5.30.2010

The Bantam Trivia Quiz Book by Donald Saltz






There's nothing trivial about The Bantam Trivia Quiz Book by Donald Saltz. Because trivia is as essential to its buffs as oxygen to lungs.

So what if its nostalgic cover looks as dated as any Love Boat episode, it's what's inside the book -- all that useless information (more than 1,800 Question-and-Answers of it) -- that counts.

Much like your average Liberal Arts education, The Bantam Trivia Quiz Book is a shotgun blast of meaningless facts you'll never need to land a good job or lead a productive life, unless your dream is hitting it rich on Jeopardy.

5.29.2010

This Is Spinal Tap by Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest & Michael McKean




[An online friend recently mentioned Spinal Tap to me, and I remembered I'd once written something about Spinal Tap, so I revisited what I'd written (nearly a year ago, last summer) and heavily amended, revised, edited and added to it. May you gag, should you read it.  May you smell the glove. Pray you break like the wind. . . ]

Before VH1s Behind The Music; before YouTube; before Borat and Bruno; before Heavy: The Story of Metal; but not before The Jerk or Airplane! or SNL, but before In Living Color and Dumb and Dumber, but not before Monty Python or Anaconda....what I mean to say is, In The Beginning, before Wholly Moses or Holy Moses, but not after Armageddon, either, there were the legendary British mock stars, Spinal Tap, a band of spectacular mini-Stonehenge proportions, both sonically and stuffed-sock-in-crotchily, and it was rad, and it was bad, and it was bitchen, and it was unquestionably clear their artistic intentions, when they opened with, Tonight We're Gonna Rock You, Tonight. Tonight We're Gonna Rock You, Tonight, brought new, profound meaning and depth of insight to the oft-redundant (and more often than not, banal) realm of heavy metal lyrics. But there's nothing banal about Spinal Tap's music, or their movie, or their music. If by Tonight We're Gonna Rock You, Tonight, Spinal Tap set out to rock you, tonight well then, hells bells if they did not indeed rock you tonight like you'd never been rocked tonight either that night or any night since!

True, Queen gave the world Fat Bottomed Girls in 1978, but Spinal Tap, ever aspiring to outclass the oftentimes raunchy and debauched competition of late 70s/early 80s heavy metal and hard rock music, in 1982 (the movie wasn't released until 1984) countered Queen's crass and pejoratively deplorable objectification of a singular asspect of the glorious and wondrous female anatomy (awesome!) with a tribute to rotund derriers uniquely its own, Big Bottoms. Hold your Sweet Honey close and listen to (or merely read, if you're not illeterate) the lyrics below. Make a romantic evening of it, admiring the subtlety and complexity of Spinal Tap's nuanced word play and puns from a Big Bottoms excerpt, as featured in the film, This Is Spinal Tap.

My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
I'd like to sink her with my pink torpedo

Big bottoms, big bottoms
Talk about bum cakes, my girl's got 'em
Big bottoms drive me out of my mind
How could I leave this behind?


Ahhh. They sure don't write sensitive love ballads like that anymore, do they? Certainly not in heavy metal. And if you call in the next 6.66 seconds, we'll send you Spinal Tap's classic follow up albums - Break Like the Wind and Smell the Glove for FREE!

This Is Spinal Tap is even better than a double-enema or a robust and blustery bowel movement after an unduly, days long, bout of constipation. Better than a transesophagealechocardiogram, for my money. Watch This Is Spinal Tap, and you may not need that extra-strength laxative.

The writers, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, tapped in oh so sublimely (if not so spinally), with satiric precision, as they pierced the bloated, bombastic heavy metal bubble of that time, and let out in whoopee-cushioned-flatulent-fashion, as they pricked, with their monumentally phallic, mockumentary flick, all that heavy metal hot air and excess. Think Screaming For Vengeance era Judas Priest -- studs and black leather -- without a doubt, the model of a classic heavy metal band that Spinal Tap mercilessly mocked (or maybe 1983s Accept, and their Balls to the Wall master(bation) piece, down to the last malfunctioning Alienesque-pod-prop detail. Or think Herman Rarebell (his real name, and not a Spinal Tap invention), the drummer for the then hugely popular, Scorpions, who was quoted saying, after watching the film, This Is Spinal Tap, how offensive he thought it was. Offensive because he felt people would see the movie and then not be as likely to take their music -- the Scorpions' in particular and heavy metal in general -- as seriously as they once did. And he was serious!

