In preparation for my ride to Colorado next month, I made a motorcycle maintenance play date with my friend Ed. That was yesterday, and it was a full day … well, nine to five anyway, a full day for a working man. All I have to say about that is I’m happy I’m retired and no longer have to put in nine to five days!
We replaced the tires and front brake pads. We flushed the brake system and replaced the fluid. We changed the oil and filter. We took off the instrument panel and rewired the hand-held GPS I mount on my right handlebar (the power cord had frayed and no longer worked, and I’d been running it on batteries alone). Sometimes people ask me why I bother with a hand-held GPS. Because it’s an accurate speedometer, mainly, way more so than the one on the Goldwing! Oh, and it has an altimeter, which is nice. No, I don’t use it to navigate … I’m still a map person.
This morning I washed the oily fingerprints off the paintwork and now I’m ready to ride. What, I have to wait a whole month before I can leave for Colorado?
Well, it’s always good to be ahead of the game. Here’s a photo:
Ed putting new brake pads in the front calipers
If Donna and I ever graduate to a three-car garage, I’m getting a motorcycle maintenance stand like Ed’s, hooked up to a compressed air system. It’s so great bringing the work up to you, as opposed to crouching or kneeling to bring yourself down to the work. Compressed air and air tools? A gift from the gods. Want.
As long as we’re talking about vehicles, the next set of photos show an interesting creation made from two of my favorite things: motorcycles and airplanes. It’s a Bonneville Salt Flats land speed record car constructed of a WWII fighter wing tank and a 50cc Garelli two-stroke motorcycle engine.
Somehow the Pima Air & Space Museum acquired this little speedster. I took these photos Saturday in a back room at the museum; it looked to me like all it needs is a bit of cleaning and it’ll be ready to move into one of the display hangars.
Here’s what little I’ve been able to learn about it:
The builder, Alan Richards, named it Claustrophobia. It rode on bicycle wheels enclosed in a modified 100-gallon wing tank body. The wheelbase is 32 inches, 18 inches side to side. The engine ran on methanol and produced 10 hp. Richards was shooting for 100 mph, but Claustrophobia’s best clocked time was 56 mph (it did hit 70 mph before it got to the timed portion of the run). The driver, Warren Roll (130 pounds), got inside through a top hatch. Once inside he crouched on his knees with his head in the front bubble windshield. Total weight including Mr. Roll was 330 pounds. It ran at least two seasons at Bonneville, in 1963 and again in 1969 (you’ll see a 1969 Bonneville sticker on it in one of the photos I took at the museum Saturday).
Today (photo: Paul Woodford)
Today (photo: Paul Woodford)
At Bonneville in 1969
With Garelli motorcycle, early 1960s
The top two photos are mine from Saturday. If you click on them you can see the originals on Flickr and view them full size to see detail. The historic photos are from the 1963 and 1969 record attempts. In 1963 Claustrophobia was unpainted, and the original spoked bicycle wheels are visible. In 1969 it sported the black & red paint scheme it wears today, and the wheels were covered with a thin aluminum skin.
Glad I ride a Goldwing … plenty of room to stretch out, and I can go way faster than 56 mph!
You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
Brunswick County NC school officials, in the wake of yet another parental challenge to Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, have decided the book will stay on the shelves of a middle school. One parent, though, is continuing her campaign to have the book removed, characterizing it as “Filth, pure filth.” Can this parent possibly have read the book? I read it and don’t remember any filth. Here’s my review, ICYMI.
Here’s an interesting article describing a Florida county school board’s procedures for evaluating and acting on parental book challenges. Sounds like these particular administrators like literature and have a clue.
Sadly, here’s the negative school board story to undo the previous two positive ones. Said at a Ringgold PA school board meeting where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was challenged and quickly banned, and I quote:
Baertsch suggested the board read the book before passing judgment, but Kennedy interrupted her, saying, “I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this.”
Contemptible. And typical.
