Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Artistic House Cleaning

It was her artistic statement. She was young enough to be able to work all day, and young enough to still want to, which was rare in the house cleaning industry. But she came from a long line of people who did damned fine work or they didn’t eat, and the better half of that lineage stuck with her. She vacuumed every crack in the floor, eradicated every spot on every wall, plucked every stray fiber from every overpriced carpet, and left thirty-year-old windows looking freshly installed. In the clergy they sanctified people who did her level of work. Every time, she thought, she’d leave just one scrap of paper behind by the door: a beauty mark on the house she’d face-lifted. It was always in the same place, always easy to dispose of, typically put somewhere near the worst stain had been. It depressed her, then, to find no one saw this as artistic cleaning. They trampled right over her errant trash and complained the drapes looked dusty, or the sink had a grime ring, or that the bathroom smelled funny. They were all false charges, low thoughts from people who didn’t know what lilies smelled like. It just about ruined cleaning other people’s houses for her. Some day, she might not have the strength of will to leave behind a beauty mark of trash. All the other cleaners said so.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Peggy

In the rear of the taxi, his fingers kept breaking and cleaning an imaginary M4. At the hospital, as his half-senile mother explained how it had happened, all he could think of were all the unsecured rooms. Even walking to hers, he imagined Bull Ridge. Its stink, and its birds that sounded like rocket screeches, and its casualty rate. Bull Fucking Ridge, which he’d been praying to leave for three months.

He stood at first. It felt right, to remain standing if Peggy couldn’t sit up. His sister looked so thin in that big bed. They didn’t have mattresses like that in Afghanistan. Nor did his unit have anyone who’d know how to stick tubes up your nose like that, or any of all the blinking, beeping and line-charting machines that kept her bed company. On Bull Ridge, all they really had was glorified tourniquet training.

Suddenly he had to sit. He only knew it when the chair creaked under him. They had chairs that bowed and creaked like this in Afghanistan. That felt too much like home. He leaned over her, as though to prostrate in apology. Her sheets were thin enough that he could feel her warmth through them.

They didn’t have kitty pajamas in Afghanistan. He was a little surprised they’d changed her into them, surprised enough that he reached out and pinched the terrycloth to convince himself it was there. Either Mom had put them on her, or the aneurism had hit while she was in bed. He guessed they could hit you while you were asleep. A lot of things could, which was why he slept with his back to walls now.

As he pinched the pajamas, her wrist rolled and bumped into his knuckles. It sent sparks through him; they didn’t have women in Afghanistan, or family. Well, a lot of people had family there. Afghanis, certainly. Just not him.

He ran his fingertips over her hand in the misplaced hope that she’d react. She didn’t. He wrapped his right hand around hers, then brought up his other hand and added it for good measure. It was a sort of wishful thinking he hadn’t felt in months.

Peggy’s face had never looked so narrow. She was a moon-faced woman, thanks to Dad’s genes. Here and now, something about the aneurism had robbed her of that shape. Her face’s curvature was stolen by sallow flatness. The closed eyes, the smoothness where there should have been feature: these they had in Afghanistan. In O’Hara, and Menendez, and Jesus Christ, the raw pink and the little blood around her nostrils could have been Windham’s as he’d slipped away. But Peggy here had not taken three to the chest at the wheel of a Humvee that should have been armor-plated.

They had armor-plated Humvees in the United States.

He couldn’t stop his eyes from following her tubes, climbing up to the sighing apparatus that helped her breathe. His breathing hitched. Still folding her one miniscule hand in both of his, he apologized. He apologized for thinking about what the Bull Ridge guys didn’t have, and for not being a neurosurgeon right now, and not knowing what aneurisms were, and for still envying everything she had, and for these tears, and for a moment, he apologized for fearing that his unit would materialize and kick his ass for showing those tears. He leaned so far forward that his forehead pressed into her sheets, and he couldn’t help but loathe himself for thinking those sheets felt nicer than anything they got on Bull Ridge. He mouthed this all to the woman who had once been a girl who had laced him wreathes of flowers.

He was so occupied mouthing apologies that he couldn’t see her lips moving, too.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

National Novel Reading Month is January

January will be National Novel Reading Month. We’ve all got at least one classic book we think we ought to read and have put off too long. I have more than a dozen of them, and the literary guilt may actually be killing me. Check your shelf. Check your conscience. Isn’t there something long removed from the Bestseller’s List you think you ought to read? Be it for craft, for history, or some gap in your personal English canon. #NaNoReMo is about catching up with the classics.

One thing that bothers me about National Novel Writing Month is it isn’t located in a country. “National” is a poor word choice for a program that’s clearly international. Yet it’s popular, so #NaNoReMo will double the dubiousness. Not only can you read it in any nation of your choice, but your classic doesn’t have to be a novel. Want to brush up on Virgil or Ovid? Go for it. The rule is to read a classic.

