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Things I Enjoy Heartily

Recent book enjoyment:

The Insistence of Beauty by Stephen Dunn

Everyday things beautifully rendered.  Reading these poems gives this weird ecstatic feeling like someone understands you and you understand someone, and you’re wishing for a snowy winter, and the Tuesday morning air is inviting you outside, and you’re ready to fall in love again, and again, and again.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

Seems like it would be too much trouble, but actually was easy to read and totally absorbing.

Love Trouble is My Business by Veronica Geng

Collection of Shouts & Murmurs type essays.  Very funny.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Secret Currency of Love

This book is a collection of essays by female writers about the role that money has played in their romantic relationships.  It’s really interesting even if, since these women write for a living, most of their stories veer toward the ‘I never really cared about money, and always dated artists who lived in vans.’  For the most part the authors have been incredibly honest, and one even admits that she continues to shoplift, even though she is an editor at a well-known fashion magazine.  Not sure I would’ve copped to it, but I’m glad she did.

Paradise by Donald Barthelme

Independence Day and then The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

For some reason I have been drawn as of late to books narrated by middle aged men.  Maybe because I am in a bit of a life crisis, and middle aged men are also in life crises.  This was the kind of book where, by the time I was done, practically every other page was dog-eared as I had deemed some passage on it to have some kind of revelatory wisdom.  Looking back through the turned down pages I had some trouble figuring out what had struck me so deeply, but that is beside the point.  The point is it’s the kind of  book so dense with tragic, and sweet life-humor that you can only take in so many pages before you have to take a break.  I’ll recommend it in hopes that it will mean as much to you as it did to me, but this is never assured.

Word

This column by Jack Handey from The New Yorker is very funny.

HOW THINGS EVEN OUT

by Jack Handey MARCH 3, 2008

Things tend to even out. Religion, some people say, has caused wars and fighting. Yes, but it’s also boring to sit through a church service, so it evens out. One moment you’re depressed because your doctor tells you that you have alcoholism. But then you cheer up when you go home and find a hidden bottle of vodka you had forgotten about.Things are evening out all the time, if you take time to notice, like I do. Let’s say you want a big cupcake, with lots of icing, so you go buy one and eat it. But then you realize, I don’t have the cupcake anymore. Or maybe you take a bite of salsa that’s labelled “HOT,” and it doesn’t seem that hot, but then about a second later it seems really hot.

You might hear that some guy you know is having a party, so you call him up, but he says there’s no party. But then you call back, using a different voice, and suddenly there is a party.

One day, you ask people to take a look at a skin rash you have. Then, a few days later, you’re looking at theirrashes. You send someone a death threat and then, mysteriously, the police come to your house and threaten you.

Maybe you find a nice flat pebble on a riverbank, and when you pick it up and throw it it skips across the water several times. But then the next pebble you can’t even pry loose because, what is this, glue mud? You notice an ant drifting away on a leaf in the water. Then you look up to see your aunt drifting away in a rowboat.

Eventually, I believe, everything evens out. Long ago, an asteroid hit our planet and killed our dinosaurs. But, in the future, maybe we’ll go to another planet and kill their dinosaurs.

Even in the afterlife things probably even out, although I can’t imagine how.

Still don’t believe that things even out? Try this simple test: flip a coin, over and over again, calling out “Heads!” or “Tails!” after each flip. Half the time people will ask you to please stop.

Once you realize that things even out, it’s like a light being turned on in your head, then being turned off, then being turned to “dim.”

Probably the perfect example of things evening out happened to me just last month. I was walking to the post office to mail a death threat. It was a beautiful day. I was happily singing away in my super-loud singing voice. I didn’t step on any chewing gum, like I usually do, and when I threw my gum down it didn’t stick to my fingertips. As I rounded the corner, there was a bum begging for change. I was feeling pretty good, so I gave him a five-dollar bill. At first I tried to make him do a little dance for the five dollars, but he wouldn’t do it, so I gave him the five dollars anyway.

