I’m an Author!

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At least, I am according to Amazon. This is funny because the only things I’ve had published have been in my own college literary journals, and those aren’t for sale on Amazon. But they still think I’m an author. Here’s how I know this.

I post a lot of my shorter reviews, mostly book reviews, to Amazon. My House of Holes review disappeared. I’ve talked about House of Holes here before. I just assumed that it went poof because of the content, although I was as clean as a person can possibly be when talking about a book called HOUSE OF HOLES, a book where a disembodied arm feels up a girl IN THE FIRST CHAPTER.

Anyway, it was an outlier. One of the only positive reviews for that book. So I was miffed my opinion was eradicated.

Then, my Ender’s Game review disappeared. My Ender’s Game review was not positive. I hate Ender’s Game.

Here’s the review from my Goodreads, which is basically what I copied to Amazon.

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ender’s Game is basically Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War but in space. Kids are mean! They beat each other up! The plot is virtually non-existent. Ender and co. bounce around in zero gravity for at least sixty pages, training in a banal combat game that doesn’t provide its participants with any useful skills (nor the reader with anything resembling entertainment) to fight the buggers, the stupidly named alien race that almost wiped out humanity decades ago and might wipe us out again. Or something. The majority of the bugger plot, the only remotely interesting plot point in the entire 324-page book, is crammed into the last two chapters.

Card’s writing style is dull and boring. He clumsily shifts between third- and first-person perspective for no good reason. He fails basic Writing 101: show the reader, don’t just tell. Valentine and Peter create online aliases for themselves: Locke and Desmosthenes. The two have lively Interweb discussions. Or at least Card says they do. Not a single article, post, or debate is actually written, so we have to take Card’s poorly written word for it. “They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare an opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable.” Perhaps if Card had the same knack for alliteration some of his phrases would be memorable. They’re not. The dialog is bad, the jokes aren’t funny, and the kids sometimes slip into a weird pidgin English when insulting each other. It doesn’t make sense.

Also, all the adults are Bad. “There is no teacher but the enemy,” one of Ender’s mentors tells him. Anti-authoritarianism can make great drama when it has purpose. This just sounds like the long-winded, non-sensical rebuttal of a bratty student who did poorly in school. Probably in his writing classes.

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My 1-star review was fairly divisive, with about 30 people saying it was “helpful” and slightly more saying it wasn’t. This review got the most feedback from any review I’ve posted on Amazon, besides my mostly positive Buffy Season 9 comic book review that prompted someone to post a review titled, “Chance Lee Is an Idiot”, which got deleted.

So, Ender’s Game. That review was deleted last month sometime. Now, this review had been up for almost two years. Wha’ happen? I e-mail Amazon and get this response:

We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title.

Umm, how do I have a financial interest in this book? Even if I was a published author, it wouldn’t be in the whiny juvenile sub-genre of sci-fi bullshit. I asked for clarification, and received the exact same response, word for word, from their copy/paste customer service checklist, along with this addendum:

We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

My one review doesn’t matter, and I doubt it affected sales of this book in any way. I just find its deletion weird, and wonder that if this is the actual reason, why are any of my reviews still up? 98% of them are for books. Will they eventually disappear? And how many other outlying reviews is Amazon deleting? Again, who cares? I’m just curious.

Golden Oldie: Don’t Forget the Oatmeal! A Word Book, 1980

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Tie a string around your finger and get ready to go grocery shopping with this weekend’s Golden Oldie review of a not-actually-a-Golden-book book from the Sesame Street book club.

Don’t Forget The Oatmeal!: A Word Book by B.G. Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my favorite Sesame Street book as a kid. I was very excited to find it at a used-book store for $2 a few years ago.
Identifying all the stuff at the grocery store was always a lot of fun. Cookie Monster’s cookies always looked really yummy too, even if I had no idea what the heck a macaroon was as a five-year-old. (I’ll admit it: I don’t think I knew what a macaroon was until I was 20.) I did always feel bad for the grocery store people who had to clean up after Cookie Monster’s mess.
Anyway, the pages without a lot of items to identify aren’t as fun, but it’s still an entertaining story. The end upset me often though, because every time I re-read it, I hoped and hoped and hoped that they wouldn’t forget the oatmeal. But (SPOILER ALERT) they always forgot it.

