Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Sigh. I got swept up in the hype surrounding this book and at the end of the 500+ page journey have to admit lukewarm feelings for Pessl’s first book (which created a sudden burst of media around how attractive authors’ first books merit large advances).
Each chapter is titled after a famous work of literature, something calculated to lure me in to the work. After having read it, it seems more like an editorial ploy; the titles had little bearing on the actual chapters. The writing is definitely good, readable, mind-stretching at times. But it dragged on, a bit wordy.
Story outline: Blue Van Meer is a precocious smartie who travels the US with her professor father as he bops from lecture gig to lecture gig. She reads, a lot. Her senior year is spent in Stockton, NC, where she becomes involved with a clique called the Bluebloods (Jade, Milton, Nigel, Charles, Leulah) and their teacher/mentor/friend Hannah. Things start unravelling when a man named Smokey dies at Hannah’s costume party (drowned, ruled accidental). Hannah takes the kids camping, lures Blue into the woods, blurts some preposterous things then disappears and is found hung. Blue is found hours later, miles from the campsite, by a father/son out fishing for the weekend. The others are found a few days later, and blame Blue for Hannah’s death. Then begins Blue’s investigation, which leads her to the conclusion that Hannah, the man they stayed in Paris with, and her dad are all part of the Nightwatchmen, a radical group from the 70s. Her dad ends up abandoning her, but conveniently has a trust fund set up which she receives the account number to a few days after he leaves. Blue finally believes that her mother commited suicide when she discovered her husband was having an affair with Hannah, when Blue was in kindergarden.
Last chapter is incredibly hokey– a Final Exam with multiple choice questions about the characters within the story.

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Video Night in Kathmandu

Delicious travel writing by a traveler after my own style– bushwhacking his way through Asia, Pico Iyer relaxes with locals, tries to penetrate the walls of China and Japan which cordon “foreign” from the real experience, spends an inordinate amount of time quietly sitting and contemplating atop misty temples. He shuns the packaged tours that show visitors a sanitized, pre-approved version of the country, and haunts alleys, street vendors, train and bus stations looking for the real people and stories. A constant theme through the 10 countries he visits is the encroachment of the West on East, the everpresent American music, frenzied burst of fast food joints, common language of Hollywood cinema and bluejeans. Each country takes the West and intertwines it with its own culture, making baseball in Japan more orderly and militarized, making all external influences inherently Indian by accepting them without question, taking the bustle of New York into Hong Kong where life is work and nothing exists outside of work whereas in NY people work to live and have other cultural stimuli.
Great short travel essays on a list of countries that mirrors my own list of desired destinations: Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, Phillipines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Japan.
Recommended by Mama R

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Litquake: Between the Bridges Gala

Ponied up $25 to attend this ho-hum event, which was more interesting in concept than execution. An evening of musicians inspired by literature, with readings and performances. I was excited to see Jay Farrar and Dan the Automator, but ended up enjoying Mark Eitzel the most. Lars Ulrich was an entertaining footnote, taking himself way too seriously, reading his dad’s Danish poetry and bragging that there were only 300 copies printed so if anyone in the audience wanted one, they’d have to check Ebay. Then he laughed, at us. Awesome. The second most annoying thing was Dave Eggers refusal to read anything (this is Litquake, c’mon!), but ceding his time and the stage to End of Suffering, the musician he met at the Oakland library a few weeks ago.
* Dan Hicks: read from Catcher in the Rye, sang the laughing song
* Samantha Stollenwerck: read from Randy Taguchi’s Outlet
* Chuck Prophet: Sang “Who put the bomp?”
* Jill Tracy: read from Lowlife, sang dark songs on the piano
* Mark Eitzel ready from Long Day’s Journey into Night
* Ray Manzarek (member of The Doors) rambled on for a bit, then played Riders on the Storm.
* Dan the Automator: Rainbow by DH Lawrence; “The rainbow is bowlegged, it cannot put its legs together.”
* Lars Ulrich: talked about how he was originally from Copenhagen, when came to US he just wanted to play tennis; pretended he was going to read from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or Part 2; instead he read poetry from his dad, Torben Ulrich, called Dice Inflections. Dice thru your nostrils. Improv on words for the remaining pages.
* Penelope Houston- Vita Sackville West (The Garden: Summer)
* Jay Farrar was a sad sight, slumping on stage and lacking confidence. I don’t remember what he read.


