Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hawaiians in Los Angeles by Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo, and others (2012)

The extent of my knowledge of Hawaiians consists of the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch (one of my favorite movies), a children's book called Aloha Susan by Helen Hoyt (which happens to be one of the my favorite books) and James A. Michener's Hawaii (another favorite).  So I obviously have a fondness in my heart for Hawaiian history and heritage.  Hawaiians in Los Angeles is by a good colleague of mine, and I enjoyed the book.  Great pictures and some interesting stories.  It felt a bit like going through someone's scrapbook.  Or my mom keeps all of our pictures in one of those old fashioned 1960s suitcases with the loud metal latch made of some sort of space age material, probably the same stuff they made rockets out of, or the Supremes shoes, or record players, and that most assuredly causes some sort of cancer.  This book was like going through that suitcase with my mom at my side explaining what some of the pictures meant.

Hawaiians in Los AngelesHawaiians in Los Angeles by Elizabeth "Nani" Nihipali

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My mom keeps all of our old pictures in a big, blue suitcase under her bed. It's one of those suitcases from the late 1960s, bulky and gigantic, with metal latches that make a loud SNAP. If this were the Flintstones, those latches would be little alligators. The case is made of some space age material, probably the same material as the rocket ships from I Dream of Jeannie were made from, or record players, or the Supremes shoes. Material that most assuredly causes cancer. This book was kind of like sitting with my mom going through the suitcase, looking at old photographs, and having her tell stories about some of them (sans the cancer though). From my mom and the suitcase, I learn bit and pieces about my heritage and history; this book does the same thing, only I learned some factoids and interesting bits about Hawaiians in Los Angeles. If you live in SoCal - or even if you don't - I recommend this for both the trip down memory lane and finding out some new things you didn't know before.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg (2009)

It was an experience reading about Herbert Hoover the week the Supremes came down on the side of Obamacare.  You know that he not only rolled over in his grave, but tried to claw his way out.  "Zombie Hoover Eats Obama" says headline.

The title of the book should have been The Evolution of Herbert Hoover (or devolution, depending on your politics).  Leuchtenburg does a nifty job of pointing out some of Hoover's hypocrisy.  He certainly started out his political career with far more of a government intervention bent than he when he ended it (or when it was ended for him in 1930).  Leuchtenburg's moral seems to be that some people just shouldn't be president.  Most of his obituaries "almost universally judged" him to have been "a failed president - an ineluctable reminder that the Oval Office requires more than dedication and managerial skills, both of which he had abundance."  Are you listening Mitt Romney?  If Obama maybe needs to take some lessons from the Harry Truman / Bill Clinton playbook, you probably need to study up on Herbert Hoover.  Another great description of that type of failed politician:  "Hoover, observed Sir Wilmot Lewis, Washington correspondent  of the Times of London, 'can calculate wave lengths but cannot see color... He can understand vibrations but cannot hear tone."  I think we all know some people outside the political spectrum who act like that as well.

He was definitely a douchebag.  Rude to his servants, a sour puss, a know it all, never smiled or talked to people, averse to politicking.  A total dick to Franklin Roosevelt.  (Who got the best line in the book, when  after America's entry into World War II, when Bernard Baruch suggested that Hoover would be a good man to help out, he replied, "Well, I'm not Jesus Christ. I'm not going to raise him from the dead.").

An interesting thought - progressive California has produced only conservative presidents.  Hoover might have been considered more of an international man (surprising for someone who was almost jingoistically patriotic), and Iowa claims him, but his spiritual home was Palo Alto.  Of course, as the right heads farther right, pulling the center with them, Reagan and Nixon start to look Rooseveltian.

Hoover would have felt right at home with most if not all of the Tea Party, particularly the later Hoover (the earlier Hoover was far more progressive, or at least gave that impression).

