“This has to work. I have to get out of this morass, and soon. Which means I’d better be capable of murder.” – Westlake’s THE AX

The Ax by Donald Westlake
The Ax by Donald Westlake

The Ax by Donald Westlake

When Burke Devore finds himself on his way to three years without work, he decides he has to do something drastic.  Because his field of expertise is relatively narrow, he knows there aren’t that many people competing with him for jobs.  But the competition is there, and he just doesn’t have any more time.  So working from the cutthroat logic of late-capitalism, he decides his competitors ought to get the ax, permanently.

A few thoughts:

  • This book is really dark, with a sympathetic narrator who crosses the line we wouldn’t, but does it so rationally that we can’t help empathizing, at least a little.
  • We want Devore to succeed — his plight is so desperate — yet Westlake cleverly pushes us back and forth by showing that the men Devore murders are, essentially, copies of himself.  Any one of them could have done the same thing.  This overlap highlights the tenuous social contract we all make in living together.
  • The book makes a brutal statement about the nature of 20th century late capitalism.  Devore’s resentment at the way the owners cut corners to maximize profits resonates still today.
  • The mental torment of being unemployed comes through very well in the book.  It reminds me a bit of In Pursuit of Other Interests by Jim Kokoris, another book about a man in his middle age laid off and left floundering.  By contrast to Devore, the advertising exec in that book had sunk entirely into his job, and had let his marriage and family fall to shambles.  Then, when he got fired, he came around fully to face the terrible life he’d made for himself.  In The Ax, Devore’s troubles spring entirely from being laid off, and the difficulties that placed on a middle-class family.
  • The murders themselves are a mix of good planning and dumb luck, with the police always a possible danger in the background. The book keeps you guessing about what will happen right up to the end.

It’s really hard to decide whether this book is a dark comedy with pathos, or a tragedy with some comedic elements.  Either way, it’s a good read.  Recommended.

Get your own copy from Amazon.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends

We’re spending the day with family, enjoying ourselves and eating a lot and trying to stay warm.  Here’s hoping you do the same.

Here are a bunch of pictures of Thanksgiving dinners from Flickr. (Thanks to all you folks who put your dinners online!)

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Why did the turkey cross the train tracks?

Thanksgiving Delivery by Mike Tn
Why did the turkey cross the train tracks?

Stuff I’m thinking about – Beastie Boys, cooking, swimming, zombies, grading, snow globes

Sometimes you just need a picture of a duck
Sometimes you just need a picture of a duck.
The Bird Market, Part 4 of 8” cc-licensed Desmond Kavanagh

It’s two days until Thanksgiving and we have family coming to visit, so things are a bit crazy around here.  A quick couple things I’m thinking about:

  • I don’t particularly like (or dislike) The Beastie Boys, but I’ve usually thought of them as pretty honorable.  That said, they’ve come down on the wrong side of the Goldie Blox parody question. Popehat has a better summary than I can offer, if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
  • We took a great class at Fla’vour cooking school last night, all about pork (ribs, greens with pancetta, apple/cranberry compote, three-cheese macaroni bake, and bacon/maple cookies).  Those cookies were amazing.
  • I worked two sessions at the swim meet last weekend, and it was great fun, but alas I was only able to train for one of them.  This throws off the schedule I’d set for myself.  Now I need to find another meet I can go to. MINUTIAE ALERT: (I’m working on two certifications — USA swimming and YMCA.  I’ve finished the YMCA Level 1, so I can work as a stroke and turn judge at those meets.  For USA swimming, I have two more on-deck training sessions to do before I will be certified.  At the meet this weekend, there were enough officials there on Saturday that I was able to pair with someone and train. On Sunday, however, there weren’t enough USA-certified trainers, so I worked instead.)
  • I just finished Donald Westlake’s The Axe yesterday, so beginning today I’ll be reading an early copy of Scott Kenemore’s forthcoming novel, Zombie, Indiana.  I can’t wait.
  • I have a lot of grading to do in the coming week to set the stage for the final project push.  My detective class turned in their creative projects over the last week, so I’ve got a lot of sweet stuff to review.  This should be fun!
  • It snowed yesterday.  As I walked the kids home from school, Finn leaps and turns in front of me, trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue.  Avery walks next to me as she usually does, her hand warm in mine through two gloves.  Avery says, “It looks like the inside of one of those things you shake up.” “A snow globe?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says, “a snow globe.”  The crossing guard agrees.

