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Archive for December, 2011

Best Of 2011

I confess that I love reading these recap posts in magazines and on other people’s blogs. So even though I usually feel as though I’ve copped out when I write one, I figure they’re fun to read and fun to write and and fun to disagree with. And with that prelude out of the way, I give you my personal Best of 2011.

Books
Best Book

I’ve made it through 119 books this year; while that number may seem as though I’m slacking, I assure you that fully 2/3rds of those were over 500 pages. At least 20% of them were over 800 pages. It was the Year Of The Doorstopper. Picking the absolute best from among a particularly crowded field isn’t easy. There were fun reads, cerebral reads and escapist reads. Books with wry wit and swashbuckling action.

As I pondered it, I realised there was one book which had all of those tied up in a Red Orm Bow. That’s why my Best Book of 2011 is

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson.

Best Trilogy

I’ve read many series that started out as trilogies and are now into their fifth, sixth and seventh volumes. By the end of the year only three series which started as trilogies ended as the three-volume epics their author promised. Of those the best by far was
Acacia by David Anthony Durham.

Best Fantasy Novel (Tie)
If you were a fantasy reader this year there was a 90% chance that you were waiting eagerly for new books from Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin. There was a further 60% chance that you were bitterly disappointed.

I am not one of the disappointed ones. I found both A Dance With Dragonsand The Wise Man’s Fear to be excellent examples of what I look for in Speculative Fiction. Granted, what I look for seems to sometimes veer wildly from those things that others crave. I enjoy long and patient looks around a new world with such people in it, as long as the tour guide is a competent one. Both of these men–Rothfuss and Martin–are some of the most imaginative, tuned-in writers I’ve ever read.

Best Out-and-out Good Time

People mock Dan Brown and his ilk for writing fast-paced thrillers strewn with intriguing facts that are fun to read. Granted, Brown tended to get awfully proud of himself there, and once folks were wise to his schtick he tarnished pretty quickly. And he can’t write nuance any better than my dog Gob. But if you want to shut down large sections of your brain and still read–in the hospital, on the beach–his type of book is not a bad option.

Then along comes Ernest Cline with Ready Player One. All of a sudden we have a book that has all the zippy clue-hopping of Dan Brown without the snotty Freemason in-jokes. Anybody who grew up Geek in the 80s will soak this book up like Jolt Cola.

Music

I’ll admit right now that I’m not naturally inclined to step out into trying new music. While that’s true, I promise that my best album of the year would have still been my top pick even if I were a DJ spinning all the hottest new stuff. Because even though it’s decades old, this record has always been a classic.

And now, with the new remasters, the 40th Anniversary Collectors Edition of Aqualung is an album to bathe in. It is the bronze colossus whose shadow lurks over so much of the lesser songlets released today. Nothing hitting the shelves for the first time this year can hope to compare.

Best New To Me Band

I first saw these guys at Music City Roots in early June, but my husband has been raving about them for a few years now. I can see and hear why. If you like a music that buoys you along and a live show that is as happy and danceable as the best Dead you ever went to, then Greensky Bluegrass are your men.

Food

I’ve been obsessed with several foods this year, chiefly greek yogurt, sauerkraut and roasted vidalia onions. (Not all together and not without a lot of postprandial breath mints.) The foodie trend of the year seems to have been bacon, which leaves me meh. I love bacon butties and the occasional thick slab of fried bacon at Monell’s breakfast. Beyond that it’s too dense and dusky a food for me. My own new personal favourite would have to be plain greek yogurt frozen with a bit of added cane sugar.

The best new Nashville restaurant of my experience is Tazikis.

The restaurant whose untimely demise I mourn daily is, of course, the late lamented Bicyclette Cafe & Wine Bar. You can’t pass a grim countenance in the Hermitage/Donelson/Mt. Juliet area without knowing deep down they, too, are missing this great eatery. The owners have been posting to their Facebook pages with hopes of a relocation, but no news (yet) is bad news for this often-overlooked part of Tennessee.

