Monday, August 31, 2015

Fighting Infection

Review: The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg

This novel opens in media resin this case, in the middle of the warto show us a blond young woman waiting for a train in Krakow, identity papers attesting that she is a good Polish Volks-Deutsche (non-German "Aryan") clutched in her hands. Her anxious rehearsal of the information in her documents reveals the masquerade; false identity hiding Jewish fact. 

Margarita Truschenko—née Rita Feuerstahl—is a refugee from a town in Eastern Poland that is now in the hands of the Soviet Army. Abruptly, the story shifts back to a time just before the war began. The girl from the Krakow train station still attends the university of Krakow as a law student, where she is widely scorned by the Polish students for sitting with the Jews in the "ghetto" reserved for them in the classroom.

Rita, her husband Urs Guildenstern, her sometime lover Thadeusz Sommermann (or Gil Romero, as he restyles himself after his Spanish Civil War experiences), her friends Erich and Dani, and her son Stefan, make their various paths across the torn landscape of Europe as they try to survive the hazards imposed by their backgrounds in an inimical world. 

We scarcely see advancing or retreating armies; we see only the exigencies war imposes in the daily lives of ordinary people. There are few heel-clicking Nazis; instead, we meet conflicted Poles who hide this Jew while outing that one, criminals who blackmail known Jews instead of turning them in, and hidden Jews meeting others in the German street:
Jew would meet suspected Jew. Both would greet one another, “Heil Hitler,” giving nothing away.

The close focus reveals something else: if The Girl from Krakow were set in the future rather than during the Third Reich, it would qualify as disturbing dystopic fiction. Fiction can only disturb us if we can believe on some level that it might happen. Rosenberg has made the horror of the "master race" believable by bringing it to the human level. The most vicious anti-Semites Rita meets are otherwise powerless women, and they are few in the world of MussNazi functionaries—those who profess the creed to keep their jobs—and ordinary people who pretend outwardly to their neighbors, but rebel behind closed doors.

As the philosopher Freddy, whom Rita meets in the Warsaw ghetto, tells it, Nazism is an infection that spreads from brain to brain. But they must not despair, because:
Ideas spread like the germs of a disease. Like the deadliest diseases, they die out because they kill their hosts before they can jump to new ones.

The best that we can do to fight such ideas once they arise is to resist the infection until the disease has burned through the susceptible in the population. We must also inoculate our children against a resurgence by continuing to read—and tell—them such stories.

Liner Note:

Read the whole story before you peruse About the Author for an extra thrill. To say more would constitute a spoiler.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Peek Into the Mind of Darwin

Review: The Flight of the Iguana by David Quammen

Imagine a moment in the history of ideas: A young man stands on the corner of a tropical island, throwing an oversized lizard into the sea.

The lizard swims back to shore. The young man follows this animal,… catches it by its long muscular tail, and throws it back again into the sea… Always the lizard swims straight back to that same stretch of rocky shoreline where the young man waits to catch it again, throw it again. The lizard is a strong swimmer but seems stubbornly disinclined to try to escape through the water. The young man takes note of that fact and, despite his homesickness, wonders why.

The young man is Charles Darwin, approaching the end of his trip to the Galapagos Islands. The lizard is the Galapagos marine iguana, an animal adapted to swimming and feeding in the sea. Darwin spent the better part of a day repeatedly tossing the lizard into the sea, asking himself, “Why does it continue to return to me on the shore, when it has the ability to escape by water?”

The nature of this lizard’s food, as well as the structure of its tail and feet, and the fact of its having been seen voluntarily swimming out at sea, absolutely prove its aquatic habits; yet there is in this respect one strange anomaly... they will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump into the water… Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge. —Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, Ch. 17.

We know all about The Beagle, all about giant tortoises and finches and the theory they spawned in Darwin’s mind. But this tale of the tossed lizard, which Darwin recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle, is rarely mentioned.

David Quammen, visiting the Galapagos himself, explores in The Flight of the Iguana what the later-famous theorist was like at the time: boundlessly curious, unsentimental about nature, doggedly systematic, “and yet in some measure still just a wealthy young remittance-man off on a round-the-world lark.” In addition to these insights into Darwin’s development as an observer and scientist, Quammen gives us his own picture of the application of Darwin’s theories to island ecologies.

