Saturday, June 2, 2007

Booklog, High Fidelity, Nick Nornby

High Fidelity
Nick Hornby
Penguin Putnam Trade Paperback, 323 pages

No posts recently. Not because I've been too busy, but the opposite: my significant other of nearly nine years left me on May 16. And I've been a bit distracted to really concentrate.

And boy, High Fidelity was exactly what I needed. Not least because I loved the movie when it came out in 2000... and the former SO hated it. But also because it speaks of a certain species of male, entering early middle age, stuck doing a job he doesn't really like, moving on inertia more than anything else, who has just been dumped by the love of his life.

The main character is Rob Fleming, played by John Cusack in the movie. He owns a tiny specialty record shop in London (deftly moved to Chicago for the film) and has encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. He works with two other pop-music know-it-alls, Dick and Barry, and their "top five" lists are some of the funniest bits of the book.

Rob's girlfriend Laura leaves him in the very first moments of the book, and the text is largely concerned with Rob's reaction to the breakup. He begins going through his "top five" breakups, beginning with some girl he made out with behind the bleachers when he was fourteen, and moving forward to the present day. Although he claims that Laura's breakup with him wouldn't even crack the top five, it soon becomes clear that he cares for Laura, and that the breakup is much more painful than he lets on.

Eventually Rob will meet up with the five girls on the top-five breakup list, asking each in turn what it was about him that messed up their relationships (to often hilarious results, as Rob sees these women much more clearly now that he's an adult), restart his disk jockey career, and have a one-night stand with an American country singer that is so note-perfect in the way it's executed that it's a minor masterpiece in and of itself.

I could go on and on talking about the things I enjoyed about this book, but let me leave it to just one more thing: while in the movie the ending feels a bit contrived, a bit outside of how these characters would normally behave, in the book Laura's character gets a little bit more space as a fleshed-out character, and her motivations for doing what she does become much more clear. At the end of the book, Rob and Laura are having problems with their relationship, but they're each working towards the other, and the reader is left with hope that these two crazy kids can work it out after all.

For completeness' sake, here is a review I wrote of the movie back when it came out in April of 2000.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Booklog, A Condederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press Trade Paperback, 394 pages

Stick the landing.

That's the advice that I got from this novel: stick the landing. I was reading through it, fully prepared to give it a merely so-so review, categorizing it in my mind as "one damn thing after another," when suddenly I realized while reading the last forty pages or so just how perfect the ending was shaping up to be, and how well it tied the entire rest of this messy, disorganized novel into a neat little bow. It made me understand that the book was written exactly as it needed to be -- there's little or no wasted verbiage here, despite appearances -- and that the book deserves its accolades.

For those unfamiliar with the context of the book, John Kennedy Toole wrote this novel in the early sixties and later killed himself. His mother discovered the manuscript in her son's personal items after he died, read it, and recognized it as a great book. She spent years pestering people in positions to publish the book to give it a read-through, and when the book was finally published, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

The book's protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly (although the myriad characters surrounding him are given about as many pages as he is), a fat, oblivious thirtysomething who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He has a master's degree in some unstated subject (probably classical studies, given his appreciation for Boethus), and spends all of his time camped out in his room, writing pages upon pages of purple prose into notebooks, the earliest of which he can scarcely even remember the contents of. He also plays at the local arcade, and goes to the movies almost daily -- not because he likes the films, but to expose himself to the further depradations of modern society. See, Ignatius detests modernism, feeling that society reached its peak sometime during the Middle Ages, although he does seem to appreciate the conveniences of modern society a great deal.

Many have described Ignatius as depressed, and I'm not entirely sure I disagree, but to me his behavior seems more closely connected with some form of high-functioning austism. He is enormously intelligent, but completely and utterly self-centered, berating all of those in his life for slights real and imagined, and basically being a giant boor. He refuses to even go get a job until his mother, needing a thousand and fifty dollars to pay damages she owes after getting in a car accident, forces him to go pound the pavement. The majority of the novel details Ignatius's work habits as a filing clerk at a clothing factory and, later, a hot dog vendor.

As mentioned above, there is also a large supporting cast of various characters, all of them deftly drawn "colorful characters," but rarely dipping into caricature. Most affecting (and most central to the plot, as it turns out towards the end) is a formerly-vagrant black man who takes a sub-minimum-wage job sweeping floors at the local strip club -- he is often the voice of reason and wisdom in the book, but never steps near stereotype; he too has a wit and flash all his own, and his scenes are among the most engaging.

This book is described as a comedy, and perhaps the biggest flaw I found with the book is that I did not find it particularly funny. I am clearly in the minority here, but I found the overall sadness of the Ignatius character to be more prominent in his interactions, and while some of the situations he gets into are absurd or surreal, his actions are so grounded in his particular psychology that I couldn't find it in my heart to laugh at the poor guy.

Overall this turned out to be a very good book. I wish I could have enjoyed the humor a bit more, but that's probably a failing of mine, not the book. There's a lot here that I haven't even touched on -- this book is enormously rich in terms of local character and flavor, and most scenes are short, leading to a more engaging moment if you get tired of the one you're on. Keep in mind that there is a meaning to all this, and that there is a subtly-buried plot, and you'll do fine with the book.

It's a shame Toole killed himself. This book is so good that he could have had a long life of writing strangely tragicomic novels; he could have been a common man's Thomas Pynchon, or Phillip Roth with a Cajun twist. As the introduction notes, one of the real tragedies of the book is all the other books we were denied by the suicide of the author.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Booklog, Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Chuck Palahniuk

Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday Hardcover, 336 pages

Well, you can't blame me for dallying. This novel was only released yesterday.

I'm in a strange place with this novel. It's better than I expected from his last work, Haunted, which I felt would have worked much better as a book of short stories than as a novel, and good enough that I recommend it without many reservations, but it also has a number of structural and thematic issues that would probably be pertinent to mention in this review.

But I can't really discuss it. Palahniuk has written a novel that is elegantly constructed for I think the first time in his career, and one of the primary joys of reading it is to experience without spoilers the many red herrings and changes in meaning that the book undergoes as the plot unfolds. Suffice to say that this really could have been three or four books, in the hands of a lesser author, but Palahniuk integrates it all in a way that makes it wholly original, even unique.

Hell, it even has some thematic similarities to Against the Day, or at least a small portion of it.

The book is structured as an oral history of Buster "Rant" Casey, who we learn in the opening pages is a strange sort of celebrity who spread some horrible disease to "half the country" and is the leader of some weird cult. As the book continues, much if not all of that is brought into question by the various perspectives of the persons "interviewed" for the book, and by the end much of what we thought we knew about this character and the world in which he lives are known to be wrong. Maybe.

The oral history aspect feels like an affectation at first, a narrative technique that fails largely because Paluhniak's characters are similar enough to one another to make their voices indistinct. But gradually I realized that Paluhniak is using the technique to give us the "good parts" version of this novel, in which the narrative flow can move from scene to scene without showing a lot of the more dull interconnective tissue. This gives the book a velocity that is hard to resist -- I read the whole thing in about three sittings over the course of twenty-four hours or so, and it didn't feel like a forced read at all.

Palahniuk's fans are going to eat this up. There's a lot here that his devotees will enjoy, and there's enough here that is new to his fiction that he might even get some new readers, although it's really only in the last hundred pages or so that the real meaning of it all becomes clear. The gore factor is turned way down from Haunted, although there's a bit towards the end, and the worldbuilding done in the more speculative-fiction portions of the novel is pretty top-notch (although even that's probably saying too much).

If it seems that I'm discussing this novel without telling anything about it, that's because I am -- if anything that I've said above has interested you, read nothing else about this book (even the dust jacket) and start reading. I haven't always considered myself a huge fan of Palahniuk's writing, and there are some issues I have with this book, but overall this is a hugely confident and largely successful book, a definite step forward for the author, and while I don't plan to own this book immediately, I'll be thinking about it for a while.

Give it a shot. It's a good read.

Booklog, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote
Vintage Trade Paperback, 343 pages

It's funny: this book took me about a week to read, has enormous strengths with only a few minor weaknesses, nearly singlehandedly invented the true crime drama, has at least tenuous connections to To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet... I just don't have a lot to say about it.

The story: Truman Capote saw an item in the news about the senseless slaying of a family of four in Kansas, was intrigued by it, and spent something like seven years putting together a definitive narrative about the events that transpired. He worked with Harper Lee to interview hundreds of people in the community and who knew the killers, and integrated the thousands of pages of notes into a compelling and even touching narrative that captured the lives of the two killers as well as the lives of those who were killed. It contains moments of great brutality and moments of great tenderness. And Capote may well have fallen in love with one of the killers along the way. (I have not yet seen Capote, but the writing of this book is the narrative focus of that Oscar-winning film.)

And yet... the whole thing is so straightforward and yet intimately interconnected that there's just not a lot of commentary I can give, without basically reproducing the whole book.

The book starts slow. It spends about eighty pages introducing two groups of people: the Clutter family, the four individuals who would be killed, and the two low-rent ex-cons (Perry Smith and Richard Hickock) who would do the killing. It introduces the reader into the rhythms of the lives of the principals, getting a feel for exactly what transpired that day, the ends Part One of the book without actually "showing" the crime. We pick up in Part Two with the discovery of the bodies, and the two criminals trying to find a place to hole up after committing the crimes.