Spinal Tap, as a band, moreover, was strangely prescient when it came to crafting en vouge album covers, having just released their own "black" album long before Metallica's classic "black" album broke all heavy metal sales records a decade later; though at the time, they were poking fun, of course, at AC/DCs uber-successful, Back in Black, completely black album cover.

Spinal Tap was louder than most heavy metal bands as well, because their guitar amps went to ... eleven! instead of ten. Imagine if that type of guitar amplification technology and sound innovation had existed for Pete Townshend in his Who's Next to Quadrophenia prime? -- how many more than 120 Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-decibels would have been recorded at that May 31st, 1976 WHO concert in Charlton, South London? Undoubtedly, at least eleven more decibels would have been recorded.

Famous rock critic, Reginald Yardcoch, in his seminal heavy metal treatise, first published in the fanzine, Play Metal, Boys!, entitled, "How Spinal Tap Reshaped Metal The Way Silicone Reshaped Breasts," said a Spinal Tap gig "made him gag for all the right reasons."

May watching This Is Spinal Tap make you gag (assuming you get it, the movie, I mean) in a good way too!

5.23.2010

Consider(ing) the Lobster, and the cut short life of David Foster Wallace



This piece was originally written a couple weeks after David Foster Wallace's (DFWs) suicide, Sept. 12, 2008. I lived less than twenty minutes south of where DFW taught at the Claremont Colleges the last half decade or so of his life. I often considered the dreamy idea of either just showing up at one of his classes, or calling his department and seeing if I could get through to him, not to be a worshipful lunatic fan looking to him as some messiah, but simply to ask him if he wanted to go hiking. In the mountains I know like the back of my hand literally just behind and to the north of his back yard. I thought a question like that might disarm him, and would allow me to explain to him quickly that I wasn't a stalker or serial killer, but simply loved to hike, and thought he might like to too; and then I'd tell him, once we were on the trail (Icehouse Canyon Trail probably) how the outdoors have been such an escape, a refuge and replenishment for my often overly wrought, too easily discouraged and depressed, stressed out, strung out mind. I may arrive at the trail head a tumult of anxiety and neurotic nerves, but that baggage of negative emotion sheds quick, once my lug-soled boots leave their first treads on that dusty trail. I figured David could use such a sanctuary, where, as John Muir wrote, "cares drop off like autumn leaves," and it would've been my joy to share my mountain sanctuary with him...

A couple times, I almost called. I had the number. But it was just, turns out, a timid fan's fantasy. Nothing more. I'd like to believe that reaching out to him might've helped avert what ultimately happened to him, but David Foster Wallace, by all accounts, was hard to get to know, shy even, and undoubtedly would have, at worst, thought me a hack upon approaching him or calling him; or at best, merely politely said to me, "no".

Anyway, below is what I wrote in appreciation of him, and also after having recently completed what would become his final (and wonderful!) essay collection, Consider the Lobster, in late Sept., 2008:

In lieu of standard review (supposedly a "review" I know I'll never write again),

Dude, it's just lobsters man, relax.

interspersed within whatever the hell this is (homage? tribute? unconscionable crap?) I’m presently composing now

Why do you care so deeply about lobsters? Don’t you think you maybe, just maybe, you might care a wee bit too much about bottom-dwellers?

are snippets from an imaginary one-sided conversation, a brief and hideous interview, I had with the late David Foster Wallace recently;

Mr. Wallace, if you'll pardon my transgression as I regress to alluding to an earlier famous essay of yours, can’t you suck down some margaritas and just enjoy the damn cruise?

