Saturday, January 30, 2016

Moving Days

I spent much of this week moving into two different offices.

One move was fairly simple.  I’m back at Mid-Range Campus for one class this semester, and I’d been assigned to bunk with a tenured professor in his office – the same colleague who gave me his office last year, except that this year he was back from his administrative position and teaching full time.  We were going to alternate days, except that he ended up needing to be there on my days too.  It turned out that there was space in the adjunct corral a couple of doors down, and if I moved in there it would allow him to have his office back full time. 

This seemed reasonable to me.

The whole process took all of about fifteen minutes.  As an adjunct, I have learned to live light on the land.  I got a new key, moved my two canvas shopping bags’ worth of stuff (tea kettle and related supplies, miscellaneous papers, etc) two doors down the hallway, and got set up.  I’ve actually got more space now since the adjunct market is in steep decline in Wisconsin, a state whose current regime’s unremitting hostility to the very idea of education has, not surprisingly, resulted in teacher shortages across the board and catastrophic budget cuts heralding further reductions in the future.  In an office set up for as many as four adjuncts, there are only two of us.  And I’ll be gone by mid-May.

I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.

The other move was a bit more complicated and heralds a new era in my professional life, though one foreshadowed by everything I just wrote.

I have been very fortunate to have found full employment as an adjunct for the last three semesters, but if you’re in this field you know that this is a fragile and generally temporary state.  Even the normal ebb and flow of things conspires against stability, and a political climate that regards an educated and informed populace as a threat to be eliminated only makes that instability greater.  But education matters to me and I’d like to stay in the field despite all that.  So I’ve been applying for other, more student-service-oriented positions for a while now, and this month I was hired for one down at Home Campus.

How I managed to survive the interview process I’m not sure.  I’ve never been good at interviews.

But I am now employed, and I will start as soon as they have conducted all of the background checks necessary to confirm that I am not some kind of violent criminal likely to take over the nearest bird sanctuary in the name of ideology and greed.  This may not happen until late next week – the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, even for someone whose most serious brush with the law was a speeding ticket twenty-three years ago – but I took the opportunity to go in on Friday and set up my new office.

Yes, I get an office.  A whole office just for me!  One that I don’t have to share or give back in seventeen weeks, assuming that I actually do well in this new job and they don’t pitch me over the side as dead weight.  I’m going to do my best to make sure that said pitching does not happen.

I have been sharing an office elsewhere on campus for a while now, in that temporary adjunct sort of way, and it seemed like a good idea for me to transfer all my stuff from there to the new place before I actually had to get in there and work.  This took less than ninety minutes.  What can I say?  Living light.

Now all I have to do is decorate the place.

So it will be a new start for me, even as I am still teaching classes when I can.  I'm multi-talented.   That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chick Magnet

We’re back in the chicken business.

For the last several years Lauren has been part of the 4H poultry project, which is why we have a slowly growing flock out at our friend’s barn just west of town.  Right now there are two roosters – who seem to get along just fine, oddly enough – and five hens, and they provide most of the eggs and absurdity that we need to get through the days.

But you can’t show the same chickens two years in a row, according to the 4H folks, so every year we invest in new chickens.

Kim and Lauren came home today with six chicks.  There are three Speckled Hamburgs, two Dominiques, and one Blue Rosecomb Bantam, which is the tiny one in the middle.  Bantams are kind of useless as far as egg production goes, unless you're interested in a 45-egg omelet that fits in a regular-sized frying pan and feeds one, but we figure Rosie will like her, assuming she survives her term as the designated floormat for the other chicks.  Chickens are not the most thoughtful animals.

Right now they’re living in a red plastic bin in our living room, where it is warm and dry, and they’ll stay there until they’re big and hardy enough to shovel off into the barn.  We’re not even scofflaws now that the chicken ordinance has passed here in Our Little Town, and I suppose there is even an outside chance that we’d put up a chicken coop in our backyard, though you can’t keep roosters and at least one of the chicks is probably a rooster – you can’t tell at this age – so that might not be worth the trouble.  But we could.

There will likely be more chickens coming at some point.  You’re allowed to show up to six different birds, I believe, though only two from each breed.  So more chickens.  And there will be turkeys as well.  More chicks, more birds, more, more, more.

There is a reason Lauren insisted I write a blog post with the title this one has.  We just attract these things.

Right now the main issue is to keep the chicks warm enough in the winter and fenced off from prying cats, who see them as mobile snacks rather than future ribbon-winning projects.  You’d think the cats would be used to it by now, but that assumes that they can hold a thought in their heads from one year to the next and that theory crashes and burns once you get to the word “thought,” really.  The “one year to the next” part is just there for comic effect.  As long as we can keep the chicks warm and cat-free we’re probably okay.  Chickens are much sturdier creatures than turkeys, oddly enough, so they’ll survive until there is a conscious decision to make them not survive.

Speaking of which, we’ve had chicken for dinner for the last two nights. 

Because that’s how we roll.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Give Us a Verse, Drop Some Knowledge!

I spent some of my morning writing poetry.

I don’t usually do that.  For one thing, I’ve always had the sneaking feeling that poetry ought to rhyme and I’ve never had any facility with rhyming things and not having them sound like a fifth-grade graduation speech.  Plus, honestly, reading rhyming poetry bores me to tears most of the time.  You have to be really, really good at that sort of thing to make it worthwhile for me. 

There are only so many Doctor Seusses in the world.

For another, I've never been much of a fan of older alliterative models of poetry – the kind of lays and odes that litter Tolkien’s work, for example, most of which I just skip over because I know the important plot points they contain will be explained below – and while the snarky haikus that you see online can be entertaining, especially if Godzilla is involved, I tend to wear out on them fairly quickly.

I do like limericks, though, because most of them are funny.  Poetry has an awful tendency to take itself far too seriously and after a while you want to track down the poets responsible, get them good and drunk, and ship them to Vegas just to lighten them up a bit.  Limerick writers seem, as a group, to have already done that.  Or perhaps they are still doing that.  It depends on the limerick.

There is a reason why the “London Times Limerick Contest” joke is one of my favorites.  And no I’m not going to repeat it here. 

Limericks generally avoid the "taking yourself too seriously" problem.  It's hard to find anything serious that rhymes with "Nantucket," after all.   I prefer poems that like that, although sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands in that regard.  A friend of mine once pointed out that nearly all of Emily Dickinson’s work can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” for example, and that fact still brightens my day.  Try it sometime:

“Because I would not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.”

Doesn’t the music add a layer of levity that ol’ Emily probably could have used?

As for free verse, well.  Poetry that does not rhyme or have any real meter just strikes me as poorly typeset prose.  You might as well write it down in paragraphs and be done with it.  I’m good at prose, though, and to be honest my all-time favorite poet (Brian Andreas) falls squarely into this style of writing.  If there is any kind of poetry that appeals to me as a broad category, I suppose this is it. 

So consistency is not my thing when it comes to poetry, is what I’m saying here.  They’re my tastes, after all.  I reserve the right to like what I like and not like what I don’t, according to whim and mood, regardless of whether it rhymes or not or how seriously it takes itself.

I found myself at a meeting today, and as an exercise we were asked to come up with a number of items in five different categories, all under the general heading of “Where I Come From.”  The “Family” category was easy – there weren’t that many of us when I was younger, and we were a tight-knit group.  The “Food” category was similarly easy, since a great deal of our lives revolved around meals.  That hasn’t changed, by the way, and that’s fine by me.  The “Places” category was also fairly straightforward for someone who has always had a historian’s sense of place and time, though the “Items” category – things that defined your world back when – was a bit harder since I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where things were both reasonably plentiful and not very emphasized.  We tended to focus on people.  The only category that I had trouble with was “Family Sayings,” not because I couldn’t think of any – my brother once put together a multi-page list of common expressions that we shared – but because none of the ones I could think of off the top of my head were really appropriate for a professional setting.  What can I say?  It was quite a list.

We were then asked to write a poem based on this, one that would address the general heading.  The whole exercise, including brainstorming, took about fifteen minutes.

This is what I came up with.  I have no illusions as to it being an anthology-worthy poem, but I rather like it anyway.  It’s not bad for a fifteen-minute project.


I come from a small family in a large city
And grew up in a world that smelled like gravy
    Which is red and goes on ravioli
    No matter what people say.
There were places to go
    Around my neighborhood on my bike
    And in my mind through books and photographs
    And the little globe that my grandmother would spin.
There were fires to put out
    Metaphorical ones backstage
    And real ones I went to on the back of a truck,
And there were things we said to each other that only we understood
    Which is probably for the best.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Old Ball Game

Sometimes things just spiral out of control.

I’m between semesters now, which means I don’t have the pell-mell rush on Thursdays that I had all last year.  And that means that, should I choose to do so, I could post a Throwback Thursday picture.  Since today is my last Thursday before everything starts up again, I decided I’d throw one up on my Facebook page and then, as is my habit, write a post about it here that delved into some of the backstory.  The whole point of photographs is to preserve stories, after all.  If you don’t tell the stories attached to the photos, the photos become meaningless.  I had to catalogue too many of those when I ran the historical society a few years ago.  Stories are important.  They need to be told.

