Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne--Don't Be Instructed by the Uninstructed

Photo: (Top) Title page of the First Edition, 1850, from the book's Wikipedia page.
Photo: First Editions, from flavorwire.com.

I have a lot of little things to say about this--about its plot, themes, images, metaphors and writing--so let's just bullet them:

--There was a stretch of fifteen pages (in my book, pages 66-81) of straight narration, with no dialogue at all.  And there were many other shorter stretches of straight narration as well.  This simply wouldn't happen in a book today, unless it was by a magic realist like Salman Rushdie, or someone working within an arcane specialty.  Certainly not by a popular novelist, which Hawthorne was in his day.  Literary agents and publishers would insist, perhaps correctly, that it simply wouldn't hold the reader's attention.

--Considering this, the book is remarkably well-written.  Though it did take me quite awhile to read it because of this fireplace-narration style, it was still well done.  Just hard to get through.  Some of the sentences are brilliant, such as: "...the children of the Puritans looked up from their play,--or what passed for play with those sombre little urchins..."

--Hawthorne was not a lover of Puritans, or of their children.  It comes across as an amusing bias in the book.  You get such straight-laced and sincere narration with such an author-reading voice, then he springs a sentence like the last one on you.  Tolkein did the same, but in more sleep-inducing ways.

--His descriptions and details are ingenious.  I missed them in a glazed stupor because of the blocks of narration, but then one hit me as I read it, and then I went back to see what else I'd missed in my reading doze.  Often, it was a lot.  Describing Pearl's clothing as a purposeful, fiery, living representation of the scarlet letter was a strong idea: "So much strength of coloring...was admirably adapted to Pearl's beauty, and made her the very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon the earth."  That's good writing.

--The narration as it unfolds is more or less a series of vignettes starring Hester Prynne.  As such, this would make a good Tarantino film, with a few flourishes, of course.  And you'd have to give her an Uzi.

--Arthur Dimmesdale>Hester Prynne>Pearl = Thomas Jefferson>Sally Hemmings>their descendants, if you follow the drift of the hypocrisy (though, in fairness, Jefferson--as far as I know--didn't give long racist rants).  You could go there with today's conservative, gay-bashing Republicans and their male lovers as well.  The Scarlet Letter is a political novel, too, because the religious leaders of the day were also the political leaders of the day.  That's one of the points of the book: separation of Church and State, after all.

--Art imitates life.  Read the last two sentences above again, and then consider the reasons politicians say they oppose gay marriage, or any number of other societal things.  Anytime you invoke God to pass, or to not pass, legislation, you're violating the most simple and most powerful tenet of this, or of any other, democracy: Separation of Church and State.

--Emma Stone as a child would've made a perfect, intelligent, sassy and fiery Pearl, just as she did as a quasi-Hester Prynne in Easy A.

--Hawthorne went out of his way to pile on the hypocrisy.  The real Governor Bellingham, for example, served in office for just one year before his Puritan constituents threw him out.  His crime?  He married a woman who had been betrothed to a friend of his.  (Notice that the woman's preference mattered little.)

--There's a remarkable benefit of having to wear the scarlet letter.  Since everyone will think badly of you anyway, why not behave as boldly as you wish, all the time?  The need to impress others won't exist.

--And no one will not tell you to behave this way, since you're too sinful to be spoken to anyway.

--Hawthorne had no love for the clergy, of any time.  When Hester visits the Governor, he's in a meeting with a few ministers, and the servant (an enslaved and bonded freeman, but that's another point) says to her: "Yea, his honorable worship is within.  But he hath a godly minister or two with him, and likewise a leech."  The leech turns out to be her worthy husband, Roger Chillingworth.  Dimmesdale is representative of Hawthorne's attitude towards the clergy--when he was in a positive mood.

--Speaking of Dimmesdale, his speech imploring Hester to reveal the name of the father, in front of the populace in the beginning of the book, is an ingenious scene of dichotomy.  Forced by his superior to pull the name from her, he's 100% hoping she will say it, and, of course, 100% hoping she won't, at the same time.

--Her husband was indeed chilling, and her lover was, in fact, a bit dim: "Then, after long search into the minister's dim interior..." (107).  I wrote that observation long before I read that quote; good to know I don't just pull this stuff out of the air.

