Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Fun & Games

Despite what we see in the movies, not every gunshot is explosive. If you’ve ever heard the sound of a 22 caliber handgun being fired, you know it sounds like little more than a crack or a pop. Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games is all action, but it pops a lot more than it explodes.

Charlie Hardie is an ex-cop of sorts. Nowadays, he is a professional housesitter for the rich and famous, his perennial gigs secured by Charlie’s penchant for professionalism and some good word-of-mouth advertising within celebrity circles. Charlie is content. He lives his life in the nicest of homes, and better yet, he is largely left alone. Things go a bit haywire on his latest job, however, when a scantily clad young woman barrels out of an in-house recording studio and attacks Charlie, accusing him of being one of “them.” Charlie is as baffled by the woman’s cryptic references to “them” as he is by her presence in the supposedly empty house. And yet, before long, the reality of “them” is made apparent to Charlie, who unwittingly finds himself a protector of more than a house—he is trying to save the life of the frantic woman who nearly skewered him with a microphone stand as well as himself.

It takes a very small sampling of Fun & Games to get a feel for Swiercyznki’s writing. The chapters begin with epitaphs quoting films such as Lethal Weapon and Commando. Suitcases are said to be “belched” and “vomited up” by airport baggage carousels, windy roads are compared to intestinal tracts, and some women are said to have “cheekbones that could cut tin cans.” There is a swagger to Swiercyznski’s words, even as they take on a very casual and laid-back, stream-of-consciousness feel. It is appropriate that the story is set in Hollywood and talks so much about the movies—you’ll feel like you’re reading a screenplay, a bit of razzle dazzle sprinkled over the otherwise simple and to-the-point verbiage.

One issue some readers may have with the book is pacing. The staccato narrative drives the story forward in rapid, sputtering bursts, bouncing back and forth between different characters’ perspectives in a borderline disorienting way. Rather than adding depth to the tale, this weighs down the story’s momentum. The first act tends to dilly-dally, with various characters marveling at how drawn out their respective chores have become—a feeling with which the reader qua reader may all too easily identify. Even so, the slow start eventually gives way to some genuinely engaging action sequences. Fun & Games may not go from 0-60 in under 10 seconds, but it does get there.

On the whole, there is nothing spectacular to be found in Fun & Games. It is so developmentally succinct that one finds it hard to become truly engrossed, the unrelenting action notwithstanding. But, as the title suggests, there is something in the way of sheer entertainment to be found here. One gets the feeling most adept writers could have produced something of this quality without breaking their imaginative backbones, and yet the book goes down fast and easy, like a cold drink of water. Take it on your next airplane trip, and it’ll help you pass the time. You may not think about it much afterward, but it won’t have bored you.

Monday, July 25, 2011


I feel mentally and emotionally tired right now. Worn out a bit. I’m on campus, which means that I’ve been walking around outside in the heat, so that could be part of the problem. I’m sure it doesn’t help. But even aside from that, sometimes there are aspects of life that don’t seem very fulfilling and yet are very time-consuming and demanding and require a lot of effort. That sucks. I guess I should be grateful. Many people throughout history, and even throughout the world today, don’t have a choice about what life is like. Complaining that everything I do isn’t completely fulfilling and/or easy says something about the spoiled culture I’m a part of, I suppose. Even so, ‘tis my culture, so….

My students just don’t get a lot of what I’m trying to teach them. I’m not teaching an easy class, and it doesn’t help that it’s a condensed summer semester. But really, is it that incomprehensible? Is it me? Do I not know how to convey information in an understandable way? Or are they just dense? Really, I think some of it is that they don’t really put forth an effort to practice and/or read outside of class time. The point is, no matter what the excuse is, it’s a bit irritating and frustrating.

