Thursday, January 27, 2011

Candy Everybody Wants

Back in June, our maintenance staff sent an email to let us know that a bunch of furniture from various places around campus was about to be sent out to the surplus furniture warehouse, and they asked if any of us wanted any of it before it was trucked over. Looking through the pictures attached to the email, I decided that my office needed an end table, so I wrote back and the next day my table was promptly delivered:

round table

It really classes up the office, right? Not as much as cleaning out that bookcase and getting rid of all those sloppy stacks of unfiled papers on it did, or moving that shredder to someone else's office did, but it was a step in the right direction. The table was nice looking, and paired nicely with the fancy armchair that Angi and I rescued from the hallway when someone at the other end of the building was sending it out to be surplussed.

Once I had the table, though, I had a small problem: It needed something on it. Just look at it. It cries out for ornamentation of some sort, but what? I couldn't get a plant, because my office has no windows and plants die. I didn't want one of those little office fountains, because the noise would be grating, rather than soothing. Fish were out of the question, too, because then I'd just feel sad when the fish died since it would just reiterate that I'm incapable of nurturing. Maybe some art? Possibly a sculpture?

Yes, I thought. Perhaps I'll place a bust of Pallas, there beside my chamber door? Maybe not. After all, a raven might perch upon the bust of Pallas, there beside my chamber door. It might perch and sit and nothing more, and then perhaps might quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

Maybe not a sculpture. I have to work in there, and don't have time to beg phantom birds to take thy beaks from out my heart, you know?

I decided instead to get a candy dish. People like candy dishes, because people like candy. I could fill the dish with candy, people would come and eat it, and they would leave my office happy. Putting a candy dish on my shiny table was a win/win situation, and even better was the fact that I already had an empty glass pumpkin on the shelf above my desk, because my staff gave it to me filled with candy for my birthday the year before.

For a while, the candy dish worked out exactly as planned, but then I was reminded of something horrible that I already knew and had somehow forgotten: No good deed goes unpunished. In this particular case, I learned that if you steadily provide candy, people will eventually feel entitled to it, and then they will start to feel entitled to give opinions about it.

"All you have are Jolly Ranchers? You should get some other candy."

"Are you going to get chocolate next time? I really like chocolate."

"Why are the Skittles that color? Are they the regular kind?"

Today a person who will remain nameless leaned into my office, noticed that someone had finally eaten all of the Christmas candy left in the dish, and told me, "You're out of candy. You better go get some more."

Oh really?

Fortunately, they left my office before I could smash the candy dish over their head, but I spent a good portion of the next ten minutes before I was distracted by the telephone seething with rage. I realize that, by giving candy freely for several months now, I have tacitly agreed to continue doing so for as long as I continue to work here, but still, a little gratitude or at the very least a little bit of manners doesn't seem like too much to ask. I thought about not refilling the candy dish, but then a worse thought occured to me, and I suddenly felt all warm and cheery inside.

I better go get some candy? I better go get some candy? Oh, you bet I will. I know exactly what kind of candy that dish needs, because I know that sometimes candy is not your friend. Sometimes candy is the enemy, because sometimes candy... is Durian Candy.

My friend Sandy introduced me to the horrorshow known as durian candy way back in 2006, in the parking lot of an IHOP near Chattanooga. Sandy warned me that Durian Candy, which you can sometimes find at the Asian grocery, "has kind of a strong flavor," and offered to hold my camera while I tasted a piece.

What follows is a frame by frame documentary of the Durian Candy experience.

It started out with a deceptively innocent looking piece of wrapped hard candy:

durian candy

which I carefully unwrapped:

opening it

and then put in my mouth. The effect was immediate:


This candy was not good. Really not good. The longer it sat in my mouth, the more not good it became:

help me, jesus

Oh, God, it was disgusting. It was like a fruity candy wrapped in rotting meat and then doused with turpentine and photo-developing chemicals. I don't think I even made it through a full thirty seconds before I couldn't take it any more and spit it across the parking lot:



After that I spent about five minutes spitting continuously, trying to clear my mouth, before we went inside and I let the waitress know that I needed an orange juice RIGHT NOW while Sandy giggled and pretended to be sympathetic.

If they had candy in hell, it would be Durian Candy.

And I think I might head to the Asian grocery store this weekend and see about getting some for my candy dish.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"What are you listening to?"

My friend Stan asked this when we were discussing an excellent blog post he wrote about music with graphs and analysis and scientific testing. When I say we were discussing it, I mean that we were posting comments back and forth to each other. I'm pretty sure it has been over ten years since Stan and I were actually in each other's physical presence and could discuss anything in person, but I'm still using the word "discussion" because the language of social interaction hasn't quite caught up with the technology of it.

In any case, Stan asked what I listen to, and a simple question has a simple answer: I listen to my iPod.

my ipod

(My iPod is modeled here by Ferro Lad, who hopefully did not punch out Superboy to get it.)

My iPod is the only place where I listen to music. I've had my car since 2006 and it doesn't have a single radio station programmed in because I only listen to the iPod. The radio has commercials, or songs that I don't like come on. Either is unacceptable. Before I had an iPod, I had a car with a six disc CD changer, and before that I had mixed tapes.

I've had the iPod even longer than the car, so long that Apple doesn't list it on their website anymore and will not service it if anything ever happens to it. Compared to the iPods of today, my iPod is a Neanderthal, the Cro-Magnon rung on Apple's ladder of technological evolution. When I got it, I spent over a week carefully copying every song I liked on every CD I owned onto it, generating a playlist that's somewhat heavy on the 1990s and early 2000s since that's the era when I had the most interest in music. I was even a radio station DJ in my undergrad for two years, with a two hour show in the "alternative" programming block. It's never really been clear to me how I progressed from that to my current sweater vest and khakis state, but I was never really that alternative to begin with, I think. I sure did like their music, though.

