Thursday, October 24, 2013

Back in St. Olaf....

In one of those rare cases of my picking up non-fiction, I happened to see Betty White's If You Ask Me (And You Probably Won't) at the library and picked it up.

I was kind of disappointed, mainly because I was expecting more narrative and a linear progression. However, as I found out later in the book, the 90 year old woman has 5 or 6 other autobiographies, which may be where I find something closer to what I was expecting.

So, if this isn't a true autobiography, what is it then? I'm glad you asked.

What's contained in these pages is a series of essays, usually a few paragraphs to a few pages, grouped under different topics about a more specific topic. Like the section "Animal Kingdom", which has 6 essays about various pets she's had, or animals she's met at zoos and aquariums.

Most of the sections dealing with her career have to do with TV (Hot in Cleveland, hosting Saturday Night Live) or some of her more recent movie appearances (The Proposal, You Again, The Lost Valentine). She does mention in passing how much her cast mates on Hot in Cleveland remind her professionally of the women of The Golden Girls, in that they're very professional and have great chemistry. She does discuss Sue Ann Nivens for a hot second or two, mainly discussing how the role was written as a "sweet, sugary, Betty White type".

Another major topic that comes up quite frequently is her now deceased husband Allen Ludden and how much she still loves him. Which is really hard to read at times. It isn't exactly full angst like one finds in in old LiveJournal posts, but more of a love that didn't die with him 30 odd years ago. Kind of reminds me of my mom these days.

She really does love all kinds of animals as well. One of my favorites among her animal anecdotes in here involves Koko, the gorilla who communicates with sign language.And who, when Betty visited, was undergoing an obsession with cleavage. The way Betty describes the situation, one can't help but laugh and see her disarming a gorilla that's semi-determined to remove her blouse.

Really, it's a fun, if very short read. It's a bit like sitting through a one woman show, with Betty telling stories for a few hours.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mendoza, you oaf!

True story. I've been postponing reading The Life of the World to Come by Kage Baker mainly because I've already reviewed 3 books in the series on here already and I wanted to space things out a bit.

And on a side note, This blog is about 13 months old now. Which I really wasn't expecting, since the last time I tried tracking my reading, it fell off after a few months. (Not that I post about everything I read, more than a few titles are either YA lit I picked up on Ebay or comic book collections, etc.)

Anyway, the series so far has alternated narration duties between Mendoza (books 1 and 3) and Joseph (books 2 and 4). Which should mean Mendoza should be narrating this one. And she does for the prologue. Living on Catalina Island in the WAY WAY BACK when animals hadn't yet crawled out of the sea, she chops vegetables for Company resorts to serve to guests. She mentions boredom, and how she sometimes sleeps for several years, based on her internal chronometer. And then a handsome man crashes a time ship in her front yard. Who also quite resembles Nicholas Harpoole, last seen burning at the stake in The Garden of Iden, as well as Edward Alton Bell-Fairfaix, last seen being shot by American agents and dying in Mendoza's arms in Mendoza in Hollywood. Alec Checkerfield comes from about 4 years before The Silence descends. Of course, he and Mendoza go a bit loopy and ravish each other in the primeval. She helps him disable the explosive device on his stolen time machine, and tells him how to avoid being sick from time travel. He promises to return once he has avenged his Captain, whom Dr. Zeus Inc. killed. Not loing after he leaves, Mendoza's journal gets cut off mid sentence. A Latin verse that roughly translates as Strong as death is love, hard as hell is envy. Well, it would if she had completed the sentence. Thankfully, Google found the full phrase and the translation he in 2013.

Anyway, the rest of the book follows two different plots. One follows young Alex, growing up on his father's ship, cruising the world, free from the regulations of the modern world of the 2300's. The other follows three effete men in 2350 who are trying to design better versions of the Enforcers,  who, as we found during The Graveyard Game, kind of went off the radar. Rutherford, Frankie Chatterji, and Foxen Ellsworth-Howard work for Dr. Zeus, tailoring genes to create a better Enforcer, under the codename Adonai. Which is amusing, since one gets the distinct impression they're trying to create a man who can be what it is they most desire but refuse to pursue for whatever reason. (Seriously. They walk outside at one point for what amounts to maybe a few blocks. They wind up with blisters on their feet and sunburns on their bald heads.)

Alex, on the other hand, spends most of his childhood blaming himself for his parents' divorce not long after they moved back to London. Mom leaves, Dad goes back to the sea. His caretakers give him a virtual playmate (to help keep children away from germs), whom Alex manages to reprogram on day 1. The Captain (Alex likes pirates, you see) pretty much loses most of his ethics programming, thanks to Alex, who is quite the savant when it comes to tech.