--"On the wall hung a row of portraits...All were characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men."  There are dozens of great passages like this.  Genius.

--The image of the armor acting like a funhouse mirror and making the A of gigantic proportion on her, as if "...she seemed hidden behind it" was another great touch in a book filled with such written flourishes.

--The home that the two men shared with the old woman was adorned with tapestry depicting the story of David and Bathsheba.  Again going out of his way to pile on the metaphors and symbols of guilt and hypocrisy, Hawthorne gives us the famous biblical story of the great man who slept with a minor man's wife, hanging in the house of the man who did the same.

--"When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived" (105).  Indeed.  For everyone who fervently believe that most (or, any) of the 9/11 hijackers came from Iraq, or that Obama isn't an American citizen, or that he is Islamic, or a socialist, pay heed.  Don't be instructed by the uninstructed.

--Birthers.  Please.

--Speaking of that, when Romney blurted something Birther recently, it told me he knew he was a rat on a sinking ship.  McCain, for all his faults, was a good, moral man who refused (unlike his pretty but empty VP) to run a campaign based on purposeful misinformation and outright lies.  He even told an audience that Obama was a good, kind man, and not a terrorist.  Mitt should pay heed.  The blind leading the blind, there.

--Mitt.  Please.  At least Clinton didn't actually ask to be called Bubba.  Even a reference to baseball can't save this guy in my eyes.

More to come.  A truly great novel, worth the effort.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lullaby by Robert B. Parker and Ace Atkins

Photo: Lullaby's book cover, from Kirkus Reviews, at www.kirkusreviews.com

The title says it's "Robert B. Parker's Lullaby," and the copyright belongs to the estate of Robert B. Parker, but this novel, the first without Parker, is all Atkins.  The names are the same, but the writing is completely different.  Not that this is bad; the writing is adequate, sometimes good.  Better than most in the genre, probably.  But the benchmark's of Parker's writing--and though the comparison is unfair, it's inescapable when you take over someone else's iconic series--were the sparseness of his prose, and the breeze of his wit and descriptions.  In short, Parker made it all look effortless.  Atkins simply tries too hard; his wit is sometimes strong and real, and his writing is often funny, but there are obvious instances in which he simply tries too hard to be witty or funny, and, at those specific moments, everything falls flat.  I found the writing too self-aware.  Characters would often say that now, to fit the genre, the other guy should say or do X, or behave like Y.  Even Spenser tries too hard, and the funny thing about his character used to be that he so much didn't give a damn, that that was what partly made his lines so funny.  He simply tried to self-amuse; here, he tries to amuse everyone else.  Doesn't work most of the time.

And the transition novel also too clearly shows the age of the minor characters (Parker had purposely aged Spenser lately; here there's an odd combination of his world, and the other characters, getting old, but he doesn't.  Necessary, of course, for the main character of the series--and Rita Fiore, more than everyone else, clearly hasn't aged a bit--but here it was just a weird juxtaposition.) and the carrying on of the world.  Joe Broz is in Hospice care; the Fed who called Spenser Lochinvar is in a Jewish retirement community in Florida.  Characters lament about how it all used to be, and frequently.  Even a Whitey Bulger-like hood is frowned upon for being with a woman vastly younger than himself--though that's what Hawk does every night.  The plot unfolds much like Parker's might; you'll see nothing new here if you've read his stuff.  Yet it all does seem new anyway, somehow; Atkins clearly goes out of his way to make it his own, and mostly he does it well, and it's okay and necessary that he does so.

Overall it's a good book, sufficiently nostalgic and new at the same time, old and young at the same time (the main minor character, if you will, is fourteen, and the older guys respect her young toughness), Parker's and Atkins' at the same time.  If you liked Parker, you'll like Atkins, and you might like Atkins if you didn't like Parker.

This is because his writing purposely does things that Parker's didn't.  There's lots of imagery and extended metaphor here; outside of Crimson Joy, Parker usually stayed away from those.  The paragraphs and sentences are longer; none of the action is as tightly written as Parker's was.  This last could be worked on.  Two scenes in the novel should've been a lot more tense than they were.

