Sunday, August 27, 2017

These Books Were Awful - Books 41 and 42

I read a lot of terrible books.

My friends know this, and sometimes send me terrible books on purpose. I know this, and sometimes buy myself terrible books on purpose. I've read all six Twilight books. (If you didn't know there were six, you're probably forgetting The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner and Life and Death.) I've read 50 Shades of Grey. At one time, I accidentally owned two copies of Every Frat Boy Wants It (because I owned one copy and then I forgot to send back the stupid card in time when it was my gay book club's Book of the Month Selection to tell them I did not want it) and then I read the sequel.

I'm sharing this because I want people to understand that I know, and sometimes even appreciate, shitty literature. (Is "Shit Lit" a thing? I feel like it should be but am worried that if I try to start using the term it will get confused with literature about feces, which doubtlessly exists but which I am not googling to confirm.) It is because of this lifelong appreciate for terrible crap, like bad movies, bad tourist attractions, and bad books, that I can say that the two books I'm about to talk about are so terrible that no one should read them.

They were awful.

Terrible books

First up is book #41 for the year, The Manhood Ceremony, by "Ross Berliner". I put the author's name in quotes because the "About the Author" section revealed this:

"Ross Berliner is the pseudonym of an eminent physician and teacher at an Eastern university who specializes in adolescent medicine."

I am 100% convinced that's bullshit.

I read this book because on an online quiz that my friends and I were taking. It was a "How many of these 100 terrible books have you read?" quiz (I can't remember the exact name) and my friends were all laughing about their scores of four and five terrible books. My score was 26. Out of all of the friends that I know who took and posted it, I not only had the highest score, but my score was higher than any of theirs by multiples. You could multiply one friend's score by another score and still not reach my score. While we were all laughing about it, I decided I might as well continue reading terrible books for fun, so I closed my eyes, scrolled the quiz up and down a few times, and then put my finger on the computer screen. And that's how I ended up with "The Manhood Ceremony".

Which you should never read.

You may want to skip the summary paragraph below, as it discusses child molestation.

It tells the story of Ricky Stern, an attractive, well mannered twelve year old who is distracted away from his paper route, and ultimately kidnapped, by a bearded stranger who promises to show him something exciting. Instead, the stranger molests him in graphic detail, and then takes him on a multi-state journey of further molesting, both of Ricky and of another kid that the stranger kidnaps, rapes, and kills while Ricky watches. Along the way, two policemen try to track them down, and Ricky discovers that he really likes being molested because of the way it makes his muscular young body feel.

This cannot possibly have been written by a doctor who had to take a "do no harm" oath. There's something in this book for everyone to get offended by:

-child molestation
-child murder
-ableism (both mental and physical)
-abuse of people with alcoholism and substance abuse issues
-discrimination against people with illnesses (I don't know an "ism" for this)
-probably some other stuff I've forgotten about because I tried to blot out that I've read this

When I finished this book I felt bad that I'd read it. I also felt like I needed a dozen or so showers.

I ended up with book #42, Sharon Webb's The Adventures of Terra Tarkington, through a somewhat similar path. My friend Jackie posted a link to horrible paperback covers, and that one looked so bad that I went ahead and bought it. It was also terrible, but at least reading it didn't make me feel like I should burn it and then compulsively wash my hands when I was done.

In the future, Terra is a space nurse in the Interstellar Nursing Corps. Unknown to her, she's also some sort of Manchurian Candidate, subconsciously programmed to trigger a galactic catastrophe by one of two competing secret organizations. Even after reading the book, I'm not exactly sure how she was supposed to trigger the terrible event, as it seems mostly to have happened by coincidence. One of the secret spy agencies spends the whole book trying to maneuver her into position, and the other spends the whole book trying to figure out who the secret doomsday trigger is so that they can stop her. In the meantime, Terra keeps having weird space adventures that are probably supposed to be funny while also trying to win the heart of the handsome Dr. Brian Scott, one of the only other humans on her space station.

This wasn't bad in any offensive way. It just wasn't very good.

I was going to end by promising to try to do better, but we all know I'm just going to keep sneaking crap in among the other books.

I will give up on trying to make Shit Lit a term, though.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, "do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

-"Down Under", Men at Work 1981

Several weeks ago, my friend Kim casually asked, "Has anyone ever tried Vegemite? It sounds like the durian of bread food." I had not tried vegemite, but I have tried durian candy. Almost all I know about vegemite is what's in the song lyrics above: they eat it in Australia, and you might eat it on a sandwich. Since Amazon Prime means that there's no real space of time between "I want this" and "I have this in my hands", I immediately ordered a bottle.


Before I could start eating it, though, Kim posted this:


The dogs liked it.

It was too late, though. I already had the jar, and I was going to try it. All my life I've wondered, "What's a vegemite sandwich? What does it taste like? Should I go all the way to Brussels for one?" and now, at last, I had the chance to have one. I wasn't sure what goes on a vegemite sandwich, though, and the video for the song was unclear, so I googled.

And I found out that outside of Australia, pretty much everyone hates vegemite.

