Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pulitzer Project: A Thousand Acres

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992. The good news is Smiley can write. You get sucked into the book. The writing flows. My usual goal is to do at least 50 pages a night. With A Thousand Acres I'd be reading along, not paying any attention to the time, glance at a page number and realize I'd slid past 50 pages and was nearing 100+. Then I'd look at the clock and realize how late it was getting. 

So what's the bad news, you ask? Well, for a start if you do any Googling for information on this book the first thing you will read is a statement warning you Smiley's A Thousand Acres takes Shakespeare's King Lear and sets it on a farm in Iowa. Anytime someone decides to use a Shakespearean tragedy as inspiration you know the end result is not going to be a happy one. There will be suffering, there will be death, and in the end you'll find yourself wishing you'd reached for something a little more upbeat at the library, like Crime and Punishment or The Metamorphosis. 

Just to be sure no one misses the connection with King Lear, Smiley gives the three daughters in the novel names that echo the three in the play. Instead of Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, we're introduced to Rose, Ginny, and Carolyn. Just as in the play, the two older daughters spend their time agreeing with whatever their father suggests while the youngest questions the old man's decisions and judgement. 

Rose and Ginny stayed on the family farm even after marriage (their husbands moved to the farm rather than the women moving to where the spouses might have preferred to live). They've been unpaid housekeepers for their aging father since their teenage years, which is when their mother died, and have figured out the easiest way to deal with their father is to keep their mouths shut and let him do what he wants. If he drinks too much and drives while intoxicated, well, they're not happy about it but they refuse to do anything. If he goes on a spending spree and buys new furniture for no apparent reason, they'll just sit back and let him do it. 

Carolyn, on the other hand, is enough younger that she never fell into the acting as a live-in maid trap her sisters did. She also missed on some of the truly bad stuff that happened when her mother died but doesn't realize just how much her sisters protected her from the worst dysfunction. She left home for college and never came back except to visit. She's now an attorney living in Des Moines and sees the farm and her father in a very different way than her sisters. Her reaction to her father's odd or self-destructive behavior is to lecture Rose and Ginny on the need to keep an eye on the old man and to stop him from doing the stuff he does. Carolyn is clueless as to why her sisters are so passive, and of course they're never going to tell her. Among other things, if they did, it would torpedo Smiley's plot long before she got to her planned ending. Readers may mutter, "What the. . .?" but once an author has committed to an outline, the dominoes have to keep falling. 

As the novel progresses, Smiley throws in an ever growing list of bad things happening: marital infidelity, unrequited love, attempted murder, tragic accidents, child abuse and incest revealed after decades of denial, divorce, corporate greed, bad advice from bankers, foreclosures, auctions. Yes, the play that was the inspiration was full of bad stuff, too, but the litany of woes in A Thousand Acres turns a bit ridiculous by the time you get to the end. You name it, it's there. But you keep right on reading because Smiley can write.  

Bottom line on the book: it is extremely readable, it's well written and holds your interest, but let's face it, Smiley has managed to kitchen sink so many tragic elements that they risk becoming cliches -- the old man isn't just a drunk, he's a child beater! one of the sisters doesn't just resent a sibling, she plans to poison her! -- it comes close to qualifying as Iowa corn. 

The skirting so dangerously close to turning a tragedy into a farce makes it hard for me to do my usual rating on the 1 to 10 scale. It's good, but it's definitely not great. A six maybe? Slightly better than average, but not up near the high end.

Next up: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Butler Olen. The online catalog describes it as a collection of short stories so it will be a change from the usual novels. It will, of course, be another Interlibrary Loan request. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

I need a timeout from the Intertubes

I managed to get myself blocked for being a little too bluntly honest in a local buy/sell/trade group on Facebook. I can still see posts and message sellers directly, but can't do public comments. Which is probably a good thing. Some people have watched far too many episodes of "Flea Market Flip" or perused the recycling photos on Pinterest because, holy wah, they're peddling some bad DIY. I'd managed to restrain myself most of the time, just scrolled past the most horrible examples, the pieces of beaver puke (aka MDF)(medium density fiberboard) someone actually wasted time refinishing, but a mutilated 1930's vanity triggered me the other day.

I guess I can ignore it when someone is dumb enough to waste time doing chalk paint and distressing a cheap dresser that is no more real wood than I'm Meryl Streep, but when it was something I knew had been actual furniture once? I couldn't restrain myself. It was the ugliest example of DIY I'd seen in a long time, and I said so. 

