29 June 2009

Nom nom nom.

Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Coctktails and Appetizers Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Coctktails and Appetizers by Kathy Casey

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Appetizers may well be my favorite food group. Dips, spreads, baskets of bread, crudités, amuse-bouches, miniature what-have-you, any variety of fried cheese, from saganaki to jalapeño poppers. My new cookbook boyfriend Sips & Apps combines an array of pre-or outside-meal noshes with a section of horizon-expanding libations, the latter of which has served to lift me well above my college-honed here’s-some-booze-here’s-some-mixer drink-makin’ skills. I’ve become a lime-squeezing, simple-syrup-dolloping, cocktail-shaking fool: fresh margaritas with a touch of chili, sunset-pink hibiscus rum punch, a concoction of cucumber, lime, and soju (Korean sweet potato vodka) as subtle and refreshing as a good night’s sleep with a kitten curled on your pillow. I find myself longing for winter, to try the Harvest Pumpkin Toddy (like pie laced with brandy!) or the Holiday Hot-Buttered Rum. As for the nibbles, I haven’t had a less-than-perfect one yet, though the bacon, blue cheese, and pecan “cocktail cookies” are early standouts. The dishes are well and unusually spiced (a roasted red pepper and almond spread, e.g., is perked up with orange juice), and yield just enough for one to have leftovers after a party or film festival or art opening—or whatever excuse you generate to keep cooking.

28 June 2009

Recent reads.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh: irrestible after Bright Young People. My St. John's College text-in-a-vacuum background doesn't predispose me towards wanting to know whence fiction is derived, but it was pretty great to know how much of VB was excruciatingly accurate. Fascinating, too, that Waugh satirized his best friends in such sharp terms, and that it didn't by historical account cause any kind of break. The BYP, it seems, were perfectly capable of laughing at themselves.
The ending is downright bizarre, similar to the same shift in tone that comes at the end of A Handful of Dust--the former ends with a world war (prescient and inevitable), the latter with the more-or-less hero stranded in Africa, forced to read the works of Dickens out loud to a local potentate. Dust is weirder, but even before his conversion, Waugh had a very Catholic notion of downfall.

Right now, I'm reading (Re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin, a sequel to the great teen novel Cycler which I read and reviewed last October. In this one, Jill, Jack, and the body they share move to Brooklyn (lucky bastards). Complications ensue. It's not as good as the first book--the twin selves' horror at the casual sexuality they encounter (most notably a group of Williamsburg hipsters who swap girls like baseball cards--and boy is that a dated metaphor) is a bit forced. But both voices remain sympathetic and distinct. And I think I'm gonna move.

And I'm really meaning to start Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution (Alex Storozynski), about the Polish-born Revolutionary War hero I first learned about through Kate Beaton's brill webcomic. Mr. Show, if only you stopped being funny the dozenth time through, I could stop watching you at night when I should be reading...

Long way round.

N.B.: I am not particularly happy with this review. It is maddeningly nonspecific, whereas the novel is awash in detail; it's impressionistic, where the book is sharply defined. It's also heartwrenching without being the least bit manipulative. I don't know how she pulls that off.

The Scenic Route: A Novel (P.S.) The Scenic Route: A Novel by Binnie Kirshenbaum

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m glad I finished this novel over a lunch break at work; else, I would have had to curl up someplace and bawl for a while. From the very beginning, The Scenic Route is about endings.

Sylvia Landsman, fortyish, divorced, childless, having been laid off from a job she didn’t care about, decides to go to Florence. There, she meets Henry, an expatriate whose marriage of convenience provides him with means and opportunity for a life of utter frivolity and leisure. Together, they set off on an aimless, luxurious jaunt through Europe, somehow outside of time and space, though conducted in five-star hotels and beholden to a deadline: eventually, Henry’s wife will return from her travels, to him, and he to her.

On long drives through landscapes, Sylvia tells Henry stories, rich expanses of unimportant detail, stretching back generations, while avoiding the uneasy climax of her most important story—the betrayal by omission of her best friend. But as she says, stories only have happy endings if you end them too soon, and the choices we make, though in many ways inevitable, are still our responsibility.