said fantasy monologue acting, I believe, as curious catharsis, channeling my loss -- strangely (inappropriately?) personal,

You tell us lobsters’er basically gigantic insects, that folks on the coast of Maine call ‘em ‘bugs,’ so what are you...I don't see you getting all eloquently loquacious too about the unethical treatment of escargot!

though simultaneously distant, our "relationship" and, I guess, vicarious?, if that’s the right word, which I don't think it is (I mean, I obviously didn’t know David Foster Wallace

I’ll admit I’ve never really considered the lobster like you have, DFW (if I may call use the acronym, DFW, as you're prone to frequently do), and if I’ve ever considered lobsters before buying your book (besides acknowledging that they taste mmm-mmm good, dip ‘em in golden liquid butter, mmm), I’ve considered them disgustingly overgrown, underseawater cockroaches.

even though his writing spoke to me (and even spoke for me when I couldn't put the words to whatever concept or descriptive myself) and untold others about everything and more, as in Moses-and-the-Burning-Bush-Speak, as if he were indeed (not necessarily Yahweh or Allah or Buddha) but my/our dearest most understanding friend) -- into, what?,

Remove their pincers, paint ‘em black – voila! -- you got yourself a ‘roided up sea salted cockroach -- yuck

something “productive?”; nah, what the hell does that mean?-- that’s the sort of disingenuous drivel DFW loathed; or,

I’m just infinitely jesting - ha! get it? - about the lobsters, Mr. Wallace, I admire your enriching, truly educational and edifying, disturbing even, ultra-linguistic meta-analysis of ethics/morality-Maine-Lobster-Festivalish

channeling to maybe expunge the nebulous, hard to mentally grasp and accurately articulate, grief (yes, my own personal grief, even though I never met the man) over DFWs death, (why it’s so painful to me when I didn’t literally know him beyond his books/interviews) out of my head, onto the page,

Forgive my sentimentality, Dave – and what’s so necessarily automatically wrong with being somewhat sentimental like Charles Dickens at times anyway?!

so that my heart can maybe intervene and somehow translate these emotions in-transit through the oblivion between my brain and the page in order to...in order to what?...make sense of it?...

But I’m already remembering you fondly, perhaps even - yes! - sentimentally, despite your assumed omnipresent protestations of hyper-literary-vigilance against said syrupy nostalgia -- and despite what you...how could you, Dave?...what you did.

make sense of the bewildering incomprehensibility of what you did, taking your own beloved life...like eternity, it will never be explained, only hinted at in essays and fictions, because the only person who could possibly explain it to us, you Dave, is dead.

Nevermind, Mr Wallace, I'm obviously confused from so much considering, searching for answers to infinite questions only you'd think to ask, and know how to answer.

5.19.2010

Daughter's of the North by Sarah Hall



I love the women of Sarah Hall's Carhullan Army (a.k.a. Daughters of the North) the"North" being the Northern Highlands of England. These rawboned, muscles honed (but not quite Amazon-like) ladies live off the land like modern day Pocahontases, assuming Pocahontas had a diesel-fueled Jeep, automatic rifle, and was on the lam from the villainous (but not very well defined) "Authority" of Hall's brief and bleak and too abrupt-ending novel.

These hardy (mostly British) women, bedecked in utilitarian handmade hemp attire, sweaty and presumably stinky from the hard work of either tending to their small farm or training in their leader's (Jackie's -- a now celibate lesbian and a ruthless megalomaniac) amateur "army," enjoy their time off work by occasionally "secreting" to the few local remnants of men for their lascivious, sexual gratification. Woo hoo! These women actually use these men as sex objects! (can you believe that a woman would do that to a man?!) Oh the heinous role reversal of revenge! Do I embellish somewhat? Yes, since some of these men are the actual husbands of the Carhullan lasses, "allowed" by Jackie to remain nearby, but not allowed on Carhulla's grounds.

