Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shop local today

You may have seen the AmEx ads on TV that indicate that today is Small Business Saturday. Sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it's a day to go out and support your local small business.

I didn't know that this was all AmEx's idea, but it's a good one. These days, chain stores seem to offer everything. They have the huge parking lots, the extended hours, the deep discounts, and the proximity to coffee shops and bars. The downside is that you deeply need a drink after going into one of those, especially during the holiday season. I don't know about you, but I always leave feeling stressed out and reminded of how much more I have to do.

Another thing chain stores can't offer you is diversity. Someone on your list has asked for new living room lamps, for example, so you go to look at them at Target or Home Depot. As you pick one up and hold it, imagining it in your friend's living room, millions of people across the country are doing the exact same thing. There's nothing special, really, about the lamp you're going to buy.

To tie it in to books, it's even worse in bookstores. Recently, I visited my local indie bookstore for the first time in about a year. On display were a plethora of books that Barnes and Noble just doesn't carry. Books on radical politics, the history of the LGTB movement in vaudeville, interesting things like that. Why would they? There's no profit margin in it. Speaking of which, ever look for anything in there recently that's not a novel, a children's book, or some sort of study guide or computer book? Their nonfiction section seems to be smaller every time I go there.

And I know the argument is that you can just order it online, but that takes the serendipity out of it. A few years ago, I read a terrific book about tortoises. I didn't read it because I woke up one morning in the mood to know more about tortoises. I didn't decide to seek out a book on tortoises. I just ran across it at the library. It was a terrific book. I learned more than I ever thought there might be to know about their role in human history.

And as far as economic arguments go for shopping local, other people have made them much better than I ever could, with far more math and better statistics. The bottom line is that if you buy local, local people work. They reinvest in the community at a higher rate. If you live in a struggling city like I do, your support may help make the difference between the business owners staying in town and packing up to move someplace with more promise. It also helps make your community cooler. Who doesn't love the charm of a strip of funky, locally owned stores?

So, go out and support yours today. Invest in your community and get unique gifts for your family and friends in the process!

Friday, November 26, 2010

A failed experiment

When I settled in Monday night to wait for my dinner with my library book, a slow feeling of horror began to wash over me. It was the exact same feeling I'd get when I was doing my internship in Stockbridge on Saturday mornings. There, we had no TV or internet, my roommate Sophie and I were reliant on books and on one another for our entertainment. The library closed at 1 p.m. on Saturdays and didn't reopen until Monday. So that was my last chance to find something or else it'd be a long weekend indeed, and not the good kind.

I realized almost immediately that Shelly Jackson's "Half Life" was going to be terrible. But I had nothing else with me and was going to be there for about 45 minutes. So I read about 75 pages of this failed experiment.

It could have been interesting. The jacket said it was about siamese twins Nora and Blanche. It said that they were very different: Nora was lively and outgoing, whereas Blanche had been sleeping for 15 years. I was unsure of what that might mean, but it turns out that it's as literal as anything gets in this quicksand of a book. I tried to explain this to my co-worker:

"Wait, so she's dead?"
"No, she's just asleep."
"You mean, in a coma?"
"I guess...sort of...but I don't think so. I think she's just asleep."

Meanwhile, Nora has been going about her life. She is not alone as she would be in our society. "Twofers" have become more common, and it's vaguely explained that "the radiation" has something to do with it. There's a movement, actually, and a community. It seems sort of satirical at first: there's a big convention in town, and radical people like to address her as 'tyou,' as in 'Are tyou going to the film premiere tonight?' Her roommate is described as a 'twin hag.' I guess it had promise.

I'm at a loss to explain why it didn't work, maybe it was the muddy, confusing failed magic realism of Nora and Blanche's birth and conception. Maybe it was because Nora wasn't fleshed out enough as a character, either: we know that she plans to seek separation, that she does phone sex for a living, and that she has two roommates (not counting the permanent one), also, that she's a lesbian, but that's about it. Or maybe it's the rest of the world that's not fleshed out enough. I don't know. It was an odd book, and maybe others will want to give it a go, but it wasn't for me. It's going back, unread, this weekend.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful Thanksgiving

Just wanted to pop on to wish whatever readership I may have a happy Thanksgiving!

