Monday, December 26, 2016

The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation by Justo L. González (2010)

I decided to audit the church history class at the seminary where I work this past semester, and one of the textbooks we used was The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation by Justo L. González (2010). Auditing the class was a great experience -- it was taught by one of my favorite faculty members and I got to know a bunch of the new students by serving as their "embedded librarian" and learning all the ins and outs of the early church alongside them.

Because this class covered about 1500+ years of human history, things had to move pretty fast by necessity, but having González's text to fill in some of the gaps and add a foundation to the lectures and class discussions was really helpful. I'm no Christian history expert, but I felt like this book gave me just the right amount of detail and context to explain the implications of events, without getting too lost in the weeds of historical detail. The book is well laid out and includes some pictures to break up the historical events. Starting back in the events of the New Testament, this volume takes us all the way up to the very start of the Protestant Revolution (which is picked up at the start of the second volume by González, which I'm working my way through now -- can't wait to find out what happens next!).

One thing I wasn't expecting to have to conquer in church history was a philosophical understanding of the different theological controversies that have rocked the church (and particularly the early church) over the years. I'm basically familiar with Christian theology, but my mind was a little blown when we really started digging into the Trinity and Christological interpretations. Probably will not be embedding myself into the Systematic Theology class anytime soon.

Regardless of how you feel about Christianity, there is no denying the huge impact it has had (and continues to have) on the political, cultural, and social history of the Western world. I feel like my dip into a survey of Christian history has given me a better launching pad for understanding the world around me and how it ended up this way (for good and for bad). It is also really helping stoke my fascination with the English royal family, although that shows up more in Volume two....

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Roald Dahl (1984)

I read this lovely anthology of classic ghost stories (Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (1984)) as a Halloween-themed treat for the always excellent DAFFODILS book club.

Weird, sexist, and rambley old man introduction aside (seriously, Roald Dahl, why do you have to be so beloved AND so crotchety?), this is a great collection of creepy short stories -- mostly from the 1950s, but with some intriguing earlier stories as well. My personal favorite was the one written by one of the only authors in the collection that I knew beforehand, "Afterward" by Edith Wharton. "The Telephone" by Mary Treadgold and "The Sweeper" by A.M. Burrage were also pretty great. 

As one member of the book club pointed out, the thing about an anthology of ghost stories is that you know for certain that at the end, that weird guy or beautiful woman or adorable kid on the playground is going to end up being a G-G-G-G-GHOST! I don't mind, though, as the satisfying ghost ending is all part of the fun. 

It would be perfect to follow up reading these stories with a late-night viewing of Crimson Peak... Highly recommended for anyone who likes some classic short fiction and a good (mild) scare.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015)

I got my copy of The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015), a historical fiction / romance novel, at a librarian book exchange from a fellow archivist who said she got it as a gift but would never read it. Honestly, half of me wishes I had just let this one go, but I started it, I finished it, and now I'm writing about it.

To be fair, I have really enjoyed some historical romance in the past, particularly when it involves royalty, and this story of a scrappy Bavarian duchess turned Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed like it could be a good fit. The book itself is pretty predictable and not bad enough to be a fun bad read or good enough to be a fun good read. The life of Elizabeth (known to her admirers as Sisi), however, is fascinating. Take a minute to check out her Wikipedia page. She's got some excellent mother-in-law tension, a doomed romance, a son who died in a crazy murder-suicide pact, a wild beauty routine, an independent life as a traveler, and then was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva who wanted to kill the next royal personage he saw. Plus her life overlapped with the invention of photography so we have tons of kick ass photographs of her and her beloved hair.

This particular book just goes through the first part of Elizabeth's life, through the couple's coronation in Hungary, and Pataki has already published a second book in the Sisi series that delves into more of her interesting life. (And if that name sounds familiar, Allison Pataki is indeed the daughter of George Pataki, former New York governor and ex-Republican potential presidential candidate.)

On the plus side, the descriptions of court life in Vienna and the Hungarian countryside are very well done, and the book has a nice structure that helps to give the story a little bit of a life. I mostly read this one in airports and on airplanes, and it was just about the perfect thing for that kind of reading experience (except when I ended up sitting next to a woman who had THREE royal historical romances in her carry on bag and then wanted to talk to me about how great the historical romance genre is for half of our flight).

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir (1992)

I love me some English royal history, and Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower (1992) definitely scratches that itch.

Weir sets out to review all the available evidence on the fate of the two Yorkist prices (Edward V and his brother, Richard) who went into the Tower of London during the rule of their uncle, Richard III, and were never seen again. Weir is staunchly in the "Richard did it" camp and deftly brings together centuries of documentation, interpretation, and research to bolster her claim. She also brings in some pretty sharp (and sometimes smirky) counter-arguments to those in the "Richard is innocent" camp (a centuries-long tradition).

