Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review of No Place Like Home, by Barbara Samuel

I should stick to pencil sketches
Usually, when I select a book to read, it'll be something that's been vaguely within my focus for a while. Often that means it's been sitting on my shelf for years, but maybe I've heard of the author, got a recommendation, read a review, know the genre, or just seen it mentioned everywhere. The hunt for a book for Topazz came with none of those tools, only me and google. Specifically, I was searching for something that got in the head of newly single mother of teenagers, and if it caught Topazz's charm and scandalous wit, then so much the better. (And if, paraphrasing some other amateur reviewer, the character landed a searing hunk of man-meat, then so much the better as well.) Stepping into the divorced-mom neighborhood of the chick-lit* ghetto was a serious liklihood here, and I followed some romance buffs' online conversations to discover there's No Place Like Home. With a protagonist named Jewel (get it?), I felt I had no choice but to step right in. (The second one I looked at actually had a Topaz in it, but not in the right role.)

No Place Like Home was touted as a "genre-blender," and the conservative cover (another reason for my choice) would seem to support this classification. I don't read much in this style, but it seems to this caveman that the only thing that kept Fabio off the cover is fifteen years of gravity audaciously added to subtly drag down the bosoms, and some sentimental familial elements to get that patina of respectability. None of this gets around the way the male lead (improbably named Malachi), is introduced:

" the darkest shade of cinnamon brown, eyes the color of bitter chocolate, skin tanned as dark as Brazil nuts because that's where he'd been, leading an adventure tour down the Amazon. He wore a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of jeans and heavy boots for riding that motorcycle...".
I try to keep an open mind about genre fiction, especially for something like romance--80% of the novels ever written contain a romance, after all--which to my mind, is only separated from the general fiction shelf by a good review and/or a hunkless cover. What's more, I get it that different writers, writing for different markets, will have their own values of what's noticable and worthy of description, which probably explains why Samuel doesn't let a page slip by without gushing over some aspect of Malachi's hypermasculine phsysique. Hell, I can accept some measure of fantasy wish-fulfillment too, even if we're not talking about my particular brand of fanboy escapism here.

But there is a mighty temptation to sin in any sort of genre writing, and the biggest snare is to let the readers' expectations write your book for you. Down in the genre projects, a lot of the blueprints are already in place, and an imaginative writer can use these to show off some creativity, or to turn the lens on the structural assumptions, or to use the stock outlines as a starting points to go somewhere else entirely. It's not the scaffold itself that's interesting, it's all the stuff that the scaffold holds up. If you just deliver the expectations without testing them, then there doesn't, as they say, end up being a lot of there there, just another McMansion you drive past in Romancetown.

Samuel wanted a there, at least a physical one. No Place Like Home is a story about a woman who followed a band out of her (and the author's) hometown as a teenager, now returning with a teen of her own and a dying friend in tow to rediscover home and family, to find a place in it. Samuel handles some of the interactions with reasonable competence, if not very deeply. The more interesting aspects--her relationship with her Dad, her relationship to a terminal friend, the family's Italian-ness, her son's reticence at encountering a potential new father (and husband) figure--all get shortchanged to extol the indulgent lie of a character that is the male lead. Malachi is a dangerous and preternaturally handsome loner who also manages to be protective, communicative, thoughtful, and committed, needing only the right woman to save him. (It's enough to make me keep holding out for my own sexy green-skinned Martian babe.) He's good match for Jewel the reformed rebel, I suppose, but then this book doesn't attempt to capture rebellion very ambitiously, which, as a consequence, doesn't lend much force to all the wholesome reconciliation happening in between the paeans to Malachi's nut-brown torso. The redemption theme keeps it slightly less fluffy than I expected from this sort of book, but it's still all a little easy, and a little light. In other words, not great literature here, but enough to get your rocks off.


*Sorry. Anyone got a better word?

Point / Counterpoint

Tuesday Morning Quarterback:
"[H]ere's why the affair matters: If a big American institution such as the NFL is not being honest with the public about a subject as minor, in the scheme of things, as the Super Bowl, how can we expect American government and business to be honest with the public about what really matters?"

Gregg, you ignorant slut:
"But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg[g] - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but I for one am not going to stand here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!"

