Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Food Chain by Catherine Chalmers (2000)

The photo essay collection Food Chain: Encounters between mates, predators, and prey by Catherine Chalmers (2000) is my next pick from the St. Denis book storage pile.

Using a combination of caterpillars, tomatoes, praying mantises, frogs, tarantulas, and "pinkies" (that is, newborn mice), Chalmers deftly explores the interaction between predator and prey, culminating in the famous sex/death system of the praying mantis.

The photos are all shot with stark white backgrounds and the subjects, whom Chalmers raised herself in her New York City apartment, are allowed to let their personalities shine. And let me tell you, frogs in particular have quite a bit of personality.

The pictures are accompanied by an introductory essay by Gordon Grice and an interview with the photographer that helps put her work in context.

Wanna check some pictures out for yourself? Go for it!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003)

I received a copy of Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Actually, it's the third book of McFadden's I've gotten through Early Reviewers (see my reviews for Gathering of Waters and Nowhere is a Place), and I've liked all three so much that I should probably throw some of my own money down on the next one.

Loving Donovan is (as you may guess) a kind of a love story, deeply rooted in the characters of its two protagonists, Campbell and Donovan. The first section of the book, "Her: 1973-1980," takes us through Campbell's childhood, ages eight through fifteen, and delves into the history of her family, particularly her mother, Millie, and her larger than life aunt, Luscious. Campbell has a loving but strained family life, is pushed into sex with a boyfriend when she is 15 and, like her mother and Luscious, gives birth to a child before she is really ready.

The second section, "Him: 1971-1985" gives Donovan the same treatment, ages seven to twenty-one. He also has a strained family life after his mother leaves his father and takes his baby sister with her, leaving the men to live with Donovan's overbearing and controlling Grammy (who has a slightly belief-defying connection to Luscious that would have been a little too much if it wasn't handled as lightly as it was). Donovan is sexually abused as a young boy, an experience he finds it impossible to talk about, and one that will color his relationships and emotions for the rest of his life. Still, he is an athletic and friendly young man, and an ambitious and hard worker who quickly builds a good life for himself, albeit a lonely one in an apartment on the second floor of Grammy's house.

Finally, "Them: 1999-2000" brings Campbell and Donovan together. They are both in their thirties, both experienced in life and (more or less) in love. Both pretty lonely. They have an immediate spark and a strong connection that is boosted by, and ultimately destroyed by, the experiences we lived through with them in the first two sections of the book. We know from Campbell's prologue at the beginning that their relationship wouldn't last, but that doesn't make working through its ups, downs, and implosion any easier.

Like the other two books I've read, McFadden has a lyrical writing style that matches the depth and intensity of her characters. She does not shy away from violent, upsetting, and cruel actions, but she is just as willing to wax poetic and sing out the happy parts of her characters' lives. I really enjoyed the structure of this book, although I could have used a little more Them (or, alternatively, a little more of Campbell's young adulthood). And I was, to be honest, a little disappointed in the ending which I thought veered away from the personalities of the characters that we'd spent so much time getting to know. Still, McFadden has created another encompassing and readable universe here, and one which any reader in love with good characters should try to seek out.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

Our latest theme for the DAFFODILS book club was a book that had been waiting in one of our members "to read" pile, and the lucky winner was Joolie and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013).

Although we read this one for my more free-form bookclub, it would be a perfect choice for my other book club, the Debbie Downers, because man oh man, this is a downer of a book. And yet I really loved it! I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a person who is a voluntary member of a book club that only reads sad books would like things on the melancholy / tragic side of the scale.

The Lowland takes place in a small community on the outskirts of Calcutta and in University towns of the Northeast United States, mostly in Rhode Island, and spans from the 1950s through to the present day. The action centers on two very different brothers who are, nonetheless, very close to each other as children. Subhash is the older and more conventional of the two brothers. He is thoughtful, risk-averse, and often in the shadow of his more outrageous and political brother, Udayan. While they are very close as  children, Udayan's secretive involvement with the Naxalite movement (a violent Maoist group in India) pushes them further apart. Subhash focuses on his studies and ends up moving to Rhode Island to study and oceanography. While he is there he has sporadic correspondence with his brother and parents, but mostly lives in isolation from them (and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else). He has a brief friendship with an American roommate and later a passionate but controlled affair with a recently separated American woman. Then he gets a telegraph from his parents that Udayan is dead, killed by soldiers in front of his family, and he returns home to Calcutta immediately.

There he finds the empty shells of his parents and the sad, angry, and pregnant wife of his brother. Udayan married Gauri, an intellectual and politically active university student, without the permission of either of their parents, and while she has the right to live with her in-laws after her husband's death, she is not welcome. Subhash does one of the only unexpected and risky things of his life, and asks Gauri to marry him, come to the United States, and allow him to raise Udayan's child as his own. She can continue her studies in philosophy in the U. S.

And then things go on and on and on. Gauri has her daughter, who is the one bright spot in the neutral and isolated life of Subhash, but there are very few bright spots or connections for any of the characters in this book that continues to follow Subhash and his family through to their retirements and old age.

Sounds like a real fun read, right? Luckily, with Lahiri at the helm, it really kind of is. The amount of control she exerts over the narrative -- never letting the intense and tragic things become too forceful, or the neutral and isolated sections become too dull -- is impressive and engaging. The crossing back and forth between Bengali and American cultures gives movement to a narrative that is locked into the resignation of the characters and their inability to change, even when they want to. These characters are straightforward and open to the reader in a way that they aren't to each other or, really, to themselves, and that puts us in a unique perspective on these sad, long, isolated, but really not that unique, lives. This is a pretty literary book, but a very readable one as well. Definitely give this one a chance.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010)

I picked up this copy of Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010) on a family trip to San Antonio when we went to check out The Twig bookstore at the old Pearl Brewery (highly recommended!). It seemed like an appropriate souvenir for a fan of crime fiction and Texas.

This book follows the same format as the other "LOCATION Noir" books put out by Akashic Books. An editor from the city, state, or country in question brings together an anthology of contemporary crime fiction (defined pretty broadly) that all takes place in that location, and that is usually written by authors that live there.

I read another title from this series (Helsinki Noir) earlier this year, and maybe I'm just more Texan than Finnish, but I liked the Lone Star Noir anthology quite a bit more.

The Byrds bring together a diverse group of authors (including quite a few women) that set their stories throughout the state. This book gives the reader a combination of traditional hard-boiled crime fiction, unsettling dark stories, and a few pretty disturbing tales. Everything here is really well written and I appreciated the variety in backgrounds and formats.

I'm definitely interested in picking up more books from this series, partly because I just like crime fiction, but also because they give you such a neat look at a place through the lens of a specific genre. You don't have to be from Texas to like this writing -- it's just good writing! -- but living in Texas gives another layer to the collection that I really liked. Plus the title is extremely fun to say.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Lifetime of Secrets: A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren (2007)

My latest pick from the St. Denis bookshelf was A Lifetime of Secrets:  A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren (2007). This is the fourth published PostSecret book by Warren (there are now almost a dozen!), containing postcards with secrets (or "secrets") from contributors to his website / art project

The book is a nicely produced, full-color hardcover that gives the secrets a heft and purpose that is missing from the website. Like the site, the book includes a wide variety of sad, angry, funny, vague, and intriguing cards. Also like the site, it all gets a little old after awhile, but just when you are ready to close the book for good, a unique card will pop out at you. Like many people, I imagine, I used to follow the PostSecret blog pretty regularly. It's been awhile, though. In fact, I was a little surprised to see that it is apparently still going strong. Obviously this kind of anonymous and artistic postal sharing is filling a need for both the submitters and the readers.

