Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book 26: Fashion Victims

I must have read an article somewhere about Alison Matthews David's Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, because I can't imagine how it would have ended up on my Amazon wish list otherwise. It did, though, and my parents bought it for me for my birthday or Christmas this year. A lot of books come into my house at that time of year, so I can't always remember which holiday I got one for, but I know it was from mom and dad, so thanks! I got around to reading it, finally (much more quickly than some books that are from a few Christmases ago and still hanging around the house waiting for their chance), and it was very entertaining.

David's book explores the dangers associated with clothing, both in wearing it and in production of it, from the beginning of the industrial age to the present. It only briefly mentions the dangers to animals, with a few mentions of European beavers being hunted almost to extinction for hatmaking purposes or turtles being hunted for their shells, and focuses instead on the dangers to people, most often to women. Rather than go through the more common paths of corsets and foot-binding, it looks instead at things like mercury in felt hats, toxic dyes, highly flammable fabrics (apparently it was just a thing for a while that nightgowns and ballgowns were made of fabric that burst into flames as soon as it got near a candle), explosive plastic hair accessories, and all the ways in which these things were deadly to the (mostly female) wearers and to the laborers who worked to produce them.

David doesn't shy away from the more gruesome aspects of her reporting, describing rotting jawbones and death by fire in vivid detail. She also paints a very clear picture of the ways in which known dangers were downplayed or suppressed entirely because they could damage business interests or, more disturbingly, because they were only a danger to women, and considered less important. Overall, David takes what could have been a dry, academic read and keeps it conversational, and as an added bonus provides a lot of illustrations to make the clothes come alive. This was a really good read, but I feel like the idea of dangers being ignored because fashion was considered more of a women's concern could have been elaborated on more. The idea was intriguing, but there didn't seem to be a lot of evidence to back it up.

For a blog entry

Lois Lane? You had trouble with fashion once?

For a blog entry

There's the charming, totally sane Lois Lane that we all know and love, and here she is in the story in question:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Our story begins with Lois attending a Broadway performance of "Hamilton". No, it's not the Hamilton you're thinking of, because this story was published in 1970 as the backup feature of the same issue where Lois dies and marries Satan on Lana's birthday. No sooner does Lois go backstage to congratulate the actor on his performance than he casually mentions that, oh yeah, his wig is cursed.

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

As Lois' life goes, this is pretty normal, actually, right up until the moment the curse takes effect:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Yup, he's dead. Intrigued, Lois decides to investigate the wig shop:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

which is apparently in Ye Olde Towne section of Metropolis. The wig shoppe owner and Lois laugh about the alleged curse, and Lois buys a Marie Antoinette wig for the masquerade ball that night just to prove that there isn't really a curse. Upon arriving at the ball, Lois barely has time to get inside before the curse strikes!

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Lois is almost bludgeoned by a watermelon, just like Marie Antoinette.

Wait, that's not how Marie Antoinette died? Well, what killed her, then?

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Who knew that guillotines were made out of razor sharp serving trays? Panicked but still suspicious, Lois returns to the wig shoppe and picks out the Joan of Arc wig. Uncertain of its historical accuracy, she takes it to the Metropolis Museum to compare:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

and immediately is almost burned alive:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

She manages to save herself, but decides that the curse is real and the wigs are deadly.

Inexplicably, she then decides to return to the wig shoppe and buy another wig. What are you doing, Lois? Do you want to die?

It doesn't really matter, because the wig shoppe wants to kill her:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

and they decide the best way to do so is by using this Byzantine scheme to convince her that a magic wig can give her super powers:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

and then running her over with a truck. Their plan goes slightly awry:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

because it's not Lois at all:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Not only that, but the wig shoppe owner isn't who we think he is, either:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #103, DC Comics, August 1970

Yes, the whole thing was a setup. Supergirl happened to overhear the criminals plotting after the fire at the museum, and swooped in to save Lois.

Probably because, as we learned above, dangerous fashion is a female problem.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Books 22-25: I might only read 52 books this year

We're halfway through the year, and I'm right at 25 books at the beginning of this month. This suggests that I might only read 52 books this year, which has long been my goal but is going to fall somewhat short of my totals for past years. I guess we'll see how it goes, but in the meantime, here are the books I've finished since the last time I posted an update (and promised to post more often):

22) Everybody was talking about the Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" for a while, but I don't have Netflix, so I picked up the book the show is based on. If you don't know already, it's the story of a set of 13 cassette tapes recorded by high school student Hannah Baker just before he death by suicide. Each tape is about a specific person, and explains why and how Hannah feels that person contributed to her suicide. As the book opens, Clay receives the tapes, and is horrified to discover that the girl he had a crush on is someone he didn't know at all, the same way he didn't really know the other twelve people, either. The tapes come with a warning that if they are not passed on, a second set will be released to the world, and Clay listens, as did the people before him and, presumably, the people after him will.