The Flight of the Iguana is just one of a collection of essays (most from Outside magazine). Many of them espouse Quammen’s concept of the “fragile island” that supports diversity, and the impact of “island ecologies”—and their fragility—on evolution, extinction and the richness of living things on Earth.

Even with Quammen’s perspective and bias in mind, each essay is enjoyable on its own; collected in one volume, they sound a warning for those complacent that we are “saving enough”. If Quammen is correct that the islands are more fragile than we think, where will a future Darwin observe the variation to inform his inspiration?

Haunting Memories, Haunting Images

Review: Shadows Burned In by Chris Porteau

It is a haunting image that Porteau evokes to explain why houses become haunted: the shadow of a man seared into a wall by the hell-fire blast in Hiroshima.

This is not a book that fits neatly into any one genre. It holds a creepy, haunted feel from the beginning as it uses supernatural-tale tropes to reveal the toll that abuse and neglect imposes on childhood development and later life. Near-future science-fiction comes into the narrative, too, if only to underline how technology does not change the basic human experience. We will not be rescued from our nature by innovative science.

It certainly is not a YA novel, even though Porteau expertly presents both the inner and outer lives of Elizabeth and her father David in his youthful past.

The genre it fits into most comfortably is psychological thrillerbut even then, Porteau has deftly skewed the presentation of the various characters' histories so that we are kept guessing to the end. Is Old Susie's house truly haunted? Is David unavoidably destined to have the same flawed relationship with his daughter Elizabeth as his own father had with him? And will the escaped killer wreak a side-wise vengeance on this haunted family?

The same complex character development we saw from Porteau in his Gettysburg stories, Tales of B-Company (reviewed earlier this month in The Shark Strategy: Move or Die) shines strongly in his debut novel. Because of the skillful weave of genres, the novel's final denouement feels fresh and unexpected, and satisfies the desire for closure.

Best not to expect anything, but just throw yourself open to experience the story. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Islands Are for Experiments

Review: The Annihilation of Foreverland by Tony Bertauski

John Darnton set his community of replacement clones on a remote island in The Experiment. The later movie The Island doesn't credit the Darnton novel, but has an eerily-similar setting. Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park has dinosaurs reborn on an island to isolate them from the rest of the globe; Plum Island near New York City is a real-life experimental station for anthrax and rinderpest, known to fiction-readers from Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs as "Anthrax Island."

So when I began reading the first book in my Foreverland Boxed set, Annihilation, I caught the vibe right away. Something ungood is going on. The boys on this island, recently joined by Danny Boy, are kept focused on pleasure: playing video games and sports, eating plenty of healthy delicious food, enjoying an easy bonhomie (underlain by hints of bullying) from their comrades, and ducking the obsessive (if mostly hands-off) interest of their elderly sponsors. 

Periodically, though, the boys undergo ritualistic torture to free their minds for "Foreverland," where undisciplined revelry is expected, and the boys can acquire any superpower their imagination can conceive. These boys would gladly go to Foreverland without it; why is the torture necessary? Who is the red-haired girl living only in Foreverland? Who are the sponsors, and why is each paired with a boy in such a creepy and unwholesome way? 

And what is the sinister gray fog that seems to form the boundary of Foreverland? 

In showing the boys' encouragement to focus on pleasure and undisciplined power, this story reminded me strongly of another fictional island you may remember. Pinocchio is lured to the Land of Toys by the promise of endless fun in the Italian novel; the Disney film renamed it Pleasure Island, making its island nature more obvious. I recall being appalled as a child by the vicious naughtiness of the boys who chose to become beasts of burden on Pleasure Island, and caught that allusion to a Lord of the Flies degeneracy of young boys unleashed from any adult discipline in Bertauski's Annihilation.

A later Italian film would rename Pinocchio's island yet again: Fun Forever Land

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Midnight Locomotive (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

I'm a double transplant: Born in Colorado on the edge of the Rockies and raised in a little town on the Colorado plains, I jumped in 1980 to Southern California, south of Los Angeles, and lived there for twenty years before moving north of the Tehachapis, north of San Francisco. 

I've dealt with blizzards and gully-washer floods in Colorado, and drought and El Niño rains in California. Over-bank creek floods, ultra-high tides, and storm surge have detoured my commutes. But one locally-specific weather event I've lived in the right region to experience has—to my great fortune—never come my way.

