Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fun Monday

This week, the challenge from Peter is to tell your favourite joke or post your favourite cartoon.

Here is the best joke I've heard in weeks.

A father had two sons, one of whom was a ceaseless optimist and the other was a hopeless pessimist. No matter what, one son was happy about things and the other was complaining. The father worked hard to try to even the boys out, to show them that the world was not always as they expected.

For Christmas, the father got the pessimist a lovely gold watch. For the optimist - a brightly coloured box filled with horse manure. The father hoped that the pessimist would be uplifted by his gift and that the optimist would be brought back down to earth.

On Christmas morning, the boys eagerly tore into their presents. The father asked the pessimist about his gift. The boy responded "Oh, I got this watch. It's really nice but I can't see that I'll ever enjoy wearing it. It'll probably just get broken or stolen."

The father then asked the optimist what he got for Christmas. Excitedly, the boy shouted, "A pony!"

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Definition of Crazy

I've heard it said that the definition of crazy is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results. I often use this definition when I relate a story involving taking Toby to the kennel. Even though we've only had him a year, we've been back and forth between here and Dublin enough that he's had at least seven trips to the kennel.

He knows the place, but he still gamely hops out of the car. He still inquisitively snuffles around the ground. He still trots behind me and allows himself to be led into the building, and then into the run itself.

It's at that moment, just before I slip out and latch the chainlink door behind me, that Toby realises he's being abandoned. He starts to whine and howl. He grabs my leg between his front paws. When he's finally shaken loose, he hurls himself against the door. It's a big ugly scene but I've learned not to feel guilty about it because A.) I know it's going to happen, B.) I'm not crazy, and C.) I know I'm coming back.

The reason I think Toby is crazy is because he's a smart-ish dog. He knows where he is and he must know what is going to happen. Kodiak has always hated going to the groomer and puts on the brakes as soon as you open the door to a grooming establishment. You have to drag that dog over the threshhold because he has a long memory for unpleasant experiences and he's not crazy.

Maybe Toby just wants to please and that's why he expects a different outcome each time. Or maybe it's a case of hope triumphing over experience, if a dog can be said to hope. (The Kid says that hope is the thing inside you that keeps you alive, so maybe even dogs can hope.)

I like to pretend that I'd never do anything so silly (and crazy) expecting different results from the same activity. However, I have to admit to myself that I'm wrong. It's time for me to admit - I am crazy when it comes to the books of certain authors.

Just this month, I was burned spectacularly, again, by Patricia Cornwell. I got into Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta forensic mysteries the first winter we spent in Chicago. I was unemployed and had loads of time to sulk around the library, looking for interesting books and new authors. I'm not quite sure how I ended up reading Postmortem, but I suspect it has something to do with the forensic angle. (When I was 10, I wanted to be a pathologist.)

Even though her books scared the pants off me sometimes, I still devoured every book I could get my hands on. My devotion continued, even though I noticed sometime around Point of Origin in 1998 that the quality of the stories was starting to slide. I read the first Andy Brazil book and found it a horrid piece of self-indulgent twaddle. I didn't feel any great need to read the subsequent Brazil books.

But somehow, even though the Scarpetta books continued on their downhill trajectory, I still felt a loyalty. I'd still buy the book (usually quite soon after its release) and hope for a better experience. The three years between The Last Precinct and Blow Fly were nearly interminable.

The verdict on Blow Fly? Eh.... It was a huge departure, to switch to the third-person. I'd since read that Cornwell did that to allow her to explore the mind and point-of-view of the villans. Fair enough, but it really only served to distance the reader. I'd hoped the shift in narrative would be a one-off, or maybe a two-off, but I was wrong.

I helped Peter out with a craft fair earlier this month. As a thank-you, he paid me 50 euro, with the explicit stipulation that I spend the money on books. (If left to my own devices, I may have done something practical with it.) I managed to find Cornwell's latest, Book of the Dead, for half-price in Read's. I'd resisted the book for two monthes, but it seemed like a decent deal and half-price wasn't that much more than the mass market paperback will be whenever it comes out a year from now.

Not only is the book still in third-person, it's in the present tense. It reads like a bad movie script. The writing is just plain lazy. (I lost count of how many times the word 'unthinkable' was used in a three-page stretch.) The names, oh dear god, the names - Dr. Self (an egomaniacal TV shrink), Shandy Snook, Lucious Meddick (an undertaker), Will Rambo (apparently a good Swedish name). The plot is unreasonable and unbelievable, as are many of the characters.

