Best Books of the Year?

In the spirit of writing about the best books of the year, let's write about the best books of the year! But first, let's be venomous and write about the not-best!

2006 Most Overrated: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Non-2006 (but read in 2006) Most Overrated: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

Now that that that that unpleasantness is done with, onto the fun! I read too few 2006 books, but recently raced through

2006 Winner: Richard Powers's The Echo Maker

completed just after finishing my first experience of RP's work, Galatea 2.d'oh!, unlike which The Echo Maker is good! I recommend it (it being TEM!)! Didn't like the ending of The Echo Maker very much, which was disappointing since the ending is more or less the point of four hundred pages, but those first 350 are easily awesome enough to nudge Mr. Powers ahead of the rest of the field. Carrot to Mr. Powers!

I also read this year, very tardily, the surprisingly excellent and much more enthusiastically recommended!!!!

Non-2006 Winner: Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Happy Reading! :)))))))))


Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

We were going to do another Christmas album, then thought maybe an EP would be good enough, but in the end we managed only a single. But whatta single, ladies and gentlemen!

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy - WMA

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy - MP3

Hammered dulcimer, $39 keyboard: traca de broon - Toy piano, accordion: grendel
Relive last year's extravaganza



Mr. Lynch says the title is in all capitals, and who am I to argue? Brimming with 5 years of built-up, post-Mulholland Drive anticipation, we drove a total of three hours (Cape to Cambridge) and paid you don't want to know how much to park to see this 3-hour film at a little art house theater with broken seats. You won't be seeing it in your theater at all unless you go to Boston now or can make it to L.A., Austin, Chicago, D.C., Seattle, or San Francisco in January. Otherwise, you will be renting or buying the DVD next summer. Or not.

I say the following as not just an obsessive David Lynch fan. He is probably my favorite living artist in any media or genre. He is Picasso, Kafka, and Mozart rolled into one. He creates universes. Twin Peaks was the greatest drama ever on television. Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive are all in my top ten favorite films. I have seen each of them many, many times. All of his other films are also terrific in my opinion, with the exception of Dune -- but even Dune I basically liked. Beginnning with Blue Velvet in 1986, at the Indiana University Student Union, I have attended the man's films as the faithful go to church: humbly, with holy reverence, a devoted acolyte expecting miracles.

But here is what I thought of my first viewing of INLAND EMPIRE: Irritating, maddeningly confusing, awkward, not enjoyable, nearly humorless, at least a half hour too long, and entirely too focused on Laura Dern's mouth.

The Slate review pretty much nailed it. Rolling Stone and The New York Times were too kind. I will see it again, of course, when I buy it next summer. I don't rule out an opinion turnaround. I have disliked plenty of stuff at first, only to gain appreciation after several exposures. Certain R.E.M. albums come to mind. Huckleberry Finn. Phish. F. Scott Fitzgerald. The White Stripes. The Bible.

Take Mulholland Drive. Sure, it was bewildering on first viewing to keep track of who is Betty and who is Diane and who are those old people and what does the box represent and where is Aunt Ruth anyway, and which parts of the film, if any, are a dream or a delusion. By the end of the film, some of those questions sparkle a bit with hints, and after the second viewing, it makes more sense, and so forth until I feel pretty comfortable when I see it today that I know what is going on. Not all of it, of course. But my feet have purchase. But back on first viewing, I was lost, and yet I enjoyed the film anyway. Each scene was self-contained, like a short short story, and how they all fit together was a project the viewer may or may not tackle. Art can have impact without full understanding. Emotions can be wrung from you and you don't know why or how. At the end of Mulholland Drive, as Traca put it yesterday, one is left with a feeling of profound sadness for Diane -- even if the exact plot and timeline are still muddled in the mind. At the end of INLAND EMPIRE, I was left with a feeling of not-so-profound indifference.

Irritating and maddeningly confusing: I felt that the director was going beyond the beyond. He was not allowing me anywhere to stand. I could not follow the various levels of reality, hallucination, flashback, or "meta-staging" (some of the scenes are from a movie the characters are making) well enough to grasp what was happening on screen. Watching the movie was trying to walk on a Silly Slide greased with Vaseline. I became annoyed with Mr. Lynch for not giving me enough to go on. Maybe I'm too dumb for his films now. Or maybe he's lost that slender but vital connection to narrative arc that, for me anyway, is necessary to enjoy a fictional film.

Awkward, not enjoyable, nearly humorless: The scenes are self-contained, as in Mulholland Drive, but they are not laced with the dark humor that I have come to expect and crave. There is no Cowboy, no impossible-to-please espresso connoiseur, no Michael Anderson's head on a non-little person's body. There is the surrealism of the Rabbits, of course, as seen in the photo above, who appear sometimes and stiffly deliver banal lines in their 50s apartment, to a laugh track. But they're not funny. The laugh track is almost a confirmation that they are not funny. What they may represent is of course part of the project waiting for me next summer, but in the moment, as odd and beautiful as their scenes are, they made me feel: nothing. And really nothing in the film made me feel anything except admiration for the framing, composition, music, etc. But don't you gotta wring emotions from your audience? The film made me understand that I believe you do have to.

At least a half hour too long, and entirely too focused on Laura Dern's mouth: The pacing of the movie is far too leisurely. Lingering on stuff that is not making the audience feel anything is just indulgent. He could easily have cut a half hour and you wouldn't notice the difference, except your rear end wouldn't be hurting so much. And yet he cut too much of the important stuff. Justin Theroux's character, supposedly the male lead, just vanishes about halfway through. He pops back in for one tiny scene, but otherwise, he's gone. Did he die? Was he real? Is he who she shot? Jeremy Irons: totally wasted in his role. Harry Dean Stanton: totally wasted in his role. Grace Zabriskie: totally wasted in her role. In fact, the only character who is developed at all in the film is Nikki Grace, and various other unclear characters, played by Laura Dern. Laura Dern may have a fascinating mouth, but dear God in heaven it's not enough to hang a film on. I found myself trying to orient myself in the story by calculating how much and what color lipstick she was wearing -- this is a sorry plate of crumbs to leave an adoring fan to feed on!

The basic plot had promise, if not exactly originality: The Hollywood remake of an old Polish film, in which the two leads were killed and which was therefore never finished, appears to be similarly cursed. "They found something in the story..." says Irons, who plays the director of the remake. "The two leads died!" The idea of a deadly meme, a gypsy curse embedded in the structure of a film, waiting to be activated every time the film is made, is good enough to hang a movie on, I suppose. But this device is not used well, because the audience should be able to tell what is the original film, what is the personal life of its actors in the original, what is the remake, what is the personal life of Laura Dern, what are the flashbacks of her personal past, what are the flashbacks of her past films, and what is the nightmare hallucination reality. When the viewer, or at least this viewer, can't distinguish among those levels at least minimally, then what's left is a swirling soup of imagery and sound that may be impressive, but is not meaningful.

In short, I believe he went too far. He lost track of the basic requirements of narrative art. He says he didn't even have a finished script when he started shooting this. That's pretty obvious. The "inland empire" must refer, in the end, to Mr. Lynch's subconscious. But the raw subconscious is not art -- it must be processed. I think he finally just filmed -- sorry, digital videoed -- some raw stuff that had been haunting his brain and thought people could make sense of it. Well, we can't. I couldn't. But what I really don't want to consider is that it was me after all, that the breadcrumbs were in fact there on the forest floor the whole time, but I just didn't see them. Which is why I will be buying the DVD.


Felicity "Fid" Thompson interview

Perhaps at once the most visible and mysterious member of our class, Fid graced us with her humor and irrisistible English accent -- not to mention those compact, poetic stories -- in between gigs in Africa. She was a Citizen of the World, then she was at Iowa, then she was off again to the Heart of Darkness. What's she been up to these past few years? Let's find out.

EG: Where are you exactly and and how did you end up there again? How did you become so interested in Tanzania in the first place?

FT: I am still trying to answer how I ended up here, but the chronology is this: I volunteered for an organisation called Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW) in 2001 and then returned to work for them in 2003 – sandwiching my MFA at Iowa and 9/11 between Tanzania.

Iringa: a regional town in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. It sits on a promontory like a ship's prow, looking out over the highlands. We are at something like 1600 feet and it is masika (small rains), so every day the sky turns purple and rumbly and lightening flashes over the far hills.

Last month, on the first day of rain, thousands of grashoppers flitted into town like little green fairies. We woke up the next morning, and Experius, wrapped in a towel, toothbrush in mouth, water bottle in hand, was chasing them round the garden and squeezing them into the empty plastic bottle like a madman. All around town groups of children were running to catch them. Everyone – the daladala drivers, the women selling sheets by the side of the road – seemed to have their own water bottles full of Senene. Valentino, our guard, was ecstatic. They are a delicacy – fried up in lots of oil and served with a little salt, a little chilli powder, and mwooah! A tasty snack.