As a book, this was an interesting concept, because Hannah, in framing her entire story only as the placing of blame, is a classic unreliable narrator. Is what we're hearing the whole truth, or only the truth as seen through the lens of how the events fueled Hannah's depression and isolation? I'll be the first to agree that high school is a terrible place filled with terrible people, and that teenagers as individuals may be ok sometimes but as a group are heartless, soulless monsters, but my feeling after reading this wasn't sympathy for Hannah. Listening to these tapes is emotionally devastating for Clay, and Hannah did that to him on purpose. She flings accusations that cannot be answered, because she flings them from beyond the grave, blaming others for damaging her while inflicting a good bit of psychological damage herself. Hannah, in death, becomes the same sort of person she blamed in life.

I don't know if people watching the show have the same takeaway. I assume Hannah is a sympathetic character there, and she should be. Terrible things happen to her. At the same time, though, the book skirts toward suggesting she's also a bit of a selfish villain through Clay's reactions and thoughts, but never quite gets all the way to that idea, and I doubt the show does either. Then again, I'm judging without watching it, so I could be totally wrong.

23) I wanted to read Paul Tremblay's Disappearance at Devil's Rock because I really enjoyed his previous book, A Head Full of Ghosts. I enjoyed this one, too, but not quite as much as that one.

This tells the story of the disappearance of Tommy Sanderson, who snuck out into the woods with friends at a sleepover and then vanished into the night. The remaining boys' story doesn't quite make sense, and on the same night that Tommy disappears his mother, Elizabeth, sees a fleeting specter of him in her house, crying out for her before vanishing. As the search for Tommy intensifies, pages from his diary start turning up in Elizabeth's living room, hinting at strange activities in the woods, and meetings with mysterious strangers at Devil's Rock, deep in the forest. Kate, Elizabeth's daughter, and several neighbors report seeing shadowed faces peering in their windows at night, or running into the woods at the edges of their yards, and it becomes clear that much more happened in the woods the night Tommy disappeared than his friends have let on, and that it may have been too late to save him even before he vanished.

This was interesting, but something about the pacing seemed off to me. Overall, it was still a good read.

24) Jennifer McMahon's Island of Lost Girls opens with Rhonda, parked at a gas station and watching a scene so bizarre that she doesn't recognize it as a crime until it's over: a person in a rabbit costume invites a toddler from the car next to Rhonda's into his own, and drives away, initiating a statewide manhunt and casting suspicion on Rhonda herself for not acting. Trying to clear her name, Rhonda undertakes an investigation of her own, but as she gets closer to figuring out what happened to little Ernie she also finds herself getting closer to discovering what happened to Lizzie, her friend from childhood who also vanished long ago. Is there a link between the two? If so, what? And how are Rhonda's memories of another person in a rabbit suit long ago tied to the whole thing?

This was a fast read. It was interesting, but tied up very quickly.

25) During the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" four part reunion, Andy, Kandi, and Porsha revealed the shocking truth that viewers had wondered about and argued over all season: Phaedra, the attorney who has always presented herself as an upstanding churchgoer who had no idea her convicted felon husband was involved in any crimes at all and would never hurt anyone because it wasn't the proper, Godly thing to do, was the one who started the rumor that Kandi and her husband drug and rape women in a sex dungeon. In the course of shrieking, crying, and attacking Phaedra for this, Kandi happened to mention that anyone who had ever read Angela Stanton's book about Phaedra would have known she was dirty, and like any good viewer I immediately searched Amazon for the book: Lies of a Real Housewife. Apparently I wasn't the only one, because the book climbed several thousand places on Amazon's sales chart in under a week.

