Friday, December 29, 2006

Dancing the Makaya (Part 1)

Dancing the Makaya

[Part 1, edited (mostly) on 12/31]

To be honest, I always did it for the girls.

Sure, you had your body in motion sort of thing, the soaring arcs, the taut muscles, the balance--sometimes I think flying couldn't be better--but physical awareness alone would never have gotten me past the gauntlet in the hallway. If that was all I wanted, I could have been a wide receiver or a pole vaulter or something, all sprinting and timing for a moment of airborne grace. And hey, I get those guys too, and if the thrill of flight was all I was after, I would have been one of those. But I've got to tell you, the practices wouldn't be the same.

I don't run or jump unless it serves the rhythm. I don't grapple with sweaty fat men, but pull lithe young women to my body and fan their budding passions. I don't need the animal thirst for the kill, I take the fuller measure of life. I court the fire and whirl around it, feed it, evade it. I sail, I float, I howl. I am the gasp of excitement, not the wheeze of exhaustion The sigh of contentment and not the moan of defeat. I don't catch balls or kick them. Don't sprint, dodge, or hit. I dance.

There's a popular myth that most boys who dance are gay, and yeah, I suppose a lot of us are. I could see how it would be that level of distraction would be an occupational hazard, but on the other hand it's also my opinion that ten minutes with a girl like Makaya Simbi could straighten any guy out. Now there is a girl who can move, and even if you didn't notice her walking around school--you'd have to be blind not to see this girl, but I swear the football players don't--once you saw her move, then, well, turn-on doesn't start to describe it. When she dances, she doesn't just strut or sway, she smolders, sizzles. I've even seen her roar. When she heats up, the girl in her disappears. She's not grown to a mere woman either, like the instructors sometimes say when they want to lord their age over the younger students. Makaya becomes more than any of that. She drills right into something higher when she dances. Hips, shoulders, head, balanced, moving like on she's pulled on great and perfect strings, with perfect timing. It's more than great rhythm, that girl has inspiration.

And if you can move with her, well then that's the thing, isn't it? If you can dance with Makaya, then you can start to feel what it is to be a man. I have been practicing with her this month--we've got a freestyle jazz routine we're working on. Yesterday we were working on a lift sequence. I have to haul her up and balance her by her stiff wrists, and then let fly with all my strength. (You maybe think dancers are all legs, but there's a whole body experience involved, you've got to be perfectly strong everywhere, perfectly limber.) Makaya needs to hit the ground right on the downbeat--up, spin and throw and whoomf, right on the tonic of our bluesy little thing there. Other dancers may slam a landing, or bang it, but Makaya drifts down to the floor like a spark on to a pool of gasoline. Her feet touch and she explodes in movement, flashes a killer smile on the crowd for the two pickup notes, and then slinks at me for three beats, hips swaying like a charmed cobra as the blues start swinging into gear again. The look in her eye just then, you'd think she could eat me.

I don't care how many tackling dummies you can bowl over, or how many helmets you can stomp. You meatheads can keep your silly blonde cheerleaders.

Makaya and I have worked more and more over the last year. There's not anyone else here in our company who can keep up with her when she really gets the feeling, and it helps that we spent some time working on our own together as well, with old Ish. I'd practice with her a lot in any case--every guy in the company gets a good sampling of partners (like I said, it's why I'm here), but even though some the other boys can do the technical moves nearly as well, they're not so good at the freer and looser ballroom or jazz stuff. The stricter ballet or the tap productions work well for them, but when things get impassioned, improvisational, not a one of them can match Makaya when she's under the spell.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. Last year, Gary, one of our better guys, was chosen to dance a samba with Makaya for a ballroom exhibition. It was a big one for us, and the samba was the best part: big solo, live band, wonderful. Was I jealous? Maybe this time, maybe a little. I loved the way that Makaya would roll the word samba around her dark lips ("zamba"), like her mouth was dancing, and look at me like I belonged in the other half of it. So yeah, I wanted to be in Gary's place for that one. But dancing with Makaya is like a battle sometimes, and it's fun to have some of our other lovely young ladies try to keep up with me, too. I like to push the cuties to match my feet and my eyes, see if I can't bring something out in them. Sometimes I let them catch up with me, match me move for move, and it floats them up with a sort of sexy surprise that I love to see. Sometimes I don't let them, drop them short, which always makes them--the good ones anyway--try that much harder the next time. It's never bad to be paired with a woman, and as it turned out, I'd be with Makaya in most of the future numbers.

Against the CD, Gary and Makaya's practices went well enough. Over a month, they honed every step of a solid two-minute routine. But it's always different playing with a band. It's not just the mistakes--the missed notes or even a missed beat now and then--those are recoverable if you're a good dancer, but with young Ms. Simbi, you're talking about a different set of possibilities. You might get some joker in there who fancies himself a real musician. Might try to improvise.

Me, I love the samba rhythm. I love anything with a swing feel, and for a samba that's just the beginning of it. Before Gary and Makaya's showcase piece, there was a group number as an introduction. Right away, I could tell that they had a quality drummer for this band. He let nice, crisp pulse on one of the deeper toms--Bom be-bom be-Bom be-bom--nothing fancy, just the bare heartbeat of the whole pattern, but it was already infectious in the way that the tape had never been. You could feel the audience of TV-watching ballroom geeks getting into it from the first beat. The air seemed to crackle.

The boys and the girls--we poor extras of the crew--were on opposite sides of the stage, in the dark wings. As the drummer hit his opening groove, we strutted out toward one another, looking almost like chickens, with the down-stepping feet and bobbing heads. As we met in the middle of the floor, the snare started in, a strict sixteenth note pattern, but you could feel that the funky latin waterfall had kicked in, and with only a bar or two of that, the dude was in full swing. Someone else in the band started a tambourine in tinny electric syncopation. I swear I could smell ozone when the horns hit.

Our opening part wasn't that long, just enough to introduce the main couple. I was paired up against Wendy for it, a long, pale little thing, who looks taller than she is. Wendy has a shoulder shrug that can make me smile when I'm not dancing, and she's nice enough, but I can't ever see her growing past girlish. People will still be calling her cute when she's forty. Not my type. Just the same, this is a performance, and I carried her through our introductory twirls. The drums and the trumpets built to a quick crescendo and ended on a stomp, at which we dancers all froze in our different positions. Wendy's position was in my arms, never a bad thing.

During the pause, it's the job now of each couple to duck and run gracefully back to the wings, the ones in front first, revealing the back of the stage like an opening zipper. As this happened, the lights dimmed and the narrow spotlight opened onto Gary and Makaya in the back center. It's no wonder that Makaya was picked to lead this number. Even looking at her, you could tell she was perfect for it. You wouldn't even have to get past her eyes, but the rest of her was stunning in a shimmering red dress. The instructors, most of them, don't let us get into anything too revealing, thinking that it would be inappropriate (well, she's nearly eighteen, but you know, there are sometimes families at the show who come to see the younger kids in the group) but even the stodgiest dance outfit is designed to show off a body. In Makaya's case, you can see the femininity steaming from her, even as she's standing still. She owned that dress. I think Gary was paired against her only because he looked good almost as good in his clothes. He's got the same black-coffee skin as Makaya, and I have to admit, he looked damn good next to her in his sequined white. (Maybe the queer dancers are on to something after all.) I'm not as pale as Wendy, but I have to admit, I'd fade out in that outfit, under those lights.

The musical rest was just long enough to build tension, not so long that you'd forget the theme. Makaya and Gary were there looking at the crowd and as the drums hit a huge beat to reannounce themselves, they turned and stepped past one another with their straight backs and stiff necks, without losing arm contact.

Like the introduction, the piece started with pure percussion, and from the sides, I could see that the drummer's sidekick, the guy with the tambourine, was not really paying attention anymore, there's just the guy on the throne hammering on his middle pair of toms. He was looking at the dancers too. One interesting thing about the samba--the samba dance--is that it's got a "three feel" even though it's not strictly that, and the drummer was playing that three feel up a lot at first, matching his hands to the feet of the girl in red, and adding more to it by the second. The rhythm was so thick and layered, it started to sound like there were seven beats in there, 2-2-3, but it was so filled up with beats and thuds, that we were all too mesmerized to count. Like I said, these live guys sometimes have talent, and here was someone good enough to improvise something well beyond what we practiced.

Makaya didn't look uncomfortable with that. The end of each bar thinned to a little bada-bup that seemed to heat her up a little more with each repetition. Gary adapted to the beat well enough at first, and he was even copying Makaya's move on the little fill (the dance looked nothing like a samba at this point), but the drummer seemed to be out for him. Out of nowhere, he laid on the snare, a completely alien pattern except that Makaya's face lit up with anticipation right before the break, and as the drummer hit it, she threw out her arms and her crimson flew all around her like she was bursting in flames. Gary stood still. Poor bastard.

Makaya grabbed his white shirt and yanked him at her, threw him past her, as the music crescendoed again. The horns again lit in for a final beat, and there was a silence once more. Gary scraped his ass from the floor, and the formal samba started again as if nothing had happened. Gary moved through it like a frightened robot. He hasn't danced with Makaya since. Can't even look at her anymore.