Experius told us later that there is big business in the grasshoppers – people were selling sacks of them in the market for 50,000 shillings ($39). He was disappointed that he didn't get up in the night when they are docile and fly blindly into lights. I found them only irritating – they somehow found their way into the house and would leap out blindly on their massive springy legs. We are still finding tiny green legs everywhere. But when they fly they look like tinkerbells spinning through the air.

I can't figure out why I was so interested in Africa. I grew up in a village in England. Our house was small, mouldy, and damp; my school was posh and catholic. I remember two African girls came one year, the first black kids in the entire school. But I didn't know them; they were princesses from somewhere. My mum had studied Archaeology at Nairobi University and spent some time in the Congo when it was still called Zaire. But even before those stories, there were little bits of Africa in our dingy living room – some wooden masks and thumb pianos. I wonder if they inserted themselves deep in my subconscious?

Course I also grew up with LiveAid and all those starving chilluns on the telly and Bob Geldof. I am a colonial grandchild and we have a soft spot for Africa; I also had a Catholic upbringing and we have a soft spot for guilt. Then G.W. Bush was swept to power for a second time.

EG: What do you do there, for a living, for service to humanity?

FT: Currently I am in between both Serving Humanity and A Living. But luckily I have friends who needed a part time housegirl.

Last month I finished a project that created a radio soap opera that ran for four months on local Tanzanian radio. I wrote the scripts together with three young Tanzanian writers. There was all the intrigue and gossip of Eastenders, but also mixed in with storylines that educate about HIV/AIDS and challenge stereotypes about what it is like to live with HIV.

Do you remember the HIV ad campaigns from the eighties? They took the skull-n-crossbones strike-fear-in-the-heart of anyone who's ever had sex approach. In Africa, people still think of it the same way. HIV is immediate death, to live with HIV is an oxymoron, and if you have it, you must be some sort of slapper. There are some amazing euphemisms (Swahili is a language and culture that "lessens the sharpness of words") for HIV/AIDS:

  • kukanyaga miwaya – to hold onto electricity wires
  • ngoma – drums, drumming (where traditionally there is/was a lot of shagging in the woods)
  • umeme – electricity (as in you've been electrocuted)
  • wamredio – person of the radio (people hear the news about HIV from radio programmes)
  • pembe nne – four corners (the four corners of the coffin)
  • maiti inayotembea – a walking corpse
I know AIDS is old news and probably boring. But it's still bloody there, innit? Anyone who has even a vague interest should read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (not a porn star), a brilliant, bible-thick, soap-operatic, scientific epic on the origins of the HIV epidemic.

In February, I will start work on a series of short films about young people in Tanzania with my co-producer, Derek Thorne. Although since the hullabaloo about the film Darwin's Nightmare set around Lake Victoria, it is difficult to film in Tanzania if you are a foreigner.

EG: What are the people like? Are they kind of like Iowans?

FT: Tanzanians are like Iowans in the sense that everywhere in the world you can find Iowans. Although I have yet to see a Tanzanian mullet.

EG: Describe what a typical day is like for you there.

FT: Since the electricity problems, the day depends. With electricity, things are surprisingly similar to home. We have a loo that flushes and a hot shower. I bike to work and get stared at for not being Tanzanian. I'm just so white.

Since the drought, the dam that powered the entire country fell below 76cm, and chaos broke out. Power cuts everywhere, all day long, every day, for months. With no power, there is no point having a fancy flush loo or an electric water heater. You're better off with a long drop
and kerosene stove. You're better off in the village.

For other thoughts, photos, and random shit, you can have a look at me blog.

EG: What was it like making a soap opera in Swahili? How did you come to be involved in that? What was it about? When will we be seeing it on the National Geographic Channel?

FT: It was great fun and ridiculously hard. The Swahili is not the hard part. The hard part is working with a shitty radio station, a production room that is not sound-proofed, actors who've never worked with written scripts, and a very skinny budget.

But it was cool because it was a proposal that I wrote and got funded myself through SPW. The project has a website, if you want to check it; it is in English mostly. Unfortunately, we don't have the bandwidth to upload much audio, but you can listen to the "Theme Tune" (ooo, it's a catchy one) and a snippet of a song by two of the actors. The actors were very talented and creative. I hope to put some more of their work on the web soon.

My favourite episode is when Anna decides to commit suicide after finding out she is HIV positive and her boyfriend tells her he cannot marry her. Sounds morbid, I know, but it was really well done. Moving, even.

EG: What else are you involved with there?

FT: I am involved with the two local radio stations, Country FM and Ebony FM (pronounced "eee-bon"!), making programmes on youth and also about HIV/AIDS. Last week, I produced a mini audio documentary about people's views on adultery. Basically, the idea of 'going outside' of a marriage or relationship is considered morally wrong here, but everyone does it! If men do it, then they are called the Male with Lots of Seeds or, The Man with Responsibilities or simply, Commander. If a woman does it, she is called a whole host of names that have nothing to do with her having lots of eggs or responsibilities, and more to do with her being a floozy. Here are some of the more tasteful ones:

  • bus seat (everyone sits on it)
  • beans from Mbeya (they only take a minute to cook)
  • guest's floormat (anyone can sleep on it)
  • striped polecat (species of small African carnivores allied to the weasels and skunks)
EG: How has your fiction writing gone since leaving the workshop?

FT: It has gone. Disappeared. Or at least it has been quietly brewing on the back burner, sort of smelling good but never quite ready. I've started again, though, so please forgive me. It's difficult to commit to writing and to the world at the same time.

EG: You recently received a proposal of marriage, did you not? Please describe what happened with that.

FT: It is not uncommon or particularly flattering to receive marriage proposals here – generally any man sitting next to you at a bar decides that he is in love with you and wants to marry you. Of course, it helps that you are a mzungu (white). Generally, he is in love with your skin; he wants to marry your skin!

Last week, I was proposed to by our weekend guard's son, Gibson. In fact, I was proposed to by Mussa, our weekend guard, who stuffed a folded square of paper in my hand as I walked through the door. Mussa is slim and dark-skinned; he is submissive to the point of subservience. He double-bolts the front gate as soon as he arrives, even if we haven't got home, even if it isn't dark yet. I have always wondered what he would do if robbers were ever to break in. So when he stopped me on the doorstep, I was surprised by the forwardness of the gesture. I went inside and opened the paper.

The notebook paper was decorated with tiny meticulous crisscrosses in blue and red biro. Mussa was asking me to marry his son. He explained that he didn't want me to take it the wrong way but, in his words, "I think the best way to get connected to wazungu (whites) is to get into their clan." I was somewhat offended; I did take it the wrong way. I have never met Gibson, and he has never met me, and I wonder if Gibson has had any say in this, or if Mussa, who is constantly in debt, has decided I represent all manner of wealth, luxury, and opportunity. Me and my clan of whiteys.

I prefer the barroom proposals – at least you know what you're getting.

EG: Do you have any plans to come back for a visit?

FT: Definitely. Thinking about May 2007, when we are done with the films, my visa runs out, and I am skint!

EG: How long do you think you'll be living in Tanzania?

FT: As I recently made clear to [the plunge]: "i am still in tanzania. not necessarily definitely maybe indefinitely here. fuck i don't know."


Overheard in Sandwich, Massachusetts library

I am writing on a couch in an area where old people come to read the newspaper for free. One old guy is rubbing his bright white tennis shoes together, like a cricket, producing a steady squeaking. Two other old guys are sitting on another couch, crinkling, crinkling, crinkling their papers. One walks away and comes back and leans in to his friend and whispers, louder than many people talk, "I gotta get in the fucking bathroom! But there's a kid in there. I said how long you gonna be? He said I've only been in here a minute."
"He's in there! A kid!"
"On the throne?"
"Get him the hell outta there!"
"He won't go!"
"What the hell? His parents gotta be around here somewhere."
"Ah, but they're so fucking stupid, some of them."
"You're right about that."
"I gotta go home now. To my own throne."
"See you tomorrow, Freddie."


The New Adventures of Allen Ruskin, Servant of Man

Pip followed Allen Ruskin, the former felonious philanderer, as he strode down the Royal Road, joyfully recounting all the good deeds they had done that day.

"We have joyfully done many good deeds today, Pip, it is good to recount them" said the beatific, beaming barrister. "I especially loved to watch the orphans as they suckled happily on the sweetmeats we brought them."

