Friday, February 15, 2019

On The Come Up by Angie Thomas

Well, Valentine's Day came and went again. I guess it won't surprise you to learn that I was never really a fan of Valentine's Day to begin with. That's not because I wasn't romantic - Eleanor and I were always good about showing each other our feelings. But that's none of your business! Valentine's Day always just felt commercialized, and then you were supposed to have valentines for your teachers and all your kids' friends and your mailman and your dentist and your neighbor's stupid yippy schnauzer, and I just got sick of it. So these days I just pretty much ignore it and maybe buy myself a pickle-shaped cupcake or something. But this year my granddaughter Tina (god bless that child) invited me to go on a coffee book date with her. And she even picked a book for us to read! Oh, how I love that girl. Have I mentioned that she can talk to animals? She told me the other day that she had a 15 minute conversation with a squirrel. I didn't have the heart to ask what the squirrel told her, and I imagine it was pretty much a one-way conversation. When she gets on a roll, it can be hard to stop her, especially if she starts talking about her dreams. "You were there, grandpa, only you weren't you, you know? You were like you but a different you and so when you started talking it wasn't your voice but I still knew it was you, right? So you were saying you stuff, but not really like you say it. Understand?" I swear there was one time she was telling me about a dream in which she had to repeatedly take a math test and I fell asleep in my la-z-boy and when I woke up, she was still talking about fractions and didn't seem to notice I had taken a nap. But bless her heart, I can not say no to her, so I read the book and didn't even complain when she wanted to go to Starbucks. Which is not to ignore the fact that that infernal chain drove all my favorite coffee shops out of business and now that idiot CEO is on the news all the time thinking he can be president because he is rich (I wonder where he got that idea). I'm not sure I had ever actually set foot inside a Starbucks before, and it looked kind of nice until I started talking to the clerk (if you ask me to say 'barista', I will stab you with my swizzle stick). I asked for a small coffee, and he asked if I meant a 'tall' coffee. I assured him that I did not, just a small coffee. He said that a small coffee is a tall coffee, and laughed as if that made perfect sense. I told him that was the stupidest damn thing I ever heard and asked him if small was tall, what the hell was a large coffee? Tina suggested to him that he didn't want to start with me, but I hushed her, and he said that medium was 'grande' and large was 'venti'. I asked if he spoke Spanish, and he said no, so I explained that grande actually means large, and I apologized for saying that his previous statement was the stupidest thing I had ever heard because he had just surpassed himself. He was getting flustered at this point, so I decided to have mercy and just pointed to a bagel. He says - and I shit you not - "do you mean the 'chonga' bagel?" At that point, I had no choice. I really let him have it, and I may have mentioned how Cuppa Joe went under and something about Howard Schultz being an entitled piece of shit. Tina told him that I have dementia (which I do not) and ushered me to one of those purple chairs, which are really quite comfortable, I have to admit. But screw their purple chairs! I will never set foot in a Starbucks again. I think Tina was a little bit embarrassed, but I think she was proud of me too. And in the end, we really did have a great time. There are some things that can be hard for an old white guy to talk about with his granddaughter, and race issues in America is on that list. But this book helped make that conversation possible, and while we didn't necessarily solve anything, it felt good to dig into something meaningful with her. So I am grateful to Angie Thomas for that. On the down side, Tina now wants to become a rapper. Those poor fucking squirrels.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