No doubt the original veneer had been shot long ago, gouged up beyond the hope of a decent repair, but that still didn't excuse the battleship (or possibly automobile primer) gray or the not original drawer pulls that were massively out of proportion for the piece. The seller referred to it as dresser, but it wasn't, which makes it no surprise she totally botched the repurposing. It was an art deco vanity. At one time it apparently had a mirror, which no longer existed, but there was a chunk of plywood with some oddly spaced shelves and a whole lot of clutter on them attached where the mirror once lived. It was weird. It was ugly. It was sad because it could have been cute. With a less weird color choice and better staging it would have been easily marketable as a fun piece for a kid's room. 

But, nope, it was just crap. 

Photo is of a vanity similar in style to the one that got mutilated. Now try picturing it in matte gray primer. I felt you all flinch, gentle readers. The thought is indeed painful. 

In any case, asking the seller why she'd turned it into a giant gray fungus was probably a mistake. The comments section turned nasty. The seller apparently has a posse who are quite happy to heap praise on her for mediocre work. Either that, or they have as little aesthetic sensibility as the furniture mutilator does because they kept insisting it was "cute." Nope. It looked like an old piece of furniture someone had pulled out of their grandparents house and had been using for storage in the garage for 20 or 30 years. Solid, but not exactly something to hype.  

The comments sections on various buy/sell/trade posts do have a tendency to turn into flame wars. I've seen some remarkably obscene comments about buyers, sellers, and products. I do not envy the admin. Then again, she can't even manage to get people to pay attention to the fact that group is supposed to be "no clothes," but every other post seems to be someone hawking their kids' slightly stained, torn, whatever garments. 

The site also amuses me by the way folks under the age of 30 refer to anything that was sold before they graduated from high school as an "antique" or "rare." Right. You inherited a mass produced beaver puke Sauder bookcase your parents bought at Kmart in the early 80s. It's not an antique, and for sure it's not rare. But that's a subject for another time. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

It finally happened

Someone I know, a person who was not a nursing home resident and not known to have serious comorbidities has died from a COVID-19 infection. He wasn't the first person I've known who's been done in by COVID, but he was the first who didn't fit that nice cozy "it's only old people who were super close to taking dirt naps anyway" rationalization a lot of us have been using. 

You know what I mean. "Sure, I'm not that young anymore but I'm not in a wheelchair. I'm not in a nursing home. I don't have comorbidities like asthma or diabetes or high blood pressure or COPD. I am reasonably physically fit." Translation: "Screw following the guidelines. I'll be fine." 

You see the articles in the paper about how many people coughed their last at the local nursing home but you think, well, it's sad that so-and-so died, but he was in his 90's. If it hadn't been COVID, it would have been the flu real soon. It's sad but it's not real. I know when I heard that the lady who was the Older Daughter's Head Start teacher died from COVID at the nursing home, I was saddened but not shocked -- she was an octogenarian so my initial reaction was more along the lines of "she was still alive?" than to think about corona virus. 

Which makes it easy to get sloppy with social distancing and mask wearing and all the other precautions we should all be taking because although we all might be tired of thinking about the virus, it's obviously not tired of messing with us. 

My recently deceased acquaintance, the one who was not a nursing home resident, was physically fit, still working full time, and, in the overall scheme of things, not that old. Getting close to retirement, sure, but definitely still in the category of being confident enough to buy green bananas. And for sure he was younger than me and the S.O. 

For the past few weeks, our local paper has had to do a two page spread to get all the obits in. Not all the obits include cause of death, but when the number in the paper is more than double the usual number for any time of year -- even during the height of the flu season the nursing home doesn't have patients dropping like flies -- it's pretty obvious COVID-19 has hit this area hard. I don't think I'm retiring my masks any time soon. 

Totally inappropriate digression: corona viruses certainly are attractive as viruses go. One of my co-workers at the CDC collected stuffed toys modeled on various pathogens. Some of the bacteria were kind of cute, like E. coli and salmonella, but the viruses were usually rather ugly. Ebola, for example, looks like a long, skinny turd. But COVID-19? It could be a really cute toy. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Not exactly a phone book, but close

I have occasionally opined that some best-selling authors have slid so far into everything and anything that has their name on the cover is sellable territory that their publishers could run off copies of the New York City phone book and make a killing. So far as I know, no one has tried that (yet), although I'm reasonably sure writers like Stephen King or John Grisham could pull it off. 

