Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Eight Months

I could start this with “eight months ago” or with “seventy five pounds ago”. I’m really only considering the second one because it seems like a fun way to start a sentence.

Seventy five pounds ago, I started my journey to lose weight and become more fit.

It really rolls off the tongue a little more impressively than just “eight months ago”, doesn’t it? Eight months would have happened either way, just stumbling and creeping along, but seventy five pounds didn’t happen by itself. I’ve been working pretty hard for those seventy five pounds. I’ve deprived myself of things for those seventy five pounds. I’ve walked when I’m tired and when I’m sick and when I just don’t want to do it anymore for those seventy five pounds. They are my seventy five pounds. I’ve earned them. So if I want to start a sentence by mentioning my seventy five pounds, then I’m going to. I believe I’ve earned that.

Seventy five pounds ago, I weighed 295 pounds. I now weigh 220. I’ve moved from morbidly obese to just regular obese, and in eleven more pounds, I will just be overweight. Eight months have been spent burning seventy five pounds. It has taken eight months to undo a little over eight years of gaining weight.

Some things will never be undone, unfortunately.

The brown spots on my shins are permanent. They will never go away. Every time I look at my bare legs for the rest of my life I’m going to remember that I let myself get so unhealthy that I caused a permanent physical change, and on some level permanent physical damage, to my body.

And that’s not even talking about the rest of my body. From my collarbones to my knees, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on. I don’t usually talk about my body, but I’ve been honest about my journey so far, and some parts of that journey are not pretty. For starters, I have stretch marks on my belly. They’re like weird cracks in my stomach, which is oddly pliable right now. I can feel the structure of my body underneath my stomach if I push down: something that might be abs, ribs, firm things beneath a layer that feels weird and crumbly and sort of hollow. If I suck in my stomach now, it actually moves. Seventy five pounds ago, that didn’t happen, but now I can suck in my gut and my gut shrinks. If I don’t suck it in, though, it hangs. It stretches.

It’s not comfortable.

I’m not always comfortable in my body right now.

I know that this condition is temporary. Some of the extra skin will always be there but some of the wrinkles and cracks will eventually shrink and contract and go away, but right now there are days when I have trouble with the weird things that are happening to me. I’ll lean or twist to reach something when I’m already sitting down and part of my thigh will lean with me, but part of my thigh will just hang there, almost pooling up on the couch, and it’s weird. I stare at myself sometimes because my body is doing weird things, and it makes me a little uncomfortable. It also makes me a little sad, because I wasn’t comfortable with my body when I weighed 295 pounds, and now, seventy five pounds later, I’m still not comfortable. Eight months and seventy five pounds, and all I’ve done is trade one misshapen torso for another.

I don’t feel this way all the time. A good night’s sleep, or a nice word from someone, or trying on some old clothes that I can fit into again usually cures it, but sometimes losing seventy five pounds in eight months makes me sad. It also makes me feel guilty sometimes, because there’s the constant reminder that I did this to myself, and it takes a little time to process that through, too.

On the other hand, there are days when I look at my body and feel wonder, and joy.

I have ankles all the time now. Defined ankles. Ankles where I can see the ligaments and the bones and the flexing of the joints. They’re not swollen or puffy or cankles. I don’t have to sit on my fainting couch with my feet up for an entire weekend to see them. I have ankles all the time.

My arms hang straight down now.

My shoulders are wider than my hips.

My blue glasses have to be resized because they fall down my face if I look down. I’ve lost so much weight that my head shrank, and I sit and wonder sometimes, “How is that even possible? Did I have fat temples?”

I see myself in mirrors and I stop to look. For years, I’ve trained myself not to see myself in mirrors, to observe myself only in parts. Brushing my teeth, I only saw my mouth. Shaving, I only saw my jawline. I learned to narrow my focus and push any glimpse of the rest of my body and how big it was and how round it was and how unhealthy it looked to my peripheral vision.

But now, I glimpse myself in mirrors and reflections, windows and glass and the side of the car, and often I look.

I see myself and, more importantly, sometimes I want to see myself.

Seventy five pounds ago, I didn’t.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Month in Books (February)

February wasn't quite as good a month for reading as January was, in that I only read eight books instead of ten, but in my defense February is a shorter month than January and one of the books I am currently reading is really long. Still, I've liked most of what I've read this month, and here they are, in order of completion:

1) I picked up Lucy Snyder's Soft Apocalypses during a one-day Kindle discount sale in January, but it's kind of weird that I've never read any of her work before. She and I have been Facebook friends for a few years because we have mutual friends and befriended each other through mutual commenting on those friends' posts, but somehow I haven't gotten around to reading any of her work until this month.

I shouldn't have waited this long, because I liked it, and already ordered more.

The book was an interesting collection of science fiction and horror stories. Most of them deal with apocalyptic near-futures, but there are also a couple set in the present day. The horror is mostly good and creepy, although there are a few gross moments in the first story, and the near-future stories blended horror and science fiction in ways that made me wish the story would continue in a few cases. Overall, like I said, I liked it.