The attempted murder of a teenaged girl by two other teenaged girls who were acting out a crowdsourced story featuring a villain named the Slender Man has led to calls for the banning of crowdsourced online fiction. Crowdsourced fiction sounds a lot like fan fiction to me, so I’m not sure how that would work. I guess you could shut down the internet. Good luck with that.
Speaking of the Slender Man, how common is it for wanna-be book burners to blame crimes on books? One would think it would be one of their favorite tactics, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up much. Yes, comic books have been blamed for youth crime, along with video games and music, but books? Not in recent years, it seems. And if they aren’t blaming criminality on books, then why are they trying to ban them?
A related thought, from a New Statesman article on the history of literary censorship:
A more legitimate literary objection to censorship is its implicit portrayal of a reader as the sort of person who jumps off a cliff when asked. Notions such as “obscenity” or “abasement before the west” make literary language a tool of subversion and ascribe to the novelist the hypnotist’s capacity for making a previously obedient or prudish member of the public throw stones or unzip.
This story made me think: the staff of a Chicago area public library invited a pro-Palestinian speaker to give a public talk, then disinvited him because they couldn’t find a pro-Israeli speaker to provide “balance.” After a storm of protest they re-invited him and the talk is back on. So here’s what I’m thinking: might this presage a new direction in book banning campaigns? What if book banners, after challenging books on school and public library shelves and being defeated, start demanding balance as compensation? One Chick tract for every YA novel, one copy of The Turner Diaries for every copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? Hey, you read it here first!
Word. Count on it. When censorship is permitted, gay books will be censored.
I mentioned in a previous YCRT! column my fear that trigger warnings, should we start applying them to books, might result in unprecedented waves of book banning directed at schools, colleges, even public libraries and book stores. Even though most book banners don’t read the books they go after (“I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this”), trigger warnings would give them a blanket excuse never ever to read books in certain trigger warning categories. The kiss of death, when it comes to trigger warnings on books, would be any mention of homosexuality, which brings me to the …
YCRT! Banned Book Review
I’ll admit up front to a snobbish attitude toward graphic novels. I was raised to think they were for people who don’t like to read. Still, I’m willing to expand my horizons, and when I learned the theme of this year’s Banned Books Week (September 21-27, 2014) is to be graphic novels, I pressed members of my book club to pick one for our September selection. I went a step further and recommended Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. We have agreed to read a graphic novel that month; whether it’ll be Fun Home or another selection remains to be seen. I decided to read it anyway, and borrowed a copy from my local library.
You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test for movies. To pass the test, a movie must have:
- At least two woman in it, who
- talk to each other about
- something besides a man
Yes, this is the same Alison Bechdel.
Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir of her childhood and college years. It’s about her family … her father, mother, and two brothers … and focuses most tightly on her relationship with her father, a troubled man, and her discovery of her own sexuality. This is no comic book; it’s a surprisingly literary and deep self-examination, filled with references and hints that drive you deeper into the text and illustrations. Although it’s a fast read, it’s also a demanding read, not at all what my inner snob was expecting.
Fun Home is touching and extememly personal … I was moved in places, particularly those sections where Bechdel revisits key interactions with her father, showing how her understanding of his complicated character grew as she herself got older. She seems to hold little back; her depiction of a distant relationship with her father doesn’t hide her love for him (I know that’s speculative on my part, but Alison Bechdel made me believe it).
I rarely feel as if I’ve truly shared an author’s humanity, especially not across gaps of gender and sexuality; given that I finished this book knowing only what Alison Bechdel wanted me to know, I was convinced she had shared most of herself with me. I felt connected, and it enriched my appreciation of this book.
When I gather material for new YCRT! columns, I search Google for news articles about book challenges and banning attempts. This is how I first learned of Fun Home, reading articles about attempts to ban or restrict it.
