Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by Nick Kotz (2013)

I won this copy of The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by Nick Kotz (2013) in a raffle at an archives conference a few years ago and it finally made its way up to the top of my reading stack.

If you've been in downtown San Antonio you might have seen the Kallison's Western Wear cowboy on top of an old building on South Flores street (he's also on the cover of the book). This book tells the story of how the Kallison's got to San Antonio, how they grew a small harness making shop into a South Texas empire, and how they worked both within and outside of the Jewish community in the city to extend their influence and help their fellow Texans.

Nathan Kallison escaped the Czar's anti-Semitic edicts and  murderous Cossacks in 19th century Ukraine to join his brother in Chicago. Ultimately all three Kallison brothers and their elderly mother were able to make the crossing. Nathan worked hard to build a successful harness-making business, a trade he had learned as a young boy, and soon caught the eye of another Jewish immigrant from Russia the really rather demanding Anna Lewtin. The two married, had a son and daughter, and worked hard. Ultimately, though, the crowds, dirt, and potential of tuberculosis in Chicago did not agree with Anna. They randomly met a couple while traveling who encouraged them to settle in San Antonio and, although they had never been to Texas, they decided to give it a shot. Nathan opened another harness and saddle shop, which was a great success in a Texas still dominated by ranches and where the automobile had not yet made many inroads. The book follows the Kallison's as the store expands, their family grows, they move into nicer and nicer houses, and they really become part of San Antonio's social scene. Nathan buys a ranch outside of town so that he can test some of the recommendations from the newly established extension office and uses that as a way to help Texas ranchers and farmers and to expand their reliance on his store. Eventually, under the leadership of Nathan's sons, the store grows into a downtown behemoth selling everything from hats to jewelry to  washing machines and farm equipment and one of the sons, Perry, becomes the host of a very popular daily radio program, the Trading Post.

While the story of the Kallison family is interesting, the real selling point for me was using that family's story as a jumping board for a history of San Antonio and Texas in the first half of the 20th century. Kotz (who is the son of Nathan's younger daughter, Tibe) is a professional journalist who didn't know much about his family history until he starting digging in to research this book. The reader benefits from the context that Kotz provides, particularly in the areas of Jewish life in Texas and the impact of the dust bowl and the world wars on San Antonio and the Kallison family.

The book is very nicely illustrated with a combination of family pictures and historic shots of Ukraine, Chicago, and San Antonio. The bibliography and footnotes are also rewarding, although I was a little frustrated with the lack of personal reflection from Kotz on his family. There is a brief author's note at the end that talks about his memories of his grandfather and his childhood in San Antonio, but reading an author writing about himself in the third person (particularly when going over particularly emotional and intense family events) is a little uncomfortable for me, although understandable given his journalistic background.

I wasn't sure how into this book I'd be, but with a scope that moves beyond harness-making, the ranch, and the story of a single family, I'd recommend this one to anyone with an interest in San Antonio or Jewish life in Texas. Nicely written, well researched, and excellently illustrated, this one is worth a spot in your reading pile.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015)

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015) is the next selection for my long-running DAFFODILS book club. In my brain I keep wanting to call this one Dangerous Foods instead because, to be honest, the action here is much more dangerous than it is delicious.

This is a rough book. We start out with a young man named Eddie speeding away in a truck in Louisiana. Both of his hands have recently been cut off, but we don't know how. We know something really fucked up has happened and we also know that he left his mother behind. The first chapter sees him to the relative safety of his aunt's house in St. Cloud, and starting the reader out with his horrible but successful escape helps make the rough times we flash back into a little more tolerable.

Eddie's mom, Darlene, is a crack addict. She wasn't always -- before she was a college student, a wife, a store owner, and a mother. Then her husband, Nat, was violently killed after becoming a leading black activist in a small town in Louisiana. Darlene and little Eddie are left alone and Darlene turns to crack to comfort herself. They move to Houston and Darlene moves closer and closer to the edge, becoming the perfect target for a mini-van full of addicts who offer her an amazing job working on a farm with luxury accommodations and all the drugs she wants to take. Even though Eddie is at home in the apartment alone, she hops in. And then things get bad.

I don't want to give too much away because this is really a powerful book, and I think everyone should check it out. Hannaham has an amazing control over his characters' voices -- Eddie, Darlene (pre and post-addiction) and, interestingly, crack cocaine itself, are all distinct and moving narrators of the story. Most of the book is set in east Texas or west Louisiana, and the descriptions of the land and the people are spot on. There is an amazing (like I still can't stop thinking about it) scene involving Darlene and a grackle that I don't think someone who hasn't been around grackles a lot could ever fully understand. Best of all, Hannaham nails the ending with an event that brings characters together and ties up loose ends, but not too neatly or in a pandering way.