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Golden Oldie: Ernie Gets Lost, 1985

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My first Golden Oldie review is for an actual Golden book from 1985.

Ernie Gets LostErnie Gets Lost by Liza Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book traumatized me as a child, because I thought getting lost was a fate worse than death. Once you were lost, that’s it. You’ll never find your home again.

I got over it eventually, and maybe it was with Ernie’s help. I’m glad he found he way back to Maria and wasn’t lost at the department store forever. If he was, then Bert wouldn’t have received that badass Pigeon Land board game for his birthday. Man, I always wanted to play Pigeon Land so bad.

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A Swift Kick in the Gator Tots

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Don't judge a book by its cover.

Our book club recently finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The marketing surrounding this book is very misleading. Blurbs by Entertainment Weekly and Carl Hiaasen lead you to believe that you’re in for a wacky, fun-filled ride. This is true, but you’re also destined for a total kick in the nards of your soul.

Avast! Here be spoilers!

A few of us found that Ava’s loss of the Red Seth to be one of the saddest moments of the novel. (As a sidenote, I don’t know if red alligators actually exist. This is important.) The Red Seth is, at its core, a symbol of innocence. At first, it seems like it might be representative of blossoming sexuality. It is red, after all. Plus, it’s “A tiny, fiery Seth.” (59), and the discovery of it is thrilling. The whole budding sexuality thing is more of a theme in the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” In Swamplandia! the red Seth ultimately symbolizes a child-like innocence. This is apparent when Ava throws it at the Bird Man in order to escape after she’s been raped by him.

Doing a google image search for "red alligator" only brings up pictures of hideous handbags and shoes.

The Seth is then lost forever. There’s no way for it to survive in the wild. As Ava says when she first discovers it, “I felt very certain that she was going to die. That nothing born this color could live for long in the open air.” (60)

That’s sad enough, but the meaning of the red Seth goes deeper than this. With the red Seth, Karen Russell suggests that innocence shouldn’t even exist. “The red on her skin seemed like a disease I could contract through my fingertips or a spell I could break, a color so pure and unreal that I thought it might rub off.” (59) It’s so fragile, there’s no place for it in the world.

Innocence’s ignorant bedfellow is hope. The two go hand in hand. “This alligator could save our park!” (60) Ava believes when she discovers the tiny red Seth hatching from an egg. She’s too young and ignorant to knwow any better. Nothing will save Swamplandia! from its fate. And as her mom suggests while in the hospital, it’s pointless to hope. “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tuging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation.” (106) What do your hopes get you? Cancer and death.

Hi, I'm Karen Russell. And I hate children. Also, I despise rainbows, sunshine, and unicorns.

Eventually innocence is lost. It’s not just lost, you have to throw it away to defend yourself. And ultimately, after a while, you completely forget what innocence was even like: “When I’m awake, I can’t seem to draw a stable picture of the red Seth in my mind’s eye anymore–it feels like trying to light a candle on a rainy night, your hands cupped and your cheeks puffed and the whole we world conspiring to snatch the flame away from you. But in a dream I might get to see the part of the swamp where her body washed up, bloated and rippling, or where she escaped to, if the dream was beautiful.” (396)

Because of the Red Seth, I found Swamplandia! a deeply cynical novel. This isn’t a criticism. I’m a cynical person. Maybe it’s just my general mood lately, but I’ve been ruminating on this aspect of Swamplandia for a while, and I have to say I agree with it. And that makes me immensely sad.

All The World’s an Orifice

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Alternate title: What the hell is Nicholson Baker trying to say in House of Holes?