Since its publication in June 2006, would-be censors have repeatedly tried to have Fun Home removed from libraries and school reading lists. The first challenge came just months after publication, in October 2006: residents of Marshall, Missouri tried to have the book removed from the public library. The book was removed but eventually reviewed and reinstated. In 2008 a University of Utah English professor added it to a class reading list. A student objected, and even though the professor gave the student an alternate reading assignment, the student contacted a local organization called “No More Pornography,” which started an online petition calling for the book to be removed from the syllabus (the university stood its ground). Most recently, Fun Home has been challenged in South Carolina, where it was included as a summer reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. Organized religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council became involved, and though the college also stood its ground, the South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee cut the college’s funding by $52,000 … the cost of the summer reading program … to punish it for selecting Fun Home.
What is it about Fun Home that attracts this kind of attention? The good citizens of Marshall, Missouri characterized it as pornography, expressed concern that it would be read by children, and worried that it would attract seedy elements to the library. Pornography was the label used against the book in Utah. Again in South Carolina, the book’s opponents called it pornography, accusing the book of promoting the “gay and lesbian lifestyle.” One of the state representatives who voted to penalize the college said “This book trampled on freedom of conservatives … teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.” In addition to the budgetary cuts, the legislature required the college to provide alternate books to any student who objects to a reading assignment because of a “religious, moral, or cultural belief.”
Alison Bechdel has described the attempted banning of her book as “a great honor,” describing attacks against it as “part of the whole evolution of the graphic-novel form.” As to claims her work is pornographic, Bechdel points out that pornography is designed to cause sexual arousal, which is not the purpose of her book. Bechdel’s supporters point out that Fun Home has been praised by professional book review journals and is the recipient of several literary awards. As noted, both the University of Utah and the College of Charleston stood by their decisions to retain Fun Home; the provost of the College of Charleston stating that its themes of identity are especially appropriate for college freshmen.
My own reaction? I agree with Bechdel and her defenders: this novel is not only literature but good literature, and while it explores adult themes and sexual identity is it absolutely not pornographic. Yes, Bechdel describes her realization, while in college, that she is lesbian. She describes her growing acceptance of her sexuality and even parts of her sexual life. This is guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable. As she revisits parts of her earlier life from this new perspective, she discovers her own father’s homosexual past, another potentially uncomfortable subject. And then there are the illustrations depicting Bechdel’s early lesbian experiences:
Some panels are even more graphic, and I can certainly understand why some parents would not want their kids to read this book. I have a hard time, though, seeing where college-aged adults need to be protected from it. Had the censorship attempts in Utah and South Carolina been triggered by the inclusion of Fun Home on a middle or high school reading list, I would not have been particularly surprised. But colleges and universities? Just how grown-up does one have to be to read a book about a lesbian?
I suspect lesbianism … the explicitly sexual drawings in particular … is key to conservative outrage over Fun Home. I thought Bechdel’s story important, especially in an era when we’re increasingly aware that some of our friends, relatives, co-workers, and fellow students are gay. I thought her illustrations frank but not titillating, an essential part of the story. Others, however, see in Bechdel’s story and illustrations an attempt to overturn morality and religion by “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”
Significant numbers of people, and sadly many parents, believe homosexuality is a conscious choice. Accompanying that belief is the fear that exposing kids to sympathetic depictions of homosexuality, particularly kids who are just beginning to discover their own sexuality, might tempt them to experiment with, or even become, homosexual. Religious conservatives have always gone after books that depict or even mention sex, but books featuring happy, well-adjusted, sympathetic homosexual characters really bring out their wrath. Fun Home is obviously such a book, and we certainly haven’t heard the last about it.
Judy Blume, another author whose books have been banned and suppressed, has this to say to parents who worry about what their kids are reading:
A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading. A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives.
If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great. Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing.
They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.
I think Ms Blume is on to something. With regard to Fun Home, if the subject of sexual identity makes you uncomfortable, if it is an affront to your religious, moral, or cultural beliefs, don’t read it … just don’t assume your decision should apply to others.
Both hummingbird chicks have flown away. The bicycle hook nest is empty. A friend told me new chicks sometimes come back to the nest at first. We observed that with one of the chicks from an earlier hummingbird nest in June. I remember thinking, “Surely that bird should have learned to fly by now,” and then right before my eyes it did fly. According to my friend, it probably had been flying for a while.
