Saturday, September 24, 2016

Cheap-Ass Shoes

I went to Google Images just now and started typing the phrase "cheap Walmart..." and wasn't surprised when the number-one auto-complete suggestion was "cheap Walmart shoes." I'm wearing a pair right now. My spare pair at home is a pair of CWSes. The pair I just threw away yesterday, when I bought the new pair I am now wearing, were also CWSes. Three different styles, three different prices, but all tantalizingly within the price-point I can actually manage these days. And they're complete rubbish.

I'm not surprised at this. Not at all. I've been buying this rubbishy footwear for years. The shoes' cheapness is offset by the oftenness with which I have to replace them. But every time I scrape together enough cash to invest in shoes of a higher quality and more durable construction, some other more urgent demand arises, and I have to settle for either the $13 running shoes with the velcro closures, or the $20 slip-on ones, or maybe (if I'm really flush) the $24 loafers with a glossy finish. Oh, la la!

And then I have to do it again in about six weeks, feeling like a fool, but unable to break out of the cycle of foolishness.

Like I said, this cycle has been going on for years. But just lately - within, say, the last three months - it has gone into overdrive. Walmart, purveyor of the cheapest of all cheap-ass shoes, has taken its cheap-ass-shoe game to a new level. The superstore chain is now selling shoes that look similar to its cheap-ass-shoe lines of yesteryear, but that are made of noticeably inferior materials.

The soles, in particular, are unprecedentedly non-wear-resistant. They wear out so ridiculously fast that you can practically feel the hope being crushed out of them as they take your weight for the first time. Their tread wears away when you use coarse language in their presence. To puncture their soles, you need only make a pointed observation. After any long fit of standing or walking in them, you are liable to think you would have gotten more arch support in your bare feet. The sensation you get when walking on gravel, sand, or dirt takes you back to your childhood, when you had a potty emergency in the middle of the night and had to stumble blindly through a nursery strewn with Legos while wearing footie pajamas. Bits of dirt, sand, and rock somehow work their way into the interior of the shoes even when there are not yet any visible holes in their soles - which is to say, sometime during the month when you purchased them. At times, while walking across a thick-pile carpet, their well-cushioned insoles convey to you a minute knowledge of the irregularities in the texture of the underlying carpet glue. A stroll down the street in these shoes puts you on familiar terms with the temperature, composition, and condition of the pavement under you - something perhaps of great use to a conscientious taxpayer.

This past Friday, after spending the usual hour or two of my work day with my feet up on the desk, facing the open doorway through which everyone in my office could see the bottom of my shoes from where they sat or walked by,
I realized that my shoes had reached the level of decrepitude made famous by 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo by William Gallagher. When I realized it, I felt presidential. I felt historically significant. I felt like I was going to lose all the skin off the ball of my foot as I dashed across the hot tarmac of the Walmart parking lot, only to take another dose of the same medicine.

I'm discouraged by this sudden plunge in quality, from merely horrible shoes to downright insultingly bad footwear. They're so delicate, you're afraid to look at them wrong. Hold a brand-new shoe in your hands, and the oils in your skin are liable to burn right through them. There is no inner-sole on the market that can cushion your feet enough to remove the impression that the latest in shoe soles are providing no support or protection whatever. Walmart should make sure it has a no-backsies policy for shoes the customer puts on in the store and wears to the check-out counter; they'll be second-hand by the time they get there, and no second foot will ever want them.

I don't mean to make Walmart's cheap-ass shoes a hissing and a byword. I wouldn't be seen anywhere without them. Or to be more precise, I can't afford to be seen anywhere without them. I just can't help noticing this example of what happens when the value of money goes down but the amount of it you're making doesn't. You can't even get decent shit anymore.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hercufleas

Hercufleas
by Sam Gayton
Recommended Ages: 10+

Hercufleas is a flea - an unusually large, talking flea, but still, a flea. Nevertheless, from the very day he hatches out of his egg, he wants to be a hero. He gets that chance in short order, thanks to his fleamily's position as employfleas - you see where this is going - of a man who rents out heroes. Along comes a girl named Greta, from a town named Tumber, whose citizens are being guzzled by an indestructible giant named Yuk. They have tried hiring heroes before, but none of them has managed to stop Yuk guzzling the Tumberfolk. Nothing will do but a giant-slayer, Greta says. At first Mr. Stickle tries to refuse to risk his valuable heroes on this foolish venture, but when Greta threatens to spread word of this, he takes her money, has the fleas type up the contract, and then sets her up with a couple of villains who are meant to kill her. Hercufleas, stowing away in her clothes for a taste of adventure, helps her escape, and Greta decides he will be the hero to save her village.

