30 June 2009

Testing the Waters

Lately, I have felt a swelling compulsion to put pen to paper. I did write a screenplay for a silent horror film last year, but otherwise I haven't even tried to create anything original since my last creative writing class in 2003. So, tonight, while pumped full of Prednisone, I literally put pen to paper and before I knew what I was writing, I had finished what I am currently calling "Untitled confession of a fraud." Note that only the first word is capitalized; that's just how untitled this piece is. I considered posting it here, but elected instead to host it on Google Docs. (I unsuccessfully tried to have it sent over here, but it kept showing up on the Bookshelf blog instead.) So, if you would be so kind as to indulge a wanna-be writer's tentative first step back into the creative waters, I invite you to click here and read a brand spaking new composition. For your benefit, it has been typed, although I can provide a .pdf scan of the handwritten original if anyone is daring enough to try to read it!

Did you miss the link? Try here. Oh, you were trying to politely ignore me. Very well. Carry on.

25 June 2009

"Boone: A Biography" by Robert Morgan

Boone: A Biography
Robert Morgan
Date of Publication: 21 September 2007
Cover Price: $29.95
538 pages

I have a DVD Talk community member to thank for reading Boone: A Biography. I have seen, time and again, that Lateralus is an avid reader of history and so when he declared this work on one of my childhood heroes the best book he'd read in two years I knew I had to read it. The moment I fell in love with this book came when I pictured Boone, the only living soul living in Kentucky, camped out at night reading Gulliver's Travels and the Holy Bible. What wondrous times those must have been, for a singular man to have an entire territory to himself! Certainly, it was not without danger, but then, as Boone himself once declared, "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead" (page 69).

The subtitle is A Biography, but it should probably have been A Historiography, which is to say, Morgan has provided a history of the history of Daniel Boone. What Morgan brings to this volume is not just research; he contributes his own voice to the discussion of the implications of Boone's legacy and rather than outright discount all the anomalous claims of the pioneer scattered throughout the various historians who have chronicled his exploits, Morgan regularly pauses to explore the possible validity of each claim. Some he can debunk outright--for instance, noting that Boone could not have met with James Audobon in Kentucky at the time the famed ornithologist claimed, for he had yet to arrive in America during the time that Boone may have returned to his former home state. Rather, Morgan supposes that they met in Missouri and that Audobon relocated the discussions to Kentucky for the sake of his European audience, who would likely have been disappointed had they not been left with the image of Boone in the state he all but literally put on the map.

Morgan is, by trade, a poet and prose writer and so his narrative of Boone's exploits go beyond the typically cut-and-dried approach of historians divorcing themselves from emotion for the sake of objectivity. When Boone arrives and takes his first look out onto the Appalachian Mountains, Morgan fills the account with awe and wonder; when Boone lays to rest loved ones, it is as much Morgan's sadness as Boone's that permeates the page.

This is a very personal exploration of a man who, in many regards, existed as a self-contradiction. The explorer whose enthusiasm led directly to the destruction of the wilderness he loved, the hero hounded more by creditors than enemies, the devoted family man who once spent two entire years hunting in isolation during which his wife gave birth to what was likely the daughter of one of his own brothers; the list goes on. Now, in 2009 as we look with uncertainty toward our own present and future, it is with great comfort to recall the adventures of a man threatened with bankruptcy and external incursions and to know that the American spirit has, since before it was even American, endured such events. And, perhaps, we can learn from Boone's mistakes as well.

If I had two complaints, it would be these. Firstly, I sincerely wish Morgan had employed footnotes, rather than endnotes. Not only that, but there are no markers in the text pointing the reader to a particular endnote; rather, one must consult the endnotes and see which chapter, page number and sentence originated with which text. This may have made for a cleaner page to look at, but it did hamper some of my reading as I wished to know, frequently, where Morgan had found a particular quote.

Secondly, Morgan refers to events before discussing them several times. This is common in historical writing and the only reason I mention it in this instance is that this more prose-conscious work brought me much closer to Boone than my previous studies of the man. It "took me out of the book" to read a reference in one chapter that would not actually occur chronologically for another few chapters.

Still and all, this is an impressive work and obviously a labor of genuine love for Morgan. Beyond being a fascinating read about one of my personal favorite historical figures, Boone is also a beautiful physical book. You can click the above thumbnail for a much larger look at the gorgeous cover art, but only by hefting the tome in your own hand can you appreciate the quality that Chapel Hill put into its publication. The pages undulate, the font is pleasing to the eye...this precisely the kind of work that one prominently displays among a library. Despite having read it, this is going direct to the top of my Books Wishlist.

24 June 2009

Nottingham to Be Famous for More Than Its Sheriff. Maybe.

A research program at Nottingham University has just announced that it believes it has developed a "cure" for Crohn's disease, the obnoxious, painful gastrointestinal disease from which yours truly (among many others across the world) suffers. You can read all about it here. In case you're totally unfamiliar with Crohn's, the immune system (for reasons unknown) gets it into its head that the digestive system is the enemy and it attacks. The result is severe inflammation, which is exacerbated by scar tissue and can be outright debilitating. Anyway, the gist of what they have going on in Nottingham is a procedure in which they replace the anti-digestive system immune cells with new ones. How do they do this? They "eradicate" the offending cells outright and replace them with new ones derived from stem cells.

