Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fabric of our lives.

Yes, I usually look that hunched and furtive when I'm shopping.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Taking it a little too far.

So I have a cold.

Let me back up a bit here. First of all, after having denied it for years, I am compelled to finally admit that I am a hypochondriac. But I am a particularly unique subset of hypochondriac, to wit, the type of hypochondriac who is simultaneously convinced that they have a disease, preferably a terrible, exotic, and/or incurable disease, and yet will not go to the doctor.

It is incredibly hard to get me to go to the doctor. A few years ago I got a pretty awful sore throat and attempted to home-medicate myself with ginger (natural antibacterial!) and pineapple. The combination chased the infection away from my throat, it's true, but sent it right up into my ear and resulted in an ear infection so severe that it required two courses of horse pill antibiotics and left me deaf and off-balance for over a month.

Oh, and I also coughed up a golf-ball sized glob of..I don't even know what to call it. Satan incarnate? Pure, concentrated evil? Anyway, it decided to evacuate my sinuses while I was driving sixty miles an hour down the parkway towards work. Since I'm not really very sure exactly how my skull is fabricated, I can only assume that there is a massive cavity somewhere behind my nasal bridge but in front of my brain, located in such a way that I can simultaneously snort/cough up said glob of completely horrifying stuff.

Seriously. This was like something that you'd find feeding off of the crew in a movie whose synopsis starts with "On a routine salvage mission..."

See where I'm going with this? I will lie on the couch and emit a nonstop, high-frequency wail of sadness for myself whilst simultaneously texting everyone with the latest thing I've diagnosed myself with in an attempt to garner more pity. But I won't actually go see a doctor.

So. I'm pretty sure it's just a cold, and I haven't used a neti pot lately, so it's probably not brain-destroying amoebas. But I'm chewing down Halls vitamin C drops, and while I appreciate their misguided attempt to make me feel better, I completely do not understand what they're trying to do with their "pep talk in every drop" (trademarked!) spiel here.

Here's a sample: "Inspire envy!"

Really? My nose is red and scaly from constantly wiping it, I'm leaving behind a trail of snot like a giant snail, and I can't breathe without either a high-pitched nasal whistle or leaving my mouth hanging open. "Flex your can-do muscle!" Are you serious, Halls?! My can-do muscle is fully occupied can-doingly handing me Kleenex and renuking the same cup of tea three or four times, which could probably be used to culture another biological weapon.

"Get back in the game!" If by game you mean the ability to sleep with my mouth closed so I don't leave a puddle of drool on the pillow, then yes, I am totally all about getting back in the mouth-closed-sleeping-game. "You've survived tougher!" Yes, that's true, but I bought these overpriced fortified candies because I was feeling sorry for myself, not because I wanted a drill sergeant to motivate me to get off the couch and change into something other than snot-encrusted, kitty-cat printed pajamas whose cuffs I've been using as an alternative Kleenex when the effort of getting another box of tissues proves too arduous.

I know you probably have a high-paid team of advertising gurus coming up with this stuff, but let me suggest a new, kinder, gentler Halls: "Poor baby. This is totally the worst cold anyone has had, ever." "It is totally acceptable to periodically call your parents and boyfriend and whine over the phone about how bad you're feeling." "Definitely eat that entire carton of ice cream. It probably has healing properties." "It's totally okay to wipe your nose on your T-shirt. It's softer than your tissues, anyway."

Thanks, Halls. I feel better already.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Or, why I don't work in advertising.

Seriously, who goes to the farmer's market that early. Other than me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Adults only

For those of you expecting Diablo Cody's latest to be all clever catchphrases and indie music like Juno or Jennifer's Body, you are either going to be very delighted or very disappointed. Although the trailer plays up the movie's darkly comic bits and pairs them with a bouncy indie song, Young Adult is a viscerally disturbing, squirm inducing movie.

Zee Germans, in fact, have a word for this: fremdschaemen, which describes the feeling you get when you're vicariously embarrassed for someone else. Well, Young Adult is about ninety minutes of unrelenting fremdschaemen.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a ghost-writer for a Sweet Valley High-esque young adult series lives a hollow, booze-soaked life in a bland high-rise in Minneapolis with her Pomeranian, Dolce, until she gets invited to her high school sweetheart's first child's naming ceremony. Mavis was a queen bee in high school, but it's been downhill for her since then.

Convinced that she and former beau Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) are meant to be together, Mavis packs up her dog and her hair extensions and heads back to Mercury, Minnesota to get Buddy back. Brittle Mavis has persuaded herself that everyone she's left behind is miserable - and sometimes she's right - but affable Buddy and his wife seem genuinely happy, which throws a wrench in Mavis' plan. Mavis has much more in common with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who was badly beaten in high school.

Theron's trichotillomaniac Mavis absolutely carries this movie. She's a vile, mean-tempered alcoholic barely masking a pit of desperation and bitterness, but she's also weirdly endearing, especially in scenes with the excellent Oswalt, with whom she really has much more in common with than Buddy.

This movie really isn't very funny, and the humor that is there is very, very dark. But it's impossible to look away as Mavis slowly implodes on the screen as her layers of denial start to flake away, in an awful, squirming, watching-through-your-fingers kind of way.

Friday, December 16, 2011


When last month's copy of Vogue with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe came in the mail, I was skeptical - Williams doesn't particularly resemble Monroe, and definitely not as much as Scarlett Johanssen, who was rumored to be one of the contenders for the role.

Of course, the idea of playing Marilyn should be a terrifying one - she's the quintessential American actress, a symbol, a shorthand for so many other things. Playing her without resorting to the wiggling, giggling caricature of herself she turned into would be a huge challenge.

As it turns out, Williams is the strongest part of the film. Sure, black eyeliner and baby-blonde hair coloring certainly help (as do the hip pads she donned to fill out Marilyn's famous curves) but her Marilyn is a lovely, shimmering, frustrating creature. When Williams is on screen, it's hard to look at anything else.

My Week is based on The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me and My Week With Marilyn, two books by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne, all freckles and massive blue eyes) about his work as a third assistant director - really a glorified go-fer - on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, which Marilyn filmed with Laurence Olivier in 1957.

Marilyn is, of course, in the middle of a crisis when she arrives in London for filming. Her marriage to Arthur Miller is already falling apart, she's debilitated by stage fright, and she infuriates Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) with both her Method acting and her shaky work ethic. And, of course, she's downing enough pills to choke a horse.

Marilyn makes something of a pet of Colin, a rich Etonian with connections at Buckingham whose decision to work in films is regarded with barbed bemusement by his aristocratic parents. Of course, when the glowing Marilyn alights, who could blame him? When Miller leave Marilyn in London and her relationship with the other actors disintegrates, she leans on Colin as a sort of kid-brother, mock-boyfriend replacement. It's easy to see Colin's appeal (Redmayne's freckly good looks and plummy accent certainly help).

My Week is visually gorgeous, from Marilyn's shimmering set costumes to the reproduction of late 1950s London. The film's script is probably the weakest point, setting Colin up in a desultory romance with wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson, wasted here, although with some yummy dresses) with no explanation, other than to present her brunette blandness as a foil for the platinum Marilyn. Dame Judi Dench turns up, projecting her Denchness as Sybil Thorndike (really, Dench could improve any movie. Her appearance in The Chronicles of Riddick, misguided though it was - was her agent drunk? - was the only watchable part of that monstrosity) and Dominic Cooper plays Marilyn's agent, Milton Greene.

What makes Williams' performance as Marilyn so fitting is that it's impossible not to love her - Clark, Greene, Miller, and even Olivier, drowning in stage makeup and despair at his inability to translate himself to the screen - all love her, even if it's not, and never will be, enough. Of course, watching My Week knowing that Marilyn is a mere six years away from death lends the movie automatic poignancy - a scene where Marilyn's acting coach Paula Strasberg cooes that she's still young, with her life ahead of her, is particularly sad. Despite the movie's thin script, William's Marilyn sucks all the light from the screen, and that's enough.

Fast times

Seriously, guys, I was awkward.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The meat of it.

I'm glad I picked up Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter at the library last week. To be honest, I'm kind of burnt out on the whole celebrity-chef-memoir genre (next, Not Without My Crocs: The Mario Batali Story.).

However! Even if you do feel similarly, Hamilton's memoir is definitely worth reading, because even though she is a chef, she's also a writer - and it shows in her unusually well-crafted book.