Pip mumbled something unintelligible, and readjusted the pile of empty sacks on his shoulder, which had once held a charitable cornucopia of childish chattels.

"What did you say, my good man Pip?"

"I said I didn't realize you were serious."

"Whatever do you mean?" asked Ruskin, stooping by the side of the road to set a robin's nest to rights.

"Well, you used to be different."

"What are you getting at?"

"We used to tramp through the snow to the orphanage for other reasons."

"Dammit, you blackguard! What do you mean? Spit it out!"

Pip sighed. "Oh, how I miss hearing you say that."

"If you are not careful, I shall spank you."

"I wish."

Ruskin leaned against a stonewall and looked out over the snowy fields. He breathed in the cold and air, which calmed and warmed his new heart, which felt ready to burst with charity and good works, as if it were an angelic tick filling itself with goodness, knowing it will eventually explode and spray blessed blood from its ruptured rear as its tick head keeps dumbly sucking and sucking and sucking more and more goodness until there is an infection of goodness that infects the entire world with the pleasant pus of pulchritude. "Are you unhappy, Pip?" asked Ruskin.

Pip dropped the sacks and wrapped his arms around his belly. "We've been doing this for weeks. When you said we were to become men of God, I thought you meant something different. I thought we might masturbate a monk."

"Well, I didn't."

"Bugger a bishop?"


"Poke a prioress?"


"Noodle a nun?"


"Ream a right reverend?"


"Penetrate a pope?"

"Good lord, no! Pip, I am beginning to realize something," said Ruskin.


"Perhaps it is time we part ways," answered Ruskin, watching the snow that started to gather around them in piles of ice like a mass grave for the uncollected corpses of winter faeries. "Perhaps I am meant to be alone."

**** What's next for the reformed wrecker? Did the tiger really change his proverbial spots?


Iowa City junket great success, wraps with revived social skills, totaled livers

We were back in the IC this weekend and managed to see a lot of folks, most of them we found to be drinking. Our first time there with no car, we took the Airport Shuttle, which was driven by a small, elderly man who was quite capable of finding the most circuitous, lengthiest routes to familiar places, such as, -- after a few stops east of town having come into town from the west -- the Bostick Guest House, where we were to stay.

Our first appointment was at Trevor and N.'s. Lasagna never tasted so good, though we were so rusty from lack of social exposure, due to living for the last three months out east in a remote, abandoned beach town, that many times our conversation faltered. Unlike TV characters, these people evidently expected something from us, and it was a struggle to oblige them. However, as is always the case with Trevor and N., this dinner turned out to be formative in restoring to us our enfeebled conversation skills, and soon gave way to laughter and banter. After overstaying our welcome, following the stubborn and erroneous line of reason known as "if we keep it up, we might force ourselves to burn all the way through to brilliance," we walked back to town from Court and B Streets, gratefully taking in the fruits of the long Indian summer that we used to fondly call Autumn. Since George's was so close to the guest house, we decided on one nightcap for old time's sake at our old haunt, where three hours whipped by like no time at all.

Next morning we attended a lovely Simhat Bat naming ceremony (our first), for J. and bR's N. R., to whom T. is godmother (not the fairy kind, I was gently informed) in which we celebrated the creative darkness of the womb and implored the little one's future sons and daughters to continue to enjoy vigor and fragrance as they grow old. It was refreshing and inspirational to attend a ceremony where the main point was not to fasten the unwitting child to a well-established racket of tithing and groupthink, but to dedicate her to doing good works and accepting the responsibility of becoming a citizen of the world. Brando and TLB were in attendance, and plans to meet up later for drinks and Takanami were formulated.

Walking back again from the east side, this time in daylight, we encountered Dan Coffey, aka Dr. Science, trudging up our sidewalk, who hailed us and declared that we had had a baby. "No, wait, you bought a house." He mentioned that he was now teaching at a Quaker college somewhere in Iowa, the name of which presently escapes me, and confirmed upon being asked that he did in fact wear the oatmeal mascot's cumbersome attire in the classroom. "And I do a lot of thee-ing and thou-ing," he added.

Reaching the guest house, I collapsed for a nap while T. strutted and prowled the town. She ran into N., who had barely had time to clean the lasagna off her plates before being confronted with her guest again, and when I met T. a little while later, we again were proved to be stalking N., accosting her this time in Prairie Lights, where she showed us the book Monkey Portraits by Jill Greenberg, one of whose subjects, Josh, graces this post with his worried look. Buy the book -- as we did -- but don't spill beer on it -- as we did. Succumbing to our relentless tracking skills, N. accepted an invitation to have a drink at Atlas, which was closed, and then at Martinis, which was closed, and finally at Donnelly's, which was not closed and where we attacked a basket of shelled peanuts and apologized for our faltering conversation of the night before. Trevor was then summoned from his home, where he had no doubt been recovering from the boredom we had visited on their lives, and he joined us for one beer which turned into two which turned into a scramble to make it to Brando and TLB's place by the appointed time.

We met Jones, the new cat, a fluffy orange love-addict, and watched the jealousy of his veteran colleagues play out from behind our wine and beer glasses. Then we walked to Takanami, me in a ludicrous winter coat shlepping through the warm thick air, tortoise-like, with just about everything heavy that I own stuffed into my straining, 99% superfluous backpack. I was drenched in perspiration by the time we sat down, but by now, though, our banter had been sufficiently honed so as to avoid desperately peppering them with questions about the weather or insurance or whether we like people in glasses or not. It was a great delight to see them in such good spirits. We learned that often Brando hears from downstairs, when TLB is winning at online poker, "Eat it, bitches!" and, "Eat it, bitches! Oh, NO!" when she is not winning. Afterward, we walked to a corner near our B&B and parted, but when T. and I returned to our small room, and considered the TV the size of a toaster, we turned around and set out for another nightcap at George's, where we watched the new clock, the only thing that had changed in the whole place, creep toward a shameful time. Then home to "second dinners" consisting solely of Cheetos.

In the morning, which was a Monday, cursed with my usual if-I-just-get-up-and-pretend-it's-okay optimism, I staggered out for coffee and the composition of my projects' status report, due to the publisher on such mornings, leaving T. alone in bed. It was while she was in that place that the knock came on the door, accompanied by a sweet voice asking, "Could I talk to you for a minute?" My love, who imagined having to rise, dress, and deal with this person and decided she'd prefer not to, bellowed out her reply, which was the only sensible one under the circumstances: "No." A note was then pushed primly under the door. The note was to advise us that our credit card had been denied and to request that another might be tendered. A call was soon placed to me at the Java House, where I had been staring, bleary-eyed and in vain, at the work I was supposed to be doing. My darling was requesting that I deal with the situation. I called the inkeeper and managed to splutter that we had canceled that card, and, squinting, read off the numbers of the new one, ignoring my liver's exasperation at the added, unexpected toil.

A lunch at Oasis Falafel, with two of T.'s former coworkers, had been planned, and it seemed like a good idea to pile-drive our bellies with Middle Eastern comfort food, but in fact the lunch merely enhanced and publicly displayed my well-deserved misery. At one point I was asked whether I were feeling okay as I fiercely concentrated on chewing up my gyros sandwich as quickly and carefully as possible. I remember pausing mid-chew and blinking at the interruption, like a bear in the middle of finishing a deer might, having heard a gunshot in the distance. When I saw that I had no more food in front of me, I mumbled my intention of "getting some fries" and unsteadily made my swerving way to the swerving counter. And when I was done with those fries, the dim recollection that I was in fact at lunch with three other people finally pierced the dull armor of my pain, forcing me to explain where I was going as I once again found myself rising, and knocking my chair out of the way, and donning my huge down-filled coat, and that was: back to bed. T., not being a napper, scampered back to town. She called me an hour later, and I told her what I was doing: writhing in the bed, moaning, and sweating. She then came home and we laughed at the Monkey Portraits book until, feeling refreshed enough at last, and just in time, we headed out again for our final public appearance.

