Monday, October 30, 2006

"Grudge", "High Tension" and "The Queen". You Can Probably Guess What I've Been Up To This Weekend.

Back from the weekend with a passel of movie reviews.

"The Grudge". Had no interest in seeing this until my brother wrote in his blog how terrified this movie made him. You can read it here, and then make fun of him in the comments. No offense to my brother, but I was right to have avoided this film for this long. Not good. Peggy put it nicely when she turned to me about two-thirds through the movie and said, "You get the feeling they're just making this up as they go along?" And she's right as she is about most things -- there's a haphazard, incidental quality to this movie that makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. The basic premise is goofy, and we only get the whole, surprisingly pedestrian backstory when the movie's nearly over. [If you haven't seen it yet, I'm going to figure you don't care if I give anything away in this here post.] Here's how the ghosts got that way: In life, the Japanese woman ghost was obsessed with a professor played by Bill Pullman (I know! What the hell's he doing in this?). The woman's husband finds out and in a violent rage he drowns his son and kills her. Because the mom and son were so pissed off at the moment of death (I don't remember the pages of titles they flashed at the beginning too good), the grudge they carry stays in the house. Anyone who comes into the house will be hounded by these annoying Japanese ghosts for the rest of their lives. Uh, what?

How many millions of people have died in crime of passion murder-suicides? Why aren't all their houses cursed with Grudge-style ghosts? When I heard their story, the ONLY reaction is, "So?" I mean, it's sad and all, but in the pantheon of violent deaths, it's not really unusual, is it? Contrast their untimely death with Samara's, the girl from "The Ring". Now that girl went out of this world in a bad bad way -- in "The Ring", you totally understand how her death could have psychic implications that extend beyond the physical world. In the Japanese Scary Ghost-Girl movie genre, if your central violent or horrifying death isn't worse than, or even on par with Samara's, you got to keep brainstorming. A second draft would have been a real plus in this case. Anyway, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

"High Tension". We went into this one not knowing a lot about it, which was good. In case anyone else wants to check out this French slasher movie, I'll try and keep you in the dark, too. I can't say I really liked this movie, but I enjoyed watching it play out. If you like grisly slasher movie deaths, this one has a few keepers (I especially like the one involving the bureau). But by the end of it, though, I was scratching my head right when all was supposed to be illuminated. Summary: Not bad for what it is. Doesn't make a lick of sense.

"The Queen". We saw this at our local art theater last night. The reviews have been uniformly excellent and Oscar buzz for Helen Mirren, who plays Queen Elizabeth the Second, has been intense. She's fantastic in it, as are the other actors, so I'd say she's a lock for a nomination. The plot of the film is set in 1997, and deals primarily with the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, specifically the royal family's reaction. Tony Blair has just become Prime Minister only days prior, and at the time he was widely hailed for his pitch-perfect public response; one of the tabloids calls him "The Mourner in Chief" because he read the public mood so astutely. The royals on the other hand, particularly Queen Elizabeth, opt instead for the "stiff upper lip" style of grieving, and their seeming indifference to Diana's death provoke a bitter reaction in the public. Much of the film is taken up with a fascinating exploration of how the royal family's Old World sensibilities are out of step, for better and worse, with our over-televised, overexposed modern age.

Mirren does for Queen Elizabeth in "The Queen" what Anthony Hopkins did for Richard Nixon in "Nixon": the actor's performance begins to eclipse their real-life counterpart until they seem to actually become the person they're portraying. Though we'll never get a Barbara Walters-style interview with the current Queen of England, after seeing this movie I feel as though I know the woman pretty well. By the end I felt as sympathetic to her plight (relatively speaking, of course), as I did to Diana's, if not moreso. Technically, everything about the film is, as Christian Bale says in "The Prestige", "top notch", but it's the subtle touches here and there that give you both the basic humanity of the Queen while reminding you that she is the descendent of an awe-inspiring lineage going back centuries and centuries. For instance, Queen Elizabeth mentions in her first conversation with Tony Blair, almost in passing, something her "great-grandmother, Victoria" once said. "Holy shit!" I thought. "She's talking about Queen Victoria!" It's then you realize how rare a thing the English royal family is in this modern age -- a known and predictable quantity that represents a living link to a grander era in British history; kind of like what the Pope represents for Catholics. Anyway, an excellent movie, one I expect to end up in my top ten of the the year.

And it is now 10PM.

[Ed. note: since I wrote all this, Peggy's been on-line reading about what "High Tension" was all about. Some aspects do seem to play out logically, but other movies have plowed similar terrain with a lot more success.]

And I'm out.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Just Another Post About the Jim Webb Thing

Man I'm getting so weary of politics in these final weeks. It's hard not to imagine yourself in their shoes, dealing with the twin indignities of enduring vicious personal attacks and having to make vicious personal attacks in turn just to stay in the race. Everyone says they hate all the negativity in politics, myself included, but the fact is that elections aren't won by how good you can make your guy look, they're won by how bad you can make your opponent look. So this we must endure. Every two years.