Movies & TV

These are going to have to be in a sequel post next Monday, because what I have to say here could fill a book. But I’ll leave you with a preview:
Terriers was the best show you’ve never heard of.
The first season–13 perfect episodes of awesome–are now on Netflix. Watch it, love it and mourn it all in a few days. And then you can join me in pestering FX to bring it back. Hey, if they can resurrect ‘Family Guy’, they can bring a GOOD show back too.

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Do you have any idea how awful it is when WordPress goes down just as you have extremely bloggish thoughts? Argh. At last we are back in business and I can clear my brain again.

Voter IDs. Airport scanners. Filing gun permits. Drug tests for government benefits.

What do these things have in common?

These are all parts of the security we take in the Ritual Of Right Thinking. They are all actions that law-abiding citizens derive comfort from. For, surely, as we go through the motions of showing our papers to get on a plane, elect a person to an office or buy a weapon we are protected against the wrongdoing that would wreck our world.

We like these things not because they keep us safe but because they give the appearance of our living in a safe and ordered world. It is a neat and precise world where everyone belongs and has a piece of plastic which underscores that belonging. These things are an attempt to paper over the bumps and cracks of reality and enforce a comforting sense of Same.

In Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist the protagonist is a travel writer who specialises in books for business travelers that allow them to find the most homogenous experience possible. Where is the nearest McDonalds to my London hotel? Where in Hong Kong is the closest English-speaking drugstore? In the same way, lawmakers are hoping that by government offering this veneer of orderliness they can convince a panicked and terrorised populace that things are indeed orderly and normal.

There is that very worn out quote from someone in the dim and distant past about “not trading liberty for security.” The unfortunate truth has become that not only are we eager to trade liberty for security we are lining up to trade the essence of liberty–the ability to move freely without reporting to Government–for the illusion of security.

People who want to break the rules anyway do not care about breaking an extra rule. If I want to vote fradulently it isn’t going to bother me that I am now breaking 6 rules instead of 5. If I want to get a gun illegally I really doubt that I’m the kind of person to trouble myself overmuch about whether or not I have an extra piece of paper.

Have you heard many stories on the news about terrorist plots being foiled by airport scanners? Neither have I. Yet I have seen countless man-in-the-terminal interviews about how people are willing to be herded like cattle through scanners that show their blurry nakedness because it makes them feel safer.

As very small children we would pray Now I Lay Me before bed. Once we were saved that ritual prayer was preceeded by an earnest prayer to God. But Now I Lay Me in and of itself is a sing-song ritual rhyme designed to reassure children that God would take care of them in their sleep–or at the very least ransom their souls should death come before morning. These Voter IDs and gun permits are like that. They are a chant without real significance beyond allowing us to relax as we close our eyes.

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One Of My

Favourite people has decided to start blogging. We met about 5 years ago at a party and ever since then we love getting caught up and sharing our opinions on everything from comics to gaming to–of course–politics.

He’s an awesome guy and I’m thrilled at the prospect of having him entertain me. I think you’ll like his stuff if you read me. He’s got some different views than I do…but he’s still funny as, well, something else that’s funny. (I’m having a hard time with my creative side at the moment. )

So check it out if you get the chance. he’s off to a great start.

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Ever see one of those cartoons from the 1930s where a character is strapped to the front of a train and headed full-speed with a look of terror on his rubbery face? Or maybe I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s dream sequence from She’s Having A Baby.

Either way, that’s how I feel in this last run-up to Christmas.

I love the Holiday Season, starting with the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Those three weeks from then until now are usually spent with a lot of lights, candles and Christmas music. And we did that, but since I had such a bad bout of illness for two of those weeks, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, coming out of a medication- and pain-induced stupor only to find that I have zero days left before Christmas Weekend, when I get together with family for all our traditional activities.

We have a lot of traditions–we are a tight-knit, event-loving clan. The joke is that if we do it once, it’s a tradition. That’s certainly borne out in the fact that now after 20 years things like “going to Carlos O’Kelleys on Christmas Eve” is as much a tradition as opening presents.

