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.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Books 9-12: Three of Them Were Supposed to be Really Good

When I decided for New Year's that I would post about books as I finished them this year, my original intention was that those posts would be interspersed with regular blog posts, and this wouldn't just be a whole bunch of book reviews in a row. So far, that's not working so well, so I need to concentrate on that a little more before this blog just turns into endless book reviews. Waiting for myself to do something exciting, and then not doing anything worth writing about, also means that I may end up with stacks of books to review, like I have now.

Clearly this idea needs some fine-tuning.

In the meantime, here are four books, three of which were gifts from my parents:

9) Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins (whose name makes me think of Claire Voyant, the 1940's Black Widow and also the first female character in comics to have both superpowers and a costume), was one of those books that everyone said was so good but when I read it turned out to just be ok. It tells the story of Luz, who at birth became the California Department of Conservation's mascot, the symbolic innocent victim of the state's growing drought. Now, in the near future, the state is completely dry and mostly evacuated as most of the American Southwest is swallowed by a growing Sahara-like desert that swallows entire cities. Luz and her partner live in an abandoned mansion in the Hollywood Hills, scavenging and surviving on her modeling fortune until the day that they accidentally end up with an abandoned baby. Now, forced to care for something instead of being cared for, Luz and Ray make a desperate gamble to cross the desert to Kansas City to make a new life for their new family, despite the patrols, bandits, blistering heat, and rumors of a strange missionary who can find water in the sands and commands a cult of desert dwellers.

There are interesting ideas here. Given our current times, any exploration of imminent dystopias and the ways that humanity will behave in the face of social, economic, or environmental collapse is probably of value, and there are also interesting thoughts on the nature of right and wrong, truth and illusion, and sacrifice. At the same time, the ending felt flat to me, and I wished for a better resolution.

10) I picked up Robert Trachtenberg's When I Knew at the Library Book Sale last summer, and it's been sitting on my coffee table ever since. It's a series of one or two page vignettes by gays and lesbians explaining when they realized that they were gay or lesbian, and sometimes what that meant for them and their family. I thought it was cute and interesting.

In case you missed it, I wrote about my coming out story a few years ago, which can be summed up like this: a quiet night under the stars with a boy who had great abs, leaves on his jacket, and OH SHIT I'M GAY. Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I would say to that first boy if I had the chance to talk to him now (because of Valentine's Day, everyone was talking about their first loves), and after thinking about it I realized the answer is "nothing". I'm not mad at him anymore for not being in love with me the way I thought I was in love with him, and I doubt he thinks of me at all. Twenty-one year old me probably wouldn't believe that, but forty-one year old me can't even imagine how we would begin a conversation. "Hey, how did the rest of your life go? Do you still have good abs?" What would we really say after that? Just because I'm not mad at you anymore doesn't mean I want to know you, either. I tried that once and it didn't work out so well.

11) I don't remember which friend said, "I think you'd like this book", but whomever told me to read Jen Mann's People I Want To Punch in the Throat gave out some really good advice. I was wary of reading another blog collection after Let's Pretend This Never Happened, because that one, while funny, was also exhausting (although that blog is probably really funny when you read each entry a few days or weeks apart), but I decided to just dive into this anyway and I'm glad I did. A consistently entertaining rant against suburbia, carpool moms, classroom moms, PTA moms, book club moms, cheapskates, Pinterest crafters, people who do their kid's homework for them, and various other everyday offenders, this book made me want to be friends with the author. Knowing that she would immediately put me at a distance for a while, the way I do with new people who try to befriend me, made me want to be her friend even more. I'll be looking for the rest of her books soon.

Also, everyone who got a look at the title asked me about what I was reading. Servers at restaurants, people in the elevator, coworkers, everybody who saw the name wanted to know what it was about and if it was any good. I told them it was.

12) Drew Magary's The Hike is another one of those books that everyone said was so good but when I finished it I wondered if I missed something. Again, it wasn't bad. I don't feel like I wasted a few days of my life reading it, but at the same time I found it underwhelming. I probably would have had more fun going on a real hike instead.

