Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Allow me to say a few more words about pickles. My neighbor Margaret took a break from dressing up her schnauzer the other day to share a few words over the fence. I was doing yardwork, of course, and she was apparently waiting for leprechauns or fairies to do hers, but I refrained from pointing out the disheveled appearance of her lawn. Perhaps the arrival of spring made me a bit soft, but I decided to take the chance to make a peace offering in the form of a jar of homemade pickles. The darker (and larger) part of my heart wanted to slip her my famous Mouthburners made with fatalii peppers, but against my better judgment I gave her some perfect garlic dills. She took one bite and said - I shit you not - "Mmmm... Crunchy. Did you use Picklecrisp?"

Did I use Picklecrisp? Are you fucking kidding me? Do I look like the kind of person who would use Picklecrisp? In case you were born in a cave and raised by wolves or hipsters, you do not need calcium chloride, or alum for that matter, to make crunchy pickles. You just need to do your homework and take a little time and care. You have to choose the right cucumbers, of course, and not keep them around too long. Make sure to snip off the flower ends promptly, and give them an ice bath for a day or so. Pack them snugly, screw the lid on firmly, but not overtight, and for the love of god, don't process them too long. No chemicals. If you get the details right, the result is heavenly.

And that is why this book is so good. The details are just right. The plot is complex, but everything fits. The bad guys aren't just bad - they are bad for a reason. Even the minor characters have backstories, and they all fit in. Everyone's actions match their motivations, and those are revealed with patience and craft, likely a perfectly fermented pickle. And we all know that there are few things in life better than that. Bravo, señor Zafón. Si pudiera escribir como usted, no tendría que escribir este blog necio.

And one more thing. It isn't always necessary for your pickles to be extra crunchy. If you are brining sour pickles, it's ok if they have a little give to them. Sweet pickles, of course, are an abomination, so if that is what you are after, you should stop reading my blog right now before I completely lose my shit.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

To call me a superhero may be overstating the case slightly, but I think I did my good deed for the world yesterday. It all started as I was walking out the library with a stack of new books to read. I had made a point of ignoring all my friendly librarian's suggestions because I fear she has a secret agenda (she offers too many romantic novels and self-help books), and I was feeling pretty good. But as I walked out, I observed three young hoodlums seemingly about to engage in fistacuffs! More specifically, it appeared that two of them were about to give the business to the third one, who seemed frail and malnourished, likely because he had spent all his food money on tattoos and piercings. Don't get me wrong - I respect all people's right to self-expression, but hey, you've got to eat!

What happened next must have been influenced in some way by having just read this book. Perhaps it had implanted the idea in my subconscious that ordinary people can have extraordinary powers. Or maybe reading about such blatant villainy triggered my inner justice warrior. But whatever the reason, I knew in that moment that I was not going to let this stand.

When I was younger, this would have been an easy task. I was never a fighter, but I could be imposing when I wanted to. I used to dabble in the martial arts, and I was not without skills. I once attained a brown belt in karate, and I could catch flies with chopsticks (ok, that part isn't true, but I watched The Karate Kid twice, so pretty much the same). It has been a few decades, of course, and I worried that I might be rusty, but this time I would have the advantage of surprise, as the young gentlemen in question didn't even seem to notice my presence.

I took a deep breath in, and I centered my energy. I approached the two aggressors from the side, and I assumed a shiko dachi stance. I was preparing to strike, but unfortunately, my legs had not been in that position in many years and were not ready to cooperate. Before I could unleash a vicious kansetu geri that would have likely destroyed his ACL, I experienced a hamstring cramp like none I have ever had before. I thought perhaps they had an accomplice who had struck me from behind, but as I fell to the ground, I was unquestionably alone.