I’m excited about this, but I’m also filled with trepidation. This is not my first Christmas sick–not by a long shot–but my parents are getting older. In the natural order of things I should be taking the reins on food preparation and those other household tasks. Those are things I enjoy doing and the fact that I have to let my septugenarian mother slave over a stove while I sit by useless is kind of galling.

I haven’t done any baking. I miss that. I think I’ll also miss the Christmas music. I’ve gotten into Pandora’s Classical Christmas station in the last week and I know I’ll miss all those wonderful arrangements of classic songs.

Except the ones sung by professional children’s choirs. I know this is off-topic, and I know I have several friends here in Nashville and elsewhere who are blessed with vocally talented kids. So I hate to say this, but at the same time I have to own up to the fact that this year those well-trained children’s choirs have sort of been creeping me out. I don’t know why–I’m also prone to similar jitters when I see a Victorian Valentine or those tin toys from the 1920s. And I’ve only experienced the skeeviness from Christmas music so I think it’s probably the combination of youthful innocence and antiquarian polish. You know. Like Children of the Corn. Where they’re kids but they also have that “We are posessed by old people” thing going on. Anyway, this is off topic.

The topic is supposed to be how I’m excited for Christmas but also not ready to move through it to the place where it’s over. So I guess that’s like life in general.

Is it just me? Or is this scary to you? I feel like they'll both rise up and eat my eyeballs straight out of the socket.

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This is one of those posts that is antithetical to the Holiday season on one level. With Hanukkah starting today and Christmas just over the crest of the hill I should write about lovely things. Instead, I’m shedding light on a thing that make me flame and smoulder just like a Yule log. Because I’ve been happy and had wonderful times (point of fact: I’m still happy) but I took my meds and now I’m just tired and sick and cruddy-feeling. So this is my Festivus Airing of Grievance, I guess.

Sigh. Elf On The Shelf

Liars' Club

I already went bonkers about this on FB on Saturday, because that’s when I first found out what this ugly doll is for. Like Cabbage Patch dolls, each creepy red turd of a doll is “adopted” into a family. When they read the Elf On The Shelf book together, the Magical Elf “comes to life” and hangs around the house until Christmas Eve to report on your children’s behavior to Santa.

First off–If he were real, Santa should know full well that the Quartering of Troops is unconstitutional. So way to violate the third amendment.

More importantly, though, I’m one who believes that Santa is lying to children and setting them up for later disbelief in the other mystical loving figures we’ve introduced to them. Who is going to be eager to trust in Jesus when all those other fellows–the elves and bunnies and fairies–are botched con jobs? So this elf thing is just one more way to make the Season of Light into the Season of (Not As Harmless As You Think) Deception.

Even if you are among the majority of parents who don’t see that much harm in Santa–and I know that’s most of the world–I’d think you should see the deeper problems embedded in this toy’s philosophy. Over the years as I’ve complained about Santa, many of you have told me in person, email or comments here the very good reasons you have for embracing that tradition. But the elf? The whole purpose of this thing is to teach children to be good because they are being watched. And that’s the same problem I have with the whole WWJD phenomenon and the “Jesus Is Watching” method of instilling good behaviour.

We do not do good because we are being watched. You don’t turn in a wallet you found lying in the street just because someone else might have seen you pick it up. You don’t refrain from killing an obnoxious co-worker just because the police can hunt you down with luminol and fingerprints. You don’t refrain from stealing your neighbour’s doormat just because they have a picture window looking out from the front of their house.

We are good because that is the character we wish to develop in ourselves. We wish to be kind people so we treat others kindly. We wish to be honest so we behave honestly. As the bumper stickers say: Character is who you are when nobody is watching.

Life isn’t prison, where people are paid for good behaviour. Children are not foreign governments who require intense negotiations and subsidy payments for agreeing to be on good terms with the Parental Nation. You as a parent undercut your own position of authority when you advance the idea that goodness is salaried job.