(with tip o' the hat to twiffer)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pi Blogging (for nerds only)

Sorry, it had to be done.

(And gratuitously, go here.)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pie Blogging (for rundeep, Dawn, or whomever)

My wife, before she started her classes, thought of starting a blog for awhile, thinking she had enough material about what holds us together. (Rest assured, I'd have been sure to link.) But shit, as it does, happened, and she never got the project going. Here's an entry that wouldabeen.

Some background: fifteen years ago or more, my mother sent me away with a box of recipes, the tried and true favorites of my youth. Mom's less a chemist than an empath however, and she wasn't in the habit of rigor when it came to transcribing her technique, more's the pity. When she attempted to put the coveted pumpkin pie variation to paper, it was a negligent wreck, instigating a solid decade of feelings of inadequacy. I mean, how fucking hard is it to balance ten ingredients? But I got Dad's genes too, and a cook + a machinist = a chemical engineer, and I'd be damned if a platter of custard was going to get the best of me. Ten years of tweaking Mom's "dumping" with, you know, measurements and stuff, gets you the recipe for the best pumpkin pie ever. I'm feeling indulgent tonight (which is to say drunk...again), so here you are:

  • 1 small pumpkin, cut in half and baked for about an hour facedown on a cookie sheet
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger (sub a teaspoon of powder if you must)
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • dash ground cloves
  • 1-2 tsp lemon and orange zest
  • some grated nutmeg (even though this recipe originally comes from Connecticut, you'll want a real one)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1-2 Tbsp Amaretto. (Add that much again to the pie. A surprising lot of our secret ingredients are booze.)
  • light cream or half and half (roughly half a cup)
If you have a good blender, put all the ingredients in there (scoop the pumpkin meat from the skin, of course). Blend, adding just enough cream to get a pourable consistency. Pour it into a pie crust (lately, I've been going 2 parts crisco to one part butter to great results). Bake it at 425 F for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking for 50 minutes or so. It's done when the center is just set (when it jiggles rather than sloshes when you tap the edge). Cool thoroughly before eating. Thank me later.

I'd be lying if I said I'll be thinking of any of you when I enjoy this tomorrow. Good night, everybody!


Usher the kids out of the room, please

Keifus Writes! is 37% evil. Must be the exclamation point.

This site is certified 37% EVIL by the GematriculatorThis site is certified 63% GOOD by the Gematriculator


Friday, September 21, 2007

The Heckling Hare

Ever since man has seen fit to orate, someone else has seen fit to take that man down. It pleases me to imagine that when Ugga, newly gifted with speech, got up on the rock and proclaimed himself the strongest, some other caveman was making hand gestures and winking at Ugga's wife. Hoping to lift a country out of the depths of depression by will alone, Roosevelt pronounced "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" A heckler replied, Actually Frank, this grinding poverty's got me kind of down too. "I see a shining city on the hill," said Reagan. Try stepping outside the gate, asshole. "A coward dies a thousand deaths..." Now see, that's why we've got to get rid of all these damn heroes. "I intend to set up a thousand-year Reich..." Oy, over my dead body. No! Wait!

Better bloggers than me have observed that comedy favors the oppressed. There's no triumph in breaking the already broken, only cruelty. But cracking the oppressors, humanizing them, that'll get you somewhere, maybe even get someone a glimpse into their own shadowy soul. This is why for decades, black people could get away with making fun of white people and not the other way around. It's why making fun of poor retards is bad for the conscience (unless you do it ironically of course), but making fun of influential ones is very nearly a national imperative. Authority is the natural enemy of humor, and thus are hecklers born.

Hecklers make the best storybook heroes. Yeah, you have your square-jawed types, your wise daddy deities, your fecund fertility goddesses, but wisdom and power--even stupidity--will only get you so far if there's no one to tell the story. The tricksters in the pantheon: the Monkeys, the Coyotes, even the Lokis are the ones who keep it interesting, poke the holes in seats of divine authority. Even if Jesus saw fit to nudge the occasional Pharissee, Judeo-Christian mythology evoloved to be such a dour faith, it requred a secular culture to knock The Old Man down every now and then. From a modern version of that secular effort, Tex Avery and Al Gaines taught me more about authority than Mom and Dad and Sunday School combined. I learned that when the powers that be fear humor, when they crack down on the ones who note their foibles, then they have something to hide. And given the power to hide it, expect hard times. Hard times, but pointed mockery.