This is not to say that my iPod is without music made after 2005 or so. Despite not listening to the radio, new music finds its way onto my radar, most often through television but also through the kindly intervention of friends. Last Christmas, which I spent with my friend Sean, Sean was kind of horrified when I explained that I was still sort of unclear on who this "Lady Ga Ga" was and why she seemed to be famous. I was pretty sure that she was a singer, maybe in a band but possibly also a soloist, and I was unable to name or sing along to a single one of her songs. After three or four days of listening to Sean's radio while we drove around I was better informed, and he burned me three CDs to take home in the hopes that I would listen to them and become aware of pop-culturally relevant music again.

At roughly the same time, my friend Mike (who I call Larry) made a "Best of the Year" set of 4 CDs with an extensive seven page bibliography, explaning who each group was, what the song was, why he liked it, and including other bits of trivia that he felt may or may not be important. I listened to all of his CDs and the CDs that Sean made me for about three weeks on the way to and from work, then I listed all of the songs on them that I liked and downloaded them from iTunes and onto the iPod. The sad part of this story is that friends send me CDs like this on a fairly regular basis, because the only place where I hear new music otherwise is the television. If you've ever wondered who the people who google a band because they heard it on a commercial are, or who the intended audience for the "music from tonight's episode" sequences at the end of "Gossip Girl" is, then the answer to both of those questions is "me". I also buy a lot of soundtracks for movies.

Given all of that, what am I listening to?

1) A lot of cover songs. I love cover songs. I used to have mixed tapes of just cover songs for singing along to in the car. There are five versions of "Baby, One More Time" on my iPod, and only one of them is by Britney Spears. I have two versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", neither of which is by Nirvana, and in at least one case ("Land of Confusion") I thought I was downloading the original, accidentally got the cover song by mistake, and never went back for the version I intended to buy. A large part of the reason why I download so much music from "Glee" is my love for cover songs, but it's not confined just to that. I think the best song I heard last year was the Scala and Kolacny Brothers' version of "Creep", which I heard on the trailer for "The Social Network". It gives me shivers when I hear it, and I liked it so much that I listened to samples of all of their songs and downloaded three more.

2) Showtunes. I like musicals. Shut up.

3) The artist with the most songs on my iPod came as a surprise since it wasn't either of the two that I guessed. I assumed it would be the cast of "Glee" or it would be Greenday, but it turned out to be Fountains of Wayne. They have 38 songs out of the 923 on the iPod. "Glee" and Greenday are both in the mid-twenties, and I can list Blink 182, Blue October, the Killers, Cake, and Weezer as honorable mentions.

4) My playcounts are off, since my computer is only a few years old, but the song with the highest playcount is "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa. When that one comes up on shuffle I usually replay it a couple of times. There's a three way tie for second between "The Ballad of Michael Valentine" by the Killers, "Super Trouper" from the "Mamma Mia!" soundtrack, and "Now We Can See" by the Thermals. If the playcounts were tracked over the life of the iPod a lot of other songs would be much higher, and songs like Kim Zolciak's "Tardy for the Party" might not be quite so high. The song in dead last, with zero complete plays (the playcount only registers if you let the song go all the way to the end and let the iPod move to the next song itself) is the "Glee" cast version of "Baby, One More Time", mostly because mine has a few seconds of silence at the end and I always skip the iPod ahead to the next song rather than wait it out.

5) The genre listed most often on the iPod, over half of the 923 song playlist, is "Alternative", followed by "Soundtrack", then "Rock", then "Pop", and then a bunch of little ones. I'm not sure how Apple picks what genre a song or group goes in, since I don't really consider Natalie Merchant or Michelle Branch to be "Rock". Tori Amos doesn't seem like "Pop" to me, and I don't understand why "My Apology", by the Get Up Kids, is the only song on the whole iPod listed as "Punk" while their other songs fell under "Alternative". More than anything, though, I cannot imagine why Harvey Fierstein singing "I Am What I Am" is classified as "Rock". Was someone at iTunes smoking something that day?

What does all of this tell us about my taste in music? I dunno, but it does answer the question of what I'm listening to.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Art is Not a Crime!

Dean Koontz and I might be breaking up after our fifteen or so years together as author and reader. This is probably not entirely shocking, as the things that you like in high school don't always turn out to be the things that you like forever, which is part of the reason why I no longer have a mullet, for example. (I also no longer have a mullet because I no longer have hair. I could try to grow some in, and I might be able to handle the party in the back part, but there is never again going to be business in the front unless it's a lot of short, sparsely placed business.)

Whether or not I've liked Koontz's books for the past ten years or so has been kind of hit or miss based on the book. I no longer get his new ones as soon as they come out, and no longer make sure I get them in hardcover so that they last longer. Despite that, he still has a little over two shelves of one of my bookcases:

dean koontz books

even though he doesn't have quite as much room as Stephen King does. (Stephen King is another one that I've been going back and forth on. Ever since Dreamcatcher I feel like his quality has been all over the map, but I continue to give him a chance. Last year I read two of his books and liked one but not the other, so the verdict is still out.)

What's bothering me about Dean Koontz, more than the unsatisfying conclusions of many of his more recent works, is this link that my friend Jackie shared. If you don't want to click it and then come back, I'll summarize: Dean Koontz is taking all of the money I'm spending on his books and giving it to the Republican party. And not just any Republicans; he's giving it to the likes of Michelle "Gays Are Targetting Our Children" Bachman and Christine "I'm Not a Witch" O'Donnell. These are not people that I want to give money to. If they were, I would do it myself.

It makes me not want to give Dean Koontz any money any more, but then I'm not sure if I'm being fair if I take a stance like that. At the end of Art School Confidential, where I took the title of this entry from, one of the characters asks if we should judge an artist by their personal political beliefs. It's a question I also considered last year when I read that Dorothy Parker biography last year, as Parker had trouble throughout her life because of her onetime support of the Communist Party.

I had no trouble boycotting Target for supporting anti-gay candidates and sending them letters about it, but Target is a company and Dean Koontz is a person. (And, actually, I did have trouble boycotting Target, because I like a lot of their stuff.) People have the right to support whomever they want, but does that mean I have to let them do it with money that I give them? And what does that say about my feelings about art itself? I can boycott Target's products because I don't like the company's actions, but if I boycott an author for the same reason am I saying that their work is also a product? Or is art in a different category? Once created, does a book (or painting, or photograph, etc.) stand alone on its own merits, or does it always remain an extension of the author?

