Monday, April 30, 2007

Books: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, in case you don't know (I didn't), is an extremely famous physicist, educated at MIT and Princeton, professor at Cornell and then CalTech, perhaps best known for having worked on the atomic bomb during WWII. In this book, a lighthearted collection of anecdotes comprising his memoirs for the layman, we learn that physicists are people, too.

Okay, so that sounds really rather silly, but I think that it's right on target. Feynman has a 1940s/50s gee whiz! way of writing, with exclamation points marking his exuberance in practically every paragraph (this is distracting for the first 25-50 pages, but you get used to it, and his excitement becomes contagious—and that is one of the reasons he was such a popular professor).

He tells us stories about his childhood basement lab, where he played with circuits and radios—it was the depression era and he taught himself his first lessons by trial and error, repairing neighbor's broken radios. His method, from age ten to twenty to fifty never seems to change—he has an intense curiosity about how things work, and the curiosity motivates him to learn things from the ground up. Though he practiced theoretical physics, he always held a concrete example in his mind. He taught himself calculus with the help of a college textbook early in high school, and created his own set of symbols for processes like derivatives and integrals, which made more logical sense to him than the given symbols (e.g. in "dx/dy," it appeared to him—and I love him for it because this always caused me confusion as well—that the ds would cancel out, so he scrapped that for a completely different symbol of his own invention.) His idiot-savant style of understanding and thereby explaining things makes me wonder whether I couldn't have learned calculus and physics if he had been my teacher. He was never afraid of asking "stupid" questions—in fact, older and more established minds would ask him to ask their questions for them during symposia when they were too embarrassed to challenge greater minds. Feynman explains it such that when he engages in a conversation about physics, he forgets everything but the physics itself—he might be in awe when he sees Einstein walk into the room, but as soon as they begin talking, his only concern is whether the theory works or doesn't work.

Feynman's curiosity—and this is where he becomes a real person—extends beyond physics. He was curious about everything; he had a hungry mind, and he describes a "vacation" during which instead of visiting a new town, he visited a new field, and spent the summer working in a biology lab. He traveled extensively for work and pleasure, and always learned at least some of the language, not to mention local customs, music, etc. In the 60s, when parapsychology was taken perhaps somewhat seriously as a science, he spent a good amount of time in sensory deprivation tanks, practicing hallucinating, not unlike the time he spent on his own, practicing dreaming, and trying to remain conscious enough all the while to gain a better understanding of how his mind was working.

Finally, he is very candid about his appreciation for beautiful girls. Basically everyone likes beautiful girls, but we don't think of Enrico Ferme or Albert Einstein hanging around Las Vegas, having drinks with the dancers and chatting with high-end prostitutes. Feynman loved to do this. He also had a thing for PanAm air hostesses. He managed to go through three wives (he was a widower from the first) and countless lovers, but he never comes off as manipulative, cruel, or a pimp. He's just fun-loving and interesting and interested, and he engages with women in a way that they aren't accustomed to.

That is, ultimately, his M.O.—he does it to his readers, too. For Dick Feynman, the world around us is a fascinating place, and the mechanisms inside our heads is perhaps even more fascinating. Too bad he didn't teach at Berkeley.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Movies: Pootie Tang

Hey! I can watch whatever kind of movie I want.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Scary: Elevator Situation

In celebration of Admin Week, or Secretary's Day, or whatever have you, my office sponsored one of it's semi-mandatory revelry events, this time a "Wine and Food Pairing" from 3:30 to 5:00 PM. A representative from the wine store in our building moderated our revelry, describing six lovely non-potable wines, ranging in flavor from seltzer to cough syrup, and taught us to swirl and sniff at our glasses as we were shepherded from station to station and made to eat single serving snacks out of those little plastic cups they fill with mouthwash at the dentist's office. He told us that we were all eligible for a ten percent discount at his wine store.

Anyway, after the party, we all had to stay late in order to do the work we could have been doing between 3:30 and 5:00. I had snuck out at 4:30 with a sudden raging head and stomachache, and by 5:30 I had done as much work as possible in my condition. I got into the elevator with L., and she asked me subway directions to Columbus Circle. Then there was a sound like a car crash over our heads—metal breaking against metal, crunching, banging—it was very loud and very close and L. started screaming and pressing buttons. Then the elevator stopped moving and the alarm was ringing. I pressed the Emergency Call for Help button until a voice came over the speaker and asked what happened. We told him about the crash-boom-bang and he told us that the Fire Warden would begin working on our situation. I had a raging head and stomachache.