Does every cook have that moment when the clouds part, the angels sing, and they realize their life's calling is to wear unattractive footwear, do copious amounts of drugs, and make dubious life choices while hanging over a six-burner?

For Anthony Bourdain, it was summers in France. For Ruth Reichl, it was learning to pound schnitzel paper-thin from her family's housekeeper. If anyone asked me why I learned to cook, I'd have to trace it back to being fed things like incinerated fish and bleeding meatloaf. I come from a long line of women who cannot cook, and by cannot cook I don't mean things like, they're not really into cooking but you are probably not going to die from eating their food. I mean things like, you are going to be served a combination of raw and/or carbonized food (sometimes in the same dish!) that even the dogs are not going to want.

I can understand not liking to cook or not being particularly creative in the kitchen. That's why I like baking - there's less room for error, and as long as you have a dependable recipe, you're golden. But there really isn't an excuse for not being able to figure out, after several decades of cooking, how to cook a potato so it isn't still crunchy when it hits the plate.

Hamilton opens her memoir in rural Pennsylvania, where she lived in a disintegrating mill with a slew of siblings, her charming raconteur artist father, and her chic French mother, Madeleine. Madeleine is a superb cook, and Hamilton recalls the family's annual lamb roasts and Madeleine's genius in the kitchen in shimmering and tangible prose.

Hamilton's parents divorced as she hit adolescence, and neither parent seemed overly concerned about how their children were fending. Hamilton lies about her age and takes a series of waitressing jobs in local restaurants, then heads for New York City at sixteen, where she becomes a waitress at the fabled Lone Star Cafe. Hamilton falls into job after job in the restaurant industry, always the most unglamorous (catering companies, cooking for a children's summer camp) before finding the abandoned French bistro that would become her tiny and famous restaurant, Prune.

Hamilton's memoir is interspersed with a number of sometimes-rants about the restaurant industry and, in the age of reality shows and Top Chef, the cult of the chef-as-celebrity. I found Blood extremely refreshing - unlike Bourdain, who purported to strip the pretension and glamour from cooking and instead became enamoured with his own bad-boy image (yes, we get it. You did coke. Congratulations.), Hamilton appears to really, truly believe in working hard, making good food, and not asking your staff to do anything you wouldn't do yourself - which leads to a dry-heave inducing encounter with a maggoty rat.

Blood slows down once Hamilton opens Prune, lingering lovingly over the tiny restaurant's menu, interior, and the workings of the staff, but Hamilton is still searching for home, to recapture the security of the summer lamb roasts, which leads her to Apulia and her Italian husband's family before her marriage dissolves.

Blood can sometimes frustrate. Hamilton explains her improbable marriage as a sort of cheeky joke, and she writes about her strained relationship with her mother with the same opacity. The reader must remember that Hamilton, with her MFA in fiction, is probably more skillful at manipulating the narrative than your average hash-slinger, and I sense that much is glossed over or left out.

But Hamilton's skill as a writer is undeniable - tactile, often disgusting, quite frequently superb.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Disappearing act.

Man. I enjoyed the hell out of Haley Tanner's first novel, Vaclav and Lena. It floats along like a lovely little soap bubble, and Tanner's ebullient language and cheeky humor flash brightly against the book's darker subtext.

Vaclav and Lena is set in a neighborhood of Russian immigrants in New York, where ten-year-old Vaclav and nine-and-11-months-old Lena spend their afternoons practicing Vaclav's magic tricks. Vaclav, with the single-minded seriousness so possible at ten, wants to be the next Harry Houdini, and his great ambitions are to 1) have a show at Coney Island and 2) have Lena be his lovely assistant and eventually his wife.

These plans are complicated by Vaclav's devoted but domineering mother, the formidable Rasia, whose spotty English is hilariously made up of bits and pieces from cop shows on television, and by the mercurial Lena.

Vaclav and Lena are both "stinky lunch kids," in the ESL class at their elementary school, but precocious Vaclav has an easier time with schoolwork, while manipulative Lena is realizing that Vaclav's friendship is probably pulling a Red October on any chance of her being popular.

This may sound like a premise for a YA novel, but Tanner quickly pulls the plot into something darker. Lena is an orphan who has been passed from her grandmother to her aunt, a bleached-blond baba who lives in a filthy apartment littered with Lucite heels and drug paraphernalia. Rasia has stepped in as a surrogate mother for Lena, but is pulled between concern for Lena and her desire to shield Vaclav from the reality of Lena's life, until Rasia is finally forced to make a choice that will help Lena, but cost Vaclav his only friend.
Vaclav and Lena really shines in the dialog between the characters, which is alternately wrenching and hilarious, spiced with a generous amount of cross-cultural miscommunication (such as when Rasia tries to have The Talk with her son, which is agony in any language). Although Vaclav grows up into a thoroughly Americanized teen, his relationship with Raisa doesn't lose any its sweetness.

Tanner is a deft enough writer to know when to cut the preciousness. Although Vaclav is pretty unfailingly adorable, Lena is crafty and sneaky as a child, and (justifiably) angry as a teen. Vaclav and Lena flounders a bit towards the end, with an abrupt ending and a less-than-believable encounter with Lena's putrid aunt. However, Tanner's engaging use of language and feel for sharp little details - a bootleg DVD here, a frozen block of borscht there - makes Vaclav and Lena a bright little novel.

Here she comes, Miss America

In my defense, no one told me it was sexy national costumes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sadly misinformed.

Hey do not blame me, I had sex-ed in Texas.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Like every party, ever.

Seriously, you guys, with the beards and plaid shirts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The first thing I have to say about John Sayles' Moment in the Sun is, damn, don't carry this thing around unless you lift from the knees. This is not a take-on-the-subway kind of book. This is a doubles-as-a-doorstop-and-deadly-weapon kind of book. This is the Novel Most Likely To Put You In Traction of 2011. Sun clocks in at about a thousand pages. I checked it out of the library, gave up when I realized I couldn't haul it around, and got the Kindle edition. But the book itself is beautiful.

Sayles is better known as a director than an author (Matewan and Lone Star are only two of his many films).

So. What is Moment in the Sun about? Dang, son, what's it not about? It's set during the Spanish-American War (quick primer: we showed up in the Philippines to "liberate" the Filipinos from the Spanish, then were hugely douchey, refused to leave, and committed a lot of atrocities ((like waterboarding!!)), and covered it with a heapin' helpin' of White Man's Burden, liberally sauced with racism. Sound familiar? Also, Teddy Roosevelt.)

But, while being about the Spanish-American War, Moment in the Sun also touches on corrupt politics, election violence and lynchings in the American South, the deplorable conditions in the cities in the North, the insurrectos movement in the Philippines, human trafficking from China, muckraking press, the beginning of the motion picture industry, how much obstetrics sucked in the late 1800s, the gold rush in the Klondike, American policy towards Native Americans (horrible), unemployment and labor abuses, labor unions, and also throws in a chunk of perspective from none other than Mark Twain himself.

I got tired just writing that.

It's hard to write a handy summary of Moment in the Sun, since so much is going on at once. The storyline jumps around from New York to North Carolina to China to the Philippines and back again, and it can get exhausting.

Moment in the Sun opens in the rush to get to the Yukon, where Hod Brackenridge, a former miner blackballed after participating in a strike, finds himself swindled and abandoned. He ends up in a freezing gold rush town, a place of surreally inflated prices and quick violence, where he becomes a boxer in crooked fights orchestrated by a dandy ne'er-do-well from North Carolina, Niles Manigault.

Niles' hometown, Wilmington, is a cauldron of seething racism and violence, crusted over with a layer of that famous Southern gentility. Niles' father, Judge Manigault, presides over Wilmington with a stiff upper lip and a South-will-rise-again ethos, although he can't control his dashing, irresponsible son (and his other son, Harry, is a limping, shy disappointment).

In Wilmington, we meet the Luncefords (Dr., Mrs., daughter Jessie, son Junior), an upper-middle-class family of African Americans. Junior decides to join the Army and talks his friend, Royal Scott, into joining him. Royal has a desperate, unrequited crush on Jessie, a crush that he's pretty sure will never come to fruition.

