Wednesday, September 26, 2012

VINYL - Andy Williams "Holly"

The first "grown up" (i.e. non-Disney) record album was Love, Andy. I probably played that thing raw on my little portable record player. I used to grouse to my parents about having not been alive to watch his TV show, especially when Lawrence Welk was on. I had kind of an easy listening childhood.

Today I woke up to the news that Andy Williams died yesterday. "Holly" was always my favorite song, even though I was too young to really grasp its tone of wistfulness and regret. I just thought it was pretty, and that Holly was a very lucky girl.

Andy Williams was my first celebrity crush. I pretended to like Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb the better to fit in with my peers, but when I came home from elementary school and wanted to listen to something dreamy, it was Andy, every time.

So today is a very, very sad day.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cooking Utensils Meme

Bold the ones you have and use at least once a year, italicize the ones you have and don’t use, strike through the ones you have had but got rid of.
I wonder how many pasta machines, breadmakers, juicersblenders, deep fat fryers, egg boilers, melon ballers, sandwich makers, pastry brushescheese knives, electric woks, miniature salad spinners, griddle pans, jam funnels, meat thermometers, filleting knives, egg poachers, cake stands, garlic presses, margarita glasses, tea strainers, bamboo steamers, pizza stones, coffee grinders, milk frothers, piping bags, banana stands, fluted pastry wheels, tagine dishes, conical strainers, rice cookers, steam cookers, pressure cookers, slow cookers, spaetzle makers, cookie presses, gravy strainers, double boilers (bains marie), sukiyaki stoves, food processors, ice cream makers, takoyaki makers, and fondue sets languish dustily at the back of the nation’s cupboards.
My banana stand got regular use -- my mother's rule for everything that ails you is "have a banana" -- until I learned somewhat recently that bananas ripen/go brown a bit more slowly if their stems are disconnected, leaving nothing much to hang them by. I ought to get rid of the thing but I have trouble parting with something I paid good money for (it's stainless steel, because I'm a dork).

I've had to give up coffee, so ought to get rid of the coffee grinder, too, since I don't grind my own spices much, either.

As for must-haves, with soup season just getting started, my slow cooker is in heavy use and I can't imagine not having one, even though, since I work 11-hour days (10 on the job plus another 1-1 1/2 bike commuting) I'm often pressing my luck on some recipes. I haven't had a serious failure yet.

Why do I have a rice cooker, again?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

100 Books #91 - Jean Plaidy's CAROLINE THE QUEEN

Like a lot of readers of my generation, I first encountered the fascinating figure of Caroline of Ansbach in Neal Stephenson's giant Baroque Cycle, which touched upon her early life as a refugee princess in Germany who finally washed up in the court of the redoubtable Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Hanover and there was a pupil of Gottfried Liebniz. She finished those novels as the wife of Sophie's grandson George Augustus, the future Prince of Wales and thus the future George II of England. All signs at the end of the third novel, The System of the World, pointed to her as being a figure on which many hopes are to be pinned, a future champion of reason and science, the reconciler of Liebniz and Isaac Newton, perhaps even a latter-day Elizabeth, albeit with a lunkheaded husband...

It's hard to reconcile that portrait with Jean Plaidy's though. Caroline the Queen picks up Caroline's life many years after the Hanoverians came to power on a wave of Whig adoration. She has learned to manage her difficult husband and endured many years of his father's somewhat ridiculous rule, but at great cost to her intellectual life and continued education. The death of George I, who had all but exiled George Louis and his pretty, clever wife, is the first act of this novel and caused a flutter in this Baroque Cycle lover's heart, but this Baroque Cycle lover knew better than to expect anything remotely like more of Stephenson's version of Caroline and her life and times. No, this is Jean Plaidy -- not really a bad thing, just a very different thing.

Long before Stephenson was anything but just another beardy, computer nerdy face in the crowd, Jean Plaidy (and her various alters ego, Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr, Eleanor Hibbert, et al) reigned supreme as a chronicler of the lives and times of British royalty, especially those of its queens. Some of the first books I truly shared with my mother were Plaidy's cycle of Plantagenet novels, chiefly concerned with the amazing Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, mother of Richard the Lion-Hearted and John Lackland, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers and kickass heroine in her very own right (she even accompanied her first husband on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land). Plaidy's books made Eleanor one of my first not-made-up heroines, even though I knew I was reading fiction. So when I found out she had written a book about Caroline, I knew I was going to have to hunt it up at some point.

But so, like in her Eleanor books, Plaidy is much more interested in the domestic and personal life of Queen Caroline than in any of her intellectual pursuits -- except for Caroline's exercising of her considerable political acumen in partnership with Robert Walpole, the Whig Prime-Minister-before-there-was-a-Prime-Minister whose power was already considerable before Caroline became queen but who really came into his prime at her side and with her help. Plaidy's version of this duo* is the real governing power in Britain, with Walpole proposing and Caroline persuading her husband that disposing was all his own idea in the first place through a campaign of swallowing insults and bad behavior in public and making subtle suggestions during royal pillow talk, the latter form of influence she was only able to exercise by concealing from pretty much everyone the umbilical hernia (a result of multiple pregnancies and bad luck) that ultimately claimed her life when it caused her womb to rupture. But in her heyday, as depicted in Caroline the Queen, she winds up ruling Britain outright as Regent four times when her husband hares off to Hanover, his native land which she has convinced him he prefers to Britain. After all, there's no Parliament or Cabinet to deal with there, and the Hanoverians are ever so much more docile and respectful than the bratty, chatty English, aren't they, dear? I'll miss you terribly while you're away, and I'm just a girl in the world, but I'll do my best to make do... Hey, Sir Robert, dust off all those treaties and plans we've been saving up!

Thus Plaidy's Caroline is a poster child for the most old-fashioned version of female power: great indirect influence at great personal cost and sacrifice. She may be brilliant, she may be educated, she may have more ability in her little finger than her husband has in his whole strutting body, but she's still a she, so that's how it has to be. Did Caroline dream of better? I'm pretty sure Eleanor did. Did Plaidy?

In any case, the real fun of the book doesn't surface until just past the halfway mark, when the redoubtable Sarah Churchill, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough (widow of John Churchill, whose exploits are given a fun airing in the Baroque Cycle) turns up as a minor villainess, trying, mostly in vain, to recover her lost glory from the days when she bullied Queen Anne and ruled behind the scenes the way Caroline does now. Proud, shrewd, calculating, litigious, shrewish, scheming, she is by far the most entertaining character in the book, and never more so than in defeat. This may not be an entirely fair portrait of her, but it's an amusing one. I would have liked to have seen more of this, but alas, Sarah and Caroline were too far apart in age to have much to do with each other, and it's likely that Plaidy beefed up Sarah's part as it is.

