Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Beam, My Tower

"There are other worlds than these," Stephen King has Jake say in the first Gunslinger.  Or, at least, that's the phrase I hear when I think about it.  I sometimes believe this to be so, that there are other worlds than these.  Maybe not in a Gunslinger way, nor in a Talisman way, nor even in a Lord of the Rings way.

In what way, then?  I don't know, but in this other world I don't grind my teeth, and every pen is as smooth as the one I used to originally write this down.  There's a lightness, but also a sense of urgency.  In this other world, there is a known magic, an accepted sense of wonder, of awe.  Life is simpler, but harder for its simplicity.  There's more color, more sound, more vibrancy.  More of a Pull.

In this world, here, I get more of a sense of Push than Pull.  I feel pushed along, usually roughly, rather than pulled gently, though perhaps inexorably.  My mind is calmer when I feel Pulled, than Pushed.

I'm pushed to pay The Man, as we all are, and to do the job that helps me to pay The Man, though I'm fortunate to be both Pushed and Pulled at my job.  That's my Beam here, I think.  My job.  The difference I'm told I've made, and continue to make.  That's how I stay on the Beam here; that's my contribution to the Beam, to the Tower that supports us here.  Would the Tower tremble without me doing what I do here?  I like to think so.  Someone recently told me he has done everything he's done because of what I did for him back in the day, maybe nine or ten years ago now.  So maybe there's a Beam that connects us, me to him, and both of us to the Tower here.  It's always nice to think you matter.

But there, in that mirror world, I think my writing, my creating, keeps the Beam buzzing.  The Me, there, lives in a somewhat muted contentedness, alone in a wooden shack, with some of the same things there as here.  I write by candlelight and it's always raining outside.  I have a small fireplace in a small hearth, but as it's a small room in a small one- or two-room house, and as I'm warm with my sweater and my shawl anyway, it's all good.

Maybe one me also supports the other.  A glimpse of me here to the me there, and vice-versa.  I look out my office door to the Me in the commode mirror, beside the picture of the younger Me in Amistad, and I can see all this.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World War Z

Photo: from its Wikipedia page, here.  Go to it to read about this film's troubled shooting history.

A very good movie, a little bit more intellectual, directed, and written than usual for a summer film.  It's a constant moody edginess, a feeling that nothing extremely terrible is going to go wrong (or, actually, worse, since things go very, very wrong, right away, for everybody) for the main characters, but also that nothing much is going to lead to total salvation, either.  If you're looking for a zombie film with a specific end to the disaster, look elsewhere.

But that's not to say that things--good things--aren't accomplished in this film, because they are.  A family gets saved and (almost) permanently housed in safety.  The main character (Brad Pitt, in a solid, but not terribly demanding, performance) even keeps in touch daily with his wife (a beautiful woman who looks like Jessica Chastain, but isn't.  She's Mireille Enos.), which in one instance actually wasn't a good thing.  Anyway, there's no message, per se, here, but if there was one, I guess it would be: protect your family and honor your fellow humans.  This comes across in a sleight, non-preachy sort of way.

Everyone's heroic here, except perhaps for the scientist, whose end is somewhat vague, though obviously the movie has to swing to Pitt's heroics somehow, so there you go.  The soldiers and scientists and doctors are heroic.  The wife is heroic.  A little boy is heroic.  There's not one spineless person left alive.  There wasn't room for one in the script, anyway.

You'll be blown away (as many of the zombies were, he-he-he) by specific special effects that lead to some very specifically breathless scenes.  Unfortunately, you'll have seen them all in the trailer, and you'll be looking for them to happen during the movie, like I did, though if you're like me, you'll try very hard not to.  But it won't be possible.  You'll think: ah, there's the wall that millions of them will climb; this is the plane that will blow up and suck out a great many.  And so on.  Don't see the trailer, if you haven't already.  If you have, it's not the end of the world (sorry) because the scenes are great anyway.  In fact, the intensity and tension were picked up quite a bit because of the expectation.  Well, for me, anyway.

At the end, I think you'll agree that this was a movie that needed to be viewed on the (very) big screen.  The ending, such as it is, makes sense, and you won't feel cheated or disappointed.  You'll wonder about the lingering health of those who get administered at the end, and whether it would be worth it to live that way, until also getting administered something else.  And then what?  How will they be protected then?  (You'll see what I mean.)  In fact, you might wonder, as I did, if a simple cold will do.  Or how about a sinus infection?  I get those buggers all the time.