Junior and Royal join in the 125th Infantry, where they have the dubious distinction of testing out bicycles as a means of transport (verdict: ouch.). Second-class citizens at home because of their color, Junior is nevertheless hopeful that the Army will provide a chance to show his patriotism.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Diosdado Nicasio, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, joins his university friends in pledging to the cause of Filipino independence.

These characters converge in the jungles of the Phillippines, where Junior and Royal are sent. Hod, joining the Army in desperation with his friend, a Native American nicknamed Big Ten, ends up in the Philippines too, along with Niles Manigault, who in one of those Twists of Fate tm ends up as Hod and Big Ten's lieutenant (and he's a giant douche and also possibly going insane).

Back in North Carolina, the violence comes to a head with an election day riot. The Luncefords, losing everything, head North to the city and poverty. Niles' brother Harry has already ended up there, where he's helping usher in the age of moving pictures.

If I had to say what I thought Moment in the Sun was really about, it's about power and the abuse of power, and the desperate and often violent fight against it, a fight that plays out in the Philippines and the tenements and the rural South and in prisons.

Sayles leaps from perspective to perspective and locale to locale, and while some of these shifts are inventive (a short chapter from the point of view of Mark Twain stands out in particular), some of them are distracting (the persistent return to "Teethadore," a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, and an interlude in a prison where McKinley's assassin Czolgosz is jailed). There's simply so much research poured into this book that it becomes dizzying, and at points I wished that it had been pruned, not for length's sake but for clarity.

Many of Sayles' characters are richly and fully imagined, but it becomes hard to become very invested in any of them. I had a particular difficulty with his female characters. While Junior, Scott, Hod, Big Ten, Sergeant Jacks, Niles, and Henry are three dimensional and complex, Sayles' women seem to be used more as prop devices and are flatter and simpler and seem to conform more to a trope. There's a plucky Irish scrubwoman, a Filipina who pops up long enough to fall in love with and liberate Royal, a Chinese prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, a Yukon prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and a handful of other rather forgettable characters that seem more like embellishments than necessities which Moment in the Sun could have easily done without. Sayles also has a habit of abandoning characters, probably because there are just too darn many of them.

But. But! Wade through Moment in the Sun and be rewarded - it is a beast of a book, but daring and audacious in its scope.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When is a salad not a salad?

Probably when it is fried in bacon fat, but that is okay, because I am going to share this salad recipe with you. Because you deserve it. And it is great, and you will surprise yourself by being able to eat an entire bag of spinach, but that's okay because it is good for you.

You are going to need:

2 pieces of bacon, if you are normal. If you are me you will need 3, possibly even 4
An entire bag of spinach. But not like the family bag - like the regular size bag. So you are eating three or four servings of spinach, but whatever. Minerals.
A clove of garlic, if you are not me. If you are me, 3 cloves.
A gluggle or two of red wine vinegar.
You will also need a pair of scissors and a large pan with a lid that is deep enough to get the spinach in and then get the lid on. So this big. (I am making a circle with my hands that is like the size of a medium pizza, but you can't see it because this is the Internet)
You can add some chopped shallot if you want to get fancy (and you do want to get fancy, right?)

Put the pan on medium-high heat. Cut the bacon into little squares, not as big as Scrabble squares but about as big as Chiclets, using the scissors. Trust me on the scissors, it is impossible to slice bacon with a knife unless you use a scalpel. Put the bacon in the skillet and wait until you hear it start to hiss. Then drop the garlic, which you will have diced or squashed, into the bacon fat. If you are being all fancy with your shallots, put the chopped shallots into the pan.

Let them cook until everything smells all garlicky and wonderful, but not until they are brown. Then dump the spinach in and put the lid on. When the spinach on the bottom of the spinach-pile gets wilty, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon so the spinach on the top gets wilty. When that is wilty, take the lid off, let the steam dissipate, then put a gluggle or two of red wine vinegar on the spinach and cook a little while longer, until the smell of vinegar is gone.

This is a good salad to make if you are cooking dinner for someone you want to impress, because it's easy enough that you can memorize the recipe (what, recipes? I am so awesome I don't need them. Let me refill your wine glass.) and it's pretty fancy to cook your salad, right?

Dump it in a bowl. Don't forget to scrape out all the delicious bacon bits and juice. Eat the whole damn thing. And have a beer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Matrimonial bondage

The Marriage Plot is the latest novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. It's easy to remember which novels Eugenides wrote, because he writes at a pretty glacial pace - which is fine, since they're worth the wait.

But I started getting squirmy about a third of the way through The Marriage Plot, which is not at all a reflection on Eugenides' writing but rather my huge and horrible failing as a reader.

I really disliked most of the characters.

Which is fine, there's no reason at all one has to like the characters in a book, and in fact I think it's a testament to a writer's skill to keep you engaged even if the character is detestable (enough with your upstanding cops, already).

I think the reason I disliked Eugenides heroine-of-a-sort, Madeleine Hanna, is that in her earnestness and foolishness she reminded me far too much of me (except, of course, that she's wealthy, symmetrical of face, and has doting if overbearing parents. We don't have any of that in common.).

Madeleine is a senior at Brown University, majoring in English:

Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different than what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major majored in.

Which, ouch. That hits close to the bone, Eugenides.

The Marriage Plot opens on Madeleine's graduation morning. She's miserable, hungover, and heart-broken after the dissolution of her relationship with Leonard, forced to spend the day entertaining her overbearing Boston Brahmin parents, Phyllida and Alton.

But the winds of English study are changing, and Madeleine - devotee of Austen and the Brontë sisters - finds herself in a class studying Foucault and Derrida, Baudrillard and Deleuze (ugh, flashbacks). The course is full of students who very earnestly talk about things like how problematic it is to introduce oneself and the necessity of not thinking of books as being about anything (ugh, more flashbacks).

And there she meets Leonard, a big, rather slovenly guy, out of place in their class, and it's pretty easy to see why Madeleine likes him - how could you not like someone willing to stand up to the deconstructionist twerps on your behalf?

What follows is, I suppose, the marriage plot. Leonard has manic-depression, the big hitch in their relationship, but he's also kind of a douche, a very particular kind of douche, the kind of douche who will not only never wash his sheets, but also ridicule you for wanting clean sheets - nay, for being so superior as to want clean sheets.

I was rather sadly forced to identify with Madeleine here, since I also dated exactly this kind of douche for two years in college (except he was an alcoholic, not a manic-depressive). Except while I ran for sweet, clean-sheeted liberty, Madeleine marries her douche (which, spoiler? Since it's in the title, I think you saw that coming).

Eugenides bounces between Madeleine and Leonard's deteriorating relationship, Leonard's collapsing mental state, and one of Madeleine's college friends, Mitchell, who is noodling around India searching for enlightenment. Mitchell is the Duckie to Madeleine's Andie, having been infatuated with her since they met.

Compared to Middlesex, The Marriage Plot is zippy, and I blew through the four-hundred-plus pages quickly. The Marriage Plot feels shallower, skimming the surface of its characters instead of thoroughly inhabiting them the way Middlesex did. Of course, this is like complaining about the glove compartment on a Jaguar, since Eugenides could probably write a riveting and entertaining grocery list.

Open Letter Mondays (and an apology)

An Open Letter To Whatever It Is In Florida That I Am So Violently Allergic To

Dear Whatever It Is in Florida That I Am So Violently Allergic To,

You win.


Seriously, I don't know what it was - I'm thinking some kind of plant - by Thursday I was like one giant hive. Cross Florida off the list of places to retire.

Also! Apologies for the lighter-than-usual posting, but I had no Internet last week. I did read Jeffrey Eugenides latest, The Marriage Plot (winner of the Pulitzer Prize!!) and will have a review of that shortly.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Modcloth, on the Occasion of Needing a New Coat

Dear Modcloth,
It is true, yes, that I'm rather half-heartedly shopping for a new coat. I will probably put off buying said coat until winter is nearly over, and then just end up getting something at Goodwill. But. I digress. I appreciate the creativity of your copywriters, I do. I understand that ginning up a paragraph or two of sustained excitement about a coat must be challenging. However, I am feeling as though you are not - how do I put this - relating to me with this description:

Walking up the path to your family’s country home, you catch the rich aroma of treats as warm as your scarlet Steve Madden coat. You dust snowflakes from your high-collar, button-embellished sleeves, and vegan faux leather belt, eagerly undoing the tie waist and black buttons as you enter the glowing foyer. Slipping off this pocketed piece, you greet your kin in a patterned sweater, skinny jeans, and tall boots. Swapping hugs and how-do-you-dos, you’re shuffled to the kitchen for a homemade wintertime snack that’s just as sweet as your style!