Still, the move turned out to be quite effective. The young men were distracted from their quarrel and soon all three were helping me to my feet. While none was willing to massage my hamstring, once they had me seated on a bench, they appeared to forget their differences. After a couple of minutes, I thought they were initiating hand-to-hand combat, but it turned out to be a complex "handshake" involving a number of body parts and some simian grunts. It was so elaborate and violent that I briefly questioned whether or not I had read the original situation correctly or if they may have in fact been just greeting each other. But I discarded that notion as implausible and had no choice but to acknowledge that I had truly saved the day. I appreciate your gratitude and ask that you please send pickles in lieu of flowers or thank you cards.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Come on people - what's the big deal with vacations? You put all your shit in a suitcase, endure a day of misery and airport food, then unpack and do the exact same things you do at home in a different place. My family dragged me along on their spring break trip, and it was ridiculous. You are supposed to take a vacation from something, like Fortnite (Jackson) or talking about yourself (looking at you, Gerry). Or, at least immerse yourself in the local culture. But my family adamantly refused to let me swim with sharks or enter a wet t-shirt contest, so that was that. Plus, Jackson didn't tell me until we were on our way home that you can use Twitter on phones (It was MADE for phones, he says, but I'm not that stupid), so I couldn't even commiserate with my new blogger friends. But what the hell - I can read almost as well in a beach chair as in my la-z-boy, so that's what I did.

In the lobby of the hotel was a shelf labeled "Beach Reads," and it was generally an insult to both beaches and reading. A half-done coloring book (not even staying within the lines!) was about the most intriguing prospect, until I noticed a slim Agatha Christie mystery tucked away in the corner. I have read a few Christie books and generally enjoyed them, but I never read one featuring Miss Marple, as this one did. It seemed unfair, though, to jump into the middle of a series, so I noted the name of the first Miss Marple mystery from inside the jacket and asked the concierge if they happened to have that book. I don't think he ever read a book in his life, because without a second thought, he was offering me a coupon for 2-for-1 3-liter margaritas at the beachside bar. I mean - why would such a coupon even exist? I understand if you are going to have a fun giant drink with your whole family, but how many people do you need to drink 6 liters of margarita? And if you do drink a 3-liter margarita, do you really think it is the lack of a coupon that will stop you from ordering another? I wish I had thought to ask how much one 3-liter margarita costs, but at least I got directions to a book store.

My son was not too happy about taking me to the book store, and he was less happy when they didn't have the book. Luckily, there was one other book store in town. Unluckily, it also did not have the book. But believe it or not, there are libraries even in shitty tourist towns, and sure enough, Murder at the Vicarage was waiting for me there. Of course, not being a resident, I was not allowed to check the book out. But I was happy to sit there for the afternoon and have Lawrence pick me up later. He was not so happy about it, saying it was "just like me" and storming out of the otherwise unpopulated library. The librarian seemed pleased though - I'm not sure they get too much business there. If you are a librarian, and you are reading this, thank you for your service.

And it was worth it! Usually when I read a book written before I was born, I find that the language has become tired with age, and even the classics have a pace that rivals me lumbering toward the bathroom on taco night. But Christie is so clever, the turns and deceptions so quick, it rivals anything coming out these days in the mystery genre. I read the whole thing in one sitting, went back to the hotel, played nice with the family for the rest of the week and worked on my bitchin' beach tan, which ended up with me resembling a small strawberry ice cream in a wafer cone.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I have to admit, I did not see this coming. After the axe-throwing debacle (see here - and let me mention, I now understand that I do not have write "see here" when I add what I guess is called a "hyperlink," but I may continue to do so just to piss off my grandson), for some unknown reason, the smart, attractive, worldly lawyer agreed to go on another date with my son. Multiple dates, as it turns out! It has even been hinted that I may be allowed to meet her, as long as I don't mention my blog, axe throwing, his ex, the lecture I sat in on, anything about his teaching or his students, why basketball brackets are stupid, pranks I may have committed or plan to commit, politics, weird things that happen at the gym, my bunions, onions, Funyuns, why I hate skateboards, the general demise of society, zombies, what my son was like as a child, my feelings toward my neighbor, or my plans to booby trap my house. I have confirmation that I am allowed to talk about books and making pickles, so I presume that will fill what brief time I am given.

I didn't ask where they went this time, as I didn't want to ruin the conversation or the gentle softening of the heart I was feeling in the moment. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but not altogether unpleasant. I have often been critical of my son's mistakes, and damn it, he has earned it! But I do want him to be happy, and if that woman can beat away the throngs of swooning college students that follow him around, then good for her. Everyone deserves a second chance at life, right? I mean, that is essentially what this book is about. Lots of bad shit happens to people, but hope remains and just maybe, you get a second chance when you weren't expecting it.

