Monday, July 7, 2014

Ruthless Rendell

Simply because this is perfection:

"I was three when she was born and remember with perfect clarity being told I was to have a little brother or sister to play with. This was the way my mother put it to me and I believed her, as what child would not?
"The reality is a baby the older sibling is forbidden to touch, for how would that elder one choose to 'play' with the interloper, the thief of a parent's love? By beating it to death, by stamping on its face, by taking the feeble wriggling body to the river and watching the current carry it away downstream. Those are the games to play with a new brother or sister--if the opportunity is given."
Ruth Rendell - "Heartstones"
A tiny wisp of a book, 94 pages and it starts on page 9 in the edition I have, but worth seeking out. "Heartstones" is a traditionally gothic tale of a young girl with a mordant worldview living in a supposedly haunted house trying to decide, for a good slice of events, what to do about an impending stepmother. Hints about how other people see her linger, and pay off when there's a reversal tol how she sees herself. It's masterfully, scrupulously written. Rendell's gaze is always cold and shrewd, more honest than cruel.
Find it.
Read it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why I Read So Damn Much

Why do I read so damn much? I think it's mostly because of the noise, that constant flood of stimulation in my day.

I have always taken in a lot of information. Each day's go-around just adds more to the pile, too. The podcasts I listen to as I putter around the house, most I can never miss as they're either anchored by adored friends or imaginary ones, and the constant presence of an audiobook I shift to in the car. The last six years and counting, have been an exponential explosion of noise. That's how long I've had both a smart phone and social media accounts, those insidious interaction simulators that reinforce their addictiveness with every exposure. "I have to check! I might have missed something!" That bumpy, constant flood of fragments in the feed that seem to be equal parts half-assed outrage and empty-headed banality, each one snagging your attention to create the faintest of reactions until it builds into a buffer-crashing crescendo of stuff. Every time I look at the phone, frequently while those podcasts also rattle away, it is to look for new email or the jagged flow of information, filling two tracks of attention in what I fear is a less than eight track mind.

That's all noise, and it adds up. Add in the occasional movie or, when time was made, a book and that's a lot of narrative threads to put together. This doesn't even touch on the hurricane of multi-tasking that is my day at work. It's no wonder I feel like my nerves are fried. They are.

Along with all that "noise," (a word that in ten minutes of writing I already form in my head like a nasty thing that must be dropped from revolted fingers that I'll then shake the slime from), came the "move." After ten years spent in a house and city I really didn't want to be in anymore but for a long time had felt powerless to leave, we moved to Columbus. It wasn't too far, but it freed me from some physical and mental structures that were a constant source of anxiety (which could paradoxically offer great and reassuring comfort). It spurred me to divest of a bunch of calm-shaking clutter and numbing routines.

In short, while good for me, it played havoc on my nerves. There's a reason why moves and job changes are cited as some of the most stressful events in life. It left my memory shot for about the two months of sale contract and relocation. One time, I walked away from a faucet I'd just turned on, already forgotten as it overflowed a cup in the sink. I don't think Chris ever got how much another occurrence frightened me, a misplaced sheet of stamps I knew I had bought but couldn't find. I wound up backtracking to the post office and getting rewarded with the stamps, returned by a kinder-than-they-realized stranger after I'd dropped them on the way to the car. I had to pursue that $7, you see, or accept that the Alzheimer's had shown up for a stunningly early onset. I was genuinely freaked out and mentally exhausted.

And during all that, I was using the "noise" to keep me distracted.

Now we get to the books, the question I asked myself that spurred the above observations. I have, since I first started this semi-tended blog, half-heartedly curated lists of what I was reading and watching. An inveterate reader from way back, I'm someone who also sees himself as a "self-styled writer" "if only I had more time," (in other words, an undisciplined one). I have felt like I've given the writing and the reading short shrift the last few years. As a youth, I read voraciously. My parents sensibly denied us many a bright and shiny toy, but never a book, for which I offer thanks every day. Smart enough to be under-stimulated in High School, and ahead enough to be saddled with two back-to-back study halls, I was blowing through about 200 pages of paperback a day for a while there. (Anything to avoid confronting adolescent realities, eh?)

In college you read as work and drink for sport. And after? The less probably said about my aimlessness, the better. But I always had a book going, even if the speed with which I read would ebb and flow. To not be reading a book, even if not actually reading it for a while, has always been unthinkable. As the interaction beasts grew to prominence over the last six years, "they who must always be fed" sliced off a huge fraction of the free time spent on things like reading and writing... and dishes and checkbook balancing, for that matter. It took a while for me to realize that Tweeting and commenting is a poor distraction from what I'd call real "word-craft," for lack of a better term, but they do satisfy in quick hits. They're the "smoking" of writing, and just as detrimental to your long term health.

Back to those lists. 2012 was a disappointing showing. 30 Audiobooks were good, but only 25 books? A pity. Along with the urge to keep lists, comes one to give weight to numbers. I wanted, at the start of the year, to top that. By December 4th of this year, I was finishing book #115, while on disc 4 of 6 of Audiobook #28. So how did I go from famine to gluttony?

