Densmore in Oz

January 22, 2020

On the always wonderful Public Domain Review I found a glorious essay on W.W. Densmore, the illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books at the beginning of the last century.  Moreover, it has a collection of dozens of Densmore’s images.  I chose two early examples.

 

Well worth the time!


The Tiger’s Wife

January 8, 2020

I just finished Tea Obreht’s remarkable The Tiger’s Wife, another of the best novels of the 2010s that I am working my way through. Set in an unnamed Balkan country created after the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia, Obreht creates a devastating portrayal of a society ripped apart by centuries-old ethnic and religious animosities, told in a series of overlapping stories saturated with peasant folklore and magical realism.

A young doctor from one side of a border crosses the boundary to help orphans on the other side and to find the body of her recently dead grandfather, also a doctor. In her journey, she discovers and re-discovers the life of the old man and how he was affected by the second world war, life under “the Marshall” (Tito), and in the subsequent civil and independence wars. Central to it all is a tiger, freed from its captivity in the City zoo by Nazi bombardment. The tiger wanders the countryside until it takes up residence around an isolated village where the grandfather is a boy. Its effect on the villagers drives much of the book

It is a compelling story of one family’s experience of some of Europe’s worst times. But this narrative is shot through with long, perhaps fabulous (in its original sense) episodes in her grandfather’s life that illuminate the role of Death (in its multiple guises) in a peasant world forced to deal with the madness of the twentieth century. It is filled with an array of fascinating Balkan characters and the whole is suffused with dreadful superstition and a kind of black comedy.

I thought this was a marvelous book.

 


Western Tales

December 23, 2019

In my continuing effort to read all the best novels of the 2010s, I sat down yesterday to read Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams.  I read it in one gulp — in the time it took to do the laundry, and for the Seahawks to lose to the Cardinals — and wished it would never end.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling in which we follow the life of Robert Grainger, a woodman in the first half of the twentieth-century. In simple direct prose, in paragraphs that could be poetry, we see his tough upbringing, the loss of the family he makes, the daily trauma of life as a lumberman, and the extraordinary changes that were transforming the west in those decades.  Without the slightest sentimentality, we are touched deeply by his tragedies and his ability to continue against awful odds.

This is work of genius, reminding me of Richard Brautigan but without the comic surreality.  I was certain it was the best book I had read in 2019; but then ….

I turned to The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which covers much of the same period,  I gulped this exquisite gem in just two bites, almost not breathing throughout because I was so entranced by its magic.

In a marvelous and innovative way, Otsuka recreates the lives of a group of Japanese women shipped to San Francisco as mail order brides at the beginning of the century. Each chapter describes in vivid and intimate detail a portion of their lives: the trip across the Pacific; the first night with their new husbands; learning about how to deal with white folks and the hard work they were forced to endure; having babies; raising children who often reject their history; the shock of internment, and life after.

Her method — a sequence of linked narratives, often of a sentence only, which works throughout the novel — is hard to describe. I hope this small excerpt does it justice:

“We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 115-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the years. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands … we gave birth in Rialto by the light of kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan …”

I feel privileged to have read this.

 


Writing For Dollars

December 21, 2019

For some, writing can be a very lucrative business.  Forbes magazine has compiled a list of the top five earning authors of 2019:

  1. $92m — J.K. Rowling
  2. $70m — James Patterson
  3. $36m — Michele Obama
  4. $20m — Jeff Kinney
  5. $17m — Stephen King

Other than Michele Obama, the names will be familiar to those who saw the report in March this year that tracked the top writers’ earnings from 2008-2018.  As I wrote then, the rich get a great deal richer.

I doubt that the new anti-transgender controversy concerning Rowling will affect her income to any great extent.


In A Lonely Place

December 17, 2019

While waiting for my next 2010s novel to arrive at the local library, I decided to read something rather older, a crime novel that was recommended to me some while ago,  It is In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, published in 1947.

Set in Los Angeles, In A Lonely Place was one of the first literary portraits of a serial killer.  In a vivid and fast-paced mix of first and third person views she gets deep into the mind of a murderer, detailing his confident highs and his anxious lows. Never judgemental, Hughes traces his isolated life through a period of several weeks, including his desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a normal relationship with a girl he falls for.  In the finest noir tradition, Hughes paints an intense impression of Los Angelenos going about their daily lives beneath a cloud of deepening dread as the number of murders increases and the police are unable to make a breakthrough in the case.

Her writing is clear and direct, drawing fine believable characters in swift sketches. She is expert at precisely building tension, releasing it, and then rebuilding it over and over again. How many victims are there? Can he get away with it?  Eventually, the string is pulled so taut that the end seems a relief for everyone concerned.

The 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie adaption great though it is as a noir cinema classic, makes a number of major changes to the story, and I prefer the book.

What a marvelous book this is.  I read it in three big draughts, not wanting to put it down.

Well worth the read!


The Real Joy Continues

December 15, 2019

I love to cook, and I have a decent library of cookbooks of all types.  Not only that, but these days I get recipes and inspiration from a number of great sites on the internet.  That being said, The Joy of Cooking is one of the two or three always there, always handy, gotos when I want information.

I had used The Joy of Cooking (probably the 1975 edition) throughout the 1980s and 1990s; and then lost it with the breakup of a relationship. During our first Christmas together, the Everloving gave me the 1997 edition which now, twenty years later, is dirty and drip-stained through constant use. Some of the pages have even come loose through excessive visiting.  There are only a few recipes that I use straight up these days (pizza dough, pancake batter, chicken stir fry, Spencered fish, a few others) but it is a constant source of great knowledge and assistance about technique, and the handling of less common meats, vegetables, and fruits.

So I was pleased to see that a new edition of the classic upon us, still edited by the family — this time by John Becker, great-grandson of Irma Rombauer (the originator), grandson of Marion Rombauer Becker, and son of Ethan Becker who produced the last version.  John Becker and his wife Megan Scott have updated the book for the 21st century while retaining the family style — the action method — that generations of cooks have learned to trust since 1931.

There is an interesting interview with John Becker at Literary Hub which gives us much family history and explores the methodology of updating so many classic recipes.

“I think that this addition, we really were trying to kind of go back to the way that Marian and Irma revised, kind of being responsible, basically personally responsible, for everything in there. In the last few editions, despite some great contributors and work, there was a disconnect and you could tell. There were just too many cooks in the kitchen,  so to speak. We felt we needed to do this ourselves, to go back to what made the 1975 such a good book.”

I’ll stick with my collapsing old copy but I am sure the new edition will be a great hit for new and old cooks both.


A Visit From The Goon Squad

December 13, 2019

Continuing my attempt to read all of the books on Literary Hub’s Top Twenty Novels of the 2010s, I have now just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which, apart from its dazzling brilliance, is about as far from my last read as its possible to go.

Goon Squad is a very modern novel. It is written as thirteen unattached but inter-related stories with timelines that go back and forth to the 1970s and forward to the near future (i.e, about now as the book was published in 2010).  There are few if any direct narrative connections between the stories.

The stories are about parts of the lives of Bennie Salazar, an ageing record producer, Sasha his long-time assistant, and various children, friends and acquaintances of theirs. Set mostly in New York City, there are also sections in San Francisco, Kenya, and Naples. The background is the music business and that plays an important though only supporting role.

Goon Squad is a treasure trove of technical virtuosity, shape shifting and mind bending. But it is also filled to the brim with empathy and understanding of the various human conditions that affect so many of us.  I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.