Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Guillermo del Toro likes monsters. In films like Cronos, Blade II, Hellboy, and Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has created a smorgasbord of fantastical and scary creatures. Who can forget the chilling Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth?

And del Toro's entire career pays homage to classic horror stories while updating them with impressive CGI and other contemporary touches. Mimic is an old-fashioned monster movie remade with current sci-fi tropes and digital effects. The Devil's Backbone is a classically-structured ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War.

So I guess it should surprise no one that del Toro's first book would be a vampire novel. Nor should it shock anyone that del Toro would team up with another writer. Movie-making is perhaps the most collaborative craft there is, so it's only natural that an accomplished auteur like del Toro should call upon a veteran scribe of thrillers to help.

Those who speculate on the relative contributions that Chuck Hogan or del Toro himself made to the finished book miss the point. Such speculations always strike me as naive preconceptions about artistic creation. The important question is this: Is the final product worth your time and money to read?

I say it is. That is, if you're looking for a rollicking entertainment full of twists and scares and genuine ickiness,  then The Strain is definitely worth it.

Beginning with a folkloric frame tale, The Strain then moves to a bravura set piece that consciously recalls Bram Stoker's novel. Instead of a Russian ship running aground, in The Strain, we have an airliner landing at JFK airport. Soon after it lands, as it taxis from the runway, the plane goes completely dark. It soon becomes apparent that this plane is a harbinger of doom.

In interviews (such as this one), del Toro has said, without specifically mentioning the Twilight series, that part of the impetus behind The Strain was to return vampires to the status of scary monsters. I'm paraphrasing, but del Toro didn't want to create another story filled with "romantic, languid young men biting the necks of pretty girls." Instead, in The Strain, del Toro has consciously created horrible, sickening creatures that are truly inhuman.

These aren't pale, brooding hunks with fangs. In fact, the vampires in The Strain don't have fangs at all. What they do have is far more disturbing.

Besides this desire to write a scary vampire story rather than a romantic one, del Toro and Hogan have also worked hard to build a strong historical and scientific framework for their story. For most writers of such fiction, such an impulse is a trap, and I've read far too many books where the need of the author to explain their creation has bogged the story down, so that you feel like you're reading a textbook, not an entertainment.

Whatever the logical underpinnings of your story, I want to scream, "Get on with it!" After all, it's a story, not a seminar.

But the authors of The Strain have seamlessly woven their imaginative scaffoldings into the main structure of the story itself. That is, any exposition in The Strain serves to move the story forward. There's no window-dressing for the sake of window-dressing. And I think the scariest stories are the ones that flirt with plausibility, are they not? It's the ones that rub your nose in it that end up boring me to tears.

In short order, as it becomes apparent in The Strain that what landed at JFK is a vampiric threat that could engulf the entire world, a rag-tag team of hunters forms. There's an epidemiologist from the CDC (two, actually), an elderly pawn-shop broker with a surprising past, and a practically-minded pest exterminator. The plot ranges all over (even harkening back to the Holocaust and World War II), jumping from one character to another in scenes that I can only describe as cinematic, and I have to applaud the sheer Dickensian, wide-angle exuberance of the story.

As I've mentioned in previous reviews, I hate to give away too detail, especially when the story relies as much on plot as The Strain does. This is why I'm not revealing anything you can't learn from the book's dust jacket.

Suffice it to say that the action builds to a climax, appropriately enough, and the story leaves just enough unresolved to make a reader hungry for more. Which is good, because The Strain is projected to be the first installment of a trilogy, though it also works well as a stand-alone entertainment.

I, for one, plan on reading -- and enjoying -- the entire trilogy.

by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Public Libraries

(This is my branch of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District)

I am a power-user of my local public libraries, and I have to recommend them to anyone trying to plug into local culture.

Now, I'm not just talking about books, although that really is the main draw. Besides the other on-shelf offerings (like movies & music), my libraries host events and have large bulletin boards advertising things you just don't see anywhere else, like weird concerts (such as the "Nevada Old-Time Fiddlers Jam"), lectures & readings, and all manner of support groups. They show films, host blood drives & talent competitions, prayer groups & game parties. There are computer classes & writers' workshops, book club meetings & theatrical performances. And almost all of them are free.

I often see these gatherings in progress as I walk past the rooms where they're held, and, no matter what's going on in there, whether it's a bunch of senior veterans swapping war stories or a showing of a foreign movie or a costumed storyteller entertaining a bunch of kids, it never fails to warm my heart. It's a popular trope to demean the culture of Las Vegas, but I can tell you it's alive and well in our libraries.

(This is my branch of the Henderson Libraries)

I'm a cardholder in two local library districts, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and the Henderson Libraries, since I live just a couple of blocks from the dividing line that separates Sin City from its biggest suburb. And I remember the salad days when you could return books from one district at the branches of the other, but cost-cutting has ended that particular luxury.

Still, my libraries have much to offer. I've already mentioned a bunch of stuff so far. And with the ability to access the libraries' catalogs via the internet, I can actually reserve books or movies or CDs, wait for the email telling me they're in, and then go pick them up at my convenience.

But that's not all.

Going to the library and browsing is, for me, immensely comforting. All that accumulated knowledge and experience is just waiting for me to take a little bit off a shelf and add it to my imagination. It's like window-shopping for my brain.

And my libraries put me in touch with broad sections of local citizenry that I would not normally have any contact with. That random assortment of groups using the meeting rooms is only one way I get to look in on an otherwise-alien strata of the local populace.

First, there are the people wandering the aisles. I don't know what it is about me, but when I'm outside the house, I often get stopped by people asking for help or directions. I like to think it's my friendly face, but it's probably my own state-employee fashion sense. In stores, it seems customers assume I work there, never mind that I'm not wearing a name tag.

At the library, I get asked where stuff is all the time. Sometimes, these questions come in a language I don't speak, as people make the assumption that my brown skin means I'm at least bilingual. I always try to answer such questions or at least point the questioner towards someone who can. And I'm not just tooting my own helpful horn. The communal atmosphere of the place makes everyone act polite and friendly, which is how the whole world should be, if you think about it.

Unlike other spaces in this city, which are essentially mercantile in nature, our libraries are concrete expressions of communal spirit. They do not exist to create a profit margin, and, with their emphasis on the open exchange of expression and knowledge, they're a vital means by which those without access to more commercial methods of betterment can bootstrap themselves to individual fulfillment.

Proof of this can be found by visiting the computer labs of any branch of our public libraries, where any citizen can sign up for some valuable workstation time. These places are almost always packed to capacity with people seeking both education and employment. And the underpaid librarians who staff these rooms act as guardians, custodians, technicians, teachers, and counselors to the hordes of the hopeful, and these public servants invariably do so with unending reservoirs of politeness and generosity.