Sounds great, at first blanche. The article mentions, though, only three participants in the study. Furthermore, the team leader, Professor Chris Hawkey, says he is "hopeful that half or more of the patients that undergo stem cell transplantation may either be cured or have long-term remission." Not to rain on anyone's parade, but it's way too soon to know how effective this procedure will prove to be, and it seems to fall a bit shy of earning the label, "cure." Still, the report is promising and encouraging to those of us suffering from Crohn's disease.

Rock Band: Country Track Pack

Rock Band: Country Track Pack
Harmonix Games
21 July 2009
$29.99
PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360, Wii

As someone whose predominantly favorite genre of music is country, and as someone whose wife supports the Guitar Hero franchise, I must confess that this concept has made me rather jealous of Rock Band owners. For those of you with PS3's and 360's, there's no real big deal; the guitar controllers from one series are supposed to be compatible with their rival's games now. Us Wii owners, however, are still forced to purchase equipment for each series we wish to play, and that's simply cost prohibitive at this time. Still, I'm hoping this track pack sells well enough to convince Harmonix and Activision that country is a viable genre for their series. The 21 songs on Rock Band: Country Track Pack are:
  • "3 Times Down" by Drive-By Truckers
  • "Any Man of Mine" by Shania Twain
  • "Can't Let Go" by Lucinda Williams
  • "Cry Lonely" by Cross Canadian Ragweed
  • "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" by Dierks Bentley
  • "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers
  • "Gone" by Montgomery Gentry
  • "Good Time" by Alan Jackson
  • "Gunpowder & Lead" by Miranda Lambert
  • "Hillbilly Deluxe" by Brooks & Dunn
  • "I Told You So" by Keith Urban
  • "Me and My Gang" by Rascal Flatts
  • "Mud on the Tires" by Brad Paisley
  • "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson
  • "Satellite Radio" by Steve Earle
  • "She's Country" by Jason Aldean
  • "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" by Kenny Chesney
  • "Sin Wagon" by Dixie Chicks
  • "Swing" by Trace Adkins
  • "Suds in the Bucket" by Sara Evans
  • "This One's for the Girls" by Martina McBride
Note that "On the Road Again" was an on-disc track for Guitar Hero: World Tour, and "Hillbilly Deluxe" and "Me and My Gang" were downloadable content for that game as well, meaning that of the 21 songs, only 18 are (so far) exclusive to the Rock Band series. It's actually an interesting mix. You get some old school Kenny Rogers and the aforementioned Willie Nelson song; some 90s hits by Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney and some alt-country artists like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Not sure who picked which songs from which artists, but hopefully some of the more attractive offerings are just around the bend; I, for one, would love to play Brooks & Dunn's "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You."

18 June 2009

f(x), Where x = 30

When you're young, each age milestone is a stopping point marking your ascent to adulthood. Remember the fuss over turning five? Ten? How about thirteen, when you officially became a teenager? Then it was sixteen, eighteen, twenty one; driving, voting and drinking, respectively. After twenty one came twenty five, because that's a nice, round number. Somewhere along the line, someone told you to fear or resent turning thirty, that it's a negative experience. Ridiculous, you say. Every milestone so far has been great. Besides, even if turning thirty lacks the sense of celebration that its predecessors have brought, surely it's just a number, right?

There is something palpable about turning 30 that has not set well with me. I was born in December, and because of the birth month cut-off plan of schools, I was a bit older than most of my classmates. Several of them are just now turning 30, or approaching it, and their anxiety comes at a time when I have been grappling for half a year over what this age means for me. I still don't know, honestly, other than to confess that I have found it emotionally disturbing.

Surely, it's all in my head, though? I'd like to say it is, that I'll just get over this when I turn 31, but I don't think so. I have remarked in a previous post about how turning 30 has excluded me from participating in very many online surveys. I've moved out of the meaningful age demographic, and every time my surveys end right after admitting my age I am reminded that I am no longer a young guy. If society expects me to have a different perspective and different lifestyle, then shouldn't I? And what does it say about me that I don't?

I find this time of year particularly trying, with Father's Day approaching. I have never had a particularly great relationship with my own dad, so I've never really enjoyed being surrounded by all the cards and banners everywhere I go. It seems even more aggressive this year, though it may easily be I'm just more sensitive to it. In 2005, we lost twins to a miscarriage and that was, without doubt, the single most painful experience of my life to date. Even now, four years later, I can scarcely discuss the subject and only even type this because I don't know that I'll even publish this blog. Seeing Up vividly brought back to mind every excruciating moment of that anguish, and maybe that's why I'm so resentful this year. Turning 30 and having no children is a reminder that I have, through no fault of my own, zigged when society expected me to zag.

