Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dark (Horror) Fiction Collection--Little Visible Delight

I was lucky enough to be asked to take a look at a collection of short stories, all in the horror genre, by one of the editors of the book and a member, like me, of the Horror Writers Association of America. (Check out the cool icon on the right side of my blog.)

For the collection: Here's the Amazon link.

And here's a little snippet:

"A new anthology of original dark fiction edited by S.P. Miskowski and Kate Jonez, Little Visible Delight was published by Omnium Gatherum Media on December 6, 2013."

And a short description:

"Often the most powerful and moving stories are generated by writers who return time and again to a particular idea, theme, or image. Obsession in a writer's imagination can lead to accomplishment or to self-destruction. Consider Poe and his pale, dead bride; his fascination with confinement and mortality; his illness and premature death. Or Flannery O'Connor's far less soul-crushing fondness for peacocks. Some writers pay a high price for their obsessions, while others maintain a crucial distance. Whichever the case, obsessions can produce compelling fiction.

Little Visible Delight is an anthology of original stories in which eleven authors of dark fiction explore some their most intimate, writerly obsessions."

Sounds cool, right?  Especially if you're into this genre, like I am.  (Though I hadn't known about O'Connor fondness for peacocks.)  So I thought I'd review a few of the short stories in the collection, over a few blog entries.  This will be a little challenging, because when I like a book, I want other people to read it, but if I write too much about the stories in the book, and give too much away, why would you read them?  So I'm going to err (perhaps too much) on the side of caution, hopefully.  Suffice it to say, if I write about the story at all, I liked it.

I got the permission of one of the editors, so here's a review of the first two stories:

"The Receiver of Tales"

Very well-written, atmospheric, moody tale with a few images that will stay with you.  The writing is so lyrical, and yet so exact (rare for lyricism), and the ending is so well-conceived, that I read it twice.  It's sort of got one ending, when the woman fully realizes her predicament, and then another ending, when she does something about it.  This is a nice extended metaphor about the obsession writers have of writing--though I have to say that my stories are mostly my stories.  But that's just me.  (Enough about me.  What do you think about me?)

One of the few short stories I've ever read twice.  Outside of college classes, that is.

"Needs Must When the Devil Drives"

Never heard of this phrase before, though I like the rhythm of it.  I'll leave the connection between the phrase and the story alone.  You'll have to buy the book!  (Sorry.)  Anyway, this is a well-written time-travel story narrated by a blase, but well-voiced, main character.  It was a nice take on time-travel stories where someone has to go back to kill someone in order to create (or un-create) the future.  It mostly concerns what a philosophy professor once called "The Hitler Paradox."  It goes something like this: Would you go back in time to shoot Hitler before he came to power?  How about if you could only go back in time and meet him when he was just four years old?  And holding a Teddy Bear?  Could you kill him?  You get the idea.

In this one, the main character has to go back in time to kill someone very dear to him: Himself.

Clever story.

That's it for now.  These two stories are well worth the price of the collection, just for themselves.  If this sounds interesting to you, check out these links:

A Goodreads link.

The publisher's link.

And, again, the Amazon link. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Reviewing 2013 at Christmastime

First of all, Happy Holidays, or Merry Christmas, or Happy Hannukah, or just Have A Nice Vacation Between Now and New Year's, depending on each reader's particular persuasion.

Secondly, thank you to all my readers, here and at Red Room.  35,000 plus pageviews here, and 96,000 plus pageviews there.  If I could shake the hand of each of you, and say "Thank you," I would.  I can't, so I'll say a heartfelt Thank You here.  I appreciate each and every one of my readers.

Thirdly, I've been thinking of a few friends who I haven't spoken to recently; a few of them are friends or followers of this site, or on Google +.  I've been thinking of you recently, even if I haven't called.  But I'll do that soon.  (Fair warning!)

Okay.  So, a few other memorable things from this year past:

--A great new living arrangement.  It took some doing, and it wasn't always easy, but I'm here, and I'm happy.

--A World Series ring for a baseball team I watched more this year than ever before, at Fenway, at Oriole Park, and at McCoy.  To everyone who went with me, or who watched a game with me, thank you very much.  I enjoyed every game, even Aceves's aberration in the monsoon.  I especially thank my friend Chris, who just returned me from M & T Bank Park, in Baltimore, Maryland, to watch the Patriots beat the Ravens, 41-7.  And he did all the driving, too.  Thanks for that, and for all the Fenway visits.  Thanks also to the great company at McCoy this year.

--Speaking of the Sox, they seriously overachieved this year.  And so have I.

--I read 18 books and over 6,900 pages, according to Goodreads.  Thought it was more than that.

--I watched lots of good movies, a few okay ones, and a couple of drecks.  They've all been reviewed here.

--I finished three short stories, sold a couple of others, and sold a few other short works, as well.  A couple of others are pounding the pavement right now.

--And I finally got a grip on the novel, too.  And started five others, all of which are waiting impatiently for me.

--I had some really bad patches this year, but they pale in comparison to what was suffered by my friend Mike.  I won't mention anything about it, because it was personal for him, but suffice it to say that he and Job could have a drink together and share some things.  So a big shout-out to Mike, who has been extremely brave when I probably couldn't be.  I'm thinking about you over here, even if I haven't called as often as I should.

--May 2014 be just as good, if not much better, than was 2013, for all of my friends and readers.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mackenzie and Nick from Longwood University in Virginia, and Other Cool People in Baltimore

I met a lot of cool people at all of the sporting events this year.  I met a few in Baltimore on Sunday.  I especially remember eating after the game at a Chili's near our (By "our," I mean my friend Chris and me) hotel, and meeting Mackenzie and Nick, from Longwood University, in Virginia.  They were nice enough to laugh at all my silliness.  Nick even tried a "Well, you know, Susan..."--which is my rendition of the New York Yankees' radio guy, John Sterling--and Mackenzie did an outstanding Inappropriate Slap.  (Don't ask.)  Funniest moment was when I told Nick that he was overachieving with such a pretty girl with him--and he agreed with me!  The smart ones know when they're overachieving.  (I'm always overachieving.)  She's going to be an elementary school teacher (the world always needs good teachers) and Nick's going to be something in the law, either a lawyer or a policeman.  Good luck to both of them, and if you're reading the blog, guys, please comment or email me!  The email is to the right of this entry, below my other pages.  (And I'm upset that I didn't take their picture, while I did take the picture of the other cool people I spoke to, below.)

--Others I met in Baltimore include a Santa / Grinch cameraman:







   


And a very cool Ravens fan / Santa who was such a good guy that he deserved better.  He was such a solid fan that he was one of the few Ravens fans to stay to the bitter end.  And what did he get?  Two garbage-time touchdowns scored against his team.  Here he is taking a beard break:



--And, if you've never been there, here are a few pics of M & T Bank Stadium.  I was pretty high up, but I had such a great view that I was able to see every single play of the game, a rare occurrence at any football stadium.  (And the fireworks before the game were cool, too.)  I saw each play so well that I correctly overruled the refs on some plays, even in the Ravens' favor. That shows you how brutally bad the refs were that night.  And for the record, Ravens fans know the first name of one of the refs personally--that's how often, they say, he has screwed them over.  So, the pics:












 --I watched a Patriots game on December 22nd, sans jacket, and with my sleeves rolled up.  It was sixty-one degrees at game time.  Sure, it rained all the way back, but there were only a few scattered drops during the game itself.  What a great night!

A great, big, hearty thank-you to my friend Chris for inviting me along, and for driving me a total of about 13 hours, to and fro--including 6 1/2 hours in a pouring rain the entire time back.  Thanks for all the Fenway games, too!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle--Movie Review: Great Acting; Tepid Movie





Photo: Movie's poster, from its Wikipedia page.

Outstanding performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence didn't save this movie for me.  It's worth seeing for their performances alone--especially Adams', who appears like I've never seen her before--but you shouldn't necessarily think that the movie will be great because of them.

Though normally you would, right?  If you have three great performances--it's really Bale's film--and two other very good ones, then the movie should be great.  This is a first for me, that one movie could have so much great acting and yet still not work for me.  I mean, it was alright, but you'd expect much more, right?