P.S.--While buying the obligatory popcorn (stale for the second movie in a row, by the way), I noticed that the calorie count for each candy item was on a small but official looking placard.  I know that some candy has more calories than do others, but aren't they all sort of equally bad?  You can't stay on a diet, or maintain perfect cholesterol or heart health, if you were to eat any of the candy sitting there.  So why the calorie count cards?  Did someone actually threaten to sue because they didn't realize the calories in their Reese's Peanut Butter Cups?  Speaking of which, a package of four Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, which sells for a dollar for most fundraisers, or $1.59, max, at your local store, was selling for $4.50 each at my local movie theater.  I can't tell which is crazier, the cards with the calorie counts, or the price.  I mean, isn't price gouging illegal?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Photo: Author and book from

For the first time in recent memory, I find myself not giving a hypothetical four or five stars to a book that I read very quickly, in a couple of days.  Which is not to say that I disliked it.  In fact, I did like it, sometimes a lot, sometimes just in an okay kind of way.  But the book ultimately is a letdown from Walls's The Glass Castle, as all of her future works are probably destined to be. How can you match the excellence of a book that still maintains a solid perch on many national and worldwide bestseller lists, eight years after its initial publication?

This is a good, quick and easy read, but for once that comes across as...lacking.  The story suffers from an arc that peaks at the beginning, when it deals with the main character's narcissistic and manic mother (a conceit that Walls apparently excels at) and then descends until it stretches into a consistently straight line that never deviates, good or bad, up or down, until it just ends.  This line is still rather high, but not as high as the beginning, and not as high as it could have ascended to.  In essence, that's the problem here: the story never becomes what it could, and maybe should, have been.  It's a very good effort, and the reader feels that maybe this is Walls trying to be a fiction writer, with bigger and better things to come.

Another problem is the saccharine feel of the story.  Every character but for Bean, the narrator, is a very flawed person with a very good reason for being so, and usually with a very upbeat personality despite their incredible burdens and sufferings.  Such a world desperately needs a dirty, no-good villain, and Silver Star finally gets one: Jerry Maddox, who beats and suppresses his wife, and who tries to sexually abuse the young girls he hires to care for his house and property.  He is a man who has no redeeming qualities at all--and he comes across as so despicable that you would assume a real-life person like this really would not have one good character trait at all.  Yet there is the problem with this novel's characterizations: they're all extreme, and they're all very, all the time.

Bean, the first-person narrator, is an extremely likable, very spunky twelve-year old, always.  She never deviates from that.  She has no real anxieties, or moments of deep profundity or depression, or anything else.  Her mother is extremely careless, and a very bad, manic mother, all the time.  She never deviates from that.  She never has even one single moment of clarity, or of slowing down, or of realization.  I could go on and on...

The world all of these characters live in is seen through a distant haze of simplicity and rosiness.  Racism, segregation, peer pressure, bullying, family issues, the death of a father, sexual assault, social bias, socio-economic unfairness, lack of justice---all of these things are dealt a passing glance, and are more or less shrugged off by the main character and by many of the minor characters.  Every tree, prop, animal or pet (and I do mean each and every one) is serving double-duty, both as themselves and as willing symbols and extended metaphors, and the reader gets the impression that Walls was chomping at the bit to finally nail the folksy image.

And as every book of teenage angst has to mention Catcher in the Rye at least once if the comparison and homage (or derivation) is too obvious, so too must every book of southern race and justice acknowledge To Kill A Mockingbird.  This book does that so many times that it's worthy of comment.  There is a very nice scene, however, in which a very minor character says a very major thing about Harper Lee's book--and it may strike the reader as a revelation, as it did with me.  This alone makes this novel worthy of a read.

And this novel is worthy of a read, despite the many comments above.  It is perhaps a mirror-opposite of the horrors that Walls and others have covered in similarly-themed memoirs.  In this world, the children are saved from a shockingly careless, selfish and narcissistic mother; injustice is quickly righted; a lost girl is swiftly saved--and the reader wants all that to happen, and excuses the un-reality because of it.  The characters and the advice they give are all folksy, and catchy, on the page, if not in the reader's vernacular.  The townspeople are all pleasant and likeable.  The villain is appropriately unlikeable, and is dealt with at the end in a justifiable manner, though even that happens with a surprisingly narrated distance, a distance that too much of this novel has after the sisters move away from their mother.

Anyway, it's mostly good writing even if it's not good structure or good world-making, and everyone's likeable and the world, at least in the novel, turns out to be an okay place, and somehow it all comes together.  And the reader (or at least this one) doesn't feel badly about being okay with all that, even if it's clearly all bunk. 

That's a lot coming from me, since I usually demand harsh and gritty reality if the story is about harsh and gritty things.  You won't get that here, and I'm surprisingly okay with that.  And you will be, too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nietzsche's Ubermensch--Man of Steel (movie)

Photo: Movie's poster from its Wikipedia page

Do not be swayed by the somewhat negative press surrounding The Man of Steel.  Go see it, and for the following reasons:

--Because it's meaningful and visually appealing at the same time.  You can't say that about too many films.