We weren't stuck too long—five or ten minutes—but after we started moving again and got back to the lobby, the doors opened, and all of these little black bits of plastic and metal and wire rained out of the shaft. There wasn't anyone there in the lobby waiting for us. The elevator doors stood open. We told the security guards at the end of the elevator bank to do something—guard the elevator, put up a sign, anything to ensure that no one would use the elevator again until it had been fixed—but they just nodded their heads and said yes, the Fire Warden knows it's broken. We continued to insist that they do something—people were coming in and out of the bank all this while, and they just stood there, nodding like fools and doing nothing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Movies: Hot Fuzz

Why do I feel as though writing about this movie will take out all the funny? Perhaps it is because my blog has been recently criticized.

"i think i should stop reading your blog. [. . .] oddly, it makes me really hate you. it's somewhat inexplicable because there isn't anything offensive in your blog. it's just something about your tone and word choice. [. . .] i think i like you more in person than i do on paper. i don't recognize you [. . .] when you're in writing - you are like a stranger."

Other readers have agreed that I blog with "a haughty, dismissive tone." I insist that I am, by nature, haughty and dismissive, but dissenters, as is their definitive nature, dissent.

I had always considered my blog to be light (see silly postings including this rhymey poem and my description of Justin Timberlake as a wussy honky cracker), but I am now going to endeavor to make them even lighter (see my thoughts on nose picking, not to be confused with Roald Dahl's thoughts on sex (Sex is like picking your nose; it's okay to do it yourself, but no one should ever have to watch anyone else doing it.)

And Hot Fuzz is the lightest movie I've seen all year—and possibly the best, particularly as it belongs to a genre I usually loathe (farce)—I wanted to leave just seeing the trailers (including an Iraq farce, a ping pong farce, and a pro-life farce). So to blog may be to bore. Suffice to say, this is English farce, and it is with an enthusiastic and even loving gestalt that it simultaneously mocks and pays homage to American Action Flicks in the mold of Bad Boys II. There are lug nut jokes enough that the average American will wet his pants laughing, but anyone suffering from acute Anglophilia will find that he's soiled his knickers, he's laughed so hard.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Books: Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy

Who knew that the Classics could be so Modern, and so. . . well, brutal? Hardy's last novel (the first of his I've read) is classic enough in its structure and diction, but includes content that most contemporary readers would still find shocking.

Perhaps known for being a bit racy, the book chronicles the life of one Jude Fawley, an intelligent and inspired orphan whose lofty dreams and aspirations are pulverized by the brutality of the earthy world. Raised by an old maid relation after his parents expire prematurely, who cares but not too much, Jude is most affected by the local schoolteacher, who, at the story's opening, is leaving their hamlet for the city of Christminster. From that point, Christminster—a local university town filled with Gothic spires and the ghosts of history's learned men—becomes Jude's obsession; he procures books with which he teaches himself Latin and Greek, he apprentices himself to a stone-worker that he might earn enough money to buy a proper education, and he works, by sunlight and candlelight, repairing crumbling churches and reading Homer, Pliny, and Aeschylus.

Reality, tempting in its fruits, sharp in its thorns, attacks Jude early, before he has even once visited the esteemed city of learning that is to hold his future. He forgets his books when a robust country girl, the daughter of a swine dealer, sets her eye upon him. The slope is short and slippery, for one moment Jude is walking with her through the country, wondering whether he is too forward in putting his arm around her waist, and the next moment she has announced that she is pregnant and that they must immediately be married. A man of much integrity, Jude resigns himself to this fate, leases a house, and prepares to have a different life than the one he planned.

His new wife, Arabella, quickly reveals herself to be far coarser than he could have imagined. Her long ponytail is a detachable hairpiece; her dimple is forced. She is cold, demanding, disparaging, and disrespectful. Not three months pass before she asks to leave him, and he lets her go, off with her family to Australia to hopefully begin again. Jude decides to leave for Christminster. None of this is shocking or brutal. A bit intense, perhaps, for 1895, even a bit scandalous, but far from brutal.