But of course the real villain of this piece is Caroline's eldest son, Frederick, the Prince of Wales**, raised in Hanover on the orders of George I, come as an adult stranger to his family to take up his post after a long delay he has always resented, ready and willing to be a tool for Walpole's enemies once he realizes that his parents are going to keep him on a tight leash in perceived poverty. He spends most of the novel doing what he considers to be his best to annoy them (though of course he never stoops to attempting to improve his means by his own actual efforts). The courtiers jockeying for his favor reminded me rather tiresomely of perhaps my least favorite of Plaidy's books, The Follies of the King, though here, at least, none of the men are competing to be the Prince's lover, just his pal and maybe also his creditor.

The result of all this is an entertaining little stew of a book, if salted a bit too much by the repetition of the same observations over and over again. Yes, Ms. Plaidy, we get that George liked to write letters to Caroline about his love affairs; yes, we get that Caroline found Lord Hervey especially amusing; yes, we get that Frederick liked making his parents angry. Telling us once and then just showing us would have been fine, really.

As I look over Plaidy's catalog, I see that I've only read maybe 15-20% of her total output (and that's just using this particular pen name). I can't at this point decide if I feel like a peasant at a banquet or a student in a cafeteria, contemplating this fact. I can't decide if all of those other books are going to be richly varied courses and delicacies or blandly similar steam-table offerings. Right now I'm inclined to suspect the latter -- but I believe I have felt that way before. And sometimes, one is just plain hungry.

*Which seems pretty factual. Plaidy always did her homework, that's for certain.

**Whom we know from history never got to be king, but whose son grew up to be George III. Yeah, that George III. Which maybe makes Frederick an even better villain, eh?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Netflix Finds: THE DEVIL'S WHORE

The Devil's Whore, retitled The Devil's Mistress for North American release for reasons I can only imagine are marketing-related and pandering to the hissy classes, is watchable enough as costume dramas go -- if you can handle its annoying flaws. These are few, but of the type that bug the hell out of me.

Set during the English Civil War and featuring therefore many fascinating historical characters played by pretty, pretty men in fake beards and hair extensions and photogenically placed prosthetic wens and scars, The Devil's Whore tells the story of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough). Angelica is gently born but abandoned by her Catholic mother (whom the Virgin Mary tells Mom to go to France and join a nunnery, prompting her tween daughter to conclude that she's not interested in praying to a god who tells mothers to abandon their childrens) and so grows up "wild" in the court of Charles I and at the side of her cousin Harry, who is to inherit her family's estate and whom she is intended to marry. In a tacked-on and unnecessary side plot, she also grows up having visions of the Devil, which visions continue into her adult life and for which she becomes a bit infamous.

Devil visions aside, Angelica is a bit of a Mary Sue, desired by all, uncommonly wise and principled, a crack shot with a pistol, and, most importantly, there to buck up, nag or otherwise manipulate many of the great men of the period (including Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Rainsborough, Freeborn John Lilburne and a character "based on" Edward Sexby) into fulfilling their historical roles. Her flaws are all charming ones, though they do get her first husband killed and earn her an implacable cardboard enemy; her first husband is executed by Charles I to punish him for giving up their great house without a fight (which he did because she wouldn't leave it and wanted bravely to die by his side defending it from the Roundheads) and she gains her enemy (amusingly played by Tim McInnenry of Blackadder fame) when, brought low by widowhood and the withdrawal of Charles I's financial support, she accidentally kills the man who wins the roshambo for the right to feed her pigeon pie and then get it on with her. Defending her virtue, you see. The loser of the roshambo begins to pursue her as a murderess, catches her several times, and gets the worst out of every encounter, even when he thinks he has successfully prosecuted her for murder.

Meanwhile, Angelica finds herself thrust into the stories of Lilburne (played in mulleted glory by Tom Goodman-Hill) and Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), who are worth Wiki-ing if you don't know who they are (I didn't). Having spent the first act of her life as an ardent supporter of Charles I and the Established Order, she now adopts the Leveller cause* and doesn't bat an eye at the execution of her former patron and king (though she is, in her defense, otherwise occupied at the time). She comes to Lilburne's rescue several times and even smuggles some of his most incendiary pamphleteering to be published while he is in prison. She becomes Rainsborough's girlfriend. On and on and on.

But of course this story is really all about Angelica and Edward Sexby (John Simm, looking great with long hair, a beard, and a big scar across his left eye), a gritty, cynical fighting man who nonetheless falls in love with Angelica (unrequitedly) while serving as a sort of retainer in her first husband's household and proceeds to change his colors to match hers through the rest of the film, becoming first a dedicated Roundhead and Leveller and later, after the wonderfully radical Rainsborough is offed, plots to assassinate Oliver Cromwell when he learns the man whom he's pretty sure sacrificed Rainsborough to his own ambition is about to be made king in all but name.

Could any of this have happened without Angelica? Well, it did, of course. And if that kind of thing bothers you, then avoid this miniseries completely. But if all you're looking for is some harmless historical romance, I suppose you could do worse. It did win a few awards, so there's that...

Me, I would have liked it a lot better if there were more battle and less lovey dovey, but that's just me.

*The Levellers being more or less the Occupy Wall Street movement of their day, but more focused and goal-oriented than their modern counterparts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

100 Books #90 - John le Carre's CALL FOR THE DEAD

As I begin the last quarter of a year in which I have spent a lot of time slogging through a lot of big, bloated genre novels and their big, bloated sequels, there is something tonic and refreshing about a short, tightly plotted mid-20th century number like this one that very likely renders my enjoyment entirely out of proportion to the actual book's quality.

But perhaps not.

George Smiley has become an iconic character, at least in my little corner of the world, even without my ever having encountered him directly and consciously before now.* Tom Ripley was much the same for me, until my fangirl passion for Wim Wenders and Bruno Ganz led me to discover The American Friend, which featured Dennis Hopper as Ripley, a Ripley to which no other performance shall ever measure up, and I proceeded to gobble up all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels in quick succession, to rush to acquire them in collectible hardcover, the better to gloat over them in my barrister bookcase...

I suspect I'll be doing the same with John le Carre, too.

Call for the Dead spends a lot of its time sort of slyly masquerading as a cozy mystery, with Smiley, ordinarily an operative for the British Secret Service in a very low key sort of way, filling the amateur detective role. A Foreign Office employee whom Smiley interviewed pro forma after an anonymous letter had identified the man as a former Communist has overreacted to said interview and killed himself in a fit of despair -- or has he? As the mystery unravels and a trail of bodies is found, a dashing and charismatic frenemy from Smiley's past surfaces. Watching Smiley sort all of this out in his methodical, thoughtful, occultly brilliant way is a genuine pleasure; so is watching his friends, one in the police and one fellow spy.

But it is the grieving widow who steals the show, as such. Elsa Feenan, Holocaust survivor, pragmatist, broken yet still strong, is a riveting figure from her first scene with Smiley, in which she effortlessly teases out his own anxieties about what he does and how he does it:

"It's like the State and the People. The state is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky. But States make war, don't they, and imprison people. To dream in doctrines -- how tidy! My husband and I have both been tidied now, haven't we?"

