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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Back to BloodMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

Call it the hillbilly southern cousin to Bonfire of the Vanities, yet another treatise (monograph?) on status and sex, Wolfe's fourth now in the series and each one with fewer insights and with less to say. So the champion of WASP America is back with long passages of description in which he often commits the mortal sin of being boring, of dragging on a not-shit incident well past what is necessary in fiction...and this is just in the prologue.

I've hated Wolfe's politics ever since his idiotic Harper's article in which he basically said that America must unapologetically rule the world (an essay George W. Bush and company seemed to use as a playbook) yet he still amazes me with his limited world view. He has what-the-fuck passages like this:

Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is an artifact, like a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to… well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down—including people… including the boys who came out on the strong side of that sheerly dividing line. Hey, that’s what liberals are! Ideology? Economics? Social justice? Those are nothing but their prom outfits. Their politics were set for life in the schoolyard at age six. They were the weak, and forever after they resented the strong. That’s why so many journalists are liberals! The very same schoolyard events that pushed them toward the written word… pushed them toward “liberalism.” It’s as simple as that! And talk about irony!

It’s like Wolfe is apologizing for once being a pussy journalist. He seems so impressed with anyone not scared shitless of their own shadow that you feel sorry for the bullied author.

He has a few moments and if this work were by any writer other than Wolfe I would rate it higher but from the author of Bonfire of the Vanities I expect quite a bit more. The bad parts are often punctuated by a bit of clarity like this in which he describes two teenage boys:

What a mess the two of them were!… jeans pulled down so low on their hips you couldn’t help but see their loud boxer shorts… obviously the lower and louder, the better. The pants of both boys ended in puddles of denim on the floor, all but obscuring their sneakers, which had Day-Glo strips going this way and that… both in too-big, too-loose T-shirts whose sleeves hung down over their elbows and whose tails hung outside the jeans, but not far enough to obscure the hideous boxer shorts… both with bandannas around their foreheads bearing “the colors” of whatever fraternal organization they thought they belonged to.

All I can say is that Wolfe is a lot more impressed by muscles, and slutty chicks, and wealth, and status, and rich assholes than I ever have been. Instead of being obsessed with the muscles on other guys I suggest he start doing pull-ups and get a few of his own.

He describes one scene at some completely vulgar boating regatta in Miami that is right out of Girls Gone Wild, a video series I’m sure Wolfe admires infinitely. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone with an IQ over 80 would be impressed by a bunch of assholes with speedboats and sluts in thongs. Am I really supposed to be impressed by a fucking speed boat? Not even when I was 15. He goes on to describe an erect penis like he's never seen one before. And who knows? Maybe he hasn’t. Instead of a book award someone give him a bottle of Cialis.

Sorry Mr. Wolfe, but you'll excuse me if I’m not impressed by this idiotic frat bash. I spent a good chunk of my youth traveling among the Greek islands. If we had heard some moron yelping a "WooHoo" at exposed female breasts we would have told him to shut the fuck up and grow the fuck up.

You have to wonder of Wolfe ever got laid in his youth, especially after you read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Perhaps his status of virgin passed from his numb-nut preppy youth on into his middle age in which he began to wear white suits, all but insuring that he would never get any action.

And why, why, why does Wolfe think it so clever, clever, clever to repeat, repeat, repeat shit? Stop, fucking stop, for the love of Christ stop, stop or I'll shoot!

 And someone besides Wolfe please explain to me how modern representational art has any meaning in our society except among a very select, very few oligarchs who use paintings as the hyper-rich equivalent of baseball trading cards. Are modern artists motivated by the desire to have their work displayed in the homes of Russian mafia lords and quasi-literate Wall Street marauders? Is there anything you could call a public for modern painting? 

A cop who has never been to Starbucks or who would be shocked by a coffee that costs $1.90? It makes you wonder what planet Wolfe is from. People in Spain are sometimes shocked at Starbucks’ prices but I never knew a place in Miami where you could get a cortado for 75 cents, and that was many years ago.

And what could be more boring than a written account of what goes on in a strip club?

And for fuck’s sake please stop saying “Dios mío” you affected, white bread, douche bag.

The nurse in the story must have had the lowest SAT verbal of anyone ever admitted to nursing school. Seriously, what adult doesn’t know what “unceremoniously” means? If I heard the word in Russian I could at least figure it out by the context.

Friday, March 29, 2013

El Garrofón (γίγαντες, the butter bean)

Phaseolus lunatus is a legume. It is grown for its seed, which is eaten as a vegetable. It is commonly known in English as the lima bean or butter bean.  In Spanish it's called garrofón.  This humble bean is a crucial ingredient in any paella valenciana. One of my favorite dishes when I lived in Greece many years ago was γίγαντες πλακί which is butter beans baked with a tomato sauce.  This simple meal could be found in every ταβέρνα in the country. There are two varieties that I know of for butter beans, those that grow climbing on poles or a free-standing bushy variety. I need to start gardening.

