26 April 2009

3 reviews for a stormy Sunday.

Eternal Eternal
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize was my favorite young-adult vampire tale of last summer (yeah, I’m coming out: totally not Team Edward), so I was pretty Beatlemania’d to hear she’d written a sequel (and eventually, a trilogy! Squee!). While Eternal doesn’t share an overarching narrative with Tantalize (nor, sadly, the mouthwatering Italian menu—though we are treated to an unorthodox dip for fresh-baked pumpkin bread), it’s set in the same world, where both vampires and all manner of werefolk exist (though the former keep a low profile, while the latter struggle for civil rights).
Here, Smith also introduces a new supernatural angle, in the form of guardian angel Zachary, who’s watched his charge Miranda grow into a sweet but awkward teenager with dreams of dramatic greatness. She ends up on a larger stage than she’s meant for one night when Zachary’s unauthorized interference keeps her from her destined death: he’s stripped of his wings, while she awakens as not only a vampire, but the adopted daughter/bride of the latest Dracula himself, royal head of the entire undead—sorry, “eternal” is the preferred nomenclature—population. Suddenly, Miranda is clumsily navigating the political machinations of the bloodsucking elite, desperately trying to stay on the unstable monarch’s good side, and oh yeah, drinking human blood. The fallen-but-still-immortal Zachary, on the other hand, is recruited from a slough of despond to accomplish a divine mission that remains unclear: but soon he’s Miranda’s new personal assistant, trying to balance his disgust for her lifestyle—and that of the other human servants, who somehow reconcile their duty to their masters with the presence of cell-bound “bleeding stock” in the basement—with his love for the girl she used to be, and maybe still is.
Told in Zachary’s and Miranda’s alternating voices, Eternal is a great addition to the ever-expanding vamp canon, switching up the usual outside-looking-in viewpoint and creating realms of Whedonesque moral ambiguity within the paranormal framework. Apparently Smith’s forthcoming title Blessed will feature crossovers between the casts of both Tantalize and Eternal. Here’s hoping the mozzarella, parmesan, and gorgonzola ravioli makes an appearance.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
by Matthew Algeo

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure if this is adorable or insufferable, or a combination of both, but when I’m reading a fact-based book that I like at all, I can’t stop interjecting salient (or not) points into conversation; it’s almost a tic, as my brain rushes to juxtapose newly absorbed information with whatever it is I and my interlocuters are discussing.

So here’s some stuff I babbled about while reading this chatty, charming travelogue about a road trip just-ex-president Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, took in the summer of 1953: Truman was the last president without a college degree, and the first to have a TV in the White House (2 grand, and I’m guessing the picture was iPhone-sized). He’d only been vice president eighty-two days when FDR died (I calculated this would be like Biden having taken over this Easter. But with, you know, a world war on). The genesis of the Trumans’ trip from Independence to the East Coast and back was Harry’s re-entrance into partisan politics—he gave a speech at the Reserve Officers Association convention in Philadelphia, blasting Eisenhower for, of all things, cutting the defense budget. Farther afield: the first motor vehicle fatality in the U.S. was in 1899, when Henry Bliss exited a streetcar at 74th St. and Central Park West and was mowed down by an electric-powered taxicab. The first cross-country automobile trip was undertaken on a $50 bet by a doctor and his chauffeur, who in 1903 drove from San Francisco to New York in only six weeks. By 1925, the same trip was possible in under a hundred hours; today, you can do it in forty-eight.

The journey, unprecedented and unsuceeded, was covered in excruciating detail by local and national press; though Truman dearly longed to retreat into civilian life, folks recognized him everywhere, and despite the fact that he’d left office with a record-settingly grim 22% approval rating (only recently equaled), people were thrilled to see him. Algeo’s research included as often as possible driving over the same roads, eating at the same diners (the Trumans were big fans of fruit, and good tippers), and staying in the same lodging as Harry and Bess. In many ways, the book is also a synecdoche on the change and erosion of rural America, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the ex-presidency. During the 1800s, plenty of former chief executives simply faded into obscurity and poverty (Franklin Pierce apparently drank himself to death). Truman had no presidential pension and hadn’t been a senator long enough to have a congressional pension (and having been a government employee, he wasn’t eligible for Social Security), so his only income was from his stint as an Army colonel in WWI: $111.96 a month. He also wasn’t entitled to Secret Service protection (and would have chafed at it anyway).

The picture that emerges of Harry should be familiar to anyone with Midwestern ancestors: a genial, practical, plainspoken gent with a twinkle in his eye and a nigh-unlimited capacity for handshakes. He was fierce in his convictions, and devoted to his wife (when a Washington newspaper referred to Bess as “dumpy,” he countered that she looked exactly as a woman of her age was supposed to look). He loved little better than driving (even as commander-in-chief, he sometimes piloted his own limousine). And he drove, almost always, a little too fast.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry

by Leanne Shapton

rating: 4 of 5 stars
You’ve (almost certainly) never heard of the movie Repo! The Genetic Opera, so let me elucidate: it’s a gory horror musical, the magnum opus of the director of the first four “Saw” flicks, set in a near-future dystopia where designer organs are available on the installment plan—but if you don’t make your payments on time, the repo man (played by Anthony Stewart Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 80s Taster’s-Choice-commercial fame) comes a-callin’, to extricate the defaulted-upon pound or so of flesh, all the while trying to protect his beloved daughter from the imprecations of the world. Also, Paris Hilton is totally in it, and her face totally falls off. It’s not good per se—the music is grating and repetitive, for one—but within its palette of blacks and blues and bloody reds, it’s one of the most beautiful movies in my recent memory (seriously, I’d compare it to Moulin Rouge on the opposite side of the spectrum), and there is this to say for it, which means a lot to me lately: it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

An equally singular but far more successful work of art, Important Artifacts starts with an ingenious concept: to chronicle the forging, progression, and unraveling of a romantic relationship through the cast-off possessions of the couple, told in the form of an auction catalog. In photographs, documents, and dispassionate explanatory prose, author Leanne Shapton brings food writer Lenore Doolan and itinerant photographer Harold Morris to heartbreaking life. Here, an envelope of confetti she mailed him for a New Year’s they were apart. There, the contents of his shaving kit on a trip they took to Venice; there are five different kinds of over-the-counter sedative. Two pairs of clogs: “One pair powder blue women’s, size 8, the other red, men’s size 11. Some scuffing to leather.” Perhaps my favorite “lot” is 1204, a set of duplicate paperbacks from Lenore and Hal’s blended libraries, ironically containing twin titles of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

The meticulous collection and assembly behind the book is staggering, but it’s the stark poignancy of so many ordinary objects that really amazes me. This is the detritus of love: the battered toothbrush cup they shared, homemade mix CDs, scribbled conversations on theater programs. There’s no breakup “scene,” no final fight. After a few years of photos of the two on Halloween there is suddenly a sketch by Lenore of costumes for her and her sister. There are champagne corks and crumbling pressed flowers. There are, in the end, only indifferent things as witness to who these people were to each other.

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