Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Disappearing act.

Man. I enjoyed the hell out of Haley Tanner's first novel, Vaclav and Lena. It floats along like a lovely little soap bubble, and Tanner's ebullient language and cheeky humor flash brightly against the book's darker subtext.

Vaclav and Lena is set in a neighborhood of Russian immigrants in New York, where ten-year-old Vaclav and nine-and-11-months-old Lena spend their afternoons practicing Vaclav's magic tricks. Vaclav, with the single-minded seriousness so possible at ten, wants to be the next Harry Houdini, and his great ambitions are to 1) have a show at Coney Island and 2) have Lena be his lovely assistant and eventually his wife.

These plans are complicated by Vaclav's devoted but domineering mother, the formidable Rasia, whose spotty English is hilariously made up of bits and pieces from cop shows on television, and by the mercurial Lena.

Vaclav and Lena are both "stinky lunch kids," in the ESL class at their elementary school, but precocious Vaclav has an easier time with schoolwork, while manipulative Lena is realizing that Vaclav's friendship is probably pulling a Red October on any chance of her being popular.

This may sound like a premise for a YA novel, but Tanner quickly pulls the plot into something darker. Lena is an orphan who has been passed from her grandmother to her aunt, a bleached-blond baba who lives in a filthy apartment littered with Lucite heels and drug paraphernalia. Rasia has stepped in as a surrogate mother for Lena, but is pulled between concern for Lena and her desire to shield Vaclav from the reality of Lena's life, until Rasia is finally forced to make a choice that will help Lena, but cost Vaclav his only friend.
Vaclav and Lena really shines in the dialog between the characters, which is alternately wrenching and hilarious, spiced with a generous amount of cross-cultural miscommunication (such as when Rasia tries to have The Talk with her son, which is agony in any language). Although Vaclav grows up into a thoroughly Americanized teen, his relationship with Raisa doesn't lose any its sweetness.

Tanner is a deft enough writer to know when to cut the preciousness. Although Vaclav is pretty unfailingly adorable, Lena is crafty and sneaky as a child, and (justifiably) angry as a teen. Vaclav and Lena flounders a bit towards the end, with an abrupt ending and a less-than-believable encounter with Lena's putrid aunt. However, Tanner's engaging use of language and feel for sharp little details - a bootleg DVD here, a frozen block of borscht there - makes Vaclav and Lena a bright little novel.

Here she comes, Miss America

In my defense, no one told me it was sexy national costumes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sadly misinformed.

Hey do not blame me, I had sex-ed in Texas.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Like every party, ever.

Seriously, you guys, with the beards and plaid shirts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The first thing I have to say about John Sayles' Moment in the Sun is, damn, don't carry this thing around unless you lift from the knees. This is not a take-on-the-subway kind of book. This is a doubles-as-a-doorstop-and-deadly-weapon kind of book. This is the Novel Most Likely To Put You In Traction of 2011. Sun clocks in at about a thousand pages. I checked it out of the library, gave up when I realized I couldn't haul it around, and got the Kindle edition. But the book itself is beautiful.

Sayles is better known as a director than an author (Matewan and Lone Star are only two of his many films).

So. What is Moment in the Sun about? Dang, son, what's it not about? It's set during the Spanish-American War (quick primer: we showed up in the Philippines to "liberate" the Filipinos from the Spanish, then were hugely douchey, refused to leave, and committed a lot of atrocities ((like waterboarding!!)), and covered it with a heapin' helpin' of White Man's Burden, liberally sauced with racism. Sound familiar? Also, Teddy Roosevelt.)

But, while being about the Spanish-American War, Moment in the Sun also touches on corrupt politics, election violence and lynchings in the American South, the deplorable conditions in the cities in the North, the insurrectos movement in the Philippines, human trafficking from China, muckraking press, the beginning of the motion picture industry, how much obstetrics sucked in the late 1800s, the gold rush in the Klondike, American policy towards Native Americans (horrible), unemployment and labor abuses, labor unions, and also throws in a chunk of perspective from none other than Mark Twain himself.

I got tired just writing that.

It's hard to write a handy summary of Moment in the Sun, since so much is going on at once. The storyline jumps around from New York to North Carolina to China to the Philippines and back again, and it can get exhausting.

