Friday, July 30, 2010

The Dust Bowl

Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust

Lily read this book recently and left it on the coffee table. (Speaking of which, has any name for furniture ever been designed which conveys such a sense of hope and optimism and perfection as that of the coffee table?  Seriously, think about it.  A table which presumably once was designed for coffee (and what could be a nobler origin than that?) has become ubiquitous, even in the homes of those benighted souls who drink no coffee (suspect persons to say the least).  And, not only does this table carry the name of the world's most perfect beverage, but there was a subsequent invention, so ingenious in concept that it must have been born of Divine Inspiration--the Coffee Table Book.  What other piece of mere furniture has an entire class of book named after it?  What other piece of furniture can be said to have been designed to hold both coffee and books?  Why has nobody ever written a great hymn to coffee tables?)

But, I digress.

Lily read this book recently and left it on the coffee table.  I picked it up to see what she read, and immediately noticed a curiosity.  It is a novel (it says so on the cover), but it looks like a book of poetry.  The whole novel is composed to a series of poems--short poems for the most part--about one or two pages each.  It is also a children's book--a Newbury award winner--it also says that on the cover.  (The cover in other words is designed to make sure you know this isn't a book of, you know, poetry, and so, like, you might actually, like, want to, you know, read it.  "It's OK," the cover screams, "I am not really a book of poetry.")

The concept intrigued me, so I read it.  It works.  The poetry is pretty lousy on the whole--modern-style free verse (of course (we wouldn't want the poetry to be, you know, poetic or anything)).  But, the sense of a novel conveyed not through a flowing narrative, but through brief snapshots of life and mood as the plot develops is nicely done.  The story is pretty simple--it is children's literature after all.  It's about a young girl in the Dust Bowl (Oklahoma in the1930s); a terrible accident kills her mother and yet-to-be-born brother.  Our heroine has a hard time with life.  Everything ends happily ever after.  Not much of a plot, lousy verse, but despite all that, the execution is clever enough to make it worth reading.

And not a bad book to hand to kids either--certainly much better than The Grapes of Wrath.  Curiously, other than Steinbeck's novel--which isn't actually about the Dust Bowl anyway--I can't think of another novel set in this time.  One thing that was really clear from Hesse's novel is that there are some really interesting literary possibilities here.  If I were a novel writer, I'd start in on a Dust Bowl novel.  

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's the 80's. Where's our Rocket Packs?

One of the most charming things about old science fiction shows is seeing how people in the past imagined computers of the distant future.  Star Trek with all those knobs and buttons and the talking computer with the mechanical voice and those little cards that sort of looked like floppy disks, for example.  (I love the original Star Trek--when I was younger, Captain Kirk was my hero--actually, truth be told, he still is my hero, but that is the sort of information that makes my kids visibly cringe when I tell people.)

Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man has that same feel.  This was one of his earliest novels, published in 1972.  Almost all Crichton's novels are worth reading because he did his homework--he incorporates scientific advances nicely, and his speculations about the trend in technology usually make for interesting novels.  But, reading this particular book 40 years later was less like talking to somewhere at the cutting edge of technology than humoring someone who has been living under a rock for the last half-century.

[If you have never read Crichton, try Jurassic Park, Next, or Prey--all three are excellent.   If you like the idea of a popular novel taking apart the modern environmentalist movement, then read State of Fear. If you like novels which are terribly dated, try Rising Sun.]

The thesis of the book is that computing power is hitting a wall because they simply can't get the computers any smaller and faster, so they will have to start building computers out of something much like brain cells.  The story is the first attempt to directly link the human brain to a computer.  The whole technology of the novel is really quite silly in retrospect.  But, this is the amazing thing about the last 40 years--nobody in the early 1970s could even imagine the computing power we would be using today.  My iPod has more computing power than my first desktop computer had in 1989, and that desktop in 1989 was more powerful than anything that existed in 1972.  So, no wonder the novel feels dated.

Reading a 1972 prophecy about the future of computers was the only good thing in this novel, though.  As a story, it is easily one of Crichton's worst.  The doctors on the cutting edge decide to hook up a computer to a guy who suffers from psychomotor epilepsy, which causes his brain to shut down at which point he goes into a murderous rage.  Having killed someone, the patient agrees to have his brain wired up to dampen the impulses which send his brain into a murderous state.  But, it turns out our patient is also a bit paranoid that computers are trying to take over the world.  Our doctors decide to proceed anyway.  So, a guy who is paranoid about computers taking over the world is wired up to a computer which will be sending signals directly into his brain. Out of hundreds of millions of people who could have this operation, our doctors pick a guy who is paranoid about computers.  Yep.  The computer doesn't work right, the guy escapes, and predictably goes into murderous rages.  Our doctors then start hunting him down throughout LA (apparently the police were too busy to look for a raging lunatic who is running around murdering people).  The plot just gets worse from there.