Enjoy your week, people.

Lock and Load: J.R. Angelella’s novel ZOMBIE

Zombie by J.R. Angelella
Zombie by J.R. Angelella

Zombie: a novel by J.R. Angelella

Jeremy Barker dwells in the unhappy place often occupied by angsty narrators of young adult novels.  His dad is a traumatized Vietnam vet with whom he bonds over zombie movies and life advice (like which tie knot is the best — full windsor, by the way), but who can’t really hold it together enough to give Jeremy the guidance he really needs.  Meanwhile, mom means well but has left the house and is strung out on prescription pills.  Jeremy wades through life as if it were a zombie movie, living by codes not unlike those offered in the opening sequence of Zombieland.

Into this compelling (if conventional for a y.a. novel) narrative drops a horrifying enigma, a mysterious video that makes Jeremy dig deeper into his father’s psychosis, and try to find his own way in a world where the adults are as useless as zombies.

A few thoughts:

  • I like Jeremy’s voice, the bothered, annoyed aspect of teen mediocrity, where he’s not the standout and not quite the freak, just one of the many bullied.  I thought the school was a bit extreme in its terrors, but I suppose the magnifying glass of fiction does that.
  • Angelella does a nice job with the side characters, giving them distinct voices and personalities.  At the same time, they’re an awfully cool bunch of folks.  One wonders why they latch onto Jeremy.
  • Up until the last 30 pages, this could have been a very different book.  I’m still not sure what to make of it, but the conclusion of the story is both somewhat predictable and quite stark.

All in all, Zombie is a compelling novel that wrestles with youth and friendship and parenting and identity, and with trying to understand horror movies without forgetting that real horror is all around us.

Get your own copy from Amazon.

Tweets from 2013-11-17 to 2013-11-23

Hey Judge! He did two dolphin kicks! Are you blind!?

Swimming Finals - 9th March 2012
Swimming Finals – 9th March 2012 – photo cc-licensed by Andy Wilkes

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on getting certified as a swim official.  It’s been an interesting process, full of new knowledge and a new set of skills, with lots of little nuances that were a bit unexpected.  Here are a few of them:

  • A primary goal is to give swimmers equal scrutiny, meaning that when you swim shouldn’t affect how much you’re watched by a judge.  Thus, if I have multiple lanes in my jurisdiction (the area of the pool I’m responsible for watching), I’m supposed to spend some of my time watching each lane, even if they’re empty on a given heat.
  • The biggest rule in swimming officiating is BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT GOES TO THE SWIMMER, meaning that if you aren’t sure something was a violation, you ought not call it.  Also, if you can see one lane better than another, you need to use the level of scrutiny that applies to the far lane for the close one.  See guideline above.
  • The BENEFIT rule also means you develop habits of watching that insure if you see an infraction, you really see it.  For example, when judging take-offs for relays, you should watch the toes of the swimmer on the block.  When you see them clear the block, then you look down to see if the previous swimmer is touching the side. If you watch for the touch and then look up, you can’t be sure that the swimmer hadn’t left the block yet.
  • The hardest part of judging thus far is the backstroke turn.  Here’s the summary of the rule: “During turn swimmer may go past vertical to the breast and may utilize a continuous single or continuous simultaneous double arm pull to initiate the turn. Some part of swimmer must touch wall at completion of each length. Shoulders at or past vertical toward back when feet leave wall.”  The nuance for the rule comes in learning to judge that “arm pull” and the “initiate the turn” business, which each swimmer does differently.  There are also stalling techniques swimmers can use if they’ve turned over too early, such as a VERY SLOW arm pull, or bobbing their head before they “initiate the turn.”
  • The hardest stroke for swimmers to master is the breaststroke, as the kick is pretty complicated and easy to do wrong.  From a judging perspective, this is an easier piece of the puzzle to call, since a swimmer doing a bad kick on the breast stroke probably often does it with each kick.