So I found this picture buried in the family archives.  I’d scanned it a couple of summers ago as part of that earlier project, and it seemed like a good one to share.

The short version is that this is the Cresmour A. C. base ball nine, a neighborhood sandlot team that played in South Philadelphia in the late 1920s or early 1930s, when "baseball" was still often written as two distinct words.  I’m pretty sure my grandfather is the guy standing at the far right.  That’s about all the information I thought I had on it.

Except that my grandfather also kept a small scrapbook where he pasted newspaper clippings from his baseball days, one that I could mine for cross-references.  It turns out that he played on a bunch of these neighborhood teams – Penrose, Mayo, Passyunk Square, Kimball, and so on – mostly as a shortstop, but occasionally as a pitcher and once in a while as a second-baseman.  Most of the guys on those teams played more than one position, and I imagine that it largely depended on who showed up that afternoon.

Cresmour was filled with Italian-Americans – Beltrante, Coliezzi, Cosenza, DeCarlo, Delia, Felizzi, Frangelli, Lampone, Menna, Nunzi, Oteri, Tomasco, Volpe, and so on – as befit the neighborhood where they played, though they did have a pitcher named Lopez and at one point there was a pinch-hitter named Daly who I am pretty sure was not Delia though sportswriters from that era were not the most careful people when it came to that sort of thing.  Their home field was at either 20th or 26th and Patterson (the sportswriters weren’t all that careful about antecedents either).  And once in a while my grandfather would be singled out in the two or three sentence clippings, mostly for his hitting.

Someday I will look up what, precisely, was a “bingle” in this context – there was a game where it was deemed noteworthy that he hit three of them, and the term crops up attached to other hitters as well – but my guess is that it is not a home run.  My grandfather had the size and build of a contact hitter, and there is a reason Babe Ruth did not play shortstop.

None of the clippings have any information on them beyond the games themselves – final scores, personnel, box scores, occasionally a sentence or two if anything interesting happened at the game – and once in a while an invitation to other clubs to write to the manager (address provided) to get on their schedule.  There are no dates and no indication of what newspaper they’re clipped out of, though given the duplication of clippings on certain games it is clear that there are several newspapers represented.

This was back when there were several newspapers in a city, kiddies.  That used to happen before the media corporations ate the competition and the internet ate the media corporations, and it was a sign that people actually wanted to know what was happening in their world rather than simply have their prejudices confirmed in such a way as to polish up the nice shiny ideological bubble in which they live.  It was a different era, in other words. 

The down side to that kind of active and informed citizenry, however, is that it makes tracking down sources that much harder.

I thought I’d do a bit of googling and come up with some historical context in which to situate that photo and my grandfather’s story, have a nice little story, and be done with it.  But having noodled around the internet for the better part of the day (and being suitably impressed by one sportswriter’s inclusion of the phrase “clinch the gonfalon” in his description of a neighborhood sandlot baseball game), it appears that information on Cresmour A. C. is going to be considerably harder to track down than I thought it would be.

Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Observations on the Theater

Way back in the Mesozoic, when I was an undergraduate, I took a psych class called, “The Psychology of Drama.”

It was an experimental class, one that had never been offered before on that campus.  The class was taught as a seminar and eventually it got picked up as a regular offering, though as a lecture class instead.  Sometimes I wonder how much we had to do with that.  We wore the poor professor down.

It was taught by the only faculty member on campus who had any involvement in the theater there, a faculty member whom you will notice was a psychology professor and not a theater professor.  We didn’t even have a Theater Department.  I think you could, technically, major in theater, but it was a text-based concentration within the English Department and not anything that had anything to do with actual staged productions.  We were entirely student-run when it came to theater.  There were eight or ten major student drama groups, depending on how you counted and when, as well as a whole bunch of one-off productions every year, and I was one of the dozen or so students who did lighting, moving from show to show and feeding off cast parties like locusts.  Once every other year, this professor would direct a play. 

His plays were considered very desirable productions to work on among us theater types, but I never did get a chance to do so.  The first time he directed a play when I was a student was before I really got involved in theater on campus, and the second time he got sick and canceled it.  So the class was my only shot at working with him on something theater-related, and since I was also a psych major it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would sign up for it the moment it hit the catalogue.

The professor was a kind man who had lived in this country for decades but still spoke with a pronounced German accent, as perhaps all psychologists ought to do.  My clearest memory of him happened at the end of the semester, when I had run into a conflict that forced me to choose between the group project assigned for that class and a commitment I had made to a friend to run the lighting board for a production of Hair.  Doing both was not possible.  I hemmed and hawed about this for a few days, once that realization set in, and then I finally just called him at home and explained the situation.  There was a pause when I finished.  “Vell,” came a soft voice after a few moments, “you do vot you tink iss right.”  “Thank you,” I said, and then I hung up the phone, bailed out on my group project, ran the lighting board for the show, spent the 72 hours immediately after the cast party frantically working on the final paper for that class, and got the only A+ for a final grade that I ever received as an undergraduate.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

The class itself was a bit of a wash, though.  I learned a great deal, but I was outnumbered.  There were maybe fifteen people in that class, and they were almost all – including the professor – focused entirely on the front-of-house side rather than the backstage side where I and one other student in the class lived.  It became, in other words, a class that really should have been entitled, “The Psychology of Acting and Directing,” which to my mind was very much not the same thing as “The Psychology of Drama.”  This technician felt there was a bit more to be explored than that.

As the meme I saw go by on Facebook recently put it so succinctly, actors without technicians are naked people emoting on a dark, empty stage, while technicians without actors are at the bar.  Where was the psychology of the backstage stuff?

And more importantly, where was the audience in all that?  To me, the audience is the most psychologically interesting part of the theater, and the class addressed them only glancingly.  In particular, we never explored what I felt was the single most important psychological question about the theater:

Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

This to me is the central riddle of the theater.  We take it for granted that people will be interested in theater – or movies, or television, since it’s all drama when you look at it this way – and we focus on how to make them more interested, with scripts and blocking and sound and lighting and so on, but we forget to ask why those people are there at all.  We should ask, though, because without the audience there is precious little point to theater.   

I never did get an answer to that question, by the way.  I still don’t know.

So while the class spent the semester arguing over the merits of this or that acting technique, in self-defense I spent a great deal of time writing up my own observations on the theater – things I had learned over the years.  I had been dragooned into backstage work in high school and many of my favorite times had been spent there.  I’d worked for most of the various drama groups on campus as an undergraduate, and would go on to work backstage for community theaters, other university theaters, and, briefly, professionally.  Even back then I’d seen a few things that seemed worth writing down.

Not that anyone could read them, of course.  My handwriting wasn’t any better then than it is now, and I do remember at one point having to tell my roommate, “No, that doesn’t say ‘weasels.’  It says ‘headsets.’”  Although weasels are inherently funnier than headsets, so perhaps I should have gone there instead.  It is difficult but not, after all, impossible to imagine scenarios where weasels would become relevant in a theatrical setting.

Eventually I ended up with a list entitled “101 Observations on the Theater,” each observation complete with commentary and typed into legibility.  Hey – it got me through the class.

Tabitha has now been pulled into the orbit of her high school’s theater groups, which – among other things – made me drag out that old list recently.  Many of the things that had struck undergraduate me as either funny or profound seemed to middle-aged me to be a bit cringe-worthy, frankly.  There are still a few things on it that I thought were worth passing along, though.  Plus I’ve had a few experiences since then that perhaps deserved a place on a new and revised list.

So I went back and picked out the ones that I felt were worth preserving, polished up a few others that had potential once the cringing stopped, and added a few more to reflect current knowledge.  It’s a shorter list now, but perhaps a better one.


1. Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

2. The audience doesn’t catch most of the good stuff.  This is why the tech crew seems to be laughing in all the wrong places.

3. You either know your audience or you don’t get to have one.

4. There’s deep, and there’s digging a hole.

5. Never complicate the simple more than the simple will bear.  Never simplify the complicated more than the complicated will allow.  This is, in essence, a judgment call.

6. You never know what an actor will do until you get them in front of an audience.  Some blossom, some wilt, but none are quite the same as they were in rehearsal.

7. There is a world of difference between reading a script and acting.

8. The ability to ad-lib through long stretches of what isn’t quite supposed to be happening is a prized skill on both sides of the stage.

9. Technicians mostly talk about past shows.  Actors mostly talk about this one.

10. Sometimes the only reason a show gets produced is because the technical crew thinks it would be an interesting challenge.

11. Good tech work, like a good butler, is invisible.  If the audience spends its time looking at the tech, something is wrong.

