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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

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Junkyard DogsJunkyard Dogs is the sixth book in the Walt Longmire series of mysteries by Craig Johnson. I started here, listening to the mystery on audiobook on compact disc (The library has earlier entries in the series in print or as downloadable audiobooks). Ideally one would start at the beginning with The Cold Dish but there’s enough continuity between characters that I had no trouble following the action or enjoying the characters jumping into the series in the middle.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of little Durant, Wyoming is a great character, perhaps the kind of man that it’s more fun to read about than to try to get along with in real life. He’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide, a sarcastic sense of humor, and he likes doing things his way. Fortunately, his way works most of the time, at least when it comes to solving crimes. He’s surrounded by a great supporting cast too: his lifelong friend Henry Standing-Bear; his dog (named Dog); and most important in this book, a squeamish deputy named Santiago Saizarbitoria; and his on-again, off-again love interest Victoria (also a deputy).

Junkyard Dogs begins with a run-in with the Stuart family, an odd collection of country bumpkins who run the local junkyard. Grandfather Geo is the seemingly indestructible family patriarch. His grandson Duane and granddaughter-in-law Gina are screw-ups always on the verge of trouble with the law. And then there are the two huge wolf-like dogs they own–the more obvious referents of the book’s title. The Stuarts have an ongoing feud with developer Ozzie Dobbs, who’s in money trouble over the failure of a huge development. Ozzie would love to get rid of the eyesore junkyard next door (and develop the land while he’s at it). The feud would get even worse if Ozzie discovered that Geo and his mother have a bit of a romantic liaison going on.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. A thumb, no longer connected to its owner, becomes an important plot point, as do Walt’s status with Victoria and Santiago’s continuing ability to function in his job. Over the course of the book, Sheriff Longmire takes about as much physical damage as a body can but Johnson has a unique ability to transform pain, ornery behavior, and the terse speech patterns of westerners into high comedy. The mystery puzzle is solid, if not brilliant, but that’s not really the point here. The reason to read this series is for the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor, and on all of those accounts, Johnson is masterful.

If you listen to audiobooks, by all means experience this book that way. I’m not usually a fan of George Guidall, but his voice and characterizations are perfect for this series. I haven’t seen it, but I hear that the television series based on Johnson’s books, Longmire, is also a pleasure.

Check the WRL catalog for Junkyard Dogs

Or try Junkyard Dogs as an audiobook on compact disc.

 

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Red Seas Under Red SkiesScott Lynch is in the top tier of epic fantasy writers who are stretching the genre in new directions. Red Seas under Red Skies, the second book in his Gentleman Bastards series, like the first, The Lies of Locke Lamora, combines gritty epic fantasy with a buddy story and a heist crime story line. It’s a cinematic combination loaded with great banter between the lead characters, a twisty, suspenseful plot line, and exotic settings. The series is probably best experienced in sequence, but you could read the second book alone and have a satisfying reading experience.

Master thieves and swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have gone on the run after their exciting and ultimately tragic adventures in the first book of the series, finally landing in Tal Verrar, a city state made rich by gambling. As the book opens, we find Locke and Jean in the midst of an elaborate scheme to rob the Sinspire, a seemingly impregnable fortress of a casino with increasingly exclusive action on each higher floor. To rob the most powerful players at the top, Locke and Jean first have to run a long con, winning at enough complicated games of chance to gain access to the upper floors.

But somehow their cover is blown and they come to the attention of Tal Verrar’s powerful political leader. I won’t give away too many plot points, but he traps Locke and Jean and forces them to pose as pirates in another elaborate scheme that will solidify his tenuous hold on power in the city state. There are some great comic scenes as the landlubber thieves try to learn enough seamanship to pretend to be seasoned sea dogs. Of course things go wrong, and the ruse becomes a kind of reality as the duo play for higher and higher stakes. They’ll have to survive pirates, politics, poison, a love triangle, and more, just to get back to the city where they hope to pull off an impossible crime that becomes as much about revenge as it does money.

