A rainy-day Disney adventure...and Dwight Schrute!
I mentioned a few months ago that I had again purchased annual passes for Disneyland for the family. So near the end of February, the wife and I decided to have a quick little visit and just use Downtown Disney parking for our visit (to save $20 on parking). We'd tried this the last time we had annual passes, but without buying anything in Downtown Disney to receive validation, so we were only able to park for free for two hours - which made the trip seem a little less worthwhile since the round-trip to Disneyland takes at least this long.
This was before the current, more stringent, no-longer-free parking validation rules were put into place that require validation with a minimum Downtown Disney purchase of $20 for the first three hours in the Downtown Disney parking lot. I did a little research on Downtown Disney parking validation and discovered that if you buy a meal at any of the Downtown Disney the table service restaurants, you can get validated for 5 hours of free parking. Granted, the table-service restaurants are going to cost you more than parking at the satellite Disney lots - we generally spend between $40 and $50 for just the two of us. But the cost of parking in the other lots doesn't include a meal. So depending on the amount of food ordered - I suspect the number of hours they validate depends on the amount spent on food, but I'm not 100% sure about this - and the planned duration of your stay, this may not work out to be a big money saver. But there is one definite added benefit: you don't have to take a bus or tram in from the parking lot to get into Downtown Disney. You just walk into Disneyland like you did in the good ol' days of Disneyland.
As luck would have it, there was rain in the forecast on the day we planned to go. And rain it did - for about 10 minutes. It even hailed for a few minutes. We had already arrived at our Downtown Disney dining establishment of choice, The La Brea Bakery Cafe, and were seated during the brief downpour, waiting for our food so we didn't get to experience the rain pelting down on us (we enjoyed the discomfort of the employees and light crowds walking past the restaurant from our dry, but outdoor, table).
You may be wondering why I thought it lucky to be at Disneyland on a rainy day. These photos may help explain my love for rainy days at Disneyland.
Because of the cooler temperatures and the rain, the crowds were really light. It would have been a perfect day to park in all-day parking and enjoy the the park, but we ended up just going on a couple of rides, having some ice cream, and buying a shirt for the wife (because you know what good deals they have in the shops on Main Street) - leaving around 4 hours later. We could have stayed another hour, but the parking ticket we received from the Downtown Disney lot said validation was only good for 4 hours of free parking, and the big red "4" validation stamp on the ticket seemed to back this up, so we didn't want to take any chances. We found out, after asking the waiter on our next visit, what the real deal was. But I'll be blathering on about that in a second.
But first, some thoughts on one of the many books I've read recently (actual physical books, not eBooks I was asked to read and review)...
The Bassoon King My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy
I found The Bassoon King on the discount book rack at Barnes and Noble. I'd like to say that I'd been aware of Dwight Schrute's literary opus before I saw it there...but I wasn't. I hadn't heard anything about it on any of the the podcasts I listen to, web sites I visit, or book-related emails I receive. And yes, I intentionally said this was Dwight Schrute's, not Rainn Wilson's, literary opus because even though Rainn Wilson isn't Dwight Schrute (as you'll become very aware throughout this book), he will always be Dwight to me.
But speaking of Dwight, if you enjoyed Rainn's character on the office, you'll love the book's introduction, penned as Dwight.
I do not read books for funny stories or whimsical insights. Ever. If I am reading a book, it is for the purpose of absorbing factual information about what is happening on Planet Earth, Middle Earth, Westeros, Galactica, Asgard, Mount Olympus, or Lackawanna County.
This writer, "Rainn Wilson," is a laughable idiot. He thinks he's funny, but he's merely pathetic. Unless you think stories about weird religions, nerd-loving parents, bassoons, and acting are fascinating. I sure don't.
Ooooh, you did live plays in the theater. Big deal. So did the cast of Glee and nobody cares about them anymore.
Oooooh, so you were an actor on TV shows. Well so was Jack Bauer. You don't see Jack Bauer writing a book about his life. (He's got serious work to do, plus his life is classified. And when the hell would he write, anyway? I've seen every minute of his day, the guy doesn't even have time to urinate!) Actually, maybe he has Written a book about his life. I wouldn't know. The last time I was in that section of the bookstore was a long time ago, and I stormed out in anger because they did not have a book by Sam Neill that I had gotten my heart set on during the long drive to the Wilkes-Barre Borders (now defunct) from my farm (still in business, thank you very much).
OOOOH, YOU'RE A MEMBER OF AN OBSCURE, STRANGE-SOUNDING RELIGIOUS MINORITY. WELL, WHY DON'T YOU RENT WITNESS AND WATCH THOSE TEENAGE PUNKS DAB ICE CREAM ON ALEXANDER GODUNOV AND LET'S SEE WHO'S BEEN PERSECUTED WORSE!
Also, why is this privileged Hollywood windbag writing a memoir when he's in his forties? It doesn't make any sense. He's not even close to death. (Although, after reading this pile of steaming goat feces, I wish he was.)
Fact: NO. ONE. CARES.
Rainn isn't Dwight, but in some ways (judging by the Dwight comments above), he very much is Dwight. They both have the same uber-nerd interests.
2:00 - 3:00 p.m.: Run around in the woods with Chris Cole's bow and arrow and shoot it at a bunch of old tires.
3:00 - 9:30 p.m.: Strive to finish clearing out the dungeons of Aktar, making sure to find Hosgurd's key (which we would need to get the treasure from Klur the Copper Dragon, of course).
9:30 - 10:00 p.m.: Snack on fruit from the giant boxes of free produce the Higginses had stacked in their garage from their divorced, absent father who ran a food distribution company and supposedly sent bananas and apples over by the pallet in lieu of making child support payments.
10:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.: Attempt to finish level nine of the dungeon and slay Klur the Copper Dragon in order to obtain entrance into the Castle of Garadrel.
10:00 - 11:00 a.m.: Eat runny scrambled eggs with parents (eye-roll a lot, classical music plunking away in the background).
11:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.: finish the Castle of Garadrel. Celebrate with Twizzlers and Slurpees and some furtive, adrenalized glimpses at a stack of Cheri porno mags that Tim had found at the bottom of some old boxes in the corner of their basement. (This was the late seventies. Porn wasn't as ubiquitous and "one click away" as it is now. We had to work for our porn back then!)
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.: Do all of the next week's homework while watching Colombo.
About once every month or two we would forgo a day of gaming in order to head out to one of the rare gamer/comic stores in the Seattle area. The best one was in Kent, Washington, which was a two-hour bus ride away. The trip would be a daylong event but totally worth it. A bus full of dork meat, meandering its way to the hobby shop, where we would stock up on the little metal miniature figurines of orcs and trolls and warriors and the model paint to adorn them with, the multisided dice that drove the game, and, most important, the dungeon maps and books of monsters and spells that were our bible. I will never forget the musty smell of those stores and the mystery of their aisles, filled with magical possibility and the strange, almost-always-bearded man grumpily gargoyled at the cash register, reading The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks for the seventh time.
Before Hollywood discovered the world of comic book nerds and sci-fi geeks, before the cultural tastemaking explosion of Comic-Con, there was a special yearly event at the saddest Hyatt in the world: Norwescon.
This was (and still is!) a yearly fantasy and sci-fi convention that would draw out all the nerd vermin from the mossy burbs of Western Washington. There was a huge bookstore and D-level actors who had once guested on Star Trek signing glossies. Favorite sci-fi authors like Philip Jose Farmer and Frederik Pohl were treated like rock stars there, signing copies of their books and walking the halls like members of House Lannister. And the capper was a big party called the "Masquerade" on Saturday night, where you were encouraged to dress like a Klingon or barbarian or alien.
My dad would go every year to sign a handful of copies of his book and speak on various panels, and I would proudly watch him among the other author-gods. Yes, there were actual panel discussions on science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming. I remember once ducking into the back of a conference room where a team of dandruffy professor types were intensely pondering whether it would be in character for Conan the Barbarian to boil water during his travels.
There was a "screening room" (i.e., dilapidated conference room) that had movies showing in it twenty-four hours a day. That is where I first saw Silent Running with Bruce Dern, Zardoz with Sean Connery, and The Fearless Vampire Killers by Roman Polanski. The unwashed sci-fi hippie contingent who didn't have the money to get a hotel room would simply sleep in the screening room in their sleeping bags with loud, poorly projected sci-fi movies blaring and flickering around them all night long.
I even played an elven thief in a Dungeons & Dragons competition, taking second place at age fifteen. A group of ten lost souls sat in a boardroom at the Hyatt, playing various imaginary characters for an entire day, while outside in the real world, hearts were broken, sacrifices undertaken, connections made, babies born, tears shed, and lives lived. Not in the Evergreen Room at the SeaTac Hyatt, though. There, chaotic-neutral dwarves and half-orc magic users pranced about in imaginary caves for hour after hour seeking treasure, glory, and magic scimitars.
Eventually, because of my dweeby exploits, I would be given the key to a magical, mythical city. A city that others can only dream of. The renowned municipality of Nerdopolis. I would also be made its lord, mayor, and spokesperson (as you're about to read).
As with most biographical-type books, there's a middle section in the book full of photos (there are a few black and white photos elsewhere through out the book, as well).
But the Fantasy role-playing, convention-frequenting nerd was just the tip of the iceberg. He was a member of every club that would get you a beating from the cool kids.
I ASK YOU TO SAVOR THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE: FOR SEVERAL years, off and on, I was a member of the following clubs at school: marching band, pep band, orchestra, debate club, computer club, chess club, Model United Nations, and pottery club.
Note: The above list does not include my aforementioned role-playing gaming, Baha'i youth activities, medieval weapons sketching, kung fu movie obsession, or vast Columbia Record and Tape Club* cassette collection featuring Journey, Styx, Asia, and REO Speedwagon.
* The Columbia Record and Tape Club was the most brilliant scam perpetrated on young Americans since the Vietnam War. For one dollar you'd get like twelve cassettes sent to you just for joining. Then you'd have to buy a handful of tapes at the "regular" amount (which was like $16.99 or some similarly astronomical price) over the course of the year. You'd get mailed a brochure of new releases, and if you didn't mail the postcard back saying, "No, thanks, I don't want anything this month,", they'd automatically send you their selection of the month and BILL YOU FOR IT. It was a duplicitous scheme, preying on knuckleheaded teens who didn't have the wherewithal to return a postcard every month and who would end up with a Peter Frampton cassette they never wanted and a bill for $l6.99. It did, however, launch many a young person's Van Halen cassette tape collection!
As you may have noticed, Rainn's not above an explanatory tangential footnote. There are a lot of them throughout the book. One of these spans the bottom of five consecutive pages.
Besides the sex and drugs and rock and roll, there was a building feeling of unease with the whole religion thing in my life. I didn't want anything to do with morality.* I really didn't know if I bought this...
* Let's pause here and discuss morality a little bit.
WARNING: MAJOR DIGRESSION AHEAD. FEEL FREE TO SKIP.
Here's the deal with morality: It has a really bad name these days. Young people LOATHE the word and don't want to hear about it or be subject to it and, frankly, OLD people aren't exactly jumping to hear about it, either. However, we ALL operate under a moral code. It may shift occasionally, but we all have a sense of right and wrong, and our behavior matches that belief for the most part. (Even Hitler was a vegetarian because he thought it distressing and cruel to kill animals and wanted bodily purity. He even called meat broth "corpse tea." That's morality, folks.)
Some of us get that moral code from a religious faith, others from our parents or family, but most of us from the consensus of the culture at large. For instance, in the 1950s, sex before marriage and pot smoking were considered extremely immoral. People who participated in those activities were the worst scum of the earth (or, even worse, actors). Nowadays marijuana use is not only accepted, it's considered "cool," and premarital sex is the norm, most children having lost their virginity by seventeen.