The problem is in the writing.  Essentially, the scriptwriters wrote themselves into a corner that they couldn't escape.  The whole point of the film is that everyone's conning everyone, including themselves, and in the end, someone's got to walk away, which means someone's going to get the most conned.  And the way it was pulled off really didn't work for me.  And I mean, really.

For many reasons.  First, I had no doubt who'd walk away.  [Spoilers now.]  Bale and Adams were clearly going to stay together, and Lawrence was clearly going to walk away with her criminal boyfriend, yet stay on good terms with Bale.  You didn't know what would happen to everyone else, but you hoped for the best.

Well, that doesn't happen.  Jeremy Renner's character, who comes across perhaps as the nicest in the movie, gets sent to jail, as do the other politicians whose hearts are in the right places, but whose hands are in the wrong wallets and pockets.  And the FBI agent, who had a hubris problem and ultimately wanted his name in lights more than he wanted to fight crime--but who was still fighting crime, and killers and mobsters!--at the end looks dejected and doesn't get the credit for the politicians' arrests that he deserves.  And he may get fired, as well.  The serial killer mobster gets away, as do the two main characters, who essentially preyed on the pathetic, lost and desperate before they were caught. 

This makes the viewer--at least this viewer--feel like he's had to swallow too much Castor oil.  The acting is so good that you root for Bale and Adams and Lawrence, though you understand that the first two are criminals, and that the last one is an annoyance that her prettiness and crazy courage hide most of the time.  These are not nice people, though they are all trying to be, kind of, though you don't see enough of that to really root for them.  You just take their word for it when they say so, and they're so sad, and they're trying so hard, that you root for them.  And Bale cares about this kid, and Adams and Lawrence are so pretty, and then you realize that you're not really talking about the qualities of the film anymore, or the characters, and that something's amiss.

And that's the biggest problem.  You root for them because of the great acting, and not because of the characters' inherent worthiness.  Bale and Adams constantly say they're trying to be good, but only Bale convinces, and that's only at the end.  And he fails miserably trying to be the good guy who tries to save the actual good guy who's done an unwise thing.  These two characters are also likable more for the acting of those who portray them than they are for any likeability they actually have.  Bale, again, comes across as the more likeable, since he looks so ever-suffering, and since he truly loves both women, and the son of one of them--a boy who's not even his.  Adams comes across as very likeable (and as very very...well, never mind), though the viewer wonders where her loyalty lies, probably because she does, too.  Ultimately she wasn't as strong a character as she could have been, as I wanted her to be.  That was another big letdown.

Another issue is David O. Russell's sleight-of-hand.  The director shows you all of their hustles, all of their swindles, and he shows you all of the conversations about all of the hustles and swindles--but then doesn't show you the one that really matters at the end.  You don't know the hustle is on because you weren't shown it, while you were shown all the others.  That's a writer's and director's cheat.  How could the viewer possibly know it?  You see all of Bale's and Adams' conversations, and heart-rending conflicts, but you don't see the one they put together when it matters?  And when we're finally shown it, it isn't that awe-inspiring.  Essentially, it's just a lie, really.  The one they lie to is a charismatic, fast-talking, hyperkinetic--a role Bradley Cooper has played quite a few times now, in almost every film he's ever been in.  (Sorta makes me wonder if he's acting, or if he's playing Bradley Cooper playing these characters.  But I digress.)  The problem here is that he's at least fighting crime, not doing it (though he walks that fine line for awhile), and he's interesting and funny--and he's the one that loses out.  He doesn't get the credit he deserves, although he ambitiously reached for the stars, and wasn't boring.  Now he's got to go live with his annoying mother and his ignored fiancee--which wasn't very nice of him, either, the way he treats her, but that's really the least bad thing in a movie full of characters who all do some very bad things.  He's at least not hustling her, as he lets her hear as he tells Adams' character that he'll be right over.  Adams, who knows he's engaged, is still more than happy to spend time with him, and...bleh.

Why do some get away with it, and why do some don't, and why does the worst--the serial-killing mobster--get to go home?  It's never explained, and by the end, I was so over it that I just wanted to praise the performances and move on.

The worst thing I can say--if I haven't said enough already--is that this movie is by far the shortest of the ones I've seen recently, but it felt like the longest.  The Desolation of Smaug and Catching Fire were much, much longer movies--but didn't seem it.  American Hustle was much shorter--by about an hour, compared to the other two--yet seemed too long.  True, the others are action films, and the acting in them doesn't come close--yet, they may have been better films anyway.

It's too bad.  Not since Edward Norton's performance in American History X and Denzel Washington's in Training Day have I loved the performance and disliked the movie.  I don't dislike American Hustle as much as I disliked those two--as I mentioned before, this movie was okay--but it was still such a letdown. 

Those other two movies only had one great performance in them.  American Hustle has at least three--and it still left me with a case of Whatever.

Irrelevant Note: It was nice to see in the previews that Kevin Costner will be back soon in two major movies.  There will be other old geezers from the 80s and 90s returning to film this Christmas through February, and all of their movies look good.  (Let's hope they actually are.)

Irrelevant Note 2: Viewers of Boardwalk Empire will note Shea Whigham (who plays Nucky's brother) and the guy who played the assassin with the ruined face (who was really the best character the last few years) in American Hustle.  The director, David O. Russell, came to popularity with Three Kings, which co-starred Mark Wahlberg.  And what does Mark Wahlberg co-produce?  That's right--Boardwalk Empire.  It's not what you know, it's who you know, I suppose.  Of course you know that Lawrence and Cooper followed Russell from Silver Linings Playbook...Don't ask me how I know and remember such things--I just do.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug--short movie review



Photo: Movie poster, from its Wikipedia page.

Very good "hallway" movie that connects the first to the yet-to-be-released third film, and apparently only meant as such.  I say that because when the one moment comes that you've been waiting for, the movie ends.  The fact that that's disappointing speaks well for how good and gripping the movie is.

Mostly it's a special effects action flick, which isn't bad, but I got the feeling that the three LOTR movies were about something a little bit more.  The first Hobbit movie was, as well.  A great deal about friendship, honesty, greed, and stamina are mentioned in those films, and for good reason.  The Ring is destroyed, after all, more because of friendship than because of any lava at Mt. Doom.  The first Hobbit movie takes a good twenty minutes right up front in the movie to show everyone's camaraderie (which seems unnecessary at the time, but isn't) and friendship, and that theme played itself out as the movie went on.

Here, there's no time for that.  We get nonstop action from the first moment until the last, with the occasional moments for budding romance thrown in.  We see swordfights galore, and lots and lots of running, and many instances of hiding, and...well, you get the idea, and I make it seem much worse than it is.  It's actually a lot of eye-popping fun (even with a very verbose dragon, and some very silly barrel / riverbanks scenes, where the Dwarfs and Hobbits run and jump like Olympians, and dozens of Orcs are nice enough to stand in a straight line so they can get knocked over by the same one barrel) and you won't realize that the two hours and forty minutes have passed until the abrupt ending.  It's a movie well worth the money.  In fact, as with all special effects flicks, if you plan to watch it at all, you have to see it on the big screen.

I'm just going to trust that the third film wraps up the themes of friendship and of reclaiming your home (I've sort of done that in real life, as you know if you follow this blog) and that the last film won't just be amazing visuals and riveting action like this one was.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Lincoln's Ways to Calm Down and Be Positive



Photo: Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln, and Major General John A. McClernand at the Antietam Battlefield, from the massive Library of Congress Collection, at this link: http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/brady.html

After I saw Spielberg's Lincoln, I bought Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.  This is a truly impressive and eye-opening chronicle of Lincoln's early years, his early business, his early law firm--and his early defeats when running for public office.  It is an incredibly dense book, as tons of things happen, or are learned, seemingly on every page.  This is why I'm just on page 548 after quite awhile reading it.  I'm a very fast reader, but there's too much here--and too much to be impressed by.  I recommend the book very highly, and I'll post a review when I'm done with it.