The community of Holcomb, KS (where the murders took place) is justifiably shocked by the brutality of the slayings, and since most people in-town believe the crime to have been committed by one of their own, a large amount of distrust forms among the local population. The actual killers, several hundred miles away by the time the bodies are discovered, bounce around from town to town kiting checks and hoping to find decent work.

They are eventually caught by a mechanism that is so out-of-the-way that I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise for those who haven't read it, and the crime is finally described by one of the men. Seeking what they believed to be tens of thousands of dollars, the murder of four innocent people nets the two men somewhere between forty and fifty dollars, including a silver dollar stolen from a young girl's changepurse.

Brought back to Holcomb for trial, they are given a mostly-fair but quick trial, sent to Death Row, and, eventually, hung. The book ends less than two pages after Smith's hanging, on a note of loss as the primary detective on the case views the Clutter farm.

Yet... there's so much more than this simple telling would indicate. In the hands of a skilled narrative artist like Capote, the people involved are fully human, full of desires and honesty and integrity and foibles, and if no one is quite fully evil, no one is quite angelic. The killers are portrayed as hugely flawed and perhaps mentally ill, but with dignity of their own, and while the book never excuses their crime, it makes the reader sympathetic towards their own plight.

Critics have speculated that Capote took many liberties with the circumstances of the crime in the past forty years. How the author could have had the kind of access needed to get the kinds of details he has on display here is bewildering. I have little doubt that at least some portions of this book were simply invented, or at least massaged into place by the incredibly talented author.

Reading this back-to-back with The Ski Mask Way just reiterated how insipid the latter book really is: while the main characters in 50 Cent's book are barely even two-dimensional, Capote's "characters" shine with all the complexity of real life. And while the ending of Ski Mask comes from nowhere, and the brutality of the crime is senseless and unnecessary, In Cold Blood makes a similar crime completely understandable, even necessary, for the two young men.

In the end, Capote's work is a masterwork, but a strangely cold one that leaves me not wishing for a reread anytime soon. Fans of true-crime novels will find one of the best ever written here, and it's a perfect example of how to use real events to create narrative tension, but it's also strangely disposable: once it's done, it's done.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Duckman on Youtube!

So it's been a few days since I've posted. I've been working a lot, and haven't really felt inspired. But what did I find yesterday before going in for a closing shift?

That's right -- Duckman on Youtube. In case you don't recognize it, that's Jason Alexander at the height of his Seinfeld fame as the eponymous character, with Nancy Travis as Bernice and Dweezil Zappa as Ajax. Tim Curry played King Chicken, but he didn't appear in the pilot episode linked to above.

The show ran on USA from 1994-1997, and I think it probably influenced me way more than a show like that should have. Nowadays USA is known for Monk and endless reruns of the Law and Order spinoffs (all of which is fine, and I enjoy greatly), but back in the nineties it was the place for cheesy eighties movies (good and bad) and made-for-TV schlock like Silk Stalkings. Duckman was a show that celebrated that kind of lowbrow sex and violence even while savagely satirizing it, got points for being having the anti-PC Duckman while showing his views to be just as flawed as those that he criticized (mainly through Duckman's own stupidity and the moderating influence of Cornfed), and even included highminded criticism of its own structure occasionally.

In later episodes of the show, organized religion came under pretty harsh criticism (the creators of the show are all strong atheists so far as I know) and Duckman himself is shown as an enthusiast of kinky BDSM-style sex. The show did a science fiction episode, a film noir episode, a "Vietnam movie" episode, even an "end of the world" episode. If at times the satire seemed to be more of a broadsword than a rapier, even that was part of the fun -- not until South Park would more sacred cows be toppled in a single half-hour cable program.

Yeah, it had its weak episodes. But it deserves better than to languish in obscurity, and it's right up there with Daria on my list of TV shows that should get the season-box-set DVD treatment soon.

So go watch the pilot, already!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Classic Daily Show Segment

I hate to post a video two days in a row, but this is just classic:

Beth swears that Frosty is just trying to get publicity, but I'm not so sure. I think he's a failed comedian who's trying to show off to the pros.

In any case, the giant bowl of God's anger is a classic.

Booklog, The Ski Mask Way, 50 Cent and k. Elliott

The Ski Mask Way
50 Cent and k. Elliott
Pocket Books Trade Paperback, 213 pages

You heard me right. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, is a published author. Or at least a co-author, with k. Elliot (an author obscure enough not to have a Wikipedia page, although he or she has published at least one or two other books, according to Amazon) he has written and published The Ski Mask Way, and in a lot of ways it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect.

The plot hinges on Seven, a NYC native who has been transplanted to Charlotte afte NC after serving time for drug dealing, and who runs with Butter, a lowlife thug known more for his brutality than his smarts. The book opens with the two of them sitting in an Impala listening to hip-hop (the artists are all identified in the book, although not being a fan of the music I can't really comment on it), smoking weed, and talking about movies and life. By the end of the first half-dozen pages, they're planning robberies, and by the end of the first chapter they've made some "paper", in the book's lingo.

As the book continues, we meet Seven's "baby-mama", an ex-prison guard named Adrian who lost her job because of her relationship with the then-incarcerated Seven, and their three-year-old son Tracey. Tracey has an unspecified disease that makes it impossible for him to walk, and much of what follows will happen because Seven needs to have the money for his son's operation that will allow him to walk and be rehabilitated.

That's not to say that Seven is a family man. He has a hot girlfriend names Elise who helps to set up victims for his robberies, and who eventually leads him to Reno, a big-time gangster in the relatively small town. Seven's original plan is to get Elise to seduce Reno into giving away the location of his stash of drugs and money, then to break in and rob the more-powerful man. But Reno is no fool, and sees right through the trick, gaining Elise as his girlfriend in the process.

If this all seems a bit strung-together, that's because it is. This all takes place within the first forty or fifty pages, and I've barely given it less description than the book itself -- there is no metaphor or real description to speak of here, but simple dialogue that spells out direct motives for the character's actions, and a long series of sketchily-described locales.

By the end of the book, people die (although not always who you expect) and a whole lot of money changes hands. The characters remain barely two-dimensional stick figures that live violent lives absolutely free of any police intervention (except one very short scene involving mall security) and who seem to have no real inner lives to speak of. Even Seven, the protagonist of the piece, fighting to make enough money so that his son can learn to walk, never seems to have any real depth of character, and a short scene in which he tears up over the life he has to live in order to give his son a new lease on life is perfunctory at best.

The book ends with snippets of two other 50 Cent-authored pieces, both of which seem better than this one, so it may be the Elliott simply isn't a very good coauthor. This book is clearly meant to be a sort of modern-day analogue to the dime novels of the "pulp fiction" era, and in a lot of ways I think it fills the same role. While the writing doesn't stand up to, say, Raymond Chandler's, I'll bet there were dozens if not hundreds of hack writers banging out crime fiction in 1940 that would've read exactly like this, if one switched out the Italian crime bosses for African-American drug dealers, and inserted the word "nigga" approximately twice per page.

It's easy to look at this sort of thing as the collapse of Western civilization, but while there's absolutely no reason to ever buy this book for its literary merits, it does sort of make sense as a dumb sort of thrilling crime fiction. I can't comment on the "reality" of the situations it describes, but there's really no insight here that can't be gotten in a dozen generic gangsta movies or rap videos, and the plot is so thin that I've read cheap erotica with more depth and emotional heft.

Oh, and there's this bit from page 88:
Antonio sat in the front, Butter and Seven sat in the back. Squeeze put in a G-Unit mix tape and pulled off in a hurry as they bobbed their heads to the latest Lloyd Banks song. "Yo, that nigga Banks is nice. I like his delivery," Squeeze said.

"Yeah, but I think Tony Yayo is the nicest," Antonio said.

"Hell, that nigga Fifty is the nicest to me. I mean, this nigga is getting his marbles. They can hate if they want, but he has an empire -- clothes, music, video games, Vitamin Water..." Seven said.

That's right, Fifty name-checks himself in his own book. Raymond Chandler eat your heart out.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Booklog, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Harper Perennial Modern Classics Trade Paperback, 323 pages

A few days ago, I wrote a booklog review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in which I basically said that it was a fairly simple "good" book, with surface-level allusions that would make it easy to teach to teenagers. I didn't mention it at the time, but I was mentally connecting McCarthy's book to To Kill a Mockinbird, as my memory of the book (and the movie of the same name) was that of a basically simple, straightforward pair of stories that connected only in the most spurious ways.

Well, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Reapproaching the novel as an adult, I was amazed at the overall quality of the writing, at how structured and (at times) wickedly satirical Lee's voice in the novel is. Teaching it to every ninth grader in America is actually a disservice to the book -- 14 year olds just really don't understand this book, and the movie (good as it is) only aids the confusion.