It’s a complicated plot, but Lynch fills his books with so many great action sequences, so much razor-sharp repartee, so much good-natured derring-do, that it’s easy to forgive any moments where the story stretches credibility. He wraps up enough of these complicated plot lines cleverly that you will be more excited than you are bothered that there are cliffhangers leading to the third book, Republic of Thieves (which was published in late 2013 and has had great reviews as well). I know I’ll be among the readers following this masterful  yarn to its conclusion.

One caution: this series is very much part of the gritty school of fantasy. These are street-toughened characters leading a violent and dangerous life, and readers should expect language and levels of violence that realistically match that setting. It’s leavened with plenty of charm and humor, but come prepared for lots of colorful cursing and bloody action.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Seas under Red Skies

Or try the story on audiobook on compact disc

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hughesHaving taken Latin all through high school, I was a bit familiar with Ovid, at least with the less steamy pieces of writing (Sister Lawrence never had us translating the Ars Amatoria), including some of the stories from Metamorphoses. These tales, drawn from mythology, all tell stories of strange transformations that result from an excess of passion. Ted Hughes, who was poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death in  1998, presents his versions of 24 of these stories in Tales from Ovid.

Hughes is a superb poet, with a clear voice, who was early in his writing career much influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Hughes frequently writes about the natural world, but his poems are often darker than those of Hopkins. He also frequently writes about passion, and how it shapes our lives for better or for worse. Throughout his writings, Hughes often made use of images and themes from mythologies ranging from Classic to Celtic. The Tales from Ovid seem a natural progression from his previous works, since Ovid’s poems explore the transformative nature of passion.

There are some familiar stories here, at least for folks who have read some Roman mythology: the tragic tale of Actaeon, the sad tale of Arachne the weaver, and the mournful Pyramus and Thisbe (in fact none of these stories ends well for the participants). Hughes does not give a straight translation, slavishly trying to capture the Latin stresses and rhythms. Rather, he uses the original as a starting point for telling the story in clear, vibrant English. Here is a sample from “Echo and Narcissus”

The moment Echo saw Narcissus
She was in love.  She followed him
Like a starving wolf
Following a stag too strong to be tackled.
And like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.

So, drawing on my memory of Latin class, now almost 35 years ago, I can only say “Tolle, lege.”

Check the WRL catalog for Tales from Ovid

 

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kooserTed Kooser was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2004-2006, and is one of my favorite writers of short verse. He has often been compared to Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters for his ability to take the day-to-day events of rural and small town life and use those to explore the breadth of the human condition.

One of the things that I like the best about these poems is that they are always understandable. Kooser never resorts to obscure language or strange combinations of words. The titles of his poems give you a sense of Kooser’s topics: “The Red Wing Church,” “Furnace,” “A Frozen Stream,” “In an Old Apple Orchard.” And he writes about these things in clear language. But, Kooser then takes these familiar themes and all of a sudden opens up a new way of looking at the world. It is these flashes of insight that make any poem, and particularly Kooser’s, worth reading.

Here is one favorite, “The Grandfather Cap”

Sometimes I think that as he aged,
this cap, with the stain in its brim
like a range of dark mountains,
became the horizon to him.
He never felt right with it off.

Check the WRL catalog for Flying at Night

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poemsGetting back into reading poetry can be daunting. You go to the shelves in the 811 section of the library and there are all these thin books by people you have never heard of. How do you know who is going to be interesting rather than tedious? One great way to get started is to try a poetry anthology. There are lots of books of collected poems in the WRL collection. Some focus on specific types of poetry, e.g. The 100 best love poems of all time, An anthology of modern Irish poetry, or The Oxford book of war poetry. Others are broader collections that cover centuries of poetry. Often, these are arranged chronologically to give the reader a sense of the sweep of poetry through the ages (the best of these is Oscar Williams’s anthology Immortal poems of the English language, a tattered, 35-year-old copy of which sits on my nightstand, thank you Sister Anna Jean!).

William Harmon takes a different approach in The classic hundred. Here, Harmon gathers together the 100 most-anthologized poems in English. The idea being that these are the poems that “have achieved the greatest success for the longest time with the largest number of readers.” These are, for the most part, shorter poems (though Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is included), and they offer readers new to poetry or those trying to rekindle an interest in poems some excellent choices. From William Blakes “The Tyger” to Yeats’s “When You are Old,” these are poems that avoid any hint of intentional obscurity or condescension. In these pieces, Harmon has put together a firm foundation for any further poetry reading.