This coming just pages after a summary of Smiley's career -- which started out in the days when the spy trade barely was one, was just a loose affiliation of smart and careful people who had the wisdom to see that action on the front of a war cannot be the only action, and continued, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, into the age of professionalization and bureaucracy -- is devastating. And that scene is hardly her only bravura performance. I find myself wishing le Carre had written a series of Elsa Feenan novels in addition to, if not instead of, the Smiley ones.

But that's how good chronicles should go, isn't it? We'd tire quickly of a series in which Our Hero/point of view character is relentlessly and only what our attention is drawn to; he or she must have foes and foils, must encounter other equally interesting (if not more interesting) characters in his adventures. And by this reckoning, these Smiley novels are quickly going to become compulsive reading favorites right up there with Ripley novels, and Sharpe novels, and Aubrey/Maturin novels, and Miriam Black novels.


*I saw snatches of some film adaptations of Smiley novels when I was still a kid at home with my parents, but only sort of paid attention to them. Oh look, Obi-Wan is playing some sort of spy chap. Yawn. Small smile for Mom, who is enjoying the film, back to the pages of whatever Michael Moorcock or Jack Chalker or Piers Anthony mega-series had my real attention at the time. Ah, teenagers.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

100 Books #89 - Michael Chabon's TELEGRAPH AVENUE

Telegraph Avenue is almost completely not what I expected Michael Chabon's latest novel to be. But isn't that always the case, with Chabon? He goes from imagining the biographies of a pair of golden age comics creators to swashbuckling medieval Jews-with-swords to crime/noir in an alternate history Alaska to a World War II era Sherlock Holmes story. And those are just the ones I have personally read and loved. A lot.

Telegraph Avenue has plenty to offer those of us who love Chabon for his nuanced and staggeringly deep appreciation of pop culture, past and present (this time he's picking on vinyl -- the location at the heart of the story is a used record shop specializing in rare and collectible LPs, 78s and 45s -- and blaxploitation kung-fu movies) and for his lovely prose style, but, as usual, these are merely ornamental, and there is even more going on around these grace notes than usual.

The aforementioned record shop is of the sort I always wish existed somewhere near me, preferably in walking distance: a "church of vinyl" that is also a neighborhood hangout for a diverse collection of musicians and music lovers. The co-owners, a white Jewish appreciator named Nat and a black musician named Archy, have wives who are also in business together, as midwives, and Archy's wife Gwen is expecting their first child (well, at least, their first child together. Ahem). Which is to say that family life and parenthood are themes in Telegraph Avenue that are way more compelling and important than a bunch of vinyl nerds sounding off at Brokeland Records, or the threat posed to the store by the looming possibility of an NFL star's deep-pocketed one-stop pop culture megastore just down the street. Way more.

"There was nothing a man couldn't do with three thousand doillars and a suitcase full of canned tuna fish and pregnancy brassieres."

Generations of Archy's family are complicating his life: an estranged father, Luther, who made a splash as a kung-fu actor in a series of blaxploitation hits in the 70s and then disappeared with his leggy co-star into the standard sordid-ness of drug addiction and petty crime but never gave up on the idea of making another sequel to his breakout film -- and whom now someone very much wants to track down and probably not for a good reason -- the bump in Gwen's stomach, and a teenaged-son, Titus, from a teenaged hook-up who has suddenly surfaced in Archy's life, about whom Archy never got around to telling his wife... Oh, and then there's Nat's son, Julius, who has a crush on Titus... Somehow none of this ever spins into melodrama, and that somehow is Michael Chabon, a prose poet of love and forgiveness and failure if ever there was one. Every single one of these characters has a deeply, richly imagined inner life, full of longing and aspiration and bitterness and regret. And moments of sheer transcendence are doled out to them, too:

None of these echoes prepared Titus for the truth of the greatness of Luther Stallings as revealed in patches by the movies themselves, even the movies that sucked ass. None readied him for the strange warmth that rained down onto his heart as he sat on the couch last night with the best and only friend he'd ever had, watching that balletic assassin in Night Man, with those righteous cars and that ridiculous bounty of fine women, a girl with a silver Afro. Luther Stallings, the idea of Luther Stallings, felt to Titus like no one and no place had ever felt: a point of origin. A legendary birthplace, lost in the mists of Shaolin or the far-off technojungles of Wakanda. There in the dark beside Julie, watching his grandfather, Titus got a sense of his own life's foundation in the time of myth and heroes. For the first time since coming to consciousness of himself, small and disregarded as a penny in a corner of the world's bottom drawer, Titus Joyner saw in his own story a shine of value, and in himself the components of glamour.

And that's just while they're watching TV, Titus and Julius indulging their curiosity with a round of films starring Titus' grandfather, quite possibly the Toughest Black Man in America of his day. Along the way we get a cameo from none other than Barack Obama, a long discourse on how the Pullman porter of yesteryear was the secret vector of black culture nationwide and the bedrock of what later became the black middle class of America, a flight over the streets and rooftops of Oakland in the company of a recently freed African Gray parrot; shards of possibility, of potential, some fulfilled and some not, all expertly evoked.

Some readers may dislike the picaresque meandering of the plot: this is by no means any kind of potboiler or thriller, whatever its dy-no-mite components. It's a character-driven story, and most of the characters are kind of losers, or suspect they are (Archy, for instance, considers himself a ponderer in a world of snap deciders: "A beautiful phrase to the ponderer, the day after tomorrow. The address of utopia itself."), and losers of this kind do not, as a rule, run around saving the world, solving problems, shooting bad guys and blowing stuff up. That only happens in Grandaddy Stallings' movies. Instead we are treated to a lot of scenes, scenes in which the inanimate objects in their obsessively cataloged order or strewn and neglected disarray say almost as much about Archy and Nat and Gwen and Aviva (Nat's wife and Gwen's boss) and Titus and Julius as they do themselves, in their sad, weirdly graceful way.