In case you're one of the half-dozen people in North America who's never read it, let me give you a synopsis. Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout) narrates the story of how her older brother Jem broke his arm when they were both small children in small-town southern Alabama around 1932. In order to tell the story, she starts by telling about Boo Radley, the adult man who lives with his mother and father next door and who hasn't been seen in about twenty years, and about her lawyer father Atticus Finch's unsuccessful defense of an African-American man named Tom Robinson, who is on trial for his life after being accused of raping a poor white girl. The novel is basically disjointed, spending about half of its time on the idyllic childhood of Scout, her brother, and their friend Dill who visits during the summers, and the other half on coutroom theatrics involving a racist jury putting an innocent black man to death, despite the clear moral and legal voice of Atticus.

Except that the version I gave above is the way people remember the story later on. At least, that's basically the way I remember it, and it's basically the way the film version goes. But in reality, Lee's achievement is much deeper than a simple morality play set in rural Alabama -- her fictional Maycomb county is an absolute delight, filled with saints and sinners (who are not always on the side of the fence we think they're on, and who sometimes don't seem to know there's a fence at all) going about elaborately controlled social lives and relating to one another in a variety of subtly interconnected ways.

Who remembers years after their reading that there's a Hitler reference late in the novel? Or that Scout's second-grade teacher is almost assuredly Jewish, and has a similar prejudice against "Negroes" that the Protestant ladies surrounding her do? Or that Scout's Aunt Alexandria, Atticus's sister, is such an effective tool of what in a later era would be called patriarchy, determined to make a "lady" out of the tomboyish Scout?

Who at fourteen would realize how special Atticus's childrearing methods really are? His small children call him by his first name, he is generally opposed to violence but buys them air-rifles anyway, never talks down to his children and even taught Scout to read the newspaper so early that she considers it as natural as breathing. Even by the hopefully more-enlightened standards of the early twenty-first century, Atticus's parenting comes across as revolutionary and progessive in all the right ways, with little of the baggage of his times -- how radical must it have seemed in 1960, when the book was published, or in the 1930s, when Lee herself was being raised? (Atticus is based on Lee's own father, who was a lawyer who tried a similar case during her childhood.)

Much is made of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel" which took scandalous events and transformed them through the devices of fiction into great drama. Since Capote was a dear friend of Lee's, and in fact was the inspiration for the character of Dill, it's suggested by many that Capote helped to shape the not-quite-fictional nature of Mockingbird, but given the adroitness of Lee's voice here, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't the other way around. Lee is always in clear command of her narrative voice, and while the meaning of certain sequences may not always be clear on a first reading, the overall structure is impeccable -- every word and every moment has its place in the scheme of the novel.

In short, this is a masterpiece. It's odd to think of one of the most popular books in the English language as overlooked, but I think it's clear that much of the novel goes over the heads of the teenagers who are assigned to read it. If you haven't read it since high school, you haven't read it: go check it out of the library or buy a copy and read it again. It's an utterly amazing book, and it's a tragedy that Lee never wrote anything else after it. The memory of this rereading of her masterwork will remain in my mind for a long time.

Youtube Link

I recently upgraded from dialup to DSL (probably the last person in North America to do so) and I'm loving my new access to videos and such. Here's a really funny pair of bits that Patton Oswalt did on the Conan O'Brian show a few months back.

Gotta love those gravy bowls.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

You Could've Just Said "No Thanks," You Know

So I'm running the register today, and a guy comes up to buy Culture Warrior. So he's already a bit on my bad side, but hey, if I got pissed at everyone who thought Bill O'Reilly was anything less than a total blowhard, I wouldn't get very far, would I?

One of the silly things that I have to do when running the register is mention the magazine offer. Basically, any customer with one of our spiffy discount cards and who uses a credit or debit card on their transaction, can get eight free issues of Time, Entertainment Weekly, People, or Sports Illustrated. And since apparently my employer made a sweet deal with the distribution house of those mags, we get to ask every qualifying customer, or risk a write-up.

So the guy uses his debit card, and has a discount card with us. And I ask, "Would you be interested in eight free issues of any of these magazines?" while gesturing to the little info card on the register.

(Sorry about the thumb in the pic -- I took it quickly when no one was looking, and didn't get the chance to preview it.)

His respone, in his deep, gruff voice: "Uh-huh. All those magazines are Communist."

Communist? Really? A momentary shock from me, while I nod to myself, hit "No thanks" on the register menu, and continue the transaction. He continues, "Yeah, People, Time... those are all a bunch of Communists. This one's okay...." He gestures towards Sports Illustrated. "And what's the other one?"

Ever-helpful me, I say, "Entertainment Weekly."

A pause from him. "That one's for idiots." I decline to mention my own Entertainment Weekly subscription.

"All right, sir. No problem. Here's your receipt." He takes it. "Thanks a lot, and have a nice day."

He walks out with the book, while I consdier the ramifications of the out-and-out Marxism of Time and People. And since he didn't claim Entertainment Weekly to be one of the proletariat-lovers, maybe he's convinced their editorial staff is a bunch of Ayn Rand-reading free marketeers. (I doubt it, though.)

Maybe I should have pushed the Sports Illustrated thing. I guess the glorification of guys beating up other guys on a playing field is the very personification of the Invisible Hand at work.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Booklog: The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Trade Paperback, 287 pages

I guess I've been sucked in by the Oprah hype, but I finally decided to just go ahead and read this thing. And for a book as good as this one is, I have lots of problems with it.

A lot of people questioned the inclusion of a book with child cannibalism and near-starvation into Oprah's book club, until now mainly known for picking feel-good chick-lit, but to me it makes perfect sense: the novel is fairly short, composed of simple straightforward (if very good) writing, and despite its postapocalyptic setting contains themes of hope in the face of adversity, the struggle of being a parent, and the power of basic human decency.

If you don't know the story, let me sum it up for you: in a postapocalyptic wasteland (probably after nuclear war, but it's never explicitly stated), a man and a boy (never named) seek warmer weather by walking along the eponymous road, and dodge cannibals and other unsavory characters along the way. The father (probably a doctor, given some specialized knowledge he has) is dying of some unspecified illness that makes him cough blood every morning, and both father and son are severely malnourished, often going days at a time without any food at all.

And that's basically it. I can't discuss it any further without going into spoiler territory (and the very real joys of this book require coming to it knowing as little as possible), so if you're still planning to read it leave now. Just know that I recommend the book pretty highly, with caveats.

Now that all the spoiler-averse have gone, let me discuss the ending a bit. Basically, the man dies of his illness, and the boy ends up in the care of a kind stranger and his wife, who have apparently been tracking them all this time. Why a kind stranger would simply allow the man to die, to simply allow them to nearly starve to death, to have their supplies stolen, to nearly be caught by paramilitary cannibals, is never even remotely explained. It's a happy ending (and the short description of the boy's life with the family has more in common with a Rockwell painting than the apocalyptic nightmare that make up the rest of the book) that the story doesn't earn, and that feels tacked on.

It's possible that this is part of the religious imagery of the book (and another reason Oprah picked it for her book club) -- the boy has been "redeemed" by the death of his father or some such. That the story is so clearly a parable (no character is ever named except for a blind old man wandering in the forest without any visible means of support, who goes by "Ely") helps to support this contention -- perhaps it's all supposed to be some religious allegory. But for this atheist, it really just seems like a copout.

In fact, the whole thing just seems like a bit of a copout. Despite the harshness of the wasteland described (and it's about as harsh as I've ever seen in a postnuclear novel), these characters never really seem to be in any danger to me. In any sort of reality, this small kid (thankfully not a "cute" kid, but one hardened to the world around him) and his sick father would end up being entrees in a paramilitary pot roast -- McCarthy often has them escape death more by luck than by wit or skill. At one point, they literally stumble upon a store of canned food left behind by now-dead survivalists, perhaps more evidence that the book is really some sort of religious allegory.

Overall I won't be surprised at all to see this book taught in upper-level high school classes in a few years. It has the kind of complexity that goes well in those sorts of classes, as it has a fair amount of symbolism and straightforward "themes" that make it easy to teach. And, as I mentioned above, it really is exquistely written, filled with images and dialogue that evoke the world and the characters in very real ways. That I find myself disappointed with the book speaks more to my own experience with postapolcayptic science fiction (there's little here that wasn't done forty or fifty years ago in pulp science fiction magazines and books) than with the quality of this book.

I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend a book I enjoyed more that touched on some of the same things. David Brin's The Postman (yes, the one on which the movie was based, but don't hold that against it) may not be quite as bleak as McCarthy's work, but it is much more concrete in detailing the kind of society that might survive a nuclear war, and the way it deals with the responsibilities of government and warfare regularly inform my own political views. Instead of ending with a deus-ex-machina, it earns the sense of hope for the future that informs its final chapter. All that and some great action scenes, too.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Sentimental Picture

The store has a whiteboard on which the day's tasks are split up among the associates. Occasionally, it's also used for other purposes.

A minor tribue, to be sure, but one that made me slightly happier that day.

A Particularly Fun Customer Interaction

"Can I help you?" Slightly tall, young, shaven-head gentleman.

"Yeah, I need help finding a book."

That's why I'm here. "Sure, what do you need?"

"You know that movie Requiem for a Dream? I'm looking for something really intense like that."

"Hmm." I walk to the computer, type for a bit. "Requiem for a Dream was a book first. By..." I think. "Shelby. No, Selby. Hubert Selby." Typing some more: "selby requiem" into the search bar. "We may have some more of his books." I know he also wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn and at least one or two others, but I haven't read them.

