Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Month in Books (February)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I don't particularly care for the new Beck album

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

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

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

That's a lie, by the way.

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

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

I have standards, you know.

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

Minus Beck.

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

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

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

Which wasn't there.

"Can I help you find something, sir?"

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

Nick frowned thoughtfully and stared at the Grammy display rack.

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

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

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

"Sure, thanks."

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

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

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

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

And I don't like it.

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

To me.

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Supergirl: The Movie

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

OK, "disaster" might be a harsh word.

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

Except Faye Dunaway.

I think she was making an entirely different movie.

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

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

"Action Comics" #252

"Action Comics" #252

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

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

"DC Comics Presents" #97

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

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

"Supergirl: The Movie" Argo City (1)

"Supergirl: The Movie" Argo City (2)

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

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

This guy:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (5)

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

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

"Supergirl: The Movie" (6)

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

"Supergirl: The Movie" (1)

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

"Supergirl: The Movie" (2)

and a ton of outfits:

"Supergirl: The Movie" (3)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (4)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (7)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (9)

"Supergirl: The Movie" (10)

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

And then there's Faye Dunaway.

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

Because damn, does she put in some effort.

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

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

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Seven Months

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

The Low

I only lost three pounds this month.

The High

I got in some guy's pants!

More specifically, this guy:

St. Joel

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

An average sized Irish Setter

4.7 cubic feet of snow

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

8.5 gallons of water

3 adult male bobcats

A ten year old boy

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

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

Guilt is a powerful, terrible thing.

Losing 70 pounds is also a powerful thing.

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

I am excited to exercise.

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

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


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

Venice waits for me.