But it's a good transition novel.  Atkins has now made the series his own; it'll be interesting to see what road he travels with it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"The Little Room" by Madeline Yale Wynne

 photo: Picaresque but creepy photo of Madeline Yale Wynne's final little room (sorry), in the Berkshire Mountains, from Find A Grave's website.  (I couldn't find a Wikipedia page or anything else less creepy.)

The latest in the series from The Library of America, this for Week #42, "The Little Room" was first published in Harper's Magazine in 1895.  (Because of this, one assumes that when a character asks another if they'll be heard "in the car," she must be referring to a train; funny how it's so assumed by the author and characters that this would be the case, as the automobile itself had just been invented maybe three years before, and it hadn't yet entered the vernacular as a "car.")  You can read the story here.  It's very short and very easy to read, though you might come out of it underwhelmed as I did.

I've never heard of the author or the story before, despite the Library's insistence that it is a heavily anthologized and well-known story.  And I'm a pretty well-read guy, too.  Wynne never wrote anything else of value, apparently, though artisans in the Berkshires would remember her as a supporter of those local arts, and as quite the artisan herself.

The author might be more of a story than her story, but we'll start with that first.  (Skip the remaining paragraphs if you want to read the story first.  If so, do that first, now, and then come back.)

The framework of the story is interesting.  The beginning is mostly told via conversation, as per Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; this was the norm for late Victorian stories.  Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was written this way, too, if I remember right.  Anyway, you've got a newly married young couple and they're on their way to visit the bride's reclusive and eccentric half-aunts.  She tells the story of how her mother was brought up there for most of her childhood, and afterwards her mother grew up in Brooklyn.  When her mother returned to the aunt's the day of her own marriage, she was horrified and mystified to find that the room she more or less grew up in--and was memorably sick in for some time as a youth--had been done over and made into a china closet.  When she asked the aunts about it, they had no idea what she was talking about, and said so with old-time New England steadfastness, and with no emotion at all, not even behind the eyes.  The mother, however, remembered every single little thing about the room, and some memorable conversations in the room, and the reader agrees with the bride telling the story that her mother couldn't have made all that up, and that there's something weird going on in that house and with the aunts.  Ultimately, the mother never recovers from the weirdness and dies at a young-ish age.

So the bride and her husband get there, and he immediately notices that they're served with gilt-edged china, so there has to be a china room somewhere.  (I keep mine in a hutch, and in one of the kitchen cabinets, but whatever.)  They investigate what the woman had said should be a little room, but it's just a china closet, and the husband basically rolls his eyes at his new wife and acts a bit verbally condescending.  The bride asks the aunt about it, and she gets the same answer that her mother had, in just the same stoic way.  The aunts didn't even remember that the bride's mother had asked them about the china closet/little room as well.  The new bride takes a long while to get over this, but she finally does, and she and her husband move to Europe and have a few kids.  (The reader assumes he's gotten over the condescending attitude, as well.)

Fast forward five years.  The wife asks her cousin to visit the aunts to tell them goodbye for her, as she's now in Europe and had been too afraid to go say goodbye to them herself.  Her cousin agrees to do this, and intends on bringing another woman with her.  But they have a failure to communicate, and as it turns out, they each go by herself at different times.  As it happens in stories like this, the two women get together with their kids (Where are the husbands?) while camping, and they tell each other their stories, each believing beforehand that the other had blown her off, and that she had gone there while the other one hadn't.

One of the women saw a little room, and wrote to the newly married couple in Europe about it.  The other had seen just a china closet.  They argue for awhile, each believing that the other one's lying.  Finally, they decide to go back to the house together.  When they're close, they're told by a local that the house had burned to the ground the night before, with everything in it.  The reader is never told what happened to the aunts.

And that's it.  The story is told with a little more unease about it, and I suppose it's somewhat effective, maybe.  The Library says of the theme that some see it as a woman's need to have a room of her own, which I get; the Library also says others see a "closet of domestic confinement."  I can see that, too, in the story.  But I can't say I agree with literary scholar Alfred Bendixen (go to the head of the class if you've ever heard of this guy, or of Madeline Yale Wynne, for that matter), who says that the story is "one of the most effective 'puzzle stories' ever written."  Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King have written more effective "room" short stories than this, as has Arthur Conan Doyle.  "The Yellow Wallpaper" works better for me as a "room" story with a feminist bent, as well.