I thought reviewing some of my other history of politcally motivated boycotts would help. In no particular order:

1) I stopped using e-bay when Meg Whitman, e-bay CEO, campaigned for Mitt Romney. I sent e-bay an email letting them know why I would no longer be using the site, and they responded that Whitman was acting as a private citizen, within her rights. I disagreed, as she was identifying herself as "Meg Whitman, CEO of E-bay", not "Meg Whitman, private citizen and campaign volunteer". Like it or not, she was dragging e-bay into it, and if e-bay was going to pay her salary and then she was going to use that salary to support anti-gay, anti-abortion, abstinence-only Mitt "Dog Torturer" Romney then I wasn't going to give e-bay any more money to pay her with. Oddly, even though I'd been a steady e-bay user and Whitman ended up stepping down, I still use it less than once a year.

2) I was considering buying a DVD copy of Dreamgirls a few years ago when Proposition 8 passed in California and the Hollywood backlash against people who had financially supported it began. When Richard Raddon, the director of the gay-friendly L.A. Film Festival, was revealed to have given $1500 in support of Prop 8, there were calls from the gay community for Raddon to step down. Bill Condon, the writer and director of "Dreamgirls", defended Raddon, saying that the financial support was based on religion, not politics, and that holding his political contributions against him amounted to religious discrimination. I disagreed. Your religion is between you and your church until you take your religion to the ballot box and use your religion as a reason to deny other people civil rights. At that point, it is no longer a matter of religion and is instead of matter of politics. While I wasn't planning to attend the L.A. Film Festival any time in the near future, I did send a letter explaining why I thought Raddon should make amends to the gay community after taking money from them and using it agains them, and I also expressed my disapproval with Condon's view by never buying that copy of "Dreamgirls", because I felt that defending people who work against the community is the same as working against the community yourself.

3) I've never read any of Orson Scott Card's work, even though friends have recommended it, because Card is vocally opposed to gay marriage. He's even accepted an appointment to the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which means that other than his public writing on the subject he is now actively working against gay marriage on a national level. I want nothing to do with him on the basis of that, and won't even pick up his books from the library or at the used bookstore. I like science fiction, and I might be missing out, but I don't want to give him any support whatsoever.

So, where does this leave me with Dean Koontz?

Well, I have demonstrated that I'm willing to view art as a product. In the same way that I stopped supporting e-bay and Target, I stopped supporting Bill Condon and Orson Scott Card. On the other hand, Dean Koontz isn't doing what they're doing. He's not writing editorials, giving comments to newspapers, or going on the morning shows to express his views. He's making political contributions on his own personal time and then going about his business, the same way that I do when I send a check to Lambda Legal. In writing a blog entry about this or posting the original link to the campaign spending on my Facebook, I'm actually doing more than Koontz is. Should people stop supporting me, and stop sending me money? (Actually, could people start sending me money? Because that would be kind of awesome.)

And if I do decide that I should stop purchasing Koontz's books because of this, what's my responsibility to the rest of the authors whose books I buy? Do I need to look them all up before I purchase something? And do I draw the line at books, or do I need to start looking up comic book writers and artists? Or actors? Or screenwriters? Where do I draw the line, and do I have to draw the same one for everybody? I do, after all, shop at WalMart while boycotting Target, on the grounds that WalMart is at least honestly admitting that they will do evil things with my money and not being two faced about it. Stephen King is only giving money to Democrats, according to that link, but I didn't look up anyone else. It seems like a lot of work when there are dozens of authors whose work I faithfully buy without reading reviews or even knowing what the book is about because I like that author.

I guess I need to think about this some more.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snowmageddon II: Electric Boogaloo

We've been getting an unusual amount of snow all winter but today, for the first time ever since I moved here in 2006, the University is closed due to the weather. We've had delays before, but this is the first full shutdown I've been here for.

This, of course, means asking the obvious question: How bad is it?

This bad:

snow-covered bug (1)

Clearly, I can't be expected to drive to work with my car covered in snow.

snow-covered bug (2)

I don't even own a snowbrush.

(I use the broom that I sweep off my porch with on the rare occasions that I need to clear snow off of the car. More often than not, though, I can turn on the back defroster and then the wipers, and then driving makes the rest just blow off.)

Anyway, I decided that I should probably at least go for a walk and document the snowfall so that I have some photographic evidence someday when somebody else's grandkids ask what I did during the horrible blizzard of 2011:

tree, wall

bench, lamp, tree

snowy evergreen

Then, after I was tired of taking pictures, a friend and I made a snowman:


because that's what people do on snow days.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's snowing right now

I've made it clear that snow and I are not friends.

I don't like walking in it. What if I slip? What if snow goes down my collar and touches my back? And, not even a what if because this is pretty much guaranteed to happen, I hate when snow gets on my glasses and melts and makes water spots that I can't wipe off because my gloves are also covered with snow.

I also hate driving in it, just in case you missed this adventure. I especially hate driving in it here in Tennessee because, as I've said before, people here do not drive well in it and never get a chance to hone their skills because this happens maybe five times a year.

Given the fact that snow induces strong feelings of rage in me, and that I was already tired and somewhat burned out from another really long day of work after five weeks or so of the same kind of days every day, you might wonder why, when this started to happen at 4:30:

lamp and snow (1)

I did not head home immediately at five.

The answer is that snow, while terrible, can also be beautiful.

snowy branches (1)

snowy branches (2)

So, even though I should have been in the car, trying to get home before dark while trying not to get run into by the other drivers, I spent a half hour walking around the unshoveled sidewalks of campus instead.

And it was totally worth it:

torchbearer and snowfall

Especially since I got home ok.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Marble and Bronze

Today turned out to be pretty educational for me, even though my original goal was just to get out of the house for a while after I spent almost all of my vacation helping fight the Sun Eater with my colleagues.