“Look up at those great clouds while […] I fuck the planet earth.”

House of Holes Cover Published in 2011, House of Holes is described on the back as “a modern-day Hieronymus Boschian bacchanal set in a pleasure resort where rules don’t apply.”

I don’t know what some of those words mean. I’d describe it as a filthy, fun, sci-fi porno enriched by Baker’s wonderful gift for language, but fails to hold my undivided interest for the entire thing. In that sense, it’s almost exactly like a porno. I’ll go back to it occasionally, but not to re-read the whole thing. I’ll just flip to the money shots.

Like these: “You mean I’m supposed to wank while Crackers does a lap dance?” (97) Even in context, I find this line LOLable.

Or this dry exchange: “Thank you,” said Kazumi. “I will let you feel my breasts now.” “Okay, great. Thanks.” Wade felt her breasts. (117)

Anything that isn’t completely out there and/or repugnant (like a woman being shrunk to a half-inch in size and stuck in a man’s penis, forcing him to masturbate her out.) is given nary any page space. “Mindy cooked him a three egg omelet and he ate it.” (228) And then back to the bangin’!

Holes is a collection of loosely related stories with recurring characters. Each one has a setup usually involving two strangers who have absolutely no qualms about discussing their most private and kinky sexual fantasies with each other. Then they do them. And anything is possible in the strange sci-fi world of the House of Holes, especially when it starts off with a girl named Shandee finding a disembodied arm that then feels up her roommate (causing Shandee to get fo’ realz jealous), that then transports them to a magical sex carnival.

Nicholson Baker

This man has the filthiest imagination ever. Image from the Post-Gazette. Click for an interesting article titled "Is House of Holes necessary?"

The set-up, brief exposition, XXX action, and money shot would get tiring if it wasn’t so incredibly out there and imaginative.

Still, after almost 200 pages of this, I started to wonder: Why?

It’s not until page 167 until any of his characters seem to show any form of human emotion, but in a very robotic fashion.

“And what after all is a soul mate?” “A soul mate is when you really think someone is great. You really like her a lot. You like when she explains things to you. You love her. That’s a soul mate.” “Oh,” said Trix. “Will you take me to the groanrooms?” Then they go to a pitch-black room and moan at each other. It’s like an aural orgy.

Later, there’s a very interesting chapter about Ned, who has his head detached (don’t worry, he’s fine), which leaves his body to have sex all by itself and the woman named Reece who rents out his body in the Headless Bedroom. She kind of has to teach the body what to do, sexwise, and grapple with her own feelings about casual sex. What’s more casual than having sex with a body that can’t think, speak, or respond?

If the tables were turned, and the woman was headless, it would come across as quite sexist at the least. But Baker never makes his women objects. They have their own desires and drives, and they always get what they want too. Even though all the sex is exclusively hetero, it’s a very inclusive book, spanning many different fetishes.

Holes has a surprisingly wholesome message: Two consenting adults can and should be able to do whatever the heck they want without any judgment. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back.

Baker occasionally makes other points beyond just “ngghghghghgh.” When magically removing a client’s tattoos Hax says, “[Tattoos are] something that hides you. It is a way of not being naked while being naked” (110). And when magically growing back Jessica’s pubic hair, Hax says about shaving, “That, too, is a way of hiding. No hair means you are dressed in hairlessness. You are finding a way to be clothed when you aren’t clothed. Hair is your true nakedness. Do you want your nakedness back?” (110) I hate living in such a shaved and plucked society. Hair is a statement. Hairlessness is the cowardly way out, and Baker put into words something I didn’t even know I had been thinking for a long, long time.

The book has what seems to be an almost backwards ending. A small couple made out of silver living in an egg (ignore the silver skin and egg part if you must) discover their own private parts, that they give them pleasure, and that they’re attracted to one another. On the last day the House of Holes is open for business, the egg hatches and the couple copulates in front of a cheering crowd of hundred.

