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.