We’re using a personal sliding scale for "classics." Some people don’t think Jules Verne is a classic author. I don’t like to talk to those people, but they exist, and so they can read someone else. But if you do think he’s a classic writer who deserves your time, then it’s your choice.

Hop on Twitter in the next couple of days to chat about your potential choices using the hashtag #NaNoReMo. Then join us throughout the month of January as we discuss our progress through our chosen classics. If it works the cross-pollination of encouragement will increase our reading lists as well as encourage us to finish reading great works.

Right now mine is a toss-up between Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (a heavyweight contender with five failed starts in my lifetime) and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (a rookie challenger to my shelf with a siren song of a premise: Satan in Soviet Russia). Which do you think I should open in 2012?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

#bestreads2011 Blog Hop

Welcome to #bestreads2011! This blog hop invites anyone to play along by making their own lists of the books they've enjoyed most this year. Not what was written, not what was published, but what you specifically read that struck you the hardest. You can write them up however you like, and list as many as you like. Just post about them on your blog, and then share the URL of your post in the Linky below.

My reading schedule was terrible in 2011. I spent nine months writing my own novel almost every day, often for between 6-10 hours, and so my literary desires were meek. It's something I've got to work on. Yet as soon as I finished up the rough draft, I began pounding books, and by December I'd read some amazing works of fiction. It took some effort to trim it down to just four books, though these have stuck with me the most this year. I'm giving each book a paragraph, but you can click below them for my full reviews over at Goodreads.

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49
My first exposure to Pynchon, and before finishing I was already looking up prices and library availability on Gravity’s Rainbow. This reads like the work of a cosmopolitan Garrison Keillor, able to tug on any loose string of culture rather than those that dangle into Wisconsin. Presenting anarchism and Freudianism as failed religions, treating the Postal Service as a sinister agency, or simply the idea of Strip Botticelli were all hilarious and fascinating. Pynchon seemed able to write unique sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters and ideas without ever requiring pause. I’m eager to see what else Pynchon came up with given he remarks this book was the one “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until” he wrote it.
Full Review of The Crying of Lot 49.

Ethan Coen's The Gates of Eden
This wound up as a Christmas present for the two Coen fans in my life. It’s an obscene and obscenely funny collection of short stories, evidencing that the Coens’ talent for voice doesn’t only come from great actors. Ethan Coen delivered story after story that thrived on earthy narration, be it a twice-baked parody of Mafiosos, or a racist detective, or a Jewish boy utterly uncomprehending of the cultures he’s being raised into. Coen seemed to get off by embarrassing his characters, particularly the proud, in ways you wouldn’t imagine fitting into their respective worlds. But for those already under the heel, the humor turns against those who are empowered, or evaporates into worries about how we humans function at all. The collection is in search of equilibrium, humiliation hammering down and humility elevating us a little. The circumstances are raw for everyone, but the way the players emerge, with quirks and concerns and shortcomings, validates the entire exercise.
Jeff Smith's Bone
It’s not that I don’t like any YA works – it’s that what is marketed as YA is clearly not for me. And despite being called “a grump,” “an old man” and “a YA Nazi,” this MG comic book was as involving a read as I had all year. It takes a special book to keep you up to midnight when you have no electricity, it’s ten degrees and you’re going on candlelight. Part was Smith’s masterful art style, blending Charles Schultz, Walt Disney, classic illustrations and more esoteric art styles into the same panels without making a single character appear out of place. But part of it was the irreverent humor, always willing to snap at the heels of the drama, and characters that mingled cuteness and motivation in infinitely consumable concoctions. Smith knew how to make things goofy, but also dire (one character loses an arm and is left to die in the wilderness), and surreal (the Moby Dick allusions go mental by the end). Unlike all the MG or YA prose I’ve consumed, I continuously wanted more of everything Smith was selling, be it cow races or the hierarchies of shadow assassins. Certainly that he created a world where those sorts of things coexist helped, and I wondered if I wasn’t getting into the spirits of this the way others got into Harry Potter. The Complete Bone is a doorstop, but upon completion I would have happily forked over cash for another bludgeon-sized volume.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Of everything, this is the item I’m most ashamed of having put off for thirty years. What a play. It’s quotable and tragic, but so is most of theatre. It’s the way Miller damningly captured certain human behaviors, including a few of my own less desirable traits. Consider how Willie will be working out a divisive issue, and then his wife or another character will pipe up with a separate topic, and he’ll explode out of proportion, because the conflict of both topics suddenly swallows him with the interruption. I’ve done this far too many times in the last year, and to read exactly how it functions stings. The meta-theatrical elements are inspiring even without seeing them acted, though since reading I’ve begun seeking out productions to watch.
Full Review of Death of a Salesman.