And of course, all we have in the system is Requiem for a Dream, which is order-only. Shit.

"Nothing in stock. Let me think..." I continue, trying to help the customer.

"I just read How I Paid for College, y'know, something like that or Requiem for a Dream. Have you read it?"

Nope. Looks interesting, though. "Not yet. Hmm. So what exactly is it you're looking for?"

"Just a kind of weird, intense book. I've tried Chuck Palahniuk (he mispronounces it "palaniak"), but I can't really get into him."

Now he's piqued my interest. "Which Palahniuk have you read?" (It's paul-un-ook, by the way.)

Can't remember the title, the one wth the con artist..."


"That's it."

"I haven't read that one, but I've heard that one isn't his best." I'm motioning him to follow me over to the P's in fiction. "Other than Fight Club, I think Lullaby is really good, and Haunted has some really good bits, although it doesn't really cohere very well."


"Yeah. Lullaby's kinda like Palahniuk with a horror novel. And Survivor is really messed up, told in reverse order sort of, and involves a plane hijacking."

The customer nods, looking at the books I've been handing him.

"Let's see, what else can I recommend..." I'm getting into it now. "I read a bunch of messed-up stuff, this one over here..." Walking over there. "...Perfume, is about this eighteenth century serial killer who makes women into perfume. Only it's not really about that at all -- it's about the most misanthropic book I've ever seen." Pause. "If you're looking for something more humorous, you could go for some of the works of Elmore Leonard. He wrote the book that eventually became Jackie Brown, as well as Get Shorty and Out of Sight." I pause. "To be fair, I haven't read those particular books, but I've read a couple of his other books, and he does these kinds of low-rent criminal capers really well."

"That's cool."

I'm still wandering a bit, looking for good books to recommend, when we pass by the "Our Favorite Trade Paperbacks" table, which is really a, "This Company Has Lots of Copies of these Trade Paperbacks" table. He asks, "Are the books on this table pretty good?"

"Generally, yeah, from what I've read." I'm glancing over the titles, noting that I actually have read a fair number of them. "Running with Scissors is pretty messed up. It's the story of the childhood of this guy whose mom and dad were both messed-up alcoholics -- she takes him to live with this psychiatrist, and he's even more messed up. He tells the stories of this horrible childhood, but he does it in a really low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way. Like, he's repeatedly raped by this guy, but he's more like," and here my voice drops to practically a whisper -- thankfully no customers were around, "' boyfriend raped me again. I didn't like it much. His cock tastes bad.'" (Oh Holy Jesus, I just said the word "cock" to a customer! He's taking it in stride, though, so I press on.) "It's messed up, and really funny at times."

The guy's laughing. "Sounds interesting."

Then my eyes light on the book I should have recommended from the get-go. I walk the guy back over to the fiction, in the L's I pick up a copy of Darkly Dreaming Dexter with Michael C. Hall on the cover. "This is the story of this serial killer who kills other serial killers. But it's really amazingly darkly funny, and the sequel is even funnier. They made it into a series on Showtime, but the book is tighter and funnier."

"Yeah, I think I saw that advertised a while ago."

"Check it out -- it's really good." A pause. Should I go for it? Why the hell not? "But if you're looking for something really intense and weird, check out the most recent novel by Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day. It's over a thousand pages of really dense text, took me over six weeks just for an introductory read, but it's filled with bizarre stuff."

"I don't know if I have the patience for that. If I can't read a book in a week or so, I get restless."

"I know the feeling. But this one... well, let me put it like this. There's this bit where there is this intelligent dog, 'trained in the French arts', as it were. And this guy gets the dog alone in a room and decides to, hmm, take advantage of the situation. And just as he's getting ready to do the dirty deed, the dog bites him you-know-where."

His eyebrows shoot up. "Wow."

"Even better, it takes place on page 666 of the novel. Let me show you." I open it up to the page and let him glance through. "It's filled with this kind of stuff."

He holds the book under his arm, along with two or three others, including the first Dexter book. "I've got to get back to the customer service counter, but I've got one more for you. One of my all-time favorite books. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. It's this parallel narrative that takes place partly in World War II, and partly in a present-day (well, late nineties) software company. And it's a really cool book, if you're a geek like me, which I'm guessing you are."


"So anyway, take a couple of books, sit down and see if there's anything you're interested in. That's all I can think of off the top of my head."

"Thanks a lot, man. Lots of good books here to check out."

"No problem. Let me know if you need anything else."

Yeah, sometimes the night is good to me.

(And if you think I'm only including this because it gives me a chance to talk about a bunch of cool books that I wanted to mention, you may be right. But all of this happened, more or less.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

Kurt Vonnegut died last night.

Beth send me a great link to Pandagon about it, and I thought about just posting that and being done with it, but while all that's said over at Pandagon is true, Vonnegut meant something to me personally.

I never met him. Never even saw him in-person. If I'd ever seen him, I'm not sure I would have even recognized him as who he was (despite his pretty unique appearance), rather than some other random old man. But his writing shaped me.

I had tried a couple of Vonneguts that were available from the Mobile Public Library when I was in high school. I don't remember them too well, and don't remember being all that impressed by them. Forgive me -- I was young. After high school, I got curious and bought a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, and it was a revelation. That a book could be so clear, so empathetic, while exploring these bizarre science fictional concepts in such a strange and hypnotic way....

So I began exploring Vonnegut's other fiction. I haven't read them all (shame on me!) but my favorites right now are two of his later works, Galapagos, in which the human race evolves into something a little more amenable to long-term survival, fish-catching otterlike creatures with tiny brains, and Bluebeard, the story of a modern artist whose paintings all fall apart because of an unfortunate use of materials. But Galapagos isn't really about evolutionary biology, and Bluebeard isn't really about art -- they are both perfect examples of Vonnegut's essential sense of human kindness.

And that, more than anything else, is what Vonnegut tried to teach the world. You can talk about literary stylings all you want, or his importance as an early science fiction writer breaking out into the "slicks" (and both of these are important), but for me what I take from Vonnegut is the sense that while we may be impotent against an uncaring universe, if we can all just lean together and do our best to care for each other, maybe we can get through it. Of course, Vonnegut usually described what happened if we didn't all lean together, but that only makes the message all the more powerful.

Vonnegut's humanism shines through every word he wrote. He was a brilliant, wonderful man, and from everything I've heard an amazing human being. He will be sorely missed. And so it goes....

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Mundane Interaction with a Customer

I walk up to the customer service counter, having put away a stack of books that customers had left on a table, looking for yet another stack of books to put away.

There's a customer looking at me in that way that I've come to recognize as, "I'm a customer, I need help, I haven't gotten it yet, why aren't you helping me yet?" So, obviously, I say, "I'm sorry ma'am, do you need help?" She's middle-aged, standing alongside several other persons, among them two small children.

"I need help finding a book." Yeah, you and everybody else.

"Sure. Come on over to this section of the counter, please." She does, and I continue, "So what can I help you find?"

"Do you have any books on the Canadian Railroad?"

Pause. I start typing 'canadian railroad' into the computer. "So are you looking for a kid's book, or...."

"No." Slightly displussed. I look at her more closely, and notice that the kids I saw were with another customer being helped by another employee. "I'm thinking of something more like a travel book."

"Oh." I scroll through the listings, glancing at the descriptions. "The system shows several books sort of about the Canadian Railroad. Um.... Looks like mainly history books and picture books...."

"No travel books?"

"Hmm, well this one's kind of ambiguous. Might be a sort of travel book." I point it out to her.

"Well, what section is it in?"

"It's order-only, have to get it from the warehouse. All the books I'm showing are warehouse-only titles. We don't have anything in-store on that subject."

"Why not?"

Maybe because you're the first person I've ever heard of looking for books on that topic? I shrug, "We carry lots of books, but nothing in-store about the Canadian Railroad. Your best bet might be to try our website." I give her the address. "And if you want us to check stock status of a particular book, or to order it in-store, you can just give us the ISBN and we can probably have it shipped here for you."

"So you don't have anything in store?"

"No ma'am. I'm sorry about that."

She sighs. "All right. Thanks for checking, anyway."

"No problem. Let me know if there's anything I can at least try to find for you." A smile, and we're done with one more routine interaction in my daily life.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Booklog: The Colorado Kid, Stephen King

The Colorado Kid
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime Paperback, 184 pages

Okay, Stephen King's just fucking with us now.

I can't say I've always been a big fan of King's. His myriad horror novels were all the rage when I was in junior high/high school, and there were and are plenty of otherwise really smart people who just go gaga over King's particular brand of horror. And, you know, more power to them -- far be it from me to dictate what other people should enjoy.

But I never really got off on it. And during his heyday, it was nearly impossible to not read Stephen King somewhere or other. So I never really respected his talent as much as maybe I should have -- the earthiness and popular nature of his prose and his stories just never worked for me.

But a funny thing happened as the years passed. Once the millions of books were already sold, and once King's horror fans got a little older or a little wiser, it turned out that King had plenty of other stuff to offer, and he started to garner some of the critical respect that maybe he always should have had.

Everyone probably already knows this by now, but there's a lot more going on in that old noggin of King's than just monsters and goblins. Case in point: The Colorado Kid.

