Posts Tagged ‘c moore’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

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I have never been very good at capitalism. Sometimes I feel kind of bad about that – in high school, I was voted most likely to succeed, and when I think about the values of the people who voted for me I feel like I’ve let them down. Or would, if they knew anything about my life. Other times I feel kind of proud, in a hipster-ish way, for not bowing down to mainstream American values and goals. Most of the time, though, I just wish I had enough money to pay all of my bills while only working one job. I haven’t found anyone to sublet my Illinois apartment, so I’m paying rent on two places and child support for three children. That leaves me paying my utilities on credit, and trying to get food with my pretty face, unless I can secure a second job, again. This morning I reapplied to the retail outlet I worked for in Illinois.

Barry’s novel is a story about a future dominated by capitalism. It’s the type of world our American conservatives claim to desire: the free market runs wild with no government oversight, and every public service is privatized. It’s kind of a bitch when you call 911 and have to give your credit card number before they’ll send an ambulance. The government itself now only interferes in cases of theft or murder, so they’re reduced to a light police force, which has to compete with the privatized Police company. The opening chapter shows how extreme things have gotten: a marketing vice president for Nike decides that it’s good advertising to have people die for their shoes, so he hires a nobody down the food chain to kill people at the release of the new Nike Mercury. The nobody, Hack Nike (did I mention that surnames have been replaced by corporate affiliation?), wanders into the Police station in a panic, and the Police offer to subcontract the killings. The attacks are obviously carried out, however, by the NRA. Here’s a sort of a long bit where the VP and the nobody are leaving the station after discussing the situation with the Police.

John was upbeat on the walk home from the Police. “They’re a very focused organization, all right. John was one hundred percent right about that.”

“Uh-huh,” Hack said. He was thinking about Violet again.

John peered at the brochure. “Each case has a single contact. Everything’s encrypted, so employees can’t tell what their colleagues are working on. Even management can only access job numbers, not names. And it’s the largest Australian-based company in the world! Did you know that?”

“No.”

“You want to know why Americans took over the world, Hack? Because they respect achievement. Before this was a USA country, our ideal was the working-class battler, for Christ’s sake. If Australians ruled the world, everyone would work one day a week and bitch about the pay.” He shook his head. “Then there’s the British, who thought there was something wrong with making money. No surprise they ended up kissing the colony’s ass. The Japanese, they think the pinnacle of achievement is a Government job. The Chinese are Communist, the Germans are Socialists, the Russians are broke . . . who does that leave?”

“Canada?”

“America,” John said. “The United fucking States of America, the country founded on free-market capitalizm. I tell you, those Founding Fathers knew their shit.”

Hack was silent.

“So here’s this Australian company,” John said, waving the brochure, “doing the only thing Australians still have a competitive advantage in: keeping their traps shut. Still, it makes our job easier.”

“Does it?”

“Sure. It means we only have to kill Pearson.”

“Oh.”

“Although, when I say ‘we’ . . .”

Hack dropped his head.

“It’s in your contract,” John said. “Page eight. A clause called ‘logical extensions.’”

Hack shook his head wildly. “No, I can’t do this again. Please. I can’t.”

John sighed. “Jesus, Hack, you are the worst goddamn assassin I ever heard of. We wanted a nice little rampage, something we could write off as an employee gone postal if the Government caught up with us. Neat and tidy. But no, you had to go and outsource.”

Barry writes funny novels, but without obvious jokes or bantering. They’re not like Christopher Moore books, where you can tell from the beginning that you’re going to laugh most of your way through the book. They’re more like a Coen Brothers film, cynical and ironic, but when you start to think about the fact that this could happen, the United States could take over half the world and then plunge that world into a civil war based on corporate alliances, it’s more chilling than amusing.

Companies claimed to be highly responsive, Jennifer thought, but you only had to chase a screaming man through their offices to realize it wasn’t true.

But when you strip away the setting, this is a police adventure story. You know who the bad guy is, and you spend the novel watching the good cop (Jennifer Government) track him down and eventually get him, and while he rises to the pinnacle of society, he then falls to the bottom, hard and fast. Like other single mom detectives, Jennifer has to face romantic and parenting struggles which culminate in her new beau rescuing her daughter from a kidnapper. Then, there’s also Billy NRA, the sniper who just wants to go skiing; Violet ExxonMobil, who creates a deadly virus that no one will pay her for; her sister Claire Sears, who hosts a protest group in her home; and Hayley MacDonald’s, a teenager who wants to stay ahead of the trends and doesn’t understand her English teacher’s concern for the poor. The book is titled for one character, but it’s a solid ensemble cast.