Anyway, an update on the Jim Webb non-story story percolating today. If you're of a mind to waste 30 seconds of your life, you can click here and see the usually cowed Wolf Blitzer confront Lynn Cheney with some of her own medicine. She thinks Jim Webb's a degenerate because of what he wrote in his novels, but as you can see in the clip, she isn't too keen to talk about the R-rated material in her own novel, entitled "Sisters" (and yes, there are lesbian undertones in it). The thing about this whole business that gets under my skin the most is that this new tack taken by the Allen campaign is forcing us all to scan works of art for the "naughty bits", and then castigate the writers of those naughty bits as pervy scum, unfit for life much less public office. Isn't it fiction? Isn't coming up with disturbing imagery part of the job description?

Can you imagine what hell Stephen King would get from the likes of George Allen if King decided to run for office in Maine? Or John Irving? The Republicans would trot out the scenes from King's novel "It" when the children have sex in the sewer below Derry. Or the scenes in Irving's "Until I Find You" where the character of Jack, a young boy, is repeatedly molested without any overt signs of authorial disapproval. Do the requirements of their job, namely to imagine scenarios and characters freely, unfettered by the constraints of social mores, negate their feasibility as potential holders of public office? But these are just two examples from guys I've read, but this is the case with almost any serious novelist who doesn't write fiction intended for Christian bookstores. No one's safe from these kinds of attacks.

I haven't read Jim Webb's fiction and don't plan to -- seems kind of hawkish and military-fixated -- but I hate to think that he'd have been better off if he'd imagined a coterie of pinched-faced "Values voters" looking over his shoulder as he wrote his books, trying to keep whatever he wrote safely within their narrow boundaries of "good taste".

Anyway, I'm just more disgusted with this cynical political play than usual, thought I'd rant a little more about it. Again, have a good weekend.

GRE Kicks My Ass and Jim Webb Makes the Mistake of Not Being Mitch Albom in The Virgina Senate Race

Happy Friday, folks.

I've been lax on this thing, but it's been for a worthier reason than "I didn't feel like it". Not much better, but better. I've been studying for the Graduate Record Exam (or GRE) over the past couple weeks and I made my first attempt at it yesterday afternoon at the Thompson ProMetric Testing center over by Northlake Mall. If I'd done better on it, I probably wouldn't be referring to it as a "first attempt", but because, according to the GRE, I'm exactly as good at taking the math section of the test as I am at taking the Verbal (I got the exact same score in both sections), my plan is to take it again. Because I am not as good at math as I am at "verbal", so my guess is I can get a higher score on the Verbal. I'm not certain I'm going to grad school next year for a few reasons. 1) I don't know where my wife's going to be working, 2) I'm abivalent about whether grad school's even a good idea for me, especially the degree I'm thinking of getting, and 3) well, I'm sure there's a third reason. But if I have a decent GRE score under my belt, I'll have one fewer obstacle in my path if and when I do decide to apply to some damn school. They're good for 5 years after all.

Let me say a little something else about the GRE. The score range in both the Quantitative sections (math) and Verbal sections is scored on a range between 200-800. Before you get to either of those sections, however, you have to spend an hour and fifteen minutes writing two essays, one taking a side on an issue and supporting your argument, and the other taking apart a weak argument. The GRE study guide companies all tell you that this part of the test is the least important. So I did that and then came the Verbal section. The one half-hour section of the test I most wanted to do well on. First question: easy. The way it is with these "Computer Adaptive" tests, is that the first question is one that is of average difficulty. If you get it wrong, you get an easier question for your second question. If you get it right, your next question's harder. The more difficult-rated questions you answer, the higher your score. Third question, an anology question, I was already stumped. I had it narrowed down to two or three choices, but I didn't know with any real certainty which of these was most likely correct. I think I got it wrong because the next questions was SLAKE:THIRST. Not as hard. With these Computer Adapative tests, the first questions are absolutely the most vital to determining your score. Anyway, it went downhill after that. There are 28 questions in the Verbal section. The little timer on my screen told me that I had 2:47 left on this section, and I had about 9 questions left, at least three of which had to do with a longish reading comprehension passage that had just popped up onto my screen. By the time I'd finished reading the passage (and comprehending little to none of it), and then clicked B for all the remaining answers (questions left unanswered count against your score more harshly than incorrect answers, especially at the end), I was ready to just cancel the whole thing and get out of there. As bad as the Verbal had been, though, the math was worse. Of the questions that appeared on my test, I knew how to do precisely 10% of them, despite my hours of preparation. I guessed on most of the questions because the Verbal had so demoralized me that I'd already chalked up the whole thing as a loss. When my scores came back (and I'll save myself the embarassment of posting them up here), I was shocked. I thought I was going to see a combined score of 2, but they were considerably higher than I thought they'd be.

So the good news is that my performance on the test wasn't a complete humiliation. The bad news is that I'm going to have to take that exhausting test again because I ain't going down like that, not when I know I can get a much higher Verbal score. Anyway, that's what I've been up to.

