Sunday, May 31, 2009

Easily Confused Books 3

I was checking a title on Shelfari this morning, when I noticed that there are quite a few books with virtually the same title. Talk about easily confused! There's Deeper by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams, a young readers' fantasy-adventure. Then there's the horror thriller titled Deeper by James A. Moore; another horror thriller by Jeff Long titled Deeper: A Novel; Debbie Alsdorf's inspirational book Deeper: Living in the Reality of God's Love; Ronica Black's Deeper, a crime novel with lesbian themes; and the romance novel Deeper by Megan Hart.

So, if you want to go deeper in your readings, you had best go carefully!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Quotable Titus Groan

Further to my review of Titus Groan, I marked some highlights in the text, sentences and paragraphs that I found particularly delightful. Mervyn Peake always seemed to find a new way to say everything. Time after time, as I read this book, I gasped in awe, or scratched my head in wonder, or giggled with evil glee. His knack for words, images, and moments of wit constantly opened up new vistas and showed new facets. In my opinion, more people ought to know this book, so that we can drop allusions to it in our conversation and trust they will be noticed and enjoyed. Here are a few of them.

The first passage I marked was the chapter titled "The Attic," which astonished me as a whole. Within it is the poem "The Frivolous Cake," which I read aloud twice to a friend in the break room at work, much to the concern of my co-workers. It's a piece of delightful nonsense, comparable to the fancies of Lewis Carroll. Part of the first stanza, for instance, reads:
How jointlessly, how jointlessly
The frivolous cake sailed by
On the waves of the ocean that pointlessly
Threw fish to the lilac sky.
Since this poem appears in a book treasured by Fuchsia Groan, I reckon it represents a style of literature Mr. Peake wanted to lampoon--something absurdly sentimental, perhaps. Nevertheless, it's a wonderfully light moment within the predominantly gloomy atmospherics of the book.

In the final lines of the chapter titled "A Gift of the Gab," Peake describes Steerpike thus:
His face remained like a mask, but deep down in his stomach he grinned.
When I marked this sentence, I thought: Wow. I can't wait to find an excuse to quote this.

In the following chapter, titled "While the Old Nurse Dozes," Peake powerfully evokes the urgent need rising up within the wetnurse Keda, culminating in a very moving, two-sentence paragraph:
Keda raised her heand and wiped away the slow tears from her cheeks. 'I must have love,' she whispered.
Her tragic journey becomes the most painfully, touchingly human episode in the novel.

I drew a question-mark next to the paragraph in the chapter titled "The Library," in which the East Wing of the castle is described as
...a procession of forgotten and desolate relics, an Ichabod of masonry that filed silently along an avenue of dreary pines whose needles hid the sky.
What, pray, is an Ichabod? But only a few paragraphs later I took pleasure in this description of Lord Sepulchrave's library:
All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.
In "Reintroducing the Twins," I chuckled at how the the twins
had been staring at Steerpike more in the manner of a wall staring at a man than a man staring at a wall.
And in "Keda and Rantel," I was gripped by this passage:
Her breast rose and fell, and she was both weak and strong. She could feel the blood flowing within her and she felt that she must die or break forth into leaves and flowers.
In "The Grotto," Peake memorably portrays Gormenghast as
...a sinister thing as though drawn out of the earth by sorcery as a curse on all who viewed it.
One of the feelings that has lingered since I finished reading the book is pity for the twins, Cora and Clarice Groan. In spite of all evidence that they deserve no sympathy, for there really is something wrong deep inside them, I couldn't help regretting the tricks Steerpike played on them. He messed with their simple minds and brought out their most monstrous aspects, but he also terrified them to a dreadful degree. Here, from the chapter "The Sun Goes Down Again," is a sample of how the adder-tongued Steerpike speaks to them:
'Glorious,' said Steerpike, 'is a dictionary word. We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.'
I wonder how much Peake personally shared Steerpike's sentiments. Is this a confession or a manifesto? Or is it an indictment on the rhetoric of demagogues? Whatever the answer may be, Titus Groan is a veritable symphony of "new enfranchised noises."

What was the effect of Steerpike's speech?
The aunts put their arms about one another so that their faces were cheek to cheek, and from this doublehead they gazed up at Steerpike with a row of four equidistant eyes. There was no reason why there should not have been forty, or four hundred of them. It so happened that only four had been removed from a dead and endless frieze whose inexhaustible and repetitive theme was forever, eyes, eyes, eyes.
Two paragraphs after this magnificent portrait, however, I drew another question-mark in the margin where it says:
They got to their feet awkwardly and stood before him evil.
Huh? I'm wondering if that isn't a misprint.

In the chapter "Meanwhile," Doctor Prunesquallor's sister Irma
...rose rustling to her full height, arching her nostrils as she did so, as though they itched with pedigree.
Wow! An even bigger wow -- arguably the most quotable line in the whole book -- comes in the chapter "And the Horses Took Them Home," after the burning of the library:
The shelves that still stood were wrinkled charcoal, and the books were standing side by side upon them, black, grey, and ash-white, the corpses of thought.
What a description of burned books!

Later, in "Half-Light," we find Sepulchrave in the early stages of madness. Perhaps, therefore, it is nonsense when he confides to his daughter:
'That is Andrema, the lyricist - the lover - he whose quill would pulse as he wrote and fill with a blush of blue, like a bruised nail. His verses, Fuchsia, his verses open out like flowers of glass, and at their centre, between the brittle petals lies a pool of indigo, translucent and as huge as doom.'
Another flush of poetic prose crops up early in the chapter "A Roof of Reeds," where Keda observes
...a region of marshland which reflected the voluptuous sky in rich pools, or with a duller glow where choked swamps sucked at the colour and breathed it out again in sluggish vapour.
Peake plunges further into poetic diction in "Early One Morning," where he describes a leaky, frescoed ceiling
...where a faded cluster of cherubs lie asleep in the bosom of a mildew'd cloud.
The contraction of the word "mildewed" suggests that the author's mind inclined toward verse at that moment, possibly in a lampooning way.

