small good things, big good things

Good things make life good. Some of the good things are small, some of the good things are big, and all of the good things are good.

– fresh-baked anadama bread, fragrant with molasses, chewy with oats and whole wheat, and hot from the oven. I love the way it fills the whole apartment with its rich, wholesome scent.

– wrapping Christmas presents, which gives me a marvelous calm feeling of accomplishment. And the penguin wrapping paper I picked up at Local Surplus & Salvage Shop is pretty darned cheery.

– snow! Granted, by the time I got outside in it, it was just lashings of cold and wet, but still: SNOW!

– hot tea with milk and the faintest lacing of sugar.

– anadama bread again, because it’s just that good. Also, because I’m making a second batch already.

– bright red coarse-weave fabric (also from Local Surplus & Salvage Shop) for reupholstering the Danish modern chairs Gaoo gave me. (She rescued them from the junk pile at our parents’ old house, so they’re endearingly familiar, too.)

– Nick Hornby’s About A Boy.

– The sweetest husband in the world, who knows me inside out and upside-down and who loves me with all my flaws.

by its cover

The A.V. Club’s recent column on contributors’ pop-culture rules has sparked similar discussions among my friends and acquaintances and fellow online forum users internerds. I quickly realized that though I have no firm rules, I do have a great many rough guidelines. Whew, a great many!

– I almost never see films in a first-run theater, where the fools in charge let other people in, too, with their cell phones and their chatter and their candy wrappers. That’s not a pop-culture rule but an avoid-temptation-to-criminal-assault rule. Crowds, cost, and the threat of poor storytelling all diminish my patience with other people and/or nonsense, so clearly a blockbuster in a first-run theater is a perfect-storm situation for me.

– Because I like to be surprised by entertainment, I rarely research enough to apply the Bechdel test before the fact, but I do notice and appreciate when a filmmaker or author:
1. has two or more named female characters
2. talk to each other
3. about something other than a man
just as if they were real people or something.

– I will watch any movie directed by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, or the Coen Brothers, and probably more than once, even if I wasn’t crazy about it the first time. These directors more than any others have earned my trust and gratitude, despite a few misses and a very few absolute stinkers. Oh, Terry Gilliam, I can’t say no to you, either, you hapless bastard.

– I will watch almost any Shakespeare adaptation, with or without the text intact. Yes, the one set in a greasy spoon. Yes, the one in post-war Japan. Yes, the kids’ movie rip-off.

– I don’t mind if a sensible adult thinks my choice of entertainment is silly or juvenile or embarrassing. Maybe I see some deeper value there; maybe I just like the silly thing. I’m not easily embarrassed. Or, uh, I am, but I’m also used to it.

– I am unlikely to sit still for a straight-up romantic comedy. Ditto a straight-up war movie. Indeed, anything that looks like a formula Hollywood picture, with characters slotted into a template, is of no interest.* I am especially not interested in the whitewashed Hollywood bio (see A Beautiful Mind) or other Oscar bait. I skip a lot of blockbuster movies and feel no pain over it.

*Unless is is a horror movie, in which case I miiiiiiiight tolerate the formula. I don’t know why I might, but I might. Additionally, with a horror movie, the low-budget/no-budget risktaker entices me far more than the splashy, shiny big-money movie. The no-money filmmakers have to push their creativity and plan their storytelling instead of relying on special effects and retakes.

– While we’re on the subject of formulas and failure: no Michael Bay. NO. NO. No, Michael Bay, No! I thoroughly respect the appeal of stuff blowin’ up real good. I don’t want to see stuff blowin’ up all sloppy.

– I shy away from remakes, especially English-language remakes of contemporary foreign-language films. However, a few marvelous remakes have made this more of an inclination and less of a rule. Criminal comes to mind: the original is fantastic, the remake is different but fantastic — I loved both. And I am the rare J-horror fan who actually preferred The Ring to Ringu.

– I do not like to see brief short stories transformed to full-length features. Padding rarely improves a story, but if it’s a favorite story, I almost always give in and watch it. For this reason, I am dreading The Yellow Wallpaper, but happily for me, it’s evidently stuck in some post-release limbo.

– I will [never/almost never] choose to watch a Jim Carrey or Robin Williams slapstick comedy. I will often watch Jim Carrey in a dramatic role. (Yes, this means I watched the hilariously, gut-splittingly awful The Number 23. Youch.)

– I will try reading almost any author or story once, in any genre or type: literary fiction, popular fiction, pulp fiction, academic no-fiction, popular non-fiction, graphic novel, whatever. Sometimes, I can’t make it more than a 20 pages before giving up in disgust, but I do try it in earnest. (I even tried to read The DaVinci Code out of curiosity, but its prose made me very cross indeed.)

– I believe that sometimes, you really can judge a book by its cover.