The first stop on my list was Ijam's Nature Center, which I've been to twice before, because I wanted to see the new Ross Marble Nature Area that they've added behind Mead's Quarry. I know that Knoxville used to have a booming marble industry, but I didn't know that it used to be called the Marble City. That explains why I drive past the Marble City Baptist Church on my way home every day (I thought Marble City was one of the smaller communities that has been absorbed into Knoxville over the years) and why we have so many former marbleworks around town. According to Wikipedia, Tennessee marble declined in popularity after World War II, and there are only six active quarries left that supply demand for it.

Anyway, since I read an article about it in the paper I've been meaning to go out and see the new trail since the new quarry isn't flooded like Mead's is. (I was tol that there's a spring in the bottom of Mead's, which the quarrying released. Mead's will be flooded forever unless the spring dries up.) It's also supposed to have some interesting formations built by the quarry workers, so I headed down the trail:

ross marble area

This was a bit of a bad idea, because we had thunderstorms yesterday, and the trail was really muddy. I didn't fall, but I did slip and twist my knee, which really hurt. Before anyone gets worried, I had my phone. Despite the mud, though, I had a great view of the two main features, and got to climb the scary steps:


made of marble slabs and chips that make up most the trail.

The main feature is the rock bridge:

rock bridge

The quarry workers built it to make it easier to get from one side of the quarry to the other, and the Ijam's volunteers added the railings. I hope they had some kind of railings when they used it, because the drop on either side is kind of far:

view from rock bridge (2)

That view gives a good look at the terraces left by quarrying, which is one of the things that makes the site so fascinating. Along the bottom of each terrace, there are rows of holes, as if it has been perforated:

industrial marks

and each edge is grooved as well, like a corrugated tin roof. I'm sure this has something to do with the process by which marble is quarried, but beyond that I have no idea. Maybe they're drill holes? Or they stick dynamite in them? It's weird, because you just walk around the site and look at all these relics of the industry:


and try to imagine why what's left looks like that and what might have been there.

The other feature, the keyhole, is part of the rock bridge:

keyhole (1)

Since the bridge blocked access in one direction while facillitating access in another, the quarry workers built the keyhole in the base of the bridge so that they could cross into the quarry:

keyhole (2)

Once I did, though, I decided not to follow the steps down to the bottom, because it looked even muddier than the trail:

in the quarry (2)

It was still an interesting hike, and when I left the nature center I was already close to my second goal for the day:

alex haley heritage square

Our twelve foot statue of Alex Haley.

When I first moved to Knoxville, and I heard that our town housed things like the World's Largest Rubik's Cube:

the world's largest rubik's cube

I used to wonder why things like that were here. Now, though, I read that we have a giant statue of Alex Haley and I think, "Oh, OK. I should go take a picture." After all, the world's largest statue of Alex Haley has to end up somewhere, so why not here? I'm sure people with giant balls of twine or The World's Largest Ten Commandments have the same sense of placid acceptance. It turns out, though, that Alex Haley is listed as a famous Knoxvillian, so it sort of make sense that we would have something here to commemorate it, if only to compete with the Dolly Parton statue down the road.

It's actually a pretty nice statue. It's right next to a playground, and it really does look like Alex Haley:

alex haley statue (1)

alex haley statue (3)

Tina Allen:

tina allen (1)

did a really good job, although you do kind of wonder why, if she'd already signed the leg, she needed a huge plaque right on the front of the statue, too:

tina allen (2)

I realize credit should be given where due, but shouldn't the focus of the Alex Haley statue be Alex Haley?

I may never know the answer to that question (or I may, someday, if Tina Allen is a self-Googler) but let's look at what I did learn today:

1) Tennesse marble isn't actually true marble, but is instead crystallized limestone.
2) That Marble City was not a suburb, but was the city of Knoxville itself.
3) Alex Haley is from Knoxville.
4) Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan on "Mad Men", was born in Knoxville.

I look forward to photographing her large bronze statue.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

52/52, 2010 Edition

With about three hours to spare, I managed to meet my reading challenge to myself for 2010 and read 52 books this year. 2010 marked my fifth year in a row setting this goal, and only the second one when I actually reached it.

This year I used the same rules as last year: Cookbooks don't count, because I don't so much read them as I do skim and fantasize. I also, for the most part, don't count graphic novels and collected editions of comic books, because I read so many of them that it would artificially inflate my tally. I'll make an exception to either rule if I read something that I think is really outstanding, but other than that I don't use any other rules. The year that I decided that I had to alternate between fiction and nonfiction was kind of a disaster, so I don't use any selection criteria, either.

That said, here's my tally for 2010:

1/52: Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow deals with a young lawyer investigating the strange death of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore in the 1800's. At first it seemed a little cluttered and slow with side plots and weird situations, but eventually I realized that Pearl kind of cleverly inserts his narrator into a story right out of Poe with murders, mistaken identities, trips to prison, and a multi-layered plot that had nothing to do with what it seemed to at first. Pearl also bases the entire thing on facts and research that he painstakingly recounts in the afterward.

2/52: I picked up Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief because I saw all these previews for the movie over Christmas break and my friend Sean raved about what a good book it is. It details the quest of young Percy Jackson, who discovers that he is the son of a Greek god and gets sent to a summer camp with a bunch of other demigods before he ends up on a quest to find and return Zeus' stolen thunderbolt before the gods get into a war with each other. It's not a bad book once you get past the whole, "I'm reading at a sixth grade level" factor, and the average person could probably plow through it in a couple hours. I kept meaning to read the rest of the series, but didn't get started on that until the very end of the year.

3/52: Someone on a gossip message board that I read recommended Marcel Theroux's Far North, so I requested it from the library. Set in Siberia in the closing days of human civilization, it follows a young woman named Makepeace who is the sheriff of her town and also the last person living there. Theroux is never clear on how far in the future this is or what the exact disaster was, but there are shades of war, climate change, and pestilence mixed into the narrator's reflections. The book is a multi-year chronicle of her wandering across the northern edge of the world after witnessing a plane crash, as she goes in search of the people who have rebuilt enough of civilization to fly a plane. Overall, it's kind of like "The Road", but less depressing. It's not like that's a real stretch to accomplish, though.