I liked that she didn't go 100% Shakespeare and claim that Richard was evil or necessarily more scheming than anyone else -- she puts his decisions and actions in a context that makes a lot of sense for the man and his times. The book ends with a fascinating look at the archaeological evidence gathered when the bones of two young boys were found in a trunk buried under a staircase in the Tower during the reign of Charles II (about 200 years after their deaths), as well as a scientific study of those bones done in the 1930s. There is something very CSI: Medieval England about some of this (in a good way!) and Weir makes the history and connections understandable for a non-expert without seeming to dumb anything down.

I'd be curious to see how Weir would integrate the 2012 discovery of Richard's skeleton and subsequent testing and reburial, but a cursory google search didn't turn up any reaction from her to the project. It did, however, turn up this article with a truly excellent headline.

This is a readable and straightforward book about a key moment in British royal history that led to the end of the Yorks and the the rise of the Tudors. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015)

As an archivist, I'm a fan of Arcadia Press and their local history publications -- always heavy on photographs and focused on a niche location or topic, they do just what they intend and also spread the love of archival photographs (AND they were also a sponsor of the Austin Archives Bazaar, so they deserve lots of love!).

As a Nebraskan, I'm also a fan of Nebraska City, where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived for many years. Put those two loves together, and I'm the natural market for Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015). My aunt picked this up when she was back in Nebraska City for a reunion and I'm so glad she did. Having grown up with frequent visits to the city, I never really knew much about its history and, as one of the oldest cities in Nebraska, its history is very rich.

Partsch divides the photographs in the book up by topic, with big sections focusing on the Morton family / Arbor Lodge, as well as the local orchards and the legacy of firefighting in the town.

While the topic may be a little narrow for the general reader, if you have any attachment to Nebraska, Arbor Day, or the settlement of early towns in the west, this is a worthwhile read.

I may be a little biased, but my favorite picture in the book was this group of kindergartners from 1956 in the "Daily Life" section, since it also happens to feature my grandmother, Lilly Sorensen. Love you Bemor!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016)

The Society of American Archivists is running a One Book, One Profession nationwide book club this fall, and their selection is Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016). A group of Austin-area archivists decided to read the book and get together during October (which just happens to be Archives Month!) to discuss it. I'm really glad I jumped on board with this event because this is a book that I might not have ordinarily read, and I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

The book consists of three independently-written modules, which move generally from the more theoretical to the more practical: "Contextualizing Archival Literacy" by Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus; "Teaching With Archives - A Guide for Archivists, Librarians, and Educators" by Sammie L. Morris, Tamar Chute, and Ellen Swain; "Connecting Students and Primary Sources - Cases and Examples" by Tamar Chute, Ellen Swain, and Sammie L. Morris. Sammie is a friend of mine and I was so excited to see that she contributed to two of the three modules in the book, building on the articles I'd read about her research in identifying core skills in using archives for history students.

I found all three modules to be applicable to my work as an archivist, even though I don't do that much traditional teaching in a day-to-day context. I do spend some time every semester doing more formal library instruction, which sometimes involves the archives, and I also do a lot of one-on-one archival instruction and advocacy, both with students and faculty (and members of the general public). The pedagogical framework as well as the concrete case studies and sample activities all help to put this important and often ignored work more to the front of what archivists do. While some of the teaching scenarios were way more involved than I'd ever see as a lone arranger in a small school, reading about the successes and mis-steps in these case studies will help me with my own smaller teaching experiments.

Certainly not a light read or something that everyone is going to want to pick up, but if you are an archivist, an historian, or a teacher of any subject, I think there's a lot to dig into here. Nice work, archivists!

Saturday, October 01, 2016

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories by Luke Mogelson (2016)

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more. what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

e.e. cummings

The title of Luke Mogelson's debut short story collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016) comes from e.e. cummings' poem "next to of course god america i," and the irony in both works is that the experience of these veterans is often merely symbolic to those on the home front and very rarely heroic or happy to the ones experiencing it. In Mogelson's stories of servicemen at war and back at home, even if you aren't one of the dead, the impact of your service is tough to wrap around a civilian lifestyle.

These stories are well crafted with a pleasing diversity of structures and topics, while maintaining a constant focus on character, tight observations, and a good sense of dialogue. Small threads connect the stories in the book, making the collection tie together nicely as a discrete work, but without being too gimmicky or novelistic. While the characters and focus are overwhelmingly male, these are not overly-masculine stories and Mogelson gives us a lot more than the (sadly true) but overly familiar post-combat cliches. These are short stories that take every advantage of the form, and if you are a short story fan, this one is going to be a treat.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995)

My latest selection from the St. Denis bookshelf in exile, Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995) is a photography and essay collection featuring some pretty wonderful (and sometimes incongruous) pictures Byrne took while traveling the world making music in the 1980s and 1990s.