[to be contd.]


- part one of three or four
- Good call, rundeep. The rhythms are important to the story, and I spent a few hours listening to (and choosing) drum samples.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Immortal Folly IV: Review of Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee

Grade: A

Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's novel does more than complete this theme of men and animals and gods: it lays the concepts out, dissects them, discusses them at length, from half a dozen viewpoints, conventional and otherwise, as a nearly academic exercise.

Elizabeth Costello is a series of abbreviated formal lectures and less-formal followup discussions which take place around the aging Ms. Costello, the famous (fictional) writer. It's a pretty ballsy effort, at least if your goal is to sell books, to make a story about lecturing writers and blathering academics. It's brazenly self-aware and self-referential from page one. It commits the storytelling faux pas of using characters as nothing more than expository vehicles--the novel is less about people (some character details between chapters don't even mesh, probably to flag anyone who's paying too much attention to the "plot") than it is about a novelist's ideas of people, not to mention animals and gods, rattling the bars of their hypothetical cages. Without genius, it would be laughable to package something like this as a novel. But Coetzee fascinates. I hope he teaches a class somewhere. I wish I could take it.

The opening "lesson" in Elizabeth Costello discusses Realism as an ugly modern movement, condemning it, as the characters in the novel condemn very much, as anthropocentric. Elizabeth Costello's discussion on realism selects Kafka's talking ape, Red Peter (that's realism, really?), as a fulcrum for discussion, and it's a good enough launching point for the greater theme of the novel, asking from a scholarly perspecitve (which honestly enough is one with which I'm less familiar), the age-old: what's so great about these human beings anyway? Does the focus on human-style reasoning as a distinction from the beasts ultimately lead to the answers we want to hear (that dude, we rule because it's, you know, us)? What is wrong, the characters ask, with Red Peter's ape-ness, his animal being? Who are we to impose our reason on these creatures? Who are we to impose our brutality, our inhumanity as it were?

Coetzee explores our relationship to the gods as well, asking whether gods are superior reasoning beings (like Swift's Houyhnhnms) or superior aesthetic beings, like the Greek gods or as the ennobled savages the colonial powers of a hundred years ago found everywhere. Once, we communed with animals as gods in this second sort of worship, and echoed it among the later Christian poets and scholars, what with their burning tigers and all. The rejection of the hunt, the war with animals (as the titular character would say) is recent. Interestingly, Coetzee takes the notion of gods as superior compassionate beings, such as the tortured Christ, more lightly. I found this a strange take after he lampooned our clumsy empathy for the lesser beings. He's not, I should note, looking for a unified perspective so much as looking to showcase the argument.

I suppose one is not very likely to win a Nobel, especially if you're a middle-aged white guy, by effetely touring American and European traditions. (Coetzee wryly points out that Elizabeth Costello the character was helped a great deal by her Australian heritage.) Elizabeth Costello the novel spends a good amount of time in Africa in it's exploration of human exceptionalism. He takes the time to explore the oral tradition of the continent, and though he criticizes it a little, on the meta level the reader can see an unintentional tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman's conceit: it's not the reason, it's the telling of the stories. Who else can get inside the head of an African, a woman, a bat?

Only the storyteller.

Genre: ,

Friday, December 22, 2006

Masks of Gold and Stone (Merry Christmas)

Many of you here use this place as a mask, using that intemperate interface to peek out through orange and blue glasses at personalities represented by letters on a screen. All those characters dashed about, turning people into characters, and, in the brains of the reader, back into people again, at least some of the time.

Even though this place is particularly well-suited to masquerade--there's an infinitude of off-screen changing rooms--there is no shortage of masks in walking life. We show ourselves to our family one way, represent to friends, coworkers another. We show toothy visages to our enemies, and roll our bellies at people we trust, sometimes on faith. Some few show fiery masks of passion: dangerous items, apt to consume the wearer (I also fear they're lonely down beneath--as for me, I prefer to smolder), but most others see only the armor we put before ourselves to protect from the inevitable spears and pricks that people lurk to jam into any chink.

I find them all ill-fitting and cumbersome.

Of course we mask ourselves to ourselves as well, to varying degrees. I'd find it nice to be free to open them all to reveal just me, whatever the hell that is. Even if I think it makes a silly quasi-quantitative model, I know that Keifus, whoever he is, is in truth a multitude of faces, and even if these are, by definition, also false--bullshit upon bullshit upon nothingness--then at least they are form-fitting to whatever it is I might be. As someone who wishes he could write, I find it a satisfying exercise to go spelunking through the wrinkled avenues of my gray matter* for avatars. I'm not too afraid of my darker corners (more disappointed in them, actually), but many of the weaker ones I'd rather not see. For all this, however, there's a small ensemble of legitimate Keifuses with which I identify as me.

Even though this is by nature a place of masks, it's also a place where I let the essential ones shine with their most unfiltered light. So many of you don the things to even walk in the door. I find it a relief to shuck the fucking things off.

Letting me out is all about projecting my reactions on things--my opinions, my thoughts. It's not the same as revealing the facts of my life. I find these a burden too, truth be told. As a rule, I don't talk about my marriage here (partly because doing so is inherently unfair, partly because it's sneaky, partly because I consider it low class, and partly because I'd love my wife to be part of any hypothetical hugfest I'm finally allowed to attend), even if it consumes a great deal of my mental energy. But I'm dying to tell you that it's the heaviest mask I wear: asexual and orthogonal to the grain of my humor. Bulletproof. It weighs a goddamn ton. That you folks tend to find me decent is a total riot.

It's exactly the wrong time to complain about this of course. I'm in the middle of a seasonal lull in the long ice, a midwinter thaw that's as welcome as a desert oasis. But melting has a tendency to let out all those frozen-in flaws and impurities, all at once. (It's how, incidentally, you purify silicon ingots.) Hopefully this post will make those thoughts go away in time.

The masks I wear in front of my kids are closer to my internal selves. But to the tykes, I can't, of course, show all of the inner Keifuses, only the ones they are ready to understand. My work masks are me to an even smaller extent. That me is mostly about business and intellectual thought (although I don't think anyone's fooled by my preferred distractions). I decline to wear my business mask here unless it informs a more universal or relevant experience. I think that posturing my work knowledge only to impress (sorry, Geoff) is pretty unclassy too--there's a fine line. (But on the other hand, those guys in the Fray's explainer are getting checkmarks for showing off, so maybe I'm a fool. I'll live.)

I've got some close friends too that only see my masks. These are the guys I grew up with and I positively cherish their continued company. But there's no denying we grew apart--these fellows have a spark of the intellectual married with a spark of the eternal childish (otherwise we'd never likely have found one another in the first place), but their minds all took different paths than mine over the years. More closed, less honest. Sorry guys.

I've said it before: you jokers--you know who you are--even if those of you who're faking it, are the closest thing I've got to real friends. What you see here is the closest thing to Keifus that I'll admit to, even to myself.

I won't lie to you. My Christmas is going to be wonderful. It's the closest time of the year when I can let it out at home and still be approved of. There will be fabulous food, good wine, terrible family jug-band music, and just a good--no, a great--loving time had by all. It's the best week of the year by a long shot.

I don't know why I find so much in common with you people. I'm hopelessly mundane. I've never done hard drugs, don’t suffer from alcoholism (probably) or other addictions, don't smoke, never had a tumultuous relationship, am boringly straight, never had soul-scrubbing sex, I've figured little of it out, no light shines beatifically from my forehead, don't know the right things to say, have no deviant preferences (but could probably find some if I tried), never been homeless, have no debilitating maladies (except bad knees), no psychological afflictions, I may be melancholy but I'm not clinically anything, never fought in a war, never sacrificed myself for others (except in wimpy moderation for my family), never cheated on my wife, never been divorced, never committed rhetorical sins, had no close loved ones suffer (not that close), never lied in a substantive way, wasn't abused as a child, and, I'm happy to say, have abused no one other than by being my own pathetic self.

But just the same, you people are my brothers, and I love every crazy, fucked-up, lying one of you. Yup, even you. I'll be needing you for the other 51 weeks. Take care.

Merry Christmas.


*This phrase sounds familiar to me: will research to see if I accidentally cribbed it, I promise (Is it an A?)

Hey Pierce Penniless!

Do you realize you've locked everyone out of reading your blog? If that was not intentional, you may want to look into it. I mean, I'm not a regular at very many places, so if you're ducking out on purpose, I wish you'd, you know, acknowledge it to your faithful here.

12/23: Well shit, bro, if inexpertly flogging the ghost of ole Billy Yeats can't draw you out, then I fear I've lost you. Hope to see you back around soon. Also wanted to mention that I'm enjoying Elizabeth Costello--will post on it in the near future, though it may be a tough one to discuss in a handful of paragraphs.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Immortal Folly III: Review of The Night Watch by Sean Stewart

Grade: B+

So we walked out of the jungle and settled down as men. But the trees didn't let go of us so willingly. The Wild Wood, the forest primeval (to scatter my sources), held our primitive thoughts in its captive tendrils for centuries. Taming it has made us more than amimal-men, but what if the wood reasserted itself? (Well, it'll be pissed off, for starters.)

