Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Free Bock

Here's a First

Charles Bock's debut novel "Beautiful Children," which I wrote about earlier this month, can now be downloaded for free until Friday. That's right, the whole book.

What can it hurt?


Trade Deadline

The Leafs do Close to Nothing

The Toronto Maple Leafs traded three minor players before Tuesday's trade deadline, picking up some draft picks. The moves were not close to the fire sale expected last week when the big question before the deadline was if Mats Sundin would waive his no trade clause. He didn't.

The debate on his decision will probably continue, just as the debate on whether the Leafs should have officially hit the Self-Destruct button Tuesday. The team couldn't because of the number of bad contracts former general manager John Ferguson Jr. signed.

What's most ridiculous is Damien Cox suggestion the Leafs need a Bob Gainey figure as general manager. This opinion is presumably based on Gainey's move before the deadline to trade his team's No. 1 goaltender, Cristobal Huet, for a draft pick, and put the Montreal Canadiens playoff hopes in an unproven rookie goaltender. "Gainey showed his greatness again," Cox writes.

Really? Taking a risk that could cost his team the Stanley Cup because Huet is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season is a sign of greatness? I would understand the trade if Montreal had received more than a second-round draft pick, had received help for their Cup run.

Gainey showed he was either a) brilliant or b) crazy, but the idea that being decisive alone is a sign of greatness is foolish. Let's be clear: Gainey, as a general manager in Dallas and Montreal, has created competitive teams. But he's only won a single Stanley Cup (in 1999 with Dallas) as a general manager.

Sure, that's one more Stanley Cup win than any Leafs GM since 1967, but I would hope that the Leafs next general manager is a far more successful hockey executive than Gainey.


Review 022708

"The Monsters of Templeton," by Lauren Groff

The first question after reading Lauren Groff's debut novel is why did she call it "The Monsters of Templeton"?

Groff starts, "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass." Instead of writing a 360-page novel about the monster of Lake Glimmerglass and the many ghosts that populate the town, Groff writes about the 'I' in the opening sentence; the 'I' being Willie Upton, and specifically Willie's quest to identify her real father.

The story Willie's mom, Vi, originally gave was that Willie was conceived in San Francisco in the midst of a hippie sex commune. Turns out that isn't true, and Willie's real father is someone in her hometown of Templeton. The reason Willie has come home (Templeton is a stand-in for Groff's hometown of Cooperstown, New York) is she slept with her professor while on an archaeological expedition in Alaska, was caught by the professor's wife, and incidentally became pregnant. Also complicating the plot is the illness of Willie's friend in San Francisco, Clarissa, and Willie's reunions with a range of people from her past in Templeton.

Groff devised a complicated plot with many turns, most of which are plausible and inevitable. Her characters are genuine even if at times their dialogue causes the reader to cringe; it's not that it's unbelievable, it's just regrettable people do speak that way. Groff also deserves praise for her imagination, as she does more than inhabit the mind of Willie Upton. The story switches narrators and texts (journals, letters) throughout, employing characters from Templeton's past to help solve the mystery of who is Willie's father.

Above the plot and characters, Groff creates incredible images. She writes,
I saw, clearly in my mind's eye, the monster in a cold cement warehouse, split open like a fruit. I saw cranes digging among the dead flesh, humans crawling on scaffolding around the corpse like Lilliputians across the body of poor shipwrecked Gulliver, the head bent back so the mouth flopped open and three rungs of shining black teeth bared to the ceiling. Offal extracted and studied and photographed, the creamy skin turning black at the wounds' edges.

Groff makes the a monster plausible and haunting. So while "The Monsters of Templeton" isn't at all about a fifty-foot monster that turns up in a lake, that it's a minor plot point does not seem tacked on.

When Groff titled her novel "The Monsters of Templeton" she was probably referring to a number of things, including some of the monstrous acts Willie Upton's ancestors commit. At the end of the novel, we also learn of another reason for the title. And we do get to the end, as Groff has written a novel that any reader, any age, can enjoy.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Free Groff

A Lauren Groff Link

In between reading "War and Peace" (yes, I haven't given up; I'm just terribly slow), I've been reading other books. Right now, that other book is Lauren Groff's debut novel, "The Monsters of Templeton." I'll try to write more about the book later this week.