So, if I'm not nearly-middle-aged dad by now, what am I? I'm apparently the same person I was in my 20s. Isn't that good enough? Shouldn't it be? I don't know. We're supposed to keep growing as people, progressing toward a point of achievement that will mark our legacy when we're gone. Maybe that's why turning 30 bothers me so much, and why Father's Day is so discouraging this year; I have no sense of what my legacy would be, should I die today. I can point to nothing in which anyone would, or should, take any sense of pride or accomplishment. Of course, family and friends would argue that I've left each of them with something and maybe that should be good enough but for some reason it just isn't. It seems hollow to think that the only thing left behind would be fond memories left in the fading recesses of the minds of a handful of people.

Reading Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan has simultaneously exacerbated and abated my anxiety. Morgan describes Boone's two year exploration of Kentucky as his moment of destiny, believing that Boone must have felt and comprehended how special was his undertaking. Boone by this time had a family and was in his 30s; ergo, even having that which I lack was insufficient to fulfill the pioneer. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what should, or will, be my Kentucky? Have I already missed that opportunity, squandered like all the rest? Perhaps I should be contented to view the future as a wide open frontier, waiting to be explored and settled. And maybe when I turn 31, that's how I'll view it. For now, though, I suppose I'm trapped in my own 29 year old mind of the past.

17 June 2009

The Merits of Children's Literature


Originally posted on The Classic Tales Message Board.

Somewhere along the line, with the rise of a cultural emphasis on childhood, literature changed. I am 30, so I grew up in a world of Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary and Scholastic Book sales. It never occurred to me as a child to read things like the stories that have comprised The Classic Tales. Those were full books that grown-ups read, not kids.

Looking at my cousins, niece and nephew, though, I cannot help but wonder the effect of children's literature on our young. It seems to me that the idea behind the genre is to present short, easy-to-read stories to young readers so as not to overwhelm them. Let them start with
On Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and work their way up to Ralph and the Motorcycle, and it is assumed that, from there, they will eventually find their way to Great Expectations.

Yet, it seems to me that instead, what has happened is that from
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish they have graduated to watching an adaptation of Ralph and the Motorcycle and then they are lost to a world of movies and video games. Even when something like the Harry Potter or Twilight series comes along, as profitable and as popular as those have been, it seems too many young ones are content to wait for the movies than to ever explore the literary source material.

Has literature done itself a disservice by dumbing down things so much to appeal to children? By eliminating much of the "controversial" elements, have children's books been made so toothless that they repel our youth rather than entice them?

I personally developed my passion for reading through comic books based on
G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero and The Transformers and what always attracted me to those was that the writing was more sophisticated than that of the animated series, especially the former. The animated series might have introduced me to Snake Eyes, but it was Larry Hama's comic book series that made me care about him.

Your thoughts?

16 June 2009

DVD: "Bedtime Stories"

Bedtime Stories
Directed by Adam Shankman
Story by Matt Lopez
Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy
Starring: Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, Russell Brand, Richard Griffiths, Jonathan Pryce, Courteney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer
DVD Release Date: 7 April 2009
MPAA Rating: PG (For Some Mild Rude Humor and Mild Language)
List Price: $29.99

The Film
Skeeter (Sandler) has inherited his father's (Pryce) gift for storytelling--and a desire to oversee the operations at the corporate hotel that has taken over from his father's quaint bed and breakfast. His sister, Wendy (Cox) asks him to babysit for a week while she travels to Arizona to interview for a position, as the school where she is the principal is being closed. Skeeter shares the task with Jill (Russell), a friend and colleague of Wendy's with whom he does not get along. Pretty soon, though, Skeeter discovers elements from the yarns he has spun to entertain his niece and nephew appear in his daily life and begins to wonder...can he influence his real life?

The DVD
Shame on Disney! The only features to be found are a collection of trailers for other current and forthcoming Disney releases. There is a Deluxe DVD Edition, which includes bloopers, deleted scenes, a featurette on CGI critter Bugsy, another on the film's special effects and...a featurette extolling the virtues of Blu Ray. Especially frustrating is the fact that these features are all found on the same disc as the feature film in the Deluxe release; the second disc only contains a digital copy of the film, meaning that the features were only withheld in the manufacturing process to create this bare bones edition. Fine, but the list price of this is an insane $29.99; the Deluxe DVD Edition lists for a scant $3.00 more at $32.99.

The Recommendation
Adam Sandler in a Disney film? It seems both inconceivable and inevitable, and the truth is it works better than I'd thought. Sandler has an innate childlike quality of innocence, and he taps into this quite naturally. In truth, Bedtime Stories is a logical progression from, say, 50 First Dates. Keri Russell is charming and Russell Brand is surprisingly effective within the constraints of a Disney picture. The children never quite become the focus of the story, but they also never become the tiresome cliches that so many child characters do in films like this (at least, until the last ten minutes). Young children might find this film too oriented around the adult world, and older kids might find its lack of wanton destruction boring. I'm 30, though, and I found it "just right."