Sean Stewart has created a world in which the earth has woken up. Dormant for half a millenium, from (as he belabors) the sixteenth century until the end of the second world war, the old-world magic has returned. It was a horrible thing too: turning great men into terrible gods, stirring the dead, and transforming the lesser of us into ghostly deformed creatures that feed on fear. The awakening, in Stewart's universe, was slow at first and then climaxed in a Dream that, but for the efforts of a noble few, nearly wiped humanity off the map. Some communities survived the Dream intact, through guidance and grit, and The Night Watch looks at two of them, the south side of Edmonton, that made it through with stark denial, and Vancouver's Chinatown, which persisted with considerable more flair.

From this palette of earth powers and the living supernatural, a good writer can paint some gorgeous and haunting scenes, and this indeed is Stewart's strength. (He describes his own work as happening "at the confluence of Faulkner and Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Enid Nesbit, Joseph Conrad and Lloyd Alexander and Ursula Le Guin," which, neglecting Nesbit whom I've not read, isn't a bad description at all.) He's got a splendid eye for detail, whether it's detail of setting, detail of emotion, detail of character. And they're wonderfully rendered: his vignettes and snapshots range from frightening to fulfilling to poignant. The primitive forest of Vancouver, grown to near sentience, the magical depths of Chinatown (where's Jack Burton when you need him?), and the cold gods of the freezing prarie that demand sacrifice all seethe from the page.

My only wish is that he could have used more a little more expository detail. To turn all those scenes into a novel, you have to connect them somehow, generate some faith in the reader in the causality of events, that one thing leads to another, that there's a purpose to grouping them in such a fashion for display. You need to to have a consistent setting, too, and a few words as my second paragraph here (necessarily better written) would have gone far if applied near the beginning. Stewart's early info-dumps were, unfortunately, not terribly relevant, and I was damn confused on how the world fit together. Technology has advanced nearly to artificial intelligence, but fuel and other chemicals must be scrounged. How was that possible? The "barbarian" and many of the other magical threats were so unclear at first as to be non-alarming. They got told eventually, mostly, and by the end, I was tempted to re-read the first half to verify that I wasn't the problem. But it wasn't me: for all that beauty the individual plots never mesh quite well enough. A shame, but hardly a damning one.

A couple of non-thematic notes: he painted a relationship of a formerly married couple that I liked. Stewart often writes women that annoy me (relying overmuch on some Madonna/whore thing to complicate them past the point of likability). Here there was none of that: he made a woman that was tempestuous and difficult and still strong and feminine. He recognized how well paired such women are with solid man-types as unflappable bulwarks against their storms. He matched this pair believably enough, and made it a nice vehicle to display the culture clash. Another point that I enjoyed was the serendipitous pairing of this novel with Jitterbug Perfume. Future Edmonton is beet-eating town it seems, but it couldn't be more dispassionate. Meanwhile, the lusty residents of Chinatown loathe the things. Is it a nod? It's an amusing one if so.

Genre: , , >,

Reflections of an Aging Writer

It's not dead, not yet
maybe not even dying
but we play a dark game
with the pillow, don't we?
look, it's breathing again
our timing is perfect

I scribbled these walls myself
on dotted lines
how could I imagine that more ink
would possibly help?
this encircling fence
is already underwritten

The greatest horror by now
is to be taken seriously
please tell me it spoke to you
please, won't you like me?
so full of myself
it spills on the page

Another midlife windbag
the pages are full of my avatars
who can I blame
that I haven't lived?
always back to me
and my naïve paternal sentiment

But the door's over there
just past the wet floor
I painted
and if I leave footprints?
...I still care
it's not only my carpet after all

I guess I'll just wait
till it's dull and dry
how much longer can that be?


Probably needs more edits. (Thanks A--I didn't take your specific advice, but it helped.)

Autobiographical? Let's say I'm extrapolating. I'm neither a writer, nor particularly old (no doubt this is obvious), a little early for a midlife crisis yet.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hollandaise Morning

Omelette's hope is lost, forsaken
silken buttercup betrayed
a lonely memory of clouds

What fine divisions once entangled
endless texture in one whole
now whisked instead to curdled flocs
as these

Slimy yellow platelets floating
clotted in salty plasm
drifting on autumnal surface
like leaves

Emulsions form and are broken
fatty gobbets find their own
their segregated souls departed
like dreams


Okay, I know it's terrible poetry, but I had to drain it from my head.

Chemically speaking, emulsions are mixtures of insoluble liquids (usually water and an organic liquid--oil--of some kind) that are separated into very small domains. What makes emulsions different from your run-of-the-mill suspensions is that they're relatively stable thanks to the action of a surfactant, a chemical that has an affinity for both the oil and the water phases, and keeps them apart at a microscopic level. The result is a soft and pillowy "phase" that, depending on its composition, can sometimes be made to float forever between the pure oil and water regions of a mixture. Which is neat.

The structure of the emulsion microdomains is actually quite subtle and fascinating, ranging from isolated droplets, to columns, layers, and intricate spongelike extended structures. Here's a sylized phase diagram that I once put in a proposal, taken from somebody's review (H. T. Davis Coll. Surf. A, 91, 9, 1994).

When you separate an emulsion, it's called "breaking," which is an interesting choice of terms because you're not breaking the true phases (they are already broken up), but combining them into bigger chunks. You can probably make this a metaphor for human interaction: a bunch of us relating individually across a large network makes for a nice fluffy existence, but when we segregate ourselves (by religion, appearance, geography, whatever), the system goes all to shit.

Which happened in my kitchen this morning, a pitched battle. I like to cook, and I'm good at it, but I've never figured out emulsion sauces. I was, however, so buoyed by my success at making proper French omelettes last week that I just had to give it a go this morning. I added the butter too fast, and that creamy Hollandaise broke up into nasty, salty bits. Dammit.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Immortal Folly II: Review of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Grade: A

Adam and Eve frolicked free and easy in the garden, knowing God, but not knowing what he knew. "Eat this fruit," said Eve, "and we'll be animals no more." Gilgamesh took Enkidu aside, shaved his shaggy ass down and got him to the temple prostitute. When Enkidu was properly deflowered, Gilgamesh told him, "now you are a civilized man." It is a tale as old as tales. But the fertile crescent is only the beginning of civilization. We dropped down from the trees and started chattering at each other well before we settled down in cities. Neil Gaiman takes the conceit (and it's a conceit I dig) that humanity started somewhere in west Africa, and if anything sets us different from the animals it ain't the speaking, it's the telling of the stories.

Surely the oldest gods were animals and monsters. Anansi the spider is (though you no doubt have to take some liberties and change some names along the way) the oldest of the lot of them. At any rate, as the tricksy god of fiction, he's got some license to make the claim; his earliest stories rescued us from the savage and hairy jungle. In the more recent past, he came across the Atlantic Ocean on a slave boat, and whispered his stories into the ears of chained men and women on the Caribbean islands and in the American south. Modern times have diminished Anansi, like many gods, to folklore, and these days you can catch him whiling his time in southern Florida, fishing off bridges, charming women much too young for him, and otherwise having a good old time.

These anthropomorphised spirits were the subject of Gaiman's award-winning and popular novel American Gods (which had charm and character but misfired badly in terms of the divine mechanics and in terms of its American-ness), in which Anansi had a supporting role. Like any deity worth his name, the spider sprouts off a maladjusted demigod every now and again (tricksters don't make the best fathers), and Anansi Boys follows one of his rather mundane and indecisive sons. Fat Charlie (the old man could make a nickname stick) Nancy has just found out he has a brother, one who takes after their father much more than does Fat Charlie himself.

Gaiman has his moments, but he's not into prose gymnastics as a rule, and he's better at clever allusions than he is at deep uniting themes. (What I did miss from his other novels is the exquisite visual, or graphic, sense that Gaiman usually leaks into his stories. That felt attenuated here.) What he is damn skilled at is unwinding a good yarn, finding room for a light heart and for dark dread, pitting characters you love to like against villains you love to hate. Here, he doesn't attempt much mythological heavy lifting, but swings around just enough magic to lend a fairy-tale whimsy and just enough legendary heft to make it feel nontrivial. The result is a story appealing in much the same way as any of the Anansi fables you may remember reading as a child (or even hearing, if you've the proper ancestry), which is a lovely thing to encounter as an adult.


P.S. I will try to keep up with this for the next couple weeks, but it's likely I'll only be in and out. I have a ton of work piled up ('tis the silly season), and may even suffer the indignity of taking some of it home.

Genre: , , >,

Friday, December 08, 2006

Five More Thoughts

From social engineering to semantics, diction to diaspora, nothing is too frivolous for my pen. All items guaranteed to be of minimum weight and maximum interest, or your money back. Hell, you have an honest face, I'll give you double your money back if you don't like it.