Allow me to rewrite this for you:

Walking up the path to your parents' townhome, you note that the lawn is now covered in black plastic, which would not be all that awful looking if your house wasn't next to Mr. Perfect Lawn's, whose flowers are always in military formation. The comparison makes your house look like something from Cops, right before the police stomp the door in. You clomp inside to the foyer and think Wow, it's cold in here. You can see your breath inside. Tugging off your coat, you yell Moooooam! I'm hoooooame! and then realize that you didn't actually change out of your pajama top (too cold). Clumping upstairs, Mom waves for quiet because she's still nattering on her Bluetooth. She hands you a pair of fingerless gloves and mouths put these on, pointing to the thermostat, which is still off even though it's below freezing outside. For dinner, she offers you your choice of microwaved entrees and/or popcorn.

Thanks, Modcloth!

Striving for veracity, as always,

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bright new dawn.

Man. Sometimes I think it was kind of a miracle that the Allies won World War II. Rick Atkinson's An Army At Dawn makes it seem even more improbable, what with how outmatched the American Army was at the start of World War II.

An Army At Dawn is the first in Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, and it's an excellent chronicle of the war in North Africa during the first years of World War II (a front that often gets short shrift, otherwise).

It was in North Africa that the American military, having atrophied since World War I, really came into its own. Atkinson takes an interesting perspective on the war, focusing on the personalities of the men involved, that makes familiar names like Patton, Eisenhower, Darlan, and Montgomery come alive in new and vivid ways.

Atkinson opens with a prologue set in the American military cemetary in Carthage, home of nearly 3,000 graves of soldiers who died in Tunisia. From the names and dates on the headstones, he imagines the fate of a handful of soldiers. This approach - opening with a narrow look at a handful of men, instead of a sweeping battle - characterizes Atkinson's skill at close examination.

Atkinson also reminds us that the North African front was the first testing ground of the American military: "North African defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war."

Mistakes were made, lives were lost, and the battle for North Africa would weed out the incompetent commanders from the leaders.

Atkinson creates a vivid picture of the often larger-than-life personalities involved, from General Ted Roosevelt, the riding-crop-wielding, Rough Rider-emblazoned-Jeep-riding son of the famous Teddy, to Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Infantry Division commander and the "fightingest man" on the battlefield, and of course, the aforementioned Patton, Eisenhower, and Montgomery. Fortunately Atkinson doesn't let Army become a hagiography of leaders, and uses the diaries and letters of the grounds troops to create a more complete portrait of the military, from the young privates from the Midwest to the lieutenant colonels shepherding their men into battle. Atkinson also has a grim appreciation for the improbable humor often found in life-or-death situations.

Against the rolling groves, hills, and deserts of Tunisia, Atkinson's Army at Dawn is a meticulously researched, remarkably alive portrait of a world power coming into its own.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Uhoh, or, I now know how I'm going to die.

Agent of death.
Aaaaah! From ABC News: black licorice: sugary treat, and also silent killer.

According to this article, eating too much black licorice can trigger heart arrhythmia by lowering your potassium levels. Apparently licorice contains glycyrrhizin (not an alien race, but a naturally occurring chemical), and eating licorice regularly keeps your potassium levels dangerously low, which in turn can trigger a wonky heartbeat.

Also, I'm supposed to avoid eating large amounts of licorice in one go, which is impossible because once you open one of the Panda boxes, you have to eat the whole thing because the licorice will get stiff.

Is it weird that I take this article as a challenge? My first response was to think "man, I am going to go buy like five pounds of licorice and EAT IT ALL and see what happens!"

Monday, October 31, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Close Standing Man at the 7-11

Dear Close Standing Man,

There are a lot of mysteries in this world. Atlantis. The second shooter on the grassy knoll. Why I can have 7 socks, and no matches. How you can always eat a little bit of ice cream, no matter how full you are. If anyone ever transmuted lead to gold. Where Genghis Khan is buried. And so on.

But one things that is so mysteriously mysterious is why you have to stand so close in the check-out line.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It has come to my attention.

So, loyal readers ( And a half?), I do not usually use this blog to talk overmuch about political things. The reason being that discussing politics usually reduces me to a blob of inchoate, quivering, foaming-at-the-mouth rage.

I used to think about politics a lot, way back when I interned at a non-profit and was on a gazillion e-mail lists and regularly wrote to my senator and was in general not quite as worn-down and sad as I am today. You know, back when I thought the anger could actually generate some sort of useful outcome. (Nope! Ulcers.)

Now, my political strategy is this: I will put my head in the drawer of my desk, and you will close the drawer repeatedly on my neck until I no longer have to think about it.

But. But!

Talk radio, right? Funnily enough, my radio dial is tuned to 630 WMAL. Yes, that 630, home of Sean Hannity, who just a few weeks said that he totes gets what single mothers are going through, then in his next breath promulgated getting rid of every social support network for them. Which...what?

Anyway. 630 is also the home of Rush Limbaugh, who I do not listen to, because I am at work when he is on the radio, and if I did - well, see head-neck-desk-slamming thing above.

But. This.

So, about a week ago President Obama authorized sending 100 U.S. military troops to Uganda to help in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army.

The LRA, led by a charismatic, sadistic madman named Joseph Kony, has been terrorizing Uganda for twenty-something years. Kony has proved wickedly difficult to capture, and the LRA has killed, maimed, tortured, brutalized, raped, and otherwise traumatized countless Ugandans, mainly children.

In fact, if you were holding auditions for the Antichrist, Kony is the guy you'd want to cast. This guy makes Charles Manson look like an Eagle Scout. The LRA replenishes its numbers by raiding Ugandan villages and kidnapping children, then forcing them to later return to their villages and murder their family members and neighbors as a way of proving their loyalty to Kony and the LRA.

The LRA has ranged over Uganda and Sudan, leaving thousands dead and disfigured in their wake. For over twenty years, they've carved a bloody wound into Uganda's flank, and the Ugandan army and government have been unable to stop them.

But, gentle reader, I am but one miniscule speck of dust in this vast wasteland. Let us now turn to Rush, for his take on the subject:

According to Rush, the LRA are Christians, and Obama, that big meanie, is sending troops to murder poor innocent Christians who are just doing their holy duty by fighting the evil Muslims in Sudan:

"There's a new war," said Limbaugh. "A hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda." According to Limbaugh, the LRA is not in fact a murderous core group headed by a madman and trailed by hundreds of shattered children, it is in fact a Christian group fighting Muslims. In Sudan.

Right. Which is sort of like saying, this pile of rotten vegetables covered in manure and flies is in fact a delicious four-course feast.

Except not, at all.

This is perhaps not all that surprising, since Limbaugh may have indeed been in another one of his prescription-drug induced hazes when he made the above pronouncement. But it is indicative of another rather disturbing trend among today's Presidential candidates (all, what, thirty-something of them?), that is, the proud and gleeful declaration of complete ignorance of, well, pretty much anything.

Which is, what's the word...alarming.

Take, for instance, from that same Salon article, this quote from Herman Cain: “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?’ … Knowing who is the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world I don’t think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going.”

Er. I invite you to check this out:

See this? This is a map of Central Asia. You can see Uzbekistan, the vaguely boot-shaped yellow country below the big green blob of Kazakhstan. Take a look at what Uzbekistan borders.

That's right. Afghanistan. And Iran, which last time I checked, was not in the habit of waving tiny American flags. Here's another fun fact: when you have boots on the ground in a country, those boots need things like fuel, bullets, food, water, electrical equipment, medical supplies, chewing gum, and pictures of Betty from back home to keep their morale high.

Guess how we get stuff from the U.S. of A into Afghanistan? Through Uzbekistan. So it actually is kind of important who the president of Uzbekistan is.

See, there's this thing called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN for shortsies). The NDN is a vital supply line for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan is a major hub for the NDN, because of things like "geography" and "where countries are in the world" and "hostile neighbors." There are a lot of concerns about the NDN - namely, Uzbekistan has a horrendous human rights record, and the NDN is quickly becoming a source of cash for some bad actors - but the fact remains that we have stuff at point A (here) that we need to get to point B (Afghanistan) and because of that whole pesky geography thing and not having invented teleportation yet, we're kind of stuck with moving stuff through Uzbekistan.