Looking at the cover, this looks like a standard noirish mystery (like all the other books in the Hard Case Crime series) -- from the title, it seems more like a Western (I've got to say that the vague soundalike to the Kieselguhr Kid from Against the Day made this one pop in my mind towards the top of my to-read list), but it's really anything but. It's a tale told by two very old newpapermen to their young but whippersmart colleague about an unsolved mystery that they were involved with twenty-five years before. And, bear no mind, the case remains unsolved; at the end of the book we are no closer to a solution to the puzzle in the story than we were at the beginning.

So what the hell is King up to here? I think he's really telling us a story about stories; the theme of a "through line" in newspaper stories comes up several times, i.e. the "hook" needed to keep a reader interested. He's showing how incredibly unrealistic most "murder mysteries" really are, in that searching for the kinds of minute evidence that a show like CSI (name-checked in The Colorado Kid) makes its trade is often impractical, impossible, or unneeded for political reasons.

The mystery is this: some guy in his late thirties or early forties is found dead propped against a wastebasket in a small Maine town on April 24, 1980. With a small piece of partially chewed meat in his throat, apparently the cause of death. It takes nearly a year to even get an ID on the guy -- he was an artist from Colorado, hence the title. Was he alone when he diead? Was it murder or accident? How did he get from Colorado to Maine? All mysteries, none of them ever really solved.

And yet, this doesn't really feel like a cheat, for King gets the whole thing done with quickly (this won't even be an afternoon read for most people -- it's more of a novella than a novel) and has obviously researched a lot of details that feed into his fiction in a way that make the reader feel like there is a solution buried in there, but time has worn away so many facts that it's going to be impossible to suss out.

Overall an interesting book, one that I'm glad I read, and it's a mark of King's storytelling prowess that an essentially pointless story is so compelling. Mystery readers are apt to be a bit put off by this title, but if you're looking for an elegant piece of storytelling to while away most of an afternoon, look no further.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Booklog: Intuition, Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman
Dial Press Trade Paperback, 385 pages

I found this book referenced on Acephalous, and knew I had to check it out. (BTW, despite what Acephalous says, the book clearly states it takes place in the mid eighties on page four, and there are several contemporary-to-the-eighties references throughout the novel.)

Basically, the book takes place in a small research lab affiliated with Harvard where biomedical research involving cancer is being done. Goodman makes the science understandable by not ever really talking about it, so that the reader has no idea what these characters actually do all day, but she seems to have gotten the social and political aspects of being in a lab just right.

The story follows the research of Cliff, who is trying to use R-7 to cure mice of their tumors, is told by his superiors that it's a dead end, and then miraculously starts getting good data out of the project. The pressures that this sudden success places on his relationship with another postdoc, Robin, eventually lead to a falling-out between the two of them, and Robin's inability to get R-7 to work on any other groups of mice leads her to call fraud on the drug.

Along the way, we meet maybe a dozen or so other main characters, all of whom Goodman gives rich inner lives -- she's very good at clearly delineating her characters from one another based on motivation, and making the reader see the way in which personal biases affect each person's response to the situation in front of them.

It is kind of a small book though, despite being a touch overlong. It has no clear meaning, and the ending is I think ambiguous in a bad way. It's a fascinating look at the world of real-life research, but I would have preferred it to be a bit more technically savvy, and to be a bit tighter. I did enjoy the way the author keeps the reader on his/her toes regarding the central mystery, though -- it's only towards the last pages of the book that we understand what really is happening with the mice, and no one other than the perpetrator could have really understood the resolution there.

Overall, a nice read, with good characters, but nothing all that special.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Booklog: Polaris, Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt
Mass-Market Paperback, 384 pages

Chad Orzel reviewed this a while back on Uncertain Principles, and I thought it looked interesting. (I blatantly stole his booklog concept for use here, as well.) I had tried reading The Engines of God a while back, but couldn't get into it, so I came at this one with, well, not exactly high hopes.

And you know what, this is actually quite a good book. It's the second Alex Benedict novel (the first, A Talent for War, was not in-stock at my store and I haven't read it), a science fiction mystery that entertains even when the mystery isn't quite as mysterious as maybe it should be. There are two main characters, Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the book's first-person narrator), who work as antiquities dealers in the far future (at least four or five thousand years from now). The Orion Arm of the galaxy has been pretty well explored and settled, and hundreds of world hold human populations -- these worlds are organized into something called the Confederacy, which holds a sort of loose reign over the planetary governments.

The book opens with an extended sequence in which a research vessel Polaris, on a VIP trip to see a neutron star destroy Delta Kay and its planetary system. As the neutron star passes through the star, and all the other research vessels hyperdrive to safety, something happens on board to remove the passengers of the Polaris, while leaving the ship intact.

Sixty years later, the main action with Benedict and Kolpath begins. It turns out that there are some items from the Polaris that have been released by the local government, and Benedict sees a money-making opportunity. As the thing develops, we see attempts made on Benedict's and Kolpath's lives, and a mystery develops which eventually leads back to what happened on that ship sixty years before.

Overall this book reminded me of some of the later Asimov, although McDevitt's writing style is superior and much-better attenuated to modern sensibilities. Like Asimov, McDevitt envisions a future in which even after millennia of star travel and hundreds of colonized worlds, people still behave much the same way that our contemporaries do, with conversations and motivations that would be at home in today's world. While this convention is perhaps a bit unrealistic, it is necessary at least in McDevitt's case, for it allows for a fairly standard "locked-room" mystery plot with several reasonably compelling action scenes.

I didn't find the mystery to be all that convulted, as the basic motivation for the thing becomes clear early on, Benedict and Kolpath keep up with the reader, and McDevitt plays fair by not using artificial means to withhold information. In fact, the way in which clues for the mystery are laid in front of the reader while seeming to be simple worldbuilding is quite elegant, and I found myself respecting McDevitt's authorship repeatedly.

The book is perhaps a touch too long, and some of the action scenes felt a bit obligatory to me, but overall this is a good book, well worth picking up if you're looking for a bit of easy genre fiction, and good enough that I may go back to give Engines of God another try sometime.

Friday, March 30, 2007

It's Spring...

...and that means it's time for Daniel to drink a shitload of hefeweizens while it's warm. I recently picked up a sixer of Franziskaner at Great Spirits, and drinking them again after six months or so of not having them was like meeting an old friend you hadn't seen in awhile.

In the next day or so, I'll be talking about store meetings. Guess where I have to be a seven o'clock tomorrow morning?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hand scanning and Inventory Control

Beep. Beep. Beep. Chir-rup!. I'm standing in the Needlework section, scanning-gun in hand.

"I'm sorry, am I in your way?" Nice, twentysomething brunette, looking at the Home & Garden books behind me.

"Not unless I'm in yours," I smile. You get a kind of ingratiating manner when dealing with common customer questions like these. I don't let it bother me. I didn't tell her, of course, that in a little bit I was going to have to be scanning where she was -- she'd most likely be done by the time I got there, anyway.

She chuckles back at me. "Oh, okay." A pause. Another chir-rup, followed by my putting the offending book on a cart beside me. "So what exactly are you doing, anyway?"

"We have to scan all the books in the store periodically to see if anything goes back to the vendor." Beep.

"Oh. So it's like an inventory thing."

"Pretty much." It's actually exactly like an inventory thing. I continued, "It's about as exciting as it looks." Beep, beep.

"I guess sometimes that's kinda what you're wanting, right?"

A chuckle. "Yeah, like, 'I wonder if I can have some mind numbing boredom at my job today.'"

She laughed, and went back to her hunting in Home & Garden. And I continued scanning every book in the section.

Anyone who works retail long enough eventually runs across the joys of a scanner. They go by different names, depending on the store's lexicon and the manufacturer of the scanner, but "RF Gun" or "hand scanner" are generally the most generic terms I've seen for them. And while the person scanning make look like they're not really doing anything, this scanning process is a big part of what makes the store shoppable, in any retail environment.

Back in the old days at the office supply store, scanning was generally done in two stages: 1.) scan the item for price and 2.) if the price was wrong, take it off and replace it. The way I generally did the job was to take sections of the store and use a single hand scanner, first scanning all the prices and removing the wrong ones, and then going back a few minutes later to scan new labels. After a few sections, I'd go to the back and print up the labels I needed, and put them on the shelf.

(Some places like Wal-Mart make this last bit unnecessary, in that they have portable printers that associates can use to print labels.)

Inventory control at the office supply joint, on the other hand, was handled by a receiving associate, who was given a list of pulls each week -- he or she (well, let's face it, at my store it was always a he, although I met some highly capable female receiving specialists at other stores) would find the listed items, take them off the shelf, and send them back to corporate. This individual would also be responsible for handling discrepancies in on-hand data, i.e. if I discovered that we were listed as having eight Hewlett Packard DeskJet 812C's when we only had five, I'd let him/her know and he/she'd take care of it.

At the bookstore, though, all items come pre-marked with prices, so there's no need to scan for price. (We do, however, have a merchandising specialist who is largely responsible for making sure that all the various "percent-off" or "clearance" stickers are affixed to the right items. This doesn't count salebooks, which will be in another post.) Instead, we receive a list of sections that are to be scanned each week (on average, every shelf in the store is scanned once a month) and the system tells us which books to get rid of and which to keep. This takes two forms: either we are doing "voids", in which case any item that needs to be pulled (the chir-rup above indicates this) is pulled in its entirety, i.e. every copy off the shelf, or we are doing "overstocks", in which we may keep a limited number of copies of a book that we ordered too many of to sell readily.