Was this the best book in the world? Oh, absolutely not. The grammar is terrible. On the other hand, it was highly entertaining. It tells the (allegedly) true story of Stanton's troubled background, relocation to Atlanta, and how she fell into a ring of criminals run by Phaedra. Moving through check fraud, bank fraud, auto theft, identity theft, and title fraud, Stanton ends up in prison and Phaedra ends up married to Apollo to keep him from testifying against her. When Stanton gets out and becomes an author, writing about the women she met behind bars, she is shocked to find Phaedra still acting against her while selling an image of herself on television that's nothing like the woman Angela knows, and she wrote this book to get back at her.

After finishing, I'm not sure how much of it is true, but I also note that Phaedra hasn't sued Angela, so maybe there's something to this after all.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Tangled Web We Weave Out of Dumpster Fire Neckties

There's a running joke at work, and on my Facebook, about the ways that people who contact me manage to misspell or mispronounce my name. You name the medium (phone, fax, email, hand-written note, etc.) and at least one person a week will refer to me as Jole, Jule, Troll, Charles, Joyle, or some other previously unimagined variation on the theme of "Joel", but there's one version that comes up most often: at least a hundred people in the last decade have referred to me as Jewel. In my head, I tend to hear it the same way Bette Davis hisses it in "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" whenever she screeches about Jewel Mayhew.

I get called Jewel so often, usually in conjunction with some sad butchery of my last name, that last summer someone sent me this shirt:

Gifts

They forgot to add a note, though, or the seller didn't let them, so I posted it on Facebook with a thank you message, and then a funny thing happened: two different friends said, "You're welcome."

Odd, right?

Neither one of them contradicted the other. Neither said, "You didn't buy that! I did!" This left a few options in my mind: maybe the one who bought it didn't feel like arguing, or maybe the two of them went in as a pair to buy it for me, or, unlikely but logical, neither one of them actually bought me that shirt. It's the only thing that makes sense to me, but I didn't want to force the issue, and just let it go.

Another running theme at work, especially for the last year, has been the use of dumpster fire memes. I have posted photos of dumpster fires on my Facebook page so many times in the past year that my friend Jocelyn bought me a dumpster fire Christmas ornament, and also I was asked to stop posting them in relationship to workplace issues. This wasn't a written rule or a reprimand, just a strongly worded suggestion.

A few weeks ago I was seething about something unrelated, as I sometimes do, and I started thinking about the unofficial, unwritten rules of our workplace, "No pictures of dumpster fires, Joel. Wear a tie every day, Joel.", and suddenly a lightbulb went on over my head: What if the two rules contradicted each other? If both rules were in the same place at the same time, what would happen? Would one trump the other? Would I have to take off the tie, or would I be allowed to present the dumpster fire to the world?

Determined to find out, I went online to Zazzle and designed and ordered my own dumpster fire tie, using some artwork I found online:

Gifts

A funny thing happened the night that it came in the mail, though. I was super excited to wear it, and was going to Facebook to post about it, but when Facebook opened the first thing at the top of the page was a Facebook memory of one year ago: the Jewel Kiammer shirt photo. I looked at it, and immediately remembered how two friends took credit for sending me that, and thought, "Could that happen again?" I decided to perform a little experiment, and posted a note on Facebook that I'd received a lovely tie without a note, and did not know who sent it to me. I then texted several friends to ask, "Did you send me a tie?" Since they didn't send me a tie, they all answered, "No."

Except that one of them, my friend Meghan, said, "Yes."

I was immediately skeptical, because I bought this tie for myself, and asked Meghan what was on it. Meghan sidestepped the question by pointing out that part of showing my gratitude should include a Facebook post of my gift with a nice thank you note. I promised to post such a thing, but mentioned again that I did not believe she had sent me this particular gift. Meghan mentioned that my skepticism hurt, so I apologized, thanked her for my gift (which I bought for myself), and promised to tag her in the morning.

During the night, six other friends took credit for my tie. Some of them were clearly joking, but Meghan was holding firm to her story.

Prior to posting in the morning, I offered Meghan the chance to retract her statement, but she did not. I posted a lovely thank you note to Meghan, regarding the tie I purchased for myself. When we got to work, I told her again that I did not believe she had purchased this tie, and not only did she insist that she did, but she told other people in the office that she did. Meghan was all in on claiming to have purchased the tie that I purchased and lied about. I couldn't tell the truth without revealing my lie, but I still gave her repeated chances to retract hers.

Meghan stuck to her story, and I looked like a terribly ungrateful person who couldn't just take a nice gift and be happy.