I can't say this was my favorite read ever, but it was relatively fun to flip through and brought me back to the early days of the blogosphere when this kind of thing seemed pretty special and subversive.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982)

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982) is my next selection from Harold Bloom's western canon list, one of the longest reading challenges I've ever undertaken. At the rate I'm going, I might get through about 10% of the titles.

The book is a series of seven interconnected stories, all focusing on a run down housing development called Brewster Place in an unnamed city. The buildings are old and press up against an unnatural wall that was put in after the city developed the major road next to the buildings. The wall isolates the complex, but also protects it. The development has housed lots of different groups of people over the years and is now a part of the African-American community.

The women in the stories are different ages and come from different circumstances, but they are all pretty poor, and are usually trying to get out of there to live somewhere else. Still, they form a community that loves and hates and obsesses and criticizes and cares for one another. I liked some stories better than others, but all of them have a strong voice and a movement to them that really makes them a part of the whole. And the ending. OMG the ending is one of the best endings I've ever read. I'm an endings person, and a good one can wash over all the small flaws in a book.

This was Naylor's first novel and she won the National Book Award for it. Some of you may recognize this title from the very popular Oprah Winfrey produced / starring mini-series from 1989. If I watched it when I was a kid, I don't remember, but I'd love to check it out after reading the book. From YouTube it looks like it might be on the corny side, but I'd still love to see what they do with some of these characters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966)

My next trip through the unread books on my extremely full bookshelves is the anthology Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966) that I bought at a library book sale. The volume contains four late nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century full-length plays, each of which lives up to the name of melodrama, although some are greater than others. The reader also gets a lovely introduction by Vincent Price (!!), where he briefly, but eruditely, talks about his experience playing the villain in Angel Street, and the differences for an actor when playing melodramatic roles (a type of role that Price obviously enjoyed). Here's a bit about each play:

Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, as adapted by Charles Fechter (1868)
Fetcher was a famous nineteenth century British actor (via France) who adapted Dumas’ tale of the ultimate revenge plot for the stage. This one was my least favorite of the four, having read The Count of Monte Cristo, and not particularly adoring Fechter’s pretty drastic changes. Still, if you were only tangentially familiar with the novel, you might get into this one. It was a semi-hit on the stage for Fechter, but saw greater acclaim after his death when James O’Neill (the father of Eugene) played the role for many years.

Secret Service by William Gillette (1895)
This Civil War melodrama was written by the actor / inventor / playwright and extremely fascinating guy, William Gillette. Gillette is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage after writing a Doyle-authorized play about Holmes and Watson to meet public demand for the enigmatic detective after the sad death of Holmes in The Final Problem (don’t worry, he came back to life later). Gillette is the one who gave Holmes his distinctive pipe and his original catch phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” He also invented several much used stage effects and equipment, and wrote several melodramas, including Secret Service.

This play was extremely successful and Gillette played the lead role in it over 1,500 times. It was made into a film version in 1931 and again as a filmed play in 1976 starring John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. The play turns on a romance between a Confederate officer and a lovely young woman in Richmond during the civil war. Unfortunately, the officer is suspected of being a Union spy – but is love stronger than loyalty to a cause? There is, as you might imagine, some pretty cringey racial attitudes in this play, which is unfortunate because the action is pretty amazing. The scene with the telegraph practically jumps off the page. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but if any scene about sending a telegraph has ever been dramatic and exciting, it’s this one. You can read some details of the plot at this very nicely researched movie review, or read the whole play here.

The Letter by William Somerset Maugham (1927)
Maugham based this play on one of his short stories, and it literally starts with a bang when a woman fires a gun, a man yells “Oh my God!” and the woman shoots him again and again and again. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, and the man is their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie claims Geoffrey tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense, and she is taken into custody as a matter of procedure. It looks like a clear-cut case until a letter comes into play that casts some doubts on Leslie’s story. The action takes place in a British colony on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and, much like Secret Service, there is racist dialogue and plot points in the play. Still, Leslie is a pretty intriguing character, and the audience isn’t always sure who they should believe (or root for). This was made into a 1940 film starring Bette Davis and it looks suitably melodramatic.

Angel Street (aka Gas Light) by Patrick Hamilton (1938)
All the action in this play takes place in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The wife seems nervous and overly concerned with how the husband is feeling. The husband is confident and brash. Gradually the audience notices a pattern where the husband promises a reward (theater tickets, a nice dinner) and then takes it away due to the wife saying a wrong word or reacting in the wrong way. A big scene is made over a painting that has been taken off the wall, even though the wife denies having moved it. When the husband finds it behind the cupboard, he insists that she must be losing her mind, just like her mother. After he leaves for the evening, a strange man shows up – he’s a detective, and he has some very interesting information for Mrs. Manningham about her husband’s past life and his late night activities. This one was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Berman, and is probably even more famous nowadays as the inspiration for the term “gaslighting” to describe the same kind of mental abuse Mrs. Manningham experiences in the play.

I would have loved to see Vincent Price in this one

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005)

My next J. St. D. read is Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005) ["Mystery Man of the Twentieth Century!"]. I had never heard of Arthur Cravan before, and he may just be one of the most unusual, vague, and frustrating historical figures I've read about. Rick Geary's proven way with odd historical figures (particularly his series on historical assassins / serial killers) is a perfect match for this crazy life story.

In fact, give yourself a second and check out Arthur Cravan's wikipedia page. And just try to stop yourself from falling into an internet research hole with the whole Cravan mythology. It's irresistible! Cravan described himself as "a poet, professor, boxer, dandy, flâneur, forger, critic, sailor, prospector, card sharper, lumberjack, bricoleur, thief, editor [and] chauffeur" (cited here), and at least half of those things are actually true! He made a name for himself in the Dada art scene, he rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, he had sooooo many adventures, and then he mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Mexico when he was 31, leaving his pregnant bohemian wife behind. Or did he actually die after all? Much of the fun of the Cravan mythology centers around that controversy, and Geary and Richardson do a good job of explaining the many what if's (which also include a nice John Huston cameo!).

While the graphic novel doesn't slavishly follow every known detail of Cravan's life exactly, it definitely gives you a taste of the man and his world. And it's a damn fun read.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998)

My dear Dr. Mystery bought this copy of Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998) from the author herself when we were on one of her ghost tours of San Antonio as part of an archives conference I was attending. The tour was a little silly, but in a nice way, and Ms. Williams was a wonderful and enthusiastic host.

Although that was nearly ten years ago, I've finally gotten around to doing more than just skimming through the book. Now, I'm not going to say this is a great book or even that anyone interested in ghosts or Texas should read it, but if you are a combination of interested in ghost stories, interested in Texas history, good-natured about Texas ladies of a certain generation, and patient enough to handle a little repetition, this is a pretty fun read.

Williams interviewed people from all over the state who witnessed ghosts or unexplained phenomena at their properties. She combines these first-hand accounts with extensive research in local newspapers and, in some cases, in-person visits to the properties themselves. The book is organized by region and covers the entire state, although the majority of the stories come from the Dallas and San Antonio areas. As an archivist, the background research she did on small Texas towns and their historic properties is probably the most interesting part of the book, and Williams includes photographs that help illustrate the locations. While the stories themselves generally fall into a few preset categories (strange noises! cold spots! smell of perfume! seeing a woman wearing old fashioned clothes! things disappearing and reappearing!) some of them stand out from the crowd a bit and there is always enough variety to keep things a little interesting.