And all that makes the novel sound dark, doesn’t it? It’s not, though there’s plenty of grief to go around. Kirshenbaum’s facility with language locates beauty and humor everywhere, and the novel duplicates the process of getting to know someone so well that we’re ready to forgive Sylvia her cowardice, because it’s so like our own. “The Scenic Route” is that wonderful mix of wry, witty, and unutterably tragic—you know, like life. Where the destination’s known, but there are so many ways to get there.

15 June 2009

My dear, it was too, too sick-making!

And here is where a sense of history comes in handy: I stayed up too late last night finishing D.J. Taylor's marvelous history Bright Young People, about the eponymous "set" that ruled Mayfair in the 20s, immortalized (to me, at least) in Evelyn Waugh's gloriously vicious and viciously glorious novel Vile Bodies. Reading about these indolent, pathologically pleasure-seeking personalities, fond of drink, pranks (they once mounted an exhibition of paintings by "Bruno Hat," a completely fictitious modernist painter) and fancy dress parties (the Circus Party, the Second Childhood Party, the Impersonation Party), happily mixing high and low culture, openly tolerant of homosexuality: well, they're terribly familiar, is what they are. They're ancestral hipsters. How different is the Zombie Prom I went to in February from the Mozart Party--my friends and I killing a bottle of champagne in the next doorway over from the club, taking pictures all the while; they, debouching from the fete in the wee hours, pausing for snapshots of their periwigged and flounced crowd posing with a nonplussed road crew fixing a pothole in Piccadilly. Their symbiotic relationship with the gossip columns smacks of Facebook's relentless self-promotion. Even their eventual mainstreaming echoes modern laments: "Like many a youth movement," Taylor writes, "they began unobtrusively, found themselves seized upon by a grateful media and were rapidly converted into a stylized and decadent version of their original form. Their great days were over by 1929: thereafter the stunts tended to be stage-managed, the entertainments pallid imitations of what had gone before, the territory colonized by younger acolytes."

There's a viewpoint which sees these commonalities and says, "See? You think you're being so original, but it's all been done." Me, I think it's great. I feel plugged into past subcultures in the same way that, baking a cake from scratch or knitting a sock, I'm part of an ancient feminine domestic tradition; or reading Homer I'm sharing a narrative experience with millenia of scholars and storytellers.

And Taylor taught me three new words! Epicene, androgynous; ukase, decree (from Russian, a pronouncement by the tsar that had the force of law); echt, from the German for genuine (which I should have remembered from that line from The Waste Land: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt Deutsch"). Great, great book.

09 June 2009

Manifesto stylings

Destroy All Cars Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up Destroy All Cars because I recognized Blake Nelson’s name from back when, in the mists of the early 90s, excerpts of his first teen novel, Girl, were published in my much-beloved (now much-missed) Sassy magazine. The chapters were a sharp and vivid exploration of the emotional wasteland of adolescence, which I was traversing at the time. Destroy All Cars, Nelson’s latest novel, mines the same tumultuous territory, now (for me) bittersweet nostalgia. (Nelson also wrote Paranoid Park, which Gus Van Sant made into a movie, so it must have been pretty good.)

Seventeen-year-old James Hoff is furious with humankind, particularly the “CONSUMER AMERICANS” who surround him; he sees the destruction of the environment and climate change as willful but oblivious suicide. Not that he really minds the idea of his species wiping itself out, but he’s afraid the planet will go with it. But rather than “get involved” like his ex-girlfriend (and still feminine ideal) Sadie, who’s head of the school’s Activist Club, James confines his venting to the AP English essays scattered throughout the book, bending the assignments (to his teacher’s dismay) to fit his favorite topics: greed, hypocrisy, and the scourge of the automobile.