12. Mistakes happen in bunches.

13. Five competent people is all you need, which is good because a lot of times it’s all you’re likely to get.

14. Nobody’s organizational system is like anyone else’s organizational system, though most people have at least one.

15.  Things are where they are because that’s where they get put.  Don’t ask for more explanation and please put things back there when you are done so the next person can find them.

16. When in doubt:
    a. On scenery – paint it black and nobody will notice.
    b. On sets – nail it down and tell scenery to paint it black.
    c. On lighting – fuzz it, gel it warm, and add it to the wash.

17. If you look like you know what you’re doing, nobody will question you.

18. When all is said and done, final creative control rests with whoever does the last bit of work.  In lighting, this is known as “board-op’s prerogative.”

19. It’s a good musical when the audience leaves humming.  It’s a great musical when the tech crew dances.

20. Light repels actors.

21. If there’s no glare in your eyes, there’s no light on your face.

22. Actors regard blocking as a suggestion.  Lighting designers regard blocking as a map of where the light needs to go.  Often these perspectives can be squared, but not always.

23. Audiences occasionally blink in unison.  This usually bothers the director much more than the lighting crew.

24. Gobos get hot more quickly than you think they will.

25. Anything that runs through the lighting board belongs to the lighting crew.

26. Most problems in lighting can be resolved by asking three simple questions: a) Is there a lamp in it?  b) Is it plugged in? and c) Is it turned on?  Save the fretting for the real problems.

27.  The mere fact that the lighting board can handle a given wattage doesn’t necessarily mean that the theater’s electrical system can actually provide that much wattage.

28. Dancers are only graceful onstage.  No matter how often you explain to them that the lighting instruments on the offstage booms are a) heavy, b) sharp, and c) hot, you will still have to refocus them after every show.

29. There are times when the lighting crew, like the Secret Service, must be prepared to take the bullet for the good of the larger cause.  Audiences are much happier thinking that the lighting went wrong than they would be if they knew that the actors just skipped four pages of the script.

30. By the time the show closes, all the lighting designer can see are dark spots.

31. The best part of headsets is the running commentary.

32. There is a way that lighting cables want to be coiled.  It is not the way you want the lighting cables to be coiled.

33. People who screw around with equipment during shows get pitched off the catwalk.

34. Beware of set designers with bandages.

35. If you screw up the set, screw up symmetrically.

36. In a pinch, a hammer is as good as any other tool.

37. There is no reason to use building-code-quality construction for a set that is only a backdrop, especially if it has to be moved during the show.

38. The ideal running crew member can see in the dark, walk without a sound, lift up the set with one hand and carry china service for twelve with the other without chipping a cup.

39.  Know where the safe spots are on stage.  Lighting designers are often very optimistic people when it comes to how many instruments the grid can actually support, so if you hear anything while you’re onstage dive first and ask questions later.

40. If you’re caught onstage while moving pieces of the set, have the grace to bow when you’re done.  The audience appreciates a good sport.

41. Have sympathy for the costumer – it’s the last vestige of the sweatshop economy.

42. For those who think that theatrics are confined to the stage, there is always load-in.

43. Load-in is where you discover that what you want is not what you have, what you have is not what you need, what you need is not what you can deal with, and what you can deal with is not what you want.

44. It takes a lot less time to tear down a show than it does to put one up.

45. The show isn’t over until strike is over.

46. All diets and nutritional care are suspended during production week.

47. Opening night is usually the final dress rehearsal.  As long as it’s not the first dress rehearsal you’ll probably be fine.

48. A show has never opened that didn’t have wet paint on it somewhere.

49. A sense of humor will get you through just about anything.

50. Never underestimate the ability of a cast and crew to change just about everything on a moment’s notice.

51. Stopping the show to ask if there is a doctor in the house is not as fulfilling as the movies make it sound.

52. When a show is good enough, people will give you time, effort, results, and diseases beyond your wildest imaginings.

53. The greatest moment in theater is when the house lights fade to black to begin the show, for then all things are possible and magic still exists.

54. Periodically, in the midst of all the confusion, everything clicks and you just have to sit back and watch.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Poetry Spam

I have been spammed with poetry.  It's like a poetry slam, but only one letter off.  There are fewer beatniks, but more potential fraud. 

I’ve had the same email address since at least 1997 (possibly longer, but that’s the oldest saved message I could find), which means that it’s out there on the web.  All of the various harvesters have harvested it.  All of the spambots have it archived.  It’s there.

This has never been a problem for me, as I find spam to be more amusing than irritating.  There was a long period back in the early part of this century where spammers had a program that would assign random names to their addresses so it would look like the emails had come from an actual person instead of a machine, though who would name their child “Snowball Q. Dromedary” I don’t know.  Somewhere I have a list of about five hundred of those names, because they were funny and I had the time to do it back then.

I do have a spam filter on my email, as otherwise it would simply be unmanageable.  And the email server has a spam filter of its own that alerts me to the presence of myriad diverted messages every so often and invites me to examine them.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.  They go away on their own if I ignore them.  Sometimes that filter misses them and they get sent to me, and if they make it past my spam filter then they show up in my inbox.  When that happens I mostly just delete them.

They’re not hard to identify, really.  Anything in Chinese or Russian is a big tip-off, for example, as are most messages with subject lines IN ALL CAPS.  And when I open one, I pretty much know what to expect.  There will be an offer of some kind – either a link to click or a product to explore.  There will be graphics, since in order for them to work the message has to send a ping back to the original server to get the graphic to load, which tells the spammer that someone opened their message.  There will be outlandish claims and offers too good to be true.  Apparently that Nigerian businessman has found someone to take care of his millions, as he hasn’t written in a while.  I kind of miss him.

All this is why the poem was so odd.

It came from a clearly made-up address.  The first part was simply the first part of my own email address (a common tactic), and the second part, after the @, was no domain I’d ever heard of.  But the subject line promised me a poem and I thought, “Why not – it’s been a long day.”

There were no offers inside.  No links.  No websites. 

There were no graphics to alert the spammer that I’d opened the message.

Still no word from my Nigerian contact.

All there was inside was the entire text of Gray’s Elegy, one of the more well-known poems of the Romantic period and one I hadn’t run across since I left college.  It’s kind of nice.

I’m not sure what purpose was served by this.

There may have been a new mechanism I don’t know about that has alerted the spammer to the fact that I’ve read this.  I may well be inundated with new spam, which would change my email in-box not one iota really.

Or maybe it was just a poem floating about the ether and landing on me.

I think I’ll go with that, on a grey winter day.  It seems to fit.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

News and Updates

1. It’s cold here in Baja Canada.  After a December that felt like May and a first week of January that felt like October, it is clearly winter now, with highs in the single-digits Fahrenheit and sub-zero lows.  I’ve got my teakettle and my warm clothes, however, so I’m prepared.

2. It’s hard on the chickens, though.  Poor ridiculous things.  We go out there every day to check in on them and retrieve the eggs (sometimes too late – one froze through on us the other day and cracked open).  They’ve got heated water bowls and a pen full of things to bunker down into, though, so they should be fine.

3. Somewhere back there I hit the magic half-century mark.  We didn’t do much about it, which was what I wanted.  On the actual day the four of us went out for what has become my traditional birthday dinner at the local barbecue restaurant.  And when we were in Philadelphia we stayed in for the even older traditional birthday dinner of ravioli with my family, a routine that stretches back to when I was in high school or possibly even before.  There was also a flourless chocolate cake, and we included Tabitha in the celebrations since she had a birthday in there too.  Food, family, and good times.  That’s what birthdays are to me now.  I like it that way.

4. When my dad turned fifty, I was a college graduate.  My oldest is in 10th grade.  For some reason, this fact sticks with me.

5. Last night was the band concert down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, and I got to see Lauren do her percussion thing.  She did a very nice job of it, and even had what amounted to a couple of measure-long solos where you could hear only her playing.  Well done, Lauren – I’m proud of you.

6. Lauren’s concert meant that I missed the final State of the Union address from President Barack “Zero Fucks Left To Give” Obama.  I understand it was good, as I would expect from him – he’s one of the three post-WWII presidents whose oratorical skills transcend their politics (along with Kennedy and Reagan), and he has a solid record of achievement in the face of mindlessly rigid partisan opposition to back up his words.  He’s been one of the better ones, really.

7. If you think of it as financial planning, then the lottery is clearly a tax on people who are bad at math.  If you think of it as entertainment, however, then it’s just an expense that you budget for, much like going to a movie.  Every once in a while I throw in my couple of bucks and buy myself two or three days of conversation about what I’d do with all that money – I could do it for free, as a friend of mine pointed out, but having at least a random chance of winning gives those conversations an edge.  And at this stage of my life, I can afford a couple of bucks for that. 

8. I’m not really sure I want to win $1.5 billion, though.  That kind of money is a full-time job and then some, and a fairly impermeable barrier to most kinds of normal life.  So if by some fluke I do end up winning, won’t I be in for some strange times?