Usually people who make blog or FB posts on Thanksgiving list what they are thankful for. And it's not that I'm not thankful for all of the positive things in my life, but today I wanted to talk about something a bit different.

When I was growing up, my mom's mother lived about 20 minutes away from us. She had a small house with a finished basement and a garage you could hang out in during the summer (I've since learned that this is purely a Polish phenomenon. People of other ethnicities just don't do this, even if all of their neighbors do.) We spent all of our Thanksgivings with her when I was growing up. We'd have dinner over there. She'd turn the kitchen table into a buffet and we'd take our plates downstairs. My aunt and uncle would be there with their two sons that were much younger than us. I don't have distinct memories of hanging out there all day or anything, so I'm guessing we didn't do that.

My grandmother died when I was 12. She had lung cancer (please everybody, quit now if you smoke, and don't even think about starting if you don't. She wasn't even old enough to collect Social Security yet.) As it happens when someone dies, over the years, they become less and less of a presence in your lives and your minds. The holes they leave in your lives close slowly. You make new traditions, the holidays change but they're still good.

Thanksgiving was one that never really closed for me. It's never been the same since. My aunt, uncle and cousins started having Thanksgiving with my uncle's side of the family. My other grandparents live on the other end of the state. Until their death, we made an extended visit out there at Christmas, and going at Thanksgiving too wasn't practical. For a long time, my parents and sister and I would go see a movie on Thanksgiving. Somewhere along the line, my sister generally stopped coming home for Thanksgiving, and the three of us would go...or we wouldn't.

I read a column by Mitch Albom a couple of years ago where he talked about how much Thanksgiving had shrunk as he got older, how fewer and fewer people came every year and spent less time, and now the focus for a lot of people was just going through the Black Friday sale fliers and going to bed early enough to be up for the 4 a.m. sales. He referenced the great, underrated 1991 movie "Avalon," which profiled a large immigrant family over the years. In the opening scene, at the dawn of television, the family was bursting out of the dining room, chairs and tables were pulled from everywhere, the famous kids' table all the way in the living room, where mayhem ruled. By the end, it was a handful of people clustered around the TV, eating off trays.

In that family, it was mostly feuds, people moving away, and TV itself that caused the demise of Thanksgiving. I guess in ours, it was just that some losses, you never quite recover from. Our tradition with my grandma wasn't big and mythical. There weren't really any funny stories or memorable stories that came out of it. It was just being together that made the day special. I still appreciate that with my own family. This year, my sister will have it with us for the first time in I don't know how long, and I'm looking forward to that. But I'll always think of my grandma on this day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Caution: do not read after midnight

It's become a Halloween tradition for me to watch Turner Classic Movies' lineup while I pass out the candy and eat my dinner. They always show terrific old scary movies. This year, I watched the majority of "House of Wax" and caught the end of a really old one where Vincent Price played a deranged magician and set himself on fire at the end. But next up was "The House on Haunted Hill," which I'd just caught the Rifftrax/Mystery Science Theater version of not four days earlier. I took a break from the scary movies and came in on the last half hour of "The Haunting." It was super-scary, though, and I went to the library the next day to get both the film and the book versions.

Both were terrific. Both are still extremely scary, despite the movie being 45 years old and the book being closer to 60. And both are psychological thrillers. There's no gore whatsoever.

The story is the tale of a party of four, come to research supernatural phenomena at Hill House one summer. Luke Sanderson is the spoiled playboy heir of the opulent, creepy home. Dr. Montague is the academic who put the whole thing together. Theodora and Eleanor are two very different women who were selected from a pool of people by Dr. Montague that had been associated with past supernatural phenomena. Theodora created a sensation by participating in an experiment where she sat in a room and tried to guess which card a researcher was holding up in a separate room. She guessed nearly all of them right. Theodora is outgoing, fliratatious and funny.

