Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Alive

Not dead. Busy with work, as a resource room aide at an elementary school here in Las Vegas, busy with writing, including my book reviews and books I'm toying with writing (including a possible illustrated children's book, which surprised me. Not illustrated by me, since I don't have any of those skills, but someone if it sells), and busy with life. I'm out of practice with writing a blog, but surely there's much to write about from these past few months, this long gap. I just never had that driving interest to contribute anything here, not when there was a book review to work on (as there will be tonight, ahead of a near-late May deadline, which makes me want to finish the review earlier so I can get more books to review. After all, that's money I'm sitting on), not when there were books to read, not when there were movies to watch, not when there was more life to see in Las Vegas, a lot of strange, yet interesting life at that.

I will try, though. After all, this is my blog and no one else's, and I don't want it to gather ever more dust. I'll see what I come up with.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Passive-Aggressive Washing Machine, or: Who Ya Gonna Call?

Amongst the features in our still-new apartment is a passive-aggressive washing machine. You put in your detergent and your clothes (or vice-versa), turn the knob to the setting you want, and then it locks the lid, to "sense" how much water it has to spurt into the tub. This takes about an hour and a half.

Then, after spit-taking water into its tub for 2 hours, it says, "Okaaaay. Okaaaay. I'll get staaaarted." It does, turning and turning in an annoyed, gun-metal mechanical sound, quieter than our other machines. So it has that going for it, and a dryer that, thanks to having gas in this apartment, only takes 20 minutes to dry a large load. But it still remains the passive-aggressive washing machine. Or the Ghostbusters washing machine, being that when it "senses" how large a load is in the machine, it bangs around like a ghost inside the Ghost Trap.

Blinky

In the bathroom across from the bedroom/den belonging to my sister and I in our family's new apartment (she has the bedroom side, while I converted the den side into my bedroom. Smaller, but it has all the space I need for my books. We moved on Thanksgiving weekend, and I'm sure I'll have more to write about in the weeks ahead. There's just been no time while working and writing book reviews and trying to get my own writing projects going), there's a green light over the toilet that she and I call Blinky. It's convenient at, say, 4 in the morning, not having to turn on the bathroom light because that small light on the quiet, ever-running fan keeps blinking whenever someone's in the bathroom. Sure, it goes on and off and on and off rapidly, but there's enough light there to do what you need to and wash your hands afterward.

To some, it might seem like using the bathroom during an acid trip or a Vietnam flashback. But at that hour of the morning, the bathroom can be as green as it wants. I only wish there were a few Alice in Wonderland elements within it to make it more fun.

Nevertheless, I'll do my best to post more here.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Magazines Hunt Me

I always know exactly what books I want to read. I allow for some surprises, like bumping into actor Danny Aiello's memoir at the Green Valley Library yesterday, but like reviewing Empire of Sin by Gary Krist for BookBrowse, which I waited months to read, there's very little I don't know about books either coming out or that have come out that I want.

It's different with magazines. Back in Southern California, I subscribed to The New Yorker because John Boston, the historical face of The Signal newspaper in the Santa Clarita Valley, where I interned, subscribed to it. I considered him a friend and mentor, and still do, and so I wanted to read what he read. But I let that subscription expire this past September because it didn't fit me anymore. I wanted writing that encompassed all 50 states, not just everything from a New York City perspective. I wanted to read writers from Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, varied perspectives that I could get to know.

On my 30th birthday, my family and I went to McCarran International so I could walk through the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum there, a small set of exhibits spread throughout the airport, accessible by all except for those exhibits in the gate areas of the airport.

I walked through the exhibits, reading all the historical information about the formation of aviation in Las Vegas, but what interested me more were the shops in the airport, including a stunningly detailed newsstand, with magazines from everywhere. I looked at them all, glancing over the glossy fashion magazines, and honing in on the ones about travel, particularly National Geographic Traveler, which truly spans the world. I'm interested in Japan and Sweden and China, I want to visit all the presidential libraries in the nation (save for Reagan's and Nixon's, both of which I went to when I lived in Southern California, Reagan's numerous times for the gently mountainous view from the replica of the South Lawn of the White House), I want to visit Florida to see how my old haunts have changed, to travel throughout New Mexico, and to visit New Orleans. So a magazine that lets me see the sights of the world from my beloved reading recliner without having to spend hours on the Internet is my kind of magazine.