This tells the story of Ben, father of three, who drives to a strange hotel in northern Pennsylvania for a business meeting. Arriving early, he decides to go on a hike on the hotel grounds which immediately turns into a multi-year quest to get back to his family, complete with zombies, giants, talking animals, magic potions, weapons, smoke monsters, and impossible choices. Why is this happening to him? When will it end? Will it end at all? And will his family be the same when he sees them again?

And why did everyone think this was so good?

Either way, the book I'm reading now seems interesting, but they all do in the first thirty pages or so.

I guess we'll see.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Books 7 and 8: Twice the Prince Lestat

I'm starting to wonder if series of vampire books all turn insane by the end. I only have three series to judge on, but let's look at them:

The Anita Blake novels, by Laurel K. Hamilton

These started out sort of interesting. The main character was a reluctant necromancer, accidentally dating a vampire and a werewolf at the same time. For the first two or three books it was sort of interesting and sort of diverting, and then the sex kind of took over. A lot of sex. So much sex with werewolves, vampires, werepanthers, regular humans, and other supernatural creatures that finally, in one book, they never resolved the plot. There was an opening chapter, a dozen or so chapters of creature sex, and then the bad guys just left town with a note that they'd be back.

The Twilight novels, by Stephenie Meyer

I freely admit that I have read all six Twilight books. If you didn't know there are six, I understand. Most people think there are only four, based on the movies, but there really are six, and they're all terrible. A whole chapter where Bella fills out college applications! Buildups to big fights that happen off the page! Vampire baseball! And sparkles! SO MANY SPARKLES! When I was reading the first four I was also carpooling with my friend, Jeannie, and every day I would update her on the new insanity.

"They're immortal, so they keep going to high school, over and over!"

"There's something called imprinting, and it makes werewolves mate for life with toddlers!"

"Their wedding night is so hot that he tears up all the pillows so he doesn't hurt her, and she ends up all bruised and in pain but it's somehow romantic!"

"THE VAMPIRE BABY FRACTURES HER PELVIS FROM INSIDE AND A FOUNTAIN OF DELICIOUS BLOOD SHOOTS OUT OF HER MOUTH!"

Batshit crazy, those books.

Also, there are actually seven, but one was only partially published online because it leaked and then Meyer stopped writing it.

The Vampire Chronicles, by Anne Rice

Oh, Anne. I liked you for so long. I discovered you in college and read you voraciously. I even read The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy and Exit to Eden (which, oddly, became a sex comedy starring Rosie O'Donnel). The longer the Vampire Chronicles went on, though, the worse they got. Lestat, the protagonist, met Satan. Every supporting character got their own book, and only some of them were interesting. She tied the series into her Mayfair Witches series, which had also degenerated into nonsense by only the third book, and the result was almost unreadable.

I'm serious. Blackwood Farm and Blood Canticle were so awful that I can barely remember what they were about. All I remember is that they were so bad, and so poorly received, that Anne Rice stopped writing about vampires. That was fortunate because I was ready to stop reading about vampires for a while, and I say that as a person who wrote a senior thesis on vampirism in popular modern American fiction in undergrad. Anne Rice made me love and eventually hate vampire books, but this month I gave her another chance.

The results were mixed.

In Prince Lestat, Rice kind of catches us up on where almost everybody has been. I say "almost everybody" because there are two notable exceptions that I'm calling notable because they had their own books: Vittorio and Ursula aren't mentioned in this book or the next one, and neither are Merrick, Mona, Quinn, and the rest of the Mayfair Witches and Blackwood Farm vampires, although their absence is eventually explained in the second book. Aside from checking in on everybody, there's a mysterious Voice urging old vampires to burn up young ones, and all the vampires have to come together to discover the source of The Voice and confront the danger to them all.

"Prince Lestat" is Queen of the Damned all over again. Cast of thousands, powerful but previously unknown old vampires, everybody coming together to defeat an ancient threat, etc. If you liked that book, you'll like this one, too, and (spoiler) it ends with Lestat as official Prince of the Vampires, with Amel, the spirit that created and animates all vampires, housed inside him and communicating with him.

And then in Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis things go all the way insane, because it turns out that not only was Amel a ghost, not just a spirit, but he was the ghost of the ruler and creator of Atlantis.

And also he was sent to Earth by aliens.

Yup.