True story: I saw a middle-aged woman with her teenage son walk up to the librarian and ask how to use the computers. The woman had apparently signed up for some workstation time, and now it was her turn. When the librarian asked her what she needed help with, the woman replied by pointing to the teenager with her and saying, "My son needs email!"

While I struggled to place her accent, the librarian responded by asking, "Well, does your son have an email account?"

The woman and her son looked at each other. Their obvious confusion said volumes, and I expected the librarian to refer them to one of the many introductory computer classes that are always being held. But she didn't. Instead, her voice suddenly changed, taking on even more welcoming overtones of warmth, and she enthusiastically said, "Well, let's get you all set up, okay? Come on, this is going to be fun!"

I watched from where I was sitting with my laptop as the librarian led this woman and her son to a workstation and proceeded to get the boy signed up for an email account via Yahoo. She patiently explained every step in the process, and the woman made her son write everything down in a notebook. The woman hung on this librarian's every utterance as if it were gospel.

When the librarian asked if the boy had ever used email before, he nodded and said he knew the email address of his uncle, and the librarian encouraged the boy to send his uncle a message. The boy looked at his mother. She nodded, and he typed a quick sentence and sent it. Then the librarian moved on to discuss how to surf the internet.

However, after a minute or two, the librarian pointed to the screen and said, "Look, your uncle replied to your message!"

The boy and his mother stared at the screen. They both read the screen for a minute, and then the woman put her arm around the boy's shoulders and they shared a long, silent hug. The librarian politely looked away, but there were tears in her eyes and I knew she had read the screen, as well.

Whatever it was that the uncle had written, it clearly made the woman and her son very happy. I refuse to speculate on what it could have been. I just know this: that librarian is doing blessed work in a blessed place, and I am proud of a community that can make such things happen.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

When Less Than Zero came out 25 years ago, I devoured it. I was a high-school senior, and this book hit me hard, focusing all my own aspirations and confusions into a cohesive, if limited, aesthetic. Everyone at that age needs something to tell them what's cool, and this book did it: the tone, the subject matter, the setting and all its pop-culture trappings. This book was, for me, what Catcher In The Rye was for earlier generations. I am unashamed to admit it.

When the movie adaptation of Less Than Zero came out a year or so later, I was beyond disappointed. I enjoyed the movie, to be sure, for I am of that original MTV generation so taken with the melding of fashion and music and cinematic effects that we cared little for the results. But, the movie, pretty as it was, just wasn't the book. Where the book was about the dangers of surface, the movie was nothing but.

So now, a quarter century later, Imperial Bedrooms comes out as a sequel to Less Than Zero. All the major characters have reassembled: Clay, Blair, Julian, Rip, and Trent. Once again, it's Christmastime in Los Angeles, that weird period where the gap between our seasonal expectations and the stark realities of our surroundings is at its most glaring. It's winter, but in Hollywood, any powdery white stuff is either fake or illegal.

Imperial Bedrooms begins audaciously enough, with an outright acknowledgement of both the first book and the movie in a way that sets the metafictional antennae waving. So the Clay in Imperial Bedrooms isn't the Clay in Less Than Zero, but is that because at least one of them is fiction? Or is it more because of the intervening years, as none of us is who were two decades ago? Or (whisper, whisper) is NEITHER of them real?

Author Bret Easton Ellis expertly plays along this line, managing some excellent riffs on the movie business, until, on page nine, he drops his first whopper (spoiler alert!), addressing an important difference between the original book, the movie, and what will pass for reality in Imperial Bedrooms:
"The real Julian Wells didn't die in a cherry-red convertible, overdosing on a highway in Joshua Tree while a choir soared over the sound track. The real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later, his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building in Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location."
So this, as they say, is when the shit gets real. Except that it doesn't. Not really. Ellis, as in his first book, is very interested in the difference between surface and reality, so he plays his cards very close to his chest. All of his books, to a large extent, are circumspect about what really happens in them, and Imperial Bedrooms is no exception. (This is what, presumably, forgives the gory and violent excesses of American Psycho, giving us both our prurient fun and allowing us to keep it at arm's length.) Any information that characters or readers can glean about what's happening in Ellis's books has to be treated with very generous seasonings of salt.

Yes, a plot of sorts soon develops in Imperial Bedrooms, a kind of meandering, noirish plot that envelops the book in unfocused but pervasive dread as Clay, our narrator, navigates both the city and his own urges, seeking something that soon sort of finds a focus in the form of (you guessed it) a girl. Sort of.

I don't really have a problem with this. In fact, I enjoy playing along, reveling in Ellis's virtuosic displays of a very limited tonal vocabulary. (He's the kind of author who must have seen the advent of texting as a godsend.) Unlike others, who see Ellis as a kind of one-note, artistic charlatan, I see him as a kind of savant, working within a very strictly-confined set of notes, a world in which characters operate out of a terror, not of betrayal, but of revelation. They would rather be fucked over than found out, which is why the unveiling of Julian's latest business venture is so perfect.

The Clay in Less Than Zero was emotionally castrated and ineffective, but I could forgive him because he was young and overwhelmed. But the Clay in Imperial Bedrooms is a much more sinister creature. He's older and jaded, of course, but his age and competencies have apparently yielded no wisdom, which, again, really isn't a problem for me, except that, in the absence of learning or making something transcendant as one endures to middle age, I find it hard to sympathize with someone who can't even cope.

Except, again, Clay does, in the end, cope -- rather typically so, and in a way that carries a truckload of implication. I won't give it away here, but suffice it to say that, true to his aesthetic, Ellis makes Clay commit himself by NOT doing something. As I mentioned before, Ellis really is a kind of virtuoso.

"All plots tend to move deathward," wrote Don Delillo in White Noise, and Clay seems to know this without wanting to express it. This knowledge is what informs his rather clumsy dreams. So his non-act, after pages of compulsive dithering punctuated with prodding text messages and the allusive accusations from what passes for his friends, comes as something of a relief. I thought it was perfectly in keeping with what Ellis has wrought, and I admire such steadfastness in an author, although I can see why many would just shake their heads and close the book.

But I enjoyed Imperial Bedrooms. It's a dark and bumpy ride, sure, but it's blissfully short. I see Ellis as continuing in the tradition of Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, writers who beautifully rendered the rotted fruit that is Los Angeles. And this book cleansed me of any nostalgia for that boy who was so taken in by Less Than Zero that he aspired to emulate it. Question is: what on earth will Bret Easton Ellis do next?

