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?