2) Robert McCammon's The Hunter from the Woods isn't exactly a sequel, but stars Michael Gallatin, the Nazi-fighting secret agent werewolf from The Wolf's Hour. Both of the books are a lot better than they sound based on that short description, as my first thought when I hear "Nazi-fighting secret agent werewolf" is to wonder what grade the kid who thought up that concept was in, but they're worth a look if you like war stories and if you like werewolf stories. If you like them both together, then hey, this might be the pair of books for you.

This one delves both into Gallatin's past before the first book and his future after it. There's a little violence, and some sex, but there are also some good, suspenseful stories about war and the nature of "the enemy". The ending leaves open the possibility for McCammon to revisit the character again, but as yet there is no word on his website of whether or not this is planned.

3) I had trouble summarizing Frederick Kaufman's A Short History of the American Stomach, and I also had trouble reading it. For a short book, it was a long, slow read. It's about the way that the American public relates to food, but lacks a tight focus that would make it easy to summarize. It's mostly about the national obsession with dieting trends, from Puritan era purges and fasting to dieting in the modern sense, but is really just a historical sampling of that idea and doesn't seem fully complete. I kind of forced my way through this because it wasn't funny, or informative, or even really that interesting, and it seemed like it should be.

4) J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World takes the reader to the tropical, sunken ruins of London, some time in the near future. A series of solar flares has burned off part of the atmosphere, leaving the Earth a much hotter place of rising seas and completely melted ice caps, overrun by scavengers, refugees, and flora and fauna mutated by the increased radiation from space. Are the lizards, plants, and giant insects devolving? And will humanity follow?

I was never clear on why the protagonist, a biologist, did a lot of the things he did, especially toward the end of the story, or the motivations of the other two main characters. I wanted to like this, because I really liked High Rise when I read it last year, but after the descriptions of savage nature and sunken ruins there needs to be a reason to care about the characters, and I didn't really find that here. I didn't dislike the book, but I didn't especially like it, either. It turned out to just be something I read.

5) Greg Mortenson, a proponent of education and alleged builder of schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and has enjoyed weeks on the bestseller lists for the books chronicling his work, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. He's faced death on the Himalayas, been kidnapped by the Taliban, and marched alone into distant mountains to further the education of poor children at the edge of civilization. Unfortunately, as Jon Krakauer carefully documents in Three Cups of Deceit, all of his stories are lies, and he has for years treated CAI, the charity allegedly building schools in his name, as his personal ATM. The book is short, but ultimately devastating, as Krakauer methodically dismantles all of Mortenson's personal mythology and outlines all of the ways that his foundation and board of directors has enabled this to continue. I enjoyed the read even though I have no personal investment in that charity.

6) Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming is a story about people who want to be lost. John Johnson, movie producer, and Susan Colgate, former pageant winner turned actress, both walk away from their lives, in hope of finding something vague and undefined. Johnson's departure is planned, a liquidation of all of his assets followed by a walk into homelessness, while Colgate's is completely unplanned: she walks away unharmed from a plane crash in which everyone else dies, and is believed dead for a year. Now, John meets Susan at lunch, Susan vanishes again, and John sets out to try to find her. Will he succeed? Why does he want to? And how do their past disappearances shape the present one?

I sort of liked this book, but that's my problem with Coupland. I really liked the first one of his books that I read, and every book after that has been a case of diminishing returns. The best thing I can say here is that I am ambivalent, which is a compliment compared to how much I hated The Gum Thief, so maybe my Coupland stock is on the rise, or maybe I've just hit rock bottom with him and can sink no lower. Either way, I have the same problem with Jane Smiley, and am starting to think I might with Joyce Carol Oates as well. I liked that first one, but maybe shouldn't have ever read any more after that.

7) I don't usually count graphic novels in my yearly book total, but I'm going to make an exception for Ande Parks' Capote in Kansas, which tells the story of Capote's trip to Kansas to write In Cold Blood in stark, black and white visuals. The book opens with the heartbreaking death of the Clutter family, and does a really good job of showing Capote's alienation and isolation throughout his life and his difficulty in being accepted by a wounded Kansas town that's suspicious of outsiders. The only thing that doesn't work, to me, is the inclusion of the ghost of teenage Nancy Clutter, who follows Capote through the story and sometimes acts as his only friend. I get that she's there to show the human side of the story, and also to act at times as Capote's conscience and guilt over exploiting their deaths for his own gain as a writer, but those purposes are already served by other parts of the story. Some of her scenes are very powerful, but the final one comes off as a little too whimsical and "happy ending" for what is actually a pretty dark story.

8) John Grisham's Calico Joe introduces us to three baseball players: Joe Castle, a dazzling rookie pulled up from the minors who can't stop hitting home runs; Warren Tracey, an angry, drunk veteran who is a horrible father and a terrible person; and Paul Tracey, Warren's son, who plays the last baseball game of his life at the age of 11. Moving back and forth between Castle's rookie season in 1973 and the present, Grisham charts a collision course between the three and the impact it has on the rest of their lives. This was short, and at times somewhat predictable, but not a bad read.