Which destination was the Sancturary. There, we were joined by SER and B., Trevor and N., TLB and Brando, Cheeni and Kat, bR and J., and Gillymonster and T-Bone. We took up a series of connected tables so long that it seemed a fire hazard for those trapped on the wall side. We started out all mixed up, but gradually there was a drift into separation according to gender, where the males gathered on one side to discuss wrestling, especially singlets, boxing, other sports, music, and eventually politics. Glasses were raised to the Democrats. As for the women, from downtable, as the result of a conversation about That's Rentertainment having moved to relatively tiny digs, in which the question was put about which films might have been jettisoned, and the speculation ran free along the lines of perhaps it was the adult movies that were gone, and that maybe one would prefer to rent those online anyway rather than shuffle around pretending that those are not eye-popping DVD tags clutched so close to one's person, the two sides were brought together again when TLB hurled to Brando a request to know where one obtains porn on the Internet. There was then a sentence begun in pursuit of whether it is better to rent video erotica bricks-and-mortar style or via mouse and keyboard, about how some people, such as a man who had been seen rolling around the old That's Rentertainment a few times, might prefer to not have to venture out for such a necessity, which ran something like, "Now I'm not saying wheelchair-bound people shouldn't masturbate like the rest of us..." A little later T-Bone floated a trial balloon about her secret new idea for a business, the _____ _____, which was celebrated by everyone as ingenious and for which I hope she finds venture capital soon. Amid promises to visit us in Holland, if we ever get there, and if you have a friend in a position of authority in a Dutch bank give me a holler, we said our goodbyes to everyone except Brando, who had suggested the Dublin Underground as a nice place to meet up with MSF, whom TLB had hustled off to pick up at the airport.

At the "Dub," Brando and I loaded up the jukebox and enjoyed along with T. the surprising and welcome addition of Smithwick's to the tap collection. By now, oiled by enough ale, the stories were coming fast and furious. Brando told us of a time when TLB asked him to go upstairs because his brother wanted to show him something. Appearing in the guest room, Brando's brother, having pulled down his trousers and underwear and lain prone across the bed, his head pointed away from the door, asked, "Does this look okay?" And we were apprised about how slipping roadkill and live mice into someone's car can be enjoyable to most everyone involved (though not all). MSF was looking HOT, if I may be permitted the honor of saying so, as she unburdened herself of certain events surrounding the acquisition of bridesmaid's dresses, and pertaining to calling Dr. Mulder to come to her place and kill a giant spider but getting instead TLB, who had been babysitting and who went on to apply one of MSF's shoes to the creature several times before it finally expired.

It was Monday night, after all, so things had to come to an end. They and everyone else involved in the tour are to be congratulated on their troopertude and for putting up with our relentless company and chatter. And bR, J., and N. are to be thanked for providing a ride to the airport. N. especially is to be commended for only crying once, and for an extended period, when her glance happened to fall on T., who sat next to her car seat. In short, we wrung about three month's worth of socializing out of three nights. Thanks to everyone who made our return visit so much fun. We hope to make it out one more time before heading out in the other direction to our longer-term destination, where we hope for and expect many visitors, and plan to return your hospitality Dutch-style.


George Saunders on Borat

I'm really not sure what I think of this. It's the only piece of Saunders' writing that has not made me laugh (unlike Borat). He seems to be taking Baron Cohen to task on the exploitation issue, which is fair enough. But anyone could do that -- when I see me some Saunders, I want me some Saunders.


Yet More Erotic Adventures of Allen Ruskin, Headmaster of Educational Aid

Allen Ruskin stood at his window, naked, staring out across the college green. His tumescent tubificid truncheon trailed from the tuckshop of his tumorous tuna-tinctured tundra like troublous Triton, tuckered and tromped, tired and twisted from truculent tug-o-war and timorous trousseau troughs. He had a strange feeling in his heart.

"Pip -- I have a strange feeling in my heart."

Pip looked up from the bucket of ice he was sitting in, naked, cooling his conk after another long evening orgy of connubial connection. "What do you mean? You sound strange."

"I know. Something's different this morning."

Baskerville and Cerebus looked up from the buckets of ice they were sitting in, clearly sensing something strange with their master. Cerebus let out a whilting whine of woeful worry.

"Perhaps you are getting tired of all this," said Miss Havisham from her bucket.

"I don't know what it is," replied Ruskin, his rapacious eyes rivetted on a pair of riotous rockets and their owner running by his window. The girl looked up and saw his shame. She smiled. He smiled and waved his fingers. The girl stood for a second, clearing waiting for some ravishment to happen (as no good lady would ever walk the path near Ruskin's window without mens rea and an alterior motive that needed no legal degree or translation from the Latin to understand). She glanced at the trees and bushes, tensing for a pounce. She was beautiful, and for a moment, the lecherous lout considered sending Bart out with his net. Just to make her feel good. Her flesh was like smooth butter cream ready to be spread on the sweet sponge cake of his loins. He waved her away and turned from the window.

"I am empty!" roared the repellant Ruskin as if challenging the very Kosmos.

"Wait -- don't be hasty," said Alice, tearing her lips away from Dottie, who was sharing her bucket. The two were feeling a little recovered and had gone ahead and poured champagne in along with the ice. Champagne and ice splashed to the floor.

"You'll ruin the floors," called Bart from the other room. "Professor de Broon has already complained twice about strange fluids leeching through her ceiling."

"I don't understand," said Pip, his eyes quivering as if he were about to burst into delicate tears.

Ruskin pulled on his beard. "I'm not sure we will be deserving of the helper monkeys -- what are we doing to create a new and better world?"

"It's not our problem -- at the moment, I can't even walk," said Miss Havisham tartly, pointedly readjusting some ice.

Ruskin, the dastardly deflowerer, paced nude around his desk. The others watched him quietly.

Finally, he stopped.

"That's it! No More! Bart! Get this filth out of my office!" He walked over to his bookcase and started launching pills and sticks and rods and ropes and cuffs and leather and sketchbooks and pictures and oils and ancient idols and stuffed animals and electrical devices out the window. Out of nowhere, students emerged to grab the toys as soon as they hit the grass.

"What are you doing?" asked Pip with fear.

Ruskin grabbed one of the bodies they'd stolen from the masoleum and tossed it to some medical students. "Be good to her! Now, Pip, you and I, yes, you and I Pip, are becoming men of God!"

*** Has the ribaldry become a reeking relic of rusty rememberance? -- stay tuned!


El Gordo de Amore Interview, Mark 36

EG: It’s been a long time since we talked.

EGdA: Long time -- a lot of stuff going on.

EG: Like what?

EGdA: Well, the family is out of town for the next two weeks, so I have some time to work on my writing.

EG: You’re still doing that?

EGdA: Yea – kind of – I guess – I …

EG: And what have you been writing?

EGdA: Victorian Era erotica about a guy who teaches in a law school.

EG: Who seems very much like you – with some obvious fictions.

EGdA (laughing): Yea, the necrophilia and what not …

EG: I was talking about women being interested in you. The necrophilia seemed dead on.

EGdA: Oh. (sound that sounds like a duck – tape inaudible for several moments)

EGdA: I would consider that working, although the itching was unbearable.

EG: Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Four years after graduating from Iowa – is this what you thought you would be up to?

EGdA: Probably not.

EG: We did. We had a betting pool. Dunkeys won.

EGdA: Oh.

EG: I thought Kclou was going to pull that one out – I really saw you lying drunk at the bottom of a Taco Bell dumpster.

EGdA: My wife always believed in …

EG: She had you writing press releases for the Bush Administration.

EGdA: Jesus? Really?

EG: I know – I’m sorry I was the one to tell you that. But, you’ve been pretty much sitting in molasses for years now.

EGdA: I had some babies –

EG: So, back to your writing, do you send these little “ero-idiocies” out?

EGdA: I sent two to McSweeney’s – Here’s the emails: “El Gordo:I'm going to pass on this one, but I do appreciate the look. Best, John Warner Website Editor McSweeney’s El Gordo:Not something for us, I'm afraid. Best, John Warner Website Editor

EG: Wow – fame and fortune here you come!

EGdA: I haven’t heard back on the last one I sent.

EG: Don’t hold your breath.

EGdA: You are very mean.

EG: What are you going to do about it, lit boy, try to chop off my dangling modifier?

EGdA: Hey – honestly –

EG: Come on! Put them up! Stop holding them like a girl! I’m about to go all Blood Meridian on your ass!

EGdA: We don’t have to –

EG: Oh yes we do! Traca de Broon! CRY HAVOC AND LET LOOSE THE DOGS OF WAR! (a loud Valkyric scream comes from the kitchen, followed by banging doors and claws clattering on the floor)

EGdA: Ahhhhh!


EGdA: AAABBLAGOAGLAAHHKQLAPPAA! (sound of rending and fighting)

EG: But, I have to admit the mahogany desk was pretty good.


