Sunday, January 16, 2011

Last Night in Twisted River: The $3 Book Review

I'm a slow reader. I can speed up for something really exciting, but for the most part, it's a slog. What's worse, I'm fussy about the words that go into my eyes when it comes to books (as opposed to, say, the words I encounter on Facebook). I can't abide preternaturally beautiful heroines, premises that could not survive outside New York City, teenage vampires, or science fiction that takes itself seriously. But one thing I can always count on enjoying is a John Irving novel. Yet this last one was a slow go.

I managed to finish Last Night in Twisted River, even though I didn't feel that it picked up steam until page 371 of its 554 pages.  It was a lot of Irving - so much so that it would have benefited from more rigorous editing.

It is the story of a father and son, beginning when the father is a logging camp cook and following their travels and travails through New Hampshire, Boston, Iowa and Toronto. As I grew up in a logging community, albeit on the other side of the country, the technical aspects of the logging activities rang true. The wacky accidents that propel the story are signature Irving, and elicit an occasional what-the-hell smile.

However, even with all 554 pages of words, I didn't feel like the characters were fleshed out enough to make me feel fond of them. It seemed like I was watching them move about a vast board game - not living their lives alongside of them. Throughout the coincidental mayhem that is a hallmark of Irving fiction, the only time I felt a tug at my heart was at the climax of the story, and even then, the sentiment was quickly diluted by a series of clumsy call-back references (as if he was afraid we hadn't been paying attention and had to be reminded how neatly he is pulling this all together).

By powering through this one, I'm pretty sure I've earned a master class certificate in the John Irving Writing Style.

The John Irving Writing Style requires the following literary features:
  • Start with sentence structure: combine every other sentence with a semicolon, then polish the corners until they fit together.
  • Add a bear. Even better, two bears. And maybe a case of mistaken identity involving a bear.
  • Include references to a lost hand - the grizzlier the hand lopping, the better (grizzly!).
  • All protagonists must go through trials, but YOUR protagonist's trials must be by comedically random and fluky accident.
  • Somebody has to go to Exeter Academy.
  • Now throw in some large women.
I liked Last Night, but I wouldn't reread it. If you haven't read any, here are my top five John Irving books as of today:

  1. A Prayer for Owen Meany
  2. The World According to Garp
  3. Setting Free the Bears
  4. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
  5. A Son of the Circus
If you're curious about John Irving, and don't mind a few bears in your fiction, try one of these. You won't be sorry. Irving at his best can be life changing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dean's 26th Birthday Dinner.

Squid jerky is surprisingly delicious.

I ask Dean, "how was your servant?"

He looks at me uncomprehendingly.

"Your runner?"

"Oh," he says, realizing he's Talking To Mom. "He was fine. His name was David."

He offers nothing more.

Runners are the riders' drivers, minders, and General Dogsbodies. Think Baldrick. Think Mark Linn-Baker in My Favorite Year. I read this story about a reporter-slash-runner, and it made the job sound much more Upstairs, Downstairs than I had been led to believe by Dean's previous Six-Day appearances. I'll never get to the bottom of this. He's not telling me the whole story. I guess what I really want is my own servant.

We are at Tanuki in Portland. Dean, Jenny and I trade knowing looks about the name of the bar.  Having inhaled every Tom Robbins book in existence, we recognize the Tanuki as a Japanese trickster of legend, looking like a cross between a raccoon and a panda, like the coyote of Native American lore, only with more booze.

Drew agrees to pick up the check for a prix fixe plate evening. The agreeable waitress agrees to keep bringing the goods.

We eat quail eggs. They are small eggs. Adorable, but, you know, eggs. High cuteness factor.

"So did the crowd eventually expect you guys (Dean and Netherlander Yondi Schmidt) to put on a show?" As the video and photo evidence attests, Dean and Yondi often bumped and wrestled, trading helmet paint during the nightly Kierins, usually during the prelude to the sprint while everyone was going a governed speed behind the pace motor.