I'm talking about the San Gabriel Express, a bizarre flood of clayey mud and rocks, some boulder-sized or larger, that comes whistling down from over-steepened mountains in Southern California, usually during the winter rains following a wildfire. Something about the combination of fire-bared slope and torrential rain cuts whole hillsides loose to rumble down into the residential neighborhoods below.

John McPhee wrote brilliantly about this phenomenon In Los Angeles Versus the Mountains, in his trilogy The Control of Nature. He is also responsible for my knowing that often, the folks who get un-housed by these debris flows are recent residents in California. Because these events don't happen every winter, or even every El Niño; they're separated enough in time to allow a whole new flock of people to roost below the slopes, folks who know nothing of floods that start on the hillside. It takes the juxtaposition of rain that follows a fire season. The wildfires have retorted the waxy oil from the creosote bushes and left these greasy residues in soils that lie on slopes almost at the angle of repose.

All it takes is a little push, and the locomotive is on its tracks.

I knew exactly what weather event I would write for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

August 26, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the need for help in an extreme weather event. Is the help local or global? Does it arrive or the plea go ignored? It doesn’t have to be fire. Think about extreme weather occurrences and consequences.

The help in this fiction-piece is accidental; many real people have drowned or suffocated in the locomotive-fast debris as it fills their homes or engulfs their cars.


Midnight Locomotive

Winter's rains pounded for a week before the San Gabriel express arrived. 

The slope above the house, burned greasy brown by autumn's fires, was a well-prepared track for this locomotive, primed to deliver tons of gluey debris down our hillside street, straight to our house.

Transplants from Georgia, we knew only of floods up from the river, in from the ocean. The rumble at midnight was our first warning of California's downhill kind. Shed-sized rocks, neighbor's automobiles, the twisted swing-set from our yard, a house-filling mud-flow, burst through the back door.

We lived: our backyard pool caught just enough.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Once More into the Breach

With the publication of the new edition of The Social Calendar, I return to writing reviews of the books I've read in this last intensely-focused month, as well as continuing to edit Ken Cumming's memoirs: Meant To Be Here.  

First up is a mock-up for the cover. Ken did a long-distance solo bicycle tour over the Sierras and the Rockies at age 67, and it rather typifies his astounding approach to life. So the cover will likely feature his photo next to his bike at the 11,990-foot summit of the highway over Loveland Pass in Colorado. 

Ken will be 70 in November, and he's still riding his bike over hill and dale! (I'm not kidding. He's leading an evening/night ride to the summit of a local hill to view the lunar eclipse for the Santa Rosa Bicycle Club next month.)

This time, I'll attempt to apply Hofstadter's Law in my planning for the time required to finish the book, despite the philosophy it expresses:

Douglas Hofstadter:  It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. 

Recalling my over-optimism with the minutiae of post-writing, pre-publication production for The Social Calendarit was supposed to take 3 days, not 3 weeks!I don't believe the memoir will be finished in time for the start of NaNoWriMo this year. Still, If I do finish before November 1st, it will likely be delayed as we wait for the receipt of permissions to use various images that Ken did not create.

So look for it on Amazon early next year!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Unsettling Future Settlers

Review of Pennsylvania series by Michael Bunker

I was chatting one morning at Chick-fil-A about mil sci-fi with my friend Mitch, when he asked if I had ever read Pennsylvania, the Amish science fiction novel by Michael Bunker.

Amish science fiction? 

I told him, no, why? It was because an author he attended college with, Chris Pourteau, had written some military fiction in the Pennsylvania universe. 

Military Amish science fiction. What a concept. I was intrigued, especially once I read Porteau's Tales of B-Company (reviewed earlier this month). 

So I dove into a copy of the first Michael Bunker novella, Pennsylvania 1. And it turns out to be military science fiction in its own right, a fascinatingly complex tale that combines Amish philosophy, future military and power technology, and the first really advanced networking concept I've seen in fiction. 

That the author is a member of a "Plain" community obviously gives him the time and scope to think deeply about What Might Happen. That, and excellent story-telling skills, make this an outstanding book, whether you read it as the first of a series of novellas, or get the omnibus edition and read it as the first section of a novel.

And now, I move from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. Immediately, if not Sooner.

Hard Enough When the Sun Shone

Review: Then Comes a Wind by R.J. Stewart

I recall being terrified while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's account of a prairie blizzard in Little House on the Prairie. I was reluctant to go outside for a few days, until Mom pointed out that a blizzard, even in our own prairie town, was unlikely in the month of August. 