In this highly readable psychological thriller, a famous painter shoots her husband repeatedly in the face and then clams up and refuses to talk to anybody. How rude! I certainly do not endorse that kind of behavior. I also do not endorse all this nonsense about 'organic foods.' And believe me, I am pissed off at people on all sides of this. My Uncle Ray was a farmer, and if he knew that people were changing the genes of their crops or squirting hormone cocktails into their cows, he would absolutely shit himself. Which he actually did once, after a dinner party featuring Aunt Martha's meat loaf, but that is beside the point. When I was growing up, we had a word for what is now called organic food. It was, 'food.' Nobody even thought of creating Frankenfood in a lab somewhere. So I am pretty angry at all these mad food scientists that have made this debate necessary. But here's another thing. When I was a kid, we would go to the market, and we knew who had good tomatoes and who had crap tomatoes. You just looked at them, and it was obvious. Now, if you check out the tomatoes, and they look good, you assume they've been injected with steroids or grown hydroponically in a pesticide bath or something. So you have to have an awkward conversation with some farmer who got up at 2am to schlep his vegetables all the way into town and then you walk away like a total snob, which you are. And meanwhile, the guy who sold the crap tomatoes still sells crap tomatoes, only now he gets to call his 'organic' crap tomatoes and charge 5 times as much. So screw him too! Ah, but how can we tell what is really organic? We need a whole new crop of bureaucratic middlemen, of course! These are people who couldn't grow weeds on shit but they now have the power to bestow the gilded title of 'organic' on those who meet their whimsical standards or are willing to pay bribes. Oh, pick your jaw up off the floor. You think there is no corruption in this business? It is business, after all. But today, I am most angry at supermarkets. They are laughing all the way to the bank about this tomfoolery, because it means they get to charge 4 dollars for a cauliflower just by intimating that if you buy a non-organic cauliflower, you will either grow a third arm or drop dead in the parking lot before you even reach your car. So I walk in to get some apples, and there are two bins. A bin of regular apples, and a bin of identical apples with bright orange 'organic' stickers. I thought it might be a fun experiment to peel off some of those stickers and see if the mopey teenager at the cash register whose parents forced him to get an after school job because he was playing 8 hours of Fortnite a day could tell the difference between the two apples. But the stickers don't come off that easily, and they leave a thick, slimy residue on the apple. Is that glue organic, I wonder? Was it made from the hooves of free range horses who eat bruised local kale salads? I think the act of putting those stickers on the fruit actually renders them no longer organic, but I will probably have to bribe someone at the USDA to find out if I am correct or not. In the end, I bought a banana. It was not satisfying.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Animal abuse alert! And no, it is not the crawdads. It appears that my neighbor Margaret is dressing her schnauzer in clothes again. I have mixed feelings about this - both anger and fury. First, let me be clear - I do not like that dog. It yips, it snarls at me when I get my mail, it stares at my house for no reason, and it is ugly (yes, a bit of the pot calling the kettle black here, but being cute is part of the point of a dog, not of me (admittedly not entirely sure about the point of me at this juncture, but that is for another post altogether (now wondering if it is acceptable to use multiple parentheses in a sentence like this, as if it were math))). In any case, that dog has created significant hardship. Perhaps not as much hardship as is suffered by Kya, the Marsh Girl and protagonist of this novel, but pretty close. And if she had had to deal with a dog like this, she probably would have left the marsh much sooner and had a more normal and fulfilling existence and not gotten wrapped up in the whole murder thing. But that is less important than the current pet abuse I am observing. There is no question that that dog is miserable. And who wouldn't be? There is no human or animal that could possibly maintain an ounce of self-esteem wearing that outfit. It is the kind of Elvis meets Santa Claus ensemble that could only be worn by a being with no agency. Surely there is a 1-800 number or something for people to call when they witness this kind of animal maltreatment. Still, I have to admit that there is part of me that experiences a little bit of schadenfreude watching that little mutt have to prance around in a frilly sweater - perhaps it is nothing more than it deserves. But the smug look on Margaret's face is too much to take. She clearly thinks that she is both doing the dog a favor and impressing everyone with her haute canine couture. Well, not this guy! I know inanity when I see it, and I just saw it walk by with a fake rhinestone collar. For those of you unfamiliar with dogs, they have fur! They survived for millions of years without being domesticated, fed organic goat liver, and dressed up like Christmas ornaments. They do not need clothes. And they certainly do not need to be paraded back and forth in front of my house in a taunting manner by a neighbor who is clearly coaxing that dog to do its business on my lawn. And she'll probably clean it up afterward, but she'll smile at my window when she does, because she knows the traces remain. It makes me wonder how much it would cost to get a pet coyote.