One of the facets of Lincoln's personality that I find incredible was his ability to think first and act second.  A man with tons of early defeats, at business, at law, and at running for public office, and a man who had to lead the country through the Civil War (it's clear to me now that the Civil War would have happened even if Lincoln had never been born), and a man who lost three sons while they were all very young, and who had to deal with a depressive (possibly manic-depressive) wife, and possibly his own depression: well, if anyone had a right to be angry and depressed, it was this man.  But this book makes it clear that, despite some very depressive times (Who wouldn't be somber, and look it, after going through all this?), Lincoln had a way of staying emotionally buoyant, of somehow not letting his sadness or frustration effect his presidential decisions.  His cabinet (except for Chase) very obviously loved him, and that says a lot, as they were a [see title].  So what was it about his personality that they all loved, that they were all impressed by?

1.  When angry at one of his generals--which he frequently had occasion to be, especially at McClellan, Meade, Burnside and Hooker--he wrote a letter to him, put it aside, and either never mailed it, or had one of his team of rivals look at it to edit it and tone it down.  This is one of the reasons he wanted people who would frequently disagree with him, for moments such as those.

So: Don't act out in anger or in sadness.  And if you must act at that moment, defer to your assistants and friends.

2.  When sad, he went to Seward's house, or to the telegraph office at the White House, or to the office / bedroom of his assistants in the White House--even at three in the morning.  In other words, when sad, he sought out his friends, and he relaxed with them and spoke with them, often telling funny stories that he was famous for.  (I never would have known that without the movie and book; my impression of him was that he was a serious, somber and sad man, always.  I'll bet this was everyone's common perception of him.  Turns out, we would all be wrong.  And, he didn't have a deep, sonorous voice.  I'm actually shocked by that.)  One caveat: the fact that he was the President certainly helped with this behavior.  One does not tell the President of the United States to stop telling amusing anecdotes, or to stop reading Shakespeare or the era's funnymen, while sitting at the edge of your bed, and to get the hell out of your room, at three in the morning.

So: When sad or lonely, seek out friends.  At any time of day.  True friends will tell you to call them if you need them, at any time.  And true friends will mean it.

3.  When sad, he left the company of sad people.  He did the best he could with his wife, but he did not seek her out when he was sad, angry or frustrated.  Why?  Because she wouldn't have been able to help him.  And he did not visit Chase, which upset him, but instead went to see Seward, who was a much more entertaining and pleasant person.

So: Do not spend a lot of time with sad, negative or angry curmudgeons.  They will only bring you down.

These are three very simple, very logical things, but they are amazingly hard to do, especially the first one.  But Lincoln clearly knew he was a person prone to sadness and misery, and he took steps to do something about it, and to not let this part of his personality, or the severely depressing parts of his life, to control him.

We should all be so wise.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Reader Shout-outs




Photos: Awesome pics of the woods and mountains of Berea, Kentucky, from its Wikipedia page.

Just a quick shout-out to a few new readers in the past month or so.  I thought it would be cool to look at the towns and cities, and their pasts and presents, of my awesome (and new) readers.  Thanks for reading!

--from Ontario, Oregon, population just over 11,000, about 5 sq. miles large. 

Great-looking little town there, and cool motto: "It's where Oregon begins."  Interesting write-up on its Wikipedia page about how it's tough to grow new business: "While Oregon's lack of a sales tax is an asset, the state's land use laws make it hard for the city to grow a property tax base and match the pace of development seen across the state line in Idaho. An article in the August 14, 2005 edition of The Oregonian noted that half of the staff of the Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon's largest state prison and a large Ontario employer, live in Idaho, commuting daily across the state line. The article also noted that the land use laws that protect farmland across the state work to a farmer's disadvantage if farmers cannot find a way to compete profitably."

--from Broomall, Pennsylvania, population also just over 11,000, about 2.9 sq. miles large.

Rather affluent, with a median income for a family of over $63,000.  Danny Bonaduce is from there (Wonder if he was the one reading my blog?), as is Jeffrey Zaslow, who co-wrote The Last Lecture, which I still haven't read.  On my list of things to do.  Carl Gugasian was, as well.  He was a bank robber who stole over $2 million from banks for over 30 years.  He was known as "The Friday Night Bank Robber," which I take to mean that he inexplicably robbed banks only on Friday nights.  I'm assuming these were not all in Broomall, PA.  Wikipedia page says the town was named for its post office.

--from Sumter, South Carolina, population about 40,000.

First thing I saw on its Wikipedia page: "According to the Urban Institute Sumter is the metropolitan area in the United States with the highest concentration of African-American same-sex couples among all households."  Fair enough.  Second thing I saw: "According to the Congressional Quarterly Press '2008 City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America, Sumter Statistical Metropolitan Area ranks as having the fifth highest overall crime rate out of 338 statistical metropolitan areas in the United States of America."  And that 26% of its population is in the poverty range.  Take care over there, reader from Sumter, SC.  Famous people from Sumter include former Yankee Bobby Richardson (who has maybe 10 World Series rings, and who still lives there), basketball player Ray Allen, and former Miss America, Miss Universe, and Baywatch Babe Shawn Weatherly.

--from Knoxville, Tennessee, population about 179,000.

Hugely important city for country music.  Home of the University of Tennessee, and the Wikipedia page said, "In 2006, ERI published an analysis that identified Knoxville as the most affordable U.S. city for new college graduates, based on the ratio of typical salary to cost of living."  But 25% of the city is in the poverty range.  The college team, the Volunteers, is very popular. A very important Appalachian cultural city, with very cool pictures of mountain views on its Wikipedia site.

--from Berea, Kentucky, population about 13,500.

First thing I saw on its Wikipedia page: "In 1850 this area, called the Glade, was a community of scattered farms with a racetrack and citizens sympathetic to emancipation."  So, some forward-thinking, liberal-minded folks living in a Shire-like place.  Or, at least that's the image that comes to my mind.  But, after John Brown's Raid before the Civil War, "everyone at the college was given ten days to leave the state. Most lived in Cincinnati or nearby northern towns for several years, returning for good after the war."  So much for that.  But, lastly, "Founded in 1855, Berea College was the only integrated and coeducational college in the South for nearly forty years."  A southern state that was pro-equality and anti-slavery?  Outstanding!  Median income is about $38,000 and 27% live below the poverty line.

And look at the pics from Berea, KY (and its Wikipedia page) at the top of this entry.  They make me feel like visiting there for a long hike and walk.

So, welcome new (and old!) readers, and thanks for reading!





Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire--Movie Review



Photo: Movie poster, from its Wikipedia page.  Remember who the enemy is, indeed.  Good catchphrase.

Saw Catching Fire last night, so a few quick things:

--Best thing to say about this very good movie: It didn't seem anywhere near as long as it was.  That says a lot, because this one ran about 2 1/2 hours.

--Few actresses hold up better under so many intense close-ups as Jennifer Lawrence.  The camera was directly in her grill for the whole movie.

--Then again, few retain such unrealistically perfect make-up application, especially for an action flick.  Not that she isn't pretty anyway, I'm just sayin'.

--Woody Harrelson, along with Matthew McConaughey, has had a career resurgence the last few years.  Woody Harrelson has certainly come a long way since Cheers.

--Donald Sutherland has been playing this type of bad guy for a very long time now, with the same menacingly slow speech, rich voice and grey mane.  Good to see that some things never go out of style.

--Speaking of which, where were his granddaughter's parents the whole movie?

--I've never read the books, but I was pretty confident that they wouldn't do the exact same thing for two consecutive movies.  Something else had to be afoot here.

--Kind of obvious, too, because most of the former winners seemed really pissed off to have to do it twice.

--And how can you not expect a rebellion when you promise those who've cheated death--cheated it from a situation that you initially threw them into--that they won't ever have to do it again, and then make them go through it again?

--And then throw all of them together in one group, and they're all enraged.  At you.

--And leave alive the former winners who didn't have to be in these Games, and not expect them to also be enraged?  And leave them out there with the general public?  Who're all beyond enraged?  At you.

--Now that I think of it, this is one half-assed despotic leader of a dystopian future.  In that vast library he's always sitting in, he doesn't have one Orwell in all that?  And with all of those great ray televisions, he hasn't watched any of those types of movies?  These dictators have to be better prepared.

--How did the other rebels know that she'd finish coiling the wire around the arrowhead shaft and then throw it up into the dome the second the lightning hit?  It was a realistic guess, considering her psychological profile (the movie should've shown they had such things), but the whole rebellion was predicated on the electronic surveillance being blown so she could be rescued.  And that was only going to happen if she threw the arrow like she did, exactly as unrealistically perfect as she did, exactly when she did.