Not only that, but the aliens, an avian reptilian race that feeds on suffering and watches Earth from afar, sent other immortals to Earth, too, to stop Amel and destroy Atlantis, and now those immortal humanoids have read the Vampire Chronicles and know Amel is still around and they're coming for him for unknown reasons that may destroy all of the vampires and also all of humanity. And there are lots of other ghosts, too, and some of them wear clothes and talk to vampires. And it's right in the middle of all of this that Anne Rice reveals that she hates "Blackwood Farm" and "Blood Canticle" as much as I do. How do I know?

She reveals that the entire cast died horrible off-panel deaths, in less than two pages of discussion.

Two vampires are discussing the humanoids, and both say, "I've never seen a creature that looks human but isn't human, not in thousands of years", and I'm thinking, "Wait, what about the Taltos monsters from the Witching Hour books?" but no one ever mentions them. They do mention Merrick, though, for a minute. "She burned herself up." Oh, no. Well, what about Quinn and Mona? "Oh, they burned up, too. It was really quick, but sounded horribly painful."

So all of the other characters from all of the other books survived, more or less, except for the casts of the two really awful books?

OK, then. Back to the aliens, ghosts, and vampires. And Atlantis.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Two Weeks of Jury Duty

It's been four years since the last (and first) time I had jury duty, but somehow I got called again, and spent the last two weeks in and out of Knoxville's criminal court doing my best not to end up on an actual jury. I was mostly successful, although I did end up on one for a short two day trial. It was a strange two weeks in the shining hall of justice known as the Knoxville City County Building:

Knoxville City County Building

which was especially shiny the other morning when I took that photo due to just the right amount of fog.

Here are the random things I've learned during my time performing my civic duty:

1) The City County Building has no lactation rooms. I know because one of my fellow jurors was a nursing mother, and one judge excused her from serving on his jury because she asked if there would be a place available to pump at lunchtime. The other judge told her she could use one of the restrooms, and did not excuse her.

2) If you get on a jury, there is free lunch, because they don't let you leave the building. One day we had Salsarita's, which was ok (I made two chicken soft tacos and had a cookie), and one day we had Naple's, which was fantastic. We didn't get to put in our own lunch order either day, which meant both days the vegetarian on our jury complained about a lack of options. No one asked if we had dietary restrictions, either, which surprised me in our time of peanut allergies and lawsuits (especially in a courthouse), and which also meant that the lady on our jury who was doing the Whole 30 Diet didn't really get to eat anything either day. We were allowed to bring our own food and snacks, so I'm not sure why she didn't, and didn't ask.

3) Jury duty works a little differently in every state my friends live in, based on Facebook posts. In Knoxville, if you get criminal court jury duty you have to call in before Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday each week to find out if you have to report. If you do have to report, and you get picked for a jury, that doesn't get you out of the rest of the two weeks. I was picked for a jury on Tuesday of the first week for a trial that ended the next day, but still had to report the next week on Monday and Tuesday. I didn't have to report the last Wednesday because there were three trials in progress at that point, and there were only nine jurors left in the pool. It was kind of humorous on Tuesday morning, though, when they asked who had served on a jury recently and almost everyone in the selection box at that time raised their hand.

4) It takes a long time for cases to come to trial. I went through voir dire (being questioned as a potential juror) multiple times throughout the two weeks, and I don't think any of the cases were more recent than 2012. In the two weeks time, I was a potential juror for an assault trial (I was challenged and dropped from the jury), a drug trial (I served on the jury), a murder trial (challenged and dropped), and a DWI (challenged and dropped). There was another trial, too, but it was seated while I was serving on my jury, so I don't know what it was because it went into the second week.

5) I take too many notes. They give each juror a notebook with our number on it to take notes during the trial. When we went into the jury room to deliberate I had ten pages of notes, and the juror seated next to me had a half page. When we had to turn in our notes at the end, I had the most out of everybody, but I wasn't sure what would be important later so I tried to write down everything. We did refer to my notes during deliberations, so I guess they were useful.