9. I should clear out the remains of last semester before this semester really gets going.  Right now my office is stuffed to the gills with paper and there are things I’d like to locate that are currently somewhere in the archeological record.  But that is a thankless task that benefits nobody but myself, which means that putting it off is surprisingly easy.

10. It’s hard to get things done when quite literally everyone responsible for getting those things done is no longer employed at the place where things need to get done.  #thanksgovwalker 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christmas Once More

The living room smells vaguely like a bordello right now, or at least what I would hope a bordello would smell like – a sickly sweet and intensely floral kind of scent meant to cover up all kinds of sins, both figurative and literal.  I’ve never actually been in a bordello, though, so I don’t really know what they smell like.  I’m going with floral.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

This is the direct result of the fact that we had our last Christmas celebration of the season yesterday, up at Kim’s parents’ house.

Follow me, here.

Christmas for us is a rather extended celebration stretching over several weeks, for which we make no apologies whatsoever.  You’re supposed to get together with friends and family, to the extent that you can or wish to, and we both can and wish to, so that’s what we do, calendar be damned.  And while the celebrations on my side of the family are Italian-inflected, the ones on Kim’s side have a definite Ukrainian feeling.

It’s just a different kind of carbs, really.

It was a busy day and a long one, one that started with the girls at a 4H meeting at 8:30am (on a Saturday!) and continued on through curling practice while Kim and I got everything packed and ready to go.  There were cookies and gifts and all sorts of things, and it is a good thing that we have a minivan now.  Minivans are basically suitcases with engines, and three cheers for that, I say.

We made it up to Grandma and Grandpa’s in mid-afternoon and eventually a large portion of the clan gathered as well.

There were immense quantities of really good food.  I personally ate enough dinner that I really wasn’t hungry again until this afternoon and then only out of habit.  This meant that I kind of missed out on the various desserts on offering, including several that we brought ourselves (Swedish Chocolate Balls!), but I’m probably better off for it.

There were also gifts.  Those went well.

The gifts go to the kids these days, though.  The adults play the Dice Game, where you bring two wrapped gifts to the table (one goofy, one not so), divide them into six piles, and roll a die until everyone ends up with two things in front of them.  At that point we set a timer and get two pairs of dice, and if you roll doubles you can swap for something else.

So you never know what you’ll end up with.

I ended up with a wax melter.  I’m not really sure what to call it besides that.  It probably has a cute little name like “Mood Mellower” or “Relaxomatic,” but I refuse to get up to check right now so “wax melter” is what you get.  It’s basically a little electric heater inside of a decorative ceramic cylinder, with a small bowl at the top.  It comes with an assortment of little cubes of scented wax (“Holiday Baking,” “Mountain Meadow,”  “Bordello,” and so on), and the idea is that you put one of the cubes in the bowl and as it melts it makes the whole place aromatic.  Lauren insisted that I not trade that one away and – surprisingly – nobody took it from me.  So there it sits, transforming our living room into something that should probably have a lot more red velvet trimmings than it does.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Books Read in 2015, Part 3

And last but not least…


Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)

While it is true that every life is interesting, in its way, it is also true that Tom Robbins has led a more interesting life than most.  I first discovered him with Skinny Legs and All, and have since read almost everything he’s ever written.  Few authors have as much fun with the English language as he does, and this carries over now and then in this book – which, however much he disclaims the label, is indeed a memoir of sorts.  It is a collection of stories from his life, chronologically arranged if rather incomplete in that he leaves out what he chooses to leave out and makes no apologies for it.  But what is there is worth the price of admission.  The early chapters covering the years before he published his first book were the most interesting to me.  He was born in the Depression-era South and via stops at various educational institutions and the US Army slowly turned into one of the embodiments of the psychedelic Sixties.  He remains rather proud of his drug use, going so far as to criticize casual or recreational users for whom it is not the sacrament it appears to be to him, for example.  The storytelling slows as he goes over events after his career as an author got rolling, and he spends a fair amount of time discussing and defending his books – not something anyone likely to read this really requires – but his writing and general sense of the ridiculous carry the book forward anyway.

The Waking Engine (David Edison)

This is a delirium of a book, with echoes of Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, Sean Williams’ The Crooked Letter, and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and I’ve long had a fondness for such books even if they do invade my subconscious and make it harder to sleep at night.  Cooper was once a New Yorker, but that was before he died.  Now he finds himself in the City Unspoken, a mad world ruled by a madder nobility and a world that is falling apart.  Death is not the end, it turns out.  When you die, you simply move to the next stage in “the dance of lives” and wake up somewhere else in the multiverse, essentially still you.  True Death is a reward reserved for the deserving few and the City Unspoken is one of the only places it can be obtained.  Except that something has gone wrong, and it falls to Cooper, Sesstri, Asher, Purity Kloo, and Nixon (yes, that one, only now in the body of a boy) to figure out how to fix it.  Opposing them are the remnants of the City’s nobility, locked in the enormous Dome in the center of the City, and the Marchionesse of one of the remaining districts, a fey whose mother is both more and less than she was and is perhaps the biggest threat of all.  It’s a phantasmagorical and challenging story – I had to stop around the hundredth page and start over because I had lost track of things – but worth the effort.

The Rhesus Chart (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard and the Laundry are back in rare form in the fifth installment of The Laundry Files (and yes, I still think Stross missed out by not calling this The Laundry Cycle).  For those new to the series, the Laundry is the code name for the branch of British intelligence tasked with saving the realm – and by extension all of humanity – from the Lovecraftian horrors on the other side of reality.  As such the books are a mixture of supernatural thriller, spy novel, and office comedy – a mixture that Stross handles deftly and one that is often laugh-out-loud funny.  In this installment, Bob and his wife – Mo, wielder of the world’s deadliest violin – are having marital troubles almost entirely based on their shared line of work, and Stross uses this to get Mo out of the picture for most of the novel.  In her place comes a nest of vampires (although vampires aren’t REAL, right? – this, by the way, is a running theme), one of which happens to be Bob’s psycho ex-girlfriend and a former Laundry employee herself.  As with most of these novels, things get grim, the action ramps up to a shocking end, and the wit and graceful writing keep you entertained throughout.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Patrick Rothfuss)

One of the intriguing minor characters in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles series is Auri, the “strange, sweet, shattered girl” who lives in the Underthing beneath the city and who forms a friendship of sorts with Kvothe.  This novella is a meditation more than a story, a week in the life of someone broken by the forces of the world, someone aware that she is not quite right but who has built a life of her own anyway in the dark spaces below.  Auri lives in a world where politeness and forgiveness are paramount virtues, where everything has desires and needs – including blankets and gears – and where the proper placement of things is crucial to the day.  It’s the week before he arrives (Kvothe, presumably – the main character of the Kingkiller Chronicles – though this is nowhere specified so it could be someone else) and each day Auri wakes up to find out what kind of day it is and what she can do during that day to prepare for his arrival.  She explores her domain.  She finds treasures great and small.  She reflects on the nature of the world and her place in it.  It is a quiet story in which very little happens but one that pulls you gently into Auri’s world and makes you feel for the broken but resilient young woman in the center of it. 

The Shepherd’s Crown (Terry Pratchett)

There is a certain amount of bittersweet feeling that comes with finishing the last book Terry Pratchett wrote before he died.  There are no more Discworld books to follow, not really.  Oh, there has already been a successor named, and perhaps his daughter will write books worthy of the series, but they will not be Terry Pratchett books.  I am glad that his last work was a Tiffany Aching book, as she has slowly become one of my favorite characters – as I suspect she became for him as well.  Tiffany is a bit older than she was in I Shall Wear Midnight, though the events of that book are still fairly recent.  There are vast changes afoot in the witchcraft world, changes that will thrust her front and center and wear her thin at a time when new challenges are quite literally emerging from the woods.  Those challenges will be dealt with, of course – Pratchett favored happy endings, though not always predictable ones – and new ways of looking at things will manifest.  It’s a thin book, one that probably would have been a hundred pages longer had he lived to complete it on his own terms, but not a bad way to go out.

The End is Nigh (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds). 

This is volume one of an interesting idea.  There are many anthologies of apocalyptic short stories out there, but this one focuses on stories that describe the lead-up to whatever it is that will destroy the world or human society or both.  It’s a wide-open field, and the contributors have everything from asteroids to disease to mold doing the dirty work.  Because the focus is so narrow and because the quality of the authors writing the stories is so high (Paolo Bacigalupi, Tobias Buckell, Hugh Howey, Ken Liu, Seanan McGuire, and so on) there are no real filler stories here – they are all well written, and they are all engaging.  What’s actually more interesting is the fact that this is just volume one.  There are two more volumes to come, the second focusing on the apocalypse itself and the third focusing on the aftermath, and most of the authors have contributed follow-up stories to those as well.  This means we get to track these characters through the whole process.  I’ve read a lot of anthologies in this genre – probably more than is good for my outlook on life – and this was one of the best.  I’m looking forward to the other volumes.