IcelandAir, you owe me five outfits and eleven hours

I was just trying to fly to Amsterdam on IcelandAir. You would think that Icelanders would have their shit down. What else do they have to do than be blonde and Nordic, fly the planes, load the luggage, go home to their hearthsides and their expensive liquers and turtlenecks, and coats with fur, or fake fur, collars. They had a good idea, let's give them that: start a discount airline that flies people from the U.S. to Europe, and vice versa, making a stop in their capitol for folks to spend their money. A no-brainer. But, you see, Reykjavik is windy, out there alone on the Atlantic, and sometimes it's too windy for some of those planes full of tourist dollars and euros to land in Iceland. When that happens to a plane flying from, say, Boston, the captain interrupts your Radiohead to say, "Unfortunately, the weather in Iceland has too much heavy winds, and so we will have to divert to Glasgow." Like, oh, that seat has gum on it, I will sit on the next seat. I was on such a plane.

Eleven hours in the Glasgow airport, sitting in an admittedly nice foux leather seat, but with nothing to do but read David Copperfield (yes, I am reading it again, having abandoned it a couple years ago two-thirds through, but it's even better this time) and order super-strong but tiny cappucinos and those little cookies that have an undefinable, but foreign, flavor. But at first, naturally, before the leather seat and coffee, we crowded around the IcelandAir info desk at the Glasgow airport. "We have no information," was the testy reply. But then it seemed they did have information, because it trickled out in the form of rumors. Reykjavik airport is closed, so they can't fly the pilots out to save us, for example. So we in the crowd appealed to the the info desk attendant: "Please just make an announcement, so we know! So we know what to do, how long to wait, and so on." And the attendant said she would make an announcement. And in a few minutes the announcement echoed through the terminal: "Please move away from the IcelandAir information desk."

Arrived Amsterdam around midnight with no place to stay (I was supposed to be picked up by a friend, but I had called him from Glasgow to say go about your life and pray for me, and the train to his city had finished for the night) only to find out they had failed to load the luggage on the plane. Inside my bag were all my nice clothes in which I was supposed to convince real estate agents and finance people that I am respectable and worthy of buying a house (turns out it's amazing how long you can get away with buying a few shirts, socks, and underwear and wearing them with one pear of jeans). Also in the bag was the video camera so I could show Traca the viewings on my return. Every day for five days I was told there was "no information" about my bag. Had it vanished from the earth? Then yesterday, the day before I am to leave, they sent my mobile a text message. "PLEASE CONTACT KLM GROUND SERVICES." KLM is handling the problem for IcelandAir. So I went to the airport and picked up my bag, which was mostly useless to me at that point. So I swapped out my backpack of dirty socks, underwear, and t shirts for clean ones and left the bag in airport storage. My bag spent five days in Glasgow and then never left Schiphol Airport.

I board my return IcelandAir flight in a few hours, prepared to spend eleven hours in Greenland.

To be continued...


Iowa City Arts: November

Apologies for the tardiness. Hope I didn't miss too much last week raking my leaves. As we slide on the downslope of the fall semester, the events let up a bit but not in terms of quality.

November Lectures
  • TODAY (yikes, sorry for the late notice), 11.07, 11 a.m., Frank Conroy Reading Room, Dey House - Francine Prose: "Close Reading--Reading Like a Master"
  • Thursday, 11.09, 7:30 p.m., UI Main Lounge, IMU - Frank McCourt: "If You Want to Know Yourself--Teach!"
  • Tuesday, 11.28, 11 a.m., FCRR, Dey House - Nicholas Delbanco: "Writing By Imitating the Great Masters" Be sure an catch his fiction reading the night before (scroll down).
November Movies
  • Through Thursday, 11.09, at the Bijou: John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & the Angry Inch) offers up his next sexual/textual treatise/dram-edy Shortbus. Also playing is the Kirby Dick documentary examining the MPAA's hypocrisy-in-practice This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Trailers and showtimes here.

  • Friday, 11.10, through Thursday, 11.16, at the Bijou: Michael Kang's "heartfelt" look at a first-generation Chinese-American adolescent in The Motel and a documentary following a girls' high school basketball team, The Heart of the Game. Trailers and showtimes here.
November Readings
  • Thursday, 11.09, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Tim Miller reads non-fiction.
  • Thursday, 11.09, 7:30 p.m., UI Museum of Art - It's a three-for-all: Workshop director and fiction writer Lan Samantha Chang, poet Cole Swenson, and Atlantic-award-winner and non-fictionalist Matt Davis all read as part of the Writer-in-Residence reading.
  • Friday, 11.10, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Did you miss Sam Chang the night before? You can catch her at PL with Doug Bauer and Sue Miller. The three will likely read their contributions to the collection Death by Pad Thai: And Other Unforgettable Meals.
  • Monday, 11.13, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - S. L. Wisenberg reads from his just-out-in-paperback Holocaust Girls.
  • Tuesday, 11.14, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Investigatory journalist Steve Hendricks reads from his book-length examination of the FBI's war against the American Indian Movement, The Unquiet Grave.
  • Thursday, 11.16, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Kevin Moffett, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, reads from his collection, Permanent Visitors.
  • Monday, 11.27, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Nicholas Delbanco likely reads from his new novel, Spring and Fall.
  • Wednesday, 11.29, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Katherine Fischer reads from Dreaming the Mississippi.
  • Thursday, 11.30, 7 p.m., Prairie Lights - Ashley Capps reads poetry. Workshop grad Capps is the 2005 winner of the Akron Poetry Prize for Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. Examples of her work here and here. Love that second one.


Teaching Opportunity, Earthgoaters and Babies and Other Assorted friends

A friend of mine who teaches at a state university is looking for someone with an MFA and writing-class experience to fill a one-semester lectureship starting in January; full benefits, teach writing classes, pay is 20k (for the four months; the cost of living is low in this place) and it can easily be parlayed into a three-year job at the same school starting next fall. They're looking to fill the position quick-quick (next few days), so if you're interested, get in touch with me and I'll pass along more info as well as the department chair's email address (it's that urgent and direct). Sounds like a good opportunity in a neat region of the country, and it's a nice shot to get good experience for anyone sick of adjuncting for little to no pay. Email me at marlette85 at yahoo dot com.


The Road

Has anyone read Cormac McCarthy's new novel? I finished it last week. I was pretty excited about it -- a load of glowing reviews talking about how he was getting back to his roots (whatever that means -- The Orchard Keeper, maybe?), and claiming that The Road was his greatest achievement besides Blood Meridian.

I started reading McCarthy in college, on the recommendation of Phil Jackson. This wasn't a personal recommendation -- I'd just read an article in which the Zen Master lauded some strange writer. So I picked up the first book I found at the library, All the Pretty Horses, and it stunned me: western myth, romantic, weird gnostic demons huddling in pools when characters puke, and oh those pure simple horses. Nothing personal, Grendel, but Gus McCrae just don't hold a candle to John Grady Cole. I read The Crossing and loved it, and then Blood Meridian, which still freaks me out. Then Suttree a couple years later, which sealed the deal (Outer Dark, Cities on the Plain, Child of God, and the aforementioned Orchard Keeper didn't much do it for me, at least in comparison). Anyway, McCarthy was for years my favorite living writer.

Then he stopped writing and I discovered Nabokov and I went to Iowa and one day Frank mentioned McCarthy. Frank didn't rail against CM or anything -- he just gleefully mocked him in class once, which was a little strange; but still, I thought, Blood Meridian: American Masterpiece. When that new book came out last year, I didn't read it -- it sounded stupid (a crazy guy running around killing people with a cattle prod?). But The Road intrigued me. Friends said it was great. The reviews were solid. So I picked it up.

Today, at this moment, my view has changed: I think McCarthy is at best a blip in American literature. I'm guessing other people who contribute here have always thought this -- maybe some haven't, though. I'd like to hear from anyone interested. For me, the thing about The Road (no plot spoilers, I promise) is that it's quintessential McCarthy only stripped down, and so the novel reveals the simplicity of his entire ouevre: he thinks Evil is everywhere and Good can fight it but will lose. Kierkegaard it ain't.
To me, The Road is like Blood Meridian but with only a couple 'characters', and now the physical world is itself the Judge (or maybe The Road is like The Crossing . . . or maybe Lester Ballard appears, or maybe we see the crazy killers from Outer Darkness . . . and so the derivations continue). The Road is McCarthy's philosophy -- that's a generous word -- laid out plain, and what it's made me realize is that all his books (save maybe Suttree?) are this same philosophy playing out in absurd circumstances. And also people are really good at rigging things by hand (I bet Cormac McCarthy, if he watched TV, loved MacGuyver.)

I remember another contributor on Earthgoat once being unimpressed by Borges's stories; if memory serves, he thought they were simple philosophies wrapped in fiction; but in my mind, at least Borges is playful. At least he laughs at himself a little. McCarthy is actually serious about himself. He takes his Magneto vs. Professor X vision with the utmost gravity, and now that I feel I can 'see' his project -- and more importantly, it's sad lack of complexity -- even that great book, my long time favorite, Blood Meridian, is little more than a childish indulgence.