James reminds me a bit of the like-named protagonist of Peter Cameron’s brilliant Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, both in his profound unhappiness and his wry dismantling of other people’s foibles. He views Sadie’s petitions and canned-food drives and bike-path campaigns as hopelessly insignificant (one of the reasons they broke up), but his anger offers only impossible solutions: Stop having children. Destroy all cars. The novel is often funny—particularly James’ fruitless search for a new girlfriend and his interactions with his long-suffering English teacher (who, after one essay, forbids him to use any more “manifesto stylings”), and James does grow as a person, however much he’d hate the phrase. There’s a sadness, though, to the compromises of maturity; perhaps if we could tap into the ardor of youth from time to time, we’d be better off.

05 June 2009


A couple of unfinished galleys, noted in passing:

Slanted & Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Kaya Oakes: I don't have a problem with hipsters or academics (unless, of course, they have a problem with me. Then all bets are off), but the first 50 pages of this confirmed that I hate Hipster Academics. Particularly ones whose sense of history only goes back to the Beats--who, yes, did some new stuff, but the way they did it owes a lot to the Jazz Age, the Bloomsbury set, and back and back through the bohemian ages.

Vanessa and Virginia, Susan Sellers
And speaking of the Bloomsbury set . . . if you write a novel about the Stephens sisters, people are going to think about Virginia Woolf's writing while they're reading it, so try to use other than simple declarative sentences and flat, oft-repeated similes, yes?

And while I did finish the Joni Mitchell biography, it kind of made me hate Joni Mitchell.

01 June 2009

Hi, blog! Remember me?

Theater has been eating my life for the past month, as well as general don't-wanna-ness. So herewith, what I've been reading:

Ink for an Odd Cartography, Michele Battiste (Black Lawrence Press)

Let’s go with full transparency here, right from the start: I know Michele, from my stint in WSU’s MFA program in 2004, and I’ve visited her regularly since she moved to Astoria, Queens. Last August, her then-nine-month-old son, Henry, fell swooningly in love with me (and vice versa, really), drenching any accessible surface of me in inept baby kisses, even my feet. So yeah, vested interest, if affection, respect, and belletristic esteem are murky motives.

But I think you’ll find, upon picking up Michele’s first full-length poetry collection, Ink for an Odd Cartography, that what I love in her writing is consistent with my recurring allegiances: detail ("Begin at hinge, not lipped. Lidded. Outer canthus."). Voice ("I will crumple your half-assed romance/ like cellophane wrapped around an empty/ pack of cigarettes"). Modifiers, for heaven’s sake (O Hemingway, what havoc have you wrought, when Serious Literature attempts to ignore vast swaths of vocabulary). These poems have a madcap precision; from the haphazard shreds of daily, searching existence (food processors, whale factoids, drink orders) they draw meaning so deep it doesn’t need to be expressed, because it’s there, it’s felt. It is immediately recognizable as life.

But the writing’s also as far from accident, as far from mere collections of images, as you can get: craft and care are evident in every line. The book is pulled together by a sense of place, or places: the nomadic narrator is always somewhere very concrete (San Francisco, Wichita, love), but the location is rarely the same. This wandering localness culminates in the last section, "Mapping the Spaces Between," which begins as a diary of sorts in a lover’s absence and, as time and distance feed into each other, dilating both, becomes a chronicle of dissolution, a self-indictment where the words demonstrate their own insufficiency. Poetry can’t sustain a relationship. Poetry is a relationship.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shahriar Mandanipour’s ambitious, digressive novel “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” starts from a thorny question: How do you write a love story when it’s illegal for your protagonists to be alone together? The book is really two narratives, feeding into each other but typographically distinct: that attempted romance, and the author-surrogate’s tortuous endeavor to write it in the government-stifled publishing climate of modern-day Iran.

The narrator struggles to honor multiple responsibilities: To the millenia-old tradition of Persian literature, particularly the elaborate traditional metaphor of eroticism. To himself, and the joy he takes in crafting a beautiful paragraph, and the pain of excising it to stay out of jail. To his naive young lovers, whose desire is curtailed by fear. To the truth. Looming over it all, of course, is a regime whose immense bureaucracy “protects” its people from vice through (besides occasionally executing rape victims) such darkly absurd measures as taking a Sharpie to the bare arms of women in Western magazines; re-editing Dances with Wolves (an American movie with an important anti-American message; too bad about that lascivious “dance” in the title) so the intimate conversations of the film’s lovers are “explained” by their being a long-lost brother and sister; carefully framing musicians on TV so their instruments (possibly immoral) can’t be seen, thus making the players of lap-bound sitars look like they’re engaged in a rather more immoral act. The censorship reaches into the author’s own mind: passages in the bold-faced love story are simply crossed out, and the conversation often drops off the record for a few forbidden sentences, popping up again after a meaningful ellipsis.