With that in mind I announced I’d wait a week before knocking the nest down, just in case the chicks still think of it as home. Donna said I should leave it alone. One, she likes seeing the nest, even if it’s empty. Two, Mother Nature knows best and if I intervene it’ll change the equation in unknown ways. She’s right, of course. The old nest stays, and next year’s mamas can deal with the cleanup. I’ll content myself with hosing the dried hummingbird shit off the patio floor.
We’re in the heart of southern Arizona’s monsoon season, but most of the rain has fallen in other neighborhoods. We get lightning, thunder, and the occasional spatter, and I guess that’ll have to do. Would that we could turn our sprinklers off and not have to add water to the pool every few days.
Some day the southern Arizona water table will be exhausted and the entire region will have to be evacuated. We’ll be refugees. I wonder if people up north and back east will set up immigration checkpoints and try to keep us out. No, not really. I don’t wonder at all. I know they will. People suck.
Dogs don’t suck, thank goodness. That’s Schatzi, who is nine years old this month. In dog years she’s catching up with us. I hope her knees don’t bother her! Chewie the cat was born in August too, we think, which makes her nineteen, an elderly cat. She howls a lot and spends most of her days curled up in Donna’s bathroom sink. Doesn’t seem to have any problem leaping up onto the bathroom counter, though, and she always puts in an appearance at mealtime.
Parts and pieces for my next motorcycle maintenance session are arriving daily. Just waiting for the new tires, which’ll probably come today. Have I mentioned how much I love online shopping? I get motorcycle parts from a Honda dealership in Ohio … good prices, fast and free shipping … and have been a loyal customer since 2001. For everything else, though, I use Amazon. You can accuse me of drinking Jeff Bezos’ Kool-aid, and that’s fine. Beats the hell out of schlepping all over town. Seriously, I wonder if the growth of on-line shopping is making a dent in overall fuel consumption and emissions. It certainly saves this one shopper a bundle of gas money.
I’ve put in over 1,000 hours of volunteer time at the Pima Air & Space Museum, graduating from a laminated card stock name tag to a spiffy metal badge. They even spelled my name right!
Mainly, though, I’m just happy I no longer have to wear that damn lanyard around my neck. I must have been choked as a child … I hate having anything around my neck. Thank goodness they don’t want us to wear neckties!
During my first year at the museum, I worked one day a week, five hours at a time. That added up to 260 hours a year. I’ve been there three years; at that rate I’d still be well short of a thousand hours. For the past two years, though, I’ve also been team leader for the walking tour docents, and the extra work that goes with that … scheduling, resolving conflicts, evaluating new members and giving annual recertifications to team members … is what hurried me along to metal badge land. I’m planning to turn team leader duties over to another member this October and go back to working one day a week. I still love the work, still love talking about airplanes and occasionally writing about them.
Actually, I’m fishing around for an airplane or aviation-related topic to write about. Any suggestions?
A while back, I posed this question to my friends on Facebook: Since “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” why don’t we say “it’s what it’s” instead of “it is what it is”? No one had a good answer. Certainly I’ve never seen or heard anyone use “it’s” that way. I did see this interesting iteration of “they’re” on Twitter, though, used in the same way:
Too bad the fellow’s political views are so retarded. Otherwise we might have been linguistic soul mates!
Click for larger
One of our hummingbird chicks flew away yesterday. As of this morning the second on is still in the nest. This was our second storage hook hummingbird nest of 2014.
The mother hummingbird is wary and flies away when she sees us. The chicks don’t know any better and stay calm when we’re around. This particular nest is over the breezeway between our house and garage, just a few feet from the kitchen door. Donna and I are in and out of that door several times a day. I always say hello to the chicks when I walk underneath their nest. My voice probably sounds like booming surf to them … I hope they find it comforting and familiar.
We think mother hummers build nests on these hooks because they’re tucked up under the patio overhang, out of view of predators. The worrisome part, though, is that it’s a long drop to the hard concrete patio floor below. In 2009, the first year we started observing hummingbird nests on our patio, one chick did wind up on the concrete. I found it there and very gently put it back in the nest, but it was dead when I checked on it half an hour later.