Not me, of course. I never get a second chance at anything. When I called out "Bingo!" at the rec center Sunday night just because I was getting bored, did I get a second chance? No sir, they took my cards. And when I demanded to pay only half price at the movies because I said that my vision was so bad that I would only be able to see half of it anyway, did I get a second chance? Nope. And when I went to the Golden Corral buffet and the meat loaf was so terrible that I had no choice but to announce it to the restaurant and then slide the whole lot of it off my plate and back onto the buffet, did I get a second chance? I did not. They kicked my ass right out of there - at a Golden Fucking Corral of all places! Clearly second chances are for some people and not for others, so if you get one, you'd best be ready to take it.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

World War Z by Max Brooks

Yes, zombies are bad, but what the hell is going on with all these damn stinkbugs? Ever since the beginning of winter, it seems like I find at least one a day, whirring around in my bathroom or staring menacingly at me from the lamp next to my la-z-boy. I know it's been an unusually hard winter, that can not fully explain this infestation. Where are they coming from? What do they want? And why only one or two per day? Is there a General Stinkenwald somewhere sending out scouts every morning to see if I might vacate the house so they can come in and take over the place? And does he care that I keep crunching his sentinels into little bits? This is my house, Stinkenwald.

Usually, come winter, I can expect a couple of mice to get in through the basement walls. But that is understandable, predictable, and easy to manage. It gets cold outside, mice want warm. They come in and look for food. I set traps in the pantry, kill a few mice, feed them to my neighbor's schnauzer when she's not looking in the hopes that she will get a taste for blood and turn on Margaret, and that's it until next year. But these stinkbugs just keep coming! It's like the zombie hordes in this book - slow, stupid, irritating, relentless. And I just keep crunching them. It's such a rewarding feeling, too, much better than slapping a mosquito or choking out an alligator (a story for another time). Then the other day, my granddaughter Tina came over, and she was appalled that I was killing these worthless pests. Do you remember that Tina can talk to animals (see here)? Well, I asked her to please communicate to them that it would be best for all involved if they kept away from my light fixtures, but she said it didn't work like that. Get this - she actually wanted me to "relocate" the stinkbugs. I explained that what she was asking was for me throw an insect out into the snow to die slowly instead of giving it a quick, painless trip to bug heaven, but she would not relent. She said it was the "principle of the thing." I imagine she would be against killing zombies on principle as well. But I told her I would make a deal with her. I would escort these crunchy critters out my back door into the freedom of winter if she promised that when it was my time to go, she would kill me quickly and not throw me into the snow. It did not go over well.

So there I was, a grown human adult, carefully scooping up the most annoying of God's mistaken experiments, and placing them out on my patio. It was more degrading than anything zombies could do to me. And then the thought came to me, could Jackson be behind this somehow? He doesn't know about the shower (see here), does he? Hard to know for sure, but it's time to start plotting again...

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

There is a serious war on, people. And I am not talking about the Americans, the Mexicans, and the Apaches who take turns slaughtering each other in this historical novel - I am talking about me and my grandson, Jackson. It seems that Jackson was feeling salty (this is my granddaughter Tina's word, and I will trust her that the usage is correct, as I truly have no idea what it means to feel 'salty') that his Fortnite youtube channel has fewer hits than my book blog, so he tricked me into reading this book. He knows that I love Cormac McCarthy (see here), and he knows that I love giving his uncle (my son, the wayward genius) a hard time about seeing movies without reading the books first (see here). So he comes to me with a story about how this book is getting made into a movie and how it's McCarthy's best and whatnot, so I dive right in. And things started out pretty great. After about 50 pages I had virtually doubled my vocabulary and was waxing rapturous about his prose. If I could write just one McCarthyist sentence in my life, it would make up for all the times I said 'I shit you not' because I couldn't think of any better way to convey emphasis.