Each poem receives a brief, but useful, introduction from the editor, placing the poem, and the poet, in their historic, literary, and cultural context. There is also a Notes section that has definitions of words and place names and sometimes a bit more information on the poetic form. All in all, this is an excellent place to start if you are looking for poems to read or to memorize. Here is one to start on,  “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Classic Hundred

 

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

 

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committedApril is poetry month, so turning from Grant and the Civil War, the rest of this week’s posts will look at poetry and poets. As I have written about before, there are lots of reasons to memorize poems. The act of memorization is good for the brain, and I think that memorizing poetry is also good for the spirit. Poems are meant to be recited more than just read. One of the delights of poetry is hearing, not just in the mind’s ear but in your actual ear, the roll and flow of the words and rhythms. And there is nothing better than being able to recite a poem from memory.

So if you are looking to expand your poetry repertoire, Hollander’s book gives ample choices. Compiled by Hollander and a distinguished advisory board that included poets Eavan Boland, Robert Pinsky, Anthony Hecht, and Mona Van Duyn among others, the poems here are arranged to some extent by type. The book starts with Sonnets, and includes some classics like Shelley’s “Ozymandius” and several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Songs are next, followed by Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. In each of these sections, there is a thoughtfully chosen mix of older and newer poets. All of the poems here are formalist in style. As the editor notes, free verse is by its nature hard to memorize. That is an appeal for me, as I am a fan of poems that have some elements of structure to them.

So, for April, find a poem and memorize it, and then recite it for someone you know. It will strengthen your brain, no doubt, but it will also strengthen your spirit. Hollander’s collection is a great place to start looking for options.

Here’s is a short poem to get started on, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Check the WRL catalog for Committed to Memory

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grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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gettysburgHow many schoolchildren do you suppose have memorized The Gettysburg Address, then forgotten it? How many adults can complete the phrase “Fourscore and …”, but don’t understand what Lincoln meant by it?  Jonathan Hennessey, author of this sesquicentennial interpretation of Lincoln’s immortal speech, does both students and adults an immense service in breaking down the speech line by line to show what a radical statement the Gettysburg Address really was at the time.

Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the three-day long bloodletting that is called the high tide of the Confederacy.  He was added to the program as a courtesy, but audiences nonetheless expected the kind of hours-long oration that served as inspiration and entertainment in the pre-broadcast days.  Lincoln had proved himself a master of the craft during his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat, and was expected to use the forum to extol the Union effort.  Instead, in just 272 words he reiterated a vision which turned a common notion of the Civil War on its head.

The fourscore and seven years he referred to takes us back to the Declaration of Independence, not to the Constitution.  The Constitution was the root document cited over and over again in the escalating debates that led to the War.  Was the Constitution a compact voluntarily entered into by sovereign entities who could withdraw over differences of policy? Or was it the contract by which a single unbreakable entity was formed?  But Lincoln saw the Constitution as an outgrowth of the purposes of the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration as a testament to the values which created a uniquely American people.  The Gettysburg Address is his case for that interpretation.

The speech led listeners through American history from 1776 to 1863, forcing them to recall the political compromises, sectional divisions, and bloody skirmishes which had presaged secession then blossomed into an unequaled bloodletting on American soil.  By walking modern readers through those same questions, and bringing then-current events in (what did the California Gold Rush have to do with slavery?) Hennessey shows that the War was an organic part of all that had come before.  But he doesn’t stop at 1861 – he also carries the reader through the chaos and disaster of a battle that neither side sought nor wanted, and on to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life.

Aaron McConnell’s vivid illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, adapting styles from each historical period and pulling complex and dynamic action scenes together with simple but affecting drawings of contemplative landscapes to build an emotional impact into the story.  He uses a nameless, voiceless African-American woman touring contemporary Washington DC to create an overarching visual narrative, then plunges into the events and ideas Hennessey lays out.  Together, they teach an accessible but not dumbed-down lesson in American history.  The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a terrific resource for students wanting a survey of the issues and an illuminating read for adults looking to make deeper connections to their understanding of history.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

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tarloffWhat is it about higher education that makes it such a fat and funny target for skewering?  Is it the seemingly arbitrary power professors have over their students? The increasing definition of a specialty, so that to earn a PhD you have to know everything about nothing at all  (“In/Signification and Dys/Lexicography: A (Mis)Reading of Nabokov’s Ada“)? The cloistered atmosphere, where according to Sayre’s Law, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”?  I don’t know, but take all those elements, stir them into a small town Baptist college, throw in an identity crisis and pornography, and you’ve got The Man Who Wrote the Book.