One of the weirdest paragraphs in the book is surely this one, later in the same chapter:
Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never has there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred - broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and reentrenched themselves in startled sockets.
My marginal note here consists of a question-mark, followed by an exclamation-point.

In "A Bloody Cheek-Bone," Flay is caught hurling one of Lady Groan's pets at Steerpike. The latter comes away with a light flesh-wound and
Something to remember, that: cats for missiles.
"The Dark Breakfast" ends thus:
No one is listening to Barquentine. The rain has drummed for ever. His voice is in the darkness - and the darkness is in his voice, and there is no end at all.
I wish I could quote all of the chapter titled "The Reveries," which describes what all the deeply sick people at the aforementioned breakfast were thinking while Barquentine droned on so. Let it be enough to say that William Faulkner, James Joyce, et al had nothing on Mervyn Peake when it came to writing experiments in point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness. Irma Prunesquallor's reverie goes on for more than a page with scarcely a single full stop, and includes such private considerations as:
...I am still a virgin but there was Spogfrawne who had had so many beautiful adventures among the people he redeemed from sin and he appreciated me and wrote me three letters on tissue paper although it was a pity that his pen-nib used to go right through it so often and make it difficult for me to read the passionate parts where he told me of his love in fact I couldn't read them at all and when I wrote and asked him to try and remember them and write me a fourth letter just putting in only the passionate sentences which I couldn't read in the first three of his beautiful letters he wouldn't answer me and I think it was because I asked him in my last message to him to either write more carefully on the tissue paper or to use ordinary paper that he became shy poor silly stupid glamorous Mr Spogfrawne who I will always remember but he hasn't been heard of since and I am still a virgin...
In the chapter "Here and There," Peake cheekily reports that
The darkness in the great hall has deepened in defiance of the climbing of the sun. It can afford to be defiant with such a pall of inky cloud lying over the castle...
In "Presage," Keda reflects that she does not fear rejection of her people because she has suffered it already in anticipation:
All this was far wan history and an archaism.
I loved that sentence. In the very next paragraph, however, I ran into another difficulty, betokened by a marginal question-mark:
'I shall follow my knowledge - ah, so soon, so soon into the julip darkness.'
Can anyone spot me a definition of the word julip?

A good summation of the overall atmosphere of the book and its setting can be found in the chapter "In Preparation for Violence," where we read:
Drear ritual turned its wheel. The ferment of the heart, within these walls, was mocked by every length of sleeping shadow. The passions, no greater than candle flames, flickered in Time's yawn, for Gormenghast, huge and adumbrate, out-crumbles all.
In "Blood at Midnight," I found this super-quotable phrase in a description of the sharpness of Mr Swelter's cleaver: lazes through long grass the lethal scythe.
Again, what a phrase to drop into an erudite essay, allusion-riddled story, or conversational contest of wits with your literary rivals! I can hardly wait to rub somebody's nose in their inability to identify my source! Ha, ha, ha! But seriously, the margins of the same chapter are riddled with my markings. Sepulchrave, driven insane by the loss of his library and suffering under the delusion that he is a death-owl, raves:
'Good-bye. It is all one. Why break the heart that never beat from love? We do not know, sweet girl; the arras hangs: it is so far; so far away, dark daughter... But they will take me in. Their home is cold; but they will take me in. And it may be their tower is lined with love - each flint a cold blue stanza of delight, each feather, terrible; quills, ink and flax, each talon, glory! Ah no - not that long shelf - not that long shelf: it is his lifework that the fires are eating. All's one. Good-bye... good-bye... Blood, blood, and blood and blood, for you, the muffled, all, all for you and I am on my way, with broken branches. She was not mine. Her hair is red as ferns. She was not mine. Mice, mice; the towers crumble - flames are swarmers. There is no swarmer like the nimble flame; and all is over. Good-bye... Good-bye. It is all one, forever, ice and fever. Oh, weariest lover - it will not come again. Be quiet now. Hush, then, and do your will. The moon is always; and you will find them at the mouths of warrens. Great wings shall come, great silent, silent wings... Good-bye. All's one. All's one. All's one.'
For my money, that is one of the most beautiful mad scenes in English literature.

The entire duel between Swelter and Flay, later in that same chapter, is worthy of being read and re-read in admiring detail. I laughed heartily when the tremendously fat chef sprang forward:
For a moment there was so much flesh and blood in the air that a star changed colour under Saturn's shoulder.
Mervyn Peake, you sick, sick man! The next passage I would like to quote, but won't, is the blue streak Barquentine swears at Steerpike in the chapter titled, ahem, "Barquentine and Steerpike". However, this descriptive paragraph is apposite:
Steerpike began to bow, with his eyebrows raised by way of indicating that his ear drums had proved themselves equal to the call made upon them. If the art of gesture had been more acutely developed in him he might have implied by some hyper-subtle inclination of his body that what aural inconvenience he experienced lay not so much in his having to strain his ears, as in having them strained for him.
Two consecutive paragraphs in the chapter "By Gormenghast Lake" merited marginal exclamation-points. The first such mark indicates my astonishment at one of the few places where, in my opinion, Peake may have misjudged a description of one of his characters. Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps he is being a mite too judgmental when he reports that Irma Prunesquallor
...had gone out of her way, it appeared, to exhibit to their worst advantage (her waist being ridiculously tight) a pair of hips capable of balancing upon their osseous shelves enough bric-a-brac to clutter up a kleptomaniac's cupboard.
Some authors show compassion to their most flawed characters. Clearly, Peake is not one of them. On the other hand, he seems to have developed an increasing fondness for Irma's brother, the Doctor, who appears repulsive at first, only later to show signs of having a very ordered mind while also being able to offer up priceless remarks like:
'The top of the morning to you, my dears,' trilled the Doctor; 'and when I say "top" I mean the last cubic inch of it that sits, all limpid-like on a crest of ether, ha, ha, ha.'
My new fantasy in life is to be the father of several children who will, in unison, complete that very quote at me whenever I great them with, "The top of the morning to you, my dears!"

