Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I wonder...

If anyone has ever designed a special hat for people with mohawks. Because I saw a dude with a full-on mohawk shivering down the sidewalk this morning and he looked cold and confused. Maybe I'll work up a few sketches and make my millions with the hawk-hat!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fall into Darkness (1990)

So, after a series of conversations with some of my friends about how much we loved Christopher Pike books when we were in junior high, I happened to spot a cache of them on a bookshelf in my parent's house when I was home for Christmas and found a spot in my suitcase to smuggle them back to Austin. Because revisiting guilty pleasures of one's childhood is never ever disappointing, right?

Color me a little bit disappointed by Pike's Fall into Darkness (1990), with which, to be honest, I think I was a little disappointed when I read it nearly twenty years ago (yikes).

The book starts with Sharon McKay, a high school senior and accomplished pianist, standing trial for the murder of her best friend, the rich and beautiful Ann Rice (yes. Ann Rice. And Pike uses her full name almost every time he mentions her.) Sharon and Ann had been camping up on a ridge with Ann's fiance, Paul, his brother (and Ann's gardener), Chad, and Sharon's newish boyfriend Fred. After the girls went off together for a walk, the boys heard Ann shout "Don't!" and when they got to the edge of the cliff they found Sharon crying that Ann had gone over the side.

But no one could find her body...

The story is told by flipping between flashbacks from the perspective of different friends and the present-day trial and its aftermath. Sharon, who swears she is innocent, is helped through the trial by her seriously creepy court-appointed attorney, John Richmond, who keeps putting his hand on her leg and making very inappropriate sexual banter. So you know that is going to go well.

Of course, nothing is as it seems and the whole thing turns into a vicious circle of double-crossing, lies, misunderstandings, and manipulations. And some seriously fucked up high school students with apparently no parental supervision or interaction with the ordinary world. But they are so damn attractive!

Here's Paul -- the slightly older fiance of the rich and beautiful (and dead?) Ann Rice:
Black suited his dark gypsy features. It suited the smoldering look in his deep brown eyes. It was his eyes that had first attracted her to him. He was a couple of years older than she was and had already spent a year in the navy. It seemed when she looked into his eyes that she could see a gray storm approaching over a turbulent sea. But only if she looked deep. On the outside, he was calm.

And here is the lovely Ann:
Her eyes were cool liquid green, her lips pouty and red. People occasionally thought her long fall of dark hair was a wig, it was so fine and perfect.

So, the descriptions may be more compelling than the plot for much of this young adult suspense novel, but Pike does throw in a few twists that I had forgotten, and even though I rolled my eyes through the first half of the novel, I did get caught up in it towards the end.

[And I used that teeny tiny version of the cover because I didn't want to use the TV movie cover that is all over Google images, and I was too lazy to scan my cover in. That TV movie looks bad, and you can read all about it at my new favorite Christoper Pike-related blog, which also features a complete plot synopsis of this novel, should you care to spoil the suspense.]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Player Piano (1952)

A few days ago I finished the latest pick for our yet-to-be-named literary society, Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, I don't want to say too much about it since 1) most of my friends in the literary society also read this blog; 2) most of those friends also have not read the book yet; 3) I don't want to say everything I want to say about the book here, because then why even have a literary society!? (Answer: to drink beer with friends while all holding a copy of the same book.)

Anyway, Player Piano is a dystopic science fiction novel in which, after a great war, mechanization and efficiency have reached new heights and all manual labor is performed by computerized machines. The only people who have jobs are those with high enough IQs to be managers or engineers. Everyone else is either in the army or the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (also known as the Reeks and Wrecks), which is kind of an overstaffed city maintenance crew. [Sadly (or happily, I guess), women are left out of this whole new social structure and still do things the old way, by just marrying somebody and then being whatever class he happens to be. I like Vonnegut, but he just isn't all that imaginative when it comes to female characters...] Our hero is Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and the son of the man who started the whole mechanization scheme rolling. Paul is dissatisfied and wants to make a change, but will one of the key gears have any luck at leaving the rest of the machine behind?

This is Vonnegut's first novel, and while his trademark humor and cynicism are here, they are more hidden in a traditional narrative than in some of his other novels. Overall this is very readable and often surprisingly topical look at modern society, seen from the future-gazing lenses of 1952.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kansas Chimey Guy!