But Jackson also knows that I can't stand reading scenes of gory violence. And the more I read this book, the grizzlier it got. I should have been expecting it, but it blindsided me. It was like going to see Mary Poppins, but you accidentally go in the wrong theater and watch Requiem for a Dream. I understand now why the movie has been ten years in the making - they must have run out of fake blood! It was so intense that I found myself thinking things like, "Well, they killed them with clubs instead of axes this time, so that's not so bad," and "At least they were dead before they scalped them - that was humane." These are not things I want to think, and no amount of exquisitely crafted prose could remove those images from mind as I was trying to sleep. It was then that I realized that I had been, as they say, punked.

So I did the only thing I could do - and just what any character in this book would have done - I got revenge. I went over to Rachel's house around 9:00 on Saturday morning, and as expected, Jackson was a long way from waking up for the day, so I had plenty of time. While she made coffee, I excused myself to the bathroom. Once in there, I unwrapped a bullion cube (beef, to really make my point), unscrewed the shower head, put the cube inside the shower head, and then reattached it. Then I enjoyed a leisurely cup of coffee with my daughter, who remarked on what a good mood I seemed to be in. Around 10:30 or so, we hear something stirring upstairs, and eventually, the shower turns on. It couldn't have been more than 15 seconds later that Jackson started screaming for his mother. But here's the genius of the plan - by the time she got up there to hear his panicked ranting about soup coming out the shower, all the evidence had dissolved - literally - and the shower was functioning normally. I expressed my sympathy and concern, and then somewhat loudly suggested that Rachel inspect his room to make sure there weren't any hallucinatory drugs of any kind. He didn't know what to think. One point for Grandpa!

Monday, March 4, 2019

How to Complain When There's Nothing to Complain About by Susan Goldfein

If someone is giving you something for free, it's a safe bed that it is a pile of crap. If you don't believe me, check out the next morale-boosting free chili cook-off at your office. Under no circumstances should there be chick peas in chili, Janet! For the love of God. But despite the fact that this book arrived thanks to the kindness and generosity of the folks over at Citrine Publishing, there was actually a lot of funny stuff in it. Not pie in the face funny, or Sedaris cringey-funny, but more situational comedy. Like, say, your grandson says you should write a blog, and he'll even help you set it up, but you can tell by the way he says it that he thinks you are either too old, too stupid, or too boring to actually do it. But you do it anyway, and it's kind of fun, and one day you ask him if he can help you figure out if anyone is actually reading it, and it turns out that you have more views than his youtube channel where, I shit you not, people actually watch him play Fortnite, and you watch his face sink as he has this realization that his grandfather is cooler than him, and you think, Ha ha ha ha ha Jackson, take that, sucker! That is a hypothetical example, of course, but you catch my drift.

Anyway, like everyone, sometimes when I am reading, something really speaks to me, but at times when I read this book, it seemed like it was speaking as me! I mean, this lady nails it on the head with what it's like to get old. That bit about losing your fingerprints - hell yes, Susan! The struggle is real, people. My daughter got me an iPhone for my birthday last year, and when I tried to open it with my finger, Siri started talking to me in Klingon. And the section on "getting in touch with your inner hostile person" should be required reading. It was so uncanny that I was forced to make the following pro/con list:

Evidence that suggests that Susan Goldfein is my long lost soulmate and that we should meet for a blind date at a Sandals resort somewhere in the Caribbean: We are both people of a certain age who love to write, have a good eye for finding things to complain about, no longer have fingerprints, and even have similar names! (Mine is a secret, though, because Jackson tells me if I put my real name on the internet, I will be abducted by Russian sex traffickers)

Evidence against: She seems to be married, lives in Florida, and appears by all available evidence to be a normal person.

So I guess the noes have it. Which is typical. Whenever I get a brilliant idea or make a novel suggestion, 'no' is always the answer I get. Hey family, want to skip Thanksgiving dinner and go out for pastrami sandwiches? No. Hey grandkids, want to come over and massage my bunions? No. Hey everyone else in this restaurant, can we all agree that the meatloaf tastes like cardboard? No answer. You know, finding things to complain about feels like it's getting easier every day. Maybe I should write a book too.