Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

Attention all archivists and historians: you should read this book! It gets 27 thumbs up from me.

Henry James' The Aspern Papers (1888) is a tightly constructed and satisfying novella that explores the ethical implications of biographical research through a pointed character study. In the book, our protagonist is a literary critic and historian who specializes in the life and work of Jeffrey Aspern, a prominent American poet. He learns that Aspern's lover, Juliana, is living in a dilapidated mansion in Venice with her spinster niece. Juliana is now an old woman, but the narrator is sure that she has some precious letters and other material relating to the great Aspern.

After his colleague inquires about the letters and is quickly dismissed, the narrator decides to take a different track -- approaching the two women as a fellow American interested in renting some rooms in their large house so that he can have access to their garden. They are in need of money and quickly take him up on his offer, and he attempts to ingratiate himself to Juliana and woo the niece to gain access to the precious documents.

The three main characters in this book are very nicely drawn, and the narrator is deliciously unreliable and self-serving. The implications of the narrator's actions and the awareness (or naivety) of the two women shift through the story and continue to change in your mind after you read it. The "at all costs" attitude of the narrator as well as the ending of the book (which I won't reveal here) remind me quite a bit of Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot. In format and style the books are very different, but the themes and characters are sometimes interchangable.

An excellent read -- one of Henry James' best.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately -- I went up north for the holidays, and forgot to put a note up here. Never fear: I read plenty of books while I was keeping out of the winter weather.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Doubleback by Libby Fischer Hellmann (2009)

I got a copy of Doubleback (2009), the second of Libby Fischer Hellmann's mystery/suspense books staring Chicago PI Georgia Davis (and the sixth featuring videographer Ellie Foreman) as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I am generally pretty forgiving of mystery novels, and it is possible that Hellman's books need to be read as a series instead of plucking one out of the middle, but this book really did not work for me at all.

The plot is... confusing. Here are the basics: The neighbor of Ellie's friend's little girl Molly is kidnapped. She doesn't want to call the police, because the kidnappers threatened her daughter's life, so she goes to Ellie's friend who calls Ellie for some reason. In a previous book it seems the Ellie and Georgia solved some kind of mystery together, so Ellie calls Georgia. Georgia doesn't want to get involved but (as is repeated multiple times), she has a tender spot in her heart for little children, even though she is emotionally distant from everyone else. Still, she suggests that they go to the police, and then, oddly enough, the little girl is dropped off outside of her house three days later and no one will say what happened. Then the boss of Chris Messenger (the mother) at the bank (did I mention she is the IT director at a bank?) dies in a mysterious car accident and it appears his brake lines were cut. Then the same thing happens to Chris. Chris's ex-husband hires Georgia to figure this all out, which eventually leads to complicated discussions of bank transaction protocols, Blackwater-esque security firms, and drug trafficking on the Arizona/Mexico border. Throw in a couple weird side plots where Georgia gets all dolled up to investigate a high-end dating service that is potentially stealing people's identities and a preachy video-shooting excursion to an ethanol plant in Wisconsin and you have one seriously not-that-great mystery.

Surprisingly, in the midst of all the crappy characters and unbelievable action, there was one character that I really liked, and about 25 pages in the last third of the book that started to get exciting. Then that character died and everything got stupid again.

I appreciate the charms of a series, where characters build in complexity over a series of books, but I think (especially in the mystery genre) the books should be able to stand on their own. Doubleback doesn't.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Yeshiva: Volume 1 by Chaim Grade (1967)

When I bought this copy of The Yeshiva by Chaim Grade (1967), which I'm reading because it is on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I knew that it was a two volume work, and I was pretty sure that the copy I bought had both volumes bound together. Not so. So, after Christmas I will work on getting the (out of print, rather expensive) Yeshiva, Volume 2: Masters and Disciples. Until then, you and I will have to make do with just one half of this epic Yiddish novel.

The Yeshiva draws on some of Chaim Grade's own experiences growing up in Lithuania and Poland between the wars in a story that crosses religious torment with vingettes of everyday life. The main character is Tsemakh Atlas, a scholar who fanatically follows the teachings of the Mussar movement (a Jewish ethical movement that focuses on removing all traces of sin from your thoughts and actions, rejecting comfort and pleasure, and [apparently] telling the truth to everyone even if they don't want to hear it). The problem, however, is that Tsemakh secretly doubts the existence of God and openly belittles close studying of the Torah, which is what pretty much everyone else thinks a good scholar should work on.

Tsemakh fights with his home yeshiva (a yeshiva is kind of an academy for studying the Torah -- as a side note, I am very thankful this book came with a glossary), and finds himself agreeing to an engagement with a pious unmarried woman in a far-off town. But, because Tsemakh is fiesty and often acts without thinking, he sours on the idea, breaks his engagement, and moves on, only to lustily fall for a freethinking, beautiful and wealthy woman from a merchant family. Slava is on the market because everyone knows she has been having an affair with a married man in the big city, but Tsemakh falls head-first into his passions and ignores all the reasons why he and Slava are not a good match. He shaves off his ear-locks and beard and attempts to be a shop-keeper with his brothers-in-law.

It naturally does not take Tsemakh long to work himself into a guilty fury for ignoring his Mussar teachings and falling for a non-observant beauty. After hurling himself back into his faith, he decides to take another scholar from the village and move somewhere else to start up his own yeshiva. He brings a few students from Slava's town with him, including Chaikl, who soon takes over the focus of the book as he walks a parallel path between piousness and temptation.

Grade paints a realistic and engrossing picture of Jewish life between the wars in the period where freethinking and secular movements were threatening the traditional way of life. In Tsemakh we have a man with horribly ordinary passions and doubts who takes pleasure in tormenting himself and generally alienates those around him. He is balanced by a whole host of scholars, villagers, families, and shopkeepers who spend their time just living their lives. This is only the second Yiddish novel I've read, but I liked it even better than the first (although, to be fair, they are pretty different) and I am very interested to read Volume II and see what kind of fervor Tsemakh works himself into next.

[Anyone know how to pronounce Tsemakh? (Professor Romance?) It has been driving me crazy to not be able to pronounce it in my head....]

Monday, November 30, 2009

Enter the Saint by Leslie Charteris (1931)

Enter the Saint (1931) was Leslie Charteris' second foray into the Saint universe, but he liked it so much better than the book in which our hero first appeared, that he liked to think of it as the start of the series (which eventually grew into dozens of books, movies, TV shows, and a 1997 film I never heard of starring Val Kilmer).

And it is easy to see why the character was so popular -- known as "the Robin Hood of Modern Crime," Simon Templar, aka The Saint, is a moral criminal who steals from immoral criminals and donates all their ill-gotten wealth to charity, minus a 10% collector's fee for him and his compatriots. He is stylish, witty, smart, and very good at driving fast cars in a dare-devil fashion through the countryside. He calls everyone baby, sweetheart, angel, or love. He is just and moral and righteous, but he also drinks a lot, has a sexy and smart girlfriend, and knows how to crack a joke.

In this book, Charteris gives us three novellas staring The Saint and his gang as they outwit criminals and simultaneously help and avoid the great Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard. I get the feeling that the same thing happens in all the other books too, but I can't imagine getting tired of it. I'd never read any Leslie Charteris before, but I'd love to read more. And make sure to check out his Wikipedia page -- his biography is almost as exciting as his books.