It is also Doctor Prunesquallor who makes the most pointed observation about his sister - perhaps as much "to the point" as any bald statement in this book:
'She thinks she's a lady... Oh, dear! the poor thing. Tries so hard, and the more she tries the less she is. Ha! ha! ha! Take it from me, Fuchsia dear, the only ladies are those to whom the idea of whether they are or not never occurs.'
In another attack of pure description, the very next paragraph says:
The branches of the trees behind them chafed one another, and their leaves, like a million conspiring tongues, were husky with heresy.
Then Peake, once again referring to Doctor Prunesquallor, issues what may be his assessment of where clear thought fits into the world that emerged from the flames of World War II:
[He] was a freak only in that his mind worked in a wide way, relating and correlating his thoughts so that his conclusions were often clear and accurate and nothing short of heresy.
What Mr Rottcodd feels in the final chapter may reflect the inner crisis Peake himself felt as he tried to fit his experiences in the British Army, and particularly as a war artist sketching the victims of German concentration camps, into the worldview that had prevailed up to that time:
[H]e became aware of a sense of instability - a sensation almost of fear - as though some ethic he had never questioned, something on which whatever he believed was founded and through which his every concept filtered was now threatened. As though, somewhere, there was treason. Something unhallowed, menacing, and ruthless in its disregard for the fundamental premises of loyalty itself. What could be thought to count, or have even the meanest kind of value in action or thought if the foundations on which his house of belief was erected was found to be sinking and imperiling the sacrosanct structure it supported.
Nevertheless, Peake wraps up the book with a three-paragraph crescendo of triumphalistic braying, which would ring utterly false if it weren't so self-spoofingly odd. Here is part of the penultimate paragraph:
Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.

Two Book Reviews

City of Ashes
by Cassandra Clare
Recommended Ages: 14+

This second book of the Mortal Instruments trilogy blends teen romance, fantasy, horror, action, suspense, and mystery in one piquant cocktail. It enfolds us in a world populated by angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, fairies, warlocks, and the secret society of Shadowhunters who police them. It touches on the nature of family, the thin line between friendship and romantic love, the pain of injustice, the clash of good and evil, the quest for power for its own sake, and the discovery of unlooked-for powers in a couple of confused young heroes. And it's just plain fun to read.

Clary has just found out that Jace is her brother - which complicates the fact that they are deeply in lust with each other. This dilemma sends ripples into their other relationships. Fellow Shadowhunter Alec, for instance, would rather die than reveal his gay crush on his best friend and foster brother. Meanwhile, Clary's "mundane" best friend Simon wants to be her boyfriend, and competing with Jace may cost him his soul.

As Clary and Luke, her werewolf surrogate-father, wait for Clary's mother to wake up from a mysterious coma, a vindictive Inquisitor from the Shadowhunter Clave rolls into town and puts the screws to Jace. Somehow this Inquistor can't believe Jace isn't in league with his evil father. Speaking of whom, Valentine Morgenstern continues to unfold his evil plan to destroy the Clave and forge a new order from its ashes. A string of grisly murders targeting members of the Downworlder community (fairies, vampires, and werewolves) has something to do with this, as does the theft of a sword of power handed down to the Clave by an angel.

It turns out that Valentine is gathering an army of demons to serve him in his rebellion. This is topping it pretty high, for a guy whose problem with the Clave is that it doesn't take a hard enough line against the spawn of hell! The line between good guys and bad guys will be seriously tested in the ensuing battle, along with bonds of love and friendship. Jace, Clary, and Simon will all come into unique powers. And a brooding fate will linger at the end, drawing them and those around them into the final installment, City of Glass.

Teens who are up for an exciting read, and who enjoy the Twilight series' blend of spookiness and romance, will be especially rewarded by this cleverly paced, brilliantly creative series and especially its heroine, who hardly understands the effect she has on those around her. Perhaps you, too, will fall in love with her!

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
Recommended Ages: 16+

Welcome to the grim castle of Gormenghast, where for seventy-six generations of the House of Groan, life has been regulated to a strict schedule of complex and sacred ritual. We come to it on the day the seventy-seventh Earl is born: young Titus of the book's title. Titus makes a most unusual hero, given that at the end of some 400 pages, he is still less than 2 years old. Nevertheless his birth and early infancy are filled with omens of change and upheaval in this strange, unmagical fantasy world where time stands still. Consider, for example, his christening at the age of 12 days, when Titus takes a spill out of a holy book and, as he falls to the floor, tears a page out with him. "This," our narrator solemnly informs us, "was his first recorded act of blasphemy."

Be assured that it won't be his last.

But between heretical gestures by a violet-eyed toddler, most of the novel's action concerns its grown-up characters. Among them are Titus' father, Lord Sepulchrave, who finds no relief from his lifelong melancholy except in books; his mother, the Lady Gertrude, who surrounds her vast bulk with a living carpet of white cats and a feathery mantle of wild birds; and his teenage sister Fuchsia, who more nearly resembles a functioning human being than most of the people she meets.

What a range of characters they cover!--from the skeletal, taciturn Flay to the monstrous, flamboyant Swelter; from the giggling Doctor Prunesquallor to the nervous wreck of Nannie Slagg. The mindless twin Aunts are matched in ghastliness only by the wily upstart Steerpike. You may either laugh or choke, or both at once, at the foul oaths of Barquentine. You will shiver, either with a carnal thrill or with grim dread, as the fate of Keda unfolds. And you will get weird looks from your co-workers if, like me, you read some of the poems within the story aloud in the break room. (One of my colleagues keeps asking me to remind him of "The Frivolous Cake.")