This is a well-constructed, damn fine, moving, funny, horrible, wonderful book.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Small Bones by Vicki Grant (2015)

I got this copy of Small Bones by Vicki Grant (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program quite some time ago but, to be honest, kept putting off reading it since the cover looked so chick-lit-y. This, my friends, is another case of "don't judge a book by its cover," because instead of an insipid chick lit romance, what we have here is a compelling coming-of-age mystery with some great characters and a satisfying twist.

Dot grew up in an orphanage in Ontario -- she was left on the doorstep wrapped in a man's coat as a premature baby during WWII. She is happy enough at the orphanage until the place burns down and 17-year-old Dot is sent out into the world to make it on her own. It's 1964 and she heads to the resort town listed on the tailor's label of the coat she was found in. She gets a job as a seamstress at the resort, and doesn't tell anyone what she is doing there. Quickly befriended by a cute local boy, Dot learns about a local ghost story featuring a tiny baby that was found in the woods 17 years ago. She convinces Eddie, who writes for the local paper as a side gig, that they should investigate the story and see what really happened. As they get closer and closer to the truth, old wounds open up in the small town and Dot quickly feels in over her head.

The book is a page turner with nicely placed clues and good characterization. Dot in particular is a perfect young adult -- a mix of confident and awkward, she is extremely endearing. The final answer to the mystery of Dot's parents involves a twist that I didn't see coming until it was on me. The book moves to the twist logically and it ends up feeling satisfying and not like a trick on the reader.

If you are looking for something entertaining and just a little dark as a summer read for you or a young adult in your life, this is a good one.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Midnight Assassin: panic, scandal, and the hunt for America's first serial killer by Skip Hollandsworth (2015)

For our next depressing read, The Debbie Downer Book Club selected The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth (2015) a rare (for us) brand new hardcover selection.

But how could we resist? This well-researched look into the series of brutal murders of Austin women in the 1880s was both sad, local, and involved historical research -- as a group of archivists / librarians / information professionals in the Austin area, we were in!

The murderer, who killed women in Austin between 1884 and 1885, has been alternately known as The Midnight Assassin and the Servant Girl Annihilator. He (or they?) killed seven women (five black and two white) and injured six other women and two men. The crimes were brutal, bloody, and violent, often committed with an axe or by sticking a sharp narrow object into the ear. Women were attacked in their homes late at night, often in the small cottages where servants lived in the backyards of their employers. As the murders continued and eventually affected white women in the town, Austin became increasingly frantic, with people buying guns and early home alarm systems to protect their families. The police were hampered by ineffective forensic techniques and the pretty intense racism that led them to haul in any black man who looked like trouble and then try to beat a confession out of him (sound familiar?). When two white women were killed on the same night, a political scandal opened up and shined a light on the dark side of upper-class Austin life. Newspapers around the country focused in on the wild happenings in this small Texas town, and the mayor and city boosters tried to deflect attention away from the crimes and towards the growth and business opportunities the city afforded. Eventually the murders just stopped. Some contemporary journalists drew a connection to the string of violent murders of prostitutes in London by Jack the Ripper, and detectives there even spent some time tracking down Americans in the area (including some Native Americans who were left behind during a wild west show) in case they might be a link between the two cases. The city of Austin installed the Moonlight Towers (many of which are still in use today) as a way to light up the night and, potentially, prevent this kind of crime from happening again.

Hollandsworth gives us a nicely researched and journalistic look into the time of the murders, pulling out details from the history of Austin that give depth and context to the reactions of the town at the time. His descriptions of the murders themselves, supported by his research in newspapers and police files, are brutal and effective, and bring the terror the town must have felt back then to life for the reader. While there is a general consensus on who the murderer was (hint: not Jack the Ripper), Hollandsworth doesn't come to any conclusions on that front, and just presents the theories and evidence as they were collected and presented to the public.

I really enjoyed this book, and if you have lived in Austin, like true crime, are interested in history, or just enjoy a good read, I think you will like it too. And now on to the next sad selection!

[A great source for pictures and more detail on the people and places involved in the murders, check out this site.]

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man by Tom Cox (2008)

I first discovered Tom Cox through his truly excellent My Sad Cat Twitter account, and later discovered that his other accounts, including the one under his own name, are equally charming. After quite some time of freely enjoying his writing and his cats, I decided to throw a little money down on his first cat book,Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man (2008).

Now, it is no secret that I love cats. Lovelovelove cats. I always have. Cats have been my "thing" since I was a little kid, and if you spend more than half an hour with me, you will probably hear some adorable story about the amazing Fern and Loretta. Even with all that, though, I've never really gotten into people writing about cats. The cute cat in the bookstore that teaches you lessons about how to live your life, the adorable kittens that bring a broken family back together, the everyday cat minutia that I love going over for my own cats -- none of these things have ever appealed to me in book form. (Internet cat videos, on the other hand, are great).

