Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shea Allen, Fired Reporter--Personal Blog vs. Public Job

Image: Shea Allen, former reporter for an Alabama news station, on a happier day.  From an article on dailymail.co.uk, here.

Shea Allen, former on-air reporter for an Alabama news station, was recently fired for re-posting a list of ten confessions, each of which had to do with her job.  She has stated that she was fired for the post, and that she (and maybe half of the commenters) are aghast about this.

Before reading the rest of this, take a quick look at her blog entry.

If you'd read the comments, you might've noticed that I'd deleted a comment that I had, for about three seconds, originally published--and I did so before I copied it, which shows you how dumb I am.  Now I have to try and remember what I'd written, and put it here as honestly as I can.

The reason I responded at all is because I also have (and still have) a very public job. My response went something like this:

Wait!  Genius that I am, I figured that if I just pressed the BACK button enough, I'd get my list back, and I did.  I wrote it as if I were writing to her, since I'd been responding to the entry on her blog.  So, here it is, and afterwards I'll explain why I deleted it there and posted it here (besides the obvious copyright infringement, if her site is copyrighted, which it should be):

--You have a child to provide for.

--You had a public job. You were a public figure.

--You showed up a public employer, in the public realm.

--You needed to show that you took your job seriously, as well as the responsibility of reporting the news and of putting it before yourself.

--You risked lowering your news ratings by alienating your largest demographic. If the ratings plummeted, you, and others, may have lost your jobs.

--You posted all of this in a public forum. On the internet, there is no such thing as a private anything.

--You showed incredibly poor judgment and really bad decision-making skills.

--You were unprofessional, and in a very public way.

(Me again.)  I would argue that these are all valid points (you can comment so if you disagree), but I think the one that would surprise her, twenty-six year old, pretty woman who has grown up in the technology age that she is, is the one in which I said that, on the internet, there is no private anything.

The argument she poses is that her blog is her "personal" and "private" blog, and the (public) station had no right firing her over it.  This is, of course, nonsense.  There is no personal or private anything on the internet.  Period.  Her ignorance of this, considering her job, is astoundingly immature.  Another facet of this point, that I didn't at first mention, is that she even makes her station look bad by not moderating the comments on her blog.  Have you read some of that stuff?  She let complete idiots use any language they wanted to comment about her blog, about what she does, and about what she thinks re: working for her public news station.  She didn't even moderate the comments!  She didn't even try to moderate the attention she received--she took it all!

What public figure does that?  Even I moderate the comments on my blog--which drives away those who want to leave a stupid or juvenile comment.  Her failure to do so is a clear example of poor judgment and bad decision-making.  Just that alone--never mind her comment about her fear of the elderly (I'm going to guess that at least 75% of this nation's elderly watch some sort of news program) or about stealing people's mail.  I can't imagine Murrow or Brokaw posting a blog like this, had they been able to.

It just wasn't professional.  And letting the riff-raff post juvenile comments is another example of that lack of professionalism.

I have a public job.  The reader will rarely, if ever, read about it here.  Instead you'll find probably more than you want about my thoughts of the movies I watch, the books I read, and the non-job-related thoughts (none of them controversial) I have about things (I feel one brewing about people who never take down their yard sale signs).  My job?  I simply don't mention it.  Why?  Because it's not professional.  Do I have things I'd love to vent?  Sure--Who doesn't?  But I don't.  Because I'm an adult.  Because there's no such thing as a private, or just personal, anything on the internet.  Because, fair or not, that's just the way it is.  And at my age, I'm way over "That's not fair!" being a winning reason about why I do anything at all.

And it's more than that.

Bottom line: I like my job.  A lot.  And I have a mortgage to pay, and things I want to do in which I need money.  I like my (very minor) social status.  For example, I get many hellos when I go to Dunkin' Donuts drive thrus.  It ain't much, but it's all I've got, and I like it.  This former reporter showed she didn't like her job and she didn't take it seriously.  How do I know this?  Simple.  She re-published the blog after she was told to take it down.  She did take it down, at first.  But like some petulant child, she re-posted it, thereby giving the finger to her bosses, and showing her ignorance for the very good reasons about why they told her to take it down to begin with.  I guarantee that their #1 reason was her quip about fearing the elderly, and about how she will not do any story about an elderly person, ever.  That's the demographic, man.  The elderly watch the station, which shows ads, which makes it money, which the station uses to pay its reporters, of which she had been one.  It's that simple.  She very publicly cost her employer money, and she very publicly made it look bad.

And she let any idiot comment on it.  Do you think Brian Williams would post an incendiary blog in which any moron could respond by using whatever word at all he wanted to?  That alone would make NBC look bad.  And so I deleted mine, because I didn't want to be one of those, although many commenters were fine, and adult.  But when I realized that there wasn't any moderating going on (and, yes, I should have realized that sooner, before I was just asked to re-type two words, and then saw my response published), I decided that I didn't want to be a part of that--and that my response would make a better blog entry, since I also have a public job, with very public responsibilities.