Interesting chart from a reader



Even More Erotic Adventures of Allen Ruskin, Headmaster of Educational Aid

Ruskin stood in the doorway of the musty mausoleum. They were in the Royal Cemetery, Ruskin dressed as a horned haerlequin in red spandex that fit a bit too tightly around his ship-captain buttocks and his frontal hornpipe. Standing next to him was his protege, Pip, dressed as a parrot.

The mausoleum was full of new bodies -- all young girls, all laying back in perfect repose as if they were simply asleep, waiting for their Prince Charming to wake them. Little did they know what horrifying love spider had slipped his way into their places of final rest and repose. Ruskin, the dastardly devil and deleterious dragon deigned to debar and debase Death's door to delight in delirium his dark dreams of demon debauchery!

"They all took their lives -- poison mainly," explained Pip, plumping up the plumage of his hat, which was already beginning to wilt in the fetid, damp air. He flinched as a bat flew too close overhead.

Ruskin walked among the corpses, indelicately letting his fingers touch them in ways they never would have allowed in life. "Yes -- the sweet words of that alliterative ass, Corwin Cobbins. His romantic writings have made my rascally wrongings much more difficult. Now they all want talk of love, and kisses, and actual feelings! And this! Look at all these fresh flowers who have been struck down before they wilted. If I didn't know better, I'd say Cobbins was working for the French."

"It is very sad indeed. My Joe used to say --"

Ruskin wasn't done. "Why in the world would the woe of one wastrel's words waste such winsome wafers of womanly wonders! Look at this one! Her beauteous orbs rival the moons of Jupiter! And this one! She has a bottom like a ripe mango -- so juicy, so sweet --"

"I think that's leaking embalming fluid, sir," squeaked Pip.

"Dammit! I wasn't being literal, you literal louse! What on earth is wrong with you? You almost stemmed my appetite!"

"I don't like it here -- we'll get caught -- by the police or, or ..." Pip glanced around in fright.

"Or what?" snapped the excited eliciter of Eros, yanking his tights into a more comfortable position. His jester cap rang in the darkness.

"Ghosts??" squeaked Pip.

Ruskin laughed, "Ha! What kind of age do you think we live in? Ghosts are for old Papists and scared little girls (who may need a good warm cuddling to get back into bed -- ha ha)! I'd expect Bart to say something like that, but not you. Did I not tell you about the helper monkeys?"

"True ..."

"We are well into a new century! And it calls for something even more rapacious than I have ever attempted before!"

"I think you had too many cosmopolitans at the Halloween party, sir."

"Shut up, Pip!" Ruskin's eyes crawled around the room like two furry spiders who were looking to eat something like a fly or a cockroach or a wasp or an ant or maybe a very small duck. "We are like two childish cherubs in a confectioner's castle!"

"What do you mean?" quaked Pip.

"If you are to be my protege, you must get one thing absolutely clear," growled Ruskin.


"A day with your pants on is a day wasted -- now, let's see what kind of Resurrectionists we are. I'm feeling something rise from the dead as we speak!"

*** Can Allen, the asinine adulteror, sink any lower? Find out next week!

Taking stock

I feel like we are losing the point of this meeting place. I have no idea anymore what people are even working on, who has published where, what people think of various books that are out there, or even why this site still exists. Cristina was on Talk of the Nation a few weeks ago, and no one said a word. I only discovered that by accident. Daniel is in the New Yorker this week. That's huge -- or at least it used to be. I'm not going to review that story because I love that man even if he only wrote shopping lists, but damn ... Daniel is in the f-ing New Yorker this week. And you -- yes, you -- YOU have been writing and maybe even publishing something, but we don't know what it is or how hard or wonderful or frustrating it is. (Unless you have a blog.)

Here's what I think the problem is: this blog has lost its newness, its immediacy, its cachet, its vibrancy. It will soon be 2007 -- four years post-IWW for our class. Many of the people here now have their own blogs that are usually much better attended to, that are updated much more often. I think maybe this place has run its course. There is a limit to how many places on the Internets people can get to in a day, a week, a lifetime. There is a limit to how much effort people want to put into propping up a connection, a community, a feeling that is receding into the past. I have spent a fair amount of time in the past two years on this blog, and if I had spent that time on my own fiction, maybe my novel would be done. Okay, probably not, but I did it because it's exciting to stay in touch with people who populated one of the favorite times in my life. It's exciting to still feel connected to a group of smart people who write. I don't regret a minute of it. But maybe we have all moved on from this need and are looking forward now into our lives. Maybe the workshop buzz has finally worn off.

I feel like this blog is just hanging out there, usually beyond even my range of attention, a pointless anachronism getting dustier in scattered link lists. I believe I would feel cleaner in my daily life were I to just end it and move on, putting what little time energy I still lend it back into my own writing. The Sword of Damocles trembles above!


A decade of birthdays with Traca de Broon

Baby tdb

Today this impossibly cute little cherub has officially outlived Jesus, a worthy effort meriting a bit of a retrospective for Traca de Broon (the Irish version her real name, for the curious). It has been my privilege and good fortune to have spent ten of these birthdays with the love of my life, so let's take a stroll down a winding little street called Memory Lane...

1996 - 24 years old
I had known her just six months. We had become friends working together as editors at a certain Bay Area book-publishing company. I got myself assigned as her mentor, and our first lesson took place at a nearby Thai restaurant over lunch. Soon the package of editing materials was casually laid aside as we turned our earnest attention to taking care of the Singhas that somehow kept coming and ended up precipitating a certain tardy, blurry return to our desks. On her birthday, we attended a party at our friend Sat's, who had introduced us, and on the ride back to San Francisco from San Mateo, we occupied the back seat. Don't recall how I managed that, but between us panted my black chow mix, and in the course of our innocent petting of the creature my right hand and her left came into contact, a happenstance akin to when chocolate met peanut butter. A chain reaction of heat and electricity erupted in me. Sweat literally popped off my forehead. Immediately I was cranking down the window seeking relief, to little avail, from the passing highway air. The chain reaction was terminal, though, and soon spread into the rest of our lives, culminating in my decision that I had no desire to go through life without her, leading to my departure from my previous living arrangement and my appearance at her apartment August 17th 1997 with a paper bag of meager belongings and my scooter helmet. She had an orange Karmann Ghia, two cats, and one fork, which she had stolen from the lunch room at work. The object of her grandest larceny, of course, was my heart!

karmann ghia

1997 - 25 years old
Cohabitating in her humble studio apartment two blocks from the Upper Haight, we had been invited to dinner with friends at a swank and trendy French restaurant in the Financial district at a time when we had, literally, about a hundred dollars between us. The place was called Plouf, which she later said was the sound of a bag of money being thrown into a river. Afterward, we went to a bar with some of those friends and, I am sorry to say, I stupidly got very high and allowed my insecurities and demons to run rampant for a few hours. This was the birthday of hers that I ruined with an emotional outburst of a pathetic and obnoxious nature, and the fact that she forgave me has since served as a reminder of how just lucky I am.

1998 - 26 years old
T was training for her first marathon, which meant she was being healthy, eating right, not drinking, not smoking. Oh, how I hated the New Way! Again, my selfishness is astonishing and shameful in retrospect, but at least I don't deny it anymore. We spent the birthday evening at her sister's house a few neighborhoods away, a mild event featuring wine and cake and the presentation of her present, which had been split between Tamara, their father, and myself: a hammered dulcimer (T was, and I soon became, a huge Dead Can Dance fan, and if you know the band, the dulcimer will make perfect sense). It wasn't long before I was a lucky and frequent listener, and the song her teacher drilled into her was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and the apartment was, I believe I mentioned, a small studio with two cats.

1999 - 27 years old
We had moved some months before from San Francisco to Galway, Ireland, because why not, and because T had family on her mother's side all over that charming little island and had spent a lot of time there growing up. For her birthday we arranged to meet Ralph and Vanessa, friends who lived in Plymouth but who were travelling in Europe, in Barcelona. (Yes, chastened, flawed I knew I had some making up to do...) Of course we strutted the Ramblas, looking every bit as hot as any of those curvaceous, classy, couture Catalonians, or at least she did, looked as hot, that is, and we ended up on a rooftop next to a spectacular Gaudi-designed structure, being serenaded by a friend and cotraveler of R & V, who drove a bus in his non-Barcelona life and had brought his saxophone.