What with one thing and another, they don't even make it back to Tumber before Greta has changed her mind about Hercufleas. They end up having to go on a huge, dangerous quest together before she believes her flea friend can save her town. Along the way, he has to discover a hero he never knew he had within him - one brave enough and wise enough to refuse to fight evil with evil, yet somehow strong enough to defeat a rampaging giant before he comes back to Tumber to guzzle the last survivors.

This is an amazingly entertaining story, for an adventure featuring a bloodsucking parasite. It unfolds in a strange and whimsical world where Czars leave doomsday weapons in Arctic fortresses guarded by mouseketeers; where the woodn't (woods you wouldn't want to visit) is full of deadly creatures such as grizzly squirrels and a cross between rattlesnakes and oak trees called, ahem, rattlesnoaks. It has a flightless bird that can be ridden like a horse, a pig that can shoot bullets out of its snout, a musical instrument that enables its player to fly, and various other magical and alchemical innovations. It also depicts feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and despair with touching honesty, respectfully observing Greta's quest for healing in a world that can, nevertheless, never be the same for her.
It shines a light on the essence of heroism, the ethics of fighting evil with evil, and the links between faith, friendship, and bravery. It carries a suprising amount of weight for something seemingly so lightweight, and carries it, moreover, with flawless charm and grace.

Sam Gayton is an English author and playwright whose other books include The Snow Merchant, The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn, His Royal Whiskers, and Lilliput. I already want to see more of his work. This book, published in 2015 in the U.K., is scheduled for U.S. release Oct. 4, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Pawn of Prophecy

Pawn of Prophecy
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

As fantasy quest epics go, this book is relatively slim, simple, direct, and a quick read. It is also incomplete, as it only sets its hero on the start of his quest, and doesn't fully explain to him what it's about (although an alert reader can probably guess). It's no surprise to learn it's only the first part of a larger story, sometimes published in two volumes, most often in five - and that's not counting prequels, sequels, and supplementary volumes. It will turn out, after all, to be an epic epic, requiring a considerable investment of time and Sitzfleisch to get through. Based on this opening move, however, I think it will be a worthwhile investment.

The main character is a boy named Garion who only makes it to age 14 by the end of this book. He doesn't know much about his parents, or who or what he is. All he has known so far is a peaceful farm in the kingdom of Sendaria - a kingdom known for its peaceful farms and its practical, if sometimes foolish, citizens. The only family he has ever known is Aunt Pol, a holy terror in the kitchen. But then Aunt Pol and Mr. Wolf, a traveling storyteller who visits the farm every five years or so, become alarmed about something Garion doesn't quite understand, and together with the farm's blacksmith (who is smitten with Pol), they go on the run. Their party grows as they are joined by a giant from the neighboring kingdom of Cherek and a weasel-faced acrobat, merchant, and spy named Silk.

Garion can't quite tell whether they're running from someone or searching for something; possibly both. As time goes by, he reckons something of great importance has been stolen, and Mr. Wolf and Aunt Pol are trying to get it back before he uses it for some awful purpose. Agents of a race that serves the evil god Torak are on their trail, including a type of sorcerer-priest who has a mysterious hold on Garion's mind. And each day, the hints fall thicker and faster that there is more to Garion's companions than meets the eye - and perhaps more to Garion as well.

Just when they pick up the scent of whoever stole whatever it was, the party is waylaid by soldiers and diverted to a conference of kings where, before everybody can agree what to do, they are set upon by their enemies in an exciting climax. But their journey is only beginning, and the next leg of it will take them into even stranger territory, more complex intrigues, and greater danger. At the bottom of it all seems to be a prophecy, a broken line of kings, and an age-old conflict between nations and gods. Unless I'm off in my guess, Garion will soon find himself at the center of it all.

First published in 1982, this is the first book of The Belgariad, a five-book fantasy epic that also includes Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter's End Game. Also connected with it are the prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress, a five-book sequel series called The Malloreon, which starts with Guardians of the West, and The Rivan Codex, a collection of background material for the entire saga. American author David Eddings (1931-2009), sometimes writing with his wife Leigh Eddings (1937-2007), also wrote the fantasy trilogies The Elenium and its sequel The Tamuli, plus a four-book series The Dreamers starting with The Elder Gods.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Kappa

Kappa
by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 1926 "novel," translated from Japanese by Geoffrey Bownas, is all of 100 pages long; the edition I read was fattened up a bit by the addition of a helpful 47-page introduction. It was one of the last works of an author now considered the father of the Japanese short story, celebrated for the clarity and circumstantial detail of his stories, and their tone of dry humor. His story "In a Grove" was the basis of the celebrated film Rashomon by director Akira Kurosawa. There seem to be a lot of different views about what kind of book this is - a children's story based on traditional Japanese folklore, a satire on the mores of early-20th-century Japanese society, or a cry of existential despair from an intellectual who was possibly suffering the early stages of schizophrenia.