Anyway, reading this book is like watching Space 1999.  On its own merits it isn't very good, but seeing how the past looked at the future in which we are now living is interesting.  For another take on the same theme, see here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Vacation in Earthsea

Whenever I head off for vacation, I give careful thought to what I want to read while away.  Some people plan activities, some people plan meals, some people plan outfits (that would be Lily, who spent endless hours planning complete outfits (not just clothing, mind, but also matching accessories) for while she was going camping--I went upstairs to pack my clothes, came back ten minutes later, and Lily was shocked that I was able to pack so fast--but, let's face it, it isn't too hard to throw a half-dozen T-shirts in a bag), and I would assume some people plan every aspect of their vacation.  I plan my reading list.  I had a carefully planned reading list for my trip last week, and when I was gathering up the books I planned to read, I noticed Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy on my shelf.  (The trilogy is A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore).  I read the first book in that trilogy years before, and it wasn't terribly compelling, so I didn't read the other two.  But, they were sitting there, and I noticed them, and I thought I might as well bring them along in case I finished up my reading list.  Then, after camp had been set up and I settled down to read, I picked up the first book in this series.  Why?  I really have no idea.  So, my carefully planned reading sat in my bag while I toured the land of Earthsea.

Sometimes people ask why I don't just borrow books from the library, and this is why.  I like the element of serendipity in reading.

As for Earthsea.  It's OK.  My initial impression was right; it isn't a very compelling series.  The back of the books naturally says this trilogy is on par with Tolkien or Lewis, but it isn't even close.  I can't imagine ever recommending the trilogy to anyone.That being said, it wasn't awful; it just wasn't all that good.

What was noteworthy about the series was the tone; LeGuin did a nice job conveying the feeling that you were reading an old retelling of an ancient tale.  The stores had that sort of epic feel of things passed down through the generations in tales told by the fire.  That isn't an easy style to pull off, and it lapsed a few times in the books, but on the whole it was well done.  This tone also led to the problem of the plot; the stories were terribly episodic--there was a main plot line in each volume which was important at the outset and at the end, but the middle of each book was just a bunch of tales, ostensibly forwarding the plot, but really just acting as filler.  For example, at one point a dragon comes to tell our Hero, Ged (who, by the way has a name which is obviously close to God and given the Jewish tradition of always omitting the vowel in naming God, i.e. G-d, Ged and God are functionally equivalent.  Ged does do the whole death and resurrection bit (in essence) so he does have the Christ-figure stereotype going on, but that being said, there isn't enough in Ged to warrant the name of God, so I don't know what to make of it), anyway, a dragon comes to tell Ged that he has important information and tells Ged to meet him in the land of the Dragons, so Ged (and his young companion) travel there in order to be told something which would take about 3 minutes to tell.  Why didn't the dragon just tell Ged this bit of information in the first place?  Well, then we wouldn't have had a chapter detailing what the land of the dragons looks like.  The books are full of that sort of thing.

There are two more novels in the Earthsea series, but the latter two books were written a few decades after the original trilogy.  These sorts of Return to my Youth books which authors write in their declining years are, in my experience, quite painful, so, unless I hear otherwise, I'll skip them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Frank'nDodd's Monster

While I was away, Congress finally passed the Financial Regulation Bill we have all been waiting for since 2008.  The hosannas of the partisans and the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the opponents are quite amusing, to say the least.  For those not obsessed with following the details of financial legislation, here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the bill:

In the wake of a great financial crisis, Congress set out to write down new regulatory rules and ended up delegating the responsibility for making those new regulatory rules to a slew of agencies. So, the new financial bill does...well, it isn't clear what it does--now we have to wait to see what actual regulations are written by all these agencies who have just been told to write new rules.  Will they write good or bad rules?  There is literally no way to know.  Now this is an interesting piece of legislation--Congress gets to congratulate itself for passing a bill, but then if there are any problems in the future, the get to say, "Well, we didn't write that rule and it certainly isn't what we intended.  It was all the fault of that naughty regulatory agency!"  The first wave of this is already occurring in the credit rating world where one set of firms is required to provide a credit rating from a credit rating agency in order to issue new bonds, but credit rating agencies are refusing to let anyone use their ratings in issuing new bonds because they don't yet know about their legal liability in issuing those ratings.  So, the market for new bond issues has just screeched to a halt while everyone tries to sort this out.  Good luck getting a loan in the meantime.

In other words, when faced with writing a new set of regulations in the wake of the latest financial crisis, Congress decided to vote "Present."

Friday, July 16, 2010

There's one more thing, I've got the pink slip, Daddy

It's not a Little Deuce Coupe.