Ezra Gordon is the hapless hero of the tale, a poet without the means to make his ends meet.  He hasn’t written in years, much less published; he was charged in a sexual harassment action and had to answer to his girlfriend, the college’s attorney, who also happens to be the daughter of a college trustee who really doesn’t like Ezra.  With most of the students, the department chair, his tenure committee, his landlady, maybe even his girlfriend – wherever Ezra goes, he’s the most unpopular guy in the room.

He does have one friend, Isaac Schwimmer, who lives in LA, so Ezra goes to stay with him for spring break.  Isaac left the world of academia for the considerably lower-stress world of publishing, even breaking in with his own imprint.  Ezra, of course, has no idea what Isaac publishes, and when he walks into Isaac’s high rise “lives of the rich and famous” condo, meets his beautiful, brainy, and willing neighbors, and crashes in a guest bedroom bigger than his apartment, he gets curious.

It turns out that there has to be someone who publishes pornographic novels, and Isaac happens to be one of the most successful in the crowd.  That success has also given Isaac tons of self-confidence, which he generously tries to share with the beaten-down Ezra.  He also makes Ezra a business proposition – write me a porn book and I’ll pay you $10,000.  To his own surprise, Ezra accepts, and returns to campus with a little secret and a great big grin. (Did I mention the willing neighbor?)

The secret of writing a throwaway piece of smut fires Ezra’s imagination, and before he knows it the manuscript for Every Inch a Lady is in the mail, and the book is in print.  To Ezra’s (and Isaac’s) surprise, it takes off in ways neither can imagine.  Plus, finishing it gives Ezra the nerve to tell off his old girlfriend, show off his new one, tick off an FBI agent investigating cybercrime, help a student find his way, and finally, contemplate writing his own novel under his own name.  Ezra’s journey becomes a comic take on the erotic journey of his heroine, picking up momentum along the way.

Tarloff also wrote for M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and still writes for Slate, The Atlantic, and The American Prospect. He’s married to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, which is where I guess he got his exposure to academic politics.  In The Man Who Wrote the Book, he scores with vicious and illuminating satire (is that a tautology?), and makes Ezra’s growth from immature schlub to confident adult fun. The lone downside of the book is its relationship to technology – does anyone even publish porn on paper anymore? Would many readers remember the days of computer access limited to dial-up campus networks? The upside is, well, everything else.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man Who Wrote the Book

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JeevesReading PG Wodehouse’s original Wooster and Jeeves stories is like eating a lemon meringue pie – underneath some light, fluffy, insubstantial sweetness, there’s a hint of acid which livens the palate.  So it is with Sebastian Faulks’s homage to Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – with the exception of a couple of eggshells in the meringue.

This isn’t the first such recreation Faulks has had a hand in.  I wrote earlier (FSM, has it been five years?!) about his Devil May Care, a James Bond adventure that went straight back to Ian Fleming’s original style and sensibility.  This time around he approaches, with proper reverence, the world of a comic genius and nails the breezy tones that Wodehouse seemingly cast off without thinking.

For those who aren’t familiar with the original stories, they revolve around Bertie Wooster, scion of a family whose bank accounts have thrived as their gene pool has evaporated.  Bertie is a decent chap, though, with lots of time and few demands placed on him.  He spends much of that time evading the matrimonial clutches of the various women of his circle, or helping his friends slip up to the altar despite the disapproval of their parents and guardians.

Wooster’s gentleman’s gentleman is the unflappable Jeeves, the very model of a discreet servant.  Jeeves is also a master practitioner of psychology, and it is he who guides Wooster’s madcap schemes to their inevitable happy endings.  With marriage averted or achieved, angry aunts soothed, and some truculent old man reduced to a buffoon, Wooster and Jeeves blithely return to Bertie’s London home for tea, cocktails, and dining at the Drones Club.