As for the answer to Mandanipour’s initial problem: unfortunately, at present it seems to be “go outside the country,” as Censoring is translated from an unpublished Farsi manuscript. But while the novel is certainly frustrated, it’s also funny, sweet, and deeply concerned with the role of the artist in society. In the tradition of Aleksandr Solzehenitsyn, Mandanipour laments oppression by making us celebrate those who are oppressed.

Castration Celebration Castration Celebration by Jake Wizner

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really think the saying needs to be changed to “You can’t ALWAYS judge a book by its cover.” The dogmatic assertion that appearance never reveals content is belied by the hard work of focus groups and graphic designers industry-wide; consider the initial impressions one receives from the front of Jake Wizner’s gleefully profane teen novel Castration Celebration. Across the bottom, a row of well-scrubbed youngsters leap with theatrical whimsy; above, in unabashed letters as tall as they, that double-take title. The message is clear: this book is JUST LIKE High School Musical, but with every glimmer of wholesomeness removed.

Plotwise, Castration Celebration doesn’t reinvent the wheel: it’s a romantic comedy, set at a summer arts camp for teenagers at Yale University. Olivia, disgusted with her father’s philandering, is working out her frustration at the male of the species by composing the titular musical; after a meet-cute for the ages, hotshot actor Max decides she’s a worthy challenge, even with her vocal condemnation of his entire gender. Guess whether they get together? You’ll be totally surprised! (Or not.)

Wizner’s ear for dialogue, however, is unrivaled. The delicate art of the double and triple (and single) entendre. The navel-gazing profundity of the stoned seventeen-year-old. The banalities of flirtation. All pitch-perfect, hilarious, and painfully, nostalgically familiar.

And yes, it is cheerfully, uncynically dirty in the way only innocence can be. And there are SONGS, which got passed around and marveled at backstage at Theatre on Consignment’s recent show (and we’re the “edgy” theater company, folks). And a tasteless, vulgar riff on the Twilight phenomenon that makes me grin like a madwoman just thinking about it. Okay, Castration Celebration is far from good clean fun. But FUN indeed, accurate cover to cover.

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic Book) Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Patricia C. Wrede earned my undying loyalty with 1990’s Dealing with Dragons and the ensuing Enchanted Forest Chronicles, the continuing adventures of tomboy princess Cimorene, teddy-bear-patterned magic carpets, rabbits-turned-donkeys-turned-blue, flying, incorporeal-donkeys, and villainous, magic-stealing wizards whose Achilles heel turns out to be lemon-scented soapy water. In Thirteenth Child, the first installment in a promised “Frontier Magic” series, she won me over again.

Thirteenth Child is set in an alternate-reality 1800s United States where manifest-destiny-bound pioneers have more than the usual hardships to deal with: beyond the Great Barrier Spell that protects communities east of the Mammoth River, they’re vulnerable to all manner of creatures both “ordinary” (mammoths, saber cats) and magical (Columbian sphinxes, steam dragons, swarming weasels). Traveling magicians from fancy East-Coast colleges patrol the frontier, trying their best to protect the settlements, but out West is a risky life.

Wrede’s narrator is Eff, a girl seemingly doomed by her birth order: though her twin brother Lan, as the seventh son of a seventh son, is a natural magician of great power, her status as the eponymous thirteenth child is cause for dislike and suspicion Thirteenth children always go bad, you see, and from early childhood Eff finds herself blamed for whatever goes wrong nearby. While her large family is supportive, humbugging the superstition, Eff herself is afraid the rumors are true, and grows up constantly on guard for signs of evil in herself. When the family moves to Mill City, a flourishing community right across the river from the very Wild West, it seems like a new start for Eff—but can she escape her birthright?