Think about that. The only people willing to eat vegemite are living in a sunbaked hellscape where every animal, even the cute ones, is poisonous. What the hell was in this bottle, which my friend Christopher describes as "spackle"? Apparently it is so potent that I found a number of articles offering to ease me into the eating of vegemite, the culinary equivalent of carefully dipping a toe into the vegemite pool rather than diving in headfirst.

I started my day with vegemite on toast. The first point to remember was not to put the vegemite directly on the toast. Instead, all of the articles agreed that you should first heavily butter the toast:

Vegemite experimentation

Then you should open your vegemite jar, but try not to inhale directly over it because it is the most yeasty smelling thing you have ever smelled. It's also black as night and also somehow shimmery:

Vegemite experimentation

Carefully scoop out no more than a tiny dime sized serving of vegemite:

Vegemite experimentation

and spread it on the toast on top of the butter, as thinly as possible, because that tiny dab has to cover the entire piece of toast since you can't eat more than that tiny dab at a time without vomiting:

Vegemite experimentation

With my toast drowning in butter and lightly smeared with vegemite, I took a bite.

It was not terrible. It's very salty. I used unsalted butter, so the only salt I tasted was from the vegemite, and it's very salty. There's an undertaste that's hard to describe. It's sort of a malted flavor, but also a sort of flavor that my mouth insisted was "meat" even though there's no meat involved and I couldn't narrow it down to a specific kind. It's not bacon, or beef, or chicken, or pork, but each time I bit my mouth thought, "Mmmmm... meaty," and could not be convinced otherwise.

Since breakfast didn't kill me, I decided to continue the vegemite experiment with dinner, and a more ambitious recipe for spaghetti with vegemite. I'm not going to link any of the recipes that I looked up, because almost all of them were the same. You'll need:

spaghetti (I used whole wheat)
1 teaspoon of vegemite
1/4 cup of butter
a lot of parmesan cheese
a cup of the pasta water

After you cook the pasta, scoop out some of the water, then set the pasta aside in the strainer for a minute. Melt the butter:

Vegemite experimentation

then add the vegemite:

Vegemite experimentation

(Please note: it will stick to the measuring spoon. If you push it off the spoon with your finger, DO NOT LICK YOUR FINGER. OH, DEAR SWEET BABY JESUS DO NOT LICK YOUR FINGER. Just wash it off. Do not touch your tongue directly to the vegemite. My stomach clenched so hard trying to vomit that I might have abs now.)


Vegemite experimentation

Add the pasta and continue stirring, and thin it a little with some of the pasta water if it seems like all the pasta isn't coated. Add cheese:

Vegemite experimentation

I ate the entire plate.

It's a little salty, and still has that weird meaty but not meat taste, but my tongue also insisted that there was a nutty taste. It's way too much butter to eat this all the time, but I would eat it again.

And now I have to figure out what to do with the rest of the bottle.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Books 31-40: What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but the first thing I pack for any trip is books. I tend to pick out clothes the night before, but I start picking out books a week or two in advance, or sometimes even longer. If I'm driving, like I did on my vacation two weeks ago, I bring extra books, because then I have choices. When I'm flying I have to be careful, and a lot of times two to four books end up in my carryon because I worry about the weight of my checked baggage.

Anyway, this all means that at the end of my vacation I had a stack of completed books:

Summer reading

but before I got to them I had to finish Book #31: Matthew Bruccoli's exhaustingly comprehensive biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Some Epic Sort of Grandeur. I've been curious about Fitzgerald's life since I read Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was based on Zelda's life, and I've had this book for a while, but was waiting for a time when I could devote myself to getting through it, because it's a giant book.

I'm not kidding. The paperback is over 2 inches think. If I lived in a Lifetime movie, I could bludgeon someone to death with this book.

That's why I said it was exhausting. Fitzgerald kept journals for his entire life, and Bruccoli does a fantastic job of combining them with letters, publishing files, other people's diaries and letters, and other contemporary sources to paint a full picture of what Fitzgerald was doing whenever anything he wrote was published, and how his ongoing changes of circumstance shaped his life. If someone taught a college class just on Fitzgerald, this biography would be the main textbook, but reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's entire life on a month by month basis from college to death was mentally draining.

At one point, close to the end, I posted, "I just want F. Scott Fitzgerald to die" on Facebook, and I meant it.

And then he did.

When I finally finished that, I wanted something light, so I went for some young adult fiction that looked interesting:

32) Karen M. McManus' One of Us is Lying. The premise of this mystery seems simple: five students enter detention alive, and four of them leave that way. Something happened in the room, but what? And why? I enjoyed this book a lot, even if I did figure out a few of the plot twists before they were revealed.

Bronwyn, Addie, and Cooper all say they were framed, and didn't do the identical thing they all got detention for: having a cell phone ring in class. Nate perpetually has detention, so his presence there isn't a surprise. And then there's Simon, a social outcast who runs an online gossip website at their high school. Lots of people hate Simon, and by the end of detention Simon has died from a severe allergic reaction. The questions start immediately: Why were all the epi-pens missing from the nurse's office? Who planted extra cell phones on the other four students? The questions intensify when the police discover that Simon was planning to publish stories about his four detention-mates the next day. Was one of them willing to kill to stop him? And are the others in danger now?