--That must've been a 500-foot throw, straight up, by the way.  There's no Olympics in this future?

--As Jeffrey Wright's character said, "There's a flaw in every system."  That includes screenplays and movie-making.  I gotta stop thinking these films through like this after I see them.

--Incidentally, you can currently see Wright on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.  Good show, though this past season hasn't been as good.

--The directing and pace of this movie was better than the first.  The first was also a good movie, though it was just what it was, if you know what I mean.  Essentially, it was "The Most Dangerous Game" for teenage girls, with a female protagonist.  With a little of Orwellian Dystopia and Stephen King's The Running Man thrown in.  Not that that's a bad thing.

--If I were starting a rebellion, I also wouldn't tell the symbolic figurehead of that rebellion until I had to.

--But I would want to be the rebel and the symbolic figurehead of that rebellion, cause that's how I roll.

--I was hoping more would be done with that little girl's character from the first one.  She was, indeed, too young.  Though I'm old enough to feel that they all were, but whatever.

--A friend of mine says the next one should be called Please Put Me Out, but she's just jealous and bitter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Approximate Word Count

To compel myself to write more consistently, I created a blog (see title) so that I had to post my word count every day. Therefore, hopefully, I have to write every day, in order to have words to count. Please feel free to do the same by placing a comment.  Let's all produce writing together.

The site is http://steveswordcount.blogspot.com/  It's listed at the top of this site as well.

May we all write well, and often.

Book Review--Robert B. Parker's Wonderland, by Ace Atkins





Photo: Book's hardback cover, from robertbparker.net

I've gone on before about titles that contain the name of an artist as its main selling point, so I won't do so again here--except to say that book titles that contain the name of a deceased writer is even worse.  At least when John Carpenter used to title his movies with his name in it, he was still alive, directing them.  But when the publishing house (or perhaps it's Parker's estate) does so, it comes across as a bit gauche to me.  Especially when the real author, Ace Atkins, is doing such a credible job since taking it over.  How about giving him a little credit now?  Or does someone think that Spenser's loyal fans will forget that Robert B. Parker gave birth to him?

Having said that, Wonderland is a good book that could have been better if Atkins hadn't tried so hard to make Spenser so witty.  Even Parker didn't make his narrator this much of a wiseass.  Here Spenser drops something sarcastic, or witty, or banal (depends on your appreciation for what he says, I guess) in his dialogue and in his narration, a double-whammy here that makes it seem that Spenser is a little verbally out of control.  One minor character even says that he comes across as immature to people who don't think he's funny.  (Nobody ever dared call Parker's Spenser immature, except maybe Susan.)  There's way too much here, and it comes across as Atkins trying too hard, and not, surprisingly, like Spenser trying too hard.  Some of it is funny, but occasionally one sounds forced.

Another distraction here is that every now and then a piece of Spenser's dialogue simply doesn't sound authentic.  I've read every single Spenser, since the first--The Godwulf Manuscript--and I'm telling you that every now and then Spenser says something that sounds inauthentic, and it clunks.  A major tell-tale is that Atkins makes him speak on occasion too grammatically correct: he doesn't use contractions when anyone--especially Spenser--would.  One example of many is on page 273.  Henry Cimoli and Spenser are talking about how bad Spenser's psyche got when he got shot up by The Gray Man.  Henry calls it, "The really bad time."  Spenser responds: "They are all bad times when you are shot."  It's just too stiff.  Spenser, one of the more comfortable conversationalists in all of detective fiction (if not fiction in general), simple would not have sounded so formal, especially to Henry.  He would've deadpanned: "When you're shot, they're all bad."  Or something like that.

But, of course, this is a very quick read.  I might read faster than some, but I'll bet a Spenser fan will read this in a couple of days.  There are no great surprises here; the supporting characters are all users and being used.  The main characters go back and forth guessing who the guilty parties are, but the reader shouldn't.  Truth be told, the family-relation reveal towards the end shouldn't have been a surprise to Spenser, Healey, or Belson.  It is, though, and it's handled well.  I didn't consider the oddity of it until I'd finished reading, so that's good enough.  Your suspension-of-disbelief won't be ruined.  The writing is good, but Atkins has done better with Spenser.  I like the way that Atkins says a lot with very little, as Parker had.  Atkins might actually say more with his little.  Spenser fans won't be disappointed.  New readers to the series won't be blown out of their socks, but they shouldn't throw it away with great force, either.  It's a good read.

One caveat: Atkins shows his hand a little bit with the dating.  As Parker had, he throws in a sentence or two to let us know Spenser is narrating from some future date.  Something like, "The winter was especially cold that year..."  In Wonderland, Spenser frequently mentions how very, very bad the Sox are with overpaid stars and a manager that has won with them in the past.  So it's got to be 2011.  They were disappointing under Francona in 2005, 2006, 2008-2010, but they still won more than they lost, and they made the playoffs--or almost did--pretty consistently.  But the book says they were very, very bad, so it's got to be 2011.  Spenser has always gone out of his way to remind us that he exists in our real universe, during our real time--just an indiscriminate year in the past.  Here, he seems to have almost caught up to us.  This was a little jarring to me, though it may not be to anyone else.  I'm just putting it out there.  Feel free to politely disagree.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Obama Care Website: A Plea



Photo: President Bush and President-Elect Obama meet in the Oval Office on November 10, 2008.  From Obama's Wikipedia page.

This isn't exactly a political rant, so stay with me if you felt like leaving because of that.  It's more of a plea, I guess.

There are so many Republicans slamming Obama for the recent website problems, and for what some are perceiving as his sleight-of-hand about being able to keep current policies.  (I don't know about that.  Though both parties have their hands in the health care industry's pockets, which one do you think counts more on money from it?  I'll provide a hint: It's the party that's not trying to change it.)  Some Democrats seem to think that his ship is sinking.

It's not--though it has taken a torpedo hit.

The bottom line here is that there's a website that's not working right.

There's an insurance industry that said one thing to Obama and then did another.

Or, in fairness, perhaps the President himself said one thing to the insurance industry, then did the other.

My guess is that it's both.  And surely the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing here.

But that's all.  It's surely a mess.  It looks bad.  It's Obama's biggest misstep so far.  And what was he thinking when he hired a Canadian internet company to do an American website?  This is bad enough, in terms of our economy--and even worse when you consider that Canada itself fired this internet company when it flubbed work for Canada.

Maybe Obama didn't make that decision himself, but the buck stops with him, and he'll say the same himself.

But let's take a step back.

Did we actually think that overhauling the American healthcare industry would be easy?  Is a radical change ever simple?  And what's wrong with trying to change American socio-economic parity as we know it?  Wouldn't you think there'd be a few mistakes along the way?

This is ground-level health care and social upheaval, and we thought a mouse click would make it all perfect?  That there wouldn't be mistakes, "fumbles," and some honest errors and humane shortsightedness?

So the site doesn't work.

It'll get fixed.

It's the first huge step for equity in health care in this country, something that hopefully narrows the gap between the rich and the poor.  A simple website won't make it all happen by itself, but it's a step in the right direction.

And it'll get better.

Let's all stop rattling our sabres against those who try to make drastic change for the better good and who make a few mistakes while doing so.  Are we not to have groundbreaking change unless it's quick and easy and perfect?  Drastic change is never easy.  And no one thing--health care or anything else--is going to be perfect for everyone, all at the same time.

Yes, Obama dropped the ball here.  But he cared enough to try to make the play to begin with.  He'll pick it up again.  He'll learn from his mistakes.  My guess is he doesn't like to be wrong, at all.  He knows that this will be one of the biggest things he'll be remembered for--good or bad.

And here's one more sports metaphor for you: an infielder who gets to more grounders (and who therefore has more range) will make more errors than will an infielder who never gets to the ball to begin with.  This second infielder will have a misleadingly and superficially better fielding percentage--he'll make fewer errors--because he won't attempt a great play if he thinks there's a chance he'll make an error.

Those who try to make great plays will make more mistakes than those who don't.

Possibly Obama's reach has exceeded his grasp here.  But he attempted to make the play that nobody else could--or would, or wanted to--and then he bobbled it.  And then he dropped it.

But he tried to make the play.