In the world of politics, the already icky Senate race in Virginia between Republican incumbent George "Macaca" Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb has just taken a turn for the ickier. "Thanks" mostly go to Matt Drudge, who's splashed the "story" at the top of his site since late last night. You see, in addition to being Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, Jim Webb's also a novelist. With a little less than 2 full weeks before the election, the struggling George Allen campaign has gone through all of Jim Webb's novels and pulled out all the quotes they could find that right-wing talk audiences (hell, even left-wing talk audiences) would find most objectionable if they heard them recited on the radio. I'm not going to cut and paste them here because, taken out of context as they are, they're pretty unsavory. But you can visit our friend Matt Drudge and he'll happily tell you all about them. I was actually taken aback by the most prominent of the quotes, but this morning on talk radio Webb gave what I take as an entirely satisfactory explanation for the passage which, of course, Drudge misrepresented in a headline that linked to this article. It turns out Webb witnessed the act described in the novel in a slum in Bangkok and was recounting it to lend verisimilitude to his story. (You can probably get a sense of sort of "act" in question just from that clue). The Allen/Webb race is one of the closest in the nation -- control of the Senate could depend on who wins it. It seems that each side is working very hard to make the other candidate so unpalatable that only the most die hard Virginia partisans will show up at the polls. If it's not Webb's novels, than it's Webb's widly mysogenistic comments from back in the 80s. One of those "hold your nose and vote" sort of contests.

Anyway. I'm hoping to get over to the bookstore today to pick up Stephen King's latest, "Lisey's Story". It's been getting excellent reviews everywhere so I have a reasonable expectation that it'll be a worthwhile read. And here it is, one more time: have a good weekend, everybody.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Keeshonds Show Their War Faces For the Camera, and "The Prestige", Now In Theaters, Requires Your Attention

Hey, it's Monday! Hope everyone had a good weekend. (Ed. note: Is it just me or does it seem like I'm always writing that?) Went up to the in-laws on Friday night and ate of the fine and bounteous cuisine that is Golden Corral. We stayed over that night so Peggy could help her mother out with the yard sale she was having the following morning, and during that time I slept in, though fitfully, and watched the first two-thirds of "An American President".

Afterwards, we drove out to my folks' house in Oxford. My parents recently made a donation to the local fire department and, in return, received a free photography session and, from this, a free 10X14 print. Since we couldn't get all the family members out to the fire house at the same time to have our picture taken, dad had his picture taken with "the girls": my parents' two burly Keeshonds, Sophie and Matty. (You've read tales of their exploits before.) Peggy and I went with dad to the fire house and helped with the dogs until the photographer was ready to take the picture. There was much detangling of leashes and picking up of elephantine dog craps while we waited. When we made it into the room where the photographer had his lights set up, the photographer quickly moved a plywood table in front of the omnipresent dappled-blue backdrop, and covered the table with a black blanket covered in a Crystal Gale wig's worth of dog hair. He let us know that the dog-scented blanket made getting the dogs to jump up onto the table that much easier. I don't know whether that's true or not, but whether out of a physical need to be near my father at all times or out of a need to smell all the other dog smells, Sophie and Matty did jump up onto the table without much coaxing.

The photographer had my father sit on the table in between the two dogs and then stepped back behind the tripod-mounted camera and started to knock on the doorjamb beside the upturned flash-diffusing umbrella and exclaimed in a breathless voice, "Who's there? Who's there?". The dogs barked in agitation, but this wasn't enough for our photographer. He began to waggle a red Stimpy stuffed toy over his head and make anticipatory noises that implied something fun and possibly edible was about to happen. His motive in doing all this was, of course, to get the dogs to appear attentive and alive in the photos, and it worked. Another consequence of riling the dogs up, however, was that more than half of the photos the guy took will undoubtedly feature two adorable and hairy dogs gone inexplicably batshit crazy. Not sitting anymore but on all fours now, snouts open in mid-attack bark, wild, starey eyes fixed on their plushie prey, specks of spittle skewered on the ends their black muzzle hairs; in other words they looked vicious as starving pit bulls, and what will probably make the photos even more hilarious is the fact that my smiling dad is seated between them, clearly oblivious to the danger these feral and furious dogs pose. I'm looking forward to seeing how they turn out. If it's as funny as I think it'll be, I'll post it up.

Anyway. The following day we saw the long-anticipated "The Prestige". I read Christopher Priest's novel of the same name not too long ago and I'm glad I did. I happen to prefer the ending in the novel to the ending of the film, but was just as impressed with how the Nolans pulled it off. "The Prestige" represented a film-going first for me. Every now and again I'll read the novel an upcoming film is based on before I go see the thing. Working out how the screenwriters adapted a particularly tricky novel is often part of the fun, (and they don't get much trickier than "The Prestige"), but this was the first time I've seen a filmed adaptation that was neither better nor worse than the source material. That sounds like I'm saying the film version was just so-so, but I'm not. The fact is they're both brilliant. It was as though some third party storyteller told the same basic story to both Priest and the two Nolan brothers, and each came up with a brilliant version of that central story in different mediums. They differ in many ways, both trivial and substantive, but the differences Christopher and Jonathan Nolan come up with for the film are not intended as "improvements" on the original, but rather necessary adjustments made to tailor the novel into a two and a half hour film, and all that entails, and those adjustments are brilliant. Both the novel and the film are exceptional entertainments, each one whip smart and twisty in its own way. To my mind, this was the best possible adaptation of the novel: Priest's book doesn't neatly lend itself to adaptation. I'd talk more about it's plot, but as other reviewers have noted, it's very difficult to talk about without giving something away, so I'll just say go see it. If there's a whit of fairness in Hollywood, this will be nominated for a slew of awards (at the very least Best Adapted screenplay). Just a few weeks short of November, this is easily one of the best films of the year. I hope everyone with a few hours to spare gets a chance to see the film during its run, but I also think everyone should run out and grab up a copy of Priest's novel too. Knowledge of one doesn't preclude enjoyment of the other. The book's just as fun as the movie and lasts longer, too.