The photographs include series of devotional objects, street scenes, mass produced advertisements and consumer products, and (one of my favorite) odd book titles that Byrne has collected. Sometimes the images are presented alone and without comment, other times images are collaged together, juxtaposed, or exposed on top of each other. Brief remarks or captions may run down the bottom or through the center of the page, while longer essays are printed alone, between sets of photographs. All the photos are satisfyingly provided with captions at the end of the book.

 In one of my favorite of his short essays, a rumination on the difference between what other people think we are feeling and what are actually feeling runs along the bottom of a series of pictures of defaced Bollywood posters (also pictured on the cover). Byrne describes people as puppeteers with broken marionettes who are trying to adjust the strings and levers that control our tone of voice and facial expressions to make them match what we want to express, but never being able to really make what we mean and what other people understand match up.

As you may imagine, David Byrne has a wonderful eye for detail, color, and humor and his collection of photography is really fun to flip through. The themes that run through the book hold the disparate series of images together and the variety keeps it from getting boring. This is one I could see coming back to again and again.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966)

I grabbed my copy of The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966) from a friend's garage sale six years ago and then let it mellow on the shelf for awhile before digging in. The pulpy cover and salacious description ("Once a girl is a whore, my dear, there's no going back") looked fun, but the book itself is actually quite long (479 pages, with tiny type) and includes an educational appendix on Cloete's research into the continued problem of women being tricked or sold into prostitution. Which, you know, hasn't really gotten much better since the 1880s, when this book is set, or the 1960s, when it was written.

Lavinia Lenton is a wealthy, sheltered, mother of two in Victorian England. Her husband, Edward, tells her that their governess, Ellen, came on to him in the hallway and needs to be fired and sent to London right away, but that they shouldn't tell her father or anyone else why or where she went. Lavinia, used to doing what her husband says, goes along with it and Ellen arrives in London on the last train of the night with no references and nowhere to go. She is met by a kindly older woman who was expecting a young woman to come help with her grandchildren, but that woman didn't show up. She quickly sweeps Ellen up and deposits her in a nicely decorated apartment in town. Then Ellen notices that there are no door knobs on the inside of the doors, and there are bars in the windows. She's been trapped in a whorehouse and there's nothing she can do to get out.

To make it worse, the whole abduction was planned by her former employer, Edward Lenton, who, contrary to his story to Lavinia, tried to assault Ellen in the hallway and got mad when she fought back and refused to meet him in his bedroom. He wrote to his old friend Mrs. Caramine, the madame of one of the finest whorehouses in London, to arrange for her abduction and to keep her trapped until he could come for her. Edward is really really really not a nice guy.

Mrs. Caramine, who gets a lot of rich backstory, has her reasons for wanting revenge on Edward and suggests to him that he hire a French governess for his two girls, one that she will select. The beautiful Delphine is able to make herself look quite plain and trick Lavinia into thinking she isn't a threat, while she sleeps with Edward and, ultimately, kidnaps the two young Lenton girls and takes them to France to enter the sex trade.

All this is too much for sheltered Lavinia who has a huge wake up call about her husband and starts fighting back. With the help of a handsome local lawyer (and childhood friend), she blackmails her husband into letting her do what she wants, finds where Ellen has been held and arranges for her release, and tracks down her daughters. As the novel progresses, things get more complicated and interconnected and Lavinia shocks wealthy society by throwing her name behind a reform group that is trying to raise the age of consent in England and provide some protection for children and young women who are tricked, kidnapped, or sold by their families.

While the combination of a titillating plot and an educational backbone don't always work well together, the author balances the two well and also throws in some excellent characterization, observant description, and clever twists. Stuart Cloete (1897-1976) was a well-respected and popular South African author who was active from the 1930s until his death in the mid-1970s. While he also wrote some "after the bomb," post-apocalyptic books, The Abductors seems to be his most pulpy title, and most of that is in the marketing.

This is a fun book to read and is much zippier than its length and appendices and works cited lists would make you think. I could have done with a few less rich dudes comparing women to horses and sometimes Lavinia's awakening to equal rights and sexual pleasure is a little hamfisted, but that's easy to forgive in a novel with so much unexpected depth and character. Worth picking up at a garage sale near you!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Contemporary Latin American Short Stories edited by Pat McNees Mancini (1974)

I've had this copy of Contemporary Latin American Short Stories edited by Pat McNees Mancini (1974) for so long that I have no idea where or when I got it, but, since it comes near the start of my bookshelf, it was next on my quest to read all the books I own and haven't read yet.

This collection of 35 stories by Latin American authors may stretch the definition of "contemporary" a bit, since some of the stories were published in the early 20th century, but in the contemporary context of 1974, most of these authors and their works would have been unknown to an English-speaking audience. The collection includes some heavy hitters (Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Gabríel Garcia Márquez, Mario Varga Llosa) as well as many authors that were unfamiliar to me, from all over Latin America.