As Alex grows, he becomes quite rich, not only due to the fortune he inherited from his father, but from the profiteering he does running contraband on his ship, the Captain Morgan. He gets involved with a revolutionary group founded by one of his upper class peers.

In the mean time, results from the first two incarnations of the Adonai project come in and get reviewed. The first winds up burned at the stake. The second gets shot by American agents on Catalina Island. (Sound familiar? Particularly when the 3 creators get annoyed the same Preserver botanist is involved with both deaths.) The third one is being run in contemporaneous time, and you guessed it, is one Alex Checkerfield.

These two plots collide as Alex breaks into Dr. Zeus to steal a time machine to run guns to Mars One before everyone in the colony gets forcibly evicted. (This is a nasty subplot.) He manages to steal the time machine as the Captain gets taken offline by Dr. Zeus's avatar. Alex winds up in the WAY WAY BACK where he meets a beautiful preserver named Mendoza.

To make a long story short, the device Mendoza deactivates in the WAY WAY BACK ends up changing Alex's destiny, which ultimately leads to Alex getting an opportunity most of us don't get in life, that of meeting his maker(s). It also leads to a case of multiple personalities as Alex, Edward, and Nicholas end up inhabiting the same body. We also now have a name of someone who's been manipulating things behind the scenes.

As much as I want storyline resolution on what the heck happened to Mendoza, plus what's going to happen when Joseph wakes up his mentor, or find out what actually happened to Lewis, this book really brought out the themes of the series in a very readable way. I can't wait to find out what comes next.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Help Eleanor Come Home...

So, with the season upon us, I dug out Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, figuring a good old fashioned ghost story might help me get in the mood.

And given how much this book managed to influence just about every haunted house story that came after it, it's not a bad thing.

The book focuses on Eleanor, a very childlike woman with a history of poltergeist activity surrounding her in her youth. Eleanor essentially runs away from her sister, who didn't particularly want Eleanor to run off on some strange adventure. And given Eleanor thinks she hit someone on her way out of the parking garage, her sister's fears are probably warranted.

Anyway, due to her previous experience with the preternatural, Dr. Montague has invited Eleanor and a few others to come investigate Hill House for the summer and help prove the existence of ghosts. The main other one being Theodora, the bohemian who becomes something of a friend and occasional antagonist to Eleanor. Theo is probably a lesbian, although this comes through mainly as subtext. (Evidently, one couldn't really discuss sexuality in 1959.) The secondary other one is the drunken heir to Hill House, Luke.

The caretakers don't like the house, and remind everyone that they won't be in the house after dark.

Hill House itself is a character. All the angles are off. The house is plagued with a history of suicides and murders.

As the book goes on, we see haunting events that everyone experiences, and a few that only Eleanor is privy to. Also, many of them are left intentionally vague, leaving up to us, the reader, to figure out why Theo is telling Eleanor to run. Most of the manifestations that we do get to witness involve standards such as pounding on the walls, door knobs turning on their own accord. Then we get personal ones like Eleanor becoming convinced it wasn't Theo's hand she was clutching in the dark.

Eleanor, to put it quite succinctly, is a few fries short of a happy meal. One of the biggest questions is whether the haunting is all in Eleanor's head, or just being magnified by her presence in the house. Given that she sort of gets sucked into the house about 2/3 of the way through, I rather tend to think there's an actual presence in the house, although I'm with Dr. Montague in my opinion that the house isn't doing Eleanor's sanity any favors.

I won't spoil the ending for anyone, but wow.

A few side notes here. The book has been made into movies twice to my knowledge. One, The Haunting (1963), is quite good. It make Eleanor a bit older, but otherwise stays pretty close to the book. Plus Theo in the movie is a pretty good example of how Hollywood got away with portraying lesbians in cinema, when they weren't causing innocent girls to commit suicide.

The other that I know of was 1999's The Haunting. Which not even a pretty good cast could save from a horrible script that changed around just about every detail from the book and buried any sense of suspense under a sea of bad CGI.

I also found out while doing research that The Haunting of Hill House is what inspired Steven King's Rose Red. And having re-read the book now, why yes.

I'll also add that Jackson's short story, "The Lottery" should be required reading.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When we were young and our Mood Rings were blue...

National Coming Out Day is October 11th, and I'm only about halfway through my current read, so YAY survey/synopsis!

I'll preface this by saying I had never heard of this series until TV guide spotlighted the PBS premier of the mini-series based on book 1, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I watched the series, and wound up enraptured by the full on 70's in California story. As I recall, I had an appointment with my shrink in Dayton not long after, and wound up buying the first three books at the old Books & Company I'd visit after sessions.

