Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ralph's Great Divide

On a recommendation from someone at Amy’s church, we decided to try Ralph’s Great Divide for lunch today. It’s one of those places you probably have to be told about, or else you’re just going to drive right by it every time and never stop. It’s on New York Street, just before you pass under the highway and then over the railroad tracks. Their website says that they are located in historic Lockerbie Square, but that’s pushing it. Technically, yes, but if you’re thinking of those big, historic houses and brick streets, those are on the other side of New York Street and a bit west of Davidson.

We were seated in a tiny part of the dining room just inside the front door, close enough to the entrance that we could feel the rush of cold air every time someone came in or went out; but the lunch rush was pretty much over, so the door didn’t open and close too much. It’s a smoking place, and the smell of stale cigarettes actually made me vaguely nostalgic for my grandmother’s house in Columbus, so close was the smell to that of her kitchen. The bar, and what appeared to be a larger dining area, were inside to the left of where we were.

The lunch menu is mostly club sandwiches, burgers, and ham sandwiches made with Dave’s Bourbon Baked ham, described as “Slow Baked Pit Ham with Bourbon and Spices” on the menu. I tried the Lucy ($7.99), a ham and swiss sandwich on grilled rye. The rye bread was nicely grilled, crunchy but not explosive, and the portion of ham was quite generous; but the cheese was sweaty more than melted, and didn’t contribute much to the flavor of the sandwich. Amy had the Frenchie ($7.49), a burger topped with creamy brandy and peppercorn sauce and smoked cheddar cheese. Again, the flavor of the cheese was obscured, this time by the rich sauce (though it was admirably peppery). She chose plain old potato chips for a side, but I had the pickled beets - something you don’t see offered as a side in too many places. They were perfectly adequate, but probably came out of a can. Same with the cream of tomato soup, which was hot and satisfying on a cold afternoon, but in no way unique.

Steak, chicken, and seafood entrées round out the dinner menu, but seem somewhat overpriced for a place that has a naked woman carved out of wood mounted on the wall over one of the tables. (It was mounted over the table we sat at, in fact, but I didn’t notice it until I stood up to leave. If Shaquille O’Neal had been sitting at that table, he would have dashed his brains out on her breasts when he stood up to leave.) Probably this knickknack was once mounted on a small boat of some kind, but these kinds of things always seem to wind up on walls at restaurants.

Generally speaking, it was a perfectly fine lunch in a quirky little mom-and-pop place. Their chili was supposedly remarked upon once by Bon Appétit magazine, so a return trip to sample that dish might be in order; but better sandwiches can be had elsewhere, and it’s over-21 only, so we won’t be able to take Jackson. We don’t get the chance to go out for lunch without the little guy very often, and Old Point Tavern is just a few blocks away—which makes the odds pretty slim that this one will ever make it into what passes for our regular rotation.

743 East New York Street

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Closing Out 2010

National Novel Writing Month was a long hard slog, and then there was the signing up for and preparing the manuscript for the free proof copy from Create Space - and it turns out I didn’t even come close to preparing the manuscript enough for that proof copy process. But then by the time I had a chance to sit down and think about it, it was already the middle of December.

I didn’t think I was going to have time to come up with anything to submit for Ichabod’s Sketchbook III, with its December 18, 2010 deadline; but I managed to work an idea I had had first for a series of blog posts into a short short story, and I used a Robert Frost poem as the starting point for a second short short story. (Actually, I used it as the end point and worked backward until there was a whole story, or as much of a story as I was able to cram into less than 1000 words.) I wrote them a little too fast, but was mostly content with both of them by about two in the morning on the 18th; and I submitted them to the editors, for better or worse.

I spent the first half of December working on a slimmed-down version of the story I had been working on before I shut everything else down for NaNoWriMo in November, and also on editing the first three chapters of a novel one of my co-workers asked me to have a look at; and I read the proof copy of the “novel” I wrote during November, and man—it’s rough. I should have at least taken the time to run a spell check. Being sure to insert page numbers would also have been helpful. I suppose I could always fix some things and order another copy, but at least I’ll have a better idea of how to do it if I manage to get to the end of NaNoWriMo again next year.

