Tuesday, July 22, 2014

As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni (2013)

One reason I like Robert Antoni's As Flies to Whatless Boys (2013) may be that it features some fictional correspondence with the Director of the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives. The reason that I loved the novel, though, is because the archivist has fictional sex with the "Robert Antoni" character, but still refuses to let him make photocopies of the diary he is using to write the story how his great-great grandfather came to Trinidad. PHOTOCOPIES ARE AGAINST THE RULES, DUDE! She will, however, gladly continue to have sex with him while he is in town.

Antoni's relatives came to Trinidad from England in 1845 as part of a group attached to the eccentric German inventor John Adolphus Etzler, who has taken their investments to begin a utopian commune in rural Trinidad where they can all make their fortunes. Fifteen-year-old Willy has come with his parents and three sisters. Also on the long boat ride to the island is Marguerite Whitechurch, a beautiful and mute girl a few years older than Willy with whom he is pretty seriously in love. As you might expect, things don't really work out with the utopian society, and they don't work out in a rather desperate way.

The narrative bounces back and forth between the 1845 boat trip, the year leading up to their departure, the first few months in Trinidad, a grown up Willy telling the story of his arrival in Trinidad to his son as he prepares for his first trip back to England, and the modern day author's research in the T&T National Archives (told for us through the Trinidadian email vernacular of Miss Ramsol, the archivist). We also get newspaper clippings, sketches from his father's journal, and other wide-ranging primary sources. This narrative bounciness takes a little bit of getting used to, but if you are a smart reader who likes something different, this will make you happy instead of sad. And it isn't totally out of control -- this isn't Cloud Atlas (although sometimes it does give you a bit of that feeling).

Uniquely, the book features an online appendix consisting of a couple of artistic short films and a series of recreated documents. Even if you never plan to read the book, the appendix is worth poking around in -- his historically accurate reproductions are impressive and don't really provide any spoilers if you think you'll read the book later. This is the kind of thing that I would ordinarily find really gimmicky, but in the context of this book it absolutely works. The pieces are perfectly crafted and really do add a depth and context to the narrative that is missing from the book alone. It was definitely a risk (like much of the narrative itself), but I'd say it paid off.

[I got my copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.]

Friday, July 11, 2014

Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece (2013)

Oh hell yes. Just look at this cover. Don't you want to be eating a breakfast taco right now? If you are someone who has never had a breakfast taco, you should get this book and get inspired. If you love breakfast tacos as much as I do, you should get this book and expand your repertoire. I, in fact, borrowed my copy of Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece (2013) from the great Austin Public Library, but I could see myself buying my own copy for reference and inspiration.

This book was written by two of the guys behind the Taco Journalism blog (which is so great!). The book is divided into four sections: a history of the breakfast taco in general and in Austin; an overview of the parts of a breakfast taco; interviews with various Austinites about their relationship with breakfast tacos and their personal recipes; and a guided tour of some of the best places to get a breakfast taco in Austin (with a map). The whole book is nicely illustrated with full-color photographs and just generally well produced.

My favorite part (besides looking at pictures of tacos and drooling) is reading everyone's recipes for making breakfast tacos at home. I love breakfast tacos but I don't really like leaving the house, and my favorite weekend tradition is a lazy morning of breakfast tacos and coffee. Or breakfast tacos for dinner! I make mine in a million different combinations depending on what I have in the house, but here is my system for my favorite breakfast taco of them all, potato, egg and cheese:

1. Dice some potatoes into about 1/2 inch cubes, making sure to get them all the same size.
2. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet and add the potatoes when it gets hot. Let them hang out in there for longer than you think you should so they get all brown on one side, then do some flipping and waiting until they are brown all over. Add some salt and pepper.
3. Add a splash or two of water, turn down the heat, and cover so they can get nice and creamy on the inside.
4. Crack 3-4 eggs into a large bowl, splash in a splash of milk, add some cumin and cayenne pepper to taste and whisk it all up.
5. Heat some butter in another skillet over low heat and dump in those eggs. Add a little salt and pepper and scramble them up. Don't overcook them, because that is so sad!
6. Check on the potatoes -- if the water is soaked up and they taste done, add another dash of salt and pepper and stir them up.
7. Heat up flour tortillas in a dry cast iron skillet or over the gas burner.
8. Put some potatoes and eggs in a tortilla, top with shredded cheddar, and add some salsa.