It's just part of being an adult.

And, as a last caveat, her blog page says that she is still a reporter at that station.  She isn't, and wasn't even professional enough to edit that on her blog.

What do you think?  Should she have been fired?    

Saturday, July 27, 2013

American Horror Story: Asylum

Photo: A promo poster for the show, on its Wikipedia page

I've been trying forever to get to this series, which I'd DVR-ed.  Turns out, I somehow missed the first episode, and--since two episodes started later than they were supposed to--I missed fifteen minutes or so on those two episodes.

At any rate, I came into the house exhausted from working outside in the heat for five hours--I didn't take any breaks, and was often so lightheaded that I became dizzy and nauseous, but I did the day--and sat down and didn't want to get up.  Thinking I was now in my best position to at least start the series, I did so--and then watched them all, until about three in the morning.  That was about 11 1/2 straight episodes--fast-forwarded through all the commercials, of course.

So, since it's been nominated for a million Emmys, here's my two cents of it:

--Very compulsively watchable, despite the characters being in so many implausible situations.

--Jessica Lange was the best of the bunch, as she apparently was last year when she took home the Emmy. 

--I don't know what's so exactly American about American Horror Story.  Seems more French to me, in a very Sartre-like, "Hell is other people," kind of way.   But if you don't know that, and you thought it was a lot like Lost, well, then, there you go.  I got an Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None vibe while watching the series, too.

--(I'm reminded of the time I saw a few minutes of one of the first episodes of the first season of Lost.  I told someone the island was obviously a Sartre-like Hell, and that "Hell is other people," and I never had to watch a single episode again.  When it was all over, years later, the girl I said that to said I'd ruined it for her, that she wasn't surprised at the end, and that she'd been ticked that I'd been right about the whole thing in five minutes.  I admit that I'm a bit of a killjoy that way.  I did the same thing while sitting in the theatre, watching The Sixth Sense.  The Bruce Willis character was obviously dead, and the real tipping-point for me was when he was at dinner with his wife, and the waitress placed the bill on the table, facing her.  Waitresses purposely don't point the bill at the guy anymore, but they still did in 1999.)

--I got the Hell aspect of the show, and that Briarcliffe was supposed to be that, but it became suspension-of-disbelief impossible that they'd all get put back there by the State of Massachusetts so many times.  I mean, I went with it, but...it almost derailed my viewing between episodes six through nine, or so.

--The demon didn't seem to have a fully compelling agenda.  I know that the angelic sister was battling the demon the whole time, but, still...Demons normally have plans of destruction, or something, right?  This one seemed content to take part in a battle of wills with the Nazi doctor, the sister in charge, and the Monsignor--all battles that she was apparently content to lose most of the time, as well.  The demon in The Exorcist at least wanted to conquer some souls and kick some ass.

--Jessica Lange's Boston accent was both right-on, and too exaggerated, at the same time.  Odd.

--It also doesn't seem reasonable that the girl she ran over ended up living a productive, mobile life.

--Her thinking that she'd run her over, blaming herself her whole life, drinking again, and all for what?  I realize there's a lesson in there, somewhere.

--What're the chances of a fake nun, a demon, a possessed man, some aliens, some inhuman creatures, and a Nazi doctor all being in the same building at the same time?  Maybe that's the American part.

--There were many homages to Psycho, especially, but other American films as well.  One of the many notable Psycho homages was when a woman entered the behavorial therapist's (or whatever she was) office, and found the therapist sitting in her chair, hair to us, facing away.  I expected her to turn the chair around, and to hit a swinging light fixture as she screamed.

--I'm no prude, but...I don't know.  I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable knowing that so many crude sexual references, so much cursing, and so much nudity was on commercial television.  I'm surprisingly prudish for such a liberal-minded guy.

--I still watched it all, of course, hypocrite that I am.  Perhaps that's the American part as well.

--It's not every day that you see a nun forcing sex on a Monsignor.  While wearing black garters.

--The suicidal driver who picked up the reporter when she escaped must've been thinking, "Of all the suicidal guys' cars in all the state, she has to jump into mine."

--While watching, I must've said, "What?" two hundred times.  Usually after what someone said.

--Speaking of being such a prude, I couldn't get over the constantly-repeated massage gel commercial.  Times, they are a changin'.

--I didn't expect the Monsignor to throw the nun off the stairway.  But I did expect the Nazi doctor to become permanently bereft about it.

--Of course, he was already permanently bereft, in many other ways.

--I expected things to get easier for Lange's character after she was born again, but instead they got much harder.  I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but after awhile He didn't seem to be working in Briarcliffe at all.

--Of course, the asylum was Hell on Earth, so that sort of makes sense, but still...

--The series wrapped up very well, showing what happened to all the characters.  It ended like a Stephen King book has ended lately, at least in the last ten years or so.  Very bittersweet, sad but not.  That speaks well of how the show (and King, I suppose) led us to care about the characters.