Around noon I asked Meghan again if she wanted to confess, and texted her a screencap of the order confirmation email, claiming a friend had sent it to me. I carefully cropped it to remove the header that was addressed to me, the person who had placed the order. Meghan responded by claiming that it could be photoshopped, or someone could have logged in and gone through the entire process of ordering to take that photo without actually paying. I posted the cropped order confirmation to the Facebook thread, and Meghan continued to claim that she had ordered me the tie.

I again invited her to confess, and she again stuck to her story.

This left me in a difficult position. Should I go ahead and reveal that I ordered the tie myself, exposing Meghan as a fraud, or was I, as a friend, now obligated to support my friend by covering for her lie? I met some friends for dinner on Sunday and explained my dilemma, and they were unanimous in their answer:

"Dump her out, Joel."

So here I am, dumping out both Meghan and myself, but I did give her another chance on the way to lunch today to confess before I wrote this. She says that she meant it as a joke, but once she started she was just in too deep and couldn't figure out how to get out.

There's probably a moral in there somewhere.

Or this whole thing could just be a long, messy dumpster fire.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Books 17-21: "Might as well finish this one first..."

I'm not doing so well at this "post a review every single time I finish a book" idea that I started this year, and the past month or so has been the worst yet. It happened because I spent a long time on #17, and then flew through the rest so fast that every time I thought, "I should talk about these books," I also thought, "Well, I'm already halfway through this one, so I might as well finish it first."

Five books later, I really need to get books some books out of my house and haven't started number 22 yet, so here we go:

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, by Frank Bruni

I decided that I needed to read more books about my field just as I was walking through Barnes & Noble past a table that this was sitting on the corner of, so I picked it up and brought it home. (I paid for it first.) Bruni offers a fascinating, horrifying portrait of admission to elite colleges, painting a nightmare landscape of tears, paid consultants, and a girl who applied to over 60 colleges on purpose through the Common Application. At the same time, though, Bruni dissects the way elite colleges perpetuate their own reputations, manipulate their exclusivity, and the way that "US News and World Report" actually produces their list of the nation's top schools.

Bruni's main argument, backed up by example after example, is that no one actually cares where you went to undergrad. They may care about the schools you went to for degrees after that, but employers and grad schools care more about the skills and experiences you pick up in undergrad more than they care about the name of the school on your degree. Bruni argues that college students should seek out a place that will give them new experiences, challenge their ideas, boost their confidence, and nurture their critical thinking, and points out the fact that there are overlooked schools all over the country where this can happen if high achieving students can shake off the blinders of the Top 25.

This idea was fascinating to me, because I have often wondered what would have happened if I went somewhere else for undergrad. I got into my first choice school, but couldn't afford it, and ended up with a choice between two state schools. The one I ended up going to offered better financial aid and scholarships, but there were really three deciding factors:

1) They seemed to want me. They recruited me for their Honors Program, called me to check in every couple of weeks, sent someone to my Senior Awards Night to personally award me a scholarship, and basically made me feel like they actually wanted me there. I chose them over schools that offered me a full ride scholarship, even though it meant working all the way through school, because of the personal touches.

2) Several close high school friends were going to the other school. Sometime during senior year, I decided that I liked my friends, but I wanted to be away from everyone I knew. Bruni's book suggests that this was a wise choice.

3) I hated the other campus. Mom and I drove all the way out there (the round trip was over six hours), and neither one of us was impressed. I didn't like the way the buildings looked, didn't like the way the town looked, and didn't like the way the other students looked. Mom talked repeatedly on the drive home about how our tour guide (who was probably a perfectly nice girl) had a "herpes cold sore, right there on the side of her mouth!" If I ask my mom about that tour now, she probably still remembers this, a couple of decades later. Within a week of that tour, I committed to my undergrad school, and saw it for the first time at an Open House after I had already decided to go there. Good thing I liked it.

Bruni's book was a good read.

Carsick, by John Waters, was not a good read. I love John Waters' movies, but the structure of this tale of Waters deciding to hitchhike across the United States from Maryland to California got old fast. Waters breaks the book into thirds, two of which are imaginary: a story of the journey where every ride that picks him up is a magical, wonderful experience; a story of the journey where every ride is a horrible nightmare of violence and depravity; and the actual true story of what happened.

The middle section of this book was a drag that became more and more of a slog as the book went on, and the actual rides were interesting enough to have really been a book on their own, but Waters didn't spend nearly enough time on them. Instead he wasted time on imaginary characters that weren't that entertaining or compelling, and weren't expected in a book that was marketed as nonfiction.