Leuchtenburg quoted from one of Hoover's last campaign speeches -- too late to make a difference -- which starkly laid out the differences between Hoover and Roosevelt in apocalyptic tones.  The entire speech is can be found at the American Presidency Project (UC-Santa Barbara).  Includes some audio (Franklin Roosevelt sounds so much better).  Leuchtenburg quoted from some of the speech, but the entire speech is interesting because it sounds so familiar - conservatives are still saying very, very similar things today.

After thanking Edith Roosevelt (who came out to speak because some thought she was Franklin's mother or wife, rather than Theodore's), Hoover's first bit of speechifying draws a line in the sand that still exists, in a somewhat altered form, today:

This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government.

We've been having that argument politically ever since.  And while those on the left have sounded one kind of trumpet and then a different kind of trumpet, the message on the right has remained the same.
We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal. It is not the change that comes from normal development of national life to which I object or you object, but the proposal to alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been builded through generations of testing and struggle, and of the principles upon which we have made this Nation.

 He could be giving a speech in Madison Square Garden today - substitute Obama for Roosevelt.

This question is the basis upon which our opponents are appealing to the people in their fear and their distress. They are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.

I read similar things on Facebook yesterday when they announced Obamacare was going to happen.  

Our system is the product of our race and of our experience in building a Nation to heights unparalleled in the whole history of the world. It is a system peculiar to the American people. It differs essentially from all others in the world. It is an American system. It is rounded on the conception that only through ordered liberty, through freedom to the individual, and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise be summoned to spur the march of national progress.

Again, very similar platitudes.  Hoover's playbook is used again and again by conservatives.  Their message has remained remarkably similar for 80 years.

It is of little difference who the commander in chief may be if the strategy and the policies and the subordinate captains and majors and colonels and generals are maintained and if the battle be continued

I think this line, although it does not appear in the book but in the speech, is the crux of Leuchtenburg's sketch of Hoover.  It does matter who the commander in chief is in bad times.  Maybe not so much in good times, but whenever we've had a great crisis in our country, it's matter deeply which president was at the helm to guide our country.  It mattered deeply that the president was Lincoln instead of Buchanan.  And it mattered deeply that Roosevelt was able to articulate hope during the Great Depression.  
After March 4, 1929, the Republican Party was in complete control of all branches of the Government--Executive, Senate, and House, and I may add, for good measure, in order to make it complete, the Supreme Court as well."
Now, I am not called upon to defend the Supreme Court of the United States from that slurring reflection. Fortunately for the American people that Court has jealously maintained over the years its high standard of integrity, impartiality, and freedom from influence of either the Executive or Congress, so that the confidence of the people in the Court is sound and unshaken.
But is the Democratic candidate really proposing his conception of the relation of the Executive with the Supreme Court? If that is his idea, he is proposing the most revolutionary new deal, the most stupendous breaking of precedent, the most destructive undermining of the very safeguard of our form of government yet proposed by any Presidential candidate.

Still talking about the Courts today. Although Roberts yesterday maybe caused us to think of the court as a little more impartial and not politically charge.

As for myself, I am confident that if we do not destroy our American system, if we continue to stimulate scientific research, if we continue to give it the impulse of initiative and enterprise, if we continue to build voluntary cooperation instead of financial concentration, if we continue to build into a system of free men, my children will enjoy the same opportunity that has come to me and to the whole 120 million of my countrymen. I wish to see American Government conducted in that faith and hope.

Apocalypse rising!  This idea that if elected, Roosevelt and Co. will destroy America.  Just like Obama will destroy America.  The clothing and hairstyles - and gender - may have changed, but the language stays the same.  In another place, he says "The grass will grow in streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of millions of farms if that protection be taken away. Their churches, their hospitals, and their schoolhouses will decay."  

Now, if these sample measures and promises, which I have discussed, or these failures to disavow these projects, this attitude of mind, mean anything, they mean the enormous expansion of the Federal Government; they mean the growth of bureaucracy such as we have never seen in our history.