The End is Now (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds.) 

The second volume of the series, and this time focusing on events during the Crises themselves.  Like the first, this is a collection of well-written stories and most of them hit their marks without the kind of odd emptiness that you often get with short stories – stories that are too short for the story they tell, or too long.  These do a nice job of staying contained and focused.  Many of them are continuations of stories from the first volume, though some are new. 

The End Has Come (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds.)

The series concludes, and while there were a number of stories that continued through all three volumes the number of new ones rose in the concluding volume.  The stories are all well written, though, so it works.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful and interesting collection of tales that will bleed into your subconscious and darken your worldview, this is a good place to start.

Trigger Warning (Neil Gaiman)

I’m not sure why I’m reading so many short stories of late, since it’s not really a genre I tend to enjoy much.  It’s hard to get a whole idea out in a handful of pages, and I find I prefer novels that way.  But when you’re as good a writer as Neil Gaiman, that’s not a problem.  Gaimain tries his hand at stories meant to set people on edge, and in many of them he succeeds.  He also gives you some background on the stories themselves, which I always appreciate.  I got this for free this summer – the local AM news station always gives away high quality books at the County Fair, and that is a lovely service to the community, I think.

The World of Post Secret (Frank Warren)

This was another one I got from the AM news station.  Post Secret has long been a website I check regularly.  If you’re not familiar with it, you should be.  Basically, Frank Warren decided one day to see if people would send him anonymous postcards with their secrets on them.  He figured he’d get a couple hundred of them, and that would be that.  Over a million postcards later, he’s been doing it long enough that he’s thinking of retiring.  The secrets here range from the funny to the heartbreaking, and if you can get through this book dry-eyed you are a stronger person than I.  One of the things I like about these books is that Warren has a number of odd quirks, among them refusing to keep an online archive of the ones he has posted on his site, and this goes a way toward addressing that, I suppose.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

Rarely have I ever had so many people tell me I had to read a single book, and even more rarely have I been able to say that their advice was correct.  This is that book.  The basic set-up is stark: astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded on Mars.  His task is to survive for as long as he can and hope that a) NASA figures out he’s still alive and b) someone can come and rescue him before he starves to death or succumbs to any of the other myriad threats that await a lone human literally hundreds of millions of miles from home.  Fortunately, NASA (and its associated agencies, ranging from JPL to the Chinese space agency) is attentive and clever.  And even more fortunately, Watney is both an engaging narrator (the thing about this book that surprised me more than anything else was just how funny it was at times) and a scientific MacGyver.  For more than a year, Watney kludges together what it takes to survive on Mars, paying careful attention to the science of it – Weir spent a lot of time getting the science right, once you forgive him the exaggeration that sets up the story – and the reader follows along willingly.  I can see why they made this into a movie.  The movie was good and worth seeing, but the book was so much better.

Doomed (Chuck Palahniuk)

Middle volumes of trilogies are odd things to read, especially if you don’t figure out until about halfway through that there was a first volume and you don’t discover until the end that there will probably be a third.  But such is Doomed, sequel to Damned and precursor to something forthcoming, no doubt.  Madison Spencer (full name: Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer) is a ghost, and a rather snarky and spoiled one.  She’s also damned to hell, which from her perspective sucks.  This is perhaps why she is not all that unhappy when she gets stranded on Earth one Halloween, doomed to wander for a year until she can get back to hell next Halloween.  What follows is part memoir – how she spent her childhood as the spoiled rich-kid daughter of glamour couple Camille and Antonio Spencer, how she murdered her grandfather, and so on – and part redemption story centered on avoiding the damnation of all of humanity because of a misunderstanding between her and her mother.  There really aren’t any sympathetic characters here, though Palahnuik’s writing is well crafted and pulls you right along.  I’m not sure I want to find the other volumes, however.  Maybe.

Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin)

Tales of the City is as close to a Dickens novel as the United States has ever produced.  It started out as a newspaper serial, much like many of Dickens’ works (which means that every chapter is short and punchy), and it involves a small cast of characters who all know each other in other contexts (I once drew a flow-chart of what characters in Great Expectations knew each other when under what name, and the thing looked like drunken macrame).  Mary Ann moves from Cleveland to San Francisco in the 1970s – post-hippie, pre-AIDS – and eventually finds herself renting an apartment at 28 Barbary Street.  There she meets her neighbors: Michael, Mona, Norman, Brian, and the landlady, Mrs. Madrigal.  She works for Halcyon, an ad agency, which brings in another crew of characters.  They all bounce off each other in a crisply written portrait of a very specific time and place.  Maupin is a talented writer who draws you into what is, essentially, a Dickensian soap opera, and makes you glad you showed up.

More Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin)

The saga of 28 Barabary Street continues, with its crisp writing and its potato-chip chapters (small, salty, and hard to stop at just one), as each of the characters tries to get away.  Mary Ann and Michael go on a cruise to Mexico, where each will find some version of love.  Mona goes to a whorehouse in Nevada and discovers more about her family than she ever thought possible.  Brian and Mrs. Madrigal go on journeys that are more interior but no less distanced.  And the other Dickensian mob of interrelated characters from the first book continue to bounce off each other with abandon.  Maupin is not afraid to do awful things to his characters, but for the most part they grow and thrive and then it’s on to the next volume.  I should track it down sometime.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Patrick Rothfuss)

On audio book this time.  I’m never sure whether to count audio books, but it’s my blog and there you go.  I’m also not much of a fan of audio books – I’d rather read the book myself, thank you – but this was narrated by Rothfuss himself, so it was interesting that way.  Now I know how to pronounce a few things that I didn’t before.

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Geoffrey Parker)

One of the things you learn if you read enough history is that we really don’t have it all that bad these days, all things considered.  This is one of those big, synthetic histories that I so dearly love, covering what is apparently called The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century – a term I had not run into before in more than two decades as a professional historian, but one that seems rather apt.  Basically, the entire known world (with the possible exceptions of Japan and colonial New England) was a basket case of woe for much of the 1600s, and in this thick but well-written volume Parker tries to explain why.  The book is divided into three sections (five, technically, but the last four can easily be grouped into two).  In the first and third sections, Parker sets out his analytic framework, exploring his themes of climate change (this was the era of the Little Ice Age, when growing seasons shrank, droughts and floods became common, and the winters were some of the coldest ever recorded) and warfare, while the second section explores the impact of those things on various portions of the world – Japan, China, India, Turkey, six different regions of Europe, and at least a glancing look at Africa and the Americas.  The middle section can get very long and repetitive, but it provides the data that supports the first and last sections.  Parker’s basic points are three: 1) that things can always get worse, often in a tremendous hurry, and they can take a very long time to get better, 2) that climate change is an implacable foe, one that can only be dealt with but not really averted or defeated, and 3) given half a chance most human societies will do pretty much everything in their power to make things worse, generally by exhausting themselves on wars, bleeding themselves dry with taxes, and/or heightening internal tensions through arrogant and tone-deaf policies.  It is a history of a blighted and deadly century, when a third of the world died prematurely, and the lessons this holds for the 21st century are obvious to those not too blinded by ideology to see them.

Boomsday (Christopher Buckley)

After the rather heavy reading of the last book, it was time for something lighter and more diverting.  This was certainly more diverting – Buckley has Christopher Moore’s gift for light dialogue and there were more than a few laugh-out-loud moments that way – but whether it was lighter would be an interesting discussion.  It is set in a near-future United States that is deeply in debt (foreign governments are refusing to buy US Treasury Bills) and unwilling to do anything about it.  The Baby Boomers are all retiring and forcing younger Americans (U30’s, in Buckley’s odd formulation – short for “under 30’s”) to pay vast chunks of their income in Social Security taxes to support the golf courses and lavish retirement lifestyles to which they have become accustomed.  Into this comes Cassandra Devine, 29-year-old blogger, Army veteran (the chapter describing her service is one of the funniest in the book) and PR professional.  Late one night she throws into the blogosphere the idea of Transitioning – of convincing aging Boomers to commit suicide at age 70 in exchange for tax breaks and benefits for their descendents.  Throw in Senator Randolph K. Jepperson (old-line WASP, ladies’ man, and acquaintance from Cassandra’s Army days), President Peacham (increasingly beleaguered), and Reverand Gideon Payne (leader of the Society for the Preservation of Every Ribonucleic Molecule, and you can work that acronym out on your own) and you have a deftly plotted story of legislation, public relations, campaign strategy, and Congressional hearings that works pretty much right up to the last chapter, when it is fairly clear that Buckley got bored and just wrapped things up so he could move on to another project.  Like the other books of his that I’ve read, though (The White House Mess; Thank You for Smoking), it’s a clever if not especially biting critique of modern American politics that stays entertaining and – for all the grim subject matter – relatively light-hearted throughout, and that’s exactly what I was looking for.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)

On the very first page of this YA novel, a girl named September receives a visit from The Green Wind, who spirits her off to Fairyland on the back of a flying leopard.  There she meets any number of other similarly fantastical characters – notably a wyvern (or wyverary, since he claims to be descended from a library and is named “A Through L”) and a marid named Saturday – has a number of rather episodic adventures, and goes on a quest given to her by the Marquess who has overthrown the Good Queen Mallow and who seems intent on doing the same to September as well.  It’s a charming story – and yes, eventually September will indeed circumnavigate Fairyland in a ship of her own making – and it combines the oddly formal feel of something written around 1900 with a modern playfulness and sense of humor.  The Marquess is, of course, not quite what she seems, and the final confrontation between her and September is more complex than stories of this type traditionally see.  I’m looking forward to the next volume in the series.