But I came across on Groff's blog a link to her short story, "Ausbund," which was serialized on the short story site Five Chapters this week.

This was the first time I've come across Five Chapters, but the site has published short fiction from a wide selection of authors. Worth a look.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

"Lost" 4.3

Another Recap C/O i09

I thought this week's episode continued "Lost"'s strong season. Some may disagree. Below is a recap from i09, linked above. The following thoughts are not mine:

* Shout out to Philip K. Dick! I haven't read Valis but I'm sure some of you have. Care to share your thoughts on its significance?
* Still on the subject of books, Sawyer was reading The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Cesares, about which its publisher says: "Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious." And then Kate smacked him upside the head and went back to the beach.
* Locke is slowly turning into Colonel Kurtz. He believes he's responsible for the island's wellbeing, but he's becoming corrupted by the power he believes it confers on him. It's not a democracy, he tells Kate, whom he later banishes for disobedience and gross insubordination. Nor, according to Locke, is it a dictatorship -- yet he expects absolute compliance from the group who followed him. But he's uncertain enough to ask Sawyer, "Do you think I know what I'm doing? Do you regret following me?" Bad things are brewing.
* Speaking of which, loved Locke shoving a grenade in trussed-up Miles's mouth.
* Also loved Miles's distinction between blackmail and extortion, as well as his emphatically specific request of $3.2 million from Ben.
* Future Kate is acting as Aaron's mother, which means that something happened to Claire -- she's either dead or still on the island. Either way, didn't the psychic in Claire's past tell her not to let anybody else raise her baby?
* Claire was downright chirpy this week, flouncing off with a smile when Sawyer came to visit Kate, then happily suggesting Kate might like being a mom, too. I scoffed at's complaint that Claire wasn't grieving enough a couple weeks ago, but now it seems kind of valid. (Still don't want a big grieving Claire storyline, but shouldn't she -- or anyone -- at least mention Charlie once in a while?)
* Future Kate says she's heard Future Jack tell the cover story (only eight survived the crash, but two died, Kate was a hero) so many times she almost believes it herself. Why this scenario? I mean, why not just say six survived? Unless Claire (and someone else) did survive, only to die and that's why Kate has Aaron.
* Finally, regarding tonight's Kate is/is not pregnant storyline, why no Dharma-brand condoms on the island? I know Ben and the gang are trying to reproduce, but given that women who get pregnant on the island die, shouldn't there be some readily available birth control amid those great stockpiles of food and supplies? (Likewise, free Dharmette tampons might be a big upside to life on the island for women.)


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review 022008

"The Soul Thief," by Charles Baxter

The risk an author takes when entwining film references into a novel is that the the book could become overshadowed by them and take away from the story and its characters. The novel won't be about the world the author is creating, but about the movies in that world. Charles Baxter took a bigger risk. He did more than reference the films of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli, Baxter also quoted without attribution the script from "Psycho" by Joseph Stefano, an act the novelist acknowledges in a note at the end of the novel.

At no point in the novel, though, does Baxter's referencing steal from his story. In fact, Baxter's use of film references makes sense in the scheme of this novel, which is partly about people acting as others by appropriating someone's life story. "The Soul Thief" is split into two halves. The first is about Nathan Mason's time as a graduate student in Buffalo, New York. There he meets two girls, Theresa and Jamie, who he becomes romantically attached to; also Mason meets Jeremy Coolberg, a character whose purpose "'is to acquire everyone's inner life.'"

And that's what Coolberg attempts to do with Nathan. He has Nathan's shirts stolen so he can wear them, he starts reciting Nathan's life story as his own, and he writes Nathan into a novel. There is an obvious tension between Coolberg and Nathan. When Coolberg recites poetry in public, Nathan rebukes him: "' It's like vomiting in front of people.'" Upon finding out Coolberg has stolen his clothing, Nathan punches him. But Coolberg doesn't disappear, he hangs on, attached to Nathan, manipulating the people and events that are near him.