Why the Evolution Battle Matters

Let's be honest. There is only one context in which the back-and-forth debate over evolution is even relevant, and that is the classroom. The moment a person leaves a school building, the issue becomes entirely unimportant. Walk into a church, and you expect everyone there to share a comparable, anti-Darwinian sentiment, but otherwise most people tend to be indifferent about the subject. So why keep it going?

Simply put, the American attention span only permits so many topics at a time. And, because we're reductionists, we only like to canonize so many controversies at a time, too. So long as everyone's attention is focused on the science classroom, no one is paying any attention to what's going on in the history classroom. And this, brothers and sisters, is where our attention should be.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a history major and so I naturally bring a certain bias to this subject. That said, I believe you will find my reasoning quite sound and impervious to any inevitable ad hominem attacks.

When President Reagan took office, he put forth a directive to the department of education to put a positive spin on all things American. For the Gipper, pro-American optimism went beyond a campaign slogan; it was tantamount to a religion. To be fair, the president sincerely believed in the good of our people and our ideals--and he should have. I believe we all want to feel that sense of pride in our nation. Where Mr. Reagan and I diverge on the subject is the extent to which our public educators have taken their instruction of history.

All too often, as I took notes and followed classroom discussion while earning my bachelor of arts degree, I heard from one classmate after another that they were being exposed to darker, less pleasant parts of our past for the first time. "Why weren't we told about this in high school?" they implored. If the truth does indeed set us free, then sadly many of us exit our mandatory public education enslaved to ignorance.

For instance, why do we continue to exalt Thomas Edison as a brilliant innovator while simultaneously shielding from our youth the scores of African-Americans whose ideas were outright stolen and passed off as someone else's? If we are serious about providing our minority youths with a positive image of their race--and, hence, themselves--then why do we not acknowledge these creative, pioneering men and women and right the historical wrong that has been committed thus far by slighting them? How can we ever expect our youth to understand why so many across the globe resent us to the point of committing acts of violence against us, when we omit, or whitewash, our track record of intervention in Latin America and east Asia?

Of course, the moment anyone brings up these and related questions, they are instantly branded a member of the "blame America first" crowd. I disagree with that assessment entirely. Owning up to the truth does not mean being anti-American. Remember truth, justice and the American way? How has it been that we have abdicated our obligation to them? They fear that discussing such things will fragment our society; they resent "hyphenated-Americans" and deny the patriotism of such citizens.

If our great nation is great, then it is so because it is the melting pot of humanity. We should be a microcosm for our entire planet, and instead what has happened in my generation? Those who embrace their own heritage have been told they are not true Americans. And as this litmus test for embracing the untruth has been enforced on our own people, the rest of the world has grown to resent us. This is not because those across the world care that our youth are not told the truth about our past, but because our youth are growing up without developing the humility and cultural sensitivity that come from a proper instruction in history.

Until and unless we, as a society, recognize and commit to revising this injustice of academia, so we shall continue to not only commit our society to arrogance and ignorance, but also to an escalation of both.

