Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.

Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).

In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”

Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.

A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.

In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660. Continue Reading »

Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. Continue Reading »

Happy Holidays!

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)











(Reblogged from Mothic Flights and Flutterings.)

My back pages

thoughts-31You know how they tell you everything stays on the internet forever? It’s true of that annoying People story from 1987 about the Ga. Satellites that makes me sound like a dork, and the recipe for mulligatawny soup I asked Rainbow Grocery to share about ten years ago. But sadly, it’s not true for most of the book reviews linked to 8 Hamilton Ave., that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken off their website. I might try to resurrect these if I can dig up the old copies on my computer, and transfer directly onto this site. For anyone interested in the archived lists, bear with me. Meanwhile, take a look at my recent reviews of a couple of books that are making this year’s Best Of lists all over the place: Ugly Girls, by Lindsay Hunter, and Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce. And sorry about the snow; I haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet.

Love Me BackOnce you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to Love Me Back, the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages. Continue Reading »

Ugly GirlsOn the face of it, the two teenage rebels in Ugly Girls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel, are no different from a lot of girls their age. For Dayna (aka Baby Girl) and Perry, getting into trouble is the key to feeling alive.

Fun means taking risks, the more outrageous the better, proving to each other how cool they are. They vent their frustrations and emotional turmoil in defiance and petty crimes, and we first meet them in medias res: They’ve stolen a car and are joyriding down the highway before dawn, blasting their music and talking trash.

Best friends since they were kids, Perry and Baby Girl’s long-standing relationship provides a lot of things — solidarity, reassurance, one-upmanship and entertainment — but affection and trust are no longer part of it. “They didn’t talk, really, they just did.” Their go-nowhere lives have chained them together, and the small triumphs they enjoy over each other each day are the only ones they have.

Their battle for top dog leaves them achingly vulnerable. When a strange boy begins to play them against each other via email and Facebook, it’s not long before what’s left of their friendship begins to self-destruct, spiraling toward chaos. Continue Reading »

Us ConductorsThis past June, Sean Michaels stopped in Atlanta as part of an unusual book tour that included a reading and a theremin performance in each city. About a week beforehand, he contacted me on Twitter to say that he’d looked at this blog and read my reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and wondered if the newspaper might be interested in his book. A flurry ensued as I requested a copy from publisher Tin House, asked my editor at the paper if it was something the AJC would like to cover, and got approval for a feature and an interview. When the book arrived, I fell in love from the first page.

Last night, Us Conductors won one of the most prestigious prizes in Canada, the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I can’t think of a better reason to share my AJC interview and also note the performance by the local Atlanta band that helped make the reading such a phenomenal event. Congratulations, Sean Michaels!

Unusual instrument sets tone for Us Conductors book, musical tour

The theremin. Even if you don’t know what it is, chances are you’ve heard it.

It’s the unearthly, eerie music on the soundtrack of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Lost Weekend” and in the themes of “The Outer Limits” and “One Step Beyond.” Tim Burton re-created it in “Ed Wood” to mimic the soundtrack for “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” A version of it opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; Jimmy Page used it to create the ethereal interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Invented in 1921 by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Two antennas sense the to and fro movement of the player’s hands, which control high-frequency oscillators for pitch and volume. These electric signals are then amplified and sent to a speaker. For something almost a century old, the theremin still feels as if it time-traveled out of the future.

Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the West, arrived in the U.S. following a grand tour of Russia and Europe, and was soon playing Carnegie Hall and performing throughout the United States. He patented the instrument in 1928, and RCA began to manufacture and sell theremins across the country. Devotees of the theremin included violinist Clara Rockmore, one of its finest practitioners, and teacher and music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

And then, in 1938, Leon Theremin disappeared.

This is where Sean Michaels comes in. Michaels, award-winning music writer and founder of music blog, Said the Gramaphone,Sean Michaels has written a wildly imaginative first novel inspired by the life of the Russian inventor and reluctant spy. “Us Conductors” (Tin House, $15.95) is a timeless story variously set in Bolshevik Russia, New York City in the Roaring ’20s and the new Soviet Republic’s punishing labor camps.

“It’s a book about love, lies, longing and kung fu,” Michaels says, “with this strange, one-of-a-kind musical instrument at its heart.”

As the book opens, Theremin, imprisoned in a cabin on a ship returning him to the Soviet Union, is writing a letter to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore. Continue Reading »