Review: Twain’s Feast

July 16th, 2021

Andrew Beahrs’s Twain’s Feast defies easy categorization, but I’m really happy that I read it. It’s historical, culinary, environmental, journalistic, literary, and includes recipes. If Beahrs were less steeped in any of these areas, I doubt that Feast would cohere into anything worthwhile.

The basis is a menu Mark Twain includes in The Innocents Abroad that is a tribute to the uniquely American foods he was missing in Europe when he was writing. Twain’s got elements of a blogger in him and it’s easy to imagine his menu chapter as a listicle in the current media world. I intend that as an endorsement. Twain’s such a keen ofserver of people and society that his menu is not so much a bill of fare as a collection of evocative dishes. Food is so connected to our cultural consciousness that his readers would not have been able to read it without their own memories and passions rising. Feast Beahrs’s response to that stimulation.

He brings an interesting array of talents and fascinations to play. He’s a good literary historian who knows Twain well. He puts the dishes into the sort of personal and societal context that wold make them so beloved of Twain. Then he connects the same dishes to contemporary times.

The connections take Beahrs out into the world to tell those stories. He does a good job connecting them to different aspects of the world. Prairie Chicken is on the menu, but you can’t eat one because there probably only a few hundred birds alive. But the story of the birds themselves and the people caring for them is compelling. Details of BBQ and Southern dishes connect to Twain’s relationships to the Confederacy and the Union. That reflects into society’s relationships as they evolve. Each chapter connects the food to something compelling about this world.

He writes well and has a passion for food as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Because Internet

June 6th, 2021

Because Internet spans scholarship and popular culture in all the ways I admire. Gretchen McCulloch doesn’t assume her audience consists of isolated academics or insular nerds. I think dillatentes on both sides will learn and be entertained. I consider myself a part of her target audience, so I found it delightful.

I’m the kind of language nerd who avoids prescriptivism and dire pronouncements about technology damaging our collective communication and cognition. I seems like languages have always fragmented into jargon and argot and adapted to new technologies. Technology changes both how we express our thoughts and the people we communicate with. That’s true of everything from the chariot to the text message. It’s interesting to look at the details of the changes that the Internet has encouraged, but I’m also confident that any shift away from, say, cursive writing that it encourages will not significantly damage us.

McCulloch largly shares my perspective, but can support the position with specific scholarship. Better than that, she can explain the underlying studies and ideas clearly. I’m interested and unprofessional and found the studies non-daunting and enlightening.

Highly recommended.

Review: Nexus

May 23rd, 2021

Baron’s and Rude’s Nexus is one of my all-time favorite comics. It has been around for decades, and has become more of a hang-out comic than an ongoing dramatic concern. For that reason I tend to pick up new episodes when they appear, and follow Baron on social media to hear about them. This is a novel set in current Nexus continuity that I helped crowdfund somewhere.

The novel is fun for me, because I would enjoy checking in with the cast in any medium. In a lot of ways, it’s mostly fun for me to see the differences between the storytelling in the comic and in the novel.

There are lots of little moments where verbalizing the story doesn’t completely work for me. Nexus is known for the density of both visual cues and straight up easter eggs that the artists pepper issues with. Baron drops those in, but they are a less subtle in text.

Overall, the story is a fine Nexus story, and no one can execute one better than Baron. But the stakes never seem that high. If this is your first brush with Nexus, they may seem so, but Nexus and company are basically James Bond and British Intelligence. They save the world once a week.

Mostly for fans, I think.

Review: Retablos

May 23rd, 2021

Retablos sits at a sweet spot between a short story collection and a more direct memoir. Octavio Solis is verbally painting these economical scenes from his childhood as tiny devotions that he shares. He says this fairly directly in the introduction, making the title allusion explicit. It’s an interesting framing of the memoir and works well for me.

Solis is a playwright of some renown which for me manifests itself in both his strength of judgement in picking interesting scenes to depict and his occasional surrender to his writerly instincts in dramatizing them. I think where those lines are is largely a matter of taste and, overall, Retablos works for me. I understand that it won’t work for everyone. This may be the price for taking chances and I endorse it.

