Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Dropout Reads the News

1) Hey, gay marriage! Kick ass.

2) Hey, Louise Gassman, wannabe actresses with mountains of debt who also TURN DOWN FULL-TIME POSITIONS should not be living in studios on the UWS, unless they are sharing said studios with a college friend or creepy older man. Find a couple roommates, move to Brooklyn and/or the Bronx, cut your rent in half, and quit whining to the New York Times about money when you clearly would rather burn it all on rent and "happiness."

LOUISE GASSMAN, 28, has a rotating schedule of multiple jobs: as an actress; as an assistant to dance instructors at the Circle in the Square and Juilliard schools; as a baby-sitter; and in a variety of administrative roles and as a spinning instructor at SoulCycle, an indoor cycling studio in New York.

Ms. Gassman’s monthly income, which can vary greatly depending on whether she books an acting job, ranges from $1,800 to $4,000. Some months, almost all of her income goes to the $1,450 rent on her 290-square-foot studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Whatever is left after essentials goes toward paying off her remaining $16,000 in college loans.

“I worry about money all the time,” Ms. Gassman said. “I live on a really tight budget, and I live paycheck to paycheck.”

But full-time jobs don’t suit everyone. Ms. Gassman, for example, has been offered a full-time job at SoulCycle, complete with full benefits, but she doesn’t want it. “I wouldn’t be able to go on auditions in the middle of the day,” she explained. “Of course, it stresses me out not to have health insurance, but what is my choice? Work in an office and be unhappy? Being happy is a superhigh value to me.”

Smart Thinkings

Bright ideas a friend and I have thought of recently:

Pilot idea for NBC: Puppy Notary.

Idea for a TV show with a weekly rotating cast and live commentary: Midnight Puppy Fight. (We really like puppies.)

The name of my memoirs: Everything About Sex is Tacky.

First line of memoirs: Late one night, there was a mosquito.

CBR III 8: The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife is the second in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I read the first, The Golden Compass, in the last cannonball round, but I don't think I ever got to a review. I'm going to try something new with this one and NOT have spoilers. Vague descriptions all the way!

The first book was fine. A good YA fantasy-adventure, with a female protagonist, which I appreciated, a cool world that's similar to, but different from, ours, and a solid mystery. Mysteries, really. What is Dust, why is the church so interested in it, what's happening to the children who keep disappearing from Jordan College, what is Lord Asriel up to, what's Lyra's place in all this, and so on. The mysteries are what kept me going. Mystery, really. What the hell WAS Dust? I had to know. I didn't want to read two more books to find out, though, so I went to Wikipedia. I was not overly enamored of the writing-it's serviceable, I think I'm just a little out of the target age group.

My congratulations to Mr. Pullman. He crafted a phenomenon so involved that after ten minutes of trying to understand the explanation, I gave up and resigned myself to either never knowing or eventually reading the rest of the books.

And here I am.

I was in the library, about to check out season 1 of Battlestar Galactica, when I remembered that libraries have BOOKS! I need a book! A girl can't survive on a diet of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alone. You can't tell from the books I've reviewed, but I've been reading a lot of classics. I needed a palate cleanser. Despite never having a great drive to read this one, it has served perfectly well as just that.

The focus has shifted from Lyra Belacqua in her world to Will Parry in ours, creating new mysteries while effectively merging them with the existing storyline. Will and Lyra are both orphans in a sense. They have absentee/dead explorer fathers and mothers who are dead or gone or unstable and in need of care themselves. Will has had to take care of his mother, who's unstable and deathly afraid of an unseen danger, and his father was lost, assumed dead, on an Artic expedition when Will was a baby.

Both books involve Will and Lyra on quests that involve finding out about their parents, learning about other worlds, and being thrust into incredibly dangerous situations. Both children are "important" in a grander sense, crucial to the immense event that is brewing. They're thrown together for a reason, and need to trust each other despite initial misgivings. Their relationship develops as naturally as can be expected when they're a) from different universes, b) running for their lives, and c) VERY IMPORTANT CHILDREN.

The titular subtle knife is pretty awesome, I'm not gonna lie. Since I'm erring on the side of non-spoilers, I won't describe what it does, but it lives up to its name. Pullman has created quite a neat universe, with many cool features and creatures. Plus, eff the church! Who doesn't love a good round of Eff the Church?

I can understand why these books are celebrated, but you will probably get the most enjoyment out of them if you're a young teenager, or really have a taste for YA fiction or fantasy. I was a huge Harry Potter fan, and I wonder what my feelings on that series would be if I was in my twenties when I first encountered it, instead of my early teens. I felt much more invested in even secondary HP characters than I did in some of the main HDM characters. And the Dementors were scarier than the... things in this series that are like Dementors. Now that I've gotten this far, though, I want to hurry up and read the third book. I have more mysteries to solve! Read about being solved. Whatever.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CBR III 0: The Terror - Dan Simmons

This doesn't count as a review, since I only got to page 50 before quitting this bitch. Can you tell from my notes below that this would be one of the few books I refused to finish?

Wow. People sure were racist and other -ists in the olden days.
11: her tongue was chewed off at the base by herself? What kind of doctor is this guy?
19: "perfumed sodomite" [Offensive, but funny]
No food specified in orders? Jesus, no wonder all these voyages failed, everyone involved is a goddamn idiot.
20: I'm already feeling like I've read this before, ten pages ago. The lichen soup, the denials of cannibalism, George Back going for food. You are not Rashomon.
21: why would there only be a hint of a tattoo if the meat they brought back was uncooked? Had they scraped off the skin or something? ... I'm not going to like this book, am I...
23: "Great Slave Lake"
James Fitzjames is a stupid name. "often called the handsomest man in the Royal Navy, looked as striking and humble as the war hero he was." WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
26: he filled the silence with an unspoken signal? Couldn't he have filled the PAUSE, or gap, or something that makes sense? Signals that are unspoken don't alleviate silences.
40-41: great cure for consumption, shoveling coal in a ship bound for the Arctic.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

CBR III 7: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Frank L. Baum

This was another short one, so although Le Wiz has nothing to do with Cruel Shoes, aside from their inherent absurdity, I'm adding them up to one full book and review.

We all know the story of Dorothy and her little dog too. You may even know that the famous shoes weren't ruby but silver in the book. What I didn't know was that the book is stupid. I am much too old for its target audience, so take this with a salt lick, but ugh. Lame. The story felt choppy and discontinuous, and the writing was childish. Plus, Dorothy never makes out with the Tin Man! What kind of world do we live in?

I never should've read the book, especially since I don't have kids and I didn't even really like the movie, except when paired up with Dark Side of the Moon, but it was free in some app, and I once portrayed Hunk (black and white farmhand) in a living mural competition, so, you know, memories, nostalgia, blah blah blah.

CBR III 6.5: Cruel Shoes - Steve Martin

Cruel Shoes is a 1977 compilation of poems and page-long stories that have such surreal topics as dancing buffalo, renegade cows, vengeful curtain rods, and the Diarrhea Gardens of El Camino Real. Everything is written in an overly serious tone, to emphasize the absurdity of the topic. It's slight but entertaining to browse on a warm spring day after kayaking around a lake. (I'm outdoorsy!)

This was my favorite bit:

Some Anti-Gloom Insurance: Comedy Events You Can Do

4) Put an atom bomb in your nose, go to a party and take out your handkerchief. Then pretend to blow your nose, simultaneously triggering the bomb.

"The Bohemians" was also pretty good.

There's not much else to say about this one. Do you like either Steve Martin's stand-up or the paintings of Dali? Then read this book, if you ever happen to run into it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

CBR III 6: This Is Your Brain On Music - Daniel Levitin

I remember from high school reading about how bats use SONAR to see, I think in a Richard Dawkins book, and it described the really involved biological processes that go on. The signal gets sent out with various wavelengths, bounces back, the brain analyzes the different wavelengths that return, sees how long they take to return and from which direction they're coming, and all of these different inputs are analyzed instantly to create a constantly changing map of the landscape in front of the bat. It was impressive. Then Dawkins (or whoever) reminded me that this doesn't mean that bats are "smart," in the sense that we would use the word. This is all going on in the background, and the bat isn't exactly sitting down and taking a calculus test, but it's still fascinating.

The same thing that Dawkins did for me with bat SONAR, This Is Your Brain On Music did for human hearing. I had never studied in any kind of detail how the ear and brain work together to interpret signals from the outside world and morph them into what we hear as sound. It's crazy if you think about it. The only thing that our bodies have to work with is a bunch of atoms slamming against our eardrums, causing it to vibrate at differing frequencies. From this, we are able to determine the intensity of a sound, the up-down, side-side, and back-front directions, the unique timbre of different voices, pitch, etc. All from the equivalent of being a stretched-out sheet with a bunch of ping-pong balls thrown at it, only able to feel each impact, not see the path of the incoming balls. AMAZING.

Levitin discusses the possible evolutionary advantages of music (as a precursor to true speech, for example, or as a demonstration of overall fitness when combined with highly athletic and rhythmic dancing), as well as more straight-forward explanations of musical terms and how instruments utilize construction materials and string lengths/chambers to produce vastly different timbres and pitches. I'm a musical novice when it comes to technical knowledge (like the names of notes) and being able to create music, so those parts were helpful to me, although he does warn musicians to skip certain instructionary parts.

And speaking of novices, one of the points Levitin makes is that most people dramatically underestimate their own musical prowess simply because they only listen to music and don't produce it. Yet human brains are so well-attuned to musical aspects that we are remarkably talented at complex tasks like melody identification, categorization, and overtone series recognition and completion (where our brains automatically fill in the "base" frequency of notes that have had them surgically removed).