Daughters of the North is not just about sex -- darn! -- (though there's plenty of it), but about a commune of wounded women, the majority of which arrived at the compound having just escaped their abusive captors, be they brothers or fathers or boyfriends or husbands. England becomes the symbol then, of the abusive, domineering male, as the nation transforms in less than a decade into what the women must ultimately escape: A democracy turned tyrannical patriarch, North Korea kind of nation. England loses its liberties when...well, maybe that's giving away too much of the story. But I will say it involves the Thames River, in what amounts to about the only plausible (and original) potentiality of the novel.

We learn about the demise of free society (and the ruin of London) through the fed-up eyes of a young woman known only as "The Sister,'" who sneaks out of the relocation tenements in order to locate (and hopefully live and be accepted) into what she's come to believe since being a teen could be her destiny, her Shangri-La, the mythic, legendary enclave of Carhulla.

When she gets there, she receives abuse at the hands of her fellow women far worse physically and emotionally than any abuses she's ever suffered previously at the hands of Big Brother (I mean the "Authority"). Her confinement to what amounts to a sensory deprivation tank filled with excrement, is rationalized by Carhulla's leadership as protecting the greater good of Carhulla, and a way to verify (if not initiate) if "the Sister" is who she says she is and that she's not a spy sent by the Authority. The Sister is ultimately treated well but, sorry, what a bunch of unlovely bitches most of these ladies are.

Sarah Hall, photo by Richard Thwaites
Frank Herbert wrote about ultra-unconscionably cramped living conditions and harsh treatment of initiates three decades previously in The Dosadi Experiment, as have an even more famous host of other mid-century, brave new writers long since dead. In other words, this particular "futuristic" concept of Halls is tired and untrue; it's unoriginal, as are just about every futuristic concept she tries to sneak by her readership, like how the Authority controls women's reproductive rights. No way! I've never read about that in a dystopia or science fiction novel before! And if governments like China right now are controlling women's reproductive rights, what's so science-fictiony and shocking and making-for-a-good-yarn about the topic any more, anyway?

The power of well executed dystopias like Yevgeny Zamyatin's, We, for instance, lies in its believability -- this could really happen here in Britain! -- and hyper-parody of present politics gone off the dictatorial deep end, as well as satirizing a culture's fear-climate of compliance, like what Alexander Zinoviev adroitly accomplished so successfully in his late 1970s encyclopedic skewering of the former-Soviet Union's government (and many of its complicit citizenry) in The Yawning Heights.


Frankly, there's little power or believability in Sarah Hall's novel. Sarah Hall expects us to believe that thirty-two women could sack a city controlled by an Authority (and c'mon, Sarah, couldn't you be a bit more clever and creative than calling your Evil Antagonist the...'Authority'?) and hold that city in their power for fifty-three days, 24/7! Are you kidding? Thirty-two British Commando's couldn't sack a city and hold it for two-and-a-half months morning noon and night. Did you see what happened when about thirty-two American Airborne Rangers tried to extract one individual of importance in Somalia, Sarah? They barely survived a week against that city.

I don't think Sarah Hall believes her Carhullan Army could have pulled off such a coup either. Otherwise, wouldn't she have shown us in the text how they did it exactly, rather than tell us that they did do it in a tacked on page-and-a-half epilogue? Weak.

I've been hard on Sarah Hall. Hard on her because she's obviously a gifted writer who's written an acclaimed historical debut (Haweswater) and been shortlisted for a Booker Prize (The Electric Michelangelo) but who made what has to be considered a gross misstep here with The Daughters of the North.


Ultimately, I don't recommend this novel because it's a bad novel per se (it isn't) or a novel with an implausible plot (though it definitely is that), but because the average informed reader has probably already read the book before in some form; read much better and believable books before, in fact, assuming they've read Margaret Atwood's most iconic dystopic stuff, or Huxley or Orwell's most famous, finest hours.

In a sentence, Daughters of the North should stay far to the south in any serious reader's tbr pile.

5.18.2010

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter



Some novels hit so close to home as to make their reading so uncomfortable we avert our eyes from the page, hoping the characters won't make the same foolish mistakes we made once upon a time. We cringe, like we might upon looking at faded photos from our awkward adolescence. Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling, back in print since Sept. of '09, thanks to NYRB Classics (muchos gracias, NYRB Classics!!) is one such novel for me.