The certification process is relatively slow, so I’m still working on becoming the workhorse of judges, the Stroke and Turn judge.  Once I have this certification, I will be doing that for a year or so before I could move up the ladder.

Last, in the US, swim judges wear blue pants and white shirts.  This is partly, I’m told, because while men’s white pants are usually a durable fabric, white womens’ pants are often thin and thus don’t make an ideal outfit for someone standing in a splash zone.

Adventures in Bug Hunting: Or, PHP 5.3, why can’t you handle whitespace?

Caution: NERD TALK AHEAD

Soldier in Starship Troopers shoots a bug
Bug Hunting isn’t this exciting

A couple years ago, I created a request system for my department which would allow users to register their teaching preferences.  This wasn’t really anything new, many other people have done it (I did it for my department at University of Florida years ago).  In the years since, I’ve tweaked it and added features, but it’s been essentially unchanged.

On Tuesday, our department’s primary user of the system pointed out a bug in the way it handled new course requests.  I went in and fixed the bug that afternoon. No problem.

But the next day, she told me it was not working right.  I thought maybe it was a similar minor error.  Nope — it was downright broken.

Here’s the problem I was getting:

When the user tried to download a spreadsheet of requests, the system spit out an error indicating that the header (which tells your computer that a file is on its way) had already been sent.

This was very puzzling, as I had not changed anything having to do with headers.  Nonetheless, I started tracking the error back by forcing it, moving the code that replicated the error up the program chunk by chunk until I figured out that the initial headers were being set very early in the program.

In fact, they were being set when the program used “include” to grab a file of subroutines stored externally.  Now I was really mystified — this shouldn’t yield headers at all.  So finally I found where the error was being generated, but I had NO idea why.

Then I remembered: yesterday I got a message from my web host that the PHP on my servers needed to be upgraded to 5.3.  “Sure thing,” I said as I clicked the upgrade button.  Dammit.

To Google!

Finally I discover that the error code I was getting showed where the mystery headers were being generated.  It was at the end of the file.  After the ?> which closes the program.

That’s right, upgrading PHP meant it was now unable to ignore two blank lines at the end of the file.  Bang head on desk for five minutes.  Delete two blanks lines.  Revel in properly working program.

“C’mon you apes, you want to live forever?!”

 

Like a magic growing animal capsule of the technological apocalypse (Blueprints of the Afterlife)

Blueprints of the Afterlife
Blueprints of the Afterlife

Blueprints of the Afterlife
by Ryan Boudinot

Blueprints is a strange book, non-linear and bewildering.  It tells the story of the fall of civilization in a war between humans and robots, but also of a monstrous glacier that traveled around North America, ripping cities up wholesale, and of a secret cabal that maybe made it happen on purpose.  And there’s a weird guy who calls himself “the curator” and shows up everywhere.  And there are clones.  That’s just the start.

A few thoughts:

  • Blueprints of the Afterlife challenges you to piece together its narrative, a task made more difficult by the jumbled up way you encounter the story.  There’s also the possibility, suggested by a couple elements in the book, that all of this is not a depiction of the post-apocalypse world, but perhaps a review of its records.
  • This book is scattered through with neat extrapolations of tomorrow into the future.  Perhaps the most disturbing is BioNet, an extension of networked body implants (like Dick Chaney’s pacemaker) that become a drug, a tool for abuse, and perhaps cause the collapse of civilization.
  • I laughed at the throw-away notion that when the world goes to shit, all corporations will become gun manufacturers, meaning that in the future, people will have Coke-a-cola brand pistols and Dell Sawed-Off Shotguns.  There’s also a great sequence with a houseful of clones of the same man. ‘Nuff said.
  • Several points in the book suggest a connection between technology and evolution, that networked human brains, or thinking machines equivalent (and probably superior) to our meat brains are a likely future invention.  One character suggests that each leap forward in technological progress represents an evolutionary leap for us.  Implied in the book are both Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, not to mention a bunch of other books.
  • One of the more oft-mentioned aspects of the book is a conceit, made early in the novel, that one way we could grow genetically-specific transplant organs would be to graft them into a person, someone whose job it would be to just, well, grow stuff on their body.  It reminded me a little of the Chicken Niblins in Oryx and Crake.  The incarnation of this idea in the story is particularly gross, but it’s a relatively small part of the book so don’t let that stop you from proceeding further.

One has two experiences of a book (at least, of a book you only read once): the experience of reading it, and the “afterlife” of the book in your memory.  With regard to this second piece, some books tarnish quickly, some books hold a fond place but don’t get “better,” and a few books expand in your memory.  It might be that they speak to something new in your life, and that new thing prods their return.  It might be that they provide a deep experience of emotion, a resonant idea that returns just like a memory of a real event.  Or perhaps the books are so jam-packed with ideas that book expands in your mind like one of those growing animal toys, blooming into shape over the coruse of days, weeks, and even months after you finish it.  In the two weeks since I finished Blueprints of the Afterlife, it’s been expanding.

We read this for my Science Fiction Book Club, so head over there to read some more thoughts on Blueprints of the Afterlife from the group.

Get your own copy from Amazon.

You’re Not Doing It Right

You're Not Doing It RightYou’re Not Doing It Right: tales of marriage, sex, death, and other humiliations
by Michael Ian Black

MIB is one of my favorite voices in comedy.  He plays smarmy and snarky and disconnected, but there flows underneath a current of thoughtfulness and nervousness that’s moving.  While I enjoyed his collection of essays, My Custom Van, this book is downright amazing.  Black has written a memoir that digs deep into his life, revealing insecurities and pieces of his life that connect in a way that his snarky exterior pretends he cannot.

A few thoughts:

  • Black writes very candidly about his failings, venturing into deep caverns that most of us are unwilling to contemplate, much less explore and publish.  These moments give the book an earnest quality that resonates much more deeply than his less serious work.
  • Yet it’s screamingly funny, especially when he’s wallowing in the worst things we do.  His chapter about buying a BMW is magnificent.
  • That said, this probably isn’t a book for everyone.  MIB tackles the subject of his life with no taboos, meaning we get an awful lot of personal information about his sex life and his insecure feelings about his marriage, his ability as a father, and so on.  While You’re Not Doing It Right made me laugh many times, it’s a pretty dark book.

A must-read for fans of MIB’s comedy, a suggested read for people who like dark/comedic memoirs or memoirs from comedians (which are often both dark and funny), and a possible suggestion for fans of the Will Smith science-fiction movie series MIB.

Get your own copy from Amazon.

My daddy would never tell me anything that wasn’t so, would you, Daddy?

The annual Miracle on 34th Street post

A Miracle on 34th StreetWe had a mini-Thanksgiving dinner last night because my mother is visiting, so it feels like it’s a bit later in the month than it actually is.  To follow it up, we watched the best Christmas movie ever made — A Miracle on 34th Street. We also made an effort to watch it early this year because last year, for the first time in memory, we didn’t watch it at all.  Horrors.

But this year we watched it with our children for the first time and a few minutes in, I realized that we’ve either made a terrible blunder OR we’ve uncovered a brilliant way to deal with the question all normally honest parents must face when it comes time to pay the elf for the misdirection we’ve been perpetrating on our children. I can’t help but wonder if the central question of SC’s existence at the heart of A Miracle on 34th Street might spurn some soul-searching for our own daughter, who is about one year older than Natalie Wood’s character in the film.