6) The notion of "a jury of your peers" intrigues me, because I'm wondering how, exactly, you define a peer. In the case where I actually was on the jury, the defendant self-identified as African American, but there was only one person of color on the jury. He did not finish high school, but four of us had advanced degrees. Eight of us appeared older, some significantly, than him. How did we, as a panel, seem to him as we sat in judgment? Did we look like his peers? It made me think a lot about who would be on my jury if I ever commit a crime. (I'm not planning to, but I've seen a number of Lifetime movies where someone gets framed.) Who would I want on my jury? What in our everyday lives prepares us to answer that question?

7) Neither attorney told us about how a girl in their sorority, Tracy Marcinko, she got a perm once.

It was like I watched all those movies about trials for nothing.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Books #5 and #6: "The Family Plot" and "Bait"

This new idea to review books this year as I finish them has a pro that I thought of and a con that I didn't think of. The pro is, of course, that I'm updating my blog more often, because I read a lot. That was one of my goals with this, as I noticed last year that I wasn't writing as much as I usually do and felt like I was neglecting this space. The con is that some of these entries are going to be really short, and most of my blog is now going to be about books unless I make a concerted effort to stick some other content here. I guess doing that could also turn out to be a pro, eventually?

I'll keep thinking about that.

In the meantime, I finished two books, and don't really have much to say about either one, unfortunately.

A lot of people kept recommending Cherie Priest's The Family Plot as exciting new horror, and a book not to be missed. Local people also seemed a little excited about it because it takes place nearby, in Chattanooga, but now that I've finished it I'm not sure what everyone was so excited about.

The book concerns Music City Salvage, a family architectural salvage business based in Nashville. Augusta Witherow, elderly last survivor of the once wealthy Witherow family, walks into Music City Salvage one day with a fantastic deal: for forty thousand dollars the company can have the Witherow mansion, everything inside, the barn, the carriage house, and everything in both of those buildings as well. Filled with vintage wood, stained glass, antiques, marble fireplaces, hardware, doors, a grand staircase, and whatever's in the attic, the estate is a gold mine that can turn Music City Salvages failing bottom line around, and Dahlia Dutton, the owner's daughter, takes a small crew and two big trucks down to start harvesting whatever they can. And that's when they find the tiny cemetery that Augusta forgot to mention. And the sealed bedroom. And the footprints and handprints all over the dusty, locked house.

This is a haunted house story, but there's nothing really all that interesting here. There are ghosts, family secrets, danger, and what feels like an obligatory dramatic conclusion at night in a thunderstorm with help too far away to reach them, but everything about this feels like it's been done before. Reading this is like watching a horror movie on the SyFy channel: entertaining while it's on, but nothing about it is really new.

Chuck Palahniuk's Bait isn't really new, either, but you'll like it if you like Palahniuk. The stories are interesting, short little bursts of physical and moral squeamishness, and the illustrations are interesting even if I'm not going to color mine in as the book suggests that I should.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book #4: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

Before I say anything about Book #4 for the year, Mark Frost's The Secret History of Twin Peaks, I'm going to give a warning: I cannot talk about this book without spoiling the book, the past seasons of the show and, possibly, spoiling the upcoming season as well. I'm saying that now so that, if this is important to you, you can go ahead and stop reading now and not have anything spoiled for you.

Spoilers ahead.

Not kidding.

OK, you had your chance. A couple of weeks ago, I read two other Twin Peaks books to get ready for the show coming back to Showtime this year. Not only am I excited enough about that to decide I'm going to get Showtime, but I also picked up "The Secret history of Twin Peaks" to see if it could tell me things I didn't already know. While reading it, I also started re-watching the original series again, and I have to say a few things about it before I say anything else:

1) The first season finale is an amazing piece of television. It doesn't solve the mystery of Laura Palmer's death, but it manages to take the plot threads of over twenty characters and tie them all together. It doesn't pay off all the plots, but it moves every single one forward if it doesn't conclude them, and it still offers cliffhangers leading into season 2.

2) It was slightly disorienting to see Madchen Amick as Betty's mom on Riverdale the other night after I just saw her as Shelly Johnson last weekend. I know I've seen her in other things since "Twin Peaks" ended, but it was just a weird jump to think that Shelly's old enough to be someone's mom now, and I wonder if she's going to be on the new "Twin Peaks" at all when she seems to be a regular on "Riverdale". Maybe she'll do both.