1. Social Engineering: I don't know if anyone read so carefully, but any energy conscious types may have noticed in my last post, that Keifus and brood drove across the street from the convenience store to the remarkably dimwitted video vendors,* and maybe you found that point as irritating as I did. And it's even worse: both the convenience store and video dungeon are both within a handy walking distance from my home. Why the hell am I driving? Well, the answer is that a stroll entails an unnecessary flirtation with death. I have to walk along (and cross) the town's main artery, which is only about half-sidewalked, and the long straight road is well-suited to speed and pedestrian danger, especially with easily distracted children in tow. The workday congestion on that road is maddening (especially on the other side of town), and my little city government is battling the street residents to get it widened. If they do, I hope they add sidewalks.

No doubt, even with extra lanes, the main drag will get clogged with cars again in no time, especially if the Wal-Mart sprawl center wins its battle with the town board. Before I lived in central Massachusetts, I lived in Northern Virginia, home of the dreaded mixing bowl and other traffic horrors. They're widening that one too, but I'm confident that will also be inadequate to commuting demands. Even with the road expansion in full swing (possibly even done by now--I marvel at the non-corrupt efficiency of their road construction crews), residents in NOVA are still choosing the bus in increasing and record numbers. "You can't pave your way out of congestion," the segment quoted. I agree.

The use of public transport only becomes a viable alternative when the roads become sufficiently miserable to travel. If you make the roads bigger, then it just increases that equilibrium point. It takes more cars on the road to get people to take public transit. Interestingly enough, some of the nicer pockets of DC suburb I looked at had circuitous, labarynthine streets by design, which limited automotive traffic, and let the pedestrian and neighbors out into common spaces. Maybe the better solution (energy- and community-wise) is lower quality roads. Point for: Europe's urban areas are nice places to live. Point against: U.S. suburban cul-de-sac mazes may be better than living on the thoroughfares, but they still kind of suck.

2. Political Semantics: Maybe you've driven (or taken the bus) down the street and seen warnings about fugitive kidnappers. Thanks to the Amber alert program, it's now common to inform the public to help suspected criminals. There's no bigger blessing in politics than the death of a little girl or attractive young woman--poor Amber was kidnapped in Texas and horribly killed--and the practitioners of that foul art fall over themselves to cover their sausage-making under the banner of some poor traumatized kid. Newscasters fall over it too, because it's pure ratings. Even congress has been known to capitalize now and again. I mean, think of the chillllldrrrreennnnn. Melanie's law cracks down on drunk driving with children. Lizzie's law disallows spouse-murderers from visiting their children. Megan's law allows publication of sex offender identies and addresses on the internet. I'm not at all sure that all of these require a memorial to sell them, and those that do, needless to say, should have undergone some more honest debate. What bothers me, is that as a society we don't trust our existing mechanisms, and if somebody attractive suffers, our whoring legislative bodies fall over themselves to make new laws. It's legislation by anecdote, which isn't really the singular of data.

Earlier this year, a John Jay College student was abducted and brutally murdered (what the hell is wrong with people?) in New York City, allegedly by a bouncer at a club. In response, a new law is in the works that will require better training by bar security employees (okay...probably not a bad idea, and doesn't seem to terribly questionable viz a viz civil liberties). I'm watching the local newsie report this, and at the end of the segment, she looks into the camera with as much solemnity as she can muster, and intones that "the new law will be called Imette's Law." In what fucking bizarro world is that the most important part of the story? These people are beneath contempt.

3. Political Diction: So now you know one reason why I avoid the ridiculous preening pretension of television news. Usually, since I spend way too much driving anyway, I opt for the reasoned analysis of the radio. Here, the visuals are gracefully avoided, but like a blind musician, I still get hung up on the sounds instead of the sights. Even the staid NPR has no shortage of annoying speech patterns.

A particularly grating one has evolved when people talk about social engineering. When the positive value of something is meant to be universally accepted, commentators will draw out the important word and space it apart from the surrounding words with just a microsecond's worth of extra pause. It's particularly grating when people talk about school or healthcare like it's a bulk food item (we need more, we need better quality). In that context, you hear it in words like "drugs" and "teachers," but it's positively the worst in those words that are already are kind of stretched out. Commentaters pronounce "schooollll" or "weellll-ness" or "llearrrrn" like they're saying it around a delicious lozenge of wholesome scholastic goodness. (It's ten times worse if their accent already skews to a southern or western drawl.) I envision them pursing up their lips before and after they say these words, taking a moment to smack their tongue over the sheer savor of them. Christ, it's irritating. (Or maybe it's just me.)

4. Style, or Lack Thereof: Writing patterns are as likely to annoy me as speech patterns are, but mostly, I accept their idiosynchrasies as some form of individual expression. I sometimes worry about where my own voice may lie in that vast rhetorical stew though, because I've noticed I have a habit of adopting a measure of the style of the person I'm replying to, like some goofy mental resonance. Here in the greater fray-sphere, some of y'all get me more than others. IOZ is probably the worst, and he usually inspires a lot of big, angry words (which is fun). When I've been popping into daveto's blog recently, I feel his distinctive voice affecting me too, and I let my voice get a measure of his deceptive breeziness. switters gets me all jokey, and sometimes I cry a little on the inside. Pierce Penniless has been sparking sentiments of naturalism. Too many of the rest of you--you know who you are--are digging out poetic sentiments against my will.

Is Keifus real, or is he a little bit of all of you? Scary thought, innit?

(Don't worry, I'm me.)

5. Diaspora: (Do you notice I always work this self-absorbed crap in? This point was meant as a stand-in.*) So hey, check out those links right there. I've hated blogs for years, but now I have one, for various reasons I feel myself gradually pushed away from the old discussion forums. Just the same, I'm not sure the blog experience is the better one, it's just more rarefied. I've got more or less the same people reading, and more or less the same people I follow, though in each case that list has expanded a little.

One benefit of a single discussion group is that I can get myself off of it when the content dries up. It takes a critical number of mouseclicks of divergence for a post to fall beneath the horizon of my attention span. If it does, the slim hope it's been updated is enough to motivate my wrist to click back into the original site. Over there, the outgoing trail was short enough that I fell off the edge before long, but following all of these blogs now, there are enough clicks forward so that I can keep going at it all day, like a hamster on a wheel, stopping only after I get tired enough to absorb nothing.

Or more typically, well after I stop absorbing what I read.

That's it. Have a great weekend. Me, I'm going to punish myself and hold out till beer:45. Maybe buy a DVD.


* See, that post was originally going to be "thought 1," but it went on too long. But I had the segue all worked out, so....

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why I don't go out

So here's the plan last Saturday night: after nestling the kids snugly in their respective beds, I'd change up the routine a little, you know, grab a couple white Russians, and settle down and watch The Dude on DVD. My brother sent me some homemade kahlua last Christmas, and this would be a use that he'd approve. Moreover, it's the sort of night that suits my wife's absence (she hates "trashy" comedies) and my low level of disposable income just fine.

Of course any effort like this requires a chain of silly errands, and parental obligation says that I can't leave the little angels at home with a big bowl of food (like I can the cat) and two hats, four mittens, two coats, and two shoes--get back there you, shoes on outside, I mean it--four shoes later, we're out the door. Now I've got good kids, but the civility of their behavior during any excursion decreases exponentially with time and geometrically with the number of stops. As such, it's wise to keep the destinations to a minimum and make each one quick. Craftily, I save the video store till the end, bribing them for behavior with a promised rental of some godawful children's flick for themselves. The milk acquisition goes off without a single yowl, but even though the video store is only across the street from teh Kwik E Mart, I feel some tension growing in the car behind me.

In the video store, the kids tear off. Judging by their speed and volume, I can set my estimate my browsing window with atomic precision. I hasten to comedy. B, b, b... shit. Drama? As I look futilely in L, the twin terrors come racing back. Time to take drastic measures. I brave a discussion with the clerk:

"Do you have The Big Lebowski?"

"Huh?" Obviously, he's never heard of it.

Louder, "The Big Lebowski." (I hate, by the way, voicing my preferences to people I don't know.)


"Kids, you can't walk through there with that!"

"...have to ask my boss."

"Just a minute, girls. Garfield? Seriously, you want this? Okay, I guess, now hold on..."

"...says they don't have it. Never even came out on DVD."

See, here's the sort of doofus I am. I'd thought, without ever really considering it, that by now every movie that any human could conceivably want to watch had been digitally remastered and lovingly transcribed to DVD. Certainly this one would be likely to qualify. After all, several copies each of Big Fish, Big Momma's House, Big Daddy, and Big Fat Liar are there cluttering up the shelves, and surely those have about four decades of unrentedness between them.

"Um, so do you have it on VHS?"


"Kids, please don't do that."

"...don't rent VHS anymore."


"Kids! So what are all those, then?"

"You can buy the old tapes, but we don't rent 'em anymore."

So what are the odds, I ask myself, and turn to the wall of plastic. Things One and Two take the opportunity to dangle forlornly from each arm, and I spend about five chatty, remonstrative minutes gazing at the selection of justifiably forgotten eighties flicks.

"You guys ever hear of the alphabet?" I mutter.

"Daddyyyyy, let's goooooo."

Several "one seconds" later, I walk out of the store with a DVD rental of Clerks II. It was raunchy enough to curdle the milk I'd bought, and even though I often found myself acknowledging the humor on an intellectual level, you really just can't go back. I managed to stay up through about 7/8 of it, before the white Russians finished their bit Cold War espionage and sent me nodding off. I watched the final bits when my older daughter was at dance the next morning, hammering on "stop" like a Jeopardy! buzzer each time my younger one's distractions didn't hold up in the other room..

