March 29, 2010

A Better-Late-Than-Never Review: "Dances with Wolves" (the book, not the movie)

Used-book shops and thrift stores- these are good, because the more you read, the less you can spend on your little... habit. If crack addicts could buy pre-owned crack, they would. Why should we readers be any different?

But even better than saving money is the other reason to pick through the badly organized, bent and wrinkled stock of these retailers. Browsing used books means discovering books of which you had never before heard. Unearthing volumes you once owned and don't now for whatever reason. Finally getting your hands on stories you've heard about for years but never read.

(And that's why books are better than crack. In the printed word there is infinite and breathtaking variety, but when you've seen one rock you've seen them all.)

Last Saturday I had only half an hour to scan a thrift store's collection of 59-cent paperbacks and $1.99 hardcovers before the employees closed up shop for the day, so I was lucky to spot it:

Dances with Wolves. By Michael Blake. "Now a major motion picture from Orion Pictures."

Speaking of discovering books I'd never heard of. If the pocket paperback had been a novelization of the Kevin Costner film I saw on rented VHS as a kid, I wouldn't have looked twice at it. My memory may have been unfair to the movie; I didn't recall that it was very good. Kevin Costner vehicles frequently weren't.

But "now a major motion picture" meant that a book called Dances with Wolves had been turned into a Kevin Costner vehicle. It's good to learn something new every day. I bought the book.

Michael Blake's 313-page novel is a fast read; I finished it Sunday night. As compared to the film-adaptation's full synopsis on, the two tellings of the story are similar enough to count. I guess I don't remember the movie well at all, because everything in the book was a big surprise as it happened.

Published in 1988, Dances with Wolves is a relic of American fiction, printed in a time when not every tale had to be a work of divine genius ten years in the making. The prose doesn't try to impress the shorts off its readers; neither dialogue nor narration attempts to imitate the vernacular of the time period in which the story is set; the author appears to have limited his historical reseach to 1950s western flicks. It looks like Michael Blake just sat down before the typewriter and wrote a book. And it's a good thing he did.

Character driven, emotional, the ribbon of a love story winding around its gentle plot, Dances with Wolves is not only worth reading, it was worth writing. I hope Michael Blake is proud of this book that I am not likely to forget any time soon.

I'm not going to write a summary because it would bore me and summaries of this novel are easily found. (And heck, if you've seen the movie, you know how the story goes.) So I'll contribute this:

The strongest statements in the whole book are found on the final page, in its final paragaph.

"But a human tide, one that they could neither see nor hear, was rising in the east. It would be upon them soon. The good times of that summer were the last they would have. Their time was running out and would soon be gone forever."

Dances with Wolves is not an anti-Caucasian book. It is not a rant against the United States.

But in those four sentences, Michael Blake reminds a nation that we are not built entirely on a foundation of virtue and human rights, no matter what people like to say and repeat and insist is true. This land of America is stolen land, a fact that few would dispute.

Nobody has to dispute it. They excuse it. They slough off the blame. That was then, this is now. I didn't do it. Get over it.

But if Caucasians are going to lay claim to the accomplishments of their ancestors beneath the banner of Western Civilization, then Caucasians must also claim the shame, the acts of evil.

White people aren't so bad. But we also aren't so great. And yes, the sins of our ancestors are our problem. Michael Blake got that part very right.

(I'd like to write something more original and thought provoking than this, but it's getting late in the day and I have to wrap it up. I'll make up for my lackluster blogging by posting this theatrical trailer for the Kevin Costner vehicle, which for all I know is better than I remember. Hey, I saw it back in 1991 or something.)

November 09, 2009

Buy American! You Have No Choice!

What is this nonsense! The internet is the planet Earth scrunched up and rolled skinny and sent through wires and even through thin air, so that you can be more cosmopolitan, a man/woman of the world, by exposing yourself to faraway cultures as no armchair traveler of previous generations ever imagined possible. Yup. You do that, right? Yeah, me neither. I just find music on YouTube and say "Do want!" Sometimes the music is foreign. I am more cosmopolitan by accident. When the music is foreign Amazon might not make it available for purchase, not even on import CD. That's the nonsense. Why even GIVE me the internet if I can't use it to BUY stuff?!