--The aliens seemed to also be very hands-off in the series, much like the demon.  It feels odd to have just typed that.  But it's true.  The aliens didn't try to save the two women at all.  And I can understand each of the women's POV, too.  One felt raped, the other raptured.  I would've felt like the first, too.

--I saw the rebooted Star Trek movies before this, so it was hard for me to see Spock doing those things.  Speaking of being a killjoy, I nailed him as Bloody Face right away.  Had to be him.  He was the only good character on the show at the time.

--Speaking of that, Jessica Lange has come a long way since King Kong.  That was in 1976, by the way, for those of you who didn't feel old enough already.

--That little girl perhaps disturbed me the most out of everyone.  I've read lots of nonfiction books that said that five-year-olds can indeed by evil psychopaths.  After killing her family, she's never referenced again, with quite a few episodes remaining.  Maybe in Season Three?  Though every season is a different story, she can find her way into the show again if the writers really want her to.

--Having a show's cast be like a repertory theatre troupe is a good idea.

--Very good show, overall.  I did watch it for about twelve straight hours, which perhaps says something unfortunate about me as well.  And, no, I didn't have to get up for work in the morning.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Conjuring--Movie Review

Photo: The house, tree, and noose from the movie, from the movie's Wikipedia page.  The real house in the village of Harrisville, in Burrillville, Rhode Island, looks nothing like this.

Very good, very creepy horror film, supposedly based on a real house in Burrillville (village: Harrisville), Rhode Island, just a minute or two from the MA border.  My visit to this house will be another blog entry for another day.  (I won't tell you--my RI readers) where this house is, because--as I found out myself--the real people living in the real house want their privacy, and they should get it.  I can tell you that there isn't much to see from the road, there's very little breakdown lane room to park for a quick look, and you'll get arrested if you go on the property, so don't even think about it.  It's easy to find the address online, but if you do, and if you go there, at least I can say that I didn't give you the address and lead you there.  Burrillville itself is a pleasant little town, and there's a cemetery nearby with a crypt that has a very creepy door--wide open.  I'll show pictures of that in the next blog entry about my trip up there.

Anyway, the film isn't overdone, and there's a lot of very creepy images and situations.  A few of these made me jump, which is no easy task, as I've seen and read most of the good (and bad) horror stuff out there.  I'm not often affected in movies in any way, so this was a winner.  The best thing I can say about it is that there's not a moment after the movie ended that you say, "Now that I think about it, that was kinda dumb."  The Ring struck me like this.  It was a very creepily effective movie, but when I thought about it, I realized--In a VHS tape?  How did a drowned girl's spirit somehow make it's way through a VHS tape?  What if the tv is one of those miniature ones that people use in their kitchens?  Or, now, on an I-Phone?  The sequel could be set up with the tape in a discount bin, with all of the other VHS tapes that nobody plays anymore.  See what I mean?  The suspension-of-disbelief holds you while you're watching, but the second it loses its grasp of you--you think, "Huh?"

This movie wasn't like that, although in this case, you are asked to buy the fact that the original bad person was a witch.  It's mentioned just once or twice, and the rapidity of the movie makes you accept it because you don't have time not to.  I caught this snare while watching it, and I didn't buy it, but I do buy that there are just some very bad and angry people out there, and I do believe that--if ghosts exist at all--than those very bad and angry people will become very bad and angry ghosts.  That's a lot of ifs, but it all makes sense to me.  (In a philosophical, If and Only If [IFF] kind of way, but whatever.)  The point is that it's all kind of plausible, if you think that way to begin with.  I walked in believing in a very solid Maybe that ghosts exist, and I wasn't swayed either way by watching this.  I'm going to guess that whatever it is you believe about the whole ghost / possession thing, you'll feel the exact same way afterwards.

There was a scene where a priest tells a guy he can perform an exorcism on his authority, once it's established that the okay from the Vatican would take too long to save the possessed person.  This of course a Catholic priest cannot do.  That has to come from the Vatican.  (This was a minor beef of mine with Season Two of American Horror Story, a blog entry to come.)  But, whatever.  At least the guy, or the priest, doesn't just perform the exorcism without even mentioning the Vatican or the process.  You expect these types of things in horror movies, and probably in movies in general.  You either go with it, or you don't.  I suspect that you will here.

There's a creepy tree, a creepy attic, a creepy basement, a creepy crawlspace, a creepy armoire / wardrobe piece of furniture, a creepy-looking thing in the daughters' room, and a very, very creepy doll, which thankfully is more of a symbol of evil than an actual participant or used object.  That's already been done well (Poltergeist) and badly (Chucky) and I just wasn't in the mood for it.  In real life, there was a very creepy-looking barn, where someone apparently hanged herself (or, as the movie frequently and annoyingly said, "hung herself," but, whatever, I'm over it).  This barn was not used in the movie.  I probably won't show it in the blog about my visit, as it isn't my property, and, like I said, there's apparently an old couple living there now, and they deserve their privacy--which they won't get, of course, but I don't have to play a part in that.

