Sunday, January 29, 2012


This franchise continues to satisfy a basic need for cheesy horror. The story works well given the constraints: we only see what the characters manage to capture on VHS tapes. I like the clever introduction of the video cassette recorder on an oscillating fan base--it's fun, and allows for even more delayed gratification, which is something these films do pretty well.

The best thing about Paranormal Activity 3 is its loving recreation of the 80s. The hair, the clothes, the decor, the architecture, the toys, the gadgets and gizmos--it's a nostalgiac romp through what really was another era of peculiar tastes and attitudes. With demons.

Kindle Fire is a great way to stream flicks like this. The picture was excellent, the sound via headphones is perfect, and if I needed to get up and get a beverage I just carried the thing with me without pausing. Take that, 1980s!

Haint That a Shame Part XV

We went to Nichi Bei Kai last night with Cha's folks. It was a favorite restaurant of her Dad back when they had a location on York Road. Cha had a gift cert so we trekked over to Columbia together.

It wasn't so hot. I'd never been a fan of the old one either. The experience is more geared to theatrical cooking than quality cooking. Even Dad felt the same. The steak was too expensive in his opinion for the quality of the meat. Mom enjoyed her shrimp and salmon, and even ate vegetables. Since her stroke she rarely eats vegetables.

We came back to our place and Dad said he needed to use the restroom before they drove home to Towson. Cha said she would wait in the car with Ma until Dad came back, I came inside with Dad. He took the restroom on the first floor. While he was still in there, Ma and Cha came in--Ma had decided she'd better use the restroom too. They went upstairs to the second floor. I went to the third floor and changed my clothes.

Cha yelled up the staircase to me from the second level: "I'm going out to the car to tell Dad Ma is in the bathroom!"

"I think he's still in the bathroom downstairs," I yelled back.

"No, I just looked downstairs and saw him walk toward the door. I heard him go out!"

I started walking downstairs. I heard Cha open the door and go outside. I met Ma on the 2nd floor landing and walked her down the steps. Dad was just coming down the hall from the bathroom when we got downstairs. Cha came back inside, surprised to see Dad in the house.

After her parents left she turned to me. "Who did I see walking?" she asked. "Who is in the house?"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I want to take a moment to talk up a great Xmas gift. I just used it for about an hour and a half--and without moving I was able to read a chapter of Thubron's The Silk Road, a few chapters of Notes from the Underground; I was able to check FB several times and play Scrabble, I looked at the news, watched a substantial part of a film called Ip Man, watched part of Persona on Netflix streaming, and downloaded for free or pennies a copy of The Secret History by Procopious and a history called The Fall of the Roman Empire. Then I downloaded in seconds novels by Ian McEwan and William Styron.

Pretty cool!

Of course it's not an iPad; you won't create a lot on the Fire. But you can easily highlight text in your books and look up words and make marginal notes. And yes, Amazon is a competition-killing behemoth. We should watch it carefully.

But, pretty cool!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book #2

I'm not ashamed to name-drop: I hung out with Russell Banks a few times back in '93, I believe. I was in the MA in English program at Temple University. The MA had a focus in fiction writing and Banks was a visiting writer one semester. Hanging out with Russell Banks and Toby Olson several times when when I was an aspiring writer was a special opportunity, and though I never actually pursued being a writer after grad school I still think fondly on those days. At that time Banks was working simultaneously on Cloudsplitter and Rule of the Bone. "Rule of the Bone is my leisure time, my fun," he said. "Cloudsplitter is my work."

Rule of the Bone is leisure writing? Have you ever read Rule of the Bone?

But here's Banks with a new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. It reminds me of Rule of the Bone because of the voice of its narrator, but the book ranks with Banks's most complex moral fictions as well. As befits the author of books like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, his latest is rather discomforting.

