Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Wait's Law of Crosswords

The correct answer to a bad clue is always the awful one that you initially rejected.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Dictionary for Young People: Compact Disk, a.k.a. "CD" (n.)

A circular prism with a donut hole, generally glued to the axle of a clear plastic case that always breaks at the hinge, sized to allow for placement on a special-purpose cup holder that can be pushed into an inner sanctum where elves who live inside operate a special juicer that can extract the implanted sounds after making eight seconds of mechanical noise.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Tale of Two Readings

I just reread A Tale of Two Cities for the first time since high school, when the fact that it was assigned reading made it a chore, albeit one in which I enjoyed the classroom discussions, and especially, the introduction to Dickens' vivid characterizations. It's intriguing to me that several of the characters and the humorous personalities are what I'd recalled, decades later; the horrific, terroristic elements of the plot I'd either partly forgotten or blocked out altogether.

While reminiscing about that class, an absurd tangent occurred to me: does anyone still remember the Lay's Potato Chips television ad, maybe from the early 1970s, showing French revolutionaries challenging a miscreant to eat just one, delicious potato chip, with a silhouette of the top of a guillotine looming above a hilltop in the background? "He tried, but he couldn't do it," sings the chorus with a knowing smile, as the knife is raised yonder. Yeah. Traumatized for life by that one, I was. "Damn the man who cut this tree," said Sterling North as a precocious 11-year old to an unidentified woodsman, in Rascal; "Eff you, pal," I say to the unidentified Madison Avenue jokester who gave me the heebie-jeebies when I was 11.

Some confront history in a museum. I confront it in the salted snack aisle.

Of course, the reality was far worse. The horror of the age is bludgeoned home by Dickens through artful, awe-filled repetition, as if to say, "It was terrible. Really, bloody terrible. Really, really, REALLY bloody terrible. How terrible, you ask? Let me repeat...".  You're in for a rough ride in the rumble seat when your worst fears are depicted by a crafty novelist who's paid by the word.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Wait's Law of Anthropology

Understanding current events becomes much easier when you regard human beings as primates-plus rather than mathematicians-minus.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fahrenheit 451: A 21st Century Reaction, Upon Rereading

Several thoughts. First, and least serious, is that Clarisse is Guy Montag's Manic Pixie Dream GirlTM, the youthful, vivacious female archetype whose function as a plot device is to spur a male protagonist's awakening from depression and torpor, as with Trillian and Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Second, Bradbury's breathless, colorful writing competes well for his readers' presumed short attention spans, and might even fare well versus the spectacular domestic entertainment appliance that covers three walls of Mildred Montag's living room. Related, Bradbury's prognostications of said short attention span devices, penned in 1951, not only came true but leapfrogged past the television age into the Internet and virtual reality. He nailed the unwillingness -- or even inability -- of the domestic population to engage civically rather than distract itself with various software and circuses; chillingly, his gloomy predictions have found their full flower in today's seemingly endless cycle of optional wars.

So far, so good, with an A+ for threat recognition; but then Bradbury loses points for the third act's toehold in the academic conceit that the cultural blueprint to reconstitute a post-apocalyptic world can be carried in the heads of classics scholars and their fellow travelers. A room full of white-shirted Isaac Asimov readers taking recreational respite from lab duty might buy that as a nifty parable, but as speculation, it stretches the rubber band beyond the breaking point.

It does, however, give a new meaning to the phrase, "You read me like a book."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Cheesy Three-Line Poem


Thro' edam'pest night with wind and brie's
Amber't a muensters' caravane on stilton
The goudamm feta'd stench displease


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mmmmmm...Bacon!

J.M. Gifford's entertaining debut novel, Bobby Q, serves up the tantalizing prospect that sizzling, aromatic meals will continue to feature prominently (at least for the lucky ones) in humanity's space-based future.


