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.