I, for one, will be sure to read it. I bet I enjoy it, too.

by Bret Easton Ellis

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Foragers - more signs of the recession?

A weird thing happened the other night. The Princess had asked me to make a quick run to the corner market, and as I returned home, I noticed a couple of men poking around in the trash cans my neighbor had put out on the curb. As I got closer, the men stopped their snooping and straightened up. I noticed one of them was a kid, a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen.

Turns out their car was parked right in front of my house, still running, so, as I pulled into my driveway, the men hustled into their car -- a late-model, black BMW coupe -- and drove off.

When I came into the house with my groceries, I mentioned this to my roommate, and he immediately became concerned about identity thievery, so we went back out to see if these foragers were still around. They were at the far end of my block, stopped in front of another group of trash cans.

We watched as the men got into their car and drove out of sight. Our own garbage sat at the curb, apparently unmolested.

The possibility of identity theft hadn't occurred to me, even though I myself was a victim of a bit of it last year, an incident that resulted in me being interviewed by a detective after some documents of mine ended up in the house of some squatters in my neighborhood. (They had apparently taken a crate of stuff out of my garage, including some old tax returns and pay stubs, but had never used the documents for any nefarious purpose that I was been able to detect.)

I went back into the house, while my roommate groused that I had been unable to see a license plate number, and I put my groceries away. A few minutes later, I took my puggle, Buddy Bear, for our nightly walk.

As we got to the end of our block, I again saw the black BMW. It was going down a side street, stopping at trash cans. This time, though, no one got out of the car when it stopped. I watched from a block away as the car went from side to side down the block, pausing at each pile of garbage bags and trash cans, until it went around a corner and disappeared.

I thought about calling the police's non-emergency number, but what would I have reported? As far as I could tell, no crime was being committed. But I did notice that the light on the BMW's license plate was out, making it impossible to see the number from a distance. By now, my suspicions were raging.

Buddy & I continued our walk. After another block, I was passed by a slow-moving pickup truck -- a white mid-sized Chevy with a shell -- that was also doing the trash-can-to-trash-can weave down the block. Again, the license plate light was blacked-out so I couldn't see the number. I hustled to get closer, but the truck turned a corner and sped off.

I began to wonder if this was a regular activity on the nights before trash pick-up day, when everyone in my neighborhood sets their garbage out on the curb. I'd never noticed it before, but, truth be told, I was walking Buddy about an hour-and-a-half later than usual. It was almost one in the morning, a perfect time for trash foraging if you wanted to minimize the risk of being noticed.

Near the end of our walk, Buddy & I were passed by another prowler, this one in a slow-moving old Buick with a smashed-in rear-window that was patched up with a taped-up plastic sheet. And this car had no license plates whatsoever. I dialed 311 on my Iphone, but, after it rang about thirty times, I hung up.

Since these suspicious trash-prowlers weren't just grabbing bags of trash to take away, I discounted the possibility of identity theft. It seemed more likely that they were foragers, looking for useful or salable stuff. I reflected that I myself had dragged old furniture to the curb (an end table and some bookcases), only to have it disappear within minutes while the rest of my trash seemed undisturbed.

I certainly don't want to begrudge anyone who finds my garbage useful. I'd rather it got reused or recycled rather than thrown into the landfill. And I wondered if this had been happening all along in my neighborhood, or was it a recent symptom of the ongoing recession? After all, if you're reduced to foraging through the trash in my middle-to-lower class neighborhood, you've got to be pretty desperate.

Still, I wondered if I should just wait until trash-day morning to put my garbage on the curb. Honestly, I'm not really worried about identity theft via my trash. Anything with important personal information gets ripped up and shredded. And recycling of any sort is generally good, right?

In the end, like most incidents in my comfortable life, this was much ado about nothing, especially if it had been going on anyway before I ever noticed. I've got more important things to worry about. Like my blog.

So be it. Let my trash be another man's treasure. Go in peace, neighborhood forager. I've got a lamp and a couple of chairs coming your way soon.


Podcast Crazy

Ever since I got an Iphone in June of 2009, I've gone podcast crazy. I was already a lover of podcasts even before I became a fanboy of my 3Gs, but the ease with which Itunes manages podcast subscriptions really changed the game for me. So, given my wanton compulsiveness, I went berserk.

The 2 great things about podcasts are their convenience and their cost. Once they're downloaded, you can listen to them at your leisure, and they're free. They're a wonderful way to stay informed and engaged.

Now I've become one of those people who constantly walks around with earbuds on, though I've developed an idiosyncratic way of doing this. Generally, I only have one earbud in at a time. This allows me to still be aware of my surroundings whilst my podcasts play. It's a perfect accompaniment to housework and exercise, and it actually encourages me to do more of both.

As I walk my dog, lift weights, or wash dishes, my mind engages in a conversation with the wider world. It's invigorating. The mind is a muscle, after all.

However, I do get absent-minded and sometimes leave the earbud in even when I'm not listening to anything. I wonder if, years from now, a doctor is going to remark on my enlarged earholes...

At one point, I was subscribing to well over 100 podcasts, but I've become a bit more judicious. As of today, I subscribe to 84 different podcasts, only a few of which are daily. Many are weekly or monthly, and some are only occasional.

For the most part, the podcasts I listen to are news-related, although I enjoy a fair number of arts & entertainment ones, as well.

Here are my top 12:

1. Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac: This daily little gem has one of America's favorite storytellers list each day's historical background (writer's birthdays, significant publication dates, etc.), finishing up with a poem. They're generally only about 5 minutes long, but they add a little literary perspective to my quotidian wanderings.

2. Marketplace: I am not formally trained in economics, other than 2 semesters in college and close readings of about 10 books over the years, but this weekday show has helped teach me the importance of the 'dismal science' in all aspects of our personal and national lives. As the catchphrase goes, "it's ALWAYS the economy, stupid!"

3. NPR Hourly News Summary: After all, one must stay informed, yes? Between this podcast and the hourly CNN News Update, I manage to keep up with all of the latest headlines. Truth be told, I generally check into these podcasts about three times a day.

4. The Moth Podcast: This occasional podcast features one or two nonfiction stories narrated onstage, capturing the immediacy of confessional performance in little 20-minute bites. These stories can come from anywhere, from a wide variety of narrators, so the quality of a given episode can vary. But this show is proof that truth is WAY stranger than fiction.

5. The New York Times Front Page: I still believe that the New York Times is America's paper of record. And this 7-minute weekday podcast gives a nice rundown of the major headlines that the paper will feature.