Heckling is not comedy, but there's a similar art to it. The trick to heckling is timing, and unlike comedy (maybe unlike comedy), you're limited to brevity. To heckle well, you have to choose the right targets, you have to have the truth on your side. The powerful but sheltered are the most deserving, the pompous almost as good, the abusers of privelege. Barring that, it's whoever the hell has the audacity to show up in your face uninvited, whoever insists on making a point whether or not it deserves the attention. The necessity of heckling rests on presumption.

Performance art is another opposite of heckling. It's pointing out alternative viewpoints without taking a gamble with the audience's judgement. It's got a mighty presumption of its own, without, frankly, any evident ability to sway. It's totally unfair, but these things are almost always made right or wrong after the fact. The taunter and the pundit reside in a sort of offensive/defensive arms race, with the loser judged the more deserving. The heckler has power of the one-liner, a short window to win the crowd. The speaker has an advantage of inertia, some limited sympathy, some pride of protracted effort. Did the barb score it's point? Did it need to be scored? (Sometimes it's a race to the bottom.) Go on too long, and the heckler deserves the hook too.

But not the taser.

(What'd y'all think? Don't be shy, I'll be here all night.)

[Oh fuck it, just go read switters]

Monday, September 17, 2007

What have you wrought, Washington?

Given the endless blather that's been in the sports press all week, it was especially gratifying to see the New England Patriots collectively rip San Diego's star squad fifty-three new assholes last night. I don't know if I buy the whole Belichick genius thing--I don't really have enough of a football mind to say--but he sure looks smarter with this year's surplus of talent, and I've a natural aversion to managers claiming credit for that. It's certainly safe to call Belichick obsessive though, and that's the most logical reason I can think of for his videotaping efforts.

(Parenthetically, it's the claim of every middling performer alive if the people around him were better, he'd be super. Tom Brady has been making decent receivers look brilliant for years, and now he has brilliant receivers. And damn if he's not living up to the hype.)

It kills me to have anything suffixed "gate" to be within a mile of my attention (and certainly not in sports) because it's a sure sign that the alleged scandal isn't going to be important enough to explain in any rational manner. This broke the seal however. Listen to this guy's cause for offense:

  • "The arrogance of the organization, the smugness.
  • The fact that this is nothing new. Stories are now coming out of the woodwork that cheating has been a normal modus operandi with this club.
  • Good old street crime is one thing. It goes with the history of sports. But this video thing lifts it to a new level of electronic surveillance and into the realm of the hi-tech, white collar crime that we all hate. Put these guys on the business page, for God's sake. There's no place for them in sports"
What a tool. Let me do the courtesy of interpretation:
  • "I hate that they win all the time." (I understand this of course. I live to see Peyton Manning put a disappointed frown on his ugly shilling mug.)
  • "They were, like, doing it all the time, everyone says." (Do we really doubt that everyone's hand ain't in the cookie jar here? Of course they'll point to the guy who's not them. I mean, football organizations try to steal signals? Next you'll tell me that politicians sometimes compromise my best interests.)
  • "Yeeha! I wanna coach I can done have a beer with. I don't trust me dem quiet nerds."
He goes on to call Goodell a "sheriff," and salute the NFL's authoritarian crackdown. I mean, you want to talk smug? This guy, along with every second announcer on the teevee and the sports pages is drooling to elevate their views to some position of moral football sanctity. Look, Belichick broke the rules and deserves punishment for it, but slavering at his demise makes big fat with crocodile tears is a sure way to reveal yourself as an overemotional, sanctimonious twit, unwilling to call Goodell's public chest-puffing for what it is. And hey, maybe there's a point to the serious principal routine--a lot of questionable activity seems to have skirted under the radar in the past and I don't doubt that the Patriots were the most obvious rulebreakers in this category--but I've got an aversion to example-makers too, and it's not like the NFL lacks for irritating pedantry. And any sportswriter alive is as invested in notions of ideological game purity as any pol is against the business as usual in Washington, and the language is just as stomach-turning. (And all the whining in the world can no more unbeat St. Louis in the '01 season than it can unelect George Bush in the '04 one.)