I think next Saturday night, it's back to blogging and stuff. Lesson learned.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Immortal Folly I: Review of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I didn't realize when I picked up Jitterbug Perfume that I was getting a contemporary fantasy (I grabbed it on the basis of author recognition, from a recommendation of sorts), although it certainly made it easier to generate some paired readings. It's got some of the familiar modern fantasy themes: the nature of immortality; a humanity that's both fleeting and indomitable; and the relationship of gods, men and belief. It also has a healthy and welcome dose of irreverent humor, plenty of sex, and it's drenched in the engineering and philosophy of scent. And vegetables.

The immortality story (taking my points in order) centers on the journey of Alobar, a medieval king who experiences an awakening of individuality on the eve of his own ritual sacrifice. In an era when life is cheap, fertility is quotidian and lewd, and death is a friend, he discovers an urge to fill the human experience to its most copious brim. He's ahead of his time, and, with a little divine nudge, he's ahead of ours too.

In flight from the locals he's betrayed, Alobar encounters the Greek god, Pan. Pan represents animal lust (eats, shoots, and leaves) and the most corporeal aspect of the god is his rank, gamy odor. The god, already old in the middle ages and dying from lack of followers, represents the old animal nature of man, the old-world philosophy of death. Alobar represents a new man, a complete bridge between the old ways and the new ones, free from death, and also quite nice-smelling. The death of the god at the man's feet, and Alobar's consumption of his gamy flesh is a sort of an anti-communion. He starts like Pan, but grows to be more, a complete human being, which is better than being a god.

In addition to Alobar's thread, there's plot moving along in modern times. Three parties are racing to independently develop a perfect scent, but the lack of a "base note," an elusive aroma component that should unite the fragrance, eludes them. Meanwhile, someone keeps depositing beets on their doorsteps.

Both the modern and ancient stories are filled with sex, but Robbins leaves the animal rutting behind with the gods, and manages to relish the life-affirming parts of the act (which, you know, is nice). The scent, taken as an enabler of higher thought (when he finally summarizes the uniting philosophy, it's more than a little silly), is a metaphor for this. This perfect aroma that the characters seek is the only thing that can cover Pan's Herculean B.O. problem.

Robbins has a lot of fun throwing around metaphors and playing with the language, and while the tone is overall humorous, he scores points for honesty in there too (and shows off some real erudition as well, however breezily). In all, half seriousness is a challenging undertaking. It's best to first establish yourself as either sincere or funny, or risk failing at both. Though Robbins is better at the humor, he tries to succeed at both, and rather than making it a doubly good book, it just makes it twice as long. The bigger problem with Jitterbug Perfume, however, was one of pacing. There was a lot of thematic development and character positioning, but the events of the plot just kind of happened at the end, no longer driven by very much dramatic tension. The revelation of the base note was anticlimactic, as was the philosophical info-dump, as were the denouements of the various love stories. Which isn't to say it's not a good read for the fun of it alone, but it kept me away from a higher grade.

I dithered a couple of days on this review. I had considered from the outset, and then even more after Maximo's comment in the previous post, describing the story ironically, reviewing it as a sexually repressed Bible-thumper type might review it (concluding, of course, that "Jitterbug Perfume stinks"). I don't know if I really served anything by going at it straight.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Five (minus two) More Thoughts - Social Justice Ed.

(A "five thoughts" feature that I sporadically generate. I only had three this time.)

1. Killing people, that is, looking them in the eye and murdering them (ignoring for the sake of discussion the usual realpolitikal weaseling of the biblical shalt nots), is a bad thing. Most of us grade the badness on a curve based on the level of malice committed, as probably we should. For example, if you commit murder in a spontaneous rage, it's less bad than if you spend a month contemplating it, and less bad than if you torture somebody over the course of days (again ignoring...). You can consider the cumulative evil as, roughly, the area under the violence-time curve.

(Parenthetically, the resistance to this evil is a good definition of toughness. In materials science, toughness is the area under the stress-strain curve. It measures how much ill treatment can be absorbed before failure, how much overall. Although it's cumulative, it also varies with the rate of abuse.)

Here's the thing though, we happily let people fall off the bottom edge of the evil scale. The bullying boss, the browbeating wife, the inconsiderate smoker, each of these people is likely to commit more stress over a longer period of time than someone who puts a knife through someone's heart. And even if the end result is the same--death through a broken spirit or through lung cancer--only the murder that peaks high in violence is a serious crime. Although it's no doubt unworkable from a criminal justice standpoint, it would be interesting (and better?) if our notions of social acceptance were wired differently. The victims of these long-simmering traumas are also tougher, of course, than people usually give them credit for. Our animal selves are not wired to love the people who willingly take shit every day of their lives. Paradoxically, they only attain social status when they resist their slow oppression with sudden violence.

It's the rate we respect.

2. For reasons I myself don't fully grasp, I try to keep content on this blog full of my more "writerly" stuff (um, usually), while the fluffier or more irrelevant gets shipped elsewhere. (I am reconsidering this model, maybe dumping it all here.) One thing I do that seems appropriate in that more literary motif is regular book reviews of whatever I'm reading. If you have a StatCounterTM tool, one thing it can do is keep track of what search queries caused people to land on your blog. For a low-traffic site like mine, book reviews are a magnet for new arrivals, and it gives me a warm fuzzy in those rare instance when they go on to look at pages other than the one they landed on.

Not that they ususally do, mind you. I'm pretty sure it's been a common source of ill-researched book reports. (There are the .edu domains for one thing, and when someone googles "book report of XXX," I take that as sort of a hint.) I don't know what to make of this, really. I'm probably less sanctimonious about plagiarism than a lot of people, but on the other hand, even I can see how wrongness accrues as an area-under-the-curve thing. It's not as though any of these hapless schmucks is going to pass for me (in the unlikely event they'd want to) but I'm enough of a prick that I'd be happy if I knew a way to encode some bombs to alert a wary teacher that some kid is skating by on my material. Any ideas?

Popular book report queries, if you were wondering, are Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut. I wish I'd tried harder on those reviews. Maybe brilliant writing would have been enough to out the sneaky little bastards.

3. Plagiarists aren't a big deal but I actively hate spammers, and if they are not as bad as murderers, they still deserve a special place in hell. Just the same, they are quirky enough to provide me with amusement from time to time. It's tough to imagine that any sane email reader would answer an intimate letter from Melinda, especially when he's sitting on a boxful of identical ones from Raul, Julio, Ingrid, Courtney, Alice, Davey, Mustafa, Clementine, Axl, Stimpy, and Masumi and all of these old and unremembered friends are suspiciously eager to sell their stores of Viagra and Ambien at discount rates. Penny stocks aren't much better--you'd have to be stunningly naïve to conclude that the landslide of insider information from people you've never heard of constitutes some kind of clever tip.

Sure, you'll land some suckers with those techniques--stunning naivete being all too abundant--but smart spammers, should they exist, need to capitalize on subjects to which people spend lifetimes conditioning themselves in gullibility. The stock market is not a bad stab at this, I admit, but the real suckers are religious. If J. Random Idiot got 114 emails telling them that Jesus Christ (or Mohammed or Krishna) asked--no commanded--them to donate a dollar or to buy into Avalanche Pharmaceuticals (AVP, now trading at $1.98/share--last chance!), then that would really strike to the cultivated heart of their unreason. You just know that otherwise functioning members of society would be squirming themselves into knots about donating. Because what if God really does want me to do it?

So send $1.25 to Keifus at the address below or risk eternal damnation. Ganesh commands you!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

No sappy thankful crap here, even though I feel gratitude for the many things in life (all those things I'm not pissed about). I'm going to visit my parents for a few days, out in the woods of the pre-internet. I already know I haven't been a good electronic citizen this week, doing little more than peeking about and sniping here and there. On top of that, for the next few days I'll be blissfully incommunicado with all y'all. But before I duck out to participate in the mysteries of the indulgent gods, I want to say this to all my fans (or, as it may be, "fans"):

Jesus, for the love of God, don't stop reading my blog!!

Thanks. Have a great weekend.


Postapocalyptic Highway III: Review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Grade: A

The atomic post-apocalypse, as a warning or as a story unto itself, originated roughly in September, 1945 and has been flogged so mercilessly since that time, it's become a field of cliché so barren of fruit that authors tread there at their peril. So here's Cormac McCarthy stumbling from general acclaim into the genre ghetto to explore those time-hardened paths. I admit to a certain skepticism about his effort, and his opening page, a gimmicky affair of stripped-down prose style, deficient of quotation marks and apostrophes but rich in fragmented sentences and filthy with verbed and adjectived nouns, supported my prejudice.* It took a couple of paragraphs to break down my cynical defenses, but by the time I got to "read me a story Papa," I couldn't pull away. This may be the best story of its kind that I've read.