However, I haven't subscribed to it yet because I haven't found new issues anywhere I usually go, including Target, where I last found it, and Smith's supermarket, where I think I once found it. I want to read one or two more before I decide whether to subscribe, but so far it's hard to do that. It's easier with The Sondheim Review, a quarterly magazine devoted to one of my heroes, quite possibly the Zeus of the musical theater, which I've been eyeing for some time. There are two archival issues, one from Spring 1999 about Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski starring in an L.A. concert production of Sweeney Todd, and another from Fall 1998 with Carol Burnett and director Eric D. Schaeffer discussing the revised version of Putting It Together, which was also staged in L.A. I'll use those to decide whether to subscribe to The Sondheim Review, though chances are I might very well do so anyway after reading both issues, since the entire magazine is devoted to Sondheim, after all.

For others, I'm not yet sure. Saveur magazine changed editors-in-chiefs and I worry that the quality will decline dramatically. New Mexico Magazine might very well stay with me, but I hope that they cover the same yearly events in different ways. Of course, considering that it's been around since 1923, they've figured out different ways, but I just hope that the same high quality I've been getting so far remains.

Generally, outside of these experiences, I like to let the magazines hunt me. I know what I like to read, I have some ideas of what I want to read, but I'm not as dogged as I am with books. That's why, at Target today while the dogs were being groomed, my disappointment in not finding the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler mostly faded when I found a quarterly magazine called American Road, all about America's two-lane highways and the sights and sounds and experiences they offer. Trains and planes, sure. That's what National Geographic Traveler is for. While I haven't read all of the Autumn 2014 issue of American Road yet, I get the sense that it goes deep into the United States, what I've hoped to find in some magazine. I can't travel widely right now, but I can certainly read about it and it feels like this might be my gateway into learning so much more about the entire United States, beyond the books I check out, because no doubt American Road keeps track of what's happening today. I might subscribe.

Never too many magazines, though. I don't need Time or Newsweek or anything else with news that seems to change by the hour but pretends that it changes by the week. I want magazines with articles to really consider, and these feel like the greatest possibilities. I wouldn't be surprised if another one hunts me down at another Target or even at that airport newsstand whenever we visit again. I'd consider it just like these ones.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hype: Commerce's Noisy Weapon Against Looking Inward - One Reader's Perspective

In late July, Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian California, was on The Colbert Report, promoting it, and also calling attention to Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark.

A few nights later, at the end of his show, Colbert held up Sweetness #9, saying good night to the audience and then going back to reading it. As a reviewer for BookBrowse, I receive from the owner of the site a list of books to choose from for review, and Sweetness #9 was on that list, in fact on the same night that I had seen Colbert hold up that book (I hadn't seen the Lepucki interview). I was curious about it, because of the cover of a torn-open sugar packet spilling out pink crystals, so I looked it up on Amazon and was immediately taken by the potential of the story of a chemical flavorist wracked with guilt over his perceived part in the creation and marketing and gigantic success of Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener on the level of Sweet'N Low. I decided to review it. I had been swept up by the hype, of which Colbert was one cog in that machine.

After I received it from the publisher, I read up to page 173 and stopped. The premise was fascinating, especially in how the artificial sweetener industry works, not entirely openly revealed, but just enough to make one wonder about exactly how these flavorists create these sweeteners and flavors. What's the process? What ingredients are used? All of this will likely never be fully revealed, because it's a very secretive industry. But in the hands of the shaky David Leveraux, the flavorist of the story, it becomes less and less interesting as the pages go on because it's constant hand-wringing, constant worry, constant whining. Is his son's inability to speak verbs caused by his constant ingestion of Sweetness #9? What about his wife's malaise? It's hard to get fully inside the story, to become more interested in it because Leveraux doesn't move emotionally. The same notes, the same tone.