My one big criticism is Williams descriptions of people held under slavery (characterized more as "servants" with much of the cruelty glossed over or ignored) and Native American tribes (seen only as terrorizing bad guys who threatened the safety of the white settlers). This doesn't come up in every story but it made me cringe a little every time it did. This isn't unusual or even bad-intentioned, but it does date the author and take away from the impact of some of the tales.

To end things on a positive note, I'm going to share one of Williams' ghost poems, which are sprinkled throughout the book. She read several of these on our ghost tour and they were so sweet that Dr. M and I still quote one of them all the time ("At the Inn they call the Menger..."):

"Ghosts" by Docia Williams

Ghosts fly high... and ghosts fly low...
Where they come from we don't know...
Ghosts take off in roaring flight,
Most often in the dead of night.
They're often felt in spots of cold,
You feel their presence, we've been told. 
Some are large, and some are small,
Some, merely shadows on the wall.
Some are friendly, some are bad...
Some are playful, others sad.
They're often heard, on creaking floors,
Opening windows, slamming doors!
Wails and moans they sometimes make,
Making us poor mortals quake!
They like all kinds of dreary places,
Houses, churches, and open spaces....
Sometimes they swell in mist and fold, 
They're heard, we're told, in howls of dogs....
Some, balls of fire seen in the night,
All in black, or dressed in white; 
Some show a glimpse of shadowy faces,
Then, they're gone. They leave no traces
To ever let us mortals know
Where they come from... or where they go....

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008)

I read most of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008) in a place I've never read a book before -- as Kindle book on my tablet in a series of airports and Airbnb apartments on our trip to Belgium last month.

I read this book as part of my Debbie Downer (only sad books) book club, and we selected it right around the time of the Baltimore uprising surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray, when we were all feeling pretty sad and overwhelmed by the spiral of police violence against African Americans (which has, you know, not really gotten much better in the past four months). At the time, Coates newest book, Between the World and Me, hadn't come out yet, and in retrospect it would (probably) have been a better choice for this book club. Not that sad things don't happen in The Beautiful Struggle, because they do, but I think the ultimate mood of the book celebrates Coates' family and childhood and its positive effect on his profession and worldview.

Coates was raised in Baltimore by his father, a former Black Panther turned librarian at Howard University who also ran his own press promoting classic African and African-American writings, and his mother, a teacher. His father had seven kids with four women, including one other boy with Coates' mother. The other half-siblings would sometimes live with Coates and his mom and dad, and sometimes live with their mothers. One older half-brother in particular, nicknamed Big Bill, was particularly close to Coates and becomes one of the fulcrums of this memoir. Their upbringing was strict, grounded in literature, history, a deep awareness of the continued effect of slavery on the lives of African-Americans, and the importance of their African heritage.

For much of his childhood, Coates lived in a rough area of Baltimore, right at the height of the crack epidemic. He understood that the streets were hard and demanded him to be hard too, although he didn't find that easy, being kind of a goofy, intellectual kid. His brother, Big Bill, on the other hand, took more naturally to that toughness, which moved him quickly out of the intellectual and Black Consciousness world of his father (and to a certain extent, Coates) and into a more common world of guns, drugs, and fights.

Both Bill and Ta-Nehisi eventually reach the age of 18, the age at which their father has told them they are on their own. And they are. Both get a full ride to Howard University (Bill because their father worked there, Ta-Nehisi [after their father left Howard to become a full-time publisher] because of the tenacity of his mother. The book ends as Ta-Nehisi begins his adult life, going on to become an established journalist, extremely excellent Twitterer, and the author of (so far) two very popular monographs.

This is a hard book to write about as a 38-year-old middle class white woman from Nebraska. I'm such a fan of Coates and so interested in reading about his experiences, but I feel like to reflect on them or even pick out anecdotes to describe the memoir is somewhere between pointless and clueless. Reading this book in Belgium made me feel even more complicated about the memoir, like I was at a three time remove from the action instead of just the two times that I usually am. Following Coates on Twitter makes the book even harder to respond to without cringing a little. What on earth would he tweet about this review?

I did like this book -- Coates has a lyrical writing style that really fits the coming of age narrative, and his adult-tinged observations on the actions of his parents and their friends strike just the right balance without being too knowing. The book is a great supplement (or antidote?) to the Baltimore of The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street.  I feel like I'm starting to babble, and that's probably a good time to wrap things up. The bottom line is that this really is an interesting book and a very literary and enjoyable memoir. You just might not know what to say when someone asks you about it.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011)

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011) was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine and then reworked for publication in 2011. It tells the story of our isolated and neurotic leads, Marshall and Natalie, who are set up on a blind date by mutual friends. Both of them are coming out of rough break ups of long term relationships, the back story of which is revealed through the course of the book. Marshall is our narrator and his frequent interior monologues bump on top of Natalie's dialogue in a perfect Peep Show-esque neurotic dude manner. His anger and Natalie's odd fragility set the stage for some awkward and sometimes humorous (in a very dark way) action that leads to a rather satisfying conclusion.

If you like Clowes (and what asshole doesn't?) this will not disappoint. The characterization and drawing are excellent, and he really takes advantage of the unusual horizontal shape of the page. As is often the case with Clowes, the characters are a perfect combination of the uncomfortably familiar (I'm just like that!) and the weirdly exotic (no one is really like that!) that leaves you feeling both squirmy and relieved. And, as is often the case with Clowes, I loved every frame.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962) is the ninth novel in his James Bond series and by far the least beloved.

Unusually, the book is narrated in the first person by a female character, Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman recently back in the Americas after an eventful five years "coming out" in London. She is taking some time to relax and rediscover herself by riding a motor scooter down the east cost from Montreal to Florida. Along the way she stumbles into a job working for a couple of weeks at an isolated motor lodge in the Adirondacks. The couple who act as the caretakers decide to take off on the last day of the season and leave Vivienne to close up the lodge and wait for the owner to come lock everything up the next day.

Viv is actually pretty excited about getting some alone time and spends the first third of the book sipping on some scotch and remembering her sexual and romantic past in London (which is given in great detail, to benefit the reader). After losing her virginity to a boyfriend who dumped her as soon as she put out, Viv finds herself romantically involved with her German colleague at a newspaper. At least she though it was romantic. When she finds out she's accidentally become pregnant, he very efficiently gives her money and instructions to go to Switzerland for an abortion, and then fires her from the newspaper. No wonder she needed a vacation.

Back at the travel lodge, two muscley dudes knock on the door and say they were sent by the owner to inventory the property. Viv doesn't like the look of them, but they have enough details that she lets them in. Unfortunately, they are as untrustworthy as they look and almost immediately start harassing and threatening her and then beat her up when she tries to fight back. Things escalate gruesomely, but just when they are about to follow through on their repeated threats to rape her, who should knock on the door but James Bond!