The people of Little House, however, never struck me as appreciably different than the modern folks around me. Not so the "entrymen" of Nebraska in R.J. Stewart's tale. The homesteaders who file their entries on the government land and then build their sod homes on the unbroken grassland have a different quality than I observe in modern life. 

Curiously, it is the "good" folks who have settled the town of Rackett and the grasslands around it who seem otherworldly in their stoicism and acceptance of fate. Their opponents, typified by a disgustingly perverse doctor, or the local rancher who has been accustomed to running cattle on the prairie unopposed by fences or homesteads, are all too familiar to my modern eye.
He lorded his stature over his hired hands, the stronger and more independent of them simply quiet and acquiescent because they needed the work, and the weaker a band of noisy yes-men.

Will Sutton, the entryman farmer who has brought his wife and their two daughters to Nebraska and settled them into a "soddie" on their new land, expects nothing more from life than hard work and chancy weather, yet he has time to muse on the life and death that surround him on the prairie. He makes choices that eventually entail great personal costs for himself, his wife and his daughters, but Will does not complain. In devastating loss both Will and his older daughter Almy perplex my modern expectations; they simply bear down and work harder.

The townspeople of Rackett seem slightly more modern than the entrymen homesteadersat least until they form a court to judge one of their citizens, not with a judge presiding, but with a council whose members are the very definition of "prejudice."

The blizzard that provides the tipping point of the story was a realistic event, a rare occurrence but one which the settlers had seen or heard of before.
Old timers recalled the blizzards that had come before. That one in '73 killed the schoolchildren, but it was in winter. Noyer thinkin' '88. Seventy-three was in spring! Hell, that was clear into April. And it came on like this one here so fast that the children were trapped on their way home from school. Yep, that's it.

If I had encountered Stewart's blizzard at the same age as I did Wilder's, I might not have been so fearful of one, principally because neither Will nor his women are frightened by the storm. Storms are just what happen on the prairie, and the Suttons' approach to life is to cope with what happens. There are darker turns to this story, though, that make it inappropriate for very young readers. 

By turns thrilling, engaging and revealing of the settler's life and somewhat alien mind, Then Comes a Wind is a marvelous debut novel. I look forward to more from Stewart's pen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Diet of Bugs or Onions (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

I don't eat onions. 

I didn't always dislike themas a child I often enjoyed a plate of raw onion slices with yellow mustard, dragging rings of onion-flesh through the dip of spicy condiment before devouring them.

But sometime in the intervening years, the sulfur in onions began to do more than bring tears to my eyes. Along with green and red peppers, leeks, and raw garlic, they started to provoke immense intestinal disturbances. As my spouse warns waiters when I order a dish sans onions, "You don't want to be anywhere near when Pat's eaten onions..."

There's another disturbing thing about onions. Peeling them layer by layer only reveals more onion, until at last you take away the last layer and all the onion is gone. I was thinking about this during this last week, as I chased code errors through a highly-formatted Work In Progress, The Social Calendar. I missed deadline after deadline as I tried to find and stomp all the errors in the e-publication code.

Peeling that particular onion kept me squinting at the computer screen until 3 and 4 am, whereupon I would give up and, eyes streaming with tears, fall into bed for a short nap until it was time to wake up and try the next layer. It kept me from reading, from writing reviews andhorror!—from delivering a flash fiction in response to Charli Mill's prompt last week.

My new definition of joy: peeling away that last smelly layer and getting a "No Problems" response from the ebook software. All that's left now is to wash my hands of the residue, and happily turn to the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge for this week:

August 19, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes onions. It can be the main event or a spicy side to your flash. Think of the impact of onions — teary eyes, dragon-breath, indigestion. How can an onion add a twist, reveal a character or sabotage a perfect day?

Next, a glass of wine and a good book! But first, a little reflection on the pain of late-night debugging.


A Diet of Bugs or Onions

Squinting through bleary eyes at the screen, I struggle to spot any mistyped character in endless lines of code. I could find the bug in this block of text, if only my eyes would stop tearing long enough.

Too optimistic 48 hours ago, I had assured my employer, "No problem, I can get this delivered by Friday." 

I search character by character, dropping one at a time and re-validating. AHA! There it is! 