2000 - 28 years old
We had moved some months before to Utrecht, the Netherlands, because why not, and because T was getting her master's degree in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. At this time we were nine months away from getting married, which was going to happen in Holland, meaning family and friends would be forced to leave, briefly, AmericaWorld, and they deserved to be welcomed by a couple that was not fat and nasty, hence an effort was underway to Be Good -- a new New Way, one that I was finally on board with. However, our apartment was over a Middle Eastern restaurant and next door to a hash bar. Outside our streetside window our downfall awaited in the form of one huge bright sign blaring "WIETSTOCK" ("WEEDSTOCK" - get it?) and another trumpeting "SHALOM - BEST SHOARMA IN TOWN" (shoarma = spiced meat hacked off a twirling slab and stuffed into a pita). The rest of that birthday, after we gave in to these twin vices, is unavailable to memory.

2001 - 29 years old
We had moved some months before to Iowa City, because of the reason whose faint traces echo through this blog, and T was delighted to discover that sushi was available in Iowa. We had too much sake and laughed uncontrollably at our little table at Three Samurai in Coralville. It was a Wednesday, and at my misguided insistence we went to TalkArt afterward, where we were shockingly inappropriate, making out in a booth while the poor writer read her story about a rape.

2002 - 30 years old
We packed the Sanctuary with friends and had a classic session for the "home birthday," and spent a couple days in Chicago for the "away birthday," where we pretended we were still in our 20s and went to a dark, divey club on the west side and saw the New Duncan Imperials, a rowdy, legendary bar band. Sure we shook our asses.

2003 - 31 years old
Vegas. Ostensibly for a "PocketPC conference," as we were writing a trade book together about this device (don't ask), but we spent far more time at Slots of Fun drinking margaritas the size of our legs. Our Birthday Gal was served burgers and champagne in bed. Next day we drove to Area 51, and T was so hungover she bought a straw hat to banish the sun and spent most of the drive moaning and taking pictures of her feet. Lunch at The Little Ale'Inn, amid photos of UFOs and Greys, was shaky but fairly hilarious. On our way back we drove right up to the Deadly Force Authorized sign and, sure as shootin', T was able to video a UFO glittering along a mountain ridge deep inside the base that does not exist. The "X Files" birthday.

2004 - 32 years old
T ran the Race For the Schools in Iowa and jetted off to San Francisco to run a half marathon. On the actual birth-day, we had a nice time playing Scrabble at Quinton's with some Big Girls.

2005 - 33 years old
Behold, verily the Jesus Year commenceth. We had gone to Amsterdam for T to run a marathon and go on a job interview, although we woke up in our rented houseboat two hours after the marathon had begun, and we also managed to fit in a visit to her newly discovered half brother Alfie in Dublin. This was some birthday present: a boy born in secret to her mother six years before T's birth, who had recently battled the unhelpful Irish adoption laws and found his half sisters and the rest of the family. T and I met him for the first time at his home, expecting to spend an hour or two there and then go see These Charming Men, the "best Smiths cover band in Ireland." Instead, we all got wrapped up in so many conversations that we ended up staying with Alfie and his wife and two kids. Next morning they even drove us to the airport.

2006 - 34 years old
And now she sits in a tan J-Lo velvet-y track suit and pink fuzzy slippers, which, when I began to mock them, she reminded me all were given to her by my mother, here she sits, Jesus's senior, editing and writing at the dining room table here in East Sandwich, hot as ever, still putting up with me, training again for an impending half marathon, still being the classiest, coolest chick I've ever known. Happy birthday, Trace! Thanks for spending so many of them with me -- and for forgiving and forgetting those times oh so long ago and remote, back when I wasn't perfect. I love you, sweetie, now and forever more. Amen!


The Continuing Erotic Adventures of Allen Ruskin, Headmaster of Educational Aid

Ruskin, the rapacious rapscallion, reclined in his rascally rectory, remembering his repugnant rut with a rubbery resurrectionist he'd met along the Royal Road. He watched the trees outside his window.

"I am bored as the Devil," sighed Ruskin. "It has been hours since I have had some relief! I need some resupinate resuscitation to relieve my restless reseda reptile before it ruptures and requires a requiem or a requiescat. Bart, get in here! I have some scrivening for you to attend to!"

"I would prefer not to," called his embattled employee from the front hall.

"Bah! I should never have let Gingernuts go! He was good for something!" snapped Ruskin.

Suddenly, a woman darkened Ruskin's doorway. Although older, she was not without her charms.

"And who may you be?"

"I am Miss Havisham, of Scotland Yard," said the woman.

"I've never met a bobby with boobies. Do you have a stick? Or perhaps handcuffs?" asked Ruskin, sitting up in his chair. He rubbed the top of his mahogany desk. Somewhere, he heard the wild drums of heathen Africa in the distance. Women policemen? The wheels of his wretched wickedness turned with thoughts of new witchery.

"What?" snapped Miss Havisham.

"I am sorry -- I mispoke. You caught me at a loss. It has been a very hard day. My days are always very hard. Very hard. How may I help you?" asked Ruskin, slowly slithering around his desk with the relentless surety of a tree root tearing down a stone wall to get to some forbidden water on the other side. "Bart! Get Miss Havisham a drink. Perhaps some cool port on such a hot day?"

"It is not so very hot," answered Miss Havisham. She was still cross. Even so, as he passed from behind his desk, she couldn't help but be mesmerized by the manifest manikin that manfully molded his mesomorphic mesothorax .

"Is it not?" leered the lusty legator. "I feel some heat coming on. Bart!"

"I would prefer not to," called Bart sadly.

"Damn it, you blackguard! I should have never let Gingernuts go -- you see ..."

"We really should get down to business . There's been some rumours going around campus about you and some of our sensitive young students," said Miss Havisham.

"What kind of rumours?"

Miss Havisham blushed. "I really couldn't repeat them."

"But you could, you really could," said Ruskin, his eyes scanning Havisham's decotellage as if they were two blue ticks looking for the best place to attach and begin sucking. "Perhaps someone has provided a sketch?" asked Ruskin hopefully.

"Sir, I must ask you what you have been up to with your students. You must give me a straight answer."

"I would love nothing more than to give it to you straight," declared the cocky counselor. "I was simply helping the young ladies practice their Latin."

"You were? I am learned in Latin."

"Does your tongue not trip over its tintinnabulations?"

"Doesn't everyone's?" she asked timorously, as Ruskin's tentacles reached out to her.

"My tongue does not. My tongue is always as sure as the anteater seeking the Queen at the center of the hill -- and it will stop at nothing until it gets there. Would you like to see?" he asked with all the delicacy of a voluntarious daemon.

"My -- maybe I would like a small glass of port," said Miss Havisham. "I suddenly feel as if I might swoon."

"Scotland Yard is no place for a woman. Not until the helper monkeys are finished. Come, recline for a while in my office." The door closed with a soft click.

A moment later it opened again. The indelicate inquisitor's face was red from inebriate.

"Bart -- Get me some port ... and Miss Havisham's horse ... and a barrel of lamp oil!" The door slammed again. It was soon followed by the curious cries of those cradled and coddled by Cupid's connubial carresses.

"I would prefer not to," sighed the sad scrivener to the empty room. He readjusted the padlock and chains he kept wrapped around his groin and went back to work.


Gary Shteyngart and George Saunders reading

Entertaining video from the New Yorker festival. Shteyngart (whose Russian Debutante's Handbook I am currently absorbing) reads from "Absurdistan," and Saunders reads from his new story collection.

Charles Frazier's sophomore(ic?) effort

A New Yorker book reviewer a few weeks ago neatly punctured my high expectations of Frazier's new book Thirteen Moons, but this vicious Slate review absolutely eviserates the thing. Calls it "a disgrace"! If you love negative reviews, you gotta read it.

Man, what a disappointment. I admit to loving Cold Mountain. I read it twice. The voice in that book hooked me and didn't let go. I was mesmerized, smitten. But was I fooled? I remember one of our workshop teachers dismissing the book in class as a "cheap McCarthy knockoff," and I thought no, you are wrong, sir. Is it possible that Cold Mountain was great and Thirteen Moons sucks? Or did Cold Mountain suck more subtly? Has anyone here read the new one?

I can sense the "I-told-you-so's" ... (winces, glancing sheepishly in TLB's direction).


Is Jim Leach going to lose?

Consituent Dynamics is publishing its latest poll on congressional races. Click the link, then choose "Iowa District 2" from "Select a District." He's down 48% to 47% to David Loebsack. If Leach is in trouble, November really might be a landslide. I have written/emailed him a few times, and he always responds with polite, carefully nonpartisan letters. He's pro-choice, voted against the 2002 Iraq War Resolution, and was the only Republican in the house to vote against the 2003 tax cut. But Iowa City's is the most Democratic district in Iowa, and the default setting should be (D). He's been on borrowed time since 1977. His time may be up.