A few embarrassingly obvious things I’ve discovered today, this week, and this month:

– When you make coffee, it’s important to include the coffee.

– Duct tape and Duck Tape differ in thickness, texture, and stickiness.

– Do not keep reading that Chuck Palahniuk book if you ever plan to have sex again.

– Related: that one good “guilty pleasure” Stephen King book I keep thinking of — the pulpy page-turner that gives me the chills, cracks me up, and never makes me cringe in scalding embarrassment for the author? Yeah, he never wrote one of those.

– I can watch Kubrick’s The Shining over and over and over and over again, forever. And ever. And ever.

– Ow, that’s hot!

– Canned lentil soup tastes like clean woolen socks. But definitely like used clean socks, not new ones.

– If you do a little happy dance upon discovering the laundromat is open on Labor Day, you are: a) a bit of a weirdo; b) not a staunch supporter of unions; or c) desperately behind on your laundry duty. In my case, it’s a little from column a) and a little from column c).

– Dude. Haunted puppets are not scary. (I mean, in a short film. In real life, they’d be pretty scary.)

– I do not like to think about real-life haunted puppets.

– Sniff the milk before you splosh a whole lot of it in, not as you splosh it in.

– Though I never really understood the appeal before, when you have a super-fast connection and a reasonably fast machine, computer games really are a lot of fun.

– Yikes, that’s sharp!

– Hey, that stinks. Hey, what is that? Oh, it’s — Oh! OH! Eugh.

– A pot rack can only hold so many pots.

– Related: those winged plastic screw anchors? Yeah, you have to buy those by size. You can’t just, y’know, buy one and expect it to fit.

– Some tasks that seem to be about finesse really do require brute force, too.

– Well, that was a bad idea.

with extreme prejudice

I have nothing to add to this summary of the upcoming film Pride and Predator:

The new film from Elton John’s Rocket Pictures will have the seven-foot extraterrestrial give the characters from Pride and Prejudice something more immediate to worry about than making advantageous marriages.

Well, nothing except this link to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which “features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action.”

Long overdue

I wrote this, whoa, five weeks ago, but circumstances prevented me from posting it then. I submit it now, without a review or an update. Mea culpa.

50-book challenge: Labor Day round-up

As I’ve said before, the biggest challenge in book-blogging is simply keeping track of the books. Here are a few titles that escaped me on previous posts.

Of course, there’s the Shakespeare:
68. Titus Andronicus.
Operatically violent. The pages seem to squelch with blood. If Quentin Tarantino were Shakespeare. And, uh, vice versa.

And, like Tarantino’s oeuvre, there is more below the surface than one might first suspect. The staggering brutality — the many parts lopped, hacked, and hewn — contributes to the larger theme of the body politic.

69. Taming of the Shrew.
I had always read Katerina as an independent, fiery spirit — an Elizabethan Katherine Hepburn, who inexplicably cows herself to the demands of a swaggering alpha male. The play has irrevocably changed for me since a friend lent me a tape of a stunning BBC production. This Kate is defensive and lonely, cloaking fear in rage, and John Cleese’s Petruchio is peevish, weary, and — ultimately — tender. Rather than two strong forces clashing, this is a story of two wary, damaged characters tentatively seeking contentment, and finding it grows beyond their hopes.

This Kate poses some difficulties for a 21st century feminist, but finally the character makes sense to me, and that is a worthy trade.

70. As You Like It.
This was my favorite of the comedies when I was 16, probably because it was the favorite of my intense, funny, and very cute teacher, Mr. W.

Now, not so much. As luck would have it, this play was just added to my upcoming lit class, so we’ll see how I feel about it in November.

71. Emma, by Jane Austen.
Don’t worry, I needn’t burst once more into song over the joys of Jane Austen. To sum up: blah blah blah wit. Blah language blah blah measured and harmonious blah. Blah blah unintentionally revealing comment about romantic miscommunications and the nature of unrequited blah.

72. Banshee, by Margaret Millar.
Meandering, dated, and ultimately unsatisfying. And — lucky me! — I own it!

73. God Said “HA!” , by Julia Sweeney.
The translation from stage to page makes for stilted writing, but immerse yourself in her laughter and sorrow, and you will soon hear Sweeney’s voice as if she were in the room.

74. The King’s English, by Kingsley Amis.
This style guide is more opinionated than educated; in one characteristic entry, Amis recommends one usage over another because he believes anyone who disagrees sounds “like a berk.”

It’s Kingsley Amis; you perhaps expected it not to be steeped in vitriol? (Poor Martin. No wonder…)

75. Good To Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture, by Marvin Harris.

Anthropophagy! The dreaded filthy swine! Kuru! So happy, so so happy.