12 June 2009

TV Guide's Top 100 Episodes

TV Guide has ranked the 100 greatest episodes of television, ever. You can read the list in its entirety below, or get it straight from the horse's mouth here.
  1. Seinfeld, "The Contest"
  2. The Sopranos, "College"
  3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Chuckles Bites the Dust"
  4. I Love Lucy, "Lucy Does a TV Commercial"
  5. Lost, "Pilot"
  6. ER, "Love's Labor Lost"
  7. The Honeymooners, "Better Living Through TV"
  8. Mad Men, "Nixon Vs Kennedy"
  9. All in the Family, "Cousin Maude's Visit"
  10. 24, "Season 1: 11PM-12AM"
  11. The Twilight Zone, "Time Enough at Last"
  12. Saturday Night Live, 04/22/1978
  13. The Dick Van Dyke Show, "It May Look Like a Walnut"
  14. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Once More, With Feeling"
  15. The Cosby Show, "Goodbye Mr. Fish"
  16. The Fugitive, "The Judgment"
  17. South Park, "Trapped in the Closet"
  18. The Andy Griffith Show, "Opie the Birdman"
  19. The Office, "Diversity Day"
  20. M*A*S*H, "Abyssinia, Henry"
  21. Friends, "The One With the Embryos"
  22. Six Feet Under, "Everyone's Waiting"
  23. St. Elsewhere, "Time Heals"
  24. The Simpsons, "Krusty Gets Kancelled"
  25. Homicide: Life on the Street, "Subway"
  26. The Wire, "Final Grades"
  27. Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Special Section"
  28. 30 Rock, "Black Tie"
  29. Cheers, "Show Down"
  30. NYPD Blue, "Hearts and Souls"
  31. Frasier, "The Ski Lodge"
  32. Arrested Development, "Development Arrested"
  33. Roseanne, "A Stash From the Past"
  34. Thirtysomething, "A Second Look"
  35. The X-Files, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"
  36. Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds I"
  37. The Bob Newhart Show, "Over the River and Through the Woods"
  38. The Shield, "Possible Kill Screen"
  39. The Wonder Years, "Pilot"
  40. The West Wing, "Two Cathedrals"
  41. Freaks and Geeks, "Carded and Discarded"
  42. Everybody Loves Raymond, "Marie's Sculpture"
  43. Battlestar Galactica, "Blood on the Scales"
  44. My So-Called Life, "Self-Esteem"
  45. General Hospital, "Luke & Laura's Wedding"
  46. Ellen, "The Puppy Episode"
  47. CSI, "Grave Danger"
  48. Moonlighting, "Atomic Shakespeare"
  49. Dexter, "The British Invasion"
  50. The Larry Sanders Show, "Flip"
  51. Taxi, "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey"
  52. Damages, "Because I Know Patty"
  53. The Carol Burnett Show, "Went With the Wind"
  54. Twin Peaks, "Pilot"
  55. Desperate Housewives, "One Wonderful Day"
  56. How I Met Your Mother, "Slap Bet"
  57. Hill St Blues, "Freedom's Last Stand"
  58. The Odd Couple, "Password"
  59. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Lamb to the Slaughter"
  60. The Big Bang Theory, "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis"
  61. L.A. Law, "Good to the Last Drop"
  62. Law & Order, "Life Choice"
  63. Grey's Anatomy, "Losing My Religion"
  64. Murphy Brown, "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato"
  65. WKRP in Cincinnati, "Turkeys Away"
  66. House, "Three Stories"
  67. Dynasty, "The Threat"
  68. Heroes, "Company Man"
  69. Dallas, "A House Divided"
  70. Sex and the City, "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little"
  71. Little House on the Prairie, "I'll Be Waving as You Drive Away"
  72. Batman, "Better Luck Next Time"
  73. The Outer Limits, "Demon With a Glass Hand"
  74. Will & Grace, "Homo for the Holidays"
  75. Gilmore Girls, "Raincoats and Recipes"
  76. Family Ties, "The Real Thing, pt 2"
  77. The Waltons, "The Easter Story"
  78. Angel, "I Will Remember You"
  79. Charlie's Angels, "Angels in Chains"
  80. Star Trek, "The City on the Edge of Forever"
  81. Smallville, "Rosetta"
  82. Farscape, "Revenging Angel"
  83. Good Times, "Black Jesus"
  84. Alias, "The Telling"
  85. Melrose Place, "The B**** is Back"
  86. Scrubs, "My Musical"
  87. Happy Days, "Fonzie Loves Pinky"
  88. Magnum, P.I., "Did You See the Sunrise?"
  89. Beauty and the Beast, "Orphans"
  90. Malcolm in the Middle, "Bowling"
  91. Beverly Hills, 90210, "Spring Dance"
  92. Party of Five, "Intervention"
  93. Big Love, "Come, Ye Saints"
  94. Ally McBeal, "Cro-Magnon"
  95. Supernatural, "No Rest for the Wicked"
  96. Rescue Me, "Baptism"
  97. Mary Hartman, "Chicken Soup"
  98. Breaking Bad, "Peek a Boo"
  99. Family Guy, "Blue Harvest"
  100. The Brady Bunch, "The Subject Was Noses"

06 June 2009

DVD: "Lost in Translation"

Lost in Translation
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Fumihiro Hayashi
DVD Release Date: 3 February 2004
MPAA Rating: R (For Some Sexual Content)
List Price: $9.99
Cinescopes Personality Type: Rebellious Lover

The Film
Bob (Murray) is a middle-aged actor going through the motions of his life who finds himself in Tokyo for a promotional shoot. There, he meets Charlotte (Johansson), a young woman who recently graduated with a degree in philosophy in the city with her photographer husband (Ribisi). Over the course of a week shared together, Bob and Charlotte find common ground amid a hectic city in which neither really fits.

The DVD
The production of the film is summarized in a half-hour long featurette, "Lost" on Location. It compiles footage of the actual shoots for the first three weeks and shows a very delightful and charming Murray off-set, but it simply...stops...during the third week. The rest of the shoot, and everything from post-production onwards is omitted entirely. Some supplementary comments about these things are made in A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola, a montage of the two prompting one another for comments interspersed with film clips. Otherwise, there are a few deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer and the music video to "City Girl" by Kevin Shields (essentially a montage of footage of Johansson wandering Tokyo).

The Recommendation
Bob and Charlotte are accessibly identifiable characters, enhanced by Murray's charm and Johansson's vulnerability. The supplementary material is pretty standard fare and yet somehow the DVD release feels lacking. Perhaps this is because Coppola wrote the screenplay herself, and yet nowhere do any remarks from her concerning the actual story appear; certainly, this is a release for which a commentary track is deserved. My only problem with Lost in Translation is that a fairly major point in Bob's development as a character happens very abruptly and with little sense of consequence; I was hoping that Coppola herself would have shed some light on that seemingly random and isolated scene.