Monday, January 28, 2019

River Queens by Alexander Watson

Well, here's a shocker for you. While I was just minding my own business on Twitter (oxymoron noted), a real person, who is an actual author - I shit you not - asked me to write a review of his book. Clearly he hadn't read my inane ramblings before asking, so that was one strike against him from the start. So I told him to read some of my reviews and reconsider, and after doing so, he still wanted me to write it! So there's strike two for poor judgment. I considered the possibility that this was one of my grandson's friends putting me on, but sure enough, the book arrived in the mail with no traces of airborne pathogens or explosives, and I was gearing up to pan it as creatively as possible. But unfortunately, River Queens turned out to be pretty good. The basic plot of this highly readable memoir is this: two gay gentlemen from Texas and a dog fix up a classic wooden boat (the dog has a minimal role in that part) and travel together by river to Ohio. I'll admit that it is not the most circuitous of plot lines, but hell, we can't all write Harry Potter. Still, the book has a number of things going for it. Foremost, the protagonists are endearing and admirable in many ways. They are complex and imperfect, but eminently likable. Their journey is far from easy, and you can't help rooting for them the entire way. The other best part of the book is the glimpse it gives the reader into river culture, a subculture of America that few ever get to experience. I should more appropriately say river cultures in the plural, because as Alex and Dale travel through different parts of America's waterways, their experiences are vastly different. The people they meet are striking in myriad ways, and their brief encounters have lasting effects. I also learned that most boats are either a) broken, b) recently fixed, or c) about to break, and often two or three of those things at once. It reminded me of a cruise that Eleanor and I went on one time. We were with the Millers, and it won't surprise you that I didn't really want to go on the cruise to begin with. Eleanor and Marge were always close, and I liked Donald well enough, but he always struck me as a bit of an alcoholic who liked to gamble and talk too much. Well sure enough, there was a poker room on the boat, and within the first two hours, Donnie had wagered away his week's worth of spending money, and guess who it fell to to buy him daiquiris for the majority of the Caribbean? In any case, that turned out to be the least of our problems. Somewhere between Saint Who The Hell Knows and Isla del Get Me Out Of Here, the boat broke down. Some kind of electrical fire or something, down below where they keep the drugs and indentured servants. At first, it didn't seem like a big problem, because the weather was good and the view was nice. But as the days went on, things started to get hairy. And hot. Without being able to get into port, we started to run low on food and water. For two days, it was nothing but dry cereal and pineapple juice. Carnival, my ass! Then the plumbing reached capacity. Next thing you knew, it was like Lord of the Flies meets Cocoon, with all kinds of old rich people battling for what corner of the hallway they could shit in. We had helicopter drop-offs of water and supplies, and the whole thing was on the news! And I'm pretty sure that at some point, some old geezer fell off the side of the boat, but it's possible that I'm confusing my memory with that Jonathan Franzen book. Hell, let's just go with it. A guy fell off the boat. By the time we got tugged to safety, I had resolved to never get on a boat or talk to Donnie again. And I have kept one of those two resolutions. Maybe if we had had Alexander and Dale on our cruise, the boat would have been fixed faster and we could have spared everyone all the conversations about under what circumstances cannibalism is acceptable. So the point is, read this book.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Who the hell is responsible for the way we package cauliflower? It's completely ludicrous! I mean, the carrot industry managed to figure out that they could use a bag shaped like...wait for it...carrots! Said bag can be opened and closed at will with the help of a twist tie or plastic clasp. Want a carrot? Open the bag! Realized that you actually wanted a pickle? Good for you! Earn one point for taste, then put the carrot back and close the bag. Easy as pie. But the nefarious minds over at Big Cauliflower twirled their waxy mustaches and delivered a truly cynical and offensive product. "I know," they said, "let's misshape the bag, take a couple random corners and roll them up haphazardly like a kindergarten art project, then cover the whole thing in industrial strength packing tape! Mu ha ha ha ha ha ha ha." There is literally no way to remove the cauliflower and still have a functioning container. Perhaps I am meant to leave it in the fridge or on the counter unwrapped? Do moldy edges on a cauliflower confer a soupcon of musty aroma that only refined palates can appreciate? Or perhaps I am always meant to eat an entire cauliflower in a single sitting, and no bag is necessary! My doctor told me that more vegetables might help a bit with the plumbing, but eating whole cauliflowers seems a bit excessive, and he is probably on the take from Big Veg anyway, so I'll stick to my gin and donut breakfast, thank you very much. In this book, Mr. Pollan makes important observations about how we obtain and eat food, and I am fully on board with his suggestions. I will no longer eat meat unless the animal has given informed consent to volunteer its life for my nutritional benefit and has been offered deep tissue massage at least thrice weekly in a free-range bovine spa. But Pollan neglects to address the cauliflower packaging issue, and that is a major omission. He scarcely even mentions those crinkly english muffin packages that virtually disintegrate on touch. Perhaps he will take on these vital concerns in a much-needed sequel.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Well, I'm home. I have to say that this hospital stay was definitely more pleasant than my last. Tina snuck me in a pastrami sandwich, and that made all the difference. To be honest, I think she was feeling guilty about the whole Harry Potter debacle. I reassured her that it was mostly not her fault, and I think she felt better. And on the way out, I "borrowed" this book from the hospital library (actually just a cart, but that's what they call it), so at least I'll have something tangible to show for my ridiculously overinflated hospital bill. When Truss is done with her grammatical vigilantism, maybe we can set her loose on the health care system. Oh, and I also made off with a pair of those hospital pants they give you - perfect for lounging around the house with a book. Just put my trousers on right over them and walked out like I was in Shawshank Redemption. See ya, suckers! In any case, I appreciate someone who can get worked up in righteous anger over things most people think are silly (no, not you, Trump), and so I must admit to having a little punctuation crush on Ms. Truss. And of course, I imagine her rantings with a great British accent as well, because only a British person could write this book. There simply aren't people in America who care enough about English to do it! If we are a melting pot of culture, we are a Vitamix of language. We just dump it all in and destroy it! We make up ridiculous words like hangry, bromance, and chillax. We have literally destroyed the word 'literally'. And America is the land where grammar goes to die. It doesn't help that everyone has a cell phone, and "talking" now means texting, which people have no patience for, so all text conversations look like a bomb went off in an alphabet soup factory. But even when we are speaking, we have pretty much given up. No, Gerry, you don't shop at Kroger's. The store is called Kroger. There's no one in there named Kroger, and it is not his store. If you must know, Kroger is owned mostly by Cerebus Capital Management, who happen to bankroll a bunch of jackass politicians, but I understand that you need your discount cottage cheese, so no judgment. Meanwhile, it felt wholly satisfying to find someone as ready as I am to get pissed off about commas. Walking around these days is subjecting yourself to an assault of syntax no matter where you go. The examples are myriad, but I will summarize the inanity of the status quo with a sign I saw on a bathroom that read, "For disabled elderly pregnant children only." And as much as I was moved with sympathy for the poor kids who also happen to be disabled, old, and with child, I was even more sad for the irretrievable state of affairs of our language that made them that way. Maybe, just maybe, if everyone reads this book, we can salvage something. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

