Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day!

I've been saving this one for Father's Day. Not only is it a picture of a very "Dad" item, but it actually belongs to my father. I found it in his workshop over the winter.

Neat graphic, huh? Happy Father's Day everyone!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Stories of Our Lives

I'm breaking with my usual format a bit here, which is that I read a book and tell you how it was. Sometimes, people who've read it too or think the book sounds interesting comment back. But I'm reading a different sort of book right now, and I want to do something different with my post about it.

I came across I Thought My Father Was God And Other True Tales From NPR's National Story Project by Paul Auster while I was looking for something else. It's exactly what it sounds like, random stories from random people. Sad, funny, bizarre, you name it. The stories are short, and the book is like popcorn -- always just "one more piece" until you've eaten the whole bag. It also defies any meaningful analysis. So instead, I want to hear your stories. Post as many true stories as you like, on any topic you can think of, in the comments, and I'll publish them. (The only real reason I moderate is to avoid the Viagra spammers). I'll get things started with one of my own:


When I met my boyfriend, he had a great dog, a Sheltie named Pudgy. Pudgy always greeted me at the door when I came over, liked to lie on the bed with me, and liked to herd people towards the door when he needed to go out. My boyfriend had done all of the training for Pudgy when he was a pup, so they were especially close.

But Pudgy started to get old, and sick. His hips went bad, he couldn't see very well, and most ominously of all, he had a large,dark growth on his stomach. They put him to sleep one beautiful autumn day so that he wouldn't have to suffer with the cold of winter.

But the family had never been without a dog for long. As much as they had loved Pudgy, there was an empty place in the family that needed to be filled. They reserved a pup from a breeder of Golden Retrievers, about a two-hour drive from their house. One spring day, the rest of the family traveled to get their new dog. My boyfriend stayed home by himself.

As he was puttering around the house, he happened to look out the front door. There, on their porch, was a Sheltie dog that looked exactly like Pudgy. The dog sat there on the porch and looked at him for a few minutes, as if to say, "It's OK to get a new dog, but don't forget me." Then, the dog ran away. It's a small and tight-knit neighborhood, but my boyfriend had never seen the dog before, nor did he ever see it again.

Let's hear yours.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Celebate With a Book About Dragons!

Happy BTT! Here's today's question/theme:

One of my favorite sci-fi authors (Sharon Lee) has declared June 23rd Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Day.

As she puts it:

So! In my Official Capacity as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I hereby proclaim June 23 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day! A day of celebration and wonder! A day for all of us readers of science fiction and fantasy to reach out and say thank you to our favorite writers. A day, perhaps, to blog about our favorite sf/f writers. A day to reflect upon how written science fiction and fantasy has changed your life.

So … what might you do on the 23rd to celebrate? Do you even read fantasy/sci-fi? Why? Why not?

I've never enjoyed sci-fi, but I do like fantasy. I love the Harry Potter books, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Prydain chronicles, the Chronicles of Narnia, and a few other assorted ones. When I was growing up, I was very enthralled by fantasy novels. My best friend and I searched extremely hard for the Gateway to Narnia (hint: nowhere in her house, my house or the woods behind my house). We didn't act out our favorite books, but pretended to be characters from our favorite books. And, it goes without saying, we read them over and over.

I always read all types of novels, though, and still do. But I enjoy reading fantasy. I like the humor and wit in the Harry Potter books: the paintings that act as hall monitors, the difficulties of selling books such as The Invisible Book of Invisibility ("Cost a fortune to order and we never found any of them!"), the wizard candies like Bertie Botts' Every Flavor Beans and Chocolate Frogs. I also find them kind of inspiring. It's pretty bad when you share something like that with your guild in World of Warcraft and they laugh at your geekiness, but it's true. In most of the books, Harry Potter was pushed into impossible situations he didn't even want to be in, where everyone wanted to see him fail. But he kept going, even at the cost of many relationships in his life and even at the cost of some of his friends' very lives, and ultimately succeeded.