6. The Wall Street Journal This Morning: This half-hour podcast of the right-of-center, pro-financial-sector organ helps round out my daily news diet. Host Gordon Deal just can't help himself, letting his disdain for all things governmental color his comments. But I still enjoy it.

7. Slate Magazine's Daily Podcast: This podcast is actually an amalgam of 4 weekly podcasts sponsored by the online magazine, Slate. There's the Culture Gabfest, the Political Gabfest, the Hang Up And Listen podcast (their sports discussion podcast) and their Audio Book Club. It's a left-of-center, highbrow feast of opinion and wit, each of which is between 30 and 60 minutes long.

8. The Savage Love Podcast: Dan Savage and I could not be more different. He's gay, married, and a father. But his advice on sex and relationships is generally spot-on and generously humane. I also like his strong bullshit meter. He's opinionated, funny, and almost always right.

9. ROFL: I have a weakness for standup comedy, and this weekly video podcast helps satisfy this appetite. Each episode is a series of quick bits from a variety of performers. The only thing that sucks about this podcast is it's also filled with ads.

10. The Science Times Podcast: This weekly podcast from the New York Times is twenty-odd minutes of science news, which is manna from heaven for a lifelong geek like me.

11. Sound Opinions: Hosted by Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, this weekly, Chicago-based podcast is all about pop music, taking a critical view of the entire scene, spanning both eras and genres. They'll usually have a guest performer on the show, and they always end with their own critiques of an album. I don't always agree with them, but I do enjoy their eclectic, wide-ranging discussions.

12. This American Life: This weekly show is one of the most popular in the country for very good reasons. Host Ira Glass is a wonderful personality, and each podcast is a themed collection of 'mostly-true' stories that never fail to engage my sympathies and imagination.

These are the podcasts I never skip, whether they come out daily or weekly or whenever. This can't be said of the other 74 podcasts on my subscription list, although I really do manage to eventually check into all of them as time permits.

What podcasts do you enjoy?


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Old Friends & War Stories - Reflections After A Night Out

I caught up with some old friends last night. I guess it's a sign of age when you can make an exciting night of recalling old, embarrassing war stories -- and have your stamina run out before the stories do.

Injuries, bachelor parties, pranks, and hangovers: this is what my twenties were like. And I'm grateful we (mostly) lived to tell the tales. To those who didn't (Mike P., Rich J., and others), we raised a glass. May they rest in peace.

None of us has exactly the life we imagined for ourselves. But most of us are happy. I know I am. I'm in worse shape than I'd dreamt I'd be, but I'm in better shape than I deserve. I guess that counts as a win.

You reach a certain point in your life where everyone you've known long enough is an old friend, whether or not you got along well as youngsters. In that way, chapters of life are like battles, testing and shaping us, and anyone who emerges from the crucible with you is automatically a brother-in-arms. It just seems petty & immature to act otherwise. Sure, I stole your girlfriend and never paid back that loan. But here we are after all these years, and it's wonderful to see you again.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it sure puts your skirmishes into perspective.

Of course, the night wasn't all fond remembrance and laughs. There's plenty of gossip to be shared, and the follies of others are always entertaining, in that "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God" kind of way. My own mid-life crisis was to quit a well-paying job and go stumbling down a more-treacherous career path. But so many others choose more self-destructive outlets: affairs and nervous breakdowns, divorces and addictions.

I guess it's fitting that the night should end with a run-in with law-enforcement. But it was just a routine traffic stop, as they say. I passed the field-sobriety test, so no citations were issued. As befits my wizened, more enlightened state, I got off with a warning.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Re-experiencing Great Art (like Mother)

As I sat in the living room this afternoon, in the the little corner where I usually hunker down with my laptop to do my daily surfing & writing, my roommate put a movie on the big-screen TV, the 52-inch flat-panel monstrosity that has become the contemporary hearth.

This is when I usually get up and head for the den, but the movie was Mother by Bong Joon-Ho -- and I was quickly sucked into it.

Nabokov famously held forth that "all reading is re-reading," meaning that, to truly appreciate literature, you have to read it more than once. In the underheralded novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, John Barth put it this way:
"A story first heard is a virgin bride, who so takes us with her freshness that we care nothing for her style. A good tale retold is a beloved wife or long-prized lover, whose art we relish because no novelty distracts us."
And, I figured this had to be about the tenth time in the last four months that I've watched Mother. But I still got sucked into it. Like the great Almodovar, Bong uses B-movie tropes to create sublime cinematic art, powered by extraordinary acting and a commitment to true realism in all its tragicomic fickleness. It's a thriller that's also an existential crucible, for both the viewer and the characters.

I don't mean to make Mother sound like a complete ordeal, because it's dripping with humor. It's got as many laughs as the typical Will Ferrell vehicle. I'm not kidding.

Since I had my laptop with me, I also took the opportunity to revisit my original review of the movie. If anything, my review wasn't strong enough in its praise. Mother is a real masterpiece. Not only is it a great story; it's a shot-for-shot master class in movie-making.

Now, besides recommending a great movie, my larger point here is that we should recognize the difference between the lesser entertainments we use to fill our idle hours and the art we should be using to inform our lives. And, yes, Mother sits squarely in that latter category.

Maybe, instead of tuning into another re-run of Law & Order or an episode of whatever reality-dreck suits your fancy, you should find something that rewards re-watching. I realize for most of you this would be Star Wars, but I'll take what I can get.

But what the hell. Moderation in all things, right? Even in the things that are good for you? We don't have to spend every single evening with Shakespeare, but it would help if a few more of us would spend at least a few nights with him, in between episodes of "Pawn Stars" or "American Idol."

And just how would it help? I don't want to bog down a mere blog entry with the myriad arguments I could muster, except to say this: art that expands our capacities to both imagine and sympathize helps all of us. To understand what exactly happens in Mother by rewatching it is both instructive and nurturing. In watching this movie, we learn both what truly caused the murder at its heart, and what the real consequences are. Plus we get an object lesson in effective storytelling. And I'll just leave it at that.

However, I surely don't mean that we should cut ALL the dreck from our diets. I'm more of a "variety is the spice of life" kind of guy, and I've been known to chortle and gawk through more than a few of our more crass entertainments, whether it's "The Jersey Shore" or anything directed by Michael Bay. Not to mention all the pulp fiction I've ingested. (It keeps me regular, hardy-har-har!)

Besides, I'm uncomfortable making proscriptions. I'm just about the last guy anyone should go to for behavioral advice. After all, I'm a middle-aged man still living like a starving graduate student.