What's weird to me is that I hate watching baseball. I will go to baseball games if invited because I like the park atmosphere and the food, but actually watching the game bores me to tears, and I never do at home. I love reading books about baseball, though, and rarely come across one that I don't like. I just kind of wish that doing so would somehow make me like watching the game more.

Anyway, that's it for February. My yearly book total at the end of this month stands at 18.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I don't particularly care for the new Beck album

We were released early from work yesterday, due to an ice storm currently rolling across East Tennessee. The roads were just starting to freeze when they left us out, an improvement over the last time this happened, when they let us out well into what the weathermen here charmingly refer to as "wintry mix", as if it's a bag of special snack food that you can only get around the holidays. For the most part, my ride home was fine, if a little slow, except for one turn from Volunteer onto Joe Johnson. I took it a tiny bit too fast, and as I completed the turn my back end slid for just a second on some slush, and I thought:

Shit. I'm going to fly off the bridge and die a fiery death in the Publix parking lot, and the last thing I'm going to hear is this crappy Beck CD.

Did you know that Beck has a new album out? I didn't, but he does. Morning Phase is his first new album in six or seven years, and I had no idea that Beck was still around and releasing albums until it won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards last weekend. I posted this to Facebook the night of the awards and my friends immediately commenced shaming me, their responses ranging from random expressions of disgust ("Ugh, Joel.") to indictments of the general state of our culture and the fact that I know everything about every single Real Housewife but nothing about Beck's current status as an artist.

That's a lie, by the way.

I don't know anything about the Housewives of Miami.

Mostly because it's the only one of the franchises that I don't watch.

I have standards, you know.

What I did not have, on the other hand, was a copy of Beck's new album, so Monday, when I left work early due to my terrible cold, I realized on the way home that I needed more diet ginger ale and diet orange juice and decided that I would go to Target, since they also have a music department. I assumed I could kill two birds with one stone, and when I had my basket loaded with juice and soda I headed over to the music area, where I found a display of Grammy winners.

Minus Beck.

I checked the B section of the "Pop/Rock" area, because it won "Best Rock Album", but they had nothing from Beck there. Mildly annoyed, I flagged down the nearest employee, who explained that the CD was not actually out yet, but that I could buy it on iTunes. Some of my friends also suggested this, but I like to buy the CD and listen to it in the car for a few days so that I know if I like the songs or not. That's how I came to understand, after a week of listening to nothing else but 1989 in my car, that Taylor Swift is not a slightly unbalanced man-stalking nutbag, but is instead my spirit animal. We've both dated a bunch of jerks, and then picked ourselves up and moved on.

Back to Beck, though, I made a second attempt at purchasing the new CD on Tuesday after work, when I was going to Barnes and Noble to pick up this Superman hardcover. They don't carry a lot of music at Barnes and Noble (it isn't Borders), but there is a little rack up near the registers and bargain books, so I figured since I was already there I might as well look. Nope, no Beck CD although, just like Target, the rack had a large sign advertising the Grammy Awards. I didn't actually watch the Grammies, but I heard from credible sources that the album won Album of the Year. What the hell?

Now determined to track down and purchase this thing, I went from Barnes and Noble straight to the mall, even though it was Tuesday night and it was almost time for my stories. I went straight to FYE, which claims to be For Your Entertainment, and where they have a large selection of CDs. As predicted, they had a huge Grammy display at the front of the store, and I immediately scanned it, looking for the Album of the Year.

Which wasn't there.

"Can I help you find something, sir?"

I live in the south, so I get "sir"-ed a lot. I turned to Nick, an FYE employee who appeared to have been born right around the last time I purchased any of Beck's music, and said, "Yes, please. I'm looking for the new Beck CD. It won a Grammy?"

Nick frowned thoughtfully and stared at the Grammy display rack.

"I don't see it," he said, still frowning. "Are you sure it won a Grammy? Because they sent us a list to tell us what to put on the shelf."

"It won Album of the Year," I said. Clearly, Nick doesn't watch awards shows, either.

"Let me go look it up for you, sir."

"Sure, thanks."

Eventually Nick located the CD, over in the B section of "Rock/Pop".

"Maybe you should put some on the Grammy shelf over there?" I suggested.

"Oh, no, we only put stuff on those from the list they send us."

I thought about pointing out that the list was obviously incomplete, but I didn't have it in me to lecture an 18 year old on fighting his corporate overlords and showing a spark of independent thought. He probably just wanted to get through the rest of his minimum wage shift without having to help clueless old guys locate CD's by obscure artists he's never heard of when they should have just bought it from iTunes and not come to the mall in the first place. Mildly disgruntled but ultimately satisfied at completing my To Do list in time to get home and watch my stories, I hiked back to the car, drove home, and spent the next six days listening to Beck's "Morning Phase".

And I don't like it.

There's nothing in particular that I don't like about it, but after repeated listening there's also nothing in particular that I like about it. None of the songs stand out or catch my thoughts, and in fact they all kind of sound the same and blur together into one song that takes up the whole album. Every time I start to think, "Jesus, how long is this song?" I look at the CD player and realize that it's three songs later than the last time I looked. I just didn't notice the songs changing because they all sound exactly the same and, worse, it's not a particularly entertaining sound.