Well, in keeping the lists I have a few mental rules. Books and Graphic novels count. Full Audio plays count, but when I'm listening to old radio shows, those don't. Loose comics and magazine articles don't count. I dropped TV shows from my counting a couple years ago, so really, only full movies (and TV documentaries) qualify for that list. (I might make an exception for the delicious first season of "Thriller," the ten episodes of which I've been peppering over the last month, each a treat.)

Looking back over those 115 (to date, who knows how far I'll get yet in 2013?), I'm a tad set back in my idea of "progress" as I note 45 of them are Graphic Novels. The deeply-entrenched and, frankly (to my logical mind, at least), baseless idea that comics are somehow "secondary" undercuts my sense of progress. Another book, the massive, challenging, constant comfort of Gore Vidal's 1200 plus pages of "United States," was first cracked with a sense of purpose in 2012 (finally started, actually, as I'd been lugging it around and taking only occasional dips in since 1999), so taking that out of the running puts me at...69. 69 books I'd call "text only" is a fine showing (and again, this doesn't count the audiobooks). A finer showing as I look and see that 8 of the 25 read and listed in 2012 were Graphic Novels.

Looking further, I see many to most of them are mysteries. I've made lots of time with M.C. Beaton this year, along with taking up new authors, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Simon Brett (previously only experienced in audio format), and seriously revisiting Richard Stevenson. I also really started dipping into a collection of Hard Case Crime novels that fell into my lap. I've also caught up with two perennial authors in my life, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, each of whom I first started reading back in those double-study-hall days (sorry, ladies, for I fear that "dates" your careers. I assure you your works are both timeless and vibrantly "present.") and have kept up and caught up with ever since. I filled a few pockets of free time with James Patterson, the "writer" (I feel "producer" or "manager" is now a better term) whose production line moves so fast Lucy Ricardo is at the other end sticking Alex Cross product down her blouse to try and keep up. I mention him only to share my favorite observations about him:
1) that I read "Cradle and All," cover to cover, during a two hour flight.
2) if you shrink the type to a normal font and take out the dead white space between the bite-sized chapters, his books clock in under half the page count. This is why they're "page turners." You're not breathlessly racing through an adventure, you're just physically moving faster that with most authors to keep up with the flow of words... because they're spaced too far apart.
3) after seeing an author photo of him and one of his "co-writers," I picture it to be like a photo-op at the Con I go to. A line of people who're shuffled in to stand with the star, exchange a quick pleasantry, smile, and scooted out when the picture's taken. They sure didn't look like two people who'd met before. 
I have a bit of the same prejudice towards the mysteries as I do to the Graphic Novels. A "genre ghetto" guilt. Perhaps in 2014 I'll resolve to tackle the other works by Vidal and all the Nabokov I've added to my shelves recently. Perhaps I'll tackle all the other big books and writers stuck in the pile. Plato, Freud, Oates, Clancy, Mailer, and Mitchell are all there. More likely, though, I'll continue to follow the winds of my whims and read whatever I'm finding pleasurable at the moment.

The point is that, along with wanting from the outset of the year to have a better showing--to "do better"--in reading achievement this year, I've also read for comfort. After the move, those two genuinely scary months, I've really been reading like it's both respite and rehab. Reading re-purposes time I used to while away fiddling with the phone (which I still do too much of), or spent zoned out in front of the television. I've raced from book to book, most a short-to-the-point-of-bite-sized 150-200 pages, and gotten cozy with each cozy mystery.

I have this worry that Chris is going to think I've been reading so constantly to avoid him. I think the truth is more that I feel comfortable enough--warm and safe enough--to spend so much time at it. I've needed to be quiet and regain a sense of calm in my head. To follow a long line of words as they build to the end and reacquaint myself with this attention span I used to have. I need a novel's continuous flow and piling of events to re-order a mind that feels permanently jumbled after years of flash-spiking with artificially-induced (via Facebook, mostly) amusement or irritation, shaken up at a mile a minute for years. This isn't just catching up on my reading, it's a damned zen exercise.

He gives me the space and time to do that. He's let me fill our new home with books. I've always taken comfort from being surrounded by them. A big pile achieved, another promising new adventure, now growing in about each room that lacks a faucet. I take comfort from his steady presence, which encourages me daily to come out of my shell and be a better person, even when I don't feel I'm yet achieving all I can. I improve myself with him, and I improve myself as I sit next to him, enjoying the next book and the comfort of our home.

So that's why I read so damn much. Because it's good for me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pine Trees Like Wooly Mammoths

Just yesterday, I went and opened my big yap about the coming snows. Just as if I were a crystal ball, last night snow came. It reminds me one very important thing I'd forgotten that I really do love about winter, and when the snow first falls. The way it builds up and highlights each one of those gnarly gray branches that so bum me out the rest of the winter. That and the quiet when it's coming down. For me, those beautiful qualities make the rest of it tolerable.