In either situation, scanning is generally about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it is a pretty essential part of the shopping experience for the customer. It's a glamorous job that gets me all the groupies, but someone's got to do it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Booklog: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill
Vintage Contemporaries Trade Paperback, 257 pages

I picked this book up knowing only two things: that author Gaitskill was the author of "Bad Behavior", the story that was eventually turned into the film Secretary, and that Veronica was about a nonsexual relationship between two women. I figured it would be a sort of art-lit feminist work with frank discussions of sexuality and with a sort of "New Yorker" sensibility to it.

It was all that, and more besides. Alison is our viewpoint character, and in a more-or-less reliable-narrator fashion, she leads us through first her present reality as a has-been model who cleans the home/office of her friend David for a few dollars, and who has hepatitis and an arm that gives her stabbing pains whenever she tries to use it. She has a sort of vaguely interconnected life from the people who surround her, but seems isolated from the world nonetheless -- she is acquantainces with her neighbor, for instance, but they never seem to discuss the illness they share or the lives they lead.

Gaitskill writes the novel in a sort of vignette style, in which many sections are less than a page long and few are more than a half-dozen pages, with stories of Alison's past and present. We meet many of the important persons in her life that way, and eventually the name "Veronica" starts to become more and more prominent. As Alison tells us of her days as a model in Paris with an abusive boyfriend, then of moving back to the States and trying to go to secretarial school, she moves closer and closer to the present day of the novel, and we see more and more of her personality. Towards the last hundred pages or so of the book, Veronica begins to take more-or-less center stage, and we see her final days in the early days of the AIDS scare (the time frame is fuzzy, but is sometime in the early eighties) as Alison becomes a low-rent model and music video girl.

Veronica is portrayed as feisty and hotblooded even before her illness, but with a death sentence looming over her she becomes a spitfire. The relationship between Veronica and Alison is never really "warm", but each gains something from the experience of knowing the other, and the "reality" of Veronica's illness and eventual death are played thematically against the fakery of the modeling industry. Despite the great writing and well-conceived imagery that Gaitskill brings to these themes, she subtly warns us against taking our own understanding too seriously, by always making Veronica's illness stand up against that same flowery language like a concrete wall -- any "meaning" that we think we find in death is always more abstract and meaningless than the reality of that death itself.

This is a very good book towards the end, although it seems a bit formless at times and insufferably insular towards the beginning. Gaitskill has a clear command of language and metaphor that is worth reading, and the portions towards the end dealing directly with Veronica's death and understated and haunting. It's a bit outside my comfort zone, but it was definitely worth the extra effort.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Worldview Weekend Columnist on Hotel Porn

I have an amazing tolerance for the stupdity of religious fundamentalists, and am always on the lookout for new bullshit from that arena, so besides being on Focus on the Family's mailing list and the SermonAudio new list, I get daily emails from Worldview Weekend. Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains)and his sister Candace Cameron Bure (Full House) both post there, which is entertaining enough, but I was simply amazed at the stupidity shown in an email I got yesterday, entitled The Pornification of Our Culture.

After complaining about the pervasiveness of pornography in society (probably the only thing that radfems and social conservatives agree on), the author suggests that her readers use for their hotel booking, so they can send a message to the hotel industry that they don't want "smut" in their rooms. Which is fine, I suppose, although personally I'll be using the site to make sure that my hotel choice isn't on the list. Individuals have the right not to view pornography if they don't want to, and I'm generally a fan of letting businesses decide how they want to lure customers -- if people really are offended by the mere availability of pornography in their rooms, I think it's best for them to stay in hotels where it simply isn't available.

But this bit takes the cake:
Why should you care if you aren’t going to view the garbage? For one thing, pornography often proves highly addictive and contributes to many other problems that plague society, from divorce and domestic violence to prostitution and organized crime. In a paper presented to a special U.S. Senate subcommittee, Jill Manning, a social scientist and former visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, highlighted pornography’s many devastating harms, which are documented in a huge body of peer-reviewed research.

Another itsy-bitsy item to consider regarding sleaze-inns and whore-tels that peddle perversion: Do you really want to room next to a guy who’s just consumed hardcore sleaze? Do you want your wife or daughter walking by his door, or bumping into him in the elevator?

Ignore for a moment that reference to peer-reviewed research (the link to which I didn't include, but can be gotten at the original article), and read that last bit again. What exactly is the author thinking happens to men (and never forget that she is assuming that women would never, ever look at porn -- she's afraid of men looking at the naughty stuff) who have just viewed pornography? I'm getting this image of a hulking brute, desensitized to all urges except the base sexual need, throwing down the remote and wandering the halls of the hotel, zombie-like, in search of raw female flesh to use for his wanton sexual lusts....

No, ma'am, the truth is that the guy who just viewed pornography has probably just masturbated once or twice, and is probably satiated at least for the moment. In other words less likely to be sexually interested in your wife or daughter, even if he were so inclined in the first place. And even if he didn't jerk off, sometimes a bit of sexual entertainment is just that -- entertainment. If the guy had just watched Rambo would you think he'd be wearing a red headband and shooting people with a machine gun?

If the image of a freshly pornofied person interacting with you is scary, let me give you the genesis of your next nightmare: plenty of days I'll view a bit of pornography and masturbate before taking my shower and going to work in the morning. So the mild-mannered guy shelving the books in your local bookstore, who may even be interacting with small children might be a crazed lunatic who has recently viewed nekkid people doin' the nasty. There's evil lurking in every corner, there is....

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lost Girls Annotations, Chapter One

Note: Please read the intro page before continuing, as it explains the purpose of this project. Lost Girls is an extraordinarily dirty book, and I make no guarantees that the material below will not be offensive to many readers. I am also making many references to later material here, and it is not recommended that anyone read this text without buying the book first.

Below, I reference the Chapter Number, Page Number, and Panel Number for each comment in order. A comment for Chapter 8, Page 4, Panel 5 would be: C8P4P5.

Title Page: Image taken from C1P1P4, with colors corrected into a more "normal" range, perhaps to reflect the "real" world (see commentary on page one for more).

"The Mirror" -- refers to Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The entirety of this chapter is framed by the mirror of the title, reflecting also most of chapter thirty, and the theme of reflection will be a primary one within the book.

Page One

The first two pages of Lost Girls have a varying color scheme to each panel, in which seeming "filters" have been placed over the action. This may represent the passage of time during the sexual act taking place offstage, or it may be a clue to Alice's mental state.

Chapter 1 Page 1 Panel 1: The first words spoken in the book are "Tell me a story." Speaker is unclear, from context in the next panel and in C1P3P1, it seems that Alice has a young girl in her room and is in a sexual tryst with her. More later.

Storytelling is a theme of the book as a whole, and using these words as the opening line might be a dig at the metafictional nature of the story. It is, indeed, often a story about stories, and a story about itself.

C1P1P2: "...once you're grown..." Alice's first words. Hints at the age of the other person in the room.

C1P1P4: The other person in the room is "mirroring" her actions to Alice.

C1P1P5: "...were you always this impatient?" Perhaps this person is not as young as we might think. Someone known to Alice, perhaps someone who has been known to her for a long time?

This is the first panel with separate word bubbles. Two characters are speaking, or are they?

Page Two

C1P2P1: "...had my medication..." Alice spent some time in a sanitarium when she was younger.

", sticky place..." See C1P4P4, Alice is likely in South Africa after the Boer War, keeping an eye on her family's affairs. "Hot, sticky place" might also have euphemistic meanings, and Alice's claim to "hate" that place might point to unpleasant memories from her former abuse.

C1P2P3: More oblique reference to Alice's abuse. And in the same breath wondering if it was connected to a fairy tale. More evidence that the story is largely metafictional.

C1P2P5: The mirror never breaking is a different thing from the mirror never melting. Foreshadowing of the last chapter here, when the mirror does break -- is Moore letting us know that the final pages are "outside" the story proper?

The mirror melting is another reference to Looking Glass. We later learn of the significance of the mirror, and all that it represents to Alice.

Page Three

C1P3P2: The servant heard two voices. Or at least thinks she heard two voices.

C1P3P3: "Lady Fairchild" is Alice.

First direct reference to the "disgusting" acts with young children.

C1P3P4: " her ways wouldn't show 'em up." Alice herself agrees with this in C1P4P4.

C1P3P5,6: Good breeding causes rampant immorality, not for lower-class servants to question or comment upon. The stratified nature of Victorian society is clear. Even more so with the clearly deliberate use of "niggers".

Regarding "niggers", this is perhaps a jab at those in our world who would question the clearly fictional acts perpetuated herein -- do we not also have our own flaws which may be much more serious than pen on paper?

Page Four

C1P4P3:Pretoria is a city in South Africa, cementing the setting.

C1P4P6: The mirror is very important to Alice, for reasons that are unclear now.

Page Five

The first page without any dialogue at all. Nice technique for showing the journey without, well, showing the journey.