Are the aunts domestic servants?  Well, I guess, except they never married, and they actually have a former slave on the grounds to help them, too.  So what husbands or sons do they serve?  The china is theirs, and their company is theirs--and very infrequent, too.  (I might actually have more people over.)  And the story is very feminist and rather easy to see that way, so I don't know what Bendixen was so puzzled about.

I see the flip-flopping china closet / small room situation as an extended metaphor of how women are expected to shell out the china from a china closet as they serve their husbands and families and entertain their guests, but how actually what a woman (and yours truly) really needs is a room of her own, to just be her own individual, independent and creative self in.  The aunts, after all, never married or had kids.  Wink, wink.

Which segues nicely to the author.  Madeline Yale Wynne was, in fact, the daughter of the guy who created the lock company.  Yale was also a heckuva artisan himself, apparently, as he taught the craft to his daughter and sons.  According to the Find A Grave website (No, not creepy at all; I Googled her name and that's what came up first.  No one's made a Wikipedia page of her, I guess), she married Henry Winn in 1865, when she was 18.  They had two sons before they separated in 1874.  By 1883 she was sharing her studio and home with a Miss Annie Putnam.  (Ah-ha! you say.  Fits the story a bit, right?  Except the aunts really were sisters to each other, I think.  But they had their own secret little room, apparently in a Victorian/Freudian way.  Perhaps that room was a china closet only when they had family over, yes?)  They stayed together for about 30 years, until she died.  Putnam put together her various unpublished writings, none of them of any note, and printed them posthumously.  And somewhere in there, Madeline Winn changed her last name to Wynne, thereby still sticking to the social mores of carrying the (ex-)husband's last name, while yet slapping him across the face at the same time.

There's a little of that in the story as well.  The little room was the elephant in the room that the aunts never spoke of, and it apparently never bothered them at all that a village of people kept asking them about the china closet / small room thing.  It's as if they were like, "Nope, la la la, not there, nope, no room there, la la la..."  There's a symbol or metaphor with the chintz going on in the story, too, as the very mention of it almost (but just almost) causes one of the aunts to blush, but I'm not sufficiently up on my fabrics to figure that out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why the Sox Suck in 2012

Photos: Three out of about a dozen I took at Fenway, August 7, 2012.  Fenway's always beautiful.

I know this isn't my sports blog, but I haven't written there in awhile, and this is a very important issue, as it pertains not just to this sports team, but in many ways to our reality as a whole.  Read it and maybe you'll see what I mean.

The Sox suck this year because the team is essentially mismanaged (the manager's fault), misguided (the administration's fault), underperforming (the players' fault, though there have been an unbelievable number of injuries, but more on that later), and misappropriated (players are assuming roles they shouldn't be).  In other words, it's like most offices and businesses out there.  See if your workplace compares:

1.  Bobby Valentine, the manager, hasn't managed a team since 2002, and it shows.  I don't blame him for taking the job, but it's a mystery why someone with no big-league experience in ten years (which is an eternity in professional sports) is offered the job in the first place.  Ten years ago there was much less reliance on numbers; baseball today is mostly guided by data-driven decisions based on specific situations.  I'll go more into this in a moment, but a guy who hasn't managed in ten years can't be expected to learn all of the changes in the game--of which there have been a great many--during a tumultuous season in the most fan-driven and media-scrutinized job in all of baseball.  It's unfair to ask it of the guy, and that says a lot, because I dislike him immensely as a person (extremely narcissistic) and as a manager (does not make the simple, basic managerial decisions very well, and tends to chastise his players to the media), and yet I still have to say that he can't possibly be expected to learn all of this on the go in a chaotic environment in an already-impossible job.

How many of my readers have a manager/supervisor/boss who's completely out of his element, due to years away from the job, or to a lack of essential knowledge of the job?  And with bad people-skills, too?