McCarthy introduces us to an unnamed pair of protagonists, a man and his son, who are struggling to survive in a world gone empty. Their existence consists of struggling to find the last scraps of food on a murdered earth, as they make their way south, in the blind hope that maybe, somewhere, something isn't dead. The language, as I've noted, is spare. The conversations are minimal. There is background only as needed--the characters know no more about the fall of society than we do, and there's no one to really ask. The man and the son have each other and no more. The love there is so fierce in the face of cataclysm, and communicated in so few words ("read me a story") that reading about it feels like being struck. To the characters, this reason to live is no blessing.

The world that McCarthy presents is so depleted of life that it is hard for the reader to accept, but it's drilled in so remorselessly and constantly that it will get into your brain. There is nothing alive on that earth, no green, no color, no sun, no insects, no birds. It's filled with forests of dead, black trees and gray grass, drifting ash muddied with sterile rain, and unrotted human corpses. All that survives is the tiny handful of people who have been resourceful enough to sift through the sparse dregs at the very bottom. (Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was left wondering if the earth was so thoroughly poisoned to kill even the bugs, how it was that a rag-tag bunch of men were still breathing. So did the characters, no doubt.) Of those few that remain, most are beyond desperation. In a landscape where death is meaningless, McCarthy still finds some punch in human-scale terrors, showing tragedy as the father and his child would see it: in a furtive breathless glimpse, or with a horrified adult regret. Quickly, he pulls away from these scenes, as though he wants to show them as little as his characters want to see them, and races always back to the fragile pillar of love he's established between the man and the boy. The technique leaves a mark that is that much more indelible in its dreadfulness.

The two hold on, as they can, to the fire of human dignity. A book like this is almost purely character and setting, but still, there's a theme, an extra level of meaning, that emerges thin as hope, that turns this from a good book to maybe a great one. (If you're worried about spoilers, now would be the time to stop reading...) The man sickens over the course of their journey, both physically and morally. He's forced to make hard compromises to protect his family, and they are not always easy or pretty. The boy is more able to afford a sort of idealism--he'd help the more innocent people they encounter--and this, in contrast to his father, grows from naivete to something approaching holiness. It's a subtle transition--everything in this story is subtle relative to the obvious and gripping expressions of death and love--of the rewarded diligence sort.

McCarthy is also interested in the redeeming power of words. One of the smaller horrors amid the great ones is the death of language, and the man makes the boy speak and write during their few respites from starvation and flight. Late in the novel, sensing his own impermanence, the man finds he has no more capacity for stories, and tells the boy it's time to make his own, which he does to his father's satisfaction. Holding the flame indeed, and passing it here. The book also plays at least one other narrative trick, and it's a damn subtle light to be seen amid the ashes of the world. There is one paragraph in the middle of the story--right in the scene where the boy acquires his own conscience--in the first person, recollecting the boy's experiences. Surely, surely this ties into the ending.

Next up will be something uplifting, believe me.

* I actually think the opening riff was a mistake, though a minor one. It's a dream that's confusing in the context of the rest of the book.

Genre: ,

Monday, November 20, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway II: Review of Celestis by Paul Park

I can't help but feel I've let my faithful readers down with that last review. Here is a better novel on a similar theme, souped up from the archives.

Grade: B+
Paul Park takes humanity on a much longer trip, out beyond the solar system to our last and only outpost. We accompany a linguist, who made the voyage of many years to study the aboriginal life found there, the only other intelligent species known. There are actually two indiginous races on the planet--the more common variety is roughly humanoid, with soft, protean features, a biological slave race which is treated by the humans as such with little reservation. The master species (the linguist, Simon, is particularly interested in how the master and slave communicate) has been all but wiped out as a nuisance, and as a competitor for the people's place as biological superior. Over time, with biological imperative (and often with convincing surgery), the slaves have adapted themselves to the human presence. The planetary colony is less a masturbatory science fantasy than it is an excuse to make an earthlike (twentieth century American) society in a place far from home. It is, of course, a vehicle to examine us, and, like any attempt worth the effort, it's centered on an engaging story.

The beginning of the novel has the protagonist slouching his way through the colonial theme park of a settlement while the author coyly hints at mankind's current state of affairs ("how long ago doesn't matter"). Park escapes cliché by putting us into a credible day-to-day, giving us a feel for Simon's misanthropic distraction and for Katherine's (the female protagonist's) genuine desire to be a Real Girl. It seems to coalesce toward some anti-slavery mediocrity. The two protagonists, each of them outsiders in their own community, find each other, but what will they learn? It takes a few chapters for Park to establish this question, and then, to answer it, he chucks any convention aside.

What follows is an impressive piece of work. In captivity, Katherine's medical treatments wear off, and obeying her biological impulses, she and her lover flee along the rocky path to the dark and native portions of the planet. As they get deeper in, Katherine loses grip on humanity and rediscovers the ghosts of her ancestors. Amid the gripping drama of a chase, a disturbing unraveling occurs. The reader is taken on an expert and gradual shift of viewpoint from human to alien, from our own blundering language of ideals and dreams, to something subtle, complex, and doomed. Man, meanwhile, diminishes in stature over the course of the trek. It's gradually revealed what happened to earth (nothing special, we merely ate it bare), and how our last empty effort is inflicting the same fate on a species that was, but for us, successful. Simon, our most sympathetic human, can't do better than project his own blind insecurities and clumsy hopes as he too wrecks the place. It's bleak, and pierces mankind's high motives right through to our black, broken heart. It's an allegory as unflinching as it is damning.

Park takes too long--half the book--to prepare for this journey, too much time to set up our expectations. But he knocks them down with such brilliant passion, it's worth holding out. Just don't expect to be uplifted.

Genre: ,

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway I: Review of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Grade: C-

There are books that try nobly and fail. There are books that are clawed painstakingly out of the brains of lesser authors for megabucks and unreasonable popularity. And then there's the phone-it-in crap that skilled wordsmiths produce by the yard and foist on their unsupecting fans. Unlike some present-day authors you can probably name, it's my understanding that Zelazny badly needed the money.

Damnation Alley is bad. It sucked so much that I was pissed off to have to evaluate the one or two pockets of attempted good writing. (The film based on this book--released in the same year as Star Wars and starring Hannibal and that dude from Airwolf--was in turn such a black hole of cheesy craptasm that Zelazny asked that his name be removed from the credits. I can only imagine.) A generation after the apocolypse, and the earth's weather system is a clever mess, with massive tornadoes sucking debris into the upper atmosphere, contaminating the sky, raining detritus and making flight impossible (these are some of the well-described parts, by the way, a whole seven paragraphs worth). The interior of the American continent is a radioactive hellhole, but the last Hell's Angel, one eponymous Hell Tanner is sent across by land with a plague antidote for the surviving people of Boston.

Zelazny particularly could have done a lot with that setting. He's an essential pulp writer who could achieve moments of genius. (Others may see him as a brilliant writer slogging in the sf pulps, but I disagree. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, This Mortal Mountain, and the rest of his ghetto-acclaimed work are dry and dull to my ear. He was at his best when he mixed his high attempts with a rollicking pulp sensibility. Lord of Light, in parts, was amazing. Jack of Shadows was silly, but total fun throughout.) Damnation Alley, however, failed horribly in the execution. Hell Tanner crosses the continent. He drives around some bats and brakes for a snake. Shoots a big spider. Gets rained on. Smokes. Meets some people. The dialogue is ridicuolous; the characters I didn't care about; the action is uninvolved; and if the setting was a good thought, it was lame when ultimately traversed. Here is a master at the bottom of his craft. Go read Lord of Light instead.

Note: this is, in fact, a setup for another novel on a similar theme. Not far in, but the pairing is going in exactly the opposite direction I'd intended.

Genre: ,

Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Grade: B+

It's impossible to pan this one. Whatever Prisoner of Trebekistan may lack in literary gewgaws, it succeeds in enjoyment, good nature, wit, and, at times, depth. It feels like Harris is less writing for a general audience than having a close conversation with you. His humor is self-deprecating but endlessly positive (which is maybe what you need to see the life lessons in a television game show) and applied to writing, it quickly lends a sense of intimacy. It's a well-honed stage skill, in fact--Harris did standup for years--that is translated well to the page. Here is a genius at making strangers feel comfortable around him, and is it any wonder he constantly finds the good in people? I've no reason to assume that he's cynical about wielding this power, but beneath the disarming modesty, I hope it's something that Mr. Harris realizes and appreciates.

As you may have guessed, Prisoner of Trebekistan is an account of roughly ten years of the author's life as he competed on television quiz shows. The Jeopardy! challenges make a fine outline for the broader personal growth that he experienced in this time, and he's pretty good at giving the play-by-play highlights of important games. From these dramatic anchors, he launches off to discuss his study program and how it took over his life, amateur cognitive science (applied and theoretical), and the unplanned events that surround this or any effort. Without saying so explicitly, he paints his early hunger for information as something to fill the missing parts in his life (family injustices, deficiencies in his own character), and as he grows into this, and grows into his various relationships, the thirst for facts becomes a thirst for context, and, you can feel peace of mind within the man's grasp. It's very Siddhartha. And it's a nice thing to be able to share.