3) I'm up to Maddy's death in my re-watch. Decades later, it's still one of the most horrifying things I've ever seen on television, both because of the supernatural part but also because of the sheer brutality.

The book starts with a slightly interesting concept: it's a collection of documents assembled by a mysterious archivist, detailing the secret history of the town of Twin Peaks, which are being analyzed by an FBI agent who is not Agent Dale Cooper. At the beginning of the book, the archivist's identity is unknown, but it is revealed by the end. In between, the documents start as far back as the Lewis and Clark expedition before moving to the present day. Along the way, historical characters from Richard Nixon to L. Rob Hubbard drift in and out of the pages, but more exciting for fans of the show is that ancestors of the characters we know and love, and eventually some of the characters themselves, also pop up. As a reader, I expected to hear about some of them, like the history of the Log Lady's marriage and widowhood or the growth of the Horne business empire, but there were other, more surprising pieces, like the tale of Pete and Catherine's courtship and marriage, or an exploration of Josie Packard's sordid past.

The book also does a bit to set the stage for the new series by casually filling in the details of where a few of the characters have been since the last time we saw them. In some cases, this is a welcome surprise (the final time we saw Pete Martel, Andrew Packard, and Audrey Horne in the series, they were inside the bank when it exploded, for example, so it's nice to know who survived and who didn't), but in some cases it turns out to be a dark indicator that the character we know and love will not be the same people when we see them again.

This was at times a dense read, and it's definitely not for people who haven't watched the show. If you're a fan, though, this is fantastic, and probably essential reading.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

I Went to a Women's March

I didn't plan to go to a march yesterday, and as such was completely unprepared. I didn't have a fun shirt, or time to make a sign. It was raining, so if I'd made a sign, I would have also had to laminate it, and I didn't have time to do that either, since I didn't have a sign to begin with. I didn't have a hat or set of cat ears, and ended up grabbing my Pride hat instead because I'm bald and have to have a hat to be outside for more than an hour. I wore the wrong shoes, since I was planning to wear a different outfit, then realized that the shirt I wanted to wear is in the laundry, and then had to get out the door to make it to the march on time and picked a pair of shoes that sort of went but really didn't.

Spending too much time thinking about the shoes I'm going to march in is probably one of the many reasons why I don't organize marches.

I support all the reasons people were marching, and I support all the people marching. I am horrified that our country elected a self-admitted sexual assaulter, liar, racist, and Islamophobe under the most openly homophobic party platform in US history, but it never occurred to me that I should go to a march on Saturday. I knew they were happening, knew we had one locally, and knew people who were going, but it just never occurred to me that I should go, too, until a funny thing happened: I spent an hour looking at Twitter and Facebook while procrastinating going for a walk. I saw people holding hands, people linking arms, people raising their voices, and people refusing to quietly let this blanket of ideological darkness and barely disguised fascism roll over us, and I thought, "That's where I should be. With those people."

So I went.

It rained most of the time, and it was crowded, but an odd thing happened: no one bumped me. No one shoved. None of the things that I hate about crowds made me feel like I was overwhelmed by a crowd of 2500+ people in a tiny area of downtown Knoxville. Everyone was excited, and yet also somehow very Southern: people were polite, the march waited at corners for crosswalk signals to change, we thanked the police as we passed them, and people picked up after themselves.

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

We sang, and we chanted, and we marched.

And now we have some elections in 2018 to get to work on.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Books 2 and 3: "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" and "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer"

I'm talking about books 2 and 3 for this year as a pair, because they kind of are. The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer are both tie-in books for the early 1990s television series Twin Peaks, which is coming back to Showtime this year. As part of the preparation for the return, I decided to reread the secret diary and to read the autobiography for the first time. There are similarities between the two books, but also a number of differences.

Both books attempt to give more background material on main characters from the show. In an ideal world, this would enhance the experience of watching the show, but it really only works for the secret diary. In the show, Laura Palmer is the honor student, Meals on Wheels delivery driver, special education tutor Homecoming queen, and after her murder Agent Cooper discovers that Laura hid a number of very dark secrets. Her secret diary expands on that, detailing her descent into drug dealing and prostitution and the reasons behind it. The book, which actually appears in the show, gives voice to a character who doesn't really have one for the simple reason that the first time Laura shows up in the pilot, she's already dead. While she eventually speaks a little through tape recordings and video tapes, this book is the only time fans get to hear her speak for herself.