Max Barry has written a solid Marxist anti-capitalist protest novel, but without making it so graphic, so depressing, or so artistic that no one would want to read it. It’s an entertaining quick read, but with some serious thought behind it. Conservatives who have carefully considered their position will probably want to avoid it, but everyone else, as in anyone who would be reading my blog, pick it up if you find it.

It’s hard to know what to say about You Suck that I didn’t already say about Bloodsucking Fiends. A lot of it is very similar, just as a sequel should be. One of the most important differences is the difference between 1995 and 2007. When BF was written, HIV was a huge cultural issue, particularly in San Francisco, but by the time of YS we had collectively calmed down about it. The people who got HIV in the 1980s had either died of AIDS or figured out how to manage the condition, so even though YS begins at the exact second that BF ends, it’s a different world. No one’s talking about AIDS, everyone has cell phones (this happened somewhat miraculously while I was gone to Brazil, 1999-2001 ish), and Tommy’s grunge look (T-shirt and flannel) can no longer pass without remark. This means that there’s less drama and even more comedy.

All of the characters who didn’t die in BF are back, which is almost all of them, actually. The Animals are a little more clearly defined, Steve has a slightly larger part, and Tommy’s a vampire in this one. The real news is the new characters: Blue, Jared, and Abby. The Animals went to Las Vegas and blew all their money hiring a blue prostitute. They drive her back to San Francisco in a rented limo and try to talk Tommy into “boning a Smurf.” She’s more than they bargained for – finally someone has the predatory instincts that the old vampire has been searching for, only she doesn’t have the training or good sense that he does. Jared is a gay Goth teenager who doesn’t fit with his weirdly suburban family, and Abby is his best friend. We met her briefly in A Dirty Job, written between BF and YS but covering a wider time frame and including the detectives and The Emperor. Abby becomes Jody and Tommy’s minion and a part-time first-person narrator, where she absolutely shines.

So I got Chet out of the stairway of the old loft and was carrying him kid-style when I saw the two cops from before – the ones the Countess said helped blow up Elijah – so I went up to the Hispano-cop and I was all, “So, what’s up, cop?”

And he was all, “You need to get home, and you have no business out at this hour, and we should take you to the station and call your parents and blah, blah, blah, threat, threat, disapproval, and fascist dogma all up in your darkly delicious grille.” (I’m paraphrasing. Although I do have a delicious grille as I had to wear braces for three years when I was a kid, and now my teeth are like my most acceptable feature. I hope my fangs come in straight.)

And the big gay cop was all, “What are you doing here?”

And I was all, “I live here, bone-smoker, what are you doing here? Aren’t you guys homicide cops?”

And he was all, “Let’s see some ID blah, blah, bluster, bluster, Oh My God I am so full of shit.”

And I was like, “I guess you wouldn’t have to deal with this shit if you had properly blowed up that old vampyre when you stole his art collection.”

So all of a sudden the Hispano-cop and his big gay partner were all, “Whaaa – ?”

And I’m like, “Just so we know where we stand. How long you bitches going to be here?”

And they were like, “Just a half hour or so longer, miss. We need to interview some witnesses and go clean out our boxers where we have just completely shit ourselves. Do you need a ride somewhere?” (Again paraphrasing.)

Yeah, she’s a perky teenaged Goth, so she’s into Hello Kitty and Anne Rice. She tries to crush her perkiness to fit the Goth stereotypes better, but you can’t keep a good optimist down, and it is the internal conflict between the Gothiness and the perkiness that makes her so very delightful.

Here’s one of my favorite funny bits:

“Hi,” Jared’s father said.

Tommy had expected a bit of a monster based on Jared’s description of his father. Instead what he saw was a bit of an accountant. He was about forty-five, in pretty good shape, holding a little girl on his lap who was coloring a picture of a pony. Another little girl, who looked about the same age, was coloring on the floor at his feet.

“Hi,” Tommy said.

“You must be the vampire Flood,” Jared’s dad said, with a bit of a knowing smile.

“Uh. Well. Kinda.” It showed. He could no longer hide among the humans. It must be because it had been so long since he had fed.

“Sort of a weak ensemble, don’t you think?” Jared’s dad said.

“Weak,” repeated the little girl without looking up from her pony.

“Huh?” Tommy inquired.

“For a vampire. Jeans, sneakers, and flannel?”

Tommy looked at his clothes. “Black jeans,” he pointed out. Shouldn’t this guy be cowering in fear, maybe begging Tommy not to put his little daughter in a sack for his vampire brides?