Just watch Mother. Then re-watch it. You'll learn something, and you'll enjoy yourself. Trust me.

directed by Bong Joon-Ho


Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

by Anthony Bourdain

An almanac entry of Anthony Bourdain would read like this: He's a chef-turned-TV-host who travels the world, sampling cultures and cuisines while narrating his adventures in a sarcastic-yet-self-effacing way. His first television series was "A Cook's Tour," which ran for two seasons on the Food Network, and his current series is "No Reservations," which is currently in its sixth season on the Travel Channel.

The book that made him famous enough to become a TV personality was Kitchen Confidential, a memoir of his career as a working cook, which itself was an expansion of an article he wrote for the New Yorker entitled, "Don't Eat Before Reading This." These titles would rightly lead you to believe that Bourdain is a contrarian, out to expose the hidden truths behind the glittering facades of our most acclaimed culinary palaces and preconceptions. And you'd be right.

But all of this would also lead you to believe that food is Bourdain's main subject. It isn't. Anthony Bourdain's main subject is (and always has been) Anthony Bourdain.

I don't say this in order to characterize Bourdain as solipsistic or narcissistic or otherwise hung up on himself. (Unlike, say, the younger Woody Allen, Bourdain is actively engaged with the world outside his own thoughts and feelings.) I say this in order to accurately describe what it is that makes Bourdain worth reading (and watching).

Yes, he focuses on cuisine, but his subject is his own reaction to it and everything else. He's a commentator more than a practitioner. In other words, he's a critic. And, in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Bourdain focuses his critical eye on a variety of things, including himself. Truth be told, Bourdain is a very harsh critic of Anthony Bourdain.

I just want to make the argument that, had Bourdain entitled that first book "Auto Garage Confidential" instead, it would probably still have made him famous.

Remember that Kitchen Confidential was, first and foremost, a memoir. So is Medium Raw. And the decade between the two books has given Bourdain lots of fodder.

First, Bourdain is no longer a working cook. Second, he is now rich and famous and, inevitably, older. Third, he has seen how the culinary landscape of America has changed, and he has some strong opinions about it. And, finally, he addresses some lingering issues from Kitchen Confidential. (For those of you who read that first book, he wants you to know that it's okay to order the fish on Mondays.)

There's your nutshell. But it doesn't do justice to what makes this book work.

See, what animates Bourdain is his relentless quest to distinguish (and I shall paraphrase here) bullshit from quality. And he is refreshingly egalitarian in this pursuit. Whether the subject is the dissolution of his first marriage or the pettiness of the critic Alan Richman (with whom Bourdain has had an ongoing feud), he is as quick to point out his own failings as he is to skewer the pretensions and hypocrisies of others.

He is both merciless and complimentary to the iconic Alice Waters, just as he is to Wolfgang Puck and Rachel Ray, and, more than once, he admits that his own abilities as a chef were always limited and are now nearly faded. He defends the too-cute Jamie Oliver (for the man's heroism, no less) even as he admits that just about the only thing separating Bourdain from the Food Network shills he despises (like Guy Fieri) is mere "vanity."

Apparently, the only reason there isn't a Bourdain line of cookware is that no one has made him the right offer yet. And his admission of what he is willing to do to get Oprah to endorse his book is hilarious. What could be more winning than a serious critic who doesn't take himself too seriously?

Medium Raw ranges far and wide, giving us snapshots of Bourdain's favorite dishes from across the globe (he is a particular fan of street food, although the book opens with one of the most decadent scenes of haute-cuisine I've ever experienced), and he updates us on what he feels are important culinary trends, such as the growing food-truck movement in Los Angeles or the criminal proliferation of the "Kobe-beef" burger. All of this is seasoned with Bourdain's trademark foul-mouthed witticisms.

Bourdain's language is a great deal saltier than the writings of, say, Mark Bittman or the venerated M.F.K Fisher. But I'm a sucker for profanity. (And Bittman gets a little Bourdain-inflected hyperbole directed his way, as well.)

For me, the real draw of this book (and all of Bourdain's work) is the seemingly-transparent way he narrates his experiences. There's a visceral rawness to both his experiences (the food and the sights) and his thoughts. In other words, Bourdain lets us in on the process of his reasoning. Sure, he has strong opinions (many of which I agree with, such as his absolute intolerance for people who are rude to service staff), but he is also singularly willing to re-examine those opinions in the light of new experience.

In his TV shows, he often reacts to something (a dish or a cultural expression) only to reverse himself and then spend several eloquent minutes examining the pretension that caused his initial surprise. I think it's endlessly entertaining to watch someone authentically double-back on their own preconceptions, and Bourdain does it constantly. In Medium Raw, for instance, Bourdain contorts himself mightily on the subject of Alice Waters, first castigating her political stances and then acknowledging her perserverance and charm. It's a bravura bit of rhetorical acrobatics. Bourdain doesn't so much reverse himself as simultaneously inhabit both sides of the issue at once.

The poet Keats called it "negative capability," this ability to hold two competing and antithetical positions at once, and Bourdain is always saying some form of "This shouldn't work...but it does!" as he samples something he initially finds repellant, as when he spoons ketchup on his ceviche in South America. In my experience, people with this capacity for "negative capability" are usually the smartest, funniest people in the room.

Lest you begin to think that Medium Raw is a mere catalog of Bourdain's own reactions, I must point out the chapters that deal with other subjects, such as the memorable portrait of the volatile David Chang, proprietor of the currently white-hot Momofuku restaurants -- or the masterpiece of a chapter dealing with Justo Thomas, the man who prepares the fish at Le Bernardin. Anthony Bourdain may be all about Anthony Bourdain, but his chapter on Justo Thomas proves he knows when to step out of the spotlight because the richness (and raw humanity) of the subject demands it. Talk about a working-class hero.

In the end, I zipped right through Medium Raw, and then I browsed through some criticism about it. Bourdain, it must be said, has his detractors. But, to a man (or woman), they seem to have succumbed to the idea that Bourdain should have re-written Kitchen Confidential. But Bourdain seems too honest (and too engaged with the current moment) to do that. Sure, in Medium Raw, he buries some hatchets raised in that previous book. But times have changed, and so has Bourdain.

The other major criticism of Medium Raw seems to be that Bourdain somehow lacks the requisite bonafides to write such a book. This type of criticism is elitist and disingenuous.

First, Bourdain has laid his qualifications right out in the open for all to see. He may not be a chef on par with Thomas Keller (and who is?), but he is still a former working professional with years of experience who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. Second, the very idea that only certain people should write certain books is patently ridiculous. It's the critical equivalent of attacking the man instead of his argument, and, on principle alone, I have to reject it. (Not to mention it's denial of the power of imagination!)