Once in Christminster, Jude sets up home in a rented room, and resumes his previous activities: cutting stone by day and reading the Hellenists by night. He also begins looking for a female cousin he knows lives in the town—a beautiful, unmarried female cousin—and it isn't long before he finds her and they become friends. She is as learned as he, even more well-read, but suddenly out of work. He brings her along to visit the only other person he knows in Christminster—that old, inspiring schoolteacher, Mr. Phillotson, who, as we now find out, never became anything more than a schoolteacher—and coincidence conspires to offer Jude's cousin and new friend Sue employment assisting at his school.

Jude, whose earthy desires coexist in some harmony with his more evolved interests, falls immediately in love with Sue, a radiant, frothy, delicate creature—learning's idealism embodied, but she is engaged to old Phillotson before he overcomes his shame and tells her. They are married and Jude falls once again to his baser instincts, seeking solace in drink. But Sue isn't any happier, and, repulsed by her sexual debt to her husband, she withdraws from him—first, to another bedroom, then out of their home altogether; she asks his permission to leave, and he grants it. She goes to live with Jude. Again, a bit forward for 1895, but, still, certainly not brutal. The couple has the promise of happiness in their future.

Sue's temperament is of course unlike Arabella's—she's as lofty as the other is base—and she is frightfully resistant to marrying (and we can assume, engaging in marital relations with) Jude. Arabella reappears, asking for a formal divorce, so that she can legally remarry the London pub-owner she illegally married in Australia, and Phillotson, too, for reasons of his own, files for a legal divorce from Sue (though the word "divorce" is never used in the book). Arabella springs a new surprise on the couple when she discloses to Jude that she bore him a son, who is approximately ten years of age and has been raised by her parents in Australia. She has no desire for the child, and Jude and Sue are thrilled to take him as their own. He arrives—a quiet, darkly intelligent, precocious child, lacking in the emotional characteristics that ought define childhood. Jude and Sue attempt to marry, for his sake, but she repeatedly balks, and eventually they settle for a weekend trip to London and the pretense of marriage; though not legally joined, they now live as husband and wife, as Sue bears two children and is pregnant with the third when Jude decides to move his family back to Christminster (everyone had, all this time, been moving all around the county in attempt to either find or avoid each other).

It is here that the brutality ensues, and, of course, this is a spoiler alert. The family of five plus one on the way has trouble finding lodgings, and Jude is able to rent two rooms of a house for Sue and the children, but not for himself as well. He goes out to find lodgings for himself, and Arabella's son asks Sue why they are having so much trouble. Overestimating his maturity (or simply his "natural" human empathy), she tells him that they are too many. And here comes the brutality. Sue leaves the three children alone to go out and find Jude. When she comes back, the couple sees three tiny bodies, hanging like sacks of flour from ropes tied around their necks. The two youngest hang from coat hooks. The oldest—Arabella's son— has a knocked over chair beside his feet. This, dear readers, is brutal, and the ennui that it typifies is modern.

There is aftermath, of course. Sue "loses her mind" to the extent that she—a woman who never paid religion or tradition any heed—begins spending time alone at church. She interprets the combined murder/suicide as the triumph of Arabella's legal marriage over her false relation with Jude, whom she leaves in order to remarry Phillotson after her pregnancy produces a child stillborn. Jude again encounters Arabella who gets him drunk enough for remarriage (she having lost her Australian husband to death years ago), and soon enough he dies of liquor and consumption, worsened by a trek through a storm to see Sue. This all is exceedingly typical of the time and not of much interest to me therefore. What clings in my mind's eye is the image of three limp children, hanging by their necks off the wall, dressed all in white.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movies: Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding)

After seeing the trailer, I had no intention of watching this Danish movie, but certain factors and friendships collided such that I found myself at Angelika last night, doing precisely that. The trailer had promised a film that fit neatly with my earliest memory of what a "foreign film" is, provided by my mother who, when I was seven or eight years old, said something to the effect of "I don't like American movies because it's just a bunch of explosions and sex and shallow people. Foreign films have more character development."

This film circles precisely around that concept—character development—tracing the portrait of a self-made millionaire's family, and adding color with regular revelations of family secrets. Papa/Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård) , a corpulent walrus, lovable when reading to his children at bedtime and loathsome when conducting business, appears to be considering a philanthropic project which would fund an orphanage in India. He insists that the orphanage send Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen), a suntanned ideal of a man—tender with the children, quiet on the surface, and clearly seething with stormy passion behind his eyes—to Denmark for meetings before giving them the funds.