And it's obvious. Now, anyway.

I'll meet the deadline, and deliver the project with a self-reminder: I'd rather eat only onions than EVER do that again!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Deeper Than YA

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Let's face it, most novels written for the YA market are fluff, designed to entice young readers to engage with the process of novel reading. When they engage reader's adolescent emotions, they do well with their YA readers, and with the adults who are charged with selecting books to add to the young-readers' section of the local library or bookstore.

But some novels labeled as YA are more substantial than that. While still engaging for the young reader, they possess a deeper message, and present ideas that can engage a reader of any age. 

By doing so, the author partakes of a legacy that comes from an older time, before the YA niche market was designated, when adults read the same novels their children would read. For example, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia novels, the Wrinkle In Time books by Madeleine L'Engel, any of Mark Twain's Mississippi novels or anything by Roald Dahl—this is a very short list of novels which give the young reader more than emotional candy to tempt them to read.

You can add Robert Beatty's Serafina and the Black Cloak to that list.

12-year-old Serafina is one of the most intriguing characters I have run across recently in my reading, whether YA novels or general literature. She is the "Chief Rat Catcher" at Biltmore, the Gilded Age Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina. Her job—in fact, her very presence—is unknown to the 1899 Vanderbilt family. She and her train-mechanic father live in hiding in the basement of the sprawling maze-like building George Vanderbilt had recently built in the middle of the woods, and Serafina knows more about the nooks, rat-runs, secret passages, and hidey-holes in the building than anyone else who lives there.

To help her catch and release rats, Serafina has some advantages. She is slender, with an ability to squeeze her body through any opening she can get her head through. She has only four digits on each hand and foot, but they end in strong fingernails, useful for holding onto the squirming rodents when she catches them. Her large golden eyes see very well in the dark. Any tiny sliver of light is sufficient for her to do her work.

When the girl observes a child from "upstairs," a guest of the Vanderbilts, vanishing after being enveloped by the crackling black cloak of a tall man wearing dress shoes, Serafina is faced with a dilemma. Her father does not believe her tale. Should she approach someone upstairs and report her experience? If she does, she risks exposing her father's and her presence in the Biltmore basement. But if she does not, who will stop the child-snatcher in the black cloak?

Serafina must answer this challenge, moving beyond her childhood reliance on her Pa for direction to make this decision. She must also face her own night-creature nature, and learn to move in the world above-stairs as nimbly as she has in the rat-runs.

Did evil creatures think of themselves as evil? Or did they think they were doing what was right?

Despite the many vampire and shape-shifter allusions, this is not a "hidden world" story. Serafina's choice of battles proves that the people she deals with are all too human. It is that which gives the story its winning appeal.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Deadlines and Design Issues

For the last month and a half, I've been buried in a work-in-progress: Next year's version of The Social Calendar (renamed from My Social Calendar), with more authors' quotes, more months of coverage, and more quotes per day. In the midst of the organizing, collating and proof-reading, I got some valuable feedback from readers of last year's edition about what didn't work for them.

So naturally, I decided to stop and rethink the design.

For one thing, poems that are quoted were difficult to read, due to the constraint of a single-line format for quotes. The solution turned out to be opening out the space for the end-or-line "/" marker:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.   Omar Khayyám
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.  Omar Khayyám

Seems simple, right? It actually took quite a bit of code to make the words appear that way in the eBook! And with a mid-August deadline breathing down my neck, it began to seem as if I would never get the design changes done and get back to the actual assembly.

Another issue was the single meme at the beginning of the month. Turns out, several users wanted the meme associated with the calendar day the quote was in. So the design change was to do both. Each meme appears as a beginning-of-the-month illustration, and then will appear again on the page before the calendar day where the quote resides. This change allowed me to add additional memes as I wanted, so there could be more than the one=per-month of the previous edition.

Smaller changes took less time, but what truly ate into the writing time-budget was developing tools so I can put the edition for next year together faster. (I am committed to at least one more Social Calendar for 2016-2017.)  I added a new, offline method for building meme graphics, and wrote the amended "How-To" section to include those step-by=step instructions.

You can take a look at the WIP page for a description that will probably be mostly the same when the book is published on August 15th or thereabout. 