But this book is about as far from a traditional "cat book" as you can get. First of all, Tom Cox is a man. He's also a former music critic and a great writer. While the book follows the journey of him, his girlfriend, and their many cats, it also covers issues like: buying a first house, dealing with eccentric parents, London vs. the countryside, getting along with your neighbors, earning a living, real estate nightmares, and just keeping on keeping on. And it's great! Cox has a natural writing style and a keen sense of humor, particularly in cat-related anecdotes. After seeing so many pictures of The Bear, Ralph, and the rest of the gang on Twitter, it was wonderful to hear more about where they came from and how their personalities evolved.

I could do without most of the jokey little listy interstitial chapters (which almost seem stuck in to gratify the traditional "cat book" crowd), but they aren't a deal breaker. If you like cats, are in your late 30s/early 40s, or just enjoy good writing, this is a good one to check out. Men who love cats should particularly pick this one up. I'm adding the sequels to my "to read" list for sure!

Friday, May 06, 2016

The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga in One Volume by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli [1986-1989] (2015)

Guys, in case you couldn't tell, I'm a fan of book clubs. So much so that I've joined another one. The Four Color Fabulous Book Club was organized by my friend Joe so that we could all read cool graphic novels and then talk about them at a bar. I'm in!

Our first selection is The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga in One Volume by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli (2015), a comic that was originally published in the late 80s, but brought together for the first time with some supplementary material and a newly written final chapter that brings us up to the present.

The most obvious (but probably not the most important) quality of this book is that it is FREAKING HEAVY. Do not bring this to read on a plane and if you are moving house, wait to buy a copy until you are settled in your new place. I'd say that is an argument for buying the electronic copy, but this is also a damn nice book, so just do as you see fit.

Murphy gives us a prescient narrative that is simultaneously mind-expanding and a little claustrophobic. The comic starts in the year 2000 (which would have been about fifteen years in the future when it was first published). The U.S. experienced a devastating act of domestic terrorism in 1995 when a nuclear weapon was set off in the Bronx. The environment is also going haywire and U.S. Agent Gavia Immer (our hero) is leading a solitary life in the woods tracking mutating animals (flying. manta. rays.) and measuring the ph levels of the water. He fills his time with video phone calls to his mom and some gut wrenching watching of old VHS movies his late father made that explore the existence of alien life forms. The amazing drawings by Zulli [do yourself a favor and check out a little Google Image search] perfectly match the (sometimes pretty abstract) tone of the writing, and his drawings of animals and the natural world are some of the best I've ever seen. The scenes from nature give the sometimes pretty dense narrative the room it needs to take effect, and also give the reader a little time to breathe.

The story is often universal, but sprinkled throughout are pretty intimate-feeling vignettes of lost parents, sexual encounters, weird dreams, and unspoken thoughts. It has a very 80s feel in its politics, technology, philosophies, and sexy ladies, but since domestic terrorism and environmental collapse are still pretty relevant topics, there is plenty to chew on here. This is a weird and wonderful book and I'm so glad I fell into it. Plus my arms are super strong now from carrying it around.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963)

My Debbie Downer book club (only sad books need apply) recently met to discuss A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963). Actually, when we picked this one, none of us were really sure how much of a downer it even was (although it did show up on some "sad young adult books" lists). I'm not sure how, but I somehow avoided reading this book for my entire childhood, even though I have been reading pretty much constantly (with short breaks for eating, sleeping, and working) since I was 4, and this book would have been right up my alley!

Never fear, guys, it does have some solid downer content, including: missing father, bullies, scary physics-involved space travel, realization that adults can't save or protect you, isolation and loneliness, potential loss of favorite sibling, etc. And things don't really wrap up happily until the last three pages!

In case you are a weirdo like me who never read this one before, the basic outline is that Meg's father, a scientist for the government, disappeared mysteriously. She is teased at school because of her father and her temper is a little out of control. Her brother, Charles Wallace, was a baby when their father vanished. He is five going on twenty-five with some unusual psychic abilities. They, together with Calvin O'Keefe, a popular kid from school who has some of the same psychic connections as Charles Wallace, are whisked away by the very unusual Mrs. Whatsit (and soon joined by her colleagues, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which) and set out on the adventure of finding Meg's father and saving the world from evil / darkness / the cloud / IT.

There is some solid sci-fi in here, as well as a good dose of Christianity (which I totally would not have noticed as a kid) and some pro-American / anti-communist mindsets. I was particularly into a nice little homage to Flatland, one of my favorite mathematically-based science-fiction books. The characters are types, but they are lovable types, and there is a lot to enjoy in Meg's journey towards independence and (of course!) the power of love. This is the first book in a short series, and I'm down for checking out the rest.

Finally, thanks to my book club, I did discover the existence of this really horrible and extremely dated 2003 film version of the book that features possibly the weirdest line delivery, most awkward special effects, and downright creepiest Charles Wallace ever.