Not long after that, I was reading the paper, and there was a picture of the bum. He had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry! He had a little bigger nose and straighter teeth, but I’m pretty sure it was him. So, my five dollars had made him change his ways and become a chemistry guy.

A few days later, I was walking by the corner again, and there was the bum, back begging. So, things had evened out. He had gotten the Nobel Prize, but now he was a bum again. I asked him for the five dollars back, but he started saying weird stuff that I guess was chemistry formulas or something.

I told my friend Don the story, but he said it wasn’t an example of things evening out so much as just a stupid story. That’s interesting, Don, because you saying that evens out what I said to your mother that time.

I have a lot of stories about things evening out, but I think the one about the Nobel Prize-winning bum is the best. I’d say it would take about three of my other stories to even out that one. 

Books

The Devil’s Teeth Susan Casey

This book freaked my freak in more ways than one.  A. It’s about great white sharks and how awesome they are, a subject that is exceedingly interesting B. It is set on some islands that are only 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, which just turns out to be the “best place in the world” to study great whites C. It’s written by a woman journalist who apparently totally rocks and manages to become so obsessed with these sharks that she ends of making some extremely questionable decisions in terms of her safety and that of others, and don’t we all love it when other people go a little nuts and risk their lives?   D. more than 3/4 of the people mentioned in this book are categorized in the vein of “hot biologist” which is just a category that I would like to see more of.  Did I mention that these sharks are HUGE and that they bite things?

American Gods Neil Gaiman

This book is kind of spooky like Lake Wobegon meets ancient gods driving taxis and living in broken down apartment buildings.  Since we’re getting all pro-America lately I thought this was appropriate as this book makes me want to take a road trip and remember what it means to live in this country in the first place.

Then We Came To The End Joshua Ferris

I liked this book.  I picked it up at the library because A. I’m drawn to brightly colored book covers B. it was supposed to be a story concerning the lives and deaths of employees in a Chicago ad agency and that appealed to my current status as quasi business person and also it was shortlisted for best book of the year by several reliable publications.  This book was very enjoyable and not at all hard to get into.  I was impressed that this is the author’s first novel, and he managed to pull off an anonymous “we” point of view, which must have posed some problems.  I appreciated the characters whose complications made them both realistic and unnerving as people tend to be.  And I really liked how every time it seemed that we were about to be taught a lesson or delivered a take home point Ferris takes the conversation in a different direction.  There are no easy outs in this book and no ready answers, and the last sentence is simply genius.

The Boys of My Youth Jo Ann Beard

This is a collection of creative non-fiction writing mostly about the author’s rural youth.  Something that perhaps some of us can relate to.  The stories are excellently written, if a little meandering, but if nothing else read the one called “The Fourth State of Matter.”  That is probably one of the most well put together pieces of writing I have come across.  Seriously, at the end you’ll be all like, “Woah.”  Nice stuff.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics Marisha Pessl

I read this last year and the more I think about it the more I love it.  The writing style is a little hard to get into at first, but I just fell in love with the main character, Blue VanMeer.  It also contains one of my favorite pieces of advice, “Whatever happens look like you’re having a Christ experience.”  Right?

Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut

This book clearly rocks.  The more I read it the more I realize that it is absolute genius.  I am hopelessly in love with Vonnegut, and when I was on the East Coast several years ago I entertained some elaborate fantasies of “happening” upon him in Cape Cod, and being adopted or something.  Regardless of that, not a word in this book is wasted.  Each chapter is somehow both complete on its own and seamlessly meshed with the others to form the whole.  The pitfalls of the apocalypse have never been so familiar.

The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut

That said, this is probably my favorite of his books.  Vonnegut manages to be an incredible observer of the ridiculousness of human behavior without sliding into abject cynicism.  His satire is warm, human, and familiar.  This book is totally insane and absolutely wonderful.

The Turn of the Screw Henry James

I like ambiguously scary stories.  Is the nanny crazy or are the kids demons?  You have your opinion, but you leave the book with the sense that you will never really know.