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon, was also not what I expected, but in a good way.

Set at the Tower Motel in London, Vermont, it jumps between three time periods while telling the dark, violent story of one family. In the 1950's, the motel is a thriving tourist attraction run by Rose and Sylvie's parents. Something a little strange is happening at the motel, but Rose isn't quite sure what to make of Sylvie's nighttime disappearances, the unspoken strain on her parents' marriage, and the threat of a new highway cutting off the flow of tourists. In the 1980's the motel is closed, but Rose's daughter, Amy, and her friends Margot and Piper play among the 28 locked rooms and the crumbling castle tower. Amy's grandmother, who never got over the disappearance of Sylvie decades before, raises Amy alone, and the three girls are fast friends until the day they discover a dark secret that shatters their friendship. In the present day, Piper returns to London after a call from Margot telling her that Amy is dead, a suicide after killing her son and husband, leaving her daughter behind. Next to the body the police found a photo of Rose and Sylvie, with the message "29 rooms", and Piper knows she has to come home and help Margot deal with the secret they've held about the motel since childhood.

This book is an exercise in building tension, and at the end turned out not to be the book I thought I was reading. In hindsight, all the answers were there, but McMahon deftly drops the clues in front of the reader while simultaneously convincing you to look the other way. I really enjoyed this book.

I also really enjoyed Adam Christopher's The Burning Dark, a ghost story set in space. After losing a leg in battle and earning the highest honor in the fleet, Captain Ida Cleveland has been sent on a final mission to supervise the decommissioning of a space station orbiting Shadow, a purple star emitting toxic light that drives people to madness.

Is Shadow's light to blame for the moving shadows and apparitions that crew members see around the station? Is it behind the system failures and glitching environmental controls, or the radio transmission Ida keeps picking up of a Russian cosmonaut who died a thousand years ago? And why doesn't Ida's service record seem to exist anymore? And why can't anyone find the station commander? When crew members start getting attacked in the halls or vanishing, is it already too late, or can Ida save himself, the fleet, and all of humanity?

For the last book I went from space ghosts straight to zombies. Peter Stenson's Fiend gives a very different picture of the zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of Chase, a longtime meth addict who thinks he's hallucinating but instead discovers that he woke up in a completely new, very dangerous world.

Humanity went to bed, and the ones that woke up the next morning had become mindless flesh-eaters in the night. The only ones who survived were junkies. Now the survivors of humanity, a collection of speed-abusing truck drivers, meth addicts, and violent drug dealers dipping into their own stashes fights to stay alive while also trying to score the next high, to keep themselves from turning. Chase and his acquaintances, who can't really be called friends, are fighting their way through hell, but as addicts they also carry their hell with them, proving that there are all kinds of monsters, human and otherwise.

This book is dark, and makes no move to glamorize addiction. It was a little disturbing, but I'm glad I read it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My Man-Sized Cold

I have a cold.

This came on fairly quickly. I went to brunch and a movie with friends on Sunday, and during the movie I kept feeling cold. I thought maybe the temperature control at the theatre was messed up, because it's the time of year in Tennessee when there are 40 and 50 degree temperature changes between dawn and sunset but when I got to my car I realized that no, I was having chills. I had a fever, and spent most of the night before bed putting on and taking off my Snuggie as I alternated between sweating and shivering. On Monday I called in, but my fever was gone by Tuesday, and I thought I might be getting better.

Then yesterday the coughing started.

And today I suddenly have to keep blowing my nose. That's a problem, because all I had around to blow my nose were, you know, regular tissues.

Tissue comparison

Those are fine and all for, you know, regular people, but I'm a man. Even with a cold, my notion of masculinity must be protected at all times. I can't use tissues in pastel tones, or with scented lotion, or flowers on the box. What kind of man would I be then? And what would I blow my nose with?

Tissue comparison

Oh, thank God.

In all seriousness, I saw the mansized Kleenex a few weeks ago in a post about needlessly gendered products. (Cracked? Buzzfeed? Who really knows?) Because Amazon now has us all living in a world where I can have things in my hands before the momentary impulse to purchase them has even passed, I've had the mansized tissues ready and waiting for my next tissue-related health crisis.

So, how are they? Well, before I'd even opened them the box assured me that I'd made a strong, manly purchase:

Tissue comparison

And then the tissues themselves are huge:

Tissue comparison

Each one of these tissues is the size of a paper towel.