Thanks sincerely to all who reviewed, commented on, or critiqued the first edition—you can expect to see your names listed in the Acknowledgementsand also to anyone who buys and reviews the new edition after it is published!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Shark Strategy: Move or Die

Review: Tales of B-Company by Chris Pourteau

There I was, reading a David Weber novel one morning at Chick-fil-A, when my friend Mitch learned that my new book was due to be published in August. He said I made four published authors he knew personally. I already knew Mitch was acquainted with Steven Gould, author of Jumper and other novels. They had gone to college together. I asked, who are the others?

In reply, Mitch asked if I had ever read Pennsylvania, the Amish sci-fi novel by Michael Bunker. Thinking, Amish sci-fi? I told him, no, why? It was because another author he attended college with, Chris Pourteau, had written some military fiction in the Pennsylvania universe. 

Military Amish science fiction. What a concept.

Pourteau makes it work, though, and you don't need to have read Pennsylvania to enjoy this collection. The first story, "Gelassenheit," introduces Mary Brennerman, a pivotal character in the rest of the tales, and reveals her motivation for leaving the community of Plain People who have settled on New Pennsylvania, to join the rebel force called TRACE.

The remaining three tales in the collection, "Gettysburg," "Susquehanna," and "Columbia," are closer to novellas than short stories, and Pourteau traces his inspiration for each (mostly from Civil War history) in an afterword that follows each tale. 

The juice of the collection, however, resides strongly in the stories themselves. We meet Lieutenant Hatch, "Trick" to the company, and the hard-drinking "man-mountain" Sergeant Stug, whose continual complaint is not getting to hit enough people. Hawkeye, Bracer, Pusher... Each of the TRACE rebels becomes important to us, and we care what happens to them. The action of their battles is balanced by the action of their hearts and minds.

The "B" of B-Company, by the way, is not a mere alphabet letter. It is short for Bestimmung, a German/Pennsylvania Dutch word that can mean regulation, purposeor destiny. While Mary Brennerman and the other evocative characters of her company move through their various battlefields, it takes on each of those meanings in turn. 

Pourteau goes on my watch-for list, along with Bunker and Amish science fiction.

Who knew?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Black Pig Birthday

My spouse specializes in weirdly appropriate presents. For example, I got a Brunton hand-compass for one anniversary. (The geologist's field tool has a ruby pivot, and it was our Ruby anniversary, you see.) Christmas one year I found a package of wooden-stick Q-tips under the tree. You had to be me in the drought of such usefully inflexible swabs to know why I was awash in tears of gratitude.

This year for my birthday, I opened a chilly wrapped gift to find a package of thick-sliced bacon. Black Pig Bacon, to be specific.

Bacon is ambrosial, in my opinion, pretty tasty even at its most mundane. But if all you've ever had is the domestic product of a huge pig farm, where the animals are penned and fed with garbage, and the meat is wet-cured with liquid smoke, you have no idea how much more tasty bacon can be!

I knew what I had to do with this meat-gift. I would candy it and then share with friends... I went onto and found a spicy bacon-candying recipe, and added some extra spice to the basic brown-sugar-and-cayenne rub.

Ten minutes to rub and pan the bacon, and thirty to cook it, and I will be ready to sit down to a pig-party with my spouse and a few friends.

Life is sweet!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

My Dirty Dozen: 12 Guilty Pleasures on DVD

They’re the "vintage" movies I watch for fun, even cut up with commercials on TBS or USA, whenever they show up in the schedule. They’re the DVDs I hide in the drawer of the entertainment center, because I just don’t want to explain to my dinner guests why I have a copy. (Let alone that their sprung-open plastic latches reveal that I watch them frequently.)

You know the kind of movies I mean. Here’s my top twelve, in no particular order:

1. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982

f you can’t relate to someone in this movie, man, you’re dead and buried! Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh both bare-chested (not to mention Senn Penn); Ray Walston’s definitive teacher-from-hell; Judge Rheinhold as the gormless fast-food pirate drooling (and masturbating) over Cates. There’s nothing here to exercise your grey cells. It’s just FUN.

2. The Mask, 1994

If I only have a minute, I zip to the dance scene when Jim Carrey as “The Mask” first appears at the Coco Bongo Club and groove with the zoot-suit riot he unleashes there. But for sheer lyric beauty, what could surpass Cameron Diaz in a wet blouse? And that dog—you’ve gotta love the dog! What more do you want for a lazy summer’s viewing?