While the relationship between Nathan and Coolberg is the driving force of the narrative, Baxter also spends time developing Nathan's relationships with Theresa and Jamie. At the end of the first half, Nathan has pledged his love for Jamie, a bisexual, even though she isn't committed to him.

The second part of the novel opens years after graduate school and is told in the first-person, a switch from the third in the first part. Nathan, the narrator, is now married with two sons. Coolberg has been out of his life for some time, but returns with an offer for Nathan to meet him in Los Angeles where Coolberg works as a radio program host for NPR. Nathan reluctantly agrees to the meeting, and it eventually leads to a twist that illustrates Coolberg isn't the only person putting on an act in the novel; Baxter has performed a post-modern trick that will probably upset some readers, but works based on the clues he laid throughout the novel.

To recount more of Baxter's plot from either parts of his story would take away from some of the surprises and humour found in "The Soul Thief." The novel is short and entertaining throughout, with one flaw being its reliance on melodrama at certain points. And when one character nurses another to good health through reading books out loud, the plausibility of the story seems a bit suspect.

When Nathan describes Coolberg's NPR show, where Coolberg interviews people about their life stories, Nathan comments, "My trouble was that I also found the initial parts of the interview peculiar, as if Coolberg sought to make himself invisible week after week by enabling someone else's narrative into existence." Baxter's performance is similar. He makes Nathan and Coolberg plausible people we could meet at graduate school. But while Coolberg made himself invisible, Baxter's trick makes him the opposite.


Filthy Debut

Joining Ed Champion's Filthy Habits

My first contribution to the cultural blog Filthy Habits is now online. The piece is about "American Gladiators" and the book, "Steroid Nation":

They are the new Davids.

Granted they are not singularly recognizable –- they are remarkably generic –- but the bodybuilders slash athletes on American Gladiators represent the ideal male appearance. At least I think so, having had my ideal male physique built on a foundation of images of professional wrestlers and action movie stars.

The rest can be read here.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ford's "Canada"

Another Author Leaves a Long-Time Publisher

Just last month I wrote about Tom Wolfe leaving his long-time publisher, and now Richard Ford has done the same. Ford's situation is similar to Wolfe's as Ford's last novel, "The Lay of the Land" also failed to sell well. When it came to negotiate a new contract, Ford couldn't come to terms with Alfred A. Knopf. Off to Echo he goes.

Within that Times article, Ford's next novel is revealed. A book called "Canada":

a “novel of revenge and violent retribution set on the Saskatchewan prairie, in the early 1960s,” according to Ecco’s statement.

Mr. Halpern added that the book would cover some new territory for Mr. Ford. “It’s an adventure story and it’s about a boy’s coming of age,” said Mr. Halpern, who saw just a brief summary before signing the deal.

If "Canada" is published, Ford will enter into what I guess would be an extremely small group of well known American authors who have set a novel in this country. Beyond that, and the risk Ford would be taking, I also have to guess that a book set in Canada had Knopf worried.

By my glance, there isn't a single Canadian author or novel set in Canada on any of the New York Times best-selling fiction lists. Of course there have been before - surely - but a Canadian setting doesn't scream green in American publishing circles.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Vampire Weekend

The Disc & The Concert

Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut hit the shelves, as they say, last week. It's a great first disc, with several songs that supplement the great music the band released as an EP. Some samples can be heard at the band's MySpace page.

Their show last night at the Horseshoe Tavern was also fantastic. Someone has loaded a couple songs from their set on YouTube. Enjoy!


Bock, Again

Some More Thoughts on Charles Bock

Following "Beautiful Children" making the cover review of the NYT Book Review two weeks ago, which I wrote about here, Charles Bock suffered a backlash from various other outlets, including a review by Janet Maslin in the daily Times.