So no, Telegraph Avenue wasn't really at all what I expected, except in that I expected it would be great, which it absolutely was.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

100 Books #88 - Stephen King's WOLVES OF THE CALLA

After two entire novels that are supposedly part of this giant, sprawling series but that did pretty much nothing to advance the plot, it is a great relief to be "back on the Beam" in the parlance of these Gunslingers and their world. I find this a little ironic, since an element that has annoyed me about this series is precisely the kind of thing the Beam represents: the author appearing to mistrust his characters so much that he has to keep sending them message dreams and cripple them with artificial obsessions and things they "just know", of which the Beam -- sort of like a ley line except even the clouds in the sky move according to its dictates, to make sure everyone keeps going the right way -- but it is so.*

All of which basically means that Wolves of the Calla is probably my favorite of these damned things since The Drawing of the Three, although I found nothing in it that could replace the Lobstrosities in my heart. Our ka-tet has come across a town -- really one of many towns and settlements in a well-cultivated agricultural region, all of which share a unique problem -- that sort of, kind of, thinks that maybe it needs their help, but doesn't really want to commit to asking for that help because of the trouble it might stir up. It's a classic plot from Samurai stories to the medieval tales of chivalry to westerns, given an interesting twist here by its placement within the Dark Tower arc, and by the mystery of what exactly these "Wolves" are that plague the Calla by somehow changing the reproductive norms of these communities so that twins are rampant and singletons extremely rare, the better to carry off one of each pair sometime in childhood, do something unspeakable to him or her, and send him or her back a complete simpleton with a tendency towards giantism. The children are collected a little more frequently than once a generation; the people only get 30 days warning of their coming via an android (named, of course, Andy) who just suddenly knows one day that they're enroute. He's given the latest warning just in time for Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy to happen along.

What really made this one stand out for me is the same kind of thing that almost redeemed Wizard and Glass: King's amazing ability to create amazing podunk cultures (though, again, the folk speech of the Calla is wearying, full of "if it do ya fines" and "I begs" and excessive use of the do+infinitive construction, e.g. "if you do want to eat" "he did dance that dance"**) complete with intricately fascinating agricultural/fertility rituals. This time around we encounter something called The Rice Song, which joyously celebrates the life cycle of the paddies in song, labor, movement and dance, the dance having at times an intriguing supernatural element as made stunningly plain when our man Roland, taking up what manifests as a heretofore unknown but deeply important traditional role, performs on stage, half Green Man, half "Boot Scootin' Boogie", all uncanny. It's an arresting scene.

Accompanying this new version of King's version of the whole fertility/death cult thing is, well, the death side of it, which is in the hands of the women, at least until they shriek a prayer to the Rice Goddess and fling it with deadly accuracy. Do not mess with the ladies of the Calla, y'all. Do not.

And speaking of women, there is an extremely well-handled sub-plot involving the unintended consequences of everybody doing what they had to back in The Waste Lands to bring Jake back into the Gunslinger world, and the Black Loc-nar that has been hidden in the Calla all this time by one Father Callahan of Salem's Lot fame, which sub-plot lends extra tension to a main plot that, for once, is not lacking in tension really at all, but I'm not complaining to have it there.

What I might complain a bit of, if I thought it would do any good, is the nugatory pop culture references that got dumped in again. They're ladled out rather than dumped on this time, which is an improvement, but all they accomplished for me is to drag me out of the story to rub at my sore ribs, still tender from all the Oz-reference digging they got at the end of Wizard and Glass. And no, I'm not talking about all the Salem's Lot stuff. That's kind of cool. I was expecting Wolves of the Calla to be many things, possibly even many awesome things, and I was right so to expect, but I was not expecting it to also be a sequel to Salem's Lot. Which it kind of is and kind of isn't. The weird ways King found to inter-relate that story with this one made my jaw drop, and made the ghost of the 12-year-old Kate who first read SL jump up and down and point and yell happily. Bravo, there. Bravo.

And of course there's a damned cliffhanger, which must have driven all of you original Dark Tower nerds crazy, but which I get to have resolved for me right away. Song of Susannah is already sitting in my Kindle awaiting my pleasure. But first, I need another break from this stuff. Maybe even some nice non-fiction.

*And of course, it was their Mighty God-King who yanked them off the Beam, so, irony squared, as such.

**These are not direct quotations, just examples I made up. I don't ever want to read this kind of dialogue again, not even to hunt up actual examples. Just ugh.

Monday, September 17, 2012

100 Books #87 - Victor Pelevin's THE YELLOW ARROW

Everybody knows by now that I'm a big fan of Victor Pelevin, but I've never read the novella via which he first came to international attention. Until now, when I came across a sweet little used hardcover edition at the Powell's mothership on vacation in Portland last week. Which I then, while waiting for my sister and hostess to get off work, proceeded to take to the nearest pub and devour over a few pints of Guiness, not only because it is Pelevin, but because it is also another entry in that weird trope of fictions concerning perpetual railroads about which I have written here before.

The Yellow Arrow is the name of this train, crossing the wilds of the post-Soviet frontier but never actually reaching its possibly no-longer-existent destination. The train has been travelling for so long that most of its passengers no longer remember their lives before boarding it; indeed, many seem no longer to believe that they had lives before becoming passengers. A whole slightly Kafkaesque culture has developed on board, complete with histories, competing mythologies, secret societies and yes, black market economic cartels based around the strip mining of the train itself for raw materials. There is a news media, a secret governing cabal, even a set of peculiar funeral customs that, bizarrely, do not involve treating the bodies of the dead as more raw material for recycling and reuse; though the train never stops to take on supplies, some kind of basic carbon/nitrogen/water inputs are coming in from somewhere, even though we are assured there is no inhabited world outside the train anymore.

Pelevin is still kind of finding his voice here (this work was originally published in 1993), but already playing well with his themes of absurdity and willful ignorance and misplaced faith and trust and the way in which mass media manipulates reality. Its protagonist, Andrei, feels very much like an early sketch of his later hero, Babylen of Homo Zapiens fame, somewhere between a naif and a sophisticate in the ways of his world, not sure he should trust his friends, not sure if they are his friends, but willing to do what he has to in order to make it all work for him somehow. If it's not quite as wickedly funny as Pelevin's later works, it's plenty philosophical, impossible not to read as a parable of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia (masterfully and weirdly, it manages to be both at once), and enjoyable. I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Pelevin -- I still think that should be Omon Ra -- but if you've found you've liked his other works and curious to have a peek at his beginnings, this is a must-see.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

100 Books #86 - Dorothy Dunnett's THE GAME OF KINGS

Dorothy Dunnett is absolutely the female Bernard Cornwell. Or rather, more temporally accurately, Bernard Cornwell is the male Dorothy Dunnett, since her career as a writer of historical fiction predates his by many years. But anyway, you get my point.

The Game of Kings is Dunnett's first novel of the Lymond Chronicles, which take place in one of the most fascinating periods in European history, the 16th Century. We do not get to see Henry VIII or Francis le Grand Nez, but we do get to see their descendants and relations jockeying for power all over Europe -- but not directly. Oh, a crowned head or aspirant to a crown might turn up here and there for a scene or two, but Dunnett, and by extension we, are more interested in the people immediately below them, the lords and ladies and functionaries and footsoldiers whose lives get warped and changed by the royal/imperial/papal knightly/papal intrigues. And one of these in particular.

