Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Month That Was - April 2011

The Month That Was - April 2011: Waterworld. At least it seems that way. Spring has brought some new little twists on homeownership travails as detailed below, but I am getting more comfortable with these things. Soon I will be able to set aside my obsession with sorting out my house and get back to writing or travel or whatever.

Speaking of writing, Misspent Youth is now available on Kindle. Woo hoo. $4.84. Barely more than a latte. Go download it now. (I assume you are aware you don't need a Kindle to read Kindle books.) Same deal as with all my books: buy a copy and leave a nice review on Amazon and I'll be your BFF.

Speaking of travel, photos from my last trip to Florida -- Palm Beach and the Dry Tortugas -- are now up on Smugmug. Good desktop background fodder.

Speaking of whatever, I ran ten miles for the first time in the hopes of doing a half marathon somewhere this summer. I have my eye on one out in Deadwood, but it's an open question as to whether I'll make it.

[Books] Book Look: Lay the Favorite
[Books] Book Look: The Devil's Alternative
[Movies] Flick Check (HD Version)
[House and Home] Waging War on Nature

[Books] Book Look: Lay the Favorite

Book Look: Lay the Favorite, by Beth Raymer: This was a fun book that appealed to the gambler in me. It's a memoir of a girl's rather oddball way of coming of age. Her plans to work in her boyfriend's family restaurant crash along with their relationship so Beth finds herself broke and rudderless. She wanders into a couple sleazy occupations: An in-home erotic dance service although she never drifts into having sex with her customers, and pornographic modeling, although she never actually poses for other people, she takes pictures of herself and photoshops herself into sexy twins. (At this point, I have to admit my BS detector went off. It seems awfully convenient that she could skirt the outer edges of prostitution and pornography yet manages never to cross the line into becoming "one of them". But that may say more about my cynicism than her candidness.)

In search of better work while waiting tables in a diner, one of her customers sends her to meet a professional gambler named Dinky. There begins her foray into the semi-legal world of sports handicapping. We are treated to a fascinating review of Dinky's life -- how his gambling got started, how it progressed from picking winners to making book, how he skirted the law, how his operation in Las Vegas functions. Beth starts out as essentially a gofer, but in time is taking bets and making six figure cash exchanges. All this is set in the halcyon days of Vegas before the crash -- it was like catnip to me.

When Dinky's operation starts to get in trouble Beth moves on from there and gets involved with a new corporation running an internet sports book out of the Caribbean. Her things get even stranger what with political unrest, rampant hookers, gang threats. It too eventually folds.

In the end, Beth actually rips off a fairly large sum from a lying, dirtbag gambler and heads for somewhere warm, presumably to write this book.

Lay the favorite is lively and good humored. It is an especially entertaining variation on the first book that everyone has in them somewhere concerning how they came to find a place in the adult world. Much of its charm lies in the characters who float in and out like comic book gangster wannabes and assorted operators of various stripe.

It is flawed in number of ways, however. First, from a gamblers perspective, it portrays absolutely nothing of what's involved in running a successful sports book. We are told these folks follow games and research obsessively, but we are given little on the process of how it is done or what they are specifically looking for. At one point Raymer throws out a bit of psychology suggesting that at the core of all gamblers is a powerful desire to lose. This is a sharp and accurate insight from my experience, yet we are given absolutely no follow up on it, she simply returns to describing the events of her life.

More importantly from a dramatic perspective, over the course of the book Beth goes on a journey to nowhere. At the outset she is a lost, capricious, morally confused girl. At the end she is a lost, capricious and morally confused girl. The overall sense is that we were just treated to a string of interesting events with no real point. Not that it makes the book unenjoyable. As I said at the outset, it was a fun read and if that's enough for you, then the answer to the question "Should I read Lay the Favorite?" is yes.

By the way Lay the Favorite is being made into a movie. The character of Dinky is being played by Bruce Willis. In the book, Dinky, is a huge, hideous, obese slob. Of course, that wouldn't play in Hollywood, so you get Bruce Willis. God only knows what they're going to make of this. Sounds like it might be related to the book in name only. Typical Hollywood, eh?

[Books] Book Look: The Devil's Alternative

Book Look: The Devils Alternative by Frederick Forsyth: When it comes to cold war thrillers, Frederick Forsyth is everyone's daddy. He wrote such movie fodder as Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File. When William F. Buckley wanted to start writing his own cold war fiction he told his publisher he wanted to write something like Forsyth. And now having read The Devil's Alternative, the source of the tone, pacing and style of Tom Clancy's The Hunt For Red October and Red Storm Rising have become quite clear. So yeah, Forsyth's a genre monster.

When I delve into genre fiction it's almost always either a spy thriller or a mystery. Mysteries tend to be more flexible; they can span great stretches of time and vary anywhere from screwball comedy to high concept art. Spy thrillers seem to be more limited. Some have literary aspirations and most people mention John Le Carre as an example of the literary bent of spy novels. I'm not sure I'm on board with that. Le Carre writes more subtly and with a greater capability to dramatize than most, but I'm not sure I would call any spy novels "literary" other than at the margin.

And that's not condescension. Genre writing takes as much talent and dedication as mainstream fiction; even more for well written works that find new angles and insights within the standard constraints. So when I say I feel lukewarm about The Devil's Advocate it's simply because it's heavy on the aspects of the spy genre that aren't to my taste.