Let's applaud that.  And let's have some patience as he makes the play without a drop next time.  Or would we rather have a nation of leaders who don't try to ever again make a great and sweeping change for fear of such an impatient and unforgiving public and political backlash?

He was at least brave enough to chance failure.

And then he failed.

But that's temporary.

Let's understand that most politicians would never have attempted such legislation and change to begin with, specifically because of the very real probability of failure, and of the fear of the political finger-pointing afterward.

Nobody would know the stakes better than the first black President in American history.  Aware of the severe ramifications, he tried anyway.

Let's be proud of those who selflessly take chances for the better good.

And let's help them fix their mistakes rather than blaming them for their very humane imperfections.

Unless we have a better idea to create beneficial social change for the good of those less fortunate than ourselves--and I didn't see anybody else trying anything lately--let's help those who do, and not just point our fingers at them.

P.S.--According to his website, the health insurance marketplace is once again open.  Try it now, if you need to.  Give it a chance, and be thankful, as I always am, when someone tries to help.  Because, correct me if I'm wrong, but people don't often go out of their way to help change people's lives, do they? 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Quick Jots of November 12th



Photo: from the AP's Bullitt Marquez, on msn.com.

Some very quick randomness:

--I sold my pool over the summer, but I kept the cover for it because the guy didn't want it.  I just used it to cover my best firewood and my expensive double Adirondack seat, and my entire shed porch.  You can never have too many things, like plastic or pool covers, that can cover other things.

--Just saw a gorgeous, fiery-red sunset.  But, baby, it's cold outside.

--I love firepits and fireplaces, but they dry up my sinuses to the point that my face is inflamed, or I get nosebleeds, or both.  You just can't win.

--Because I don't want to run the heat all winter and pay a ton for it, too.

--And it's going to be a very cold winter, much more so than usual.  I hope I'm wrong.

--It took me about four hours to clean out and organize my shed the other day.  And the entire second shelf of the large unit just inside has a ton of little black pellets on it, if you know what I mean.

--I took my North and my Route 95 signs down from the chimney yesterday, and hung it up in the garage.  I'm thinking that I don't want the metal freezing to the chimney bricks, and maybe ruining some of the brick.  Am I wrong for thinking this?

--This time of year makes me feel very content and homey, yet sometimes very blah and heavy as well.  Gotta keep busy...

--I don't write as much or as often as I should.  Do I have reasons, or excuses?

--The only shows I watch right now are The Universe; American Pickers; The Walking Dead; and American Horror Story.  I'm so busy, I've even missed a few Patriot games recently.

--What happened in the Philippines this weekend is terrible, and it's only going to get worse, as people get very sick from stomach and intestinal illnesses due to the bad water.

--And the storms that hit it will get more and more massive in the future, as well.

--80% of everything in the storm's track was flattened, and so many people have died that they're just laying in the streets.  And I thought I was having a bad day.

--And they just had a strong earthquake last week that also killed many.

--The health care website has been a huge pothole in Obama's otherwise stellar and productive years.

--Nobody from any other party has managed to take advantage of this, and Hilary still looks like the sure bet in the next election.

--I voted for her before; I'd vote for her again.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason



Photo: Cover, from the book's Wikipedia page

Another of the Nordic Noir (this one takes place in Iceland) to become very popular in the last ten years or so, following in the wake of authors like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and many more.  Not reaping the rewards of this new trend, by the way, are the translators of such novels.  They deserve just as much credit, if not more, than the actual authors.  Or do people think that Stieg Larsson wrote in English?  The style of the English, which has gained such notoriety from these Nordic Noirists, is more the translator than the author.  I'm just sayin'.  The translator for this one is Bernard Scudder.

Anyway, this one is very effective, and not much of a mystery, actually.  A skeletal hand is found (Killer opening sentence: He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.) and the detectives in charge let an archaeologist unearth the whole skeleton, a long, painstaking process that allows the author to delve into the abusive past of the family who lived nearby the grave, as well as the self-destructive daughter of one of the detectives, and his own relationship problems.  The story unfolds in layers of shifting third-person omniscient narration, and the reader soon finds that the actual mystery is the identity of the skeleton--and of the one found with it later in the book.  There's a further subplot involving the broken relationship of the owner of the place that had once stood on the spot of the grave, and of his fiancee, who left him after she became pregnant with someone else's baby.  That's a running theme of the book: broken relationships, both between a man and a woman and between adults and their children.  In that sense, the book is especially Nordic--the noir comes not just from the writing style, but also from the insinuated hopelessness about relationships.  Nobody's got a good one here, but it ends with a brief but hopeful touch, though that depends on your point of view, I guess.  Less Nordic Noir than Henning Mankell's excessively cold and distant landscapes, and Stieg Larsson's detached characters and their often-xenophobic attitudes, but still noir nonetheless.  Think Raymond Chandler, but without the ditzy dames.

If you like this kind of stuff, as I do, you'll like this one.  I started and finished it in six hours, because I was unable to sleep.  So it's a quick read, and the shifting third-person omniscient narration never confuses.  I guessed the identity of the skeleton pretty quickly, and I think any astute reader would, too.  I get the feeling that the author (and translator) sort of knew this, but the reading enjoyment isn't because of the final answer, but because of the journey it takes to get there.  You let it unfold at its own pace, which is neither too slow nor too fast, and when it gets there, you're satisfied, even though you probably knew it the whole time.

Worthwhile as we enter the Noir winter in these parts.  I wonder if I can start a series of novels that will give rise to other writers doing the same sort of thing, and it'll all be called New England Noir?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Two Dreams



Photo: Freud's Vienna office, from forpilar.blogspot.com.

Despite being woken up more than six times by my car's alarm that inexplicably went off three times, and by my dog, who whined constantly through the night, I somehow managed to sleep deeply enough to have two very strange dreams.

Dream #1

I'm rooming with another guy, who seemed likeable and reasonable enough, but in the dream I become more and more concerned that he is not a good guy at all.  I ask questions and he doesn't answer them.  He gets that lean and hungry look, as Shakespeare's Caesar called it.  Somehow it becomes clear that he's a murderer, and I come upon a giant folder of files and documents, one of which seems to prove the issue when I pick it up and read it.  When I lower it from my eyes, there he is, looking dangerous, obviously about to do something nasty.  But before I have the chance to do something about it, either my car alarm goes off in the garage, or my dog whines and wakes me up.

The most surprising thing at all: the dream makes it very clear who this person is: It's Red Sox back-up thirdbaseman Will Middlebrooks.  Who, despite striking out way too often, I'm sure is a nice enough guy in real life.  That was just weird, man.

Dream #2

It's in the future, not too distant.  I work under a bridge that crosses a wide, beautiful river.  Things are so bleak in this existence that countless people jump off of this bridge in an attempt to kill themselves.  My job is to rescue them from the river, and resuscitate them.  I get a bird's-eye view of this bridge (of which I did remember the name, but some time in the last fifteen minutes, I've forgotten it; I hope to remember it by the time I finish typing this, and I can tell you it's a simple name, like the Point Bridge, or something.  It's not something famous, like the Golden Gate Bridge, or even something real).  It's a long suspension bridge; it's fall, because the leaves are turning color.  The river water is very smooth and clear.  There are no boats. Everything's serene and peaceful and beautiful.

Except it's not, because people are jumping.  I save quite a few people over a short period of time on this day.  Maybe a dozen, or more.  I don't have a boat to get them.  (Maybe there's a gasoline or engine shortage in this future.)  But the last person to jump, a tall, full brunette, is different.  I can't find her in the water at all.  This has never happened before.  Never has someone gotten away, or died.  But just when I'm about to give up, I see her, and soon she's on the riverbank and I'm trying to force the water out of her lungs.  This happens for a very long time, much longer than is useful.

I look at her.  I don't know her.  She's got a solid enough neck, a pretty face, and soaking wet black hair that trails on the damp ground.  Her eyes remain closed (though I know in real life, a dead person's eyes stay open) and, when I stop blowing in her mouth, trying to revive her, that, too, closes.

She's completely still.  She's dead.  I've lost her.  For the first time, I've lost one.

And then the dog's whine wakes me up.

And that's it.  Two strange dreams.  I never did remember the name of the bridge, but I'll go with the Point Bridge for now, until I remember.