Bond just happened to be driving through the isolated Adirondacks when he got a flat tire right in front of the motor lodge. The heavies force Viv to act natural, but she is able to convey to the wary Bond that she is in trouble. He pretends to buy the inventory story and he and Viv talk quietly while she makes him some eggs and bacon. He gives a really weird run down of his most recent adventure fighting Russian spies in Toronto and he is ALSO now just taking a break by driving down the east coast. After everyone goes to bed, the bad guys try to kill Bond and Viv (and think they have succeeded) and then burn down the motor lodge for the insurance money. Gun play, fire, and lots of action ensue. Then Vivienne and James Bond sleep together in a part of the motor lodge that is not on fire and, as she describes the love making and her reactions to it, she gives us the regrettable line: "All women love semi-rape." That should be qualified that they love semi-rape when it is James Bond doing it, apparently. Viv has completely fallen for Bond but knows that he is the kind of man that can't be tied down so is not surprised when he is gone by the time she wakes up. He has also called the police and smoothed everything over using his government connections, even swinging it so that Viv gets a reward from the insurance company for discovering the plot.

When it was published, the book was immediately panned and Fleming tried to stop its distribution in London. He also refused to give film rights to anything but the title, so the movie of this name with Roger Moore has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Some reviews I've read online really bash this book for the sexism and the "semi-rape" line and, while that obviously isn't great, this was 1962 and the book was written for (male) fans of spy novels, not 21st century women. I actually thought having the first person narrative from a woman was pretty edgy and interesting for the genre, although it obviously didn't work out for Fleming, and the sexism and rape stuff isn't anything more intense than you'd find in a Jacqueline Susann novel. Like her or not, Vivienne is a relatively well-rounded character -- if anyone in the book seems one dimensional and tacked on, it's James Bond, who comes in deus ex machina-style, squeezes in his spy story as an awkward aside, and then shoots some people, has sex, and leaves. I wouldn't recommend this one for everybody, but if you like some highly dated pulpy reading, you could probably do worse.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

STAPLE roundup: Everything else

In addition to the Jack: Adventures in Texas' Big Bend comics by Chris Ruggia and some truly fun movie monster and cats in movies prints I bought for framing and gifts, these three comics are the rest of my haul from the 2015 STAPLE! expo in Austin earlier this year.

The first is a tiny little comic called Kitten Apocalypse by Meg Has Issues. Obviously I could not resist buying this one from Meg when it caught my eye as I trudged through the gauntlet of tables, and it completely lives up to its title.What happens when the adorable kittens rise up and start attacking us all? It is just as cute and disgusting as you might imagine.

The second was a free giveaway, the first volume of the Kickstarter-funded Holli Hoxxx triology, put out by local press Bogus Publishing. These guys had a very outgoing table style and it was easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. While I didn't buy anything at their table, my cousin did, and we both got a copy of this free, full-color, nicely printed comic. I didn't have high hopes for anything too amazing, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this post-apocalyptic, kick-ass girl hero story. If I see the other volumes of the trilogy around, I'll definitely pick them up. Nice drawing style, good storytelling, and sexy but not sexist heroine. Nice job, dudes!

Finally, we come to the most polished of this last batch, When We Were Kids by Andy Warner. This is a really well done collection of three coming-of-age vignettes. Warner has a really engaging drawing style and a nice sense of pacing and storytelling. Coming-of-age stories are one of my favorite genres, and this one did not disappoint. Warner was also really interesting to talk to, and I hope I run into his table again in the future to buy some more of his work.

Yay comics!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson (2014)

As a big crime fiction / noir-y stuff fan, I'm pretty excited about the extensive regionally-based "Noir" series, part of which is the book Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson (2014), which I recently finished. Each book consists of a series of short stories that take place in (and are usually by authors from) a specific region. In this case, the Helsinki area in Finland. (As an aside, I recently bought a copy of Lone Star Noir and I'm really excited about some Texas-based crime stories. More on that later.)

I don't know much about Finland except for what I've seen through the movies of Aki Kaurismaki which bring to mind lots of drinking, cold ice and snow, general depression, and a seriously dark sense of humor. The stories in the book pretty much all back that up, although some of them travel to a ritzy side of Helsinki that Kaurismaki doesn't really use in his films.

To be honest, some of these stories were a little rough even for me -- particularly the ones that included some sexual violence. Although there was generally some kind of revenge / divine retribution, being in a narrative with a really horrible character can get a little old. The best stories were those that relied on a solidly written detective character (particularly Leena Lehtolainen's "Kiss of Santa" and Jarkko Sipila's "Silent Night." [Also, Finnish names are really weird, guys.] A few of the stories were originally written in English, but most were translated from Finnish for this book. The editor notes in his preface that Finnish authors don't usually see a lot of crossover appeal because there is something unusual about Finland that just doesn't translate to other cultures. I could definitely see a little bit of that here, but that oddness and untranslatability often added to the creepy noir feeling of the stories. 

[Note: I received a review copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers group.]

Friday, July 03, 2015

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams (2009)

I won this copy of Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams (2009) in a raffle about a year ago and, even though it didn't seem like the kind of book I'd really like at all, I read it because I am a ridiculous woman.

Cam O'Mara is 14 and lives with his family on a ranch in Nevada. His whole life he has admired / been jealous of his older brother Ben who carried on the family tradition of championship bull riding. Cam has decided he does not ride bulls, even if he is an O'Mara. He skateboards instead.

Then Ben joins the marines, along with several other recent high school graduates from their small town. This only makes everyone more proud of Ben, including Cam. But after coming home for leave and heading back to Iraq, Ben's convoy hits an IED and he loses his arm and sustains a traumatic brain injury. He comes home after a long time in various hospitals, but he is depressed and angry, and not the same golden big brother that Cam knew before.

As he is dealing with his brother's injuries and his parents' grief and stress, Cam starts hanging out at the bull pens with some of Ben's friends. He ultimately finds himself goaded onto a bull and discovers that he has the O'Mara talent for bull riding. Eventually he comes up with the idea that he should ride Ugly, a famously rough bull that is touring the riding circuit with a promise of a $15,000 for any rider that can stay on him for more than 8 seconds. If he can conquer the bull, Cam reasons, Ben can work through his physical therapy and find a way to use his talents that doesn't involve bull riding or being a Marine. Plus the $15,000 will help his parents out with all their mounting expenses.

So, yeah: this is a young adult novel, for boys, with a patriotic / military theme, and bull riding. None of which am I super into. And yet, this book was really good! Williams has a good sense of character and dialogue, and the story as it is told from Cam's perspective is both interesting and moving. The patriotic stuff is definitely there, but focused on supporting the troops (both overseas and veterans at home) and not necessarily supporting the war. In fact, Williams leaves room for a lot of questioning there. And the bull riding stuff is exciting! I think this would be a great book for a teenager dealing with a family member who was injured during military service, but it was also a pretty great read for a non bull-riding 38 year old woman. I love it when my expectations are all turned around!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository by Christina Zamon (2012)

A little light professional reading sometimes sneaks into my pile, and that was exactly the case with The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository by Christina Zamon (2012). Archivists refer to themselves as "Lone Arrangers" if they, like me, are a one-person outfit. Aren't archivists hilarious?

In this book, Zamon seeks to give an overview of all the different aspects of running an archive (setting up policies, collecting material, providing access, controlling the environment, processing and describing collections, doing outreach, and more), but with an eye towards adapting the usual archival best practices to the reality of a one-person shop with a small budget.