The autobiography, on the other hand, adds almost nothing to the show. It's the story of Agent Cooper's life as told through tape recordings he made from the age of nine onward, but it doesn't tell the story of anything that fans and viewers would want to know. Wondering how Cooper became a devotee of mysticism? This book won't really tell you, because Cooper didn't make any tapes during that time. Wondering about his career in the FBI before he went to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate Laura's murder? Sorry, those recordings are classified. On the other hand, if you're wondering what puberty was like for a young Dale Cooper, well, there are pages of it. I can't imagine that any fans of the show who bought this were all that glad that they did so.

So, I read two books. One of them expands and illuminates the fictional world it is based in, while the other is a shameless grab for fan cash. That probably explains why the secret diary has been put back in print, while the autobiography, which I paid a dollar for at a library book sale, is now selling for fifty bucks on Amazon.

I'm assuming people who are willing to pay that are people who haven't read it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book #1: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"

I ended 2016 by rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book with which I have a long and complicated history of my own. It continues to be one of my three favorite books in the world, and continues to be a book that I recommend and give out to others. This past year, I gave it to one person in the Facebook book exchange, and I hope they liked it.

(And yes, I know the book exchange was a terrible pyramid scheme, but I sent out one book and got back two, so as far as I'm concerned the book exchange worked, because I got a free book.)

I generally only reread this book when I have a "hey, I haven't read that in a while" feeling, the way that I sometimes decide that it's been a while since I watched a particular movie, but right before Christmas my friend Jackie decided that we should reread it together. She has not yet finished her re-read, but she also started later than I did, as she was locating her copy. I'm not going to talk too much about the book, since I've already written the long entry about it linked above, but I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was that I find it much harder to get into this book when it isn't winter. The book itself, for the most part, covers an academic year at the fictitious Hampden College, so a good chunk of it is in winter and a lot of important plot developments take place then, but even though a lot of the plot is also in the other three seasons it's fixed in my head as a wintertime book, possibly since that's also when I first read it. By about a third of the way through I had slipped comfortably back into the story, but in the beginning I was kind of not really in this mood.

Even when I did finally get into it, I still felt a little detached from the plot, fully aware of what was coming up next and mentally bookmarking where I was in the story. Because of that, I noticed a small continuity error that I hadn't noticed before: Francis, one of the main characters, lives in an apartment that's owned by the college. Richard, the narrator, spends a few paragraphs describing the building being owned by the college, being sought-after upperclass student housing, having 70's fixtures and finishes, and mentioning the kind of things that Francis has furnished the apartment with. A few pages after that, though, on page 167, Henry, while sitting in Francis' apartment with Francis and Richard, mentions an interaction with his landlady, and Francis claims the same interaction. Francis doesn't have a house and landlady, though, because he lives in campus housing. I've never caught the error before in any of my other readings, but it comes right at a pretty central moment in the plot, so I assume I've always been too caught up in the story at that point to nitpick something like that out.

The other thing I thought while reading this is that Tartt does a really good job at something that I would call offhand authenticity, or maybe local Hampden College color. Most of the random characters mentioned in the book as asides and world-building extras feel like the kind of random people and random stories that I ran into in college. Judy, Richard's neighbor, casually tells a story involving "Flipper" Leach, so-called because she flipped her car "four or five times" (Judy, a notorious cokehead, is probably exaggerating), and I'm reminded of Left Field, a girl who moved onto our floor in the spring of freshman year and was called "Left Field" at her old school because she got hit in the mouth with a softball and it knocked out a bunch of her teeth. Midway through spring of that year I watched a drunken Left Field and Michelle, my friend Alena's roommate who once almost crushed Alena by bunking their beds herself instead of having maintenance do it and then being surprised when they came crashing down in the middle of the night, stopped only by the dresser, sing "I will Survive" without looking at the screen during a karaoke night. Tartt peppers the book with those kind of random stories and asides about the people that Richard interacts with at Hampden, and it makes the college seem real because people who have been to college and lived on campus know people like that. Granted, it's probably because all of these small and small stories are based on people that Tartt met in college, but it still makes reading this sound like a real college.