Well, George R. R. Martin hasn't exactly decided to print out a phone book, but he's come close. I made the mistake of paying actual money for Fire and Blood, a work set about 300 years prior to the events described in the Fire and Ice series (A Game of Thrones, A Feast for Crows, etc.). Martin fans have been waiting for what feels like forever for Martin to finish the series, although we did get a look at what it might include when the HBO series wrapped up by killing off the person way too many viewers had decided was the heroine. I wasn't one of those people -- I'd seen enough foreshadowing in the way Martin shaped Daenerys Targaryen's character and story arc to know she wasn't going to do a living happily ever after in the arms of her nephew despite the Targaryen tradition of marrying relatives. Besides, Martin is notorious for never giving anyone a happy ending.

So what's the deal with Fire and Blood? Martin has pulled off an interesting publishing coup. One of the things every author of fiction has to deal with is the back story for the characters. What happened to get that person to where they are now? Where are they from? What's the social/cultural/political context? How much of that background do you have to create in order for you as the author to get into your characters' heads and figure where they're coming from and why? How complex does that back story have to get? Can you get by with a few notes on index cards ("father went nuts and had to be killed by his own body guard") or do you end up filling notebook after notebook with complicated genealogy charts, maps of imaginary continents, speculations about how you'd tell the sex of a dragon (wait to see if it ever lays eggs?), and so on. 

Martin apparently opted for the latter approach. Mountains of notes, databases crammed with spreadsheets, long lists of vaguely Celtic sounding names to slap on the characters blessed with violet eyes. And then at some point he looked at the Everest-sized pile of paper, the mammoth backstory he'd created to help keep him straight with the Starks and the Lannisters and the Tullys and especially the Targaryens, and said, "you know, the fans keep complaining about the series not being finished. I wonder if being handed this mess would shut them up for awhile?"

I'm guessing the answer to that question is Probably Not. Or, more emphatically, No. It did not shut us up. It just gave us more material to complain about. I doubt that I'm the only person to read this book and mutter just what was the frelling point? Hundreds of pages of Targaryen trivia. 

I can see how keeping all this stuff in the background while writing the actual novels would be useful -- it's pretty clear why several centuries later why Daenerys is likely to go off the rails. It's a family tradition. For every Targaryen who turns out sane and is a competent ruler, there's another one who's a self-centered amoral psychopath. When you have a family tradition that promotes full sibling marriage, odds are multiple generations of in-breeding are going to produce some weirdness. Actually, not just some -- a lot. Lots and lots of weirdness. Infants dying young, infants born with major congenital defects, children who have rage issues or turn super promiscuous really young, children with definite sadistic tendencies. But does it occur to anyone in the Targaryen line that just like inbreeding isn't good for horses or dogs it might not work real well for people? Nope. They keep right on marrying each other. 

In short, Martin does a solid job of providing a background that explains why even a Targaryen like Daenerys who starts off looking like a hero can end up being a cold-blooded tyrant assassinated by the one person she may have loved. He's also apparently provided a lot of material for the showrunners for the HBO prequel to Game of Thrones to work with. Lots of battles, palace intrigue, dragons fighting dragons, lascivious and raunchy happenings in whorehouses and palaces. The prequel should be fun to watch.

Fire and Blood, however, is more odd than fun. There are long sections that are close to Biblical with the lists of names -- lots of begats and not much else. It's more like a summary of a novel (or novels) than it is an actual novel. I felt like I was reading an extremely long book report, an excessively wordy description of a book and not the book itself. 

On the other hand, the illustrations are nice. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Dear Trumpers: Please stop sending him money

I see The Donald held his first large rally since losing to Biden a month ago. The rally was being touted earlier this week as a campaign event to support the Republican candidates in the run-off election that could flip the Senate (sort of) and wrest the Majority Leader title away from Moscow Mitch, an outcome the Party of Trump does not want. In short, Trump's job in Georgia yesterday was to promote David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and not himself. Could he rise to the occasion?

We all know the answer. The rally meant to help the incumbent Republicans cling to their seats turned into the usual Trump "It's all about me" self-aggrandizing monologue. It was apparently one long pity party on the part of the lame duck President. He just can't let go. I'm kind of hoping he included a lot of rhetoric about rigged systems and fraud and don't bother voting because the Democrats are going to cheat and your vote won't count. If he wants to discourage Republicans from voting that's fine with me. I do, nonetheless, still wish he'd just shut up and get back to packing for the trip home to his Florida golf course. 