This book came out of Zamon's leadership with the Society of American Archivists Lone Arrangers Roundtable, and she was able to bring in case studies from many of the roundtable members to add different perspectives to her text. Her experience as a lone arranger makes her well qualified to write an overview book like this one, and it was so refreshing to read some professional literature that spoke to the realities of a small repository like mine (yes, I know archival theory and best practices and ideal procedures, but those seldom work when you don't have enough time or money to implement them). While some of the chapters were shorter than I would have liked, I think the length and pacing was just right for this kind of overview. I'd love to see some more in-depth pieces on different aspects of archival enterprise from a lone arranger perspective sometime. Maybe we can get a sequel!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Best American Comics 2008, edited by Lynda Barry (2008)

My latest read from the St. Denis bookshelf is The Best American Comics 2008, edited by Lynda Barry (2008), another in the extremely satisfying "Best American Comics" anthology series.

As with the other volume of this series that I've read, the anthology brings together a nice mix of familiar names (Ware, Barry, Geary, Bechdel, Groening, Derf), and a sprinkling of enjoyable new artists. Barry, true to form, presents her introduction as a comic where she leads us through her changing relationship with comics and art and the importance of the much-maligned comic strip in the world of "Graphic Novels" (especially for the children of today who will become the artists and readers of the future).

That being said, some of the entries in this volume were a little too comic strippy for this graphic novel devotee to really get into, especially without a little more context for the characters in the strips. I did come away with some new (to me) artists that I'd like to check out more of, including Nick Bertozzi, Lilli Carré ("The Thing About Madeline" was one of my favorite pieces in the book), Jason Lutes, and Sarah Oleksyk.

What can I say -- anthologies are fun, and anthologies of comics are even funner. 2008, you were a pretty good year (comically).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jack: Adventures in Texas' Big Bend by Chris Ruggia (2010-2014)

I picked up the three volume set of Jack: Adventures in Texas' Big Bend by Chris Ruggia (2010-2014) from the author at Austin's STAPLE! convention this past spring and I'm so glad I did!

Ruggia lives in Alpine, Texas and through his experiences in the region crafted these adventures of Jack (a non-native jackrabbit who finds himself in Big Bend due to some unusual circumstances) and his new friend Mel, an extremely extroverted and charming kangaroo rat with a very big imagination. In the course of their time together they come across predators, friends, rainstorms, vegetation, and, of course, some serious adventures. Ruggia ends each volume with a scientific look at the real flora and fauna that make up the fascinating Big Bend region. The straightforward and compelling drawings and nice paced stories seal the deal: these are really fun comics that work equally well for adults or kids.

Find out more or buy your own on Ruggia's site here:

Support a great Texas artist and storyteller and learn about Big Bend at the same time -- you can't go wrong!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Austin's First Cookbook: Our Home Recipes, Remedies and Rules of Thumb by Michael C. Miller (2015)

I really couldn't be happier with Austin's First Cookbook: Our Home Recipes, Remedies and Rules of Thumb by Michael C. Miller (2015) [in partnership with the Austin History Center], and not just because Mike is a fellow-archivist and good friend.

When Mike and his colleagues were researching an exhibit on early foodways in Austin, they came across an intriguing book in their collection, the Our Home Cookbook compiled by the women of the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church as a fundraiser in 1891. Few other libraries held the book, the earliest known published cookbook from Austin, and the copy at the Austin History Center was very fragile, but filled with fascinating information reflecting the lives and values of the women who put it together. Mike and his publisher decided to reprint the volume, including all the penciled in notes from its previous owners, in order to share the history with the Austin community (and beyond!).

To add to the fun, Mike wrote a well-researched introduction delving into Austin life in the 1890s and the biographies of about a dozen of the women who contributed recipes. Rounding things off are an essay on the history of cookbooks in Austin and an exhaustive bibliography of every cookbook written, published, or about Austin, Texas. The beginning and concluding essays include lots of historic photographs, reproduced from the collections at the Austin History Center.

The book is nicely printed and the reproduced cookbook is crisply scanned and easy to read. The recipes are fascinatingly vague, sometimes pretty gross sounding, and often intriguing (you can broil deviled eggs?). If you buy this, you will never need another recipe for fruit cake! An unexpectedly fascinating part of the cookbook are the many ads that local businesses put at the beginning and end of the publication, a common practice at the time, which give a little more flavor to this piece of Austin history (see what I did there?).

Y'all. Go buy this book. All proceeds benefit the Austin History Center, and you will get some serious enjoyment from it. Great job, Mike!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Drifting by Katia D. Ulysse (2014)

Drifting (2014) is the debut novel by Hatian-American author, Katia D. Ulysse. Although to call it a novel might be a little misleading. This book deftly straddles the line between the narrative focus of a novel and the variety and pacing of a collection of short stories.

Through a group of interconnected narratives, Ulysse tells the stories of Haitian women and girls, both in Haiti and after their often complicated immigrations to the United States. These are hard stories and rough journeys, but the wholeness of the characters and the richness of even the briefly described relationships brings in a wave of humanity and joy. Her emphasis on female friendships, both for girls and grown women is particularly moving and serves as a backdrop for the often pretty horrible other parts of the character's lives.

Ulysse is one of the strongest new writers I've read in a long time, and this book is both powerful and extremely readable. I haven't read many Haitian writers beyond Edwidge Danticat and reading Ulysse's book made me want to revisit what I'd already read and go out to find even more. You will like this book, y'all.

[Note: I received this review copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.]

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (2005)

My latest selection from the St. Denis bookshelf in exile is Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (2005). I read Persepolis for my DAFFODILS book club several years ago and really enjoyed it and its perspective on the experiences of Iranian women, so checking out another one of Satrapi's books sounded like fun.

This brief graphic novel collects together the various sexual and romantic exploits of a group of Iranian women told as they gather to gossip and drink tea while the men nap after a big family gathering. The individual vignettes are charming and Satrapi's cartoony, expressive style works very well in this context. The book as a whole, though, is pretty thin, and there isn't much here in the way of character development or depth. Still, spending a half an hour reading the stories of these funny, endearing women, isn't a bad way to spend your time.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

One Act: Eleven Short Plays of the Modern Theatre, edited by Samuel Moon (1961)

I am working on a plan to actually read all the books on my bookshelves that I haven't read yet. We'll see how far I get, but for now I've started with the very first one: One Act: Eleven Short Plays of the Modern Theatre, edited by Samuel Moon (1961).

I bought this at a book sale at the library where I work -- we had purchased it for the collection in 1968 and, according to the catalog card in the back, it didn't circulate one time between then and when the library was automated in the mid-1990s. I guess budding theologians don't think they need to read these intriguing lesser-known jewels by some of Western literature's best playwrights, but they were really missing out!

It had been awhile since I read a play, and a really long time since I sat down and read a one-act play. I forgot how much fun they are -- just like a short story, the author needs to fit a lot into a small space, and also like a short story, that constraint allows for a lot of experimentation and surprising depth.

I enjoyed all of these plays (full title list: Miss Julie, August Strindberg; Purgatory, William Butler Yeats; The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, Luigi Pirandello; Pullman Car Hiawatha, Thornton Wilder; Hello Out There, William Saroyan; 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Tennessee Williams; Bedtime Story, Sean O'Casey; Cecile, Jean Anouilh; This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters, Archibald MacLeish; A Memory of Two Mondays, Arthur Miller; The Chairs, Eugene Ionesco), but the two that grabbed me the most were probably Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (which he later developed into the script for Baby Doll -- I really want to watch this version sometime) and Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays (why look, an amazing YouTube version of this one is available as well, along with a neat introduction by Miller himself).

Interestingly, with the exception of Miss Julie and a few of the other plays, the majority of these works were written less than ten years before they were brought together in this collection. I like the contemporary old-school theatre feeling the collection has and the plays really work well together as  a group.