Each story includes a one page introduction with some biographical information about the author and their work. I would have liked more consistency in noting when the story included in the collection was written, but Mancini generally does a good job of putting the stories in context. Having biographical sketches of dozens of Latin American authors in 1974 really highlights the political nature of art in the region, with the many of the authors being exiled, becoming part of their country's leadership, or both. Only two women are included, which doesn't come as a huge surprise, but does date the collection.

The stories themselves are really strong -- ranging in length from just a few pages to entire novellas, they include magical realism, formal structure, humor, tragedy, and political metaphors. Some particular favorites of mine were the extremely weird "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," by Julio Cortázar (so many bunnies!); the brooding and atmospheric "The Doll Queen," by Carlos Fuentes; "Nest, Door, Neighbors," by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (with the added bonus of being translated by the author, which brings in some excellent effects), and "Paseo," by José Donoso, which I still can't get out of my head.

For fans of both Latin American literature and the short story as an art form, this is a great read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections by Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth Slomba (2012)

This work-related book, How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections by Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth Slomba (2012), is a great overview of  all the different things you have to do manage the processing process in an archives. Plus, I checked it out from my library -- oh yeah!

Hackbart-Dean and Slomba lead us through creating a processing program, setting processing priorities (I loved this part -- matrices!), managing processing, preservation administration, description and standards, training and managing staff, and evaluation and assessment. Whew. If that sounds comprehensive, well, it is. It also bleeds a lot into general archives management, which is a big strength of the book. Processing is such a huge part of archival administration, that you can't really talk about managing it without talking about managing the whole thing.

I appreciated that this is a slim volume with relatively short chapters. That necessarily means that some things are gone over quickly and not every possible topic is covered at length. The authors make up for that by providing extensive footnotes and a really helpful annotated bibliography at the end. My one criticism would be the very short amount of time that is given to electronic records. While they are mentioned a few times, and some suggestions for further reading are given, I think the book would have been strengthened by a chapter dedicated to the unique challenges of managing the processing of digital archives.

This is a good review book for mid-career professionals like me. It helped me to put some perspective on my day-to-day work and to step back and reevaluate the way I do some things. Not every suggestion would work for a one-woman shop like mine, but there is enough here for any archivist to really sink their teeth into. Nice work!

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 4 (1792)

There are twelve volumes altogether, and hey, I just finished number four! 1/3 of the way done! The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 4 (1792), another entry on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, did not disappoint.

This volume is particularly fun -- it is made up of the first 70 entries in The Rambler, a bi-weekly periodical written and published by Johnson from 1750-1752. The essays, each about 5-10 pages long, are easily digestible comments on modern society and tidbits of advice on how to best live ones life. Some of the most amusing entries are written in the guise of devoted readers asking Mr. Johnson for some of his sage advice. Like much of Johnson, there is a combination of confidence, humor, and observation that make these moral essays not only fun to read, but, with some exceptions, still pretty good life advice.

Take this, for example, from No. 68 "Every man chiefly happy or miserable at home. The opinion of servants not to be despised.":

"This remark may be extended to all parts of life. Nothing is to be estimated by its effect upon common eyes and common ears. A thousand miseries make silent and invisible inroads on mankind, and the heart feels innumerable throbs, which never break into complaint. Perhaps, likewise, our pleasures are for the most part equally secret, and most are borne up by some private satisfaction, some internal consciousness, some latent hope, some peculiar prospect, which they never communicate, but reserve for solitary hours, and clandestine meditation. 

The main of life is, indeed, composed of small incidents and petty occurrences; of wishes for objects not remote, and grief for disappointments of no fatal consequence; of insect vexations which sting us and fly away, impertinences which buzz awhile about us, and are heard no more; of meteorous pleasures which dance before us and are dissipated; of compliments which glide off the soul like other musick, and are forgotten by him that gave, and him that received them....

The great end of prudence is to give cheerfulness to those hours, which splendour cannot gild, and acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the ornaments or disguises, which he feels in privacy to be useless incumbrances, and to lose all effect when they became familiar. To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution." 

Pretty spot on for something written 250 years ago....

Or look at this one, which is almost a perfect description of certain politicians that I can't wait to stop hearing about (from No. 11 "The folly of anger. The misery of a peevish old age."):

"There is in the world a certain class of mortals, known, and contentedly known, by the appellation of passionate men, who imagine themselves entitled by that distinction to be provoked on every slight occasion, and to vent their rage in vehement and fierce vociferations, in furious menaces and licentious reproaches. Their rage, indeed, for the most part, fumes away in outcries of injury, and protestations of vengeance, and seldom proceeds to actual violence, unless a drawer or linkboy falls in their way; but they interrupt the quiet of those that happen to be within the reach of their clamours, obstruct the course of conversation, and disturb the enjoyment of society. 