The plot moves slowly, and not much happens in it -- apart from an act of arson and a duel to the death, which are especially exciting due to the long, suspenseful build-up to them. Mature readers are needed, however, as the book contains gruesome scenes of death and slaughter, a long-premeditated suicide, a descent into madness, and some frank references to certain parts of the body that are a bit startling to find in the midst of Gothic stylisms. It also showcases a rather pessimistic view of human nature, lifting the weaknesses of even the best character to the level of the grotesque.

One can spot echoes of Dickens, Austen, and their ilk in the social customs this book portrays, and in the whimsical way characters are named. What Titus Groan mainly shares with the novels of that earlier age is a way of satirizing the foibles of a decaying society; what it adds, however, is the cynicism of viewing such a society through the lens of a war that seemed to herald the end of the world, and of a holocaust that showed what man's most enlightened ideas are really made of. In such a light, many seemingly unalterable social and spiritual truths might appear irrelevant, or even blasphemous. If this is a comedy of manners, it's a black one. But more to the point, it's a tragedy -- at least, the first act of one, whose final result can already be guessed.

When Titus Groan first appeared in 1946, it was immediately recognized as one of the great literary achievements of its time. Yet it never drew a very wide readership, particularly on this side of the Atlantic; and together with the two "Titus novels" that followed it (Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959), it became the target of a fair amount of acid criticism.

One problem may be that it didn't fit into any pre-existing categories. Eight years ahead of The Lord of the Rings, it appeared like a prophetic forerunner of the yet-to-be-established genre of adult fantasy. Influenced by the traumatic events of World War II, in which Peake served, it crystallizes the moral and spiritual disillusionment of its author and his generation in a ponderous, Gothic tragedy full of repulsive characters, perplexing imagery, and troubling questions like: "What is this saying about our world?"

Sixty-odd years later, these problems continue to dampen this novel's likelihood of becoming a blockbuster hit. But at the same time, they heighten the texture of an outpouring of beautiful language, a novel of stunningly unique style, a book that thwarts every conceivable expectation and convention and demands to be experienced on its own terms. Crafted by an author who was also a gifted poet and renowned artist, Titus Groan comes to life in imagery of colossal vividness and concreteness. Perhaps sensing that he had gone as far as his career as a celebrated book illustrator could take him, Peake used words to paint vast spaces and to manipulate the passage of time, turning an instant of rapid action into an hour of exquisitely-paced suspense. And his portrait of a diseased, dying world still demands to be looked at. The question is: Will you flinch?

Easily Confused Books 2

How many cities can you visit merely by scanning the spines of books? Let's see...

In Cassandra Clare's "Mortal Instruments" series, there are City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass. There is another City of Glass, a graphic novel by Paul Auster & co. Also, there is another City of Bones by mystery writer Michael Connelly. But wait: I'm not done with young adult fantasy yet. In Mary Hoffman's "Stravaganza" series, there are City of Masks, City of Stars, City of Flowers, City of Secrets. Jeanne DuPrau has given us The City of Ember. Isabel Allende has given us City of the Beasts. D. J. MacHale has given us The Lost City of Faar. There's a Tenth City by Patrick Carman. And of course, L. Frank Baum has bequeathed to us The Emerald City of Oz.

Sci-fi is no slouch, either. The City and the Stars and the Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke. The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card. Adult fantasy also takes its turn In the City of Dreams by Tony Abbott. And horror visits Frankenstein: City of Night by Dean Koontz and Ed Gorman. In other genres, the roll of impressive-sounding cities goes on. There is City of Thieves by David Benioff. The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin. City of the Sun by David Levien. City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. City of the Dead by Brian Keene. Another City of the Dead by Rosemary Jones. City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. City of God, City of Glory and City of Dreams by Beverly Swerling. City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. City by Numbers by Stephen T. Johnson. City of Light by Lauren Belfer. The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers. In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer. City of Fire by Thomas Fitzsimmons. The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher. City of Night by John Rechy. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer.

Some nonfiction books have rather evocative names. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald L. Miller. The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome by Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 by Christine Stansell. The Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham. Michael Wolf: The Transparent City by Natasha Egan et al. Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller. Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America by Tom Vanderbilt. Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America by Lily Burana. Imprisoned in the Golden City: Adoniram and Ann Judson by Dave, Neta, and Julian Jackson. The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgrounds by Pete Axthelm and Rick Telander. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau. Cities of the Dead by Prof. Joseph Roach.

Some books are quite clear about what city they mean. Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes. Empire City: New York through the Centuries by Kenneth T. Jackson and David S. Dunbar. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya by David & George Stuart. Cairo: The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck. Istanbul: The Imperial City by John Freely. Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence. City of Darkness: Life In Kowloon City by Ian Lambot and Greg Girard.

Then there are titles that assume you know what city they are about. The Country and the City by Raymond Williams. The City & the City by China Mieville. The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. In a Strange City by Laura Lippman. Little People in the City by Slinkachu and Will Self. Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon. A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger. Twilight in the Forbidden City by Reginald Fleming Johnston. Bad City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. After the City by Lars Lerup. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal.

Certain titles seem to describe cities we know. The Endless City by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic. Windy City by Scott Simon. Sin City, a graphic novel series by Frank Miller. Drop City by T. C. Boyle. Calumet City by Charlie Newton. Operation Storm City by Joshua Mowll & co. The whole Astro City series by Kurt Busiek et al. Alphabet City by Stephen T. Johnson. Dead City by Joe McKinney. Radio City by Bruce Eaton. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason and Bernard Scudder. Wicked City by Ace Atkins. The Etched City by K. J. Bishop. Permutation City by Greg Egan. Fat City by Leonard Gardner. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Mud City by Deborah Ellis. Lost City by Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos.

Some titles conjure up multiple cities. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif. And ultimately, Book of Cities by Piero Ventura. Other titles focus on people or places within a city, such as Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg. City Boy by Herman Wouk. The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson. Vamps and the City by Kerrelyn Sparks (a tribute to Sex and the City?). Queen of Babble in the Big City by Meg Cabot. City Wolf by Tressie Lockwood. Super in the City by Daphne Uviller. And, of course, where would we be without The City of God by Augustine of Hippo? Related to that is Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome by Rodney Stark.