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Ten years ago I started working on one of my favourite books. Back then my idea was to write a murder mystery set in and around my hometown of Fort Wayne and serialise it a la Kellerman or Cornwell. My protagonist was a ex-Amish woman doctor. Over the years as I evolved the story evolved too. It’s now a general novel about a woman’s life and it is without dead bodies. Well, there are some dead bodies, but they aren’t murdered.

Since I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction–or didn’t, until I got a Kindle*–I had no idea until a couple of years ago that Amish fiction was a big thing. I was chagrinned because I thought I was doing something less travelled. I actually ended up setting aside the book for awhile, as I lost all excitement in it.

But until this weekend I had not read any fiction with an Amish protagonist in 15 years. My last attempt involved a trilogy which starts out with an Amish girl and ends up with her finding out that she’s the long lost child of a movie star(?) who gave her up for adoption into an Amish family (?!). It was WEIRD. It was also the last Christian fiction I read for a decade–that’s how outlandishly soap opera terrible the whole thing was.

::engage mental editor–shorten up this long tale::
Over the weekend I was bored and wanted to read something Christmassy and I knew I had several free Christmas stories set in Amish Country.

Apparently the writers of these Christian Fiction pieces–they’re called Bonnet Romances–have decided to fetishise the Amish into these quaint, simple, earnest, one-dimensional platitude-spewing cardboard cutouts. Amish characters are apparently the version of Faeries that people who don’t believe in Fantasy novels turn to for escapeism.

Now, all of this would be fine. IF the Amish were made-up. But they’re not. They are really people who have three dimensions and more on their minds than marrying the boy down the road. I grew up around Amish folks. I’ve worked with young Amish on Rumschpringe. As a Mennonite I’ve gone to meeting with more ex-Amish than you’d believe. One Easter was spent at the house of two ex-Amish Mennonites sitting around a table with half a dozen other XA listening to stories of their lives Before and After.

In other words–I know these people. And while they are very nice people–generally–they aren’t some wishy-washy Pa Ingalls Meets St. Paul little mythical beasts.

And now I’m torn. Because part of me realises that there is most likely a place where my story would fit in the world. But at the same time I’m not really interested in the continued exploitation of what seems to be an increasingly misrepresented society of people.

*seriously. Those publishing houses excel at throwing Christian fiction at you. And since everyone keeps telling me how much better it’s gotten I occassionally try one of the free ones.

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I Am Insincere

Even though to admit it is an embarrassment akin to acknowledging a crush on your typing teacher or a secret fondness for eating clay, I do own up to having read all of Dan Brown’s books. I don’t think that makes me a bad person–I also read cereal boxes, the tiny print on tins of shoe polish and whatever else is in front of me written in English. I take in printed words the way most people take in oxygen. So, anyway, yes, I’ve read all of them–bad as they can be in their own fun “romp through factoids” way.

Because of these books I have been reminded over and over again that “sincere” means “without wax”. Brown (or his wife) dug up this nifty fact somewhere and became so enamoured with it that he recycles it in every story. You know there will be some point where an intrepid Harvard Professor-slash-adventurer will have to whip out a lighter to melt the wax off some ancient artifact to reveal another clue. This is because it is more fun for them to do these sorts of things than it is for them to go to the internet and google “Symbols of Freemasonry”–which is where all Brown’s (or his wife’s) information comes from, really.

So, anyway, back to me and wax.

When we first moved to Nashville and were flat broke (seriously…we had zero money), we went to this cheap hair cutting place next to the grocery store. It cost like $6 to get your hair trimmed and for us that was a fortune. But you’ve got to spend money to make money and we couldn’t hold down jobs looking like the Deadheads we really were. So we went to this place we’ll call CheapClips. It was a franchise, but the main stylist was a woman I’ll call Flossie. She aspired to be an entrepreneur, and her station was always overflowing with tchotchkes for sale. In the years we went there she sold Beanie Babies, handmade dolls, magnets–if it could be merchandised by tacking it up around her mirror or taking it to a flea market on Sundays, Flossie sold it. Eventually she bought the CheapClips from its original owner and turned it into her own personal parlour of eccentricity. We went there because it was close and cheap and she was motherly, after a fashion.