These days, the idea that you would not do something because a wise, divinely inspired person recommended you not do it in some holy book is considered an absurd notion. It's thought to be old-fashioned, obsolete, and inherently didactic and judgmental to have religious teachings guide one's actions.
So how do we determine what is right? From our faith? From what our culture currently believes is just and right? What are the implications and reverberations of our actions? Where do morals come from? Materialists would say that morals are somehow (inexplicably) programmed into our biology and human/animal social impulses. Religious folks would say that it was God, speaking through the religious movements of the past, who taught us as a species "right from wrong" over the centuries.
Mortality in the Baha'i Faith is a bit different from morality in other faith traditions. There's no hell or sin in the traditional sense. Evil is merely the absence of good. Hell is remoteness from God, the divine presence. Sin is "missing the mark," and one should simply try to learn and do better next time. (It should be noted that in the early Greek translation of the New Testament hamartia is the word that is used for sin. Hamartia is an archery term that literally means "missing the mark." It has nothing to do with shameful evil. That came into play later.) Moral and ethical guidelines in the Baha'i system are given to us by a loving Creator as a protection and direction for us as individuals and for the betterment of our society as a whole.
"O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures."
The key thing with any discussion of morality, especially from a religious perspective, is that any whiff of judgment, condescension, and arrogance needs to be completely taken out of the conversation. And hell. And damnation. And original sin. Ludicrous ideas.
I have made plenty of moral mistakes and had lapses in ethical judgment. (Trust me. I'm not just saying that to sound humble.) Most of us have. But the culturally taboo topic of morality I find fascinating.
But what do I know? I'm just a bassoonist.
Returning to the nerdly life of Rainn Wilson, at this point in the book I had begun to feel some kinship with Rainn, having been a fantasy role-playing nerd in my own High School career. I was almost a band nerd, but abandoned that path well before High School. And I was never social enough to be in any clubs, so I escaped all those nerd trappings. But I really felt a kinship with Rainn when I read Chapter 6.
TWO THINGS HAPPENED TO ME WHEN I TURNED SIXTEEN. I discovered punk rock and I moved to Chicago.
In suburban Seattle there were two radio stations: KISW and KZOK. If you didn't listen to those you were pummeled into oblivion
by the rockers that be. They played one kind of music only: CLASSIC ROCK ROCK rock rockrock!!!!
Then, out of the blue, a friend gave me some cassette tapes she had recorded from her hi-fi player: the Clash's London Calling, the Police's Reggata de Blanc and Outlandos d' Amour, Squeeze's East Side Story, and Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True. My world was turned upside down and inside out in an instant, and my ears pinwheeled in delight.
After years of Billy Squier, Van Hagar, Air Supply, and Styx, I had never dreamed music like this existed anywhere. Sure, classic rock was awesome in its way, but the bloated, obvious, macho crooning and endless midtempo guitar solos were becoming an ear-sickening cliche. Nineteen eighty-two brought us some great radio fare, such as Queen and the Cars and Cheap Trick and Blondie and ELO, who all crafted some delightful tunes, but the angry young men of punk and new wave, with their whip-smart lyrics and rebellious melodies, made musical and lyrical explosions that completely captured my soul.
Rainn is a little bit older than me, but we both grew up in essentially the same decade. I still remember when I heard The Police for the first time over a Christmas Holiday in Arizona when I was probably twelve years old. We were on our way home and I listened to a Ghost in the Machine cassette I'd gotten for Christmas over and over again on my gigantic knock-off Not-Sony Walkman, savoring every note, every clever lyric. That led to acquisition of the previous three Police albums. And an endless pursuit of all things related to The Police (posters, books, magazines, single-records, buttons, etc.)
But enough about me. Let's get back to Rainn...
The book is primarily a Rainn Wilson biography, but there are a few chapters devoted just to stories about The Office. And let's admit it - that's what I really wanted to read about. I enjoyed the rest of the book, but The Office is what we all know Rainn for and that's why we bought the book. This excerpt is pretty lengthy, but well worth the read.
I believe my first audition was in November, but I wouldn't get a call back for a "network test" until January.
Normally screen-testing for lead roles on network television shows involves traipsing into a conference room filled with ADHD television executives who are furiously thumbing away at their phones, doing a couple of short scenes in the most nerve-wracking environment known to man, and then waiting an hour or two to hear if you got the part or not.
Greg Daniels, our exceptionally bright creator/show-runner, did things completely differently. The pilot for The Office was to be shot on a soundstage but in reverse. We would shoot the scenes in the upstairs production offices and prepare for the shooting down in the giant soundstages below. This had never been done before in the history of Hollywood, I believe.
It was up in those drab offices above the enormous stages, over the course of a weekend, that Greg, our keen director Ken Kwapis, and the other producers held the final auditions for the finalists. It was there that I would first work with Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski, and Steve Carell.
There were five or six people testing for each of the major roles. The producers mixed and matched all of us over the course of a weekend in scripted scenes as well as improvised ones.
There were some really interesting and talented actors, but the only scenes I really remember doing were with Jenna and John, who were absolutely adorable and hysterical in the roles. I remember thinking that they WERE Jim and Pam. They WERE the characters, effortless and charming as all get-out.
The other actresses were kind of nervous and flustered in the waiting room, but Jenna just sat there, reading Wired, a John Belushi biography. I remember asking her about the book and her offhandedly saying something about how it was a book Pam would probably be reading.
John was SUPER young back then (seventeen? twelve?) and had a fun, exuberant energy that was really positive and infectious. The funny thing was that the NBC New York casting agent told his manager that John was only right for the character of Dwight and insisted that he would only bring him in for that role. John rightfully refused to go in for Dwight and kept trying to get an audition for Jim. Eventually, of course, they relented and allowed John to try out for Jim Halpert, and the rest is history. We did some mix-and-match, scripted audition scenes, and then came the fun part: the improvisations.
I remember doing an improv with Jenna where Greg instructed me to let her know that if she was breaking up with Roy, I was available to date.