I noted the backlash as another reason to stay away from the book, but after listening to Bock's interview on The Bat Segundo Show, I want to give "Beautiful Children" an honest try.

Bock's love for books and writing is infectious; he offers an inspiring story, and seems like a genuinely nice person. These aren't "critical" reasons to read his book, but supporting an author who cares about his craft is as good a reason as any to read him.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Chinese Food

Pack Your Lunch

If there's one lesson to be learned in the Times article today about U.S. Olympians bringing their own food to the Beijing Games this summer, it's this: don't bother looking at the menu, just brown bag it from home while you're there.

Why? Because:

When a caterer working for the United States Olympic Committee went to a supermarket in China last year, he encountered a piece of chicken — half of a breast — that measured 14 inches. “Enough to feed a family of eight,” said Frank Puleo, a caterer from Staten Island who has traveled to China to handle food-related issues.

“We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.”


In recent years, some foods in China have been found to be tainted with insecticides and illegal veterinary drugs, and the standards applied to meat there are lower than those in the United States, raising fears of food-borne illnesses.


Four More

Another Term? Right...

Yesterday, U.S. President Bush sought to unite the Republican party in a speech seeking unity between its members to support John McCain as the party's presidential candidate. Bush never spoke McCain's name, but it was in his subtext. What was interesting was the chants heard when Bush entered the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington:

Although deeply unpopular, with an approval rating at historic lows below 30 percent, Mr. Bush still enjoys strong support among conservatives like those who gathered to hear him speak on Friday.

“Four more years,” the audience chanted
after Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, introduced him, and again during his speech. The crowd roared, too, when Mr. Bush declared Mr. Cheney “the best vice president in history”...

Are these people delusional? Bush's presidency is considered already to be one of the greatest failures in U.S. history. The list of problems he created and the time it will take to reverse them is staggering.

Four more years? They must really want the U.S. to irreversibly lose whatever respect it has left in the international community.


"Lost " 4.2

The Summary

Through the magic of links, I present a summary of what was learned in the second episode of "Lost"'s season four:

* Hurley can see Jacob/Christian's cabin, too, a fact which disturbs Ben and pleases Locke.
* Somebody went through a lot of expense and trouble to fake a wreck of Flight 815.
* In the past, there was at least one polar bear wandering the Tunisian desert in a Dharma Initiative collar. (A time travel experiment? Evidence of multiple Dharma locations?)
* Ben's smart mouth is going to get him killed.
* Sawyer, of course, has the best line of the night: "Taller? Like a giant?" I also loved his reference to Locke as Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz.
* also complains that Claire isn't mourning enough. Just because she isn't sitting on the beach in a catatonic state for a days on end, a la Rose, doesn't mean she's not grieving. And I, for one, don't need a soap opera storyline about Claire's sorrow.
* Ah, Naomi. You understood Murphy's law but your boss didn't, and now there's a dysfunctional rescue team running around the island without your guidance (unless you turn out to be one of the undead).
* Ben's mole on the freighter? Odds are on Michael.


Great Contract?

Evidently Yes

Johan Santana signed a fat US$137.5 million contract this week with the New York Mets. Richard Griffith highlights the details of the deal in his column today:

A guaranteed total of $137.5 million (all figures U.S.), a yearly average of $22 million for the six seasons from 2008-13. Club has option of $25 million for 2014, but it can become the player's option depending on innings pitched between 2011-13. If the club declines the option, he receives a $5.5 million buyout. If 2014 is vested and Santana declines the option, he becomes a free agent and receives nothing.

It is the highest average salary for a starting pitcher. Rounding out the top five are Carlos Zambrano ($18.3M) of the Cubs, Barry Zito ($18M) of the Giants, Jake Peavy ($17.3M) of the Padres and Andy Pettitte ($16M) of the Yanks.

A monetary concession for the Mets is that $5 million each year is deferred to be paid out seven years later on June 30, at 1.25 per cent interest, lowering the real-dollar value of the contract for the Mets. For instance, Santana would get $14 million this season and then $5 million plus interest in June of 2015 – and so on each year.