Released in 1979 and set a couple of years into an imagined future, we are in the heart of the spy writer's glory days of the Cold War. (Spy writers really have never recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Islamic terrorism is just too crude and dirty by comparison.) Due to twin disaster of nature and incompetence, the Soviet Union is facing a crop failure that will inevitably lead to famine. Separately, a Ukrainian dissident has committed a terrorist act that he hopes will inspire rebellion in other nations subjugated by Russians. Despite being mortal enemies, the U.S. does not want such chaos to ensue since it will likely lead to the downfall of the Soviet premier and his replacement by a super hawk and inevitably change the cold war to hot. These twin threats and their resolution become linked over the course of the novel and we are treated to cast of international characters, nicely diverse in motivation, all with a role to play for good or evil. And, of course, a surprise twist at the very end.

The Devils Aternative reads like a movie yet to be made -- mix in a leading man (say a Christian Bale type), a good side man (Morgan Freeman would work; doesn't he always?), maybe a call backs to the genre (Harrison Ford as someone's superior officer; Michael Caine as a spymaster) and crack director (not Michael Bay please) and you got yourself a summer blockbuster. You could write the script nearly scene for scene with the novel (maybe that will be my next project).

It's about the perfect spy thriller and where it falls down for me is not a shortcoming of the book but my lack of appreciation for comprehensive technical description. The book is about a third too long. There are longish stretches where the technical points and procedures are explained in very thorough detail, something that is key for the genre fans. This adds to the realism and fires the imagination of readers (I won't call them spy-nerds, but if I did it would not be an insult) who are the bread and butter targets of espionage/military writers. A description of the inner workings of an oil laden supertanker is riveting to some. Not me. I would rather you cut to the chase because to me it doesn't matter. As long as the plot is plausible, I'm happy. I don't need proof. But that's why I am not the main target audience here. By the half-way point I found myself skipping and skimming to get to the resolution.

Should you read The Devils Alternative? If you love espionage ala Ludlum and Clancy, then yes. Read it now. You will not be disappointed. If you're looking for something to distract yourself with while your cable is out and you can't get the latest action flick -- sure. Otherwise...meh. You could do worse, but you may find it grueling in parts. Feel free to skip ahead now and then.

[Movies] Flick Check (HD Version)

Flick Check (HD Version): Since I now have that beautiful 65" plasma HD screen I figured I better view a couple of effects heavy movies to see what's up.

Inception -- Uh...what? It was visually stunning beyond my imagination, but I can't for the life of me figure out what was going on. I'll grant you I'm old and my mind is going, but still. I am reminded of an episode from the X-Files called Jose Chung's From Outer Space written by the brilliant Darin Morgan. At one point in that script we were three flashbacks deep, yet we never had any doubt where we were in the story. Not so in Inception. It was like drilling down in a fractal. Every view was different but how they connected was lost. Very pretty to look at though.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I -- Boring, even in high def. Even more boring than the Half Blood Prince. There are huge swaths of this movie given over to meaningful looks and pointless handwringing. I've never liked the replacement Dumbledore and he's at his worst here, at least he's dead now (Ack! Forget the Spoiler Alert!). It's getting repetitive what with horrible things happening but Harry always succeeding through the love of others. And what's with this whole Horcrux thing. Suddenly, out-of-the-blue, we find out about these horcrux thingies that can stop Voldemort. Deus Ex Machina, my friends. Still you gotta watch 'em to see how it turns out now, you're fully invested. But you don't have to admire it.

[House and Home] Waging War on Nature

Waging War on Nature: We had an enormous amount of snow this winter. It has all melted, plus it has been raining all Spring and the cricks-a-risin! The Huron River is much higher than I have ever seen it. Seriously, this is a huge issue. My lawn has lots of 45 degree slopes which give my little John Deere tractor fits in when it's wet. As the weight shifts off one side it just spins its wheels and leaves tread patches when the ground is wet (no limited-slip differential on lawn tractors that I know of). I was lucky to get my lawn done in one of the small open windows of clear days with a minimum of damage. Others, not so much. As I write this it's May 1st and some of my neighbors have six inch high grass and no clear days forecast. Some of them are looking having eight to ten inches of grass to mow before they can get to it. Horror.

More troublesome are box elder bugs. I had a swarm outside my back window -- literally thousands of them. They are harmless -- no sting, no bite, no eat stuff. But they are everywhere, and they get inside too, to escape the cold at night. For a while I was squishing five or six a day. You can call an exterminator to come out and spray for them, but another way to kill them is with soapy water, plain dishwashing liquid. So for the last month I been going out back before sunset with a spray bottle of soap and water and wiping out as many as I can. I think I can finally declare victory...or maybe they are just regrouping.

More annoying are woodpeckers. Prior to buying the house, one had savaged the chimney which now needs boards replaced (I got some money off on closing for that). Lately one had taken to actually pecking at a metal chimney nice and early in the AM. Apparently they do this to attract mates. If you have never had the experience, it is a near equivalent to being awoken by some jackhammer tiles near your bed. My initial reaction to this was to price out a bb gun, but that turns out to be illegal for some silly reason. So a couple of mornings I just went outside in my jammies and whipped a rock at the little bastard while voicing strong words. I think he got the message. I'll never look at Woody Woodpecker the same way again.

All this is important to me as I am now one of the local landed gentry. This is what we country folk fret over.