Every year when we drive to and from Nebraska, we drive past this cheery chimney sweep on the side of I-135 in central Kansas. This year I finally got it together to take two (really bad) pictures of him. It is hard to take a picture of something on the side of the interstate when you aren't quite sure when it is going to show up and your windows are all dirty. For future reference, it is between Wichita and Salina, near McPherson (which is where the actual business the little guy advertises is located -- this site also includes a better picture of him). He is about nine miles north of the exit for Moundridge, Kansas, which is one of my favorite vaguely sexual place names that we drive by every year (also on that list: Flower Mound, Golden Triangle, and Braman). So everyone wave to the Chimney Guy! We will make sure to say hi for you when we drive by him again next year...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Three Minutes on Love (2008)

I got a copy of the recently released Three Minutes on Love (2008) by Roccie Hill through the always lovely LibraryThing Early Reviewers program a couple of weeks ago. I have a tendency to just request most of the novels that LibraryThing puts up and see what they give me. If I had read the publishers description of this one, however, I don't think I would have picked it (and don't read the suggested reading group discussion questions on that page -- they make the book sound really awful).

Actually the book is pretty readable and not as bad as the title and description make it sound. This is the story of Rosie Kettle, a young photographer in the 1960s who concentrates on shooting musicians. She has a flirtation with the up-and-coming songwriter and rocker, David Wilderspin (the name!), that eventually leads to a serious relationship, then prego, then marriage. She also has an odd Hungarian friend named Peter. Things go good, then things go druggy, then things go bad, then things go better, then really bad, then okay again. Got it? While there are some interesting characters here and the plot of the novel moves quickly, the overall story is predictable and occasionally uneven. In one key plot point, David is extremely jealous of his lawyer's flirtation with Rosie. The lawyer, in fact, is madly in love with Rosie, but as far as the reader knows, they only met a few times, and the reactions of both men are really disproportionate. And the climax is almost deliciously ridiculous, although I'm pretty sure that isn't what Hill was going for.

So, not a wholehearted recommendation, but you could certainly do worse if you are looking for a 1960s California musician-based romance...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Anne of Green Gables (1985)

My lastest dip into the universe was the eternally fantastic Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I think the only book that little Kristy read more than this one was Charlotte's Web. And the 1985 TV movie! Oh! Seriously one of my favorite things on earth. I even played Marilla in a high school theater production of Anne of Green Gables (I got to spray my hair with gray dye and act all elderly and stern, it was pretty fun).

I hadn't read this book for almost 20 years, but it hasn't aged a bit. And since it was written one-hundred and one years ago, that is a testament both to Montgomery's writing and the universal experience of being a young girl. Anne is the ultimate outsider -- an orphan girl, too old for most people to want to adopt, who is accidentally sent to brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert when they request a boy orphan to help them on their farm. She has red hair, which she hates. She is smarter and more dramatic and more romantic than anyone on Prince Edward Island. She is overly sensitive, extremely confident, and can hold a serious grudge. And even though I'm not really anything like Anne Shirley, I always felt like we were kindred spirits.

I just love Anne. And I have a box set with the next three books in the series at my parent's house that I can't believe I forgot to bring home with me after Christmas. Hopefully she will wait to keep growing up until I can revisit the rest of the series...

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Evolution of Useful Things (1992)

In The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts -- From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers -- Came to be as They Are (1992), Henry Petroski unleashes his research skills on the entirety of invented and designed material culture and asks the question: why? Rather than follow the traditional wisdom that "form follows function," Petroski argues that form really follows failure. Instead of there being one, predestined, "right" way for something to work, invention and design work as a form of evolution where new ideas build on the failure of old ideas to accomplish things as well as the inventor would like.

Petroski covers an admirable amount of stuff in this one volume -- some objects in brief case studies, and others in more detailed chapters. The archivist in me particularly loved the chapter on fasteners (straight pins, ribbons, seals, paper clips, staples, etc.), since I have come across many a rusty ancient and oddly-shaped paper fastener in my day. Research in patent files, corporate histories, and biographical information on little-known inventors all enrich the author's argument.

At his best when analyzing and admiring the ideas and people that change material culture, the flow of the narrative is occasionally brought to a halt when Petroski stops to hammer on his "form follows failure" thesis to excess and brings the discussion away from the physical artifacts and into the land of theory. He also throws in a few weirdly curmudgeonly rants against poorly designed forks and people who throw half-full bottles of soda into plastic garbage cans.

Overall this is an excellent book for anyone interested in engineering, design, or why a paperclip looks like a paperclip. Also recommended: Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, which is one of my favorites.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Would you drink this?

At a fun xmas eve eve party back home, we were presented with the opportunity to have a shot of some unknown type of liquor that our friend's dad brought back from China. Looks like fun, right? Dr. M certainly thought so, and after all giving it a good smell (it smelled kind of like soy sauce and bean curd), a select group of party-goers took the plunge. The first taste made us all think a little bit, and the aftertaste sealed the deal. If you ever get the chance, you should check this out. Really. I can't wait to see what you think...