King Kaufman (via The Editors*) makes a good contrarian case:
Why does the league have that rule? For the same reason it has a rule governing the length of players' socks. The NFL likes rules.

[…]Punish the Patriots if that's what it takes to keep the suits -- and various Pats haters around the world -- happy. Then get rid of that rule.

What the Pats are accused of doing is "spying" on the Jets coaches as they sent signals to the defense. My understanding of spying must be different from the NFL's. Watching a guy flapping his arms while standing in the middle of 70,000 people and in front of a national TV audience doesn't qualify. Even if you point a camera at him. I mean another camera, aside from all the legal cameras that can be pointed at him.

[…]The Patriots may have been trying to steal the Jets' signals for immediate or future use, but there's nothing wrong with stealing signals. It's a fine and respectable art. If it weren't, teams wouldn't need signals that are coded.

The sports press is grooving on an anti-Pats vibe just now, suspecting that the evil masterminds at New England engineered some illegal audio as well, but that second accusation flies in the face of Goodell's example-making, crossing the line into unreasonable vendetta. The punishment was fairly severe for the infraction, and if the unavoidably loud message to the league was the goal--and I suspect it was--then overinvestigating a single team counters it. I have a hard time accepting that New England is uniquely blameworthy in borderline corporate espionage.

Sportswriters and citizens everywhere: when you suck up to authority, it only becomes more obnoxious.


*Mean commenters there call the Pats the Little Cowboys (and the Red Sox the Junior Yankees). It hurts cuz it's true.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Forty-five Miles, One Way

His grabbed the wheel with both hands, sighed, closed his eyes. Christ, but he needed a cigarette. Instead of reaching for his shirt pocket--it was empty anyway--he tapped the wheel with his fingers in time to some song that was tired even when he was young. Midnight toker? Well, that wouldn't do at all. He hit scan. Shit. Pause. Noise. Pause. Garbage. Pause. Bubblegum. Pause. Blather. He turned it off. What the fuck was a pompatous anyway? He lifted his right hand and hit the wheel hard.

He looked off to his left at the cars flying down the southbound lanes. Who were the lucky bastards that didn't have to work in some miserable city office? He watched the trucks flying down toward him, noting them. Lumber--maybe it was from Canada--cargo, cargo, tanker. They were moving right along, but were their jobs any better? He doubted it. He didn't see how anybody who commuted could be happy. He drudged up some vague memory of a college physics lecture, momentum, mass times velocity. It would be hard to stop one one of those things. He squinted into the glare at the minivan ahead of him, still not moving. There had better be an accident. Somebody had better be dead. He envied them.

He revved the accelerator and inched his car closer, moved half a length. This was murder on his clutch, he thought. His leg was getting tired too, and his hand trembled as he pulled it from the stick shift. He changed his mind and slapped the thing into neutral, leaned back. It was 8:05. It wasn't as though he punched a clock, but there were meetings, and he hated showing up late to them even more than he hated attending in the first place. All hands bullshit this morning, and his absence would be conspicuous. He might still be able to make it by nine if things would move. He reached for his empty shirt pocket, and pulled his hand away angrily. He reached for the radio, brought it shaking back to the wheel.

Was the job worth it, he thought. It was, even ten years ago, some tradeoff between the price of the commute and the price of housing. It was hard to tell which was going up faster. With his mortgage, he needed the job, but his raises came slower than the rates on the ARM, slower than the cost of gas, slower than his medical premiums. The fucking alimony stayed the same. He was sure she was living on it just fine. No, he needed this goddamn job and no move closer was in sight. He needed it pay the heat. The electric would wait till the end of the month, he thought. Tax time was around the corner. He stamped the pedal at two feet of progress but the gears were still disengaged and the engine roared impotently. He gripped the knob and wrenched it into first, shuddered a meager few steps progress toward the next bumper. The clutch was going to cost him.