4/52: I reread Robert. R. McCammon's Mine, a fast paced story of motherhood and murder. Mary Terror, a 60's radical and former Weather Underground member who has been in hiding since most of her cell died in a shootout with the feds, resurfaces long enough to steal society columnist Laura Clayborne's baby at random, convinced that the survivors of her cell are reuniting and determined to bring her leader, Lord Jack, a baby to replace the one she lost decades before. Laura, determined to get her baby back, chases Mary through a web of ex-hippies and across the country, from Atlanta through Rock City and Colorado blizzards and dinosaur theme parks until their final confrontation. I like this book, but it makes me sad. It's not so much about giving up your dreams as it is about what it costs you to hold onto them. Like most of McCammon's books, it is out of print, but I see copies at the used bookstore all the time.

I was also excited to reread this because the other times I've read it, when I lived in New York, I never knew that Rock City was a real place, but it is, and I was excited because I've been there:

fairyland caverns

It's a fun yet sometimes creepy afternoon, like so many places I visit in Tennessee.

5/52: David Levithan's Wide Awake takes place in the near future, the morning after the election of America's first gay, Jewish president, and follows Duncan Weiss, a gay teen who volunteered for the winning campaign, as he watches everyone around him react to the news. The same day, the Governor of Kansas demands a statewide recount, jeopardizing the election, and Duncan allows his activist boyfriend to convince him to join a mass gathering in Topeka to protest. While I found the ideas interesting, and the struggle of deciding when to take action for the things you believe in rather than just believing them, the characters were a little uneven. Duncan and Jimmy's relationship is shaky for the whole book, but there's never any indication of why, and when they suddenly decide they're fine at the end and that they really do love each other it's kind of an anti-climax since you were never sure what was wrong to begin with. It was a good book overall, though, and made me wonder if I'm doing enough to support gay rights.

6/52: E.B. Mawr's Romanian Fairy Tales and Legends was the first book for the international book club I joined on campus. I read it in one night, and while it was kind of interesting, I'm not sure if something was lost in translation or if I don't know enough about the Romanian culture because I couldn't figure out what the moral of some of the stories was. The discussion at Book Club didn't really clarify, either, as everyone was like, "I kind of didn't get this story" and the facilitator was like, "Yes, that happens." I did enjoy the story about Vlad the Impaler, though, even if the guy leading the book discussion tried to stess repeatedly that Romania is about more than just Dracula, right before he recommended that we also read The Historian, a book about Dracula.

7/52: I wasted almost all of March forcing myself through Under the Dome, and I think I might actually hate Stephen King even more than I did after I read Dreamcatcher, the novel with 40 graphic pages of someone pooping out an alien worm. The main reason I had trouble with this book and couldn't read more than ten pages at a time most of the time was that there is absolutely nothing new here. It's the same plot as The Simpsons Movie, through the lens of "Twilight Zone" episode Stopover in a Quiet Town. The character development is straight out of Lord of the Flies, so much so that at one point one of the characters even compares their situation to that book, and the climax is the end of The Stand. There's nothing new here, and while I don't mind rereading a book I enjoyed I'd rather reread it as the original book, not another in the line of self-derivative auto-cannibalism King has produced for the past few years.

For the next few weeks, I descended into madness. Way back in 2009 I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, and hated it, but a group of friends on another message board decided that we all needed to read the rest of the series, so I did, and mostly all I can say is that Stephenie Meyer is batshit crazy, but she got published and is now a multimillionaire while I haven't written anything but blog posts for years now, so maybe I shouldn't judge.


8/52: Stephenie Meyer's New Moon was even worse than the first book. At the end of the first one I was annoyed because the whole book builds to a fight that happens offscreen, but this one is even worse because the whole book builds to a fight... and then there is no fight. AT ALL. This book has no plot. There's no climax. What a steaming pile of crap this was. On the bright side, Rosalie is hilarious. "Oh, hey Edward? Your worthless human girlfriend is dead. Seriously. No one else wanted to tell you, but I couldn't dial the phone fast enough. Have a super day, bro!" And then nobody even calls her on it! She's just like, "Oh, yeah, sorry. I'm a bitch," and everyone completely ignores that she dicked around with her suicidal brother on purpose!

9/52: Stephenie Meyer's Eclipse was definitely a book. At least this one actually had a fight. It only took Meyer three books to actually show one instead of just talking about it. Too bad the rest of it was an awful, depressing mess of "Bella fills out college applications but doesn't want to", "Bella loves two boys, but three boys are still fighting over her", "Bella's dad is a shitty parent", and "Bella still has no idea what she wants with regard to boys, her life, or her future". Is being a teenage girl actually this angsty and depressing?

10/52: Breaking Dawn is the book where Meyer totally went off the rails. People keep telling me that these books are a beautiful story of romance, but beautiful stories of romance rarely include vampire babies that are conceived under an implied veil of sexy domestic abuse and that proceed to claw their way out of the mother in a blood-drenched pelvis-fracturing spine-snapping birth scene where one by one her adoptive family abandons her because they can't stay in the room with so much of her delicious blood shooting out. And then, to top it all off, OF COURSE Bella ends up being the rarest most amazing most special vampire ever. I'm shocked that Meyer could manage to write this at all while masturbating so feverishly over her own vampire boyfriend creation.

Also, I can't wait for the movie.

11/52: I didn't know that Dominick Dunne finished another novel before his death, so I was excited to see Too Much Money and bought it immediately, even more excited to see that it is a sequel to People Like Us, my favorite of his novels. I thought that Dunne might have retired from fiction, as he killed off the main character of his books, Gus Bailey, at the end of Another City, Not My Own, but Gus opens this novel by explaining that he'd only inserted his own death into the last book because he was running late, had a deadline, and needed an ending. It's a little unsatisfying, but so is this book, which Dunne wrote while dying. He concludes it nicely, with everyone getting a sendoff scene and hints of their fates, but there's also a feeling that this book is a little rushed, compacted, not quite as polished, and not quite the entire story that Dunne wanted to tell. It's a more than adequate conclusion for his body of work, but in the end makes me regret his death all over again. It's nice to see old friends and learn where life has taken them, but it's a very definite goodbye.