When fantasy's done well, it gives you a little break from the ordinary. With a book like Harry Potter or Narnia, you can even choose to semi-believe in it. After all, maybe the gateway's out there somehwere, and I just never found it...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Life (and Death) In A Northern Town

Image from

How many of my readers have seen the movie Clerks? Not that travesty they released a few years ago, but the original. Great movie, right? The action in it is minimal, sure, but the characters were great and anyone who's ever worked retail can relate to it: dealing with the asinine customers, choking back your real feelings every minute of every day, coping with your slacker co-workers and lying snake boss, trying to work around busted fixtures that the management's too cheap to fix, all for minimum wage, a bajillion hours a week when they're busy and none when they're slow, and to basically be spat on by all of society.

But how many of you know how the movie was originally supposed to end? In the version you can rent today, Randall and Dante make plans for the next day, then Randall leaves, only to re-enter a second later, toss Dante's makeshift "Open" banner on the counter and say, "Hey! You're closed!" But, originally, after Randall left the second time, some guys were supposed to come in with guns, steal the cash out of the register, and shoot Dante to death. Kind of makes it a whole different movie, doesn't it?

Chuck Klosterman's equally character-driven novel Downtown Owl has a bizarre and shocking ending like that, too. It changes the entire meaning of the rest of the novel, into what I'm not quite sure, but deeply.

The novel, incidentally, is much better than the dust jacket would have you believe. "...Horace Jones...consumes a lot of coffee, misses his dead wife, and understands the truth. [The three main characters] all know each other completely, except that they've never met." These two sentences are so absolutely stupid and cringe-worthy that they're hypnotic. Since I started the book, I find them running through my mind while I'm brushing my teeth, or driving, or doing dishes. They're so awful that they're seared there forever, like a bad TV jingle or poorly worded slogan.

What the book is really about is life in an extremely small town, in North Dakota, in the early 1980s. If you've read Fargo Rock City, you'll know that that was the time and place of Klosterman's youth. Owl, North Dakota, is a town of about 800. We see life there from three perspectives. Mitch Hrdlicka is sixteen and has lived there his entire life. Julia Rabia is twenty-three, unmarried, and brand-new to town. The aforementioned Horace Jones is in his eighties and has also lived in Owl his entire life.

Owl has a lot of idiosyncrasies. Julia is usually the one to pick these out, such as the way every man in town has a bizarre, random nickname that sticks with them forever (I like "Kleptosaur," for a man who had been caught shoplifting a toy dinosaur when he was eight). There's no such thing as "dating," either -- one date equates to a relationship. Everybody plays football. Everybody goes to church on Wednesday nights. Outside of these two activities, the only real social life involves several bars in town (the VFW counts as a bar) and the bowling alley. And, the bartenders will often make you a drink in a plastic cup at closing time, so you can drink it on your drive home.

As I said before, the book is extremely character-driven (until the end) so it's hard to really describe "the plot." Julia settles in to a routine. As virtually the only unmarried woman in town between the ages of 20 and 40, she quickly becomes Owl's It Girl, drinking all night long and never paying. As is utterly typical, she develops a sincere interest in the one man who never pursues her, a local celebrity famous for making a single outstanding play in high school football that wound up being nationally televised. Even fame of this nature can be a difficult thing to live with, so her love interest is rather tortured and introverted.

Mitch plays football, because that's what everyone does. He argues with his friends about music and about which of two large, sociopathic classmates would win were they to fight each other (these passages are particularly funny). He hates his football coach, who's impregnated two of his female classmates and who gave him a nickname he hates. He's reading 1984 in preparation for that year, and fails to see significant differences between his life in Owl and life in the society described in that book. Everyone knows everyone's business in Owl, seemingly before they carry out their business. Mitch sees plenty of examples of Doublethink and Newspeak in his own life (the simple greeting "How's it going, Mitch?" is his main example...and it's hard to disagree with his analysis of these types of exchanges).

As for Horace, well, his life has wound down significantly. His wife died in a rather Gothic and lurid manner many years previously, and since then, his life has revolved around getting together with men he's known his whole life for coffee every day, and talking over the day's news events. The price of grain. The high school football team. Town gossip. Things like that.

The book meanders along nicely, until the last thirty pages shock you away from the book you thought you were reading and turn it into a completely different one. About the only thing that the hack who wrote the dust jacket didn't claim is that "This book is fundamentally about life and death..." but it is. In the face of the end, you completely re-evaluate the thoughts and choices and dreams of the three main characters. Many of them seem rather pointless. It's hard to know what the overall meaning is. And I don't want to speculate too much here, given that I presume most people reading this post haven't read the book. Anyone with thoughts is welcome to share them in comments; if you haven't read the book and don't want it ruined further, feel free to stay out of them.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Just In Time For Summer, A New Sandra Dallas Book!