Purposefully, Harris frequently injects some Eastern-flavored philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Everything is connected he intones with mock solemnity. He goes on about this, pointing out how the brain remembers individual facts and concepts, connects with unfathomable complexity, and weights them based on the intensity of the experience. He extemporizes on people's habitual thought patterns, mnemonic techniques, and on the universality of human experience. (Incidentally, I think this is why I like fiction so much. I have a lot of memories tied up in plot points or stirring settings or dramatic characters, and beneath all that prose, there's always an insight on that intertextual human universe. Maybe if I'm even on a quiz show...) The best trick that Harris uses in this book is demonstrating the connectiveness of these concepts by springing them at various points in his narrative. An enjoyable read overall.

(Disclosure 1: I read Bob Harris's blog on occasion. He was so enthralled with having written this book, I felt obligated to buy it.)

(Disclosure 2: I took the Jeopardy! test when it was offered on line, six months or so ago. They never called me back.)

Genre: ,

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Alone Now

I broke my palms on the shattered rocks
and puzzled to watch them bleed.

I plunged my face into the chilling tide
and struggled to pull in breath.

I bloated my gorge with salt water
to see the visions on the edge of the dark.

I torched the bridges that drifted past me
and my skin crackled in the blaze.

I bloodied your line and threw it back
and my heart stopped beating.

I flailed my limbs against the current
and my body flagged and sank.

I buoyed myself to the surface
and watched the alien shore recede.



  • This was written for the Wikifray poetry slam intended to be about the failure of redemption, and coincidentally about "the shucking off of things that have turned bad." (It seems that either failure is often self-inflicted.)
  • I've edited some lines (and fixed the link).

  • Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    The Best Kick in All of Football

    The best kick in all of football was made by Adam Vinatieri of the Patriots in early 2002, in a snowstorm, from a wicked 45 yards to tie the game in the final seconds against the Oakland Raiders in the quarterfinals of the postseason tournament. Fittingly, it was to be the last game ever played in the old Foxboro Stadium, casting off whatever remaining ghosts of inept management--and play--that may still have lingered in the old building. Routinely, NFL announcers laud Bob Kraft, the owner of the team, for only minimally extorting the locals for stadium infrastructure. The old prick charmed ludicrous offers from the city of Hartford so that he could use them to get lesser concessions in the next state up. I dodged one tax bullet in Connecticut only to end up supporting the team in Massachusetts a few years later. Do I still love them? Do you have to ask?

    I am a football fan only by nurture. The same qualities that make it remarkably well-suited for television advertising breaks made it a pretty good fit for Sunday afternoons in college, which is to say that the sparse action left most of my attention available for conversation and alcohol, with occasional interruptions for cheering. Furthermore, it felt good to pose as a foil to my buddy the annoying Giants fan, and latching on to the hometown heroes was easy a transition as could be. Too bad the Pats were a 2-14 team in those days, but futile contrarianism suited me too, and when, ten years later, they became worth rooting for, my groundless superiority complex could still hold against the fairweather fans. If my friend back then had been an irritating Yankees poseur, things would have probably been different. I never would have seen that kick for one thing.

    You can probably find some geriatric gridiron purist who can cite some sped up black-and-white film of Lefty Pinwhistle--who not only kicked, but also played fullback and defensive end, back when the teams had 11-man rosters and wore only bulky sweaters for padding--kicked a then-record-breaking twenty-seven yarder with a to win the Bowl (as it was simply called in those days) with a shattered patella. It's easier to find a more recent general-purpose Brady-hater (but if you find anyone who admits being an Oakland fan, let me know) who will tell you that the Patriots miracle come-from-behind just wasn't all that. We Pats fans mumble something noncommital when the phrase, "tuck rule" is mentioned. It's never good to rest your hopes on a recalled decision, but oh hell, what a kick anyway. I know there were crowds there, but the snow swirling and the yellow goalposts are all I can see in the mental picture, contrasted against the lights and the indigo sky behind them. I know there were players on the field, but I can only see Adam, with his jersey matching the sky, hunkering down over a diminutive Ken Walter and the ball, the two alone on the expanse of white field, shoveled hash marks rapidly filling back in. The bar was hushed around me too in anticipation. 45 yards in the wind and snow. No fucking way could he pull this off.

    If you dump enough snow on anything, it will turn into a lithograph. The fresh blanket of snow damps sounds, covers the defects in the landscape, and absorbs smells. Even your most tired post-industrial suburb looks newly born when it's under that mat. The snowcover also diffuses any available light, and when the crystals are still filling the air at night, it never really gets dark. The snow blows and floats around in tiny sparkles, and everything you can see is illuminated from everywhere and nowhere. It's silent music. It's romance.

    It had been another tough year for these New England fans doing time in D.C., where the Redskins infect every billboard and newscast. 'Skins lovers are like the Yankees fans of the middle Atlantic, but unlike the Yankees, the overpriced Redskins sucked gloriously in the 2001 season. The Schadenfreude could only take us so far, however, we still got tired of watching them. We didn't get north until the season was ending, losing a month with my parents as we eased into the next phase of our lives. Mom and Dad hate the sport though, and even worse, no one could drive on a night like that. But defiant and bored, my wife and I crunched our boots out into the magic, hearing nothing but our own voices, smelling nothing but clean snow and the scarves moistened by our breath. Who knew if the bar would be open, and who cared? To be out in a night like that was to remember you were alive. We ran down the two miles of hill, skidded, threw snowballs, held mittened hands, giggled like kids.

    I grew up in a small town. It's center is still a wall of storefronts and crappy apartments broken up by a surfeit of gas, booze, pizza, and church. Trudging down the deserted main street, there's one place with it's lights on, an air of festivity leaking out the door. Another Christmas card. I have no idea how anyone managed to get down there, but the local dive is hopping. My wife and I stand up some beers and after too many months, finally settle into some local football.

    "His arm was going forward, it's an incomplete pass!" I swear I shouted this as it happened, before even the idea of a fumble sunk in to the rest of the patrons, or instant replay ridiculously drew out the moment. The woman on the other side turned to inform me again that she doesn't normally watch much football, but that would be nice if I was right. I was, and suddenly, a win was possible. Several rapid and unlikely passes--the one-minute stuff that would soon become Tom Brady's trademark--and one miracle kick later, and the game was in overtime.

    The dark blue sky may have been possible because of the contrast of the game lights. I am pretty sure there actually were twenty-two players on the field, whatever my traitor memory may tell me, and that sense of isolation and of compressed time is probably some other defective trick of recall, which has templated the situation in the terms of too many bad movies and instant replays. I am sure that the bar got giddily quiet as the ball sailed through the air and the camera followed its arc. And I know I heard the cheer too. We cheered too. Awesome.

    The walk back was almost as nice as the trip down, reduced, a little, because we had something to actually talk about, and because we knew the night would end as soon as we got home. The snow had settled a little and removed some of the light from the air, wrapping up the experience, the night we saw the best kick in all of football.


    Monday, November 13, 2006


    I don't have the picture with me now, but I can see it well enough, the five of us standing there, smiling for the camera. It's an interesting exercise to trace the differences in our features and personalities and ascribe them to the different sibling and to the three different strains of alien DNA that came in and corrupted my grandfather's bloodline. From what's left over, you can almost pick out the old man's face.

    My brother and I were the youngest of the five, the new kids. (There is a younger set still, not yet in the club.) My cousin Bill (I could never call anyone over the age of 15 "Billy") was the oldest, about ten years my senior. His branch of the family is loaded with artistic and athletic talent, both on the common side and by chromosomal infusion. According to the official story (that I know, the one told by my mother), O. was an active and eager child, physically gifted, and a marvel in the visual arts. As he got older, he only kept up with the photography (or so I understand), and I certainly remember him towing some fraction of his equipment with him at all times.

    When I was young, I knew Bill mostly a remote source of hand-me-downs. I didn't see him much, and when I did, there was an element of mystery to him (and my other cousins too). In addition to being older, these guys had much more complicated family dynamics than my brother and I did, were naturally outgoing, and were much more cosmopolitan, having lived in Europe and in different interesting parts of the States. Bill eventually settled into the state college, however, (studying fine arts) and visited my grandparents from time to time. When he did, my mother would usually make a point to drop by as well.

    The first conversation I really recall having with him was at my granparents' basement during one of those visits. Ten years isn't a terribly big deal at my age now, but it matters a lot when you're twelve. He had a calculator watch (how cool was that at the time?) and I had a transformer toy. Bemusedly, he let me check out the thing on his wrist, and made some uninvolved conversation. His benevolent distraction made me feel even more like a little boy, but it would take me years to realize that this was how he was with everyone: distant, nice, soft-spoken, and wry. He was too naturally fit to express his laziness in slouches and sighs, managing to bob around at his full slender height. He'd often smirk inappropriately, as if at some private irony that you just knew would lose its meaning if you ever asked after it. When he was older, this helped make him fun to be around. Bill came back east regularaly, and I consequently knew him better than my other cousins, but he was hard to know well. We all are.