C1P5P5, 6: First appearances of male characters. The porters will become significant later, but are for now unnamed.

Page Six

C1P6P1: First appearance of Monsieur Rougeur, the owner of the hotel and who will become important later on.

C1P6P3: Hippolyte or Hippolyta was an Amazonian queen who had a magic girdle. She was the daughter of Ares, the god of war, which has an interesting subtext given the way the story ends.

C1P6P5,6: Contrasting views of fiction here. Rougeur believes that fiction reflects true reality, whereas Alice calls herself a Platonist, believing that the real world that she is a part of is only a pale reflection of The Real. See The Theory of the Forms for more information here.

Page Seven

Alice is masturbating through panel four. She uses a two-handed technique here, likely penetrating herself with the fingers of one hand while using the other on her clitoris.

C1P7P5: The dialogue here is clearly confused as to how many persons are in the room. The alignment of the mirror is closer to the bed than in South Africa, and it is now clear that no one is in the room with Alice. And yet two word bubbles remain, and the dialogue indicates that two persons are present.

C1P7P6: "...unladylike." Mild humor.

Page Eight

C1P8P1: The first word bubble implies that the mirror itself is speaking. When I first read the story, that is the implication that I took away from it. Given what happens to Alice during the next twenty-nine chapters, and given the fact that no other "magical" items exist in the universe of the story, it is more likely that Alice's reality is somewhat fractured here, and that she is either hallucinating the other voice, making the voice herself, or merely fantasizing that the other person exists.

C1P8P2: The reference to "child" (in addition to the later material) cements the idea that Alice is speaking to a childlike version of herself, who in her mind is "trapped" in the mirror.

C1P8P3: Alice does look old here. She has a sadness that she hasn't had before.

C1P8P6: A faint image of a heart can be seen around the mark made by the kiss.

Lost Girls Annotations -- Intro

Lost Girls is a graphic novel published by Top Shelf Comics in 2006. Written by Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, and illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, the work is a masterpiece in any sense of the word, filled with complex characters, immensely detailed fictional worlds, and huge amounts of cultural subtext.

Yeah, and plenty of hardcore fuck action. Because in addition to being a great graphic novel, Lost Girls is all about sex, lesbian sex, straight sex, gay sex, threesomes, foursomes, incest, pedophilia, bestiality.... it's an unspeakably filthy book, one that anyone with even a hint of squeamishness will find upsetting at times. I cannot stress enough that this book is not intended for children, and that even discussing the themes and events of the book will lead into various unsavory aspects of human psychology.

So it's NSFW, get it? Don't read it, hell, don't read the rest of this post, unless you're really really ready for what's coming down the pike.

That said, the book is incredibly brilliant, and it deserves the same kind of annotation that Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Gaiman's Sandman series have gotten. And while I'm not the absolute best person to do this job, I'm going to do the best I can here and hope that others will email me with additions and/or corrections.

My limitations: I actually have not currently read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or The Wizard of Oz, although I am of course familiar with popular adaptations of them, so I cannot directly comment on the original material. I plan on reading the books later on, so hopefully I can make these annotations works in progress to which I can add impressions as time goes by.

Similarly, I am not an artist or an art critic. While Gebbie's work illustrating the books is wonderfully appreciated by me, I cannot discuss the artwork in technical detail. I will, however, be discussing the meaning of the imagery within the context of the narrative. My main focus in these annotations will be to discuss the parallelism in the structure of the overall work, and hidden references within and to outside sources.

I will also be perhaps stepping a bit outside the bounds of the annotative format and discuss my own reactions to different parts of the work, in a sense making the whole thing a very detailed critical reaction of Lost Girls. With material this personal and a work this intricate, I cannot imagine trying to do otherwise, and hopefully my honesty up front about this issue will allow any readers to accept that bias as stated.

This is a forthright, daring, and somewhat disturbing book. I feel it deserves commentary that accepts it as is, and attempts to elucidate the honest reactions of at least one reader (myself). I am sorry that I'm not more talented or well-read to analyze Moore and Gebbie's work, and if they ever run across this text I hope they will read it with the understanding that I write this annotation out of love for the original source material, and have the utmost respect for their joint accomplishment.

That said, shall we get started?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lights Out!

Ever been in a store when the lights went out?

Even better, ever been working in a store when the lights went out? Happens not quite irregularly, just often enough that anyone who's done the retail thing for a while will generally have experienced it. Basically, I went to lunch at around 12:45 today, and when I got back thirty minutes later there was no power. Apparently it was the entire shopping center that had lost power, but since I spend all my lunch breaks in my car anyway, I simply didn't notice.

In general, there are two basic philosophies that companies take towards what to do when the power goes out: 1.) Having customers in the with low visibility is a liability, and if anyone gets hurt it's tons of lost money for the company or 2.) Telling customers to get out means losing all revenue during the power outage, and losing revenue is a Bad Thing.

The office supply store where I used to work took the former attitude towards power outages: get the customers out, nicely, politely, apologetically, but get them out. And don't let any new ones in. I once sat in an office chair for nearly two hours during a power outage, because we're still required to hang out there for our shifts, even if you can't get any work done due to a lack of lighting.

The bookstore where I work now took tack number two. Although partly it may be because there was a DM in the store (gotta do a DM visit post soon!), it's likely that this company are just greedy bastards.

Now, when the power goes out the register doesn't work. So someone has to stand at the register with a paper pad for making hand receipts and writing down all transactions, making change the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, this wasn't me -- in fact, the manager on duty ended up having to do the register for that period.

The highlight of the brief blackout period? A customer wanted to browse the home and garden magazines all the way in the back of the store, far, far away from the sunlight streaming through the front doors, and out of the way of the emergency lights. So I got to stand there with a crappy plastic flashlight while the customer glanced through a gardening magazine. Y'know, since I didn't have anything important to do to prepare for the DM's audit of the store coming up the next day...

People, just leave the damned store when the power goes out. It's not like you'll never have the chance to browse those magazines again.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Booklog: No Witnesses, by Nancy Sanra

This is a new feature I'm starting here at Chez CounterMonkey, in which I review the books I run across. I'm currently working my way through the Pynchon roster, so my day-to-day reading tends to run towards the simple and straightforward, but once I've gotten Pynchon out of my system I'll be reading and talking about more in-depth books. I'll probably leave the Pynchon out, because I'm intending these to be short snippets about books, things that I will generally read in a day or two and which are very easily digested. More complex posts about books will go in under a separate label.

No Witnesses
Nancy Sanra
Rising Tide Press Trade Paperback, 182 pages

This is a bit of an inauspicious deput for this feature, as this book just really isn't all that good. Oh, it's a decent little read, fine for a couple of hours' entertainment, but other than the basic premise it's really not all that special, and the writing drags in places.

No Witnesses is the first of what seems to be a series of books (my store also carries No Escape and No Corpse starring Tally McGinnes, a private investigator out of San Francisco (ex-cop, naturally), who is called in by Lieutenant Cid Cameron of the SFPD to help solve a murder case involving Tally's ex-lover, Pamela Tresdale. And herein lies the main "twist" of the book -- other than a few supporting characters, all of the speaking roles are gay women who are very aware of each other's sexuality and tend towards wearing sensible but sensual clothing. Though I'm not a longtime fan of the field, I am aware that most of the mystery novels on the shelf at the local bookstore are fairly lightweight affairs with some sort of theme or character that runs through them, so I suppose this isn't really any worse of an example of this than, say, a series of mysteries involving food, or a series involving a knitting club.

I was hoping, though, that Sanra (openly gay herself) would use her setting as a way of poking holes at the conventions of these sorts of crime thrillers, or to make some sort of sly social commentary with her characters or with the crimes that occur in the novel. Instead, these characters remain stubbornly two-dimensional despite the twisting web of motivations that Sanra attempts to use to envelop them, and the actual killer is telegraphed from her very first appearance. Fans of complex or entertaining mysteries should look elsewhere, as should anyone looking for depth of characterization.

In fact, this book is barely even a novel -- at 182 pages with wide margins and large type, it's more of a novella in length, and the $11.95 sticker price would scare me away if I hadn't been able to read it for free. Even readers hoping for steamy love scenes will walk away disappointed, as aside from a memory Tally has of Pamela early in the story, there's really nothing at all dirty in the book, and the romantic subplot towards the end remains mostly platonic. The writing is also choppy, composed of simple sentences strung together into barely descriptive paragraphs. It's far from the worst writing I've ever read, even in a published novel, but it never really feels like a professional work to me.

Granted, I'm not the target audience for this book, and it's certainly worth an afternoon's reading, but I can't really give this book my recommendation. Later on I may try one of the sequels to No Witnesses, but for now I'll leave the series thinking I got my money's worth.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Phone conversations with retail emloyees (not mine)

Beth sent me this link to a conversation Waveflux at Shakespeare's Sister had with a Hallmark employee over whether they carried a certain item in-store. There's not really a way of trimming it down, and I don't want to quote the whole thing, so go on over there and read it. I'll wait.

Now, from the perspective of someone who gets these kinds of calls regularly, the employees really didn't handle this all that badly. At the bookstore, we have what are called "Key 6" items, which are typically small tacky knickknacks that either sticks in a purse, sets on a desk, or gifts to someone who will do one of the two. And it's pretty much impossible to keep track of what's what, and where anything is, and what any individual thing might be called, unless you spend some percentage of your time stocking and/or straightening it. Ditto for the handful of stuffed animals and other similar things in the kids section.