I found a copy of it at a local secondhand bookstore with a sticker on the back cover listing a price in Yen; somehow it seems to have made its way from Japan to the quiet side of the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. It interested me enough to take it home, for two reasons: first, because I still fondly remember the smattering of Japanese I learned in high school, almost 30 years ago; and no less importantly, it features a magical creature listed in the Hogwarts school-book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them..

Kappas, according to Japanese tradition, are scaly critters that live in rivers, where their favorite pastime is drowning unwary animals and children. Their distinguishing features are a beak and an indentation on their head. According to Akutagawa, they also have a society that mirrors the foibles of Taishō-era Japan, including a capitalist system that virtually enslaved its workers, a religious scene that wallowed in futility, a crisis in the arts and the structure of the family, and many other problems that evidently disgusted the author. Toward the end of the book, he increasingly reveals a morbid side to his outlook. A sensitive reader cannot leave this book feeling satisfied; rather, its effect is unsettling, unnerving.

It certainly isn't what I would call a children's book; it has some decidedly adult material in it, including sexual references, cultural criticism, and a depiction of mental illness and suicide that may have been an unheeded cry for help. The year after he wrote this book, Akutagawa died of a self-inflicted overdose of sleeping pills at age 35. This information leaves the reader not with a warm sense of having enjoyed a piece of magical-creature folklore, but with a sad feeling of having witnessed a cultural tragedy. This strange, disturbing, yet curiously whimsical story documents a moment in that tragedy, but it also bears witness - even in translation - to a talent for writing crystalline sentences and blending believable details with bizarre and magical elements.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

Having an epic quest in the modern world is a lot different from the experience you read about in the classics. Two young adults on the west coast learn this big-time when their boss at the Magic Burger restaurant tries to sacrifice them to his evil god, who has been banished by the other gods and only gets a chance to make a comeback once very 300 years. When the boss himself falls into the maw of a divine avatar made of raw hamburger, the Lost God sends Helen and Troy on a quest to retrieve an unspecified number of unspecified, enchanted objects within an unspecified period of time. Or, you know, die.

Anointed as official questers by the National Questing Bureau, the seven-foot-tall, horned female minotaur Helen - heir of a family curse going back thousands of years - and the impossibly perfect, too-good-to-be-true Troy hop into a finned Chevy Chimera and hit the road, bound for adventure. To progress on their quest, they must defeat a cyclops, brave a non-slaying dragon preserve, survive the mystery of the Mystery Cottage, and finally, duke it out with an orc motorcycle gang at a mythological theme park. Aided by a three-legged mutt, a trio of fates whose advice is mostly rubbish, and a government agency that may or may not be on their side, the pair must survive opposition from an evil witch, the wrath of various gods who want to stop the Lost God, and temptations including their growing feelings for each other - to say nothing of a final temptation in which the fate of the world, or at least a three-state area, will be decided.

This book is a steadily funny, romantic, knowing riff on the legends of yore. Except for a little PG-13 language, it's a family-friendly fantasy that explores an offbeat, parallel reality in which the firmament theory is established science, while the idea that the stars are distant suns orbited by other worlds is just an outdated myth. It's a bizarre mashup of a present-day world in which a gay biker orc is accepted by his gang, and in which a girl with full-blown minotaurism (horns, hooves, fur all over) just wants people to notice her for something besides her race. It blends well-aimed parody of the tales of Greek heroes with present-day social awareness and a touch of tongue-in-cheek. With a little more sex and profanity, you could mistake it for a book by Christopher Moore or Robert Rankin. Other authors whose fans should dig it include Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Rick Riordan, and Tom Holt.

This is the seventh book I have read by the Texas-based author of Gil's All Fright Diner, The Automatic Detective, and Chasing the Moon. His other books that I have yet to read are, trust me, on my to-read list, including Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain and The Last Adventure of Constance Verity.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Cartographer's Daughter

The Cartographer's Daughter
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Recommended Ages: 13+

Legend has it the island of Joya, where Isabella has lived all her life, was once a floating island paradise. Then the Governor came, closing off the seaport city of Gromera from the other coastal villages, banishing anyone who opposed him to the wild interior of the island, and forbidding the population even to swim in the bay lest they escape his iron-fisted rule. One day a peasant girl, a school friend of Isabella's, is found horribly killed in the Governor's walled orchard. A riot breaks out, which the Governor and his men violently put down. After the fracas, Isabella angrily blames another friend - the Governor's daughter Lupe - for their classmate's death, venting her feelings about the strapping neighbor boy Pablo being imprisoned in the Governor's dungeon labyrinth.