“Okay, I suppose times change. You know that Jared and his girlfriend went up to Tulley’s on Market to meet Abby, right?”

“His girlfriend, Jody?”

“Right,” said Dad. “Cute girl. Not as many piercings as I expected, but we’re just happy she’s a girl.”

An attractive blond woman in her late twenties came into the room carrying a tray with carrot and celery sticks on it. “Oh hi,” she said, dazzling a smile at Tommy. “You must be the vampire Flood. Hi, I’m Emily. Would you like some crudités? You’re welcome to stay for dinner. We’re having mac and cheese, it was the girls’ night to pick.”

I should drink her blood and put her kids in a sack, Tommy thought. But his vicious predator nature was overcome by his Midwestern upbringing, so instead he said, “Thank you very much, Emily, but I really should be going if I’m going to catch up to Jared and Jody.”

“Well, okay then,” said the woman. “Girls, say good-bye to the vampire Flood.”

“Good-bye, the vampire Flood,” the girls sang in chorus.

“Uh, bye.” Tommy bolted out of the room, then back in again. “Where’s the door?”

Everyone pointed through the kitchen, whence Jared’s stepmonster had just come.

He ran through the kitchen and out the door, then stood with his back against the minivan in the drive, trying to catch his breath. “That was fucked up,” he gasped, then realized that he wasn’t out of breath from exertion at all. He was having an anxiety attack. “That was really, really fucked up.”

The love story in this installment is less rom-com than it was in BF. It’s more like Act II of The Fantasticks, when things that were magical are revealed to be cheap tricks and the childlike lovers have to face real life. It may seem logical that to assume that after Jody turns Tommy into a vampire, their relationship struggles are a lot simpler. After all, that was the problem, that Tommy couldn’t understand or even relate to what she was going through. But Tommy’s experience as a vampire is as different from Jody’s as were their experiences of being human. As a petite redhead in a big city, Jody felt like she was always in danger. Considering the statistics for rape and domestic violence, she probably was. As a vampire, she feels powerful and unafraid for the first time. For her, vampirism is about new senses, new abilities, and new strength. Becoming a vampire gives her the freedom to be herself for the first time. Tommy’s a teenaged writer from the Midwest; he sees the world as a safe place where people will take care of him. It makes him a little naïve and gullible, but he has never experienced the type of fear that has defined Jody’s existence. When he becomes a vampire, he doesn’t see himself as stronger; he sees himself as weaker. His hunger has become the most important aspect of his personality. He doesn’t read novels or write stories any more. Jody lost her internal obstacles, but Tommy loses his internal supports. Even though they care deeply about each other, they want different things from life and from their relationship. There’s a breakup looming in their future.

I’ve run into something sort of similar here in my real life. I moved to a new town two months ago, and I met someone. We’ve gone out a few times, but things are cooling off. Physically, we work together very well, but emotionally, we’re never going to be in love with each other. He needs someone who can keep up the other end of the conversation better than I can; I need someone who finds my silence restful, and can share in it. He needs someone who will join him in the closet when out in public; I need never to be in the closet again. I can respect his decision intellectually, but pragmatically, I’m going to forget. When I want to kiss a guy, I don’t stop to check whether anyone is looking or not; I just do it. I need someone who is out all the time, not just to himself and a select few friends.

Speaking of the select few friends, there’s a small circle of gay men here who seem to have pretty fucked-up relationships. They’re hung up on guys who aren’t hung up on them, and when I explain the details to myself it seems like high school drama and not a group of grown men ranging in age from early 30s to mid 50s. There’s a refusal to face reality that can be hard for me to comprehend. To elucidate: There are a couple of guys in the last few months that I have had feelings for, but I know that they only want to be friends. We’re not going to live happily ever after, ever. So I accept their friendship, that being what they have to offer, and I don’t try to force them to feel what I do. If I do sleep with one of them, I’m not going to interpret that action as proof that my seeds of love are beginning to bear fruit; I’m going to think that we’re both lonely people who need to be physically touched and can tolerate each other’s company for an evening. And as I change my thinking about them, my feelings will eventually change to fit, I hope. For one of them, they already are. But I know that not every feeling is worth pursuing, and that it is sometimes kinder to conceal romantic feelings for someone who can’t return them. I believe that one day I will find a romantic relationship with someone who loves me intensely and whom I love in return; I’ll get what experience I can until that happens, but I’m not going to put a lot of emotional work into someone who will not return the investment. That’s just preparing myself for a big disappointment.