Sandra Dallas has been a favorite of mine ever since the summer I turned 16 and found Buster Midnight's Cafe at one of those remaindered book sale places that open for a couple of months at a time in an empty storefront. By some miracle, her new one, Prayers for Sale was in. As it's a seven-day-book, I read that one first.

It's a pleasant and quick read. I also think it would film very well, with a tween star (Miley Cyrus perhaps?) taking her first "serious" role as Nit, a twenty-year-old young bride who's come from Kentucky with her husband to the gold mining town of Middle Swan, Colorado. A beloved, critically acclaimed female star (Jessica Tandy or Katherine Hepburn would be good if they were still alive) would play the Old Hennie, who has lived in Middle Swan since she was about Nit's age and is now preparing to leave the rough mining town, and her home of nearly 70 years, to live with her daughter in Iowa. Nit stops at Hennie's gate, drawn by the Prayers For Sale sign, and the two strike up a friendship. The leading, meatiest role of the movie would go to an established female star with substance (someone like Kate Winslet, but probably not her), as Hennie tells Nit her life story in a series of flashbacks.

Hennie's story is, in a sense, the story of late 19th-century America. Hennie becomes a Civil War widow at a very early age and is lured West by a friend who moved there with her husband. The Gold Rush is in full swing, as is westward expansion in general, and Hennie goes to seek her future. Over the years, she watches as Middle Swan matures from a clearing populated primarily by hookers and prospectors to an established town with real buildings and schools.

Hennie's there for it all. And as she prepares to leave, she shares her tales with Nit, partially to help her prepare for what's still a very rough life (the story is set in 1936) and partially because she recognizes that these stories are her legacy. The ranks of those who settled Middle Swan are dwindling every day (Hennie is 86) and when Hennie goes "down below" to live with her daughter, there will be one less person who remembers the town's history.

Hennie's stories alternate between being funny and tragic (as does life, I suppose). There's the tale of Maudie, who dies after her evil husband throws her into a fire, then fails to seek medical treament. There's the tale of the star-crossed love between a prostitute named Bijou and a man from a wealthy family. There's also the tale of how Hennie's friends helped the wife of an avid gambler beat him at his own game and scare him away from the card table for good. There are tales of prospectors who struck it rich and left the life of toil for the high life, and other prospectors who found that the search was what brought the satisfaction and the suppsoed "pay-off" was just a let-down. There are dozens of tales crammed into the more 300-odd pages of the book. I recommend picking this one up. It's great fun, but the kind that will stay with you when it's done.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Current Library Haul

A lot of times, when I go to the library, it's a vague, unfocused experience. I glance over all the books. I try to tune out the people who go there to talk on their cell phones. I try to avoid the people with that "I'm totally batshit insane and would like to chat with you" look about them. In between, I grab a random smattering of stuff after the books I came for are invariably out, check out and run back to the car with a few minutes to go before the meter runs.

Other times, though, like this Tuesday, it's a spot-on experience. I make it up the escalator just as the crazy guy who seems like he wants to chat wanders through the door and disappear from his sightline into the stacks. Once there, I discover a whole bunch of books that I didn't even remember I wanted to read. It's actually quiet in there like it's supposed to be. My arms are loaded down before I even make it past the Ds. I zoom right to the front of the line with a miraculously clean account and make it down to the car with time to spare.

So, what did I get?

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman (I wanted Killing Yourself to Live, but it's ALWAYS out.)
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (already finished!)
Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
American Owned Love by Robert Boswell
"Co. Aytch," Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regimen by Samuel Watkins
I Thought My Father Was God and other true tales by Paul Auster

As I mentioned, I already finished the Sandra Dallas. Downtown Owl is up next, since it's a 7-day book. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Special Snowflakes

Happy BTT, everyone! I blew off last week's for some reason, even though it was really good. But I'm back this week. I also visited the library and finished one of the books already, so I have some more post fodder coming! But, for today...

There are certain types of books that I more or less assume all readers read. (Novels, for example.)