Summer Movie Series - Oldham County Public Library

The free summer movie series continue to roll out! The brand-spanking-new Main Library branch of the Oldham County Public Library will screen the following films on the following dates:
6/9 The Tale of Despereaux
6/16 To Be Announced
6/24 Bedtime Stories
6/30 Bolt
7/7 Kung Fu Panda
7/14 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
7/21 High School Musical 3: Senior Year
This series was crafted for young viewers (obviously) and all movies start playing at 2:00.

Terry Moore's "Strangers in Paradise" on Sale

One of my 2009 reading objectives was to get through Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and while readying a list of the trade paperback collections of that series I discovered that the official Strangers in Paradise website operated by Moore is currently running a 50% off sale on them! This may be related to a forthcoming 1100 page, two-volume deluxe edition omnibus edition. I cannot fathom how unwieldy such a critter would be, but for hardcore fans it can be had for $159.95, plus $15.00 FedEx (or free if you can pick it up at this year's San Diego Comic Con). Less dedicated readers should check out the aforementioned 50% off TPB sale here. The nineteen volumes, in publication order, are as follows:
  1. The Collected Strangers in Paradise, Volume One ($8.95, on sale for $4.49)
  2. I Dream of You ($16.95/sold out)
  3. It's a Good Life ($8.95/$4.49)
  4. Love Me Tender ($12.95/$6.49)
  5. Immortal Enemies ($14.95/$7.49)
  6. High School! ($8.95/sold out)
  7. Sanctuary ($17.95/$8.99)
  8. My Other Life ($14.95/$7.49)
  9. Child of Rage ($15.95/$7.99)
  10. Tropic of Desire ($12.95/sold out)
  11. Brave New World ($8.95/$4.49)
  12. Heart in Hand ($12.95/$6.49)
  13. Flower to Flame ($15.95/$7.99)
  14. David's Story ($8.95/$4.49)
  15. Tomorrow Now ($14.95/sold out)
  16. Molly & Poo ($8.95/sold out)
  17. Tattoo ($14.95/sold out)
  18. Love & Lies ($14.95/sold out)
  19. Ever After ($14.95/$7.99)

04 June 2009

David Carradine and the Meaning of Death

Actor David Carradine was reported dead earlier, found with a rope around his throat "and other parts of his body" in a hotel in Bangkok. The local police surmise he committed suicide, but I think instead it was an auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong. First of all, Mr. Carradine was in Bangkok for filming. Who takes on a movie and then kills himself during the shoot? Even Pedro Armendariz, who took his own life rather than endure the suffering from his terminal cancer, finished his work on From Russia with Love first.

One of the message boards I frequent, DVD Talk, has been alight with discussion over Carradine's passing all morning and I confess to being surprised at how many posters are not simply surprised by this...but disappointed in him, as well. In a nutshell, the argument seems to be: dying is sad, suicide is shameful and dying from a sex accident is worse still. Rubbish, I say! It would be presumptuous to claim that I know what occured in that hotel room. For all I know, Mr. Carradine was murdered by a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the, um, movie production company. Since all we have is the official report, though, then it is upon that which my argument shall be based.

Let's say it was suicide. This is an upsetting topic for many people, and I do not mean for my remarks to be misconstrued as a cavalier endorsement of the act. People only commit suicide for one reason, and that is to escape something that has upset them so much they prefer not to live with it. Sometimes this is emotional trauma, sometimes it's a physical condition. Others do it to get out of serving a couple of years in a minimum security federal prison for embezzlement. Whatever the reason, I find it morally reprehensible to say to another human being that they should not consider ending their life because I'm squeamish about it. I don't know how upsetting it might be to bury your entire family in one day, or to have stage three cancer, but I know this much: it probably dwarfs the kinds of irritations that nag at most of the people whose lives haven't nudged them into considering ending their own life.

So, hypothetically let's say that Mr. Carradine elected to end his own life. That tells us that something was so upsetting to him that he could not find it in himself to cope with it. Now, remember, the man was 72 years old. He's lived through burying family members, career highs and lows and the Bush administration. None of that brought him to the brink, so whatever impetus he had must have been even more devastating than those things--which are all common reasons for suicide. If something that upsetting was plaguing the man, why should he not be entitled to say, "Not this time?"

As I've indicated, though, I do not suspect Mr. Carradine deliberately ended his own life. Aside from the fact he was actively working on a film--by all accounts something that movie stars enjoy doing--there is the practical issue of the rope. As a general rule, hangers don't tie other parts of their bodies. They don't take the time because they don't want to have time to change their minds at the last moment. Possibly, Mr. Carradine had the foresight to expect that he was physically capable of breaking free if he panicked and wanted to ensure that he did not survive, but that seems unnecessary. Surely he could have found another method to ensure a quick death.

That leaves us with auto-erotic asphyxiation (for the uninitiated, it's a sexual fetish in which a person is tied up for the purpose of being deprived of oxygen during the sex act). For some reason, the notion of David Carradine dying as a result of an unsafe performance of this act upsets some of his fans. I say, at 72, if the guy was still vital and adventuresome enough to explore his sexuality in that fashion, then kudos. We in the United States compartmentalize nearly every part of our lives, to the point that we have begun to deny the organic nature of life.