We’ve watched over several generations of nesting chicks since then and haven’t seen a repeat of that tragedy … actually we’re pretty confident the mother of the chicks in the photo is one of the chicks we watched grow up and fly away last summer. We’ll just have to trust Mother Nature to know what’s best for these tiny creatures.
I rode the Goldwing over to Ed’s garage yesterday. As regular readers know, Ed’s my maintenance guru and riding buddy. We looked the bike over to see what needs to be done before my September cross-country through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and southwestern Colorado. The list isn’t long: new tires, new front brake pads, flushing and replacing brake fluid, fresh oil and a filter. Replace standard wear items and stay on top of periodic maintenance and a Goldwing should last just about forever, one of the many reasons I love my Honda.
Motorcycle tires are crazy expensive and wear out fast. The new set of Bridgestones I ordered yesterday cost $300, and that’s a bargain price. The last set (also Bridgestones) lasted about 10,000 miles; the best I’ve ever done was a set of Dunlops that made it to 12,000 miles. When the tires and brake pads come Ed and I will put them on. Motorcycle shops in this area charge $75 an hour for labor (while paying their mechanics not much more than minimum wage), and I’ve learned they can’t be trusted to do good work. I’m blessed to have a friend like Ed. I should carve a little plastic figurine in his likeness and glue it to the front fender of my Goldwing … he’s my patron saint of motorcycling, my Saint Christopher.
I probably mentioned in an earlier post that my original plan was to ride by myself to Sturgis for the annual Black Hills rally, which starts next week. Sturgis is a hellaciously expensive proposition, but it’s a pilgrimage every motorcyclist must take some day. What changed my plans was that my son wanted to go on a cross-country ride with me and September was better for him. I’d much rather go riding with my son, and September is cooler than August, so I was happy to change my plans. Sturgis can wait until next year, or the year after.
We settled on a ride to the mountains in southwestern Colorado, an easy two-day trek from Las Vegas. I asked my friends Bruce and Tamara in Ouray if we could stay with them a couple of nights in September. They said sure, so now I have to carve two more plastic figurines for the front fender!
The current plan is this: I’ll ride to Las Vegas on Thursday, September 18. Gregory’s borrowing a BMW; we’ll ride from Vegas to Moab on Friday the 19th. We’ll take mountain roads to Ouray on the 20th and do some day riding in the San Juans on the 21st, stopping in Silverton and Durango. We’ll leave Ouray for Cedar City on the 22nd, then ride back to Vegas on the 23rd. Depending on how sore my ass is, I’ll ride home to Tucson on the 24th or 25th.
It’s entirely possible it’ll snow in the San Juans in mid-September, but we are nothing if not flexible. We’ll at least get as far as Moab, and that’ll be fun too … the annual Moab Film Festival is on the weekend we’re passing through, as I discovered when making hotel reservations.
Back to watching hummingbird chicks now. I think the second chick will try to fly today, and I hope to see it.
Over the past two days my sympathies with regard to Israel and Palestine, which were initially with the Gazans, have started moving back in a pro-Israel direction. I keep asking myself what my country would do in similar circumstances. I hate what’s happening, but I can’t bring myself to condemn Israel.
Moreover, some European pro-Palestine protests have begun to take on an anti-Semitic tone. That ugliness is always somewhere close to the surface, and it’s beginning to bubble up through the cracks in places.
So much spin! I don’t doubt that 90% of what we read and see here in the States is meant to make us hate one side or the other. But not all of it is spin. There is a historical truth that is not at all difficult to discern. There is one side in this conflict that would cheerfully commit genocide against the other. That side is not Israel.
I have to go with my gut. My gut says Israel is doing what it must. I know this is an unfashionable position, but I’m standing by it.
Update (7/30/14): A friend asked me to clarify some of my remarks. Here’s my response:
Dear ________, if you monitor Israel/Gaza chatter on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll see why I said taking Israel’s side is unfashionable. I meant to chide those who call Israel an apartheid regime; after writing my post I posted links to it on Facebook and Twitter, hoping some of them will see and read it.