To me.

But it won a Grammy, so there must be something there that I'm missing.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Supergirl: The Movie

Like many of my friends with a shared interest in comic books, I've been reading things about the upcoming "Supergirl" television show on CBS with great interested. Who are they casting? What will the costume look like? What will the focus be? And will it be as big a disaster as Supergirl: The Movie, the film from 1984?

OK, "disaster" might be a harsh word.

I say that with some authority, because I've watched the movie four times this weekend, and I've come to the conclusion that the movie is flawed without being completely horrible. Even worse, it seems like the people making the movie tried really hard to do justice to the concept and the character.

Except Faye Dunaway.

I think she was making an entirely different movie.

Everybody else, though, seemed to be trying really hard to make a decent movie. They just didn't have much to work with.

First, we'll give the movie some credit for trying to keep as much of the original character intact as they could. In the comics, Supergirl is a survivor of Argo City, a chuck of the planet Krypton that survived the explosion that destroyed the rest of the world:

"Action Comics" #252

"Action Comics" #252

You're probably thinking, "Hey, wait, science doesn't work that way," but that comic was written in 1959, and the focus wasn't really on factually accurate astrophysics. In later years, the same scene shown in flashback would often show Argo City as a domed city that survived the explosion, but the basics were always the same: Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin, lived in Argo City and survived the explosion of Krypton when the city was blasted into space. Like the rest of the fragments of Krypton, the ground under Argo City began to turn into kryptonite and poison the Kryptonians living on, so they covered the ground in a layer of lead and survived for a time until tragedy struck: a meteor shower (probably made of chunks of Krypton) struck the city, puncturing the lead shield poisoning everyone, so Kara's father, Zor-El, sent her to Earth in the tiny rocket he had time to construct. Orphaned, she flew away from her doomed family and neighbors, never to see them again.

She was, fortunately, already dead when Mr. Mxyzptlk dropped a gigantic kryptonite meteor on Metropolis to kill Superman, and the meteor turned out to be Argo City, filled with poisoned Kryptonian corpses:

"DC Comics Presents" #97

When comics turned dark in the late 1980's, they turned really dark.

Back to the movie, they did their best at keeping most of this origin, creating an Argo City:

"Supergirl: The Movie" Argo City (1)

"Supergirl: The Movie" Argo City (2)

that exists in "inner space", while planets like Earth and Venus exist in "outer space". They never explain why Argo City exists in this other place, but when they accidentally lose their Omegahedron, the city's power source, it's a crisis. Mia Farrow explains that the city will die in a matter of days, and that none of them can leave. People who watched the Superman movie know that none of them can leave because they have no planet to go back to, but it seems odd that the movie just glosses over that. Superman's cousin lives in this endangered city, and we're never told why. Kara feels kind of responsible for the loss of the Omegahedron, so she jumps in an experimental craft and heads out after it.

The Omegahedron, meanwhile, crashes to Earth, landing in the picnic of Selena, a frustrated witch living in a carnival funhouse. Selena immediately recognizes it as an object of great power, and sets off on what should be a path to world domination but instead ends up being the downfall of the whole movie. Selena and Supergirl, who is disguised as student Linda Lee, spend the entire movie fighting over a guy.

This guy:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (5)

The problem is that this movie doesn't have enough "super", and has way too much "girl".

Not only do we have two powerful women spending an hour fighting over a man, but there's also a couple of scenes of wacky girls' dorm hijinks:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (6)

and some rather disappointing action sequences where Supergirl fights evil bumper cars, runaway construction equipment, rapist truck drivers, uneven tilting flooring (she forgets that she can fly? I guess?), a demon, and in one really terrible sequence a giant invisible monster. I can only assume that they had to make the monster invisible because they spent all of the special effects money on Faye Dunway's wigs and outfits:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (1)

Seriously, she has a ton of hair in this movie:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (2)

and a ton of outfits:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (3)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (4)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (7)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (9)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (10)

but again, I think people were trying, sort of. The movie just can't seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It's way too much "chick flick" to be a superhero movie, and way too much "superhero" for a movie about two women fighting over a man. It's kind of like the creators couldn't figure out who their target audience was, so they created a movie that doesn't really appeal to anyone specifically.

And then there's Faye Dunaway.

I get that Academy Award winners sometimes make shallow, fun movies just because they might feel like it. They might be compelled to by finances, or because they love to make movies and just don't want to stop. There are any number of reasons why award winning actors and actresses make movies like Street Fighter, Trog, and Wicked Stepmother, but you still have to wonder if Faye Dunaway looked at a giant pile of movie scripts and thought, "Yes! This is worth my effort."

Because damn, does she put in some effort.

Somewhere along the way she must have confused "supervillain" with "drag show emcee", because her acting in this movie makes her work in Mommie Dearest seem mannered, subtle, and completely understated. It's an unforgettable performance.

Especially if you see a huge wig somewhere and it triggers a flashback.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Seven Months

Today marks the end of the seventh month of my fitness journey, and I'm going to start with a high and a low:

The Low

I only lost three pounds this month.

The High

I got in some guy's pants!