108 Sketches is J-core, a.k.a. electronic music from Japan. A shared project for two of Japan's more beat-happy DJs, t+pazolite and RoughSketch, 108 Sketches is thirteen tracks of hand-molded electricity. Yes my friends, this album is why they invented electricity in the first place. Listen to track 1.

Track 7, "Bloody Serenade", is the most viewed of the bunch on YouTube, so I'll buck a trend by embedding track 2 for its overlooked and demanding bouncy club sound.

By now you are either angry and shutting down your computer so you can rant to people you know IRL about how the internet was intended for making cosmopolitan men/women of us all and not for watching still pictures from a so-called video site while stupid music shouts at you, or you too are saying "Do want!" I'm not sure there's any way to feel something in the middle. If you do want, tough, because I have yet to find a legal way to buy 108 Sketches. I don't do torrents. Society punishes me for my law-abiding ways by not letting me buy just anything I'd like. Bastards.

What's the point in giving us a way to expose ourselves to faraway cultures if we can't buy all the Japanese hardcore and gabber we require to make our ears bleed on a proper schedule?!

Where's my One World Order already!

RoughSketch's MySpace

t+pazolite's MySpace

More blogging about 108 Sketches

November 08, 2009

In Defense of 100% Pure Maple Syrup and Other Foodie Splurges

"The fact is I have no problem with the notion of spending large amounts of money on hugely expensive restaurant experiences.... How much would you be willing to pay to see your football team play in the Super Bowl? $200 a ticket? $400 a ticket? $1,000 for a really good seat? You wouldn't think twice about it.... What does that money buy you? Nothing but memories, and the right to say you were there. Serious gastronomy is no different."- Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner

And with that bit of foodie apologetics, we dive into the question we should all be asking ourselves: How much am I willing to pay to eat well?

Eating well- oh, what a  bad reputation that phrase has!- doesn't mean eating like a snob. In fact, it shouldn't. If you're eating something you don't really like because someone told you that the food is special, noble, and that its royal gloss would somehow rub off on you, you're not eating well. You're just being gullible.

Eating well- serious gastronomy- for me is spending $6.50 on a 12-ounce glass jug of pure maple syrup because there's no reason to subject myself to a plastic squeeze bottle of more conveniently priced "pancake syrup". Not every marketing venture to come out of the Age of Industry was meritorious. Synthetic treacle is not meritorious.

I ate pancake syrup on my pancakes, waffles, and french toast for three decades. Ignorant and a product of marketing ventures, I simply did not know any better. That's my defense. That will be my defense before the Throne of Heaven if it ever comes up.

Recently, while purchasing ingredients for a french-toast recipe I found on a recipe site, I noticed a $6.50 12-ounce glass jug of pure maple syrup standing on the highest shelf in the breakfast foods aisle. I realized that if I was going to go to all the trouble of making french toast from scratch I should probably pour something expensive on it.

I had no clue what I'd gotten myself into. On a Monday evening I dredged and fried my french toast. Plated my serving and melted some margarine into the chunky, browned slices. Then I opened the glass jug, curious to know what a little luxury tasted like.

The maple syrup didn't TASTE like anything by itself. That's not how it was meant to work.

No more viscous than water, as subtle as the serpent and sneaking its way into the aromas of the cinnamon and egg-spiked milk, the maple syrup was no condiment. Pancake syrup had always been a condiment. Real maple syrup was the final ingredient to the recipe, the "one more thing" that took innocent sweet bread and grew it up to know the difference between good and evil flavors.

I could have spent that $6.50 on anything but at that moment I would not have spent it on anything else.

In other words, the stuff is worth the money. THAT is eating well.

Any food that is worth the money is eating well. Whether you're replacing ground cinnamon with firm stick cinnamon you grate yourself or paying $300 a head at a restaurant famous for its toro tuna, it's about making your little pocket of the world that much more pleasant. Life is too short for chewing fast.

We don't have to spend a lot to make meals and treats our happy places. We just have to know how much we're interested in forking over and for what. Today I plan to splurge on natural peanut butter for a cookie recipe I like the sound of. Because if I'm going to go to all the trouble of making baked calories from scratch I should probably throw something expensive into the mix.

November 04, 2009

Thoughts on a Book I Haven't Yet Read

It’s that time of year again… that time when we give thanks to God on a November evening and enjoy the company of our loved ones around the well-browned and juicy corpse of a giant bird. OH SO TASTY GIANT DEAD BIRD!