I could go on at much, much greater length. These titles represent only the first 25 of over 90,000 pages of search results on Amazon; and I have already skipped over some of the less interesting titles. For more on "Easily Confused Books," click here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Happy Birthday?

A couple nights ago I was eating out at a nice Italian restaurant when, at the next table over, a young fellow happened to be celebrating his 30th birthday.

He was dining in a party of five, accompanied by two young women and an older couple. After their meal, a waitress brought him a big round cheesecake with 3 candles on it, then left. This put the burden of singing the "Birthday Song" on the four other people at the table.

Young Woman No. 1 gamely started the song, beckoning to the other three guests to join in. None of them sang a note. The Old Man sat with his lips sealed, staring grumpily down at the table, as he seemed to do every time I looked over. The Old Woman, while a bit more lively in her looks, didn't so much as twitch a lip. I couldn't say anything about the expression of Young Woman No. 2, who had her back to me, but even over the ambient noise of the restaurant it was evident that no one was helping Young Woman No. 1 sing her song.

So she stopped and tried again. She told the others, "Come on," and started the song over. Their lips remained completely, sullenly still. She continued singing, beckoning to the others, but she was clearly unnerved at having to sing the birthday song solo in front of 3 guests who flatly refused to sing. Her rendition sadly petered out.

I won't conceal from you that I was utterly disgusted. I know some people don't feel they are good singers. I know some people aren't good singers. But I never thought I would see three out of four people in any group, of any age, refusing to sing "Happy Birthday" to a nice kid. In what I saw the other night, there was something of pride, something of meanness, something of self-centeredness, and a great deal of the atrocious delusion that too many people carry around these days - the delusion that it is more shameful to be seen or heard singing than to clam up when everybody is counting on you.

In reality, not one-tenth of the people who believe they "can't carry a tune in a bucket" are unable to sing. Being able to sing, even in a sketchy way, is a key social skill of the average human being. We may be expected less to exercise it now that we have digital jukeboxes, radios, MP3 players, and mass-produced recordings to play on them. We may have more than enough music in our lives - in the car, in shops, in elevators, in the shower for goodness' sake - so that we feel no need to exercise our singing muscles. We may also feel the expectations of our potential hearers are too high for us to reach. And so, somehow, as a culture, we have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as tone-deaf.

But really! Not even to stick your neck out and sing "Happy Birthday" to a young lad of 30? To close your mouth in such a sullen manner on what ought to be a moment of friendly celebration? To let the one person in four brave enough to risk the world's best-known song wear herself out trying to get you to join her? I've known people who, in church, at least had the graciousness to open the hymnal and mouth the words along with everyone else, though they didn't sing a note. I've known people who, in spite of only knowing how to sing one note, courageously droned it through every song while the rest of the crowd carried the tune. Them I can respect. But to sit and pout, without making any pretence of following the song, is frankly despicable - all the worse when it is so exposed.

"Happy Birthday" has to be sung. It's the law! It doesn't matter how many different keys it is sung to at a given time. It doesn't matter whether some people come to the end of it before others. It doesn't matter how atrocious it sounds. It is a social nicety. It means: "We are friends, not strangers. We are human souls, not beasts. We take pleasure in your company. We share your joys. We appreciate your accomplishments. We are thankful for what the past year has brought you. We wish you happiness in the year to come." You can't say it by staring grumpily at the table. You must sing it!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Five Book Reviews

The Shoemaker's Boy
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 7+

Jem's mother is deathly ill. Jem's father has gone on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Spain. This leaves young Jem alone to take care of his mum and keep his father's shoemaking business going.

Mere hardship passes into scary, fairy-tale territory when Jem is visited by three tiny men and a giant, dark knight. They seem to want a package that a white knight left in Jem's safekeeping. As it happens, both his parents' lives depend on Jem faithfully carrying out the white knight's orders.

Here is a lean, fleet-footed tale of magic from the world of medieval Christianity. In far less space than most of her numerous excellent books for young readers, author Aiken draws us into its world of hard work, sorrow, hope, and suspense. I enjoyed this classic children's picture-book in the edition illustrated by Hungarian-born Victor G. Ambrus.

City of Bones
by Cassandra Clare
Recommended Ages: 14+

Clary Fray thinks she knows her mother pretty well. Struggling artist, grieving widow, single mother, best friend of a bookstore owner... There seems to be no mystery about Jocelyn. But Clary learns otherwise the night her mother disappears. The night a demon attacks her in their apartment. The night when, in order to survive, she calls upon powers she never knew she had.

Of course, this means Clary is learning to see her whole world differently. But that process has already begun. Even before her mother's disappearance, Clary witnesses three Shadowhunters slaying a demon in a nightclub, though no one else notices a thing. One of those Shadowhunters, the cruelly good-looking Jace, takes an interest in Clary and helps her survive when the forces of evil stalk her brownstone.

Jace's fascination with Clary doesn't sit well with his fellow Shadowhunters. Alec and Isabelle have been like brother and sister to him, but that doesn't stop them feeling possessive, even in a romantic way. Plus, as Shadowhunters they have angel blood, which makes them feel superior to "mundanes," or ordinary humans. These feelings are hardly relieved as Clary slowly finds out that she, too, is a Shadowhunter, and that her mother has gone to great lengths to keep Clary in the dark about it. Both Clary and Jace will make surprising discoveries about themselves in this book, discoveries that will only complicate the strong mutual attraction between them. Adding to this romantic tension is Simon, Clary's best friend, who wants to be so much more, and who in spite of being a mundane becomes the key to everyone's survival.