Most of us have a lifetime of listening to music, judging music, picking out genres that we like, and can instantly recognize jarring notes and unpleasant melodies or instruments, and reproduce our favorite songs with remarkable accuracy, even if we "can't sing." That is nothing to sneeze at. We're in a relatively new era of music being something that is only performed by "experts," as opposed to being a group activity in the background of many daily tasks. Everybody can make music, and enjoy it, and while this is not Levitin's main point, it's one of the aspects I really identified with, and I don't have time to get into the many issues he covers.

If you're interested in neuroscience or music, expert or not, if you can find a copy of this book, it will be worth your time.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

CBR III 5: I Was Told There'd Be Cake - Sloane Crosley

Single girl has wacky misadventures in NYC, and instead of having a blog popular among Brooklyners, artsy young Manhattanites, and people who aspire to live in Brooklyn or Manhattan and have cupcake parties after museum-hopping with their gay besties, she gets paid to write books about said misadventures. Goddamn lucky bitch.

The stories are cute and funny, don't get me wrong. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny. Am I glad I borrowed the book from a friend instead of buying it? Yes. Am I going to exert any kind of energy to find her other book(s)? No. Would I read another book of hers if I ran across it and had some time to burn and no other book with me? Sure, I guess. Would I read her blog, if she had/has one? Probably. Will I follow her on Twitter? The premise of this question is invalid, since I don't have a Twitter account. Did she create dioramas of some of her essays? Yes, she did. ("Naturally, Sloane decided to turn three essays from her first book into three-dimensional plexiglass dioramas." Well, naturally.) Also, "Obviously... I purchased a vintage paper doll and matching wardrobe off Ebay." Do I really need to elaborate on the types of stories she relays? I hope not, because I won't.

If you're considering buying one of her books, check out some of the links to her website. Your reaction would be a great indicator as to whether or not you'll enjoy it, and her.

CBR III 4: Thud! - Terry Pratchett

Discworld novels that focus on the Watch (police "force" of Ankh-Morpork) have been solid for me. I love Sam Vimes and the ragged band of characters that make up the force, like Nobby Nobbs, who's technically human, Carrot, the tallest dwarf ever, and Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarf with the best name ever.

Thud! involves a thousands-year old feud between trolls and dwarves. The original battle was at Koom Valley, and there's a famous, wall-sized painting of it that is supposed to contain clues about... something. (It was painted by an insane guy paranoid about the Chicken getting him.) Coming up is the anniversary of Koom Valley, and the painting has been stolen, a dwarf has been found dead next to a troll club, a Black Ribboner (reformed vampire) wants to join the Watch, angry trolls are lumbering around hopped up on drugs, and it's up to Vimes to figure out who really killed the dwarf, what this goddam vampire wants from him, how to prevent a full-blown inter-species war, and how to avoid eating the lettuce in his healthy BLT sandwiches.

Everything gets worked out in typical Pratchett fashion, and a good time is had by all.

A new word! Coprolite: fossilized animal dung.

An out-of-context dirty phrase! "C'mon if you think you're hard enough!" he screamed wildly.

Various other brief excerpts and amusing phrases!

  • "hell went for a stroll with its sleeves rolled up."
  • About a VIMP (Very Important Museum Person): "not so much speech as modulated yawning."
  • "point the finger of scoff"
  • Thoughts on how the only thing religion does is "put a gloss on slaughter."
  • "War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?" he said.
    "Dunno, sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?"
    "Absol- Well, okay."
    "Defending yourself from a totalitarian aggressor?"
    "All right, I’ll grant you that, but-"
    "Saving civilisation against a horde of-"
    "It doesn’t do any good in the long run is what I’m saying, Nobby, if you’d listen for five seconds together," Fred Colon sharply.
    "Yeah, but in the long run what does, sarge?"

CBR III 3: Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

You guys! I've been reading, I swear! I'm up to 20-something if you count the head start books. I'm now on vacation in Santa Barbara, which is where I pounded out a ton of overdue reviews last year (see: October), so I was planning on repeating that. Ten days to catch up.

I go home tomorrow.

What, I've been buuuusy! Lying outside being too hot to read, and learning how to play bridge, and getting drunk. Which brings me to now: at a friend's house, part hungover, part hopped up on coffee, with a dash of still drunk, not ready to drive back, and not able to focus on The Great Shark Hunt, which Hunter Thompson would probably appreciate. Perfect time to write some well-reasoned and eloquent reviews.

Looking at my completed list, I see Amusing Ourselves to Death. I then think: I read this? Oh yeah... I look for notes. This is everything I took from the book, apparently:

"118: Billy Graham is more popular than Jesus!

119: hey, maybe it's a good thing if televised preachers are less effective than in-person. Fewer religious people... Yay?"

What I've been leading up to: I'm writing a lot about events that may seem to be unconnected to the book because I don't remember the contents all that well, but that's correct. Here's what I do remember:

Postman rings more than once (zing!) on the idea that the medium of learning is more important than the content of the learning. The culture of teaching children in "fun" ways, like videos of kiddie explorers discovering facts about blue whales, just teaches them that they will never need to put any effort into learning things, like doing boring research or reading boring textbooks. Great, the kids now know a few things about whales, but who gives a shit? They should know a few things about serious study. Also, putting political or any other kind of serious news on TV inherently devalues the news, because a visual format always trends toward short, splashy segments. Serious analysis always needs to be written, and in long-form.

OK, time to go watch Man v Wild and learn about how to survive if I get dropped on a deserted island surrounded by sharks! (Update: the process seems to be to first run across a body of water in which there are sharks, keeping away from the sharks. Then you should run towards the sharks and try to catch them by the tail so you can eat them. I'm gonna stick with my original plan of not going near deserted islands.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

CBR III 2: Papillon - Henri Charriere

I'm gonna tell you something: Henri Charriere has got some balls (or ovaries for the feminists). It's likely that you've already heard of Papillon, a Frenchman who was falsely convicted of murder at 25 and sentenced to hard labor for life in the Iles de Salut, a trio of islands located off the coast of French Guiana. He famously escaped the brutal treatment that prisoners received in the bagnes, and oh boy did he escape them. He more or less successfully escaped twice, and many more times, his carefully thought-out preparations were foiled at the last minute.

We meet Papi at his 1931 trial, being menaced by the prosecutor, Pradel, ineffectually comforted by his lawyer, Hubert, and ultimately judged and sentenced to life by 12 "cheeseheads." (Hands up, who else would see a movie called 12 Angry Cheeseheads?) He is sent to a temporary prison to await his trip to the islands, where he meets up with Dega, a Marseilles man who gives him the invaluable advice to get a plan. A plan is a small metal tube that you keep far up your anus in order to safeguard your money. I quickly accepted this as standard and not at all gross compared to all the other horrors that the bagnards have to suffer through. I don't want to spoil it for you, but copious amounts of pus and hair shirts are involved.

From the instant he's locked up, Papillon is looking for a way out. For years, Henri's motivation for escaping, besides simply being free, is to return to France and get revenge on the people involved in his wrongful conviction. On his first successful-ish cavale, he and two fellow bagnards, Clousiot and Maturette, make it all the way to Rio Hacho, in Colombia, before they are recaptured and locked up in a local jail to await their return to the bagne. Papillon escapes from there, too, and actually creates a life for himself with the Guajira indians, but he refuses to stay there forever because he still wants to kill some prosecutors/policemen. This ends up being a less than ideal idea because he is eventually turned in by a nun.

Years later, after two sentences in Reclusion (bagne solitary), after a friend is murdered, after a failed prisoner revolt, after gaining the trust of wardens, doctors, and their wives, after a stint in the insane asylum, and after many re-inserting of plans, Papillon is able to get himself transferred to Devil's Island. You know, the island from which nobody had ever successfully escaped. This is where he plans and begins his final, successful cavale, which takes him to Venezuela. He becomes so enamored of the caring way that the Irapa villagers they first meet take care of him and his fellow escaped/liberated cons, that he makes Venezuela his home country.

What most struck me about Papillon's quest is the staggering number of people who want to help him. There are the other bagnards, yes, which in itself is an achievement, because any escape tightens the screws on everyone left behind. There are also people in other countries who know he is an escaped convict and house him, feed him, give him advice on the best routes to take. There are British naval officers who encounter him on the seas and throw him cigarettes, food, even a person to help guide his ship. There are wardens who give him his pick of jobs on the islands, only asking him to escape after they are no longer warden. And none of this has anything to do with believing he is innocent. People help him thinking that he committed the murder for which he was incarcerated.

Can you imagine if a man escaped from French prison today, APB's put out on him, his picture splashed all over the news, and he washed up on the shore of some unknown country? I can't think he would accepted unquestionably, hidden from the cops, anything like that. I know I sure as hell would turn him in, I don't care how loudly he proclaimed his innocence.

Papillon is a great story about overcoming an unjust system, and is a thrilling escape story. Many thrilling escape stories, in fact. I even started tearing up at the end, I was so happy for Papillon. I can't speak to the movie version, but I highly recommend the book. As long as you're not squeamish.

Below is a highly unhelpful picture of a map that was quite helpful to me in terms of seeing where Papillon's escapes took him.


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Explanations

Cannonball Read started with the goal of 100 books in a year. I managed to read 53, but only review 25 or so. The next year, the goal became 52 books in a year, so even though I had sworn off reading and reading challenges, I figured, "hell yeah! If I did it one year, I can totally do it again. And this time it will count as winning, instead of being a 50% F." I almost got there with the reading, but still only reviewed half of them, most in a frantic rush in the last week. I once again swore off reading and reading challenges. And THEN, the stupid challenge was opened up to do-it-yourself goals, AND we got to start early if we wanted, so once again they puuull me back in. And that is why I posted a review a little while ago, only five weeks (and three months) behind schedule.