I was talking to a student after class about academic life. He asked about what I’m studying. I told him about the first draft of my dissertation prospectus and how the head of my dissertation committee said that I probably have way too much planned. My proposal outlined a five-chapter project, but I was told that my second chapter alone is probably enough for an entire dissertation. But the problem with philosophy is, anything could be a dissertation! Everything can be discussed and debated down to the tiniest little detail. It's exhausting, in a way. And a bit tedious. I feel like it’s all too common to have an idea in mind and have it in some sense squelched. Some of that goes with the territory—you may think you have an ingenuous idea, but if there’s a big gaping hole in your theory, then sorry, the theory fails. That can be disappointing. But it’s more than that. I feel like people always want you to narrow in or branch out from what you’re interested in. To offer an analogy, I feel like I had an idea for some portrait that I wanted to paint. I told my benefactor about it, and the benefactor says, “But, Ben, there’s enough detail in a single nostril that, really, you could and should just do a painting of a nostril.” Well, I wasn’t excited about getting into all the fine details of a nostril! I wanted to paint a face! And I liked the face I wanted to paint!

Anyway, that’s sort of how it goes. And that’s where my mind is at right now. I think I’m just tired. I actually got the feedback on my dissertation prospectus a week or two ago, and I haven’t felt down in the dumps about it. I sound like it now, but it’s just my mood. Still, I do feel like this accurately describes the way things go. And it’s not fun.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bachelorhood Redux

My wife and kids have left me. They’re in Utah, I’m not. The apartment is empty of people, save for myself. It’s strange, but so far not as horrible as I’d expected. I feel less lonely than I’d anticipated. Of course, Melanie and the kids have only been gone for a few days now. We’ll see how I feel in a couple of weeks. But for now, I’m handling it well.

It’s strange, but one side effect of being alone is that, in some respects, I feel less motivated to work. I’m distracted by being alone. Perhaps it’s the same thing that makes it hard for me to work at my office at school. When there’s nothing to do but work, I don’t want to work. Even so, I have been working. Like I said, there’s not much else to do. I’ve already prepared some of this upcoming Thursday’s lecture, for crying out loud.

I’m trying to have fun, to look at the bright side of my situation. Every time I eat, I turn on Netflix Instant Viewing and watch something. Why not? For some reason, I’m drawn to all these crappy movies. Rather than watching something recent that looks pretty good, I feel compelled to watch all these movies I remember wanting to see as a kid but that I never did see. Of course, they’re terrible. And I suspect as much when I push play, but they still win out over something better-looking. I can now say that I’ve seen both Howard the Duck and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Crappy, yes, but the latter actually had some decent acting in it. Seriously.

You know, another funny side effect of Melanie being gone is that I’m easily distracted even from relaxing and having fun. Just as I feel less motivated to work, I feel less motivated to play. It’s hard for me to sit here and watch a movie by myself, even though I’d have no problem doing it if Melanie were with me. But by myself, my mind starts to wander. I start thinking I should work. I usually give in to temptation and pull out the laptop and try to work and watch the movie at the same time. At that point, I’m usually a better worker than movie-watcher, believe it or not. I end up only kind of seeing the movie. But because there’s no reason not to work in front of the TV, I keep the movies going. From Friday through Saturday, I watched (or at least sort of watched) a total of five movies. In addition to the two mentioned above, I saw Terminator Salvation (decent, for what it is), Splice (pretty good), and Airplane II (which I’d seen as a kid, but not for many years – I’ll blaspheme and say that I think it’s a worthy sequel).

In addition to movie-watching, I did entertain myself by taking a trip to Wal-Mart. I think I’d make a much better bachelor now than I did back when I really was a bachelor. I’d be more responsible. I stocked up on some fun bachelor food, but in a more health-informed way. I grabbed a pre-made pizza crust, but it’s wheat. I plan to load it up with turkey pepperoni, red peppers, black olives, and of course, sauce and cheese. It’ll be dinner tonight. I also got some fun sandwich-makings for lunch – roast beef from the deli, honey smoked turkey, and ham, stackable pickles, reduced fat provolone (at a boy!), and some good hoagie rolls. I tried to get whole grain hoagie rolls, but nothing was quite right. I had to splurge and go with squishy white rolls. They should be yummy. To accompany these sandwiches, I have a bag of fat-free potato chips (they’re not bad!) and some cold bottles of Stewart’s Diet Orange ’n Cream Soda. Oh yeah.