Wooster is surrounded by similar young men with surnames so sophisticated and schoolnames so childish they become a mockery of privileged genealogy – Cyril Bassington-Bassington, “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little are the usual suspects.  In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Peregrine “Woody” Beeching is the stymied lover, and Wooster must plot to help him conquer the hand of his beloved, Amelia Hackwood.  Being a young though gifted lawyer, Woody has more prospects than assets, thus earning the disapproval of Amelia’s father.  At the same time, Amelia’s best friend Georgiana is Sir Henry Hackwood’s ward, and the impecunious baronet wants to marry her off to a wealthy man who might save the family manse, a circumstance that renders Bertie unaccountably jealous.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (and Wooster always encounters circumstances unforeseen), he and Jeeves must reverse roles at a country weekend with the Hackwoods.  Jeeves takes up the part of one Lord Etringham while Bertie becomes his manservant Wilberforce.  Too bad Bertie has never polished a pair of shoes, boiled a shirtfront, or served from the left.  Added to Bertie’s attempts to convince Amelia that Woody is faithful to her, his efforts to drive the wealthy suitor from Georgiana’s side, and to raise a cricket eleven for Sir Henry, it is small wonder that Bertie collapses into his servants’ quarters each night.  As always, Bertie’s plotting goes delightfully astray, Jeeves saves the day, and in this story accomplishes a little more than the reader expects.

Wodehouse somehow created a timeless feel to his stories, a kind of eternal English summer where the fields were planted, the trees in bloom, young lovers gazed adoringly into each others’ eyes, and the most damage the aristocracy could do was to the furnishings at their clubs.  There are cars, telephones and telegrams, jazz and  flashy theater which all signify the Roaring Twenties, but a kind of self-satisfied innocence that predates August 1914.  It seems to me that Wodehouse deliberately avoided bringing events from the outside world into the eggshell that encompasses his stories.  Faulks makes a couple of historical references that crack that shell and momentarily turn Wodehouse’s tartness into bitterness, but steers the rest of the story back to the bucolic.  All in all, Faulks does a masterful job bringing Wooster and Jeeves back to life for one final spin in the old two-seater.

Check the WRL catalogue for Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

And for a masterfully done light comic television series featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, check out the PBS show Jeeves and Wooster

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lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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Lucid Food isn’t strictly vegan like the four cookbooks reviewed earlier this week.

Its focus is on sourcing food more ecologically and conscientiously. This makes it an excellent resource for omnivores bothered by factory farming practices and their impact—square with the slow food, clean eating, sustainable agriculture, and locavore movements. I did find Lucid Food to be decidedly vegetable-focused and the many creative vegan recipes included are full of exquisite flavors. Author and catering chef Louisa Shafia really backs up in her life what she writes about in this cookbook by the way she does business; her catering company is also called Lucid Food and practices an innovative waste-free approach.

…more than eighty-five healthful, seasonal recipes that will guide you toward making earth-friendly choices about what you prepare for meals…

Shafia suggests ways to choose fish and seafood more thoughtfully. I learned that the farming of mussels actually inspires cleaner coastal marine stewardship without the use of antibiotics and chemicals, about wild-caught species that are caught using methods that don’t kill unwanted animals in the process, and other safer choices for the eco-conscious eater. We can consume less by using seasonings to add briny flavors associated with fish dishes to tofu, tempeh, beans, and other proteins, still satisfying taste buds without adding to the imminent crisis predicted—that worldwide fish and seafood populations may disappear before mid-century.

This is a beautiful book and I can’t wait to cook more of its fine, elegant recipes that are a fusion of tastes and cultural traditions.

Check the WRL catalog for Lucid Food and Louisa Shafia’s latest cookbook The New Persian Kitchen.

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Vegan and locavore enthusiast Jae Steele aims to educate us about food’s origins—that is, how far it might have traveled to reach your local grocery market. She wants to equip us with the know-how to minimize our impact on the planet and its inhabitants when shopping for plant-based food locally.

First, and foremost, she clearly values and encourages the infusion of fun and joy into your lifestyle, wherever you live. In her book, I finally met a vegan who acknowledges that there are eaters who just don’t like each and every vegetable—no force feeding here! You’ve only gotta eat foods you like.