The way I see it, exploring one's sexuality and arriving at auto-erotic asphyxiation is no more shameful than exploring one's interest in literature and learning to read Crime and Punishment in the original Russian. Maybe most people won't go that far, but the moral value of any action should never be weighed by its popularity. Because of Mr. Carradine's public persona as an actor, fans have done to him what they have done since the dawn of time to anyone who has made a name for himself: they have interpreted and re-imagined him in their own image. This, I think, is the real reason why so many are already balking at the notion that he would die as a consequence of performing a kink act; he was willing to explore a part of himself that they have denied themselves.

My spiritual beliefs tell me that everything that happens does so for a reason. Do not think me so arrogant as to speak for God, but logic suggests that at least one reason for everything that happens is to teach us something. Sometimes, the lesson is only for ourselves; sometimes there is a secondary lesson intended for others. I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that our society has the chance to learn about itself from Mr. Carradine's death. If, of course, it can be prodded into such an exploration.

03 June 2009

"I Am Not a Cop!" by Richard Belzer with Michael Black

I Am Not a Cop!: A Novel
Richard Belzer with Michael Black
Date of Publication: 14 October 2008
Cover Price: $24.00
272 pages

Entertainment concepts seem to evolve over the course of a decade, and as the reality experiment has begun to yield the floor it appears that a hybrid sub-genre of "reality fiction" is emerging. In film, we've had My Name Is Bruce and in literature, I Am Not a Cop! Richard Belzer has crafted a fictitious tale in which he, as himself, is caught up in a mystery involving a missing medical examiner friend who happens to be Russian. (Or is he Ukrainian?)

Fans of The Belz know from his stand-up routine and previous work of non-fiction (UFO's, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe) that this is a guy who does his homework when it comes to intricate plots, and he has spun a doozy here. Elements of the plot draw heavily from the history and politics of Russia and the former Soviet states; you don't need to do your own homework, though, because Belzer has made sure that all the information you need to know is presented in an accessible manner throughout this novel.

I have long been an avid, yet admittedly slow, reader and so it is rare that I read anything cover-to-cover in one setting; I Am Not a Cop! has earned a spot on that short list. Despite Belzer's years of portraying television's most ubiquitous character, Detective John Munch, I Am Not a Cop! is much more a literary descendant of crime noir novels. Not only does Belzer admit as much in his epilogue, but there are frequent references to (and quotes from) them sprinkled throughout the narrative. From start to finish, though, the sarcastic wit of Belzer permeates I Am Not a Cop! and I found myself easily envisioning him in character during many passages.

At 272 pages, this is a novel that harkens back to the days of page-turning paperback thrillers meant to be read during a train commute; the kind that Ian Fleming insisted his James Bond stories were. Despite--or perhaps, because of--this, there is one chief complaint I would register with the author. All too often, a turn of phrase is recycled to the point that it becomes distracting. The most glaring culprit is a variation of, "[famous person] would be proud." Saying that these moments took me "out of the book" would be taking it too far--especially given the nature of its premise. Still, they're the kind of thing that one expects an editor to catch and ask the author, "Can we phrase this differently? You used the same expression thirteen pages ago."

Fans of the series in which "Detective Munch" has appeared should not expect any name-dropping or behind-the-scenes glimpses into their production. Despite the fact that Belzer's investigation occurs during an eight day shoot, the actual series and its elements are ambiguous. The only direct allusions are to Mariska Hargitay, in both of which the promise of an autographed photo of her is bartered for cooperation.

While I Am Not a Cop! may not be the definitive mystery story of our times, it is fun throughout and sustained by its plot, steeped as it is in real life situations. I cannot guage how a reader unfamiliar with Belzer would enjoy this novel; many of his personality traits and views can be alienating at times (for instance, in 2008, was it really necessary to have five different lines to remind us that he dislikes George W. Bush?). An audiobook reading would be welcomed, though one has not been issued to date.

01 June 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Friends?

There's an app running through Facebook lately in which people make up quizzes about themselves and then challenge their friends to see how well they actually know one another. It sounds fun and light, right? Well, it's not and I'm about to tell you why that is.

First of all, the quizzes are made up entirely by each person. Unless this is the sort of thing that you craft in your spare time, you'd be surprised how much pressure there is to form a question about yourself with up to five multiple choice responses. The screen just sits in front of you, not saying a word as you struggle to think of something to ask.

Favorite movie? Yeah, that's an easy one. Isn't it? I mean, mine would be Lawrence of Arabia. Except, of course, that I've loved Batman even longer and can quote it verbatim. Although, come to think of it, I've loved The Transformers: The Movie even longer than that and can not only quote it verbatim, I don't even need the movie to be playing to prove it! So, I modified the question to see if anyone knew which movie I wanted to see in widescreen badly enough that I bought my first DVD player (the answer, in case you care, is Tombstone, which was only available on VHS in pan & scan).