[Super exciting back cover available here!]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Telling the truth can be dangerous business

All those idiots who say that Ishtar is a bad movie are sadly misinformed:

It does get a little sloppy and loses some momentum when they go to North Africa, but it picks back up, and the first half of the movie is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Make sure to watch at least the first few minutes of this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen (1998)

Anna Quindlen's novel Black and Blue came out in 1998 and was immediately added to the illustrious ranks of Oprah's Book Club. Naturally it also shot right up the bestseller's list. At the time I was working at a Barnes and Noble and Oprah's Book Club was a Big Deal, and I didn't like it at all. I also had an immediate dislike for books on the bestseller's list since I had to stick 30% off stickers on every one of them, and then take them off all the ones that fell off the list at the end of the week. And yet, somehow, I ended up with a copy of Black and Blue that I have been moving around with me for the past 11 years. My copy even had one of those dreaded 30% off stickers stuck to the inside of the front cover. But: it came up on my random reading list generator, and I decided to finally give Black and Blue a chance.

This is the story of Fran Benedetto. She has been married to Bobby Benedetto, a New York police officer, for fifteen years. They have a son named Robert. She works as a nurse. And Bobby has been beating her since she was 19 years old.

As the book begins, Fran has started her journey away from Bobby with the help of a battered woman's organization that is run just like the witness protection program. She takes Robert and tries to settle down in an anonymous town in Florida, but all the time she is looking over her shoulder and waiting for her husband to find her. Gradually she starts to make friends and find work, Robert has a buddy in their apartment building and enjoys playing sports at school. Fran even finds a man who loves her, and who she thinks she can trust. But eventually, the inevitable has to happen.

Quindlen is a good writer, and the story is well-written with compelling (although sometimes a little clichéd) characters and a suspenseful ending. By the nature of the subject matter, the plot is pretty suffocating (everything is defined in terms of Fran's abuse by Bobby, and there is no doubt that he is going to find her and Robert eventually). I can't really hold the singular focus of the novel against Quindlen, since I'm sure that a woman in Fran's situation couldn't help but experience life just the way Quindlen writes it, but it does not make this an easy or really very enjoyable book to read.

Although it is occasionally a little overly Lifetime, I would say that Black and Blue has once again proven my distrust of Oprah's Book Club and the bestseller list wrong.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'm a Winner!

I won a book giveaway from the always entertaining Forgotten Bookmarks site yesterday. If you haven't looked at it before, you should check it out -- finding things slipped into old books has always been one of my favorite surprises. Thanks FB!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trouble Under Oz (2006)

The lovely Choo loaned me Trouble Under Oz (2006) by Sherwood Smith, an authorized modern addition to L. Frank Baum's Oz series. The book is actually a sequel to Smith's first journey into the Oz world, The Emerald Wand of Oz, which I haven't read, but she gives enough background about the characters that, much like Baum's original series, you can read the books independently.

Dori and Em are two sisters in Kansas who have already had one exciting adventure together in Oz, thanks to a wild tornado. While they were there, Glinda gave them a special snow globe that they can use to see what is going on in Oz while they are back in Kansas. The two look at it all the time, and one day Dori sees Tik-Tok holding a sign that Glinda needs their help. Lucky for them, a series of unusual coincidences (snow storm, sick grandmother, fighting parents) clear the way for Dori to journey to Oz while Em stays home and covers for her. Once in Oz, Dori hooks up with Prince Inga of Pingaree (who you might remember from Rinkitink in Oz) to find Prince Rikiki, the son of the deposed leader of the Nomes who Dori met up with in her last adventure, and help him get his throne back while avoiding a war with the neighboring kingdoms. Oh and there is also some kind of trouble with Dorothy and weird black clouds, which is pretty obviously thrown in there to give Dori and Em something to do in the next addition to the series...

The three young people have some nice adventures with plenty of nods back to the original series. While the book is well written, it doesn't have the looseness or creativity of the Baum originals, but that isn't really Smith's fault since adding to a classic series is naturally a less free and creative medium than starting something from scratch. The book is illustrated by William Stout, who did a great job except that all his drawings show Dori with short hair and in one scene Em makes a point of saying that Dori's hair is very long -- am I a nerd for being bothered by this? I did like that Smith makes a point of having Dori ask where all the female Nomes are, since you never see or hear anything about them in the original Oz books, and the answer is excellent.

I'm not sure that this is a book that needs to be read by anyone except those who have a love for the Oz world, but if you do, then Smith's new additions to the series seem to be worth checking out.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (1976)

I bought this copy of Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (1976) because my bookclub was reading Orpheus Descending, and I was happy to get the chance to also check out Summer and Smoke, Suddenly Last Summer, and Period of Adjustment.

Orpheus Descending (1957) is a revised version of Williams' first play, Battle of Angels, which played briefly in 1940 to a poor reception. He couldn't let the story go, though, and revised and reworked it for 17 years until his star was bright enough to give the failed story another shot. The play is about Lady, an Italian woman who runs a confectionery in a small southern town with her sick (and cruel) husband, Jabe. One day a musician comes into town, trying to escape his previous life of partying and stealing. Lady gives him a job at the store and the two begin a love affair with her husband dying in the bedroom upstairs. Things don't end that well for anyone.

Summer and Smoke (1948) is the story of Alma, a preacher's daughter, and the boy next door, John, a doctor's son. Ever since she was a little girl, Alma has loved John, even though he moved from a little boy who teased her to a grown man that mostly ignores her. Alma grows into a high-strung and sensitive adult who gives piano lessons, sings awkwardly at public events, and giggles nervously just about all the time. When John returns home from college he is at loose ends and reconnects with Alma, raising her hopes that they will be together at last. As the year moves on, however, he spends more and more time at the Moon River Casino with the owner's sexy daughter Rosa. Things don't end that well for most of these characters, either. This one is probably my favorite of this batch.

In Suddenly Last Summer (1958) things don't even start all that well. A wealthy New Orleanian woman's doting middle-aged son died while on vacation with his pretty young cousin, Catherine, who has been hysterical since she returned and is being kept in a private mental institution by her wealthy aunt. Mrs. Venable has a Sister bring Catherine to her home from the institution to tell the real story of her son's death, since she does not believe the story that Catherine keeps telling everyone. And to make sure that Catherine doesn't tell anyone the story anymore, her aunt has hired Dr. Cukrowicz to force her niece into getting a lobotomy.

And, finally, in Period of Adjustment (1960) (subtitled High Point over a Cavern: A Serious Comedy) things start out pretty rough, get even rougher in the middle, but end up working out just fine. A newlywed couple, George and Isabel, drop in on George's old army buddy Ralph on their second day of marriage. Things didn't go well on their first night as a married couple, and they are both pretty riled up about it. Ralph isn't doing too much better since his wife packed up their young son and left him earlier that day. Oh, and it is also Christmas Eve. It turns out that both of the couples are just going through a period of adjustment.