Freudian analysis, anyone?

P.S.--A very hearty thank ye to Ashley Cosgrove, who was kind enough to put a link to a recent Shakespeare entry (the one about how he did not play a part in the 1608-9 publication of his sonnets) on her Facebook page--and without me asking (or even being aware of it, at first); and to Gibson DelGuidice, who was nice enough to recently say very complimentary things about my blog (and to place a link to it) on his blog.  And I didn't even know about it, either, until recently.  You guys rule.   

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate



Photo: Book's cover (and the Chiandros portrait) from mathomhouse.typepad.com.

Mostly-fascinating collection of essays, thoughts, theories and placing-you-there Elizabethan history that attempts to understand nothing less than the very mind of Shakespeare, as a man of his time, and--as Ben Jonson famously wrote--as a man "not of an age, but for all time."  Besides a couple of chapters about the politics and religion of his time that I found a bit too dry, the book succeeds at doing so.  It is at its best when it sticks to the literary and theatrical stuff: his plays, his theatres and the people he knew.  If anyone doubts the existence of a non-university man who got a woman eight years his elder pregnant, married her, and left them behind to find his glory and future in the theatres of London, England, let them read this, and they will doubt no more.

This book brings Shakespeare to life like few things I have read.  Michael Wood's book and a couple of others are just as good, in different ways.  And they all delve into the man and his time using their own conceits.  The conceit of this one is to break the book down into sections that correspond to Shakespeare's famous "Seven Stages of Man" speech from As You Like It.  (This is the one that begins with the even-more-famous line, "All the world's a stage.")  And so Bate chronicles the life of and mind of Shakespeare by breaking his life up into the seven parts that we all supposedly share.  I got the feeling that Bate had much of the book written already, via separate speeches and chapters, and tied them all together with the conceit of the seven stages, but whatever.  It doesn't matter, because it works.

The narrative is at its best when it brings us pell-mell into Elizabethan England.  We see it as Shakespeare may have, and we witness things, and become aware of city-wide and nation-wide news that he would have been aware of.  We meet the Burbages, and Heminges, and Condell, and the theatre and publishing climates of the time.  We see him as one of the many in these realms, and as one in the businesses he was in.  He is placed firmly in his time, and yet the book works well also when it shows him to be a chronicler of his time.  Shakespeare is renowned as being perhaps not just the best writer of our times, but also as the best mirror to his own time, without blocking the visage with his own image.  He is within his world, and yet surprisingly intellectually and philosophically detached from it, so he can show it to us, and paint a picture of our human nature, and yet not include his own views and preferences in it--all at the same time.

In short, we know what Hamlet thinks--but we never know what Shakespeare thinks.  Of course, no writer is his character, and no character is its author.  We know all of one, and very little about the internalization of the other.

But Bate's book gets us closer to it than perhaps anything I've read before.  The best compliment I'd give to this book is that it shows you something different about Shakespeare and his England, even if you thought you'd read it all before, like I have.  If you enjoy that kind of literary history, and a biography of him (a little) and of his time, and of his place in his time (a lot of that), then you'll enjoy this.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Captain Phillips--Movie Review


 Photo: Movie poster, from its Wikipedia page.

This is a very well-acted and -directed film that maintains its tension even though you know how it's going to end.  (It's based on the main character's book, after all.)

Paul Greengrass, director of United 93, a couple of Bourne movies, and other good films, uses his favorite shots--grainy, documentary-like, hand-held, and jittery--and scenes of routine and family to good effect.  He does not direct to excess, as many good, flashy directors often do, nor does he waste any shots or use rapid-fire direction that overwhelms.  Spotless directing here from one of the best directors nobody knows.

Tom Hanks gives another outstanding performance--again, especially considering that we know how it's all going to end.  He's great as the family man who's also the absolute professional.  When thrown into tense and violent situations, he doesn't allow his acting to get hysterical or cliche.  It's a very authentic performance.

The actors who play the Somali pirates are also very, very good, especially the leader of the group, who comes across as desperate, yet professional and often intelligent and wise.  He's needy enough to follow through despite obviously tremendous odds against him, yet he's not self-reflective enough to wonder why his last haul--which netted millions--still did not change his destitute, starving life.  He says he's a fisherman, and that the U.S. has depleted the fish supply in the ocean waters near his home, but the viewer knows there's more to it than that--and we know that he knows it, too.  But his character refuses to mentally go there, anyway.

Though at least 95% of the film takes place aboard a ship and a tiny escape vessel, the action still has grandeur and scope--not to mention vast oceans, attack helicopters and destroyers--but the movie never loses its intense focus.

It's gripping and tense, well-acted and well-directed, and a movie worth paying for and watching.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Casablanca, Hamlet and AHS: Coven, Episode 2



Photo: Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange, at ew.com.  Go to this link to read the interesting interview with Ryan Murphy, referenced below.


What follows is an example of what you can find on my new blog about American Horror Story: Coven.

A little late with this entry.  Not good for a blog about a tv show.  Who wouldn't want to read about a show two days after it aired?  Finally had time to see the DVRed show.  Had to watch the Sox in the ALCS, of course, on Wednesday.  Horrible game, too.  Oh, well.  Had I world enough, and time. 

Here are some quick thoughts about this episode:

--It begins with Lily Rabe's character Misty Day (great character name, BTW) killing two gator poachers.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  Very realistic-looking second alligator pulling the guy into the water.  I'm guessing a radio-controlled gator, or thing in a real gator's mouth.  I'll have to wait for the DVD, I guess.

--Almost the entire episode was shot with ocean wave-like camera movements.  Distracting, after awhile.  This has always been a very director-focused show, and there's always been that attention to directorial style, but this one almost made me seasick.  Well, that's an exaggeration, but it was bothersome enough for me to comment on.

--Anyone catch the commercials for Stephen King's Dr. Sleep, followed by the third movie version of his Carrie?  I guess he knows which show his fans are watching--besides the terrible Under the Dome, that is.

--I hope I look as good at her age as Jessica Lange does now.

--Ditto for Angela Bassett.

--Emma Roberts is arguably prettier at her age than her famous aunt, Julia Roberts, was--but here's to hoping that she turns out more like her aunt than she does her addict father, Eric Roberts.  Time will tell.

--This episode was titled "Boy Parts," but it could've been called "Franken-boyfriend."

--Part of the spell, towards the end, to reanimate Kyle had the phrase "this mortal coil."  Which came first in this show's universe: That spell, or Shakespeare's Hamlet, where that phrase originated?  Well, I can tell you that Hamlet first said his famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy in 1600-1601, if that means anything.

--I enjoy seeing the many homages in this show's history to other famous movies and shows of the same genre.  But I have newfound respect for it if it's going to pay homage Hamlet, as well.  Unless it sees Hamlet as another example of its genre, which Shakespeare's play may very well be.  Ghosts, incest, brother murdering brother, insinuated incest between mother and son, insanity, spying and intrigue, a possible devil in disguise (notice the devil's appearance yet again in this series, during this episode), and four murders / deaths in about thirty seconds at the end?  Yup--Hamlet sounds quite a bit like American Horror Story to me.

--Listening to the dialogue between Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett in the hair salon was a little disconcerting.  I wonder what the actresses thought about having to say all that hocus-pocus stuff.

--Then again, Jessica Lange has said worse dialogue in a movie.  I'm very vividly remembering her pounding on King Kong's fist in 1976 and, after calling him a "male chauvinist ape," screaming two words that didn't sound at all like the movie-makers were intending.  See it here on YouTube.

--If you saw the clip, you'd have to agree--Now that's some bad dialogue.

--Rabe's Misty Day character is amusing.  Not only does she look great for someone burned at the stake, but she thinks Stevie Nicks is a prophet.

--I wonder how much, if anything, Stevie Nicks got paid for allowing them to use her name like that.  And the music, too.

--Whoa, just found out the answers at ew.com, here.  Interesting interview with the series co-creator, Ryan Murphy.

--I have to listen to the lyrics to that song now, just to know what the hell Misty Day was talking about.

--Lots of witches doing unwise things, all of which violated Frankenstein's Law: Don't play God.