This is only the setup for a plot including surprise relations/parentage, cheating spouses, terminal illnesses, and a fascinating sort of ethical blackmail. Many will find the chain of surprises unrealistic, but that didn't bother me so much. The director includes a few "artistic" shots that ought to have been done away with (worst offenses: shots of taxidermied heads and eyes; less offensive offenses: excessive shots of human eyes; offenses that didn't particularly offend me but offended my company: excessive shots of decaying plants back lit against the open sky—I actually rather liked these). The film is a bit too long, and Lassgård's tantrums are a bit melodramatic, but there are worse ways to spend one's Sunday night.

On another topic completely, a few notes:

Picking your nose is okay.

Picking your nose on the subway is only rarely okay.

Picking your nose and eating it is never okay.

Picking your nose and putting in a library book is not okay.

Picking your lover's nose is okay, if done behind closed doors.

Picking your nose at work is okay, but you should use a Kleenex to mask what you're doing.

Picking your nose in the street in Manhattan is okay.

Picking your nose in the street in San Francisco is not okay.

Picking your nose in front of your mom is okay.

Picking your nose in front of your dad is not okay.

Picking your nose in the car is okay, but for chrissakes don't put in on the car seat. It's your car, goddammit!

Picking your nose in the shower is awesome.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Books: Ask the Dust, by John Fante

Perhaps there is something wrong with me, but I don't much want to blog this book, either. Not that it was unenjoyable—it's a great book, actually, and a quick, easy read. What stymies me today is the book's utter directness and simplicity; the book isn't simple in a bad way, the writing is just. . . limpid.

Fante became a great inspiration to Bukowski, and his writing is not unlike that man's; additionally, it's not unlike Hemingway's, Miller's, and that of any other number of young men of a time when young men who wanted to write moved far away (in Ask the Dust, it's Los Angeles), got themselves a room with a typewriter, and wrote about the struggle of writing in between beers at the bar downstairs. These stories (and this story) include affairs with local women, often barmaids at that local bar (in Ask the Dust her name is Camilla, and she is a lusty Mexican whose transformation Fante evokes in lithe descriptions of her footwear), anecdotes about the neighbors (in Ask the Dust, a drunkard who prefers gin, helps the narrator steal milk, and breaks the reader's heart when he kills a calf with a jackhammer in order to butcher himself a free steak), the far away publisher and the far away family, both of which are cursed and praised for their parsimony and their munificence.

Fante is better than Bukowski (leaner) and better (here at least) than Hemingway (sweeter). He is more tender than Miller, and doesn't revel in the dark and dirty the way that Miller and Bukowski are apt to do. His words and his sentences are clean, sharp, and succinct, but they do not lose any sweetness in their efficiency. The book is sweet and sad and good.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Books: Carpenter's Gothic, by William Gaddis

I dread blogging this book because I have so little to say. While this may be merely aftermath of my successful attempt (It's quantity, not quality! as one of my favorite films insists) at my nine day novel, for which I clocked it over 8,000 words on my best days, my lack of motivation, I insist, comes from this book's own uninspiring quality.

It's a little book, a third or so the length of J R (which other Gaddis novel I read with great enough relish to add it to my top ten books ever list), but it took me equally as long to read, and I read it with zero relish (and not even a silly dollop of pedestrian ketchup). There is narration, of which there isn't much in J R, and it is at times elegiac (not unlike what Woolf was probably trying for all those times)—it is, in fact, the best aspect of the novel.

What makes C's G so different from J R, and, concomitantly, so tedious, are the characters. There are basically only four speakers (compare with J R's 40ish): the neurotic heiress wife, the drunken disaster-area husband, the violent and angry brother, and the drinking, smoking mystery man. Each of these character types appears to a greater or lesser extent in J R (an argument could probably be made, in fact, that C's G is something of prequel to J R), but they are the least interesting characters. More importantly, C's G all takes place in one house, while J R runs rampant through a variety of apartments, offices, train stations, hick towns, etc., each of whose speakers have their distinct quality—which distinction is what makes reading Gaddis so fun.

In J R, Gaddis builds a paper empire, and the world whirling around it, whereas for C's G, he does little more than over inflate a marital argument between stock characters. Spoiler! Killing the heiress at the end does little to make up for it.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Movies: Shooter

Even if you don't find the film itself fascinating (and you won't, unless you adore "Marky" Mark Wahlberg to the degree that I do), you will find the fact of the film's existence fascinating.