Incidentally, this information about the current owners came from a few people who had driven for almost three hours--from Schenectady, New York--only to have to leave fewer than five minutes after they stopped.  I hope it was worth it for them.

So, if you want to be creeped-out and chilled, if not a little jumpy afterwards, this movie is the one for you.  Critics have heavily praised it, and Rotten Tomatoes has given it a very high rating percentage.

I would, too.

If you've seen the movie, please tell me what you thought of it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

Photo: Book's cover, from its Wikipedia page.  Great cover!

Very specifically-written account of the murders committed by Dr. Marcel Petoit, of which there may have been 27, or 150, or anything in between, by David King.  In Nazi-occupied Paris, he would advertize his services as a Resistance-fighter, as a man who could get Jews and others out of the country, to Argentina and to freedom.  His orders were to not tell anyone.  To carry as much money as possible, sewn into their clothes.  To remove all identifying tags.  To pack all of their most valuable belongings into two suitcases and to bring them on the day they were to get away.  He'd have them meet him at an address, at an apartment condo affixed with a gas chamber, a scope that allowed him to see the suffering from the gas, or from the poison he might've injected them with.  He became very rich.

The book shows a lot of the Paris of the time, from existentialists Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir (it was cool to hear about them; I studied them while getting my philosophy degree, but I didn't get to learn a lot about their daily lives), to the daily struggles of everyone else at the time, to the way the police department worked in its tug of war with the Nazis in power, to many other things.  Petoit's crimes over so long proved the maxim of the best way to get away with something huge and terrible: To do so in the wide open, because nobody will believe it, and those who do will willfully ignore it.

It covers the trial, which was a farce of the highest order.  In a French trial, the judge, the accused, the prosecution, and any lawyer of any of the other civil defendants can all ask a question, interrupt, and say anything at any time.  So can the judge, and any of the assistant judges he has next to him.  So can any member of the jury.  This, as you may imagine, would create a chaos that I still have trouble understanding.  How anything is proven, or disproven, and judged upon is a mystery.  But Petoit was found guilty, and guillotined.  His last moments exhibit a perhaps-psychotic calm that is also beyond belief.

The subject matter saves the book, in a way, because the author displays a very dry, matter-of-fact writing style that could bore had the subject been more pedestrian.  I had no trouble putting it down, though I did want to continue.  A better job could perhaps be done with all this, though I do understand, perhaps, that the author may have felt such an approach was necessary in order to make sense and order out of all the chaos.  I have not read any of his other work, so I can't say if this is just his style, or not.

Worth a read, though Petoit's manic behavior, and his apparent ability to impress so many very well-educated and otherwise hard to impress people, may turn the reader off a little.  A Jekyll-and-Hyde person, Petoit was both a celebrated and altruistic doctor, and a mass-murderer, serial-killer-for-profit, and perhaps fifty other types of person, all at the same time, and was in and out of institutions frequently.  It was also clear that he worked for the Gestapo, and that he may have started this killing spree getting rid of other Gestapo workers--and then started killing everyone, including Jews desperate to get out of France.

Sickening, yet compulsively readable.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Quick Jots

Some quick things that I didn't find a whole blog post for:

--I'm on page 65 of my newest manuscript, and we're rolling right along.

--I could be wrong, as the days have seemed to bleed together recently, but I think it's been over 90 degrees in my neck of the woods for over three straight weeks now.

--I have even more respect for our ancestors who lived over 100 years ago.  The thing I appreciate most these days they didn't have: Central Air.  We are very, very spoiled.

--As I get older, it seems like less is more, with everything.  Lately: Too many things on the floor.  The more bare wooden floorboards, the better.  Or--I'm just going nuts.  Or both.

--Speaking of getting old, the big difference between being forgetful and having early-onset Alzheimer's: if you forget where you put your keys, you're just getting older, and forgetful.  If you forget what keys are for, that's maybe Alzheimer's.  If you're at a loss for a word, and then remember it after you've used another one, perhaps the wrong one, you're getting older and more forgetful.  If you don't remember what the word means, that's maybe Alzheimer's.

--How can anything green, including weeds, grow in this oven?  I thought it was wonderful how well my front and back lawns were doing in this sweltering heat, until I realized both my lawns were many different types of weeds, all growing well together.

--Home maintenance and yard maintenance: Never-ending.

--I've been thinking of starting a Shakespeare blog.  How nerdy is that?

--A recent realization: I've long thought it horrible that Paris tells Juliet that she shouldn't say something bad about her face, because her face was his.  How obnoxious was that?  Because women were pieces of furniture in that male-dominated society, right?  So how much of an arrogant dweeb was Paris?  But then the following lines hit me more recently: Juliet agrees with him.  Her face will soon be his.  And the rest of her, too.  She loves someone else and wants her body to be shared with him, but she has to share her body with a guy she doesn't even like, and her father, in a rage, flat-out told her she had to, that since she was his to give, he'll give her to his friend.  All of her.

