Monday, May 20, 2019

The Song of Kieu by Nguyen Du

I must start by expressing the gratitude I felt to Sarah Wright and Penguin Classics for sending me this new edition of the Vietnamese epic poem, "The Song of Kieu," with lovely translation and introduction by Timothy Allen. This is a new area of literature for me, and I was grateful for the historical context Mr. Allen provided. I found the text to be remarkably readable and lyrical, and I finished it with satisfaction. It stuck with me in the following days, and I was intrigued to learn more about the author and the translator, and that was when I realized what a Trojan horse this gift really was.

First, some context. When I was courting Eleanor, I had a rival. He was (in my biased opinion) a short, weaselly fellow, but oh, how her parents loved him. He came from an established family that owned a successful glove-making company. He had graduated from an esteemed university (salutatorian) and had the option of taking over the family business or going to any number of corporations who were wooing him. He composed music on the french horn, volunteered for civic organizations, and sang opera. Total schmuck. I, on the other hand, had nothing but my sense of humor, my rakish good looks, and a handful of fantastic heirloom family pickle recipes. Hardly a fair fight. I won, obviously, but I did not emerge unscathed. For years, even after we were married, Eleanor's father had a favorite saying when he disapproved of something I did (which was often). He would grumble, "I don't think Walter would have done that." Fucking Walter. My self-esteem never truly recovered from him. Gets my dander up just thinking about him.

Enter Mr. Timothy Allen. Turns out this guy has been an aid worker in just about every impoverished corner of the earth. He can speak a brazilian different languages (if brazilian was a language, he would speak that too). He is an accomplished poet, wins fancy awards, is a professor at an esteemed university, a family man, and occasionally translates epic Vietnamese poems just for kicks. He is an ubermench! Rumor has it that he may also be ambidextrous, can juggle eggs with his eyes closed, and has a patent for biodegradable straws. And what do I do? I sit around in my lazy-boy, reading and drinking gin, make the occasional batch of pickles, and rant on the internet, which I don't even fully understand. I can hear Walter laughing from his grave (I actually have no idea if he is still alive, but the math is against him).

Then I started getting paranoid. I wanted to write something about how beautiful the translation was, but it occurred to me that I really have no way of judging that. The closest I ever got to translating anything was trying to decipher pictorial instructions for making kim chi, and that ended with a giant hole in my backyard full of rotten cabbage. So no points for me. For all I know, he could have made the whole thing up. I mean, is there really an ancient Vietnamese word that translates as "gobshite"? Seems unlikely. From there I started worrying about all the other things we just take on faith to be true. Do camels with two humps really live longer than camels with one hump? Is Fun Dip actually fun? Is the Earth truly flat? Is sea salt really saltier than regular salt? Does God exist? This list goes on. So, to summarize, great book, and I look forward to talking to you about it when I emerge from my existential crisis.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This book has got a lot about trees, which are things I happen to love. They are strong and durable, provide fruit, shade, and oxygen, and I also love the part of The Lord of the Rings when the Ents beat the crap out of some Orcs. Those were some badass trees. When my kids were young, I taught them all about the different trees in our neighborhood. If you live on the Earth, you should be able to identify the things you share it with, that's what I say. If you can't tell the difference between a birch and a beech, no supper! Oh, relax, snowflakes. These days, kids don't even know trees exist because to see them, they would have to look in the opposite direction from their phones. I bet one out of ten kids at most could even tell you the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree. What the hell is wrong with us? But that is not what I'm angry about today.

I also used to take my kids and their friends camping sometimes. We'd learn about trees, of course, and other aspects of nature, and sometimes I would stretch the truth a little bit - all in good fun of course. One time I hid a pile of Raisinettes in the woods, and then I led them "exploring" and stumbled across my pile. I told them that it was either rabbit poop or fox poop, but that they were hard to tell apart. "Rabbit poop is mushier," I said, "Anyone want to feel?" No takers, so I delicately picked up a Raisinette and rolled it around in my hands. "You can sometimes differentiate by smell," I continued. I got my nose right down in there, much to the children's dismay. They were starting to look a little green, I had to admit, but I wasn't about to stop there. "But to be honest, the only real way to tell rabbit poop from fox poop is by taste." Gasps all around. I pretended not to notice and just started popping the Raisinettes in my mouth, chewing pensively, swishing them back and forth in my cheeks while the kids were audibly gagging. "Oh well," I concluded when the pile was gone, "Still not sure. Shall we continue hiking?" I think my son might have been onto me at that point, but I gave him the look that said if he wanted to be led out of the woods at any point in the near future, he had better keep his mouth shut, and he did. On one camping trip I taught the group of kids about extraterrestrial life and then scared the bejeezus out of them by "discovering" a mannequin wrapped in tin foil. Heh - kids are stupid. But of course some of the parents complained after that one and that was the end of the big group camping trips. Parents are stupid too. But that's not what I'm angry about either.