Jack Leavitt, an anti-hero extraordinaire as anti-heroic as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle (sans the psychosis) has recently run away from an orphanage. He's seventeen. He's just been locked out of his dirt bag motel room he rents. It's already dusk when we meet him, brooding about this and yearning for that, and the events in his life, as he walks downtown through the seedier side of Portland, Oregon, are only going to get darker.

We know both his parents are deceased from the stark prologue to this -- Don Carpenter's first published book (he'd written two novels previously, but rather than publish them, he abandoned them to his attic, and only after his death did they see the light of day).  Jack's Dad got kicked in the head by a horse: bit the dust at twenty-six. His Mom died more violently a short time after ... by her own hand: shotgun blast to the head. Their violent deaths are poetically apropos of the violence and emotional chaos awaiting Jack's impending adult life (if it can ultimately be called a "life"), that Carpenter will heart wrenchingly and painstakingly unroll before us like some blueprints on how to build a good Life Gone Wrong, as we witness what's just around Jack's -- at all levels literal and metaphorical -- incarcerated corner. It's a mightily melancholic novel, in other words. It whacked me devastatingly, though divinely, I'd say, upside the head.

I used to know a lot of Jacks. Used to be like a lot of Jacks. Pool hall punk. Drunk. Broke.  A joke.  Forced to crash in acquaintance's pads. Unemployed by choice on top of it, even though I knew the rent was due lickety-split. The same's true for Jack, except it's 1947 for him (not those big-haired late '80s), in an era when folks were more prone to pay up front with cash instead of credit. On Jack's backstreets of Portland there's no Payday Loans to bail him out.  No Cash Calls.  No parents, as I mentioned. No real friends, except for his Minnesota Fats-like pool hustling buddy, Billy Lancing, and fellow whorehouse aficionado, Denny Mellon.  But they're both broke too.  He's got no extended family. No nothing. "He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense 'wanted'."  [Emphasis mine].  "He did not feel 'wanted' -- he felt very unwanted." So aptly put, Don Carpenter!

So what's an unwanted and restless and impetuous and disastrously undisciplined teen out on his own for the first time in his life without adult supervision, who (like a lot of male teens from every era, unwanted or not) ''just wanted some money...a piece of ass...a big dinner...a bottle of whiskey...a car...some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes...a .45 automatic...a record player...so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to 'How High the Moon'...'' to do? Wash some dirty dishes in a cheap greasy dive and have no money leftover after rent for the finer things in life like that fine piece of ass? Actually work and slave away for nickels and dimes all his life? Hale no! More likely he and Denny Mellon will place bets on pool -- on Billy Lancing -- for fast funds (or faster debt), then maybe they'll steal a car together off a used-car lot for kicks (grand theft larceny!) -- a Cadillac, why not? -- and then perhaps, after opening that Caddy up something fierce out on that empty Oregon highway, windows down, wind in their long filthy hair, abandon the ride in uptown-Portland and break-and-enter into a house (a middle class home that seems "like a mansion" -- at least after the orphanage -- whose residents (or so they naively think) are allegedly away for a week? Now that sounds more like it, being that kind of loser, the latter.

Is it any surprise then when Jack lands in jail for getting involved with (how rather icky and embarrassing) underage girls, who at least, in Jack's defense, looked and acted a lot older? He was eighteen by then; they were fifteen or sixteen thereabouts (but built like real women), and one of their fathers, a very powerful and influential and vindictive man -- a DA -- unfortunately for Jack, intent on seeing justice served.  In other words, Bye bye, Jacky-poo. See you in that orange jumpsuit (or whatever they wore in the late '40s). What's surprising is that Jack trusted that DA who gave him his holy word that he had a good deal. Probation. Time served. Yeah, a good deal all right, sending him straight to San Quentin. How could Jack have been so duped into trusting the System when the System had screwed him royally his whole life? Perhaps because he wanted to believe that the System, the only mother and father he'd ever known, would finally be there for him. Would finally maybe love him and demonstrate to him that they cared. No such luck.