Which is fortunate, because my nose is filled with a mansized ocean of snot.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Books 13-16: Mixed Bag

I've finished four books since the last time I reported back on my reading, and they were kind of a mixed bag as far as themes went and as far as my feelings about them went.

13) In Josh Lanyon's Murder in Pastel, Kyle Bari is a writer, living in the house his father, a famous painter, vanished from ten years ago. Cosmo didn't vanish alone, though, but instead disappeared along with his masterpiece, the "Virgin in Pastel". Kyle's quiet existence is interrupted when his father's former protégé, and Kyle's former crush, Adam returns to the house next door for the summer, with his attractive, somewhat bitchy boyfriend Brett in tow.

Brett's depiction is my first problem with this book, as he is described on the back cover and on the Amazon review as "beautiful but poisonous", but nothing in the book ever makes him seem that terrible. He's kind of bitchy, and he flirts with and sleeps with any male in the vicinity, but most of the problems the group of friends in the book have are already there before Brett gets there, and I feel like the reader is told to hate him way more often than we're given actual reasons to.

In a somewhat rapid turn of events, the "Virgin in Pastel" is discovered hidden in an old dresser, Brett is suddenly murdered, and Kyle's exploration of the events of his father's disappearance and Brett's odd connection to it may mean that Kyle's next.

This book was pretty short, and in the end I still didn't understand if I was supposed to hate Brett or feel bad for him or what, but at least I felt something about him. Kyle and Adam were kind of blandly there, and once Brett was dead the book became a slog.

14) Thomas Olde Heuvelt's Hex was so disturbing that I had trouble falling to sleep the night I finished it. Somewhere during the year I saw it on a "interesting books you should read" list and stuck it on my wish list, and I'm glad I did, because it was a good read. Disturbing as hell, but good.

Black Spring is a tiny town of 3,000 or so people in the Hudson Valley. It's also home to the three hundred year old Black Rock Witch, who walks among the townspeople with her eyes and mouth sewn shut, popping up on street corners, in the grocery store, and in their living rooms at will to stand and somehow stare, even though her eyes are closed. The town lives under her curse, unable to leave Black Spring for more than a few days at a time without being compelled to suicide, and HEX, the town's secret police, does its best to keep her actual existence hidden from the outside world, because the last time people came to study her, people died, and no one knows what will happen on the terrible day when her eyes and mouth are finally opened.

HEX controls the phones, the internet, the postal system, and watches the town and the witch on a network of surveillance cameras, blocking her from the view of outsiders and keeping people from blocking her path as she walks the streets of Black Spring. This is the way the town has survived for 300 years, but now something is wrong. Some of the teenagers want to reveal the truth of the Black Rock Witch to the world, but the only way they can do that is with evidence, and the only way to get evidence is by breaking town law and interfering with the witch.

Framed by one family's attempt to live a normal life in an abnormal situation, this book starts out lighthearted, and then just gets worse. And worse. And worse. By the time I got to the end I was terrified of and for the characters, but it was a hell of a good read.

15) After that book, I needed something to clear my head, and I ended up reading MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, a historical exploration of the former backlots at MGM Studios in Culver City. Once the largest studio backlots in the country, and possibly the world, they are now almost completely gone, covered by housing developments and stores. Before they came down, though, these backlots were home to countless movies and television shows, and the authors painstakingly map out the various locations, sets, and films, bringing the former studio back to life.

Now that I'm watching Feud, I feel like this kind of knowledge can only help.

16) Everyone kept saying I should try a book by Liane Moriarty, and The Husband's Secret seemed interesting, so I gave it a try, and it was pretty good.

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has a perfect suburban life, but Tess, who just found out that her husband has fallen in love with her cousin, does not. Neither does Rachel, who has never really recovered from the death of her teenaged daughter many years ago and whose son is moving her grandson to New York. None of these women interact much, as they seem to have little in common, but that all changes the day that Cecilia finds a letter addressed to her in a box of old papers. The letter is from her husband, and is to be opened in the event of his death. The problem is that Cecilia's husband is still alive, and the letter holds a terrible secret that will ripple out through the lives of Cecilia, Tess, Rachel, and everyone around them.

Moriarty does a good job of building the characters' lives and twining them together before the letter is ever opened, and once the secret is out the tension builds continuously until the final chapters. While I didn't like the epilogue, which neatly tied up every single character's stories (even the dead ones), overall this was a good, engaging read.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Last Place

I had a half marathon on Saturday, the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate, but it's taken me a couple days to write about it because I was waiting to figure out how I felt about it. See, unlike last year when I did this race and set a personal best, this year I did it and set a personal worst, and not just in regard to my finishing time.