    It was nearly another decade before the five of us finally bonded, partying our way through a weeklong family reunion. (Good times.) We're all bright, are all stuck too much in our respective heads, we all have issues with achievement, we're all a little offbeat, and we all look like the family we are. As a group, we hit it off, and as the years followed, we'd relearn that connection as the occasion demanded with greater or lesser success, but we're not the sort of intimate group that writes or calls constantly, me least of all, and we are geographically scattered. The last time we all crowded in a place (and lined up in front of Bill's ubiquitous "snapshot camera" for that picture) was one of the better ones. Bill had gone through the breakup of a long relationship. His distance seemed a little more serious than usual, and for once, it seemed he'd rather cross it.

    Last night, my mother gave me the official synopsis of the two and a half years since the photo. He'd been sinking from life, struggling with honest-to-god depression. He had been drinking too much and eating too little. I would get hints of these things in conversation, but its hard to assess the gravity of anything at this remove. "Depressed" has a broad spectrum, ranging from contextual to pathological. According to Mom, he'd lately been on the upswing, working out again, and was in the process of turning himself around. He was planning to come back to Connecticut, she said. He'd gained weight.

    I suppose we're most likely to be struck at a crossroads.

    He died sometime last week in his apartment, alone. It is not known precisely when this happened, and it was several days before he was found. Did he not show up for work? Not answer his phone? Who found him? What was the cause? I have no idea.

    Believe it or not, this is the hardest part for me to wrap my mind around. (It is also the only part that seems real.) I like to think he passed with that inscrutable smile on his face--the one which you couldn't tell if had a tiny corner of life knowledge that was impossible to share or if he was just a little silly (or both)--but I can't bring myself to believe it. I picture him alone in there with the distant look, but not the smile, and it is breaking my heart.

    You can't reduce a life to an official summary version, by the way, or you shouldn't. Depression and redemtpion--there's so much more to a man's life than that simple fucking story. And I'm not doing him any better by throwing a bunch of adjectives at the guy. But if you're reading, do me a favor and synthesize them to the extent needed for a mental photograph. Picture for a moment this person who was easygoing to a fault, goofy, talented, and likable, and know that he existed. A man who, like most of us, had trouble finding the point of it all or maybe staying on it, but deserved to much as anyone.

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Mike the Barber

    I just broke off a five-year relationship. It wasn't a valued relationship, although services were provided and pleasantries exchanged, but as these things go, some measure of loyalty has accreted over time with familiar intertia.

    When I first came to Massachusetts, I chose to patronize Mike for no other reason than his proximity to my place of employment. It wouldn't really be correct to call Mike a barber, recalling, as it does, gruff men with buzzing shears and worn-through formica, and newspapers and coffee. Mike is more of a stylist, and he ran his own place. I watched a couple of Mike's halfhearted business adventures come and go. He'd rearranged the place a couple of times, and tried to support a manicurist for a short time. He never really seemed into it.

    Mike has a lisp and a Greek accent, middle aged with dark, full hair and the slouch of a healthy man who does nothing physical. He smells of hair product and the cigarette he smoked an hour ago in the back room. I'd have guessed he's a gay man (the lisp), and maybe he is, but he's got grown children and a brother-in-law with whom he's resigned enough to drop the business for a week and drive to wherever. I'd have said "happy enough", but Mike doesn't ever really look happy. He's amused on rare occasions, but most of the time he trudges around just a hair cowed, just a hair desultory. "How's the family?" he'd drawl without enthusiasm, remembering, without details, that I have young children. "How's work?"

    I usually came in during lunch--what I'd think would be peak hours--but I never saw very many patrons in Mike's shop. One time, a fat, loudmouthed woman bowled the man over about her trip to Greece, flirting with him, at which Mike looked profoundly uncomfortable. She left him a suggestive thank-you card, which he uncomfortably asked me to read for him as her car crunched away in the driveway. Maybe he can read Greek.

    Mike always did a terrible job cutting my hair, but you can probably guess how much that bothers me. I came back every month, and left the poor bastard a tip, as I did the last time. "I've moved," Mike told me on the phone as I arranged my appointment. (He wasn't comfortable with a walk-in.) It wasn't really any further from work, but as I walked in, it was apparent Mike had a new partner as well. He must be the sort of guy that draws heavy obnoxious blondes, because he looked more broken than ever. I asked him about the move, and he glanced at the sow by the door before he answered that "the place was too big for just me." I asked if many clients had followed him here. "Not many," he softly replied, after looking at the scowling heifer by the register. Nervously, he handled my fourteen bucks plus tip. "I- I'm not so good at the new machine."

    "Should I ask for you when I come back?"

    "Okay...but only on Fridays and Saturdays now."

    "I'll try to remember. Thanks."

    "Okay," he mumbled.

    I held out for about twice as long as usual, but couldn't bring myself to go back. Even if I could prop my eyes open to the shame, Mike made it damn inconvenient with the whole Friday-only thing.

    So yesterday, I went to the commercial place. "We cater to men," the owner (yet another tubby and annoying blonde) bubbled at me. "TVs at every chair. We shampoo after we cut. A neck massage with every visit."

    A massage, you say.

    "I love cutting wavy hair," my young hairdresser told me.

    "Really? What the hell do you do with it?"

    "For you, just some gel."

    I made the obligatory remarks about hairline recession here. It's not as bad as I whine about. "Do what you think works," I said.

    I took off the coke bottles as she did her magic, but afterwards, I must say that I liked the shampoo. I'd forgotten how pleasant it is to have some nubile, delicate-fingered girl massage your scalp. And then the vibrator on my back. Yowza. I didn't want to go back to work.

    She was right about the gel, too. I walked out with the best haircut I've had in a decade. When I got home, my wife noticed, and if that wasn't out of character enough, I think she was a little turned on.

    I hope Mike does well, but I think the poor fella's on his way out. I can't help but feel somewhat responsible.

    Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    Going Greek II: Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

    Soldier of Sidon is, like the two previous Soldier books, the story of a warrior cast into events of larger significance than himself. It's another first-person diary, and much more so than Pressfield's effort, Wolfe's narrator and his world ache with integrity from the get-go. He reports his story from the perspective of a simple man, using simple language. He observes the right things. Two short chapters into Sidon, and Gene Wolfe has managed to calmly grab the sense of place and of character that Steven Pressfield struggled to achieve in an entire novel. Wolfe makes it look easy. I am sure it is not.

    The narrator's name is Latro, also called Lucius or Lewqys, meaning, with a wink, "wolf." It's more than vanity; the wolf also refers to the Roman wolf, describing Latro's place of origin (it feels strange to realize that the Republic was developing on its own contemporaneously with the famous Persian wars on the neighboring penninsula). Latro also takes the aspect (complete with club and euraus, that cobra headband in all the glyphs) of the Egyptian wolf-god Ap-uat during his time in that land. Ap-uat is the god of soldiers. Nice.

    Latro, it should be said, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He is the victim of a head wound, an old one by the time of Sidon, that has impaired his long-term memory.** He can learn languages, and has retained his soldier's skills. He can remember a scene or two from his youth, but all of his yesterdays are lost. The diary is to help keep track of his life, to explain in the morning who all these strangers are. His snap judgements about supporting characters (whom he frequently re-introduces, or equally frequently fails to recognize) offer an insight into their growth. It's a narrative balancing act--the reader can't be bored by the retelling it takes to make the memory scroll convincing. It's also challenging to follow at times, not unintentionally, but the story is there.

    And a lot of story is there. A man who can't remember is a natural dupe of the gods, and they don't leave poor Latro alone. In Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete (the original volumes), Latro was caught in the divine squabbles that hung over the Persian wars, the plot of which the assidious reader was left to decipher. Latro walked among the famous as well as the holy, and it helped to have Herodotus handy to help understand where he was and what he was doing. (I did not and I was lost.) Soldier of Sidon manages to turn up some old friends, but leaves the great battles behind, traveling south through Egypt instead to encounter a whole new Pantheon. Without the weight of history (and without the translated place-names, a cool feature of the earlier books that is neglected here, presumably because Latro knows the language less well), the story was a little easier to get my brain around.

    But don't worry, it's a good story.


    P.S. Reader beware. Wolfe evidently intends to conclude this one in another novel.

    * Anachronism watch: there's one lousy passage, late in the book, in which Latro rides "stirrup-to-stirrup" with another soldier. Say it ain't so, Gene! The stirrup didn't come into common military use until the first couple of centuries AD in China, after which it gradually migrated west. It transformed heavy cavalry and made the more famous medeival versions of horse-fighting (jousting and whatnot) possible, making it possible to fight on horseback with far less skill. Stirrups may have been around for a while before, however (as a mounting aid probably) and some of the unofficial histories I've read ascribed it's use to the Assyrians as early as 800 or even 1000 BC. Could a fifth century BC Persian soldier have fit his horse with stirrups (the Persians did ride)? Just barely possible, and it's not like they were tilting lances while standing on them.

    ** Earlier, I'd written short-term memory was limited. No, that worked fine, but Latro lost the ability to put any of those in the long-term bank. I'd read awhile back (I think in a foreword to the other Soldier books) that Wolfe had chanced across some medical article describing this rare trauma. In some of his other novels, he created another suspect narrator with an allegedly perfect memory. Quite likely he was researching the subject. Latro makes a nice counterpoint to that other protagonist (and is far more likable).