Meanwhile, the Shadowhunters find themselves on the trail of the greatest-ever traitor to their kind, who has come back from the dead to wreak havoc on their world and to seize power at any cost. Valentine Morgenstern once led a rebellion that nearly split Shadowhunter society in two. Now he has taken Clary's mother, and he is after a powerful artifact no one but Clary can find. To keep him from getting it, and to get her mother back, Clary must confront a terrifying array of creatures, from the ghoulish Silent Brothers to the zombielike Forsaken and more.

Fans of the Twilight series will be particularly drawn to this tale of supernatural romance with battles between vampires and werewolves, demons and the sexy teen Shadowhunters who slay them. This novel is only the beginning of a series titled The Mortal Instruments, of which there are already two further books: City of Ashes and City of Glass.

by Charlie Fletcher
Recommended Ages: 12+

Completing the trilogy that began with Stoneheart and Ironhand, this book brings the ordeal of young Londoner George Chapman to a terrific climax. A being of pure evil has entered the world through the black mirrors that hold back the outer darkness. The old darkness in the heart of the city has broken loose. The two darknesses have joined forces with all the taints (gargoyles, dragons, and other inhuman statues) to bring a final, end-of-all-things war against the spits (statues formed in the image of man) and, especially, against George and his gifted friend Edie.

Meanwhile, George must still complete his third duel against a creature of metal or stone. Time is running out as the vein of stone in his arm grows toward his heart. The trouble is, it's going to be hard enough surviving increasingly devastating attacks by the taints. He'll hardly have time to face his doom in combat against a hollow knight mounted on a hollow horse.

Both George and Edie continue to find out new things about their own powers. As a maker, George has awesome powers to heal or destroy beings of stone and metal. He also has a remarkable fate, a prophecy about him, and some highly unlikely friends - including, for example, the gargoyle Spout. Edie, on the other hand, proves to be more than just a glint who can tap into the tragic memories of any piece of stone she touches. Her surprising talents will be vital to winning the war... if only she isn't led astray by her personal quest to save her long-lost mother. And there are still more surprises for both of them.

But first, they have to survive an increasingly vicious series of battles between the carved and dye-cast denizens of greater London. An icy darkness has taken hold of the city. Time has frozen in its tracks. Nearly all flesh-and-blood living things have vanished. If George, Edie, and the spits don't somehow get time going again, and put the darkness back where it belongs, the world as they know it will end. But they will have to get past a seemingly inexhaustible army of ice statues to save it. How better to end a series of non-stop, running battles than in a desperate last stand?

I stand by my high praise of the first two books in this trilogy, and I am glad to see the same level of excitement and fantastic originality sustained to the very end. So ends the "first series for children" by a successful film and television writer. Here's hoping his second won't be long in coming.

The Battle of the Labyrinth
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Four of Percy Jackson & the Olympians confronts our favorite demigod-hero with a new threat to the security of Camp Half-Blood. The traitorous ex-camper Luke has found a backdoor entrance to the camp, bypassing the security measures that protect the mortal children of the gods from monster attack. Now he plans to lead the forces of Kronos, leader of the Titans who ruled the world before the Olympian gods, through this backdoor. There they will attack Percy and his friends, and clear the way for Kronos to defeat Zeus & Co.

This time, it isn't Percy who must lead the quest to save Camp Half-Blood, but his friend Annabeth. He goes along as her sidekick, however. Also joining them are Percy's cyclops half-brother Tyson and Grover the satyr, who has scant time to prove that he heard the voice of the lost god Pan calling to him before the Cloven Council strips him of his seeker's licence. Annabeth also grudgingly accepts some help from a mortal girl with the unusual ability to see reality in the world of gods and monsters - though Rachel Elizabeth Dare is also, to Annabeth's obvious disgust, a rival for Percy's heart.

Together, this motley party must seek the center of the Labyrinth that Daedalus built thousands of years ago. The labyrinth has grown a lot since then, and has taken on a life of its own. With entrances into many immortal realms and points on the map, it leads Percy into one warmed-over myth after another. Hold your nose as he scoops poop at a demon dude ranch. Hang on to your remote as he plays the game show of death against the riddling sphinx. Wonder how you thought your dreams were weird as Percy receives important bulletins in his sleep - including messages from his friend Nico, who is growing into his powers as a son of Hades. And brace yourself for surprises, betrayals, gladiatorial contests, and supernatural battles as Percy and friends penetrate deeper into the center of the labyrinth.

What will they find? The lost god? I'm not telling. Daedalus himself? Mum's the word! The key to traveling through the labyrinth without getting hopelessly lost? Maybe. You'll just have to read it yourself. You'll find it easy to do, as Percy garnishes his narrative with plenty of wit, humor, and lippy teenaged irreverence. The confusing stirrings of first romance are almost as much fun as the encounters with bizarre monsters and ancient gods in incongruously modern guise. And the ending is cleverly laced with a hook to pull you into the fifth and final book, The Last Olympian.

[EDIT: My reviews of the first three books in this series are here and here.]

The Last Olympian
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

It took all of six books and most of the seventh for the Harry Potter series to build up to the climactic Battle of Hogwarts. The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, in comparison, takes only five books to gather its forces for a free-for-all war between Titans and Olympian gods, mythical monsters and the young demigod heroes of Camp Half-Blood.

Most of this book, in fact, consists of the preparations for a battle up and down the length of Manhattan Island; plus the battle itself, which goes on for several days. And everyone, Percy included, knows that before the battle is over, he will have turned 16 years old and fulfilled the prophecy that, on that birthday, he will make the choice either to save or to destroy Olympus.

In spite of this very direct, action-packed premise, the fifth Camp Half-Blood adventure is no simple affair. The forces of evil are embodied in an ex-camper named Luke Castellan - yet Percy's close friend Annabeth can't help believing there is still some good in Luke. The members of the Ares cabin refuse to take part in the battle because of a feud with the sons of Hermes which will not be made up. Someone on Percy's side is passing information on their plans to the enemy.