It’s not enjoyable if you’re feeling shamed or guilted into it, so let’s focus on doing the best we can—and doing it joyfully.

Packed with useful information, Jae becomes an irresistible friend motivating you to thoughtfully plan weekly meals and seasonal produce shopping, and she makes it all so fun! Learn how to explore a variety of veggies and fruits seasonally. You already knew that folks are asking questions at the farmer’s market, but if you’re feeling tongue-tied, Jae will arm you with the knowledge to get out there and get to know your food and the farmers who grow it more intimately. She includes great details for creating an indoor composting system using red wriggler worms, which I seriously might try, because I’m not quite ready to garden beyond my deck and in pots, let alone start tilling the yard.

Recipes are supplemented with fact-filled charts on individual plants’ versatile uses and health benefits. Woven into Jae’s very clear instructions are tips that most cookbook authors fail to provide such as a thoughtful hint to zest the lemon before you slice into it for juicing—I tried to get the zest from an already-squeezed lemon once and have the scars to prove it!

Check the WRL catalog for Ripe from Around Here.

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Here, in the middle of the week, I’d like to address you middle-of-the-roaders about a book that ensures that veganism is not only for celebrities, that you mustn’t wait until you’re making big bucks to take the vegan plunge.

Victoria Moran gently instructs in the ways of being vegan, without judgment, without scolding those who claim to be vegans who eat fish (you either are or you aren’t a person who doesn’t eat animals), with only a subtle amount of coercion through the storytelling she feels obligated to impart, as a witness to the deaths of animals at slaughter and the horrific conditions of the dairy, poultry, pork, and other animal product industries. Some may have heard it all before—a lot of shocking videos circulate the internet—but for those of you who’ve been oblivious to this media outrage, her essays may cause you to pause before you order that next chicken sandwich.

Even if you’re already convinced that vegan is best, you feel handicapped by the outrageous price difference between organic, locally grown produce at the trendy farmers’ markets and the genetically modified, pesticide-coated, homogenous assortment in your supermarket and discount store grocery aisles! What to do???

Forty brief chapters with facts, personal stories, and guidelines introducing you to vegan concepts and cooking techniques each conclude with a recipe. It’s meant to make plant-based cuisine possible for every kind of eater with any kind of income, not just the elite many of us believe are the only folks who can actually afford to live a vegan, organic, eco-conscious, locavore’s lifestyle. Basically, the book is for those of us who live “main street” lives, not “Fifth Avenue” existences. Moran addresses the fact that wherever you are with these goals, it’s okay; you don’t have to do everything perfectly from the beginning.  Our heartstrings are often pulled by myriad causes. She nudges us in the most compassionate direction, and seems to want us to prioritize minimal impact on the animal world above concerns for our individual health if we truly wanna go vegan—are we okay with that? She challenges us to think about such things as we progress.

But you can only do what you can do, especially if you’re raising a family, and stretching paychecks has become an acrobatic feat.


For example, though we are encouraged to support the organic movement, which she says will become more affordable as demand increases (put your money where your mouth is), she’s realistic about such dilemmas as eating organic all the time being terribly more expensive. She helpfully elucidates a “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid if not organic and a “clean 15″ list of more economical fruits and vegetables you can buy without worrying over the lack of an organic label (sourced from Environmental Working Group).

A very comprehensive collection of appendices provide additional resources and bibliographies for those who want to take things to the next level, from where to go online for further research to where to buy your clothes, shoes, and household cleaning supplies without harming animals. This book is worth picking up even if it’s just for the to-die-for-yet-guiltless Chocolate Mousse recipe—putting together the unexpected ingredients required a leap of faith but I was astounded by the results.

Check the WRL catalog for Main Street Vegan.

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jacket.aspxPersonal chef to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Roberto trained as a master chef, not a master vegan chef! He learned to substitute meatless ingredients in his first week of employment with the celebrity couple who’d gone vegan. All I’m thinkin’ is: not vegan, doesn’t cook vegan, Ellen and Portia determined to live vegan, Roberto must have been spectacular in their eyes (and his references’) despite a lack of experience! I imagine a shortage of truly vegan chefs at this point in culinary history, so I suppose a truly fine chef can adapt. The proof is in the… truly tasty dishes you can create with his cookbook. Perhaps your favorite will be Red Beans and Rice—it’s Ellen’s—served each Monday.