Here are some specific my observations from this time around:

  • While Fred continues to show himself a fine bachelor, he’s also not a great housekeeper.  When he gets Doris a spoon, he wipes it on a grimy dishtowel before putting it down, presumably to wipe away the dried-water stains and/or leftover pudding.
  • What happened to Mrs. Claus?
  • Settling Your Nerves seems to be the name, or the end of the name, of the book on Mr. Sawyer’s desk.
  • Mr. Shelhammer has a lot of toys in his office: a fire truck on the book shelf, a couple train cars on his desk, and a sailboat on the file-cabinet behind him.  While his position as head of the toy department certainly justifies this to a certain extent, it comes up short as far as I’m concerned in the grand scheme of things.  I prefer to imagine that Shelhammer dreams of a different, more adventurous career: riding the rails with a truncheon in his hand, knocking tramps on the head, or sailing across the Pacific, single-handed, armed to the teeth and ready to wreak vengeance on the Japanese he’d just returned from fighting and who still haunt his nightmares so deeply that he drinks three martinis just to get to bed.
  • At the end of the film, Fred utters a line meant to be funny – “Maybe I didn’t do such a great thing after all.”  The implication is that his accomplishment wasn’t so great because he didn’t convince the court of an untruth, but merely reinforced a truth.  But I like to imagine that Fred shares my Cape Claus theory, and that seeing the cane there made him wonder if KK might be better off in an asylum.

Until next year!

See also:
Miracle on 34th Street, 2004
The First Mailbag of the Year, 2005
It’s That Time Again, 2006
Media Over Break, 2007
You Know the Holidays are here…, 2008
Still Miraculous, 2009
Better Every Year, 2010
Like a Box of Crayons Barfed All Over It, 2011
The Kris Kringle Presents/Presence Paradox, 2011 (Not actually about Miracle)

Tweets from 2013-11-10 to 2013-11-16

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century

Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

I don’t envy anyone tasked with assembling a book like this.  You’d want to be original, but you couldn’t skip the best things.  You’d need to hit many of the major figures while not ignoring minor gems.  You’d want to hit every flavor and node.

Hillerman and Penzler did a fine job, selecting many moving and startling stories for the collection.  Several made me laugh, some made me shiver, some stayed with me for days.  At the same time, some seem out of place for tone, others for content.  Rather than discuss every story (there are 46, after all), I’ll list my five favorite and the five most out of place.

Let’s start with the out-of-place ones:

  • “The Comforts of Home”  – Flannery O’Connor is a stark story, but isn’t strictly a mystery, nor is it pleasant
  • “Do with Me What You Will” by Joyce Carol Oates feels too ham-handed– a story about something instead of being a story that makes you think about something
  • “First Offense” by Evan Hunter has the same problem — it’s too “on the nose”
  • “An Error in Chemistry” by William Faulkner – tries to be a clever mystery but falls flat. It’s also written in a confusing way, revealing details in the wrong order.
  • “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather feels like a rambling story that isn’t really a mystery at all.

The five best stories. I’d like to be clear — there are many great stories in this collection.  I’d have no trouble assembling a list of 10 instead of five.  But five will do:

  • “The Dark Snow” by Brendan DuBois seethes with the daily torments of modern life, and challenges the reader to rethink easy dichotomies of good and evil.
  • “The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the most horrifying story of the book, followed in a close second by Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
  • “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber still holds as one of my favorite stories ever. A tale of petty bureaucracy and orderliness.
  • “A Jury of her Peers” by Susan Glaspell brings the early 20th century feminism into bright relief, and works wonderfully.
  • “The Moment of Decision” by Stanley Ellin prods our conscience, asking how we’d act if a harrowing moment presented itself.

Overall, a very good read.  The anthology takes a pretty broad view of what a “mystery” is, but it can be forgiving since this broad definition yielded so many gems.
Get your own copy from Amazon.