While Mount Olympus is about to fall before a horde of monsters, defended only by a bunch of underage heroes and their satyr, nymph, and centaur friends, the Olympian gods are occupied elsewhere. Most of them are trying to stop Typhon, which Wiki calls "the deadliest monster of Greek mythology," from cutting a wide swath of distruction across the USA. Others, like Hades and Percy's own father Poseidon, are too busy protecting their own kingdoms to come to the aid of Olympus; while still others, minor gods like Nemesis and Janus, have switched sides and joined the Titans.

See another side of Prometheus, the friend of mankind, when he comes to parlay with Percy on behalf of the Titans. Witness what happens when Percy willingly undertakes the curse of Achilles. Meet the gods of the East and Hudson rivers. Find out what Pandora's box really looked like. Watch an English teacher cross swords with a monster, a hellhound bound like an excited puppy, and a vicious flying pig become "pork chops." See Percy torn between romantic feelings for two girls - one a mortal, the other a demigod - and find out how a 70-year curse by the god Hades concerns the mortal girl's fate. And cheer as Percy Jackson comes into his full powers as a kicker of supernatural butt.

I am intrigued by the Acknowledgements at the end of this book, in which author Rick Riordan refers to this book as the close of "the first Camp Half-Blood series." So it would seem that, unlike Harry Potter, this series ends on a note of hope for a second series set in the same world. After enjoying one set of witty, action-filled updates of the classic myths, I trust a lot of delighted readers will welcome another.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bookbuying Spree

Today I indulged myself in a small bookbuying spree at Borders, where one can often find staggering deals in the "bargain books" department. The store had sent me a 40% coupon for one book, and the last day to use it was today. So I went and used it! And I got several bonus books besides!

My prize acquisition, and the book on which I spent my 40%-off coupon, is titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. The concept is simply too priceless to pass by. This is an "expanded edition" of the "classic regency romance, now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem," which "transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read." Stand by for a review...though I have several others to write first.

Other new additions to my Home for Wayward Books include Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go by Dale E. Basye - sure to lift one spirits after reading such books as The Black Tattoo; The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart, finally out in paperback; Triskellion by Will Peterson, a "Borders Exclusive" that I have resisted buying until now; and Edward Bloor's London Calling, which seems to be about an antique radio that transports a present-day boy back in time.

I have already read and enthused over previous books by both Stewart and Bloor, so I am eager to get into these new finds. As for the others, my choices were driven by a combination of curiosity, whimsy, and a sort of thrifty extravagance that regards it as imperative to buy any interesting, new paperback -- as if the book might go back into hardcover if I'm not quick about it.

Meanwhile, I continue to make slow progress through Mervyn Peake's seminal novel Titus Groan. If you've been keeping an eye on "What I'm Reading Now," you may have wondered why that's been on there so long. Usually when I start reading something, I finish it within a day or two. Only when I grow weary of a book do I let it sit on the list for a while, only to take it off in a moment of honesty. The fact that I have done neither is no reflection on the quality of Titus Groan, though it is a book best taken in small doses. I've been catching a couple chapters a day during breaks at work, where I keep the omnibus edition of the three "Titus Novels" in my locker. I'm delighted to report that I'm reaching the climax of the first book. So again, expect a review in the not-too-remote future!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terminator Salvation

It's a bad time to be a film buff who hates watching sequels. Currently playing, for example, are Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code - neither of which I have seen or plan to see; Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a sequel to the cutesie fantasy-comedy Night at the Museum; X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prequel to a comics-based series which had killed off too many of its main characters to be able to move forward; and Terminator Salvation, the fourth movie in a series in which cyborgs from the future repeatedly try to erase John Connor from history, so that he cannot lead the human resistance against the intelligent machines trying to wipe out mankind.

So how does someone starved for a night at the movies, but loath to watch a sequel, cope with this choice? By a process of elimination, of course.

I would love to eliminate upon Angels and Demons, part of an anti-Christian series based on books by Dan Brown that by all accounts are neither well-written nor exactly coherent but that have, nevertheless, been taken so seriously by so many people that books have had to be written debunking the claims Brown makes about the church. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have both lost my respect by making these films.

Night at the Museum featured Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, and other comics in a family-friendly, funny, magical adventure. Sweet as the original movie was, I doubt that I could swallow another measure of it without gagging.

As for the X-Men franchise, I've never been big on comic books, and so I have only the vaguest interest in the movies based on them. Of all the characters not to kill off in the last installment, however, Wolverine takes the cake. I have never found him attractive or likeable, even with Hugh Jackman under the sideburns.

So that left me with Terminator Salvation. The only thing militating against that choice was Christian Bale, whose ego became a matter of worldwide notoriety during the making of this film, when someone leaked to the internet a recording of Bale's long, profane, incoherent, on-set tirade. Here's an actor who seriously needs to consider the fate of Val Kilmer. Even good-looking action stars need a reality check once in a while. The public can get tired of looking at you, and if you earn a reputation for being hard to work with, nobody will go to bat for you.

After seeing the film last night, I would re-issue the same warning to Bale, at double strength. I mean, he does have a very strong presence. As the third actor to play John Connor (after Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl), he achieves the effect of a man of inner strength, passion, and vision, driven by a colossal will to survive. On the other hand, relatively unknown Australian actor Sam Worthington wipes him right off the screen practically every time he appears. The film cuts back to Bale and you're like, "Oh, yeah! He's in this movie too!" Worthington's performance as the cyborg who believes he's human is the heart and soul of the film.

Plus, the teenage version of John Connor's father - whom the machines want to kill before he can be sent back in time to make babies with John's mom - is played by rising star Anton Yelchin, lately the boyish Chekov in Star Trek. Yelchin trades in his pasty Russian complexion for a healthy sunburn and shows us a new side of his vocal talents by doing a flawless, film-long impression of Michael Biehn. Oddly enough, even this echo of Biehn (the original hero of the Terminator franchise) registers nearly as high as Bale does on the sex-appeal-o-meter. So a bit of humility is clearly in order. Bale will need to work really hard to keep up with guys like this.