The Federal government has expanded enormously since the New Deal, and  at the expense of state and local government.  The bureaucracy ("bureacrazy") has become bloated and unmanageable.  You, sir, are correct.

the most gigantic increase in expenditure ever known in history

Until the next one.  And the next one.  And the next one. Regardless of president or party. 

These measures would transfer vast responsibilities to the Federal Government from the States, the local governments, and the individuals.

Tru dat.

they would break down our form of government. It will crack the timbers of our Constitution.

There is that Revelations language again.  The end times!  Dictatorship!

Now, we have heard a great deal in this campaign about reactionaries, conservatives, progressives, liberals, and radicals. I think I belong to every group.

A little bit of humor here.  I wonder if people laughed?  The audio doesn't cover the whole speech, just bits and pieces.  Mitt Romney would never be able to claim membership in all these groups today.  Fox and Friends would be on him like flies on shit.  Obama would have similar trouble, I think.

One of the last things he says:

This election is not a mere shift from the ins to the outs. It means the determining of the course of our Nation over a century to come.

And that's exactly what happened.

Herbert Hoover (The American Presidents, #31)Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leuchtenburg's book is quite good, and he hits homeruns on his arguments that Herbert Hoover was hypocritical about his feelings on government intervention (he was for it when he wasn't against it), self deluding on his impacts throughout his career (he claimed he did much more than he actually did many times), and a sour puss who should never have run for president, let alone won the office. "The Oval Office," Leuchtenburg writes at the end. "Requires more than dedication and managerial skills, both of which he had in abundance."  The moral of this fable of lost chances, for sure.  This most definitely a timely read, with the government expanding and our economy in a rut.  Hoover is definitely a man who would be right at home in today's Republican Party, at least the Tea Party wing.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Caddy's World by Hilary McKay (2011)

I love the world of the Cassons, and it was a pleasure connecting with them once again.  I'm interested to see if McKay has any more Casson stories left - when we left them in Forever Rose, they were all getting ready to grow up and do adult things. This Casson book is a prequel, taking us back in time to the birth of Rose.  It wasn't as engaging as Saffy's Angel or Indigo's Star, but it was still pretty good.

Caddy's World (Casson Family)Caddy's World by Hilary McKay

A return to the world of the Cassons, this time a prequel taking us back to the agonizing birth of Rose.  Although not as engaging as the earlier books in the series, the Casson family are still delightful to read about.  Twelve year old girls will probably relate to that crazy, sad, exhilarating time between childhood and young adulthood, when nothing is every right and everything is changing.  You'll want to start at the beginning of the series though.

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First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power by Carl Sferrazza Anthony

I used to consider myself an amateur expert on First Lady history.  I remember reading about First Ladies as a fifth grader, a little book from our local library.  I'm sure I've read this book before too, but as the Rodgers and Hart song goes, "I can't remember where or when."

This book certainly isn't going to change any history, but it's still really interesting how the concept of First Lady has changed since Martha Washington, and continues to change.  You can't really call it "evolved" because each First Lady is so different.  Some get into office and relish the power, others want to stick to the background.  Each First Lady in Anthony's book spirals up from their birth, with Martha Washington as the first point; the spirals of each First Lady overlap and interact, with the pinnacle at the end of this first volume being the Kennedy inaugural, in which Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Edith Wilson, Lady Bird Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, and Betty Ford were all present (actually Wikipedia has a neat chart that shows how different First Ladies have overlapped and who was around the longest; this gathering at the Kennedy inaugural was probably more interesting for the photographic evidence than the full roster of First Ladies). Anthony is able to tell a pretty good story, although the transitions between First Ladies with no connections is occasionally a bit clunky - sort of like when you are watching the local evening news and they have to find a transition between something horrific and something fluffy.