Men of this kind are sometimes not without understanding or virtue, and are, therefore, not always treated with the severity which their neglect of the ease of all about them might justly provoke; they have obtained a kind of prescription for their folly, and are considered by their companions as under a predominant influence that leaves them not masters of their conduct or language, as acting without consciousness, and rushing into mischief with a mist before their eyes; they are therefore pitied rather than censured, and their sallies are passed over as the involuntary blows of a man agitated by the spasms of a convulsion."

I could go on quoting all day, because Samuel Johnson is nothing if he is not deliciously quotable, but instead I'll leave you with a few more of my favorite entries worth reading in their entirety:

No. 16 "The dangers and miseries of literary eminence"
No. 34 "The uneasiness and disgust of female cowardice"
No. 39 "The unhappiness of women whether single or married"
No. 45 "The causes of disagreement in marriage"
No. 50 "A virtuous old age always reverenced"
No 59. "An account of Suspirius the human screech-owl"

Lucky for me, the next volume is even more of The Rambler! Slow and steady gonna win this race...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 08, 2016

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

Small Bones by Vicki Grant (2015)

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 06, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)

We read P.D. James' dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men (1992) for my free-form book club (go DAFFODILS!). I was very into this choice since I (a) like dystopian science fiction and (b) really liked the movie version and figured if nothing else I could day dream about Clive Owen while reading it. I did end up really enjoying the book, although it has little in common with the movie version beyond the general premise and the character names.

The book takes place in 2021, 26 years after all the men on the planet became infertile. The last generation of humans, known as the Omegas, are beautiful nihilistic jerks and our narrator, Theo Faron, is a cynical and disconnected history professor who sometimes tries to teach them. Theo is divorced after his shaky marriage fell completely apart with the death of their daughter in a tragic accident that was his fault. He lives alone and is comfortable but dissatisfied. He is thrown into the politics of post-Omega England when he is approached by a young woman from one of his classes who asks him to talk to the Warden of England on behalf of her and a small group of protesters. They want to stop the government regulated mass suicides of the elderly, the mandatory fertility testing, the unsupervised prison islands, and the poor treatment of immigrants from other countries. Theo is in a place to help because his cousin, Xan, is the Warden -- a replacement for the prime minister and the King who makes all the decisions for the country, together with a small council. The meeting with the council doesn't go well, but now Theo has a cause and something to actually do, and he can't separate himself from the work of the rebel group. When the unimaginable happens, he finds himself willing to sacrifice everything for the cause.

This is a pretty philosophical and extremely British book with digressions on politics, theological implications, and moral and ethical tests of its characters and readers. While the plot and the action move the story along quickly, this is no sweaty Clive Owen action-filled story like the film. Wikipedia tells me that the late P.D. James was pleased with the film version even though it was so different from her original novel, and I can see why she liked it. It captures the world she created, but comes at it in a way that plays better on the screen. The novel, on the other hand, is the perfect way to explore the cold, intellectual, privileged mind of Theo and experience the slow warming and opening that he undergoes as he becomes more and more involved with Julian and her friends. Literary science fiction doesn't always work for me, but in this case, James really pulls it off. There is a lot to think about here, and it's a rewarding read.

And the cats! The cats!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015)

I got an advance reader's copy of In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The concept sounds right up my alley, and the LibraryThing algorithm usually doesn't steer me wrong, but in this case the book and I just did not connect.

Loomis is an American who has lived in France for decades. She is well known for books on French cooking and a well-received memoir about her live abroad. I haven't read her other books, but a generous interpretation of In a French Kitchen might be that she was resting on her laurels a bit and that fans who are familiar with her history and style will like even the most casually written combination of anecdotes and recipes.

The recipes almost save the book -- they are without exception interesting, well composed, hearty, simple, and very French. I could see fitting many of these into my regular cooking routine, and I'm glad I had a chance to look through them.

Unfortunately the "tales and traditions" part of the book reads more like a rambling blog post (a familiar format for Loomis) and don't translate well to the printed page. Sweeping declarations about all the French and all Americans rubbed me the wrong way and one more description of a beautiful Frenchwoman who had a challenging job and came home to throw together an economical and delicious meal from scratch for her lovely children AND THEN created a multi-course dinner party for her friends after the kids went to bed and I would have had to throw the book off a bridge. This scenario really happened more than once in the book. The secret: the French are 1) organized and 2) don't eat processed food and 3) learn everything from their grandmothers. And maybe just the atmosphere of France. Also, men don't cook and if any Frenchmen do cook, the author notes that it is the exception and not the rule.