Just hearing her wonderful Greek in this video brought back a flood of memories and a desire to make this dish again.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Learning the Lingo

Any first year student of a Romance language, without looking it up in a dictionary of etymology knows that the word “lingo” that I used in the chapter title comes from the Latin meaning “tongue” from which we get the English word “language” (lengua in Spanish means “tongue” or “language”). One by-product of learning Spanish is that my English vocabulary has received a very healthy shot in the arm. My French has also improved almost miraculously considering how little I do to improve it on my own. Something like 32% of English comes from French and thus Latin. The French words we adopted either replaced words from the earlier version of English, or they were introduced as new words which didn’t exist, or they were synonyms of words already in use. These synonyms derived from French are usually just fancy substitutes for the older English words. The meaning of most of those impossible words you find on the verbal section of multiple choice exams I can now deduce because I know their meaning in either Spanish or French or both.
From the day I arrived in Spain I have worked diligently to learn Spanish. I thought that I would speak it perfectly after a couple of years. Almost with a sense of haunting dismay I have come to realize that I will always be studying Spanish like a university student before a big exam. There isn’t going to be a finish line. There will be no “Mission Accomplished” banner marking a job well done. This is just one of the cruel realities of learning a foreign language, especially as an adult. It’s something I still have trouble accepting.
I had studied Spanish and French grammar in school and I didn’t think too highly of this strategy so when I landed in Spain I decided to start running. Instead of pouring over grammar books I began reading as much as I possibly could. I began with the local newspapers which litter the tops of bars in Spain. People go to bars for their morning coffee so every bar has a few newspapers lying around. I thought that if a word was in the headline of a story it must be important. I would write down all of these headline words that were unfamiliar and look them up in the fat little student Spanish/English dictionary I carried around everywhere.  I filled at least a half a dozen notebooks with definitions. Whether or not this is an effective technique is something that I cannot attest to but it was mine.
From newspapers I began reading books in my new language.  I wouldn’t bother to look up words if I could follow the meaning of the story without doing so. I would understand maybe sixty percent of something I read but I was absorbing a lot of words simply because I understood them inside the context of the story. The same was true of grammar patterns. As my Spanish improved I began to underline new words with a red pen. At the end of the day I would look the words up in the dictionary and write the English definition in the margin. I still wasn’t looking up every new word but only those I felt were necessary to understand the story.
I was also trying to speak as much as I possibly could but this wasn’t as easy as it sounds because when I arrive I had no friends and knew no one. I’d go to a bar in my neighborhood and bug the owner with my bad Spanish. My first friends at the bar were other immigrants with similar problems in Spanish. I suppose that almost everywhere people tend to rate outsiders on how well they speak the native language. When I arrived I probably didn’t rate very high at all. I had a decent grasp of Spanish but anything other than basic communication was out of my league. Even someone with the patience of the pyramids will find it burdensome at times to carry on a conversation with someone with a limited knowledge of the language.
Just after I arrived in Spain I remember watching the movie Y Tu Mamá También in which two young boys make a road trip across their home country of Mexico.  They stop for the night in some small village and head straight to the bar.  I remember feeling incredibly jealous of them because they were so comfortable in this situation, something I took for granted in my own country. I’ll never have native fluency but I desperately wanted to have a fraction of the ease the boys had in Spanish.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bucket List Bound?

This may be hard to believe and I’m sure that it makes me some sort of wuss but I’ve never peeled out in a car.  Am I missing anything?

Anger Mismanagement

Maybe I don’t have anger issues; 
maybe I have “people are fucking idiots” issues?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Facebook: Where Shitty Greeting Cards Go to Die

Insert completely stupid inspirational message here.

On sale now and just in time for Valentine's Day or whatever made-up shopping holiday is nearest. Perhaps a completely inappropriate slogan like the NRA's famous, "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands" would work here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Manual Labor is Way Overrated

A question for anyone who stays up all night watching infomercials: Is there some sort of Ronco® gadget for cleaning artichokes? Because if there is such a thing as an artichoke cleaning gadget and I just wasted 30 minutes in the kitchen cleaning freaking artichokes then I think I’ll throw myself under one of the parades here in Valencia—suicide by marching band.

OK, Ronco® doesn’t make this gadget because I just looked on their website, no kidding. That’s how much cleaning artichokes sucks. And I know what you’re thinking, “Maybe you’re doing it wrong?” which is a pretty safe assumption seeing how you could ask the same thing about everything I do.

On my deathbed* I’m sure that I’ll regret cleaning all those artichokes over the years when I should have gone out and made something of my life besides arroz con costillas y alcachofas. Enough artichokes to make a medium paella leaves you with enough waste to fill a body bag meant for Pau Gasol.

*A bed isn’t my first choice of places where I’d like to die because it implies illness. I’d rather be eaten by a shark than be sick for more than a couple days. Sharks gotta eat too.

Monday, March 11, 2013


I am taking a break from  blogging as I wrap up a bigger writing project I have been collaborating on for the past six weeks. It will be HUGE and I will say more about it in a month or so when it takes more shape. Right now things are going extremely well and I have very high hopes for the project.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Ham Good!

Why live in Spain if you don’t buy a ham once in a while? Even this inexpensive paleta (front leg) is delicious. Fallas will soon be here with brandy, cigars, bullfights, buñuelos y churros, staying out obscenely late, and lots of other bad behavior so it’s not like a bit more jamón is going to kill me.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Simpsons: 24 Seasons and Still Funny

Not to spoil it for anyone but in this episode Grandpa recreates his youth as the bad guy in professional wrestling. "A thrilling night of senior-on-senior action." The crowd hates him and shows it by throwing objects into the ring. Almost everyone in attendance is ancient and is reflected in what they throw at old Abe.