The clock was digital. He remembered his first car, with the analog clock, the ripped seats, the dented fenders. High school. This one was cleaner anyway. And newer, but not a lot newer. The clock read 8:33. In twenty minutes, he'd moved maybe half a mile, and he had a good forty minutes to go even if things were moving full speed. Was there road work yesterday? It was all the same shit. He thought about laying on the horn, but that never made anything better. He breathed in exhaust--it had been two years--well, minus a couple of lapses--but he still shouldn't be tasting it in on his tongue, should he? Still feeling it in his lungs. He looked at the glove compartment, and then lunged at it, pounding his thigh on the gearshift. His foot left the brake for a moment and he rolled backward slightly, and the guy behind him did honk. He reached up and raised a finger to him. He tore the contents of the glove out, expired insurance cards, receipts, the driving manual. And driving gloves. Who knew? What a pile of useless shit, he thought, and his fingers clutched at a shiny wrapper at the bottom, upended it to free nothing, crushed it in his fist and held it to his face, breathing a smell that was not quite dead. He tore some of the paper from the inside and chewed it, his fillings grating on the foil. Fuck it, he hit the horn. Flipped off the guy in front of him too. His leg hurt, maybe it was bruised.

8:47. His teeth ground, he'd watched every minute of the fucking thing tick by and they were getting slower. The spitball on the passenger-side window was already dry, and the morning was getting hot. He looked at the temperature gauge. Maybe some asshole ahead had overheated. That would slow things down. Maybe no one else would make the meeting either, but somehow he felt like he was the only one that lived in the damn boondocks. How did those people afford it? He grabbed at the radio dial for the tenth time, and shouted. He picked up his foot and stomped on the thing, turning it on and breaking the dial. Horrified, he reached over and tried to dislodge it, the radio got a little louder. It was tuned to some indeterminate station. Words sparking from the static like random thoughts falling out of the mental ether. He opened the window. It was hot. He turned on the fan and left the window open. Traffic hummed around him, stinking. He thought about the word "static." Trucks flew south. His hand jiggled on the wheel. 8:51.

At some point, some asshole got into the shoulder and sure as shit, a whole train had passed him twenty minutes ago. Now they were trying to merge back in. He pulled within inches of the guy in front, and shouted over the stuttering radio at the would-be cutter as he passed him. Fuck you and your precious Beamer, you overpriveleged shit.

After the merge, traffic started moving a car length at a time. He was moving sufficiently forward to be able to weave left and right in the lane a little, but he could see around the blue family van. He hated those things. As the highway began to turn, he could see, finally, yellow flashes off to his left, maybe a mile up. He began to press the pedal, but he still wasn't there.

Finally, he saw it. There had been an accident in the other lane. Some broken glass, but no cars, no police. A tow truck sat in the median, flashing his lights and hurting the eyes of the oncoming traffic. Traffic on that side zipped right past. His thigh hurt more than it should, and the radio was spurting some intermittent Latin rap. He gritted his teeth. Fucking rubberneckers. Fuckin people nowhere to fucking go. He jammed his foot the pedal and sped past it all. Second gear, a lurch into third, fourth, across into fifth. He accelerated. Up ahead, the median got narrow due to some construction, but still the the trucks barrelled down their lanes. He watched them come down, fly past. It wouldn't take much thought, just a second of a lapse, close his eyes for not much longer than a blink, and there could be no more meetings, no payments, no more fucking daily drive through the exaust and the heat and the horns.

His hands gripped the wheel. The trucks barrelled down. Just one twitch is all it'd take. He closed his eyes.

[Written for a "Wikifray symposium." Thanks for the idea, august.]

Friday, September 07, 2007

In which I Cross a Line

And so it's come to this.

I mean, I've been feeling almost official: there's this miniscule political chip on my shoulder; I've got my twenty, sometimes twenty-five hits a day; I've got my Friday night drunken spiels; my topics of negligible interest. I've got my tokens of a lifetime of near-celibate near-friendlessness: the coke-bottle spectacles, the Rush CDs, the pillow fort.* What's missing? Hmm...

Guessed it yet?