I’m reading one last book to add to the stack of books going away at the end of the year. There might be time for one more little one, but my hold on the new Jonathan Franzen novel is in transit from the library, and I want to make sure that nothing else is on my reading plate when that comes in. There are still nearly 300 holds lined up for it, so I won’t be able to renew it. There were nearly 500 holds already lined up when I submitted my hold request for it—and that surprised me. I would never have guessed that nearly 500 people in Indiana had even heard of Jonathan Franzen, much less that that many would have any interest in reading his new novel.

2010 will go into the books as my most successful year as a writer, though that is not saying much. What will be saying something is if the focus I put on writing—and on what I have been reading—this year helps me to produce more substantial writing next year. If all goes well, that will include the story I am working on being finished by the end of June; a handful of short stories written and submitted to contests between June and November; a second consecutive National Novel Writing Month “win” by the end of November; and a couple more submissions to Ichabod’s Sketchbook in December.

I also plan to keep a completely accurate account of how many books I bring in during the year versus how many books I read and get rid of during the year—with the goal there being to get rid of more books than I bring in. I have to get serious there, too. It’s way too easy to spend half an hour in the clearance section at Half Price Books and convince myself that someday I might read this book or that book—and since it only costs fifty cents or a buck, it doesn’t really matter if I ever read it or not. I have a biography of Rudy Giuliani on my shelves. There is no viable reason for that. I have a book of writing about sharks. And mammoths. Seriously. Those are things that at some point I was more interested in having than money.

It was a damn long time coming, but it feels really good to finally get serious about writing. Bring on 2011.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

I’m going to have to preface this piece with the disclaimer that I adore the Harry Potter books. I have read all seven of them several times each, and I find myself drawn back to the best of them - the fourth through the seventh - at least once or twice a year, when I will read three or four of them back to back in quick succession. If I were better at this whole movie review thing - or perhaps just more frequent and consistent with respect to actually doing it - I might be able to better evaluate the films as entities separate from the novels that spawned them.

Alas, that is not the case. I just can’t do it. J.K. Rowling has created a world so rich in characters and settings and imagery that watching the films would be enormously satisfying if the only thing to be said about them is that they are quite well-executed visual interpretations of seven of the greatest novels ever written. They are not going to satisfy every lover of the novels, because there is simply too much in the books - especially those last four, which are quite long - to cram into one movie. (There’s even too much in the thicker books to cram into two movies, though fitting more into the film was not the reason for splitting the seventh book into two films - that decision was all about the Benjamins).

This one begins with the evacuation of Number Four, Privet Drive, as the Dursleys flee because they will no longer be safe once Harry’s whereabouts are known. (I don’t recall if the reason for this was explained in the last film or not, but it is not rehashed her for those who are not well-versed in the story. Dumbledore placed special magic on the home of Harry’s aunt and uncle and cousin, so that he would be protected there from Voldemort. However, when Harry comes of age, at seventeen, which is set to occur early in the film, the magic ceases to operate. This places both Harry and his relatives in danger.) In the novel, there is a nice moment when Dudley, Harry’s cousin, cottons to the fact that Harry is not going with the Dursleys. In his awkward way, he asks if Harry is going to be all right, acknowledging that he cares about Harry because Harry once saved his life. The two, who have never been especially friendly, make peace, and it’s a nice scene - but is omitted here, one of the few quibbles I had with the movie.

There’s probably not much point in hashing over the plot points of the story, except to note that what’s really going on here is that Harry and his friends are being pursued by a malevolent force while they try to figure out how to vanquish that force, using incomplete information passed on by someone who is no longer with them. Though overloaded with special effects (which can’t really be avoided in a story steeped in magical lore), the elements of a classic horror movie are pretty much in place here. Most of this film is concerned with the increasing power of Voldemort and his singleminded desire to destroy Harry. For his part, Harry does his best to work out what Dumbledore told him about horcruxes, so that he and Ron and Hermione can find the ones that are left, destroy them, and then destroy Voldemort.