--So that made me think that Shakespeare was a bit more of a social critic than he's been given credit for.  Juliet's stance was not a typical one for the day.  And one of the faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream says that he can't take a female role because his beard was growing in.  Yet Shakespeare must have had confidence in the young boys who played his major female roles, because those of Juliet, Cleopatra and many others were amongst the strongest of his, or of any, time.

--People write to Juliet, in Verona, Italy, to tell her their relationship and love problems.  A group of volunteers write back.  This started about eighty years ago, with one guy responding to everyone.

--I spent about $45 on a huge book that reprints every page of the 1623 folio.  Cuz I'm like that. 

--I hope everyone's well out there.  Stay outta the heat.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Robert B. Parker's Ironhorse

Photo: Book's cover, from Amazon

I've gone into how I don't like it when publishers sell a book with the (more popular) deceased author's name in huge letters on the top of the title, then the actual author's name in smaller letters below it.  Just a pet peeve, but the practice clearly says that the money made from the book is more important than is the name of the guy who actually wrote it, or the memory of the guy who created the series, who is no longer with us...But that's not much of a surprise, is it?  The copyrights are owned by The Estate of Robert B. Parker, so maybe it has to be titled like this, legally.  Whatever...

Anyway, nobody would get confused about the authorship once they've read it, because, although it's very good, nobody would believe that Parker wrote it.  Just not his thing.  There's no message here, no statement of any kind about honor, or the code of being a real man, etc.  Nothing even about the knight-in-shining-armor thing, though there are women saved by the strong, silent types of Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.  They save the day without saying much, and they're both great shots and they're great at what they do, so what else can you ask for?

I read this very quickly--371 pages over a day and a half or so--and the writing flows as quickly as a river with rapids, so it's worth your time.  Even Ed Harris says so, in a blurb on the back.  If you liked the series with Parker writing it, you'll like it with Knott writing it.  He is his own writer, and he may or may not have been trying to emulate Parker--I'm guessing half yes, half no--but it will go off now in Knott territory, I'll bet.  This was a mostly-smooth transition.

Except for a few spots.  One that glared at me is on page 212:

"What do you allow, Virgil?"

"Hard to speculate."

I didn't say anything else as we continued walking.

"You?" Virgil said.

"Don't know," I said.  "Been sort of expectant about it."

"Sort of?"

"More than sort of."

And so on.  You get the idea.  So what was glaring here to me?  The clipped responses and the distant first-person were always done well by Parker, even when it was all perhaps too spare. 

But it isn't Knott's thing, exactly.  He writes better when he writes medium-length sentences and paragraphs.  When he writes short, clipped stuff like this, it's a low word count that doesn't say much.  Which is fine, but when Parker used few words, he did so to say a lot.  When Knott uses few words, he just says fewer things.  With Parker, less was often more.  With Knott, less is just...less.

Again, there's nothing wrong with that.  But look at the excerpt above.  See the sentence where Everett Hitch, the first-person narrator, says that he walked and didn't say anything?  And then see where he almost immediately responds to Cole's question?  With Parker, they both wouldn't have said anything, and that would have said something.  Here, Hitch says he didn't say anything, and then he says something, and there's nothing said or meant by that odd interchange.

That's Knott trying to be Parker there, and not succeeding at it.

Which is fine.  But now it's time to move on, as much as I hate to say so.  I liked Parker as a writer, and I really liked him as a person.  I'd spoken with him three times: once when I worked at a Borders he was signing at, and twice at a Barnes & Noble, once extensively, during a Q&A.  I'd asked him about his apparent bias against the high school and college education system.  He admitted to the bias, and blamed it on an experience at a college where he used to teach.  And I had to chase after him when he left his prescription glasses behind at that Borders.  And he was even gracious enough to give me his agent's name, and permission to speak with her.  (I've yet to do so.)

Knott goes into many things that Parker never would have, including everything you'd ever want (and not want) to know about how to operate a coal-powered train, and about how to operate, and trace the operation of, a telegraph.  It was mostly good stuff, though I'm biased because I like accurately-told, well-researched, historical fiction.  You won't have to like westerns to like this, either.

Anyway, it's time now for Knott to ONLY write like Knott.  From what I saw here, that should be more than good enough.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dan Brown's Inferno and the Joy of Info. Dumping

Photo: Inferno's first edition hardcover, from its Wikipedia site

I liked Inferno, but I can't say that I really liked it, and I certainly didn't love it.  It's got some things going for it, but it's got a surprising number of things against it, too.