The plot is simple; some military men show up at Bob Lee Swagger's (Wahlberg) cabin--isolated by snowy woods for miles, where he lives alone with his dog and his guns (he shoots his own meat)--and ask that he help them prevent a threatened presidential assassination. It seems only Swagger, an ex-military man (in)famous for his ability to successfully hit targets at great distance, will be able to intuit the assassin's plan. Swagger is happy living in isolation--we know his skill and his sentiment from watching the movie's opening scenes, in which a three years younger Swagger and his buddy come under attack from an enemy helicopter and are left to die while on a covert military operation somewhere in Africa--turns out the US Army wasn't supposed to be there, and therefore won't risk rescuing its boys. The buddy gets his guts all shot out, and Swagger calls for our first of many suspensions of disbelief by surviving (who knows how?) and getting back to the states (who cares how?), where he gets that sexy cabin with the dog and the guns.

Swagger doesn't want to leave home (who would?) but the military men (including a Congressional Medal of Honor-wielding Colonel (Danny Glover)) appeal to his patriotism and off he goes to Philly, only to be framed as the would-be assassin himself (the president isn't shot; instead, the African Cardinal to whom the president is presenting an award is killed). What unfolds from that point is a conspiracy reaching in scope from municipal (a local police officer is enlisted to shoot and kill Swagger) to federal (a Montana senator who demands Swagger's death (Ned Beatty)).

Luckily, Marky Mark is super hard-core, so with two bullets in his body, he runs away, steals a car, and drives through a high-speed chase in which his only means of escape requires him to drive the car into a river, after which point he hitches an underwater ride on a tugboat downstream, steals a truck, stops at a grocery to buy emergency first aid supplies, giving himself a MacGyver-like injection of salt and sugar water in the gas station toilet, and then drives on to arrive at the home of his old dead buddy's girlfriend-widow (Kate Mara), a hot redhead with a lusty bosom, who answers the door with a shotgun in her hand. So hard-core!

Once she has nursed him back to health (more hard-coreness there: with only Redi-Whip fumes as anesthetic, Swagger subjects the holes in his chest to the sexy-not-quite-a-widow's embroidery skills), Swagger is ready for retribution. With some research, aided along the way by an at first reluctant idiot-savant FBI freshman (Michael Pena), he unravels the conspiracy, which involves something about mass graves in Africa and possibly an oil pipeline (who cares?). Thankfully, along the way there are a lot of gun shots and explosions, as super-hard-core Swagger has brought along home-made napalm with which to suss out his enemies. In the end, all of our key players arrive on some snowy mountain tops to exchange hostages, etc., Swagger and the Colonel perform a mini-reprise of their showdown in the AG's chambers, and Swagger finally gets his just deserts by killing the crooked Senator and his pocketed Colonel while they sip brandy by the fire.

None of this is particularly fascinating, probably because there needed to be a few more explosions (seriously!). What does fascinate me, however, is the sentiment that motivates this movie, and the fact that it was therefore made. The sentiment, of course, is cynicism--deep, dark, depressing cynicism that admits not only is our government so corrupt that it profiteers on African mass graves and hides it from the American people--no; the government is so very corrupt that it will sacrifice American lives to protect its profiteering secrets. That, in and of itself, wouldn't be so fascinating--after all, many of us do harbor that cynicism, and plenty of movies have showcased it. Note, however, that those movies that showcase it are most often documentaries, or maybe sometimes dramas. But, um, hello? This is an action flick. This is a movie very much (in its many gratuitous explosions, for example) of a genre whose target market supports the government, supports the war in Iraq, supports the military, etc. (dare I say, e.g., dumb middle-American men? I really oughtn't, even if only because I'm thereby implicating myself as something I don't think I am). But, yes, I insist, there is a disjuncture between the politics of a typical action-movie-goer and the politics of this film, and it fascinates me that they coexist here.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Movies: 2046

Wong Kar Wai sorts out the aftermath of (his perfect) In the Mood For Love in 2046, a moody set piece posing as a sexy sci-fi flick. Tony Leung has returned as Chow, now a mustachioed rake, channeling Clark Gable's Rhett Butler from his well-oiled hair to his debonair handling of the handful of women that march through his life. He seems tired.

If we have seen In the Mood For Love, we can collect enough scattered clues to order the jumbled sequence of scenes and to parse out memory from what we eventually discover to be fantasy. Emotive from the get-go, Chow has been irreparably wounded by his affair with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Chung, ItMFL) and now shuttles between Singapore and Hong Kong, gambling, boozing, whoring, and writing.