Quibble if you will with Bourdain's positions on foie gras or tasting menus, but don't reject his right to express them.

I, for one, hope Bourdain keeps expressing himself for many years to come. Read this book, and I bet you'll agree with me.

by Anthony Bourdain

(Note: I have entered Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw "Why Cook Well?" Essay Contest. My entry can be found here.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Innocent by Scott Turow

Innocent by Scott Turow

The latest book by novelist-lawyer Scott Turow is a sequel to his first bestseller, Presumed Innocent. I came to that first story via the movie adaptation that starred Harrison Ford and was directed by Alan J. Pakula. After being wowed by the movie, I went back and read the novel. And I enjoyed it, too.

But for my money, Turow's best book is Ultimate Punishment, his meditation on the death penalty based on his experiences as both a prosecutor and as a defense attorney who actually argued such cases (and as a member of an appointed commission investigating its administration in the state of Illinois).

That's the book on Turow: he makes the truth into a provocative entertainment. He is a capable stylist, but his true gift is his command of realistic detail and emotional consequence, ostensibly coming from his actual experience as a working attorney. I don't know him, and I'm no lawyer. But no one else I've read can take a pile of prosaic legal detail and turn it into a true-to-life thriller like Turow.

Others may rely on fireworks and more dramatic implausabilities, but there's something solid and reassuring about Turow's entertainments. They're sturdy, and they hold up to close scrutiny. Even his most improbable coincidences strike you as absolutely realistic. He's not the most economical of writers, but he's one of those knowing storytellers whose wisdom informs every sentence, so that you feel like what you're getting is gospel.

Innocent is no different. And that's saying something, because this book carries the burden of being the follow-up to the book that made Turow a household name. Some two decades after the events of Presumed Innocent, the character of Rusty Sabich has progressed from prosecutor to judge, but he finds himself embroiled once again in the mysterious death of a woman close to him. The resulting drama includes some wonderful courtroom scenes, which is a hallmark of Turow's fiction. Though Turow has his antecedents, he basically built the house Grisham is living in.

Like all the best thrillers, the plot of Innocent twists in ways that, in retrospect, make perfect sense, from the groundwork Turow has expertly laid in place. It's a plot that turns in upon itself, almost incestuously, fueled by the motivations of Turow's characters. Love gets mentioned a lot by the people in Innocent, and its many forms are what fuel them. In fact, the real villain of the piece even mentions love when finally confronted by the truest do-gooder in the cast.

Sabich, now in his sixties, is the focus of the story, but he is not the book's most interesting character. For me, it is Tommy Molto, Sabich's professional rival and a kind of shadowy alter-ego, who ends up stealing the stage. Their antagonism reaches back to the events of Presumed Innocent, but the intervening years have changed Molto in ways that don't become apparent until very late in the story, giving him a richness that stands in marked counterpoint to Sabich's own darker developments.

Less successful are the book's other narrators, particularly Rusty's son, Nat, whose clunky use of slang (at one point, he says 'blasted' when he means 'wiped') is especially noticeable, but this is quibbling. As readers, we are in the hands of a master craftsman, enjoying the milieu he creates in the first half of the book and then hanging on with both hands as the action really cranks up in the second half.

Though Innocent is indeed an entertainment, with all the deliberate pacing of a well-made thriller, Turow is an inveterate humanist, imbuing each of his cast members with at least a little tinge of fullness. We learn the dynamics of the Sabitch marriage, as well as what it means to be raised in such an environment. We learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a famous court case, including how it affects the interpersonal dynamics of one's professional cohorts. We even learn the family dynamics of the brilliant, terminally-ill defense attorney who once again takes his place at Rusty's side at the defendant's table.

Even the judge who presides over the murder trial that makes up Innocent's back half gets his requisite backstory and moments in the spotlight, and Turow also takes the time to explain the judge's accent, which would come off as criminally stereotypical if the author hadn't already taken such care to fill this character out. It's this kind of craftsmanship that elevates Turow's work into true literary art.

Finally, Turow has a fine and nuanced understanding of the difference between what is legal and what is just. It is his realistic handling of this difference, which can result in the kind of paradoxes that make lesser minds think our criminal justice system is worse than it really is, that gives the ending of Innocent a real wallop. I hate giving away too much of a book's story while reviewing it, but suffice it to say that the last few chapters will have you shaking your head.

It's getting a little late in the season to recommend a beach read. But if you're looking for some true-to-life entertainment, I have to recommend Scott Turow's Innocent.

by Scott Turow
the sequel to the novel Presumed Innocent


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage

Last night, I resurrected my long-suppressed inner fanboy by watching Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary about the Canadian power trio that, more than any other band, informed the sensibilities of my teenage years.

It was 107 minutes of pure, unadulterated musical nostalgia, and, at one point, I actually got a little misty-eyed.

Let me explain.

Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage is a rather straightforward portrayal of how Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart came together to form one of the most enduring acts in rock-and-roll. It includes a lot of biographical stuff, as well as heartfelt testimonials from celebrities including Jack Black, Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, and the television journalist John Roberts. (Those Canadians are like a guild -- always sticking up for each other!)

My own Rush testimonial would go something like this: "I got introduced to their music with the release of the Permanent Waves album, and I soon became an ardent, adolescent convert to their brand of brainy, hard-edged progressive rock. My worship of their music continued through the now-classic Moving Pictures album all the way to Presto, where I kind of fell off the Rush bandwagon until their 2007 release, Snakes & Arrows, when I happily jumped back aboard."

The documentary also includes interviews with the bandmates themselves (as well as the mothers of Geddy and Alex), and the trio reveal themselves to be nerdy, likable, down-to-earth chaps whose dedication to their own brand of what Kirk Hammett of Metallica calls "conceptual metal" comes off as an immature willfulness that evolved into a kind of artistic heroism.

Of course, calling Rush heroic strikes me as a bit of fanboy hyperbole. After all, these guys didn't cure cancer or bring peace to the middle east. But their sort of cool-headed steadfastness really does resonate as a kind of urbane heroism. I got the feeling that these guys would have continued making their kind of music even if they hadn't become the kind of multi-platinum rock gods who still sell out arenas around the world.

One of the documentary's funniest moments comes when Gene Simmons recalls the days when KISS and Rush toured together, and Gene becomes baffled by how nerdy and introverted Geddy, Alex, and Neil were in the face of an onrushing flood of groupies. Still, Geddy follows up with some very nice things to say about touring with Simmons and his cohorts in KISS. "There was no band more determined to put on a spectacular show and give people their money's worth," Geddy says. "They were very good to us."