2.  The Red Sox administration this year is essentially in Chicago right now, misguiding the Cubs.  Ben Cherington was the Asst. G.M. for a long time, and he's now the Sox's G.M., but he's working with a team that Theo Epstein put together.  Cherington is therefore stuck with long contracts and underperforming players that is both hurting the play on the field and strapping their resources to get better players in the future.  Basically, he inherited an impossible situation made worse by an unknowledgeable and bad manager and severely underperforming players.  Just after Epstein made the great trade for Adrian Gonzalez, he blundered badly by signing Carl Crawford to a long, ridiculous contract, and John Lackey, too.  It's like he was a gambler who won the jackpot, and in his excitement and hubris, bet all the money on two bets and lost it all.  Those decisions were the opposite of the baseball decisions that made the Sox great for so long: spending affordable money on smart, productive, workman-like players who were solid defensively, worked the count, had great on-base percentages, and kept the lineup moving.  But he also got players who could handle the chaos of the Boston fans and media, and that's not your typical player.  Carl Crawford, it seems, is the prototype of a player who cannot handle this circus.  He does not thrive in it; in fact, it clearly hurts him, both on the field and in his head.  He's said so.  Does that matter if he's making $120 million?  Yes, it definitely does.  Quieter places like Tampa Bay are perfect for him; he'll flourish where he's not under the microscope.  That's just the type of player he is, and the administration needs to know that his mental makeup is just as important, if not more so, than his makeup as a player.  He'll excel again if he's traded to Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City, Seattle, or someplace like that.  He's simply a bad fit for his environment.

They also fired a great manager who, as we're now seeing, managed not just the team very well, but also the individual players.  It was said that they wouldn't play for him in the second half last year, but that says more about Beckett and Lester than it did about him.  I know managers are hired to be fired, and that you can't fire all the players, but you can certainly discipline two of them.  Had that happened, Francona would be around, he'd be managing the team and the individual players better, and they'd be winning.  I'm reminded of Joe Morgan, popular and good Sox manager of another era, who said, after he was fired, that the team wasn't as good as the administration thought it was.  He was right, because they fell off the planet after he was fired.  I see the same here.  Morgan, and now Francona, were clearly the glue that held their teams together.  Firing Francona was a travesty that the team is now paying dearly for.  

Sound familiar?  How many of us work for an administration short on an understanding of human nature, or the psyches of its employees--or simply doesn't care?  How many of us work with someone who's normally great, with a solid reputation and stat sheet, but is a poor fit for the environment he's been placed in?  And how many of us have seen a good, popular leader go just because of one bad stretch that he didn't cause, that was made much worse after he left?

3. The veteran players are simply, and excessively, underperforming.  Beckett and Lester should win 18-20 games each, and eat up a ton of innings.  Before the middle of last year, that's who they were and that's what they did.  Since then, they just plain suck.  They're so bad, I can't even tell you why, except they're not throwing as hard, and they're walking too many guys and they're leaving their pitches up and over the plate.  That's why every bad pitcher is bad, so I don't know what else to say.  I'm suspecting, though, that Terry Francona managed his team better than the administration thought.  I said that above and I'll say it again.

And the other guys?  Bad fits.  Cody Ross is a swing-for-the-fences guy who'll win some games with a heroic longball, like at the end of July, but he'll finish with just 80-90 RBIs, a below-.500 slugging percentage and few walks.  He doesn't keep the line moving.  Saltalamacchia is the same, but worse.  Worse than that, he doesn't call or catch a good game.  (Jason Varitek is very badly missed.  Salty caught most of the games during the collapse last year and during this terrible year.)  Sweeney is a singles hitter who will hit .280-.300, but not walk, or hit for extra bases, and now he's probably done for the year because his fist got into a fight with a wall, and the wall won.  (He apparently doesn't hit for extra bases in the head, either.)  Ellsbury is often injured and was again this year.  When he's healthy, he's great.  Ditto for Pedroia; his thumb is still bothering him.  Same for Ortiz, and his heel.  Youkillis was done; replacing him with Middlebrooks is fine with me (and now he's on the DL for a long time with a fractured wrist), but it was excessively mishandled by the manager and the front office, both of which lost this year's fans (and a few of its players) by how they dealt with him.  Aceves is doing the best he can, but he's a great 7th and 8th inning guy forced to be the closer because Bailey, a great closer, has been on the DL all year.  That's misappropriation.  Injuries have killed this year, sure, but there was just as much of that last year, when they missed the playoffs by one game.  Despite all the drama at the end, they clearly would've made the playoffs last year but for the injuries; you can't say that about this year.