Ambivalence ftl. :/

I like animals. But if I don’t eat one every so often, I feel famished. Something to do with having thousands of years’ worth of carnivorous ancestors. Even if I’m not eating something’s leg or ground-up flesh, I’m partaking of their bodily functions. Eggs and milk. I’m a monster. Not that my dog minds, he’s living in a bubble shelter of societal taboos and eats every scrap of leftovers he can beg off of my table. Never mind that in other lands, *he'd* be on the table. He’s too busy nomming the chop of some nameless slaughtered pig to wax philosophical.

Vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice that I admire and applaud for its aim to live without killing. Meat is something I feel I have to eat as a matter of destiny, the price I pay for being born a member of the master species. The simple fact that we require vitamin B12 and that particular vitamin can only be found in meat and dairy cannot be overlooked.

This month Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, Eating Animals, has hit store shelves and readers with a message of ethical vegetarianism. I haven’t read it yet. I wonder how it will change me when I do. Every book I read changes me. I surrender my future to a writer’s force.

Foer’s style and prose voice floor me; His first novel, Everything is Illuminated, reduced me to tears because I knew that I could never write so well. Foer has said that the greatest writing advice he’s ever received was “Feel more.” His books make the reader feel more as well, through his character’s desperate words and leaking hearts. I almost fear what his plea for ethical vegetarianism- damp with freshly cut emotion and human honesty- might do to my stomach. Never mind what it might do to my head.

Because ethical vegetarianism is the only motive for a meatless diet that makes sense to me. Thousands of years’ worth of carnivorous ancestors make a joke of the claim that people are not meant to eat anything more than fruit and celery. Vitamin B12 and iron requirements rule out the claim that vegetarianism is healthier than a meat-inclusive diet. Human omnivores cover the globe, eating animals on six continents- proving that the practice is not merely the thoughtless whim of a few uncivilized psychopaths.

But nothing makes the practice a laudable one. It’s relaxing and pleasant to watch the budding of fruit on the branches of a tree, and to smell hearty clumps of earth hugging the roots of ripe vegetables harvested from a leafy garden. Nobody enjoys watching hamburger get made.

Jonathan Safran Foer takes the ethical route in Eating Animals, by all accounts. If you don’t want to watch hamburger get made, then face reality and recognize that not looking at something doesn’t keep it from happening. Giving an industry financial incentive to make hamburger- that’s what makes it happen. Stop buying ground chuck! Buy potatoes! You’d watch a potato harvest any day of the week!

Do potatoes want to live? Do steers want to live?

Should I rule over the weakness of my hunger and seek my vitamin B12 in dairy products alone?

Writing and food alike share this in common: both are art. Both are as much of the soul as they are of the body, and decorate our lives. Both affect us.

If a book called Eating Animals affects my head enough, will it affect my stomach as well? Will it change how food affects me?

(Also posted on one of my Tumblrs)

October 24, 2009

Electronic Heartbeats

Electronic music is the voice of the 21st-century human soul, the wailing and the euphoria that have no mouths of their own.

Whether we are letting the power of Tiesto (as seen above) speak for us, or Deadmau5 in his foam cartoon of a mouse head, or the tireless Armin Van Buuren (12-hour live sets!), or French house expert David Guetta, or any of the hundreds of other DJs tweaking synthetic noises until the electricity runneth over, we can be sure that someone is translating our emotions into a language everyone understands. So that we know everyone may understand us.

It's no coincidence that for years the drug of choice on the dance-music scene was ecstasy, a narcotic that inspires almost divine levels of empathy in the user. A club full of "E" users equaled a club full of people who loved each other so very, very much. Clubbers and ravers died for that sensation. That's how important it was for them to understand and be understood.

The best of the genre's music is sufficient.

As unpredictable as a classic jazz jam, as daring as an eighteenth-century symphony, a single set from a master of the movement stretches primary feelings and primal reactions from your heart. Stretches them until your inside is out and THAT is why it is dance music. Because your inside never sits still.

Even if you don't dance (I don't dance) you won't sit still (I can't sit still) when the electronic heartbeats turn you inside out.

Those things you feel with the music- you didn't think you were the only one to feel those things, did you? You aren't. I feel it too, and now we know everyone can understand us through the synthetic noises that speak for the parts of us that don't have mouths of their own.