But then there are books that only YOU read. Instructional manuals for fly-fishing. How-to books for spinning yarn. How to cook the perfect souffle. Rebuilding car engines in three easy steps. Dog training for dummies. Rewiring your house without electrocuting yourself. Tips on how to build a NASCAR course in your backyard. Stuff like that.

What niche books do YOU read?

Well, this is a pretty easy one. My "niche books" generally consist of museum-type books. The New Museum Registration Methods, edited by Buck and Gilmore, is just about the best $75 I've ever spent on a book. Yes, it also acts as a surefire cure for insomnia, especially the chapters on complying with the Fish and Wildlife Department regulations. I'd rather go to jail than read all of that! But there's a lot of really helpful stuff in there. During my summer internship, when I had to physically mark collections tracking numbers on a really varied collection, it helped a lot. It sounds easy, but...where's the best place to mark a number on a kitchen table? what do you do about leather? what do you do with something that's small and skinny, like a set of toenail clippers? Remember, it's got to be reversible, but not wear off on its own, easy to find by future staff but unnoticeable by museum guests.

Aside from the technical stuff, books on issues in museums are also interesting, and often read by a slightly wider audience. The Medici Conspiracy deals with forgeries and sketchy provenance. Give Me My Father's Body deals with the issues of human remains on display and also of ethnocentrism in museums. Displays of Power discusses controversial museum exhibits. These are the ones I'm more likely to read just for fun, but I'm not sure the general public finds them as fun as I do.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword

Depending on how you look at corporate law, it's either very exciting or incredibly tedious and dry. On one hand, you've got the human side: larger-than-life gamblers, hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the late nights and fever pitch of activity that makes everything come out within the law. On the other hand, there's the maze of technicalities, the Section 8b7s, arcane multisyllabic words that can only be explained by using other arcane multisyllabic words, until a layperson wonders how anyone can comprehend this crap, let alone care about it.

A novel about corporate law would have to appeal to both audiences. Aim at corporate lawyers alone, and you're looking at having most of your books remaindered and your agent forgetting your phone number. At the same time, though, corporate lawyers, and ex-corporate lawyers, will most definitely be reading your work and you have to appeal to them too.

At first, I thought Sabin Willett's The Deal was going to fail at this. The book opens in the midst of a multi-million dollar real estate deal, the biggest one that the firm of Freer, Motley has ever seen in its lengthy history. It's a manic hive of activity. You can smell the scorched coffee, the toner fumes, the rotting Chinese takeout in office trash bins as all the major players work their behinds off to close the deal in just eight days. But just when it appears to be getting interesting, the pace slows to accomodate the legal technicalities.

I was ready to give up at this point, didn't find it as human or as interesting as Present Value. However, I was reading it outside towards the close of a beautiful day right before the wedding where I'd be wearing a dress that showed a fair amount of skin. And I didn't want to be mistaken for an undead outside of World of Warcraft. I didn't want to lose precious sun time by rummaging for a new book, so I kept going. I'm pretty glad I did.

The drama cranks up when something goes very, very wrong with the real estate deal. Somehow, the mortgage had been written for merely $840,000...leaving out entirely the third set of zeroes. The client paid off the balanace immediately (probably out of his change tray). Malpractice is threatened. Jobs are on the line. A very unfavorable settlement is reached, and one man alone stands against it. Later, that man is found dead in his home, at first an apparent suicide, then possibly murdered by one of his own employees, John Shepard, recently passed over for partner.

Or was he? Protagonist Ed Mulcahy, who got the partner slot over his friend and mentor Shepard, is tasked first with getting to the bottom of the mortgage error, then with defending his friend against the murder charge. Not by the firm -- who fires him -- but by Shepard himself.

At this point, it's more or less all legal drama. The drama's intensified by the fact that Mulcahy is most decidedly NOT a criminal defense attorney and is having to improvise. A rich tapestry of characters support and thwart Mulcahy's efforts: tough stubborn loner MIS man George Creel; loud, crude private investigator Stevie Carr; flashy, lazy susperstar defense attorney Parisi, etc. etc. If you've seen Law and Order, you've seen a lot of these characters before. It turns out that neither theory of the crime -- suicide or murder by John Shepard -- quite fits, and Mulcahy has to dig up his own evidence for what really happened by night, while trying the case by day.