There is the usual assortment of bonuses for post-season awards and all-star game, down to $100,000 for winning a Silver Slugger given to the best hitter among NL pitchers. For the record, Santana has eight career hits and a .258 average.

Instead of a regular hotel room on the road, he gets a suite, not uncommon even among lesser talents. He gets a 15-person luxury box for home games in '08 at Shea Stadium and contributes $250,000 per year to the Mets' charity.

Let's see now: If the 29-year-old Venezuelan averages 18 wins per season for the next seven years – as he did for four years as a regular member of the Twins' rotation – it will see the Mets paying an average of $1.1 million per victory.

I'm not sure how any team could justify that investment, but then I don't have hundreds of millions of dollars lying around to invest in a ball club. I just wouldn't get the mindset.


Great Blades?

Evidently Not

The Star's Rick Westhead reports today that the heated blades advocated by Wayne Gretzky, an owner of the company who produces them, aren't great after reports from players who tested them.

Gretzky said the skates were "the most significant advance in skate blade design in at least 30 years." But of the five players who tested them, only one liked using them:

(Martin) Lapointe said he used the heated blades three times – once during an NHL game – and was unimpressed.

"I wouldn't buy them," he said, adding the battery-powered blades didn't always heat up.

Here's a shocker: the owner of a company boasts about his product even when its users think its a waste of money.


Homework Overload

Next Time Conduct This Study While I'm Still In School

The Star's front-page today featured a report on a study that concludes "Homework is of little benefit to students from junior kindergarten to Grade 6, say the authors of a just-released Canadian study, who also found it is often the source of stress and burnout in children, as well the cause of conflict – even marital stress – for many families."

Most parents and students will be dumbfounded to find that it took a study to determine what they've known for quite some time.

In the article, one of the parents interviewed said she believed her children would benefit from more time to play and read. I can't argue with that. While the study focused on kindergarten to Grade 6, I say that high school students would also benefit with more free time to read.

Of course a cynic would argue that cutting back homework time would lead kids to waste more time on the Internet or join a gang. But if kids and teenagers were given viable extracurricular options, then those problems wouldn't develop.

Six hours of school, plus two to three hours (in my experience) of homework is far too much if you want to foster students who will seek education throughout their lives.


'Doctor Horror'

Lesson: Never Cut Clippings If You're A Wanted Criminal

Thursday, Dr. Amit Kumar, better known as "Doctor Horror," a Brampton resident accused of being behind a large kidney-trafficking ring was arrested in Nepal.

But Kumar's freedom may have lasted longer had he been able to resist indulging in his press:

According to the Himalayan Times, Kumar and a Nepalese associate identified as Manish Singh checked into The Hotel Wildlife Camp under Singh's name, and were assigned room 6 at the resort, renowned for nature safaris.

Wearing a hat and sunglasses, Kumar apparently asked for a copy of the English daily, which carried a front-page story of the global manhunt for him, then minutes later, returned it to the front desk with the article cut out.

Suspicious of such behaviour, the clerk alerted Nepalese police who stormed the room and arrested Kumar without incident. Singh, however, managed to escape.

Despite this incredibly moronic blunder, Kumar didn't look too upset:

Hey, we all make mistakes, right? Doesn't mean we can't laugh and smile about them.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Limited Edition

For Those Who Really Love John Grisham

There must be a market for this, because it wouldn't exist without one: the limited edition copy of John Grisham's new novel "The Appeal"; retail price is US$250.

Hmm, doesn't look like it's worth that much...


Monday, February 04, 2008

Green Day?

The Rumours Swirl

Foxboro Hot Tubs is Green Day according to rumours and anyone who's familiar with Billie Joe Armstrong's voice.

Go: listen.


Ben Karlin

I'm Not Finished With Books Just Yet

On the Omnivoracious blog, contributor Brad Thomas Parsons interviews Ben Karlin, a former editor at The Onion and more famously known as an executive producer of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which he co-created. More recently, Karlin edited the anthology "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me."