Instead of being tethered to the real world, as in the earlier Scarpetta books, the setting has shifted to some sort of nebulous privatised forensics facility that is all of Scarpetta's and her niece Lucy's creation. They're the literary equivalent of a bunch of spoilt rich kids in a very high tech sandbox.

The characters have become petty and jealous charicatures without an ounce of professionalism or humanity. It's like Scarpetta and Cornwell are business associates who have fallen out, but finances dictate that they continue to work together.

I could go on (and on and on, just like the book), but I won't. I just don't understand what has happened to Cornwell. I understand (or at least I'd like to understand) that writing fifteen books in a series could cause one to become burnt out and disinterested. But the answer, especially when one has buckets of cash from the books, is to stop writing for a while. For a long while. Go play with your helicopter or try to solve real-life cold cases. But please stop punishing yourself and your crazy readers. Someone has to step up and be the sane one around here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fun Monday

This week's Fun Monday is hosted by Kitten, who wants to hear the story of your house. I'm going to cheat a little and write about a former house, because the story of my current residence is a little boring. It's a new house, built explicitly to produce rental income. It's huge, clean, and boxy.

I want to write about the first house we ever bought, a 3-bedroom Colonial in Wheaton, Illinois. In 2001, after five years of renting in Chicago, we decided to make the move into home ownership. We didn't want to move out of the city (if you know Chicago at all, we were around 4400 N & 2000 W) but we knew we couldn't afford to live in our neighbhourhood.

We started by looking at condos in Evanston, a town we both liked. But the more condos we looked at, the less impressed we were with the idea of buying one. It seemed like all the hassle of home ownership coupled with all the hassle of apartment life. We could hear the neighbour's TVs, smell their dinners, feel their footsteps on the ceiling. We decided what we really wanted was a house, with four outside walls and a roof, a yard, a driveway and a garage. We wanted to own more than the air inside of an old apartment.

Again, geographical desirability met pricing considerations head-on. Even though more than one smarmy mortgage broker assured us we could qualify for a jumbo home loan, we knew that would be a mistake. So we had to look at other cities. I don't know how exactly we ended up with Wheaton. We wanted something on the Metra line and we didn't want to live in a cookie-cutter development.

Six weeks after we started looking at for a place, our real estate agent lined up 5 showings for us. It was a Sunday, around St. Patrick's Day, and I think the Oscars were on that night.

When we got to the third house, the woman who owned it was in the house. She hadn't gotten the message about the scheduled showing, but she allowed us to come in and look around anyway. A large pool table dominated the living room - it was, in fact, the only piece of furniture in the living room. A note explained its origin - single mother, three teenage kids, the pool table was a place that they could all gather and enjoy themselves.

When I walked through the dining room and saw the kitchen, I shut my notebook. The kitchen was absolutely tiny. I had my heart set on a big open kitchen with an island. This kitchen was had about 4 square feet of floor space. I wandered politely through the rest of the house, and when we got outside, Peter said "That's the one." I laughe because there was no way I was going to live in a house with that kind of kitchen.

After seeing the rest of our choices (number 5 did make the decision tough), we decided to make an offer on the house in Wheaton. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the realtor's office, feeling like I was going to vomit because the whole thing was moving so quickly and becoming so real and I had never before promised to buy anything that cost so much.

The negotiations were concluded over the phone that night and we had a contract in a few days. We closed on a day that helped out the seller, and then gave ourself a few weeks to paint, get furniture, and prepare to move. We were glad we did that because it took the seller a few days to get everything out of our house. (Just for future reference, in case you ever need to know, it takes a special sort of drill to take apart a pool table.)

Over the course of the next three years, I fell in love with that house. It was the perfect place for Peter and me at that time. It wasn't so huge that we rattled around in it but it was big enough that we each had our own space. Our bedroom was big and airy, an addition to the original house. Through some quirk of architecture, the entrance into our bedroom was through the smallest bedroom. We turned it into a library but everyone who ever came to visit us remarked on what a good nursery it would make.

I even learned to work with the kitchen. My brother took out a section of cabinet and I replaced it with a butcher block table, which had a pull-out leaf. That gave me an extra 6 or 8" of workspace when I needed it, folded out of the way when I didn't need it, and still provided some amount of storage. The thing about a little kitchen is that it keeps you disciplined about keeping it clean because there's just no space for extra junk on the counters.