I was off to the races. I knelt in REALLY close to her (too close, creepy) and started telling her about my girlfriend, Regina, who was stationed in Kuwait City, and how much I missed her. I went on and on in a really hushed, conspiratorial way, and Jenna just sat there with an impossibly pained expression on her blank, lovely face. I let her know that I was a good sympathetic shoulder to lean on if she ever wanted to talk about her problems with Roy and with men in general, and that we should go out sometime and get a smoothie.
Here was the most brilliant thing about this improvisation: not my silly prattling on, but the fact that Jenna said almost nothing. Many actors when improvising believe that talking more is the key to being more interesting and/or funny. The very best improvisers have the ability to use silence and understand that less is more. Most actors in her situation would probably have started babbling and trying to get some jokes in. Not Jenna. She bravely just sat there looking disgusted, polite, sweet, and constipated all at the same time. I knew that she was going to be Pam.
For YEARS afterward the writers talked about giving Dwight a former girlfriend who had been stationed in Kuwait City and would come back to town and butt up against Angela. I begged them to cast Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica in the potential role. It never quite happened. But the card with the idea written on it, based off of the improvisation from my audition, hung on the wall in the writers' room for years and years.
During this endless and incredibly fun audition process, I got to do a number of improvs with John Krasinski. It was a blast and we had amazing combative chemistry right from the start. We did a scene where he had to ask me to mind his phone while he went to the bathroom (I refused, of course, infuriating him). And another where he generously gave me a glass of water (which I was terrified of and paranoid about to an impossible degree). Our characters butted heads in a visceral, exciting way from the very beginning of our coming together at that now-famous desk clump.
(To the very end there was no one I had better chemistry with than John. As different as we are as people, there was a strange, almost psychic rapport we had while acting. We would often know exactly what the other was going to do and say, and play off of it. I also really appreciated the working relationship in that we could direct each other without any ego. We would often give each other lines to try out and little comic bits to play. Some of Dwight's funniest moments came actually from the fantastic brain of John Krasinski.)
All I remember about working with Steve at the audition was an improvisation where he was taking me to task for borrowing his coffee cup and leaving it dirty on his desk. I denied it, of course, and that's when he told me with disgust and venom that he had found OVALTINE in the cup! I started laughing and I couldn't stop. They had to end the scene right then and there.
Later I found out that I was the only person the producers submitted to the network for approval for the role. Soon thereafter I was cast as Dwight and my life was transformed.
Here's some more because I'm sure that wasn't enough...
Our show got picked up for five additional episodes in the spring of 2004, but we didn't air until the spring of 2005. And then when we did, we tanked.
Everybody hated us. Our reviews were awful.* People either didn't understand the show or HATED the fact that we had done a pilot that was 90 percent similar to the lionized British Office. I know this because I sat in front of my computer for hours reading all the online comments with a sad, long, diarrhea face. (I now know better than to do this.) I was called "over-the-top," "annoying," and "pig-like" on countless online message boards. The show was reviled as an ugly-looking, unfunny train wreck by some, and a blatant, pathetic, unfunny rip-off of the classic BBC gem by others. "Unfunny" was the common ground that both camps could agree on, apparently.
The reason we did essentially the same script as the BBC Office was a very simple, practical one. When you do a pilot for a television studio and network, they are notorious for meddling with the material. They give notes on every aspect of the script and shoot. They want control of the casting. They want the set design to be brighter
* A note about reviews: Pretty much everything I have ever done, other than Juno, has gotten slammed in the reviews. I have been eviscerated by hundreds of film and TV critics for over a decade. l believe it is much easier to write a negative, snarky, contemptuous review than to write an evenhanded one. It also gets more reads. But the thing that gets me the most is comparisons. The Office was compared (unfavorably) to the British Office. The Rocker was compared (unfavorably) to School of Rock. Super was compared (unfavorably) to Kick-Ass. Backstrom was compared (unfavorably) to House MED.
See a pattern here? There are a limited number of stories on the planet. Shakespeare told most of them. And The Sopranos and The Simpsons the rest. The easiest, laziest thing for a reviewer to do is to compare something to another work that is a classic and has some similarities. It's a gross misuse of critical power and a disgusting waste of ink and time. Take the Rocker. There are similarities to the flawless classic School of Rock in that there is an older character who loves rock and roll and he's interacting about said music form with younger people. But that's where the comparison ends. One is a movie about an unemployed rocker who gets a job teaching at a prep school and charmingly and chaotically coaches his twelve-year-olds in a battle of the bands. The other film is about an old former metal drummer who accidentally becomes a YouTube sensation and goes out on the road with his eighteen-year-old nephew's band. Yes, there is an older rocker character and younger characters, but past that the comparison just doesn't hold water. And yet, every single review of The Rocker said it was trying to be School of Rock and wasn't as good.
As for Backstrom, is every single show that has an antisocial, destructive, and brilliant lead character going to be compared to House until the end of time? when does that stop? ls it not a viable setup for a television show? The differences between Backstrom and House FAR outweigh the few similarities. (Not to mention the fact that the entire conceit of Backstrom is based on a series of Swedish books.Do the reviewers believe that the crime novelist Leif G. W. Persson based his books on the American TV show House?)
Now, is an occasional comparison warranted in a review? Yes. Occasionally. But for the most part it's a lazy, easy, obvious way to review work. But let's face it, for the most part reviewers have never created or made anything. They righteously pass judgment from their laptops on other people's work and have simply never laid out their hearts and minds and souls to an audience attempting to entertain, uplift, and challenge. So suck it, critics.
Here's one last quote from the book that I thought was worth sharing. And it has one last footnote. And also explains the title.
It was through the creation of SoulPancake and Lide that so many of my personal passions have been pulled together: comedy and spirituality, entertainment and big ideas, the arts and service to humanity. I've been blessed with these two great outlets in my life. With SoulPancake I've been able to combine creativity, humor, and service in a tangible, impactful way, and with Lide, I've been able to use the arts to help heal, educate, and transform.