Eleanor is the opposite. When she was a child, a storm of rocks fell on her home, and only hers, for days. That was the last interesting thing to happen to the repressed 32-year-old woman. She spent most of her adult life controlled by her invalid mother, waiting on her slavishly. Had it not been for the invitation to Hill House, she probably would have spent the rest of it under the thumb of her sister. And it's her that the house ultimately wants as its own.

The four start out on friendly terms, enjoying one another's company, gently mocking the creepy caretakers and playing chess and bridge. As the house begins to work on them, they begin to quarrel more. It has a strange, unpredicatble effect on them. It doesn't merely scare the shit out of them. That would be too obvious, too simplistic, and would raise the question of why they don't just leave. Their nights fill with terror, but their days fill with euphoria and peace, leaving them to doubt what happens at night, and to doubt one another.

The differences between the book and the original film are not huge. (I have yet to see the remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor). I was hoping for a bit more backstory on Hill House in the book, as they give you just enough to pique your curiosity. The character of Dr. Montague's wife is probably the largest difference. In the movie, she's a skeptic who gets sort of kidnapped by the house. In the book, she's an avid psychic researcher, but of a different sort, fond of using a planchette and telling the spirits how much she loves them and how she is their friend. They both leave me craving more, and both like to replay in my head when I wake up at 4 a.m.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I think I've talked on here before about how much I generally hate the Harry Potter movies, even though I love the books, even though I went to midnight release parties for the last three books (I got interested in the series the summer Goblet of Fire came out). Most of them have been pretty terrible. Although the casting has been terrific, they cut out all the wrong things. I knew we weren't going to get along from the first movie, when they eliminated Hermione's hero scene, where she solved Snape's logic puzzle.

I hated how in the third movie, he figured out the Patronus spell right away. It took him most of the term in the book, it's like an eighth grader trying to calculus, and it took away from the psychological journey of it all, because that was the book where he had to confront what happened to his parents and decide how it would affect the rest of his life.

In the fifth movie...I don't really remember the fifth movie.

In the sixth movie, they actually cut out the fight scene back at the castle following Dumbledore's death. They had Bellatrix smashing shit in the Great Hall, which is totally out of character. Bellatrix is a sadist and a suck-up, and I always thought she was a bit in love with Voldemort. She's not the type to just break stuff out of spite. They didn't show enough backstory about Voldemort, and they cut one of the scariest scenes in the books, where Dumbledore drinks the potion and trips out and starts pleading with some unseen attacker and asking him, or Harry, to kill him.

But they finally got it right in the first part of HP7. They staged some stuff that just happens in summary dialogue, probably most notably the scene at the beginning when Hermione modifies her parents' memory for their own protection, editing herself out. The Death Eater's meeting is scarier onscreen than it is in the book. All of their interiors were terrific: the Burrow, Malfoy Manor, Bathilda Bagshot's home, the Lovegoods' house. Because there's so much travel in this one, they get some great exterior shots too.

I absolutely loved this movie, in fact, the more I think about it. Sure, there were some things I would have liked to have seen that weren't there, but overall, they made excellent choices about what to film and what to cut. The characters were more true to the books: Fred and George were funnier, Hermione seemed smarter and nicer, Ron was much more lovable. I actually think I'm going to see it again, and I've never done that for any other Harry Potter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rich are Different: the tale of the Vanderbilts

Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, was the sort of book I wanted to read from the moment I heard about it. As she says in her introduction, the rich behaving badly are fun to read about it. After I finished the book, I'm not 100% sure that 'fun' would thoroughly describe it.

Wendy is the great x8 (or something like that) grand-daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In the introduction, she traces her lineage more precisely. But her dad's side of the family is definitely Old Money. For all that, though, her dad gets almost no screen time, and that's reflective of Wendy's life: he killed himself when she was only 6. She spends the next three years in Burdenland with her grandparents and her brother, whom they favor almost to the point of cruelty.