12/52: John Saul's House of Reckoning was pretty standard: isolated teenagers eager to get back at their tormentors, haunted house, secrets from the past, sudden and deadly supernatural abilities, terrible vengeance, blah blah blah. It was better than his last book, but I haven't read one of his books and thought it was good in a really long time.

13/52: John Grisham's Ford County Stories is another of his efforts to write something other than a legal thriller. This book of short stories taking place in Ford County, Mississippi, is interesting, but many of the stories don't feel fleshed out enough. At the end of at least half of the stories in the book it still wasn't clear why these people were doing these things, how they came to be this way, and how they felt about it. The last story, about a young gay man who comes home to die from AIDS, was very sad and a low note to end the book on but was also the best, most complete story in the book. I couldn't figure out when it was set. At first I thought it was late 80's/early 90's, since people wouldn't shake his hand, touch his money, let him eat in the diner because they might get the plate he used, but then I started thinking that, you know, it's Mississippi, so they might just be ignorant and unnaturally prejudiced because of that.

14/52: Megan Abbott's Queenpin was wonderfully dark and twisty, like reading Double Indemnity instead of watching it.

15/52: Way back when I was in junior high, I used to read Christopher Pike's teen horror novels, and he had a six book series called "The Last Vampire". Given the sudden interest in vampire books, it's not surprising to see the series rereleased, but they've repackaged the six small books into two big ones. I just finished the first one, Thirst, and it holds up a lot better than I expected. They didn't bother updating any of it (no one has a cell phone, there doesn't seem to be an internet, a teenager gets AIDS from a blood transfusion), but the bones of the story are still sturdy, and it's nicely entertaining.

16/52: Arcadia Falls is the kind of book that makes you wonder if Carol Goodman finishes a manuscript, looks it over, and thinks, "Hmmm... this needs more secret lovebaby." While the story is decently entertaining, its tale of a recent widow who takes her daughter to a private boarding school in the Adirondacks so that she can take a teaching job on an isolated campus that holds dark secrets from its shadowy past is pretty much The Lake of Dead Languages all over again. There are minor changes, but it's essentially the same story, which is sad since Goodman seemed to be moving out of that rut with her last couple of books.

17/52: When I read Christopher Rice's last book, Blind Fall, I was pretty shocked that it had a beginning, middle, and end that were coherent and seemed to have all come from the same book, and I'm pleasantly surprised to report that The Moonlit Earth follows the same pattern. It's the story of a brother accused by the media of being part of a terrorist bombing whose sister flies to Hong Kong to find him and clear his name, but is also a story about the relationship the two of them share and how it has shaped their lives. It's kind of half spy thriller and half chick lit, but I liked it.

18/52: Stephen King's Blockade Billy is the story of William "Blockade Billy" Blakely, a rookie catcher for the 1957 New Jersey Titans, and how he ends up being the only player to ever be completely eradicated from the history of the game. After the bloated boringness of Under the Dome it was nice to read a short Stephen King book, but this one was too short. I wanted to know more about everybody after the story was over.

19/52: W.C. Jameson's Lost Treasures of American History was a brief survey of missing train robbery loot, lost Spanish mines, Revolutionary War payrolls, Civil War treasuries, shipwrecks, and other lost treasures. Jameson documented each of them, and offers suggestions on where they are while explaining why they are still lost. The most interesting one was the mine inside of Area 51, which some woman and her heirs have been suing the government over for years because they won't let them go in and dig the mine out.

20/52: Douglas Preston's Impact was a decent, fast paced thriller in the vein of the ones he usually writes. There's some meteor hunting, gunfighting, astronomy, boating, and a little bit of history of the Khmer Rouge thrown in just for fun. Also, part of the moon explodes.

21/52: Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There kind of makes me want to visit Europe, but I think I would have a breakdown if I tried to travel the way he does. He just gets off the train, looks for a hotel, stays until he gets bored, and gets on another train. No reservations, no plan. I can barely travel through my own town this way, much less another country.

In the middle of June, Bryan and I went to the Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge, so that we could go on a bus tour of the nuclear facilities, and on the way home we stopped at a book sale for the Boys and Girls Club. For $40, you got a large cardboard book box and all of the books you could fit in it as long as the box still closed. Bryan and I split a box, and I spent a few months reading my way through my half, so all of the books listed from here on are from the book box until I finished it. The Secret City tour was the last day trip Bryan and I went on before he went into the hospital, and it was sad to think about that every time I took another book out of the box.

I miss Bryan a lot.

22/52: Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster made me sad. It's the story of the last lunch and dinner shift at a Red Lobster that corporate has scheduled to close, told from the point of view of Manny, the manager, who will move to Olive Garden up the road as an assistant manager. It's pretty much the story of Manny trying to hold it together in the face of a blizzard, staff walking off the job, running low on food, and having to come to terms with his failed relationship with Jacquie, the waitress he used to date, and it's kind of uplifting to see Manny's never give up attitude but kind of depressing to know he's doomed.

23/52: When my friend Justin was getting married and complaining about the cost, I sent him a link to Rebecca Mead's One Perfect Day without having read the book. From what I'd heard about it, it sounded like he'd ragingly agree, and now that I've read it I feel like I want to give it to every friend who plans a huge wedding. The whole thing kind of fills you with disgust for the bridal industry, as Mead journeys through bridal gown sweatshops in China, wedding planner conventions in Vegas (where the words "cha-ching" are apparently often used), an entire chapter exploring Disney weddings, and trips to the editorial offices of various bridal magazines. Mead really leaves no part of the industry unexplored, but rather than coming off as really cynical, she comes off as brutally honest about a megabillion dollar business that is too often gauzed in fairy tale. The biggest surprise for me, though, is that she used the epilogue to talk about gay marriage, and ended the book on a really strong, supportive note for it.