So if, for example, one were interested in applying for a job where a major component would be doing things like directing what happens to troops in Afghanistan, it would actually behoove one to, in fact, know who the president of Uzbekistan is.

I don't even have a degree in International Relations! I just used the good old Internet to find all that stuff out.

So, you know, call me if you need a strategist or something. Because I have this dynamic head-desk-drawer-slamming thing that is going to totally blow your mind.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Came To Testify

PBS' series Women, War, and Peace launched with the first part, I Came To Testify. You can watch I Came To Testify here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Esquire, On the Occasion of Choosing Rihanna as "Sexiest Woman Alive, 2011"

Dear Esquire,

I am not quibbling with your choice of sexiest woman alive - Rihanna's pretty sexy - but I am extremely confused as to your choice of styling.

She appears to be wearing...kelp? A deflated balloon? A bit of trash bag? And also Michael Jackson's hair, but hey, I totally get that whole awkward-growing-out-stage (solidarity!).

I thought I would get some answers in your feature, but alas:

  Seriously, what is this stuff? Is that...waterlogged beef jerky? Someone else's skin? The mystery was compounded with a blurry shot of her wearing nothing but what appeared to be mulch. Mulch. I would think that draping oneself with mulch would only appeal to a very small subset of the population, usually found lurking on ill-advised online forums.
However, Esquire, I bow to your superior knowledge of what is sexy - I shall pass along the word to those perpetually dazed-looking Victoria's Secret gals that they can dispense with the Stupidly Sexy and So Sexy It's Seriously Criminal In Most Southern States bra-and-garter getups and start draping themselves with things like used coffee filters and orange peels.


Thursday, October 20, 2011


Clearly my feelings about my hair are more complicated than they should be.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hillbilly heaven

Anytime you have a blend of backwoods, booze, and blood, comparisons to Flannery O'Connor inevitably follow, which I've always found kind of strange. Sure, O'Connor is probably best known for works like "Good Country People," but many of her stories are set in cities, not the country. But it's not surprising that Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel, The Devil All The Time, is being compared to O'Connor and William Faulkner, although he lacks O'Connor's knifelike precision and Faulkner's feather-light touch.

The Devil follows Pollock's short story collection, Knockemstiff, and Pollock seems determined to thoroughly inhabit the dreary ghost town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, as Faulkner inhabited Yoknapatawpha County.

Knockemstiff is an actual town, though, a ghost town in northeastern Ohio, where Pollock was born. Pollock spent the first half century of his life as a truck driver and laborer at the Mead Paper Mill before publishing Knockemstiff as a student at the Ohio State University creative writing program, so he perhaps has more in common with his characters than most of his readers - something his publisher is pretty gleeful about. Knockemstiff won the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award, so The Devil All The Time was a highly anticipated follow-up.

For the most part, it delivers, until the unrelenting brutality becomes overwhelming. Both O'Connor and Faulkner had an unerring sense of just when too much was too much, which made their stories all the more cutting - by pulling back just when the reader would start getting numbed. Pollock hasn't mastered that yet, and The Devil starts feeling like an exercise in masochism about three-quarters of the way through.

The Devil opens in 1945, with Private Willard Russell heading home to West Virginia from the Pacific. Sick of war and trauma, Russell ends up at a shabby diner in Ohio and falls in love with the waitress, a beauty named Charlotte. Russell and Charlotte wed and end up living in the dreary hamlet of Knockemstiff (population 400) with their son, Arvin, when Charlotte is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Determined to save her, Willard spirals into a particularly religious flavor of insanity, making blood sacrifices to his "prayer log" in the backyard and spending hours pleading with God to spare his wife. Charlotte dies anyway and Willard soon follows.

Young Arvin ends up back in his father's hometown of Coal Creek, living with his grandmother Emma and her brother, Earskell, and Lenora, the girl that Emma adopted after Lenora's husband, a sham preacher with a wheelchair-bound sidekick, failed to revive her with prayer. Since "failed to revive" is roughly the same as "murdered," at least legally speaking, the grotesque duo high-tail it out of Coal Creek.

The rest of the novel alternates between the dreariness of Knockemstiff and the equally depressing Coal Creek. Pollock introduces us to the loathsome Sandy and Carl Henderson, a husband-and-wife team loosely based on the murderous Charles Starkweather and his teenaged girlfriend Caril, who romped around the Midwest in the early 1950s shooting people. Sandy alternates her time between tending bar at the local dive and dabbling in prostitution to take "vacations" with Carl, a failed photographer, driving around and scouting for hitchhikers to torture and kill. Sandy's brother, Lee Bodecker, is the town's requisite crooked sheriff.

Meanwhile, in Coal Creek, Arvin and Lenora are growing up. Despite his whackadoo childhood, Arvin seems remarkably well-adjusted for a Pollock character, which means that he saves the violence for people who at least seem to deserve it. However, because Pollock never sees a garden without needing a snake, he introduces the lecherous Preacher Teagardin, who veers over the line into caricature, with his voracious appetite for young parishioners, slick suits, and illiterate child bride.

On the run from Coal Creek, Arvin heads back to Knockemstiff, only to intersect with Sandy and Carl, on the road and looking for victims.

Pollock has the squirmy stuff down, a knack for deadpan humor, and an ability to conjure up disturbing characters, from the fanatical preacher duo of Roy and Theodore to the denizens of a traveling backwoods carnival. However, his touch falters when he tries to transcend his work's grotesqueness, and The Devil All The Time staggers under its own weight.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Open Letter Mondays, Sick and Tired Edition

So I'm late again on the open letter Monday, which I'm just going to blame on being tired and jet-lagged (although with only an hour's difference, I don't see how I could have been jet-lagged? But it happened.).

An Open Letter to Everyone Who Thinks Poetry is Dead

Dear Everyone Who Thinks That Poetry Is Dead,

The Library of Congress' welcome to Philip Levine, the new poet laureate, had at least 400 people there. So there!


But seriously, the reading was great - Levine is the kind of hilarious, sort of crusty old guy you wish could be your grandpa.

In other news, I just found out via The Hairpin that the Society of Memories Doll Museum in Saint Joseph, Missouri, closed. This is notable only in that I happened to be driving past the exit for the Doll Museum in St. Joe on Sunday morning and saw the sign. Doll museums - victim of the economy? Or actually really just incredibly creepy?

Anyway! I have a book review coming up shortly, as soon as my brain manages to reorient itself to being back in Washington. Seriously, I was only gone for two days. I'm like yogurt and fine china - I don't travel well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sexual harrassment isn't funny...

...except when it's hilarious.

So, I watched Horrible Bosses last week. Late to the party, I know, as usual, but I was watching it at a second-run cinema where you can sprawl in a comfy, battered office chair, drink beer, and eat fries. Nothing makes a comedy funnier than liberally applying a few pitchers of Yuengling.

Also it just took me four tries to properly spell Yuengling.

I have a complicated relationship with comedy because I love it when it's done well, but I think it's one of the trickiest genres to get right, as a legion of recent flops - and anything with Ryan Reynolds - will tell you.

Horrible Bosses features a trio of indescriminate white guys, Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis).

Nick, Dale, and Kurt meet to quaff beers and complain about their horrible bosses, respectively being: Dave, one megalomaniac played by Kevin Spacey; Julia, a nympho dentist who likes spraying Dale with the Water-Pik and molesting the patients (Jennifer Aniston), and Bobby, played by Colin Farrell sporting a bald-cap/combover combination as the cokehead wastrel son who inherits the business from his saintly father and promptly starts spending the profits on hookers, blow, and (I imagine) a lot of Ed Hardy-brand bedazzled clothing.

My voice is deeper than this guy's.
Day's Dale steals the movie as a weird combination of delicate hipster/Elmo doll, with perpetually wide eyes, a voice that sounds like it never got past adolescence, and a scrubby goatee. The unapologetically over-the-top Julia gropes Dale, greets him in her office wearing a lab coat and not much else, and threatens to e-mail pictures of an unconscious Dale sprawled naked in the dentist's chair to Dale's winsomely adorable fiancee.

I'm not sure why they skipped completely over "report her to the state licensing board" and went straight to "hire some guy to kill her," but whatever. A running gag about Dale's inability to find another job because he's a sex offender (for drunkenly peeing on an empty playground at midnight) is either a clever statement about the flawed American justice system or a particularly tasteless joke - I can't decide which.