Bathroom Monologue: The New Anti-Science

It was the new anti-science, worse than the old anti-science because it knew a little and used the perch of knowledge to condescend. It was meaner than the jokes about teaching apes Math instead of building flying cars. Now they ragged on the role science played in so many old wars, and in every new one.

These folks got into every community, and so both legitimate and conspiracy theories abounded on where HIV and the mammal-ready super-flus came from. If someone designed meth and cocaine, where did he learn it?  Suddenly everyone who defended Global Warming’s existence was met on the other side of the argument with a hipster blaming chemists and engineers for the problem occurring in the first place.

An index of such things showed jokes about Marie Curie’s demise quadrupled in one year. At some point a generation grew up swearing, “We’re empirical, not scientific.” There was a righteous demand for the separation of Lab and State, on both funding and less comprehensible levels.

“GO TO THE MOON,” protest signs instructed, “NOBODY WANTS YOU HERE.”

It was not a good time for science, but then the contrarian mind never thinks it’s a good day until everyone else thinks it isn’t.

Monday, December 26, 2011

John Interviewed at Webfiction World

I was a guest on Anna Harte's Webfiction World podcast this past week. We discussed the origins of The Bathroom Monologues, the strengths and weaknesses of flash fiction, and I interviewed Angie Capozello on one minute's notice for both of us. It was very fun; I somehow managed to ramble about both Eudora Welty and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a conversation about flash fiction. Please drop by and give it a listen and a comment.

You can listen to John on Webfiction World by clicking here.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Answers to the Christmas Book Contest

 Yesterday I posted the clues to deciphering my brother's annual book gift. Today I'm going to give the answer away. If you want to puzzle it out yourself, skip to yesterday's post and try your hand.

For the first year nobody guessed the entire thing, leaving me a little proud and a little sad. Our game was to extract ten letters from the clues to spell the author's name, and figure out which letter was a ruse.

1. According to Groucho Marx, this kind of person is a critic. The letter that occurs three times in this kind of person might be the first letter in his name.Attributed to Marx and many others, the famous line goes, "Everyone's a critic." Marx even showed up on magazine covers with the quote as a tag line. 'E' shows up three times in "Everyone."

2. Three Stooges. Marx Brothers. Beatles. Such different acts, yet when we talk about them, their names all begin with the same letter. If Clue #1 is a fake, then this letter is the first in his name. If not, it’s the second.Rarely do you call them "Beatles," right? It's "The Beatles." "The Three Stooges." "The Marx Brothers." That leaves this number a 'T.'
3. According to Norm MacDonald, this organ only understands violence. One day, he says, it will attack and kill you. Today, its first letter is probably the third letter in our mystery.Cassie Nichols correctly pegged this as "heart." That'd mean our letter is "H.'

4. What’s the difference between “then” and “than”? One of them has a letter to share with us.Naturally, it's either an 'E' or an 'A.' On Twitter @ got the vowel correctly as 'A.'
5. This famous comedian refused to receive the Mark Twain Prize for several years because of the kind of language that was used at the event. He eventually accepted. The third letter in his last name might go here.Bill Cosby is the comedian who spent an infuriatingly long time not taking the honors. That'd leave us with 'S,' except this one was the bogus unclue. In fact, @ figured that out in piecing together the next letter to form the author's first name.
6. The seventh element on the Periodic Table, and something you’re inhaling right now, might be helpful here.Nitrogen is the seventh element, with the symbol 'N.' Excluding Mr. Cosby, our author is "Ethan."
7. If we’re not talking about Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, then we must be talking about this man’s movie. His first and last names match, making this clue so obvious it seems like it must be the unclue.How do they match? The same first letter: Charlie Chaplin. So it's a C-man.

8. Your mouth can speak any letter, but this is the only one your lips can spell. Enjoy not snickering over this joke in front of Grandpa.By the way, both my brother and sister failed to not snicker over #8 in front of Grandpa. The letter any pair of lips can form is 'O.' As my brother struggled over this clue I actually managed to say "Oh" and make the shape right in front of him three times. It felt a little too good.
9. This letter is redundant. It’s occurred somewhere in the name already, and occurs for the second time here. Is it the last letter?This could have been any letter that already showed up. It's actually an 'E.' That might seem obtuse, but not if you know who directed #10.

10. If this is the last letter in his name, then it’s the first in the title of the movie that beat your beloved There Will Be Blood for Best Picture at the Oscars in February, 2008.No Country For Old Men was the winner that year, directed by the Coen Brothers. The first letter 'N,' which coincidentally spells out "Ethan Coen." He wrote the excellent short story collection, The Gates of Eden, which I gave to two people this holiday season, including my brother.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and thanks to everyone who played!
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