"The announcer played it up a little bit," he said. "But Yondi played it up more on Twitter, tweeting before the races how he was going to "take it to Dean Tracy tonight."

Dean and Yondi enjoy the old-school contact-sport style of sprinting. Not everyone is into it, or good at it, and the UCI increasingly frowns on it; but it is spectator candy, and at the Six-Days, the refs look the other way. It's mostly for fun and/or show. Note that most of the argy-bargy is done during the slower laps before things turn serious.

Netarts Bay oysters on the half-shell with kim chi shave-ice.  They were gone fast. I think I liked them.

We talk about the multiple-personality music that blasts from the speakers at a Six-Day nonstop for hours-upon-hours each night: oompah music, electronica, disco, hip-hop, more Dutch oompah music, a baffling European hit in which "Barbra Streisand" is the only lyric, and for every win, "Stand UP, Stand UP, for the Champions, for the Champions." It makes for long nights for the riders, as it takes time for the brain to calm itself after hours of pumped-up music and laser lights.  Special after-race riders' bars help to ease the pain.

The whole grilled pike eel is a puzzle to, um, open, but an experienced Dean uses his soup spoon to open the top layer of flesh, so that we can attack it with our chop sticks. Salty and satisfyingly fishy.

We talk about the benefits of having an agent, something that Dean has not had much access to or need of so far, but something, with his slow-building popularity and fast-developing speed, may be the wise next step.

Seaweed wraps with tomatoes and something-or-other (I wasn't paying attention) is delivered. The seaweed is so thin and crispy, and the tomato whatever is good. The sake, sipped from a tiny, adorable cup, is beginning to have an effect.

The bar television is showing Japanese cartoons. A hamster complaining about his owners' (explicitly depicted) sex techniques, and a family of American style mannequins say shockingly explicit things. Now the boy mannequin is on fire. Fascinating. The Japanese will eventually implode in a ball of self indulgence, or they will rule the world.

Kim chi fried rice with shrimp. We dig in. This is good.

"So, when you win, are the people in the winner's photo with the flowers and the Lovely Ladies the people from the company on your jersey?"

"Yes. Companies pay something like $5,000 Euros to have a table in the infield, and like $40,000 Euros to get their name on your jersey. It's usually the president of the company and his wife."

Korean marinated rib-eye with mushrooms. It just keeps getting better, and I keep getting fuller.

"So, do you have to go shmooze with the infield tables?"

"Oh, yeah. That's part of the show. They can pay even more money and have a guided tour of the riders' cabins, then they get to talk with the big stars one on one."

I mentioned that he's probably pretty good at this part with his sales background. He confesses that his sales-smooth schmoozing technique has not gone unnoticed. We dish a little about the very successful love lives of the single sprinters.

A final miso soup with fresh tofu.  A little salty, but we are so full that we don't complain.

Dean gives me one of his sponsor jerseys. It smells like sweat. I love it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sim Me

Rain over ice. Add dogs on leashes. It's a recipe for coccyx disaster. Although I'm sure the ERs are full of cracked cocci this morning, my personal coccyx is intact, as is Drew's, but only because he turned back half a block into the walk, after his first foot-flinging flirt with the concrete.

I took both the wet dog leashes and slid along the rest of the way to the park. Drew seems completely out of sync with both gravity and the ground and braced for the pain when ice is introduced, either by nature or by skates. I, with my lower center of gravity, lower emotional age, and innate boogie-woogie muscle memory, find it exhilarating. It made me wish I lived closer to an ice rink. Which made me spend much of the rest of the walk planning my dream neighborhood.

There would be an ice rink within walking distance, but not right across the street or anything. A) they're ugly and b) I would like to walk there with my skates over my shoulder.

There would be a Trader Joe's within walking distance.

There would be a coffee shop on the block. A nice one. Not too snooty and not too mermaid-y.

Powell's Books would be within biking distance.

There must be NO CUPCAKE SHOPS within walking distance. I'm not mature enough to handle that sort of temptation.

There would be a back yard for two dogs and a goat to be named later.

Personal Coccyx would be a good name for an indie band.