3. Repo Man, 1984

Emilio Estevez gets way, way “out there” in this sleazy spoof of UFO-fanaticism. While there are good performances by Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, the movie is stolen entire by Tracey Walter as the loopy Miller, who tends his trash-can full of burning rags as he explains “reality” to Estevez.

4. Strictly Ballroom, 1993

Paul Mercurio stars in this great send-up of competitive ballroom dancing. The music is fantastic, the dancing is inspirational (in a rural contest kind of way), and the villains are so despicably petty. Predictable only if you’ve seen every local-dancer-makes-good movie ever made. Show me your paso doble!

5. Theatre of Blood, 1973

Grand Guignol is a genre in which gore is the point. This movie takes that fine French tradition and makes it totally English, with Vincent Price, in a ham-and-cheesy take-off of himself, murdering theatre critics using methods gleaned from Shakespeare. Diana Rigg appears in drag—the first time I saw this movie, it was nearly over before I recognized her!

6. Earth Girls Are Easy, 1988

Olympian Geena Davis falls for a hairy alien Jeff Goldblum when his spaceship falls into her swimming pool. The music (mostly by Julie Brown) is zany, the plot is nearly non-existent, and Peter Rocket makes a great skanky boyfriend. Really, all you need to know is “Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey” and “Geena Davis in a corset and stockings.” Angelyne has a cameo.

7. Dodgeball, 2004

This send-up of the “Cinderella sports team” formula-flick is perfect on all levels: the “heroes”led by Vince Vaughnare serious losers, the “villain” is played by Ben Stiller as a more-muscular version of Zoolander, and Rip Torn’s coach is ten inches of icing on this fruitcake. It scarcely needs Steve the Pirate, but I maybe that’s why I keep watching this film. I just love fruitcake.

8. Videodrome, 1983

This dark sci-fi thriller has hints of snuff films and sexual torture, but the real soul-shaker is the plot gimmick: What if something you watched could infect your mind, truly take over your will? James Woods stars as the hapless viewer, sucked in by the porn and infected by visions of Debbie Harry. When he reaches into his own belly and pulls out the gun, you’ll squirm—but you’ll be back. You’ve watched it once…

9. UHF, 1989

Give Wierd Al Yankovic a UHF TV station, and you get nothing highbrow or classy; but loony skits abound: “Wheel of Fish,” “Conan the Librarian,” a sleaze-talk show (“Lesbian Nazi Hookers Abducted by UFOs and Forced Into Weight Loss Programs!”), “Raul’s Wild Kingdom.” (“For those of you just joining us, today we’re teaching poodles how to fly.”) Add Al’s spoofs of Dire Straits’ “I Want My MTV” and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo—and all of that’s only about ten minutes of this movie. Really, really great in its own goofy way.

10. Underworld, 2003

Kate Beckinsale is a vampire, and they’re the good guys. The villains are werewolves, but the formula is Romeo-and-Juliet gang-war noir. Unless you’re from Eastern Europe, Beckinsale is the only actor you’ll have heard of, and that helps. So does the staging, which will remind you of Ridley Scott. I thought this would be a cheesy blood-sucker, but to my surprise, it didn’t suck at all!

11. Major League, 1989

Charlie Sheen as “Wild Thing.” Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, who plans to steal more bases than anyone ever did before. And Bob Eucker as the “voice” of the abysmally-bad last-place baseball team, the Indians. All you need for pure popcorn-munching pleasure is the wonderful Randy Newman title song (“Burn On, Big River”) and the irreligious religious conflict between a born-again Christian and a voodoo-idol worshipper. Did I forget Randy Quaid as the rabid fan?

12. Hairspray, 1988

Back when Rikki Lake was fat… er, pleasingly plump, she made this nutty paean to the birth of the Sixties. Debbie Harry is in this one, too, but the real shock is Divine, who appears in a rare second role as a man. Pia Zadora has a neat cameo as a beatnik, and Mink Stole keeps her clothes on as the assistant producer of a “Rock Hop” TV show. The movie’s segregation theme is handled lightly, with more focus on Rikki the “Hair-Hopper” and her changing ‘dos. History-Lite. Very lite.

As a special treat, you can watch the '88 version, then pop in the 2007 musical and compare the performances.

Those are my guilty pleasures. The floor is now open for your confessions—just give me a minute to make some popcorn!