This was a fast read, but very engaging. I enjoyed it.

33) I didn't enjoy C.L. Hodges' As The Sun Smiles as much. I bought it because the author was one of our student staff members, and I wanted to be supportive, but the book feels disjointed and in need of better editing. There are interesting ideas here, but the execution could use some polish.

Part coming of age story and part dystopian glimpse of America's future, this is the short story of a family in present day Knoxville, and their struggle to survive as society collapses around them. It's very introspective, with the protagonist frequently ruminating on his place in the world and in his family, to the point that it often takes a backseat to the actual plot.

34) Fiona Davis' The Dollhouse is heavy on plot, with the narrative shifting back and forth from chapter to chapter between the present day, when journalist Rose Lewin becomes consumed with the life of her mysterious neighbor, Darby McLaughlin, in their condos in the former Barbizon Hotel for Women, and 1952, the year that Darby arrived at the Barbizon to become a secretary in New York City.

Pursuing the rumor that Darby was involved in a long ago fight where a hotel maid fell to her death, Rose begins crossing ethical lines as her own life disintegrates, digging deeper into Darby's past even as she loses her relationship, job, and home. Meanwhile, in 1952, Darby struggles to fit in among the hotel's other female guests, the secretaries, models, and editors who all want to make it in the Big Apple. When a maid befriends her, inviting her out to see the nightlife and all the excitement that the city has to offer, it feels like Darby's whole life is about to change, and it does, but not in ways she ever could have imagined.

This was an engaging, fascinating read, and a perfect book for summer.

35) Tim Johnston's Descent was also an engaging read, but I feel like it wrapped up a little too conveniently.

The Courtland family is on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, but when the kids, Caitlyn and Sean, go out for an early morning run only Sean comes back, badly injured by a truck. Caitlyn is gone, taken, the only trace of her a disconnected phone call to her father. As the family, the sheriff, and the town search for answers, the lives of everyone involved unravel under the stress, guilt, and loss.

This was a little bleak, and, like I said before, the ending seemed a little too convenient, but it was a decent read.

36) Amazon informs me that I purchased John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson in 2015. That I'm just now reading it in 2017 tells a horrible story about how many unread books there are on my "To Be Read" pile, doesn't it?

Will Grayson and Will Grayson don't know each other. They both live near Chicago, but they go to different schools, have different friends, and have different problems until the night that they meet by chance, and their lives are suddenly and rapidly intertwined. Before you know it, Will Grayson is dating Will Grayson's best friend, who is writing the most epic high school musical ever about his friendship with Will Grayson. There's laughter, tears, and lots of heart, and this is overall an amusing read for vacation.

37) F. Scott Fitzgerald's I'd Die For You is a collection of "lost" (according to the title; they all exist in the collections of his papers so I argue that "unpublished" would be a better word) stories.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about unpublished works of famous authors, centered mostly around Go Set A Watchman and, to a lesser degree, Summer Crossing, but the difference here is that these are stories Fitzgerald attempted to publish. Publishers just didn't buy them, or sent them back for revisions that he disagreed with. A lot of these are darker in tone than the short stories that Fitzgerald was known for, but a few of them could have benefited from the editorial changes suggested.

38) Emma Clines' The Girls tells a story the public almost feels like it knows: in a hot long ago 1960's summer in California, Evie, a confused, outcast teenager falls in with a group of older kids at a commune, where they live with their hypnotic leader, a spiritual guru. In the present day, an older but not necessarily wiser Evie reflects on that summer, and the horrific murders that ended it.

Rather than focus on the cult leader, Clines focuses on the women around him. They struggle for position, for survival, and in Evie's case to figure out their place in the world that they've built on their strange ranch. Does Evie belong there, or is she just visiting? As the summer ends, tensions build, friendships fray, and Evie finds herself on the road to a terrible act, unable to turn away.

This was a fast, intense read.

39) Earnest Cline's Armada also tells a story that the reader may think it already knows, introducing us to Zach Lightman, who has grown up among the geeky relics of his deceased father's science fiction addiction.

Zach has spent enough years playing video games to recognize the flying saucer that appears outside his high school one day, and then to recognize the government spaceship that comes to get him. They're both straight out of "Armada", the video game he plays for hours a day, and where he is one of the ten best players in the world. Now, Zach discovers that the aliens are real, and the video game is a training program for people to fight an interplanetary war. It's just like in that old movie Zach's father loved, and that's why Zach is both enthralled but also immediately suspicious. What's going on here? Why are these aliens attacking? And what does it have to do with the mysterious conspiracy Zach's father filled his notebooks with before his accidental death?

This was another fast, good read.

40) I started Howard Frank Mosher's North Country before my vacation was over, but it's taken me this long to finish it because I didn't really enjoy it. The story of Mosher's road trip along the entire length of the US-Canada border, I was hoping for something like Theroux's Deep South, but this book lacks the warmth or context of that one, and is instead a pretty straightforward point by point description of what Mosher encountered on the road.

Overall, my vacation picks for reading turned out pretty well.