Solis’s life and the setting both emerge as more of the devotions unfold. I came away with a great feeling of the texture of both. The setting – El Paso – is a timely choice given our current preoccupation with immigration and the southern border. To me the place is rich enough to be fascinating without the contemporary fascination.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: City on the Edge of Forever

April 23rd, 2021

City on the Edge of Forever is a great book to hand to a new Angeleno who is trying to find their feet in this part of the world. Peter Lunenfeld has clearly fallen in love with SoCal and immersed himself in both the history and culture, both pop and mainstream. I probably picked it up five years too late for the peak effect, but I appreciate the work.

A lot of history, innovation, artifice, and commerce blend here. While that’s true of any place, SoCal gathers all that from several disparate cultural sources and stirs it with the roiling twin forces of land speculation and the creative media industry. There’s the natural churn and clash of people accelerated by rapid turnover of people seeking fame, land, and wealth. The result – at the moment – is a place that is constantly trying to pretend it’s new by repainting its zeitgeist. Its history is a kaleidoscope of more of the same.

It’s a strange, fast-moving place for someone from somewhere else, as so many of us are, and Lunefeld does a fine job finding threads that embroider it all with interesting patterns. He finds some interesting connections through culture, architecture, occultism, and mass media.

As I say, I had heard enough of these histories before that I wasn’t spellbound by all this, but I can see how it could serve as a great eye-opener.

Recommended.

Review: Wheels of Chance

April 3rd, 2021

If there’s a “Tedcore,” this book may define it. It’s a Victorian romance by H. G. Wells set on a bicycling holiday in England. That said, it turned out not to be what I expected. It held my interest, though.

Wells is a fascinating guy who was pro-bike in an era when being pro-bike meant preferring them to horses. His affection for cycling is well enough known in bike circles to include apocryphal quotes. As a practical cyclist of the time, he does well at including interesting details in this. I’m no expert on these times on bikes, primarily being acquainted with them from Mark Twain’s work, so I learned much.

Beyond that, Wheels of Chance includes a lot about the class structures in Britain at the time. Our main protagonists are separated by sex, but more importantly by class. The barriers here are broadly familiar to anyone who’s read Romeo and Juilet or seen Valley Girl. Broadly familiar, for sure, but the specifics are pretty interesting.

Also interesting was the arc of the romance, such as it is. Modern romcom conventions are only partially present and the idea of a Hollywood ending is completely missing. It’s fun to see both what Wells has to say here and how he says it.

His characters are similarly of another time, but animated and believable. It’s easy to make out the world’s constraints and pleasures through their eyes.

Recommended.

Review: Tangled Up in Blue

March 13th, 2021

Tangled Up in Blue was not what I expected. My impression was that the book was intended as an analysis of the state of modern policing with the twist that the author spent a few years as a patrol officer. I’ve read a couple of these and I was looking forward to see what Rosa Brooks did with it.

Brooks is one of the few pundits whose insight I respect on deep issues. Her resume includes time with the State Department in places like Afghanistan and she is also a Law Professor at Georgetown. Resumes are one thing, and I’ve been impressed by Brooks’s thinking across a wide range of topics.

Despite all that preparation, Tangled was not what I expected. There is a surprising amount of it that is self-reflection and memoir about the decision to become a volunteer officer in DC and the effects the process had on her and her family and friends. That openness lights up the descriptions of her policing experiences and reactions to them as well. To the extent that Tangled is an analysis, that openness brings a visceral edge to it.

Another part of Tangled that I respect is that it is ultimately neither analysis nor memoir. There are issues and situations she explores in scholarly depth and with personal soul-searching, but she reaches few conclusions. Because she has provided such a rich context, the paucity of conclusions seems like an insightful assessment of the complexity of the situation. Even without a a bow around it, her rich exploration is powerful.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Office of Historical Corrections

February 27th, 2021

Happenstance led me to this collection of Danielle Evans’s writing and I’m happy it did. She writes impeccably in service of her characters. Those characters are stressed by an unfair society to the breaking point and laid open for us.