24/52: Andrew Auseon's Jo-Jo and the Fiendish Lot is a story about a boy, Jo-Jo, who decides to kill himself after the death of his girlfriend. When he goes off to do it, though, he ends up falling in with a dead girl and her dead punk band, and following them on a road trip through the afterlife. Along the way he comes to terms with life, afterlife, and what's really important.

25/52: David Sedaris' When You Are Englufed in Flames is funny, classic Sedaris. I love reading him and his sister Amy so much.

26/52: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is still funny and witty, over a hundred years after it premiered. It depends a little heavily on coincidence, but acknowledges that in the play. (This book wasn't from the box. I borrowed it from Kristin one of the nights we were waiting to head over to the hospital for Bryan, because I'd finished the book I had with me and didn't have a spare.)

27/52: Will Davis' My Side of the Story was entertaining, but ultimately didn't seem to go anywhere. It's a coming of age and coming out story, but the main character, a British teenager named Jarold, is already pretty self aware at the beginning, and the story just seams to meander through a series of adventures before wrapping up without anything really changing.

28/52: Remember how un-funny Toby Young was as a judge on "Top Chef", trying desperately to ring in with one liners that sounded labored and overthought? He's just like that when he has a whole book, too. The only funny thing in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was a story about Anna Wintour from Young's time writing for Conde Nast. Once, in the hallway, Anna Wintour tripped on a broken high heel, falling directly in the path of a staff member's daughter. The daughter stepped over her without even looking down and kept walking, because she had been warned never, ever to speak to Miss Wintour for any reason. Now that I've told you that story, you can skip the entire book.

29/52: Michael Crichton's Next sure was a Michael Crichton book. Normally I find genetic engineering kind of interesting, but Crichton managed to suck all the fun out of it.

30/52: When Anne Rice was Called out of Darkness and brought back to Jesus, she didn't bring an editor with her, and she really needed to. The story of how she was religious, then decided she had to be an atheist, and then became Catholic again is rambling and disjointed, hopping around through different times in her life with no sense of direction or linear narrative. The worst part is that the book seems to have no climax, because the whole way through she'll talk about something and then throw in how she feels about it now that she found religion again, so when you get to the part where she finally does acknowledge that she returned to her faith you're kind of thinking that it already happened five chapters ago. I'm not even sure this would be of interest to religious people, because it's so boring and messy.

Also, it's kind of hilarious to see the woman who wrote a three part bondage erotica fairy tale (not mentioned in this book) and Exit to Eden (which was a pretty racy book before it was a comedy with Rosie O'Donnel) primly discussing masturbation as "solitary sex" like she's getting the vapors just bringing it up. For that matter, why is she bringing up masturbation in a religious memoir, anyway?

31/52: Tom Gjetlen's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba was a history of the Bacardi rum business, but also a history of Cuba itself. I found it very informative, as most of what I know of Cuba's history can be summed up as: "Spanish colony, Communists, Bay of Pigs, and Cuban Missile Crisis. The End." I didn't learn a lot of Cuban history in school, and didn't really know any Cuban people growing up, so I didn't know about their struggle for independence or why descendants of Cuba still fight so hard to regain the island today. Even though it was all history and was a little slow going at first, it turned out to be really entertaining and informative, and was a pretty fast read when I go into it.

32/52: Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine might as well be listed as a textbook. An in depth look at the Hollywood studio system, it is incredibly dry and slow moving. Worse, it bizarrely lacks important information: after over 400 pages describing the system, the stars it created, the stars it tried to create who bombed, and the movies it made, Basinger sums up the end of the studio system in about two sentences, which are paraphrased as "And then after the war the star machine and the studio system collapsed. See the bibliography for how and why," and then she spends a chapter discussing the way Hollywood works now. Basinger, while incredibly knowledgeable about film history, manages to suck all of the fun out of it somehow, rendering things like Lana Turner's personal life, Errol Flynn's drinking and carousing, and Joan Crawford's feuds with costars as dry and sterile as an operating room. She clearly loves the material, but is completely unable to convey the same sense of wonder and affection to the reader.

33/52: Geoffrey Wood's Leaper tries to answer the question of what ordinary people would do if suddenly granted extraordinary abilities by giving us the story of James, a recently divorced coffee shop clerk who suddenly discovers that he can move through space without moving through time. Predictably, his life collapses, but he tries to do his best with what he's been given. Not the most uplifting book, but more realistic than "Heroes" turned out to be.

34/52: Steven Saylor's The Triumph of Caesar stars his long-running character Gordianus, the Finder, a private detective in ancient Rome. This kind of surprised me, since Gordianus died at the end of the last book, but it turns out that rumors of his death were somewhat unfounded, and this book is much better than the past few, with the characters actually behaving in character again. In telling the story of a plot to kill Caesar during his triumphant return to Rome, Saylor shows history that could have happened while also playing with the reader's expectations of the way that actual history shapes the novel. When Gordianus runs across Brutus in his attempt to uncover the murder plot, Saylor manages to subtly flash a red herring without actually doing so, just by having the character appear and betting that most of his readers remember the gist, but not the historical specifics of Caesar's death. Everything ties up rather quickly, and I really enjoyed the book.

35/52: I grabbed a copy of Jefferson Bass' The Devil's Bones because he teaches on campus and I see his truck all the time. I thought that, since he founded the Body Farm and all, he might be a fun writer, like on "Bones", but he's kind of not. This is mediocre, at best. Worse, most of the action is dependent on having read his earlier book, but there's nothing on the jacket of this book that tells you that.

36/52: Stephen Baxter's Flood was a slightly depressing science fiction book about the end of the world, more or less. Based on actual geological science, it tells the story of how a vast reservoir of water in the Earth's crust begins to leak into the oceans, inexorably raising the sea level. Told over the course of decades through the intertwined lives of four political hostages who are rescued at the very beginning of the story, it's a fairly apt description of the breakdown of society and the basic horrors of human nature as the world slowly drowns.