But, at long last, after endless discussion, Janet and I bought a pickup truck.  It's a 2004 Ford F150 Extended Cab XLT 2WD 73K.  (Cars come with lots of strange letter and number combinations these days.)   It's black, which makes me very happy--I am hoping to get a Raiders bumper sticker on it some day.  But, when I brought up the idea, Lily chimed in with "Yeah, and we should put a Sarah Palin bumper sticker on it too," which I think may have ended my hopes of talking Janet into a bumper sticker.

The two primary reasons for this purchase are 1) Janet really needs a truck for her business--getting plants to the Farmer's Market just got a lot easier and 2) with Emma driving now, we wanted a third car to avoid the headache of car management.  But, honestly, I am pretty happy just to have a pickup truck--I have wanted a pickup truck since I started driving.

We leave to go camping this weekend, so the timing was pretty good.  We got it at a dealer auction--there is a guy in Granby who goes to dealer auctions and buys cars for you--you tell him what you want and how much you want to pay, and he finds the car and buys it for you--you pay the price from the auction plus $1000.  He is part of the family which owns the automotive repair shop in Granby we always use, so he knows quite a bit about cars, and gets anything which needs to be fixed done for you at a discount before you pick up the car. (Our truck needed new brakes and tires.)  So, this makes used car shopping a breeze--we set a maximum price and we are getting the truck with all the repairs and his commission for less than what we were willing to pay.  (And according the Kelly Blue Book, the same model car from a dealer would have cost us $4000-$5000 more.)  Anyway, before this starts sounding like a commercial, I'll just turn it into one--if you live in the area and are looking for a used car, I cannot recommend Merrill Auto highly enough.

We get the truck this afternoon.  Life is good.

Time of the Preacher

This is the reason modern comics have a bad reputation.  A series is frequently lauded: for example a Washington Post review hailed it as "Just about the best thing to come along since comics started finding their way into books."  It's a comic book series ostensibly written for adults; theoretically cutting edge and thoughtful.  And in the end, the best thing about it is that it is mediocre, and the worst things about it--well read on.

Garth Ennis wrote and Steve Dillon illustrated Preacher.  It is packaged as 9 trade paperbacks; it was a comic book run of 66 issues (plus specials).  The story--full of spoilers, so if you plan to read this thing, skip reading this review, but then when you find the whole thing tiresome, don't say I didn't warn you--Our hero Jesse Custer (and in case you miss it, somewhere toward the end one of the characters explicitly notes that you should look at our hero's initials), had a bad upbringing with some psychotic religious types and becomes a Preacher at his grandmother's insistence (after his grandmother had his mom and dad killed, by the way).  The psychotic family's hired help taught our Hero how to fight, which comes in handy since he can best an entire private army in hand-to-hand combat when needed.  One day, the offspring of an illicit union of an angel and a demon (said offspring is named Genesis (seriously)) enters our Hero's soul giving our Hero the ability to tell people to do anything and they have to do it--an ability which our Hero decides he should only use when the author can turn it to some attempt at comedy when people interpret the command literally or when the plot hits such a big wall that there is no way else out--fortunately, Jesse decides to abstain from using it when people are trying to kill him, enabling him to beat his would-be assassins to a pulp with his bare hands,.  He finds out God has abdicated His throne because God is afraid of Genesis (yeah, God is afraid because Genesis is more powerful than God or something like that).  So Jesse decides to hunt down God and have it out with Him because Jesse doesn't like the way the world is.  Jesse teams up with his ex-girlfriend, who can shoot a gun with more accuracy than anyone else on the planet--which also comes in handy--and an Irish vampire named Cassidy.  (Are you still with me?  It gets worse.)  Now finding God is a bit tricky because...well it isn't clear why God is so good at hiding somewhere on Earth where a being more powerful that God Himself can't find Him.  So, in order to have something happen, our trio of heroes runs into, in no particular order, The Saint of  Killers (a dead guy who can kill everything in sight and cannot be killed himself--he dresses like a cowboy); the ghost of John Wayne (who periodically shows up to talk to Jesse for no apparent reason); the Grail (a secret organization preserving the bloodline of Christ and organizing Armageddon but now run by degenerates because of centuries of inbreeding); Starr (a mean guy who eventually takes over the Grail and wants to kill Jesse, and whose purpose seems to be to enable the reader to laugh as he gradually becomes more and more mutilated over time); Jesse's grandmother and the hired help (mean, nasty people); an assortment of people involved in illicit sexual practices (whose purpose is never really clear); a mean guy and his Nazi lawyer (female) who run a meat packing plant outside the town of Salvation (seriously) who terrorize the town until, for no apparent reason, Jesse decides to clean up the town--oh, and Jesse meets his mom in Salvation because you see, she wasn't killed after all; a group of people who want to become vampires; a guy who blew off half his face trying to imitate Kurt Cobain, whose dad is a mean police officer who kills himself after running into our Heroes, and so the guy with half a face decides to get revenge and kill Jesse, but doesn't and then he becomes a rock star, but his manager steals all his money and destroys his career, so the guy with half a face moves to Salvation and marries the one-eyed sister of Jesse's childhood friend (who also had one eye--you see, they were both the product of generations of inbreeding); and so on (and on and on).  Cassidy turns out to not be such a nice guy--he is a vampire, but we were supposed to think he was a nice vampire, but instead he is a not-so-nice vampire.  Jesse never does meet God to talk to him, but he arranges his own death, so God will feel free to go back to Heaven (because when Jesse dies, Genesis dies, it would seem), but when God gets back to Heaven before He can sit on his Throne and become All Powerful again, the Saint of Killers is waiting for him and kills Him.  God does resurrect Jesse first because Cassidy asked God to do so.  So, Jesse and his ex-girlfriend ride off into the sunset together, Cassidy becomes nice, Starr is dead, the guy with half-a face is married; God is dead, and the Saint of Killers is sitting on the Throne of Heaven, having killed everyone else who is there. I think that is meant to be a happy ending.