In other words, if someone called me and asked for such-and-such item, my response might very well be, "Um, well, not sure, let me go check," or, "Let me check with the merchandising specialist in that department," or similar. And unless that person had very recently seen the item, or at least was familiar with the various names of the random stuffed toys that get stuck in that area, their response might very well be, "Beats me."

I can understand that the employees here work at a Hallmark store, not a bookstore, and can be more reasonably expected to have at least some knowledge of the various items in their store, but remember that this sort of thing can be tough to keep track of, and even smart, motivated employees can be stumped by very simple items every once in a while. And that assumes that the store wasn't really busy when Waveflux called -- in-store customers will generally get a much higher priority than phone customers.

Now I've got to go get dressed for work, even though today's supposed to be my offday, because someone else called in and I've been asked to cover the closing (four to midnight) shift. If anyone wants anything, I'll just pull a "not even supposed to be here today" defense.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Camera Phones Suck

So I was on my lunch break yesterday, sitting in my car fiddling with my phone (I'd usually be reading something or other, but all my new reading material was sitting on the coffee table, forgotten) and basically zoning out for thirty minutes, when I realized what kind of bus was in the parking lot. Chuckling, I took three pictures with my phone, of which this is the best:

But my camera phone sucked, and missed the detail that was so important: the bus belonged to Athens Bible School, and across the back, in large flowing script, was "Go Trojans!" The irony would only have been more delicious if it was a Catholic school.

And now I've had to explain all that instead of just posting a simple picture. Damned camera phones.

Blogger Sucks

I'm trying to get the last post to work properly, with the photo and all, and to this point all I've been able to get is Jack and Shit. The title is fine, but all my text and my photo is missing.

Let's see if this one goes through, and maybe I'll try to edit the post sometime later.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Meandering Post on Money

I was wondering how to inaugurate this blog, kicking around a few ideas in my head, and then I found this post from Scalzi (actually, I found it via Uncertain Principles, but who's counting, right?) detailing the amount of money he made during 2006 from his writing income. (If you don't know, Scalzi is a fairly prominent blogger who has written several well-received and award-winning science fiction novels, among them The Android's Dream, which I really enjoyed, and Old Man's War which I plan on reading very soon.) It's a long and interesting post, but the upshot is that Scalzi made about $67,000 from his science fiction writing/editing last year.

What's more is this:
2006 was an interesting year for me in this regard, primarily because it's the first year that, frankly, I've gotten any substantial amount of income from science fiction. To bracket this, allow me to note that I've been making income off of science fiction since 1999, which is the year that I first offered Agent to the Stars online as "shareware." So from 1999 through 2006, here's how the income came down. Note that I'm breaking down the income as to when it was actually received, ie., when I had cash in my hot little hands:

1999: About $400, from Agent readers
2000: About $1000, from Agent readers
2001: About $1100, from Agent readers and a short story sale at Strange Horizons
2002: About $1000, from Agent readers
2003: About $6000, from Agent readers and from first part of advance for Old Man's War
2004: About $5000, from Agent readers and from first part of advance for The Android's Dream
2005: About $15,000, from second part of OMW advance, first part of The Ghost Brigades advance, advance for Agent to the Stars hardcover, and short story sale to Subterranean Press.
2006: About $67,000.

As you can see, there's quite a jump from 2006 from the rest of the years; I made more than four times as much in science fiction than the year before, and about twice what I made for all the years previous. So what happened? Lots of things:

And then he goes on to discuss what kinds of things made this year so big for him.

Which, to any aspiring writer, is pretty depressing: Scalzi's having the kind of career right now that dreams are made of. He's been nominated twice for the Hugo, has three books selling well (at least two of which are "Sci Fi Essentials" with that nifty little Sci-Fi channel logo), and maintains a loyal fanbase. Sure, he's just getting started, really, but the dreams of a lot of aspiring authors include quitting the day job and writing full-time as soon as that first book sells, living off of the fat royalty checks. The reality is that Scalzi's now doing better than about ninety percent of published authors, working full-time as a writer and making a decent living at it. Most published authors don't make a living at it, at least not until they've published a number of books. (In Asimov's two-volume autobiography, he talks about how at the end of a decade or so of writing science fiction, that he has reached what he thought was his financial maximum from his writing career, which as I recall was about ten grand in 1950s dollars. He couldn't imagine how anyone could make a career at this writing thing, until a few years later when his back catalogue got large enough that the really large royalty checks started coming in.)

In short: writing is a career that is only for those able to do the long haul. Writing a single book won't set you up for life -- writing a dozen or more books is really the only way to make it in the industry. (Unless you're one of those very select few with a major runaway bestseller under your belt, in which case you can pretty much name your price.) Which explains why so many popular, bestselling authors have so many books in print, and the most financially successful authors tend to be those that write series (like Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, et cetera).

At the risk of making this way overlong (which I may have inadvertently done already) I'd like to discuss a somewhat related issue: where exactly does the money you and I pay for books go? Does anyone (aside from someone like Stephen King) actually get rich in the book publishing game? In the movie world, for instance, stars make huge amounts of money and have very short careers, whereas directors, writers, producers, et cetera make less money on a per-picture basis, but tend to have much longer active worklives -- this is even more true for the "technical" persons in the movie world, such as cinematographers and editors and grips and caterers and such. Perhaps authors are more like the "technical" persons on a movie set, dedicated craftsmen who make a decent living at what they do, but tend not to make the millions that the real superstars do. (In this case, someone like Thomas Harris or Stephen King or John Grisham would be the superstar.)

I can certainly say that at the local level, at the bookstore where the books are being bought, there's not a lot of money being made. Of course hourly retail people are paid poorly (I make less at my current job than at the old job selling office supplies, by a considerable margin, and from what I know of management salaries there's an even greater disparity between the two different types of companies), but it seems that sales volumes tend to be quite low in general. One of the things that really shocked me when I started selling books was how fly-by-night even bestseller sales were: Micheal Crichton's Next was released, but at a 30% discount, and for a week I personally sold a handful copies a day (just through my own register, not counting all that I saw sold). Call it fifty copies in that first week, and that's being generous. Not exactly like the publishing phenom of J.K. Rowling (and, as a more direct comparison, when the last Series of Unfortunate Events book came out, we sold a whole bunch of copies that first day and hardly any afterwards), but a decent seller, considering there are thousands of stores similar to mine in North America.

But if that's near the tippy-top of the publishing game, consider the many books that are "big releases" that are more difficult, or have less of a built-in audience. Aside from my own copy of Pynchon's latest Against the Day, I never saw a single copy sell. In the six months or so I've been selling books, I might have sold one or two of John Scalzi's books (way to bring it back around, huh?), even in a town as tech- and science-fiction-friendly as Huntsville. I'm hesitant to start discussing hard numbers (insofar as I have them -- I'm a lowly employee and don't have ready access to long-term sales numbers), but storewide we do maybe ten or fifteen grand in a day's sales, more during busy times of year like Christmas, maybe less during slow periods.

If you assume that each book costs about ten bucks (fair enough, given how many mass-market paperbacks and low-costs magazines we sell, versus hardcovers and such), then we do maybe a thousand individual book sales a day. Divide that by the number of hours we're open, and it averages out to about a book a minute. Which feels about right, at least averaged out over a full day (there are busy periods and slow periods).

So let's take that ten grand and multiply it by thirty days, then take half of that (since bookstores make about fifty percent profit on the items they sell), which gives us something like $150,000 per month in gross income. According to some rough numbers I found here and here, annual rent on a store like mine has about fifteen dollars a square foot (link gives 13.5, but I'm rounding up a bit since the best link I could find was in a more rural area than mine) and the store's around forty thousand square feet. Multiply all that and divide it into a monthly rental number, and we're talking something like $50,000 per month rent. I've heard that utilities usage is about three thousand a month (don't have a link handy, but I've heard the number a couple of times at the old job, and it gives us a nice order of magnitude) and salaries will probably run another ten grand per month. (That one's hard to estimate, since number of employees and amount of experience will be very variable, as well as total number of hours. If I were a manager I'd have an actual payroll budget, but probably couldn't discuss it publicly, so let's just call it ten grand to be general about it.) So:

$150,000 gross income
minus $50,000 rent
minus $3000 utilities
minus $10,000 payroll

and the company makes something like $87,000 per month off of our store, before overhead costs, things like shipping costs (substantial given the weight and bulk of books), general upkeep, various supplies, et cetera. I have no idea how much shipping costs might run to, but if we assume that half of that is taken out in these miscellaneous costs, then there's something like forty to forty-five thosand a year of pure profit coming from the store.

Which means that it's really good to be on the top of this pyramid. I'm sure the publisher's side is similar, given the way that writer's contracts are generally worded, and the way that royalty and fee structures work (go back to that Scalzi article for details). A few people at the very top making loads of money, while those of us who don't own any part of the chain (including the authors) get screwed. No doubt that writing (and for that matter, selling books) can be pretty rewarding, but this is just one more reason to support local businesses whenever possible: at least then the profit stays in your locale.