Calendar year 2011.
Goal: 26 books.
Goal: don't keep avoiding longer books because they will keep my total low (hence the 26 book goal, and the fact that I read Vanity Fair for my first book).
Goal: 26 reviews.
Finished: 12 books.
Finished: 1 review. (I have reasons! My sister got married! Work schedule! My Droid always wants me to play with it!)

But for realsies, I want to focus more on quality than quantity this time around, because I've had books sitting unread on my shelves for years because they would take more than a week to finish. No more! I mean it this time!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

CBR III 1: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson

Wow. Hunter S. Thompson did a lot of drugs. I realize I'm not breaking any new ground here in terms of reviewerly insight, considering the only thing most people know of him is "he did a LOT of drugs," but really. I'm surprised he's still alive. (Is he still alive? If not, I amend my statement to being surprised that he didn't die in the opening pages of this book.) I mean, mescaline, adrenochrome*, ether, hash, speed, uppers, downers, anonymous colored pills, bottles of liquor swallowed whole to cap off all of the other insane amounts of drugs consumed.

And all of this from a doctor of journalism! I expected more respectability from a writer. (That is a lie.)

Thank god he's actually a talented writer, because if he wasn't, his drug-addled "reporting" on a motorcycle race in Las Vegas and then an anti-drug national cop conference by the side of his (completely un-)trusty Samoan attorney could have easily turned into an unreadable mess. It kind of is a mess as it is, but a glorious one. Consider that one chapter is prefaced by an editor's note explaining that what follows was transcribed directly from his tape recordings, because his notes were an illegible, stained mess, and Hunter himself was unreachable for weeks at the only phone number they had (for a state trooper's outpost). Aside from that, though...

Thompson and the Samoan race around Vegas from expensed hotel room to expensed hotel room, in various expensed cars, that they thoroughly wreck (hotel room and car alike), crashing into any and all situations with an uncontrollable desire to 1) be really fucked up on drugs, 2) fuck with people, and 3) generally cause a ruckus.

​They begin on the road, in a bright-red convertible, stopping first to pop open the Trunk O' Drugs, then to switch driving duties, since Thompson is being attacked by bats in the middle of the day in the middle of the desert, and finally to pick up and terrify a young hitchhiker. He quickly can't handle their violent threats (the Samoan) and creepy, insinuating closeness (HST), and flees.

​They proceed to frighten and alienate: the check-in clerk, the hotel bartender, the hotel bar patrons (Hunter has a bad case of the "seeing giant lizard monsters attacking him"), the other reporters covering the motorcycle race, etc. They accomplish very little in the way of journalism, but a lot in the way of testing the limits of the human bodies. By the time the race is over and they're set to go back to L.A., Hunter is holding his breath that he'll make it just long enough to get the hell out of Vegas without being locked up for the multitudinous crimes and degeneracies they committed. Doesn't want to push his luck, you see?

​When he gets a call from the Samoan, therefore, that they have another assignment in the city, and that the assignment is covering a national drug-fighting gathering of law enforcement officers, well... He definitely does not want to push his luck that much. The lure of the delicious irony and opportunity for more expensed hotel room- and car-wrecking is too strong, though, and I'm glad, because reading about these two whacked-out, understandably paranoid druggies in wrecked clothing trying to be inconspicuous amid seas of straight-laced cops from the Midwest is delightful.

Somehow they manage to stay out of the slammer (yes, I used the word "slammer"), despite causing many a scene. They stumble out of a lecture, they force a carful of cops into drag-racing/shit-talking, they take the scenic route to the airport through a chainlink fence and straight onto the tarmac, they corrupt an innocent art student with drugs and sex and then abandon her (that was mainly the Samoan, but HST was the one who suggested pimping her out for drug money). They even physically attack and threaten a maid who walks in on the Samoan "polishing his shoes" (vomiting in them in the closet), and manage to turn it around so that she walks away happily sworn to secrecy, believing they're cops who will pay her to narc on the hotel goings-on.

Thompson is a great observer, and his voice is hilarious and full of energy. The situations he describes are hard to take at face value, but when they're coming from the guy who invented gonzo journalism, you never know.

​*Fun fact: I first learned about the existence of adrenochrome (taken from the adrenal gland of a living person-REALLY fucks you up) from this book, and in the very next book I picked up, it was mentioned in the first ten pages. Granted, the very next book I picked up was The Doors of Perception, but it's still pretty cool. To me.

​(Any typos, please excuse me. I'm writing this on my new phone, and while swyping is amazing and made even my hard-to-impress father use the phrase "way cool," writing anything longer than a text on any phone is still somewhat a chore. As is transferring it from google docs to blogaway.)

​(Also, I don't have the book with me right now, so if you notice a small detail that I got wrong, please email me so I can ignore you and possibly fix it without saying anything in a month.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Balls Jr.: The Unreviewed Masses

Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
Pamela Britton - On the Edge
Anne Bronte - Agnes Grey
Clifford Chase - Winkie
David Cordingly - Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates
Richard P. Feynman - Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
F. Scott Fitzgerald - Tender Is the Night
Barbara Garson - Money Makes the World Go Around
Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm
Malcolm Gladwell - Blink
Malcolm Gladwell - The Tipping Point
Linda Greenhouse - Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey
John Knowles - A Separate Peace
Milan Kundera - The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Edward Luce - In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India
Molière - The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays
Frances Newman - The Hard-Boiled Virgin
Terry Pratchett - Wyrd Sisters
Philip Pullman - The Golden Compass
Gretchen Rubin - The Happiness Project
John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck - Cannery Row
John Kennedy Toole - A Confederacy of Dunces
Laura Wright - Front Page Engagement
Robert Wright - The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

Balls Jr. #26: Ubik - Philip Dick

FYI, I didn't put the "K." in his name on purpose. I like to upend people's expectations. Is your mind blown?

Similar to Asimov's Foundation series, Ubik occurs in a distant future in which regular people can travel to the moon, rich people can be cryogenically preserved after death in a sort of dreamy half-life, and people with psychic powers are so common that there are entire companies devoted to "anti-psyonic"services. Yes, the distant future of... 1992. Heh. Oh, sci-fi writers from the 60s. Adorable.

Ubik is a great, mind-twisty story about one of the above anti-psy organizations run by Glen Runciter and his half-wife Ella. Joe Chip works for Runciter as an anti-talent scout, and he's quickly introduced to Pat Conley, who has the ability to change events that happened in the past. She doesn't actually go back in time herself, she just thinks really hard about something, and then things that happened have now happened a different way. Conley is brought along with 11 other anti-psys to a top-secret factory on the moon to secure the place from psyonic activity for mega-rich dude Stanton Mick.

As soon as the group lands on the moon, Runciter and Joe Chip included since it's such a big job, a floating person-bomb explodes and kills Runciter. Everyone else drags him into their ship and takes him back to Earth, to the same facility that houses his wife Ella, so that he can be placed in half-life with her. That's when things start getting weird. Chip orders coffee and the cream comes out sour. Cigarettes bought in a store crumble and disintegrate. Modern elevators switch back and forth between their usual form and an old-school form, complete with elevator attendants. And Chip wakes up the next morning in a hotel room, with a disintegrated lady in his closet.

Runciter starts showing up everywhere - on coins, on bathroom stalls, on TV. There are also constant instructions to find and apply something called Ubik, which is apparently the only way to keep from dying. Runciter's trying to tell them something, but nobody can figure out what it all means. Did he have a psy predict the future for him, and he knew this was going to happen, so he planned all of the messages ahead of time?

Time keeps rolling backwards, with airplanes reverting to biplanes, and coin-operated doors reverting to knob-operated doors. (Some of these changes can be appreciated by the perpetually broke Chip.) People keep breaking apart from the group and disintegrating. Suspicion turns to Pat Conley, with her ability to change the past. Is she messing with everyone? If so, why?

Their world stops regressing in the 1930s, and Chip finally discovers that he's in half-life himself, as is everyone else. Runciter is the only person who survived the explosion on the moon, and he's been trying to reach the half-lifers as best as he can, which is why he kept showing up on TV, telling them that they are dead. There is a young boy in half-life, Jory Miller, who died in the 30s and steals people's remaining years. He's been trying to keep the group's mental environment consistent enough to keep their minds fresh for eatin', but it's hard for him to keep the last environment in which he lived from coming through.

Ella finds Chip and tells him all about Ubik, and how it will protect him from Jory. Out in the real world, Runciter's trying to have his wife and employees moved to a secure part of the facility so that Jory can't eat their brains. What a considerate employer. The book ends with Joe Chip appearing on some of his coins.

If I had to describe Ubik for its Match.com profile, I would say it has a good sense of humor, enjoys long walks on the beach because there's no technology available for reversion, but perhaps takes too much pleasure in mind games. Fun for a multiple-night stand, sure, but do not put a ring on that finger.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Balls Jr. #25: Silas Marner - George Eliot

The titular Marner is a lonely old weaver, spurning all of his neighbors in the town of Raveloe because he has never gotten over the betrayal of his best friend and fiancé when he was a young adult living in an ultra-religious community in England. It ended up with him being accused of stealing from the group's funds and kicked out. Now all he cares about is weaving and gathering that comforting yellow gold. His gold is stolen from him by Dunstan Cass, a prominent family's asshole kid who's in debt, for a change, and runs off with the money. The whole town rallies around Marner, who they feel empathetic towards for the first time since he came to town, but he is inconsolable. That money was literally the only thing he lived for, and when it was taken from him, it left a giant pit in his stomach.

Then, one day, he finds a kid in front of his fireplace. The baby has beautiful golden locks, and at first Marner, with his bad eyes, believes it to be his gold, returned to him. Yeah, it's not, it's a baby who wandered away from her drugged-out mom in the snow, but it's close enough for Marner! He keeps the child, since nobody's going to come to claim it. The mother, who died asleep in the snow, had the child by Dunstan's older, upstanding brother, Godfrey. Godfrey is trying to get into Nancy's pants, and he doesn't want to make it known to the Raveloe world that the kid is his, and that he was actually married to the kid's mother, Molly.