The plot is the best thing about the series.

Taken as a whole, it isn't horribly bad.  I think there was some potential in there somewhere for a decent story, but it would have needed a writer and illustrator who were more, well, mature.  And, that gets to the fundamental problem with Preacher--is is a comic book for adults in a world where adults are stuck in permanent adolescence.  And that is why comic books get such a bad reputation--things like this become Exhibit A for the inherent immaturity of the whole medium.  When people praise such works as this as highly sophisticated and thought-provoking, it really ruins the reputation of the comic books which actually are such things.

A better version of the same sort of story can be found here, by the way.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gently into the Night

I have been reading a volume of Dylan Thomas--not his poetry, his...what should these things be called?  The title of the book I have is The Collected Stories.  But the word "Stories," makes one think of mundane things like, well, a plot.  These "stories" have no plot--well, no discernible plot.  They are curiosities. 

Eliot once remarked about one of his poems (Sweeney among the Nightingales) that he was simply aiming to create a mood.  I think that is what Thomas was aiming for in these Stories--they convey a mood, they are written with some poetic flair, but ultimately, few of them have a beginning a middle or an end--they are just there.

The closest thing to a plot is "Adventures in the Skin Trade," which the unaware reader (like me) starts reading and sees the footnote after the title saying it is a collection of three short stories published under that title.  Then suddenly the character from the first short story shows up in the second one, and the reader thinks, "Wow!  A narrative flow."  The drama builds heading into the third short story, and then suddenly the whole thing just ends.  Puzzled, the unsuspecting reader with the aid of the editor's introduction discovers this is simply the first three chapters of a novel that Thomas never finished because of  his untimely demise.

Most of the rest of his stories do not have the narrative flow of this incomplete novel.  Most of them just start somewhere, wander all over the place, and then end.

While reading them, I got to wondering about how one composes such a thing, and then I thought, "why not try?," and then I thought, "why not start the review of this book with an example of an attempt to write something that looks like a story, but really isn't?"  So I tried.  I have no idea what yesterday's post is all about.  But, I am sure there is some meaning in there somewhere--I'll just leave it to the reader to figure out.  I think Thomas would approve of that idea.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The goat with feline paws walks in measured paces, deliberately past the hill, ignoring the humming of insects.  It is headed nowhere in particular, having left its home on the island.  A failed experiment in making silent mutton, for reasons nobody could ever determine.  On the hill sits the lonely shoe store.  He approaches the store, dragging along the years, the many years, which have passed since he first saw the rows of shoes, high heels and low, laced and not, red and blue and brown, and (of course) black, size 9 and 7 and 8 and a half, both men's and women's but not European, boots and flats and loafers and sneakers and the shoes with green pom poms which nobody would ever buy.  There were even shoes for the baby who did not want to wear them.  But he knows that you are not there.  He does not know when you left and he has only heard faint rumors of why, but he knows, with a certainty with which he knows nothing else, that you are not there.  He draws closer, getting slower the nearer he approaches.  He sees the sign.  Buster Jones.  There is the dog and the little boy in the sailor suit, both looking content.  He is envious.  He pauses, not hearing the goat tread silently by, but remembering that day many Summers ago when he first discovered that other shoe stores existed.  He took the news hard, and not even whisky could dull the pain of that knowledge.  What forgiveness is possible after such knowledge?  Startled by the scurrying of a hare nearby, he boldly marches up to the store and looks in the window.  Cobwebs and dust, cobwebs covered with dust; even the killing fields are silent now.  He looks around.  On a clear day, someone standing on this hill can see New Hampshire or South Dakota, he cannot remember which.  There is no sign of human civilization.  But just beyond his field of vision, the girl has stopped in the oak forest or elm forest or maple forest on her way back from a day finding raspberries.  Her thumb, where she pricked it, is still slowly dripping blood, small drops mixed with the juice of berries, onto her leg, but she is unaware or unconcerned.  She sits on a rock or a log reading Chaucer aloud to nobody.  Periodically she is startled by the snapping of a twig, and looking around, seeing nobody, commences reading aloud again, and still to nobody.  But he knows none of this; he cannot hear her or see her.   He takes down the sign, and tucking it under his arm, walks West, and does not stop until the day when he will walk no more.  The people who put him in his final bed are relieved that he brought his headstone with him, and while they never did find the dog, they substituted a rabid stray poodle.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lily in the Sky with Diamonds