More specifically, this guy:

St. Joel

That's me. It was taken at a restaurant that is no longer open (I forgot the name, actually) out in West Knoxville, on the weekend that I moved to Tennessee in 2006. I've now unpacked and started wearing jeans that I last wore in 2006 and 2005. I only lost three pounds this month, but since July my total weight loss is now 70 pounds even. I've also lost ten inches of waist so far. For the sake of reference, here are some things that weigh 70 pounds:

An average sized Irish Setter

4.7 cubic feet of snow

$4536 in Canadian loonies (those are the Canadian $1 coins, for people who aren't familiar)

8.5 gallons of water

3 adult male bobcats

A ten year old boy

I laughed today when someone said, "You've lost, like, a whole person!" but seriously, I've lost the weight equivalent of a ten year old boy. On one level, that's hard to bend my head around. I've lost a kid who's old enough to stay home alone without a baby sitter. You can buy outfits for the amount of weight that I've lost. 70 pounds sounds great when I say it, but when I actually translate it into an object or person, like saying I've lost a little more than three of my car tires, then it becomes a hard concept for me to understand. Those three tires could be sitting around my living room right now, getting in my way while I try to watch TV. That, to me, is slightly confusing on a few levels: on one hand, I can't believe that it's gone, but on the other hand, I can't believe that in nine years I let myself gain three car tires.

The other hand is the thing that I continue to struggle with. Sometimes I am very, very excited to have lost weight. Going to the Gap, or Old Navy, or outlet shopping, and being confident that there will actually be clothing in stock that will fit me is very exciting. Most stores, especially outlet stores, don't seem to carry over a 2 XL (and only a limited selection of those), and until recently I hadn't even been able to fit into a 2XL for a couple of years. I've gone clothing shopping in the mirrorless, dimly lit shame caves that are the "Big and Tall" sections out of necessity, but I haven't enjoyed, really enjoyed and looked forward to, going to buy clothing for several years. Being able to do that brings me immense joy now, but it's also sent me into some rather dark moods. I have no one else to blame for the size that I became, and sometimes I've struggled to be nice to myself because of that. I didn't have a medical condition or an injury that prevented me from exercising or anything like that. I allowed myself to become an overweight, morbidly obese person, and sometimes now I have trouble not berating myself for it.

Guilt is a powerful, terrible thing.

Losing 70 pounds is also a powerful thing.

I've done that, and will continue to maintain that, but I think the dazzling days of "Holy shit, I lost twenty two pounds this month!" are definitely behind me. From here on out, it's only going to be little increments of three pounds, or two pounds, or, some months, there might even be a weight loss of no pounds, and that's ok. The goal here is a lifestyle change and a level of fitness, and even though I'm not at my goal weight yet I am feeling better. I can take stairs without getting out of breath. I walk faster, and I enjoy walking as much as I can. I actually get a little annoyed now if we decide to drive to something, and today when I told some coworkers I would meet them at a meeting on the other side of campus because I wanted to walk it, I got there in less time than it took them to drive over and park the car. (This is not intended as a criticism of them, but is instead intended as a reflection of my sudden speed.) When I first started talking short breaks to walk my building, a full circuit took me 12 minutes and left me a little sweaty. Now I walk it in 9 minutes and don't break a sweat or get short of breath. My boss suggested a parking spot even farther away than the one I've been using, and I excitedly started using it.

I am excited to exercise.

That's the better part of only losing three pounds this month: I am a better, healthier person.

And I fit into my really sharp looking winter coat again.

wintercoat

I'm not at my goal weight yet, but I think it's time I filled out a passport application, and got my photos taken.

Venice waits for me.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Month in Books (January)

I'm doing something new this year, as far as talking about books goes. Every year, I make a goal to read 52 books, and then I write a really long blog entry where I talk about all of the books I read this year. The problem is that I don't actually talk about them. Instead, because I've consistently read more than 52 books for the last few years, I post the quick paragraph or so that I have about them in my notes and then immediately move on to the next one so that I can get the whole list posted. It takes hours to write up, and probably takes other people hours to read. It's probably not as helpful as it could be and it's cumbersome to write, and by the end of the entry it's just a blurry wall of words for reader and writer both.

So we're not doing that anymore.

Instead, I'm going to write about the books that I read each month, while they are still fresh in my mind and while people can read what I thought without having to leave the computer for food halfway through the list because they are dizzy and weak with hunger. At the end of the year, I'll do a "best books of 2015", or something like that, but in the meantime, here are all the books I read in January:

1) Jack Neely's Secret History II, a collection of his history columns from one of the local newspapers, was entertaining and informative. Most of the history here takes place before the Great Depression, but it's fascinating as a person who lives in Knoxville today to learn about people who are buried in the Old Gray cemetery, what some of the statues and fountains around town mean, and about the basic character of the city and how it hasn't really changed over the centuries. This is a great read for local people, but may not mean as much to people who do not or have not lived in Knoxville, as it makes a lot of very specific local references and assumes that the reader gets them, too.