The years pass, and the kid, Eppie, brings Marner a long-lost sense of purpose and joy in life. Marner's making small-talk with the neighbors, making daisy chains with Eppie, and happily weaving the hours away. Godfrey is in a childless marriage to Nancy, and when Dunstan's skeleton is discovered with Marner's gold, he wises up and comes clean to her. They both go to Silas and ask to have Eppie back. Yeeahhh... It's been a long time. She's a teenager already. She gets to decide, and she stays with her "real" father, the one who raised her. Even when she gets married, she doesn't leave her father, but has her husband move into Silas's house.

Although Silas Marner was written in the 1860s, it was set in the beginning of that century, in the days when one weaver with a loom in his cottage produced enough goods for everyone in a town. It's a charming, compact little story that I've treated horribly in this review due to my tiredness and cramped hand making me not treat it as seriously as I should. There's also social commentary! Organized religion does not come out smelling like roses, for one thing.

Overall, I say it's deserving of its classic status. (It is a classic, right? I assumed it was, but that might've just been because of the author.)

Balls Jr. #24: Foundation's Edge - Isaac Asimov

Ennngh. Between eight reviews and countless games of FreeCell, my right hand is cramping up badly. This is not an unfamiliar feeling for me, but it usually results from more fun activities. I have a goal to write at least half of the reviews, though, which means two more after this. Ennnnnnngggggghhhh.

Anyways, Foundation's Edge is the fourth book in the Foundation Trilogy, and things start getting really crazy in this one. All of a sudden there's this guy, Janov Pelorat, who's obsessed with finding the ancient "Earth," and Golan Trevize, who's obsessed with finding the Second Foundation. That's right, not everybody was fooled by their epic game of "if they know that we know and we can make them think that they know that we don't know..." Galactic affairs have been running too smoothly, and adhering too closely to Seldon's plan, to make sense, unless there was still an outside power, like the Second Foundation, controlling events.

The Mayor of Terminus, Harla Branno, sticks Trevize and Pelorat together in a state-of-the-art ship, and while publicly announcing Trevize's exile for being a shit-stirrer, secretly instructs them to search for the Second Foundation. That's right, Branno's no fool, either. She knows that they know that they knew...

She's also no fool in another respect - she can't trust Trevize to follow her orders, or to report back to her if he does find the Second Foundation, so she sends his ex-friend and betrayer, Compor, to spy on him and Pelorat. Pelorat tells Trevize about his life-long search for Earth, how it was the first planet, the original whence came all of humanity, and Trevize realizes that, hey, maybe that's where the Second Foundation is! So off to locate Earth they go.

In the Second Foundation on Trantor, which we finally get a clear picture of, Stor Gendibal is a mentalic shit-stirrer. He's examined the equations comprising the Seldon Plan, and he's looked at how off-track they were during the years of the Mule, and he's seen how closely and faithfully the equations have matched the original Plan since after the Mule's death. Suspicious. Things are proceeding too well, even taking into account the Second Foundation's attempts to control events. There must be a-NOTHER agency, even more super-secret, and even more powerful, controlling galactic affairs with better results than the Second Foundation alone could muster. This isn't good for them, because they don't want another group to swoop in at the end of the thousand years and take credit and control of the budding Galactic Empire: Part Deux.

Nobody believes Gendibal until one of the Trantorian farm-ladies is shown to have had her mind tampered with with such delicacy that none of the Second Foundationers could have possibly done it. It had to be the work of a group much more advanced in mentalics. Off Gendibal and Novi, the farm-lady, go, to find this group of "Anti-Mules," and also to find Trevize and throw him off the scent of the real Second Foundation. A Foundationer's work is never done.

Trevize and Pelorat are brushing up on their local legends about a mysterious planet in the Sayshell region. The people there call it Gaia, which is an alternate name for Earth in many myths, but they try not to think about it, because first of all it's probably not real anyways, and second of all, Gaia keeps crushing every military force that comes near it. That won't deter our intrepid travelers, and Trevize and Pelorat head off to Gaia, with Branno and Foundation warships on their trail (because of Compor's spying), as well as Gendibal (also because of Compor's spying. Surprise! He's a Second Foundation scout.).

Gaia turns out to be a funky, inter-connected world full of people, plants, and inanimate objects that share a consciousness. They have the ability to control and read their own and other people's thoughts, and they act like hippies in a commune, with even the walls having feelings. Who knows if this is "Earth," but it's definitely something. Their tour guide, Bliss, tells Trevize that Gaia has been manipulating events for years, all so that he would end up on the planet and be able to decide something once and for all: the future of the universe. Trevize has always had a unique ability to "know" the right choice, and Gaia wants him to use it to choose who should run the galaxy, whether it's the First Foundation, with its military might, the Second Foundation, with its mental control, or Gaia, with its... hippie superconsciousness thing.

Gendibal makes his decision, and everyone leaves happy, except for Trevize, who suspects that his pure quick-thinking might have been influenced in some way. I think he's still going to go search for Earth in the fifth of the trilogy. I want to read it.

Balls Jr. #23: Second Foundation - Isaac Asimov

Whew. OK. The Mule went back to his empire, which includes the First Foundation on Terminus, but he stops expanding his reach. He's still wary of the Second Foundation, and he wants to find and crush them before making any more risky moves. He sends out expedition after expedition in search of it. All he has to go on are Seldon's words, saying that he was going to establish two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, so spaceships from Terminus keep going across the diameter of the circular galaxy. The search we care about has Han Pritcher at the helm, accompanied by Bail Channis, who the Mule thought might be a Second Foundationer, and thus might actually make the search successful. Han Pritcher was helping Bayta Darell and Hubby to fight the Mule in the last book, but after an assassination attempt, the Mule converted him to a loyal follower.

We see some brief snippets of a "First Speaker" of the Second Foundation, talking about how they're going to let the Mule find them, on their terms. It turns out that Bail Channis is indeed a Second Foundation man, and through an ever-escalating series of "but if he knows that we know that he knows that we know that he knows," the Second Foundation finally gets the upper-hand over the Mule, and alters his mind so that he doesn't want to find them anymore. All the Mule wants to do now is go home and play nice. He does that, and when he dies, the empire essentially dies with him, since he's sterile (hence "The Mule"), and the empire was one giant cult of personality that could not survive without the personality.

Years later, Bayta Darell's granddaughter, Arkady, gets herself all mixed up in things, and she plays a crucial role in helping the Foundation find and destroy its red-headed step-sister. She travels all over the galaxy, to Trantor and back, and while on Trantor, realizes that a circle has no end, and if you want to find the opposite end of a circle, you'll end up back where you started. In other words, the Second Foundation is on Terminus!

Foundation leaders root out and disable the group of Second Foundationers that were living on Terminus, and consider the case closed. The First Foundation is once again the only Foundation, and it is well on its way to ruling the galaxy.

Unluckily for them, the Foundation did not realize they were up against the champions and still undefeated masters of "but if they know that we know that they know." It was ALL a trick. Arkady's mind had been tampered with by the Second Foundation at her birth, and planetary events were delicately maneuvered for years to end up with her bringing the untruth to the Foundation and making them think that they had discovered the real hiding place of the Second Foundation.

Where is it REALLY?! On Trantor. Seldon had told the truth. Trantor was both the social opposite of Terminus (center of administration vs. uninhabited, ignored planet), and the physical opposite (in a spiral, the line ends in the middle of the circular rim). The Second Foundationers, with their myopic focus on keeping the Seldon Plan runnig properly, had needed to do something drastic to prevent destruction by the Mule, which brought them into the open. For the Plan to work, though, nobody could know that there were Plan Monitors, keeping everything on track. Nobody likes to think that they don't have free will. So they sacrificed dozens of their men to ensure that the First Foundationers would be convinced that they were free of the Second Foundation, once and for all.

Balls Jr. #22: Foundation and Empire - Isaac Asimov

We left our spunky little Foundation steadily gaining in regional power, but in the context of the larger galaxy, that power is confined to a few barbaric, outlying planets that nobody gives a whiff about anyways. The Galactic Empire is still technically in existence, although outer planets all over are declaring independence and slacking off on their taxes, and the empire's power is being eaten away at. Trantor is still technically in control of the galaxy's tax forms.

Now, when writing about a bunch of books in a row, I can't really discuss 2-4 without first talking about what happened in 1-3, so these reviews are not a good thing to read if you don't want to know what happens.

Part One: Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Bel Riose, one of the emperor's generals, does not like the threat, small though it is now, that the Foundation poses to the empire, and he decides to go rogue and attack it. The emperor finds out and believes Riose to be a bigger threat to the empire than some backwaters planet, and has him executed. The people of Terminus grow steadily complacent, putting blind faith in the Seldon Plan, and thinking that their power will inevitably grow and grow according to plan. They forget that the early Seldon Crises were averted not because of destiny, but because key people noticed the upcoming threats and took decisive action to prevent ruination.

Part Two: The Mule!

100 years later. Trantor's been sacked, the Galactic Empire is like cosmic dust in the wind, the Foundation is largest Galactic power, all because of their economic reach (no invasions of planets for them!), and the Seldon Crisis that was foreseen (a bunch of rich trading planets revolt against the Foundation and try to secede) is ignored because of a much larger, unforeseen threat: THE MULE!

The Mule is highly secretive - nobody knows his real name, almost nobody has ever seen him, but the rumors abound. Rumors of his massive strength, and fire-eyes, and so on. The reality is that his strength comes from his mind: he can reach into people's minds and permanently adjust their emotions and loyalties so that they're more conducive to the Mule's tastes, which could entail loving him, fearing him, feeling helpless in the face of his attack, etc.