Speaking of which, I’m going to go eat one of these sandwiches and down one of those sodas (and eat some of those chips) right now. I’m also going to put a movie on. Visitors are welcome, but please call first. I might be naked. Why not?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Calm Amidst the Storm

As the noon hour smothers Tallahassee in a thick and wooly blanket of gray cloud that drenches the city as though a giant had just pulled a wet garment from a wash basin and held it over our collective heads, I can’t help but feel calm and relaxed. My ease, I’m sure, is accentuated by the fact that over the last few days, I’ve felt the tiniest hints of dread and depression seeping their way into my life via some cracks that recently appeared. Not that many months ago, life felt bleak and despairing. Physical ailments were all too common in my family, and our newly acquired van was proving nothing but a troublemaking rapscallion of a vehicle. At that time, I felt more hopeless and helpless than I could remember ever feeling as an adult. The last few months, in contrast, have been blissful. The wife and kids have, overall, been healthy, and even the less-than-perfect van has failed to give us any serious trouble.

But all that changed a few days ago. Eddie got a fever, which wouldn’t be so troubling if he hadn’t started talking a lot about his surgery. Why would he bring that up? Is he feeling something? He then started complaining about his side hurting, but only occasionally. He even started walking all hunched over, just as he did after his surgery. He claimed he didn’t feel pain and was just walking that way because he was worried that his side would hurt otherwise – but I wasn’t sure whether to believe him. Was he feeling pain but scared that he would have to have another surgery if he admitted as much? And then, yesterday, my wife drops me off at school and heads toward the store, where she plans to do some shopping and then return to pick me up after class. Instead, I get a text message during the class I teach, informing me that the van started smoking and Melanie has parked just a few blocks from the school. Melanie later told me that the van was smoking so much that she couldn’t really see out of the windows, even though the temperature gauge inside the dashboard looked normal. I ended up having to accept the gracious offer of one of my students, who was staying after class to ask me some questions about the class material, but who offered instead to drive me to a gas station to pick up some coolant and then drive me to my abandoned van. (Melanie had taken the kids to the library, which quite fortunately, was just around the corner.) With Edison and the van both breaking down, I felt like I had been thrown back in time eight months. And I didn’t like that at all.

I’m happy to report that the van is now at the mechanic (its second home), and I’ve calmed down enough to recognize that whatever’s wrong is probably not going to be a huge deal. I assumed the van was leaking coolant, because I had filled it with coolant about a week before it started smoking, and yet the coolant was basically gone when I went to rescue the vehicle. The coolant enabled us to make it home without too much trouble, but by the time we were getting to our apartment, it was smoking a bit again. Still, the mechanic, whom I know personally and trust, validated my assumption that the coolant was leaking. Should be fixed within a few hours, whatever that might require. (A new radiator at worst, but still fixable within the day.) Meanwhile, Edison has been acting totally normal – by which I mean healthy, since it’s hard to tell anymore what’s normal.

So, at this very moment, I am at peace. I have recognized a lot of blessings over the last few days, amidst all of this. And when all is said and done, the most important things in my life are safe and well. That’s what matters.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I Exist

So, today marked the first day of my second week of teaching. Things are going well, I think. I have fewer than 20 students. It’s not intimidating. I’m teaching logic, so the material is very straightforward. We’re not doing philosophy in the strictest sense (or perhaps we are doing it in the most strict sense), so there’s not a lot of arguing to be done. There aren’t interesting classroom discussions. That makes it easier in some ways. I’m enjoying myself well enough.

If I had tons and tons of available time, I’d write about how I received some belated Father’s Day gifts from Melanie and the boys (a trio of great movies on Blu-ray), about Edison’s birthday, and about the fourth of July (which was quite pleasant, all said and done). But I don’t have time, dang it all.

I guess this is nothing more than a declaration of existence. But hey, that’s needed sometimes.