Looking back over my questions, I am surprised--and disappointed--that most of them have to do with material things. Aside from the aforementioned DVD player purchase, I asked which Cincinnati Reds player did not sign a baseball I own and what is the name of my childhood stuffed animal? These are things that hardly matter to anyone other than me, so why would they be relevant questions to ask? Oh, sure, I asked if anyone knew which of five choices was a phobia of mine (water at night), but even that's hardly the kind of thing that testifies to any particular quality of friendship.

The most shocking thing about my quiz (for me, anyway) is how many answers have come when asked to place me on the political spectrum. I gave options from Far Left, Left, Moderate, Right and Far Right. I have always seen myself on the Left, though not too far. My personal choices and decision making probably favor more of a Right orientation, but I believe in principles that offer more leniency to society at large than just what I would ask for myself, hence my leftist identity. I thought for sure this would be a "gimme" question, but I've been placed on the Far Left and on the Right!

It gets even worse when you take the quiz of someone else's. So far, the best I've done is 30%, I think. Maybe there was a 40% somewhere, but I haven't even managed to hit 50% of questions on any of my friends. Now, in fairness, I've only taken a few and about half of those are people I know exclusively through the Internet (other Crohnies I've met via wearecrohns.org). Still, when you lived in an apartment building with someone for more than a year and you can't quite recall what kind of car she drove--even though you saw it every freaking day--it makes you feel a bit self-absorbed.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try to craft a more meaningful quiz about myself.

DVD: "The Nanny Diaries" - Widescreen Edition

The Nanny Diaries
Written for the Screen and Directed by Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Bergman
Based on the Novel by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Alicia Keys, Chris Evans, Donna Murphy and Paul Giamatti
DVD Release Date: 4 December 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Language)
List Price: $14.95
Cinescopes Personality Types: Dedicated Idealist, Vivacious Romantic

The Film
Annie (Johansson) has just graduated from NYU with a degree in anthropology and no sense of direction for her life. A chance encounter with "Mrs. X" (Linney) in Central Park offers her an invitation to take a position as the latest in a long line of nannies to the "X" family. The "X's" have so much material wealth that they've forgotten to value people, which stands in stark contrast to Annie's background, put through college by her working single mother (Murphy).

The DVD
There are two featurettes: one focusing on the development and production of the film, and the other spotlighting the co-authors of the original novel. Otherwise, there is a brief montage of bloopers and the obligatory original theatrical trailer. It's nice to see authors of original source material getting some attention, but where's the commentary track?

The Recommendation
The Nanny Diaries wants to be a sociological eye-opener, but it's hard to imagine anyone who has spent more than, say, five minutes pondering such things as the nature of families that hire nannies who will be surprised. Had the film been an indie production, there might have been more of a sense of personal growth for Annie; as it is, while Johansson is charming throughout, it is really Mrs. X whom we see have the greatest epiphany. Throughout the film, it's simply too obvious that everything will work out just fine in the end; then again, the co-directors acknowledge that this is a direct descendant of Mary Poppins.

iTunes - May 2009

My iPod actually had more of a workout in May than the final play counts would suggest, because I watched a higher quantity of video content that does not appear. Also, several of the things I downloaded I burned to a CD and played while running errands in the car. Anyway, here's what showed up in the final playlist for the month:
  • "The Kibitzers" by Alexander Courage (3)*
  • "Star Date" by Alexander Courage (3)*
  • "End Title and Credits" by Alexander Courage (3)*
  • "Star Trek Main Title" by Alexander Courage (3)*
  • "Star Trek Main Title (Season 1 Strings Arrangement)" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "Probed" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "Monster Fight" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "Torchy Girl" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "Star Trek Theme (End Title)" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "Star Trek Main Title" by Alexander Courage (2)*
  • "High Five Yourself" by Christian Finnegan (2)
  • "Resignation - Lazarus Returns - In a Pig's Eye" by Gerald Fried (2)*
  • "Ribs and Bologna" by Jim Gaffigan (2)
  • Worrisome Heart by Melody Gardot (2)
  • "Main Title/Locutus" by Jerry Goldsmith/Joel Goldsmith (2)
  • "One's Enough" by Sol Kaplan (2)*
  • "To Live Forever" by Dennis McCarthy (2)
*Star Trek playlist

Aside from the Star Trek playlist (comprised of music from the original series), nearly everything else really only got one play in May. Honestly, had I not been trying to fine-tune that playlist, I wonder if anything would have shown up more than once...or perhaps I would have played more of other music, had I not been tinkering with that. In any event, while I know I'm likely to geek out over something else next, I'm pretty sure I've expunged my need to revisit my inner Trekkie for the time being.

Music I downloaded in May that I recommend--even if it doesn't appear to be high on my mind in the final play count for the month:
  • Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - EP by Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
  • Spring Break with All My Friends - EP by Luke Bryan
  • Worrisome Heart by Melody Gardot
  • Deep Cuts - EP by Norah Jones
  • Amazon Comedy Sampler by Various Artists (available for free here)
  • World Music Network Amazon Sampler by Various Artists (available for free here)
Hopefully, June will yield a more interesting playlist!