And the whole team is basically being blown up because of the personalities of just three or four guys, out of the hundreds involved in its daily operation.  I'm thinking specifically of Valentine, Beckett and Lester.

Injuries are being used as an excuse to hide all of the above.  How about it?  Does that sound familiar too?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Baxter's Procrustes" by Charles W. Chesnutt, Library of America

Photos: Charles Chesnutt in 1898, and his library in his Cleveland home at 64 Brenton Street in, I'm guessing, the mid- to late-1800s.  Both are from his Wikipedia site, as is the rest of this paragraph, which creates pause:  "Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (née Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder and, based on his appearance, Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. He claimed to be seven-eighths white, and identified as African American. Given his overwhelming European ancestry, Chesnutt could "pass" as a white man, although he never chose to do so. In the 19th century and in many southern states at the time of his birth, Chesnutt was considered legally white. Under the one drop rule later adopted into law by the 1920s in most of the South, he would have been classified as legally black because of having some known African ancestry."  Check out Chesnutt's Wikipedia page for other interesting things about an interesting guy during interesting times.  A talented and creative author could not make up the "one drop rule."

I subscribe to weekly Library of America emails, each of which highlight a short story, short novel, article, or other piece of writing that the Library of America has collected in a volume of that author.  I own a couple of these, and can say that they are worth the price--though a high price it is.  I didn't say I could afford it; I just said each was worth it.

I have fallen literally a year or more behind on these weekly emails, and so, as a new self-directive of finishing what I've already started, I have (hopefully permanently) decided to read each and every single one of them that have backlogged.  I have written about these before, somewhere.  A continually popular blog entry has been "Paste," by Henry James, which you can read on my blog here.  This one entry has gotten more pageviews than most of my Stephen King blogs, for reasons I cannot begin to tell you.

So the story for Week #41 is "Baxter's Procrustes" by Charles Chesnutt.  The blurb about the history of this story is interesting.  It seems that the author, an up-and-coming short story writer, essayist, novelist and journalist at the time (circa 1900; story published in 1904), was quite the bibliophile and wanted to join an elegant and elitist book club in his home city.  This club has a smoking room, a pipe room (each new member must offer a different type of pipe already in the club's collection), a library, and its own small publisher, which produces a limited edition (of usually fewer than 150 copies) of very expensive, high end books.  These copies are given to the members, or auctioned, and often go for very high prices, which is the goal to begin with: the club does not collect or produce or discuss cheap books.  At any rate, Chesnutt, the author, got turned down for admittance into this club, solely because he was African-American.

He did what any decent writer would do when pissed off at something: he wrote about it, with extreme derision.  By making fun of such clubs, and of its members, he was, of course, also making fun of himself, as he very much wanted to be a member.  He was okay with this.  In the end, he was admitted into this club a few years later, and the club even made a limited edition of his own work, including this story, which made the self-appreciated irony come full-circle.

The story is old enough to be found for free on the internet.  The one I get is here.  It is worth reading, and only thirteen short pages.  Skip the following paragraphs if you're going to read it, but come back after you have.

The story is purposely written in high-falutin' language, as that's the point of the mockery.  The men basically sound like everyone you've ever heard in any Masters class, or in a philosophical meeting (I have a philosophy degree, and I often sound like that, very professorial, so I would know!), or in any self-appreciated group of self-appreciated men and women who think they're brilliant and who are very happy with their self-perceived brilliance.  (Now that I say this, I realize this song is probably about me.)

So this member of such a club, Baxter, who disdains such clubs, and such members, and who has joined this club, apparently, so he can disdain it, and its members, is nominated to be the writer of the next limited edition.  He writes poems that are basically disdainful of everyone and everything, and apparently they're very good, and everybody knows this because nobody has read them.  That's how you know they're of the highest literary quality, because nobody reads them, and nobody understands them.  (There's an odd, and small, amount of truth to this.  I'm thinking now of James Joyce.)