The book comes in two parts, and I don't think I'm going to read Part II.  Most of the First Ladies that Anthony writes about in Part II were alive then but dead now, or their lives have completely changed.  The version I have stops at Barbara Bush.  Part I, at least for now, is enough for me.

Dolley Madison's stock has really fallen since this book was written; she's certainly still well known and beloved, but Abigail Adams is much more of a known quantity and heroine for today's girl power.  John Adams both the book and the HBO series probably helped her star to rise too.

Eleanor Roosevelt has some poignant words to say about liberalism, which I wish were still true today:  "The code of ethics is changing.  The things that were all right ten years ago are not now, because people as a whole are changing in their standards, I believe for the better.  You are for what is good not only for you but for your fellow citizens.  This is the new social-minded code.  You do not wish special privileges.  You wish privileges for all.  With this code goes an open mind -- a real inquiry into how to use that mind to best advantage.  With it goes real determination that what you have gained you are going to give back to your country and its people, not only looking to your own gain, but to the gain of others.  You will never get the greatest joy of living until you feel you are one with a great many people -- a whole country perhaps."

I'm going to blog a bit about each First Lady.

Martha Washington.  Had false teeth too.   Who knew.
Abigail Adams.  Thought old people who had sex were icky.
Dolley Madison.  Would probably be a fag hag if she were alive today.
Elizabeth Monroe.  Wore great clothes.  From New York.  Acted like it.
Louisa Adams.  Love/hate relationship with her husband.  Kind of snobby.
Rachel Jackson.  First Ladyship killed her before she even got there.
Angelica Van Buren.  Bilbo Baggins had a niece with the same first name.
Anna Harrison.  Lived a hell of a lot longer than her husband.
Letitia Tyler.  I don't even remember a thing about her except that she died.
Julia Gardiner Tyler.  Was really young compared to her husband, who was a randy old thing.  Lived through many administrations, passed back and forth from south to north during the Civil War.  Was probably incredibly fun and funny, and the life of every party.  Never met a man she didn't like.  I would imagine she didn't have very many female friends.  Probably the biggest old lady flirt ever.
Sarah Polk.  Also lived forever and a day.  Mean as hell.
Margaret Taylor.  Not one picture of her exists.  Smoked a corn cob pipe.  Always described in faintly L'il Abner tones.  Ran a huge plantation while her husband was out fighting and politicking, so probably pretty damn smart.  And mean as well.
Abigail Fillmore.  Started the first White House library.  Incredibly weird dresser.
Jane Pierce.  Always sad.  Always.
Harriet Lane.  Her uncle was most likely a mo.  She sounds like an utter bitch and mean girl, so was probably pretty fun to sit next to during parties.
Mary Todd Lincoln.  Universally despised by Yankees and Rebels alike.  Only her husband really like her.  Maybe her kids.  And her black seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley.  I think if she was alive today, her early erratic behavior was probably based on her diabetes.  And the poor woman also was in a buggy ride and smacked her head, and she was never the same after that. She couldn't even catch a break, and the men in her life were pretty mean to her.  I feel sorry for her.
Eliza McCardle Johnson.  Taught her husband to read. An invalid, which sounded more like an excuse to get out work.
Julia Dent Grant.  I think she sounds like an utter c-word, but oh so interesting to read about.  One of my favorite first ladies.   Was around for a long time.
Lucy Webb Harrison.  Lemonade Lucy.  Probably not as big of a stick as history has made her out to be.
Lucretia Garfield.  Another one of the first ladies who lived a helluva lot longer than her husband.
Rose Cleveland.  Lesbian!
Frances Cleveland.  Also someone who probably would have many gay friends.  Or so I want to believe.  Loved older men, obviously.
Caroline Harrison.  One of those fat, sort of boring first ladies.  When she died, Benjamin Harrison married his NIECE.  That was a scandal!
Ida McKinley.  Had her husband wrapped around her little finger.  Supposedly had seizures all the time, but once he did, she never had a seizure again.  Sounds fishy to me.
Edith Roosevelt.  Sounds horrible, but I bet she had the driest sense of humor and could cut you like a drag queen.
Helen Taft.  I always imagine that Helen Taft had a braying, loud voice.  Bossy as hell.
Ellen Wilson.  Pretty racist for an artist.
Edith Wilson.  My parents had some older friends.  The wife died, and the husband remarried.  The new wife, who was much younger, cut him off from his family and friends.  That's Edith Wilson.  She's quite horrible for more reasons than that.  She might have caused World War II.
Florence Harding.  Knew all the secrets on everyone, and wasn't afraid to blackmail people.  I don't know if that's true or not, but it should be.  Divorcee.  Much older than her husband Warren G.
Grace Coolidge.  The greatest first lady ever, and she didn't really do or say anything.  Just an all around nice person.  You can tell.  Plus, that gorgeous picture.  I bet she was a hoot at parties.
Lou Hoover.  Snobby as hell.  Midwesterners who move east or west and do well for themselves often are.  Rich as all get out. Interesting hair.  Never went into the kitchen.
Eleanor Roosevelt.  At this point in history, probably our real greatest first lady.  Selfish and selfless.  NOT so much fun at a party.  Always serious.  Always, always worried about something.  Always in a hurry.
Bess Truman.  Who had a better, drier sense of humor - Edith Roosevelt or Bess Truman?  Mean as hell.  Never put up with anyone's crap - ever.  Could probably freeze you out in seconds.
Mamie Eisenhower.  Steel magnolia.  Under that pink exterior beats the heart of a ferocious tiger.  I bet all the wives told her gossip, but she never said a word in return - just kept egging them on.