I hardly even know where to begin to describe the incredible recent series of events. I should start by saying that I had absolutely no interest in reading Harry Potter, for obvious reasons. But my granddaughter Tina, to whom I have a hard time saying no (despite her manners), came over with her complete set and insisted, tearfully (I may have made a pejorative comment about the fantasy genre as a whole), that I read one. So to make her happy, and because I felt a little guilty, I started the first one - not because I planned to read them in order, mind you, but just because it was the smallest. But then the strangest thing happened - the book was good! Really good. I read the whole thing in my La-z-Boy in one sitting, and I went right on to the next one. And that one was good too! I became immersed. I read at a frenetic pace and lost track of time. I felt...happy! However, about halfway through The Prisoner of Azkaban, I had a realization. It suddenly dawned on me that everything I had read as a child was complete and utter crap. All of it. All my favorites, so hollow and thin and simple. I was angry again. I lumbered up to the attic, found a dusty box full of books from my youth, and dumped the entire thing in the recycling bin. Maybe they'll make more Harry Potters out of them, I thought! I made a brief stop in the kitchen for a deviled egg, then went right back to reading. I read until I fell asleep. As it turns out, it was only 4:00 in the afternoon, but after a brief nap, I finished The Goblet of Fire before bed. I slept better than I have slept in years. I woke up refreshed and determined. I poured a large black coffee with only half my customary whiskey in it, and I sat down to read. It was incredible! What amazing combinations of humor, wonder, and drama. What deftness in dealing with death, dating, and destiny. What years of my youth wasted reading Doctor Doolittle and Mister Popper's Penguins! But there was no time to worry about that now. I read like the wind, like a man possessed, like I had nothing else in the world to do (in truth, I had nothing else to do). I read all day, skipped lunch, pissed in a bottle so I wouldn't have to get up (just kidding, but I thought about it), and turned the final pages of the Deathly Hallows in the early evening. You would think I was exhausted, but no! I felt exhilarated, inspired - all was well! I decided that it was time for me to go out for a walk and admire the sunset. I was thinking that I should be more appreciative of the world and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. But when I got out there, all I could hear was my neighbor Margaret's little schnauzer yipping away like crazy. God damn that dog! Oh, the many times I have imagined slipping some Xanax into a burger and chucking it over her fence. It would be completely justifiable. That little cur was ruining my bibliographic ecstasy, and I was not going to have it. I started walking over there, but in my agitated state, I missed the patch of ice on the sidewalk (Margaret - do you see a law suit coming?) and next thing I knew, I went ass over tea kettle and landed right on my back. It knocked the wind out of me to be sure, and I needed a few moments to catch my breath. After I did, though, came another realization. I could not move. My poor old body was rattled and just didn't have the strength. And it was cold. How stupid was I? What had gotten into me? A couple of minutes on the sidewalk were enough to realize that I had no hat, no gloves, and the sun was dipping. Is this to be my undignified end, I wondered? Will I not get to sue Margaret for negligent sidewalk care after all? What a terrible shame that would be! And if she notices and comes out to help, will being in her debt be better or worse than dying on the sidewalk? It was difficult to figure out. Luckily for me, the mail was miraculously late, and Red, my longtime mail carrier, found me on the ground and obtained help. I explained that I was just trying to get a different angle to see the sunset, but he called an ambulance anyway. And so here I am, writing this on my grandson's laptop in a recovery room at the University Hospital. Nothing broken, I am told, just some bruised ribs and a harsh reminder about reality. I should be able to get a lot of reading done in here, although after Harry Potter, why bother? I would consider reading the series over again, but it is clearly too dangerous.