Yes, Thirteenth Child is Little House on the Prairie with magic, thus targeting the precise demographic I’ve cherished since the age of five. Wrede’s world-creation is great, combining homespun folkiness with a highly developed system of magic that includes diverse traditions: Avrupan, Hijero-Cathayan, and Aphrikan, all with different methods and strengths. The enchanted world is consistent and plausible. I look forward to more!

Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hellbending Celebrating America as it Ought to be-an Oil Well in Each Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every ... Potentates Trying to Rope a Goat for Dinner Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hellbending Celebrating America as it Ought to be-an Oil Well in Each Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every ... Potentates Trying to Rope a Goat for Dinner by P. J. O'Rourke

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
One (well, me) occasionally hears the notion bandied about that conservatives aren’t funny. This is, of course, as reductive generalizations tend to be, complete and utter bunk; as incontrovertible evidence, I offer the sublime, wicked, merry-making stylings of Mr. P.J. O’Rourke. I defy anyone to read my all-time favorite chapter heading from Parliament of Whores—“Our Government: What the Fuck Do They Do All Day, and Why Does It Cost So Goddamned Much Money?”—without respecting the snark, even if you’re not of his libertarian bent (his main problem with both major parties, it seems, is that they want to stop him having fun).

Perhaps Driving Like Crazy is a good place to start, since it’s not overtly political at all: O’Rourke has for thirty years written automotive journalism for a variety of publications: Car & Driver, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, among others, and a lot of it’s collected here, from his 1978 “National Lampoon” piece which draws the conclusion that no car handles like a rented car (“You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed . . . than in any other kind. You can also park without looking, and you can use the trunk as an ice chest”) to his tongue-in-cheek defense of the SUV as an embodiment of the American spirit (“The real truth is that we need sport utility vehicles to carry our concealed weapons”). In between, he “discovers” NASCAR, drives a 1956 Buick Special from Florida to Los Angeles, goes off-roading in the Baja, on-roading in India, and despite having three children, stubbornly resists the practicality of a minivan.

My automotive knowledge is limited to gingerly refilling the various leaking fluids of my leviathan Mercury Grand Marquis, but even when O’Rourke dips into acronym-and-numeral car-nut talk, I never felt lost. The reason for this is that the man can sling a metaphor better than almost any writer I know. Re a Suzuki GS1100 motorcycle: “Any twist of the throttle put you in danger of being left there with empty bowlegs, like a Roy Rogers figurine after the dog ate the plastic Trigger.” Describing entrants in the California Mille, a road race that only allows cars that could have been driven in Italy’s Mille Miglia, which took place from 1927 to ’57: “There was an Aston Martin DBR2 showing compound curves beyond the dreams of Frank Gehry and a gill-slitted Maserati 200SI that could star in Jaws IV if anyone were idiot enough to put it in the water.” In short, O’Rourke’s lively writing got me through a 250-page book about cars. CARS. If this can happen, there’s hope for a post-partisan America. One where everybody drives really fast.

AND last but not least, though not reviewed:

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
I read this for an on-line book club (the Onion's sister site The AV Club). It's about a carnival family where the parents decided, with the aid of drugs and radiation, to breed their own freakshow, and it's every bit as dark and perverse and glorious as that sounds.

First Impressions, Marilyn Sachs
A promising premise--a girl who identifies with Pride & Prejudice's neglected, nerdy middle sister, Mary Bennett--that was abandoned almost immediately in favor of ho-hum YA nattering.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
My boss kept telling me I'd like this one, so I finally took it home: Yeah. It's about 15-year-old Benji's summer at his parents' beach house, in an upper-middle-class African-American community--it's about race and D&D and ice cream and manhood and reinvention, and it's summery like sand between your toes.

Right now I'm halfway through Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer. It's all right. On tap: Blake Nelson's Destroy All Cars--he wrote Paranoid Park, which Gus Van Sant made into a movie (I should fact-check that, gimme a second--yup), and way back in the 90s, excerpts from his first novel Girl were published in my beloved Sassy magazine.

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