I really like Tennessee Williams -- everything about his plays is heightened and tragic and romantic and sad, and that is just the kind of thing I like. I can understand why he doesn't appeal to everyone, but if you like Williams, this collection of some of his less well-known plays is worth checking out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Let the Right One In (2004)

I always enjoy seeing what the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program decides to send me, even though it usually isn't a book or author I had ever heard of. So when I got the notice that they were sending me a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (2004) -- the book upon which the recent vampire movie is based -- I got extra excited. I love good vampire stories, and from what I had heard about the movie this was a genuinely freaky horror story without all that teenage Twilight-y nonsense.

In the bleak winter of suburban 1980s Stockholm, 12-year-old Oskar holes himself up after school in his bedroom in the apartment he shares with his mother to avoid the constant bullying he is subjected to on the playground. His secret hobby is clipping out newspaper articles about murderers and serial killers and pasting them into his scrapbook. His bookshelves are filled with horror novels, and his daydreams often turn violently against the boys the bully him at school.

Then, one evening, a boy is killed, drained of blood, in the woods in a nearby town. The next night Oskar meets his new neighbor on the playground at the apartment complex. She is an odd young girl named Eli who simultaneously attracts and repulses Oskar, but he can't stop going out every night to see her again.

One of Oskar's neighbors is part of a group of friends who meet up at a nearby Chinese restaurant every night to drown their sorrows and pass the time. Then one of them disappears, and the only witness to his death is the saddest and drunkest of the group -- a man who lives with dozens and dozens of cats and hardly ever leaves the house. He saw his friend attacked by a child, but he doesn't think anyone would believe him and doesn't want to get involved.

Things escalate -- both between Oskar and Eli and between the victims and survivors. The characterization in this book is excellent -- the coming of age romance between the two children, the co-dependence of Eli and those around her, and the friendships and broken lives of all the adults. And there are also some kick ass horror scenes, excellent (and often disturbing) kills, and a nice interpretation of the traditional vampire mythology.

I am excited to watch the movie, and even though I've heard it's great, I can't imagine that it could hold up to the book. Very nicely done.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Behind a Mask: Or, A Woman's Power (1866)

Little Women was one of my favorite books growing up, and since Louisa May Alcott and I share a birthday, I've always been a bit fascinated with her and her life. I'm not sure how I went all these years without checking out some of her pseudonymously published romantic potboilers, but thanks to the technological serialization of DailyLit, I just finished reading Behind a Mask: Or, A Woman's Power (1866) in 48 easy installments.

Alcott was much like her Little Women character Jo, and wrote Behind a Mask and her other A. M. Barnard stories to earn the money that her family needed but her idealistically transcendentalist father could not supply. The story is romantic and suspenseful, but skilfully written with underlying themes that make it something more than just a paycheck.

A young and lovely governess, Jean Muir, is recommended to the wealthy Coventry family as a companion for the teenage Bella. She is coldly received by the eldest son and heir, Gerald, and his betrothed, his cousin Lucia, but warmly welcomed by Mrs. Coventry and her younger son Edward. Ms. Muir quickly enchants most of the family with her quick wit and lovely singing voice, and earns their pity with a delicate constitution and sad back-story. In fact, one by one, even the hardest hearts of the family will fall madly in love with her. But at the end of the first chapter, when the new governess is left alone in her room, we see her remove her make-up, relax her guard, and show us that she is not at all what she seems.

This book worked particularly well being divided up into daily segments, and I'm keen to check out some of Alcott's other works for hire...

Friday, November 06, 2009


Don't you think that Carol from the Where the Wild Things Are movie looks like he could be a close relation of.....

...Coach McGuirk from Home Movies?

This point would be easier to prove had I access to a larger library of stills, but if you have seen them both, then do you know what I mean?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Kids are All Right (2009)

Our latest literary society discussion pick is The Kids Are All Right (2009) by Diana and Liz Welch, with the help of their brother Dan and their sister Amanda. This is a memoir of four siblings, each of whom experienced and remember the unsettling events of their youth in very different ways that all come together into a very engrossing and moving book.

When Amanda, the oldest sibling, was 16 and Diana, the youngest, was four, their father died in a car accident. He was driving back to their home in Bedford, New York form his father's funeral in Boston. Their mother, a soap opera actress, was left alone with the four children and a mountain of previously undisclosed financial problems. And then, one month later, she was diagnosed with cancer. When she died four years later, the siblings struggled to find families that could take them in, especially the two youngest -- Dan (14) and Diana (8) -- but no one would volunteer to take them all.

I am not always a fan of the "crazy childhood" memoir genre -- I think they are often played either too lightly or too tragically. But The Kids Are All Right, in part because of its four narrators, is moving because it is straightforward and has a natural delivery of both humor and sadness. And while much of the book is about the family tragedies, the memoir also gives us the same awkward and funny and isolating and embarrassing normal experiences of growing up. Very nicely done.

[There is also a lovely web site, if you want to find out more about the book and the Welch family.]

Monday, November 02, 2009

Flaubert's Parrot (1984)

Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own.

One of the things I love about my friend St. Murse is that he will sometimes give or loan me books that he didn't like. This is actually not a bad system since I am a pretty forgiving reader and tend to like 91% of what I read. And, as suspected, I totally liked Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984), although I can understand why Murse and others might not like it as much.

Flaubert's Parrot is a kind of post-modern meta-novel that mostly discusses the life, work, and critical reception of Gustave Flaubert (who wrote Madame Bovary, among other things). But that isn't really what it is about. It is sort of about a retired doctor / amateur Flaubert historian. It is sort of about the doctor's wife. It is sort of about reading and writing and criticism. A lot of it is about adultery and marriage and being with someone and being alone. And some of it is about the identification of stuffed parrots and the exact color of red current jam in the 19th century. That Barnes manages to fit all this and more into 216 pages on the life of Flaubert (and to make those pages conversational, readable, and fun) is quite a feat.

If you have never read any Flaubert, hate Flaubert, or rankle at fiction that breaks the fourth wall and employs post-moderny conceits, then this is probably not the book for you. But I really liked it.

And one more quote, because I can't resist:

I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. [They] are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps that is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know...time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There's none of the daily rancour which develops when two people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Secret Boyfriend Death Scene

You should all rent Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellen right now. The film (which was based on a play based on the Shakespeare original) moves the story of everyone's favorite villainous and scheming hunchback, Richard of Gloucester, to a 1930s Nazi-ish alternate reality England. And it is awesome in every way. And one of the ways in which it is most awesome is this scene with secret-boyfriend-extraordinaire, Robert Downey, Jr., who plays the queen's playboy brother.

It is the part he was born to play, baby!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Life at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1857–1997 (1999)

The lovely Choo recently loaned me a copy of Life at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1857–1997 by Sarah C. Sitton (1999). The Texas State Lunatic Asylum is what is now known as the Austin State Hospital, and since it is right in my neighborhood, I was very interested to learn more about it.

Sitton's book is a nicely researched history both of the Austin State Hospital and of the history of state-supported mental health care over the past 150 years. Starting with the asylum philosophy of curative care through cleanliness, order, routine, and a beautiful living environment, moving through the custodial care philosophy of much of the 20th century, and ending with the de-institutionalization movement of the 1980s, Sitton shines a light on the ideals of mental health care and contrasts them with its sometimes sad realities.