He uses this unique, freak ability to quickly climb to power in planets near Terminus, and plans to face off against the Foundation. The men in charge assume that this is yet another Seldon Crisis (yaaawn) and that one of Seldon's patented videotapes/holograms will appear and tell them exactly what to do to beat the Mule. Instead, Seldon pops up and warns them about the secessionary trading planets. Oh shit.

Meanwhile, on those trading planets, Toran and Bayta Darell sneak over to Kalgan, where the Mule has set himself up real nice, and do some spying. With the help of Han Pritcher, an insubordinate Foundation captain, they leave the planet in haste, and harboring a fugitive: the Mule's jester, Magnifico Gigantico. He hasn't done anything wrong, really, he just wanted to escape the Mule's vicious grasp. They pick up another guy on the way, Ebling Mis, who's a psychologist with the Foundation, and they all go off searching for the Second Foundation.

Hari Seldon had talked about two foundations back in the days when he was alive, the second being formed "at star's end," but hundreds of years of searching had proved futile, and everybody assumed Seldon was talking crazy, or trying to mislead certain people, or something else deviously clever. These guys figure that if they have a shot at finding the answer to the Second Foundation riddle, they should go to the giant library on Trantor, which was the only part of the planet that was left untouched in the sack by barbarian hordes (students at the university protected it), and is still the largest storehouse of galactic knowledge. The Second Foundation might be further along in their development of physical weapons, or they might have other weapons that could be used against the Mule's unique mental powers. Last hope for the universe, and all that.

Mis puts his nose to the grindstone when they get to the library, becoming completely focused on trying to figure out what Seldon could have meant, and where the Second Foundation could be located. He loses hair, he loses weight, and finally, finally, he figures it out. He's literally on his deathbed when he calls in the Darells (Magnifico was already with him, having been his helper) and tells them the good news. He opens his mouth to announce the location and BAM! Bayta shoots his fucking head off.

She has her reasons. She realized that Magnifico, the sad clown, was actually the Mule, who was using them both to gain access to broad swaths of people to be influenced and to find out where the Second Foundation was so he could destroy it. When Bayta figured this out, she knew that at all costs, the Mule could not find out what Mis had discovered. So she killed him dead. (He was dying anyways, because the Mule has placed so much mental pressure on him.) The Mule goes back to his empire in which all of his subjects have been made to believe that they love him, and Bayta and whatshisface go... do something.

The upshot is that they, and we, the readers, know that Second Foundation does exist, and instead of building political, scientific, and economic power, it was staffed with psychohistorians and tasked with studying "mentalics," i.e., what the Mule has innate control over.

Balls Jr. #21: Foundation - Isaac Asimov

I was halfway through Foundation, the first in a seminal sci-fi trilogy/series, when I told my boyfriend, from whom I'd borrowed the book, that I wasn't getting into it. It wasn't bad, I just wasn't invested. He advised me to keep going until the end, because a lot of people have had the same complaint and end up flying through the rest of the books. I trusted him and kept going (not that I had a choice anyways, in this contest), and wouldn't you know it, he was right! I finished this one quickly and went right on to the second, third, and fourth entries in the Foundation Trilogy.

Hari Seldon is A Man with A Plan. Seldon is the pioneer of the field of psychohistory, which applies math to large-scale social events, allowing him to predict the future of human society with gigantic probabilistic equations. He is living far in the future, after humans have colonized millions of planets across the Milky Way Galaxy, space travel is common via hyperspace, Earth is considered a myth if considered at all, and the planet Trantor is the administrative seat of the Galactic Empire. Seldon predicts the downfall of the Empire, and the approximately 30,000 years of chaos, internecine war, intellectual darkness, and suffering that will ensue if drastic steps aren't taken to shorten the time before a new empire will unite the squabbling planets.

To bring about a new empire after only 1,000 years, Seldon sets up what is ostensibly a research center ("The Foundation") with the task of writing the Encyclopedia Galactica on the isolated planet Terminus, but his real reason is to have Terminus become the densest concentration of scientific knowledge in the universe after the deterioration of Trantor. With the heads of The Foundation firmly tasked with the singular goal of completing the Encyclopedia, and their collective scientific heads buried in that quest, Terminus has no way to get out invasion by one or other of the nearby planets who want to take it over.

No way, that is, until the mayor of the capital city, Salvor Hardin, screws science and does some realpolitik, maneuvering a peaceful solution to the crisis. The Seldon Crisis, as it turns out, was predicted by Seldon, and the age of Mayors begins, ending the sham rule of the Encyclopedists. A Seldon Crisis is a point in time, predicted by Hari, in which his plan could go off the rails. If a successful solution isn't found to any of the Crises, the thousand-year plan might fail, and the tens of thousands of years of barbarism might come to pass.

Terminus's superior knowledge of things like nuclear power, and free sharing of that knowledge to neighboring planets, allows them to slowly but surely gain power and influence by making themselves economically invaluable. In time, more Seldon Crises pop up, and each one is averted and results in a new ruling class (Traders, and then Merchant Princes). The first book covers fewer than 200 years after the Foundation is established, though, and Seldon knew that there was a small chance that something would go wrong that early in the game. But the chances increase the further in the future we go. Dun dun DUNNNNN!

Balls Jr. #20: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul - Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently (of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) becomes embroiled in a big imbroglio after arriving holistically late for a detective appointment with a record industry man who wanted protection from an alleged monster with a scythe that was allegedly stalking him because of a blood contract. Or something. Dirk took his claim lightly and wasn't listening too hard, which backfires when he stumbles upon a crime scene centered around the decapitated record industry man. He was found in a sealed room, head spinning on a turntable, and nobody can figure out how the hell he died without the killer remaining in the room with him. The resulting guilty conscience gives Dirk just the push he needs to take his job seriously, and he sets out to detective his way into a goddamn answer!

Airport counters explode, train stations turn into godly meeting places, calculators give wildly unhelpful answers ("a suffusion of yellow"), Thor, Norse god of thunder and my college-era wooden penis, throws temper tantrums, a professional couple makes contracts on Odin's behalf, an eagle that is not really an eagle throws a temper tantrum in Dirk's apartment, and a filthy, filthy fridge saves the day.

Similar to Gaiman's American Gods, gods have been created because of people's belief in them, but when people stop believing, they don't vanish, they just sort of hang out, and mostly get poor. No resume and no easily described skills* = no job prospects. Gods were not designed for the modern world, alas.

If you loved Adams' Hitchhiker's, you will probably like this book. If you only liked the superior series, you're not missing much by skipping this one. I haven't read any other Dirk Gently novels, but I also don't have much desire to do so. It was funnier in concept than in execution.

*I fly on a hammer!

Balls Jr. #19: On Human Nature - E. O. Wilson

On Human Nature won a Pulitzer, and the author teaches biology at Harvard, so you know this has gotta be good. It discusses and elaborates aspects of sociobiology, which is the application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to social behavior in humans and other animals, although humans are obviously the focus in this book. Wilson is generally considered the main popularizer of sociobiology (he literally wrote the book), but the field became extremely controversial when it was co-opted by Social Darwinists and tainted by accusations of eugenics-type goals. The main idea behind sociobiology is that social behaviors have been acted upon by evolution, not just physical traits. It doesn't sound so controversial, but this requires the following assumptions: that some behavioral traits are affected by genetics and are inheritable, and that these traits conferred some adaptive advantage to the people who expressed them in the environment in which humans evolved.

GENETIC DETERMINISM, Y'ALL, OMG. Are people slaves to their genes? Does that mean that people with certain genetic combinations are either doomed to a life of crime or blessed with a life of high-achievement? Does that mean we can't punish criminals? Is there no free will? What role does the environment play? What if people start designing their babies and we end up in a real-life version of Gattaca? I'm going to ignore the controversy, partly because I'm on a time crunch, and partly because I don't think determinism (genetic and environmental) is necessarily a "bad" thing, or necessarily untrue. It's a fascinating debate, though, and a book I finished a few days ago, The Moral Animal, goes into these issues near the end. If anyone's interested, have at it.

In On Human Nature, Wilson focuses on certain universal human traits that might have been "selected" by evolution, like altruism, the use of sex for pleasure, aggression, and belief in religion, and discusses how they might have first emerged and then served some kind of advantage. It's easy to imagine how aggression could have helped early humans, but what about altruism? How is doing something good for someone else going to help you, and why would that trait even pop up in the first place? One answer is the theory of kin selection. If you look at evolution from the point of genes, not organisms, then it's clearer to see that genes predisposing organisms to help close family members would easily flourish.

There is also discussion of larger scientific issues, like the concept of disciplines and anti-disciplines. An example would be the discipline of chemistry and it's anti-discipline, physics. Physics provides its own governing rules for how matter acts, but once you get up to the level of chemistry and start studying chemical reactions and such, you cannot rely on the rules of physics alone. Chemistry needs to create its own rules (and it has). Go one level above chemistry, and you get biology. Biology and its anti-discipline, chemistry, have been merged into a distinct field of study, biochemistry, that looks at the effects of chemical interactions on organisms. Wilson believes that biology should, and will, serve as the anti-discipline for the social sciences, with a merging of the fields to create distinct new fields like biochemistry. This merging would create a more solid foundation for social theories that can use biology as a springboard. He makes clear, though, that this would not "reduce" social science to "mere" biology, the same way that biochemistry does not "reduce" biology to "mere" chemistry.

I am a sucker for popular science books, and I have a discipline crush on evolution, so this book was right up my alley. Well-written, influential, controversial - who could ask for more? (If you do ask for more, though, I won't blame you, since that's just your genes talking.)