Battlestar Galactica and the war in Iraq

Battlestar Galactica is back for its third season. The first episode premiered last night on the Sci Fi Channel. Yesterday afternoon I ran across the following while reading my favorite conservative blog, The Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, in which a contributor, Jonah Goldberg, posted from an email he had received from a reader (scroll down to the 2:20 post from Friday Oct. 6), who said:
Ever since the astounding conclusion of last season's BSG, I was pumped for this year's new episodes. However, I'm getting a very bad vibe about it being a multi-episode Iraq war bashfest. In particular, the webisodes - which, in all honesty, I've only seen the first five or six - draw complimentary parallels between the jihadi "insurgents" and the human resistance forces on New Caprica.

Plus, there's a story on Zap2it.com where Mary McDonnell, in discussing this season's plot arc, commends the BSG brain trust for their "brave and beautiful act" in putting together this year's series.

A "brave & beautiful act," I believe, is vapid actorspeak for "speaking truth to power." To quote Krusty the Clown, "Oooooo, this is always death."

So I'm afraid for this one. Any words of encouragement?
In response, Mr. Goldberg merely commented, "I hear what this reader is saying, but they've earned my trust at the outset. So we'll see."

I rolled my eyes when I read that -- I read The Corner to give my eyeballs exactly that kind of swiveling exercise. But I hadn't watched any of the webisodes, so I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was (spoiler alert) that at the end of last season Vice President Gaius Baltar had won the election for president of the Colonies, after the president, Laura Roslin, had been caught trying to fix the election (you root for her to fix it! -- one of the amazing things about the show). As Charlemagne pointed out here some time ago, the series actually makes you root for a military dictatorship:
I seem to root for the military and their control of the government. I think, this silly group of civilians can't possibly know how to save the human race from sexy horrible robots! But then I say, "Oh. I guess I came in against freedom of representation. Freedom of the press. Etc." Then I feel like an ass.
Anyway, Baltar won the election and decided to move everyone from the colony ships down to this planet they had just discovered. The 40-odd thousand colonists have been on the run from Cylons -- the "sexy horrible robots" -- for a long time, but the people were growing weary, and here was a decent enough planet where they could lay down their burdens ("Lay Down Your Burdens" was the title of the Season Two finale).

And so down most of them went to the surface. Many months went by. The planet was fairly bleak. Nothing fancy here. They built tent shelters, formed a camp. A sparse existence on firm ground must be better than living on a spaceship that's constantly under attack. And it was peaceful. No sign of Cylons. The people thought they were out of the woods. Then suddenly the Cylons came back, found the folks defenseless, and forced a surrender from the sleazy, corrupt Baltar. The ships in orbit, with their skeleton crews, "jumped" away (the only way to ditch the Cylons when they show up) and left the people to endure brutal Cylon occupation. (They are coming back. We know this. It's fiction -- you can take it to the bank.)

What does this have to do with Iraq? Well ... now there's an insurgency against the occupation, complete with suicide bombings and the characters wrestling with the moral dilemmas of insurgent warfare. There is now a human Colonial Police Force, trained by the Cylons to maintain order. A suicide bomber blew up their graduation ceremony -- 33 dead. The parallel is too obvious to dwell on.

This is exactly what Mr. Goldberg's reader was worried about. And if I were conservative, the show would now be making me very uncomfortable. After all, in our national mythology we prefer our insurgencies to be staffed by evil extremists, our suicide bombers to be anonymous, dark-skinned, whacked-out, our occupiers to be white Republican men.

The purpose of war propaganda is to turn those Other people into its. The enemies are not really people anyway, are they? A neighbor is a person, a family member, a friend, and yes, so is a fictional character. Admiral Adama, former President Roslin, Starbuck -- these are people to me. They reside in a friendly place in my mind. I think about them, look forward to seeing them, root for them as I squirm on my couch. That's the power of fiction. It's every bit as powerful as propaganda (while it lasts -- propaganda is 24/7).

It's fairly subversive to do this, even under a fictional premise. That is why Mary McDonnell (Laura Roslin) praised the BSG creators for their "brave and beautiful act." And rightly so. They are doing the things that writers are supposed to do: Find something important about human nature, serve it up with style, expand the reader's (or viewer's) humanity, make you care about the characters. The old saw runs: Nonfiction uses the truth to tell lies, and fiction uses lies to tell the truth. Here's one truth: humanity is universal. Speaking truth to power "is always death," according to the Corner reader's Krustyite philosophy. But that's not it -- those in power already know the truth. They would just rather no one talk about it.


Iowa City Arts: October

Apologies for getting this posted so late in the week. I was a little daunted by such an incredible lineup. Let me know in the comments what I've missed. As always, everything's free unless indicated.

October Lectures
  • Friday, 10.6, 12 noon, ICPL Meeting Room A. - Lou Ye from China, Rafael Courtoisie from Uruguay and Mazen Sa'adeh from Ramallah/Palestinian Authority. A panel discussion titled "Writing for Two and Three Dimensions." Follow that link for more info. Paired with screening--see Movies section.
  • Friday, 10.6, 4 p.m. - Brenda Hillman, "Revising Revision." This is part of the new lecture series and should be in the Frank Conroy Reading Room at the Dey House. Get there early to either a) get a seat, or b) learn you need to make the walk to the business building.
  • Monday, 10.9, 8 p.m. - John Toth, "intermedia artist," will discuss his work in Room 116 of the Art Building West. Examples of his work.
  • Wednesday, 10.18, 8 p.m. - Michael Chabon. Not sure whether to put this under lectures or readings, but it's possible he'll give us a taste of the forthcoming The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Get to the Buchannan Auditorium in Pappajohn Business building early.
  • Friday, 10.20, 4 p.m. - Opening ceremony for Glenn Schaefer Library and Archives. Dey House.
October Movies
October Readings
  • Friday, 10.6, 5 p.m. - U Moe Hein and Russell Valentino, poetry and prose reading as part of the International Writing Program reading series. The Paul Engle Lounge of Shambaugh House on Clinton.
  • Wednesday, 10.11, 7 p.m. - Nell Freudenberger. This "lucky girl" (I couldn't resist) will read from her novel, The Dissident.
  • Thursday, 10.12, 8:15 p.m. - Denis Johnson. Shambaugh Auditorium of the UI Main Library. Free, but donations of copper wire will never be turned down.
  • Friday, 10.13, 5 p.m. - Fadhil Thamir of Iraq and Partaw Naderi of Afghanistan read poetry at Shambaugh House.
  • Friday, 10.13, 7 p.m. - Kevin Moffett reads at Prairie Lights from his award-winning short story collection. (Thanks, MSF.)
  • Sunday, 10.15, 1 p.m. - Mark Danielewski at Prairie Lights. Follow along with your copy of Only Revolutions, so you can figure out how to read the damn thing.
  • Monday, 10.16, 7 p.m. - Dara Horn, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, reads from her second novel.
  • Tuesday, 10.17, 5:30 p.m.(or 7 p.m.? Check back. I'll verify.) - Kelly Link, author of the acclaimed (and rightfully so) Magic for Beginners, reads at Prairie Lights. This'll get you in the holiday spirit.
  • Thursday, 10.19, 7 p.m. - Patrick Irelan, non-fiction reading at Prairie Lights.
  • Friday, 10.20, 7 p.m. - Alice McDermott, reads from her new novel, After This, at Prairie Lights.
  • Monday, 10.23, 7 p.m. - Heidi Julavits, editor of The Believer, reads from her new novel at Prairie Lights.
  • Tuesday, 10.24, 7 p.m. - Jane Hamilton reads from her new novel at Shambaugh Auditorium in the UI Main Library.
  • Wednesday, 10.25, 7 p.m. - Barry Lopez, author of the incredible Arctic Dreams, reads nonfiction at Prairie Lights.
  • Thursday, 10.26, 7 p.m. - Joe Miller reads from his nonfiction: Cross X, a book-length examination of an inner-Kansas City debate team. At Prairie Lights.
  • Thursday, 10.27, 8 p.m. - James Tate reads poetry in Lecture Room 2 of Van Allen Hall. I thought of him often during the selection of this latest pope. For obvious reasons.
  • Tuesday, 10.31, 7 p.m. - Patricia Hampl reads from her new nonfiction meditation on art and experience at Prairie Lights.
Whew. That doesn't even cover the drama and music in town. There's also The Englert's lineup. Oh, and Riverside Theatre's new play will open at the end of this month. It's going to be a busy but rewarding month. See you in November.