Through a detailed examination of records at the state hospital and local archives, in combination with oral history interviews with former administrators, doctors, attendants, staff, and patients of the hospital, Sitton gives us a well-rounded view of the successes and failures of the institution. The book is nicely illustrated with dozens of pictures that show the physical changes of the hospital campus over its 150+ years of existence. This is a well-written book that avoids technical jargon and provides the necessary context to understand the history of the Austin State Hospital in its relation to national mental health care movements and historical events.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kiss of the Spider Woman and Two Other Plays (1994)

This collection of plays by Argentinian author Michael Puig includes Kiss of the Spider Woman (El beso de la mujer araña) (1983), Under a Mantle of Stars (Bajo un manto de estrellas) (1983), and Mystery of the Rose Bouquet (El misterio del ramo de rosas) (1987). The totally awesome book club that I'm in (actually, it's a literary society) decided to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, together with Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending for our most recent discussion.

Actually, in addition to Puig's 1983 play of Kiss of the Spider Woman, there is also his 1976 novel of the same name, the 1985 film version staring Raúl Juliá and William Hurt, and a Tony-award winning musical from 1993. With so many versions, why hadn't I ever heard of it before?

Kiss of the Spider Woman is the story of two cell mates in a Latin American prison. Molina is gay and a few years into his eight year sentence for statutory rape. Valentin is a communist revolutionary. The play covers a short period in the middle of their time together -- they have settled into a routine where Molina helps pass the time by reciting the plots of old movies, they fight, make up, talk about Molina's mother and Valentin's girlfriends, and take care of one another within the boundaries of prison life. A shocking revelation at the end of the first act complicates things and brings the play to its moving climax and its really quite perfect and wonderful ending. I liked this one a lot.

I have dibs to read the novel soon, and I'm very interested to compare the two, but because I read the play first, I feel like none of the other media will be able to capture Puig's minimalist style and sense of character and timing. I watched some scenes from the musical on YouTube. Bleh. Granted it is based on the book and not the play, and I saw the scenes out of context, but still -- nothing at all like the vision of this story that I had in my head.

The other two plays in the collection were also very good -- particularly Mystery of the Rose Bouquet, the story of a sick old woman, her nurse, and their pasts. Like Kiss of the Spider Woman, a mixture of realism and theatre give the story its power. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Promise of Murder (1959)

I picked up this copy of The Promise of Murder [also known as Melora] (1959) by the uniquely-named Mignon G. Eberhart from a used bookstore in Madison on our vacation. How could I resist? The cover is awesome and the author's name is Mignon. When I did a little searching on the author I discovered that 1) She is a woman; 2) She is from my hometown; 3) She went to the same undergraduate liberal arts college that I went to. I also found out that she was one of the most successful female mystery writers (known as "America's Agatha Christie") and that she has written over 60 books. And now I want to read more of them.

The set-up for The Promise of Murder is a lot like Daphne Du maurier's novel (and Alfred Hitchcock's film) Rebecca. A naive young second wife, Anne, comes into a wealthy household and is overwhelmed by the unspoken memory of the first wife, Melora. In this case, however, Melora isn't dead -- she just divorced Brent almost two years ago. No one ever talks about Melora, not even Anne's sister-in-law Cassie -- the widow of Brent's brother who, with her teenage son and daughter, has lived with Brent for the past fifteen years and ran every aspect of his household.

Brent gets called away to lawyery business in France the same day that the two kids head back to boarding school and Cassie goes to visit friends in the country. Anne sees them all off and goes up to the study only to find a piece of her letterhead in the typewriter with the words "I am going to kill you" typed on it. She gets a little nervous, but blows it off as a joke by one of the kids. After an un-nerving run-in with Melora, Anne finds another note, then another. The teenage daughter comes home unexpectedly with the flu and the two settle in for a suspenseful night full of creepy elevators, appearing and disappearing knives, cut phone lines, and a doctor who might not be a doctor at all.

Soon everyone returns and, after a physical confrontation, the police arrive. But then people start dying. And everything seems to revolve around the alluring Melora...

I think this essay does a nice job of illustrating the appeal of Eberhart's writing. A little romantic, a lot suspenseful, a tiny bit goofy, and entirely enjoyable.

[Wonderfully awesome back cover available here.]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gould's Book of Fish (2001)

Gould's Book of Fish (2001) by Richard Flanagan is indescribably weird and wonderful. The story of one forger told by another, Flanagan co-opts the life of real convict artist William Buelow Gould as the narrator of his book within a book that tells the story of a horrific Tasmanian penal colony in the 1830s, art, Australia, love, race, and fish. Lots and lots of fish.

In modern-day Tasmania, a man (who makes fake antiques for a living) finds an unusual book with detailed drawings of fish in the back of a junk store. He becomes obsessed with the scrawled narrative that surrounds the drawings -- bits and pieces of a story, written in different colored inks on found scraps of paper. He can't stop reading the book or talking about it. Every time he opens it, he finds a new passage he hadn't read before, or an unseen slip of paper slides out of the binding. And then one day he finishes it. And the whole thing turns into a salty puddle on the bar. So, after an intimate experience with a fish, he decides to re-create Gould's masterpiece. Which brings us to the book of fish.

Gould is possibly the most untrustworthy narrator ever created, but he is all we have, and he is so damn compelling, that we just make do. He has been exiled to Australia for at least one of a variety of real or mistaken crimes (including forgery, murder, sexing up the wrong people, and disrespecting the flag). And when he eventually is sentenced to the worst and most isolated prison on the rough west coast of Tasmania, he is mistaken by the prison surgeon as an artist, and commissioned to paint realistic drawings of the fish that are brought up in the colony nets for a scientific project in England. Even though he is not really an artist, he likes the small perks that come with the position, and goes with it. At first hating the fish, then loving them, and eventually merging with them completely.

This book has a Tristram Shandyness about it, mixed with a huge dose of colonialism and fishy philosophy. The narrative is at once loose and unconventional, and tightly constructed and satisfying. Absolutely worth checking out.

[Thanks, Corie!]

Thursday, October 01, 2009

interviewer interviewer interviewer

I love my husband because he will drop everything to watch Monty Python clips with me, even when I say all the jokes along with the skit.

Happy flanniversary, baby.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same (2009)

It is books like Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same by Mattox Roesch (2009) that really show the strength of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program -- if they hadn't sent me an advance copy for review, the chances of me getting my hands on Roesch's debut novel (particularly considering my tendency to only buy books that are at least a decade old) would have been slim. And this book was great.

"Sometimes we're always real same-same" is one of the reasons that Go-boy, a young man in the small Alaskan town of Unalakleet, loves his girlfriend Valerie. Go-boy is the cousin of our protagonist, Cesar, a high school junior from LA who moves to Unalakleet with his mom (a Native who was born there but hadn't come back for 20 years) after his parents split up and his brother gets a life sentence for killing two people in a gang shooting. Go-boy is positive that Cesar will stay in Alaska (in fact, Go-boy is usually pretty positive about everything), although Cesar is sure he is going to head back to LA as soon as he can save up enough money for a plane ticket.

Then Cesar meets Kiana, Go-boy's adopted step-sister, and after a one-night stand he can't stop thinking about her.

