Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: The Light Fantastic

The Light Fantastic, Terry Pratchett

Zany: entertainingly strange, amusingly unconventional or unusual.

You know, I haven’t used that word in eons (or the word eons either, now that I think about it). It’s a wonderful word for Scrabble, but I don’t even use it there because of the eons thing.

Zany is the best possible one-word description, however, for Sir Terry and his second installment of the Discworld series (there are thirty-three altogether). Back for an encore is Rincewind the wizard, Twoflower the tourist, and the Luggage. Their mission: to save Discworld from a catastrophic collision with an eerie red star.

Yeah, sure. Rincewind, a wizard so inept that he can’t do magic, is going to save the world. Forget Twoflower too: as the voice of reason, all he does is piss off Rincewind. It’s a good thing, then, that they will have some help. Introducing what I think is one of the best character-names in fiction, Cohen the Barbarian.

Cohen is the best warrior of all time, but like every human, he has his problems too. He’s eighty-seven, and every time he’s in a fracas, his back locks up. He stands, stiff as a board, until his seventeen-year-old bride-to-be Bethan rubs his back with liniment (it’s only his back that gives him trouble).

Part of Pratchett’s genius is his ability to cram so many scenes into a mere 240 pages. If I were to try to describe a tenth of what goes on in The Light Fantastic, I would sound crazy instead of zany. But Pratchett pulls it all off with aplomb—humor, action, profundities—and a touching scene at the end of the book.

So it’s on to the next installment for me, Equal Rites, with only thirty to go after that. Sigh.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Just a Reminder

This is an essay from my never-to-be-published book, Soul Songs. It is creative non-fiction in that the story is true—the doctor's assistant and I truly do not get along—but I have also jazzed the dialogue up a bit (but not a lot). I brought it out of mothballs because just some grail had a similar experience a few days ago.

The Assistant

Dr. Lung’s assistant called me this morning to remind me that I have an appointment with Dr. Lung today regarding my lungs.

[Phone rings to the tune of “It’s Howdy Doody Time.”]


“Is this Charles?”


“You have an appointment with Dr. Lung today.”

“I know. That’s why you always give me that little ‘your next appointment’ card before I leave the office. It tells me when my next appointment is.”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“Let me check. It’s 9:45. I wouldn’t count on it, though; the big clock on our living room wall stopped working several months ago—I have a suspicion something went wrong with the batteries. To tell you the truth, it feels more eightish to me. Or closer to eightish-thirty. Don’t you have a watch or something?”

“I mean do you know what time your appointment is.”

“Of course I do. I have a mind like a steel septic tank. Plus it’s on that little white card you gave me before I left the office last time. It says 5:15.”

“Your appointment is at 5:15. Did you have a chest X-ray?”



“Because you didn’t tell me to have a chest X-ray. Am I supposed to be psychotic and read your mind? Plus, you didn’t give me a chest X-ray authorization form, either. You know I can’t just waltz right into the X-ray place and get an X-ray without an X-ray authorization form.”

“Well Dr. Lung wants to see a picture of your lungs. Can you get an X-ray this morning?”

“No, I cannot get an X-ray this morning. A careless driver murdered my truck in January. I have no transportation. Dr. Lung will just have to look at some of my old X-rays. You know, like a trip down light box lane.”

“But you WILL be HERE at 5:15?”

“Yes, I WILL be HERE at 5:15. Queen Thunderclap is bringing me HERE in her Royal Toyota, provided I don’t touch anything or bitch about her tailgating.”


“Queen Thunderclap. That’s my wife. It’s a joke. Hello? Hello? Stupid fucklehead.”

[More silence, until suddenly a voice—]


"Oh. I thought you'd gone. I said I'm a stupid chucklehead. Toodle-ooh, then, ’til 5:15."

Every three months it’s the same old thing. She calls, I try to break her balls, and all she does is make me piss me off. Her balls must be made of granite. She must have spent her first six years in Doctor Assistant School emptying over-filled excreta vessels and picking bugs off patients.