Balls Jr. #18: The Code of the Woosters - P.G. Wodehouse

One of the earlier Jeeves and Wooster novels, The Code of the Woosters involves 1) Bertie's Aunt Dahlia wanting him to sneer at a cow-creamer that's for sale so her husband can haggle the price down, 2) Sit Watkyn, a retired magistrate who once had Bertie hauled in front of him for a mistaken case of purse-snatching, and who gets to the cow-creamer first, 3) Bertie accidentally stealing Sir Watkyn's umbrella, 4) a broken engagement between Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, the latter to whom Bertie was once accidentally engaged, 5) Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn's niece who wants Bertie to help her marry his old friend Stinker Pinker, 6) a Very Dangerous Notebook that mustn't ever leave Gussie's side, 7) Anatole, a gastronomical wonder, and 8) Roderick Spode, a "big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces."

Bertie is tasked with fixing everybody's problems, which in turn means Jeeves is tasked with fixing everybody's problems, which is no easy feat, since every person at Totleigh Towers has multiple conflicting opinions of who should marry whom, and and who should own which cow creamer, and so on and so forth. The Very Dangerous Notebook gets used as a bargaining chip by almost everybody after it inevitably leaves Gussie's side. Everything goes wrong, as everything must, before everything gets sorted out, and Jeeves even gets to go on a cruise around the world by the end. Classic, funny Jeeves and Wooster story.

Balls Jr. #17: Mort - Terry Pratchett

Yes, another Pratchett. And I still have one more to review after this. The titular (hee) Mort goes to market on Apprentice Day to be picked for an apprenticeship in meat-pie-selling or cobbling or assasinning or another of Ankh-Morpork's varied professions. Instead, the awkward and gangly young man is completely ignored and is about to give up hope and go home when Death Comes For Him. To be his apprentice. Mort is not overjoyed about this, but Death can be quite persuasive, and so Mort is off to Death's home in another dimension. He meets Death's adopted daughter, Ysabell, and right-hand man, Albert, and starts learning about Death's profession.

At first Mort is doing menial and manual labor, like shoveling poop, but Death gradually piles on more responsibilities as he starts enjoying time off for the first time in his non-life. He visits the living world more and more often, becoming more human and less Death-y in the process, while Mort slowly grows into the role and personality of Death, including the ability to walk through walls, which is more creepy than fun. When it comes time for a princess to die, though, Mort ignores the cardinal rule of reaping ("Don't save anyone's life or you will cause reality itself to break apart and need to repair itself. Foolio.") and saves her life.

This causes quite a stir with reality, as it inevitably breaks apart, and all sorts of shenanigans ensue. In the end, though, reality sorts itself out (it wasn't born yesterday, after all, and has done this before), and everyone ends up in their more-or-less rightful places. Very funny, and I always love getting a chance to spend more time with Pratchett's Death. He's just so wonderfully non-human and human at the same time, obviously separate from life and humanity, but fascinated by humans. He reminds me a little bit of the Doctor in that respect.

Mort is still no Small Gods, but it's definitely one of the better Discworld stories I've read.

Balls Jr. #16: Programming the Universe - Seth Lloyd

Seth Lloyd is a Professor of Quantum-Mechanical Engineering at MIT, as well as the first creator of a technologically feasible design for a working quantum computer. In Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos, he explains how he came to believe the premise of this book - namely, that the universe is one gigantic quantum computer. The universe is made of bits, the smallest possible unit of information, and everything in the universe registers information, whether it's a molecule, an atom, a quark, etc. Every time something in the universe interacts with something else, those bits are altered, and the universe processes that information. The universe computes, in other words. Since the bits are governed by the laws of quantum-mechanics, the universe is a quantum computer. Computing itself.

Lloyd talks about his idea of how the universe could have been created out of "nothing." In the beginning, there was a stable plain of non-information, and then one of the bits got thrown out of whack, and registered the first piece of information in the universe. This "knowledge" spread to other bits, and the universe began computing. He believes that information is the only thing in existence that doesn't conform to the law of "something can not be created out of nothing." As information spreads, new information existed that did not exist before.

At first the universe's computations created simple things, like elementary particles and the basic laws of physics. As he describes it, these are governed by the equivalent of computer code. Small pieces of code, after all, by virtue of imbuing bits with instructions to follow in varying circumstances, can create hugely complex patterns. As the universe expanded with more and more information and computations, it created stars, and planets, and Taco Bell. Seriously. Society would not exist if matter and energy did not have an ability to process bits. The creation of information explains how complex systems like humans can rise from the fundamentally simple laws of physics.

We are all computer programs. Actually, we are computers, and parts of the universal computer, and computer programs, and the results of computer programs, all at the same time. Sort of like being inside of the Matrix, except that we are the Matrix, too. Since it's a quantum-mechanical Matrix, there is no way to predict the future, because to do that, we would need a quantum computer with enough processing power to take into account every bit of information in the universe. Which is what the universe is. The universe is predicting the future of itself. So the only way to know the future is to wait and see what the universe ends up computing it to be.

It's hard to completely explain the contents of this book in a review, but if you have a bent for either the physical or computer sciences, I would highly recommend reading it for yourself. It's thought-provoking, and not dryly written, and could perhaps make the origin of the universe better understood. Not bad.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Balls Jr. #15: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson

"If there's such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore."
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the coming of age/coming out story of Jeanette, a girl adopted by evangelical Pentecostal parents in 1960s Britain. It reminded me of both Running With Scissors, for the insanity and neglectful parenting that was inflicted on her, and Elmer Gantry, for the religious fervor. In Gantry, though, everybody was a hypocrite, pretending to believe in God. Here, people believe. Oh, do they believe. Jeanette's mother wanted a child, one not born of her loins, specifically to train to serve The Lord, so Jeanette grows up wanting to be a missionary and believing that she has been chosen by God. When she's young, she loses her hearing, and everyone in her congregation stops talking to her because they think she's just having an extra-spiritual experience. When the government forces her mother to send her to school, Jeanette's outspoken beliefs quickly make her an outcast, despite a truly impressive-sounding eggshell Jesus diorama.

Exorcisms are performed on Jeanette after her romance with a female convert, Melanie, is found out. She's also locked in her room for days without food until she agrees to repent. She eventually leaves home/is kicked out and stays for a time with a sympathetic teacher at her school, before leaving for a job at a mental institution.

Years later, Jeanette runs into Melanie, who had immediately acquiesced to the demands for repentance for her lesbian sins. Melanie is pushing a stroller, and vacantly talks about her husband

Allegorical fairy tales are mixed into the story, about Perceval, one of King Arthur's knights, and a girl named Winnet Stonejar who meets a sorcerer in a forest. These additions keep the novel from being an autobiography, even though most of the main plot elements happened to Winterson .

The chapters are each named for a different book of the Bible. If I had any knowledge of the Bible, I might be able to discern some deeper meanings to the events in each section, but, alas, I got nothin'. Except for the first chapter, "Genesis." I get that.

Balls Jr. #14: Bonk - Mary Roach

If you're in the mood for some good, clean, science-y fun, you can't go wrong with Mary Roach. Unless, that is, you consider sex, decaying corpses, and the afterlife either unclean or un-science-y.

Stiff was my first Roach book, Spook the second, and Bonk, about the history of the scientific study of sex, ranks firmly in between the lesser Spook and the better Stiff. As is typical with Roach, she doesn't take herself seriously, volunteering herself and her husband for some of the sex studies, and she explains all of the different topics in amusing, non-technical language. Also typical, there are a lot of topics. If you become interested in one particular study or area of scrutiny, you'll have to continue your research elsewhere, because there isn't enough space to get too in-depth.

I found a draft of an email where I had taken notes, and since, like all of these reviews, I neither have the books with me, not remember many details, I'm just going to dump them here to finish:

p114: "Copulation," Leonardo [da Vinci] wrote, "is awkward and disgusting." He is said to have never bedded a woman.
p116: SUNY downstate archives w/ pictures of Dickinson vulvas. In Brooklyn.
p135: "nasal boner"
p138: ""Please give all the penises to me."
p141: she mentions The Rise of Viagra, by Meika Loe, which I read for Medical Inventions, etc.
p144: "slim, pernicious work of hyperbolic quackery" - great insult
150: Penis on Trial!
p170: Priapus, god of garden produce and anal rape

Band name: "Womb Fury" (In olden times, what "hysterical" women were diagnosed with. It had something to do with their wombs being angry that they hadn't produced children, or weren't getting enough attention. Treatment of symptoms included manual stimulation of the affected area.)

Balls Jr. #13: Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

Oh, Catherine. Childhood-era Catherine was actually one of my favorite Austen characters, in terms of one that I would want to spend time with: an unpretentious tomboy. She grew out of the tomboyishness and into dresses, but she remained unpretentious and obsessed with books, in particular one gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. This obsession brings about fun satires of the gothic genre, with Catherine thinking that her trip to stay with her friend Eleanor Tilney at "a real abbey" will be full of cobwebs and intrigue and indescribable horrors, just like in the books. She's introduced as "our heroine," with apologies being made throughout the novel that our heroine is not devastatingly beautiful or prone to fainting.

Romance as well as broken engagements abound, the former between Catherine and Eleanor's older brother Henry, and the latter between Catherine's older brother James and her frenemy Isabella Thorpe. Isabella is dumped after her incessant flirting with Henry's older brother Frederick. There is intrigue, as Catherine manufactures a murder-mystery out of the years-ago death of Eleanor and Henry's mother. Their father, General Tilney, seems impossibly rigid and stern, and the mother's old rooms are off-limits, so Catherine naturally assumes that life is like a gothic novel and General Tilney hated and murdered his wife.

Eventually Catherine comes to realize that real life is, well, real life, and not a novel, that some things simply do not hold any greater mystery, and that some friends are toxic and do not mean everything they say. Everybody's love lives get sorted out satisfactorily, since this is Jane Austen, and we all go go home smiling.