Here's to reading all those books on all our shelves!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

My sad books only book club (go, Debbie Downers!) recently read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), the second Ishiguro book I've read (after The Remains of the Day).

I'm going to go with the idea that most people have either read this book or seen the movie, but if you haven't and you care about spoilers, there are some spoilers ahead.

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are childhood friends at an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside called Hailsham. We see their spats and friendships and growth through the eyes of our narrator, the grown up Kathy. While much seems just like you would expect it to be, little things start sticking out as strange, and Kathy's adult perspective hints that this isn't a normal boarding school. No one has any parents, they learn that none of them can have children, and from rumors and things the Guardians have said, everyone becomes aware that they need to stay very healthy because when they grow up their organs will be harvested for transplants. They spend a lot of their time making artwork and writing poetry that is sometimes collected up and taken away. No one ever leaves the grounds of the school. Ruth and Tommy become a couple, and Kathy and Ruth stay close friends (even though Ruth seems very hard to be friends with), but nothing is ever as relaxed as it could be, especially since adulthood is a kind of mysterious obligation.

When the children become teenagers they follow the footsteps of other Hailsham residents and move into The Cottages where they have a little more freedom and mix with other people their age that didn't grow up in a boarding house. The love triangle relationship between the three friends continues to complicate, with the added pressure of really living into their reality as clones (because that, we learn, is what they are). All the residents of The Cottages ultimately seem to voluntarily isolate themselves and then slide into their training as Carers (who shepherd around other clones through the surgery and healing process), and donors, who have 3 or maybe 4 operations before "completing."

As adults, all three try to be Carers, but only Kathy really has the disposition for it. And she is very good at it. So good, in fact, that she is sometimes allowed to choose her own patients. This allows her to get back in touch with Ruth and Tommy, both of whom have had multiple operations. The love and friendship between the three of them reblooms and things come to a head when Kathy and Tommy try to find a loophole in the life of a clone so that they can be together. Since we read this for the sad book book club, I guess you can imagine how things end up.

I saw the movie before reading the book, so I was already in on the conceit from the beginning. That let me pick up on a lot of things that I might have missed if I was reading it with fresh eyes, but I'd be interested to see how it reads for someone who wasn't familiar with the plot going in.

A quick Google search shows me that I've read Ishiguro's two most popular books, but I'd really like to check out some of his other, less hyped, books as well. In both this book and The Remains of the Day we have a solitary narrator looking back at their life with studied and controlled regret. We can't believe everything they say and, for Kathy especially, they don't even know if they are remembering things right themselves. That distance and doubt makes for a very compelling narration. There is something cool and studied about Ishiguro that really draws me in as a reader, and I'm wondering if that holds true in his other, less single-character novels.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Managing Copyright in Higher Education: A Guidebook by Donna L. Ferullo (2014)

I read a copy of Managing Copyright in Higher Education: A Guidebook by Donna L. Ferullo (2014), since I do a lot of the copyright management at my work.

Ferullo's book is useful in that it covers aspects of copyright management outside of library / classroom use, which is unusual for this kind of book. Ultimately, however, I didn't find it to be very readable or easy to access as a reference text.

The book is divided into sections by area of administration (students, faculty, staff, etc.), and while there is an index, the large chunks of text without many section dividers or bullet points, makes the content a little hard to digest or refer back to later.

I was particularly confused about the author's choice to include an illustration of the three branches of the federal government (something that didn't really need to be illustrated anyway) with a figure taken from For a book with hardly any illustrations, graphs, or figures at all, this particular illustration seemed random and ill-suited to the audience.

Someone without much of a background in copyright would likely find some helpful tips in this book, but as someone who has done a lot of reading and taken some classes on the topic, I didn't find much here that I could use.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Rick Steves' Pocket Amsterdam by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw (2014)

As part of our first-ever European travel and extremely exciting trip to Belgium this summer, we are going to do a quick one overnight trip to Amsterdam with our friends. In preparation for something like 36 hours in Amsterdam, I thought I'd get a guidebook, but one that matched the amount of time we'd be spending in that fair city. Rick Steves' Pocket Amsterdam by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw (2014) fit the bill perfectly.

Although you really could fit this guidebook in your pocket if you really wanted to, Steves manages to cram it full of a lot of information and not make anything seem too skimpy. Generous with maps and color photographs, the guide gives an overview of attractions, walking tours through various neighborhoods, and a pretty helpful seeming set of tips and recommendations.

Amsterdam seems lovely, and while I'm sure I could happily spend much more than 36 hours there, this guidebook should help me make the most of the hours I've got. [And, because I'm a nerd, I'm going to spend at least part of one of those hours here.]

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

Our latest DAFFODILS selection is the uncharacteristically classic novel The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860), and I'm not sad about that at all since I really liked Adam Bede and Silas Marner and I wrote a paper on George Eliot's life when I was in college.

The Mill on the Floss follows the tragic saga of the Tulliver family, with a focus on the daughter, Maggie. Mr. Tulliver owns a mill that has been in his family for generations. He married well to the mildest of the regionally respected Dodson sisters, and they have two children, Tom and Maggie. He is reasonably successful, but for a unclear reason that seems to be a mixture of pride and foolishness, he recklessly pursues legal action against his neighbors and a combination of his recklessness and the determination of a local lawyer, Mr. Wakem, he ends up losing the mill, his health, and nearly all his pride. Maggie and Tom had, up to this point, had a pretty idyllic childhood. Maggie is curious and clever (really too clever for a girl) and adores her older brother, who is more practical and less imaginative than his sister. They spat and make up and get in various kinds of trouble, generally stemming from Maggie's wild emotions and creative ideas. There is more than a little Anne of Green Gables going on with young Maggie. Prior to losing the mill, Mr. Tulliver pays to send Tom to study with a nearby churchman, at whose house Mr. Wakem's hunchbacked and sensitive son, Philip, also studies. The two very different boys fight a bit, but Maggie is fascinated by the gentle and bookish Philip. All that ends when the mill is lost and Tom must seek his fortune to pay his father's debts and save the family name.

Maggie devotes herself to a life of isolation and denial, but her passionate and headstrong nature doesn't keep her there for very long. Ultimately she finds herself grown up and very beautiful, though inexperienced. Her lovely and wealthy cousin Lucy invites her to stay with her for a summer and there she meets Lucy's suitor Stephen, and they unexpectedly fall in love. The last third of the book hinges on Maggie's tug of war between the head and the heart, although her ultimate decision after an ill-fated boat ride with Stephen turns the respectable people of the town, as well as her brother, staunchly against her. The ending of the book is shocking and pretty brutal. At first I felt cheated and didn't like it at all, but the more I think about it, the more perfect it becomes.

This isn't necessarily an easy read, like much Victorian literature the plot turns on an unfamiliar moral code and the level of description (particularly of natural features and houses) is a little off-putting. Still, the lovingly drawn (and sometimes hilarious characters) and the rush of the plot in the last third make up for any difficulty in getting into the book. Maggie's aunts, in particular, are a perfect balance of hilariously provincial and sometimes unexpectedly sweet. Much has been written about how this novel in particular draws from Eliot's life, as a dark haired, isolated, too smart for her own good woman in Victorian England who carried on a long relationship with a married man. There is a lot going on in this book and I find myself teasing back through it even now, weeks after I finished it. That sounds like a perfect recipe for a meaty book club discussion...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore (2006)

Following the format of the other "Best American" annual anthologies, The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore (2006) was the series' first dip into the world of comics.