When I write these I sometimes wind up struck by an analogy to another writer, unfair as that is. And Evans is so strong a writer and so distinct that it is a crutch for me. My crutch here is T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Like Boyle, Evans has a knack for putting characters into some of the most unusual circumstances from today’s headlines and making the progression to that state so consistent, simple, and logical that I found myself looking around and surprised at my location. She deploys twin strengths of choosing those circumstances so well and creating such realistic characters that this reader found himself enlightened repeatedly.

Her writing is quite powerful, but completely in service of character and theme. The few writerly flourishes that do appear assure me that this is a choice, and I admire it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Fearless Jones

February 21st, 2021

I think of Walter Mosley as being famous for his mystery and crime work, so it may be surprising that Fearless Jones is the first work of his I’ve read from that genre. I have heard parts of a few radio adaptations, so I knew some of what to expect.

The writing is excellent, which will surprise no one who has read Mosley before. He is a master of so many forms that he seems at his best in one of his favorite genres. I’m not enough of a mystery fan to comment on how he might be tracking or playing with the conventions of the genre. Even without knowing any of them the complex plot was easy to follow and if I were trying to solve the puzzle, I would have had no complaints.

When I do read mysteries, I read them for the characters, settings, and writing. Mosely’s writing is sublime. His characters are deftly drawn, deep, and believable. He can give a surface impression of a person with a few lines , and does. But even incidental characters who recur display their inner lives through small moments. It makes the story so much more immersive for me, and I imagine that for the puzzle solvers this can only help when looking for motives. His main characters show themselves in more detail and are a delight to get to know in both their beauty and their failings.

The immersion continues in the richness of the setting. That setting is one near and dear to my heart: historical Los Angeles. That I love the place does not blind me to its flaws, and Mosley takes a historical perspective – no year is given but it feels late 1950’s or early 1960’s to me – that throws those flaws into clear relief. He brings out the vibrancy of LA’s poorer communities, making it clear how people in them lived. That includes the ways that people and police treat them. It’s easy to paint broadly there, but Mosley brings out how the treatment varies and how the people doing it mitigate or intensify the unfairness. And the poor communities also vary.

Absent the puzzle, Fearless was about the precariousness of life at the edges of society and how the communities living on the edge come together to meet those threats. Early in the story, the protagonist (Paris Minton) loses basically everything he has because of he’s unwillingly dragged into a violent criminal contest. He quickly realizes he cannot fight this alone and connects with other in his world with the talents and hearts that can help him. These allies never seem like plot conventions that conveniently appear; they are fixtures in Paris’s life that he has a history with. Some owe him favors and some he has to convince. No one comes out and says anything like “this could happen to any of us,” but there are moments where I feel that shared understanding. It’s a warm feeling.

Fearless is also a thriller, and a compelling one. The pages flew by, and I was always eager to see what happened next. Even if you don’t care about character definition or historical LA, this book is great fun.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Queens of Animation

February 13th, 2021

I’m not a big fan of Disney animation. It’s not that I dislike it, just that I’m more of a Warner Bros. cartoon and Pixar and Miyazaki long form animation fan. And now Disney owns and promotes all both of the long form choices, so Disney seems to recognize their values. And there’s plenty of Disney animation I love and respect. But I’m not invested in the art to the same level and I don’t know the history in any detail.

For me, Queens of Animation was a snappy and scholarly introduction to Disney creative history through the lens of women’s contributions. That history is remarkable. The depth of creative and editorial investment, as well as the early personal guidance from Walt himself, surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have, though, given the beauty of the animation and the quality of the storytelling.

Nathalia Holt is not the first to publish a Disney history, of course, nor is she the most scholarly or comprehensive. She is the among the first, if not the first, to delve into the contributions of women to that legacy. Considering the quality of those contributions, that’s a terrible gap to have endured this long. This is a worthy bridge over the gap.

Holt illuminates these women and the place completely. Both the humanity and creativity of these people comes through clearly. She also brings the environment alive well, showing the power and pain generated by the studio. It’s gripping reading.

Strongly recommended.