The best spy novel I’ve read in ages! Martin Odum, forced out of the CIA, hangs his detective shingle in Brooklyn and takes the case of Stella, searching for her brother-in-law Samat, in order to free her sister of the marriage (by obtaining the get, or divorce). Skillfully deploying several plotlines at once, Littell wraps the story into a tight package amidst tales of torture, assassination, burial alive, nuclear waste & bioterrorist experiments, a cameo by Osama Bin Laden, and the psychiatric treatment of Odum in order to find out which of his “legends” or aliases is the real him. Odum switches seamlessly (though with migraine) between Lincoln Dittmann (civil war expert, was present at the battle of Fredricksburg, met Walter Whitman the poet, had a rare gun: Whitworth with paper cartridges), Dante Pippen (Irish explosives expert with white bandana & quick temper), and Martin Odum.
Recommended by Tom Peters, who is a constant source of inspiration and solid book recs.

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Best bartender ever: me

The Max is near-furious because a patron proclaimed me the best bartender he’d ever had. This, while slinging bottled beer and fountain cokes, to those gathered at the Presidio Yacht Club. Admittedly, I know nearly nothing about tending bar. What I learned this weekend:
* Count to four when pouring shots
* If someone asks for a rum & coke, “easy on the coke”, after last call, it’s better to go heavy on the coke, easy on the rum. (Case in point: the 250 lb. requestor falls off barstool shortly after: BOOM!)
* People over 80 tend not to tip
* People under 30 tend to tip well
* People between 30-80 are a crapshoot
* Bloody maries are bloody difficult to make. Tip your bartender well for the effort
* Men who refer to their wives as “my girlfriend, ehm, my kinda wife” are creepy
* If you’re going to rent out a club to sing cabaret to your family and friends for over an hour in honor of your 46th birthday, dammit you’re gonna do an encore even if people really aren’t asking for it.
In honor of my first stint behind the bar, some bar books:
The Tender Bar
Bartender’s Best Friend


Never have I sweat so much about putting a book on my Stranded list. But strand it, I must, after 50 pages. This is not the kind of reading I enjoy. I never would have picked up this book had the author not pressed it into my hands and asked me to read it. Sorry Mr. R, but I’m not your target audience for these books.
The background on how the story came about– the title of the book occurred to Mr. R in a dream as “Dress Me Not in Mourning”, which he imagined to have come from an Emily Dickenson poem. Armed with the title, the story poured out of him. His publisher deemed the title too highbrow, and spun the tale as Afterlove.

Continue reading “Afterlove”


Gulped this one down in an afternoon– teen lit seems to be where my heart is at these days. Melinda enters freshman year of high school with no friends because of a summer party turned bad. Her friend Rachel takes her to a senior party during the summer, where Melinda proceeds to have her first beers ever (aged 13) and ends up getting raped by Andy Evans (aka IT, the Beast). While a little heavy-handed on the whole rape theme, it’s good to continually put it out there as a reminder for the ladies to keep their wits (and voices) about them. Melinda tells no one of the rape, but calls 911 and the cops come to break up the party, launching her into loser-dom. She keeps her secret for the entire year, until she sees Rachel getting close to Andy and feels the need to warn her. Art class keeps her going, assigned the theme “trees”, she must create a representation of a tree that speaks to people. She also has a brief friendship with Heather, the new girl, whose aspirations to join the “Good groups” give insight into how the Marthas, etc. treat members lusting to join. What is the practical use of algebra, racist classes on immigration taught by Mr. Neck (anyone whose ancestors arrived after 1900 should be kicked out), Melinda’s crush on her lab partner David, her loss of voice and inability to speak because of the rape, family discord at home with mom rushing off to the department store downtown Syracuse and dad vegging out on the tv, bedroom in need of a makeover but not sure what imprint to place on it. The secret, old, janitor’s closet where she retreats and hangs posters of Maya Angelou (banned by the school district), turkey bone sculpture post-Thanksgiving feast debacle.
Great writing. The package is a bit too neatly tied up for my taste, but this is teen lit afterall.
Excerpt: page 103, 104:
“Mr. Freeman is having his own problems. He mostly sits on his stool and stares at a new canvas. It is painted one color, so blue it’s almost black. No light comes out of it or goes in, no shadows without light. Ivy asks him what it is. Mr. Freeman snaps out of his funk and looks at her like he just realized the room was full of students.
“Mr. Freeman: ‘It is Venice at night, the color of an accountant’s soul, a love rejected. I grew mold on an orange that color when I lived in Boston. It’s the blood of imbeciles. Confusion. Tenure. The inside of a lock, the taste of iron. Despair. A city with the streetlights shot out. Smoker’s lung. The hair of a small girl who grows up hopeless. The heart of a school board director…’
“He is warming up for a full-fledged rant when the bell rings. Some teachers rumorwhisper he’s having a breakdown. I think he’s the sanest person I know.”