That's where the book ends, and that is where I will end too. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941)

What a pleasant surprise Mildred Pierce turned out to be.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from beginning to end.  From it's description, I initially thought I was going to hate it.  "Hard boiled" and "Noir" as descriptors to me means unfathomable mysteries and dames and adulterous affairs and guns and dry and enigmatic.  Mildred Pierce wasn't a mystery at all (although I guess in the Joan Crawford film a murder was added).  There were plenty of dames - although I highly doubt Mildred would appreciate being called one; but these dames were all totally engrossing to read about.  There were affairs a-plenty, but they weren't even remotely upsetting or disturbing.  Guns and molls, none to be found.  Shoot outs, corrupt police, nada.  The Glendale/Pasadena setting was incredible for me having worked for many years in Pasadena, and knowing both cities fairly well, it was intriguing to read about what they were like during the Depression.

The characters in Mildred Pierce are could never be called dull.  Mildred herself is gorgeous, snobby, greedy, canny.  Her inlaws are a hoot - mother-in-law always referred to me as Mom - but certainly not one - and father-in-law always as Mr. Pierce.  Mildred herself has sisters and a mother, but as for a father, he's never mentioned, which to me points toward some sort of shady background (shady for the Depression, at least).  Mildred isn't above using her sex appeal to get what she wants out of men, but you get the impression that it's an unclean act for her.  Sex is something a woman does when she wants something.  Even with  - maybe especially with - Monty, who she apparently enjoys having sex with despite herself.  Mildred's first husband Burt, is a sort of a milquetoast, although as the book progresses he proves to be one of the few men in Mildred's life who doesn't betray her.  Her first boyfriend, Wally, is the businessman who sets her up in her restaurant career; her second boyfriend and eventual second husband Monty is the rich Pasadena playboy who becomes her boytoy. 

Some of the book is melodramatic - particularly the scenes surrounding the younger daughter's death and the wild drive in a great rain and windstorm (the tropical storm of the 1930s, the last time one blew through LA). 