The element of horror is best captured in a scene in which Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow, the place where Harry was born, where his parents were murdered (and are presumably buried), and where - Harry just now discovers - Dumbledore grew up. They arrive in Godric’s Hollow on what appears to be the night of Christmas Eve, with snow on the ground and few people out and about. They come to the house where Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents, and then to a cemetery, where they find the headstone belonging to James and Lily Potter. Presently, they encounter a silent old woman, whom they believe to be a noted magical historian with information about Dumbledore that might be of use to Harry. He and Hermione follow the old woman into her house - where a horrifc surprise awaits. Though effective in the novel, the scene is suspenseful enough that it works even better cinematically.

They find one horcrux, and dispatch it (though not without some trouble); and they begin to find out about the Deathly Hallows, three magical objects that, put together, make their possessor a master over death. The Hallows will present an interesting dilemma for Harry and his friends in Part 2. The only other minor quibble I had with the film was with some of the dialogue. There were places where characters were talking about things in a way that is designed to present the viewer with information, though often the dialogue came off hurried, or muffled, or otherwise reminiscent of mumblecore. This isn’t a problem for people who are familiar with the story from having read the novel; but for those viewers who have not read the novel, it’s a disservice. The biggest conceit of the entire Harry Potter film series is that the films generally assume that the viewers have read the books; and while this is probably the case for most viewers of the films, it is not the case for all viewers of the films. But again, that’s a minor quibble, just one of a couple in what is otherwise a very fine film.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Swan

Based on the reviews of this film that I have already read, I was apparently supposed to watch The Red Shoes before watching this film. I was not aware of that; I didn’t get the memo. I just thought this looked and sounded like an interesting picture, even if director Darren Aronofsky’s last picture (The Wrestler) was a bit uneven. Two movies before that, however, was Requiem for a Dream, which was a remarkable film - and easily the most disturbing film I have ever seen. Billed as a “psycho-sexual thriller,” Black Swan is the story of ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who lands the role of the Swan Queen in a new production of “Swan Lake.”

But wait! If you act now, you can also get the lecherous company director (Vincent Cassel), the has-been control freak mother (Barbara Hershey) and the free spirit to your straight lace (Mila Kunis)! Special added bonus: a dancer being “retired” because she is too old (Winona Ryder) and who exists in the story for no particular reason, other than possibly to ratchet up Nina’s bizarre emotional stew another couple of notches.

Nina desperately wants her dancing to be perfect. Other than a scene late in the film when she goes out to a club with Lily (Kunis), as much to irritate her mother as to have fun herself, perfecting her dancing is all that we see Nina doing. She lives in an Upper West Side apartment with her mother, a place that feels cramped and stifling and which it appears as though time has forgotten. Nina’s bedroom is a study in pink and stuffed animals, and mommy is the only person in Nina’s life, apart from her fellow dancers and the narcissistic company director.

For most of the film, Nina’s sole expression is that of someone who continues to do something painful and difficult despite clearly wanting no longer either to do it or to get what comes from doing it. When she ducks into a restroom stall and calls her mother to let her know she got the part, she bursts into what are unquestionably tears of joy; but it is also possible to read them as the frightened tears of someone who is yoked to a terrible sadness. It’s a testament to the strength of Portman’s performance that those tears can be read both ways. (This will not be the scene used when Jeff Bridges reads Portman’s name in the list of nominees for this year’s Best Actress Oscar, but it should be.)

The pink color scheme and stuffed animals are but the first indication that Nina’s perspective is a bit skewed; her symbiotic relationship with her mother is another. Nina is a grown woman, but these indications point to someone who has willfully put off most of what it means to grow into adulthood so that she can achieve this thing for which she has been working since she was very young. When she says that she wants her dancing to be perfect, she is referring to technical perfection - the ability to execute steps and turns and leaps correctly, as they are taught. She yearns for an objective perfection that can be rendered definitively. It is almost accurate to say that she has subordinated her life to this goal; but it is more accurate to say that she has suppressed everything else in her life in order to achieve her goal of balletic mastery.