What I liked most about reading this is that it made me want to get out and see some more of the city, both to see things I've already seen with new eyes and a new sense of context and to go see things I haven't seen and didn't know were important. While I get around town a lot, I really only know a small section of it well, so it's exciting to think that after nine years here there are still new places to visit and new things to learn.

2) I read A Gronking to Remember, an erotic novella about Rob Gronkowski, and don't really have a lot to say about it because I already wrote a whole entry about the experience. Thinking about this book, especially with Gronk constantly on TV lately due to the Superbowl tomorrow, still makes me laugh. The whole thing was just so absurd and weird, and you should see the books that Amazon was recommending to me for about a week after I purchased that. My reading tastes are eclectic as it is, but that probably completely destroyed whatever algorithm is saved in their system for me.

Especially since I did not take Amazon's repeated recommendation that I also purchase The Babysitter Only Rings Once.

Amazon was really committed to recommending that one, for some reason.

I did learn a valuable lesson from this book, besides "footballs shouldn't touch that part of your body like that": Kindle purchases are not instant. I decided to read that, purchased it (if my mom is reading this, she probably just figured out that I spent three dollars of my Christmas Amazon gift certificate from her and Dad on football porn), and then had to wait. And wait. And wait. It took several minutes for Amazon to confirm the purchase and then download it to my Kindle, and here's why that's a problem: I only read my Kindle on the treadmill, and sometimes if I'm knocking out a few miles at a time I might finish one book in the middle and need to pause and download another book before continuing. If I'm in my zone, pausing for more than a minute or two can knock me out of it, and it takes several minutes for me to get back into it, and I hate that, so now when I start a new book on my Kindle I immediately purchase one, so that it's already downloaded and ready to go when I finish the book I just started.

Thank you, Gronk, for this valuable lesson.

3) Joyce Carol Oates' A Fair Maiden tells the short story of Katya, a young summer nanny at the Jersey shore, and the strange wealthy man that she meets while out with the children one day. She isn't sure what to make of Mr. Kidder, assuming he is just an old man who wants to sleep with her when he invites her to his home, but then she notices his name on books at the library, and on the library itself, and on all sorts of other things across the small summer town. His house is the nicest, richest home she has ever been in, and he wants to draw and paint her, and pay her to be his model for the summer. Is that all he wants? Katya isn't sure, but her suspicions grow even as the summer wanes, and it turns out that the charming Mr. Kidder wants Katya for something else entirely, something with deadly consequences. This was a fast read, but the ending seemed almost like a non-ending. The emotional plot came to a rapid conclusion, but the rest of it seemed slightly unresolved.

This book touched on a lot of heavy themes, but I feel like it didn't really explore any of them in as much depth as they deserved, and many of the characters were just cyphers. Mr. Kidder didn't get nearly enough examination, and his staff, the driver and the housekeeper, are mysterious and motiveless even though they are key to the finale. A friend who also read this said, "It's too short for Oates to really delve into a lot of that," but I don't think that's entirely the problem. I've had the same issue with plots not feeling fully resolved at the end of some of her longer novels; Carthage, which I read last year, definitely left me thinking, "That's it? What about this character? And this one? How is that part resolved?" so it may just be a matter of this being part of Oates' style.

4) Lynn Peril's College Girls is a history of female higher education in the United States, and a fascinating read. The subtitle promises "then and now", but while there is extensive educational and entertaining reading about "then", "now" stops at about the mid 1990's, which means it misses out on some of the more recent controversies and issues that I remember from my college years and my current employment on campus. It was a good read, though, and I recommended it to another friend who works on campus.

I also watched Mona Lisa Smile once while reading, because it put me in that mood. The movie remains both accurate and inaccurate at the same time, but I still like it.

5) Five days after graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan was killed in a car wreck, and her family and a few of her teachers collaborated to publish The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of her work. When it came out, a lot of people on my social media were raving about this lost young talent and voice of her generation and all of the things that people usually say about dead upper-middle class white honor students with gluten allergies, so I added this to my wish list and read it on my Kindle. There are some interesting ideas in the fiction section, but many of the stories end abruptly. For the most part, my main thought while reading this is that most of this work wouldn't have been deemed worthy of publication if she was still alive. I realize that probably sounds a little harsh, but the honest truth is that this book wasn't actually that good (there's a reason so many people raved about it and then so few people listed it on their end of the year "best of" lists), and initial readers and reviewers were blinded by the tragic loss of youthful potential.

It reminds me of something terrible and rather cynical that I learned in high school: every dead kid is suddenly an honor student. Those kids who got killed in a car wreck when I was a sophomore or junior? Suddenly they were the nicest, kindest people with hundreds of friends whose tragic loss most of the student body would never recover from. I'm sure they actually were nice, but they weren't saints. That girl who was stabbed to death in the woods by my house by four classmates? Suddenly she was going to change the world, and we were all doomed to live without her gifts. Very few of the newspaper articles at the time mentioned that she was failing every class, had exceeded the number of allowed absences for the year, and was meeting those four guys in the woods to exchange sex with all four of them for drugs. I don't think you deserve to die for any of those things (unlike jaywalkers, who I should be allowed to run over), but I also think the communal outpouring of grief and the football players writing letters to the editor dedicating the rest of their football playing careers to her memory are a little over the top. There is a tendency to immediately canonize and romanticize the loss of youth because it's also a loss of potential, and I think that's what happened in the case of this book.