This is also what I determined in a brief review I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse to explain why I wasn't going to review the book (we're given that option because as she says, if we're struggling through the book, it's likely that our readers will too). It didn't take me long to determine why I had fallen under the spell of the hype, besides seeing it on Colbert: It was the copy describing the book, making me wonder why the copywriters in charge of those descriptions don't write the books themselves, because they are clearly better writers. I understand hype's place in commerce, because otherwise, Dan Brown would not have become wildly popular, and there wouldn't be a third Robert Langdon movie on the way, again directed by Ron Howard, again starring Tom Hanks, this time based on Inferno. That is but one example (lots of fast-food examples come to mind), but it also made me take stock yet again in what I like, what I like to read. I hate hype, because I experienced it way too much in my years of writing movie reviews, and as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, especially during awards season. In fact, awards season hype was what made me take stock then. I had just finished writing my share of What If They Lived?, and I decided I was tired of the hamster wheel feeling of movie release schedules, knowing exactly what kind of movies would be released in January (Hollywood's embarrassments), in the summer (Are you ready for some budgeeeeeeet?!), and the last three months of the year (They will commit seppuku if it means they have a great chance of winning an Oscar). After 13 years, I was done reviewing movies.

I've also come to realize that if I'm having trouble coming up with a clear opinion about a book, then it's the book. If I love a book, or am disappointed with it, then I should be able to know right away either what's so right about it, or what's gone so wrong with it. When I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse, I was having exactly that trouble, and she blessedly boiled it down to this: Interesting premise, flat characters. Exactly. Literary pretensions might have been at play here, being that based on the New York Times review I had read of Sweetness #9, Clark, being such a lover of Vonnegut, might have been striving to emulate him, which would make more sense to that reviewer, since I haven't read Vonnegut extensively. I've read many of his speeches, but that's been about it so far. Not even Slaughterhouse-Five. Not yet.

What to do this time? Before I had received Sweetness #9, I picked another book for review from another list, Internal Medicine by Terrence Holt, being that the first book I reviewed for BookBrowse was the medically-based Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. I chose Internal Medicine to see now where I am as a reviewer, also because what seems to be Holt's sensitivity toward the grueling nature of humanity that one sees as a doctor, particularly Holt's experiences.

So it was time to go back to that kind of desire, unencumbered by hype. I should pick what I'm interested in and let nothing else sway me. Explore as I wish to explore, taking in new experiences as I bump into them, which happens often on Amazon when I'm pre-ordering books by favorite authors and find other books I just have to read.

In fact, that's what happened three months ago, with Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist. The book that I pre-ordered has been lost to time, and looking at my Amazon pre-orders, I wouldn't be able to identify which one was the catalyst. But it led to Empire of Sin, lighting up my interest in New Orleans again. It comes out October 28th, and I didn't pre-order it on the off-chance that maybe, just maybe, the owner of BookBrowse would have a place for it in one of her upcoming issues, and maybe it would appear on the review list I would receive after having given up on Sweetness #9, despite Internal Medicine still being in the pipeline for me to review. I'm trusted enough now to juggle two reviews at a time, which is fairly easy, with each review being up to 600 words. That is, until I start writing, of course. But with luck, I come up with the framework for the review while I'm reading, or even before, though I adjust as necessary if it doesn't match the book, or write an entirely new opening.

I have a thus far vaguely-defined interest in New Orleans, first stemming from the disappointment at the end of summer 2003 when my family and I moved cross-country from South Florida to Southern California in five days. We drove through Alabama, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, all the states you'd expect to hit in such a route, but there was no time to visit New Orleans. Not with two dogs and two birds in the car with us, not with my dad having to start his new job teaching business education at La Mesa Junior High in the Santa Clarita Valley not long after we got there. This was before Katrina, so it's all the more disappointing.

If I eventually visit, I want to try a beignet and visit Bourbon Street, but I want to explore more than that, such as the houses in New Orleans, the plant life, and naturally, the music and the charismatic personalities. Until that day comes, I seek out all I can about New Orleans in books, about its history, novels about it, short stories, anything. I've read some of Walker Percy's works, including The Moviegoer, but I haven't gotten through A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. To be fair, perhaps I should try it again. Maybe enough time has passed since the last aborted reading.