Total Eclipse Annie Dillard

I heard about Annie Dillard for the first time last year when I was assigned to read her book The Living about the first white settlers of the Bellingham area.  After also reading The Maytrees I can’t say that I’m in love with her fiction stuff, but her creative non-fiction is very enjoyable.  This short essay will make you stop and stare kind of like you would in the presence of an actual eclipse.  Subtly terrifying on a grand scale.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

Good book.  Really accessible science fiction, with great characters, and a meaningful story.  I did not want this one to end, although I can’t necessarily recommend the sequel, which did not leave me with the same magical feeling.

The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger

This is just a great love story.  Part of the appeal is that you fall unapologetically in love with Henry the time traveling librarian.  Part of the appeal is that it is just totally awesome.  I haven’t met anyone who has read this book who hasn’t loved it.

Native Tongue Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen writes about Florida, a state whose magic begs to be explored before it is totally taken over by pre-fab communities with names like Wild Oak Springs.

Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs Fake Steve Jobs

Growing up with my dad who has loved Macs since before they were cool, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for that little apple.  This book reads like the private journal of Steve Jobs, a narcissistic genius obsessed with the combination of clear and white plastic.  Pretty funny actually.

Poetry

I Want A New Gun David Lerner

I know it is totally cliche for someone my age and living in San Francisco to like this guy, but like Bukowski, maybe it’s because there’s just something about the grimy glitter of youth that needs to be remembered over and over so we don’t shrivel up into our cubicles and die.  Here is a sample:

from Mein Kampf

I want people to hear my poetry and
weep, scream, disappear, start bleeding,
eat their television sets, beat each other to death with
swords and go out and get riotously drunk on

someone else’s money

this ain’t no party
this ain’t no disco
this ain’t foolin’a
grab-bag of clever wordplay and sensitive thoughts and
gracious theories about

how many ambiguities can dance on the head of a
machine gun.

I mean, WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT!?

Elephant Rocks Kay Ryan

I am a big fan of short concise poems.  I tend to skip poems that are more than one page unless they are really freaking my freak.  Practically every poem in this book is sweet, and by sweet I mean cool.  I really can’t say it better than one of the reviews on the back, “Here is the truth entire, a poetics restitution, the world put back together.”  My favorite part of reading anything, but especially poetry is when you read a line and you immediately think to yourself, that is so true. One of the greatest things is noticing the familiar in the familiar.

“Slow Scythe”   Virginia Adair

This poem makes me sleepy.

Slow scythe curving over the flowers

In yesterday’s field where you mow,

My cool feet flicked

The dew from the daisies, hours,

Hours ago! Ages and ages ago

They flicked the dew

From the yellow and snow-colored flowers you leisurely mow.

“What I Know for Sure” Bob Hicok

Okay, it’s a little bit embarrassing how much I love these inspirational humany poems, but I just do.  They make me feel a little bit giddy, and this one is a very good example of just the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Some people, told of witness trees,
pause in chopping a carrot
or loosening a lug nut and ask,
witness to what? So while salad
is made, or getting from A to B
is repaired, these people
listen to the story
of the Burnside Bridge sycamore,
alive at Antietam, bloodiest day
of the war, or the Appomattox Court House
honey locust, just coming to leaf
as Lee surrendered, and say, at the end,
Cool. Then the chopping
continues with its two sounds,
the slight snap to the separation
of carrot from carrot, the harder crack
of knife against cutting board,
or the sigh, also slight, of a lug nut
as it’s tightened against a wheel. In time,
these people put their hands
under water and say, not so much to you
but to the window in front of the sink,
Think of all the things
trees have seen.
Then it’s time
for dinner, or to leave, and a month passes,
or a year, before two fawns
cross in front of the car, or the man
you’ve just given a dollar to
lifts his shirt to the start
of the 23rd psalm tattooed
to his chest, “The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want,” when some people
say, I feel like one of those trees,
you know?
And you do know.
You make a good salad, change
a wicked tire, you’re one of those people,
watching, listening, a witness
to whatever this is,
for as long as it is
amazing, isn’t it, that I could call you
right now and say, They still
can’t talk to dolphins
but are closer,
as I still
can’t say everything I want to
but am closer, for trying, to God,
if you must, to spirit, if you will,
to what’s never easy for people
like us: life, breath, the sheer volume
of wonder.