Please, Trumpers, stop sending him money. He's lost. He might be psychologically incapable of ever admitting in a public forum that he lost, but he lost. The states he's yelled about fraud the loudest in are all states that have Republican controlled legislatures. Those legislatures have certified the election results. They agree Joe Biden won. No fraud, no mystery suitcases full of ballots, no weirdness. Trying to read fraud into a system that functioned exactly as it is designed to do is an exercise in futility. But as long as the e-mails and tweets keep the money flowing in, he's not going to shut up and go away. 

At this point, Trump knows full well he's not going to manage to bully the courts or state legislatures or anyone else into letting him linger in the White House one second past noon on January 20. He's admitted privately that he lost. He's unhappy, depressed, definitely in a bad mood because he's gotten used to the perks of being President. I mean, what are the odds anyone at Fox & Friends is going to take an on-air call from him a few weeks from now? He's also likely about to get booted off Twitter. He'll be stuck posting on Parler and nattering on at Newsmax or One America. And, yes, he'll still have an audience, but he's going to know it's just the tinfoil hat crowd, the rubes he despises because they fall for his cons.   

So why doesn't he simply concede? Why keep pushing his legal team to pursue unwinnable cases? Well, for a start, as soon as he concedes he's admitted the election wasn't rigged. If there was no fraud, no dirty tricks, no shenanigans worth mentioning then he has no rationale for begging his die-hard fans to keep sending money. And, boy, have they been sending money. Trump's base has been believing his bullshit for over 4 years now. They've pinned all their hopes and dreams and bizarre fantasies on the Donald. In their minds, if they just send him a few more dollars, all will be well. The last I heard, he's managed to raise over $400 million with his "help me fight the fraud" pleas. A public concession means cutting off the money flow. 

Oh well. At some point the small dollar donors will be tapped out, and the richer ones will realize they're getting suckered. One millionaire donor has already filed suit to get his $2.5 million donation back because the Trump team's efforts to prove fraud are failing. Once it gets to where the fund-raising efforts are costing more than they're collecting, Trump may not concede but he should at least go silent. One can hope. 

A minor side note: one of the funnier things I've seen in comment threads on social media is the belief on the part of some Trumpers that because the Donald has not publicly conceded that he lost he can stay in the White House as long as he wants. The stupid, it burns and amuses. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Could this be the info that pushes dudes into wearing masks?

Erectile dysfunction. The dreaded ED. Having a body part that suddenly refuses to rise to the occasion. One of the long term side effects of a COVID-19 infection is apparently an unhappily flaccid penis.

This little news gem was kind of buried in a discussion of "long haulers," the people who recover from COVID-19 but do not emerge unscathed. Many people who are now recovering have found that it is taking them a long, long time to get back to some semblance of normal. Patients who never got sick enough to require hospitalization are nonetheless learning even a mild case of COVID-19 can knock you down for many months, possibly years. This is all still so new no one really knows yet just what all the long term effects might be. 

Reading that erectile dysfunction could be one of those effects didn't actually surprise me. I did do a quick literature search to confirm that the information that had been shared from a local television news broadcast was based on fact, i.e., actual research. It was, and is.  Researchers have described this as a "worrying" complication for older men, but I have a hunch younger dudes wouldn't be too thrilled with it either.

I've been seeing articles for quite awhile in which researchers posited that classifying COVID-19 as a respiratory illness similar to other causes of pneumonia is misguided. It's more accurately a cardio-vascular illness. The virus binds to the angiotensin converting enzymes (ACE) in the body; anyone who's ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure has probably been prescribed ACE inhibitors. ACE affect blood pressure regulation in the body and not in a good way, which is why ACE inhibitors exist.  (For that matter, hypertension is also the reason Viagra exists: It was developed as a treatment for high blood pressure.) 

But instead of going off on a long tangent about high blood pressure and ACE inhibitors, I'll just note that hypertension appears to be the most common comorbidity in patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Again, not much of a surprise when ACE have been identified as the virus's preferred landing spot. That, and neutrophils found primarily in nasal passages (Pull the damn mask up, moron. Every time you breathe in you're inviting viruses to colonize your body.) If you already have an over-abundance of ACE, it's the physiological equivalent of providing a nicely fertilized garden in which to sow the rutabaga seeds instead of tossing them into a gravel lot. 

Then, once it's landed and starts to replicate, COVID-19 does strange things to various organs and affects the circulatory system. Patients develop clots in capillaries; extremities (toes and fingers) end up dying from lack of blood. And maybe, just maybe, other dangling appendages. 

So do y'all think that if we started showing young dudes photos like this one and told them that if they get sick their dicks could end up looking like that, too, they'd be willing to wear face masks?