Of course, Bateman plays the straight guy here, with that exasperated clenched-jaw, hands-on-hips pose he does so well. Of the three, his boss is the most literally menacing, a sociopath whose abusive relationship with his wife is played for laughs.

The hapless trio try to hire a hitman off of Craigslist, with predictably zany results, then wander into a bar and hire the first tattooed, trench-coated thug they see: Jamie Lee Foxx's motormouthed felon, the memorably named Motherfucker Jones, who agrees to serve as their "murder consultant."

Hijinks ensue, someone actually does get bumped off, identities are mistaken, male bonding is had, and because this is a black comedy but still a comedy, it wraps up pretty well for everyone involved. Much of the movie's hilarity - of which there is a lot - is due to Spacey, Aniston, and Farrell's willingness to go all-out and push their characters beyond the realm of believability, turning them into oversized caricatures. The movie drew a lot of flak for jokes that veered into misogyny, racism, and homophobia - the bar scenes with Foxx are wince-inducing and Kurt is routinely busted for trying to pull the fist-bumping "My man!" routine - but the movie is also larded with enough silliness to defuse its crassness.

Perhaps what makes Horrible Bosses so weirdly palatable - so bizarrely refreshing - is that, whether by accident or design, it has a thumb on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. Nick, Dale, and Kurt can't get new jobs (a run-in with a friend, formerly employed by Lehmann Brothers and now reduced to turning tricks in the bar bathroom, underscores that point) because the economy sucks, so they're stuck where they are, with sadistic bosses who growl I own you and threaten them with blackmail.

Unlike a rash of movies that badly misjudged what viewers were willing to tolerate - the absolutely odious and disgusting Confessions of a Shopaholic and recent flop I Don't Know How She Does It (does what? Tolerate having a high-paying job, sweet New York townhouse, and wealthy husband? God, what a row to hoe), among others, Horrible Bosses hits the nerve of desperation and at-least-I'm-employed-pathos that's so prevalent right now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Makers of the Coobie Bra

Dear Makers of the Coobie bra,

It is quite possible that your bra is, as you say, "the most comfortable bra." However, I am not sure I can buy a bra that sounds like something in which I'd keep my beer can cold.


P.S. I guess it's better than the latest collection from Victoria's Secret. They've completely run out of synonyms for "sexy" over there and just threw in the towel and named it the Very Sexy Seduction collection. I predict the next one will be the Seriously, Guys, This is SEXY collection or Our Advertising Guy, Faced With The Prospect Of Finding Yet Another Way To Say "Sexy," Hanged Himself collection.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The night road.

So, to quote a certain failed Congressional wannabe, I am not a witch, nor have I ever been one. Right? Because they're all, we're going to meet over here at midnight, and I'm eh, no, I go to bed at 9:30. The supernatural life is not good for morning people like me.

And anyway, I'm not sure what exactly is useful about being a witch. Flying around would be fun, I suppose, if you're not prone to motion sickness, but the traditional witchy things - withering crops, spoiling milk, generally being a nuisance - seem more trouble than they're worth.

Sheri Holman's witch is a beleaguered, poor Virginia mountain woman named Cora Alley, and she's simultaneously the most real and most fantastic character in Holman's mostly excellent but sometimes spotty novel Witches on the Road Tonight.

Witches hopscotches from rural Virginia just as World War II is ramping up to the 1980s to present-day New York, unspooling a narrative between a father and daughter who have a reservoir of secrets and a lifetime of hurts. The book is at its strongest in the backwoods of the Virginia mountains and falters when it moves to the present, but is filled with strongly evocative detail.

Witches opens with a suicide note from Eddie Alley, a weary and sick old man, to his daughter Wallis, a television show host. Eddie worked in TV, too, as "Captain Casket," the corny host of a horror movie show. Eddie finds a bitter humor in comparing his hokey show to Wallis' newscast, musing that her show delights in terrifying viewers.

From present-day New York, Holman pulls us back to the fall of 1940, where photographer Sonia and write Tucker are on a WPA-funded trip to write a travel guide to rural Virginia. The assignment is a cruel joke - in a nation still reeling from the Depression, who can afford to travel? - and the trip has taken on an odd combination of honeymoon and funeral. Tucker's been drafted and is mere weeks from having to report. He and Sonia, the more worldly of the two, perhaps inevitably begin an affair that unspools as they travel through the backwoods of the Virginian mountains.

Their fragile idyll is shattered when Tucker hits a young Eddie Alley with his car. Eddie's not badly hurt, but Tucker and Sonia take him to his cabin, where they meet his mother, Cora, a woman with a spooky reputation in Panther Gap. Sonia and Tucker let themselves be talked into staying for a few days, with ambiguous but perhaps fatal consequences.

The novel skips several decades, and when we catch up to Eddie again, he's escaped Panther Gap, married, and fathered Wallis. His marriage, already fragile, is strained to breaking when Eddie brings home a young runaway, Jasper, who hangs around the station cadging odd jobs. Wallis become infatuated with Jasper, but there's a flinty edge to her affection, and Jasper's intentions are murkier. When Eddie's marriage to Wallis' mother Ann finally implodes, Eddie, Wallis, and Jasper find themselves back at Panther Gap, facing their own ghosts.

Holman deftly weaves the supernatural into her narrative, creating a night-riding witch and a possessed man with an aplomb that renders them completely plausible. Her writing shines at detail, particularly evoking the natural beauty and scrubby poverty of the mountains, lighting on details like Cora's two dresses and stained nightshirt resting on nails in the wall, or her rolling out exactly four biscuits.

Witches' opening is strong, but the narrative loses steam as it jumps around and the fragile magic of the first chapters is lost. Holman sometimes strains to find the connections between Wallis and Cora, and the first-person chapters narrated by Eddie are meandering. The book ends with one wishing to return to Panther Gap's witch.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Gene Simmons, Frontman of Kiss

Dear Gene Simmons,


That is all.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fun and games

So, here's the thing. I just finished reading George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, and initially I'd thought maybe I'd review them - all of them. Then I thought, no, that would be a long ridiculous slog, right? So here, I am summing up the entire series for you:

Haters gonna hate. Rapers gonna rape. And fighters gonna fight.

That's it! That's all! That's all you need, right there.

So the whole Game of Thrones thing kind of exploded after HBO started the TV series, and I'm dying to know if they're going to try to make a go of it with the second book after the first series ends. Dying to know, as in, I probably will not watch it just like I stopped watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand after they killed the pretty pretty lady Gaia, because I spent most of the show slack-jawed waiting for her to reappear so I could rock and croon "prettttty" and imagine having lovely porcelain skin like hers.

So, yes, Game of Thrones is a total guilty pleasure for me, just like Alice Borchardt's werewolves-in-Rome series was (The Silver Wolf, Night of the Wolf, The Wolf King). But! In my defense, that was some damn imaginative historical fiction, and Borchardt poured a lot of research into that series. If you ever wanted to know what the Roman equivalent of toilet paper was, read that series.

Is GoT (sorry, sorry, I know) good? Well, that depends on how you're defining good. It's not like this is some Norman Mailer going on here, right? And I have no earthly idea how Martin thinks he's going to wrap this up in two more books. But it's a gripping series, for lack of a better word, because Martin is absolutely not afraid to kill off his characters. Nothing is sacred! So it's sort of a game of man who will die next please not that guy I'm trying not to get too attached AHHHHHH DAMMIT.

Please, please not Tyrion. I'll be good forever.

So, yes. Read it! Be prepared to feel a little embarrassed. Maybe put a brown paper cover over it like that guy in class did the other day. But I saw, guy! And we had a sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment with our eyebrows, like yes, I like it - you too? Our little secret!

And that's okay. Let the haters hate.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Future shock.

So, before I dive into this review of Dan Simmons' Flashback and Albert Brooks' 2030, I'd like to let everyone know that I got my first anonymous nasty comment on my blog!

I am delighted. I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. Someone else is actually reading this! Who they are, I do not know, as like many on the Internet, they prefer to cloak themselves in an aura of mystery. Unless they are actually named Anonymous. Good Anonymous, please feel free to continue to comment - as long as someone is reading this, I'm thrilled.