Well it's midnight now, officially Tuesday, but here's the Monday posting.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Begala V. Novak Live at Emory U!

I went to a debate tonight between Robert Novak and Paul Begala held at Emory University. Held in Glenn Memorial Church, the same place I saw Margaret Atwood last month, Peggy and I watched the old Crossfire colleagues debate "The Balance Between Civil Liberties and National Security". The event was slated for 7:30PM, but they didn't make their appearance on-stage until about 7:45PM.

Novak, dubbed the "Douchebag of Liberty" by Jon Stewart and Co., is very old. He's 75 years old, in fact, and, poor old bastard, looks his age, if not a decade or two older. I learned very quickly that he is no different outside of Crossfire than he is on Crossfire. By that I mean he is not serious. In the pantheon of conservative thinkers Bob Novak is a lot more Cindy Adams than John Adams. Which is not to say that Begala's particularly serious either, but I just happen to agree with Begala, an old-school "Clintonista", on most issues. There wasn't much in the way of sophisticated debate tonight, but even a rehash of their Vaudevillian Crossfire routine was somewhat entertaining.

Anyway, attendees were asked to submit questions to the panelists and so notecards and little pencils were provided. I wrote the following question and submitted it: "According to the new law, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, "unlawful enemy combatants" can now legally be denied the right to habeas corpus. Also according to the law, the executive has sole discretion to decide who is an "unlawful enemy combatant". If the current president can be trusted not to abuse this law, how confident are Mr. Novak and Mr. Begala that a future president won't abuse that power?" Yeah, it's a long question, but it kind of has to be. I added in that bullshit about the current president being trustworthy to throw off Novak so it wouldn't seem like an overtly political question and so he might answer it like an actual civil libertarian conservative as he purports to be.

Well, not to toot my own horn, but my question was the very first one asked. In response, Begala reiterated something he said in his opening statement, that "Bush hates the Constitution" and that "Madison's masterpiece" shouldn't be changed for any reason. Novak said that he trusted any president to do the job of protecting America, or some such bullshit, and then he kinda got shrill and seemed put out. He screwed up his face and asked, "What exactly are you afraid of? ['You', in this case, being me, the anonymous questioner] What are they going to do, go after a bunch of silly liberals?" That was one of the few laughs Novak got all night, and it is kind of funny when you put it like that; what conceivable president, after all, would break the law to go after such a marginal group of people?

But when you call them not "silly liberals" but "honest critics of the government", then it doesn't seem quite so funny. As we've seen in recent days in places like Russia, which has gotten more right-wing (read: more fascist) under the anti-democratic reign of Vladimir Putin, where the best and brightest journalists who dare question the policies of the Putin government are now regularly assassinated (they used to be arrested and intimidated by government thugs and those were the good old days), Novak's blithely-bestowed "trust" in all future presidents to do the right thing, and his belittling of the very concept of presidential abuse of power, makes Novak sound a lot like a doddering old man, and certainly not a serious or independent thinker.

Begala did have an interesting prediction that seemed outside of his usual role as Crossfire leftie and political hack. He predicts the Dems will take the House on November 7th, and that when they investigate the White House on issues like the lead-up to the war, (and they will), and subpeona documents and White House employees to get at the truth, that the White House, at the urging of Dick Cheney and other hard-liners in the executive, will strenuously resist those efforts and a constitutional crisis will result. I hope he's wrong, but given that I think the Dems will take the House (knock wood), and will investigate whether or not we were lied to in the run-up to the war, and that Cheney's policies have always sought to undermine the idea of co-equal branches of government, I think his prediction may very well come true.

Anyway. It was a diverting way to spend an evening. In other news: "The Prestige" opens tomorrow. Hope everyone has an awesome Friday.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bush Gives Himself "Despotic Powers", and Elizabeth Kostova Signs My Book

Uh, did we just lose the right of habeas corpus?

This New York Times article appears to give most of the story, but what's remarkably absent is a fact I've seen referred to frequently on Andrew Sullivan's website, on the Daily Show, and on Keith Olbermanns' show, namely what may be the most important part of the bill. The bill that Bush signed into law yesterday, called The Military Commissions Act of 2006, confers upon the Executive the power to decide who is an "unlawful enemy combatant". An "unlawful enemy combatant" has, according to law now, no right to habeas corpus, or the right to hear the evidence against you in court. From the bill :
"(a) the term "unlawful enemy combatant" means--

(b) a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense."
The bill goes on to further say, according to Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, that if you "give material support to an organization that the president deems is connected to one of these groups, you, too can be an enemy combatant."