Moment in the Sun opens in the rush to get to the Yukon, where Hod Brackenridge, a former miner blackballed after participating in a strike, finds himself swindled and abandoned. He ends up in a freezing gold rush town, a place of surreally inflated prices and quick violence, where he becomes a boxer in crooked fights orchestrated by a dandy ne'er-do-well from North Carolina, Niles Manigault.

Niles' hometown, Wilmington, is a cauldron of seething racism and violence, crusted over with a layer of that famous Southern gentility. Niles' father, Judge Manigault, presides over Wilmington with a stiff upper lip and a South-will-rise-again ethos, although he can't control his dashing, irresponsible son (and his other son, Harry, is a limping, shy disappointment).

In Wilmington, we meet the Luncefords (Dr., Mrs., daughter Jessie, son Junior), an upper-middle-class family of African Americans. Junior decides to join the Army and talks his friend, Royal Scott, into joining him. Royal has a desperate, unrequited crush on Jessie, a crush that he's pretty sure will never come to fruition.

Junior and Royal join in the 125th Infantry, where they have the dubious distinction of testing out bicycles as a means of transport (verdict: ouch.). Second-class citizens at home because of their color, Junior is nevertheless hopeful that the Army will provide a chance to show his patriotism.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Diosdado Nicasio, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, joins his university friends in pledging to the cause of Filipino independence.

These characters converge in the jungles of the Phillippines, where Junior and Royal are sent. Hod, joining the Army in desperation with his friend, a Native American nicknamed Big Ten, ends up in the Philippines too, along with Niles Manigault, who in one of those Twists of Fate tm ends up as Hod and Big Ten's lieutenant (and he's a giant douche and also possibly going insane).

Back in North Carolina, the violence comes to a head with an election day riot. The Luncefords, losing everything, head North to the city and poverty. Niles' brother Harry has already ended up there, where he's helping usher in the age of moving pictures.

If I had to say what I thought Moment in the Sun was really about, it's about power and the abuse of power, and the desperate and often violent fight against it, a fight that plays out in the Philippines and the tenements and the rural South and in prisons.

Sayles leaps from perspective to perspective and locale to locale, and while some of these shifts are inventive (a short chapter from the point of view of Mark Twain stands out in particular), some of them are distracting (the persistent return to "Teethadore," a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, and an interlude in a prison where McKinley's assassin Czolgosz is jailed). There's simply so much research poured into this book that it becomes dizzying, and at points I wished that it had been pruned, not for length's sake but for clarity.

Many of Sayles' characters are richly and fully imagined, but it becomes hard to become very invested in any of them. I had a particular difficulty with his female characters. While Junior, Scott, Hod, Big Ten, Sergeant Jacks, Niles, and Henry are three dimensional and complex, Sayles' women seem to be used more as prop devices and are flatter and simpler and seem to conform more to a trope. There's a plucky Irish scrubwoman, a Filipina who pops up long enough to fall in love with and liberate Royal, a Chinese prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, a Yukon prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and a handful of other rather forgettable characters that seem more like embellishments than necessities which Moment in the Sun could have easily done without. Sayles also has a habit of abandoning characters, probably because there are just too darn many of them.

But. But! Wade through Moment in the Sun and be rewarded - it is a beast of a book, but daring and audacious in its scope.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When is a salad not a salad?

Probably when it is fried in bacon fat, but that is okay, because I am going to share this salad recipe with you. Because you deserve it. And it is great, and you will surprise yourself by being able to eat an entire bag of spinach, but that's okay because it is good for you.

You are going to need:

2 pieces of bacon, if you are normal. If you are me you will need 3, possibly even 4
An entire bag of spinach. But not like the family bag - like the regular size bag. So you are eating three or four servings of spinach, but whatever. Minerals.
A clove of garlic, if you are not me. If you are me, 3 cloves.
A gluggle or two of red wine vinegar.
You will also need a pair of scissors and a large pan with a lid that is deep enough to get the spinach in and then get the lid on. So this big. (I am making a circle with my hands that is like the size of a medium pizza, but you can't see it because this is the Internet)
You can add some chopped shallot if you want to get fancy (and you do want to get fancy, right?)

Put the pan on medium-high heat. Cut the bacon into little squares, not as big as Scrabble squares but about as big as Chiclets, using the scissors. Trust me on the scissors, it is impossible to slice bacon with a knife unless you use a scalpel. Put the bacon in the skillet and wait until you hear it start to hiss. Then drop the garlic, which you will have diced or squashed, into the bacon fat. If you are being all fancy with your shallots, put the chopped shallots into the pan.