--Because the special effects and direction will wow you, even if you're not into special effects, and even if you think the fight and destruction scenes go on for a bit too long.  Which they do.  You'll still be wowed by them, though.

--Because you remember the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and you remember them with fondness (especially the first two).

--Because you admit that it was always rather dumb that nobody put together that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same.  That won't be a problem in this re-booted franchise, and by the end, you'll see why.

--Because you want to see Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner act very well as fatherly / sacrificial figures.  (But that means that you've gotten older, of course.)  Incidentally, if Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are you fathers, you'd better be able to kick some ass.

--Because Michael Shannon's General Zod is a very good performance, and an antagonist who really is a presence, and who really does need to be dealt with.  And he's an adversary with a purpose, with an actual cause that, in of itself, is at least very understandable.  Where Terrence Stamp's Zod was a campy excursion in bad guy attitude, Shannon's is a very dangerous dude with flaws and strengths.

--Because you want to see a serious superhero flick that also takes itself very seriously.  But not like the more recent Superman film, which was not good, but which also took itself very seriously.

--Because you appreciate the realism of such films that take themselves this seriously, although you'll tire perhaps of counting the blatant ad placements, such as Sears, IHOP, and many, many others.

--Because you like Hans Zimmer soundtracks that are good to listen to, and yet also fill you with move-move-move, and with a sense of serious foreboding.  If you loved the soundtrack to The Dark Knight, as I did, you'll like this one.  Though I think Zimmer should team up with James Newton Howard again.

--Because of the film's message, which is that there's greatness in each of us, equally.  We all have something to offer this world, and everyone in it.  We're all Superman with something. 

--Because the other message is of free will, not just of pre-determinism.  Are you pre-disposed to a certain life-long behavior, or do you have free will and choice?  Zod, as he states frequently, was literally born and bred to be a fighter, to protect his species.  When there's no longer any species to protect, he's nothing.  Superman is a collection of many millions of DNA life-forces, whereas Zod had but the one.  We all also have many possibilities and purposes, and we have to remember that, especially when we get in the habit of thinking of ourselves as one-dimensional, and stuck in whatever it is we've been doing lately.  You have to take a leap of faith, a priest tells Superman, before you can actually trust in someone, or something.  That's the Nietzschean leap of faith, too--the belief that we all innately and existentially have a near-perfection in us, if not in totality, at least in something.

--Because one of Nietzsche's favorite words, ubermensch, means, literally, superman.

If you can look beyond the excessively long destruction scenes, or be wowed by them like I was, even if you do think they're a tad long, then go see this film.

And heed its message, even if it is sometimes buried under special effects and a loud soundtrack.

What is your superhero ability?   

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Rapture of Mystery: Stephen King's The Colorado Kid

Photo: Paperback cover from the book's Wikipedia page.

I read this one in a couple of hours, just after finishing Stephen King's Joyland.  They're both published by Hard Case Crime, and they both have covers of big-breasted, younger dames--covers of a scene you won't find in the story itself.  I don't know why I'm okay with that, and yet why I'm not, at the same time.

This mystery is sort of the idea of this book itself.  An actual mystery that, like most of life, you can't explain.  This is not a Sherlock Holmes locked-room mystery, nor is it an Agatha Christie trapped-on-an-island mystery.  It isn't either of those because this one is unsolvable, and purposely so.  The story isn't the case, or the mystery, but the three characters telling the story.

The story is, in fact, the story itself.  It's about being curious, about always questioning, always asking "Why?"  At my job, my little cohorts are always asking me why I ask "Why?" so much.  And I'm always asking them why they don't ask "Why?" enough.  (I suspect it has something to do with television, gaming and computers, as these things make us do, and watch, but not really think for ourselves.  Or am I getting old?)

But you sort of die when you stop asking "Why?"  And when you stop caring.  The thing is that you can't allow yourself to be put off by the inevitable "I don't know."  Where did we come from before this realm?  "I don't know."  Where are we going?  "I don't know."  You may have a religion that teaches you what to believe, but that's why it's called "belief."  Believing is not knowing.

And so this is the root of this short (especially for King) book.  The story isn't the mystery, per se, but is instead the wonder of "mystery" itself.  It's what keeps life interesting, right?  And a lot of things in life really don't have a clear-cut beginning, middle and end.  Where did we go wrong?  "I don't know."  Why did she change so much?  Maybe she was always like that and I didn't realize it?  "I don't know."  Some mysteries don't have answers, such as why an advertisement artist from Colorado suddenly had to feverishly catch a jet to Bangor, Maine, and drive hell-mell to middle-of-nowhere Maine and to die suddenly and inexplicably on a small beach.  Who knows?  It's cases like this that haunt real-life police detectives, I'm sure.  Drives them crazy.  But that's what life is--a series of inexplicable mysteries that you're wise to consider, but unwise to expect an easy answer--or an answer at all.