As happy as I am in my new life in the Middle of Nowhere, I still miss the little house in Wheaton. Some day, we will be able to build our own house. While I don't think we'll end up with a Colonial, I imagine we will work hard to incorporate the spirit and the ambiance of our first house.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

November Reads

I know I'm a few days late with my reading list and I totally missed Fun Monday. I arrived home with an unexpected parting gift - a killer cold that gave me a temperature of nearly 102, aches and chills, and the feeling that the inside of my throat had been run through a meat grinder and then spackled with wallpaper glue. Not pleasant at all.

There I was, all pleased because I managed to sleep comfortably for half of the flight (which has never happened) and now I realise it was probably just the cold clobbered me over the head and knocked me out. (It probably also stole my lunch money. The big bully.) But I did take Laurie's advice on the dried cherries, so maybe they deserve the credit.

I'm feeling much better today. Now I just have a cough that sounds worse than it is. I sound like TB ward but in actuality, it's just my voicebox rattling like a screen door in a gale. For some reason, I tend to develop these very persistent and ugly-sounding coughs. I blame it on all the bronchitis and tonsilitis I had when I was a kid.

Enough whinging - on to the vacation-inflated edition of my November reading. I hit my goal - 10 books, largely because I read 2.5 books on the trip over and 2 books on the trip home. Unfortunately, this is largely a case of quantity trumping quality.

10. Simple Genius by David Baldacci - A self-destructive detective and the fool who loves her try to unravel a mystery involving the CIA, a secretive scientific community, and a borderline autistic 9 year old orphan. Cloying, overly-pleased-with-self, and too long by half.

9. Bye-Bye Black Sheep by Aylet Waldman - Juliet, everyone's favourite detective-mommy, takes on the case of a transvestite looking for the killer of his drug addicted sister. Overly preachy, moralistic, and not even a very satisfying mystery. Now I know why the hardcover was at an outlet store for $4.96. (I still feel like I overpayed.)

8. Shopaholic and Baby by Sophie Kinesella - Becky, everyone's favourite shopaholic, meanders her way into trouble and misunderstanding and then somehow, miraculously, meanders her way back out. Not bad, just not very good either. The series may just have worn itself out - how much spending and bumbling can one well-meaning girl do, after all?

7. The Overlook by Michael Connelly - Harry Bosch finds himself in the middle of a case with apparent terrorism links. But is everything as it seems? (Of course not - no book otherwise.) Not bad, just not very good either. I'm grading this one overly harshly because its clever twist was similiar to another book that I read the same day.

6. City of Bones by Michael Connelly - When a guy's dog finds a bone in a wooded area, Harry Bosch investigates a 20-year old mystery. Not bad, just not very good either. (Seeing an alarming trend here?)

5. Finders, Keepers by Mark Bowden - The true story of Joey Coyle, an unemployed longshoreman who found $1.2 million on a Philadelphia street in the early 80s. Great story, well-told, but there really wasn't enough material here for a book. (And it was very depressing.)

4. Nature Girl by Carl Hiassen - If you can think of a way to summarise a Carl Hiassen book in 1 sentence, then you deserve to find $1.2 million on the street. (Just don't do what Joey did.) Enjoyable enough, but not one of Hiassen's best.

3. Beneath the Bleeding by Val McDermid - With the help of bed-ridden Tony Hill, Carold Jordan is struggling to solve the mysterious death of a Bradford football player, and then the apparent terrorist attack on the Bradford football stadium. Val McDermid is one of my favourite authors and I'd have to call this good, but not her best.

2. Lost by Michael Robotham - Detective Victor Ruiz wakes up in the hospital with literal holes in his leg and figurative holes in his memory. He must quickly figure out who is trying to kill him, why he has 2 million quid worth of diamonds in his hall closet, and what he was doing working a case when he was suspended. A very interesting narrative that allows the reader to discover the story along with the narrator.

1. Whack A Mole by Chris Grabenstein - John Ceepak, the detective with an unbreakable honour code, and his young partner Danny Boyle are put to the test when body parts start turning up in odd places in their New Jersey seaside town. My big pleasant discovery of the month - Grabenstein has an engaging writing style and a great voice, one that somehow blends Guy Noir, Bruce Sprinsteen, VI Warsharski, and someone else that I can't quite place. I'm looking forward to tracking down the two preceding books in the Ceepak series.