Anyway! Dan Simmons! The Caliphate! Reconquistas! Japan inexplicably deciding to declare war! Welcome to the zany world of Flashback.

Dan Simmons is the author of the dense and rewarding novels Drood and The Terror, but he's also a prolific writer who hopscotches from genre to genre. If you became a fan of Simmons' work after reading Drood and The Terror, as I did, Flashback may be off-putting. It's a detective mystery disguised as a dystopian novel, with an overtly and brashly politicized subtext.

Flashback's America of twenty-something years in the future is a broke, collapsing behemoth. Hopelessly indebted to China, India, Japan, and other wealthier countries, America is down to forty-four states, has lost much of the Southwest to Mexico, and has resorted to renting out the Army (now with involuntary subscription!) to fight richer nations' wars. The government is defunct, and the National Guard is controlled by nine Japanese advisors, corporate billionaires with nearly limitless power. After a nuclear strike by Iran, Israel has been destroyed, and the Caliphate has taken over Europe and Africa.

Oh, and nearly 90% of Americans are now hopelessly addicted to flashback, an aerosol drug that allows you to relive your memories perfectly.

Nick Bottom is a former police detective who lives most of his life 'under the flash,' revisting memories of his deceased wife, Dara. He's estranged from his teenage son Val, now being raised by Nick's father, and lives in a grubby cubicle in a repurposed mall. Dara died in a traffic accident while Nick was investigating his last murder case, the killing of the son of one of the ultrarich Japanese advisors, Nakamura. The murder was never solved, and Nick's life dissolved into a haze of flashback after Dara's death.

Until Nakamura summons Nick and tells him to reopen his investigation. Nick is certain that this is one case he can't close, but he's out of money and out of options, so he accepts.

With Nakamura's deadly bodyguard Sato as both partner and threat, Nick begins retracing the steps of his first investigation, which takes him back to memories he'd prefer not to relive. In the meantime, he's still got a raging addiction to manage and an out-of-control son in Los Angeles who is tangled up in problems of his own.

Simmons doesn't shy away from placing blame: all of the issues that America faces are the fault of the current administration, from runaway entitlements to the secession of Texas (which seems to be doing fine, has a massive Army, and is populated by guys who talk like Chuck Norris).

Nick's investigation, as investigations in these types of books are wont to do, starts a veritable shitstorm. He realizes that his wife's death may have been less accidental than he thought, and to complicate matters, his son and father flee an erupting Los Angeles and turn up on his doorstep.

Although much of Simmon's content here is a stretch (is Japan really going to go to war with the Caliphate on behalf of Western civilization? Highly unlikely) but he's still a damn good writer, from a hair-raising battle in the desert between rogue militas and Nakamura's samurai to the reeking flashcaves where addicts twitch and dream.

But because this is a detective novel, and no one reads those to be left hanging, Simmons provides the obligatory loose-threads-wrap-up ending that readers expect, which feels like a cop-out from an author who dragged us all the way through the twisty, frustrating, and endlessly complex Drood only to dump us without an explanation. Not only that, but the ending is the most improbable of all in a very improbable novel. A nation so far gone as Simmon's America probably can't be saved, no matter the magnitude of the discovery of his plucky detective.

Albert Brooks, actor, comedian, director, writer, and multi-hyphenate extraordinaire (known only to me as the voice of Nemo) also purports to predict America's future, but despite some drolly funny elements, his flat, two-dimensional writing and stilted characters hamstring 2030.

Brooks' America is no less broke than Simmons', but his future is a rather gentler one. Ever since Dr. Sam Mueller cured cancer, the population has become more and more top-heavy as life expectancy soars, health care costs explode, and ever more advanced end-of-life interventions keep anyone from dying in a timely manner.

Since the voting public is now older than ever, Congress continues passing entitlements for the elderly that the young - broke, unemployed, and deeply in debt - are forced to finance, resulting in a surge of anger and outbreaks of violence against the "olds," as they're called. Throw in a devastating earthquake that flattens Los Angeles that the government can't afford to repair, and things are looking pretty bleak. President Bernstein is hoping to borrow more money from China, but China has other goals - and the President is pretty distracted with the emotional affair he's carrying on with his Treasury Secretary.

Brooks looks at the situation from both a macro and micro level - the President and other power players as well as one young woman, Kathy, whose father has left her with crippling medical bills after his death. Kathy's become involved with a group of young people, led by the charismatic Max, who have realized that they'll never be able to outvote the olds and are ready to resort to more drastic means.

2030's ending is rather ambiguous. Is America getting saved or damned? Although he peppers the writing with funny bon mots, his writing remains one-key throughout. Brooks behaves more as a deux ex machina for his characters, swooping in to fix Kathy's problems by manufacturing an abrupt romance with the rich Max (literally, their first kiss comes while her father's body is still on the kitchen floor). Max's anger about the "olds" is inexplicable, since he's wealthy enough not to have the problems others from his generation do. Likewise, Bernstein's infatuation with his new Secretary of the Treasury comes out of nowhere - and it's kind of depressing that Brooks gives us the first female Treasury Secretary, only to make her a home-wrecker.

Despite some interesting ideas, Brook's flat writing can't measure up to Simmons' incendiary prose.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Artist Who Drew this "Map of the Open Country of Woman's Heart."

Dear Artist,

My country of novel-reading is going to have make a serious push for Lebensraum.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Open Letter Mondays (late edition)

An Open Letter to Zooey Deschanel, star of The New Girl

Dear Zooey (can I call you Zooey?),

Yeah, yeah. So this is late. I'm not getting paid here, you know? Anyway. I watched your pilot. At least I tried to. Look, I know that TV pilots are often a lot worse than the actual show - it's kind of a throw it to the wall and see what sticks approach - but I only lasted about ten minutes before giving up.

Ugh. Sitcoms, right? Comedy is hard. I get it. But everyone kind of hates your show right now. NPR was particularly harsh, The Washington Post even more so.

Dang. I know I'd want to curl up with a pint of ice cream if my sitcom got panned that bad. And yes, it is kind of a low blow for Hank Steuver to snarkily call you too old to play the Bambi-eyed ingenue. But, look, first of all, it is not that weird now for guys and girls to share an apartment. It doesn't elicit gasps and pearl-clutching. It's just not that strange. Banking on that as the premise for all your show's zaniness is like trying to build a sitcom about Grandpa's hilarious escapades with his new motor-car.

I'm not really sure what to tell you, other than to gently remind you that you are a grown-assed woman. Leave the bug-eyed staring and cringe-worthy adorkableness (see? Even saying that word makes me groan) to the kids.


EDITED TO ADD: So, apparently not everyone disliked this show: The New Girl had a healthy first episode rating, even beating the new Glee, and Fox has ordered a season. To which I say: Twilight, okay?! Twilight!

Monday, September 19, 2011

All my exes.

I suppose I should feel pretty lucky that the worst thing any of my exes did was stalk me (rather incompetently - it's hard to stalk someone when they live an hour away from you and you don't have a car) and (a different ex, this time) write crap about me on LiveJournal. Which would have been okay if he had been, say, in high school, and not a grown-assed man. But it's cool, we're sort of friends now, I guess? And anyway, no one ever cared about LiveJournal.

Hilary Winston's ex, the vaguely lab-mouse-ish looking Chad Kultgen, wrote The Average American Male, a "fictionalized" account of their relationship. Nonfiction, in that Kultgen repeatedly refers to Winston as his "fat-assed girlfriend," and fiction, in that the Kultgen-character actually gets to sleep with some attractive ladies. The Average American Male is another book of "fratire", joining the ilk of Tucker Max and legions of shrieky, angry, beknighted bloggers like Eric Schaeffer. Pssst, Eric...we know why you're still single!

So, what's a girl to do after finding out that your ex-boyfriend wrote a book in which he describes you as, alternately, fat, unattractive, whiny, bitchy, clingy, neurotic, and childish?

Well, if you're Winston, you bat that ball right back in his court. Except you don't try to pretend that your book is fiction.

My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me is ultimately far more depressing than funny, even though Winston has writing credits on My Name is Earl and Community (the fact that she was more successful as scriptwriting than Kultgen was one of the factors in their breakup). Winston revisits her fairly disastrous dating life, having the not-entirely-surprising revelation that for some reason, she has a hard time being attracted to guys who actually like her.