She did have a deep devious streak, though, which I tried for all those years to overlook. We’d go in for a cheap cut and she’d try to sell me on the latest Beauty Treatment. Every time–EVERY time–she’d say “try it once–I’ll do the first time for free.” And after I had my eyebrows waxed or my facial pores steamed or a fancy new deep conditioner applied to my hair with the promise of freeness she’d conveniently forget the offer of no-charge when ringing me up. More than once I walked out smelling like furniture polish and $5 poorer. More than once I had to skip a meal or two because her “free” treatment cost me. The worst time, though, was her offer of a free treatment in her new paraffin hand spa. It was the worst because I finally found the gumption (I used to be pretty easy to steamroll when I was younger) to tell her that I wasn’t falling for her “it’ll be free” trick. It was also the worst because even after she assured me that this time she would not “forget” her promise, I ended up being charged $18. When I faced her down she explained that she was not charging me for the Paraffin itself–that would have been an extra $2. This was for the time and the hand massage and the lotion. She grinned like a cat as she told me this. I paid her the dratted $18 and never went back in the store again.

Years later, stricken with arthritis, I’ve been advised by nearly everyone–other patients, nurses, doctors, phlebotomists, the guy who brings my UPS packages–to try a paraffin bath. But EVERY TIME the subject comes up all I can think of is Flim Flam Flossie and her devious schemes and all the generic cans of tomato soup I had to eat because of her wiles.

Then last week, during one of the worst weeks I’ve had in awhile as all four of my major ailments crested together into a tornado of blood and pain, my husband came home bearing a…yes…Homedics Paraffin Hand Spa. I’m writing this epic while I wait for the wax to take the 2-4 hours to melt. The most galling thing? Before writing this I looked up the cost of wax refills and it seems that while the machine itself is not all that pricey, the wax costs more per ounce than beef. So, really, Flossie DID kind of cut me a sort of break by not charging me those $2.

I’m still a bit miffed about it. But I suppose my hands will feel better.

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My mother and I went to the park to shoot off rockets. While I was parking my bike an eight foot tall Samuel L Jackson was waiting for me. He squealed with delight and kissed my forehead, then he picked me up to swing me around. All the while he kept saying “It’s my best friend!” and my mother was nonplussed.

Then Sam Jackson handed me an envelope. Since I can never read in dreams, Sam had to tell me that the envelope was a summons from our mutual boss and mutual buddy. The boss was having a contest and he wanted me to both take part in and help judge. Next thing I know we are at a cabin with a red kitchen waiting for the boss to arrive. Sam Jackson begins telling me that the boss has a new business and I get inordinately happy. “Did he get to design the logo? His dream in life is to design a logo!”.

The door to the cabin swings open. In strides a creature who is a cross between a goat (in stature) and a donkey body with a buffalo head. A naked baby with the head of Roger Ebert–Pre-cancer–is riding the buffalonkey’s back. I start jumping up and down cackling “It’s the logo!! It’s the logo!!” and then reach across the table to pet the long fur on the buffalonkey’s face.
Baby Roger Ebert yells ” you can’t pet him! He’s a logo!” and then I wake up.

I seriously HATE my dreams.

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I’m being purposefully vague here because I don’t want to hate on a specific author whose other work I’ve enjoyed to various degrees. And after having one author show up here under good circumstances this week I don’t want to lure another author here only to harangue them.

I had trouble sleeping last night and decided I’d read a light, holiday themed novella. Of course, I had paid $10 for it and thought it was an actual BOOK. But no actual book for grownups is 100 pages unless it is a novella, short story or insipid autobiography by an addled pseudocelebrity. So when I realized it was 100 pages I figured I’d polish it off in an hour and we’d all go to bed happy.