Jody and Tommy know that this relationship is not going to work out. At least, she does, and maybe she’s convinced him. But the key to novel-writing is successfully delaying what the reader knows is going to happen, and Abby is so determined to keep them together that they don’t manage to break up by the end of this book. It’s okay; there’s a third.

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.

It always irritates me when I read reviews online for new products. How can you tell how durable something is if you’ve only had it for a week? [I also don’t like it when people review books they haven’t read. “I can’t wait to read this book! I love everything Jasper Fforde writes, so this will be amazing!” and amazon has five stars for it. As if professional fiction writers never have off days.] So, I’ve owned my Kobo Mini for over a year, and I finally feel somewhat qualified to write a review.

I really like it. I wanted an e-reader that wouldn’t strain my eyes; I’ve read a few books on Kindle for PC and Project Gutenberg, and they make my face hurt. So, all the colored readers were out because they use the same LCD screen as my computer. I also wanted something that is as close to reading a book as possible, so I skipped any of those that light up or have any other extras. The Kobo Mini is not the only one to use e-ink and not have any frills, but my local shop was having a sale, so of course I got it. Forty bucks? Awesome.

Here’s how it works. There’s the reader itself, which is small enough to fit in a standard men’s dress shirt pocket. If I’m wearing a shirt without pockets, it also fits in the back pocket of my jeans. When I bought it, I plugged it into my computer and downloaded the accompanying software, so when I plug it in to charge, I can use my computer to manage the books on the device. I can also read books on the computer with this program, but as I mentioned, I’m not into that. I can go to the Kobo site, or my local bookseller’s, and buy whatever books I like, and then upload them to the device. I can also buy books on the reader directly, so long as I have a wifi connection. Every time I buy a book, the local shop gets a cut, so no matter where I am in the world, I can support the local economy of the place I love.

The Kobo people send me emails every few days, letting me know about upcoming sales, offering me coupons, and recommending books to me based on my shopping patterns. Sometimes their recommendations make sense, sometimes not. They keep trying to sell me magazines. I don’t read magazines. The sales items seem to mirror those of physical bookstores, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Stores have sales because they need to move a specific product; online, I don’t see the same need. Does it matter to Kobo which books I buy, so long as I’m spending money with them? It’s not like they have three thousand copies of the latest Grisham staring at them from the display shelf. I’m pretty sure that when I buy an e-book, they just copy the file to my device, so they only have one copy of each book sitting on a hard drive somewhere. Nevertheless, they have sales on former bestsellers that aren’t selling well any more, and other novels that aren’t quite as popular as they’d like to be. When I get a coupon, it can only be used on a specific list of books, which means that even when they send me the “You haven’t bought anything in a couple of months, so take 30% off your next order” coupon, I can only use it on books that I don’t really want anyway. Also, when a coupon says “unlimited,” this only means that you can buy as many books off the approved list as you want, not that you can use it on any book you like. Some sales are only available in certain countries. I’ve kept my credit card billing address in the United States, so I can buy books that aren’t typically available in this happy-to-censor country, but sometimes I can’t access the sales because Big Brother not only watches, but blocks. [That billing address trick also works for amazon.com, which also has region-specific items.]

The reading experience is mostly good. I tap the screen on the right side and it flips forward, I tap it on the left and it flips back. In the middle takes me to the menu. If an insect lands on your screen, it can turn the pages whether you’re ready for them to or not. I once had a fly flip me back five pages very quickly. I tend to hold the device in my left hand so I can turn pages with the fingers that curl around on the right side. I guess I’m too lazy to read a book with two hands if I can do it with one. However, if you always hold the book in the same position and always tap in exactly the same spot, after a year and a half that spot will lose its sensitivity, just like the mouse touchpad on a laptop, so it’s a good idea to tap in different places on the right side of the screen. When I read a book, I seldom begin at the beginning and read straight through. I often flip around, like when Anton Mallick told me about one of the tragic events of his life, I had been reading several months of his life and I wanted to check how close the event was to the beginning of his journal, so I went to the Table of Contents in the menu screen, and jumped straight back to the first page. To get back to the page I was reading was a little more cumbersome. I went to the appropriate chapter, but some books are only split into two or three really long chapters instead of following the author’s divisions, so there’s a slider at the bottom that allows you to move to specific pages. If there are over seven hundred screens in a chapter, and you have fat fingers, it can be hard to locate the exact page you want. This became a big issue when I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, because only about 40% of the book is regular text and the rest is notes and references. He didn’t footnote the notes so as not to clutter the text – in some e-books (Foucault’s Care of the Self) you can touch a footnote number and the note will appear in a pop-up. With Solomon’s book, I found the notes after I had read the text, but if I had had the physical book I would have read it flipping back and forth the whole time, and enjoyed it more. But most of what I read is fiction without footnotes, so it’s not a common problem for me.