Continue reading “Speak”

Portnoy’s Complaint

You’ve got to love a book filled with the masturbation tales of a teenage boy. This one also got me props (or was it raised eyebrows?) from people at the bar where I was reading… “Oh I read that long ago .” and “You’d like it more if you were a teenage boy.” Despite the improbability of shaving off half my life and changing gender, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and the stories.
Several layers of story take place within the book–
* Alex as teenage jerkoff king (popping off every spare moment into every spare household item: apple, baseball glove, the family’s dinner of liver, sister’s panties, the dirty laundry hamper, Mounds bar wrapper, empty milk bottles), chasing ice-skating shikses around the pond with pseudonym at the ready, winning the dubious honor of a hand job from the floozy who counted off 60 mechanical strokes then stopped (Alex finishes with a few more strokes before coming in his eye to the great amusement of his pals in the kitchen)
* Alex as grownup: responsible, working for the Mayor, playing around with his girlfriend “The Monkey” with whom he picks up a whore in Italy for a threesome and whom he leaves on the balcony of their Greece hotel room begging to get married, hating the Monkey’s inability to spell: “dir” for “dear”, “pleze” for “please”, detouring to Israel where he attempts to seduce women shocked by his antics, screwing WASP girls in vengance for the way his dad’s company treated him for 20 years (Sally going down on him but only placing it in her mouth then saying “what, you want more? But it’s getting big, I’ll sufocate…”);
* Alex as psychoanalysis patient, spilling this whole tale to his doctor who at the end of the story says “let us begin.”
One of my favorite sections:
“Because I love those men! I want to grow up to be one of those men! To be going home to Sunday dinner at one o’clock, sweat socks pungent from twenty-one innings of softball, underwear athletically gamy, and in the muscle of my throwing arm, a faint throbbing from the low and beautiful pegs I have been unleashing all morning long to hold down the opposition on the base paths; yes, hair disheveled, teeth gritty, feet beat and kishkas sore from laughing, in other words, feeling great, a robust Jewish man now gloriously pooped…”
Recommended by Papa Rose

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The Nubian Prince

Sex scout and non-Omnisicent Narrator, Moises, roots through garbage dumps and immigration shipwrecks to find the next prize for the Barcelona club who employs him. Alongside particulars of the sex trade, Moises dips into stories from his past (mom’s “little thing” e.g. depression; the ritual of waking up each morning and reciting name, address, age, occupation; his ex cheating on him with another soccer coach when that was his job). The persistent groin itch, the ruthless Doctor who runs the Barca chapter and collects uncut books that Moises post-coitally defaces, racing Luzmila (Romanian refugee turned sex machine turned sex scout) in imaginary Olympic gold medal speedwalking rounds, Doctor’s challenge to find the Nubian Prince (Boo) and the mess it gets Moises in (raped, hospitalized, reconstructed nose and lost taste for men). His parents’ suicides within days of each other, a tape-recording from the empty house and the haunting accusation “scumbag”.
Books in translation are tricky– I prefer to reserve full judgement for the actual words the author chooses. But this one I recommend without question; Esther translates Juan’s Spanish into an entirely readable and enjoyable English.
Continuing with the connections between books, another Faulkner reference: “It was the ideal scenario for a great escape, a supreme metaphor that epitomized all my opinions about the world, or about my own world anyway, which was not a tub full of guts, as a Faulkner character says, but a city buried in its own garbage.”
Recommended by: The Max (+1)