Do I think this bill was drafted for the implicit purpose of rounding up peaceful and law-abiding citizens critical of the Bush administration and putting them into jail indefinitely? No. But I do think the formation and signing of the bill by the House, the Senate, and now the White House, was a remarkably ugly and short-sighted bill designed to keep the travesty that is Gitmo going even after the recent Supreme Court Hamdan ruling that seemed to call Bush's handling of so-called "enemy combatants" there illegal. Well, the Bushies have gotten around that pesky Supreme Court ruling, and Turley at least thinks it's unlikely that Justice Kennedy, the swing vote on the court now, will find anything in the bill that will cause him to overturn it. So, like I said, police vans aren't lining up to round up those who speak out against the administration, but now we have no real law to protect us from such a fate. Just the good graces of the Commander-in-Chief. That's scary to me. If there's another terrorist attack on the order of 9/11, I have no reason to expect reserved and judicious behavior from this government, and now the legal safeguards designed to protect the citizenry from an overzealous and unchecked federal government are, if not gone, substantially reduced. And though it's hard to imagine it, but what if, one day, we got someone worse than Bush? Might left-leaning newspapers suddenly be deemed to be giving "material support" to enemy combatants from afar by reporting news hurtful to the White House? Some on the far right have called Bill Keller, current editor of the New York Times, a traitor for publishing the story about the illegal wiretapping program. How far a walk is it to get to a President who shares these views, and is willing to act on them in the name of national security?

(And just look at the photo. Don't the attendees look like they're ashamed of themselves? As if they're fully aware that they just tore out a part of the Constitution for no good reason? Bastards.)

And if that weren't enough, there's this: Bush opens the door for militarization of space.

Good times. On the positive front, from all reports it's looking worse and worse for Republicans in November. Just for my peace of mind, I'm going to think of those excellent poll numbers and not of the $100 million Rove's planning to spend before election day. We'll win. Something. Even if we lose, maybe we win anyway? With Republicans in office for another 2 years, doesn't it make it that much more likely we'll get a Dem in the White House in '08? Doesn't it?

In other news, I went to another signing at the Margaret Mitchell House last night, this time with my sister, Shannon. Elizabeth Kostova, author of "The Historian", a modern updating of the Dracula legend, was in town to promote the paperback release of the book. Her reading was the shortest I've eve attended. After a longish introduction (too long, perhaps, for an author who's written just the one book), Kostova got up, talked for a bit, read the first chapter, answered some embarrassingly inane questions, then asked no one in particular, "Do we have time for one more question?" This was about 40-45 minutes after the reading started. Usually the MC manages the end of Q&A, but Kostova was fine to do that herself. The last question, "When you were writing the book, did you ever creep yourself out?" was answered with a funny story, and then it was on to signing books. The reading was harder to bear than most because the way the microphone amplified her voice had the effect of rendering all the words she spoke into one single base-tone syllable, lengthened to 25 minutes. You kind of had to think of something else, or look out the window on occasion to stave off the migraine.

When I handed her my book I asked what her thoughts were on the MFA program at the University of Michigan she attended. She was effusive about the place, saying it wasn't overly competitive like some other places because all of the MFA students were funded, so there was no competing for scholarships or teaching fellowships; the biggest thing she learned while she was there was how to rewrite, how to be tougher on her own writing, and that overall it was a great experience. Then she said, "And the winters are really bad, but they're so bad they're [unintelligible]". She laughed at this and seemed to look at me intently as though to make sure I understood her joke, and feeling I got the gist of what she was saying (perhaps the intensity of the winters made them absurd in a way?), I laughed, too. My sister laughed. Laughing's fun.

After we were outside I asked Shannon, "The winters are so bad they're what? I didn't hear." Shannon admitted she hadn't heard either. Ah well. It's too much for me to interrupt a person mid-laugh just so I can ask them to annunciate the punchline. Far easier to just laugh right along.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Train Horns Are Louder Now, Video of Saunders Reading a Storuh, and "Hot Fuzz" Teaser. An Auspicious Monday Indeed!

Ah, happy Monday folks. It is a gray and drizzling day in Decatur, Georgia, and I think the thinning foliage may be allowing more of the train horn sound through to my apartment. They're louder than they used to be, or at least it seems that way. There's one now. I guess it must be moving through a stretch of track cut through with a lot of streets without the ding ding dings and the striped come-down stick things. Gots to keep the idjits off the tracks. Let them know you're coming. Yeah, all of that's pretty stream-of-consciousness, and I like it about as much as you do, so I'm moving on.

Last week, I wrote about George Saunders and his collection of stories called "Pastoralia". They are good stories. This week, I'm posting a link to some sweet video of George Saunders doing a reading in New York City (along with a guy who wrote a book called "Absurdistan") that was sponsored by the New Yorker magazine. A Q&A follows. It's my first glimpse of the guy in action and I was impressed. The story he reads follows in the same humor-girded-with-pathos vein most of his stories do, and not only was the story good, he read it well. He's relaxed, witty, well-spoken, and essentially sets the bar very high for calm and erudite public speaking. He says that he's taking a year off from teaching at Syracuse and that he's got nothing on his plate at the moment, but that he's hoping that during this sabbatical, he'll get into something "bigger". Perhaps we can expect a full-on Saunders novel? Also: he says that he writes 4 or 5 short stories for every one that he likes well enough to publish. That's a lot of stories he's got moldering in a metaphorical drawer somewhere. Anyway, take a view of the Saunders video if you get the chance or have the inclination.

In political news: A Washington Post article takes note of how "inexplicably upbeat" Karl Rove and W. are these days about Republicans' prospects in the mid-term elections. In fact, they're making no plans for what they'll do if they lose one or both houses of Congress. And this isn't just optimism they're showing off in public, putting a good face on a bad situation and all that. These reports are coming from higher-ups in the White House who don't get what possible reason Rove and Bush have to be upbeat about election day. What could it be? Do they have a standing arrangement with Diebold to deliver every election for Bush while he's in office? Or does Rove have some something evil in the works designed to sway those soft-headed Republicans -- those who may have planned to skip voting on account of Foleygate -- to go out and vote? Well, here's what might be allowing Rove to sleep better at night.