Francis Crawford of Lymond is the younger son of a member of the Scottish nobility whose roguish tendencies are so over the top as to be entirely worthy, to judge from this first book, of the six novels Dunnett has devoted to him. In The Game of Kings his sphere of labor is Scotland alone during the time of England's very aggressive campaign to woo/abduct the four-year-old Mary Queen of Scots as a wife for the nine-year-old Edward VI of England -- a campaign which we all know was unsuccessful but maybe not the details of how and why it was so. At least I didn't know much about that, to my shame. Since remedied!

This war is only a backdrop to a dizzying array of plots, conspiracies and mysteries centered on this Lymond character, who isn't even supposed to be in Scotland, so naughty has he been in the past. Oh, he is a fascinating character, dazzlingly well-spoken, crafty, dissembling, mysterious -- in short, the last sort of person you want to be sitting across from at a chess board, unless you just want to watch yourself lose spectacularly in the hopes of gaining some instruction. I am that sort of person, a terrible chess player who can't resist the game's allure nonetheless, and a worse fibber.*

So naturally I love a good rogue, though Lymond sometimes plays rather rougher than I usually like. Isn't that always the way? But Lymond seems to play roughest of all with his allies, as happens early on in The Game of Kings, when he manipulates a new team member into betraying himself as untrustworthy, but does so in such a way that, well, here --

So there it was. First, corporal punishment, carefully applied. Next, spiritual chastisement -- and not the obvious open ridicule. Not with Lymond. Instead, the dreadful humiliation of accepting his own reputation, intact, from the chastising hand. That, and the corollary that Lymond found him so incosiderable that he could cheerfully add to his stature.
Furthermore, part of the humiliation is being rescued by Lymond himself in hilarious fashion, with Lymond disguised as a ridiculous Spanish grandee and all but rolling his eyes and twirling his mustaches as he makes off with his erring teammate, the goods said teammate stole, plus some extra horses the "grandee" has wheedled the teammate's victim into supplying -- hey, they no longer have food for those horses anyway, thanks to Lymond's team. Ho ho!

So yes, Lymond is a character in a million, but he is not the only one. Oh no. There is the "wittily obese" professional prisoner-of-war Jonathan Crouch, who is traded around like "a promissary note on two legs" and who drives his captors/purchasers/hosts crazy with long-winded stories and recollections that go nowhere. There is the Lady Christian, blind but exercising superhuman acumen with her other four senses, whip-smart and managing, despite her sex and station, to involve herself fully in the novel's intrigues. There is Lymond's brother, Richard Lord Culter, the good, boring one who is constantly outshone by Lymond's entertaining but sometimes deadly antics. There are those amazing biddies, Richard's and Lymond's mother, Sybilla, the Dowager Lady Culter, who is a Wodehousian/Wildean Aunt centuries before her time, as is the Dowager Lady Hunter, ruling a world from her sickbed. There is a holy terror of a 13-year-old heiress, Lady Agnes, whose dreams of romance and chivalry wind up thickening the plot more than I would have thought possible. And there is a host of other nobles and their hangers-on, Scottish and English, who spend a lot of the novel trying to figure out whose side Lymond is on, if he's on any at all -- and we, the readers don't know either! Even after we've decoded a key signifier regarding identity in this novel, we still don't know.** That's masterful.

But lest we think it's all politics and plotting -- it's not. For one thing, the single greatest literary sword fight I have ever read takes place in this volume, and is followed by one of the most desperate chases.

By the way, I'm totally awarding myself bonus points for almost being able to read this novel without thinking of Lord Flashheart every single page. It was more like every other page. But come on! Even the eye color is about right for Lymond!

Though, to be fair, let's say Lymond is half Lord Flashheart, half Evil Prince Ludwig from the "Chains" Episode of Blackadder the Second. But, you know, Scottish.

*I do not claim to be a poor liar in that people can see through my lies -- I'm actually quite good at that, coming from a long line of bullshitters. It's the coming up with the fibs that eludes me. I'm not quick enough. The pause during which I might come up with a whopper is just a hair too long and gives me away, even though I've schooled myself against all the classic tells. Possibly because I've schooled myself? I don't know. Anyway, I suck at it.

**At least I didn't, not entirely, not until the last ten percent or so of the book, largely taken up with a big trial scene which, while satisfyingly clarifying all of the lingering narrative questions posed within the novel, is really kind of a dreary info-dump. Though within it, I learned about something I'd never really considered before. And that always makes me happy. And now I want to read this.

Friday, September 7, 2012

VINYL - Frank Zappa's "You Didn't Try to Call Me"

Many thanks to the brilliant Walter Hawn for the heads up about this new-to-me track. It has everything I love Frank Zappa for -- bizarre and quirky lyrics, complex instrumentation that still manages to sound like good old stripped-down rock'n'roll, and just a hint of sentimentality.

Zappa comes off as a condescending jerk sometimes, but all is always forgiven for the way he tickles my brain and my earholes. I speak in the present tense, for he is with us always in the grooves of vinyl and memories of the first time we heard something like Lumpy Gravy and demanded to know: "What the Snape was that?"

Back in my extra-contrarian twenties, when I was a state Libertarian Party official in Massachusetts, I kept lobbying the rest of the crew to get bumper stickers made up that read "Frank Zappa: He may be dead, but he'd still make a better president than you."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

100 Books #85 - Stephen King's THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

My experience of reading The Wind Through the Keyhole is one only a Dark Tower newbie could have, and so I decided to have it.

This novel -- practically a novella next to its gargantuan cousins -- was published just this year, but is meant to be "shelved" between the fourth Dark Tower book, Wizard and Glass, and the fifth, Wolves of the Calla. Which is to say it takes place, insofar as its outer loop of storytelling can be said to take place, between Roland's ka-tet's visit to the off-kilter Emerald City that turned the last ten percent or so of WaG into one giant in-your-ribs Wizard of Oz reference, and their arrival outside the Calla crescent whereat they get called on to be gunslingers in the good old fashioned sense. Like WaG, The Wind Through the Keyhole tells us a story of Roland's past, but nested within that story is another story, called "The Wind Through the Keyhole" which is a sort of Roland-world fairy tale presented in full as told by Roland to a child in the middle of the story from his past as told by Roland to Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy.

Got that? Good.

So this novel really doesn't advance the Dark Tower plot one bit, but it's not meant to. It's meant to deepen and extend the mythology of Roland and his world a bit, while leaving the door (or keyhole) wide open for more of the same if there is demand. Or maybe even if there isn't. I can sort of imagine King spending his twilight years adding more and more volumes like these to his baby until new readers of the Dark Tower find themselves in a sort of Zeno's Paradox, chasing the last volume and its revelation and proper ending, but never quite getting to it because every step forward leads to a half-step forward and then a quarter-step forward and so on. Nor need all of them take place between WaG and WotC, Bog help us. And future wags will no doubt refer to these Dark Tower 4.5s and 4.7s and 5.12s and whatever as King's Silmarillion. Which will likely lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of people like my friends who originally read this series one book at a time, waiting years between them, for just the original seven, and who then want everybody else to read them, except now there are like 17 of them plus the ones that King's children cobble together out of his random jottings on various flash drives and whatnot left posthumously behind...