[Reader’s Copy of Unpublished Book] 

I volunteered to be a beta reader for a friend’s novel, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.  You’ll just have to wait until it’s published.

Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (David Kynaston)

This is easily the most English thing I have ever read.  It is, on the surface, a phenomenally detailed look at a fairly bleak period of British history, when a victorious United Kingdom faced the post-WWII world and realized that winning the war did not mean an easy or prosperous peace.  It was a time of continued rationing, short housing, air pollution, and poverty.  Yet it was also a time when the foundations of much of the post-war settlement were laid – notably the National Health Service – and the main theme of Kynaston’s series (of which this is only the first volume) is the creation of the New Jerusalem that was the target of most British politics between 1945 and 1979.  Kynaston spreads his focus out to everything from politics (the travails of the Labour government take up a large chunk of this book) and the economy to education, gender roles, home life, and entertainment.  He relies on a wealth of scholarship and – fascinatingly – what must have been a long-running and incredibly comprehensive public opinion survey known as the Mass Observation, which asked ordinary Britons about their lives and struggles.  The chapters focusing on education are particularly harsh, but the portrait that emerges is of a nation grimly – if not especially happily – determined to soldier on.  This is clearly a British book meant for British readers, and nothing is translated for Americans.  Cultural figures are introduced and not explained, since you’re expected to know who they are.  The same goes for sports, locations, pre-decimal monetary amounts, and general attitudes, and honestly reading it fit my experience with reading English road signs as well: if you have to ask, you don’t belong here.  It was a fascinating book, and I look forward to the next two volumes of the series (covering to 1962, I believe) and the rest of it, though with this level of scholarly depth and physical heft for each volume I can only hope that he will actually get all the way to 1979 before either he or I pass on.

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You (Matthew Inman)

If you’ve never read The Oatmeal, you should – it’s one of the funnier online comics around, and this is a collection of some of his cat-themed cartoons.  They’re clever in a biting sort of way, though the extended “cats in the office” sequence got tiresome after a while.  A pleasant way to spend some time.

Iremonger: Heap House (Edward Carey)

This is what you would get if Edward Gorey wrote a YA novel.  Illustrated by the author with grim black and white Victorian-style drawings of sallow and lumpy people, this book tells the story of the Iremongers, who live in a ramshackle conglomerated mansion surrounded by the Heaps, on the outskirts of London in 1875, and it mostly follows two characters – Clod Iremonger, a family member blessed or cursed with the ability to hear objects speak, especially the birth objects that family members are required to carry at all times, and Lucy Pennant, a young orphan taken in as a servant and renamed “Iremonger,” as are all the servants.  To say that this is a bleak and twisted story of sin and magic is to miss the sly glee in which Carey tells his tale and the complex world he sets it in.  This is the first of a projected trilogy and thus ends inconclusively, but it will appeal to a certain kind of intelligent and alienated teen reader, as well as those who used to be one.

Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigalupi)

In a rather grim near future, somewhere on the Gulf Coast of what may or may not still be the United States (the book stays pretty tightly focused on the immediate plot) is a beach full of abandoned ships from the age of oil.  Nailer is a teenaged boy working on the salvage crews that strip those ships of copper and other now scarce materials.  It’s a hard, brutal, and often short life, particularly given Nailer’s abusive and mercurial father.  Everyone dreams of the big Lucky Strike – the find that will allow them to get rich and move out of this environment – but few ever find it.  When Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper with a rich girl still alive inside, they think it might be their Lucky Strike.  Eventually Nailer, the girl (Nita), and Tool (a genetic hybrid, part human and part animal) head off to try to cash in.  It’s a hard but rewarding story of friendship and survival in a harsh world, and I can see why it won so many awards.

Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang (Jonathan Bernstein)

This is exactly what it says it is – a short annotated dictionary of British slang words and phrases, some of which are simply translated into the American and some of which are also given the kind of sarcastic definitions that have been part of British dictionary-making since Samuel Johnson.  They’re arranged generally by subject matter, so if you’re looking for a specific term you’d be best served by starting at the index.  I found that many of them I already knew (a lifetime of British books and television comes in handy sometimes), some better than the author, which was at times disconcerting as he is a genuine British Person.  Some of the terms are also Americanisms, at least in my family – my grandmother, whose ancestors had lived in the Philadelphia area since at least 1835, often came out with a few of them, though she had a gift for that sort of thing so perhaps that’s not a fair comparison.  In any event, it was a short, fun book that was exactly the kind of light entertainment I was looking for at the time.

Total books: 62
Total pages: 22,369
Pages per day: 61.3

Happy Reading!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Books Read in 2015, Part 2

More books!  Always more books!


From the Top: Brief Transmissions from Tent Show Radio (Michael Perry)

Michael Perry has made a career writing about small town Wisconsin in memorably funny ways – if you haven’t read his stories about being a First Responder in Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, you should.  These are smaller pieces, designed, as the title says, to fit in the interstices of a radio show that is in fact broadcast from a tent.  His job is to introduce the show, close the show, and fill the six-minute interval between the first act and the second.  They’re funny in a way, but Perry seems to be striving more for a kind of warm, heartfelt, positive humor than anything else, and the stories therefore tend to dissolve into a soft-focus glow.  There are stories about neighbors and farms, family and life lessons, and they are worth reading if somewhat slight and a bit too heartwarming.  But then they’re only two or three pages each, so there you have it.

Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (Jacob M. Held and James B. South, eds.)

There is a small cottage industry in the more abstract corners of academia that is devoted to making those corners a bit more accessible to nonspecialists by tying them into things that normal people understand and like.  Whether Discworld aficionados are normal by any definition is an open question, I suppose, but we’re friendly and we buy books so this tie-in was perhaps natural.  And it is even more natural given the strong ethical framework that pervades most of Pratchett’s work.  Pratchett, who died earlier this year, was a strong believer in right and wrong.  “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” is perhaps his most succinct statement of beliefs, but you can’t read his books without drawing lessons everywhere.  This book collects thirteen essays from academic philosophers exploring philosophical issues through the lens of Pratchett’s work – mostly Discworld, though with forays into other works (notably Carpet People and the Johnny Maxwell series).  They are divided into four categories – 1) Self-Perception, Narrative, and Identity, 2) Social and Political Philosophy, 3) Ethics and the Good Life, and 4) Logic and Metaphysics.  The middle two sections are by far the strongest – the first section collects what seem to be graduate-student level musings while the last section reminds you of why nobody reads philosophers.  The middle sections, however, make good use of Pratchett to explore accessible and entertaining ideas.  Kevin Guilfoy’s “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on the Discworld,” Jennifer Jill Fellows’ “Categorically Not Cackling: The Will, Moral Fictions, and Witchcraft,” and Erica Neely’s “The Care of the Reaper Man: Death, the Auditors, and the Importance of Individuality” were the best essays as far as I was concerned.  What struck me, though, is that with nearly four dozen Discworld novels and perhaps two dozen other Pratchett novels to work from – easily five million published words – more than half of the essays made use of a single quote, part of an argument between Death (who speaks in capitals) and his granddaughter Susan:

So we can believe the big ones? 
They’re not the same at all! 
Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point – 

It’s a telling quote, and fairly typical of Pratchett’s thinking, but the fact that so many of these authors landed on it to springboard off into their own points is a bit odd when you think of it. 

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer (Chuck Thompson)

I’m not sure why I read so many books about traveling these days, being the sort who is quite happy to stay at home, but there you have it.  Thompson has been a travel writer for decades now, and he is tired of the militantly optimistic, hopelessly cliched, relentlessly upselling writing that is the bread and butter of the travel industry.  Everything, he notes, is a combination of old and new, so why does this have to appear in every travel article?  This is a collection of memories about his travels, about how he got into traveling in the first place, about his experience editing a travel magazine, and about his general impressions of various cultures ranging from American to Latin American to Southeast Asian and Eastern European.  There are some funny bits in here, and some good advice for people who like to travel but would like to see more than just the package tours that are easy.  Thompson comes across as an entertaining man, though whether you’d like to spend time with him on a trip remains an open question.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman)

Have you ever wondered what the afterlife might be like?  Eagleman has.  And in this slim but thought-provoking book he collects forty different versions of what we might expect after we die.  They’re not tales in any meaningful sense – they don’t really have main characters (other than often employing a generic second-person “you”) and they’re not connected.  But his sense of the range of possibilities is fascinating.  In one afterlife you sit in a pleasantly lit facility until the last person who remembers your name dies.  For most people this is a generation or two, and then you go somewhere else – nobody knows where.  Some people are stuck there until the historians forget.  In another, you relive all of the experiences of your life, except grouped by like kinds.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex.  You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes.  For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.”  In another, you discover that God is a fan of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Throughout it all there is the pervasive sense that neither humanity nor a benevolent God really understand each other very well, and from that gap comes inadvertent consequences.  It’s a book that stays with you.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure – The “Good Parts” Version  (William Goldman)

Once more, with Lauren.  Lauren has decided that she is too old to read with Dad anymore, which I can respect even though it makes me sad.  This was a good book to go out on, though.