Sometimes there just isn't one.  And, if there is, it's often above our comprehension.  (That's what religion's for, I suppose.)  But this short book ends with the essence of all that: a ballfield full of players and umpires, looking up in a fixed rapture of confused wonder.

That's what this life is.  Rapturously confused wonder.

You'll appreciate The Colorado Kid if you get that.  You won't if you don't.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp

Photo: Book cover from the book's images on Goodreads

Very odd but very readable memoir that starts off as the story of Karp's extremely messed-up family (she has a few memoirs still left in the tank on this alone). But it then becomes the story of the unfortunate decisions she makes as she looks for love in all the wrong places.  The publisher is Harlequin, so I suppose this makes sense, but the story arc still comes across as schizophrenic.  The best (as in, well-written) parts are the details of her father's sexual abuse and her mother's mental, emotional and physical abuse, as well as the tenets of their religion--Jehovah's Witness--that makes all that possible.  A very well-written memoir still needs to be written about that alone--about how a religion imprisons the children of its followers.  One does not doubt that what she says here about the religion is true: apparently, a severely abused woman is told to be better to her husband, and the abuse should go away.  This would make a Pulitzer-winning memoir in of itself.  I'll never look at Jehovah's Witnesses the same again.  No longer will they be, for me, the quaint men in black who bravely go door-to-door, knowing said doors will be slammed in their faces, but doing it anyway.

One would think that this would create some controversy, but it hasn't.  What has created controversy, strangely, is the second schizophrenic half of this memoir, where she chronicles her rise from depressed homeless person living in Wal-Mart's parking lot in SoCal (Did you know that some Wal-Marts let homeless people live in their parking lots in their cars and campers?  I didn't.  I'm interested to see if my local Wal-Mart allows this.  If so, kudos to them.  This book brings up something I've wondered about: How are homeless people to sleep in safety if they're not allowed to park their cars in parking lots for fear of being towed?  Where are they to go?) to winning writer/blogger of the homeless and working for Elle Magazine and going on the Today Show to write about it.  The controversy starts when she mentions that some guy came to her trailer to interview her, treated her shabbily and did the same to other interviewees he tried to "help."  She wrote that she asked him to not mention her real name, or her real location.  He does, anyway, and says that it's too late when she complains.

I saw online yesterday that he says all this isn't true, but that he took the video of the interview down anyway, per advice of his lawyer after Karp's book came out.  Surrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre...There was also some silly stuff about her not really being homeless, since she (usually) had a car, and a cellphone, and something that resembled shelter.  These people are simply not seeing the true face of homelessness for God knows how many: the homeless of the 2000s won't just be unshaven and bench-sleeping alcoholics and addicts.  They'll be recently-successful people who through downsizing have lost their jobs, and who through the housing crunch/crisis have lost their homes.  In other words, but for the Grace of God, one of most of us...

Even more controversial was her description of how utterly catastrophic her last relationship ends, with the same guy who'd helped her rise from homelessness to super-blogger and Today Show guest.  Lots of stuff online says all or most of this latter stuff was fake, especially the stuff about what happened when she hopped a flight to surprise him at his home across the pond.  Uh-oh...Those never turn out well.  But what happens to her here is truly horrible.  But is it true?  Sounds like it to me, though it does seem incredible that one person has gone through everything she chronicles here.  But being someone who's been to Hell and back several dozens of times, I can assure you with some bitter truth that several lives of horror and travesty can all happen to one person.

Very disturbing to me, though, is how Karp seems to have fallen off the map after October/November of last year.  I went to to see what was new with her (it's her own blog, as well as a site to assist the homeless), to see if she's still homeless.  But the site seems to have been abandoned after Oct./Nov. 2012, as does her other online ventures, including her blog at Goodreads.  What gives?  This is odd for someone with a book released just last year, and for someone who was so ardent a helper with the homeless.  Her public appearances and book-signings also seem to have stopped very abruptly.  There is no Wikipedia page for her, for the book, or for the oft-mentioned website--all very odd for a new-ish author and book.  In short, I have a more thorough web presence than she now does, and that's not good for a new author of a bestseller.  There is not a lot of internet backlash about her book, a la James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, so I wouldn't just assume that she has had to take it all down.

I simply don't know.  One hates to assume the worst, so...I'll prefer to think that she's just taking a well-deserved break from it all.  The last thing I heard about all this is that, in Oct./Nov. 2012, she had to leave the apartment she was in because her landlord was selling, but that she was able to move into a much better place.  If anyone has an update on her, or her website of the homeless, please let me know.  I wish her well, and after reading this book, which you should, you would wish her the best, too.