It depends on why you're reading this book, I guess.  If you're looking for really good writing, whatever that is, exactly, then you're going to strike out here.  Some parts made me shake my head, literally.  There are some parts that are so remarkably bad, you'll want to put the book down, but you won't.  (One aspect of the ending made me want to do this.  Actually, some parts are so bad that it reminded me of the famous Dorothy Parker quip, that "...this isn't a book to be put aside lightly.  It should be thrown with great force.")  Some parts really are that bad, so be forewarned. 

What makes them bad?  Well, in a nutshell, Brown's writing is at its worst when he tries to give his characters some depth, and I mean that in the best of all possible ways.  He just can't.  It is that simple.  His characters just say things.  And they just do things.  Anytime he tries to get beneath that surface, your eyes will roll, I assure you.

Robert Langdon, for example, is (in)famously described, very simply, as Harrison Ford in tweed.  Brown describes him that way in every single book, and he makes Langdon describe himself that way, and he makes many of the other characters describe him that way.  Everyone, in fact, in Brown's universe, describes him that way.  This is very lazy writing, of course, as if nothing else about him needs to be said.  And, in a way, that's true.  Nothing else really is needed.  He's smart and erudite.  He's tall and handsome.  He has a deep voice and he wears tweed.  And that's it, throughout four books now.  Nothing else is needed because, frankly, there isn't anything else.

But there's a method to this madness.  Is Brown simply incapable of giving him individual depth, or is there another reason?  Well, there is something else.  Langdon is a blank slate because the reader needs to have room to put himself in Langdon's clothes.  In short, we are Robert Langdon.  He is the audience figure, perhaps one of the better ones in contemporary fiction.  And if he had more specific personality, that would shut us out, because he would be too uniquely himself.  There wouldn't be room for us in there.  We would have to watch him do things, rather than us being him, thereby allowing us to do those things, instead.  It's the difference between playing a video game and watching the character do things, and playing more of a reality role-playing game, and feeling like it's us actually doing those things.  This, plus the world-traveling, the codes and puzzles, and the info. dumping, are the reasons why his books work like they do.

Of course, Brown also carries this into his minor characters, which is bad.  And he tends to get a little preachy about his themes, which Inferno certainly does.  By the end, you'll wonder about how Brown actually feels about what his antagonist feels.  I think they're one and the same.  Brown gets just as fever-pitched as his antagonist does.  And he, and his characters, are severely repetitive about it, too.

For the record, their point--that this world is so overpopulated that we could potentially create our own cataclysmic demise--is well-taken, and well-known.  I know that we don't need a super-villain (or not, depending on your point of view) to create a virus that will become our present-day Black Death; there are plenty of them out there right now, including two presently incurable viruses written about this week, one in California, the other in Saudi Arabia.  We are very overdue for another pandemic like 1918's super-flu, which originated in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and which killed hundreds of millions throughout the world, more than every war combined.  The population-thinning virus before that?  The tuberculosis of the mid- to late-1800s.  One herd-thinning virus tends to hit the world every fifty years or so.  Nature has a way of cleaning its own house.  The book will hit you over the head with this, and then stuff it down your throat, about fifty times over--and then it will end with a horrific event that all of the characters just shrug their shoulders about.  Very, very odd.

Having said all that, there is a lot to like about this book, which isn't as good as Angels & Demons or The Da Vinci Code, but is a bit better than the slower The Lost Symbol and Dan Brown's others.  In fact, the best (and perhaps only) good thing about The Lost Symbol is what works really well with Inferno.  In The Lost Symbol, I was surprised to learn about how much like a deity George Washington was treated.  The painting of Washington standing like God, or like Jesus, in the clouds, in a giant painting on the ceiling of The Capitol, is flat-out creepy and fascinating.  Without The Lost Symbol, I wouldn't have ever known about that, or about the painting, or a few other things about D.C. in general.

I felt the same about Inferno.  Though lots of writers have used Dante's work as a focal point for a novel of historical fiction--the best is perhaps Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club--this book works because it brings the world-famous work of Dante to light, to better historical context, and to a better present-day understanding.  It made me want to take out my (very nice) copy of The Divine Comedy and to read it, which I'd never really done before--well, beyond line 50, anyway.  (I have a feeling that Dan Brown would be very happy if his book was well-received and that it made people want to read Dante again.)

Dan Brown's Inferno also will show you a lot of Dante's death mask, St. Mark's, Venice, Istanbul / Constantinople, Florence, The Hagia Sophia (mentioned before in Brown's works), the Palazzo Vecchio, and seemingly dozens of other things.  All of this was so interesting that I found myself wanting to buy The Illustrated Inferno once it comes out.

And that's why you read this stuff, right?  To place yourself as Langdon into all of the places he goes, to see all of the things he sees, to think about and to know all of the things he thinks about and knows.  To learn about all of the stuff that Dan Brown teaches us with the info. dumps.  To Google all of the things he refers to that we find interesting.  To travel to all of the places he travels to.  (Dan Brown clearly has his very favorite places in Florence, Venice, Rome, Vatican City, and Istanbul.  You have to spend a lot of time in all of these places to know their nooks and crannies, to have favorite spots.  I mean, I know Fenway Park like that, because I practically live there.  That's how well Brown knows these places, and there's a large amount of envy on my part involved with that.)