On the other hand, maybe King pere et fils will show some restraint. I suspect a lot depends on how well this book has been received. Judging from Goodreads, the answer to that question is farily well, though some fans are annoyed that its nature partakes more of WaG fan fiction than of the series as a staggering whole. Absolutely none of the perceived lacuna between the plots of WaG and WotC (which I am reading now and does seem to feature a staggering advancement in Roland's apprentices' skills and in the Schroedinger's Fetus that is just hand-waved as "some stuff happened between the novels") is filled; it's all just tangential texture.

But so back to how my experience in reading The Wind Through the Keyhole is something only newbies can have. I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say that, based on what I've gleaned via King's bad habits of sending his characters message-dreams and whatnot that I've complained about elsewhere and of ham-handed foreshadowing generally, that most, if not all, of Roland's apprentices are not going to make it to the finish line. I might be wrong; I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers (and driving my friends crazy because I'm not reading these novels fast enough to suit them and they want to talk about them with me at great length, the darlings. Sorry, sweetnesses; I'm just not enough of a fan to want to devour these straight through without some breaks with other books) and so hope not to found out whether I'm right or wrong until the end. But, reading between the lines as I decided whether to read this or Wolves of the Calla next, I got the distinct impression that original readers of the series found it jarring or bittersweet or just plain weird to see characters with known fate/dooms walking around and learning and talking like they still had futures. For the, you know, 20 or so pages in which they appear in this book, anyway. As I said, I'll never know that experience. For me it's just the WaG mixture as before, except in that, glory be, no stupid teen romance in this one. For which I am grateful.

The stories themselves, especially the central fairy tale, have a lot of charm to them, a quality that seems to me rare in most of King's other work. There are still elements of peril and horror and heartbreak, to be sure, but somehow even depictions of, e.g. shredded bodies in the Roland-story of the terrible shape-shifter besetting a mining town, have kind of a light, fond touch. This is King putting an extra layer of delicious buttercream frosting on an already too-rich cake. He's having such fun, and buttercream is yummy; why stop him? Just, you know, don't let him totally encrust the thing with candy flowers and crap, okay?

But now I'm definitely hitting a wall of Dark Tower fatigue. Oy.

VINYL - Willie Nelson "The Sound In Your Mind"

I just had a crazy dream which I absolutely blame on Tamaranorbust and Jeff Gordinier. And on all the cold medicine I've been having to take this week. In it, my high school band teacher, who was absolutely this kind of guy, had assigned us to listen to an album side a day on vinyl and note down our thoughts on it for something we had to hand in at the end of the year. For my first album side I chose Willie Nelson's The Sound in Your Mind off of which the song in the [VINYL] video embedded above was a single, which somehow had transported itself into my parents' record collection in that way things do in dreams (in real life, I don't think my parents ever had any Willie Nelson -- even before his braids and tax problems, he wasn't really their style. Just a hippie who played country instead of psychedelic rock). I woke up really, really wanting to do my band homework!

Alas, I don't have a turntable or any vinyl anymore. I have plenty of vices taking up plenty of space in my house, but analog audio collecting hasn't ever been one of them. But then I remembered how the world's favorite jukebox, YouTube, features rather a lot of videos like this one, of someone playing an analog vinyl favorite with the camera just focused on the turntable. It's a whole thing that I've only peripherally noticed and appreciated as a sort of protest against Mp3s, which my readers are all pretty much the sort of people who know are compressed to hell and sound terrible compared even to audio CDs, which themselves sound pretty awful compared to vinyl, but yannow.

Anyway, so I really liked the idea of a time-compressed version of that band homework (not sure how many of us have time to listen to a whole album side every day as busy grown-ups), so I thought of doing it this way, and blogging it, for a while, just as an experiment.

Furthermore, rather than impose just my tastes on everybody, I thought maybe I'd open up the floor to suggestions for tracks to include this way. Maybe if it turns out to be something I like I'll spin it off as a separate blog, but for now, just think of it as another KateOfMind.

Hook up your computer to the best speakers you've got in the house (me, I've got some Harmon Kardon Soundsticks, which aren't exactly my brothaman's giant vintage Monsoons, but have always served this non-audiophile's purpose well enough) and give this tune a spin.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

100 Books #84 - Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S FORTRESS

Very little time has passed since the last of Sharpe's adventures, in which he saved Arthur Wellesley's life and the future Iron Duke made him an officer. As we start this new chapter in his life, Sharpe is getting a foul taste of just how hard it is to be an officer promoted "up from the ranks" in the British army of 1803. He's not of the gentry, so gets no respect from enlisted men or officers, and is coming to regret having tried so hard to get this leg up he's gotten.

But soon he's got bigger problems. Because both of his great enemies, the terrifying and capable British deserter Major Dodd, who is killing his way to becoming Lord of All India fighting for the Mahrathas, and the twitching, malevolent Sergeant Hakeswill, who has been trying for two novels now to get Sharpe killed out of sheer spite and hatred. The one has been chased, along with his army and allies, into India's great fortress in the sky, Gawilghur; the other has turned up among the British soldier's trying to solve the puzzle of how to take that impregnable place, destroy the Mahratha army there, and bring Dodd to justice. Oh, my.

The star of this novel is definitely the fortress itself, hence the title. Imagine George R.R. Martin's Eyrie, defended by thumping huge cannons and approachable only via a narrow ravine that is basically just a shooting gallery for said cannon. But before you can get to the ravine, you have to pound your way through an outer fort. While the fort's defenders shoot at you with thumping huge cannons.

Fortunately for Sharpe and his pals, the walls of these forts are old and ill-maintained. Also, the people in charge within are a cowardly princeling who just wants to be left alone to sport with his wives and concubines, and the enemy rajah's brother, who is quite a capable soldier, but whose faith in his men is so weak that he won't let the splendid attack dog, Dodd, do anything but kick his heels and take the occasional potshot with one of those newfangled rifle thingies. So the British are free to build their road right up to the perfect spot to hammer away at the walls with their cannon, and everybody has enough time on their hands to plot against each other. Because Hakeswill. And his buddy Captain Torrance, who already had it in for Sharpe because Sharpe's first act upon being assigned to help the Captain is to expose the Captain's treachery. D'oh!

And I haven't even talked about the treachery among the bad guys. Oh, is it delicious.

Bappoo's survivors, betrayed by Dodd, were trapped between two forces. They were stranded in a hell above emptiness, a slaughter in the high hills. There were screams as men tumbled to their deaths far beneath and still the fire kept coming. It kept coming until there was nothing left but quivering men crouching in terror on a road that was rank with the stench of blood, and then the redcoats moved forward with bayonets.
Yowza! Betrayal and the Ravine of Death!