"Saddam verdict to be read out on November 5th."

Hmm. That's on a Sunday. The elections are two days later. That's two full days of full-bore mainstream media coverage of what a nasty guy Saddam was and how great it is that, even though there's all this dying, and Civil Warring, and assassinationing, we got nasty terrible Saddam out of power and into a jail cell. Undoubtedly there will be a national prime-time address direct from the Oval Office in which Bush can make an election-eve plea for his base to come out and vote, and for two full days, the 24-hour "news" networks will give precious airtime to Republican spinmeisters who'll say the misguided and traitorous Dems are far from pleased with the verdict, that, if fact, the party of Pelosi and Kennedy and Reid wish Saddam were still in power, etc. etc. November 5th. Quite the coincidence.

Finally, in movie news: 1) To view a couple teasers for "Hot Fuzz", the new film from the team that brought you "Shaun of the Dead", click here. (I'm not sure quite how they've got the teasers working on this site. Click on the link to see one teaser, then reload the page and maybe see the other teaser?) Nothing riotously funny here, but I'm not about to cast aspersions on this film based solely on a so-so teaser. Also, 2) "The Prestige" opens this Friday. Thought I'd remind folks, just so you have something else to look forward to this weekend.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

E-Reader's Not All That, Morgan Webb's Pretty, and George Saunders is a Genius. Exhibit A: "Pastoralia"

Been lax the last couple days on this thing, sorry 'bout 'dat, but I'm getting close to finishing the first (or, more correctly, the quasi-second) draft of the end of my book, so my focus has been on that.

Also, to follow-up on something I posted on not too long ago, some independent third-party reviews are in for that Sony E-Reader gadget I wrote about. (I wondered if it might signal the end of all things printed and bound.) Go here to see the brief write-up of the reviews at GalleyCat, and if you're wanting a more in-depth look, click on GalleyCat's links to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; they're the ones doing the judging after all.

And, at risk of alienating those few female readers who sometimes frequent this blog, I'd like to direct your attention to a few new photos from FHM magazine of X-Play host Morgan Webb, which also happens to include some interesting factoids about Ms. Webb I didn't know. Did you know she used to be in television commercials as a child? I didn't. Anyway, she's a very talented young woman and I respect her video game expertise.

Finally, I finished a collection of short stories last night called "Pastoralia" by George Saunders. Shawn lent it to me when I visited him in Asheville back in August. He'd described the title story to me many a year ago and it sounded funny to me then, but I never got around to picking it up until he pressed it into my hand. I've been an ignorant snob on the subject of "funny" books, thinking if there was a comedic bent in a book or a story, it was probably on the level of Carl Hiassen or Kinky Friedman or Douglas Adams, but now I think I might be all about the "funny" books (the good ones anyway), because "Pastoralia" was probably the funniest thing I've ever read. I read the title story aloud to Peggy and, usually, the dulcet tones of my voice have a sleep-inducing quality for her, forcing her into a fitful sleep filled with dreams of low-voiced mumbling giants, but "Pastoralia" kept her up and when she felt herself going to sleep she told me to stop reading so I could read the rest the following night. There was much laughter.

The title-story, "Pastoralia", concerns an unnamed man who works in a kind of living museum/theme park. He lives in a cave and pretends to be a caveman. He's pretty good at his job. He has to be because he can't afford to get fired. His wife and small son (with whom he communicates by fax) aren't doing so well. She's struggling with bills marked "Past-Due" and the son has some peculiar disease that limits his mobility and the doctors don't know how to treat him. So his family needs him to keep working this demeaning job that requires him to eat roast goat everyday, pretend to pick insects out of the air and eat them, and not talk. Working with him is a 50-ish woman who pretends to be a cavewoman. Her name is Janet and, unlike our hero, she isn't very good at her job. In keeping with the verisimilitude of their caveman tableau, when they aren't in their personal "Separate Areas", they are allowed only to grunt and shriek and be incomprehensible and wild in case a tourist should stop by. They are expressly prohibited from speaking English as it would destroy the "realism" of the experience. But Janet speaks in white-trash-accented English whenever she likes, smokes, eats mints, and does crosswords. She can get awat with this because the opening in their cave through which visitors to the park "poke their head[s] in" hasn't had a visitor in two weeks. And even though no one's viewing their simulacrum of prehistoric life, either management or tourist, the main character and Janet are still required to keep up the act at all times. And despite her bad behavior (and some of the comedy comes from the many ways she finds to undermine that "realism"), he never rats on her. On the Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Forms he's required to fax into management each day, Janet always gets high marks, and this unerring consistency on the DPPEFs starts to get our hero in trouble with the higher-ups.

I don't want to give much more away than the premise, because I think this is one you all would like to read, but I laughed hardest at the character of Nordstrom, the boss with an unusual speaking and writing style (they are the same and they are weird), and Janet's ne'er-do-well son, Bradley, who, fresh out of rehab worries that he's going to revert to his old ways as an "Inadvertant Substance Misuser". He got the biggest laughs.