This was a lighter Austen than Emma, which I read in the break between Balls. So many good lines. It also contains Austen's famous "defense of the novel," which is great.

Fun fact for male readers afraid of Austen (there was a small comment-discussion on this the other day*): Yesterday one of my coworkers saw me reading Northanger, and said he had been forced to read Pride and Prejudice in college, and had surprisingly liked it, because "it wasn't about romance, it was about social commentary. But I didn't want to read anything else by her, because I figured they would be romance." I set him straight, with an assist from another coworker, and he decided to give her another shot!

*This review was started months and months ago.

Balls Jr. #12: Do Butlers Burgle Banks - P.G. Wodehouse

Do Butlers Burgle Banks involves a small team of crooks who prowl the English countryside, burgling wealthy estates by getting the leader of the team, Horace, installed as the trustworthy butler. Mike Bond becomes their newest target, not for the jewelry kept in glass cases, but for the mounds of cash kept in Bond's Bank. This might be just the lucky break Mr. Bond needs, because his bank is going bankrupt. Throw in some ladies handy with an umbrella, safe-crackers getting lured in by evangelism, romantic entanglements galore, and as you can imagine, hilarity ensues.

For anybody who's a Wodehouse fan, but is only familiar with Jeeves and Wooster or the Lord Emsworth/Blandings crew, Do Butlers Burgle Banks is a light, fun addition to the collection. For readers new to Wodehouse, though, I would recommend holding off on this one until you know you like Wodehouse.

Balls Jr. #11: Sting Like a Bee - Jose Torres

Sting Like a Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story recounts the rise and fall of Cassius Clay's boxing career, as seen through the eyes of a former champ who was friendly with Ali. I am most definitely not the target audience for this book, as I have no interest in and almost zero knowledge of boxing. As so often happens, I found myself book-less somewhere, in this case, my boyfriend's apartment, and had to grab something, anything. This ended up making it more engrossing for me in some ways, since the culminating Fight of the Century between Ali and Frazier held tension for me in a way that it wouldn't for people who already knew the outcome. It was interesting to learn about Ali's childhood and family (father once left Ali and jumped off a bus to meet a hot girl), and to see him as a person behind the famous quotes and taunts.

I'm not sure how much I need to write about this one, because most people know this stuff, right? I feel like I'm the only person who didn't know anything about Ali aside from 1) the "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" quote, 2) he was a black boxer, 3) something about Islam... and 4) Will Smith played him in a movie that I never considered seeing. Hey, did you know Muhammad Ali liked to predict in which round his opponent would fall? Or that he protested having to fight in the Vietnam War? I didn't.

A piece of artful writing this is not, but this kind of book is about the story, not the perfectly crafted sentences, and Torres is effective at both narrating fights so that even know-nothings like me can understand the action and be drawn in as well as throwing in apparently previously untold stories and anecdotes about Ali.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Balls Jr. #10: Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

I'm baaaack! Just in time for the tail-end of Cannonball Read, Jr. Believe it or not, I've kept Balls Jr. in my heart, although I became thrown off the review-posting course by 1) "training for" and "running" a half-marathon, 2) my first real relationship (to nobody's surprise, he's almost 20 years older than I am), and 3) long work hours. Nothing could ever keep me from reading, though, and I finished my 51st book earlier today. There's no credit in this round without reviews, so I'm going to try to get to at least a few more before time runs out on Halloween. I'm halfway through my first real vacation since I started my job, so I'm considering this a giant sacrifice that everybody should appreciate, even though I picked a Discworld novel because they're easy.

Guards! Guards! begins with a group of dim, disenfranchised Discworld residents with petty grudges against the world at large, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork in medium, and dishonest meat-sellers in particular who have formed a magicky group under the manipulation of an unknown hooded figure. The goal? Bring dragons back. Not the small, unimpressive swamp dragons that are bred by the eccentric Lady Sybil Ramkin, but real, noble dragons that used to live back in the good old days. The dragon will then, in theory, replace the Patrician and get revenge on those meat-sellers and nagging wives and such that so plague the conjurers. Then an heir to the throne will come forward, slay the dragon, replace it as ruler, and be a benevolent dictator.

Gigantic, fire-breathing, magic-eating dragons, you might be shocked to learn, are not easily told what to do. When the group does manage to drag one back in existence, it proceeds to effectively wreak havoc and, after installing itself as the new ruler, requires donations of gold and virgins.

In come the policemen of the Night Watch, led uninspiringly by Captain Vimes, and grudgingly inspired by the new guy - naive, law-worshipping Carrot Ironfoundersson. Carrot turns the Watch around, forcing them to try to stop crime for the first time, and by crime, he means dragons. They muster up the best that their ragtag group can do, bring in the orangutan Librarian and Sybil Ramkin and her most pathetic swamp dragon to help out, and eventually they defeat the draco nobilis, with a game-saving assist from Errol, and unmask the anonymous hooded figure, with an assist from the Librarian.

I never knew Captain Vimes started out the series as an incompetent drunk, since my first experience with him was in Night Watch, and there he was a dogged pursuer of truth, justice, and the decidedly non-Ankh-Morporkian way. In that book, also, Vimes's wife Sybil was only alluded to, not shown, and seeing Sybil as a character and how she and Vimes met was hilarious. Sybil and Carrot are both great characters.

Overall a funny Discworld entry, but I'm going to have to repeat myself and say that nothing has remotely compared to the greatness of Small Gods.

****I read this book months ago and don't have it with me, so there is a vanishingly small chance that I got every detail correct. The overall gist is correct, though.****

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar

I am going to run a half-marathon. Which is insane of me, because I do not run. I do not enjoy running. I am not good at running. But I was thinking of ways to volunteer or do something useful with my time, inspired by The Happiness Project (review coming at some point), and my roommate, who has Crohn's disease, works with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation and convinced me to join up with them and help raise money that way. I started a new blog where I'm going to write about how sore I am, mostly, but since it has my real name and will be seen by my family, I don't want them to find this site. If anyone wants the link, let me know, either in a comment or on the book of faces, and I'll get it to you.

Since I'm also working hideous hours, and much of my weekends are being taken over by a long-distance relationshippy thing, that means I'm probably going to fall even more behind in Cannonball Read Jr. I'll try my best to keep up with it, though.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Balls Jr. #9: The Stupidest Angel - Christopher Moore

"You can't just say 'retarded' in public like that--people take offense because, you know, many of them are."

Chris, I will always have a place in my empty shell of a heart for you for Lamb, but The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, despite a smashing name and a smashing Author's Warning*, is not going to enlarge that spot. It was very inconsistent, felt unsatisfying and insubstantial, and overall, despite some great lines and characters, failed to win me over.

Dale Pearson is an "evil developer," evilly buying ice and refusing to throw some money into his ex-wife Lena's Salvation Army kettle. I am extremely not in love with his set-up. He's "evil," cheated on his wife, has no hesitation about using physical violence to get Lena to stop annoying him, and soon comes after her with a gun. [EARLY, NOT REALLY SPOILER] And he just so happens to lose his balance while trying to shoot her, so that he, whoops!, falls neck-first on her shovel. How convenient. He's too one-dimensional. The only reason we might have for sympathy is that somebody is stealing his trees, but even that we can't be mad about, because Lena is a "Robin Hood" of Christmas trees. So then we're supposed to root for her, and a stranger who only wants to fuck her, while they dispose of evidence and bury the body. [/NOT REALLY SPOILER]

I'm not sure why I bothered with spoiler tags there, because it happens in the beginning of the book and provides the foundation for the rest of the plot and Moore spoils it himself. Raziel, who was also in Lamb, comes to Pine Cove to find a boy and grant him his Christmas wish. See, the boy witnessed the death of Dale Pearson while he was in a Santa costume, so he prays that Christmas will be all better and Santa will be fine. Raziel is stupid, as per the title, and he accidentally raises Dale and every other corpse rotting away in the cemetary, and it's zombie time! The zombie time is actually rather limited, and most of the time is spent on Lena and Tucker falling in lurrrve, and that's gross. I did not care about any of the myriad romances or quasi-romances, whether it be Lena and pilot, sheriff and crazypants, scientist and snob, and the ending was a cop-out.

The humor was violently up-and-down. I'd laugh out loud at one line, and roll my eyes at the very next sentence. I loved Skinner, and Roberto the Fruitbat, and Raziel. The zombies were also pretty funny. If you really want zombies, though, I'd go with Zombieland. It's a movie, not a book, yes, but it is also better.

*"If you're buying this book as a gift for your grandma or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don't blame me. I told you."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Balls Jr. #8: The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

It looks like New York got so mad at me for abandoning it for five days that it tried to punish me by heralding my return with a fuck-off blizzard. Well guess what, city? All you managed to do was delay my flight home by thirty minutes, allowing me more time to make out on a hammock in the sunshine, and give me a half day at work. You know, for a city that thinks it's so tough, you are not effective at enacting revenge. Speaking of sunshine...

A year after California real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity dies, his ex-girlfriend Oedipa Maas finds out that she was named executor of his estate. And what a vast, twisty, potentially conspiracy theory-filled estate it is. She discovers the existence of an alternate, underground postal service, and keeps running into signs pointing her towards a conspiracy dating back to the 16th century, revolving around murdered maybe-princes, German war movies, pornographic papal plays, California bookstore arson, and stamp auctions. Oedipa doesn't know if she's going insane, or if she really is finding evidence of a worldwide conspiracy, or if she's hallucinating, or if Inverarity set the whole thing up just to fuck with her.

It's a cool and unique read, with some great descriptive language ("He read the letter and withdrew along a shy string of eyeblinks.") and punny names (Inigo Barfstable. Emory Bortz. Wendell "Mucho" Maas. Mike Fallopian. Genghis Cohen), but I don't know if it was enough to make me want to dive into the gigantic time-suck/mind-fuck that is Gravity's Rainbow. This was enough Pynchon for now.