The back of the book describes Mildred as having two weaknesses:  "a yen for shiftless men and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter."  And what a monster Veda Pierce is.  At age 11, her "Dairy" is attracting the attention of men who today would most certainly be arrested for such attention.   She's a prototype entitled mean girl - expects all the attention, all the loot, wants wants wants without having to give anything.  Perhaps if this had been written later, Veda would have become a movie actress - but this being the 30s, she's a coloratura soprano and opera star.  She's almost too evil to be true, but she'd be right at home in any of those 80s evening soaps like Dallas or Dynasty.  If she has motivation for her pure bitch, it's never clear, other than ambition.  The best, best scenes in the book are interactions between mother and daughter.  SLAP.  SLAP BACK.  Naked in bed with stepfather.  Taking advantage again and again of her mother's kindness.  She's the kind of character you love to hate. J.R. Ewing.  Cruella De Vil.  Alexis in Dynasty.  O'Brien in Downton Abbey.  Aren't the best characters in books and movies always the villains and villainesses!?

Mildred PierceMildred Pierce by James M. Cain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a description of Mildred Pierce somewhere that described it as a "hard boiled" novel. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant. But if all hard boiled novels are as juicy and good as Mildred Pierce, then I'm hard boiled. Mildred Pierce had me hooked almost from the first page. Dramatic and melodramatic, Dallas and Dynasty could be direct descendents of Mildred Pierce with the adultery and sultry affairs, the shady business deals, marriages for anything but love, and dames with great legs (although I think Mildred wouldn't want me to call her dame). Oh, and the villains. Mildred Pierce might be nominally about a "grass widow" who builds a mini restaurant empire in the midst of the Depression, but really, it's about this monstrously villainous daughter of hers, Veda. Veda Pierce, a vamp, a wolf, a spinning spider, a soprano - all before the age of 20. Va va voom. There's no clear cut heroine in the book - Mildred's motives are rarely pure - but there's a died in the wool b**** villainess. Even back in the "good old days" there were canny, conniving backstabbers, and thank god for it!

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Virginia Dare, Mystery Girl by Augusta Stevenson (1958)

I have very vague memories of reading this book when I was in elementary school - let's say it was about 35 years ago.  Nothing about the book stuck in my head at all, except for the fact that I knew it was about Virginia Dare and that no one knows exactly what happened to the Roanoak Colonists.  In my mind, I thought the book claimed Virginia Dare was the first white baby to be born in the United States - which I know can't possibly be true because the Spanish beat the Roanoke Colonists to the U.S. by many years.  The book never claimst that though - she was the first English baby born in the United States, which makes more sense.

I knew - again, in that shadowy vague way - that the book portrayed Virginia's life if she had been adopted by Indians.  (I guess her parents were killed by Indians as well, although this isn't in the book).  The book was written well before the time of political correctness, and it does contain the word "squaw" which I know is a racist term.  But I thought it did a pretty good job of describing Native American life at the time.  They weren't necessarily portrayed as savages, nor were they portrayed as particularly noble either.  They seemed like regular people - and nice ones at that, who adopted the daughter of their enemies.  

The book was actually kind of boring, so I don't know why it's always stuck in my head after all these years, other than the fact that the disappearance of the colonists is a great unsolved mystery.

I did do a bit of research on the author, Augusta Stevenson - she was a teacher in Indianopolis way back in 1904.  That's all I could find about about her.  I assume she's dead.


I read this back in third grade - 35 years ago - and for some reason it stuck in my head.  I'm not sure why - it's a little boring. I guess the unsolved mystery of the colonists was interesting, and I liked stuff about Native Americans.  For a book about Indians written in 1957, I thought it was pretty even handed.  The Indians were just people - neither noble or blood thirsty savages.  It was a little 1950's Disney-esque - the language was a bit stilted, the portrayals of the Indians a bit simplistic.  But in 1957, weren't most Indians in the media horrible villains out to kill Daniel Boone or John Wayne, or a faithful companion without a whole lot of background or things to do?  At least in Virginia Dare, the indians were farmers, hunters, scared about their land, religious, political, mothers and fathers - in short, actual people and not cardboard cutouts or movie extras.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Impossible Things by Connie Willis (1994)