Gifford entices you into his vessel with a whiff of this quirky, somehow reassuring premise, then, once you're aboard, pulls you into a superorbital adventure plot motivated by the protagonist couple's entrepreneurial aspirations, relationships with each other as besties, herding of their fragile beasties, and desperate work to earn their daily feasties.

There's no shortage of pithy banter between the lead twosome. While the story takes the point of view of every-geek Ozzie, I found myself hoping we will see much more of Pele, the plucky, scene-stealing chef extraordinaire, in series sequels.

While easy reading, Bobby Q has meat on the bones. The chapters open with writerly, observational paragraphs worth savoring. The technology speculations regarding energy production, interorbital travel, and massive, biospheric space stations are pure Arthur C. Clarke. Given the book's central culinary conceit, I would like to have heard more speculations from the imagineering author about the animal husbandry and space ranching processes necessary to produce the perfect pulled pork parfait near Pluto.

In sum, there's plenty to carry the story forward, as well as paragraphs that are so good they almost seem out of place in a novel that slathers on the sauce. Ultimately, you either accept the Pigs in Space premise or you don't. If you don't, I must ask: would you rather Gifford had written a book entitled Rendezvous with Ramen?


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crazy Enough

Versatile lead singer, rocker, and glamorous chanteuse Storm Large's frank, confessional memoir, Crazy Enough, featuring angry tales of coping with her mother's mental illness and manipulation and her own self-medicating addictions and reckless habits, starting in childhood, took me way out of my comfort zone.  That's a good thing.  Knowing that she's now a transcendent stage and club performer, using her huge voice and stage presence to the fullest, is what makes these sordid stories of her distant and not-so-distant past a hero's journey.  The only reason for rating her book at four stars instead of five is to express one smitten fan's opinion that her music is even better than her revealing, entertainingly crafted words.





Friday, November 21, 2014

Wait's Law of Attraction

No matter where you stop your grocery cart, it immediately attracts a shopper who needs to browse items on the shelf behind it.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Kids, Go to Your Rooms!

Today I came across this Sports Illustrated item about the multimedia kerfuffle between two highly paid, high-profile ESPN commentators and personalities, Bill Simmons and Mike Golic.

As the kids say, I can't even.

Sports is supposed to be the fun relaxation you have after everybody's done with their workday and then done screaming at each other about the news.  Of course, we also have to know what's going on with our favorite teams, so there's another informational layer atop the actual sports we enjoy: the news about sports.

Then, however, things get sillier and sillier.  In the order of decreasing relevance and increasing distance removed from the games themselves, we have
  • Opinions about the news about sports;
  • Opinions about the opinions about the news about sports;
  • Opinions about the people who have opinions about the opinions about the news about sports;
  • Program producers who encourage the airing of strong opinions about the people who have opinions about the opinions about the news about sports;
  • Sports networks, including ESPN, that egg on their program producers to encourage the airing of strong opinions about the people who have opinions about the opinions about the news about sports;
 and ultimately,
  • The management aspects of sports networks, including ESPN, that egg on their program producers to encourage the airing of strong opinions about the people who have opinions about the opinions about the news about sports.
Which brings us to this Sports Illustrated item, which is, in essence,
  • News about the management aspects of sports networks, including ESPN, that egg on their program producers to encourage the airing of strong opinions about the people who have opinions about the opinions about the news about sports.
I'm thinking you can guess my opinion about that.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann on the Hot Seat

First-time U.S. Men's National Team soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann, a former German National Team player, seems to have made his personnel decisions very personal.

Klinsmann recently made the inexplicable decision to not only bench the face of U.S. Men's soccer, Landon Donovan, but to leave him off the U.S. roster for the upcoming World Cup tournament in Rio de Janeiro altogether.  In NFL terms, he's tried to avoid a quarterback controversy by shooting the charismatic incumbent.