Stupid Fucklehead.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: You Know You're a Writer When

You Know You're a Writer When . . ., Adair Lara

If you are a die-hard reader, chances are that you love books about books. Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, for example, is a joyful celebration of long words, book collecting, and book ownership, while Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is a thriller involving a peculiar rare book, its eccentric author, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

Since no one reading this review is likely to be either Anne Fadiman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, exactly none of us wrote those books. Are we all doomed, then, to be merely readers until the day we ascend to The Great Library in the Sky and someone hands us a pencil?

This is where Adair Lara's tiny book (4¼" by 6¼", 95 pages) comes into play. No, it's not another tired book on how to write or how to sell what you've written—hell, it doesn’t even mention the word “talent” because all us readers know that talent is not required to be published (c.f., Stephenie Meyer). Rather, it is a book of aphorisms to ascertain if one is a die-hard writer and not just a passive reader.

I know that I'm a writer from this one example:
You relish reading a junky novel because every paragraph reminds you of how much better a writer you are than the author. At the same time, you are sick to your stomach: this hack at least got published.
Every three weeks or so, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, the woman who never met an adverb or an adjective she didn't like, publishes a new piece of trash for twenty billion dollars. At the same time, I can't get anyone to take fifty years-worth of my perfectly composed grocery shopping lists, glue them together, and publish them in rolls for toilet paper.

Here is another one I like:
The doctor tells you that you have terminal cancer and you think, "I can use this."

I wonder how many readers qualify for this one:
Your work clothes are a ratty bathrobe and duck slippers, and your commute is ten seconds—thirty if you stop at the bathroom.

This book is a little pricey at $9.95 (hardcover) and you could read it in thirty minutes at the library or Barnes & Noble, but I'm keeping mine because it's a writing book about writing books. And it's great.

[Thanks to Sara, who works in a library, for recommending this book on LibraryThing.]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Black Hole, Part 2

This may fall under the department heading of "beating a dead horse to death," but I think it's way too sad to pass up. Meg, in a comment to the last post Britney & Paris Einstein, found this incredible piece of tape for us.

Diction: the clarity with which somebody pronounces words when speaking or singing. Thank goodness for the subtitles because Miss S.C. Teen never learned to speak any variation of the English language. The questioner is marginally better; her question is, "Recent polls have shown that some Americans cannot locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?"

It's a damn good thing they didn't ask this girl a difficult question like "What is your zip code?" or "Do you want to super-size that?"

Savannah, in another comment from the last post, said:

". . . [T]hese 'pageants' are not about pretty girls who happen to be smart and wanting to win scholarships - they are celebrations of the superficial and transitory."

Superficial and transitory is exactly right, but how many of our fellow Amer'cans would watch a contest of intelligent girls and women?

(Regular programming will return to this blog in a day or two—I've had enough of clueless bimbos with Valley Girl Syndrome.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Britney & Paris Einstein

Thanks to my old friend Kevin Charnas, I finally have the latest news (about ten days old) on Carrie Prejean—who, until about an hour ago, I'd never heard of before. It appears that the Grande & Exalted High Mucky-Muck of the Miss America Pageant pulled Miss Prejean's crown as Miss California for conduct unbecoming to a Miss. (A gay-bashing statement made during a public interview.)

If that wasn't bad enough, the Donald also yanked the Miss Universe crown straight out of her brown roots for conduct unbecoming to a Universe. (Something to do with naughty pictures.)

In all fairness to the twice-deposed Miss, I'll allow her to speak for herself. (The photo and quote are from Kevin, and I have no idea who "Matt" is.)

"Matt... There may or may not be pictures of my bare vulva out there...How can I say? I mean...Can I control a photographer that may or may not have put a stealth camera in a toilet somewhere that I didn't know about while I was going wee-wee? How can one be sure? I mean, look...All I know is that women sit down to wee-wee and men stand up to pee-pee. That's all I know."

[Stunned silence from the audience]

I never thought that I'd say this in a million years, but Carrie Prejean makes Britney and Paris actually sound intelligent, like the Einstein sisters giving a paper at MIT detailing what's on the far side of a black hole.

A stealth bare vulva camera in the toilet. Givemeafuckingbreak.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Read All About It

Martha detests the way I read the newspaper. I look at a headline, read the first one or two sentences, and then I explode into a million little brain pieces.