What do you expect from someone brought up to mind his manners and who spent eleven-months-and-a-day actively mourning the death of his father?

Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage also takes note of widespread criticism about the band, quoting some blistering reviews that focus on their overly-ornate compositions, head-scratching lyrics, and Geddy's high-pitched, piercing vocals. It also highlights such fodder as the band's nearly "100% male" fan base and their decidedly wretched fashion sense.

Again, what saves the day (and keeps this documentary from becoming a boring hagiography) is the bandmates' understated steadfastness. These aren't the kind of rock-and-roll icons who smashed up hotel rooms and descended into career-wrecking addictions. These are obsessed nerds who became hard-working craftsmen.

So, this is the story of how two childhood buddies with fascinating family histories (Alex & Geddy) hooked up with a bookish drummer named Neil (after their original bandmate had to be let go for his health), and, through endless touring and perserverance, made musical history. It's a rags-to-riches biography that's tailor-made for rock nerds.

The revelation in this documentary is Alex, who comes off as kind of goofy and approachable and big-hearted, although there is a hint of a chink in his amiable countenance when the band recalls their "keyboard period" (from Power Windows to Roll the Bones).

A particularly poignant moment with Alex comes from footage of his teenage self sitting at the dinner table and arguing with his parents about staying in school. It's such a perfect slice of modern family melodrama, and it helps illustrate how normal these guys were. Whatever innate talent these boys possessed was honed in the forges of true dedication and perserverance. (Geez, I've been listening to a lot of Peart's lyrics lately!)

But the real pathos of the story comes from Neil, who, in the course of 10 months from 1997 to 1998, lost both his daughter and his wife. The grief, and Neil's particular way of coping with it (he hit the road on his motorcycle, drove thousands of solo miles, and then wrote a book about it), nearly ended the band. How these three bandmates dealt with this catastrophe, in their own civilized and generous way, is what brought the tears to my eyes. Watching these three men react with such grace is truly inspiring.

Other aging rock acts look a little ridiculous as they continue to perform. The wizened Eddie Van Halen comes to mind, still jumping around shirtless & barefoot on arena stages, even as arthritis bends his frame and swells his knuckles. But Rush doesn't look ridiculous at all, since their music was never really about posturing and partying. Perhaps it helps that the inimitable Geddy Lee has always looked old. So, now that his age is catching up with his distinctive countenance, Rush seems as fresh as ever.

Plus, these guys can totally rock.

directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen
starring Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson & Neil Peart as themselves

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Kids Are All Right directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is a shaggy comedy of manners that features strong performances and subtle, witty dialog. And, while I enjoyed it, I'll admit up front that it's not for everyone.

See, I believe there are at least 2 schools of thought when it comes to movies.

The first school of thought is that movies are all about spectacle. This school believes that movies are entertaining because of how different they are from reality. People who belong to this school tend to put a premium on special effects and fantastical storylines, paying money to see such movies as Avatar and The A-Team. Even a movie like Date Night, with its trappings of suburban & marital ennui, is an example of this school, since Steve Carell and Tina Fey soon find themselves transported into a plotline better suited to Bruce Willis.

The second school of thought holds that the best movies are as realistic as possible, creating characters and situations that play by the same rules as reality in a sort of "What If?" game meant to capture our sympathies and enlarge our understanding of what is possible -- all of which sounds like hard work when all you want to do is settle into your seat and watch things explode. The last thing many people want after a tough day at work is to spend a couple of hours slogging through the existential agonies of A Single Man, right?

These 2 schools of thought are not mutually exclusive, and a majority of moviegoers inhabit that shaded area in the Venn diagram where these two schools intersect. But I do believe that the "realistic" school is much smaller than the "spectacle" school. Just look at the grosses for evidence.

The Kids Are All Right is an example of the "realistic" school. It's about character and interaction and consequences. And it's funny in a wry, non-slapstick way. But the movie works only insofar as it's able to get you to care about its characters.

Frankly, though, the kind of person who can't sympathize with the characters in The Kids Are All Right is someone I would worry about. That's how good the performances in this movie are. Even the least sympathetic character is interesting and likable (except for Clay, who's just a jerk).

The setup is that a middle-aged lesbian couple with teenaged kids gets visited by the biological father of the kids, turning their comfortable world upside-down. I'm oversimplifying things for the sake of convenience, because, like in real life, things in this movie are complicated.

The couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, anchor the movie as a devoted pair who have raised their kids in that Southern California milieu that seems both idyllic and fraught with discontent. Both actresses inhabit their roles wonderfully, with Bening playing the responsible older partner while Moore plays the more compulsive role. And both characters are smartly rendered as they embrace their carefully-built places in their world, even as they both chafe a bit at where they've found themselves. They love each other, but they're beginning to wonder about how things have turned out.

Their kids are also well-played, with the older daughter (Mia Wasikowska) readying herself to go off to college while the younger son (Josh Hutcherson), a jock who has managed to delineate himself well against a household of females, instigates a phone call that invites the sperm donor (played by Mark Ruffalo) to insinuate himself into the fold.

Ruffalo's character is a kind of post-hippie hippie, a restaurant-owner and organic gardener who rumbles into this family on his motorcycle and begins to subtly help these people dismantle their home. He's less a saboteur than a catalyst, though. He means well, but the lesbian marriage is strained and the children can't wait to fly from the nest.

So, besides the overt sexual orientation of the parents, this is a typical American middle-class family. Which, I think, is one of the director's points. Suffice it to say that one of the truest and funniest lines in the movie is, "Marriage is a marathon."

I don't want to reveal too much of The Kids Are All Right. Yes, complications ensue, and it's fun to watch how these complications both come out of and help define these characters. After all, as the old saying goes, "action is character," and I really think you'll enjoy this movie more if you just let it happen to you.

Comedies of manners work when they skewer the pretensions of their characters by highlighting how their public personas are at odds with their inner lives. This skewering is easy with one-dimensional characters. But The Kids Are All Right allows its own characters to be fully-embodied (again, except for Clay, who's just a jerk), so that such skewering has emotional and literal consequences. After all, no one likes to have their nose rubbed into their own failings. It's no fun when the life you've built gets shattered by your own mistakes.

But real life is a mess. There's precious little justice, let alone poetic justice, and our lives are largely haphazard and inconsistent. So is The Kids Are All Right, which ends just that way -- with a few loose ends and a bit of uncertainty. Ruffalo's character, in particular, is dealt with in a gruff way.

This is not to say that this movie is a downer. But it's not all lightness and hugs, either.