Lily just left the following note on my Facebook Wall:
"i just scanned through a lotta your blog posts, looking for my name. i didn't find it very many times.. i see how it is. should i be offended that you talk about BOOKS more than your own daughter?"
A few things immediately come to mind. 
1.  Apparently Lily has not leaned that "I" is always capitalized.
2. She also seems not to know that the first letter in the word beginning a sentence is also always capitalized.
(3. If Lily was a fan of e. e. cummings, then her peccadillo in this respect would be understandable, but I don't think she has ever heard of cummings.
(4. And I am not at all sure she is worse off for not having read much cummings.)) 
5. Apparently , my daughter, who lives in the same house in which I do, has forgotten about that ancient form of communication called "speaking," choosing rather to communicate via Facebook
6.  I cannot reconcile the fact that Lily seems to have forgotten the nature of verbal communication with the fact that Lily is without a doubt the loudest and most talkative member of the Hartley Household.
7. I find it fascinating that Lily is doing Vanity Searches on my blog.
8. I also find it fascinating that Lily is inherently narcissistic enough to think that she is a worthy subject for a blog post. 
(9. Of course, the narcissism mentioned in #8 is fully justified in Lily's case.)
10. Lily's disdain for the discussion for "BOOKS" is seriously depressing.  Seriously depressing.
11. Lily did just finish reading Faith Like Potatoes.  She loved it.  She told us all about it at dinner last night.  Lily likes inspirational stories.  Three Cups of Tea is also one of her favorites.
Ending the enumeration, I will take this opportunity to ramble on about my daughter, having been given implicit permission to do so by Lily's public complaint that I do not talk about her enough in this forum.  Those members of the human race who are not inclined to hear a father's encomium of his daughter might want to skip back to the previous entry (or if you are reading this sufficiently far into the future, to the subsequent entry) wherein a book is discussed.
Lily is sui generis.  Seriously, Janet and I have no idea how Lily happened.  She is, without exaggeration, utterly brilliant and enormously creative.  I honestly don't think I have ever met anyone that is simultaneously as intellectually and artistically endowed as Lily--it's the combination that is stunning.  She is also the most extroverted member of the family--which isn't hard since the rest of her family is highly introverted.  Watching Lily in a group of her peers is a fun sight--she is like a candle with moths hovering nearby.  Lily also has an amazing ability to work with small humans--by all accounts, she is a fantastic babysitter.  She has a strong empathetic ability, which has always kept her in tune with those around her, and I think it serves her well in babysitting.
In short, Lily has a set of talents and the personality to go far.  The sad thing about Lily is that she doesn't really know just how special she is.  I cannot understand how someone as smart and talented as she is does not realize that she can do things that few other mortals could ever hope to do.  If Lily ever sets her mind to working hard at schoolwork and improving herself, Lily will do a lot of good in this world.  She is going to be a great mother some day (and fortunately her own mother makes an excellent role model in this respect).  I suspect in addition to having children of her own, Lily will adopt a half-dozen kids with seriously mental handicaps; and I think she will be the best thing that could ever have happened for those kids she will one day adopt. 
Lily is also a very funny kid.  (And, believe it or not, she thinks she is funnier than I am.)  When Lily is in a good mood, she is the life of any room she is in.  (When Lily is in a bad mood, though, run away.)  She also has an odd contrarian streak, seeming to enjoy uttering outlandish statements simply because it amuses her to see people's reactions.  (Where she got that tendency is a mystery.)  She waxes poetic about the perfection of Sarah Palin.  I once told her that she was better than Sarah, but she became quite indignant, saying the nobody could ever be better than Sarah Palin
Lily also manages the oftentimes difficult trick of being popular and an outspoken Christian.  There is a strong moral center in Lily, which will obviously also serve her well in life 
In sum, Lily is a pretty amazing kid.  Someday, she will look at this blog again and see this post and she will probably be annoyed that I wrote all that stuff about her, but she asked me to write about her--in public no less--so when she gets embarrassed, it's her own fault. 
Oh, and Lily likes the Beatles, so that is another really good thing about her.  She also likes lots of hack, horrible artists, but she does like the Beatles which covers a multitude of sins against musical taste.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Please Mr Postman

After yesterday's post about nothing, I figured it would be prudent to write a scholarly book review here lest someone think that I do not take blogging with all the seriousness this weighty and ancient practice merits. Then I remembered that most scholarly book reports are painfully dull, which is the way one establishes one's scholarly credentials in writing a book review.  Writing dull book reviews is not terribly amusing for the person composing such reviews.  But, here is a book review nonetheless.