To fancy it up, you can add sliced jalapenos or other peppers to the potatoes or fry up some bacon and cook the eggs in the bacon grease and then put bacon on your taco too.

Now eat your breakfast taco!

[And if you want something to brighten your day, watch author Mando Rayo present Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell with an authentic and delicious breakfast taco as part of an intervention after the Mayor said that the Mexican fast food chain Taco Cabana had the best breakfast tacos in austin.]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Katherine Beck (2003)

I ran across this copy of Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Katherine Beck (2003) in a rambling used book store in New Orleans on a recent trip and although I'd never heard the bizarre story of Opal Whitely before, it really caught my eye and I decided to haul it home to Texas with me.

Opal Whitely grew up in small logging towns in late 19th-century Oregon, gained regional fame as a nature-lover and teacher of young children, and went on to reinvent herself as an orphan, a victim of child abuse, the secret daughter of daughter of Henri, Prince of Orléans, and the child bride of the Prince of Wales. During the course of her adventures she published two books, was kidnapped by a very weird group of rich theosophists, tried to seduce Amelia Earhart's husband, and had a steamy sex scandal with a swami who turned out to be a fellow con-artist.

The core of the Opal story is her second book, The Story of Opal, which was originally published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly in 1920. Opal claimed that this was the text of a diary she kept when she was 6 and 7 that her mean younger sister had torn into pieces. She had carried the pieces around with her for years and painstakingly reassembled them when the editor of the magazine showed an interest. Hidden in the diary are all kinds of clues about her "real" parents, including French phrases that Opal claims she didn't know the meaning of. The diary was a huge hit upon its publication, although many readers thought that the diary was a hoax and could not have been written by a young girl. The Whitely family insisted that Opal (the oldest of four children) was a Whitely and not a member of the French aristocracy and pointed out that she looked remarkably like all her sisters. The investigations into the diary led to some negative publicity and stopped the publication of a second volume, but by that time Opal was on her way to India, then Italy and England.

Although she had (and still has) many true believers, I think it is pretty obvious that Opal was a mentally ill woman with the ability to talk her way into people's lives, and that her illness increased in severity as she aged. She, in fact, spent the last 40+ years of her life in an asylum in England, although she continued to receive money and visits from her friends and fans until her death in the early 1990s.

While the story of Opal is inherently fascinating, Beck's rendition of it could be a little better. The book reads relatively smoothly, but as an archivist I find a history book without citations, a bibliography, an index, or footnotes to be a little ridiculous. Still, Beck obviously did her research in this book, including in person interviews with Opal's descendents that provide an interesting coda to the Opal story.

[You seriously need to read all about Opal, even if you don't read this book.]

[The truly devoted can check out her irritating / inspiring diary for themselves on this amazing site!]

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories by Nicholas Gurewitch (2007)

I was browsing around at my local library and saw this copy of The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories by Nicholas Gurewitch (2007). Even though there hasn't been much updating over the past several years, The Perry Bible Fellowship is still one of my favorite sites on the internet, and I was so happy to see its wonder captured in hard-cover book form.

Gurewitch published The Perry Bible Fellowship's amazing comics in various newspapers in the mid-2000s. I didn't find out about it until a few years ago when I quickly devoured the comics he has up on the PBF web site, linked above. If you haven't experienced them, spend a few minutes diving into the horrible wonder (like this, or this, or this).

The full-color book is nicely produced and contains a bunch of comics from the site mixed in with at least some that I had never seen before. At the end are some annotated outtakes and extras that provide a little insight into Gurewitch's comic-making system. The three-panel format is a perfect constraint for the rough chuckles in these tiny, harsh, universes.


You should probably just read all of these and then check out the book. Click here for a random one!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1924)

I bought a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' amazingly-covered and titled Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924) at a thrift store in Omaha a couple years ago when I was home visiting family. Then last month while I was in New Orleans I bought another copy of the exact same edition at a used book store in the French Quarter. Apparently something about Tarzan, ant men, and the weird dudes on the cover of this book appeal to me... I was able to find a home for my second copy and quickly moved this one up to the top of my reading pile before I accidentally bought it yet again.

According to Wikipedia, this book represents Burroughs at the height of his writing powers and is one of the strongest in the Tarzan series. I'd half agree with that -- part of this book was a tight and interesting adventure with a well-developed sci-fi aspect, but the other half was a dragging and predictable trudge with some pretty ugly views on gender roles.

Our adventure starts when Tarzan (in full Lord Greystoke mode) insists on flying the small plane his son taught him how to pilot on a mega-solo adventure over the African plains. His son protests that he should at least bring a mechanic with him, but Tarzan is pretty stubborn and goes up by himself. He loses track of time and space and ends up crash-landing in an isolated part of the country that is surrounded by an impenetrable ring of thorn bushes (this set up really reminded me of the Oz books!).

Within this ring, two separate races had evolved: the Alali and the Minunians. Tarzan first meets with the Alali, a race of non-verbal Neanderthals where the women are strong and aggressive and the men are scared weaklings who hide alone in the jungle eating roots and waiting for a woman to capture them for some violent mating.

As Burroughs puts it: "The hideous life of the Alalus was the natural result of the unnatural reversal of sex dominance. It is the province of the male to initiate love and by his masterfulness to inspire first respect, then admiration in the breast of the female he seeks to attract. Love itself developed after these other emotions. The gradually increasing ascendency of the female Alalus over the male eventually prevented the emotions of respect and admiration for the male from being aroused, with the result that love never followed.

"Having no love for her mate and having become a more powerful brute, the savage Alalus woman soon came to treat the members of the opposite sex with contempt and brutality with the result that the power, or at least the desire, to initiate love ceased to exist in the heart of the male—he could not love a creature he feared and hated, he could not respect or admire the unsexed creatures that the Alali women had become, and so he fled into the forests and the jungles and there the dominant females hunted him lest their race perish from the earth." (Chapter 3)

Sigh.

Tarzan is captured by an Alali woman while he is unconscious from the plane crash, but ends up escaping from her cave with one of her sons, who he teaches to use a bow and arrow and generally stand up for himself around jungle animals.

One day, when wandering around and exploring on his own, Tarzan comes across an Alali woman attacking a small group of very small men (about 1/4 the size of a regular human) riding little antelopes. He saves the men, including Prince Komodoflorensal of the Trohanadalmakus (the names!) and is taken back to their city and treated as a hero. He gets to know and admire their structured and war-like (and ant-like) society and truly enjoys the company of the prince and the king.

One day, during a raid from a rival group of Minunians, Tarzan is overwhelmed by the small warriors, taken prisoner, and made into a slave back in their town. This second group of small people happen to have a scientist in their ranks who is trying to learn the secret of making small men big, but who so far has only succeeded in making big men small, which he proceeds to do to Tarzan. There are some pretty great adventure sequences as Tarzan and the prince (who was also captured) escape from slavery and take a sweet slave girl with them.


Sprinkled through the detailed descriptions of the Minunians and their society is some prohibition / WWI enhanced political debate:

"'In theory, but not in fact,' replied Gefasto. 'It is true that the rich pay the bulk of the taxes into the treasury of the king, but first they collect it from the poor in higher prices and other forms of extortion, in the proportion of two jetaks for every one that they pay to the tax collector. The cost of collecting this tax added to the loss in revenue to the government by the abolition of wine and the cost of preventing the unscrupulous from making and selling wine illicitly would, if turned back into the coffers of the government, reduce our taxes so materially that they would fall as a burden upon none.'

"'And that, you think, would solve our problems and restore happiness to Veltopismakus?' asked Gofoloso.

"'No,' replied his fellow prince. 'We must have war. As we have found that there is no enduring happiness in peace or virtue, let us have a little war and a little sin. A pudding that is all of one ingredient is nauseating —it must be seasoned, it must be spiced, and before we can enjoy the eating of it to the fullest we must be forced to strive for it. War and work, the two most distasteful things in the world, are, nevertheless, the most essential to the happiness and the existence of a people. Peace reduces the necessity for labor, and induces slothfulness. War compels labor, that her ravages may be effaced. Peace turns us into fat worms. War makes men of us.'" (Chapter 10)

Eventually, Tarzan heads back to the real world, but before he crosses the thorny barrier, he meets up with his Alalus friend. Things have really changed for their society since Tarzan entered the picture:

"Very proud, the son of The First Woman explained to Tarzan as best he could the great change that had come upon the Alali since the ape-man had given the men weapons and the son of The First Woman had discovered what a proper use of them would mean to the males of his kind. Now each male had a woman cooking for him—at least one, and some of them—the stronger—had more than one.

"To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken in the land of the Zertalacolols, the son of The First Woman seized a female by the hair and dragging her to him struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own glowing with love and admiration." (Chapter 21)

Double sigh.

I love Burroughs and I can accept that my modern eyes are going to be stung a bit by the casual racism and sexism that trots through all his books (and particularly his Tarzan books), but the sub-plot of the Alali was a little too much, even for a mega-fan. Still, the good stuff is super good and if you can power through the cringeworthy parts, this is a pretty great example of the power of Burroughs.

[Want to read the whole thing but weren't the lucky friend who got my duplicate copy? No prob, Bob, check it out here for free.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Joe by Larry Brown (1991)

I meant to read Dr. Mystery's copy of Joe by Larry Brown (1991) before we saw the recent David Gordon Green movie staring Nicholas Cage. Alas, the size of my reading pile bit me in the ass and I didn't end up reading it until a couple of months after we saw the movie. Lucky for me this is one of those rare cases where both the movie and the book are great, but in slightly different ways, so experiencing one before the other doesn't put you at a disadvantage.

Joe is almost fifty, divorced, a serious drinker, done hard time. He has hit an equilibrium in his life that involves working a crew of men in seasonal work to kill second growth forest and replace it with high dollar pine trees. It also involves a lot of gambling, drinking, driving around in his truck, and, occasionally, making really bad decisions.

Gary and his family walk into town carrying all their possessions and dragging along his mean drunk of a father. They come across a long-abandoned house in the country and decide to stay. To support his mother and mute sister, Gary picks up cans and tries to get odd jobs. He doesn't really know how old he is, but he says he's fifteen. He ends up working on Joe's tree-killing crew and Joe takes an interest in seeing that the kid is okay. That's pretty hard to do when a kid is in a situation like Gary's.

This is a rough book: a mix of almost poetic observations on the Mississippi countryside combined with sudden violence, harsh reality, and crushing, honestly rendered poverty. All the people in Joe are broken: some of them turned out to be made of mean pieces, others to be made of mostly good pieces. There are no real happy endings in this book. There are small victories and tiny pleasures, but there isn't any real salvation or redemption, no real way to dig yourself out of the hole you were born in (or that you dug yourself). This is a wonderfully written novel, filled with perfect dialogue and moving descriptions, and readers shouldn't let themselves be turned off by the sad storyline. This is the first Larry Brown novel I've read, and I can't wait to read more.

[p.s. The movie is great too!]

Monday, May 26, 2014

My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012)

My Debbie Downer book club picked a hell of a sad title this time around. My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012) tells the story of the 1937 explosion of the junior high / high school in New London, Texas -- still the largest death toll of any school disaster in the United States.

New London is in East Texas, near Tyler, about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport. In 1937, the depression was hitting the country hard, but the oil fields near New London made it a very prosperous part of the country. Single men and families moved there for work and they used some of that oil money to build one of the nicest new school buildings in the country.

Like many businesses and private residences in the area, the school decided to tap into the natural gas lines from the near-by oil wells to get free gas for the school. The oil companies used a little bit of the gas to run the wells, but most of it was just burned off and tapping into the lines was one of the benefits of living in an oil town. Towards the end of the day on March 18, 1937, gas from a leak built up in the large crawl space under the school and the building exploded when the industrial arts teacher turned on some equipment in the storage space. Over 295 people died, most of them children.

Rozelle's book starts with the feeling of a novel, giving us a look at the lives of the families, students, and teachers during the day before the explosion. While this technique doesn't always work for me, in this case I found it to be really effective and moving. As the narrative gets closer and closer to the explosion and its aftermath, I found myself having to put the book down to take a break and grab a kleenex.

The book goes on to give a more traditional historical view of the disaster and then moves us to present day New London to introduce some of the survivors who have collected material, created a museum with an archival collection, and raised a monument to a tragedy that for years was not spoken of by the people in the town who wanted to forget that day.

Living as an archivist involved with the history of Texas, I can't believe I'd never heard of this before. The book is a quick read and I'd recommend it to all Texans and anyone out there with an interest in history or crying.

You can read more about the disaster here and watch a fascinating contemporary newsreel of the event (which inflates the death toll) here.