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Library musings

I’ve been using the San Francisco library for 84 months, checking out an average of 4 books per month. For the first time, they’ve reported a book lost that I returned. That’s a 0.3% failure rate, which isn’t terrible, but with a computerized system, the error rate should be much less.
I love the San Francisco library system– it has served me well over the years. You can search for books and have them delivered to your local branch, renew books online, and reserve popular books and watch as you get progressively closer to the front of the line (I’m 79 out of 132 waiting for Special Topics in Calamity Physics).
That said, I have to complain. First, because they lost a book I returned along with 2 others that were successfully returned. And second, compared to how an Amazon or Netflix works , SFPL lags far behind in internet years.
* Where are the fancy algorithms that classify me as a happy patron unlikely to rip them off?
* Where is the ability to change my “Home” branch? When making a reserve request, Potrero Hill is my default branch, which was great when I lived on the Hill. Now I want to change it to the 7-day a week workingman’s branch in the Mission. How did they figure out I was a Potrero girl in the first place? Will the algorithm finally switch me over to the Mission branch someday? I wait with bated breath.
* Where can I update my mailing address?
* Give me that RSS feed! The library is a mecca for feeds– new books, new DVDs, what’s new at the ‘brary, staff picks. Set that content free with an XML feed please!
* General performance of logging into your account: Login should be a part of the global nav. Why must you go to the home page in order to login? The fact that cookies aren’t dropped to keep you in your account once you login– you have to use their specific navigation to remain “logged in”. Yuk.
* Wish list: more robust “queuing” capability. Right now you can add books and Freeze them if you don’t want them to show up at your branch, but my dream is for this to act as a Netflix-y type “Queue” where you get the first 2 books, then the next 2 are queued up for when you return the others.
In case you’re curious about what happens when a book is reported as returned when the library thinks it’s not, the book is placed on Return Claimed status for 3 months, a search for the book attempted, and you must pay or replace the book at the end of 3 months if still not found.

The City And The Pillar

This looks to be a book after my own heart– good writing, drunk characters, what more do you need? In the first chapter, Jim Willard sits alone in a booth, swirling whiskey and water, time stopping and getting lost in drunkenness. He fends off a woman who attempts to engage him in conversation and sundry other things. He wonders where he is, besides in a bar in a city. He wonders what city he’s in.
Now finished with this delightful novella. To summarize the story, Jim is in love with Bob, with whom he has an erotic weekend with during high school at the old slave quarters by the pond. Bob ships off to sea and in the next year Jim also sets sail to find him. The story follows Jim on cruise ships up to Alaska, off to LA where he becomes a tennis instructor for Ronnie Shaw, meets Sullivan, heads off to New Orleans with Sullivan, meets Maria, they live in the Yucatan for a winter, then Jim joins the Army. Eventually discharged medically after arthritis sets in, Jim ends up in NYC owning part of a tennis instructorship business. Seven years after he left home, he returns, and finally reunites with Bob again, who is married and a father. Jim invites Bob to visit him when in NYC, which Bob does a year later. After getting Bob drunk, Jim attempts to seduce him, resulting in Bob’s refusal then rape. Jim proceeds to head off to drink away his troubles, which is where we pick him up in the beginning.
Certain passages are deliriously succinct:
“The hot sun warmed him. The blood moved fast in his veins. He was conscious of the fullness of life. He existed in the present. That was enough.”