Actually, I should say, three great outlets. Because when I need to get a little crazy, just throw out all the rules, and vent the wild, untamed part of me, I break out my old bassoon. AND. I. ROCK. To quote Jim Morrison: "I am the Bassoon King! I can do ANYTHING!"*
* I may have gotten this quote wrong.
I only highlighted the stuff in the book that I found funny, or relate-able, or was Office-related (which doesn't exclude it from the previous two categories, but is still a category of its own). But that's only a small part of the book. There are a lot of funny and introspective glimpses of many other parts of Rainn's life that I enjoyed - but I can't mention everything. And then there were the odder, and sadder, parts of his life that are also well worth mentioning, but...you'll have to read the book to find out about those.
I had planned to mention yet another Disney trip, a couple of CDs, always more books, a signing with Raymond E Feist I attended, and several other mention-worthy things I've jotted down...but this is already unreadably long. So next time. Possibly soonish.
I'm really trying to make at least a modicum of effort to share my impressions for any book I've read now. Not that I think anyone else cares what I think - but I've found it useful for reference to see what a book was about or approximately when I read it. That said, here's a long overdue look at Down and Out in Purgatory.
Down and Out in Purgatory the Collected Stories of Tim Powers
I stumbled across a Tim Powers novella called Down and Out in Purgatory on Amazon a little over a year ago. It was a hardcover and I didn't notice the length of the book in the Amazon listing so I was surprised when the book arrived and it was a lot smaller than I expected (both the length and the physical dimensions of the book). As I recall, it didn't cost as much as a full-sized hardcover so that assuaged any disappointment or annoyance I may have felt.
This isn't a commentary on that little novella of a book.
But, before I continue, I did want to mention that Tim Powers signed both books with his own trademark upside-down title page personalization. So that's fun.
A year or so later, I became aware of another Down and Out in Purgatory (also a Tim Powers book) when I received an email about the Tim Powers signing for Down and Out in Purgatory at the Mysterious Galaxy book store. This version of the book is confusingly a collection of short stories with the same title as the earlier novella. The novella mentioned above is actually one of the many stories contained within the collection. After purchasing the book for the signing (and taking both versions of Down and Out in Purgatory to be signed), it took me a couple of months to get around to reading the collected version (I'd read the novella long before) because I had a bunch of less-imposing books on the reading shelf that had been there longer. Many are still there. And have new neighbors as I've been routinely adding new books to the shelf. But enough about my overloaded reading shelf and on to the stories of Down and Out in Purgatory...
The supernatural plays some part in just about every Tim Powers story I've ever read (sadly, the many Tim Powers books I've read are beginning to blend in my memory with the many non-Tim Powers stories I've read, so even though all of TP's stories probably do involve the supernatural, my defective brain can't commit to that statement). The short stories of Down and Out in Purgatory amp that up. A lot. Most of the stories involve ghosts in one way or another - the title story included. One of my favorite stories in the collection, The Way Down the Hill, is more of a non-traditional vampire story (not the neck-biting variety of cross-fearing night walker) set in some vague not-too-far-in-the-future time - judging by the robot in the story. The story reminded me of Highlander in a weird way. And also a little of the gods from Norse mythology.
All the stories in the collection are good, but my biggest problem with short stories is that they're over by the time I start to figure out who everyone in the story is and why I should care. So I'll never love a short story that doesn't include characters I'm already familiar with1 (one of the short stories, Nobody's Home, involves characters from The Anubis Gates, but I've either never read that book or I read it so long ago that I've forgotten the characters because they weren't very familiar to me). Making each short story even more interesting is a note from Tim Powers at the end of each story that details what inspired the story.
Here's a breakdown of the collection's stories (from Amazon - these are not my summaries and some are more accurate than others):
Salvage and Demolition: A book collector discovers a manuscript that results in a time traveling adventure to save the world.
The Bible Repairman: A psychic handyman, who is currently semi-retired and paid to eliminate troublesome passages of the Bible, is asked to return to the work he used to do and save the kidnapped ghost of another man's daughter.
Appointment of Sunset: A group of men try to change the past and save one man's life by making the ghosts of anyone who interacted with him, in any way, relive the events on his death day to change the present. But saving him is just a side-effect of what they're really planning...
The Better Boy (with James P. Blaylock): "A scaled-down horticultural version of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, with a tomato instead of a marlin."
PAT MOORE: A chain-mail letter promising good luck after you send it on to ten friends is more sinister than it seems.
THE WAY DOWN THE HILL: A we'd-all-be-better-off-dead story about a family of immortals who jump from one host to another.
ITINERARY: a time traveling ghost story.
A JOURNEY OF ONLY TWO PACES: A man settles an old friend's estate which requires a trip to a strange apartment building.
THE HOUR OF BABEL: A group of men need help time-traveling to June 21,1975, the night when "God vomited on Firehouse Pizza."
WHERE THEY ARE HID: Inspired by the Fritz Leiber novella, "You're All Alone." A chrono-jumper has undisclosed plans.
WE TRAVERSE AFAR with James P. Blaylock: A grieving man has an encounter during the Christmas season.
THROUGH AND THROUGH: A ghost comes to a confessional and wants absolution from the priest.
NIGHT MOVES: An imaginary playmate tracks down a boy, no matter where he moves.
DISPENSATION: two men encounter kittens and a ghost.
A SOUL IN A BOTTLE: A man meets a ghost - and falls in love with her.
PARALLEL LINES: The surviving elderly sister grieves the loss of her twin, who is trying to communicate with her.
FIFTY CENTS with James P. Blaylock: A man is searching used book stores for a particular book when he encounters some supernatural trouble.
NOBODY'S HOME: A prequel for the character of Jacky Snapp from the novel The Anubis Gates.
A TIME TO CAST AWAY STONES: A story about Edward Trelawny, a real historical figure; "a liar who eventually came to believe his own melodramatic fabulations."
DOWN AND OUT IN PURGATORY: A man vows to kill the man who murdered the woman he worshiped from afar.
SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY: A family's Thanksgiving feast takes a dark turn as the invited ghosts of relatives past accidentally draw soul-stealing demons into the family television set.
I'm not really drawn to horror. I've never read Dean Koontz and the only Stephen King novels I've read have been his non-horror efforts: The Stand, Cell, several of the Dark Tower books, and The Eyes of the Dragon. Even though Neil Gaiman's books are a little sinister and scary-ish, I wouldn't consider any of them "horror." And to be honest, despite the prevalence of the supernatural and ghosts, this is less of a collection of horror" stories than just a collection of really well-told stories. For me, it really comes down to an author's skill with stringing words together, fleshing out characters and story lines, and keeping me engaged. Tim Powers is definitely an adept story-teller who can engage the reader even if the content isn't exactly in their wheelhouse. That said, some of the short stories in the book were more enjoyable to me than others - The Way Down the Hill, Nobody's Home, and A Soul in a Bottle were my favorites.
Here's a brief excerpt from The Way Down the Hill that introduces you to some of the characters and the creepy world they live in.
I shrugged. "If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing thoroughly," I allowed.
Archie looked across the room and got to his feet. "Ah, I see Vogel is out of akvavit. Excuse me."
Most of us choose to die at about fifty, to ride the best years out of a body and then divorce ourselves from it by means of pills or a bullet or whatever strikes our fancy, so that our unencumbered soul can - though we rarely talk about it - dart through the void to the as yet unfirmly rooted soul of some unborn child, which we hungrily thrust out into the darkness, taking its embryonic body for ourselves. It sounds horrible baldly stated, and there's a mournful ballad called "The Legion of Lost Children," which none of us ever even hums, though we all know it, but it's hard to the point of impossibility to stare into the final, lightless abyss, and feel yourself falling, picking up speed...and not grab the nearest handhold.
Sam Hain, though, seemed to be an exception to this. He was born in mid-1796 and never died once after that, somehow maintaining his now one-hundred-and-eighty-five-year-old body on red wine, sashimi, tobacco and sheer will power. His physical age made him stand out among us even more than the obscurity of his origin did, and being patient, kindly and wise as well, he was elected Master at our 1861 meeting.
Up until then the Master post had meant little, and carried no duties except to provide a house and bountiful food and liquor for the five-yearly meetings. I was Master myself for several decades in the early part of the sixteenth century, and some of the clan never did find out -or even ask - who the host of the meetings was. Sam Hain, though, made changes: for one thing, he arbitrarily changed the date of the meetings from the thirty-first of October to November first; he began to cut back on the several vast, clan-owned corporations that provide us all with allowances; and he encouraged us to get more out of a body, to carry it, as he certainly had, into old age before unseating some unborn child and taking its fresh one. l believe it was Sam, in fact, who first referred to us all as "hermit crabs with the power of eviction."
I looked up from my drink and saw Marcus enter the bar and signal Archie. The alcohol had given me some detachment toward the whole business, and I admitted to myself that Marc had certainly drawn a good body this time-tall and slender, with cascades of lustrous coppery hair. I could no longer be attracted to it, but I could certainly see why I'd been so entranced at the street fair.
It ends confusingly if you haven't read the earlier events of the story, but if you really want to know more, you should just buy and/or read the book.
The author's note at the end of the story gives you a glimpse into the events around the time TP wrote the story, but not much insight into what inspired him.
This is my first published short story, and it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1982. I'd had three novels published previous to that, and I wasn't intending to write a short story, but George Scithers, editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine at the time, asked if I'd like to do one, so I did. Scithers was also editor of the fanzine Amra, and I'd sporadically had drawings and limericks published in it since I was seventeen.
As it happened, Scithers didn't like "The Way Down the Hill" - he said the world didn't need another we'd-all-be-better-off-dead story - but I thought, Oh, I bet there's room for one more, and I sold it instead to F&SE, and Scithers and I continued to have an amiable relationship.
For Sam Hain's house I was thinking of the Muckenthaler Mansion in Fullerton, California, though for the story I moved it to the Whittier Hills. I had been in an amateur production of Lysistrata at the Muckenthaler in I974 - I played a senator; a role that required me merely to stand in the background and nod or frown - and it struck me as an appropriate place for the old patriarch to live.
Here's another short excerpt, this one from the prequel to The Anubis Gate, called Nobody's Home. There's a brief ghosty-interaction in this excerpt, but it's more subtle than many in the book.
Another false trail.
Her cold hand went to her chest, and under the fabric of her shirt she felt the glass cylinder she wore on a ribbon around her neck. I won't give up, Colin, she thought - I promise.
The umbrella below her was still hopping back and forth on its eight-step course, and it occurred to her that the person holding it might be playing hopscotch, jumping through the pattern of squares in the children's game. Alone, at midnight, in the rain. Jacky had only arrived in the city a couple of weeks ago, but she was sure this must be uncommon.
She pushed her wide-brimmed hat more firmly down onto her cut-short hair and prodded the false moustache glued to her upper lip, then leaned out from the first-floor window ledge to grip the wet drain-pipe by which she had climbed up to this perch; it still felt solidly moored, so she swung out and slid down the cold metal till her boots stopped at a bracket. From here she could stretch a loose-trousered leg sideways onto the granite sill of a ground-floor window, and a moment later she had dropped lightly to the street.
The figure under the umbrella was a girl, facing away now, her wet skirt flapping around her ankles under the hem of a dark coat as she hopped forward on one foot.
Jacky had decided simply to steal away in the other direction, toward the dim silhouette of St. Paul's cathedral dome, when the umbrella abruptly began to glow; in the same moment it was tossed aside and Jacky saw that bright flames had sprung up on the girl's shoulders and in her hair.
Jacky leaped forward and drove her shoulder into the girl's back, and when the girl tumbled forward onto her hands and knees on the wet gravel, Jacky pushed her over sideways and leaned in over the burning coat and tried to roll the girl's head into a puddle. The heat on Jacky's face made her squint and hold her breath, and her hands and wrists were scorching, and the glass vial had fallen out of her shirt and was swinging in the flames.