We can reasonably conclude that the Donovan decision took on the dimensions of a ego-supremacy battle for Klinsmann.  In the immediate aftermath of the roster decision, his teenaged son crowed at Donovan on Twitter, an immature and classless act but one that also suggests the promulgation of a "Him vs. Us" mentality around the dinner table.  It would appear Daddy has been taking his work home with him.

The Donovan episode reminds me of another battle of wills: German engineers vs. American test pilots in the early days of NASA, as depicted in Tom Wolfe's book and the subsequent movie "The Right Stuff".  The control-minded engineers had designed a faceless, windowless capsule, and barely bothered to disguise their contempt for the pilots, viewing them essentially as laboratory animals; whereupon the daredevil astronauts-in-training rebelled, demanded windows and aircraft controls, and insisted their vessel be recharacterized as a human-piloted spacecraft.

Even if Klinsmann is technically right about Donovan's late-career decline, the roster snub is a crude attempt to squelch the essentially American character of the U.S. team by eliminating its signature player, the one individual whom history suggests can save their bacon in stoppage time. It's a hostile and contemptuous act by an insecure leader.

Landon Donovan's place in U.S. soccer history is secure, with or without Rio.  All he's done since Jürgen Klinsmann's roster debacle is surpass the all-time MLS goals record.  Meanwhile, as the result of one blinkered decision, Klinsmann's tenure in the Western Hemisphere may be over almost before it's begun.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Blues Brothers 2015

Downtown Milwaukee prepares for the filming
of the new "Blues Brothers" movie sequel

[photo credit: @danteswardrobe]






Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Rank Reveal

Ian, Ian, Ian. You were so close to a five-star rating.

In The Black Book, the fifth novel-length installment in your Inspector Rebus mystery series, you've manufactured a rebellious hero with a worthy crime to solve, eight or nine threads of misdirection, and enough stops in the pub to outdo Masterpiece Mysteries' Inspector Morse. Your story has winningly wise-ass sidekicks, frustratingly bureaucratic bosses, and belligerently boastful bad guys. You continue to describe the Edinburgh milieu colorfully with each new Inspector Rebus episode, with most of the colors being browns and grays. Your well-paced plot kept me turning pages through an entire four-day visit to Schenectady (but that's another story).

And then, Mr. Rankin, you do this: you have a hell-raising suspect disclose the final reveal in the form of a narrative, eight-page diary entry -- eight pages! -- written as fully and articulately as you yourself write. Why, it reads as though it could have been an early plot outline that you'd prepared for your editor, or even a short story worthy of inclusion in The Hanging Game.

Such a pity. You were so close. Oh, Ian.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob's Best Books of 2013 - The Top Ten, and Then Some

This is a purely personal list of books that I've read, finished (mostly), and enjoyed during 2013, regardless of publication date.  A more complete catalog of books I've read, along with 1-star to 5-star ratings and occasional capsule reviews, is on my Goodreads.com page.

Now, without further ado...the best of 2013!

1. Fisherman's Beach by George Vukelich (1962)A moving, well-written story of a patriarchal family and way of life in crisis and transition. The Upper Great Lakes setting is visceral and pervasive; the writing is crisp, colorful, and powerful in its simplicity.  Comparable in quality and tone to the German novella, Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse).  I'm astounded that this regional work from the late Wisconsin writer didn't receive wider attention, although an excellent Madison Magazine profile of the author's life and a new edition of his novel may help to rectify that.

2. The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils (2012).  In a year that ended with Nelson Mandela's passing, this suspensefully plotted memoir of a young woman's small-scale, clandestine operations against the South African apartheid regime in the 1960s, in concert with the ANC and other revolutionary elements, serves as a testimony to her pluck, persistence, and resourcefulness under the constant threat of capture and harsh treatment.  Written by her admiring husband following her death, the book also serves as an internal snapshot of the organizational and personal alliances the two of them formed in pursuit of their activities.

3. Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (2009).  I became aware of cartoonist Edward Gorey, the comically morbid heir to Chas. Addams and progenitor to goth-graphic filmmaker Tim Burton, in the 1970s.  The Loathsome Couple (1977), Gorey's illustrated tale of two macabre anti-heros for whom a mundane life gets worse and worse, was a staple of my personal wry humor collection for years.  Elegant Enigmas is a comprehensive, curated survey of Gorey's masterful career -- although I agree with one commenter who suggested that those wholly unfamiliar with his work check out some of his original storybooks first.

4. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) by John le Carré.  I'm still catching up on the George Smiley series by British espionage master le Carré.  This pair of iconic, acclaimed, literary spy thrillers elevated le Carré from his erstwhile status as part-time mystery writer, whose "detective" happens to be a middle-aged ex-spy, to a recipient of worldwide acclaim as a deep explorer of immorality, deceit, and duplicity by agencies and assassins on an international scale.  His characters' harsh actions are justified, at first, by a sense of patriotic duty.  The further one reads in the Smiley series, however, the harder it is to tell the good guys from the bad.

5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012).  This short book serves a profound, dual purpose: it is a frank, autobiographical documentary of the grinding, mundane realities of the author's diminishing quality of life as his terminal disease (esophageal cancer) overtakes him; and it is a stark defense of his strident, lifelong atheism.  As a mathematics student, I was once taught the value of testing general propositions under extreme conditions.  By examining his own debunking of faith during episodes of his failing health, an extreme condition that leads some to bargain with one or more deities with whom they haven't previously communicated, Hitchens provides the generous gift of transparency to his readers not presently in such dire straits.  He reaffirms his godless philosophy -- to his own satisfaction, at least.

6. A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone (1964).  Must confess, I haven't finished A Hall of Mirrors just yet.  However, any literary debut that uses colorful description, well-drawn characters, and brilliant dialogue to send up both sleazy, fly-by-night rescue mission preachers and rightist media polemicists in its first 120 pages gives me great hope for the remaining 280.  Set in New Orleans, the book is comparable to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (completed 1964; published 1981).  One wonders if Stone and Toole had made each other's acquaintance.

7. Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012) by Carl Hiaasen.  I've accumulated almost a whole shelf of Carl Hiaasen's comedic, ecologically moralistic novels, now stacked on my overburdened books-to-read bookcase and waiting for a scrap of my attention.  So naturally, rather than start on those, I've been reading his books for kids instead.  Same wackiness, same eco-morals, same sticky come-uppances for the defilers of nature; just a bit quicker to read.  Or, in the case of Chomp, to listen to as an audiobook on an overnight Amtrak trip to Schenectady.  Even Hiaasen himself might not have calculated the comically disruptive effect of the repeatedly spoken character name of "Wahoo" on a railroad passenger and his seatmates.

8. The Third Man by Graham Greene (1948).  Conceived originally as the mere outline for the classic suspense movie of the same name, The Third Man is a detective novella with cinematic detail and more literary exposition than one would expect from a text that the author did not imagine the public would see.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013).  Touting a book by the ever-popular pop-goth fantacist Neil Gaiman feels a bit like following the herd, but in this case it's a genuine recommendation.  Just as portrait artists who work in oils create self-portraits in their own style, Gaiman has created an artful, fictional self-portrait using nonfictional events and settings from his childhood.  The latest output from the groundbreaking graphic novelist known for the Sandman series, Ocean can also be taken as Gaiman's own, personal superhero origins story -- or, more simply, as a narrative answer to the one question that plagues all successful authors: "Where do you get your ideas?"

10. Humor in Craft by Brigitte Martin (2012).  Ever since I saw a talented friend throw and carve a cartoonish firehouse mug on a potter's wheel, with a firehose for a handle, I've been intrigued by the ability of artists to create humorous works of high wit.  Humor in Craft is a collection of such works in multiple media from a cross-cultural perspective.  Only two complaints: I wish some of the photographed exhibits were larger, and I wish certain craft techniques were at least introduced so that readers who take inspiration from the collection might be able to follow in the artists' funny footsteps.