I enjoyed the book overall, but there's nothing terribly ground-breaking or unusual here. The book was written in 1996, and computers play a major role in them, so readers slightly younger than myself might have some issues with these portions (I myself had to snigger a bit at the scenes where the modem was dialing up). It's lighter reading than the beginning of the book suggests. I finished the 434-page book in about a day and a half. But it's not bad.

Monday, June 1, 2009

May in Review: Yet Another New Feature

What can I say, I like blog features. I know I have a lot that I never utilize (LIttle Sister Syndrome comes to mind, I think I did a grand total of one). But I'm going to try to do these around the beginning of each moth, about my last month's reading.

In May, I finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Plain Heathen Mischief, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Thirteenth Tale, and The Bearded Lady. I gave up on Human Voices halfway through. Of the ones I finished, I'd rate two of them (Snow Falling on Cedars and The Thirteenth Tale) as excellent, must-reads. Edgar didn't do much of anything for me, nor did The Bearded Lady. Plain Heathen Mischief seemed to have a sort of train-wreck fascination for me, looking back, with a genuinely likeable main character who made nothing but bad choices that brought misery on his head.

I visited the library once and still have two books to read from that trip. (Thank God for the renew feature). I also realized that I failed to blog about meeting Tony Horwitz. I'll have to rectify that soon. Overall, a good month for books, averaging better than one per week, and managing to get in two that I really, really enjoyed. I bogged down in Human Voices and also in The Bearded Lady but did OK otherwise.

The X Factor

The most difficult books for me to blog about are the ones that don't do much for me. It's easy to write about something I disliked, also easy to write about something I loved. But what about the books that aren't bad enough to put down, but don't really move me either? The 300-pagers that take a week and a half to finish because I'm not super-motivated to learn what happens next or spend time with the characters? The Bearded Lady, by Sharlee Dieguez, was one such book.

Set around the turn of the twentieth centruy, the book has a pair of teenaged sisters as its focal point. Jessie and Tweets (whose name I absolutely hated, it sounded like a fart to me) are orphaned at the start of the book. When their alcoholic father dies and they're taken in by their aunt as free labor for her boarding house, things go from bad to worse. She kicks them out eventually, and they're taken in by one of the impoverished, barely better than enslaved black servants. They know they can't remain in their friend's crowded, dirt-floored cabin for long and grasp at the first straw that comes their way: a traveling circus.

Many people want to run away and join the circus. In an era where the plight of Jessie and Tweets was not unusual, I'd imagine even more people wanted to run away and join the circus. Jessie and Tweets were enabled to actually do so through the assistance of bareback rider Marion des Cartes, who sort of adopted them. Jessie soon become the right-hand woman of the circus owner, helping to track invoices, sort mail, and write letters.

But Jessie has a secret, the nature of which is plain in the title. When it starts to come out, she makes the bold and difficult decision to take on an additional assignment in the circus sideshow. In what I feel is a bit of a tired cliche, she's also a gifted writer and writes newspaper articles about the circus and her own life, first under the name of one of the paper's established writers, and then under her own name.

That's not all Jessie has going on in her life. She had long nursed feelings for the established writer, even before her father died, that intensified when she had the opportunity to meet him and spend a day with him. But other feelings are starting to blossom, feelings of a forbidden nature -- for Marion, who has many, many secrets of her own.

It sounds like a good book, doesn't it? So I don't know why it failed to add up to much. Maybe because the reader always felt one step ahead of the action. You know from the title of the book that Tweets and Jessie will find an escape from their initial plight. You can also guess that Jessie will decide to grow out her beard and exhibit herself. Yet, when the rest of the secrets are revealed, they all felt like foregone conclusions to me.

Maybe there was just too much in the book. I think it would have been better off without Tweets, who never quite emerged as a strong character in her own right. There was also the shadow of a medical subplot with Jessie, which never quite came out. Marion was an intriguing character, but we saw only the merest glimpses of her. Many of the interesting characters in the book -- the ill-tempered manipulative circus owner Rebel Pierce, the Chinese concubine Mei Ling with the three-inch feet, Fat Frannie, the guy with half a conjoined twin -- never amounted to much more than a backstory and a whisp of a mannerism.

So overall, it wasn't poorly written. Maybe just poorly realized. I can't really recommend or not recommend this one either way. It didn't do anything for me, but I can see how other people would enjoy it.