That's right, kittens! Why, somehow, I've never cat-blogged before, and here I call myself a blogger. I've been putting this off for a long time.**

I've never been a cat person really. I preferred the family dogs growing up, and later, when I got neighbors, I'd pretty much had it with pets altogether. (Oh man, there was this one neglected cur in the projects that was chained up so that his circuit ended exactly at either of my bedroom windows. Woke up and went to bed to clinkaclinkaclinka-woof!woof!woof! clinkaclinkaclinka-woof!woof!woof! every day for a year.) But little children means whining for pets, and rather than neglecting a cur of our own, we got a kitten five years ago, figuring cats were low maintenance, cognizant that we couldn't, despite their assertions to the contrary, count on the children (or Keifus on Fridays) to pull their weight with the pet care. (I mean Jesus, how hard is it to remember to flush?)

So anyway, five years ago, we brought home a shaggy tortoiseshell that we called, according to the season and the limits of a five-year-old's imagination, Pumpkin. Here was a kitten that had been born and raised (for five glorious weeks) on display at a petting zoo. We'd assumed that she was well adjusted to the constant poking and tail-pulling of children, but the poor creature turned out to have a persecution complex: any affection is tentative, and usually involves the creepy gingerbreading of anything fuzzy in the vicinity. (We theorize she was weaned too early.) One time I called her Fartknocker, and it stuck. Not a big purrer is Fartknocker, although I'll say that she does like me best, probably because I give her the most gentle attention. She's a good mouser too.

This summer, we decided that it was time for a new cat. Not a replacement, mind you, but hopefully one that would sit on your lap without digging its claws into your unmentionables at the slightest alarming motion. My parents have always known a variety of rednecks (there can't be many left in those parts), and in this iteration, my mother is friendly with a fiddle-playing duffer who owns feral cats. Sound like a contradiction? Evidently he feeds them, and now and then collects and distributes the inevitable kittens. So Mom had her friend round one up for us. We had to wait a couple weeks for the geezer to catch one.

Here's the first little angel his arthritic hands knotted by the scruff. On that critical visit to Mom and Dad's, I peeked in the cage, and there she was--she wouldn't meet my hand, but she curled up about six inches away and rolled around purring. A purrer! Total keeper. A calico, as you can see, and what I find her distinctive, is the soul patch at the bottom of her chin. It makes her look like a jazz musician, and so she was Zoot. (It's also handy when she's naughty.) She still likes to purr about a foot out of reach, usually in the morning, that close to my nose. She ignores me the rest of the time.

To be a cat is to be aloof, self-possessed (even in the face of ridiculousness), and supremely agile (even if it's just covering their furry asses). Kittens are so different from cats so as to be like a separate species. They're guileless little animals, uncoordinated, and, above all, they lack the unearned dignity of the adult feline. Zoot came into this house with a slinky head-bobbing walk, all legs and paws, like a teenager, comically unaccustomed to the length and the heft of them. She's a fabulous pouncer, going after feathers and strings with a full-body open tackle, all four legs aloft, heedless of the inevitable belly- (or back- or head-) flop. Already she's growing too large to scale the fuzzy speakers I regrettably purchased as a college kid. As yet unworthy of outside scatology, Zoot's favorite place in her known universe is the litterbox. It's refreshing to see her roll gleefully in her own feces, kicking cat sand across the kitchen floor with feline abandon, which is to say guiltily but unrepentant. Does it stop me from kissing her fuzzy forehead when she tolerates my attention? It does not.

Don't look at the camera!Pumpkin, on the other hand, has always been poorly adjusted. She's taken up the mantle to defend our house from the foul sprays of the (goddamn) tiger, orange, and black neighbor cats, usually without success. Upon finding an intruder indoors she appealed to her feeders with a look of alarm and betrayal, eyes wide, body poised somewhere between flight and attack. For her part, Zoot has been forever fascinated with Fartknocker's crooked tail. We had to keep them separated for as long as it took the kitten to get bigger than a rat. Now, she taunts Pumpkin mercilessly, running at top speed across the floor, and somersaulitng at the bigger cat's upturned defensive paw. They're accustomed enough to one another by now that Pumpkin is lazy about her self-defense, expending a minimum of effort to send the upstart scurrying in the opposite direction. One well-timed look, one hiss, one threatening gesture.