Harris appears to be unaware of the mechanism by which kuru is transmitted (brain-eating cannibals! hurray!), which causes me to wonder: was the cause unknown as recently as the 1980s, or is Harris just as careless as I’ve always thought?

50 book update: I read dreck!

On my glorious retreat to the family reunion, I read a whole truckload of crap, some from the library and some from the shelves of the family home. I am almost too humiliated to record the titles here, but you deserve to know my deep dark secrets. Lucky.

64. Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, by Helen Fielding.
If ever a book was more insulting to the female reader than Bridget Jones’s Diary, this is it. Sweet fancy Moses, Fielding, what are you doing?

65. Mindscan, by Robert T. Sawyer.
A back-cover blurb declares Sawyer’s writing comparable to Asimov’s. You might consider, as I did not, that Asimov is best known for his imaginative story lines, his wit, his flexibility of mind… but not for the artistry of his writing.
Damning with faint praise? Sawyer certainly fails to display great imagination or wit here. The major themes of Mindscan (what constitutes humanity and intelligence, how we define identity) are almost entirely lifted from the non-fiction works of Roger Penrose and Steven Pinker. In the right hands, this material would make an amusing short story. As it stands, the book is clumsy and predictable.

66. Three for the Chair, by Rex Stout.
Three Nero Wolfe novellas. I love Nero Wolfe: reliable misogyny and snark, punctuated by frequent episodes of gastroporn. Rex Stout novellas, however, are often disappointing, perhaps because the author is churning them out for quick publication and correspondingly quick money, perhaps because their brevity doesn’t allow the characters room to breathe. [I also started the full-length And Be a Villain, which I selected on the virtue of its title alone, but I never had a chance to finish it. Maybe next year.]

67. Sphere, by Michael Crichton.
So, somebody read Solaris, hmmm? Crichton seems to have found it tough going, so he did us the favor of trimming out all the complex cogitation, moral and emotional ambiguity, and, you know, thinky stuff. Oy, the unintentional humor just doesn’t stop! I heartily recommend it.

68. Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston.
An acquaintance recommended this book as an organizational guide, so I ordered it from interlibrary loan. This means I never had a chance to leaf through it before checking it out, and, yes, that does sound like a pathetic excuse. While I am not so much a believer in spiritual blahblahblah, any guiding principle that causes me to heave out great piles of crap seems tenable. But Kingston quickly wanders outside the tenets of feng shui and starts blathering about sacred space and ceremonial cleansing. Woman, the place needs clearing, not cleansing!

It did work a rough catharsis, if only because it filled me with the bustling energy engendered by scorn. Within 20 hours of returning home, I have already sorted out three shopping bags of clothing to donate, rearranged my bedroom, and sorted through old paperwork, filling a milkcrate with articles and print-outs, stripped of brads and staples and ready for recycling.

69. Suspect, by Michael Robotham.
A competently written psychological thriller. The language is a bit flat, and toward the end the twists do get out of hand, but there are many worse books one could be reduced to reading. (See above.)

70. The Bride of Catastrophe, by Heidi Jon Schmidt.
Literature, lesbianism, hunger for love, and crazy parents. Yawn. If I’d wanted this brand of overwrought drama, I would’ve gone to a family reunion. Oh, wait…

The 50 book challenge

54. All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare.
After reading Twelfth Night, I realized I have perhaps been giving the comedies short shrift, so I am revisiting them. All’s Well That Ends Well is not, to my mind, as charming, balanced, and rich as Twelfth Night, and [spoiler!] Helena’s determination to have and hold that schlumph of a man is puzzling. She’s charming, intelligent, loyal, and sweet-tempered; he is an ass. What a waste.

55. How To Keep Kosher, by Lisë Stern.
As the subtitle says, this is a comprehensive guide to kashering the home kitchen. Stern’s clear, step-by-step instructions make this potentially overwhelming task seem manageable. She does include surprisingly little discussion of kitniyot, which is a fascinating issue, and hotly contested.

For #56, I’m counting two as one, thinking that properly represents the proportion of each that made any damn sense to me. Faith and I agree: linguistics is hard.
56a. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, by George Lakoff.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years, enticed by its title, as who would not be? Despite the juicy title, this is one of the driest damn things I’ve ever read — and I’m an archaeology student, for cryin’ out loud. Lakoff (not unreasonably) expects the reader to have some very basic knowledge of both linguistics and cognitive science, and further expects his often quite abstract models and assertions to be transparent without the benefit of examples. Examples do bulk up a text, but often they are necessary. DO YOU HEAR ME, Lakoff?

56b. A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English, by Anthony Burgess.
This is both highly approachable and largely unreadable; Burgess fills the text with thrills, buzzes, and shudders. So contagious is his enthusiasm that the reader almost fails to notice how slippery and unsound his logic seems to be. Um, as far as I can tell. There are those better positioned to judge, of course.

57. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.
Gripping and lyrical, but its effect was evanescent. I spent a week fervently recommending this to family, then completely forgot its existence.

58. Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson.
Meandering, but more engrossing and less dreary than Behind The Scenes at the Museum. This is why so many friends have recommended her writing.

59. Tales of the Night, by Peter Høeg.
Feh, I give up.

60. Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene, by Niles Eldredge.
The entire work is based on a series of fallacies: that altruism presents a “Darwinian conundrum” (pg. 176), which Dawkins, Blaffer Hrdy, and others have repeatedly shown it does not; that an adaptive trait is an innately good or desirable trait; that evolutionarily devised impulses dictate (rather than influence) behavior. Sloppy thinking is infuriating, particularly from a scientist, and Eldredge compounds his sins by writing abominably.
61. Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood.
A 1970s Margaret Atwood novel about open marriage? I deserve everything I got.

62. Women and Ghosts, by Alison Lurie.
Great fun to read; Lurie seems to have had great fun writing it as well.

63. Love and Friendship, by Alison Lurie.
This, on the other hand, not so much. Atwood’s and Lurie’s wry views of marriage and love only serve to remind me of Edith Wharton’s quiet genius. It might be time to revisit Middlemarch, as well.

The 50 book challenge

First, a raft of Shakespeare:
46. Macbeth.
Murder, treason, witchcraft, and marital squabbling. These are a few of my favorite things.

47. King Lear.
No matter how often I read this or see it performed, no matter how intellectually and analytically I approach it, Regan shocks and horrifies me every single time. That bad, bad daughter. Why Regan and not Goneril? Er, um, I could not say. Regan seems more thoughtful in her betrayal, perhaps.

I reread Lear after seeing Laurence Olivier’s deeply touching BBC portrayal, but a friend recently lent me a 1970s Shakespeare in the Park version. I recommend it highly, not only for the towering wall of sound that is James Earl Jones as the enraged and maddened Lear, but also for Raul Julia: so young, so evil, and in leather pants. Mmm-hmm.

48. Twelfth Night. I described the delights of “Twelfth Night” here.
49. Richard III. A fun contrast to, say, Othello, where we see the gradual development of the villain and his plot, Richard announces himself a villain right from the get-go. Relish it.

50. Hamlet.
I have nothing useful to say about The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark except: Read it. Reread it. See it performed. See it again. Then see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and laugh yourself sick. God, I love Tom Stoppard. (Well, not everything.)

51. Othello.
My favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Always worth rereading; I have a slim and sturdy Victorian reprint to carry in my handbag.

And a few others:

52. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg. Whoa — two hundred pages of lyrical writing, with complex characters and an promisingly elaborate plot. Two hundred pages of total enthrallment.

But the whole book is 499 pages. Too bad, that.

53. In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman.
[moment of silence] [/end moment of silence]

The 50 book challenge

42. The Grotesque, by Patrick McGrath.
McGrath’s first novel has been compared to Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, and Evelyn Waugh, but to me it smacks unmistakably — and irresistibly — of Roald Dahl.

43. Possession: A Novel, by A.S. Byatt.
Slow, inexorable, and impressive. Byatt persuasively builds a literary history for the poets who are two of her main characters, and lambasts the academic world by describing the race to uncover the mystery in newly discovered texts.

44. The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, by Steve Almond.
With each story, I feared Almond would slip into blatant mockery, but there is something tender here; he embraces the touching human frailty in each character.

45. Dark Water, by Suzuki Koji.
Is the structure and mission of Japanese fiction substantially different from most English-language fiction, or is Suzuki Koji a truly bad writer? Rather than showing us the development of plot and character, he tells us. And having told us, he tells us again in the next sentence. A paragraph later, he may remind us. It’s excruciating and boring, not an easy combination.

A blurb on the inner cover says “Suzuki is often billed as the Stephen King of his country, but that’s not really accurate.” Nor is it fair… to Stephen King, who at least writes a ripping good yarn.

50 book challenge

One fresh read, and two stragglers from last month.

39. Asylum, by Patrick McGrath.
Thanks to The Little Professor for the recommendation. I tore through this chilling, unflinching, beautifully crafted little volume in one day, engrossed and unwilling to put it down.

It reminded me, in a horrid way, that I had forgotten to list

40. Damage, by Josephine Hart.
Shudder. There is some similarity between McGrath and Hart, certainly, but I can only define the difference by saying I will be seeking out more of McGrath’s work but not of Hart’s.

Sheer mindless word association sent my memory from Hart to Tartt:

41. The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt.
My, my, my, such a lot of (nonspecific Southern regional) childhood. I had me a powerful craving for biscuit and gravy, corn bread, and Co-cola while reading this. Only when I had finished did I realize it evoked as powerful a craving to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, which did a great deal of this business earlier and better.