“LISTEN TO WHAT THIS ASSHOLE’S DONE NOW!” I shriek, and then I yell all the parts that piss me off. More often than not I sum up the article with a stern lecture, take a gulp of orange juice for my sore throat, and then move on to the next headline. “LISTEN TO WHAT THIS ASSHOLE’S DONE NOW!” I shriek, and I’m off on the lecture circuit again.

I suspect that I'm irritating. Why I have to shriek and yell I have no idea; perhaps I am constitutionally unable to whisper my outrage. The bloom isn’t exactly on Martha’s rose at 5:30 in the morning. The poor thing likes to snooze over her first three cups of coffee and there I sit, bellowing at her like an un-milked cow. It’s a wonder she hasn’t put tarantula poison in my Lucky Charms, which would not be at all lucky for me. We drive the guy at the newspaper office nuts. She calls and stops our subscription, I call back and start it again, then she calls him back, and then I . . .

Lately, Martha has been giving the paper a bath in the lawn sprinklers before she brings it in the house. “Dammit, the paper is soaked again!” she says, shaking her head while holding the bone-dry crossword and sudoku puzzles behind her back. It’s amazing how innocent she looks when she’s lying through her teeth. It scares me because somewhere within my beloved lies the homicidal heart of a cold-blooded, newspaper-screaming husband-dismemberer.

Perhaps a mild sedative and some blood pressure stuff would help me deal with reality . . .

Monday, June 15, 2009

Blog o' the Day: Jimmy Bastard

I’m a somewhat intelligent guy, but I don’t pretend to know everything about everything like I did back in my barroom days. Nowadays I’m perfectly willing to say, “I don’t know” when either I or someone else asks me a question. For example, here are some things I've recently asked me:

1. Is lettuce a fruit, a vegetable, or just a fancy weed?

2. Why can’t I find anything on my own fucking blog? There are 80 million widgets for Blogger, and I can’t find a simple drop-down box that will list the books I’ve reviewed and link to them.

I was looking for Denise Mina, you see, and I had to scroll through a ton of crap in my "Books Reviewed" label to find her in a small blurb at the very bottom.

Why Denise Mina, whom most of you have never heard of? Because, in my bookish opinion, she’s the most original writer of crime mysteries in the business today. She is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, lives and writes there, and she knows the city and its people like the back of her hand. Her protagonists are young females, constitutionally tough females who muck things up with their amateur sleuthing because the police are assholes, bumblers, and bullies. Police procedurals these are not.

Mina’s first trilogy, which begins with Garnethill, features Maureen O'Donnell, a twenty-something incest survivor who is psychologically quite frail. Her second trilogy, starting with Field of Blood, stars Paddy (Patricia) Meehan, a very fat and unattractive (by her own admission) eighteen-year-old who works as a “copyboy” for a fictional Glasgow newspaper. Unlikely heroes to be sure, but that is Mina’s genius: take two down-and-out Glaswegians from fucked-up families, use the time period of the late 70s and early 80s, stumble around in the very worst parts of the city, give the women potty mouths and plenty of ribald dry humor, add both tragic and nutty characters, don’t gloss over anything, and stir.

Best of all, make sure that these novels remain in their original form of Scottish English—dialect, colloquialisms, euphemisms, slang, profanity, and just plain names for things: polis rather than police, for example.

So what the hell does all of this blather have to do with the Blog o’ the Day? Plenty, because I found a blog written by a Glaswegian fellow who calls himself Jimmy Bastard—and a childhood memory piece titled The King and I. While many of his "sensitive" commenters were appalled by youthful pugilistics, Jimmy's elegant prose told it like it was without any gloss.

I know, because Denise Mina told me.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Somewhere in Time

I was down for my usual afternoon nap, but sleep did not come, not even a doze, not even one of those narcoleptic-like stupors that always happen to me in church, during important political speeches, and whenever I’m supposed to be listening to someone. You know what I mean. Your eyes glaze over and your eyelids get as heavy as bowling balls, there’s just no way you can keep them open, your head starts to fall forward, and then you suddenly JERK awake, nearly breaking your neck off at the root, only to do it all over again three seconds later: Your eyes glaze over and your eyelids get as heavy as bowling balls . . .

Sleepless after ten minutes, I sat up and looked at the clock. It said 3 p.m. I’d lain down at noon. Three hours, GONE. “Stupid fucking clock!” I told it, setting off to find one that works.