On the one hand, she has succeeded - both in mastering the steps and turns and leaps and in holding back her life in order to force her body to learn these motions; but on the other hand, she has failed - because the perfection she seeks actually comprises more than technical mastery. She cannot effectively portray both the perfect White Swan and the sensual Black Swan, which the part requires, because to achieve the former, she has forced herself to press down those things inside her that are needed for her to become the latter.

Unable to acknowledge, much less understand, her own deficiencies, she projects the frustrations these cause at those around her: she sees threats in Lily and Beth where none exist; she feels imprisoned by her mother, though she is free to leave at any time; and she reads sexual predation into Thomas’ efforts to get the Black Sawn to emerge from her. This last affront is the only one that is real, but her perception of it is amplified by her refusal to submit to - or perhaps even acknowledge - her own natural sexual maturity.

As Nina is pulled to and fro by these forces within and without her, Aronofsky uses the mortal weakness of her own body to symbolize what is happening to her inside her own mind. She constantly inspects her feet for damage, finding broken toenails and blood; and despite an obsessive attention to keeping her fingernails trimmed she finds scratches on her back, more blood. Her mother’s artwork taunts her from the walls where it hangs, and Nina cannot even go out for a drink with Lily without losing herself in a dream.

What is most compelling about the film, though, is the way in which Nina gradually begins to change the things about her that keep her from being able to portray the Black Swan. Slowly but surely, she sorts out what is real and what is not, what is of her own making and what is not. Portman’s expression may not change all that much, but she begins to imbue Nina with an energy from within, as Nina begins to understand more and more about herself and the world she has built for that self. It is not revealing too much to say that, by the end, Nina has perfected both the White Swan and the Black Swan; but it would be revealing too much to say exactly how Aronofsky and Portman get her there. You’re just going to have to see that for yourself.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Proof Copy

I think I mentioned somewhere along the line that one of the prizes for "winning" Naaknowrymo (Hi, Steve) was that you could sign up with one of their sponsors and get a free proof copy of your "book." That was actually one of the things that really helped to keep me motivated to stay on pace throughout the month of November - the idea of having a printed copy of something I had written that I could hold in my hands. It would be a very rough copy, of course, but it would be something.

Had I investigated the matter a bit further, however, I probably would have been less enthused (and potentially less motivated to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month). The sponsor in question is CreateSpace, which is a self-publishing service provided by the monolithic Amazon. You create an account with them, then upload your manuscript, then create a cover for it, and then wait while their submission robot checks to make sure everything is formatted correctly. Along the way, they assign an ISBN to the book. This is the part that worries me. I don't know enough about self-publishing to know whether or not I've just committed this manuscipt to self-publishing for eternity or not. I should have stopped what I was doing and gone surfing for some information, but that damnable lust for a printed copy of my work was gnawing away at me.

Then I got an e-mail from the robot saying that everything checked out and that it was time to order my proof copy. Huzzah! So I logged in and ordered the copy, which was totally free - both the cost of the book and the economy shipping option were covered by the discount my NaNoWriMo winner's code got me. The next step - in theory - is to review the proof and make any corrections and probably re-submit the manuscript and then set up sales channels.

Yeah...sales channels. That's the part they don't tell you on the NaNoWriMo website. They just say you can get a free proof copy. You're not compelled to set up sales channels and sell the book, and I sure as hell don't plan to do that; but the whole process has got this thing a little closer to being out there in the world than I would have liked.

But I will get to hold that printed copy of the "book" in my hands. I don't exactly feel like I shook hands with the devil here, but the whole thing feels a little icky; and I'm not sure holding a copy of what I wrote in my hands is going to mitigate that feeling entirely. Oh well...I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to pursue this particular story for actual publication anyway. It was an exercise and an exorcism, with the goal being to get it out of my system so I could stop thinking about it and start writing something serious that I would want to publish one day.

Here's what the front cover looks like:

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Deep Thoughts #46

If you had told Jack Del Rio at the beginning of the season that his team would win its division, he would have laughed you out of the room.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Deep Thoughts #45

Someone should probably call a meeting of all four teams in the AFC South and remind them that one of them actually has to win the division.