What's really chapping my hide today is what happened in my front yard yesterday. There is a lovely Japanese maple tree that resides between my sidewalk and the street, so technically, on city property. There were city employees out there tapping at it and wielding a truck full of vegetation torture instruments. I asked if something was wrong, if the tree was diseased or something. But they said no, it was just normal maintenance, which turned out to mean that any branch within 30 feet of the ground got maniacally lopped off. I swear those sadistic tree-killers were whooping with joy when they did it, too. Now it's about 60% trunk and looks like a giant purple broccoli. Damn it all.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I have definitive evidence to suggest that my next-door neighbor Margaret (the one with the schnauzer) and the guy across the street, Darren (I just fell asleep trying to find an adjective to describe his personality) are, as the kids say, in cahoots. I have seen them whispering on multiple occasions, and I doubt they are exchanging pleasantries, because there is nothing pleasant about either of them. I would rather make small talk with Luca Brasi.

It all started over the dandelions. It won't surprise you to learn that I am no fan of dandelions. They are like the sweet pickles of flowers - at first glance they appear enticing, but upon closer inspection, they reveal their sinister nature. Just as sweet pickles offend the very soul of pickling, dandelions seemingly mock the entire panoply of flowers by being beautiful for a day and then undergoing a swan-like metamorphosis in reverse, becoming an insidious, sharp, ugly, expanding blight on the earth. Although perhaps I overstate the point.

In any case, I feel like I have done my due diligence in combating dandelions over the years, although sometimes they do get away from me. It didn't help when my granddaughter Tina told me she would come over and help, and all she did was make a crown out of the yellow ones and blow the white ones all over the yard, setting me back literally years. But look, I was put on this earth to raise kids, not grass, and I don't know how well I did with the former, but it's hard for me to really give a crap about the latter. And I am not about to cover my lawn with chemicals and pollute the whole neighborhood, letting poisons run off into the lake and whatnot, despite the chance that Margaret's schnauzer might come over and become collateral damage. I wouldn't really mind if that happened, but that's not how you should do things. One thing I learned from this book is that if you are going to kill someone, you should do it on principle and with efficiency.

So Darren and Margaret saunter over with their fake smiles and ask about my health and my grandkids, and I can see where this is going. They casually mention that they are treating their lawns and even offered to have "their guy" do mine while he is here. They'll even split the cost! Their theory is something about herd immunity, like measles shots and whatnot, the implication being that by not treating my own lawn, I am ruining theirs. Well, guess what, folks? I have "guys" who do stuff for me too, and you don't want to mess with these people. When I was younger I hung out with this dude called Louie the Elbow, who had two friends named Big Tuna and Mr. Smooches (that moniker was intended to be ironic). Not exactly horse head in the bed types, but at the very least, bullion cube in the shower head types. They would know exactly how to handle his situation, and if Margaret and Darren don't leave me alone, I will go find them in their nursing home, and we will take this shit into our own hands.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

You can learn a lot about our species by reading this book, but if you need proof that humans are idiots, look no further than the changing of the seasons. People wander about dumbstruck, as if this had never happened before! This week it got warm, because it is spring. And yet it seemed to blow people's minds. "Isn't it amazing," my daughter asked. "Did you see the buds on the trees?" I explained to her that the arrival of spring was not amazing to me, but rather a predictable and inevitable outcome of earth's travels around the sun, and that the buds appeared to be similar to last year's that arrived at more or less the same time. But she just laughed me off. My neighbor Margaret declared - I shit you not - that the sunny day was "literally a miracle." No, Margaret. A miracle would be if you got your Christmas lights down before February or learned how to appropriately use the word "literally." This is just nature.

My son came into my house beaming on Saturday, saying "Spring is here! Do you know what that means?" I began taking guesses. Extra yardwork? The return of mosquitoes? Time to file my taxes? People letting their dogs off leash? Excessive puddles? Migratory birds shitting on my lawn? Creeping charlie? The NHL playoffs? Skateboarders infesting public parks? Stupid people being amazed by natural phenomena? Shockingly, all my guesses were incorrect. "The Gardens are open!," he exclaimed. By this he means the local botanical gardens, in all their pre-blossoming splendor. Sigh.

Where the hell did you all get the idea that old people love botanical gardens? I believe this to be some kind of organized ageist conspiracy. Every time I am there, the whole place is full of geriatrics getting carted around by people who think they get double credit for spending time with grandpa and also doing something unbearably boring. If you think it is tiresome now, do you anticipate that at some point you are going to suddenly love going there? Hell no, Larry. You know how tedious it is. Why don't you drop the facade and just take me to the bar?

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.