Because I’m using a black-and-white reader, the pictures are not always what I’d like. Again, not a common problem, but the art is an important part of reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu, and I also have the digital gallery of Fuseli paintings (only three bucks, and it updates continuously). The good news for pictures is that you can zoom in pretty far without getting a pixellated mass of weird – the image files are more detailed than you might think at a first glance. If I read the magazines the Kobo people keep trying to convince me to subscribe to, this would be a bigger deal.

I find that my reading habits on the Kobo are drastically different than my reading habits in the real world. I’m not a member of any libraries at the moment (you have to renew your card from time to time, and you have to live in the place to check books out of a public library), so I usually read books that I buy. I go to used classics mostly – I got a couple of degrees in literature because I like the old stuff – but occasionally I’ll look at a more recent writer, if I have an emotional response to the book. I really love that moment of discovery, when I pick a book from the shelf and read the back, and an energy communicates itself from my hand to my heart, and I know that this book is mine. I miss that when I shop online; there’s no serendipity in it. However, reading on the Kobo, my reading tends to fall into three categories:

Books that are too big. With physical books, it’s a bit of a production, when you get in line at the grocery store, to pull out your one-volume edition of The Complete Novels of Thomas Hardy. With the e-reader, it’s a cinch. Enormous anthologies like this are supercheap, and would be far too cumbersome in the real world. Besides, there’s something very satisfying about the word Complete. The only drawback is that, when dealing with a book this big, the electronic table of contents becomes increasingly unreliable as you progress. It really is better to begin at the beginning and read straight through.

Books that I don’t want on my shelf in the living room. When I get lonely, erotic stories can be comforting. I don’t mean the specific lack-of-romantic-partner lonely, but any sort of lonely. I know that they’re all fantasies, seldom realistic, but it does tell me that there are people out there who want what I want, even if they’re as clueless as I am about how to get it. The less realistic the situation, the more like me I feel the author is. The e-reader has really contributed to this type of reading for me, because I don’t want guests in my home staring at them. I’m not ashamed of my attraction to other men or my interest in this kind of book, but I get a little shy about the details. However, the stories are sometimes as poorly edited as the ones you see online, and nothing kills an English teacher’s erection like bad spelling and grammar in a published text. One book I had to erase because the author had no idea that discreet and discrete have different meanings.

Books that have been written less than forty years ago. One of the reasons I seldom read what people are writing now is that I don’t take the time to sift through what’s good and what’s bad. The Kobo doesn’t do this for me, but by sticking contemporary stuff in my face all the time, they wear down my defenses. They are a bookseller, after all, which means they rely on people buying books frequently, and the best way to accomplish that is to foster a taste in new books. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but there have been some really fine books that I would not have attempted otherwise, like Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy (Nicolás Casariego), When God was a Rabbit (Sarah Winman), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak), and Lexicon (Max Barry).

I had an experience this week that really solidified the bond between me and my Kobo. After more than a year of smooth operation, it crashed. The entire screen was completely nonresponsive, and the power switch also failed to yield results. I tried plugging it into my computer, to see if the attempt at communication would jog it into proper function, but no such luck. It doesn’t take power to maintain an image on the screen, so I knew that leaving it on until it ran out of battery would be useless, so I did some surgery. I popped the back off – the grey backing snaps off if you run a fingernail around the edge, and there are six tiny screws underneath, of the size that you only see on computer equipment or eyeglasses. There’s a reset button too, and I tried pushing that with no result. So I pulled out the screws and looked at the motherboard. I saw the memory card, the same kind of micro SD that I use in my phone. I pulled it out and put it back in, but with no effect. The battery is the big silver thing close to the top – it’s wrapped in plastic and soldered in place. You can’t pull it off. So I found the place where the wire from the battery hooks into the board, and very gently separated the connection. Nothing happened. When I reconnected the battery, also very gently, the device rebooted. It was great. I’m not sure if that invalidates my warranty, but I’m also not sure how they go about replacing a dead battery. It’s stuck on there pretty good. When I think of my experience with other electronics, one crash in a year is actually not bad at all. And now that I’ve dug into the inner workings, the intimacy between me and the reader feels more complete.

I’ve tried to give an even-handed description of the Kobo Mini, with both strengths and limitations. In case it hasn’t been clear, the limitations are such as can be ignored or overcome, and the strengths are precisely what I want in an e-reader. If anything bad ever happens to it, I’ll buy another one just like it.