Being the disdainful guy that he is, he pulls a ruse.  He submits a manuscript for the printing.  As usual, the members keep them wrapped, and don't read them, and soon the expectations are so high that the extra copies sell well at auction, and nobody opens them and reads them because that would immediately lower their value.  There is ironic truth to this: A baseball card set, say 1980 Topps, is worth much more in the unopened factory box than it is in an opened factory box, and the least valuable set is one in which the collector has put together, one card at a time, from yard sales, dealers, etc.  It's still all the same cards, and the condition may hypothetically--but never in reality--be the same as an unopened box, but the unopened box has the, shall I say, virginal quality of never having been opened, so the quality of the cards inside is guaranteed to be in the best condition--if indeed the set is in there at all.  And you're the owner of something that no one else--including you--has ever opened and fully seen.  It's a control, power and pride thing, I guess, on a low scale.  And, as the quality of the baseball card is often more important than the actual player on it, so is the case with limited edition books: the quality of the book is often more important than the quality of the writing in it.

To emphasize this last point, Baxter, as it turned out (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) submitted a blank manuscript, but has made a helluva great-looking and high-quality book.  The members (the story is told by a club member responsible for publishing to the group a critique of the book) are so enamored by the quality of the book itself, and its monetary value, that they never open it, even the guy who was supposed to give a critique of it.  Yet he gave the critique, and answered questions about the book, by utilizing what he knew of Baxter's other writing, and beliefs, and attitude, and mixing all that in with a high dose of intellectual-sounding jabberwocky, so that he came across as a very sophisticated critic and genius, without having ever opened the book.  (Again, those of you who've been in upper-level classes in high school or college know how very easy this is to do.)

Finally, a visitor to the group picks up a book that Baxter brought to read from (the author is obligated to read from his work to the group after the critique and accolades have died down) and opens it--and realizes that the well-made book is completely empty inside.  There's an uproar, of course, and Baxter offers to return everyone's money, or to produce an actual collection of his poems, which really do exist.  Everyone gets his money back, but then another curious thing happens: most of the members throw their copies into the fire, or return them with angry notes inside to the author (thereby ruining the book's quality)--and soon there are but a handful of copies left.  Because of the scarcity, and the very high-level quality of the book itself, plus now the infamy surrounding it, the book skyrockets in value, so that those who still own them have suddenly made a huge profit, if they'd ever sell it, which they wouldn't because it's now so infamous and valuable--and just as empty as before.

A really creative, ironic and very true story, when you think about it.  It's got real-life applications everywhere.  Highly recommended, and kudos (I guess) to the real-life club that published a limited-edition mockery of itself.  But, then, that shows the extreme self-appreciation I mentioned before.  Well, whatever.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Musings at the New Firepit

photos: The Old Firepit, with raging inferno, and The New Firepit, with distinct and subtle flame.

This is one of those blog moments where everything is sorta connected to everything else, maybe yet another minor epiphany, but here it goes:

So, moments after I (hopefully) solved my summer-long pool leak issue, my firepit finally fell apart the other day, which will happen to even a terracotta/ceramic firepit if you use it practically every day, all year, for about seven years.  Luckily the wood wouldn't catch on fire, no matter how hard I tried, with paper, or cardboard, or kindling, or anything, because it was so humid and wet out.  I used a stick to move some wood around in it, and one piece just falls off.  I put it back (it's not hot, because nothing would catch) and another piece suddenly goes, plus the original again.  And then another.  So I throw my water (yes, I just had water) on the wood, to make sure it wouldn't catch, because with my luck, it finally would have, overnight in a shattered firepit while I'm not watching it.  And the next day I decided to buy another one.

Now, in case you haven't noticed, firepits are a very, very important part of my summer (and fall, and winter, and....)  Sitting at one just chills me out, and if you know me, you know I'm not often chilled out.  It's one of the only things that relaxes me.  So buying a new firepit is, seriously, more important to me than buying next year's professional wardrobe, because I care more about my firepit than I do about what I'm wearing.  (You can see from my pic at NYC's Cleopatra's Needle that cool-looking buttoned shirts are not relevant to me.  I'll pause here so you can look at that pic, to the right of this page, and then come back.)  I give myself a few hours to buy another one, and I'm hoping beyond hope that I can go to the place I bought the one that broke, and just get another one exactly like that.  (If you know me, this is not a shocker.  I have the same philosophy about clothing stores and restaurants.)