I don't know, maybe I was feeling cranky when I read this, but the tone really did not work, neither as a memoir nor as a cookbook. Fans may have a different view, but this was not a good introduction to Loomis for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks (2007)

My next pick from the St. Denis storage shelf of delight is I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks, edited and with an afterword by Paul Karasik (2007).

As you may know, I love classic sci fi and adventure novels, and yet I always forget that I would also probably love their counterpart in 1930s/1940s boy and manhood, the classic comic book. Fletcher Hanks was a mysterious comic artist. He only worked for a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s and then disappeared. When Paul Karasik found a man with the same (unusual) name, he looked him up and happened upon Hanks' elderly, estranged son.

The story of Karasik's meeting with Hanks, Jr. and the answers to some of the mysteries surrounding Hanks is illustrated by Karasik and included as an afterward to this pretty damn exciting collection of the senior Hanks' work in the comic genre. First, take a quick minute to Google image search "Fletcher Hanks" so you can see what I'm talking about. Pretty great, right? Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle is my new life coach. Stardust, The Super Wizard needs to have a movie made about him right now. They are simple and exciting characters with clear motivations (stop evil!) and a rough, colorful drawing style that works perfectly with a cheaply printed comic book. In pretty much every case, the stories start with evil being identified. Then the threat is explained in more detail (usually all of New York is going to be destroyed). Then the hero comes in to save the day, but not before quite a few people are killed or hurt. Then the evildoers are punished in the most weird ways possible (example: Fantomah catches the bad guys, she turns them all into one man (easier to punish that way), she puts the man into the Pit of Horrors, he tries to escape, a giant hand attacks him, he slips to his death, BUT a whirlwind picks him up and saves him, BUT it drops him into a cave filled with cobras, they bite him and then Fantomah whisks him out of the cave, then she suspends him in mid-air, then a different giant hand comes out of a rock wall and pulls him inside to rot forever). Whew. That is just one story.

Like much of popular culture from the period, you do have to put up with some pretty blatant racism and sexism. It's not great, but it's there. If you can work around that and enjoy some jaw droppingly exciting adventures (and punishments!), then this is the book for you.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau (2016)

My friend Monique is one of the first people I met when I moved to Austin in 2000. We were both starting library school at the same time, and my tall lady radar immediately picked her out at the orientation. Later, Dr. M and I ran into her in line for an Austin Film Society screening at the Dobie theater (Godard, I think). We kept in touch a little in person and mostly through the internet as I followed her journey as a novelist, her move to Ann Arbor to get her MFA, and her fulfillment of a lifelong dream to move to Portland. And then, this happened: actual publication of her debut novel by a real life publisher. Book tour (see my pictures of the Austin stop at BookPeople here)! Translation into numerous languages! Audio book! I'm so proud of her, and I know the amount of work behind this well-deserved attention. Way to go, Mo!

To top it all off, the book really is great. After about 20 pages, I completely forgot that my friend had written it. At the book signing, Mo noted that her goal was to write a feminist novel with a male protagonist, and she definitely succeeded at that. Karl Bender is a 40-year-old who owns a bar in Chicago. He used to be the guitar player for Axis, a moderately successful band in the 90s. And he has discovered a time-traveling worm hole in his closet. Along with his friend Wayne, a computer programmer that helps set up the wormhole infrastructure, he decides that the best use of the portal is to travel back to rock shows in the past. Soon he and Wayne are selling tickets and sending people back to relive their own history as well as the shows they never had a chance to see. Everything is going great until Karl accidentally sends Wayne back to the year 980 instead of 1980 (typo!) and there isn't enough extant electricity in pre-European Manhattan to get Wayne back.

Karl contacts the coolest looking person in a nearby astrophysics department, Lena Geduldig, to help him bring his best friend back to the present. She is smart, dry, tattooed, and guarded. Karl falls for her instantly and, eventually, she kind of falls for him too. 

The novel eventually spins into a mixture of science-fiction tinged romance and music tinged emotion. While a love for and knowledge of time-travel tropes, alternative music, Sassy Magazine, and 90s-era feminism certainly enhance the experience of the narrative, everything is so nicely balanced that even someone who dislikes all the above couldn't help but be drawn into Karl and Lena's world. I'm a person who is often disappointed by endings, but the climax of the novel is just perfect. 

Also, can we take a second to marvel at the cover? I can't get enough of high-quality book design.
So go get yourself to your nearest independent bookstore (or, you know, click on it in Amazon Prime, no judgement here). BookPeople in Austin is even selling a deluxe version that includes a limited-edition Axis poster and pin! However you get it, just go ahead and get it. This is one that is worth having in hardcover and dipping into right away.