James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
This is a 1934 crime novel--not really a murder mystery since you hear the tale from the perspective of the criminal.  Drifter meets hot babe married to boring guy and they (drifter and babe) proceed to plan the perfect murder (of boring guy, naturally).  Does the perfect murder end up becoming the Perfect Murder?  You'll have to read the book to find out.  Which won't take too long, by the way--the story is about 100 pages long.  It is included in the  Library of America volume Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.  It's a good story, very well told--which isn't surprising since it is in the Best Of the 30's and 40's volume.

Two items of interest from the novel:

1. Can the perfect murder be staged these days?  It seems like it would have been a lot easier in the old days, but now with DNA detection and modern electronic equipment, it is undoubtedly a lot more difficult.  I think the only way to have a chance is to murder someone with whom you have absolutely no connection--you might be able to pull off the murder of a randomly chosen person, but then that sort of defeats the purpose of wanting to plan the perfect murder (well, for anyone who has a motive for murder other than some sort of strange pleasure in the idea of murder itself--but about people with such motives, the less said the better).  So, if you wanted to murder your boss, for example (and the nice thing about my job is that since I really don't have a boss, there is no danger of this being interpreted as some sort of innate desire on my part), how would you go about doing it in such a manner that there is no chance you would be caught and convicted?  The thought experiment requires that there be no chance of being caught--not that there be a low probability--a low probability isn't the perfect murder.  I have not yet figured out how to pull it off.  The difficulty of imagining such a thing, however, comes as a bit of a relief--if it was easy to plan the perfect murder, I suspect there would be more of them--then again, I suppose I have absolutely no idea how many perfect murders have occurred recently since that is the whole point of the perefect murder. This is getting rather morbid.  So on to the cheerier item:

2. The title of the book is funny in a way.  There is no postman in the book, let alone a postman who rings twice.  No postman is even mentioned.  No bells are rung either.  So, what is the title?  It turns out the title is a reference to a remark made by someone the author knew.  There is no way to know from the remark itself how it relates to the plot, but once you hear the context in which the comment was mode, there is a connection to something in the plot.  There is absolutely no way, though, to figure out from reading the novel what the title would mean.  That really amuses me.  I like the idea of a title which actually does relate to the plot, but that only the author would know what that connection is.  I don't know of any other book for which that is true--most authors apparently succumb to the temptation to give their books titles whose connection to the substance of the book is apparent. 

No mystery about the title of this post, by the way.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why Children Should Not Visit the Office

Clara is in my office now and she really wants to use the computer.  She does not seem to believe that I need the computer for work, insisting that since I was just reading a book anyway, that she should be allowed to use the computer to check all the valuable web pages she would normally be perusing were she at home doing something other than being in the pool--which web pages you ask?  Good question.  I know she would want to use Facebook, having decided to imitate Lily (not Emma) in this respect.  What else?  I think she looks at Yahoo! news, but I doubt she reads any of the articles on it.  What else--I'll ask her:  her reply. "Hmmm............I use......I use....Well, I usually just check my e-mail and then I go on Facebook and then I go on Facebook some more and then I check my e-mail again and then I get off."  You can see why she needs to use my computer so much.

At any rate, I figured if I started typing, then maybe she would stop annoying me about wanting to use the computer.  But, it isn't working.  Instead, she is just telling me all the words I have spelled incorrectly. (I spell a lot of words incorrectly because I never learned how to type.  I wish I had learned how to type.  Now it is too late.  Clara just asked if I was spelling words incorrectly on purpose.  I wish I was.  But, really, I just don't know how to type.  I am a pretty fast typist, if one ignores the fact that about a third of the words are spelled incorrectly.)

At this point, one is wondering why Clara is on my office at all.  I am wondering that too.  She wandered in like a stray puppy.  Not really--I would kick the stray puppy out of my office, but she just stayed here.  She says she just wanted to go for a walk and that is why she is here, but then I wonder why if she wanted to be walking she is just sitting in my office asking if she can use my computer. 

And, lest you think she walked from home, she didn't.  She was supposed to be over at the South Hadley Farmer's market across the street helping Janet with her plant sale, but I think she got bored because, as she says, "She didn't need help.  She has no customers."  Poor Janet.  It is hot here today, and Janet is standing outside at a Farmer's Market  which normal people are avoiding because, well, it is really hot here today.  I'll have to be extra nice to Janet tonight.