In between other things, I've been reading Connie Willis short stories and novellas.  As far as I can tell, these are some of Willis's first short stories to appear in print.  It's interesting to see how her style has remained consistent throughout the years.  In the introduction to her story Spice Pogrom, she writes "I've been in love with screwball comedies since I first watched Bringing Up Baby and Shall We Dance... they're wonderful."  That's a really great way to describe much of what she has written since that short story - screwball comedies.  A book like To Say Nothing of the Dog can certainly be described as a screwball comedy from the very first page to the last.  But even books like Doomsday Book have elements of the screwball - to quote from her introduction again:  "They always have a heroine (Jean Arthur) who's engaged to the wrong person (Ray Milland), and a hero (Cary Grant) who isn't what he seems to be, and all sorts of smart-aleck or daffy or obnoxious supporting characters."  There are elements of all of this in almost every Willis story.  "The plot makes almost no sense."  That occasionally happens in a Willis story, particularly because her plots seem to loop back onto themselves quite a bit.  "But it doesn't matter because there are all these complications and chases and bantering conversations and sometimes singing and dancing..."

"Spice Pogrom"... and essentially every other Willis book since ... "is my heart homage to The More the Merrier, and to It Happened One Night and How to Steal a Million and Little Miss Marker.  It's a tribute to everything I love best about movie comedies: meeting cute and good-hearted chorus girls, and marriages-in-name-only, and traveling incognito, and all those revoltingly adorable little girls.  And most of all to the view of the world that says good sense may be in short supply and goodness in even shorter, but sanity (sort of) and true love are still possible."

"Chance" was so incredibly sad and weird.

"Jack" was almost pure Willis with its Battle of Britain setting and cast of characters interacting in humorous and/or touching ways.  But the titular character, Jack, took the story down another path, the vampire way, that was out of character for Willis, at least the Willis books and stories I've read.  It didn't work all that well.  I half expected Mr. Dunworthy to appear, or one of the characters from Blackout to make a pre-appearance.  Alas, they did not - but it would have made this story so much better.  "Jack" is from 1991; "Firewatch," in Dunworthy first appears, is from 1982.  So the idea of time travel and World War II was implanted already in her head.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arrellano (2012)

Excellent book.  I heard Gustavo Arrellano speak a few weeks before reading the book, and was pleased to hear that even my gabacho taco at home with yellow cheese and ground beef can be considered Mexican food (bastardized as it is).  Mexican food has been and is entertwined with American cuisine, so closely now that it's hard to tell where Mexican food ends and American food begins.  Arrellano's book succeeds in relating the history of everything you ever wanted to know about Mexican food, from Fritos and Cheetohs and Doritos and Tostidos to chili to Pace Picante Sauce ("get a rope") to Taco Bell.  There is authentic Mexican food, but that doesn't make Taco Bell any less "Mexican." 

 Fritos had a restaurant in Disneyland, and from that restaurant arose Tostitos.  I thought was interesting and didn't know that (among many other little interesting facts ni the book).

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered AmericaTaco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Gustavo Arellano speak at the Upland, California public library a few weeks ago, and was so enchanted that I put his book to the top of my list.  Mexican food has indeed conquered America, and Arellano has conquered writing about it in this witty, information packed book.  Almost everything you never even knew you wanted to know about all things Mexican food - from tortillas to Pace Picante Sauce ("get a rope") to Fritos Doritos Cheetos and Tostitos.  The purist might argue that last point, that Fritos and their kin can be considered some sort of Mexican food.  But Arellano makes a really convincing argument that when Mexican food invaded the United States, it evolved and changed - but at its core still remains Mexican food.  A delicious book about a delicious subject.