The novel's narrator is called The Kid. Usually if a book's narrator is called The Kid I'm in for a good read. Sam Delany's astonishing dystopian novel Dhalgren had a narrator named Kid. Toby Olson's magical (sur)realist novel The Bitter Half had a controlling consciousness called The Kid (although sometimes the dog's consciousness took over). My high expectations for The Kid-narrated novels were met and perhaps exceeded by Lost Memory of Skin.

I'd have to be in top blogging form to review this book fairly, and I'm not in top blogging form. I did 400 pushups today and drank a half bottle of Lirac watching the Ravens game. Not top blogging form. But here goes!

All the characters in this book are archetypes. The Kid, The Professor, The Wife/The Widow, The Writer. The last archetype's physical description is quite obviously a reference to the real writer's author photo on the book jacket. The Kid is guilty of a grotesque crime, a sexual crime against a minor, and he is wearing a tracking bracelet for the first of 10 years. The Professor muses about weighty matters such as the causes of homelesses and the plight of sexual predators after conviction and their near-inevitable eventual homelessness. The Wife/The Widow I'll not discuss, and The Writer is a kind of deus-ex-machina who drops in to help make manifest the various threads of moral ambiguity at play in the narrative.

So Banks, fearless in the face of deep ethical questions, uses pornography and pedophilia and questions of freedom and responsibility to create a probing exploration of what America's promise has become. We've gone from shining city on the hill to I dunno what, but Banks could tell you. Everyone's trying to get back to Eden but they're distracted by porn and cell phones.

I'm sorry--I owe this book more than this treatment. Too much vino! It's really good, however. I also recommend The Relation of My Imprisonment.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Haint That a Shame Part XIV

I didn't even want to write about this one. I waited a few days. This one felt different. It happened when both of us were completely awake and in the same place. It happened early in the evening on a school night. The lights were on. The TV was on, some insipid fare like "Man vs. Food," I believe. I don't know for sure, because I was seated on the left end of the couch, absorbed in a novel (Russell Banks's The Lost Memory of Skin). The arm of my halogen floor lamp was swung at eye level over the book on my lap. A couple feet to my left, at a 90 degree angle to the couch and along the other wall, sits a love seat. My wife was standing in front of the love seat and facing it, folding laundry into piles and stacking them on its cushions.

Between the couch and love seat sat a folding wooden TV table. It's not a luxurious item by any means but it's sturdy and pretty well-made--Crate and Barrel perhaps? At any rate it's solid wood. Upon this table sat a pint glass filled nearly to capacity with seltzer water. Just next to the pint glass was a tumbler with limeade in it. I'd glanced at the table several times, my eye just able under the glaring lamp of the halogen arm to look at the cold tumbler and consider taking a sip of the limeade. It's not worth the reach quite yet, I'd thought. I'll finish this chapter first.

I'd just glanced at it, in fact, and returned to my novel when the table moved a bit more than half a foot in my direction. There was a substantial noise, the table moved, and I glanced up at Cha, thinking she'd bumped it with her hip while folding clothes. She was staring at me a bit oddly, but I thought that was because she'd almost knocked over a couple glasses, the contents of which were currently sloshing back and forth. I went back to my book.

"Geoff," she said. "That table just moved."

"You bumped it with your hip," I replied. "You were bending over to stack T-shirts and you bumped it with your hip."

She made an incredulous sound with sudden air in the back of her throat. "Look where I'm standing. There is no way I bumped that table."

I did look over; I pushed the arm of the halogen lamp aside and looked over. Cha was a good two feet away from where the table had until recently been positioned. Even her marvelous and substantial badonka-donk could not have bumped the table. She began probing with her foot along floorboards to see if a loose one might have rocked the table. "It didn't rock, it scraped along the floor," I said.

"I know."

We both saw and heard it. We both witnessed it at the same time and in the same way. We were completely awake--involved in tasks, yes, but totally cognizant of surroundings, half-watching TV, etc. etc.

This is the first incident inside the new house.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day #74

It's really a struggle to get back in the swing this year! I'm not physically tired right now; I spent the entire winter break focusing on unclenching the clenched fist my body had become. I hung upside-down a lot, took a dozen super hot baths, and even went to my massage therapist twice. I read and actually absorbed what I read for the first time in months. So physically I feel really good right now, and spiritually too.