Anyway, to rate this, I'd probably give it three stars if I was in a writerly mood at the time, because the characterization, and sometimes, the plot, really are that bad.  But I'd give it four, maybe even five, stars if I was in the mood to remember that we read his stuff for the globe-trotting, for the vast amount of info. he has about history, about art and architecture, about stuff that you wouldn't normally think about.  And, if I was to remember that to do all this, for the reader to feel this way, the main character would have to be such an empty shell so that there'd be room for us to step in to experience these things.

So if that's what you want, you should read this.  If it isn't, if you want characterization and plot, you'd be better off with almost anybody else.  Read and choose accordingly.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Photo: The book's cover, from its Wikipedia page

This is probably the last of my unread Stephen King books for awhile, in case you were getting tired of my many Stephen King reviews lately.  At 625 pages, this one took half a week to read, and much of it was pretty intense.  This intensity waned a bit the more it went on; an editor working with two lesser-known names would've done much good here.  The second half, and definitely the last third, are very fat.  Much could have, and should have, been trimmed there.

But it is still a good ride, especially the first third.  It's told in a very third-person omniscient style, and in the present tense, no less.  Lots of the word "we," as in "And now we see Jack Sawyer--."  That takes a little getting used to, but it's not that bad.  It fits, though I can't see why such a different storytelling tactic was necessary.  The last third is so fatuous that even this third-person omniscient, present tense POV does not give the narrative a you-are-there feel.  It's so in need of editing, that such word-bloat takes away from the intensity the reader is supposed to feel by this narrative POV.  You don't get that "Once upon a time..." lean story-telling voice that the authors are clearly going for.  (The book even ends with exactly that phrase.)

Having said that, it's worth reading, especially if you're a fan of the The Talisman and/or The Dark Tower books.  Black House is situated firmly in the Dark Tower universe, much more so than The Talisman, though by the end of it, you get the feel that it's a story from a minor planet of that universe, so to speak.  It is not a major entry in that series; the Dark Tower saga, as it's now complete, can and does exist without this.  It's a side-room behind one of the many doors in the Dark Tower's house.  It's interesting to open that door and peer in, and see what's there, maybe admire the old furniture and to appreciate the character of the room, but when you shut the door, you can move on to the staircase and to the more important rooms.

Black House can't decide which character it wants to follow.  It follows Jack Sawyer more than anyone else, but not like The Talisman did, and when the focused POV of the second half follows a gross old man, a pawn of the Crimson King, it starts getting fat and unfocused.  With that character's demise, it then focuses again as it should, upon Jack Sawyer, and then goes a place or two that the reader wouldn't expect--but shouldn't be completely surprised about, either.  Stephen King has followed the antagonist before--lately in Under the Dome--and you have to wonder about his main character, his protagonist, if even he decides that his antagonist is much more interesting.  The reader had better agree--and this one didn't, in this case.  (I did agree with that tactic for Under the Dome.)

But it doesn't work here because the gross old man is still nothing more than a gross (and murderous) old man.  The power he has is given to him by the Crimson King and his minions, and so he's nothing more than that.  More or less, then, this novel is an examination of the root of evil, of where it comes from.  Where does an evil, murdering, pedophile cannibal like Albert Fish (Mentioned very frequently here, and worth a Wikipedia visit--if you can stomach it.  No sin if you can't.  It's extremely gut-wrenching stuff.) and Charles Burnside (this book's Albert Fish) come from?  Well, apparently from another universe, and its evil incarnate, which uses the (less?) evil and the weak here for its own nefarious purposes.  All well and good, I suppose, except that this book doesn't present a convincing case for that.

Ultimately, the first third of the book is extremely good.  The first half is very good.  By three-quarters it starts to wane, and by the end you're ready for the end to end.  But it still ends well, and so it is still worth reading--if you can tolerate the fat.  I was able to cut it away and dine on the rest.  If you can do that, this book is worth the read.

(The parts written by Straub, in my opinion, stand out from those written by King here.  My guess is that Straub wrote most of the first half, King most of the second.  There are some Straub writing patterns and signatures I recognized, and some from King as well.  For example, Straub does not tend to choose his antagonist as a POV focus as King does, and so I feel much of that is King's.  Since most of the Charles Burnside focus happens in the second half, I feel that's where King's fingerprints are.  The first half, especially, resonates, as all good writing should.  The first half sank into my consciousness enough so that I was compelled to write a previous blog entry, two entries ago.  Ironic, since most of what I wrote about were Stephen King thematic constructs, though it was Straub's treatment of them in the beginning of this book that compelled me to write about them.  But that's art for you.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Stephen King's Blockade Billy / Morality: Barnes & Noble vs. Amazon

Photo: The book's hard cover, from bookdepository.com

The small hardcover of Stephen King’s Blockade Billy / Morality is handsome to hold and to look at, and it looks different than any of his other actual physical books.  The two stories inside are the same: very different than usual for him.  Not bad, exactly; just different.  But to compare them to his other works—and their quality—is like comparing apples to oranges.  There simply is no comparison.