--Overall, a very entertaining episode, especially Lange's character acclimating Kathy Bates's character about cellphones, and the danger of crossing the street without first looking for cars.  They walked down the center of the street like Bogie and Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca.  Except I don't think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship for the ladies.  If you don't know the reference--and shame on you if you don't--you can watch the famous clip here.  (And notice the "usual suspects" line, as well.)

See you next week.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

My New Walking Dead Blog--Stevestvwalkingdead.blogspot.com.



Photo: To make it bigger, click on this great shot of Daryl and Michone, from http://entertainment.time.com/2013/10/13/the-walking-dead-watch-30-days-without-an-accident/ 

My new blog about Season Four of The Walking Dead is up.  Please go to this link and read it up. 

For future reference, the site is http://stevestvwalkingdead.blogspot.com/.  Thanks!

New Blog, American Horror Story: Coven, Is Up



Photo: This season's main advertising poster, from AHS: Coven's Wikipedia page.

Please go to my new blog, http://stevestv--ahscoven.blogspot.com/, to read about this season's American Horror Story: Coven, episode by episode.  Thanks.

Blog News

Dear Readers,

In the next few days, I will try a massive (in terms of time, anyway) undertaking: two new blogs, maybe three.  So in addition to this site and my sports blog (where I babble mostly about baseball, baseball cards, and the sports world at large), please look at my American Horror Story: Coven blog, and my Walking Dead 4 blog, both via Blogger.  If they're not up when you check, please come back.  I'll put up the American Horror Story: Coven blog first, since the season's first episode has already aired.  Walking Dead 4's blog will go up tonight, or tomorrow--most likely tomorrow.

I may also start a blog, tentatively titled Steve's Sales, that will contain photos, descriptions and prices of things I want to sell.  This would be via Blogger as well.  So take a peek at that, when it's up, and let me know what strikes your fancy.  Just send me an email at the address on the top of any of my blogs, and I'll get back to you ASAP. 

As always, thanks for taking the time to peruse my meager scribblings.  I hope my readers, friends and followers like what is to come.

Sincerely,

Steven E. Belanger

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Movie Review: Gravity



Photo: The movie's poster, from its Wikipedia page.  Read that, too.  Interesting stuff.

Other than the incredibly obnoxious idiots talking and exclaiming behind me all through the movie, I have nothing but superlatives to say about the movie Gravity.  (Admittedly, the chatty a--holes behind me were not the fault of the movie.)  It is a very short masterpiece, a (mostly) one-woman show, a visual monologue.  Think a much-shorter, female version of Castaway, except in space, and you've got it.  Gravity, in fact, is a much better movie than Castaway--especially since they both shoot for the same themes: lust for life; appreciation; survival.

This review has to be much shorter than my usual, because to write too much about the movie will give too much away.  The special effects are great, as they must be since over 99% of the movie is in space.  The direction is super, as Cuaron seemlessly goes from a third-person POV, to a first person limited POV, to a POV from inside one of their space helmets, to...you get the idea.  This is something agents and editors tell writers not to do, and it's pretty jarring usually when a director does it as well.  Here it isn't.  The timing is just right.

You'll be impressed by Sandra Bullock's performance here, too.  In a way, it's an uber-spunky version of Speed, but without the excessive cuteness she had at that age.  That's gone, but what's left over is a movie-appropriate, gritty self-determinism that I was surprised she could pull off.  If an older woman, now in her 40s, can be said to be spunky and cute, Bullock is that here.  But self-determined is probably a better term: in fact, through much of the movie, that's occasionally lacking, until she permanently acquires it (in a scene that shouldn't surprise you, though it apparently stupefied the idiots behind me) and uses it in a very MacGyver-but-in-space kind of way.  She doesn't have lots of socks and bandages on her, but she makes do, initially with the help of George Clooney, who was made for his role.

The self-determinism she holds on to is grabbed by this movie and used to transcend her own individual experience.  Ultimately, the movie tries to say that life is beautiful, though fragile, and that we can overcome almost impossible situations to survive.  It's a very cheerleading kind of movie, but only at the end, so don't be put off by any other reviewer who may say the movie does too much of that.  This movie is gripping and awe-inspiring throughout its entire app. one and a half hour run, which is a good thing, because I would have had to shout obscenities at the jackasses behind me otherwise.  But I didn't want to interrupt myself watching the movie, and you won't, either.

As another (paid and professional) reviewer put it, stop reading the reviews now and go see it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King


Photo: The book's cover, from goodreads.com

Eh.

That's really all I was going to write.  After months of anticipation, after all that time reading its 528 pages (well, okay, that took me just a few days), even after being the tome that drove me to the bookstore to write the most recent blog entry--yeah, "eh" was all I was going to write.

But then I got disappointed.  Really, really disappointed.  I mean, this is how Danny Torrance ended up?  Not bad, but...eh?  That's it?  After everything he went through in The Shining, this is the denouement of his life?  (Or, probably, the Act IV before the Act V resolution.)

Okay.  Speaking of The Shining, this book is obviously its sequel, and the comparisons, while impossible not to make, are unfair.  As King himself wrote in his afterword, "...people change.  The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining..."  True enough.  And on the same page, he makes the point that the first real scare will always be the best (He compared Hitchcock's Psycho to Mick Garris's good, but not as good, Psycho IV).  This is also true enough.

But the disconcerting thing is that I wasn't expecting the genius of The Shining.  I believe, as King said above, that that man is gone, never to return.  I don't expect the genius, the scariness, of The Shining, of IT, of a few others, ever again.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  The creepiness and the wistful and sad nostalgia of the last third of Insomnia (which I thought was a different kind of greatness) could not have been written by Shining's King, for example.  Other good parts of other better books could not have been written by 70s King, including Bag of Bones (which is very underrated) and any of the four novellas of Different Seasons.  So different and new is not always bad.

What is bad here is that this book does not scare.  At all.  In fact, only three small sections were even creepy--and I'm not sure if it's because of how he wrote them, or because of the imagination I brought to them, of how I interpreted them and imagined them.  I'm pretty sure that the images I gave myself after I read those three small parts creeped me out more than the parts themselves did.  So the book does not scare at all.  It only barely creeps you out.  And it's got a little of that sad nostalgic thing he's been doing for a long time now, but even that was miniscule.

Unfortunately, what it does do is judge.  There's a lot of author intrusion there, mostly upon the RV People.  (What else is there to call them?)  They're called lots of bad names, and often not just by the characters.  King often seems to jump in the fray and cuss at them, too.  Of course, they're killers (and, most notably, child killers), so you don't feel bad for them, per se.  But the way he draws them, what else could they be?  They're not really people, but they once were, perhaps, and there's the rub, maybe.  But maybe not.  Essentially, they were all once victims of somebody else, like a vampire who kills by sucking blood exactly, and only, because they were victims of a vampire themselves.  At that point, they're no longer fully responsible for what they have to do to survive.  Maybe such creatures kill themselves in Anne Rice's world (or in Stephanie Meyers' world), but that's not "realistic."  Something needs to be done about them, of course, but with such anger and hatred?  Very unlike King.  It's very distasteful.  Especially when you consider that King portrays them all as so human otherwise.  Some RVers are funny; some are smart.  Some are annoying.  A few are physical goddesses.  There's an old man who smells, and a computer geek who loves the newest technology, and a numbers guy who you'd love to be your own accountant.

And there's Andi, the victim that the book practically starts off with.  She's been raped and molested by her father for years, and then she finally kills him, and to survive, she steals money by (sort of) seducing men--who we're blatantly told she doesn't like--and while she doesn't kill them, she leaves a visible calling card on their faces that they won't soon (if ever) forget.  The problem here is that the reader sort of likes that about her, and when she becomes a victim of the RVers, we don't like it, and we wish better for her.  And then the book virtually ignores her as it focuses on the sex goddess in charge (see the cover), and we don't see Andi again until about 80% to 85% of the way through the book.  When we do, it's all over so fast that we wonder why we got to know her to begin with.  And if you're like me, you won't like how that happens, either, or the meanness behind it.

The three creepy scenes, for me, happened in the first quarter or so of the book, and the rest is just...this happens, and then this happens, and then this, and then...without fanfare, creepiness, chills or thrills.  Really, after the scene with the woman and her child after the first 25%, it's all plot, little character (except for the RVers, which is part of the book's problem right there), and---eh.  I hate to say it, but if you were to put the book down halfway through, you really wouldn't miss much.  Seriously.  Send me an email and ask me how it ends, if you'd like, but, I'm tellin' ya...