By the end of this, I was glad I reread it again, as I always am. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

Onward, to Book #2 for 2017!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2016

This year I ended up reading 76 books, which I feel is a decently respectable total. It's not nearly as high as 2015, when I read 99 books, but is pretty much on track for what I consider a "regular" reading year: 2011's tally was also 76, 2012's was 74, 2013's was 79, and 2014's was 87, so for now it seems that 2015 was a weird outlier and I will probably read 70 or so books this year.

We'll find out as the year progresses whether or not that's true, because for 2017 I'm going to do something new with my reading tally: I'm going to write a blog about every book that I read, as I finish them. No monthly tallies and no yearly tallies. Instead, I'm going to read and immediately write, counting as I go, and see if this is another 70+ year.

Before I finish the first book of the new year, though, even though it was mostly read in the old year, here are the best books I read this year:

LaFeyette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

What I said in February: Sarah Vowell takes us on a trip back to a time when the US begged for France's help, when Freedom Fries did not exist, and when the patriots of the Revolutionary War welcomed the aid of a French general who was below the current legal drinking age. Following Lafeyette's journey through the US both during the war and later, when he came back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the victory and spent a year being celebrated by everyone in the US, Vowell gives an amusing picture of the way the war is remembered today contrasted with the way it actually was. This was an entertaining, informative read.

This was the best book I read all month, because Vowell is adept at combining the past with current events in a way that lets the reader see exactly how one flowed into the other without the sense that you are reading a textbook. She also has a very dry sense of humor, and I appreciate being educated about the Revolutionary War through the lens of her getting the reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg to break character or a description of how hard it is to find a monument that now stands in the corner of someone's front yard. Her books present American history in a way that entertains Americans.


Why I list it here: Like I said then, Vowell makes American history entertaining for Americans. I talk to a lot of people who are murky on how we got to where we are as a country, so I think any exposure to US history is a good thing, even if it's only bits and pieces mixed in with trivia. Also, I just liked reading this.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

What I said in May: Was creepy and disturbing, and a very good read.

Merry is eight years old, and her family is in trouble. Her father was laid off after two decades working a factory job, and is slowly becoming devoutly, obsessively religious as her skeptic mother tries to support the family of four on a bank teller's salary. Meanwhile, Merry's sister, Marjorie, starts to exhibit strange behavior: hearing voices, telling stories, acting out, and then spiraling into bizarre physical behavior. When medical treatment can't help her, Marjorie's father and his priest reach a disturbing conclusion: Marjorie is possessed, and must be exorcised. As bad as that sounds, there's a possible opportunity for the family to pull themselves out of their disastrous financial situation while still helping Marjorie. Fifteen years later, Rachel, a bestselling author, is interviewing Merry. Rachel wants to write a book about "The Possessed", the six episode reality show that Merry's family starred in. She wants to explore what happened to Marjorie, what happened to the family, and how Merry ended up as the only survivor.

I really liked that this book was unclear about a lot of things, even whether or not the ending really happened the way Merry remembers it. Tremblay uses his unreliable narrator, Merry, in the best possible way, leaving the reader with an unsettling story of a family in some sort of crisis, but maybe not the kind that it seems like they're in.


Why I list it here: Months later, some of the images and scenes from this book still linger with me. It would be really easy to just discount this as a horror novel, but it was so much more than just a genre novel. As a person who consumes a good bit of reality television on a weekly basis, this book also gives a little bit of a nudge to think a little more deeply about the real people behind those shows, and the things that may drive them to be on them.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

What I said in June: Columbine is so iconic to Americans that we don't even call it "the Columbine high school shooting" or something like that. It has its own shorthand where we say the name of the town and the school shooting is the first thing people think of. It's the first school shooting that I remember getting major, around the clock media coverage. It's been exhaustively picked apart and analyzed in books, magazines, documentaries, and internet conspiracy theories, but in "A Mother's Reckoning" Sue Klebold reminds us that there's a side we haven't ever really heard: the families of the shooters. Who was Dylan Klebold? How did he grow up? Were there warning signs his parents missed, or did they see them and interpret them incorrectly? What's it like to receive a call at work that tells you your son murdered his classmates? How do you mourn him and mourn his victims at the same time? What happens to the rest of your life?