"Sea Oak" is balls-out funny and the others are just perfect in a sad, satirical way. "The End of FIRPO in the World" wasn't terribly satirical, just kind of heart-breaking. After having read these stories I see very well now why the MacArthur Foundation gave Saunders one of their "Genius Grants" this past month. $100,000 every year for five years indeed. Well-deserved.

Most of Saunders' characters are sad sacks who've been unlucky in circumstance and temperament. Though their lives are pretty bad, they could be improved if only the one in charge of improving it weren't the person living it. They are prisoners of their own personalities. "Pastoralia" also deals in sharp political commentary. Though it's never explicitly stated, one is led to believe many of these stories are set in a future where the social safety net has been entirely removed, 90% of jobs are service-industry jobs of various levels of humiliation, and, judging by how dumb many of the characters are, the public education system has been entirely dismantled for some time. Much of the dialogue in this is hilarious but some of the humor comes out of the Jerry Springer-style stupidity of some of the characters (I'm thinking specifically of the sisters in "Sea Oak", Min and Jade). I would say that Saunders' writing must have influenced Mike Judge when he wrote the screenplay for "Idiocracy", a story about a distant future when all humans are dumber than rocks. To me, "Idiocracy" seems like a wayward off-shoot of Saunders' hilariously dystopian universe.

Anyway, this was an excellent collection of stories and Saunders is a real find. I've got to get my hands on his other collection of stories, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline", as soon as possible. All right. Enough for today. More tomorrow?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Kim's Officially Gone Nuke-yoo-lur, and, as Gene Shalit Might Say, "Depart for "The Departed"!"

Well this is fun. Click here to see the US Geologic Survey's report of a seismic event that registered 4.2 on the Richter scale on the northern part of the Korean Peninsula early this morning. Thanks Bush! I'd always wondered what a world with a nuclear North Korea would be like, and now I'll get to see exactly what that's like. Now the Japanese can get themselves a full-on military again and no one can say anything to them about it. "We have to protect ourselves from our belligerent and now nuclear- capable neighbor," they'll say if anyone tries to raise a fuss. Hard to argue with that. So in addition to nuclear North Korea, I think everyone's really excited about a remilitarized Japan.

Once again, Clinton had his eye on the ball on this one, just as he did with Al Qaeda, (even as the high-handed Republicans worked ceaselessly to get him to take his eye off of it), and Bush never saw the ball. Bush goes into office and focuses instead on tax cuts for the wealthy, giving us No Child Left Behind, and taking lots of vacation days. And we voted this guy in for another term. No wonder the rest of the world thinks we're stupid.

Reports that North Korea had a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Los Angeles came out a few years back while I was living there, but those have since been debunked -- I suppose, however, that Kim's gang of starving Communists might have a sweet ICBM that could reach Alaska or Hawaii, and I think a war of some kind may have started in Hawaii before. Anyway, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has a brief but astute reading of what Kim Jong Il's nuclear test means and who deserves all of the blame for it -- I think you can probably guess who that is. If you're bored at work or at home, you can read it here (you'll have to scroll down until you see the posting headed up with a photo of Bush in his flight suit costume -- the site's not giving me a permalink for whatever reason.)

Anyway, enough of the bad. Now for the good. Peggy and I saw "The Departed" on Friday night, as I imagine some of you did, too, and it's just brilliant filmmaking. If you haven't seen it yet, see it tonight or see a matinee this weekend. It's not a movie you should miss seeing in theaters. I'll see it again before it finishes its run, but I would say that after having seen it the once, that it's up there with the best of Scorsese's work, and that's saying a lot.

Also watched "Thank You For Smoking" and "Shattered Glass" on DVD over the weekend. I'll tell you about those later in the week. Hope everyone had a good weekend.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Foley's Dirty IMs Continue to Make Life Hell for Jabba the Hastert, R. Ley Ermey Thinks You're an Idiot, and Kubrick Was Sad When He Died

This Mark Foley thing keeps on rolling. Speaker Hastert gave a press conference today and pretended to take the blame but didn't resign, which is probably a win for Dems. By ducking responsibility for lying and obfuscating all weekend, and opting to keep a Pagehound in office rather than risk losing a seat thus, Hastert shows all the voters what kind of people they have representing them in our nation's Capitol. My guess is the scandal will grow larger over the next few days.

In more Foley news, Drudge Report is reporting in one of his personal exclusives (which means it's a 50/50 shot as to whether it's true) that the IM messages that blew up on ABC News last week were just a kind of prank between two non-homosexual pages that got into the wrong hands. In the vein of "Let's see what we can get that homo-perv Foley to say in IM!" Sounds somewhat plausible, but this is Drudge and Drudge always tows the party line with added fervor around election time, so this could just be that.

Also of interest, R. Lee Ermey gave an interview to Radar Online to promote "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" and talked a little about a conversation he had with the late Stanley Kubrick a couple weeks before he died. Apparently Stanley hated "Eyes Wide Shut" and Ermey inplies that the reason for his movie "turning to shit" had a lot to do with having Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in it. I wonder how much of this was just hyper-self-criticism that a lot of artists deal with, and how much of this was genuine angst about the state of what turned out to be his final movie. I hope he didn't really hate it. That would be a sad way to end a career.