Empire of Sin fits right into that line of exploration, and I kept eyeing it for three months, hoping that the owner of BookBrowse was thinking the same way I was. Other books got in the way and it disappeared, until late last Thursday afternoon. Another review list dropped in my e-mail, to fill the Sweetness #9 hole. This was the first list in which after I looked at the first title, I didn't need to look at the rest. It was Empire of Sin.

Empire of Sin is all mine, decided by me, without any hype. I would like to write many more book reviews than I do now, and I suspect that if the workload grows, I'll be subjected to even more hype by the publishing industry. The only thing to do is hold strong against it, to remember what interests me, what I want to read about, what I would like to learn about. Interestingly enough, Empire of Sin will be the third Louisiana-based book I'll be reviewing, after Five Days at Memorial and What the River Washed Away by Muriel Mharie Macleod. That must be saying something indeed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Another Bowling League? No, Thank You.

Last year, soon after the school year began, Dad, Meridith and I joined a school district bowling league at Sam's Town in Las Vegas, the core of the league made up of retired school district employees, including those who ran, and still run, the league. In fact, one of its members has been at the center of power of the league for 20 years, giving me hope that people, outside of devoted natives, do live here longer than a couple of years.

The before-the-holidays feast we had included the best lasagna I've ever had, and therefore it was worth it for that. But it went on too long. It stretched from the beginning of the school year to near the end, in late May, which I learned from other league bowlers is way too long for a typical league. There were many weeks when it felt like it, when sitting there, waiting for my turn to bowl felt like waiting at a bus stop for the bus to finally show up.

So burned out was I by the length of that league that I refused to join the next one that Dad and Meridith decided to join, this time at Wildfire Lanes here in Henderson, the only bowling alley close enough to our home, connected to Wildfire Casino, with Wildfire Grill nestled within. It was enough for me to show up with Mom at the beginning of this particular league to watch them bowl, and for two more times after, and then that was enough. We went again recently when Mom learned that Meridith's teammate was not going to be there (that teammate spent more time gabbing with other players she obviously knew than being a teammate), but that's been it.

Tomorrow is the last day of this league. After this, Dad and Meridith plan to bowl again, this time with one of them bowling with the security guard at Wildfire, who bowled with Dad as a substitute a few Tuesdays back, who we like a lot. He's an easygoing guy, friendly all around, always up for anything. For a moment, I actually considered joining this new league if it meant bowling with him, but I don't want to. I'm now far enough removed from that school district bowling league that it doesn't affect me like it did immediately after to turn me off from joining that next league. But I don't feel desire enough to be part of another league. Pulling on bowling shoes again, watching the hook of my ball, even though it's an unsanctioned league and therefore played purely for fun, it doesn't appeal to me like it did before. In fact, the last time I was in a league before that school district bowling league was when I was 9 years old, bowling every Saturday morning at Don Carter Lanes in Tamarac, Florida, after Mom and Dad had bowled there in their league the Friday night before.

I'm not as passionate about bowling as Meridith is, as interested as Dad is. Meridith wants to improve her game, and has been to a regional PBA pro at the lanes at Sunset Station, also in Henderson, twice on separate Sunday mornings, and it's helped. But I don't have that drive. Given the choice between bowling and reading, I'd rather read.

Now, if there was such a thing as a Galaga league or a tournament, I'm there. I love playing Galaga, and I especially love playing it at the arcade in the food court at the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm. But no arcade of any kind in this valley can sustain that, not even the Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana, because there's only one Galaga machine there. If there was, I'd be there, every week, trying mightily to boost my score and my ability to make it past Stage 52 on fewer quarters.