Through a summer of romance, tragedy, and a job counting fish, Cesar becomes more and more tied to the community and his cousin, while Go-boy spins out of control with his unorthodox views of Christianity and philosophies of a world-wide conspiracy to make heaven on earth. Cesar, like most teenagers, is so caught up in his own internal dramas that he doesn't notice that Go-boy's mania is pushing him over the edge until it becomes unstoppable.

This book explores some heavy territory (including alcoholism, gang violence, mental illness, and suicide) without becoming too preachy in the process. The characters, the town, and the interplay between western and Native traditions are nicely drawn and the narrative is compelling and well-paced. I really enjoyed this book, and I think it would be a great read for both high school and adult readers.

Plus the title is sure always real fun to try-say.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Yoshe Kalb (1933)

In my continued reverse-alphabetical-by-title exploration of Harold Bloom's western canon list, I recently read Israel Joshua Singer's Yoshe Kalb (1933). I am pretty sure I've read some short stories or something by I.J.'s better-known younger brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, but this is the first Yiddish novel I've ever read.

Yoshe Kalb has the feel of a religious parable or mythic oration mixed with a political satire and a dash of romance novel, although the main character is, at least according to I.B.'s introduction, based on an actual man who lived in the Chassidic community in Galicia. This man, Nahum, who doesn't start out with the name of Yoshe, is married off to Serele, the youngest daughter of the charismatic Rabbi Melech, when he is only 14. He is delicate and scholarly and doesn't fit in well at all in the earthy and backstabbing court of the great Rabbi. Rabbi Melech was anxious to marry off his youngest daughter so that he could take a fourth wife (his third, and most beloved, wife having recently died). The Rabbi marries the young and headstrong Malkah, who also doesn't fit in at court or with her much older husband. Unfortunately for everyone, she and Nahum fall into an uncontrollable lust at first sight. Now it is a pretty big sin to lust after anyone who is not your wife, but it is an extra super big sin to lust after your step-mother-in-law, especially if you are very serious about your faith like Nahum.

As you might imagine, things don't end well. And they don't end well in a particularly spectacular way.

Nahum eventually leaves the Rabbi's city in the middle of the night, starts wandering and reciting the Psalms, and lives as a beggar. A series of events leads him to a place in the house of the Beadle in a town across the border in Russia where he is given the name of Yoshe the Loon. More things don't go well and Yoshe finds himself forced to marry the Beadle's daughter, who isn't playing with a full deck.

So after 15 years, Nahum/Yoshe, who is now so quiet and spiritual that no one can ignore him, goes back to Serele. And when a man from the other village recognizes him as the husband who ran out on the Beadle's daughter, someone's got some explaining to do.

I still do not completely understand the ending of this book, but I liked it quite a bit. You should read it too, so we can talk about it. Anyone? I feel like I simultaneously gave too much away and didn't say enough in my review here, but this is really a fun read with wonderfully written characters (none of whom are all that admirable).

[As an aside, Yoshe Kalb was adapted as a play for the Yiddish theatre, where it was a huge success, and I could really see it working in that format.]

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Time suck

Apparently I am going to spend all day playing this. The noise the skull guy makes when you reunite his head with his body is very addictive.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Achewood Volume 2: Worst Song Played on Ugliest Guitar (2009)

It is no secret that I love Achewood. I even stood in line at a comic store for a few hours one night just to get Chris Onstad to sign a couple books and have a bit of interaction time. Part of the fun of the Achewood universe is how much it has grown and evolved over the past eight (!) years -- and although the characters are much more detailed, the plot lines much more complicated, and the themes much more nuanced, I still love the early strips where Onstad and his gaggle of characters were doing one-off gags and finding their voices.

Achewood Volume 2: Worst Song Played on Ugliest Guitar (2009) is the second Achewood collection to be published by Dark Horse books (after The Great Outdoor Fight). Like The Great Outdoor Fight, Worst Song Played on Ugliest Guitar is beautifully designed and produced -- nice paper, nice colors, fun to hold and read. It is, in fact, pretty great to read a comic that you usually see on screen in a professionally produced hardcover form...

Onstad includes the alt text that usually pops up when you hover your mouse over the comics online as italic notes after each comic, which is a nice cross-over from the electronic to print world. He also annotates most of the strips in the book with his observations -- these are sometimes pretty interesting or funny, but too often they devolve into self-depreciating knocks at himself and the early days of the comics. In those cases, it might have been best to just let the comics speak for themselves.

The best part of the book for fans of Achewood are the lengthy "origin" stories for Phillipe, Mr. Bear, Teodor, and Lyle. Onstad shines in a short story format, and these narratives don't disappoint.

This is a book that every fan of Achewood should own, but probably isn't the best introduction to the strip for newcomers. Luckily everything is still available in the Achewood archives, so just start yourself at strip number one, and work your way through eight years of awesomeness...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Austin's Hyde Park... the First 50 Years: 1891-1941 (1991)

I've lived in an apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Austin for over seven years, and now (thanks to the lovely Choo) I finally have a detailed picture of its history. Sarah and Thad Sitton's Austin's Hyde Park... the First 50 Years: 1891-1941 might have a relatively limited audience, but it is well-researched and nicely written and should be required reading for all residents of the neighborhood.

The Hyde Park neighborhood was originally conceived by M. M. Shipe as one of the first elegant suburbs of Austin, complete with a streetcar that would take you to and from town, two miles south. The neighborhood was ultimately more working class than high class (although it is now pretty damn expensive to live in), housing many people who worked at the near by State Hospital and Ramsey's Nursery to the north, but the streetcar service did materialize and I wish that it was still here today as that would make my commute way more fun.

Here is a tidbit: before Hyde Park was a neighborhood, it was the home of a very popular horse racing track and, a little bit later, the official Texas State Fair. A few years of rainy weather ultimately hurt the fair's profits and it regrouped up in Dallas, but the imprint of the race track is still on the neighborhood. In the map on the right you will notice that Shipe laid Hyde Park out in a nice and neat system of grids. Except for where 39th street goes all curvy. He decided to keep the curve of the race track between Avenue H and G, and then serpentine it over to Avenue F. All this exciting curve action conveniently happens right by the Shipe home, which is one of many buildings mentioned in the book that are still in the neighborhood today (including the state hospital and the Elizabet Ney house).

The Sittons base their history of the neighborhood on archival research (yay!) and an extensive series of oral history interviews with original residents of the neighborhood. The book provides a nice social history of Austin in the early 20th century, and some context of the greater city and state are included in the narrative. The text sometimes gets bogged down in names and addresses, and some of the anecdotes are a little goofy, but this is ultimately a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the history of Austin and the Hyde Park neighborhood.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Required Recipe

I tried this recipe for one-ingredient ice cream on a whim since I always have extra bananas at the end of the week and I have a husband with a sweet tooth. Here are the instructions:

1. Peel and freeze some bananas
2. Blend them up in the food processor
3. Eat your delicious frozen treat

My food processor got a little sad when the bananas were super frozen, so I would suggest letting them hang out on the counter for fifteen minutes or so after you take them out of the freezer. This really tastes great, and the texture is almost exactly like ice cream. I put chocolate syrup on mine. You should too.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Road (2006)

Here's a tip: if you want some seriously weird and disturbing dreams, read Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) almost entirely in one day. Then just go to sleep. I guarantee you a restless night of gathering supplies for survival, running from people, looking for people, and being very very worried. If I had it to do over again, I might have made myself spread the book out over a few more readings, but that was hard to do...