Honorable mention:

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (1974).  One Man Against the Machine Award.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsythe (1972).  Suspense with Horrifying Historical Elements Award.

Knots and Crosses (1987), Hide and Seek (1990), Tooth and Nail (1992), A Good Hanging (1992), and Strip Jack (1992) by Ian Rankin.  Bob's Found a New Mystery Series Award.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992).  Bob's Other Favorite Mystery Series Award. 

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood (2013).  Light-Hearted Travel E-Book for Settling Down and Trying to Go to Sleep Award.

The Babe and I by Mrs. Babe Ruth (1959).  You May Be Beloved But They Still Won't Make You a Manager Award.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971).  And You Thought Your Job Was Unfulfilling Award.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Goodreads, and My OneNote Wiki Trick, Part II

[See Part 1, posted Oct. 16, 2012.]

As a bucket load of "Best of 2013" book lists is dumped upon us, the tools I've used to make order from the chaos of infinite possibility have continued to serve me well.  Goodreads, now under the Amazon corporate umbrella, is still my go-to web service for tracking books read, books anticipated, and books flung against the wall in disdain (or, more broadly, set aside).  I still cut-'n'-paste lists of fiction and nonfiction works by my favorite authors from their respective Wikipedia pages into Microsoft OneNote.

What's new is the omnipresence of a smartphone in my pocket (oh, grow up!).  I carry a Motorola Photon 4G (MB855), a nifty, if prior generation Android 2.3 unit on Ting, a low-cost MVNO (mobile service reseller) that completes calls over the Sprint network.  I've loaded the Goodreads Android app onto the phone, which allows me to enter new books and reading updates remotely.

However, for my stubby fingers on a medium-sized smartphone in the dim light of a library or at a yard sale, it's still a nuisance to search the Goodreads app for a complete list of an author's works, such as all books in Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series, especially if I need their chronological order.  I want to know quickly: have I read this particular title by Tom Robbins or Tom Sharpe before?  Do I have a copy at home?  Also, as I mainly use Wifi (free, on Ting) instead of 3G/4G (which costs) for mobile data, how can I access my book lists when I'm out and about, and not near a Wifi hotspot?


The solution I've fastened on is to make small notations in my OneNote author lists, which I use to annotate the cut-'n'-pasted Wikipedia pages.  I'll type "Finished" or "Started" by a title.  If I've already purchased, say, the third-from-now Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin and stockpiled it on my overburdened bookcases at home, I'll mark that title with an 'x'.

Crucially, Microsoft OneNote on my Windows 7 PC can sync data with the OneNote Android app on my Photon 4G.  It takes a bit of set-up, but then it syncs the data via Microsoft SkyDrive whenever I'm near a Wifi hotspot and click on the corresponding OneNote folder on my phone.  Voilà: instant mobile access to my reading lists, want-to-read lists, and notes -- including which books I already own so I don't buy duplicates at the ten-cent sale.


In truth, it's not much different than carrying around a small, paper-based diary or notebook of your reading lists, except the OneNote solution scales and organizes free-form lists with your changing whims.  It would take a long time to write out all the book titles by all your favorite authors by hand instead of utilizing the ol' cut-'n'-paste routine.  Also, books are just one category for which you might like quick, remote access; you may also be interested in carrying pages of your CDs, DVDs, sports tickets, or wine cellar inventory.  Do you want to carry a paper diary for each one?

In summary: Yes, OneNote continues to be an excellent list-keeping tool.  Yes, it's now in my pocket.  And yes, I'm happy to see you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Many Lanes Must Neil Gaiman Walk Down?

While many readers will take The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a parable for an adult's hazy recollection of the intense feelings and dark fears and fantasies of childhood, a more specific perspective is possible: this is Neil Gaiman's gothic self-portrait, in the sense of a painter who depicts himself looking in a mirror, his bemused image standing out centrally if tentatively, embedded as it is in the composition among his favorite semiotic objects.