I was initially sympathetic to the Gazan civilians, as any warm-hearted human would be. I still am. But as always happens with a new Israel/Palestine conflict, my thoughts quickly came back to what the Palestinians would do if they had the weapons, organization, and discipline of the Israelis, and I was soon re-grounded.
The Muslim/Arab nations’ end goal is the elimination of Jews. They’ve said it so emphatically and often, one has to take them at their word. I think the chattering classes on Facebook and Twitter will eventually realize their warm-heartedness is leading them to embrace a genocidal cause, but it’s going to take a while, particularly if there’s a cease-fire and Israel goes right back to building settlements.
One last thing: I have Jewish friends but no Arab-American or Muslim friends. Honesty requires me to say so, and to acknowledge my friends’ influence on my opinions.
“I hesitated for just a moment. Some part of me wanted to see the creature, after having heard it for so many days. Was it the remnants of the scientist in me, trying to regroup, trying to apply logic when all that mattered was survival? If so, it was a very small part. I ran.” — Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
I haven’t read Lovecraft, but halfway through Annihilation I began to think of it as Lovecraftian. Now I’ve finished the novel and glanced at some of the reader reviews, I see I’m not alone. The first thing I did upon finishing Annihilation was to download the second novel in VanderMeer’s trilogy, Authority. The second was to pre-order the third, Acceptance (set to release this September). The third thing I’m doing right now, reminding myself in writing to start reading Lovecraft!
I’ve always felt that if we ever encounter something truly alien we won’t be able to understand what we’re seeing; our minds will instinctively reject it and we might not even be able to force our eyes to look at it. Such is the case with whatever is growing inside Area X.
Other reviewers have offered summaries, so I’ll keep mine short. On the edge of a nation that seems a lot like ours … a modern Western nation only slightly removed from the present day … a coastal region has been enclosed by an incomprehensible (incomprehensible in that alien sense I alluded to above) border which repels people and keeps them from entering. This is Area X. A secretive government agency has figured out how to insert teams of investigators, hypnotizing them so that they can get through what normally would repel them, and has sent several expeditions into Area X. All have ended badly: some teams simply disappeared, never to return; some committed mass suicide; some turned on one another; some emerged as empty shells with no memories of what they encountered inside. Still, some information about Area X has accrued: it is known that the topography inside Area X is the same as it was three decades ago, before the border appeared; plant and animal life is abundant but no humans remain; there are some hand-drawn maps showing major features, including the ruins of a village and a lighthouse.
The narrator of the story is a biologist, a member of the 12th expedition, a four-woman team whose other members include a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist. Once they emerge from hypnosis inside Area X, they find what they expected to find: hills and forests, the previous expedition’s base camp, the ruins of the village, marshes and reeds with brackish canals; in the distance dunes, the coast, the lighthouse. Then they begin to find the unexpected, things that aren’t on the map, and an unseeable alienness becomes apparent. In less than a day only three members remain; a day later just two; by the third day only the biologist remains. That is all I will say about the story itself.
Wow, what a setup. The biologist is aware that whatever is growing inside Area X is changing her own body at the cellular level. She is frightened but her curiosity is stronger; despite her growing sense of dread she digs deeper and deeper, finally encountering the truly alien. She cannot comprehend what it is she’s not quite able to see, and VanderMeer conveys this in a masterful way … I shared the biologist’s sense of dread, which grew stronger page by page, as did my own curiosity. I wanted to encounter the alienness inside Area X; when the biologist and I did, I too could not comprehend it. And I sensed that larger alien forces are at work there too, slowly combining with, or incorporating, the human members of expeditions sent into Area X.
The writing perfectly matches the mysterious, threatening environment of Area X. Humans are an intrusion; we don’t know their names, just their functions … yet we learn a great deal about the biologist’s very human personality and past, and want to learn more about what she’s becoming.
Oh, I am so ready to read the second two books of this trilogy!