In "real time," Chow spends a good part of his time living in a hotel (room 2047) and banging (literally) his neighbor (room 2046) Bai Ling (the astonishingly perfect Zhang Ziyi, whose fragility defines youthful femininity), a call girl who falls for him hard enough to quit her profession. If he is Rhett, she's his Scarlet--delicate and feisty, attractive and proud—and he is alternately callow and callous, according to his whim. After their falling out, she moves and 2046 is empty again.

Chow has meanwhile been watching the proprietor's daughter Jing Wen (played perfectly by the lovely Faye Wong, who is still as fresh as in Chungking Express), who is in love with a Japanese man of whom her father doesn't approve. They become friends, bonding over a love for writing, reminding Chow not a little of his days writing a martial arts novel with Su Li Zhen (ItMFL). He begins writing a futuristic love story at the tender behest of his new friend, which describes a futuristic train ride from a place called 2046, where people go to find their lost loves.

Wong Kar Wai spent the greater portion of his time, money, and artistic energy on these futuristic fantasy sequences, in which trains travel up, down, in, and out of cables made from beams of neon light, and android sex-servers (Faye Wong, again, her sex processed from sugar into cocaine) keep the lone passenger—Chow—"warm." The androids are dramatically costumed and wear patent platforms whose soles flicker with electric blue light. Chow's love is unrequited.

And in memory's time, intercut with these other scenes, Chow recalls another Su Li Zhen, the "Black Spider" (the surly Gong Li) he meets in a Singapore casino. Meeting her at the lowest point in his life (immediately after the loss of Maggie Chung's Su Li Zhen), he falls for this hardened foul beauty, who mysteriously wears a black glove only on her left hand, while she helps him win enough money to buy passage to Hong Kong. She refuses to go with him, repeatedly drawing the venomous Ace of Spades, black and pointed, in their games of high/low.

It's as good-looking a film as his others—the colors, the lights, the screen split into halves and thirds in which a woman's face mulls and smoke rises against a drapery—are no different, only perhaps more slow, modulated. Wong Kar Wai has a very specific aesthetic and it is here in full force. His tone, too, so often piped-in ready-made by the melting butter of Nat King Cole, plucked up here and there by original string compositions, is ever-present, though it is clear that he gave more energy to the sci-fi visuals than the soundtrack this time around, which is a shame.

Ultimately, the film is nowhere near as tight as In the Mood For Love (which is really, in my opinion, one of the few perfect movies ever made), nor is it as charming as Chungking Express, nor is it as sexy as Fallen Angels. It's more of an art film; it broods and can be tiresome if one isn't bright and patient. I would have preferred the film without the futuristic effects (excepting the blinking platforms, which are extremely potent), though not without the futuristic scenes. It is important to remember, though, that a problematic though decent art film from Wong Kar Wai is better than the best of most anything else. Weighed against his own oeuvre, 2046 is a disappointment, but weighed against cinema as a whole, it is indeed quite brilliant.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Poem: On My Birthday, Lynn's Birthday

My poems always rhyme, you know.
How I contrive to make them so
delightful that they thrill you, yo,
from crown of head to tip of toe.

And though they rhyme so prettily
with rhythm even as the sea
makes waves whose bubbling jubilee
convey my hopes and dreams for thee

they spoil quick and disappear
and make me long for yesteryear
when we were bosom buddies, dear,
and had great hopes and had no fear.

And so on—of all days—today—
Sham Holiday—you lead astray
a silly friend who wants to say
she loves you, in a tender way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Excerpt: Army Reunion

I had a window seat on the plane to Ft. Lauderdale and the stewardess was beautiful. She asked me if I was going to the army and I asked her how she knew. She told me that I was looking out the window like I was saying goodbye to my home forever. I told her that it wasn't forever and that I'd be right back in Detroit just as soon as my four years were done. She smiled and wished me luck, but her eyes were filling with tears. I asked her what was wrong and she told me that her beau was in Vietnam. I didn't tell her that I wasn't going to the war because I thought she would think me less of a man. I told her she needed a drink and she told me that if I came back to the end of the cabin with her, we could share a whisky.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Books: I'm Losing You, by Bruce Wagner

Reading this book inspired a realization: it's imperative that I list "source of recommendation" along with author and title on my reading list. I'm Losing You is one of the most dreadful pieces of crap to which I've ever subjected myself, and I don't even know whom to blame for the experience. It's a semi-recent book (mid-90s), and the only other recent read equally as bad (different genre; same problems) is also fairly recent, and also landed on my list by some unknown means (that being My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.) The only other recent read nearly as bad (different genre; same problems, but to a much lesser extent) just came out last year, and landed on my list because of a Slate book review (hard to chew out a book reviewer) (and that book being Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart). I would have completely lost all faith in contemporary literature (as in writers writing right now) if it weren't for David Foster Wallace. And we'll see about the new Pynchon, one of these days.