October 22, 2009

In Defense of Category Romances

Harlequin. Silhouette. Harlequin Intrigue, Silhouette Desire, Harlequin American Romance, Silhouette Special Edition. If you pay attention to the paperback romance section of your local bookstore at all, then you've seen these handy little volumes. Printed in bulk and shipped to shelves everywhere on a monthly, clockwork schedule, these lines of books- category romances- have no trouble catching your eye.

They do have trouble earning your respect. :X

Okay, they're not Steinbeck. They're not meant to transcend the genre, they don't even try... heck, they are the epitome of their genre. 

And that's why I like them.

Stay with me. Category romances are books that know exactly what they are doing.

A low level of description

To me, this is a positive. Descriptive paragraphs tend to pull in the praise and awards... but how often do people read them? A dollop of powerful description = a mountain of prose that many readers won't bother to climb. They'll flip ahead in search of dialogue, or appealing keywords such as "gun" or "zombie". Description stops the action. Description stops everything.

Category romances recognize this. If the male and female characters meet in a restaurant, the readers don't want to read about the restaurant. They want to read about the male and female leads who meet, feel attracted to one another, and banter. A little atmosphere is always good, but it should only support the characters, not compete with them. Category romances are character-driven books.

The focus on true love

One could say that any romance book focuses on true love. But category romances snip out pretty much anything that does not apply to the relationship between the male and female leads, leaving bare that true love. There is no clearer spotlight.

Quick write, quick read

The authors of category romances generally do not take a great deal of time putting together their books. This is one of the elements that make these lines of novels what they are- and their readers love it. A book that takes five years to write is going to read like it, complete with mountains of prose description, several subplot threads, ruminations, and shameless acts of symbolism. This is great. But not every book should read like it took five years to write.

A book that took six months to write reads like it, and for busy readers who want only to read about a man and a woman meeting in a restaurant and finding true love instead of dinner, six months is just right*.

A world in which every novel was The Kite Runner, or the latest Dan Brown adventure, or a derivative of On the Road, would be a more serious world, a quieter one with fewer dreams and no flights of fancy. Category romances supply dreams and fancies on a monthly, clockwork schedule.

And darn it, if nothing else convinces you- those books sell. ;)

*I'm not saying that every category romance takes six months to write. Some take more time- others take less. It's up to the writer. But speedwriting is not uncommon for category authors.

October 21, 2009

Downloading Music- Free and Legal!

Every so often, I filter's MP3 album downloads by price: "low to high". This tends to throw so much gratis music at me I don't know what to download first.

How many people know Amazon has free, promotional music up for grabs? I tripped across this fact, myself, while browsing the site mindlessly. Browsing Amazon mindlessly can be dangerous if you have any kind of money on hand... and it can be depressing if you don't have money on hand. All the more reason to know about the free MP3 albums.

The very first Amazon album I downloaded for nothing was a compilation from the World Music Network. Unfamiliar with world labels beyond the gentle Putumayo, World Music Network's energetic beats and genius vocalists made me hunger for more of that international vibe- that lively "screw you" to the globalized standard for pop and rock. Amazon had no shortage of world music from labels various. Bollywood bounce, Turkish dance, Celtic harmonies.

Indie tracks are also well represented in Amazon's free bin. Freshly downloaded today: Paper Bag Records Fall '09 sampler. Now this is an album. From the Outkast-flavored "That Girl" by Two Fingers to the pretty, synth-heavy melody of Sally Shapiro's "Miracle", there's something for every taste and interest. The last track in the set is especially stand out- as he sings "Young Hussies", Slim Twig's lead vocalist sounds like he's channeling Foetus a.k.a. JG Thirlwell. Impressive, considering Thirlwell isn't dead yet.

Amazon's free downloads are a category you want to peruse often; many albums are available at no cost for only a limited time. Naturally. So if you even halfway like what you hear in the 30-second samples, download the whole thing. If you decide the album's not a keeper, you can always delete it later. (And yeah, some of the albums aren't even worth the price of nothing. The biggest waste of space in my hard drive, beyond a doubt, is Music of Croatia. I sincerely hope that Croatians get to listen to better stuff than that on their radios.)

I was in no way paid by to write this. I doubt they even know I'm alive. :P