Friday, February 26, 2016

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994)

My sad-books-only book club (go Debbie Downers!) most recently read My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994), a book about the early years of the AIDS crisis told from the perspective of an Indian doctor (by way of Ethiopia) who was with AIDS patients in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Verghese is an engaging writer with a fascinating story that touches on much more than just AIDS and its devastating effect on people and their families. Through his writing we learn about medical school; being a foreign doctor in small(ish)-town USA; Kerala, the region of India Christianized by the apostle Thomas; the practice of tapping on a body to diagnose problems with internal organs; the complex relationships between doctors, nurses and other staff; how to navigate around Johnson City; the inner workings of a big VA hospital and much much more. And that's just the side stories! The heart of the book is, of course, Verghese's relationship with his patients. Some we see for only a short time, but others are woven throughout the book, along with their families, and the reader becomes just as tied up in their lives and their pain as Verghese.

While the book is well-written and worth reading, there are a few dim spots. Verghese somehow completely misses any hint of racism or (oddly) black people, even though he is living in the south. There is some wrestling with his identity as a foreign doctor, but this is generally spun in a positive light -- patients open up to him because he is different, and he is able to treat them more effectively because of the trust that that difference provides. Beyond the blind spot for race, Verghese is much much better at describing the men in his story than the women -- his wife comes off as disconnected and nagging (but also sympathetic, since she is pretty much left alone with two young children and the fear that her husband is going to catch AIDS at work), and his description of the rocky parts of their marriage come across like a plot device. Finally, while Verghese has a great writing style and perceptive insights into his own thoughts and background, his recreation of other people's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. I understand wanting to break up the memoir with some speeches, but I'm not sure that device should have been relied upon so heavily.

Beyond those criticisms, though, this is a good book. It provides a snapshot of not-that-long-ago America where neither AIDS nor homosexuality were understood by the general population at all. Verghese confronts some of his own biases and misconceptions about gay people through the course of the book, and while he doesn't get everything right, his journey and his effort come off well. While this book is definitely a downer, there is a bright side in looking at how much the conversation has changed in the past 25 years, and how much doctors and researchers like Verghese have helped people living with HIV and AIDS. Definitely worth reading if you don't mind a few bumps in the road.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A decade of hot dogs, large mammals, and independent rock -- the handcrafted art of Jay Ryan (2005)

I had never heard of Jay Ryan (although, in retrospect, his style is certainly familiar), but since it was the next book in my St. Denis book pile, I gave 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A decade of hot dogs, large mammals, and independent rock -- the handcrafted art of Jay Ryan (2005) a go.

Ryan is a Chicago-area screen-printing artist who started out making posters for bands that he knew, and gradually became part of the music poster renaissance starting in the early 2000s, including creating some iconic posters for bands like Silkworm and Shellac. His style is easily recognizable and unique (a Google image search for "jay ryan posters" will give you a nice taste), and his mix of soft colors, hand-lettering, cute animals, and violent or odd circumstances (attack by adorable squirrels!) is pretty enchanting.

The book itself is nicely produced, in full color, with a good size (not to big and not too small), and quality paper. Introductory essays by Steve Albini and other Ryan supporters provide some nice context, and Ryan himself includes some annotations of his work at the back. The bulk of the book, of course, is the posters themselves, and they really are great. This is a fun one to pick up and browse through, and then return to again with fresh eyes.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Shark Curtain by Chris Scofield (2015)

I got my copy of The Shark Curtain by Chris Scofield (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, which always seems to algorithmically know which books I'm going to like. 

This is a coming-of-age novel set in 1960s Portland, Oregon. Our blossoming teenager, Lily Asher, however, isn't the usual teen protagonist. She counts things. She barks. She is pretty sure she is growing a tail, but she tries to hide it. Jesus appears to her frequently, doing things like fishing, skateboarding, or driving a cab. Her family consists of a beautiful, artistic mother (who was sent away from her native Romania by her Jewish parents at the start of the second world war), and a funny and supportive father (who has a gambling and anger problem), as well as a spunky little sister who tries to pretend everything around her is absolutely normal, even when it's not.

This sounds a little cutsey when I type it out, but Scofield does a great job of balancing Lily's mental quirks and unstable family life with healthy doses of reality, feeling, and humanity. Rather than becoming a punchline or a metaphor, Lily is a complicated, three dimensional character with an awareness of her oddness and no easy answers for fitting into the world around her. The book deals with death, mental illness, the Holocaust, religion, sexual abuse, and more, but doesn't let itself get bogged down into the predictability of a message novel. Just as readable for a 13 year old as a 43 year old, this is a young adult novel that doesn't pander with rich and well-rounded characters and a moving and rewarding plot. This is Scofield's first published novel, but I'd love to read her short stories and I'm excited to see what she does next.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000)

I got myself a bread maker last year when I found a super sale on and I bought The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000) to help walk me through some of the science and art of bread machine baking.