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Kevin M. Kruse)

Where do Americans get the historically inaccurate idea that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation”?  It certainly isn’t from the Founding Fathers, who were very clear on the fact that this was not so.  They even incorporated that view into federal law in the 1790s, the relevant phrase being, “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion.”  And in fact much of the criticism of the federal government at the time of its founding – and throughout the 19th century as well – was precisely its lack of religion. Yet millions of Americans believe the whole Christian Nation fallacy anyway.  Kruse’s answer to this paradox is that the idea behind it was created by right-wing corporate lobbyists as a way to fight back against the New Deal.  That those lobbyists eventually found a champion in Eisenhower in the 1950s, but Eisenhower worked to twist their anti-government logic into a more inclusive kind of ceremonial content-free faith in order to bring Americans together.  And that having been firmly established in the minds of many Americans by 1960, the connection between Christianity and the federal government once again got taken over by right-wing anti-government activists in the 1960s – torn away from Eisenhower’s inclusiveness and returned to its polarizing partisan roots.  And this is the Christian Nation nonsense that we live with today.  Kruse does a very good job with the second and third parts of his argument – he follows and explains Eisenhower quite well, and he does a convincing job of showing how it gets turned into partisan issues in the 1960s with things like the Pledge of Allegiance and school prayer.   His last chapter skims forward through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 21st century, bringing the story up to date, and that is useful as well.  What he doesn’t do convincingly is tie it to the New Deal’s opponents.  Given that this is the foundation of his argument, it is surprising just how little that failure detracts from the overall success of his case.

The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack (Mark Leyner)

This is a book about itself, mostly, and a deep journey down the rabbit hole of self-referential redundancy it is.  On the one hand, it is a story about Ike Karton – Jersey City man, beloved of the many and fractious gods, and fated to die violently (a fact telegraphed very nearly from the first page).  On the other hand, it is a story about the epic saga told about Ike Karton by legions of “blind, drug-addled bards” who incorporate everything ever said about Ike and the saga itself – including every mention of this fact throughout the book – into a vast, repetitive, mind-numbing oral tradition.  If you took out all the parts that are repeated verbatim over and over and over again it would probably be half as long, and if you also took out all the bits that the author likely saw as playful or post-modern or similarly arch but which mostly serve to remind the reader why that sort of thing is largely confined to academia where it can do no harm to the rest of the world it would be half as long again, and if you did that you’d probably have a very interesting and enjoyable short story.  As it is, it was a lot of wading for not much story, but that was probably the author’s intent.  You get the feeling he was mostly aiming for the language of a story about a story and that the story itself was not really important to him.  It was an interesting experience, in a liberal arts sort of way – the way three-headed frogs are, well, interesting – but not one I’ll likely repeat with any of his other books.

Wool (Hugh Howey)

After the experimental and rather tiresome prose of the previous book, it was nice to get into an old-fashioned story, told in straightforward narrative with characters, plot, and setting.  And this is really old-fashioned – a tale straight out of the depths of the Cold War, and thus right up my alley.  It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in a huge silo that stretches some 140 stories below the ground.  The outside air is toxic, and for generations the people inside the silo have believed that they are the only humans alive.  They live in a highly stratified and regulated society, each person with a job and a place, and while they have democratic elections there are powers beyond them that do the actual controlling of things.  The biggest taboo in this society is to want to go Outside, and the punishment for that is to get your wish – to be sent outside to clean the lenses on the external cameras and then die of the toxins.  Howey takes his time setting up the story – you don’t actually meet the main character until nearly a hundred pages in – but it unfolds with a crispness that keeps you reading along.  And when you discover – as you pretty much knew all along you would – that there are other silos and that some people already knew this – then it gets complicated and even more interesting as the rules get both explained and demolished, with a fair amount of sympathy for both sides.  Howey originally self-published this book and it shows – the author bio, for example, is rife with the insecurities of someone desperately trying to prove he belongs with the big kids – but it is a well-told story deserving of a wide audience, and he should relax.

Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny)

I’m not sure why I picked this up in the middle of the Silo Series, but it was late and I had a file folder full of post-apocalyptic novels from Humble Bundle to sift through and there you have it.  The United States – and likely most of the world – has been largely destroyed by nuclear war and by the freakishly harsh weather that followed it and continues decades later.  In Boston an outbreak of plague threatens to wipe out the fragile outpost of human civilization there.  In the nation of California (always identified as such), they have the cure.  And in between is Damnation Alley, a continent’s worth of weather, radiation, and predators both human and animal.  Into this goes Hell Tanner – former motorcycle gang member, now paroled for just this purpose.  He has an armored truck, a bad attitude, and just enough of a stubborn and humane streak to see the job through.  Written in 1968, the story feels a bit dated, especially in the odd psychedelic interludes toward the end and its general attitude toward women.  What a long, strange trip this is, though.

Shift (Hugh Howey)

The middle volumes of trilogies are pretty much by definition handicapped – they can’t really begin or end anything of much significance, and mostly they are tasked with the unenviable job of taking you from the first book to the last book without doing much of significance or losing your interest along the way.  Howey gets around this problem by making his middle volume a prequel of sorts.  This is where you find out the backstory to Wool, in three widely spaced parts that were originally published separately.  In the first we are back in a recognizably contemporary world.  Set a couple of decades from now, it follows the story of Donald – freshman Congressman and former architect – as he gets sucked into the project of building the Silos.  None of those events are remembered in Wool.  In the second, we follow events that are considered ancient history in Wool but are still dimly remembered.  These events acquire an urgency to them that was missing from their first telling in Wool.  And in the third we get a new perspective on the events of Wool themselves, as the story is told from the point of view of characters who were had either minor roles in Wool or were anonymous offstage presences entirely.  Once in a while, toward the end, you get entire scenes from Wool presented – much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – word for word from the original only this time you are looking out from the other side of the conversation.  It’s a marvelously effective strategy, and by the time you reach the end you have caught up with the events of Wool and are eager for the final volume to bring the story to a close. 

Dust (Hugh Howey)

By the time Dust opens the storylines from Wool and Shift have come together and all that is left is to see where they go.  This is mostly the story of Juliette and Donald, the main characters from the first two books, and what happens to them when they collide with each other and with the world around them – all without ever actually meeting or even having any real understanding of the roles each other plays.  There is a lot of action and a surprising amount of violence, as well as a few short and ultimately wasted forays into larger social issues (the role of the religious group in Silo 18 is notably cartoonish, even for a reader like me who sympathizes with the point Howey was trying to make), but the characters are well drawn and you follow along rooting for them to figure it all out.  The action shifts between the three Silos already introduced in the series, as things once considered literally unthinkable in that universe become commonplace and then outdated.  Most good stories are ultimately about the crumbling of one world and the creation of a new one – either at a personal level or at a societal level – and this series is no exception.  The story ends rather abruptly and inconclusively, but it’s clear that the world of the Silos will not last much longer and Howey sets himself up well for a sequel series in the newly created world if he ever chooses to go down that path.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

With the atomic bomb class that I teach set to run again last summer, I decided it would be a good time to reread the main textbook and get reacquainted with the material.  Despite being nearly 30 years old this is still by far the best single-volume history of the atomic bomb out there.  Rhodes is a good writer with an ear for stories, and he takes the bomb from its origins at the turn of the 20th century, when physicists were still working out the structure of the atom, to its use in 1945.  He has his axes to grind – he spends an awful lot of time parsing Niels Bohr’s personal philosophy and applying it to places it really does not fit, for example, and he clearly loves Leo Szilard – but overall it is a balanced and entertaining read.  This is the “25th Anniversary Edition,” which basically means a new cover and a new forward added before the previous forward – otherwise even the page numbering is the same as the previous edition.  Rhodes’ decision not to update anything in light of recent scholarship – or even technological change, such as the passage that discusses cathode ray tubes as the television screens “of today,” a description that will come as some surprise to a generation raised on flatscreen televisions – is a bit of a puzzle, but the book holds up well regardless.

Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook to Travelling Upon the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway (Terry Pratchett, aided and abetted by the Discworld Emporium)

In the 19th century travelers would often purchase guidebooks like these, written by people who had gone before them and could describe the accommodations, conditions, and other aspects of travel so they would know what to expect.  And in the grand tradition of the Ankh-Morpork City Guide – another spot-on parody of a 19th-century literary genre – there is this.  Purportedly written by one Georgina Bradshaw, it is exactly what it says it is.  It lists entertainments, hotels, restaurants, and festivals for every town along the routes taken by the AM&SPHR, as well as travel tips and unsolicited opinions and advice.  I’m not sure how much Pratchett actually had to do with this book – my guess is not much – but it’s a pleasant diversion.

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)

In the near future, calorie companies will occupy the same economic and political niche as oil companies do today, according to this grim but remarkably textured novel.  When the oil ran out, the Contraction began.  Now the world has begun a second Expansion, one powered by muscle and driven by genetic manipulation.  Foodstuffs are under siege – few of the varieties from the Expansion era have survived the engineered plagues, and fewer still of the governments have survived with them.  Anderson Lake represents AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines, which seems to have become the capital of a vast empire that is left mostly offstage.  He works in an expanded and vastly different Thailand, ostensibly running a factory that makes kink-springs (the new source of portable energy) but in reality seeking new foods or seeds for AgriGen to use.  This will entangle him in the world of Thai politics and law enforcement.  It will also entangle him with Emiko, a New Human created in Japan and entirely unsuited for the Thai climate.  It will get him caught up with Hock Sen, an old Chinese refugee from Malaysia.  The intrigue swirls and the grit and poverty of the new Thailand become as much a character as any named person here.  It’s a difficult book to follow, as the initial setup – Anderson’s fascination with a new kind of fruit that he finds on a Thai market stall and what this might mean to his calorie company – gets lost in the shuffle about halfway through and the plot switches over to larger issues, but as a created world it is fascinating.

The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (Cynthia C. Kelly, ed.)

This is a collection of snippets from a staggeringly wide variety of people who all had one thing in common – they were involved, in some way, with the creation of the atomic bomb during WWII.  Some of these came from things I’d already read and some were new to me, but most were on point and interesting.  The book is divided into sections covering various aspects of the project – the odd partnership between General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer gets a section, for example – and there is plenty here to think about. 

Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place (Teri Hein)

The Hanford facility of the Manhattan project has been called the most polluted place in the Western world by people who ought to know.  Its mission, during WWII, was to create the plutonium that powered the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb, a tricky process given that plutonium does not occur in nature and once created has to be separated out from a witch’s brew of lethally radioactive waste products that are created alongside of it.  Those waste products have to be stored somewhere, and that somewhere was not all that far from the wheat farm on which Teri Hein grew up.  Hein’s book is mostly a memoir of a place.  She delves into the 19th-century history of the eastern Washington State Palouse, with its Indian wars and its Appaloosa horses.  She lovingly and breezily recreates her family life growing up in the 1950s and 1960s there, naming names and passing along the kind of casually stinging judgments that friends and family always have for each other but rarely air in public.  And she details the health woes of the people around her, a disproportionate number of whom developed cancers of varying kinds.  She does not deal with them very much, the title of the book notwithstanding, and she says up front that she cannot prove that their health problems are related to Hanford though she believes they are.  Mostly it’s a chatty little memoir of growing up in post-war rural America, barely framed by the larger issue of the title.

Daybreak (Brian Ralph)

This was another of the graphic novels that I downloaded from Humble Bundle’s post-apocalyptic offering, and it was a quick read.  It’s the story of a boy in a shattered urban landscape filled with zombies of some kind – shambling, hostile, mostly off-screen evils who can transmit their condition through bites or scratches.  The boy has one hand, a source of innumerable puns, and it is a story of his inevitable destruction.  It’s told in an odd sort of second-person style with the POV being the reader, who is constantly addressed as if part of the story.  It’s a grim story but a well-written one, and the wood-cut style sienna drawings carry the action pretty well. 

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (Michael Booth)

The Scandinavian countries – broadly defined to include not only Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but also Iceland and Finland – hold a special place in the imagination of Europeans and Americans.  On the plus side, they are usually seen as restrained, prosperous, egalitarian places full of decent people with quality healthcare.  On the downside, they are seen as having incredibly high taxes, boring food, and poor social skills.  Above all, they are seen as nearly interchangeable.  As always with stereotypes there is a grain of truth in all of this, but the larger truths are much more involved.  Michael Booth is an English journalist married to a Danish woman.  He has lived in Denmark for quite some time, and this is his effort to understand both the similarities and differences between the Nordic countries and the larger truths behind the stereotypes.  And mostly he succeeds.  He has clearly spent a fair amount of time in these countries and spoken with a great many people, and he is an entertaining writer with an eye for a good story.  He starts with a fairly detailed analysis of Denmark – the longest section of the book – and then moves by country through the others.  He very much loves the Finns.  The Swedes seem to irritate him, as they do much of the rest of Scandinavia.  The Norwegians are an odd mix of off-putting and fascinating for him.  The Icelanders mystify him.  And the Danes?  Well, he lives there and sees more of the complexity of the place than he does elsewhere.  Booth is still very much an Englishman, one who would probably find himself on the more conservative end of politics in his own country and throughout Scandinavia (which still puts him at most center-left on an American scale, as the US is far more right-wing than anything in mainstream Europe), and this colors his analysis somewhat.  But taken as one man’s rather opinionated travelogue through the north, this is an entertaining and informative book that is well worth the time.

Doughnut (Tom Holt)

When I was reading Holt’s book, The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, I got the feeling that it was the second book in a series – and I was right.  This is the first book, the one that explains, more or less, how the various alternate worlds were created and why the obsession with ring-like foods.  Theo Bernstein has had a hard time of it when the story opens.  Through a minor calculation error he has managed to destroy the Very Very Large Hadron Collider and the mountain it was inside of, which ultimately leaves him broke, divorced, and ready for a mysterious offer from his former mentor.  That offer eventually finds him cruising the multiverses for his brother Max and what solace he can find.  It’s not a book that ties things up very neatly, and it doesn’t lead directly into The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice so much as obliquely set up its parameters.  But it is full of Holt’s trademark dry British humor, hurtling pace, and twisting plotlines, and that’s a grand thing.

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)

When you read a Christopher Moore book you pretty much know what you are going to get: laugh-out-loud vulgarity, deft plotting, and the occasional moment of humanity, all swirled together into some of the most entertaining writing being put to paper today.  I’ve read this one before – it’s my second favorite of his books, after Lamb – but I gave a presentation this summer for a friend of mine who paid me with an ARC of the sequel, so I figured I’d reread the first one beforehand.  I was not disappointed.  Charles Asher runs a second-hand shop in San Francisco.  He’s a Beta Male, hopelessly in love with his wife, who dies in the first chapter not long after giving birth to their daughter Sophie.  Through a series of events involving a seven-foot tall black man in a pale green suit, a book entitled The Great Big Book of Death, and a fair amount of misunderstanding, Charles finds himself to be a Death Merchant – one of a small handful of people charged with collecting the souls of the dying and making sure they move on to the right person for the next stage of their journey.  Naturally he screws this up, and from that premise – as they say – hilarity ensues.  Moore populates this novel with a cast of misfits – Charlie’s employees Lily and Ray, his neighbors Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Korjev, the Emperor of San Francisco, and Inspector Rivera – as well as a host of demons trying to take over the Above.  There are moments of raw humanity – Moore obviously spent some time with hospice workers, and he thanks some of them in the acknowledgements – and more moments of outright absurdity, and when it is all over (Sophie is seven by that point) things are resolved, more or less.

Secondhand Souls (Christopher Moore)

It’s a bit later than the events of A Dirty Job, and things have calmed down somewhat, though not entirely, and new crises are emerging.  The forces of darkness have regrouped and are once again threatening Charlie (in his various new forms) and the universe in general.  This time Charlie Asher and his found family of misfits and loved ones has to contend with not only the Morrigan from last time, but also a bean sidhe (pronounced “banshee,” in the inscrutable way of Gaelic words and phrases) and a tall man dressed entirely in yellow who is both familiar and something quite apart, and they have to do it without Sophie’s “goggies” – her protective hellhounds.  Christopher Moore writes some of the best comic dialogue in American literature, and he is at the top of his game in that department in this novel ("What the fuck's a shivah?"  "I think it's that Hindu god with all the arms."  "That can't be right. The Goldsteins are going to sit on it with me.").  He is also introducing more thoughtful ideas underneath his stories now, adding depth to them.  This book plays a lot with notions of death and dying, dignity and humanity, for example.  The parts with Concepcion and Mike explore this, for example, though some of Mike’s story can be more than a little disturbing if you think past the comic overtones. There’s a fair bit of Buddhism in this book, and Egyptian mythology as well.  In the end it works out happily, though as with all of Moore’s novels perhaps not as one might have expected.