This comes to mind because I'm not sure yet if Mom and I are going to be at the final session of their league tomorrow. All I know tomorrow, while waiting on word of various jobs at different schools nearby and a little further, is that I'm going to the Green Valley Library in the morning to volunteer as I usually do. If we go, we go. I've been through the last session of a bowling league, and once was enough, but maybe it's better at Wildfire. Nevertheless, if the security guard at Wildfire joins Dad on his team, I'll go more often. I always have books with me, and there's a digital jukebox with all my favorites on it, from Sting to Annie Lennox to Phil Collins to Sade to Elton John. I like watching more than bowling now. Bowling means focusing on one frame at a time, in that very moment, and then waiting for your turn, not always being able to notice everything around you. Watching, I can notice everything around me, and wander sometimes to the arcade in the back to see the Dance Dance Revolution machine back there, the one that's serving as inspiration for a novel I want to write, though not set in either Henderson or Las Vegas. I've got plenty of other potential works set in one or the other.

Being at Wildfire is a nice change from Sam's Town because at Sam's Town, you have to take the escalator into what is essentially the basement of the casino, where the entire bowling alley is, whereas at Wildfire, you just walk into it from the casino or from the back of the property from that parking lot. There's three different entrances. Plus, with far fewer lanes at Wildfire than at Sam's Town, yeah it puts more financial pressure on the company to bring in a lot of people, but it genuinely feels like a neighborhood bowling alley. These are the people you might also see at the Smith's supermarket across the street from Wildfire, in that opposite shopping center, or at the Smith's on North Green Valley Parkway. The people here actually live here. It helps, not least because there's no trek to Sam's Town from our home, and it saves a lot of time.

So maybe tomorrow. Or maybe next time. Either way, I like experiencing bowling this way now. And if I ever feel like bowling, or if Meridith asks on days outside the league, I can. I don't need to do it every week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Syndication, Without the Hype

It's that time of year again!

If you watch this new series, you're never going to think of TV the same way again! If you watch that new series, your bald spot will fill in and your libido will return and beg your forgiveness for leaving like it did.

Watch that channel's new lineup on Tuesday nights, and you'll never be bored with your life ever again! EVER! Weren't you listening? They said "Ever!"

Over and over, the same demands for your time and attention, the same kind of clips expressing the deeply-plumbed drama of each new series, the same attractive people you'd never find in your local supermarket, the same promise that the new series that might have snagged your interest will be premiering on this date and time, and continue in that time slot, at least until the ratings of the second episode don't meet the network's insanely high expectations. Bye bye attractive people! Bye bye attempted intense drama that just felt cloying instead of intriguing!

What to do? What to watch? What else to do with your time?

I've been collared by that hype, too. Madam Secretary on CBS automatically got me because of my love of presidential history, real and fictional. I like the outcast aspect of Scorpion, also on CBS, with those geniuses of various stripes that are expected to save Los Angeles International Airport from total disaster, and if you've seen the over 2-minute trailer, they do. But I hope they'll be more than that.

No, ABC, I'm not interested in How to Get Away with Murder. I'm curious about your sitcom Cristela because I like how Cristela Alonzo eschews a handheld microphone in her stand-up act, bringing her closer to the audience, which might be what she intended. Yes, that's enough for me to consider watching a new series. It doesn't take much.

Still, I'm weary from all the commercials. Yes, it's that time of year, and I know it's to be expected, and yes, it's definitely better than campaign ads. So much better. Subtlety is a foreign word to network television, but do they not want me to watch their shows? At times, it gets to the point where I'm hoping for an extra erectile dysfunction commercial in place of another commercial for Katherine Heigl's new series on NBC, whatever it's called.

Lest you think I've been watching too much TV lately, you should know that the main TV in my household is in the living room, which is also where the VCR (for a few select movies I have that still haven't been released on DVD) and DVD player are. It's where I watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory on CBS, hence the commercials for Madam Secretary and Scorpion, and where Mom, Dad, and Meridith watch the latest episodes of America's Got Talent, hence the commercials for Heigl's new thing. Even if you fast-forward, as I do since I Tivo those reruns, you still can't avoid them. Viola Davis is still there on ABC, introducing her course of "How to Get Away with Murder." Come to think of it, why is ABC on? Oh yeah, the news. It's not me. My dad prefers the local ABC station for the news.