The clock on the living room wall is useless because Martha refuses to put a new battery in it. The digital display on the microwave is on the fritz, and the clock on the coffee maker has a mind of its own. I don’t have an atomic clock because I’m afraid the fucker’ll go off and blow up the neighborhood. And my watch is, well . . . somewhere. NOTE TO ME: Keep a watch out for my watch.

I was going to call someone and ask the time, but then I remembered that my phone is with my watch. NOTE TO ME: While keeping a watch out for my watch, watch out for my phone because it may be with my watch.

Finally, I turned on the computer and there it was, the time on the screen: 3:02 PM, it read. But, but, but that was impossible! I was only down for my nap for ten minutes before I got up—how in The Great Scheme of Stuff could three hours have passed me by? Unless . . .

. . . Unless I really was asleep, dreaming that I was awake. But that’s stupid. Who the hell dreams of lying there awake when they’re asleep—or worse, dreams of being asleep while lying there awake? Could it be that I was awake dreaming that I was asleep dreaming that I was awake? Or was I never awake in the first place? Am I always asleep then, waking only to bitch about not sleeping? Or have I never slept a wink in my life and only dream that I do?

Sometimes there are times, nay, a lot of times, when time either gets away from me, or I cannot find time because I oftentimes misplace it, or I live in my own private time warp where time unexpectedly shifts so that my timing is mistimed, but most of the time I believe that time was never there in the first place and that our man-made time is just a cruel trick because, if time was real and if time was kind, then why, time after time, do I remember bad times while the good times are somewhere in . . . time?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway

Forget the politics of the three-year Siege of Sarajevo; rather, this is a story of the people trapped inside the city—and of four of them in particular.

This small, sparely written book revolves around a renowned but unnamed cellist who witnesses a mortar attack on a busy marketplace. Twenty-two innocent people, standing in line to buy bread, are suddenly bits and pieces of gory body parts. The cellist makes a vow to himself: for the next twenty-two days at the exact time of the attack, he will sit in front of the market and play a piece in memory of each of the slaughtered.

The cellist has no dialogue, so Galloway introduces three characters. Arrow is a young woman who is a master sniper defending the city; Kenan is in his thirties and has a family to support; and Dragan, in his sixties and a baker, lives with his sister because his wife and son were able to escape Sarajevo before the siege. Three very different people who all witness, like the cellist, the atrocities of war.

Galloway uses a device that is quite effective: like war itself, time is out of sync. The cellist’s story takes place over twenty-two days, Arrow’s a few days longer, but both Kenan’s and Dragan’s last little more than a day each. With short chapters jumping between the three in no particular order, the effect is disconcerting for the reader.

Click to enlargeGalloway tries his best to describe scenes of horror, but no written words can ever possibly come close to the experience of being there. We can feel compassion and sadness for these people, but only those who have been to war can truly relate and empathize.

Dr. Viktor Frankel, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz, said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, that even concentration camp prisoners had choices. They could choose to live or they could choose to lie down and die—many of whom chose the latter. This is where Galloway excels: the soul-searching that goes on within each of the characters. They remember how beautiful and peaceful Sarajevo once was, they wonder if it can ever be put back together again, they ask themselves if life is worth living or if they would be better off dead, they question if this nightmare will ever end or if they will go mad first, they contemplate suicide, they lose hope daily . . .

. . . And I think that is what the cellist’s role really is: not only to memorialize the slain, but to engender hope in the survivors.

* * * * *

Click on the small photo to enlarge it. It is a devastating shot of the Sarajevo Martyrs Memorial Cemetary from Wikipedia.

Steven Galloway teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

Wandering Coyote wrote an excellent piece about war titled D-Day Thoughts. I encourage everyone to take the time to read it and leave her a comment.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Charles Wadsworth Skinnyfellow

I am a man of few artistic talents, and writing poetry isn't one of the few. Hell, I can't even stand to read poetry, most of which puts me to sleep within five to eight seconds. I used to embarrass the hell out of me in school during poetry class: either I snored too loud, or I woke everyone else up when my bony head hit my wood desktop with a loud Thwack!