I finished reading the anthology last week, and like most anthologies there are some clunkers. The most painful to read was "Lesson #46: She Wasn't the One" by Bruce Jay Friedman, a short story writer, who manages to take a 12-page story and make it feel like just the boring bits of a 900-page tome. I wish Friedman's piece was the one redacted instead of Stephen Colbert's humorous, if too short, contribution.

The strongest pieces included contributions by Dan Savage, Larry Wilmore and David Rees. "Things I've Learned" is a fun anthology, imperfect, but still worth a look.


"Beautiful Children"

Charles Bock - The New 'It' Writer

After a profile in the Times magazine last week, Charles Bock's debut novel received cover treatment in yesterday's Book Review. The profile pushed me towards reading the book, but the review did the opposite. But that's unfair to Bock because he never asked for a glowing, but poorly written review. A sample, you ask? The review, by Liesl Schillinger starts this way:

Charles Bock, the son of Las Vegas pawnbrokers, spent much of his childhood behind the counter of his parents’ shop, staring out at desperate adults as they hocked their most precious possessions in hopes of restoring their luck. “From the back of the store,” he recalls on his Web site, “I’d watch as the customers exploded and called my parents dirty Jews and cursed at them and threatened them at the top of their lungs. It’s impossible in situations like that not to feel for everybody involved — to be horrified, sure, but more than that, to be saddened by the spectacle, to want so much more than that out of life for everyone.”

After he left town, ending up on the East Coast for an M.F.A., Bock retained his searing memories. Now in his late 30s, he has spent a decade transforming them into his first novel, “Beautiful Children.” In it, he brings together the intersecting lives and innermost thoughts of parents and adolescents, strippers and pornographers, runaways and addicts, gamblers and comic-book illustrators, setting them against the neon-lit, heat-parched backdrop of Nevada, where “high walls and gated communities” join together in the night, “shimmering as if they were the surface of a translucent ocean,” and the colored towers of the Vegas Strip resemble a “distant row of glowing toys.”
O.K., fine. But here's the next sentence: "What should be said of the results of his labors? One word: bravo." Cue projectile vomit.

And while the Times seems to be in love with Bock, Benjamin Strong in Book Forum this month isn't as impressed. Strong's strongest complaint about the book (apologies for the pun) is this:

If these descriptions sound like types, that’s because Bock has a proclivity for conveying his characters and their attitudes with generalizations that sound like a marketer identifying his target demographic. Admittedly, this suits the sociological aims of the book. But for a novelist concerned with the exploitation of minors, Bock writes about youth subcultures he appears to know little about, seemingly just to harness their edginess quotient.
I guess I'll just have to read the book (or another hundred other reviews) to figure Bock's "Beautiful Children" out.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Anniversary Post

This Is Year Three Now

Remarkable: today marks three years since I started the blog. You care, right.

Last year, I barely updated the thing, checking in at least once a month to make sure the lights still worked and I still remembered how to hit 'Publish Post.'

I'm up to just under 300 posts, which is a small number, but based on my previous failures to maintain a blog, I'm satisfied that I've written as many words as I have for this space.

I've overcome the sophomore jinx, and kept the blog alive. Year Three is all about, um, not becoming bored?


Super Bowl

Will This Be The Year I'm Not Bored?

Once again I'll be at the desk at work primarily keeping an eye on the Super Bowl; this year it's (you know this, no?) the New York Giants against the undefeated New England Patriots. In past years, the Super Bowl has lived up to its over-hyped, stale, awful game reputation. This year, I hope for something better.

Because I have no home team that I would default cheer for (although, that may change soon), I'm free to jump on any NFL team's bandwagon. I'm pulling for a Patriots victory because I don't think I'll ever witness another team to win every game in the regular season and the playoffs. The Giants story, if they won, isn't nearly as compelling (Eli Manning, brother of Peyton who beat New England in last season's Super Bowl, prevents the Patriots from the greatest season in NFL history).

Regardless who wins, I hope the game is a close, high-scoring match that lives up to the hype of Super Bowl rather than being the game played between commercials.