I was happy to see that this first volume was edited by the great Harvey Pekar, and his introductory essay is worth the price of admission alone. The collection itself brings together both familiar and unfamiliar (to me) artists, and has a good mix of men and women, and new and more established writers. Some of the entries are selections from larger works that don't have the impact they could as a smaller selection, but others really worked well in the anthology format, particularly David Heatley's "Portrait of my Dad," and Jesse Reklaw's "Thirteen Cats of my Childhood."

The book itself is a well-produced hardcover of nice dimensions with high quality paper and color printing that shows off the detail in many of the submissions. While some of this collection ended up feeling a little breezy or disconnected, overall it holds together and was pretty fun to read. I'll definitely be picking up the other volumes in the series that came to me through the St. Denis graphic novel storage program.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014). As a fan of cooking, eating, and the bad boy cheffery of Anthony Bourdain, this one seemed like it would be right up my alley. And it was. Kind of.

Gibney uses the extremely effective structural conceit of 24 hours in the life of a chef, told in the second person, to organize his behind-the-scenes fine dining kind-of-memoir. In it we become (thanks to that second person perspective) the second-in-command at a fancy (but not too fancy) restaurant in the West Village. We are rising up through the ranks of chefdom and are now one of two sous chefs under the visionary creator/co-owner of our place of work. We wake up, go to work, and start checking off the millions of little things we have to do to get that high quality food on the plates.

While much of that work involves gathering, inventorying, and preparing a slew of ingredients, the really hard part is managing all the personalities and egos that are crammed into the tight kitchen. We do it though, and our camaraderie, skill, and attitude carry the day and result in another successful service. Then we go out and get shitfaced, don't sleep enough, and start all over again the next day.

Parts of this book are fascinating -- learning about how the different roles in the kitchen fit together, the organization and creativity it takes to produce interesting and consistent plates of expensive food, and the interactions between the staff really kept the book moving. Gibney is not as strong when he tries to describe some of the less tangible qualities of being a chef or his (our) lovey feelings for the girlfriend we hardly ever see since we are working so much. When he tries to be poetic, the tone gets a little goofy and the narrative runs briefly off the rails.

Personally, while I have the same shared fascination for professional chefs that seems to grab the rest of the Food Network-loving public, I have a bad attitude about expensive restaurants and food that is fancy for the sake of being fancy. This may be because I'm kind of cheap or because I don't have a lot of experience eating really fancy food, but there is something a little obscene in spending over $50 a plate for some food. This is not true, however, in the world of the fancy New York chef, and that puts a little bit of a disconnect between me and the writer. I also have very little patience for the "we work hard and we play hard" attitude as an excuse for being irresponsible and occasionally a real asshole. Of course, that macho attitude is a huge part of professional chefdom, at least in the popular media, so Gibney is not being false or untrue when he gives us this lifestyle. That still doesn't mean that I need to like it.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but with some reservations. I think the structure was great and I learned a lot, even if the writing style got in my way every once in awhile. If you are a fan of the hot dog professional chef lifestyle, then don't miss this one. If you just like cooking and eating normal food without a lot of French words and machismo, then this might not be the book for you.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World by Seth (2005)

My next dip in to the St. Denis lending library is the extremely fun to hold Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World by Seth (2005).

This graphic novel is the story of the mysterious and envied Wimbledon Green, a highly successful comic book collector with an unknown (and apparently endless) source of personal wealth to use in growing his collection. The story is primarily told not by Wimbledon himself but in a series of interviews and remembered vignettes with his friends, enemies, and acquaintances, all of whom happen to be fellow comic nerds.

Woven throughout the story are sets of covers from Green's comic collection, as well as a few vintage comic strips for the reader to enjoy. In fact, Green's own adventures often veer into classic comic book territory with their "right hand gals," rocket cars, and endless races.

Seth includes a letter to the readers at the beginning of the volume emphasizing that this book is something that developed out of his sketch book and because of that the drawings and story aren't as polished as his work usually is. In this case, I think the rough quality of the work adds to the energy of putting together the pieces of the mystery that is Wimbledon Green and Seth's obvious love for the comic book world and it's many eccentric inhabitants is enough glue to make the fragmented story hold together. A fast and very enjoyable read, with a little more meat to it than expected when you peek behind the curtain.

[I read this is a couple weeks ago, but I'm writing about it tonight having just gotten back from Staple, an annual comics/zines/print arts/etc. expo in Austin, where I got to indulge in some comic buying and some people watching. While it wasn't a comic collector type event, it definitely made me feel the love for that subculture. Plus I got some great stuff!]

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Women of Messina by Elio Vittorni (1949, 1964)

My next ride on Harold Bloom's western canon list is the Italian novel, Women of Messina by Elio Vittorini (1949, 1964, English translation 1973). I'm not going to pretend that I get all the allusions and layers of this allegorical post-war novel, but I definitely enjoyed it and understood at least some of the metaphors woven into the story.

It is just after World War II and Italy is waking up and trying to piece together a normal life. A group of men, women, and children traveling to nowhere in particular decide to leave their broken down truck and settle into a bombed out village that had been abandoned during the war. They set about clearing the mines from the fields, making communal housing in the half-standing church, and setting up a central kitchen for everyone to use. Gradually other wandering people join the first group, including some original inhabitants of the village. The villagers are successful, although their communal lifestyle isn't without its conflicts and quarrels.

At the same time, the elderly Uncle Agrippa is spending his days riding back and forth on the nation's trains, searching for his only daughter. He is a constant presence on the railroad and participates in conversations and discussions with the other people who wander the country, searching. One of his favorite travel companions is Carlos the Bald, who often entertains him with stories of the isolated villages and unusual characters he meets during his work.

The simple agrarian life of the village is disrupted when Carlos the Bald, a representative of the authorities in the city, starts coming around to the village and asking questions. He knows one of the chief villagers from partisan activity during the war and while his motivations and actions are always a little unclear, his presence is taken as a threat by the village. What really tears things apart, however, are a group of soldiers who come into the village looking to take away one of the men. While they are there, they scoff at the village's bar that serves warm beer because they don't have any refrigeration or even a regular delivery of ice. They pine for the jukeboxes and restaurants and electricity and lights and dancing of the nearby city. The villagers, living in isolation and working hard to maintain their community, have been overlooked by the technological and economic development of the bigger cities. Soon villagers start to leave and seek out the conveniences and obligations of city life, although some stay and continue to live and work in the village.

Vittorini wrote this novel in 1949, but wasn't happy with it. He pulled it from publication and spent the next 14 years revising it, until it was re-released in 1964 (and then translated into English and published here in 1973, after the author's death). This has the feeling to me of post-war Italian movies, lit by stark sunlight and framed with half-fallen walls and women pushing wheelbarrows. The author shows an obvious love for his country and his Communist ideals here, as well as some harsh criticism of the fallen Facist government and encroaching capitalism. While the themes and the metaphors are pretty dated and temporal, there is also an affection and interest in humanity and the ways we reach out to and interact with each other that gives this novel a freshness and universality that it might not otherwise have. It's also often very funny! A somewhat challenging read, but absolutely worth it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Rick Steves' Snapshot Bruges & Brussels, Including Antwerp & Ghent by Rick Steves (2011)

I'm continuing my research for our summer trip to Belgium by dipping into some good old dependable Rick Steves with Rick Steves' Snapshot Bruges & Brussels, Including Antwerp & Ghent (2011).