Over the years, however, I’ve tried to lengthen some of my artistic shortcomings. I’ve crayoned, juggled two items at the same time, and yes, written poetry with a real fountain pen (pain in the ass, real fountain pens are). For want of anything better to do today, I've decided to share my poems with all of you, my bloggly friends. One caveat: if you're looking for lovey-dovey, warm-and-fuzzy swill, you won't find it here. That stuff makes me puke.


Rooty tooty
Fresh and fruity
Dogs out back
Doin’ their duty

Like a clown
I stepped in brown
Toe jam ooze
Got the dog dirt blooze


Mister Potato Head
Crawled into my bed
He bit my toes
I punched his nose
He kicked my thighs
I poked his eyes
We wrestled to the floor
I hit my head on the goddam door
And I lay there all night long


Itty and bitty
Left and right titty

[Yes, Kim, you've read these before.]

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Happy Birthday, Horace "Horseballs" Callahan

Twoday, June the 2th, is my sixty-tooth birthday. I say tooth because that’s how I celebrated Birthday Eve: at the dentist having a broken tooth (which had previously been roto-rootered and capped) removed from my body. It was a nasty-looking thing and a gusher—it bled most of the night, and the dogs stayed extra-close because they smelled fresh meat in the offing.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, the tooth fairy never showed up either, so I mentioned it to her this morning.

“Did you have the alleged pulled tooth under your pillow, hmmmm?” she asked.
“You mean the blood-soaked pillow the dogs kept slathering at all night? No, I did not, your Supreme Fairyness.”
“Well there you go then. No tooth, no payoff. And besides, I didn’t have anything smaller than a one dollar bill.”

Cheap fucking fairy.

So, with the recent demise of tooth number #9, which is literally right under my nose, I suddenly look like I’m sixty-two. Or eighty-two. Actually, with that big missing spot right in the upper middle, I look like Horace “Horseballs” Callahan, fresh off the fertilizer truck.

But you wanna know what? I don’t give a shit. I’m still the same loveable asshole I’ve always been, only now I look more the part—kind of like Wilford Brimley selling life insurance to all the gullible fertilizer truck owners.

Now that I’m an official senior citizen according to the Social Security Administration, I’m a new lead for the scammers, con artists, and gypsies who prey on old people. Well, for their information, I’m onto their tricks. I don’t need aluminum siding on our stucco house, there’s nothing wrong with the furnace because we don’t have one, and I pass on the millions of gold doubloons hidden by the Nazis that are waiting just for me in Abyssinia. Fuck you all very much.

There’s still eleven hours left of my birthday, a day that technically belongs to my mom because she did all the work, but I’m going to enjoy it anyway. I’m on dry socket watch; since I’m on dry socket watch, we’ll be having Martha’s famous pizza-flavored gruel for supper; and maybe I’ll even get a gift, but I’m not expecting much from a woman who only has a buck.

But the hell with a gift. I’d much rather have a hug, some spit swapping, and a nice relaxing tummy rub—all the stuff that’s free when you love someone . . .

Monday, June 01, 2009

Review: Capote's Complete Stories

The Complete Stories, Truman Capote

“Yesterday afternoon the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit.”
So begins the story “Children on Their Birthdays,” and I dare any reader to put it down after an opening sentence like that.

Without reservation, this is one of the finest collections of short stories I have read. The designation “Master of the Short Story” seems overused, but Capote indeed qualifies for a piece of the title. Regrettably, he published only twenty of them during his long career, mostly for magazines between the years 1943 and 1951.

When Truman was a boy of seven, both of his parents deserted him to further their own “careers.” They dumped him on a houseful of elderly cousins in rural Alabama, one of whom, sixty-something Miss Sook Faulk, became his closest (and only) friend. Three moving stories evolved from this loving relationship: “A Christmas Memory,” “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “One Christmas.”

Capote definitely has a Southern voice, especially in his early stories, but he also has a voice for the denizens of New York. The one thing that stays constant is the writing itself: crystal clear prose that conveys emotion with an economy of words and a rhythm that effortlessly carries the reader to story’s end. The endings, too, are unambiguous—poignant, wry, sometimes mildly shocking or amusing—thus leaving the reader with a satisfying understanding of the story:

“Good luck, Miss [name withheld]. Thanks for the peanuts.”

If you are a lover of short stories, do not pass over this collection.