Clara thinks I should end the blog post now because she wants the computer.  Apparently this furious display of typing has not convinced her that I have vital work which needs to be done and thus she can't use the computer.  Now Clara is really starting to whine.  Seriously, she can be a very whiny kid.  Hey, she is leaving!  Finally I will get some peace and quiet around here.  I shouldn't have written that; she just said she wasn't leaving after all.  Sigh.

So how about a book review.  We will review a book that Clara read:  *If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period*.  Her review:  "It was good....It was interesting, I suppose."

Now I understand why Clara does not have a blog.  I liked the title of that book, by the way, because it gave me a chance to talk to Clara about that age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there will it make a sound?  Clara thinks that nobody knows the answer to that question.  I tried to explain that it doesn't make a sound, but she was unconvinced.  I don't think she likes the idea of silently falling trees.  Somehow, it seems unnatural to her, which is odd since she has never experienced a tree falling with nobody around (nobody has ever experienced that), so why is there a presumption of a naturally occurring sound in a case which has not been experienced?  Why does the existence of sound when a person is nearby trump the existence of lack of sound if there is nothing there? 

Clara just realized that if there was a video camera there, then it could record the sound.  Sigh.  Sometimes I think they should cancel summer vacation.  Now she is trying to explain that video cameras also record sound, but I think she just doesn't know the difference between video and audio. She is really annoyed that I just wrote that, by the way--she says she does too know the difference.

So, is there a moral lesson from Clara's visit to the office?  Of course there is.  In fact, there are dueling morals:

Clara's Moral:  You should get on the computer before your Dad writes about you.

My Moral:  Every event in life is filled with the opportunity to let your mind wander over matters Important and Unimportant, and the Recording of Said Events will be of Absolutely no Interest to Posterity, but that does not Stop People like Your Humble Narrator from Occupying the blogosphere with Posts such as this One which serve no Redeeming Social Value other than being (at best) a Clever Postmodern Commentary on the vacuous nature of the Blog.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

End of a Bad Era

And just like that the case is closed:  JaMarcus Russell is the biggest bust in NFL history.  Having now been arrested for illegal possession of codeine syrup, his career is done.  Codeine syrup can be combined with soda (Sprite(!)) and candy (Jolly Rancher (!!)) to make a seemingly potent mixture, which presumably is partly beloved because it doesn't show up on NFL drug screens--though I have not yet read that last bit, I can't figure out why else someone would want to mix what sounds like a rather repulsive concoction when there are surely more efficient illegal substances available for sale at the same street corners where codeine syrup can be purchased.  The mind races further at this bit of info--does said concoction turn one into an incredibly lethargic, lazy individual or does it simply amplify such character traits--is it possible that Russell was playing the game when under the influence, or are there lingering aftereffects?  The mind reels.  Number one pick in the draft.  What a waste.

It also turns out that the rumors about Russell's use of this substance were widespread, but the Oakland reporters could never get a solid enough source to report the story.  That raises the possibility that the Raiders found out about the problem, which would explain why Davis suddenly soured on Russell in the middle of the season last year, why the Raiders gave him a babysitter in the offseason, and why they cut him earlier in the year.

Our long national nightmare is over and now there is no danger of it coming back.

So, let us once again return to the happy days of yore when all things Raider were good.  Like this--surely the greatest bit of video footage ever.  It brightens my day every time I see it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Strange Loves

Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

There is something oddly appealing about the title of this book on a day when we are nearing 100.  Then again, the lady in the lake was dead, and that part isn't so appealing.

Chandler is great--easily one of the masters of the noir detective novel--indeed, his only competitor for Master is Hammett--and I would be hard pressed to figure out which one was better.  Chandler seems to have kept the same detective throughout all his novels, and Marlowe is everything you would want in a detective in this sort of story. Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in The Big Sleep decades ago--Bogart was perfect for the role.  It is hard to imagine anyone who could pull Marlowe off today, but presumably there is someone out there.

Writing a review of a book like this is about the same as writing a review of a Wodehouse novel.  To date, I have a hard time distinguishing between any of Chandler's novels--and I have read close to a half-dozen of them.  They all blur together, having roughly the same basic structure.  So, when one is reviewing a novel which is much like all of Chandler's other novels, does one comment on what makes this novel different from the others, which would completely avoid everything which makes the novel worth reading, or does one write about what makes the novel worth reading and then just cut and paste that review for every one of his novels? 

I think I will wait until I read the next Chandler novel to figure that out.

In unrelated news, the Amazon download of the day yesterday was an Iggy Pop album--I had never owned and Iggy Pop album before--but $1.99 for The Idiot--how can you pass that up? The next time I want to really annoy  kids, I think I will put this on really loud--of course I will have to wait until Janet isn't around--she will like it less than the kids will.