I realize bread machines are a little out-of-fashion, and I do have non-machine bread baking experience -- I really enjoy it, but almost never do it because I don't feel like I have the time / don't want to heat up the kitchen / don't think about it. I also am not totally satisfied with the browning capabilities of my current oven -- it just doesn't do bread that well. My lovely bread machine though, is so easy! I get the feeling of accomplishment from making a homemade loaf of bread without getting myself and the kitchen totally covered with flour, and the enclosed little oven doesn't heat up the kitchen and browns the bread just the way I ask it to.

This book is an exhaustive look at all the things you can do in your bread machine and includes recipes for pretty much every kind of bread or roll or pastry or dough that I've ever heard of. Hensperger is an accomplished and enthusiastic baker (both with and without the machine) and her notes on ingredients, baking processes, baking science, and the history of different kinds of bread are fascinating. I actually read the whole cookbook!

One qualm is that she insists on using SAF or bread machine yeast, which is hard to find now that the bread machine is passé and no one wants to eats carbs or gluten anymore. I just wing it with regular yeast and it seems fine. The best tip I got from this book was to add in a tablespoon or so of gluten in with the flour. It really improves the texture of the bread in the machine and gives it more of a non-machine lift and texture. You can buy gluten in a bag in the baking aisle -- it felt so scandalous to buy an entire bag of gluten from a shelf right next to the gluten free baking mixes!

In short: I love bread, I love my bread machine, and I think if you like bread in any form, you'd probably like this book.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, by Sam Weller (2010)

I'm pretty sure everyone on the planet is a fan of Ray Bradbury, but no one is a bigger fan than Sam Weller, author of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010) unless, of course, you count Bradbury himself.

Yes, Bradbury did not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, but in the older man in these interviews that trait is more endearing than irritating. And, you know, he comes by it honestly. Weller organizes this series of rambling interviews both chronologically through Bradbury's life and by the topics that fascinated the man. He talks frankly about his personal and professional life, sex, his childhood, his fascinations, and his disappointments. His is a life story that doesn't seem possible anymore: an idyllic childhood in the midwest, coming of age near a Hollywood bursting with relatively accessible stars and artists, and being a writer at a time when you really could seal a contract with a handshake and pave your pathway to success with confidence and hard work.

Bradbury is full of extremely strong opinions, only about half of which I'm really on the same page about (and some of which he seems to make up on the spot), but as you forgive the aggressive confidence and the single-mindedness, you forgive these too. I mean, the man wrote The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, innumerable short stories, and more. He created a mythology for himself and then lived it. His literary kind of science fiction is hard to emulate and even harder not to like. He really was a writer, in a way that most writers are not.

Bradbury died in 2012, but Weller's journey with his hero continues on his blog for the book, including the heartbreaking news that the Bradbury house that is lovingly chronicled here has been sold and demolished. There really isn't room for Bradburys in Los Angeles anymore.

Finally, as an aside, this book was published by Stop Smiling, a defunct Chicago-based magazine that was one of the very best, which morphed into a book publisher. They haven't put anything out in years, but I keep hoping for a comeback. Come back, guys!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

My lovely friend Joolie loaned me her copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) after I mentioned I'd always wanted to read it. Of course, when I got it home I realized that Dr. M already had a copy, but that didn't stop me from hanging on to Joolie's copy forever and finally reading it. Thanks, Joo!

And, as anticipated, I really really liked this one. After the Clutter family was murdered in their home in small-town Western Kansas in 1959, Capote and his friend, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas with the idea that he could write about the crime and the investigation. He quickly became close to the lead investigator and was able to get significant details about the crime and the family. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith were found and arrested about six weeks after the murders, after a trip to Florida, Mexico, California, and eventually back to Kansas. Capote was able to closely interview the killers as well, and kept in touch with them through their long stay on death row up until their executions in 1965. When Capote published his book in 1966 it quickly became a best seller and is still the best selling true crime book of all time.

By today's standards, this is not anywhere near unbiased journalism, and from some cursory online research, it sounds like some facts of the murders and the lives of the townspeople and killers were exaggerated or skipped over for narrative effect. In the book itself, we get zero acknowledgement of Capote and Lee as the interviewers or writers -- the narrative unravels like a novel, bouncing between the Clutters, Hickock and Smith, and the investigation. I'd love to know more about what Capote actually did as he was researching this book and a lot more about Harper Lee's contributions (this dissertation, for example, sounds fascinating). I saw the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie a few years ago (and I'd like to see it again having read the book), but I'm not sure what sources that version of Capote's methods is based on. I'm sure there is a great biography of Capote out there, and I'd love to read it.

Of course, regardless of how he did it and how much the book really reflects what happened, this is a wonderfully written and engrossing piece of fiction/non-fiction. It makes you feel hopeful and hopeless at the same time, and does a nice job of making both the "good" and "evil" characters complex and human, without making excuses for the murders or making the victims into saints. If you (like me) somehow got through life without reading this before, you should probably pick it up soon. I have a copy I can loan you...