Again, the tension of whether or not Sharpe is going to survive all of this is robbed of the modern reader who knows he's got a future with a rifle company in Europe, but Cornwell finds plenty of other ways to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. We don't know how Sharpe is going to get out of his own personal very difficult predicaments, just as we don't know (unless we peek at Wikipedia or something) how the hell the British are going to get through the Ravine of Death, or anything else, for that matter. Once again, Cornwell has done a skillful job of combining the exploits of real historical figures (Oh, Colonel Kenny!) with those of his semi-fictional villains (Dodd) and his own characters (Hakeswill, Major John Stokes, Sharpe himself) into something seamless and compulsively readable.

Most gratifying to me is the return of Major Stokes, whom you may recall from my last go-around in Sharpe's universe became quite a favorite of mind. Here he's put in charge of building the road that will allow the British to haul their cannons, shot, powder, and selves into attack range and of cobbling together some semblance of defenses for them as they haul. He doesn't get a lot of scenes, but he shines in all his nerdy glory in those he gets, and as one of Sharpe's few allies, quite well deserves to.

Also fun is Ahmed, an Arab boy whom Sharpe rescues from the precursor battle that opens the novel and who becomes Sharpe's fanatically loyal servant. Several major plot points revolve around this little hellion, whose command of the King's English improves somewhat over the course of the story but since he's learned it from Sharpe contains rather more "buggers" than a schoolmaster might like.

It continues to take almost all the willpower I have not to just plow through all of these Sharpe novels in one swoop. They're wonderfully written, utterly absorbing, thrilling, fun, bloody, character-driven, full of dashing heroics and madcap schemes -- everything I like in a novel. And they keep getting better, these books!

But I think if I did just go all Sharpe, all the time, I might end up doing something foolish when I was done. Like joining the army. Which would be pretty stupid. What would they do with a 42-year-old fat chick who can't even shoot straight, I ask you?

Monday, September 3, 2012

100 Books #83 - Jeff Gordinier's X SAVES THE WORLD

My best friend from college and I were just across the Hudson River from Saugerties, NY the weekend of Woodstock '94, snarling and sneering the whole time at what we'd been very, very sure was going to be a mountain of suck, the Baby Boomer Generation having yet another stab at putting us in our place. We passed around a cartoon that his co-worker had drawn of what Woodstock '94 should really be like: mohawked punk stick figures stomping hippies into the ground, black helicopters spraying machine gun fire, a mushroom cloud detonating on the horizon. It gave us even greater satisfaction than the news that came over local and national media as that foolish weekend wore on that it was exactly the giant corporate suckfest we'd figured it would be, that we were right.

The first third or so of Jeff Gorinier's book is a lot like that, a litany of memories and realities that fueled a bitterness that I had kind of forgotten I'd had.* And for that reason I almost put it aside, despite the recommendations of someone for whom I have more respect than just about anyone on the internet, the blogger who tweets as TamaranOrBust, who has quite an inspiring and interesting post on this topic (actually a series of posts, but the one I link to here is possibly her finest).

Man, am I glad I stuck with this book, though. For the rest of it is an eye-opening, bumptious, raucous, giddy celebration of what we have done while being ignored and what we might still have in us to do. I poured a glass of wine, cranked up a '90s alternative music "station" on Slacker Radio, and smiled my way through the rest of it.

I've been hearing bits here and there of late about how it's time my generation (born in 1970, I'm an Xer by pretty much every measure anyone has suggested) came out of hiding and started taking another stab at keeping what we care about alive in this world: authentic culture, new and old; the right to live a life on the margins without giving up having a say in matters (the analogy of hypermodern chess comes to mind); the right not to be Boomers or Millennials eagerly participating uncritically in a hive mind serving interests that really aren't our own.

But rather than a call to arms or a lecture about the need to start new causes or take on the Boomers who, let's face it, aren't ever going to let go of their economic and cultural dominance while they're on this side of the dirt (but are perfectly willing to finish throwing our parents, the Silents, under the bus, and have found in Paul Ryan the perfect GenX patsy cheerleader to help them do it), Gordinier is more interested in pointing out to us that what we're already doing is (cough) changing the world, by saving the best bits of everything that has come before it it, one hyperfocused hobbyist at a time (like, say, that wonderful soul who put all of that Byzantine Secular Classical Music on YouTube -- to say nothing of those wonderful souls who invented YouTube!), and continually innovating ways to keep bouncing forward all that good stuff AND making new stuff of our own.

And yes, part of what made reading this book such a pleasure for me was the way it forced me to look at how I'm conducting myself through my early 40s, especially as an artist, and to realize that what I'm doing really does matter, even if mass culture doesn't understand or respect it. You guys do. And that's plenty! Which is how this sonnet, describing a rare chance meeting with a fellow beneficiary of my idyllic footnote below, came about.

Really, all I can think of right now, sipping wine and bouncing around my room to Nirvana and Soundgarden, is in The Two Towers (film or book, it doesn't matter, but the moment in the film is nicely done) when Gandalf talks about how the Ents are about to wake up and realize they are strong.

Might just be that we need to pay a little more attention to what our peers are doing and tune out the screech of the Boomillenials a bit more. I've gotten really, really good at the latter, but I could do so much better with the former.

*I had an idyllic, out-of-sync childhood in rural Wyoming, the land the Boomers kind of forgot. That's not to say there weren't any of that age group, far from it, but in a place that takes pride in slogans like "come to Wyoming and turn your clock back 30 years" even the 30-somethings of my childhood were pretty much just Silent Generation types with less grey hair and fewer wrinkles. Us kids had it really, really good in Saratoga, WY in the 1970s, beneficiaries of a sort of Silent Generation conspiracy to filter out most of the crap of the larger world and bring us the good stuff. The Utah Symphony played concerts in our crappy school gymnasium. An amazing old-timey historical tent show called Chatauqua came through every summer. The Texas Opera company staged full on performances in that same crappy gym where the Utah Symphony played and where from time to time mid-level touring ballet companies performed, too. I had an almost-complete collection of Horizon magazines at my disposal. We had a river to splash around in, bike trails to get us anywhere but keep us (mostly) out of car traffic, and a series of truly extraordinary schoolteachers who taught us how to make stone-age hunting tools and build snow caves along with our three Rs. So I was ill-prepared for the real world of the East Coast, where the hostility of Boomers was waiting to dump bucket after bucket of freezing, stinging salt water over my head before I'd even gotten my bearings. I endured it for almost a decade before deciding I'd had enough and moved back to Wyoming, where I was welcomed back with open arms. I tried to give a new generation the kind of advantages I'd enjoyed in my same hometown, but I didn't have enough co-conspirators to achieve the critical mass to pull it off. Ah, me. But now, here I still am, and now there is the internet. Sing praise, Gaudeamus.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

100 Books #82 - Stephen King's WIZARD AND GLASS

Just as when I read The Drawing of the Three and found that my favorite bit was the sideshow, Roland versus the Lobstrosities, in Wizard and Glass I find that the coolest part is in the beginning, in which the ka-tet matches wits against Blaine the Pain, the Suicidal Riddle-philic Capattack Train (we'll call him BPSRCT for short). There's just something about high-stakes riddling, I guess. Also, BPSRCT is quite seriously, and horrifically fun, threatening and torturing its captive/passengers in a way that reminded me very strongly of AM, the over-the-top malevolent computer in Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." You know BPSRCT would have abracadabra-ed Roland into an immobile blob of flesh if it could have.