Or I'm just a terrible, coldly cynical person inside. That's also possible.

6) Being married to Earnest Hemingway was, according to Naomi Wood's Mrs. Hemingway, both rewarding and devastating. In this novel all four Mrs. Hemingways tell their story, one after another, explaining how she fell in love and how she lost him. The book moves from Paris in the Roaring 20's to Key West to the war in Spain to WWII Paris to Idaho to Cuba and in and out of the lives of women who became friends by being members of a very elite club, the wives of Earnest Hemingway. It was an interesting, entertaining read, and seemed to be well researched according to the notes at the end, but a lot of the time I was left with the same questions I had last year when I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald last year: how much of it is actually real? Wondering about that didn't jerk me out of the story as many times during this one as it did during that one, but the question is still there, and is probably the danger of reading any fictionalized book about real people.

I also decided while reading that Earnest Hemingway must have had some kind of tremendous personal charisma, because he doesn't seem nearly as hot as all these ladies raved about, not even when he was younger. I wouldn't kick young Earnest out of bed or anything, but he's no F. Scott Fitzgerald.

7) I heard Justin Lee speak on campus last year and put Torn, his book about being gay and being Christian, on my wish list immediately after, but it took me this long to get to reading it. Part autobiography and part spiritual debate, Lee argues that Christians have made a mistake and turned away from Christ by their treatment of gay people, and that there is a path to being in committed gay relationships and to staying true to the teachings of Christ. I'm not sure many Christians will actually read this, but it sort of made me want to go give church a try again. That didn't actually happen, but for about a week there I did give serious thought to it, so that should be a sign of how well-written this was.

8) Did you ever read Flowers in the Attic and wish there was another version of the same story where Cathy's brother, Christopher, mansplained everything to you? If so, Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth is the book for you! High schooler Kristin, a distant cousin of the Foxworth family, has grown up hearing creepy stories of the attic children for her entire life, but thought they were just exaggerated rumors until she found a locked strongbox in the rubble of burned down Foxworth Hall. Opening it, she discovers Christopher's diary, a day by day account of the years Christopher and his children spent locked in the attic of Foxworth Hall, tortured by their religious grandmother and abandoned and poisoned by their mother. As she reads the diary, Kristin becomes more and more obsessed with Christopher, falling in love with the long-deceased cousin and imagining that she sees him following her, beckoning to her, and, eventually she begins pretending that her boyfriend is Christopher. Her boyfriend, Kane, agrees that they should pretend to be Christopher and Cathy, and our story ends with the two of them heading up to Kristin's attic to read more of Christopher's diary, because attics turn Kristin on now.

I'm not kidding. They're going to the attic so they can feel more into the story, but they're getting to the part of the story where Christopher and Cathy had sex, so I think we kind of all know where things are going in the sequel, which I have already purchased.

I was expecting trash, and wasn't disappointed. I was glad that it was the good, entertaining kind of trash, though.

9) Certain things might come to mind when you think of Shirley Jackson: author, writer, wife, mother... murderer? In Shirley, Susan Scarf Merrell transforms Shirley Jackson into a character in a Shirley Jackson book: moody, sinister, and possibly not what she seems, but also possibly entirely normal and only sinister in the narrator's imagination. When Fred, a young student professor finishing his dissertation, and Rose, his pregnant wife, come to stay with the Jacksons, it's supposed to be only temporary, until they find a place of their own in the Vermont college town. As the days turn into weeks, their move seems to become permanent, absorbing them into the Jackson household and leaving Rose with questions: Does Stanley cheat on Shirley? Is Shirley a witch who can read minds and cast spells? And did Shirley have anything to do with the disappearance of a pretty young student from the college?

This was a tense, interesting read, and I enjoyed it. The difference between this and the Hemingway book was that this is clearly not aiming to be biographical fiction, so I hope no one is reading it that way. Some of it may be based on Jackson's letters, writing, and biographies, but the rest is just a good, spooky story. Shirley Jackson probably would have liked it.

10) I know that at least some of what I eat comes from pretty far away, but until I read Alissa Hamilton's Squeezed, I never realized that my orange juice was probably shipped to me on a giant multimillion gallon tanker from Brazil, like crude oil, after spending up to a year sitting in sterile tanks and then getting enhanced with a "flavor pack" whose ingredients and production aren't entirely known to federal inspection agencies so that it would taste fresh again. While this is a book about orange juice, it's actually a book about the dangers of big business informing government policy, about marketing, about the global food economy, and about the importance of myths about food in our culture. I feel kind of dumb now for thinking that my Tropicana was actually recently squeezed in Florida, but Hamilton does a good job of explaining why I think that and how the government helped shape that belief.