I found this compulsively readable. Sue Klebold comes across as honest and genuine, and shares her grief, anger, confusion, and what's she's learned as she struggles to carry on. She also points out that Columbine isn't just a story of murder and rage, but also a story about two boys who committed suicide. Could recognizing Dylan's suicidal depression have prevented what happened? Klebold doesn't make excuses, but she does point out as best she can the places where she could have done better.

I think it was very brave of her to come forward and finally tell her story this honestly and openly, because she lives a life that the rest of us can barely imagine: she's the mother of a mass murderer who has been savaged in the press and the courts of public opinion as a horrible parent who allowed this to happen, and she says over and over through the book that she would think the same thing about a mother if she saw this story on the news. There are some things she can't talk about, because of the many lawsuits that have been leveled against her family by those of the victims, but she also shares things that I never knew, like that she spent over a month after the shootings writing apology letters to each family, or that she is now a cancer survivor, or that she works for organizations promoting mental health and suicide awareness.

I don't know if I can say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it inspiring and sympathetic.


Why I list it here: Everything I said in June still stands. This book was raw and real and powerful, and tells a story we think we already know in a way that we've never heard before. Sue Klebold could have lived the rest of her life as a hermit, shunned and silent, but she chose to speak. She doesn't ask for pity, only for understanding, and wants to help others. Her story deserves to be heard.

Hide by Matthew Griffin

What I said in July: A touching, sad love story. Wendell and Frank have lived together outside of town for decades, cut off from their families and not having any friends. They don't leave the house together, keep separate mailing addresses, and never reveal to anyone in their tiny southern town that the two of them are lovers. That all changes when Frank suffers a stroke in the garden, and his recovery and deterioration forces them to confront all of the things they gave up to be together in a time when doing so was illegal.

I don't think this was annoyingly sad in the way I was complaining about above, though, because the sadness here is more from the oppression of society. The characters in the book were able to build a life despite that, but they could have been so much more happy if the world wasn't such a terrible place to people who are different.


Why I list it here: I cried. Actual tears. This book broke my heart. It was sad and real and touching and I cried while I was reading it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What I said in August: Arthur Leander is a famous actor orbited by a collection of friends, family, and strangers. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress, is onstage with Arthur the night he dies of a heart attack during "King Lear", and it's also the night that the rapidly lethal Georgia Flu breaks out in Toronto. Within days, civilization as we know it collapses, and fifteen years later Kirsten wanders the ruins of the country with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors. They move from town to town until they meet the Prophet, a man who may destroy them. In a world of survivors, what else is important besides continuing to survive? What's worth fighting for? And how is Arthur still guiding Kirsten, long after his death and the death of modern civilization entirely?

This was definitely worth reading and worth thinking about. Weeks later, I can still see some of the scenes in my mind.


Why I list it here: This book has received a lot of praise, and I've seen it on a lot of "best of" lists. It deserves to be there, because it's a good book.

Beyond the Grass Ocean by Ron Horsley

What I said in September: It's a children's book, but engaging and moving enough for adults as well.

Nary, a young girl in the fishing village of Rains Perish, lives alongside the great Grass Ocean, a wide sea of grass so deep that ships sail on it and unknown creatures live in its dark depths. When Nary was younger, her mother got very sick, and then went away, forever away, and now Nary wants to know where forever away is, and why the people who go there never come back. When no one can answer her question, she and her friends set off across the Grass Ocean, searching for the Twined Cities and the twins, Somnol and Mortol, who run the world.

In some ways, this is a typical coming of age novel, but it's also filled with magical, lingering imagery. It made me think a lot about grief, loss, and coping, but also it was just an interesting read. The illustrations are well done, too.

I'm glad I read this. It's the only book out of the four I read this month that I'm going to keep.


Why I list it here: It was beautiful and magical and deserves a wider audience. And yes, it's a little expensive, but I'm told that's because of the cost of self-publishing it.

That seems to be it for the year. This isn't to say that everything else I read this year was terrible or anything (except in January; most of what I read in January was garbage), but these are the books that stick out at the end of the year as things I'm glad I read.