In other unrelated news, Emma and I watched Dr. Strangelove last night.  That movie is a masterpiece.  It revels in its utter silliness in a refreshing way.  This is back when the anti-war Left could be funny.  When did they lose their sense of humor?  And why didn't Slim Pickins get more roles during his career?

In yet more unrelated news, I wen to my first game at Fenway park last week.  What a great ballpark. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Farmer Boy

Paula Elizabeth Sitts, The Glad Season: Boyhood in the Cariboo of British Columbia

The quick review: Little House on the Prairie goes to Canada.

The Little House books are big, really big.  I don't think it is simply because of the 70s television show--I think they were big before that.  But, I don't know for sure.  The Glad Season? Well I suspect most people have never even heard of the book.  That is the first of a couple of curiosities about it.  I am not entirely sure what makes the Wilder books so much better known than the Sitts book--they aren't equally good, Little House is better, but the similarities of the Sitts book and the Wilder book are so great that it is hard to imagine that anyone who loves Wilder would not at least enjoy this book.  (In this respect there is an interesting comparison to Austen and Scott-- Pride and Prejudice is better than anything Scott wrote, but I have a hard time imagining someone who loves Austen, not also enjoying Scott--yet, while everyone (everyone!) has read Austen, Scott is much less read today.  If I were a publisher or movie producer, I would commission a series of Scott novels right away and bill them as Austenesque.)  But, returning to Sitts after the (inevitable) aside, this book has all the Little House features--young boy learning about how to live in the wilderness with an assortment of pleasant old hands around to teach him the ropes and all about the wilderness.  There is what would appear to be an inevitable romance in the book, but surprisingly, no such thing happens.  The person we think is mean and nasty at the outset turns out to be kind.  Lots of stories of catching horses and trapping and snow storms and building things.  As I said, if you like Little House, what's not to like about this book?

The second oddity is even more curious to me.  The book was a Christmas gift to our family.  I'm the only one who read it.  I tried to get Clara to read it, but I think she only made it to page 3.  Why?  I'm not sure.  The copy we have doesn't have a glossy picture on the cover, and Clara is a judge-a-book-by-its-cover type.  But, she really likes the family who gave us the book, and so I would think that is enough to get her to read it.  I think the reason may be due to the literary style--and therein lies an interesting tale.  This book is written for a pre-TV age.  Books, especially children's book have changed a lot since 1967 (when this book was published).  When I look at the books Clara reads now (and Clara reads a lot of books--in fact, she is on a campaign to read 500 pages a week all summer--I think she will manage that without any trouble at all), the one feature (of the books Clara reads (in case you lost the train of thought of the sentence because of the far too lengthy aside)) of the books Clara reads is that they all start off with a bang, a hook or some sort of immediate attention-getter.  Older books don't do that--they assume you will keep reading past page 3.  So, the first sentence of this book is, "In the midday heat all life in the canyon drowsed, lulled by the hum of insects and the listless lapping of water against the shore."  Compare that to the start of My Last Best Friend, which Clara read a few days ago:

"I'm Ida May, and there's one thing I know.  Fourth grade isn't fourth at all.  Fourth means you've done something at least three times before. But fourth grade is nothing like third grade.  Or second grade.  Or first grade. 
In fourth grade there is no more printing.  There is only cursive.  I hate cursive.
In four grade you are not allowed to add and subtract.  You are only allowed to multiply and divide."
And so on.

Now, I have not read My Last Best Friend, so I cannot comment on its overall literary value (but, you can put me down as "dubious").  But, the start is fascinating--it is exactly like a Disney Channel sitcom--it makes you smile within a matter of seconds.  Older books (like The Glad Season) have no immediate pay-off.  This is the remote control TV problem--TV shows cannot rely on a viewer waiting for a show to develop--it's really easy for Clara to flip over to Nick, Jr. if Disney loses her interest.  I think the same thing has happened with Children's books.  Clara no longer will wait long enough for a book to get interesting--it is either interesting right away, or it is discarded. 

Anyway, I thought the Sitts book was OK, but then I am not a big Little House on the Prairie fan--I mean the books were OK, and I know that many people are utterly horrified that I do not worship at the shrine of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but nonetheless, I'm sticking to it, the Little House books are OK.  The Glad Season was also OK.  So, as I said at the outset, if you think Little House is better than OK, I suspect you will think the same of this book. 

I suppose I should also add that one of the reasons I am not a big Little House fan is probably that I still have memories of Tuesday mornings in 4th grade.  Little House aired Monday nights at 8:00.  I vividly remember this because on Tuesday morning in my 4th grade class, we discussed the previous night's episode.  My bedtime in 4th grade was 7:30.  So, not only was I the only kid in the class who didn't watch Little House, everyone in the class knew it was because I had to go to be at 7:30.  Shudder.