Don Carpenter (1931~1995)
In prison, Jack finally learns about self-discipline and self-control. Better late than never. Surprisingly, too, Jack learns about true love with a certain pool hustling buddy from his Portland past, who becomes his cell mate, and who demonstrates to Jack the greatest love imaginable out in the prison yard one afternoon. But will Jack recognize the deep true love by that selfless act in time?

Jack also learns (let's just say he learns a lot about life in prison, much more than he learned when he was free) that a man can have sex with another man while imprisoned, but once released, have no homosexual desires ever again. Carpenter sensitively and convincingly handles that difficult topic, the inevitable necessity of consensual inmate sex. How it helps keep the inmates sane. How it helps them survive the long bitter nights in their cells.

The love Jack learns about in prison, though, doesn't translate well on the outside (nor with a woman necessarily). He marries one in a rush nevertheless -- a party girl named Sally -- in Vegas, while he's still on parole. She's undisciplined herself, the product of a different kind of abuse altogether than what Jack's been through. And she's got more mysteriously dark secrets it seems than Houdini, including a secret suitor who's long been on her trail. No wonder Jack's parking attendant gig working nights doesn't quite cut it for her. But he's an ex-felon, he insists, so who'll hire him? and didn't she realize that going in? How tragic is it that Jack truly believes that having a baby with Sally will solve their problems and save their marriage. Sad.

By the time the 1960s arrive, Jack Leavitt is alone. The way we met him. The way we leave him. Loneliness, his most loyal friend.


5.01.2010

How Washing and Waxing an Itasca Mini-Motorhome Helped Procure My Copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia



This book weighs 4.5 pounds. Four-point-five pounds of mostly raw statistical data sans statistical analysis on over sized coffee-table style pages with teensy margins, font size at most 7, printed on something like rice paper, only the paper is not opaque; the flimsy type of paper comprising most Bibles. This edition approaches 2,300 pages. That's 2,300 pages of raw baseball statistics. Imagine reading all seven volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, only instead of reading about bucolic introspective meanderings throughout the lovely French countryside as remembered by a sickly, housebound young Frenchman, you read about nothing but home runs and earned run averages and balks, on pages tissue-thin, the tiny text printed all the way out to the edge of distant margins, printed practically off the edge of the page like "bleeds" (that's printer's lingo for you).

1969 ed., edited by Joseph L. Reichler, image from Rare Book Cellar.com
I washed and waxed one Saturday afternoon in 1982 my father's twenty-five-foot long Itasca mini-motor home in order to earn the dough to pay for this $29.99 baseball behemoth of behemoths, on sale at -- it was either B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, I believe. I've never worked so hard or with such purpose in my life; I really wanted that book--and fast!

So what's the big deal about a book one could just as easily use as a clunky dumb-bell filled with nothing but arcane baseball numbers dating back to 1861; a book dealing with often obscure, obfuscating percentages such as slugging % (total bases divided by at-bats) versus on-base-average (walks, hits, reached base on error, but *not* hbp (hit by pitch) or fc (fielder's choice) divided by at-bats; the stats correlated and itemized to every player in the history of Major League Baseball who ever played the game (included even if that player played in only one game, one inning for that matter) he's itemized like a nominal tax deduction for all time and eternity; so again, the question is: what's the big deal exactly?....

To this day, I do not know. I know only that the numbers and statistics about baseball fascinated my then burgeoning thirteen year old brain (as they do to this day, minus many brain cells), and that I was willing to spend seven sweltering, ungodly humid summer hours scrubbing and waxing and rinsing and drying with a shammy...what in hindsight amounted to nothing more than a rectilinear-ten-ton-monstrosity-on-double wheels, in order to obtain it, The Baseball Encyclopedia, which, if my division is correct, comes out to working for $4.28 an hour for a book weighing 4.5 pounds, or rather, working for 95 cents a pound per hour.