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All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis (2007)

I've waited to read this for several years, and finally found it via interlibrary loan.  It's not Willis's best book ever (I'm not sure I could even say which I thought was absolute best) but it's definitely trademark Willis - quirky characters, fast pace, comedy of manners, chattering characters, befuddle and muddle galore.  I loved the fact that it's all about choir.  Willis must sing (she's certainly been in a bell choir).

All Seated on the GroundAll Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Connie Willis of all time, but still a fun read - quirky, muddles and befuddles, chatty characters, a meandering plot that twists back and forth.  Her glaring aliens are exactly the kind of aliens only Connie Willis could create.  She's absolutely genius at writing about large groups of people and their interactions (choirs, bell chorus, history departments), and All Seated on the Ground is a definitely trademark Willis.

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The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869)

I'm giving up on The Innocents Abroad, for which I feel great guilt. 

I certainly can see how Mark Twain can be considered the father of the modern humorous travelogue (Bill Bryson).  And really, the father of all modern humor writing.  If Hemingway is correct that all modern writing comes from Huckleberry Finn, then certainly all modern American humor comes from Mark Twain.  If he were alive today, he'd be writing for The New Yorker or Saturday Night Live or have his own show on NPR (at the very least he'd be a panelist on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me).  So I admire Mark Twain, I respect Mark Twain, I think he's a humorous writer.  But Innocents Abroad is just too much of a good thing.  There isn't a narrative line that runs through it, it feels serialized (which it was) and things have changed too much from then to now. The genius is certainly there, but I definitely am more partial to Mark Twain's fiction than his humorous nonfiction.

The Innocents Abroad/Roughing ItThe Innocents Abroad/Roughing It by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Huckleberry Finn is the father of Modern Literature (thanks Mr. Hemingway), then The Innocents Abroad/Roughing Itmust be the father of all modern humor (and certainly humorous travelogues).  If Mark Twain were alive today, he'd certainly be writing for The New Yorker or 30 Rock or at the very least be a panelist on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (although I'd like to think he'd have his show, a la Garrison Keillor).  Innocents isn't my favorite Twain - I'm more partial to his fiction - but it's still biting and sarcastic, with an interesting portrait of how things were in 1860s Europe and the Middle East.  Twain and his fellow shipmate buddies must have been quite a crew to travel with.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Our Human by Adam Troy-Castro

A juicy science fiction story in a classic vein.  Reminded me of something by Robert Silverberg, only with a touch - and barely a touch - of hard sci-fi.  My second experience reading a short story (well, a novella actually, although really knows the difference) online at  I'm not a huge fan of the experience, but the story was so good.  I love stories in which aliens interact - and I knew I was going to like this one when one of the four bounty hunters was a human - who died in the first paragraph.  The main characters weren't "human" at all.  Really, really great.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach ; illustrated by Ricardo Cortes (2011)

Oh sophomoric, faintly ironic, Paul Rudd Judd Apatow hipster comedy!    I finally bit the bullet and read Go the Fuck to Sleep.  I think it would have been funnier if this had been brand new and the joke wasn't already out there.   It definitely has the feel of two creative guys drinking some beers at a barbecue and coming up with the perfect parody of Goodnight Moon.  It's also offensive too.  Adam Mansbach may or may not be one of those kinds of dads, but this book sure makes him seem like one.  You know, the douchy dad who teases his kids all the time.  There is nothing even remotely interesting about the book except the joke though.  And once you know the joke... there's nothing left.

Go the Fuck to SleepGo the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One trick (hipster) pony.  Okay, I get the joke.  And once you get the joke, there isn't a whole lot left.  Maybe you have to have kids to truly appreciate the genius of this book.

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The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory (2004)

Not as good as The Other Boleyn Girl, but mostly riveting.  Hannah is such a dense character, and I'm not sure if her actions are contrived or if she would have really behaved as she did. I know I've read this before, but I was pretty vague about some of the details.  Almost read like a brand new book to me.

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