Her relationship with Kultgen is excruciating from the start, from his refusal to eat anywhere other than Olive Garden and generally boorish behavior. But they move in together and end up spending four years as a couple, although it seems pretty obvious early in their relationship that this is a Very Bad Idea. Winston tries to milk the humor from their relationship, but there's very little to be found, although she includes plenty of anecdotes about her recalcitrant, diabetic cat and her questionable dating choices after she and Kultgen split. Overall, My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me induces more winces than laughs.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sweet, sweet vindication.

Finally, The Telegraph is proving that being an irritating morning person has an upside:

Early Risers Get Ahead Of The Game

According to Nick Collins, science correspondent, whose picture makes him look approximately twelve years old, a recent survey of about 1,000 adults found that those who have a tendency to go to bed early and wake up early are less stressed, less depressed, and tend to be thinner than night owls.

This survey did not mention that if you are a morning person, like me, you also are probably going to die younger after everyone gets sick of you whining about how 9 am on a weekend is soooo late to get up and beats you to death with bars of soap in a sock.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

(don't) steal this book

Rachel Shteir opens her bizarrely compelling yet uneven book, The Steal, with the infamous Winona Ryder shoplifting case of 2001 (remember that?). There was a frisson of schadenfreude when Ryder was arrested, but the sympathy pendulum seemed to swing in her favor after her trial, which quickly turned into a public lashing. Ryder received a much harsher sentence than similar offenders. She seems to have been forgiven, telling Vogue in 2007 that she didn't feel a tremendous sense of guilt, since she hadn't harmed anyone, and blaming the whole episode on an overuse of painkillers. Her career appears to have mended itself, with roles in Black Swan, Star Trek, and a handful of upcoming films (including one with Burton and a rumored Heathers sequel).

Should Ryder have felt a tremendous sense of guilt? Shteir presents reasons that support both yes and no, although she ultimately leaves the decision up to the reader.

In The Steal, Shtier argues that Ryder's case was not only compelling because of its celebrity (plenty other famous and not-so-famous people have been nabbed purloining things) but because Ryder fit the profile of the 'typical shoplifer' so well: a woman, stealing things she probably could have afforded if she wanted to pay for them, and filching luxury goods instead of anything essential.

But is this the typical shoplifter? The Steal is full of interesting little statistical pieces, such as pointing out that while shoplifting is thought of as something more women do, more men than women actually steal. Women tend to steal clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics; men tend to steal books, tools, and other gadgets.

Part one of The Steal looks at the history of shoplifting, from the first codified laws against it in the Book of Hammurabi, where stealing from the rich is punished more harshly than stealing from the poor. Hammurabi was apparently a conservative. Plato also takes on stealing in The Republic, musing about what stealing means to a society, and who can forget Saint Augustine's famous pears? The scale of Augustine's theft is laughably small, but his horror at his transgression - not so much the stealing, but stealing and then throwing away, not even eating his spoils - is palpable.

It wasn't until Elizabethan England that shoplifting, not just regular garden-variety theft, became a big problem. The rise of the city, with its attendant shops and the newly available luxury goods, led to an explosion in shoplifting. However, England's attitude towards thieves was a weird mix of hero-worship and condemnation. England passed extremely strict punishments for stealing in 1699, the so-called "Bloody Code," that included capital punishment for petty crimes. After seeing more than one impoverished mother hanged for stealing food, the public attitude towards shoplifting turned, aided by books and songs that celebrated notorious thieves like Moll Flanders.

However, by the 1800s, the rise of psychoanalytic theory changed the attitude towards shoplifters considerably. The 1806 "Treatise on Insanity" included an entry on kleptomania. A century later, Freud would solidify the modern conception of kleptomania as a woman's disease, blaming it on "female sexual repression," - although according to Freud, I could probably blame my habit of eating a dozen eggs a week and chewing my hangnails on female sexual repression. Still, an earnest effort to reform so-named kleptomaniacs began, which I personally believe is preferable to hanging them.

In chapter three, Shtier looks at stealing as a form of protest, spurred by Abbie Hoffman's famous work, Steal This Book, that urged readers to steal from large corporations as a way to protest..well, corporations, I think? Shtier takes a distasteful tone towards Hoffman and his ilk, and she includes an interview with a Dumpster-diving freegan that finds her more bewildered than enlightened by his philosophy.

Shtier circles back around to the celebrity shoplifter theme with the arrest of Hedy Lamarr in 1965 and 1991, both for ridiculously miniscule amounts. Shtier looks at the lady thief motif in Hollywood, from Breakfast at Tiffany's Holly Golightly to Remember the Night's Lee Leander.

The Steal loses its light, witty tone at the end, when Shtier shifts the focus to counter-theft measures, from the invention of alarm tags to profiling.

It's a little unclear exactly what Shtier's main thesis is, but she asserts that in the advent of the bad-behavior era of reality television (which, has anyone else noticed, has become a shorthand for generally crass and boorish behavior?), shoplifting remains the "last species of creepy conduct," although her inclusion of quotes hailing the dashing shoplifter undercut her argument. There seems to be a split here, between the Robin Hood or Jean Valjean figure, stealing for a cause, to the bored housewife or skulking thief. Of course, in neither of those archetypes figure the boosters who make actual money stealing things in bulk and reselling them.

The Steal, despite its scattered argument, is a very interesting read about a particular source of shame in a society that seems to be losing the ability to feel that emotion. Shtier's skill at research and interviewing is evident in The Steal, and the historical anecdotes are fascinating. Theft, not prostitution, may be the oldest trade in the world.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Who wears short shorts?

Well, I don't, but in an attempt to redeem myself for watching Conan the Barbarian (and not just watching, but actually buying a ticket and seeing it in theaters) I went to the D.C. Shorts Film Festival on Saturday. The D.C. Shorts Festival divides the short films up into batches of nine, and we saw show thirteen.

I love short films - probably for the same reason I like short stories (short attention span and the tendency to eat all my snacks within 20 minutes of a movie starting). The D.C. Film Festival's shorts run the gamut from funny to scary to weird, and there are usually at least one or two that are just really, really good.

The Brazilian government was one of this year's sponsors, so Brazilian filmmakers were heavily represented. Show thirteen kicked off with Simpatia do Limao, (The Lemon Spell), directed by Miguel de Oliveira. Simpatia do Limao is a bright little bit of goofiness. A woman returns to a sham fortuneteller, whose lemon spell has brought back the woman's straying husband - except since he left her, she's picked up a young and hunky new amore and isn't so sure she wants him to return. Unfortunately, the film's misspelled subtitles kind of spoiled it - in a movie so short, it was really glaring.

In Nice Tie, Italiano! (Evan Hart) a handsome couple prepare for a night out, but both of them have a hidden agenda. The movie has a slick, 1960s Fellini-esque feel, nicely reflected in the styling (thick black eyeliner and a bouffant for her, a neat black suit for him).

From Sweden comes Sidewalk Wars, (Emil Stenberg), a short piece of absurdist animation.

Josh Russell's darkly comic Text takes us to a not-very-far-future (at least, judging by everyone's cell phones - not even a QWERTY in sight) where speaking has been replaced by texting. A hapless diner who forgets and answers the phone is kicked to death, and a couple who miss speaking have an unusual affair. The concept is interesting and there were genuinely funny bits, but it was marred by clunky acting.

The Face Shop (Noella Borie) was my least favorite, a poorly animated mishmash of cartooning and claymation that ripped off elements from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The voices were poorly done, the animation was hoky, and the premise could have been creepy good fun, but for one of the shortest films, it felt incredibly long, and more like a students' exercise in self-indulgence than anything else.

David Lowery's Pioneer was, hands-down, the best part of show thirteen. Strongly acted and beautifully shot, Pioneer shows a father telling his son a bedtime story that is simultaneously eerily plausible and completely impossible.

Aussie Toby Roberts' Spoilt Broth follows an imcompetent German bankrobber who bungles the job.
Sam Hoare's gentle Training Day follows a young boy and his long-suffering grandfather as they prepare for a sports competition. It's cute, light, fluffy, and rather forgettable.

Jim and Tom Isler's Two's a Crowd is show thirteen's only documentary. Allen and Collette, two dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, credit the survival of their five-year marriage to keeping separate apartments, but when Allen's rent gets hiked, he moves into Collette's place. Two's a Crowd is sweet and funny, thanks to Allen and Collette's irrepressible personalities and humor.