Let them cook until everything smells all garlicky and wonderful, but not until they are brown. Then dump the spinach in and put the lid on. When the spinach on the bottom of the spinach-pile gets wilty, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon so the spinach on the top gets wilty. When that is wilty, take the lid off, let the steam dissipate, then put a gluggle or two of red wine vinegar on the spinach and cook a little while longer, until the smell of vinegar is gone.

This is a good salad to make if you are cooking dinner for someone you want to impress, because it's easy enough that you can memorize the recipe (what, recipes? I am so awesome I don't need them. Let me refill your wine glass.) and it's pretty fancy to cook your salad, right?

Dump it in a bowl. Don't forget to scrape out all the delicious bacon bits and juice. Eat the whole damn thing. And have a beer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Matrimonial bondage

The Marriage Plot is the latest novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. It's easy to remember which novels Eugenides wrote, because he writes at a pretty glacial pace - which is fine, since they're worth the wait.

But I started getting squirmy about a third of the way through The Marriage Plot, which is not at all a reflection on Eugenides' writing but rather my huge and horrible failing as a reader.

I really disliked most of the characters.

Which is fine, there's no reason at all one has to like the characters in a book, and in fact I think it's a testament to a writer's skill to keep you engaged even if the character is detestable (enough with your upstanding cops, already).

I think the reason I disliked Eugenides heroine-of-a-sort, Madeleine Hanna, is that in her earnestness and foolishness she reminded me far too much of me (except, of course, that she's wealthy, symmetrical of face, and has doting if overbearing parents. We don't have any of that in common.).

Madeleine is a senior at Brown University, majoring in English:

Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different than what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major majored in.

Which, ouch. That hits close to the bone, Eugenides.

The Marriage Plot opens on Madeleine's graduation morning. She's miserable, hungover, and heart-broken after the dissolution of her relationship with Leonard, forced to spend the day entertaining her overbearing Boston Brahmin parents, Phyllida and Alton.

But the winds of English study are changing, and Madeleine - devotee of Austen and the Brontë sisters - finds herself in a class studying Foucault and Derrida, Baudrillard and Deleuze (ugh, flashbacks). The course is full of students who very earnestly talk about things like how problematic it is to introduce oneself and the necessity of not thinking of books as being about anything (ugh, more flashbacks).

And there she meets Leonard, a big, rather slovenly guy, out of place in their class, and it's pretty easy to see why Madeleine likes him - how could you not like someone willing to stand up to the deconstructionist twerps on your behalf?

What follows is, I suppose, the marriage plot. Leonard has manic-depression, the big hitch in their relationship, but he's also kind of a douche, a very particular kind of douche, the kind of douche who will not only never wash his sheets, but also ridicule you for wanting clean sheets - nay, for being so superior as to want clean sheets.

I was rather sadly forced to identify with Madeleine here, since I also dated exactly this kind of douche for two years in college (except he was an alcoholic, not a manic-depressive). Except while I ran for sweet, clean-sheeted liberty, Madeleine marries her douche (which, spoiler? Since it's in the title, I think you saw that coming).

Eugenides bounces between Madeleine and Leonard's deteriorating relationship, Leonard's collapsing mental state, and one of Madeleine's college friends, Mitchell, who is noodling around India searching for enlightenment. Mitchell is the Duckie to Madeleine's Andie, having been infatuated with her since they met.

Compared to Middlesex, The Marriage Plot is zippy, and I blew through the four-hundred-plus pages quickly. The Marriage Plot feels shallower, skimming the surface of its characters instead of thoroughly inhabiting them the way Middlesex did. Of course, this is like complaining about the glove compartment on a Jaguar, since Eugenides could probably write a riveting and entertaining grocery list.

Open Letter Mondays (and an apology)

An Open Letter To Whatever It Is In Florida That I Am So Violently Allergic To

Dear Whatever It Is in Florida That I Am So Violently Allergic To,

You win.


Seriously, I don't know what it was - I'm thinking some kind of plant - by Thursday I was like one giant hive. Cross Florida off the list of places to retire.