Still, the end rings true, in the way the lives of our friends do, where we know just enough to be able to talk about them and, if we are truly wise, we know just enough to not judge them too harshly.

written & directed by Lisa Cholodenko
starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Mother is a Witch

When I told my mother that I had just published a vampire novel, her first words to me were, "Well, have you ever met a vampire?"

I'm used to this kind of talk from my Mom, so I didn't laugh out loud. Instead, I just responded with a question of my own: "No, but have you?"

She shook her head, telling me that she hadn't seen any. But she had heard of them when she was a child in the Philippines. In fact, she went on to say, her grandmother was a well-known witch in the Leyte province who performed many services for people like lifting curses and blessing babies and such.

I love my Mother's stories of her childhood, especially when she is so matter-of-fact about its more exotic aspects. This is a woman who plants shards of broken mirror in her flower beds so that demons cannot enter her yard.

It took a few minutes to explain to her that my book was a novel, not a history.

This is when my Mom told me that my great-grandmother hunted vampires. My mother explained that such creatures preyed heavily on children in the Philippines, and her tone suggested that my great-grandmother was a kind of local pest exterminator.

"How did she hunt them?" I asked.

"Voodoo," my Mom replied.

"Filipino voodoo?" I asked.

My Mom nodded.

"Why didn't you ever see a vampire when you were little?" I asked.

"My mental abilities protected me and my brothers and sisters," she explained. "Only the most powerful curses and attacks can affect me. But I've been practicing to get stronger."

This was the point in the conversation where she reminds me to give her the names of anyone who is "bothering me" so that she can deal with them. Though I don't really believe in her powers, I have never given her any names, just in case.

Yesterday, I took her shopping. We headed over to Chinatown so she could go into her favorite herbal remedy store, T & T Ginseng. My Mother has a great faith in the restorative power of nuts, but they couldn't be just any nuts. They needed to be the nuts sold at this particular store.

"The grocery stores do something to their nuts," she explained.

Besides getting large bags of shelled walnuts and almonds, which my Mom explained were essential for the health of my prostate, she also got a couple of liquids that she uses as a base for her own special formula of "Good Luck Oil" -- a green, fragrant concoction that I've been instructed to dab onto my neck like cologne whenever I leave the house. It smells like eucalyptus and soap, but I've figured what the hell.

(My Mother's Good Luck Oil)

In the back of the store, an old woman was measuring herbs into little paper packets. Behind this woman was a whole wall of drawers, each with a different plant or powder in it. The old woman would put a scoop of something onto a small square of brown paper. Then she would add a pinch or two of several other ingredients and then fold the whole thing up into a neat little envelope. She seemed to be winging it, and I wondered how she remembered what was in the packets once she finished.

As we passed by, my Mother whispered to me, "The Chinese will believe anything. You might as well just take a Flintstones vitamin."

When I pointed out that she used such herbs regularly, she was only mildly offended. The things she used were backed up by her spells and mental abilities, she told me for the umpteenth time.

In the grocery store next door, my Mother bought an impressive amount of produce: bok choy, bitter melon, and eggplant. She wanted to make a soup base, she explained. She also pointed out cans of coconut juice to me.

"For your lubrication," she said.

A few weeks earlier, my Mother had called me one afternoon while I was editing my manuscript. I let the call go to voicemail, but she immediately called right back, so I figured it was an emergency.

"Are you being attacked?" she asked when I picked up. Her voice was frantic.

"What do you mean?" I asked her.

"Is someone attacking you? I just had a flash that you were being attacked!"

I looked around my den, realizing that, except for my dog, I was alone in the house. I went from the den to the living room, checking the front door and the patio door.

"Everything's okay," I said. "I don't think anyone's attacking me."

"What about your bank account?"

I explained that my bank notifies me by text message every time there's any sort of transaction, but, just to be safe, I logged on from my laptop. I reassured my Mom that no one had robbed me via the internet.

"Oh, good," my Mother said. "My spells protected you."

Before hanging up, she made me promise to stop by her house the next day so she could make sure I was okay.

When I showed up at the appointed hour, my Mom spent a few minutes eyeballing me to reassure herself that I hadn't been replaced by a pod-person or an android. It took a little longer to convince her I wasn't possessed. After an hour during which she sprinkled some incense in my hair while making small-talk, she pronounced me healthy and safe, and she sent me home with a bag of shelled walnuts.

Yesterday, as we headed home from the grocery store, with the bundles of bok choy and bitter melon and eggplant in the back seat, my Mother insisted on stopping by an Indian market.

"It's my second-favorite place to shop," she explained.

We pulled up in front of a cramped storefront on Maryland Parkway just south of Tropicana Avenue. The store was appropriately called "India Market," and when we walked in, the young man behind the cash register greeted my Mom with a warm hello, asking her, "How did you like the sandalwood incense?"

"Oh, it really helped my prayers," she replied. "It made them very strong."

The young man nodded enthusiastically and shook my hand when my Mother introduced me as her son.

The place was packed, with overflowing aisles and couples badgering each other in languages I couldn't identify. But everyone also had bright smiles on their faces, and would stop to nod at each other as they squeezed through the aisles.

My Mom began filling a basket with packages of naan and bottles of mango and tamarind juice. She also picked out some packages of spice mix and some incense. At the cash register, the young man rung up her purchases and said, "Your total is thirty-three dollars, but you only need to give me thirty dollars."

He was beaming as he said this, and my Mother thanked him effusively.

On the way home, as we passed the airport, my Mother suddenly gripped my arm and pointed for me to make a sudden right turn.

"Go there! Now!" she yelled.

I did, thinking she had remembered another errand she wanted to run. But when she started turning her head and looking out the back window, I realized what had just happened. She thought we were being followed and wanted to shake off our pursuers.

"That red car," she muttered, pulling out her little notebook to write down a description, place, and time. Whoever they were, they were going to get a big helping of my Mother's mental abilities when she got home. For now, they were stuck at the light, while we made our escape.

Meanwhile, our little detour had put us in the airport itself, and I had to navigate through the passenger pick-up area to get us back onto the road home. While I did this, my Mom just kept scribbling into her notebook and shaking her head.

"They always know when I've cashed my Social Security check," she muttered. "But I'm always watching."

"I'm glad," I said to her. "I feel much safer."

Once I got her home and helped her unpack her groceries and remedies, I could tell my Mother was getting tired and wanted a nap. I said goodbye, promising to take her to lunch in the next week or so.

When I got back into my car, I found a bag of almonds on the passenger seat. There was a little note underneath them: "For calcium and cholesterol," it said. My Mom's handwriting is impeccable.

My Mother may be a witch, but she's my witch. Be nice to me, and I won't give her your name.