This volume gives a brief overview of the culture and history of Belgium and then dips into a snapshot of each of the four major cities, including a suggested walking tour, a list of sights and neighborhoods, recommended hotels and restaurants, and general travel and transportation recommendations. Included with each city are Steves' patented hand-drawn maps, which I find really appealing. It's easy to make fun of Steves' PBS-approved travel guides, but I find his writing style to be very approachable, and his tips all seem very practical and reassuring (particularly to this first-time European traveler).

We'll be spending most of our time in Ghent, which is great because that's the city that appealed to me the most in this guide. It seems much less touristy than Bruges, more academic than Antwerp, and more cozy than Brussels. Also, it is the home of the Boekentoren (oddly not covered in Steves' guide -- come on man, people love books!).  This wonderful tower of books is currently under renovation, but you can experience its wonder (and get a taste of Ghent) through this series of videos. I imagine I will still get to see some kind of library / book / bookstore action while I'm over there. Oh plus museums and canals and beer and mussels and waffles. Getting nervous/excited/pumped! Five more months!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Holy Bible, King James Version (1611), Various authors

I recently finished reading this really cool book you might have heard of: The Holy Bible, King James Version (1611) by (you know) various authors.

I got the idea of reading the entirety of the KJV in 2011 when the book had it's 400th printing anniversary. It took me a few years to get around to actually getting and starting a copy, but I got it together early last year and started my journey. By chipping away at a few pages every day, I worked my way through both the Old and New Testament (yes, even the boring parts). I'm so glad I did.

My parents aren't religious and I didn't grow up going to church at all (except for that one year we went to the Unitarian church in town), although I did read my way through some children's bibles and attended the occasional Sunday school class or church service with my grandparents or wedding of one of my mom's many cousins. My lack of familiarity with the Bible wasn't generally a problem until I went to college and became an English major. Regardless of how you feel about God and Jesus, the Bible, and particularly the King James Version of the Bible, are exceedingly influential. Writing those papers and figuring out Paradise Lost would have been way easier with a little more background informtion.

Now I'm still not a churchgoer, but I do work for a seminary and have a great affection and appreciation for theological study, pastors, and seminary students, all of which rely heavily on the Bible. If nothing else, having the experience of having read the whole damn thing lets me understand some of their jokes a little better and have at least a fighting chance of guessing if a certain book is in the Old or New Testament.

I'm not going to lie, there is some rough going in here, especially in the Old Testament. The long lists of begats and genealogies and families with unpronounceable names aren't exactly page turners. The very very detailed instructions on how to build the tabernacle and how to sacrifice what animal when get old pretty fast. And the rules. My god, the rules. Some are funny, some are horrifying, and some are just extremely dull. Of course, the OT also has a lot of battles, kings, power plays, and some truly excellent characters (Moses! David! Saul!).

I can also see why the New Testament is so appealing. When you turn that corner into the Gospels you get one of the most naturally described characters in the whole sacred text: Jesus. And hearing his story four times from four different writers just helps hammer the point home. This is a great story, a revolutionary guy, and a huge change from business as usual. I'm the first to admit that Christians have been pretty horrible over the years (I was in a meeting with an Old Testament professor who said, "the history of Christianity is basically a series of good intentions with pretty crappy results"), but the original story is refreshing, moving and absolutely some good news.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (2013)

My next dip into John's loaner bookshelf of mystery is Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (2013).

This is a side story from the extremely popular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series in which Janni Dakkar, the daughter of League character Captain Nemo, goes off on a rather convoluted and extremely Lovecraftian Antarctic pirate adventure that will prove she is just as tough as her legendary father.

Not having read any of the League books or being a particularly huge Lovecraft fan, I found this one a little hard to sink my teeth into. After a second look I got a little more out of it, but still not enough to really dig it. The drawings are expressive, the colors are great, and there's nothing wrong with the dialogue. Just, for me, a disconnect in the genre and a feeling of missing a few important pieces of information. The giant killer penguins were pretty sweet, though.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

The Debbie Downers, my "only sad books" book club, selected a real downer for our latest read, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007).

The book goes back and forth between the present and the past. First we have the story of Sarah, the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants living in Paris in 1942. The family is taken as part of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup (something I'd never really heard of before), where French police took entire families, locked them in the Vel' d'Hiv for days without food or water, then shipped them to work camps, separated the fathers from their families and then the mothers from their children, and ultimately sent everyone to Auschwitz. It is a particularly grim part of French history since the atrocities were committed not by the Nazi's, but by Frenchmen. When the police knock on Sarah's door, she hides her 4-year-old brother Michel in a secret crawlspace that they often used to play in and the police do not find him. She takes the key with her, assuming that they will be back in a few hours when the police finish with them.

Interspersed with Sarah's story, we have the story of modern-day journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia is an American who married a Parisian and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years with her husband and daughter. She has a passionate but rocky marriage that is pushed to the breaking point when she finds out she is pregnant again (at 45, after multiple miscarriages) and decides to keep the baby even though her husband does not want them to have it. Julia gets sucked into Sarah's story when she discovered that the apartment that her husband has recently inherited from his grandmother had belonged to Sarah's family when they were taken by the police in 1942. She doggedly tracks down information about the roundup and Sarah's family and brings Sarah's story into the present day.

The plot with Julia and her husband was pretty ham-fisted and the husband really couldn't be more of a one-dimensional jerk. Still, as the book moves forward, Julia becomes a more and more sympathetic character, and I found myself getting caught up in her story as much as I was in Sarah's. I've been trying really hard to figure out if this book was originally published in French or English (I'm finding contradictory information on that). de Rosnay is French, but her mother is English and she spent some of her youth in the U.S. She lives in Paris and writes in both French and English. I'm going to use the fact that English is not her primary language to excuse some of the sappy dialogue and occasionally flat phrase. Luckily the horrific plot of Sarah and her family is enough to keep the reader going through some rough spots.

Overall this is a worthwhile book, perhaps more for the historical part of its story than for its writing style or the modern half of the plot. Learning about the Vel' d'Hiv and confronting a less familiar part of the horror of the Holocaust was something that I'm glad I did. And man, it certainly fit the bill for a sad sad sad sad book.

[This was made into a movie by a French director in 2011 starring Kristin Scott-Thomas. If the trailer is anything to go by, it looks like they make the shitty husband / impending baby part of the plot pretty minor.]

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008)

This next read is another fabulous selection from the St. Denis lending library: Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008).

Like many people, I had read the original collection of Ghost World comics right around the same time Terry Zwigoff's movie came out, in 2001, and really enjoyed them. This ultra deluxe edition brings together the original comics, the screen play from the movie, annotations and essays by Clowes and Zwigoff, and lots of extra material.

Reading the comics and then immediately reading the screenplay really highlights the differences between the two stories. I don't read many screenplays, so it was fun to throw my brain into that exercise and draw connections between my memories of the movie and the experience of reading the comics all in one go. I find movie Edith a lot more sympathetic, and the ending a little softer, but I'm not sure which way I like better. Both works (the comics and the movie) are pretty great, and this is an example of the rare occurrence of both a movie and book being great, but in different ways.

I'm not sure how Clowes gets the weirdness of being a teenage girl quite right (except that maybe the weirdness of being a teenage boy isn't all that different), but he really really does. Let's all use this review as an excuse to revisit one of my favorite Aimee Mann songs, "Ghost World" (which gets in my head every time I pick up this book), and really just dig into that lonely teenage melancholy: