Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

My Debbie Downer book club decided to read something about World War I this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and since none of us had read Hemingway's Very Important Novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929) before, and we knew it had a sad ending, it seemed like a good pick.

I had never read any of Hemingway's novels before, although I had read quite a few short stories and I had an idea of what I thought about Hemingway and his writing style going into this (important, influential, but also super masculine and difficult for me to really grasp onto). I won't lie, I didn't love this book, and I guess I knew I wouldn't really love it going into the thing, but I do love having read it, since I think it's an important part of American literature and now I can say I don't really like Hemingway with the authority of someone who has actually read a whole novel.

A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Frederic Henry, an American man who is serving as a Lieutenant in the Italian army's ambulance corps, before the U.S. has entered the war. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, a British nurse serving in a hospital in Italy, and they soon fall in love. After Henry is wounded in the knee, he is transferred to Milan to convalesce and Catherine nurses him back to health and ends up pregnant. After a series of disillusioning adventures, Henry ends up going AWOL, reuniting with Catherine, and escaping to Switzerland. You probably already know how the book ends, and it is not happy. 

Someone asked me if this book was a romance and my answer is that I think Hemingway thought it was supposed to be, but I don't see how any woman could read the character of Catherine and think she was a) a realistic portrayal of a woman, b) that she actually loved Hemingway, or c) that anyone could actually love her. The classic brusque Hemingway dialogue means that the scenes between Frederic and Catherine are clipped and forced. She alternates between inexplicable moodiness at the beginning to an even more inexplicable complete surrender to anything Frederic wants to do at the end (with a brief bit of fire and irritability when she is actually in labor, but we see where that gets her). Frederic is apparently devoted to her but also seems just as devoted to drinking and (at first) the war effort and (later) avoiding any mention of the war.

It's easy to see why this was an important and popular book when it was released in 1929, ten years after the war. It would appeal to veterans, to their families, and to all the people who now felt the same disillusionment and fatalism as Frederic. I don't think the book ages well, and with the (lack of) character of Catherine, it doesn't hold much appeal for at least this 21st century American woman. 

And I'm not discounting Hemingway entirely -- I would totally give The Sun Also Rises a fair shot.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Today is Here by Don Blanding (1946)

I won this signed copy of Today is Here by Don Blanding (1946) in a raffle at an archives conference. I'd never heard of Blanding before, but this was a lovely little book of poems and drawings and I figured my reading it was meant to be.

Little did I know, Don Blanding (1894-1957) was quite a man. In fact, according to a fan's web site, he was "Author of such classics as Vagabond's House, Hula Moons and Drifter's Gold ~ Hawaiian Poet Laureate and Founder of Lei Day ~ Artist ~ Restless Vagabond ~ Designer of Vernon Kilns Dinnerware, Greeting Cards and Hawaiian Clothing ~ Songwriter ~ Theatrical Actor, Director and Producer of Musicals ~ Soldier ~ Lecturer ~ Radio, Film and Television Personality ~ Newspaper Columnist." That's a pretty amazing life! Blanding was born in Oklahoma and studied art in Chicago for a couple years before serving in WWI. After the war he studied art in Europe and then settled in Hawaii where he wrote poems for advertisers in a newspaper. His poems became very popular on the island and after locally publishing a few volumes of poems and art, he got a New York publisher and became famous, married a socialite, lived all over the world, got divorced, and never lost his passion for Hawaii (he is, indeed, known as the poet laureate of the island and founder of the holiday Lei Day).

The poetry in the book alternates between goofy and overly serious, and often has the plodding earnestness of something you might find in Reader's Digest. That being said, this was popular stuff in the mid-1940s and while it might not be super literary, there is a definite appeal to Blanding's writing style. Today is Here shows how deeply WWII affected Blanding and many of the poems are reactions to the atmosphere of war. The drawings, on the other hand, are more consistently enjoyable than the poetry to a modern eye. Beautiful, crisp, black ink drawings -- some are of people but many (and the best) are nature scenes, some of which move into pleasing repeating patterns. The drawings really make the book something you want to own and return to.

As a taste of one of my favorite non-serious poems in the book, here is the first verse of "Hollywood Boulevard" (and the verses just get better from here):

Hollywood Boulevard... Hollywood Boulevard
Quite unbelievable, gay-wild-and-woolyvard.
Overgrown Main Street, slightly inane street,
Frivolous, drivelous, frothy and vain street.
Not quite as bawdy and gaudy as Broadway
But far better known than that publicized Fraud-Way.
Simple, in some ways, as any small village street
And yet it's as hardboiled as New York's big thrillage street.
Diamonds and dungarees, barefoot and wedges,
Satin brocade that is frayed at the edges,
A funny fantasia, frantic and furious,
Blending of genuine, phony and spurious.
Hollywood's Super-Colossal production
Of pathos and beauty, of sin and seduction.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere, you have probably heard of Gillian Flynn's best selling novel, Gone Girl (2012), soon to be released as a David Fincher film. I'm always interested to know what all the fuss is about, so when I heard that my friend Corie had the book, I asked to borrow it.

And folks, there is a reason this book is so popular -- it's a damn compelling read with unpredictable twists and deliciously unreliable narrators. Those narrators are our protagonist/antagonists Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who are celebrating the fifth anniversary of a rocky marriage when Amy suddenly disappears under suspicious circumstances and Nick becomes the center of a police investigation and media circus that have all but convicted him as his wife's murderer. The first half of the book alternates between Nick's experiences starting the day of Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diary entries going back to when the two of them first met in New York City. They were both writers at the time -- Nick for glossy popular culture magazines, and Amy doing quizzes for glossy women's magazines. Amy is the daughter of two extremely popular (and rich) children's book authors (the Amazing Amy series which is loosely based on her life) and has a trust fund that means she doesn't really have to work, but she does anyway. When the economy tanks, both Nick and Amy are laid off, Amy's parents need to borrow on her trust fund to stay afloat (Amazing Amy books aren't selling they way they used to) and since Nick's mother is dying of cancer, the two of them move to an isolated McMansion in Nick's small hometown in Missouri. Things were already going pretty poorly between them and the move and isolation from Amy's friends and family don't help things. In fact, Nick looks pretty suspicious from every angle, even his own. Until about halfway through the book when the first twist hits.

I'm not going to spoil what happens (although as a person who flips forward in a book to check out the structure, the chapter headings gave a bit of it away to me right away), but I will say that everyone is a little more complicated than they are originally presented and things just get muddier and muddier and more page turning as the book goes on. The ending is nice and ambiguous with no real comeuppance or tied up loose ends, which is just the way I like them. This isn't a work of great literature, but it is good at what it does -- sometimes all the buzz can really lead you in the right direction...

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!