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Ask The Dust

If anything, this book makes me hunger for a re-read of Nathanael West. Like most people, I was turned onto this book by Charles Bukowski’s glowing recommendation. Fante has a clear, direct style of writing that complement’s Bukowski’s own. But I wasn’t particularly drawn into the story– Arturo Bandini, the struggling writer from Colorado, ensconced in a hotel in LA, fighting dust storms and hunger pains (with oranges), asking his mother for money during the lean times, extravagantly spending money when he receives cash for a story accepted at a magazine. Writing long letters to his editor, Hackmuth, lending money to his neighbors at the hotel, falling for Camilla Lopez, the waitress at the dive he frequents, his inability to be aroused by her attentions. Shrivelled Vera & the earthquake in Long Beach. Hellfrick the drunk meat eater, who kills a calf in the valley to cook back at Bunker Hill hotel. Sammy the bartender whose illness drives him into the desert where he begins to write horrible stories. The story ends when Bandini drives out to Sammy’s in search of Camilla, and throws an autographed copy of his book near where she vanished.
Sidenote– this frequently happens with me, connections between books I’m reading at the same time or have just finished: I was reading both this and Absalom, Absalom concurrently, and Fante makes a comment in the first chapter, “Do you think, Mr. Hackmuth, that I write as well as William Faulkner?”

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Absalom, Absalom

Faulkner’s dizzying style of talking around and about and underneath a subject makes it a slow march to the end of the story. However, I’m hanging on to the end, halfway through and trudging onward. This kind of writing is good for the brain; I need to be slowed in my consumption of words and Faulkner throws up roadblocks that have me reading and re-reading paragraphs.
The story so far, as told from various perspectives (Quentin, his dad Mr. Compson, Miss Rosa, college-pal Shreve) is the Civil War-era family tragedy of Sutpen (the demon), his wife Ellen, her sister Miss Rosa (who marries Sutpen when Ellen dies? I can’t quite figure out that narrative thread), the daughter Judith & son Henry who kills Judith’s finance Charles Bon because Bon is already married to an “octoroon” (1/8th black blood) with a son in New Orleans. Clytie is Sutpen’s other daughter, sired by a black mother, who shadows Judith to the end of her days. Bon’s son appears white, but he rejects his white blood and courts a black wife, causing all sorts of chaos by being the white man in the black hangouts.
There is much discussion on female nature– how women rise up for occasions like death, are capable of handling pain beyond imagine. “They lead beautiful lives–women. Lives not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from, all reality. That’s why although their deaths… are of no importance to them… yet to them their funerals and graves… are of incalcuable importance.” (p156)
I’m also intrigued by the idea that Bon & Henry had the closer, more passionate, connection, and used Judith as the safe vessel through which to consummate that relationship.
I am constantly confused by who the narrator is– I don’t know if that Faulkner’s intended effect, but it’s a whirl of narration and words words words and it slips very easily between Mr. Compson (who I have no idea what his relation to the story is) and Shreve and Miss Rosa. Quentin does no narration, but is simply the listener, the recipient of the story who will later transcribe it?
*** Update– Quentin is now narrating the story of Sutpen’s youth, coming down from the mountains of West Virginia to the flatlands of the South, seeing blacks for the first time, as slaves who were better fed and clothed than his free family. Faulkner dives headfirst into racial interactions:
“But you did not want to, because they (the niggers) were not it, not what you wanted to hit; that when you hit them you would just be hitting a child’s toy balloon with a face painted on it, a face slick and smooth and distended and about to burst into laughing and so you did not dare strike it because it would merely burst and you would rather let it walk on out of your sight than to have stood there in the loud laughing.” p 186
*** Finished, finally.
Not the most pleasing reading experience, but the dizzying, sultry atmosphere of the South comes through his words and drives you to gasp for breath and push onward. Bizarre interactions between Shreve and Quentin– how was the Canadian Shreve able to tell the story better than hometown boy Quentin?
“That was why it did not matter to either of them which one did the talking, since it was not the talking alone which did it, performed and accomplished the overpassing, but some happy marriage of speaking and hearing wherein each before the demand, the requirement, forgave condoned and forgot the faulting of the other…”
The story took a twist in the 2nd half– the reason for Bon not being able to marry Judith was actually due to the fact that Bon’s father was Sutpen (from his first wife).
Faulkner provides a genealogy of the characters at the end, wherein he has Quentin die in Cambridge, MA in 1910, the same year that Shreve & he are telling this story. But no other details about Q’s death. The last lines of the text have Q reiterating that he doesn’t hate the South, “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”

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