I waited a couple of days before attempting to review this novel. The longer I waited, the more trivial Bleeding Edge seemed … trivial in the sense of lacking meaning or import … but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it. I read the early Pynchon novels (The Crying of Lot 49, V, Gravity’s Rainbow) in the 60s and 70s, when he was writing the new literature of a new generation, the David Foster Wallace of the day. A few years ago I picked up Mason and Dixon and couldn’t get past the first two chapters … my tastes had changed, and I now found Pynchon too contrived, artificially playful and dense … a showoff, in other words … and didn’t come back to Pynchon until Bleeding Edge.
Gee, Thomas Pyncheon is well into his 70s now, pushing 80, but Bleeding Edge took me straight back to the Pynchon of the 60s and 70s, and apparently my tastes have flipped once again, because this time I didn’t mind his showing off so much.
One reason I liked Bleeding Edge is that I initially found the central character, Maxine, relatable. She seemed real at first. Another is that I felt Pynchon captures the state of the dot com industry as it was circa 2000-2001. His description of New York City’s Silicon Alley culture at the turn of the century feels right and jibes with my own memories (except for all that “deep web” nonsense, but that fits in with other paranoid conspiracy themes Pynchon explores in this novel — Montauk, the 9/11 truther stuff, the Mossad and the CIA, Gibsonesque hints at the possibility of a virtual life separate from the physical one).
As I read on, however, Maxine became less relatable and less genuine, more of a foil for Pynchon’s verbal playfulness, always ready with a quip or a pun, always present at key plot points, critical bits of secret intelligence coming her way as if by magic whenever the story needs to be nudged along. She’s a plot device. The paranoid conspiracy stuff, which Pynchon injects into the story in turkey baster sized doses, is never resolved. And overall, apart from the 9/11 terror attacks, nothing really happens. There’s no closure, no tying up of loose ends, life goes on. The story opens a window into a specific time and place, immersing you into Pynchon’s infinite mental storehouse of pop cultural references and love of words and wordplay … and then someone draws the shades and the story is over.
Bleeding Edge is an exercise in writerly virtuosity and playfulness, great fun to read if you’re in the right mood, but ultimately unsatisfying. I feel like I just ate a bag of the best Cheetos I’ve ever tasted, a special vintage batch prepared for a very select clientele. I wolfed them down, but they were empty calories. I’m still hungry and now I feel vaguely guilty.
Darkness, Take My Hand
This was a monthly book club selection. We wanted to read something in the hard-boiled detective/noir fiction genre, and several reviews applied those labels to this novel.
One of the characteristics of noir fiction is a flawed protagonist. Patrick Kenzie is certainly that, so, yeah, noir. Now I don’t know where this is written down, but to me a central characteristic of hard-boiled detective fiction is the dispassionate, literal presentation of facts: “She reached for her gun. I shot her. ‘You bastard,’ she said, as she crumpled to the floor.” That sort of thing.
Hard-boiled detectives don’t lose sleep wondering why the bad guys they’re after are so bad. Badness is a given. Hard-boiled detectives don’t moon over broads and puppy dogs. Hard-boiled detectives don’t share pillow talk or tell you about the sex they’re having with their girlfriends. Patrick Kenzie must have Mike Hammer spinning in his grave. Patrick Kenzie is a lightly poached egg, runny and dripping, not even remotely hard-boiled.
What Darkness, Take My Hand really is is a serial killer thriller, and, like every serial killer thriller I’ve read, it’s massively overwrought and strains credulity. How do back-alley Beantown numb-nuts dropouts turn into Moriarty-like criminal masterminds with almost supernatural powers? How did they get to be so goddamn smart? You don’t see that in real life, and that’s my biggest objection to this book.
Well written, yes. Good characterization, at least when it comes to Kenzie and Gennaro. Good Boston vibes throughout. Noir … but not hard-boiled. What Patrick Kenzie really needs is a good therapist.
Police: a Harry Hole Novel
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if that sort of thing freaks you out.