The Road is the story of a man and a boy who are diligently heading south together in a post-apocalyptic United States. Something happened to the world right before the man's wife was going to give birth, and the boy has grown up in a world full of fire, plagues, death, killing, and horror. It has been several years and now there aren't many people left and those that are around aren't very friendly. No plant or animal life seems to have survived and all their food must be scavenged from houses and stores that have already been picked over by other survivors. The book alternates between mind-numbing repetition and mind-numbing horror. And yet, it is consistently poetic and the relationship between the father and son is beautiful, simple, and moving.

It seems like everyone I know has read this already, and they all told me it was very good and very bleak. They weren't lying, but I'm glad I finally put it at the top of my pile.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Moments of Being (1985)

Thanks to the lovely Julia who always knows just what I will like, I recently read Moments of Being (1985) a collection of posthumously published autobiographical writings by Virginia Woolf (edited by Jeanne Schulkind and first published in 1976; I read the second edition which was expanded and edited a bit after some other manuscripts came to light).

Virginia Woolf is probably my favorite writer of all time, so it was amazing to read these intimate and literary (but still relatively unpolished) memoirs. The writings split their time between Woolf's childhood and family and her adult friendships with the Bloomsbury group. One of the writings on her childhood was written very early in her career (before she had published any novels) and the other late in her life, finished the same year she killed herself. The remaining three pieces were written as part of the Memoir Club, a writing group of Woolf and some of the other Bloomsbury regulars where autobiographical sketches were written and read aloud to the other group members. Rather than arrange the writings by the time period in which they were written, Schulkind arranges them so that the events discussed move forward in chronological order, and includes brief prefaces to each piece that tie the works into the timeline of Woolf's life and make this collection something of a mini-biography.

Having recently read and loved To the Lighthouse, the writings about Woolf's parents and family were particularly moving. In Woolf's fiction, she has a way of writing that makes every scene and phrase so present and engulfing that I almost feel that everything she writes about has somehow also happened to me. These autobiographical writings have the same sense of immediacy and shared sensation, and even though they are rough and sometimes incomplete, they are just as fascinating as her novels and have left just as much of an impression in my mind.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Though Waters Roar (2009)

I have a history of not reading the book descriptions from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program very closely before requesting the books -- I basically request anything that looks vaguely interesting and let the LibraryThing algorithms decide what to send to me. I remember seeing that Lynn Austin's Though Waters Roar was historical fiction (which I love) and didn't realize until I received it that it is Christian historical fiction. Hmmm. I wasn't very hopeful, but I figured I would give it a try since they were nice enough to send me a free copy.

This is a multi-generational novel telling the story of three women who combine their faith with a struggle for social justice in three of the big movements of the late-19th / early-20th century: anti-slavery, temperance, and woman's suffrage. The story is told by the youngest woman in the family, Harriet, who thinks back on the stories she heard from her mother and grandmother as she cools her heels in a jail cell in 1920 (the reasons for which are pretty nicely hidden until the end of the novel).

The characters are engaging and the plot moves along nicely -- the book really is well written, although conventional. The emphasis on Christian faith is integrated into the characters and not tacked on to the story or shoved down the reader's throat, which I liked. The historical basis of the book seemed accurate, and the feminist in me liked this exploration of the early woman's movement. Overall this book read a lot like a romance novel without the sex, which isn't necessarily bad, although it did make the book a little dry, and while some of the characters' faith-based decisions were good ones, others were extremely frustrating.

I will admit that I was not the audience for this book at all, but I thought it was pretty good. I was expecting something very sentimental or preachy, and instead I got a nice, if somewhat pedestrian, multi-generational love story.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Fog (1975)

James Herbert's novel The Fog (1975) doesn't have quite as much nudity and sex in it as the totally awesome cover might suggest, although there is certainly as much sex (and some of it rather disturbing) as you would expect any self-respecting 1970s horror novel to contain.

John Holman is an investigator for the Department of the Environment who is driving back to London from a secret stakeout at a military installation in rural Britain. As he enters a small town, the ground starts shaking, the highway splits apart and his car falls into the crevasse in the earth. He manages to get out of his car and crawl towards safety, but on his way out he is surrounded by a strange yellow fog escaping from deep in the earth. When the rescuers finally pull him from the ground, he is completely violent and insane.

Holman is restrained in a hospital, gets a blood transfusion, and fights his demons for several days before returning to his regular self. His girlfriend stands by him, and the two of them begin the drive back to London. But as they drive, they run into the mysterious yellow fog -- and it is getting bigger.

This book was really well written and entertaining -- it ultimately moves between Holman who has to convince the government that the fog is dangerous, and who is quickly recognized as the only person who is immune to the effects of the fog, and a series of vignettes of the different people who come into contact with the fog with horrible results. This novel is part government conspiracy, part zombie attack, part creepy isolation, and a whole lot of yellowish fog that becomes a character in its own right.

The characterization of big and small players in the book is excellent -- sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, and always effective. Some of the description is so cinematic that I can't believe no one has made this into a movie: the entire population of a seaside resort walking into the ocean; spotting all the pigeons of Trafalgar square sitting motionless in the fog and ready to attack at a moment's notice; opening the curtains after some "everything is finally okay" sex to nothing but blank yellowish fog... (Note: John Carpenter's wonderful movie The Fog (1980) is not related to this book.)

I haven't read a straight-up horror novel for many years, and The Fog made me want to revisit some of my favorites...

[Thanks to the lovely Dan for letting me steal this out of his garage sale pile...]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France (2002)

For notwithstanding you are in the Bloom of your Life; tho’ ev’ry Pleasure courts you; tho’ you are Nature’s Darling, and have internal Qualities in proportion to your Beauty; tho’ the World resounds your Praises from Morning till Night, and consequently you must have a just Title to a superior Degree of Understanding than the rest of your Sex; Yet your Wit is no ways flashy; Your Taste is refin’d, and I have had the Honour to hear you talk more learnedly than the wisest Dervise, with his venerable Beard, and pointed Bonnet: You are discreet, and yet not mistrustful; you are easy, but not weak; you are beneficent with Discretion; you love your Friends, and create yourself no Enemies. Your most sprightly Flights borrow no Graces from Detraction; you never speak a misbecoming Word, nor do an ill-natur’d Action, tho’ ’tis always in your Power. In a Word, your Soul is as spotless as your Person. You have, moreover, a little Fund of Philosophy, which gives me just Grounds to hope that you’ll relish this Historical Performance better than any other Lady of your Quality would do. -- Voltaire, from the dedication of Zadig (1747).

I was interested to read more about Madame de Pompadour (Louis XV's mistress and an ambitious member of the mid-18th century Parisian bourgeoisie who eventually became the most politically influential woman in France) after I read Voltaire's Zadig, which is dedicated to the marquise and filled with allusions to the religious and political upheavals of the day. Luckily my interest was easily sated since I bought a copy of Christine Pevitt Algrant's Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France (2002) four or five years ago and it has been sitting patiently on my bookshelf ever since.

Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson to an upper-middle class army procurement officer and his beautiful and charming Parisian wife. Her mother, in fact was so beautiful and charming that, like most of the rest of Paris, she was the mistress of a man (and possibly several men) more powerful than her husband. There is, in fact, some doubt that Msr. Poisson was not really his daughter's father and the interest shown in the education and placement of little Jeanne-Antoinette by Charles Lenormand de Tournehem, a member of the wealthy and powerful Parisian elite, leads many to suspect that he was her biological father.

Everyone noticed how pretty, graceful, smart and well- mannered Jeanne-Antoinette was and she was spared no expense in her education in the arts and manners of the upper-crust. She was married to nephew of Tournehem, even though all around her seemed to know she was destined for better things (oddly, Parisian society said you can't go into the business of becoming a mistress until you have already become a wife). Really she was being primed to be the mistress of someone powerful for most of her life, and when there was an opening in the love life of the young and handsome King of France, Louis XV, strings were pulled to make sure that the lovely Jeanne-Antoinette was noticed by his majesty.

She soon became the favorite of his mistresses, was given the title of a marquise, and her husband was sent to a far off post and forced to cede his wife to the king and the court in Versailles. The king was a moody and indecisive man who hated the pomp and ceremony of court and preferred to be hunting, having small dinners with close friends, or having sex with his bevy of "young birds" -- beauties picked from all over France for his enjoyment. The marquise was smart enough to know what the king wanted, and to pour all her talent into creating an environment where the king would be most comfortable -- and ensuring her success at court by making sure no one else could provide what she did for the king.

Although she was his mistress, Algrant argues that their relationship was probably more one of friendship and routine than sex. Madame de Pompadour frequently describes herself as cold in her correspondence, and she encouraged the king's dalliances with his "little birds" as long as none of them got too uppity and threatened her place.

Madame de Pompadour used her influence with the king to procure placements and favors for her friends and family, and gradually her place at court became the only venue to an audience with the king. Those who flattered her were rewarded, those who resented the intrusion of a mistress and a member of the bourgeoisie into the elite and isolated environment of the court were punished. As the king became more and more disassociated from his subjects and the country, the marquise took over more and more of the correspondence and audiences that got things done in French politics. Religious and political unrest, the disastrous and expensive Seven Years War, and the hatred and scapegoating of the French people took their toll on Madame de Pompadour, who never lost her grip over the king or the court, but finally succumbed to years of poor health at the age of 42.

Algrant's book is a very readable and well-researched life of this interesting, ambitious and flawed woman who became a repository for the disgust and frustration of the French people for the royal family two generations before the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette (who was married to Louis XV's grandson). The last quarter of the book gets a little bogged down in battles and nobles and bureaucratic intrigue, but that is more history's fault than Algrant's. Definitely worth reading.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A sucker for good art

Dr. M and I love a variety pack, so when he saw Magic Hat Brewing Company's Night of the Living Dead sampler, he couldn't resist. The art on the box and bottles is awesome (you can get a taste of it here [warning lots of flash and a bit of a soundtrack]). So far this Fall 09 one is the only one I've had, but I consider it to be quite acceptable. And the skeleton artwork gets extra points.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Just three awesome frat dudes being awesome for your enjoyment.

[And if you haven't seen Night of the Creeps (1986), what have you been doing with your life?]

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Spot of LIfe (1932)

I bought Austin Hall's novel The Spot of Life (published serially in 1932 and first printed in book form in 1964) because it was only a dollar and it had this quote on the back: "But nobody had reckoned with the cunning brain of the ruler of that Other World, the weird warrior-king known as the Bar Senestro." Just say "Bar Senestro" a few times. Now don't you want to read it too?

When Detective Flanning sees an oddly dressed but very handsome man walking down the street in San Francisco, his curiosity overtakes him and he offers to show the man the way to an address he has written on a scrap of paper (the home of a professor and Spinoza scholar). The stranger causes quite a scene with the professor, so Flanning then follows him to a mysterious house that has given off weird vibes to everyone in the neighborhood for thirty years. After Flanning enters the house, things really start getting weird: Strange lights flash, bells toll, odd people are alive, then dead, then disappear completely. Then the Spinoza scholar is found dead, and Flanning finds himself teaming up with the professor's son -- a science whiz who is also the captain of the college football team. Together they hope to solve the mystery of the weird spot in the mysterious house, learn a few things about Life and Death, and save humanity from an inter-dimensional invasion.

Although it didn't mention anything about it on the cover of the book, The Spot of Life is actually a sequel to The Blind Spot, which Hall wrote with Homer Eon Flint and which was serialized in 1921. Flint died in 1924 under mysterious circumstances (he may or may not have been involved in a robbery and may or may not have been killed by gangsters), and Hall dedicates this sequel to his friend. I haven't read The Blind Spot, although I feel like I have since large sections of The Spot of Life involve characters finding bits and pieces of a manuscript (which is conveniently the earlier book) and reading them aloud.

The Spot of Life isn't great, but it is representative of a solid 1930s sci-fi serial with lots of action, a small amount of romance, and plenty of science.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008)

The wonderful St. Murse loaned me his copy of David Wroblewski's first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), so he gets the friend of the month prize for knowing what I would like to read. Congratulations, Murse!

I didn't know anything about this book going into it except that it had also been recommended to me by Dr. M's sister, and that it takes place in Wisconsin (where I just visited). After looking at the cover of the book, I learned that it is also part of the Oprah bookclub. And it is very long.

The discovery that takes place while reading this book and gradually figuring out where the author is going was so fun and exciting that I don't want to ruin it with too many details about the plot, so I'll keep it brief:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is really the story of the Sawtelle family and their dogs. The Sawtelle's live in rural Wisconsin and have been breeding and training an elite line of dogs for two generations. Gar and Trudy have one son, our protagonist Edgar, who was born mute (although he can hear), and Edgar has one close companion (besides his parents), his dog Almondine. What starts as a pastoral and beautifully descriptive story about the Sawtelle's and their dogs turns into a Shakespearean tragedy with the appearance of Gar's black-sheep brother Claude.

This is a perfectly pitched coming-of-age story that draws on the isolation and beauty of the Wisconsin landscape as a solid foundation for a re-envisioning of a classic plot. Lovely and perfect and satisfyingly tragic.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Atlas of Unknowns (2009)

Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James (2009) is exactly the reason why I love the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It is the debut novel by an author I had never heard of, and something I probably never would have read on my own. And I really really really really liked it. And I think you would too.

Atlas of Unknowns is the story of two sisters in Kerala, India who live with their widowed father, Melvin, and their grandmother, Ammachi. The oldest daughter, Linno, loses her hand in an accident with a firecracker when she is seven years old, but retains her artistic talent and has filled a sketchbook and the local store windows with her art by the time she is in her early twenties. The youngest, Anju, is a brilliant student who has a chance to study at an elite high school in New York for a year on a full scholarship. When Anju makes the unthinking decision to pass her sister's artwork off as her own to set herself off from the other scholarship applicants it wins her the visa to New York but seriously shakes her relationship with her sister and has consequences that no one can predict.

The core of the story sounds simple, but the personalities and history of the family, together with the clashing traditions of India and post-911 New York color this novel and give it the complex character of real life. James gives each character a solid voice -- not just the sisters and their family, but Anju's famous host mother (the Indian member of a "The View"-like TV show), Linno's blind suitor and his sister, a fading Indian actress, the owner of a salon in New York, the Jewish classmate with a crush on Anju, and every other one of the people who move in and out of the orbit of the story.