I looked across the street at the large Pine in a neighbor's yard this morning. I can't wait now for a big blizzard of a snowfall now. I can see it in my mind's eye, looking like a big Wooly Mammoth trudging through flying, blinding flakes.

(I also think, perhaps, I've found my next big rant: How long it takes to crop a couple photos on my poor, wheezing, life-should be measured-in-dog's-years laptop.) 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Every Day is Quiet and Gray...

Every year, I forget what Fall and Winter looks like in Ohio. The colors are beautiful, even during this dry year. The reds, golds, bronzes, oranges, yellows all show themselves in the leaves. A great, crisp flare-up, but then they drop, and you're left with branches. Black, brown, and gray branches against gray and white skies. Gray. For all those starting colors, there's too much gray. It goes on too long. Interminably blah, wet and cold or parched dry and cold, occasionally dotted by one beautiful moment of snow that quickly gives way to gray and black slush.

I really think both Chris and I suffer from what they call "Seasonal Affective" issues. He still shudders remembering the January a couple years ago, mostly spent home alone and awake primarily during dark evening hours. He hated it. In Cincinnati, it was always too bleak for me, every year. By end of January, after the passage of things to look forward to-Christmas and my birthday- I would generally despair. I remember the job I held for five years there that I allowed to so grind me down. Two months where one generally goes to work and returns home in the dark. Spending those days boxed in from sunlight by plain, high, blank walls never helped.

My mind wanders to all this as I look out the window, watching the squirrels and birds romp across the yards directly across from mine in my new neighborhood. After ten years of one view, this is pleasantly different. I loved those beautiful old "German Craftsman" houses across from my little Crackerbox, framed by it's droopy porch awning and massive, incongruous Elm tree. Here I see one ranch house that's either "little" or "nondescript," depending on mood, and a lot currently empty except for fallen leaves. I look out and see the Fall lighting. It's at the start of what I guess I'll probably call "The Gray" for the rest of the Winter. I keep imagining the end-game of March, that last month that was such a terrible trudge in Cincy. I hope it'll be better here, knowing full well Columbus is so geographically close as to make no difference at all. It's been so long I don't remember what Winter was like here. If anything, I know to expect more snow. But I see it looming ahead, and prepare for it, hereby vowing to put my best foot forward and keep a positive mindset about it. Mostly, though, I think one thing...

"Chris, we're SO going to need to take a vacation come February."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Fragment: Villians Have a Brand To Think About, Too, You Know...

A fragment of something conjured while waking this morning:

Picture the lair of a Supervillain. It might be a Volcano hideout, with technology integrated into rock face, and big sweeping steel ramps, or perhaps a satellite, orbiting steel and white in space. There, an intrepid Do-Gooder confronts a droll and arch Villian, playing his stereotype up to a campy hilt, cape and all.

"So where did you get all of these," our Hero asked, stalling for time, while gesturing across the room's museum worthy collection of weapons of all shape, size, and era, no two alike. "Arms dealers?"

"No, they're actually all my own designs, thank you very much," our Villain purred, stroking the pliant white cat in his lap.

With an unbelieving smirk, our Hero scoffed. "I find that hard to believe."

"No, it's true," sighed the Evil-Doer, as he slouched and then looked up in resigned annoyance, breaking character to share something personal. "It's just that I had a nephew who wanted to be a Graphic Designer. He thought he could be an Industrial one, too, so everything had to look different. He had a phase with retro-Fifties, and fins on everything. Then a minimalist streak that made half my bombs all look like iPads. Then, he'd fritter a week away on logos and user's manuals and the most nonsensical info graphics you ever saw..." the villain trailed off, looking aside.

"It's a shame, really," he sighed. "We had a surveillance vehicle that he decided to make look like a caterer's van. He used Papyrus all over it and, well, you can imagine. Three different caterers tried suing us for infringing on their 'image'." Here there were fingerquotes and a loud "HA! As if you could tell them apart."

"Another drove off with the damn thing-by honest mistake-and wound up blowing herself up. Tsk. Literal and figurative Ladyfingers everywhere. I wanted a Zeppelin with lasers and a nice, Deco look, but he'd seen something online about disguising products... Anyhow, I had to take poor Jerry and banish him to the Arctic hideout. Poor thing lost his mind from guilt and shame, and now I have him re-doing all my files with a label maker that only prints in Comic Sans... My sister refuses to let it go. Every holiday, the same thing 'You could have had him just do some business cards, but noooo, Mister Big Shot wants to go fancy...'"

Our Hero looked down, shaking his head, genuinely moved by the aesthetic tragedy of it all. A Zeppelin with lasers would've been damned cool to fight it out on, even if it had been done before.

"Anyhow," the Villain said, hoisting up from behind his desk a ridiculously enormous death-ray, clearly embellished to impress after Jerry'd read too many 90's Liefeld comics, "Where were we?"