In my movie reviews, I usually say a word or two about what happens in the story. But in this case, frankly, that would be an insult to the film's purity of form. It has great special effects, including a cameo appearance by the young(!) Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has the obligatory tag-lines: "I'll be back," "Follow me if you want to live," etc. It has a touch of time-travel mumbo-jumbo, though no actual time travel takes place during the movie. The plot is sufficient to provide for a succession of thrilling fight scenes, stunts, explosions, and high-speed action. Michael Ironside is in it, for pity's sake; and so is Helena Bonham-Carter, who has become almost obligatory in big-screen franchises.

The film's one thread of human sensibility is tied around Worthington's character of a death-row prisoner who donated his body to science and woke up in a nightmare future with a second chance to do things right. Or maybe not. The whole story, so far as there is one, is about whether he will really get that second chance, and what he would do with it if he did. And mostly because of Worthington's performance, that slender storyline is just enough to keep the film from becoming the very thing its protagonists are fighting against: a factory-made killing machine with no humanity in it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Incurable Tackiness

In my recent post on "systematic tackiness" (perhaps "systemic" would be a better word), I seem to have failed to exorcise the demon of bad taste that haunts the ELCA church in my neighborhood. Indeed, tonight I spotted the following message on that church's streetside sign:


Don't think for one moment that I am speaking lightly when I mention exorcising and demons. It grows increasingly clear to me that habitual exposure to spiritual tackiness can make one susceptible to demonic possession. For example, take the current series of "Gardening for God" signs displayed by the local ELCA parish. Doesn't its tackiness make your head spin until you feel like shouting pea soup?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Me All Over

On Friday night, I decided to take a walk, mostly for the exercise. It was a nice, balmy evening in St. Louis, and I figured I would stop somewhere for dinner before turning homeward. My plans changed to "eat first, walk later" when I spotted the Ponderosa restaurant across the street from my apartment complex. After 8 ounces of sirloin steak, a baked potato, a salad, and a roll, I really needed a walk, in spite of the approaching dusk and a wall of storm clouds approaching from the distance.

So I walked about a mile down the street. I stopped and browsed a used video store. I realized that Target, just a bit further on, had a better deal on a DVD I was interested in seeing. So I crossed one more busy street, and then the cold front hit. It was a weird feeling. Just as I was entering the Target parking lot, the wind hit me and brought with it temperatures a good five degrees lower. The change from warmth to coolth was striking, but I was soon preoccupied by the realization that the clouds were almost directly overhead and rain was on its way.

My visit to Target turned into a search for a cheap rain poncho. I pulled it on and started walking home through strong winds, thunder and lightning, and a heavy, drenching rain that quickly turned the streets into rivers.

The poncho didn't help much. The flooded curbs soaked my shoes and socks. The driving rain soaked the cuffs of my denim shorts, which then wicked the moisture up into the parts covered by the poncho. In holding the hood over my head, I exposed the poncho's sleeve-openings to the nearly horizontal rain, so that even my well-covered shirt got soaked. If I had fallen headlong into a swimming pool I wouldn't have been much wetter than I was by the time I got home.

Then something happened that was "me all over." I had to call my mother afterwards, because she loves hearing (and laughing at) my "Robbie stories." And this one was a true classic.

As I approached the front of my apartment building, I dug the keys out of my pocket. Somehow they slipped out of my hands. I heard them go "clink" on the sidewalk, but when I looked down they were gone. I looked up and down the sidewalk, ahead and behind. No keys. I decided they must have fallen into the shaggy grass beside the path.

The lawn was overdue for a mowing, but I soon began to wonder how a set of keys could have gotten so thoroughly lost in it. How far could they have bounced? How deeply could they be hidden by the upstanding green blades? Even though that particular stretch of path was in shadow, and the night was quite dark, shouldn't the keys reflect at least a little light? But I was reduced to kneeling on the path, feeling around blindly in the grass while the rain continued to fall.

The ground was wet, but firm. They couldn't have sunk into the mud. I splashed through the only nearby puddle and found it keyless. I repeatedly stopped to recheck the sidewalk on both sides of me, then went over and over the same patch of grass, widening the radius of my search. Still no keys.

This was becoming incredible. I sat back on my heels, tilted my head back, and groaned with despair. Then I looked down...

And my keys were sitting innocently on the sidewalk, about five feet in front of me, shining brightly in a pool of light cast by the security lamp above the door of my building. Exactly where I had expected them to be. Exactly where I had first looked for them, and where I had repeatedly looked again. I had spent a ridiculous amount of time splashing in wet grass, feeling around for the brightest and most obvious object in sight.

This is just me all over. It's me, hopeless to spot what is right in front of me until, exhausted from searching, I give up on finding it. It's me, wondering whether the universe has once again borrowed something from me, only giving it back when I've passed from exasperation to fury to impotent grief. It's my fat stupid jerkitude coming into explosive contact with the stupidity of the world. And this exact thing has happened to me before.

I was in college. One day after class I walked into my dorm room and threw myself down on the couch, tossing my keys carelessly away. As soon as they left my hand - literally before they landed - I was struck by a conviction that my keys were lost. I immediately began turning the room over looking form them. I felt around on the carpet, whose variegated beige color was perfect camouflage for lost keys. After searching to exhaustion in the obvious places, I began inquiring into the bizarre and the absurd. I looked under couch cushions. I opened cupboards and drawers. I emptied my shelves of books. I combed through containers that hadn't been opened in weeks. Still no keys. And it was only when I sat back on my heels with a groan of despair that I spotted them lying between my knees: boldly hiding in plain sight, on the very carpet I had trawled over and over.

Nevertheless, when my keys went "clink" on the sidewalk and then vanished from my visual field, I assumed what had happened was more like the Case of the Keys Lost in the Desert Sand than that incident in college. See, I'm not just a fat stupid jerk. I'm a fat stupid jerk who, in spite of all my experience being one, can't correctly identify what variety of thickness I am suffering at a given moment.