The story starts with Mary Ann Singleton, on vacation in San Francisco from Cleveland, calling home and explaining to her parents that she's decided to stay in San Francisco. A few chapters later, after taking us shopping at Safeway for more than veggies, Mary ann winds up moving in to 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill, under the management of one Mrs. Anna Madrigal. Along with the other tenants; Brian, the straight himbo who waits tables at Perry's and Mona Ramsey, an aging hippie who works at Halcyon as an advertising executive, a sort of family forms. As the novel progresses, we meet Michael, Mona's new roommate, who's ex boyfriend Mary Ann tried to pick up at the Safeway. We also meet Norman Neil Williams, who has the roof apartment and sells vitamins.

By the end of the first book, Mary Ann has had an affair with Beauchamp Day, who is married to her boss's daughter, DeDe. Beauchamp has also been screwing around with Michael's on again, off again lover, Jon Fielding, who's also DeDe's gynecologist. (DeDe gets knocked up by the Asian grocery delivery boy.) DeDe's father, Edgar, has been having an affair of his own with Mrs. Madrigal, even if he doesn't like her marijuana habits. (She has plants growing in the yard with names like Barbara Stanwyck. She also has joints at the ready for all of her "children".) Mona has moved in with D'orothea, an African American model, but that ends in disaster when Mona invites D'or parents to Christmas dinner. Brian, in the meantime, has hooked up with several women. (As a character, he really doesn't grow much until the next book.) Oh, and Mary Ann has found out Norman Neil Williams has been investigating Mrs. Madrigal, stars in child porn, and manages to drop him off a cliff.

 The next two books expand on these characters. More Tales of the City starts with Mary Ann and Michael on a cruise and ends with a cannibal Episcopal cult. Further Tales of the City winds up with a bunch of Jim Jones in Guyana aftermath. (Given I read this one before I had ever been on the internet, I had to do a bit of research. I was familiar with some of it, but there's a heck of a lot involved.)

Now, to a high school senior dealing with a bunch of issues related to coming out, these books were awesome. Gay characters abounded, and a virtual array of possibilities were explored by pretty much everyone. Plus there's an awesome letter that Michael writes to his mother during the Anita Bryant affairs. They gave hope to a fairly lonely gay young man who had a few issues of his own at the time.

I didn't pick up the next three books until my sophomore year in college. See, book 3 ends right on the cusp of the time that so many gay men in San Francisco started getting odd cancers. Book 4, Babycakes, picks up after AIDS has pretty much destroyed gay life as portrayed in the previous books. I cried for about 30 minutes after starting, since it seems Jon died between books. Out of all of the things in the series, having Jon die off screen was probably the one thing that made me angry. Anyway, Significant Others and Sure of You round out the next three books. Which basically turn Mary Ann into a shrew. After she marries Brian,things...don't go well. They have a kid via adoption, but Mary Ann, who becomes something of a TV personality. We see Michael not only survive AIDS, but thrive as a gay man entering his 40's. And fall in love again. We see Mrs. Madrigal growing older. We learn that everything changes over time. And we end in 1989.

Which, as I read these in 1996, I was really upset by the way things ended. I mean, on one hand, Michael, to me and so many other gay men, was proof that we're not alone in our feelings of insecurity and that we can survive just about everything. But when Mary Ann ceases to be a likable character, it's a bit like losing an old friend. And given that book 6 was the last in the series for quite some time...

Then 2007 rolled in and Michael Tolliver Lives hit the shelves. It was a bit different than what preceded it, since it was written in first person. We see Brian and Mary Ann's daughter all grown up, meet a trans man, and see Michael who's survived AIDS and the dot-com boom as he tries to choose between his biological family and his family of choice. We also meet Mary Ann again, living in Connecticut, and find out a bit of what happened to her after 28 years or so. In the end, Michael's decisions make sense and hit right in the feels.

And in 2010, Mary Ann in Autumn brought us back to San Francisco, again with the multiple perspectives, and added some closure on one very old plotline in the process. We deal with Mary Ann's fear for her health, and her attempts to fix relationships she messed up years ago.

These two did much to repair the anger I felt after Sure of You. It was almost like a reunion of sorts, where you find that tiem healed a bunch of wounds you'd forgotten you had.

And now, I get to add The Days of Anna Madrigal to my watch list, since it will be the last. Sort of a trilogy of trilogies, I guess. It's going to be odd realizing that this will probably be the last time we see a family that's been around in fiction for 35 years, but it helps that the final act has rectified some of the worst moments of earlier years. I only hope that we get a happy ending, or at least one that is fulfilling here.