"Blockade Billy" is about 80 pages long; "Morality" checks in at about 50.  They're both written in an oddly (for King) distant tone.  I wonder at that writing choice, especially for the second story, because it seems like he could have done more with them if he'd focused his lens a little more upon them.  "Morality," especially, could have gone places if he'd created actual scenes from the man's and woman's POV, rather than just tell the story in a detached, long distance way.  It's like he wanted to tell the stories without focusing on them too much.  The stories aren't bad, exactly, because of this; it's just that they could have been better.

The first story was published in a (very) limited edition previous to this.  The second story was previously published in Esquire, which seems right.  It's definitely an Esquire type of story--and a bit of a Playboy story, as well.  King's been published in The New Yorker and in Esquire recently.  He's always been mainstream, of course, though now he seems to be more of a mainstream writer for mainstream literary magazines, which is quite new for him.  You can add his column in Entertainment Weekly to this phase, too.  I don't know quite what to make of it, if anything.  I suppose the tremendous (and well-deserved) success of On Writing opened these doors for him.

Lastly, something needs to be said for the quality of stories that King gives to limited only editions.  All of his novels, of course, come in limited editions--signed, gold-plated, leather-bound with ornate boxes; you name it, he's got it going on--but some, such as this, come in editions that are only limited.  Even previously-published stories such as these are usually later published in mass-market hardcovers and paperbacks.  Stories of this length would be packaged with two others and sold in a book of four, like Different Seasons, or Four Past Midnight.  Why weren't these, and others like these?  (I'm thinking of the Hard Case paperbacks recently reviewed.)  I don't know, exactly, but I have to assume it's because he felt that they weren't worthy of such packaging and selling.  Are these two worthy?  I don't know that, either.  But I'm going to say No.  I think that because, as I mentioned, King himself seems to have just sort of let these go.  You have to sell what you write, of course, and they'll sell because King wrote them.  So you sell them to Esquire, or a (very) limited edition, and then you package them into a book.  But then why not mass market that book?  I come back to how he wrote them: tells more than shows; no exactly focused scenes in either story, exactly.  The first one is a dramatic monologue (a la Dolores Claiborne) told to Stephen King himself.  Huh?  This conceit is left completely unexplained.  I feel that he wrote them, and sort of shrugged, and didn't know what to do with them.  Then someone called him, some limited edition publisher, and asked him if he had anything.  He did.  Then Esquire called and asked the same thing.  And then, later, when the rights reverted back to him, he realized that they didn't go together with any other two longer short stories (fifty pages isn't quite a novella, in my opinion, though eighty pages is), and so he packaged them together for another limited edition publisher, since I feel he felt them sort of unworthy of mass market sales.  I mean, can you package a baseball meets In Cold Blood story with anything else?  How about an Indecent Proposal meets sadomasochistic behavior story?  Nope, not so much.

Well, whatever.  Stephen King fans will like these two stories.  Baseball fans will like the first one, as a certain 40s or 50s era game is brought back, though the players described seem more 1890s to 1910s to me.  Fans who've read his Esquire and New Yorker pieces will like the second one--and I read somewhere that it's won some awards somewhere.  This was the last of his (relatively normally published; not-so-limited) books that I didn't have, and I was annoyed because I remember seeing this at Barnes & Noble when it was released for (seemingly) a few days.  I didn't buy it because I was in some sort of mood; I remember thinking that a baseball story didn't belong in the same book as an S&M sort of story, and I remember thinking that some kid would buy it for the baseball story, and then be shocked out of his pants by the second story.  I was nuts at the time, of course.  I went back to the store, and they didn't have it anymore, of course.  But they could order it for me for $25.  Um, no.  So I went to my local used bookstore.  Nada.  So then, belatedly and with a sigh, I went to Amazon (which you should never do when buying a book because the author usually won't see a cut of it) and bought a brand new, never opened copy, delivered to my door, for a total of $11.  I hated to do it, but I can't afford to pay $14 more, not including tax and shipping, from the bookstore.

So I'll leave this rambling review with that.  I had to buy a limited edition book, from an even more limited edition run before it, from Amazon, because the bookstore charged way too much (it was a bit less on BN.com, but nowhere close to what Amazon had it for) and because the limited edition (limited, for whatever reason) didn't produce enough copies for a used bookstore to have a realistic chance to get it.  I know this is bad, and that I would hate it if people bought by books on Amazon for a penny, rather than from the bookstore for the real price, because I wouldn't see a cut of it at all, and it would be literally be taking money out of my pocket.  And that sucks, but in the same exact position, I'd have to do it again.

Would you?