I came in last place.

I'm not being overly dramatic, either. I was the last male finisher. Twenty women finished after me, but I was last for the guys.

Finish line

I was so last that the photo above was taken by my friend Lauren's dad, because the official race photographer had already left the finish line area. Apparently if you are not at the front of the race you may as well not have been racing at all, and it doesn't matter if you finished because your achievement isn't worth being photographed. I've never before wanted to go find someone and scream the Starfish Story at them quite as much as I do the photographer right now, but that's not the feeling I've been trying to sort out for a few days. I've been trying to figure out how I feel about it.

The honest answer is that I feel fine.

I knew going in that this was going to be a hard race for a couple of reasons.

First, it's a hard course, as far as hills are concerned. I remembered this from last year, but since you probably haven't done the race yourself, feel free to look at the elevation changes chart at the bottom of this page. The hills are at the beginning, and the stretch between Mile 4 and Mile 6 is brutal. I slowed down a lot in that part and honestly thought about quitting, and another lady who was walking beside me for that stretch gave me kind of a pep talk about how she was struggling, too, and how we would both get through this and finish and everything would be ok. I pulled past her at Mile 7, and she was swept from the course for being too far behind just after Mile 8. I felt guilty about this for several hours, because she helped get me through a rough patch and I felt like I should have done more to help her, but other than offering encouragement I'm not sure what else I could have done.

She and I were struggling for the same reasons besides the hills: we were both heavier than the last time we did this race. I mentioned when I did my last half marathon in September that I had put some weight back on. I didn't get rid of that extra weight over the winter, but instead put a little more back on to go with it. I'm working on turning that around again (I've lost seven pounds since January, which is great, but I could definitely be working on that a little harder, and will, rather than working on fitting All Dressed chips into my mouth; why do they have to be so good, like Salt and Vinegar chips and BBQ chips had a delicious baby?), but in the meantime being bigger means being slower, and that's a concern on this race since they are very strict about the time. There are certain checkpoints, and you have to be above a specific time when you pass them, or you are removed from the course. Last year I didn't even see the sweeper, a man on a bicycle with a black broom across his handlebars, but this year I did: at Mile 8 there was a brief out and back (this is where you walk out to a point, turn around, and walk back) and he was coming into the out and back just as I was leaving it. I swore, sped up, and put him mostly out of my mind. The lady who talked me up the hill was entering the out and back just before he turned in to it, so I believe this is where he got her.

The last reason we were all struggling was the cold. The temperature was somewhere between the high twenties and low thirties Fahrenheit the entire race, and when I passed the house it flurried for a minute or two. Sure, we bundled up:

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

but there's something mentally draining about walking in cold weather for me. All of my cold weather races are always my slowest ones, and it's not because I have extra layers on. Instead, there is a constant refrain in my head of how cold it is, how I could be on my couch right now, how cold it is, how I want a hot chocolate, how cold it is, how sane people are inside right now, how cold it is, etc. Walking in the cold pulls my focus, so I never reach that moment where I forget that I'm walking at all and just truck along. It could have been worse, though. The people doing the full marathon on Sunday had to deal with snow:

Biltmore Antler Village snow

Biltmore Antler Village snow

Biltmore Antler Village snow

Biltmore Antler Village snow

Biltmore Antler Village snow

I hope they all stayed warm.

So, I had a race:

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

I finished:

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

and I celebrated my victory:

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

Biltmore 2017

like I wasn't the man in last place:

Biltmore 2017

Mentally and physically, I'm in a much better place about this than I was after that half marathon in September. I'm not in pain, I only needed a day or two to recover, and I only got one small blister, from wearing the wrong socks. I discovered on Sunday morning that I actually had packed the correct socks, but I somehow couldn't find them in my bag on Friday night when I was laying out my race clothes. When I finished the race on Saturday and got back to our room I calmly told Laura and Bernadette, "There's some kind of situation in my shoe. I might have a blister, I think," and when I pulled off my sock there was a quarter-sized circle of blood on the bottom, but it had already burst sometime during the race and didn't hurt.

Now it's time to hang up my medal:

Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore 2017

and focus on the next race.

Which is in two weeks.

Because I might be insane.