Those parts are a little hard to read, but nevertheless, they're engaging, populated as they are with vodka-swilling servants and crazy uncles. The most complex character that emerges is Wendy's mother. When we first meet her, she seems sort of stereotypical: after her husband's suicide, she becomes a sort of wealthy playgirl, obsessed with tanning, fashion and alcohol, never around much for her kids, more interested in the man of the moment. All this changes when she marries her late husband's autocratic, arms-dealing best friend and moves the children back in. It changes again when they move to England and she enrolls in Oxford to earn a Ph.D in numismatics. Your opinion of her sort of shifts, too.

In some parts, the book is a bit incoherent. I recently got to interview another memoirist, Catherine Gildiner, and she advised memoir-writers not to worry too much about an inability to remember everything, just start with what they did remember and look to draw connections. Sometimes, I think Burden forced the connections too hard, brought in things that weren't really there. The end, with her once-formidable grandparents much reduced by age, and her brothers descending into drug and alcohol addiction, is heartbreaking.

I did enjoy the book overall, though, even if it wasn't exactly the lighthearted romp or even the dark tale I expected.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

World of Warcrack

When I first saw Ryan VanCleeve's Unplugged at the library, I was pissed. I think I might have even kicked the shelf. I didn't look at the book too closely, I just noted the subject matter, saw it was similar to the book I've sort of been planning to write, and saw red. Good thing I did the next step, which was to actually take it home and read it. Because it's actually not similar at all to the one I want to write, in fact, it sort of gets to why I want to write it.

And therein lies my dilemma in blogging about this book. The book was well-written and absorbing, funny in some parts, heartbreaking in many others, with a very vivid voice. But it also bothers me, because books like Unplugged, chronicling the author's descent into gaming addiction, are the predominant image of people who play online games. It was months before I told my co-workers that I liked to play WoW, and when I did, the first thing they asked is if I was one of those addicts. Positive stories about the game are very, very rare in most media.

Probably the best known is that of Ephoenix. Ephoenix was a character created by a young boy and his father when the boy was very ill with cancer. Between all the treatments, gaming was one of the few things he was still capable of doing. His Make-a-Wish was to visit the Blizzard studios in California. They created a special epic weapon just for him and allowed him to design a quest, which is still in game. (The quest in the tauren starting area where you have to help the farmer find his dog.) Beyond that, though, you never hear the smaller stories about people who fall in love through the game (well, unless one of them is a minor), the people who are disabled or live in the middle of nowhere and have no other way to socialize, and just the people who build strong friendships through the game.

But anyway, the book isn't about that, although to Van Cleeve's credit, he does touch on some of the more positive aspects near the end. It's basically a memoir of his life as first a casual gamer, and then as a true addict, who did 24-hour marathon sessions and neglected his family to play. Interestingly, Van Cleeve doesn't feel that gaming addiction gets enough attention, or is taken seriously enough. I think it's just hard for people to tell the difference.

If you come home from work every day, log right in for 3 hours, then spend the rest of the night puttering around, I think I'm right in saying that's not an addict, anymore than someone who watches TV or reads for those 3 hours is an addict. If you play into the wee morning hours, call off work with gaming hangovers, get the shakes when you can't play, sneak away during your kid's birthday party or your anniversary with your husband to raid, dream about WoW when you're asleep, think about it constantly while you're awake -- that's an addict. That was Van Cleeve.

I don't know how much this book will interest non-gamers, but as a gamer, there's definitely a lot of stuff to think about. I like how he talked to different people about why they responded to the game, and how he analyzed it himself. I honestly have to agree: the best thing about WoW is that, unlike the real world, it never disappoints. The work you put in is rewarded, every time. Work towards raising your reputation with a faction, and you hit exalted, every time. Work towards completing every raid, you'll do it. In The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the main character observes the woman in her house knitting, embroidering, doing some sort of craft, and comments on how good it is to have small goals that are easily achieved. When you break it down, that's what the game is.