So, those are the books I read in January. I'm halfway through two others at the moment, and I guess it's possible that I might finish one or the other before midnight, but if so I'll just count it in February.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Gronking to Remember

Over the years, I've read a lot of crap and a lot of trash. Not only have I read all five Twilight books, but I've also read the leaked chapters of the unpublished sixth novel in the series. I've read an incredible array of crappy queer literature, especially back when I was still in my gay book club and managed at least three or four times a year to forget to decline the automatic "book of the month" club selection. That's how I ended up with two copies of Every Frat Boy Wants It; a friend sent me one as a joke and then the book club sent me one because I forgot to decline it. I have no such excuse for owning the sequel. I bought that on purpose, because the first book was so hilariously bad. I've read books about vampires from Atlantis, books on how to score with women that read like date rape tutorials, books on how to date married men, and I've read 50 Shades of Gray.

In short, I will read any trash that amuses me.

That's why last week I read an article, with great amusement, about the fact that an erotic novella about professional football player Rob Gronkowski exists and is for sale. Not only did I giggle through the entire article but, because I am the kind of person who has also watched Cougar Cult and giggled through watching Deer Woman, I immediately thought, "Maybe I should read that."

I read a lot of crap.

And once recently I referred to Rob Gronkowski, who I am certain is a nice person with a beautiful mind, as "that hotass Gronk".

My friend Todd immediately corrected me, saying, "You spelled 'dumbass' wrong," but, you know, if Gronk had a genius-level IQ, I probably wouldn't know who he was. (Actually, I might. I read a lot of books that are actually intelligent, too.) As it is, I only know who he is because many of my gay friends and many of my female friends linked his naked photos from ESPN Magazine (ESPN has a magazine? Isn't that what Sports Illustrated is for?) and once he made a hilariously inappropriate joke about taking Tim Tebow's virginity. That's really all I know about Rob Gronkowski, but that's probably all I need to know to read A Gronking to Remember.

As this is probably not the kind of novella that requires an in-depth literary analysis, I figured I might as well just post my reactions as I read it.

The title: I approve of the use of his nickname as a verb. If, hypothetically, I ever hooked up with Chris Hemsworth, I would totally tell my friends that I'd been Hemsworthed. It's not something you can do with every name (for example, if, hypothetically, I ever hooked up with Tom Welling, "I got Wellinged" doesn't really carry an impressive ring) but for a name like Gronk it seems to work.

The cover: The elbow patches on that lady's sweater are kind of fugly.

The copyright page: Wait, "all characters appearing in this work are fictitious"? I'm pretty sure the Gronk is real.

5% (I don't know how to make the Kindle tell me what page I'm on): "burly, hairy, ape-like, oily, wild-eyed, vicarious-glory-engorging, howling-insane men" is a hell of a lot of adjectives in a row.

6%: "how fit and bulging he was everywhere". Giggle. Giggle giggle giggle.

7%: I think I've dated someone named after every single one of the narrator's husband's friends.

8%: The narrator is having marital trouble? Maybe watching football with her husband would help, except for the part where she's watching because "my vagina demanded it".

8%: "the game then proceeded to continue continuing after that". Lady, I feel the same way sometimes when I'm watching football.

13%: Watching football has never done that, or actually anything, to my nipples.

14%: Oh, my. This is a little graphic.

16%: His loincloth? Football pants don't have loincloths. I would have noticed that by now. Sometimes they stick a towel down the front, but that's for peeing on, not for fashion. Ma'am, your fantasy is incorrect.

18%: This has chapters? OK. I'm on chapter 2 now.

23%: "the sexualized warrior spirit of the Gronk". More giggling.

26%: "This is a Jets house and this has always been a Jets house!" Is this a modern day Romeo and Juliet story? Oh, God, does Gronk die at the end?

34%: A football locker room fantasy sequence. This narrator has a really active imagination, especially the part where she's wearing an assless pink football uniform. (An outfit that's actually not just a fantasy; I saw a man wearing that same thing on Bourbon Street in New Orleans once. I did not take a photo, but thought about it.)

36%: Jesus, I hope the narrator's exaggerating a little. Otherwise she's going to need a mop, or possibly a Shamwow.

43%: All these descriptions of game day snacks are really making me want chips and dip.

44%: "his soul full of bitchy, sour guts". This book actually has some really good turns of phrase. The writing quality is much better than 50 Shades of Gray, as dubious an achievement as that may be.

47%: "my sweet Gronkalish". Giggling.

49%: Don't tell me there's nowhere else to put your hands, lady. There's a room full of other places they could be, rather than jammed into your pants.

55%: Mr. Sandman throws sand into your eyes, lady. SAND. Not what you just wrote.

56%: The Patriots play in Gillette Stadium? I learned something! This book is educational.

61%: I laughed so hard that I actually spit on myself. I can only hope this is intended to be funny, rather than sexy.

64%: "Oh! Oh Gronk," I moan." I'm now laughing so hard I think I hurt myself. My side hurts. I can't breathe.

69%: Oh, my. That escalated quickly.

70%: Kudos on using "hammer" as both a verb and an adjective in the same sentence.

80%: "We went to the Olive Garden and destroyed the free bread sticks. We had dreams."

89%: To call this a shocking climax seems somehow inadequate. I'm lost for words.

95%: I need to figure out a way to use the word "Bagronkadonk" in conversation.

Jesus, that really was a Gronking to remember.