I am a monster of a human being, contrubiting in my part of kitty genocide. Three weeks ago I sent Zoot to the vet to sacrifice her sexual life for my convenience. Her convalescence kept her two days away from home, during which Pumpkin discovered she valued her family, luxuriating in the attention and the peace. When the kitten returned, it was with stitches and a lampshade. It was a good socializing tool I suppose. As she tried to scratch, Zoot would whack the plastic cone unproductively, sounding for all the world like an aerosol can. I'd scratch her ears for her, and she'd purr (yes!) gratefully, and lick the inside of the plastic. She's sweet, but Zoot is not, I fear, very bright.

My parents eventually ended up with Zoot's brother (Owen, but accepted as "Numbnuts," they don't fall far from the tree). Owen is pretty cool, and he tolerates the dressing-up, tail-pulling, and shouting, better than his sister. It doesn't matter the extent and volume of my admonitions, but a six year old and a cat mix poorly.

And can you guess who Zoot yowls for when they're not around? Hint: it ain't me. Maybe I should get a third one...

Gratuitously, here's Zoot. Good night, everybody.

*yeah, I stole it from Colbert. Bite me.
**couldn't find the USB cord for the camera.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Review of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

This is for my bud, Biteoftheweek. Bite has said she's evil, but I've never seen witchcraft there. The worst I've witnessed is bluntness, and, frankly, that aspect of her style is similar enough to that of people close to me that it's worth understanding. I like the adjective wicked better than I do evil. There's a word that connotes, to me, sinfulness and impertinence rather than malice: wicked ways, a wicked tongue. The word wicked suggests a more complicated place on the dour old good-n-evil axis, which, on many levels, badly needs a poke every now and then anyway. Sometimes, wicked can be wicked cool.

So you see where I'm going with this, right? Gregory Maguire's novel promised to expand on the legendary character from L. Frank Baum's (and less from Victor Fleming's) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, presumably with the exculpatory context of the land's "punishing political climate." He seems to take some pride in his disquisition of good and evil, but is the witch bad...or is she wicked?

The story opens in oppressive economic times--drought and government expansion--but dumps the characters into a confrontation with evil of a more metaphysical sort. Maguire plays with these contrasts throughout the book, each well enough in their turn, but incongruously with one other. The middle portion of the book, surprisingly rich with political and the character development, doesn't jibe well with the magical events that bookend the witch's biography. It's difficult to resist the comparison with The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a novel which explored the dark places in storyland, and found their organic connection to the human version. Swanwick was able to find that frightening spot where the evil in our hearts is indistinguishable from the corruption of society. Maguire has them as two unrelated things, and his story is the weaker for it.

Elphaba (it works better as Elphie--the witch part gets added late) is the only character forced to embody both of these things, and it it makes her a different person in different sections. She's introduced under deep omens, born green-skinned and shark-toothed, with an innately dark and violent disposition. (She begins her life with a memorable bite!) But in the space between her first word ("horrors") and her first college roommate, the weight of the occult is lifted. Elphaba the student is an intelligent, caustic little atheist. She has no soul, she believes, but she's got character to spare, and she's got a moral sense, whether she acknowledges one or not. Even green, she's the sort of self-possessed, interesting girl that any boy who was watching wishes, later in life, that they could have possibly understood. (Yes, there are a couple of boys in the story who don't know they are in love with her.) For a while, she lives up to the appealing versions of wickedness. She rebels against the smothering and manipulative school hierarchy, becomes a subversive for the cause of oppressed peoples, takes a lover and loses him in the political turmoil created by the usurping wizard. Though Ozzie politics seems a silly notion at first, Maguire makes them real by viewing it through the small and convincing context of individual points of view. He takes ineffective missionaries, bored housewives, misfit students, horrid children and makes them all individually real enough to add up to a quality setting. There are horrors, but his people are people, and I cared about them. I'm not going to tell you it wasn't a good read.