--A little aside: Maybe I can start a part-time business like that.  I read the books, and if people don't want to finish them, they email me for how it ends, because you always want to know that, right?  For this I charge a minimal fee.  You get your ending, I get my money, and I feel that I haven't totally wasted my time reading the book, since I'm also making money from it.  Maybe I could do that for movies, too.--

Anyway, I digress.  I just didn't like it.  I hate to say it like that, but there it is.  There are maybe three or four very good scenes--and, again, I don't know if that's more reader imagination than author's writing--and all the rest is just eh.  Not bad, exactly, but not really good, either.  Sort of like the difference between an A student, who tries very hard, and a C-, D student who wants to pass, but doesn't really give a damn.  The kinds who pass, but who don't learn anything.  The ones who sit there all day long, emanating eh.

You'll see Dick Halloran, and Wendy and Jack Torrance (the last at the very end, and huh?), but you'll see them for such a short time, and with such varying degrees of solidity that you wonder why they're there at all.

And here's where I have an answer I don't like.  I think King wrote this for three reasons--and in hopefully this order:

1.  He was actually seriously wondering what Danny Torrance was doing these days.  (Who hasn't been after they read The Shining?)

2.  He wanted to write about his alcohol and drug recovery.  (AA stuff takes up a vast majority of stuff space in the book.)

3.  He wanted to distance his characters from the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name.

The first reason is solid.  The second reason is okay, too, but maybe not for the boy from The Shining.  Yes, his father was an alcoholic, and we learn that his grandparents, etc. were, too (though only the men, apparently).  But his mother wasn't, and neither was anyone on her side of the family.  And that story was more Jack Torrance's than his son's, anyway.  But if I'm Stephen King, and I'm curious about what Danny was doing, and I wanted to write about my own addiction and recovery, and that life, then why not put them together?  I didn't like the result, but maybe it was doable.  Okay.

But the last reason is maybe not as okay.  King notoriously dislikes Kubrick's movie, and I don't blame him.  I like the movie, but I don't love it.  I read the book first, and it's so unlike the book that I can only like the movie if I completely forget about the book.  Sometimes I can do that; others, I can't.  In short, the reason King and I both dislike the movie is that King's book is about a good, but very flawed, man, who has his weaknesses used against him by the evils of the Overlook Hotel, but who redeems himself by sacrificing himself at the end to save his son.  The movie is about an A-hole who becomes more and more of an insane A-hole before the movie ends.  Add into that the fact that Wendy Torrance in the book is a very blonde, beautiful, tough chick, and that Shelley Duvall in the movie was a sniveling whiner (and viewers need to give her a break, as that characterization was all Kubrick's, and he was literally driving her crazy) who nobody could stand (and the same might be said of the movie Danny as well), and there you have it.  King and I agree that the movie was visually stunning (as every Kubrick movie is), and perhaps worth seeing for that reason alone, but it's not the book, and the very spirit of the book is lost with it.  The book was a five-act Shakespearean tragedy (King himself describes it that way) and the film is a stunning movie with characters who didn't at all come from the book, which changes the texture of the whole thing.  And, considering all this, it must have been especially annoying for King when you realize that a great percentage of the movie's dialogue comes directly from the book.  I'm talkin' verbatim.

Having said all that (and sorry if I insinuated above that King and I have actually had conversations about this), Doctor Sleep ultimately fails because it also lacks consistent characterization.  Dan Torrance does not develop after about a third of the way through.  Once he settles in NH, it's all happenstance.  The characters who actually take over the character arc are the RVers, and this is yet another example lately (Under the Dome was the most recent, and don't even get me started on the bad book and the even worse tv show) of Stephen King focusing more on his antagonists than on his protagonists, as if even he is bored with what his main characters have become.  Notice that through the whole second half, the RVers are the only characters who change.

And are they really solid antagonists?  You'll have to be the judge, but I vote Nay.  They went not with a bang, but with a whimper.  And with relative ease.

So...that's it.

Huge disappointment.

Just.....eh.   

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How Bookstores Pay Us Not to Go There



Photo: Barnes and Noble icon, from twimg.com.  (Notice the brick and mortar name and the .com.)

So a few days ago I walk into the only large (chain) bookstore left in all of Rhode Island: Barnes and Noble.  I wanted to go there because a) I'd forgotten if I'd pre-ordered Stephen King's latest, Dr. Sleep, his sequel to The Shining.  (For the record, I'm a little concerned about how I'll like the motorcycle gang, but we'll see.)  I ask the guy behind the help desk to look it up in my account, and it turns out that I hadn't pre-ordered it.  I ask him if I can do so, using this 20% extra coupon I'd been emailed, and hoping I'd be able to use it with the 40% off new hardcovers usually come with, and maybe even the 10% off I sometimes get because I'm a member.  (I realize that hoping to get 70% off a new Stephen King hardcover is extremely unrealistic, but as my previous blog entry mentioned, these are some hard times.)

He says No, that Barnes and Noble doesn't offer discounts on the pre-ordered books through BN.com because new books ordered online are already greatly reduced.

"How much reduced?" My ears perked up, because I like things greatly reduced these days.

He explains that to buy it in the store, I'd have to pay the $28 (or so) price, plus tax.  That's over $30.  I'd get the 30% off, not the 40%, and I'd get an additional 10% for being a member, and that's it.  No other coupons allowed.  No 20% additional from the coupon.  I was about to start a discussion about the meaning of the word "additional," as in, the coupon says "get an additional 20% off," but instead I ask him how much it would be to just pre-order it online.

"Nineteen dollars," he said.

Huh?  I quickly figured that 10% of $28 was $2.80, and that twice that was $5.60, and that twice that was $11.20 (that's the 40% off total, for those not so mathematically inclined), and that $30 (with tax) minus $11.20 was $19.80--essentially what it would cost me to sit on my butt at home and order it from there.  Plus, I wouldn't have to pay shipping, because I'm a member and I get that for free. And no money spent on gas, etc.

This gave me pause.  I told the guy I gave him credit for bringing the whole online thing up to begin with, as I had been ready to buy it from the store the week of September 23rd.  I said it was especially good of him to mention it, since everyone who orders a book at bn.com, and not at the store, makes his job more and more obsolete.  It also would make obsolete the jobs of the cashiers and the cafe workers, and it would negate the sales of a great many other books and magazines that are sold to people who come into the store to buy A, and who leave the store buying A, B and C.  From my experience, people who go online to a bookstore website to buy A end up buying A and that's it.  ("From my experience" here means me and a few friends.)

He acknowledged all of this, though it was clear that he hadn't considered all this before, and nobody had had the gumption (or the arrogance) to bring all this up to him before.  Times being what they are, I pre-ordered the book and had it delivered for free to my house, feeling badly as I did so, but at least congratulating myself for not waiting a few weeks or a few months and then buying it for just a couple of bucks on Amazon or Ebay.

To make myself feel a little better, I looked for a baseball card checklist / price guide I needed, but I was told that they didn't carry it in stock, but that their website did.  Sigh.  I bought a couple of coin books I needed instead, feeling that Barnes and Noble was at this point working against me as I tried to buy something in its store.  I had to go through entirely too much hassle and brainpower to do so.

In the long run I'll have to admit defeat.  Before long, the workers behind the registers, in the cafe, behind the help desk, and in the rows of books won't have a job, and the stockholders and CEO of Barnes and Noble will make more money because they won't have any workers to pay.  And there won't be even one large bookstore in my entire state.  Somewhere in there (though Stephen King himself probably doesn't need the money) the writers themselves, and the book publishers, will end up somehow getting screwed, as more and more people buy "books" online and then read them on their electronic devices, never having to actually be verbal with another person as they do so.  For this, book-makers will disappear, as will printers, type-setters, and all the middlemen who are responsible for the sometimes high price of books--but who also keep the economy going by being a necessary worker, and by holding a job.  This in turn makes them money, which they would spend on things that would also necessitate the jobs of other people.  The economy is a house of cards this way, and it's all going to someday blow down.

People will wonder why the economy got so bad.  And there won't be any economics books to teach them.

Or the teachers, for that matter.  But that's another blog.