Films aka Movies aka Films

Venus Directed by Roger Michell

I remember grudgingly agreeing to see this movie with my parents a few years back.  I didn’t really want to go watch what I knew would be a film starring an 80-year-old actor playing an 80-year-old actor, and I didn’t really know Peter O’ Toole from a hole in my head.  And so I was swept away by what seemed to be near cinematic perfection.  Here is the story of a blossoming friendship between a graceful elderly man and a rough teenage girl, and what I was most struck by was the simple fact that you are not in fact dead until you are in fact dead.  I feel that I have so often dismissed the elderly and young children as well as being not quite human, when in fact these people’s thoughts, feelings, wants and needs are so similar to my own.  Besides that this was just a lovely quiet movie and I felt lucky to have seen it.

The Descent Directed by Neil Marshall

I saw this movie on a stifling summer evening in downtown Spokane, a place strange enough as it is even before you have spent two hours in the blood soaked cave that is The Descent.  This movie pretty much rocks out.  Five female friends meet for their annual weekend adventure, this time for a caving expedition in the forests of West Virginia.  Even before the entrance of the albino zombies the claustrophobia inducing shots of the women climbing through rocky tunnels no wider than their hips is pretty intense.  And then when the zombies do show up the protaginistas unleash heretofore unheard of levels of zombie ass kicking power.  Quite invigorating.

Romeo + Juliet Directed by Baz Luhrman

Yeah I first saw this in middle school, and I love it now as much as I did then, maybe even more.  From the soundtrack, to the wonderful colors, to Leo at his best looking and most passionately grieving, to Claire Danes’ angel costume, to the scene with the fish tank, to the heartbreaking ending that you know is coming, but every time you find youself begging Romeo to look at her stirring fingers and realize that she’s waking up, and every time he drinks the poison you cry just like you did the first time for him for her for you, and for the every pair of ill-fated star-crossed lovers.

Eyes Wide Shut Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Okay, I know that a lot of people don’t like this movie, and think it’s pointless soft-porn, and I might have been one of these people too after seeing it when I was seventeen, but upon closer inspection and several more viewings along with a little more knowledge of the whole Kubrick thing, I have come to appreciate it as a real masterpiece.  I mean in the visuals alone it is absolutely stunning.  From the use of color: the reds and blues playing off each other none to subtly, to the ball scene which is lit ENTIRELY by white Christmas lights this really is a cinematic feat, and then when you add in the ambiguity of the story with all the twists and turns and the lack of easy answers, and the music on top of all that.  It’s just wow.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ashley permalink
    September 23, 2010 8:58 pm

    I really like that David Lerner poem also — and definitely don’t feel self conscious about it. When I taught it to my high school students, they were pretty stoked on it (had to explain the lyric references though). Great choice.
    Also, Eyes Wide Shut is amazing too, one of Kubrick’s most underrated.
    I know you don’t need my validation in order to be cool, but indeed you are.

  2. The Vole permalink
    November 15, 2010 7:31 am

    No. Eyes Wide Shut is horrible. Yes, it is visually stunning. But so was Waterworld. Stop with the hipster revisionist contrarianism. There is a reason Kubrick made and then remade and then remade this movie for like 20 years. Because it was a pile of shit. The ultimate sow’s ear that could never be a silk purse. Be real! It is unendurably bad. You know it is. Did you even watch that scene with Kidman and Cruise smoking a joint? Did you!!

  3. The Vole permalink
    November 15, 2010 7:32 am

    Also: I like your blog.

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