Out in real life, you can work extremely hard and do well and still not get promoted. You can put in a lot of years at a job and suddenly lose your position to budget cuts or outsourcing or any myraid of things. You can work really hard at a marriage, and your spouse will get bored and cheat. You can try for years to have a baby and not be successful. It's nice to have a break from all that murky, messy uncertainty. It's also easy to see how someone could never want to leave.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Good and Bad Writing

I feel like blogging today, so I pulled up this week's BTT. And it's a tricky one:

Suggested by Barbara:

I’ve seen many bloggers say that what draws them to certain books or authors is good writing, and what causes them to stop reading a certain book or author is bad writing. What constitutes good writing and bad writing to you?

Good and bad writing is so hard to define. But I think in a lot of cases people agree on what it is. There is a co-worker whom I admire very much that can make any turkey of an assignment interesting. If her article is boring, you know it's the fault of the topic. She's good at bringing out what's important, even when she's been assigned to write about a spaghetti dinner at some church.

She'll find a way to make it interesting. She'll track down some of the people who've benefitted from the funds raised at previous spaghetti dinners and talk about the affect the church's programs had on their lives. She'll manage to make you feel that even though there are a million spaghetti dinners in our coverage areas every week, this one matters.

Bad writing is a lot easier to define. It's clunky. It trips you up. It's cliche-ridden. It's boring. Often, it's not honest. It kills even an interesting subject, like when you read something that's allegedly a celebrity tell-all, and you know the person's had multiple arrests and stints in rehab, and it's very short on details of that to talk mostly about how they found Jesus.

It dwells on all the wrong things, which was my main complaint with The Swan Thieves. And, incidentally, which is the main complaint about another co-worker, who has a penchant for attending a town board meeting where both a rezoning for a McDonald's is approved and a department head is fired for getting caught having sex with a 19-year-old employee on his desk...and guess which one her story will focus on?

Good writing has the power to make you care passionately about things you may not have even known about. There was a segment a few months ago in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section about bats. ZZZZZZzzzzzzZZZZZbats, right? The segment talked about how bats were dying in record numbers from some sort of fungus. The author went with some bat researchers who do a bat census every year and described in vivid detail how unexpectedly quiet the cave was. The last line of her segment described how they walked out of the silent cave, with tiny bones crunching underneath their feet. I had tears in my eyes after reading that. I guess that's what good writing does.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Currently reading?

Last weekend, I was supposed to go to the library on Saturday, but I got a terrible migraine and spent most of the afternoon lying down. I haven't been able to make it there since, but what I do have are piles of partially read magazines floating around, making my house look like the Collyer mansion. Rather than pull of my TBR shelf, I decided to dive into some of them and clean up the joint at the same time. Here are a few things I've read about lately:

A so-so article on Lindsey Lohan in Vanity Fair. Not as dramatic as I'd expected.

A fascinating article on Sarah Palin in the same issue of Vanity Fair. Quite possibly contains the most negative stuff I've ever seen about anyone in one place. It paints a picture of her as controlling, unpredictable, nasty, and manipulative to everyone, even her husband and children. The article noted, most of all, that while hundreds of people have gone on the record to tell what they know about other major political figures like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hardly anyone would talk for this article, or in general.

A boring article on leaf-blower controversy in the New Yorker. Not the writer Tad Friend's fault. I just think it's a crappy subject that didn't improve with investigation. I mean, really. People have real problems, and rich people annoyed with the noise that other rich people's gardeners use when maintaining their 'hardscapes' is just awfully difficult to give a crap about.

A well-constructed short story about a stakeout. It had the feel of a real stakeout, where nothing happens for lengthy stretches of time until all hell breaks loose.

An Alice Munro story about a long-term affair. It didn't stay with me the way her stuff usually does.

An insightful article on "the cancer industry." It was one of the New Yorker's terrific book reviews with extended commentary on the subject matter. There is a new book that explores how the disease came to have such a prominent place in our society and our collective unconscious. Given my recent heightened awareness about toxic chemical in daily life, I was pleased to see that the article pointed out the fact that many cancers were tied to toxic exposure, and that to truly win the 'war on cancer,' this will have to be addressed.

An article on Lady Gaga. She interests me. I haven't finished the article yet, in fact, I came up here to post this instead. The thing I would like to know the most about her is how her parents view her success. After all, she attended Catholic school and was only 23 when her current album came out.