One of many funny details: Oedipa's lawyer, "wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him," had been writing, for years, The Profession v. Perry Mason, A Not-so-hypothetical Indictment.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Balls Jr. #7: Elmer Gantry - Sinclair Lewis

Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.

I walked half an hour in the rain on a Saturday morning to pick up some books from the library. I love me some free books. And yet, and yet. I didn't get more than a dozen pages into Elmer Gantry before deciding to make a trip to the Strand so I could buy a copy and mark the bejesus out of it. I came back with four novels by Lewis. That is how fucking fantastic those first few pages were. I mean, come on. Look at the opening lines up there. They introduce a man who becomes an influential, silver-tongued, and deeply hypocritical preacher who rails the fiercest against those sins in which he most gleefully partakes. How can you not want to read this book?

Elmer "Hell-Cat" Gantry starts out as a championship-winning football captain at Terwillinger College, as a great big loud, pushy, arrogant, thoughtless jackass whose good favor everyone wants to obtain since "[h]e was supposed to be the most popular man in college; everyone believed that every one else adored him; and none of them wanted to be with him." The only two people in the world about whom he remotely cared were "his widow mother, whom he vaguely worshipped," and his quarterback, roommate, and sole friend, Jim Lefferts. Although Terwillinger was a religious college, Elmer "detested piety," and Jim was a "freethinker." Elmer's mother wants him to be a preacher, while Jim wants to convert him to the faith of science. The battle for Elmer's soul begins. Elmer's mother recruits Terwillingerian Eddie Fislinger*, who recruits a former footballing YMCA official to work on Elmer, and Jim recruits his atheistic father.
The footballer wins. The footballer wins by flattering Elmer, insulting Elmer's courage, and challenging Elmer to a fight over The Lord. Elmer will end up using all of these strategies himself, to great success. Jim observes his defeat from his bed, laid ill with a bug no doubt divinely-sent.

Elmer's start at religious leadership is rocky. He bribes and schemes his way into graduating, he gets a tiny rural church before getting kicked out for drinking on the job, he falls in with a roving pack of shoe salesmen and decides to try that for a while, he falls in with a New Thought lady and decides to try that for a while, he falls in with, and falls in love with, a flashy, bipolar evangelist and decides to try that for a while**, he decides to try out Methodism for a while, and something finally sticks. The one thing Elmer always had, not religious fervor, not honestly, and certainly not self-control, was ambition. OK, two things. Ambition and a deep, booming voice. He rises through the ranks, charming, bribing, and scheming his way into larger churches, into innocent maiden's panties, out of forced shotgun weddings to those innocent maidens, into larger collection plates and larger salaries, all the while maintaining his glorious, unbelievable hypocrisy.

He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously.

Elmer does everything in his power to obtain the biggest possible radio audience for a sermon on the sins of ambition and the virtue of humility. He bullies his way into the police force to conduct raids on dens of iniquity, of which he didn't exactly have disinterested knowledge. To the end he builds sermons around lines stolen from an atheist tract written by Ingersoll. (Love is the only bow on Life's dark cloud. It is the Morning and the Evening Star.) And he doesn't restrict himself to the pleasant vices, either. He can be a goddamn cruel asshole. When he finally gets the chance to fire his widowed church secretary after her brother dies, his reaction is as follows: "that was a pleasant moment; she cried so ludicrously." He is horrible to his wives and conquests: withholding, emotionally abusive, sexually harrassing. It's a good thing all of Lewis's female characters are so freaking meek that they believe every protestation of innocence and kind-heartedness spewing from Elmer's fat mouth. (Except for Hettie. Good on ya, Hettie.)

It's not just Elmer, though. Almost every character is a fantastic hypocrite. The few religious leaders who truly do believe, or live their lives morally, are usually resigned to podunk towns and churches with a low "sacred rating," and one of them even gets death threats*** for speaking out against fundamentalist witch hunts. Every prominent leader Elmer schmoozes with presents one virtuous personality with virtuous reasons for all of his dealings to the public, while hiding another mercenary, egotistical, and quite pervy private personality. Almost every person who convinces Elmer to join the ministry is a doubter himself. Newspaper men crow Elmer's praises while knowing he's full of shit. Salvation-seekers push their way to get into his sermons denouncing the varied and specific businesses of ill repute, complete with exact addresses. Even a charity organization that briefly pops up isn't presented in a positive light.

Elmer Gantry did start to drag a bit in the middle, because there wasn't much forward momentum to the plot, just Elmer fucking around, trying a bunch of different things and not doing well at anything, and I kept thinking, "how much more religious hypocrisy can even ex-IST?" As it turns out, much, much more. A great book, and highly quotable, even if you're simply in the mood for some new insults (beautifically ignorant, tea-drinking mollycoddle, apostolic ice-cream cone, spiritual cold-storage egg) or homoeroticism ("He was reluctant to ask Eddie-Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.")

Words of wisdom from Reverend Dr. Gantry, esteemed writer of clandestine love letters and newspaper editorials:
"Dearest ittle honeykins bunnykins, oo is such a darlings, I adore you, I haven't got another doggoned thing to say but I say that six hundred million trillion times."
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
"It is not enough for the ministry to stand back warning the malefactors, but a time now to come out of our dignified seclusion and personally wage open war on the forces of evil.

The devil must have been shaken.

*"A meager and rusty-haired youth with protruding teeth and an uneasy titter, [who] had attained power in the class by always being present at everything, and by the piety and impressive intimacy of his prayers."
**The ending of that chapter in Elmer's life is awesomely and terrifyingly reminiscent of George Costanza at a child's birthday party.
***"If you enjoy life, you'd better be out of this decent Christian city before evening."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Balls Jr. #6: Junky - William S. Burroughs

"I drink a lot of coffee, but you know what's really addictive? Heroin."

This is frustrating. Junky was definitely holding my interest, in a sort of sociological way, teaching me about The Way of the Junky. Then, halfway through, I idly read the back cover and discovered that it wasn't an autobiography, like I had thought, but a novel. I tried to pretend I never gained that information. After all, I knew it still had elements of reality in it, from Burroughs' life as an actual gay heroin addict. But I couldn't get past that, and I had to force myself to finish. It didn't help that he started repeating himself, either; his descriptions of junk sickness, and the usual timelines for becoming addicted or getting off junk, were taken almost word for word from the beginning and plonked in again. The whole plot, too, was just more of the same "Now I'm doing junk in this different place, and this different junky informed on some other junky to the police, and some other junky died, and I tried more drugs, and I quit junk, and I went back, and junk is sooooo good, so nice and fresh, and junk junk junk." I get it, Billy, the guy likes heroin.

But just now, I found out that it was autobiographical, or at least partly. He had it published under the name William Lee, which I assume I would've known if I had bothered to read the introduction, but I did not bother, and thus I became immensely confused when he was referred to as "Mr. Lee." I don't know if I would've stayed more engaged despite my problems with it if I had known this going in. Perhaps.

And what was up with his wife? First of all, the guy's not ambiguously gay. Why is he marrying chicks? And second, why is she only mentioned once or twice? "So then my wife, who I have never mentioned before, bailed me out of jail, and went home and knitted potholders for fifty pages, apparently, because she sure wasn't doing anything worth writing about." Except I did some 'net investigatin', and Burroughs fucking shot his wife in the head and killed her! That is crazy.

On the bright side, I am now 100% certain that I am never going to do heroin. Ever. Or play drunken William Tell. Peyote doesn't sound too good, either. Shit, he even managed to make drinking tequila sound like a nightmarish journey through an unrelenting hellscape.

Parting words of wisdom, courtesy of Mr. Lee: "Who wants kids for customers? They never have enough money and they always spill under questioning."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Balls Jr. #5: Get Shorty - Elmore Leonard

Quick, fun and dirty. Just the way I like it. Allegedly.

Chili Palmer is a Miami loan-shark who always plays it supah cool, and is totally one of the nice loan sharks because he doesn't like breaking legs, and he follows this one guy who scammed him out to L.A., where he meets famous producers and ex-famous actresses, and gets mixed up in their shit, and gets them mixed up in his shit, and a bunch of people want to get Chili out of the way, and by that I mean kill him dead. And he tries to get this famous actor to star in his film, because who wouldn't end up a co-producer after breaking into someone's home in the middle of the night trying to collect money from them, and this famous actor, you'll never believe it (because it's a total contrivance), has a girlfriend who used to be friends with Chili in New York, so that's his in, and then one of the guys who wants him dead dies at the hands of Tony Soprano, and the other guy, Det. Joe Fontana, who wants Chili out cold-permanently - gets taken by the DEA. That's what those pussy bitches get for messing with the Chilster! Oh and then he bones the hot ex-famous actress, in between a lot of sexy pillow talk about who they want for their movie about Chili's life.

I feel like I'm the only person left who hasn't seen Get Shorty, the movie, but I was aware of its existence, and I was also aware of the existence of a sequel, and I knew John Travolta came back for it, so I knew Chili was never in any real danger, because I could be pretty certain if Travolta was playing anyone it would be the guy who puts a little too much effort into his clothing, know what I'm saying, but I doubt that even if I had gone in completely blind I would have honestly thought for a second that Chili, the charming anti-hero hero, would not skate through everything unharmed and come out on top.

If you couldn't tell by my run-on sentences, I'm going a little stir-crazy right now. Me no likey winter no more.

If you're wondering who Shorty is, it's the famous actor guy who everyone wants to star in their movies, and he always leads em on, saying "Ooooh this script looks sooo good, so nice and fresh and unique, set up a meeting with my agent," and then BAM next thing you know he's fondling another pretty young script and you're tossed out with yesterday's rotten milk. He's ungettable.

I almost forgot: the Shorty part is because he's short.