And another person was crouched beside her, trying to push her hands back; Jacky swung a fist in the person's direction, but it connected with nothing but cold rainy air. Finally she was able to roll the girl over onto her back, extinguishing the coat, and with stinging hands splash water onto the girl's head.
The author's note at the end of the story shows just how little Tim Powers needs to inspire his very fertile imagination.
"He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day."
- Tennyson, In Memoriam
Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press asked me if there was any story left to be told in connection with the characters and events of my novelThe Anubis Gates - and it occurred to me that the character Jacky Snapp had not got all the attention she deserved, in that novel. So I wrote this personal prequel for her. And since it's a prequel, you don't need to know anything about the novel when you read it.
My wife and I saw the London Stone, on a visit to England, and it's such a disappointment these days that there's almost a kind of rewarding irony to it - it's now just a melon-sized hunk of rock in the window of a convenience store. And it's at ankle level, so to see it you have to crouch down on the sidewalk or go into the store and step behind the magazine rack, and crouch there. If we hadn't been looking for it, we'd no more have noticed it than do the hundreds of Londoners who must walk past this little piece of British history every day.
Almost all Tim Powers stories take place somewhere in California. Most of the seem to be set in the LA area, but at least one in this collection is in the Bay area. A Soul in a Bottle is set right in the heart of Hollywood, which I really enjoyed. If you've been to Hollywood in the past few years, you know just how much of Hollywood's glitter has been rubbed away by the passage of time (and the encroachment of the multitudinous tattoo, t-shirt, and souvenir shops). This story does a great job of combining the awfulness of current-Hollywood and the magic of Hollywood from its golden era.
THE FORECOURT of the Chinese Theater smelled of rain-wet stone and car exhaust, but a faint aroma like pears and cumin seemed to cling to his shirt-collar as he stepped around the clustered tourists, who all appeared to be blinking up at the copper towers above the forecourt wall or Smiling into cameras as they knelt to press their hands into the puddled handprints in the cement paving blocks.
George Sydney gripped his shopping bag under his arm and dug three pennies from his pants pocket.
For the third or fourth time this morning he found himself glancing sharply over his left shoulder, but again there was no one within yards of him. The morning sun was bright on the Roosevelt Hotel across the boulevard, and the clouds were breaking up in the blue sky.
He crouched beside Jean Harlow's square and carefully laid one penny in each of the three round indentations below her incised signature, then wiped his wet fingers on his jacket. The coins wouldn't stay there long, but Sydney always put three fresh ones down whenever he walked past this block of Hollywood Boulevard.
He straightened up and again caught a whiff of pears and cumin, and when he glanced over his left shoulder there was a girl standing right behind him.
At first glance he thought she was a teenager - she was a head shorter than him, and her tangled red hair framed a narrow, freckled face with squinting eyes and a wide, amused mouth.
"Three pennies?" she asked, and her voice was deeper than he would have expected.
The author's note provides a brief glimpse into the inspiration for the characters and events of the story.
This story originated in my frustration that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay died two years before I was born. The character Cheyenne Fleming ended up deviating widely from Millay - certainly poor Fleming's sonnet can't hold a candle (lit at both ends or not) to Millay's! But I think Millay was the best sonnetist since Shakespeare, so I guess Fleming shouldn't feel too bad.
My wife and I did encounter a balloon seller one day in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater, and he did snatch a cigarette out of my wife's mouth; the man was wearing a top hat, and she knocked it off. The used-book store, Book City, isn't there anymore, unfortunately. Not in the present, anyway - you can still find it in 2000, if you can get there.
It seems like a shame not to provide entertaining excerpts from more of the stories, but I don't know if anyone would be interested enough to keep going if I did.
I had really planed to talk about the Happiest Place on Earth, a couple of CDs I'd purchased recently, and a few other things, but this is already a way longer rant than anyone could possibly be bothered to read. Even me. So I'll share that stuff next time. Maybe.
1 One that comes to mind is The Monarch of the Glen, a short story in Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things collection - which tells of the further adventures of Shadow from American Gods. Fragile Things is another book I've mentioned a couple of times, but have never really talked about at any length.
I've finished a few more books since the last rant, and don't really have much to show for it here. I'm a little further along with my thoughts on Down and Out in Purgatory and haven't even thought about what to say about The Bassoon King, Dragon Teeth, or All You can Worry About is Tomorrow. But I also read an eBook in the middle of the aforementioned physical books. And because I was asked nicely to read it and offer an opinion, I'm going to put that up first. There are also a bunch of other things I'd planned to blather on about other than books, but I'm struggling to find the motivation to do it.
Operation Hail Storm
I've never really been all that drawn to military fiction. Admittedly, I did read the first chapter of a Tom Clancy book many years ago, but didn't really find it interesting enough to continue beyond the first chapter. And I've read a Brad Thor novel, The Athena Project I think, which wasn't horrible, but just wasn't really interesting enough to inspire me to seek out other Brad Thor novels. And I've read one Steve Berry novel, The Lincoln Myth which I enjoyed more for the historical aspects than the military (the main character is an ex-spook). Another of Steve Berry's novels, The Patriot Threat, is on my to-read shelf. He and Dan Brown (Origin is also on on my to-read shelf) are very skilled with the intertwining of history and fiction. They both have a strong American Treasure or Indiana Jones vibe (which is a good thing).
So when I was approached by yet another author, Brett Arquette, looking for feedback on his military-fiction novel, Operation Hail Storm (published in 2017), I wasn't sure how interested I'd be. But the little I read about it online gave it sort of an anti-Big Government slant, so I figured it couldn't be any worse than DW Ulsterman's Mac Walker ebooks (all of which I've read and enjoyed). So I decided to give it an honest try.
Operation Hail Storm starts slow. And is mired down in technical details about operating drones, the details of an imaginary clean nuclear power solution, and too many other topics that I didn't really want to know about indepth. Here's an early scene in which the protagonist's crew is spying on a North Korean target from afar with a fleet of drones.
