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.