And the ending was perfect.

I will admit that I am particularly partial to books about sisters, but this book was undeniably great. Want to borrow it?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My second favorite meal... grilled cheese with tomato soup. And even though it was really hot out yesterday, I decided to run the oven and roast up a bunch of veggies for this really quite delicious and easy Roasted Tomato Soup recipe. I think I should have roasted the tomatoes a little bit longer (but, as mentioned before, it was really hot out already and I got impatient about having the oven on), but it was still delicious. Three onions seems like a lot, but they just melt into the soup when you blend it and every flavor balances perfectly.

To make it an extra exciting dinner, I made fancy grilled cheese sandwiches using fontina and gouda cheese and a very exciting roasted garlic bread that I got at HEB.

Oh my god. I want to eat it again right now. Luckily the soup made lots of leftovers...

[P.S. My favorite meal is tacos. You can ask Dr. M: if it possible to turn any combination of food into a taco, I will try it.]

[Photo by roboppy]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Young Törless (1906)

Robert Musil's Young Törless (1906) [also translated as The Confusions of Young Törless] is my next stop on the reverse-alphabetical-by-title version of Harold Bloom's Western Canon list.

Robert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist who is best known for his lengthy, unfinished, and posthumously published novel The Man Without Qualities. Young Törless is his first novel, a coming-of-age story about a sensitive and literary young man named Törless and his experiences at an Austrian military boarding school. Musil first claimed that the book was based on his own experiences, but later denied that the book had anything to do with his own life.

Törless has a profound sense of indifference to regular life and a disconnection from his fellow pupils. Despite this, he has been befriended by two older students and accompanies them to their secret hideout in the attic of the school where they make decisions about how to wield their power and philosophies. Although he is with the other boys most of the time, Törless seems to live his life in his own head and on the sheets of paper where he writes out his thoughts and discoveries about life. Much of his time is spent analyzing his new-found sexual desires and wondering if the dark thoughts he has are shared by anyone else. Törless feels the best when he can make himself feel so martyred or shameful that he knows he must be different from the other boys at the school and from his parents and the other grown-ups.

When his two friends discover that a younger boy has stolen money from one of their lockers, they take it upon themselves to teach him a lesson. Törless is fascinated by the weaker boy and his acquiescence to the mental, physical and sexual torment brought on by the older students. Törless always holds himself at a distance from the other boys and their actions, even though he is intimately involved in the encounter, and it is only when he is forced to act that he makes any move to alter the situation.

Many readers have seen parallels to the rise of the Nazi party in Young Törless, and its scientific fascination with punishment, justice, and isolation make it a sometimes difficult book to read. Once the reader really enters the claustrophobic mind of young Törless, however, the philosophies and morality make for a fascinating piece of literature.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Toothpaste plug?

I don't know why, but I love this new kind of aqua fresh so much that I have to tell the world about it. Seriously. I don't even like to brush my teeth that much, and usually feel pretty indifferent to toothpaste (and pretty irritated when things are marketed as being "extreme" that clearly are not), but this stuff is amazing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

Have you read any Agatha Christie yet? Because she is extremely awesome and not boring and conventional like you might think. In fact, her 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was so controversial when it came out (due to a twist ending that I'm not going to reveal) that critics were divided and other mystery writers aghast.

In this mystery a widow has apparently committed suicide one year after her husband's mysterious death. The town doctor confirms the death and later dines with a friend (and the wealthiest man in town), who was also close with the widow. After the doctor leaves the man's house for the evening, he is called back only to find his friend has been stabbed in the neck. And there we have the murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Lucky for (almost) everyone, a strange foreigner has recently moved to the town for his retirement. He is none other than the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and after a little coaxing from Ackroyd's niece, he takes on the case and begins investigating the murder with the good doctor as his sidekick.

There are a whole household of intriguing suspects, each of which would benefit from Ackroyd's death and every one of them seems to be hiding something. In this book, as in the other Agatha Christie novels I've read, the strength lies in the balance between a great mystery (lots of clues, red herrings, and teasing hints) and a masterful sense of character and psychology. Truly a perfect mystery.

This is the first Hercule Poirot book that I've read, and although I've seen some TV adaptations of Poirot stories and had a general familiarity with his character I've been told by a friend that I would get even more out of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd if I had a little more Poirot under my belt. Which is great because I can't wait to read some more...

[And sadly I just have a boring old 1990s copy of this book and not the awesome 1920s cover pictured above. I would gladly trade for a cooler cover any day of the week.]

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Junot Díaz's The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) was not only a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it also holds the prestigious honor of being the next DAFFODILS (that is the Dangerously Affable Friendly Friends Optional Drinking Invitational Literary Society) selection.

The book traces the story of Oscar de León, an overweight, science-fiction loving, Über-nerd, Dominican-American growing up in New Jersey, and his family -- particularly his older sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his grandfather Abelard. The family may be cursed, or it may just have the ordinary luck of Dominicans, our narrator, Yunior (a boyfriend to Lola and a sometimes-roommate to Oscar), isn't saying. Either way, bad things happen to them from generation to generation. And while Díaz starts us out in 1980s and 1990s New Jersey, we are quickly sent back to the Dominican Republic of the 1940s and 1950s where we and the family feel the wrath of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

I thought this was a really fun read, and I am a total sucker for multi-generational epics, so if you are too I would recommend checking this one out. My big criticism is that some of the "quirks" of the narrator and author (mostly the extensive footnotes and excessive sci-fi references) were applied inconsistently and sometimes got in the way of the story. Oddly enough all the characters are very engaging, complicated and well-drawn except for Oscar himself. I'm sure this was intentional, but I can't help wishing that the reader was able to slip under his armor a bit and get something more three-dimensional from the guy.

I have more to say, but I'm going to keep it under wraps until the book club meets.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The wonders of Appleton

One of the most fun discoveries of our trip was this amazing house in Appleton, Wisconsin with a yard full of sculptures of famous artists. I couldn't find anything about it with a quick search of the internet, and I'd love to know more about the guy who makes these.

[And if that isn't enough for you, there is full photographic documentation of the trip here.]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Dear Wisconsin

I miss you. It is 100 degrees outside right now in Austin, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. In addition, nothing is green here. I need to get myself one of those summer cabins up north....

More updates on the awesomeness that was Summer Road Trip 2009 after I recover from my car head and regain the will to carry on in my regular old life.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I had never heard of horchata before moving to Texas, but now I love this cool, smooth, rice-based drink. And thanks to Mary P., I know how to make it at home! There are a bunch of recipes out there, but I used this one, and it turned out great. I don't like things to be too sweet, so I only used half of the sugar, and I might also try reducing the cinnamon just a bit the next time I make it. This couldn't be easier (although waiting for the rice to soak for three hours is a little hard if you are thirsty) -- go make it right now!

In other news, I'm heading north to escape the 100+ degree temperatures we've been having down here, to visit some family and friends, and to celebrate an awesome wedding on the fourth of July, so it might be quiet around here for a bit. Just drink a bunch of horchata and you won't miss me at all.