Yes, this kinky book ends with a couple in love having vanilla sex with one other. Of course it’s voyeuristic, but every book taps into that voyeuristic desire to see and analyze someone’s private life. Back to the point, this couple is cheered and celebrated in its innocence.

So what do we learn, along with the residents of the House of Holes? Despite your kinkiest desires (and may they bring you the greatest of pleasure when you act them out safely and responsibility), loving sex of any kind, no matter how plain, is to be celebrated and revered.

I also recently finished Baker’s The Mezzanine, which, as far as Holes go, is startlingly clean. But it has the same wide-eyed appreciation for seemingly mundane aspects of life that I really connect with. I’ll write about that book soon.

Book Club Recap: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

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It was unanimous. Our book club loved Julia Stuart’s The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. After a few too many heavy, depressing, ponderous reads in a row (The Thirteenth Tale, Fifth Business, not that there’s anything wrong with those!) this charming novel was exactly what we needed. It’s a really good book to read around Valentine’s Day, too, with its over-arching themes of love, loneliness, and loss. Ah, the three Ls. And I love reading books with a British accent. Plus, cute animals!

The Geoffroy's Marmoset is from Brazil. (Image from Brandywine Zoo)

Why yes, they can walk on water. These basilisks are also known as Jesus Christ lizards. (Image from Strange Animals)

Balthazar Jones steals one of these bearded pigs from the Zoo. It plays with a grapefruit as though it's a ball. So adorable! (Image from London Zoo, maybe this was the one he took!)

Balthazar Jones bonds with the wandering albatross in the book. Both are longing for their mates, whom they have been separated from. (Image from BBC)

A group favorite was Mrs. Cook, Balthazar Jones’s 180-something-year-old tortoise. “Generations of Joneses had completely forgotten [she] was a tortoise. She was regarded more as a loose-bowelled geriatric relative with a propensity for absconding, such a protracted habit that nobody ever realised she had vanished until weeks later, as her sedate trajectory across the room was still burnt on their memories.” (49)

Anyway, the book was an utter delight. We had so much fun and laughter at book club, just sharing passages and guffawing. Sure, I was operating on about four hours’ sleep, but I still would have had a few good belly laughs were I well-rested.

Despite all the humor, the book is definitely deeper than the cover would lead you to believe. All the characters, even the animals, experience a variety of profound feelings of longing, loss of a loved one, or sorrowful loneliness.

Plus, Julia Stuart’s way with words is just phenomenal. She constructs rich, vivid, and many times hilarious scenes without excessive wordage or description. Even her repetition–always using a character’s first and last name, always referring to certain object the exact same way–served to just enrich a scene for me, and not annoy me.

The Tower of London backdrop, and all the really bizarre historical facts that get recounted throughout the book (Sir Thomas Overbury executed by mercury enema; Mary Toft, the woman who gave birth to rabbits), serve to make the sheer quirkiness of the characters seem almost normal. Oh, Valerie Jennings is stuck inside a horse costume and trying to open the fridge with her hoof? Just another normal day in the London Underground Lost Property Office.

My favorite character was Rev. Septimus Drew, who writes erotic in his spare time under the nom de plume Vivienne Ventress. He uses all the royalties to support a home for retired prostitutes, where the gentle ex-hookers grow luscious carrots that they sell to local restaurants.

Anyway, this book is such an enjoyable treat, I really would recommend it to everyone. Quirky without being cute, emotional without being manipulative, and with so many odd history facts that you’ll definitely want to share with friends make it a must-read, and I rarely say that.

I can count on one hand the number of books out book club unanimously enjoyed in the last two-three years: The Help, Stephen King’s The Stand (believe it or not), all but one of us loved The Thirteenth Tale. So this book is definitely an achievement to appeal to all our finicky tastes.

There are few books I would recommend to anyone and everyone, but if your reading tastes range beyond military fiction and serial killer true crime, you would probably love this book.