Typically, Hail would ask for a weather briefing from Mercier, but Hail could tell from Styx's HD video feed that it was a beautiful morning in Kangdong. The sun was shining brightly, and in the background the trees and bushes showed little signs of wind. The sensitive microphone on Styx picked up birds chirping, dishes at Kim's table being set and somewhere in the distance a dog barking.
"Is everyone good to go?" Hail asked his crew.
"Yes, sir," was heard all around.
"OK," Hail said in an uplifting tone, "Here goes nothing."
"What's the status of B-52s?" he asked.
Knox flipped through a few screens, read some data and said, "The B-52s is ready to strike."
Hail nodded his head.
"Please open the hatch on Aerosmith," Hail ordered.
Knox pressed an icon labeled HATCH RELEASE and announced, "Hatch is open."
"OK. Launch the B-52s," Hail told him.
"Lifting off now," Knox reported.
From the top of the micro-drone called Aerosmith, a pico-drone code-named B-52s emerged.
The pico-hub was twelve millimeters long, or roughly half an inch. It was oblong in shape and seven millimeters wide. Two tiny rotors spun ferociously at its sides and made a sound like a bee. The craft even looked like a bee, hence its name B-52s. The tiny drone was light blue and off white. If it were viewed from the ground, the light blue would blend with the sky, and if it was viewed against the pool bricks, then the white would help to mask its appearance.
"Communications?" Hail asked.
Shana Tran checked the signals and responded, "We are five by five."
"Bring up the feed from B-52s on large screen number one," Hail instructed.
Renner touched a few icons on his monitor and a bouncy video appeared above them.
"Wow," Hail exclaimed. "Having a little trouble there, Alex?" Hail asked.
"Man, this bee drone is a bitch to fly. It's too small to hold any auto-correcting electronics, and even the slightest wind wants to blow it away."
"And--" Hail asked.
"And there is no problem flying this little thing," Knox told him. "It just takes a lot more flying skill than the other drones."
"Good man," Hail told him.
The crew watched the video as a clump of pine boughs drifted to the left of the screen and then disappeared from sight behind the drone.
"This is the hairy part," Knox told them. "If I just touch one of these itty-bitty rotors to a single pine needle, then this thing is toast."
Ahead were more bunches of pine needles. To the tiny drone, they were massive obstacles that had to be negotiated and avoided.
The video wasn't smooth or stable. The little drone seemed to jump and drift as Knox did his best to make his way out of the tree.
"Almost there," Knox announced as he jammed his feet deep into his foot pedals.
The overly-detailed technical explanations and excruciatingly-detailed inaction scenes definitely detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. As did much of the weird, formal dialogue between characters or dialogue that didn't seem to fit the characters. And there were no indentations or paragraphs in the eBook or spaces between paragraphs, so that made reading a little more effort than it had to be. But it wasn't all bad. I enjoyed much of the book.
Operation Hail Storm's primary characters are Marshall Hail & Kara Ramey. Both are pretty non-sympathetic in just about every way, but one - they both lost their families in a 9/11-like attack (that takes place well after 9/11) referred to as THE FIVE.
It got its name by reference. It got its name by every person who ever brought up the subject, starting with the words The Five. FIVE commercial jets were shot down in FIVE different countries, by FIVE surface-to-air shoulder-held rockets, by FIVE separate terrorist organizations, within FIVE minutes of one another. When newscasters talked about the incident, it always began with THE FIVE airpaces that were - etc. - etc. - etc -
Hail is a middle-aged, MIT genius who started out saving the world (and making a ton of money in the process), but took a turn and re-devoted his life to ending bad guys when he lost his family. Kara is a spook who had one motivation for becoming a spook - to find the dirtbags who were responsible for taking her parents' lives. She's much younger than Hail, and seems to be modeled on Marvel's Black Widow Marvel character (specifically the version played by Scarlett Johansson, but she just embodies the comic character so it's not really her specifically, I guess1).
She reminded him of a movie star he had seen in an old movie. Nicole Kidman popped into his mind, but this lady was like the porn star version of Nicole Kidman. She was tall with curves that went on for miles, and she moved like a panther. She was wearing some sort of full black body stocking outfit. Over the stocking, she wore a short straight black skirt that hugged her frame. Over the upper part of the stocking, she wore a tight black vest that did little to obscure her ample breasts. The body stocking must have been put on by unzipping it from the front and then stepping into it, because a good four inches of the zipper remained unzipped showing off the woman's cleavage. Her red hair and brilliant white skin looked amazing against all of the black. But Hail guessed she already knew that.
It's interesting that even though both characters are moving in the same direction, there's no end of conflict between them due to their much different methods for achieving the outcome.
She said, "I don't think you get it, Marshall. This means a lot to me. Believe it or not, I'm not colored red, white and blue. I do not work for the CIA because I love my country or I want to make a difference or any of that crap. I'm doing what I do in order to find out who killed my parents, and Kornev is the only link I have to that information. Do you understand?"
Hail spoke, "I understand, but do you realize how crazy that sounds?"
"Oh," Kara huffed, "and kazillionaire making it his life mission to exterminate everyone on the FBI's terrorist list isn't crazy?"
Hail considered her counter and said "Well, maybe you have a point."
"Marshall, let's face it. We're both screwed up individuals. I've got a demented program in my brain that just keeps running and so do you. There are plenty of other assholes in the world you can kill, so all I'm asking is that you refrain from killing my special asshole, and I promise I will help you kill more of yours."
Ironically, the story isn't really anti-Big Government - it's more pro-killing-bad-guys-without-oversight. Which is another problem altogether. And one that an overly-bureaucratic government is sure to have. If you enjoy books where bad guys die and good guys win, you're likely to enjoy Operation Hail Storm. It's not a terrible read, but it's not really a series I'm likely to continue.
1 Speaking of Black Widow and the comic-version of the character, nobody does it better than Joe Chiodo. I have the Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir graphic novel out amongst the thousands of other comic books I pay no attention to. I even talked about this book many moons ago.