Well, that didn't happen, because it's (sadly) practically the end of the summer, and that make and model was about seven years old.  So first I went to the Salk's/Ace Hardware, where I buy practically everything backyard or tool related, and they don't have any firepits at all.  Next I went to Benny's, nearby, but they had some really shoddy-looking ones (which even the salesman was honest enough to say I shouldn't buy) and a really nice one for $150, and the things in between weren't the snazziest.  I keep the $150 one in mind, because it was huge, bowl-shaped and deep like my last one, and went to Ann & Hope Outlet.  They had just one firepit, one that I couldn't decide if it was cool or schticky, as it was huge, monstrous, and you could cook on it, but it was $180, and it had fall leaf cutouts all around it, so the flames would flicker and dance, which would either be really cool, always, or which would get old very, very fast.  I didn't feel like spending $180 to find out.  So I went to Lowe's, and they had an okay selection, except everything was metal, which will rust quickly.  Metal stands and lids will start to rust after just one season.  So a whole lotta metal equals a whole lotta rust.

But I realize that this is probably it, unless I also feel like hitting the Home Depot, which I didn't, and an older couple came by, and in our convos they said they'd been there, and it didn't have anything.  "Did they have anything terracotta or ceramic?" I asked with excitement.  No.  So this was it.  I didn't like the $59 one, because it looked flimsy, and things that are too cheap worry me a little.  I also didn't like their very expensive ones, as they were all metal, all the time.  So the couple and I decide together (this was an odd group decision) that this $80 sort of flat one was the best choice.  It's very shallow and very small compared to what I'm used to, but I felt a life-transition come on, so I bravely went with it.

I get home and put the thing together.  The directions say it should take fifteen minutes, but it takes me about 45 minutes, because I'm like that.  Mostly this was due to the directions saying at one point to attach the bolts, but not to fasten them yet, and so I did that but the pieces kept unattaching, so I finally rebelled and fastened the damn things when I wanted to, and it was smooth-sailing after that.  I actually felt very proud of myself for putting the thing together, though I realize that it was super-simple to do, as self-assembly goes, and anyone who works with his hands for a living at all would've shaken his head at me.  (I pictured Robert Shaw saying to me, "You've got city hands, Hooper!  You've been countin' money all yer life!")  Maybe so, but it's been all coins, mostly dimes and pennies, I assure you.

So I take the thing for a ride that night, of course, though it was hot and humid and about 82.  It has this small space beneath the grate--this area is too small to be able to use the grate to cook something on--that you put your paper or kindling.  I did that.  Then the rest of the square- and bowl-shaped area you put the wood.  But as it's much smaller than what I'm used to, there's actually just room for large pieces of what I had been using as kindling, stuff that in my other firepit would've burned out in a couple of minutes.  In this one, though, this stuff lasted forever, so the amount of stuff which would've been five minutes of kindling in the other one was about an hour of the real stuff in this one.

Now here's the big reveal: I realized that less is maybe more here, and though I did not stick with my norm, this firepit will let me burn less in more time.  Plus, I can see all the wood that's burning (the other one was so deep that wood got buried, never to be seen again) and I can hear it better.  Instead of a roaring inferno, it was a quieter crackling.  More soothing.  More relaxing--which, if you remember, is the entire goal here, to relax me.  It also lit the area better, since more light got out because it was much more shallow.  (Though I'm not saying here that shallow is better.  Learned that wasn't the case in high school; proved it with my shallow attitudes and shallow girlfriends in my 20s.)  I furthermore took this a step further and realized that I (again) need to slow it all down.  I don't need a huge bonfire every night in my backyard, which used up more wood, which burned more quickly, which caused me to use more wood and round and round we go.

Slow it down.  Don't burn through everything (and everyone) so quickly.  Take it easy; take it slow.  Relax.

So while I was musing all this, and relaxing more, I had another epiphany:

Someone should invent another cable movie channel, but this one will show only movies with the director's/star's commentary on it.  (I hereby send notice that I am copyrighting this idea.  Where's the c in the circle thing???  Well, consider the idea Copyright 2012 Steven E. Belanger.)  Anyway, am I the only one who loves the commentary on the DVD?  I won't even buy a DVD if the commentary isn't there.  In the last two days I watched/listened to the commentaries on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, the director) and on Easy A (Emma Stone, the star, and Will Gluck, the director).  Love those things!

So if anyone starts a movie channel with just movies with DVD commentary, I want my credit, and my cut.