37/52: John Jakes' The Gods of Newport is Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" as historical fiction. A brooding, widowed railroad tycoon tries to keep his 21-year old spinster daughter from falling in love with a blue collar stableboy amid the backdrop of post-Civil War Newport. It was a much faster read than I remember John Jakes' books being.

38/52: Kate Berridge's Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax attempts to sort out the facts of Madame Tussaud's life from her self-created fictions. Since I didn't know that she had a whole life story of self-created fictions, I was excited either way. Also, the moral of the story is that you should totally avoid the French Revolution, because everyone you know will have their head cut off.

This was the last book from the book box.

39/52: Months after finishing the rest of the "Twilight" series, I finally got around to reading The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, and gosh, it was short. I don't really know that this added anything of value to the overall "Twilight" narrative, and it doesn't work as a standalone novel, either. If nothing else, a little bit more fleshing out of the narrator might have made this feel less like something Meyer wrote for the money.

40/52: My friend Stan (I think we're supposed to call him Stanford now that we're grownups) recommended Sarah Vowel's Assassination Vacation, and I really enjoyed it. Vowel is funny but pointed in her humor, and her description of Garfield's monument as the gayest memorial in Washington makes me wonder how I missed it all the times that I've been there.

41/52: Mary Higgins Clark's I Heard That Song Before was the story of some lady who marries a rich guy who sleepwalks and who might have killed at least three people in his sleep including her father. It's kind of as cheesy as it sounds, but you already know what you're getting when you read one of her books. Woman in trouble, romantic entanglement, whirlwind conclusion.

42/52: Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry concerns the death of Elspeth, twin sister of Edie, and how she leaves her London flat to Edie's twin daughters who have never met her. They have to live in the flat for a year before they can sell it, but once they settle in it slowly starts to seem like maybe Elspeth isn't quite dead. I was actually more interested in the subplot regarding the OCD upstairs neighbor, but overall it was a pretty good read.

43/52: Josh Kilmer-Purcel's The Bucolic Plague was pretty funny. It's the story of how he and his partner bought a farmhouse, tried to become hobby farmers, started a soap business, and almost broke up. It does not end on a high note, instead leaving the reader uncertain if the two of them will even be able to keep the farm, much less keep it going, but the manuscript was written in 2008-2009, and their website seems current, so I guess they're still struggling along. I really, really want to visit, and am kind of sad I didn't read this while I was in that part of New York since I drove past their Thruway exit on my way to my parents', but didn't have time to spare to double back down to Sharon Springs a week later when I read this.

44/52: Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages chronicles her day to day living with her husband, dog, cats, and four children with wit and humor. The fact that she had four children makes me totally understand how she ended up writing stories about neighbors stoning each other to death.

45/52: Back when Poppy Adams' The Sister came out, a few of my friends were all, "What a fantastic gothic suspense story! It's so amazing!" Now that I've read it, I feel that words like "fantastic", "suspense", and "amazing" have totally different meanings. I saw every plot point coming from pages away, and the actual resolution never really comes. Instead you get to the end and there's only one character left alive, so hey! The story must be over.

46/52: I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (also known as The Love of the Last Tycoon, the book he never finished because he died, and the only one of his novels I've never read. F. Scott Fitzgerald is my literary fantasy crush. If I lived in the roaring 20's and hung around with famous literary people he and I would drink and smoke and listen to jazz and make out sometimes and I'd call him F. Scott like that was actually his first name. Also, I liked the book.

47/52: I reread Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories, and for a week there I once again hated everyone and everything.

48/52: I read Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories in preparation for reading Marion Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?, an exhaustingly comprehensive biography. I like Dorothy Parker, and I've been meaning to read this book for a couple of years, but at some points this feels like a daily, hourly chronicle of her life. There are cameos by everybody who was anybody, and it confirms (as I always suspected) that Ernest Hemingway was a jerk.

49/52: Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are You Now? tells the story of Carolyn MacKenzie's search for her brother, Mack, who vanished ten years ago but still calls his mother every year on Mother's Day. Where has he been? Why did he leave? And oh, by the way, did he also abduct and kill four girls while he's been gone? The ending was a little far-fetched, but the story actually was suspenseful and didn't depend on nearly as many coincidences as her books usually do.

50/52: Dyna Moe's Mad Men: The Illustrated World is fun book for fans of the show. There are recipes for drinks and period food, short articles on politicians and culture of the era, anecdotes from actors on the show, charming artwork, and a lot of little fun things like a guide on how to comb your hair into a bouffant and Joan Harris paper dolls with outfits. It's also filled with subtle nods to the show, like a Belle Jolie lipstick ad in the corner of another article, blood smears all over the Joan paper doll's green dress, or the article on "The Twist" featuring a tiny cartoon Peggy wearing the same outfit from the episode where Pete rebuffed her again while she was twisting. And yes, this is a short book with a lot of pictures, but I think it still had more pages than that horrible Bree Tanner book, so I'm counting it.

51/52: I read the first book in Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series way back at the beginning of the year, but didn't get around to the second one, The Sea of Monsters, until now. The first book was interesting, but when I finished it I wasn't really thinking, "I better go get the next one!" This one, on the other hand, didn't have to waste so much time with backstory, so it moved much quicker. Detailing Percy's quest with his friends to save their camp by finding the Golden Fleece on an island in the Sea of Monsters, it's a lot of fun for anyone who remembers "The Odyssey". Also, the ending makes me want to go get the next book immediately.

52/52: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' Nanny Returns, picks up twelve years after The Nanny Diaries left off. Nan has grown up, gotten married, travelled the world with her husband on his UN jobs, and now returned to the city and bought a house to renovate and, possibly, fill with her own children. Before she's even unpacked, though, her husband is called away on business and she is awakened in the middle of the night by her former charge, Grayer X, a drunken teenager demanding to know why she abandoned him. Trying to soothe her own guilt, Nan finds herself drawn back into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. X. I laughed, and at the end I actually did sort of almost tear up a little.

And those are my 52 for the year. I've already started on #1 for 2011.