the island is Marguerite Whitechurch, a beautiful and mute girl a few years older than Willy with whom he is pretty seriously in love. As you might expect, things don't really work out with the utopian society, and they don't work out in a rather desperate way.

The narrative bounces back and forth between the 1845 boat trip, the year leading up to their departure, the first few months in Trinidad, a grown up Willy telling the story of his arrival in Trinidad to his son as he prepares for his first trip back to England, and the modern day author's research in the T&T National Archives (told for us through the Trinidadian email vernacular of Miss Ramsol, the archivist). We also get newspaper clippings, sketches from his father's journal, and other wide-ranging primary sources. This narrative bounciness takes a little bit of getting used to, but if you are a smart reader who likes something different, this will make you happy instead of sad. And it isn't totally out of control -- this isn't Cloud Atlas (although sometimes it does give you a bit of that feeling).

Uniquely, the book features an online appendix consisting of a couple of artistic short films and a series of recreated documents. Even if you never plan to read the book, the appendix is worth poking around in -- his historically accurate reproductions are impressive and don't really provide any spoilers if you think you'll read the book later. This is the kind of thing that I would ordinarily find really gimmicky, but in the context of this book it absolutely works. The pieces are perfectly crafted and really do add a depth and context to the narrative that is missing from the book alone. It was definitely a risk (like much of the narrative itself), but I'd say it paid off.

[I got my copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.]

Friday, July 11, 2014

Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece (2013)

Oh hell yes. Just look at this cover. Don't you want to be eating a breakfast taco right now? If you are someone who has never had a breakfast taco, you should get this book and get inspired. If you love breakfast tacos as much as I do, you should get this book and expand your repertoire. I, in fact, borrowed my copy of Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece (2013) from the great Austin Public Library, but I could see myself buying my own copy for reference and inspiration.

This book was written by two of the guys behind the Taco Journalism blog (which is so great!). The book is divided into four sections: a history of the breakfast taco in general and in Austin; an overview of the parts of a breakfast taco; interviews with various Austinites about their relationship with breakfast tacos and their personal recipes; and a guided tour of some of the best places to get a breakfast taco in Austin (with a map). The whole book is nicely illustrated with full-color photographs and just generally well produced.

My favorite part (besides looking at pictures of tacos and drooling) is reading everyone's recipes for making breakfast tacos at home. I love breakfast tacos but I don't really like leaving the house, and my favorite weekend tradition is a lazy morning of breakfast tacos and coffee. Or breakfast tacos for dinner! I make mine in a million different combinations depending on what I have in the house, but here is my system for my favorite breakfast taco of them all, potato, egg and cheese:

1. Dice some potatoes into about 1/2 inch cubes, making sure to get them all the same size.
2. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet and add the potatoes when it gets hot. Let them hang out in there for longer than you think you should so they get all brown on one side, then do some flipping and waiting until they are brown all over. Add some salt and pepper.
3. Add a splash or two of water, turn down the heat, and cover so they can get nice and creamy on the inside.
4. Crack 3-4 eggs into a large bowl, splash in a splash of milk, add some cumin and cayenne pepper to taste and whisk it all up.
5. Heat some butter in another skillet over low heat and dump in those eggs. Add a little salt and pepper and scramble them up. Don't overcook them, because that is so sad!
6. Check on the potatoes -- if the water is soaked up and they taste done, add another dash of salt and pepper and stir them up.
7. Heat up flour tortillas in a dry cast iron skillet or over the gas burner.
8. Put some potatoes and eggs in a tortilla, top with shredded cheddar, and add some salsa.

To fancy it up, you can add sliced jalapenos or other peppers to the potatoes or fry up some bacon and cook the eggs in the bacon grease and then put bacon on your taco too.

Now eat your breakfast taco!

[And if you want something to brighten your day, watch author Mando Rayo present Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell with an authentic and delicious breakfast taco as part of an intervention after the Mayor said that the Mexican fast food chain Taco Cabana had the best breakfast tacos in austin.]