Also! Apologies for the lighter-than-usual posting, but I had no Internet last week. I did read Jeffrey Eugenides latest, The Marriage Plot (winner of the Pulitzer Prize!!) and will have a review of that shortly.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Modcloth, on the Occasion of Needing a New Coat

Dear Modcloth,
It is true, yes, that I'm rather half-heartedly shopping for a new coat. I will probably put off buying said coat until winter is nearly over, and then just end up getting something at Goodwill. But. I digress. I appreciate the creativity of your copywriters, I do. I understand that ginning up a paragraph or two of sustained excitement about a coat must be challenging. However, I am feeling as though you are not - how do I put this - relating to me with this description:

Walking up the path to your family’s country home, you catch the rich aroma of treats as warm as your scarlet Steve Madden coat. You dust snowflakes from your high-collar, button-embellished sleeves, and vegan faux leather belt, eagerly undoing the tie waist and black buttons as you enter the glowing foyer. Slipping off this pocketed piece, you greet your kin in a patterned sweater, skinny jeans, and tall boots. Swapping hugs and how-do-you-dos, you’re shuffled to the kitchen for a homemade wintertime snack that’s just as sweet as your style!

Allow me to rewrite this for you:

Walking up the path to your parents' townhome, you note that the lawn is now covered in black plastic, which would not be all that awful looking if your house wasn't next to Mr. Perfect Lawn's, whose flowers are always in military formation. The comparison makes your house look like something from Cops, right before the police stomp the door in. You clomp inside to the foyer and think Wow, it's cold in here. You can see your breath inside. Tugging off your coat, you yell Moooooam! I'm hoooooame! and then realize that you didn't actually change out of your pajama top (too cold). Clumping upstairs, Mom waves for quiet because she's still nattering on her Bluetooth. She hands you a pair of fingerless gloves and mouths put these on, pointing to the thermostat, which is still off even though it's below freezing outside. For dinner, she offers you your choice of microwaved entrees and/or popcorn.

Thanks, Modcloth!

Striving for veracity, as always,

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bright new dawn.

Man. Sometimes I think it was kind of a miracle that the Allies won World War II. Rick Atkinson's An Army At Dawn makes it seem even more improbable, what with how outmatched the American Army was at the start of World War II.

An Army At Dawn is the first in Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, and it's an excellent chronicle of the war in North Africa during the first years of World War II (a front that often gets short shrift, otherwise).

It was in North Africa that the American military, having atrophied since World War I, really came into its own. Atkinson takes an interesting perspective on the war, focusing on the personalities of the men involved, that makes familiar names like Patton, Eisenhower, Darlan, and Montgomery come alive in new and vivid ways.

Atkinson opens with a prologue set in the American military cemetary in Carthage, home of nearly 3,000 graves of soldiers who died in Tunisia. From the names and dates on the headstones, he imagines the fate of a handful of soldiers. This approach - opening with a narrow look at a handful of men, instead of a sweeping battle - characterizes Atkinson's skill at close examination.

Atkinson also reminds us that the North African front was the first testing ground of the American military: "North African defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war."

Mistakes were made, lives were lost, and the battle for North Africa would weed out the incompetent commanders from the leaders.

Atkinson creates a vivid picture of the often larger-than-life personalities involved, from General Ted Roosevelt, the riding-crop-wielding, Rough Rider-emblazoned-Jeep-riding son of the famous Teddy, to Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Infantry Division commander and the "fightingest man" on the battlefield, and of course, the aforementioned Patton, Eisenhower, and Montgomery. Fortunately Atkinson doesn't let Army become a hagiography of leaders, and uses the diaries and letters of the grounds troops to create a more complete portrait of the military, from the young privates from the Midwest to the lieutenant colonels shepherding their men into battle. Atkinson also has a grim appreciation for the improbable humor often found in life-or-death situations.

Against the rolling groves, hills, and deserts of Tunisia, Atkinson's Army at Dawn is a meticulously researched, remarkably alive portrait of a world power coming into its own.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Uhoh, or, I now know how I'm going to die.

Agent of death.
Aaaaah! From ABC News: black licorice: sugary treat, and also silent killer.

According to this article, eating too much black licorice can trigger heart arrhythmia by lowering your potassium levels. Apparently licorice contains glycyrrhizin (not an alien race, but a naturally occurring chemical), and eating licorice regularly keeps your potassium levels dangerously low, which in turn can trigger a wonky heartbeat.

Also, I'm supposed to avoid eating large amounts of licorice in one go, which is impossible because once you open one of the Panda boxes, you have to eat the whole thing because the licorice will get stiff.

Is it weird that I take this article as a challenge? My first response was to think "man, I am going to go buy like five pounds of licorice and EAT IT ALL and see what happens!"