Why is I'm Losing You a dreadful piece of crap? Wagner, like Pamuk, like Shteyngart, is a proficient writer; he is wry and witty, he has a great vocabulary, and he puts words together in an interesting way. This makes slogging through this bog of a book even more disappointing. Here are the fatal flaws, in order of importance:

1. There is no plot. Things happen, certainly, but there is no central, compelling plot that carries the book from the beginning through the end. I'm down with post-modernity—probably more than the next guy—but this isn't a fractured tale that casts traditional storytelling to the wind. It's a series of loosely-connected sketches in which the characters' activities do not move us in any way. Which brings me to

2. The characters are not at all empathetic. First of all, there are just too many of them. The reader spends more time deciphering who's who and who's connected to whom and how than caring about the characters. In fact, nearly all of the characters are simply unlikeable (and often unbelievable): cold cutouts, photocopies of stock characters—the new age energy worker, the washed up talk show host, the high-power exec with aberrant sexual preferences: the usual parade of wanna-bes, it-girls, and has-beens.

Throughout the book, a lot of characters randomly die, unlikely victims of drugs, violence, accidents, and disease. The reader watches them die without caring, sometimes with a bit of pleasure (at last that snivelly character is gone!), but generally hoping that an atomic bomb will come from nowhere (sort of like everything else comes out of nowhere) and wipe out the totality of Hollywood (the cold, fake setting, of course, for this cold, fake book). Wagner is known for writing credits on the early-90s mini-series Wild Palms, and one can't help but see the influence of that vapid genre in this book, which could be brilliant farce if it didn't take itself so seriously (always a mini-series failing). If I wanted TV, I wouldn't have read a book.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Excerpt: Chinatown Milk Box

I'm having some trouble focusing today on the writing. I guess I've reached a turning point in the book and I haven't decided whether I should cover Mexico or save that for the next one. If this book gets out there and people dig it, the publishing house is going to want me to do another one, and I don't want to use up all my material in the first ejaculation, you know? Heh-heh. A book is like a woman, sometimes, you want to tear right through her, but she'll last longer and treat you better if you handle her with care, go slow, caress every limb, and tell her how lovely she is.

The thing is, too, and I don't like saying it but it's true, and that's important, is that all of Mexico is a story about Carol, and I don't think I'm ready to start writing about her. Some days I see her like the spoiled, painted, anguished whore she is, bleeding from the mouth and the cunt and covered with a sore for every man she fucked while she was supposed to be my woman. Most of the time, though, I miss her, usually when I get turned on and have to jack myself off, hers is the face I see staring up out of the Olympia. I think if I tried to write about Mexico now, I'd get so much come in the keys that they wouldn't be able to type anymore. It already happened once, when I was writing about that girl Laura back at camp, the first time I had a girl out in the open air, and then I had to clean the keys with a towel soaked in boiling water.

Oh, but the good thing that happened this morning is that I heard that cat yeowling again outside my door, and since I've figured by now she's a 'fraidy cat, I thought I'd lure her in. I'm calling her Lao, for Lao Tse Tung, because she a wise little Chinatown cat. I'd bought a can of tuna fish downstairs, hoping she'd come by again, and before I opened the door, I popped it open, knowing that if she smelled it first thing when I did open the door, she'd have more reason to stick around. Problem was, the movement of the door scared her anyway, and she ran down the hallway to over by the bathroom, where I'd seen her last time. She sat and watched me. I held up the can to show her, put a bite in my mouth with my fingers so she'd know, and put it down on the floor right outside my door, leaving it open and walking back into the room. Nothing happened, so I closed the door and went back to the Olympia, thought I'd just make the typing sounds so she'd know I wasn't waiting to jump out and scare her again. I wrote a few more pages (medium quality—I was really excited about the cat), and then went and opened the door—slow, in case she was still there. She wasn't, but the can was—empty. I think she'll come back for more.