I know this happens every year, and it's the same with the movie industry with awards season coming up. I lived through that when I wrote movie reviews, as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, receiving advance DVD screeners in order to vote in our awards. I was so taken by that in my early years as a member, and totally gave up at the end. It wasn't fun anymore, because it was the same cycle. Only the movies changed, but then, come awards season, they really didn't change that much. So I've always been aware of hype, even though I'm not deep in it anymore.

Syndicated TV shows engage in my favorite kind of hype: Not much. The shows that are purchased for syndication were popular or somewhat popular enough to merit syndication and so the only effort that the stations airing these syndicated shows need to make is to let viewers know that these shows are coming. The commercials aren't as frequent. Viewers may know about those shows already, and if they're huge fans and don't have them on DVD, or they do and are just too lazy to pull out the DVDs (as I am most of the time with The Big Bang Theory, despite owning six seasons), then advertising is moot. Even new viewers might already know about the shows, but either haven't had time to watch them or didn't think of them until now. Melissa McCarthy & Billy Gardell introducing the upcoming arrival of Mike & Molly on FX is useful, but doesn't need commercial after commercial because people already know about it.

My favorite piece of syndication advertising happened in 2004 or 2005, when my family and I lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, in Saugus after a year in Valencia, and I attended classes at College of the Canyons. Early on, I took the #4 bus from College of the Canyons to the transfer station on McBean Parkway in Valencia. For some reason early on, though I haven't been able to pinpoint it, I always walked from the transfer station to a bus stop across from the entrance to the transfer station, in front of the back section of the parking garage for the Valencia Town Center mall. Either it was because I naively didn't think that the #7 bus (which goes from Six Flags Magic Mountain to Seco Canyon Road & Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus, my streets) stopped at the transfer station, or I wanted to get away from the occasional noise of the transfer station and have a spot to myself. I can't be sure which one it was. Perhaps it was both on a given day.

To my right at that bus stop was a poster behind glass, lit from behind when the sun had set just enough. It was for The X-Files on KCAL 9, Friday nights at 8 or 9 p.m. It was the logo, and Mulder and Scully, and that was it.

I was impressed that KCAL 9 remembered that people live in the Santa Clarita Valley, enough to advertise The X-Files. Despite being located 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, it's so isolated by mountains and freeways that if ever there was an earthquake even more violent than Northridge in 1994, it would be cut off from everything. No access to anywhere or from anywhere. It's also isolated by crowding in on you during the week, reminding you of not much happening there. You work, you shop, you go home, that's it. That's a healthy majority of life anyway, but it's not a city with much else to offer, unless you're part of the community that likes this kind of living, and that community is there. Not my kind of living. No matter what I did there, from those COC classes, to working at The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley, to seeing 4th of July fireworks from the parking lot of Pavilions supermarket, it still felt isolated.

Yet, on late Friday afternoons and evenings, a crack always opened up in the valley, encouraging you to go nuts if you wanted, explore whatever you wanted, walk the paseos from Valencia at sunset, bike to Stevenson Ranch, do whatever you wanted that made you feel more alive than you usually do during the week. It wasn't only because the week was over, not only that relief sometimes. It felt like a freer valley, perhaps because others had gone to Los Angeles for the evening or Anaheim or Burbank, or wherever else they went, to get out of the valley. Therefore, the valley was mine in a way. I'll write about it in more detail some other time, but that's why I loved late Friday afternoons at 3:50, after my cinema class at COC, because the campus was mine. Very few people were there around that time, and if I could have had its library like that for the entire weekend, I would have ran right for it. I loved the quiet of the campus then. I could do anything.

KCAL 9 might have figured that Friday nights were when geeks would be home, and they would probably watch. To me, it was one of many options, even going so far as to explore the entire universe in an evening if so inclined. The valley just felt that possible, even, surprisingly, that exciting. But only that late afternoon and evening. Saturday was always back to normal.

I loved that poster, that advertising because it became part of Friday, for the months that it was there. Even when I'd see it on a Tuesday, I knew it would fit right in again at the end of the week. That was all the advertising The X-Files needed in Santa Clarita. No hype. Just part of the fabric of the valley. Syndication is nice like that.