But something's amiss. I don't have the creative spark. I'm struggling to come up with lessons which are coherent and engaging and meaningful. I'm at a loss. I have to teach ancient China and the Silk Road and I'm just not able to pull together a sequence of lessons to get it done. Instead, I'm rushing around in the morning before work throwing something together at the last minute. So far, that's actually worked pretty well, but I need the lesson plan faerie to drop by and give me a boost ASAP. Hopefully she'll be wearing boots.

My boss asked me the first day back how I was doing. "Rested, but not refueled," I told her. She sent me a long email that night checking in and asking for a meeting because she felt the same way. My boss is awesome. It's great to have a boss who can also be a confidant and friend when you need it.

The kids have been squirrelly too. Today I had chaos 2nd period, and they disregarded my repeated requests for quiet until I smashed the bottom of my fist into the board at the front of the room. Papers hanging from magnets jumped to the floor and the LCD projector screen flapped up dramatically. Kids jumped out of their chairs. Hale and Hardy said "why y'all got to make that man so mad!"

"I'm not mad," I said very quietly. "I'm play-acting right now. Hopefully you'll never actually see me mad." I had no further trouble from them. Wish I could say the same for the 6th graders last period!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Day #70

Had fun teaching today for the first time in a while. I gave a small test on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which we read this week. We talked a bit about tradition and ritual and human sacrifice, and it was hard to get the kids to go as deep into the story as I would have liked because they're in middle school and they've not lived enough to really get its theme; actually, that's bullshit. I wouldn't have spent three days on it if I truly thought that. Some kids made potent connections to The Hunger Games, some thought of our work with the Holocaust last fall. Some asked serious questions about what motivates people, because the idea of a village doing something like The Lottery isn't really that shocking--and that's what makes the story shocking.

Before I gave the test I showed a fun 1969 film done by the Britannica folks. I'd been thinking the kids didn't give a shit about the story, that they hadn't "got" it, and yet they knew each character as they showed up, and often yelled out the dialogue in advance. Old Man Warner was a hit on screen, just as he was in print: "Crazy damn fools!"

After the vid I put a desk in the center of the front of the room and I put a big black box on the desk. I called each kid up by their last name and gave out the test from inside the box. The kids were somber at first and then started shouting dialogue or calling each other "Tessie" or "Mr. Summers" or "Davy."

After the test I called them up again and made them draw a slip of paper from the box. Jon got the black dot first period, and he tried to hide under a table as we all pelted him with paper ball rocks. It was a birthday present for him. 2nd period Gasbag got it. He sprawled face down on the center table in my room as the kids beaned him with paper wads. At one point my principal came in to check out the reason for the cacophony, but when she realized it was sanctioned somehow she let it go.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Book #1

If memory serves, I read a short story collection by Denis Johnson back in the mid-90s--I think there were stories set in an ER? One perhaps about a guy with a screwdriver in his head?

Now he's won a National Book Award for a novel I put in my Amazon cart years ago and forgot about, and he's written Train Dreams, which perfectly inhabits the desolate prairie between Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy. A fantastic little read to start off the New Year.

Now: back to work, and I'm not ready at all.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book #46

I close out 2011 with Joan Didion, her subject the lamentably short life of Quintana Roo. Like its predecessor The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights is a deeply sad book, but it is never dreary. Didion at one point writes about her inability to get into the old rhythms of writing, and yet her paragraphs still drift by, the occasional sentence repeating again for rhetorical affect,her pain palpable. Her prose reminds me of Duras with its asequential chronology and impressionist effect. There are quite lovely passages about Quintana which had me turning the book over often to look at her photo, thinking about what I'd read.

I must choose books to read carefully next year, given how Nigh is the End. What books does one read in 2012 when we find out how it all ends? I'll begin the year finishing the books I've substantially started but not completed--that's the hope.