Packed with “meaty” and “cheesy” recipes substituting vegan ingredients while aiming for equivalent texture and taste, vegans with a fond taste for burgers, quesadillas, pizza, pasta, and pork will find much to love. Now, in my household, in addition to trying to please the meat-lovers in my family with plant-based no-meat-or-dairy recipes, I’m avoiding refined sugars plus seeking real, cleaner food. And while some of the commercial ingredients need scrutiny, Roberto’s ingredients are fairly easy to identify, making vegan cooking more convenient for us busy folks. The “Breakfast” section delighted me by using no sugar other than natural fruits, Agave nectar, and pure maple syrup. Folks, it seems to me that going vegan shouldn’t equal loading up on sugar daily! “Desserts” will satisfy those who desire to live it up occasionally with such treats as the incredibly simple Pumpkin Pie and fiercely scrumptious chocolate cake, Vegan la Bête Noire (The Black Beast).

Very useful is the section “Condiments, Sauces, and Dressings,” recipes that should adequately substitute for some of the staple ingredients of meat-milk-and-cheese-eating culture, including cream cheese spread (using cashews, tofu, and savory seasonings), sweetened condensed nondairy milk with cornstarch, sugar, almond milk, and vanilla (used in “Desserts”), and a very passable Caesar Dressing with no eggs, anchovies, or cheese. I’d been looking for better natural salad dressings made without sugar or corn syrup and Roberto provides a variety.

This is a handsome book—well, Roberto’s on the cover, so that was easy—with color photos of real food, not fancy or over-garnished—how real [vegan] celebrities might eat on ordinary days in the privacy of their homes! Plus, this book helps you feed the true carnivores at your table without sacrificing your vegan principles. The text addresses ordinary cooks who love good food, family time, and entertaining. I absolutely love it when nearly all recipes are complemented with visuals to aid those of us without a personal chef. There are sweet photos of Roberto, his wife, and their son cooking together. Ellen wrote a nice afterword for their chef’s book and features him on her television show. Portia’s story told in the foreword brought tears to my eyes and may convert many a carnivore to veganism.

Search the WRL catalog for Vegan Cooking for Carnivores.

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This week, Mindy highlights titles from the rapidly growing universe of vegan cookbooks.

Embark on a culinary adventure with this mind-blowingly beautiful showcase of very elegant vegan cuisine, artfully presented in jewelescent photography and a very eye-pleasing graphic design format. I love the subtle color-coding of warmish pastel-tinted recipe pages that distinguish “morning” from “afternoon” and “evening,” closing with “late night” and “very late night” (for your midnight cravings). It’s refreshing—not the usual categories of breads, soups, salads, entrées, etc…, no entire meal plans either, just fine examples of fancy vegan recipe standouts to fall in love with.

Shuldiner wants his readers to venture into previously unexplored territory, recommending we give any intimidating or obscure items a first go even though it’s possible to substitute some ingredients with more familiar items. Thankfully, hard-to-find food items don’t predominate, but a few did have me searching online for definitions and sources: agar, yuba, sumac, and pomegranate molasses, not your every-day staples. A list of mail-order and online resources is included. Some of the exotic cooking implements he suggests I was not inclined to acquire—Shuldiner has a recipe for Chocolate-Tahini Timbales cooked in timbale (aka baba) molds, which will surely taste just as exquisite cooked in mini-muffin or popover tins (though not nearly as cute as the pictured “corks” or “bouchons” as they’re called). I’ll cook just about anything with the word “chocolate” involved.

Shuldiner doesn’t use this book to engage in any political or environmental debates about veganism. He merely aims to share his supreme vegan creations for those who want to enjoy imaginative plant-based recipes and to dispel any imaginings of vegan blandness. Gourmet-literate cooks who want to impress guests with fancy vegan food can’t go wrong with this lovely book, and there are many unique and appealing appetizers to try. Vegans, regardless of whether they consider themselves purist, can take their usual fare to the umpteenth level of class with these recipes.

Check the WRL Catalog for Pure Vegan.

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