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:

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!