Lupe vows to set things right, and disappears. This leads to another wave of repression, with both Pablo's mother and Isabella's lame, mapmaker father being added to the growing crowd in the labyrinth. Feeling responsible for this, Isabella puts on her dead brother's clothes, cuts off her braid, and passes herself off as the cartographer's son. The Governor, believing she is a boy, decides to take her along on his search for Lupe. But beyond the forests that border Gromera's territory, they find a diseased landscape, haunted by death, fierce warriors, and terrifying monsters.

Spookier still, Isabella catches glimpses of magic - for instance, in a fragment of glow-in-the-dark wood passed down through generations of her family, and in a map left behind by her late mother, that shows a different picture when moistened by the waters of a certain river. It's as if the ancient myths of the island's origin are actually true - as if a female warrior a thousand years ago really did stop a fire demon from destroying all life on Joya after he captured the island and anchored it to the bottom of the sea. And now their thousand-year bargain is up, and someone must once again make a terrible sacrifice to stop an elemental power from extinguishing all life on Joya.

Isabella's cross-dressing behavior does not stem from any boy-girl confusion. She is totally a girl-power hero in the tradition of her country's greatest hero of myth - and myths, Isabella explains to her friend Lupe, are stories so old that people think they aren't true. Isabella's complex friendship with Lupe, her someday-maybe-more-than-friendship with Pablo, her devotion to her family members (living and dead) and even to her chicken Miss La, her toughness and courage, all make her the kind of character on whom readers will fasten their hearts, while the terrifying dangers she must face will ensure a white-knuckle grip on the ears of the book. Her world is strange, original, magical, with some ugliness that has been forced on it, and even more beauty that just wants to burst through. Its story shape has a touch of fall-and-redemption in it, and the suspense doesn't let up until it reaches world-shaking levels. I think most readers Isabella's age and up will love it.

This book was previously released in the U.K. under the title The Girl of Ink & Stars. Under its new title, it is due to be released in the U.S. Nov. 1, 2016. Why the title was changed, I do not know; especially since The Cartographer's Daughter is also the title of a fantasy novel by Karen L. Abrahamson. I like the original title better; but leave it to American publishers. This is the debut novel of a writer previously known for her poems. My review of it is based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Memoirs of a Sidekick

Memoirs of a Sidekick
by David Skuy
Recommended Ages: 12+

Seventh-grader Adrian is a bright, socially awkward boy who is happy playing second fiddle to his good-natured best friend, Boris Snodbuckle. Together, the two of them get into non-stop trouble, usually where the best intentions collide with poor judgment. Constantly receiving detention and one-day suspensions at school, the boys try to adhere to a code that includes such rules as Rule 1, "Don't break school rules, unless there's a really good reason," and Rule 5, "Don't tell on kids - ever - unless you're getting them out of trouble." They want to make their school a better place, and they worry about what will happen when the school's biggest bully, handsome and popular Robert Pinsent, is elected student body president. So Boris decides to run against him, and Adrian tags along for the ride.

A wild ride it is, with brash schemes - actually, code-named operations - to capture the votes of younger kids, tree-huggers, brainiacs, the artsy types, and the popular kids. Thanks partly to bad luck, and partly to Robert's unprincipled ruthlessness, each operation ends either in mayhem, with Boris and Adrian getting suspended again, or worse, in Robert stealing the credit for their success. Usually both. But when the boys decide to crash a conference on feeding hungry children, things really get out of hand, and Adrian finds himself in the rare position of having to take the initiative.

This story featuring two mischief-makers with hearts of gold really touched my heart. It also tickled my funny-bone, with middle-school shenanigans that left me breathless with laughter several times. Any book I have to stop reading more than once, until I can get my giggling under control and wipe tears of amusement out of my eyes, is all right in my books. Solidly well-told, with a good grasp of schoolyard ethics, a cast of goofy characters, and a touch of satire that elevates it to the realm of legit literature without dimming its sparkle of fun, this simply has to be one of the best real-world based, present-day tales of primary-school high jinks and student-election intrigue.

Its author is a Canadian writer best known for his hockey- and soccer-related young-adult novels, such as the five Charlie Joyce books. Something I have observed about writers of sports fiction is their knack for mining emotional truth out of everyday situations - something to be encouraged even by readers who aren't particularly into sports. This is a wonderful example of a book in which a sports-fiction author branches out and uses the same magic touch on a non-athletic subject. It is scheduled to become available in the U.S. Oct. 4, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com.