This was my first Harry Hole novel, and in fact the first thing by Jo Nesbø I’ve read. I read a glowing review of Nesbø’s Harry Hole series somewhere, and from it learned the Norwegian movie Headhunters, which I had seen and thought brilliant, was either screenwritten by Nesbø or based on one of his novels. Well, I have to read this guy now, I thought.
Maybe I picked the wrong novel to start. This is the tenth Harry Hole novel, and I came into it cold. From the first pages it was apparent that in the previous novel legendary Oslo Detective Inspector Harry Hole had either been killed or put into a coma from which he was unlikely to recover. Since there was an unnamed man in a coma in a hospital room, it was most likely the latter. I wondered briefly why Nesbø was going out of his way to keep the coma victim’s name a mystery, but I pressed on.
Nesbø’s coyness with the coma victim’s identity should have set off warning bells. A few chapters later, when Nesbø suddenly revealed that Harry Hole was not only alive but teaching at the police academy, I actually put the book down for a second and spoke out loud to my dog. What I said to my dog was, “What a cheap trick.”
The novel is full of such tricks, one every few pages. Characters seem to be in imminent danger, but the murderer lurking in the shadows turns out to be an innocent colleague, holding not a gun but a cup of coffee. The dead body found concealed in a false ceiling turns out to be … a badger. The criminal mastermind Nesbø spends fully half the book building up turns out to be an irrelevant sideshow, dropped from the storyline after he serves his purpose. Suspect after suspect is set up as the cop killer, each one coming out of left field. Nesbø takes the reader to the brink again and again, only to spring yet another surprise and zag off in an unexpected direction.
Another reviewer said he thought this novel was manipulative and gimmicky, and I agree … in fact I found Nesbø’s tricks so very manipulative and gimmicky that I simply could not imagine any part of this story happening in real life. Toward the end I actually found myself flipping pages to get to the next surprise twist, knowing what I was reading at the moment would turn out to be yet another false tangent.
Overwrought, gimmicky, manipulative. That sums it up. Why two-and-a-half stars, then, and not two? Because the translation is excellent, I suppose. Because I did finish the novel, after all. I kept thinking that if Nesbø had only put his well-developed characters into a realistic plot, investigating the kinds of crimes that actually occur in real life, this would have been a damn good police procedural. Instead, he chose to show off.
Will I read more by Nesbø? Yes, but no more Harry Hole … this one just burnt me out. I’ll try one of the other novels instead.
Sea of Fire
My fascination with North Korea is such that I will read virtually anything that purports to be about that forbidding country and its bizarre society. Sea of Fire is proof of that.
This novel is virtually unknown. There are no Goodreads reviews. Even though I read the Kindle edition, it’s no longer listed on Amazon. It never had a Library of Congress number. I can’t even remember how I learned of it.
First, the good, and the reason I gave it two stars: it’s digestible. Gregory Shepherd’s prose is solid and the edition I read was pretty much typo-free, something that cannot be said for many ebooks by well-known writers. As for the story, if you can ignore the ridiculousness of it, it’s a page-turner with plenty of suspenseful threads to be followed to the end.
The bad? I mentioned ridiculousness. The villains are transplants from an Austin Powers movie; the hero — an American Zen cowboy with a secret past as a CIA assassin — seemingly stepped out of a James Bond movie. The bad guys are comically evil; the good guy gets away with things that would be impossible even for a high-ranking North Korean, let alone a foreigner. There is almost nothing in Shepherd’s story that could happen in real life; it is contrived nonsense.
And sucker that I am for stories about North Korea, I read it. What is wrong with me?
Books I Didn’t Finish
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
Another of my book club’s monthly selections, Cubed appears to be a well-written and witty look at the history of the modern white-collar workplace, the sort of thing Mary Roach might write. I found myself so antagonistic to the subject, however, I had to put it down. A few years back I burnt out in a managerial job I hated right down to the center of my soul. I couldn’t warm to Saval’s subject and abandoned the book after finishing only the introduction and first chapter.
To Nikil Saval I have only this to say: it isn’t you, it’s me.