I would gladly have read much more of that craziness, but 'twas not to be. Now, I sure have been curious about Roland's backstory, because he's just so capable and mysterious, but I really do have to be careful what I wish for because WOW.

Mostly, the backstory is OK. I am unimpressed with the framing of the narrative -- ostensibly, Roland is telling the story to his companions as they all sit around a campfire, but we get the good old crappy third person omniscient narrator who knows precisely what everyone is thinking and feeling every moment and has to tell us all about it. I wouldn't mind this absurdity so much, except in that King won't allow us to forget it; indeed, seems to delight in rubbing our noses in it, as in an "interlude" exactly halfway through the book, which has Eddie wanting to know how Roland "can know every corner of this story" and Roland's response is a cheap and cheating "I don't think that's what you really want to know, Eddie." Here it's King addressing the reader, basically, and telling her to "let it go, nerd." This ticked me right off, and my constant simmering annoyance at this spoiled my enjoyment of a story that I would probably otherwise like quite a lot. And the thing is, the thing is... doing this was completely unnecessary. I'm inclined to think that  the Dark Tower fans were more than ready, as I was, to get some of Roland's backstory and would have been perfectly happy to just get a straight-up non-sequential novel about Roland's first big adventure, without the hand-waving at framing it as a campfire discussion during which time also just happens conveniently to stretch so that the night is exactly as long as the many, many, many hours it takes for Roland to "tell" his story. Seriously, why bother?

The very cool first 100 pages or so of Wizard and Glass, the BPSRCT joyride through hell, could just as easily have been the very cool first 100 pages or so of Wolves of the Calla, and the rest of the very small amount of overall narrative progress could have been presented in that book, too. At least, I suspect so, not having read Wolves of the Calla yet.

Now, I know the poor souls who were waiting not-quite-GRRM-ian lengths of time for new books might not have been totally pleased to get a non-sequential fourth book for their pains, but then again, they might have appreciated it for having been rendered a better book overall. It's an unanswerable question, possibly, and maybe I don't have any "right" to speculate about it, reading these many years after the fact, with all of them available to me at the same point in time, but as someone who gets annoyed at things like bad narrative framing, my prejudice inclines me to favor this theory.

But enough of my narrative quibbles*, because Roland's backstory, except for all the tiresome teenagers-in-love-and-thinking-sex-is-only-for-them focus, is pretty good, if kind of bloated and slow. Having been manipulated by the forces of evil into earning his guns way too young, Roland and his two best friends get sent to a neighboring Barony to assess what it has to offer the Affiliation (the ragged remnants of civilization in which the boys grew up)'s War Effort, but really just to get them out of harm's way for a while to give them a little more time to grow up. But of course, they uncover dastardly doings as well as forbidden love. We get a trio of Scary Bad Guys, a few Corrupt Politicians (one of whom has made a binding contract with Roland's girlfriend Susan to get to satisfy his Grody Old Man lusts on her Lissome 16-Year-Old Beauty until she is pregnant. He saw her first; Roland is the interloper. But since said politician is a caricature instead of a character, it's all right that Roland steals his girl. Not that I give a damn about any of this. I roll my terrible eyes and gnash my terrible teeth at romances, especially annoying teenage romances, spoiling my quest stories), some Unhappy Aging Women Who Need To Get Laid and, my favorite bit, a Nasty Old Witch who has been engaged to babysit a mysterious sphere that is basically a pink Loc-Nar. Oh, she is awesome. By which I mean ridiculous, ineffective, thwarted, a sacrificial virgin way, way, way past her prime. Which means she is ridiculously entertaining.

And of course there are Roland's boyhood friends, Cuthbert and Alain, long alluded to but never seen until now. It's hard not to be fond of these lads, for all that they are just so overshadowed by Roland; Cuthbert is a big smartass, Alain kind of mystical and gentle, but they are bothmore than up to the task of keeping their friend on track And yes, they are basically stand-ins for Eddie (Cuthbert) and Susannah (Alain). Which leaves Jake as Susan. Um. Best not follow that line of reasoning too closely.

Redeeming all of this for me, at least, is the setting and the season. King's Old West town by the sea brims and shivers with archetypal power as it simmers through the summer and approaches harvest-time, which is celebrated in a ritual-cum-festival called Reaping that combines all of the fun and excitement of a quality county fair of yesteryear (surely King's own childhood) with all of the god-propitiating dread of ancient ceremonies like the burning of the Wicker Man and every fertility rite ever. But of course this particular year, with our three young strangers in town, a pink Loc-Nar in place, and serious war brewing on the frontiers, no one's going to get to enjoy it much this year. The passages concerning this occasion, preparations for it, anticipation of it, hints at its deeper meaning, are the best bits of Wizard and Glass saving the breathless madness of the train ride, and are the ones that remind me most of what I most love Stephen King for -- his short fiction. Ah, me.

Ah, I should have seen it coming, the pink Loc-Nar. King wasn't going to continue to allow his most fascinating creation ever to go on existing in his cussedly tough and independent way forever. At least Roland's promptings from God are more unusual and interesting than the usual message dreams and unexplainable knowledge. As a way for such an amazing character to suddenly gain a life-consuming obsession, it's fair enough, I suppose.

And so onward, if with a bit of a ragged rather than a lusty and excited cheer go I. Because if nothing else, these books are interesting in that they tie so many of King's others together, sort of the way Heinlein wound up stitching his together, and Greenaway his. Roland Deschains is Stephen King's Tulse Luper. And that's sort of cool.

*But maybe not of my grammatical/philological ones. Because folks, 800+ pages of faux archaic dialect is annoying enough (as apparently our author knows, as he has one of his characters muttering to himself about how sick of it he is at one point), but the constant appearance of "thee" being used in the vocative case (i.e. as a form of address) and "ye" being used interchangeably with it ("ye" is in fact acceptable when used in the vocative, but it is a plural pronoun) purt'near drove me up the wall, pilgrims. I should, perhaps, count my freaking blessings that at least no early modern English conjugation errors (e.g. mixing up the second person forms like "hast" with third person "hath" like people so often do) accompany these spurious "thees." And yes, King made up this world and maybe the people with which he populated it just are not keen philologists themselves and would sooner shoot me than discuss with me such niceties, but that doesn't mean it isn't irritating as hell to a certain type of reader.