Fittingly for a creator and writer of comics, it's also Gaiman's superhero origins story, presenting how a figurative, residual hole in the author's heart from childhood traumatic events has led to his lifelong, genius ability to access his sharp, surrealistic imagination for popular consumption and illumination.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Free Country

Everyone loves a crazy stunt, especially one that's perpetrated and documented by two mostly congenial guys on holiday: in this case, author George Mahood and his cranky friend Ben. Cycling the length of Britain starting without bicycles (to say nothing of money, clothes, food, or a tent) qualifies. Mahood's Free Country is a winning entry in the time-tested "Wry in the Rye" genre, which Jerome K. Jerome founded with his classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and to which Bill Bryson contributed, entertaining trail-walking wannabes with A Walk in the Woods.

Reading any two consecutive chapters of these English lads' travelogue will put the most hardened cynic in a cheerful mood. My only complaint is the author's repeatedly mocking his own turns of phrase every tenth sentence or so in a flat-tired attempt at cleverness. Other than that, the chain stays on the metaphorical bicycle, so to speak -- unlike the one on the author's sorry two-wheeler.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bank Shot

This second installment of Donald E. Westlake's "Dortmunder" series combines familiar, bumbling criminals, a reluctant, curmudgeonly mastermind, and oblivious members of the constabulary, to lighthearted comedic effect.  This is a Robert Redford caper movie in novel form, with Bugs Bunny dialogue, only slower and with less Mel Blanc-sy voices; in contrast, however, Robert Redford and Bugs Bunny always come out on top.  Here, you get the feeling after each episode falters that John Dortmunder will invariably be back on his home turf, conning moms and widows out of their tens and twenties in his fallback encyclopedia sales scam, shortly after the big bank job that he and his henchmen have conceived, planned, and taken farcical pains to execute washes away, just out of reach.

The second novel in a series is the hardest, so they say.  Westlake succeeds by reducing the degree of difficulty, relative to the series opener, the serial gem heist caper The Hot Rock, while maintaining the same mad, mad sensibility.  It's a comedy writer's version of productivity growth: the same laughs for a simpler book.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Moose Jaw

Aw, crap.  I had to downgrade this enjoyable nightstand read by Mike Delany from four stars to three stars to protest its hackneyed, supernatural ending.  The occult explanation of events that had been vaguely foretold and lightly foreshadowed was never relinquished, only rationalized.  The characters didn't so much solve the mystery as have the spooky solution revealed unto them. 

Pity, because I'd been engrossed in the adventure.  The novel's first half included several well-written chapters depicting Alaskan outdoorsmanship and backwoods cabin life, among the best I've read.  The third quarter placed the protagonist in more and more danger, but events still lay within the bounds of plausibility.  I was sure that within the denouement we would learn some natural explanation of weird happenings: something in the spring water; some hallucinogenic plant inadvertently consumed; some mental health issue spurring the protagonist's prodigious consumption of alcohol and increasing paranoia.  Some prankster in a bear suit.  Something.

But this magic-laced ending, as ripe as a hunting party after a two-week Alaskan fishing trip?  Aw, crap.

Side note: there's a touch of arrested development in the author's Hefneresque depiction of a relationship with a damsel in distress, a-heh, a-heh.  (Spoiler: goose grease.)


Monday, April 1, 2013

Opening Day - It's Here!

We've raked, burnt firewood, and exchanged gifts.  We've huddled, shoveled, and whined.  We've counted the weeks until Spring Training and the days until the Major League Baseball season starts.

It's here.  It's Opening Day.  The 2013 Milwaukee Brewers are ready to play ball, three miles from our house.

It's still freakin' cold.  Doesn't matter.  We've got a roof - eat your heart out, Minnesota!






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