A few years ago Stephen King published a book called Needful Things. It was one of those curious works of his which starts off with an intriguing premise and goes downhill as he runs out of ideas. I remember it well because I loved the premise and hated the direction in which he took it.

Well, the book I read last night pretty much retold the story of Needful Things. Except this time the odds and ends in the weird store weren’t for fomenting discord but for bringing about hopeful changes Just In Time For Christmas. Something tells me that most of the target market for this book are not Stephen King fans and had no idea that the story owed such a tremendous debt to him. But I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it because it felt like such a ploy.

This is one of the reasons I balk at being under contract as an author. Not that any have been offered or that I’ve even submitted my work. Because I’m a big chicken–but that’s a story for another time. I just picture this author under the gun to get the Annual Christmas Book out in time and struggling for a good story. And I picture that author saying “well, none of these people read Stephen King”.

Except…I do. And I did. And it really lessened my opinion of both the book and the writer.

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My post earlier in the week about Fathead seems to have ignited strong feelings across my (admittedly smallish) readership. I have several friends who are enjoying the Paleo Diet and are kind enough to hope that I can find my way to better health by trying it myself. I genuinely appreciate the interest, time, and kind intent of others who point this out to me, because I think they have everyone’s best interest at heart. If I feel better, then that’s terrific for me and also a good point in favour of this diet.

I rail against diets here on the blog because I find them to be generally harmful things not unlike a boyfriend you meet on a cruise ship who is fun and loving and treats you fantastically for six or eight weeks then moves in, wrecks your life and steals your favourite t-shirt before moving on to the next girl. Like skeezy boyfriends and Kardashian marriages, diets don’t last. Of course, one in a hundred cruise ship relationships turns into a 50 year marriage and some people love their new diets forever. If you are one of those people just consider yourself lucky.

I think though, as I read through the emails, FB Messages and comments that I’ve gotten over the last couple of years, that there are some misconceptions I should clear up.

1. Other than being very sick, I’m in pretty good health.
All those things people associate with bad health in blood work–thyroid, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure–those are all fantastic in my blood. What’s high are the things that say “you’re sick”. Sed rate, C reactive protein. There is no stick to pee on with a plus sign for diseases like mine, so they hunt for the small things. I do have anemia, but that’s a side-effect of my disease.

2. I don’t overeat; if any thing I undereat
I tend to have a lot of “Pharmacological anorexia”. My drugs cause me to lose appetite. So when I can eat I tend to have very small portions.

3. I don’t watch what I eat
Over the course of time I’ve learned which foods bother me (cereal, eggs, pork products, red onions) and either minimise (eggs) or eliminate (cereal) those all together.

4. I’m not on any sort of diet

This isn’t true. For the last 3 or 4 years I’ve been practicing what I call simply “The Matthew 6:31 diet”.

31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

In all the years I did various diets I spent too much of my precious, limited, God-given and God-called time doing things like figuring out how many points were in a hamburger or how many cooked carrots would put me over my carb limit. I spent my time focused not on God or my work or my family and friends but on what I had put in my mouth last and what I would put in my mouth next. I was selfish, self-absorbed and worshipping my body instead of God.

Then, as I was studying Matthew 6 in general I came across that verse and it hit me in a whole new light. I WAS worrying about what I ate and drank. Not in the context with which Jesus meant it, of course, because he was talking to people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

So from that time on I made a decision. When I was hungry I would eat what I wanted, When I was thirsty I would drink what I wanted and be unconcerned about it. Since that time I’ve maintained a weight that is the same thing I weighed 20 years ago and 50 pounds lighter than my highest weight. I have lost a good portion of my sweet tooth, whether through age, attrition, hormone shifts or other means. I have gained a lot of time in my day and a lot more confidence about who I am.

So I guess you can either call it a diet, a way of eating, a freedom from bondage, a stupid move or any other thing. But it works for me.

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