These vignettes are Maguire's real strength, honest and convincing, but peppered in there are vague hints of greater powers and grand designs that actually diminish any transformations that come through character. You could paint Elphaba's development as a quest to find a moral center despite her atheism and despite her oddness--this is devalued if she's deprived of her will, or if she really is uniquely soulless. (There are better ways to mix determinism with character than dumping the former on the latter.) She can't avoid the events of Baum's source book any more than she can her secret mystical assignments, but the novel Wicked is hardly set up to make them look inevitable (the necessity of picking up plot coupons--bees and monkeys and shoes and so forth--got tedious by the end too). Her well-known cackling madness, quite at odds with the inwardly struggling character portrayed up to that point, is presented as an unnecessarily comical Lady MacBeth style decompression, and it's not earned. If indeed her end was imposed by greater forces, then let her exit with grace, or with tragedy, or with middle finger extended--those are things her character deserved. Maguire's wicked witch really was misunderstood. And robbed.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Review of The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier

[Part of the latest Wikifray book club]

Like many people who were once young, I've been stupidly lovesick, been stupidly hurt by it, and indulged in extensive fantasies, sprung from a reading (and television) habit, that imagined some indeterminate future context when the intensity of those feelings could be justified and explained. The faith in serendipitous opportunities for closure was harder to grow out of than any of the youthful affections that spawned it. What would happen if it actually came to pass?

The Gregoire Bouillier of The Mystery Guest has sufferred years of mild depression (with hairshirts and everything) from a sudden and unexplained breakup, and without warning his departed lover calls him: won't he come to a stranger's party? Indulging in literary constructs of epiphanies and chanced salvations is something that is a nice story, great as a novel, but troubling to see it presented as a memoir, and maybe I'm a little jealous that Bouillier proclaims to get away with it. It's like a student turning in suspiciously accurate results from lab equipment known to be tempermental. Boillier (both as character and author) appears to be smart enough to realize how hard he's fighting get the patchy data of the experience to agree with an acceptable narrative model. He actively hunts current events for a metaphor (hi, bacon) to fix to his effort, considering and discarding a number of random news items before he finds a reference-laden space probe as a clumsy theme. The literature-style resolution of his malaise manages to not only follow a familiar form, but he (evidently) finds a specific story as a link too. The sheer effort he takes to tack a narrative onto his life at least earns him self-awareness points.

As for my own tastes, I'd have appreciated it if he scored a few more irony points. I wouldn't say The Mystery Guest lacks humor--it's almost Seinfeld-esque in it's self-absorbed dissection of the daily traps of routine, of love, of society, of sleep, of entertainment--but he mocks himself only gently. He neither loves nor hates the absurdity of it, reaching instead for the comforts of a literary sense of completeness. I prefer my self-deprecation with a little more vinegar, myself. Maybe it's cultural, or maybe it's me.

M. Bouillier* is a man that's lost in a world of internalized words. It's the literary that seems real to him, much more than the reality observed by his senses. The only proper names encountered in the book are from literature, history, or contemporary art. (He seems to buy one shallow guest's idea that you're no one until published.) His memoir contains only two lines of dialogue, which occur more than halfway through, and which (intentionally) have the false tinge of actor's lines. Although this handful of words proves to be pivotal--Bouillier finally finds his epiphany in them (and in their specific literary context)--the rest is an unrelenting mental monologue that mirrors the actual events like color commentary, as though looking at reality through an extra-thick filter of consciousness. It's less a stream of thought, and more a continuous mental novelization his life. The din of his constant interpretation and self-analysis drowns out everything that's going on outside.** I can empathize with the battle between the external world and internal running commentary. So, I think, can most of the people reading this. I don't think there's anybody else I know who could have gotten away with recommending this book to me.

I recall reading some magazine editors opining that there's no set submission length for a piece, that a story should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Any longer of this internal harangue and Bouillier would have lost his charm. Any less-- Well, there couldn't have been much less. It's probably best read in a sitting, to best catch the rhythm of the ebbs and swells of the author's emotions. I had a few issues with the narrative voice. His guilty use of cliches (as they say) were tedious even though intentional (maybe that's something about translation?), but commendably, his memoir had enough doubt in it to seem honest, even if a little too forgiving and comforting. Bouillier reached hard for a script for his life and found one. It’s always nice to think that people do…but I don't think I believe in it.


*I love the French honorific.
**I used a similar description in a recent book review. It's different here, and yet not.