Also, in this interview, Ermey reveals himself to be a wingnut conservative among wingnut conservatives, which would seem to track with his past as a drill Sergeant and his military background. He says anyone who equates Iraq with Vietnam is a "fucking idiot". He says he's been to Iraq a few times and says the US military in Iraq is "doing just fine over there", which speaks to either some sort of baseline delusion or just willful ignorance. Neither's too good. Additionally, he calls David Fincher "a little chicken shit" because Fincher didn't listen to Ermey's "ideas" when filming "Seven". I'm not saying Fincher was right to freeze Ermey out of the creative process, but if Ermey is as batshit crazy as he would seem in this interview (which, admittedly, probably helped fuel his brilliant performance in "Full Metal Jacket"), then I don't know if I'd have listened to his ideas either, especially in such a tightly-written movie like "Seven". Anyway, take a read.

Also: for Salon's review of Charles Frazier's follow-up to "Cold Mountain", "Thirteen Moons", click here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Stephen King Wants Your Respect

Stephen King's starting to make the rounds again, this time for his new novel, "Lisey's Story". It releases on Tuesday, October 24th. What's interesting about this book is the way King's talking about it in interviews like this one with the New York Times, and also the way his publisher's handling its release. From the Times article:
With “Lisey’s Story,” he added, “I’m not saying that it’s deathless prose, or it’s a classic, but I’m saying that I’m surprised I had this book in me. It’s a lucky book.”
Interesting how he phrases that, but I'll get to that in a minute. His publisher, Scribner, is sending out reader's copies of the book to critics and independent booksellers. They're pushing to get "Lisey's Story" into independent bookstores where King's books are usually verboten. They obviously think if any King book is going to increase his audience from just his diehard fans (which are legion) and folks who want something that goes fast for a long plane ride, this is the one. And then there's this quote from King, which I think reveals much about hus current literary ambitions:

The intense focus on language in “Lisey” comes as something of a shift for him. In his early days Mr. King confessed that a story’s concept superseded the language. In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Mr. King once said: “Love of the word wasn’t first. It was second.” Now, he said, language is “more important than it used to be.”

Part of that change, he said, was that he was reading more poetry. Among his favorites are D. H. Lawrence, Richard Wilbur and James Dickey.

“You get older, you find out time is shorter, and you read stuff that you’ve missed before,” he said. “You say, ‘I can’t wait forever anymore to read Eudora Welty.’ I finally got to Eudora Welty, so maybe I’m just meeting a better class of literary person.”

This is what I think is going on. King wants a National Book Award or a Pulitzer. He got an O. Henry Award for a short story he wrote back in the nineties, he got some respectful reviews for his first "literary" horror novel, "Bag of Bones", and most importantly he got that Distinguihsed Contribution to Arts and Letters from the National Book Association, the same crew that hands out National Book Awards, and he believes he has that or a Pulitzer-worthy book in him. Maybe" Lisey's Story" is it. He can't come right out and say that in an interview, ""Lisey's" good enough to win a major literary award," because of course he wouldn't even get shortlisted, but he can call it a "lucky book", say that he's "surprised [he] had it in [him]", and talk about his newfound appreciation for "the word", and get the book the attention it needs to be considered.

Is "Lisey's Story" as good as King thinks it is? Michael Chabon thinks so: according to reports the book's going to have a big warm Chabon blurb on it to assure hesitant, first-time King buyers that this one's different from all those other horror books. I've read an excerpt of the book and I liked it, though I also realize an excerpt isn't a novel. Believe me, I'm hoping for the best.

I think King will write "literary" books that may well be read 50 years after he's shuffled off the mortal coil. (I know he's written a few horror books that will be read for a century if not longer -- "Shining", "Misery", "Different Seasons", the first four books of "The Dark Tower" series, etc.). But if you look at the books that have won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award since they started handing the things out, King doesn't fit into that group of authors (even a reformed King), and a King novel doesn't fit into a list of the winning books. At least of this writing, the folks who decide these things are going to want more of a committment to "literary writing", before they stick their necks out for the derision they'll no doubt face from boobs like Howard Bloom and the other book snobs who laid into the National Book Awards for giving King his Distinguished Arts and Letters medal.

So even if "Lisey'"s doesn't pan out for him in the awards department this time around, at a production rate of a book a year he's got a lot more chances. He's not even 60 yet. And as I said in a previous post, the quality of "Cell" indicates he's about called it quits with horror altogether. (My new theory is that he got the idea for "Lisey's Story" in his head in the middle of writing "Cell", and then hurried to get "Cell" finished so he could write "Lisey's Story", which would explain why "Cell" completely falls apart in the second half. End of theory.) Anyway, when it comes out, I'll read it and let you know how it is.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mozilla Eats One Post, You Get the Summarized, Less Good Version. Herein: SS Isn't Just for Nazis Anymore. And Cool Shots of the Sun.

Oh, that hurts.

I'd just finished putting the finishing touches on today's post when a pop-up on (for Netflix incidentally) froze up Mozilla and forced me to CTRL-ALT-DEL the whole program. Good times. Well, let me see. What had I written? Ah, yes. I was writing about a story out of Denver that had set both mine and my wife's blood to boiling with righteous and patriotic fury. Here's the story. I had a good summary all written up for those who didn't want to click on the link, so I'll do an abbreviated version of that (aren't you all enjoying this reference back to a post no one but me has ever even seen? I'm sure it's not annoying in the slightest).

Here's what happened. A man named Howards lives in or around Denver. It's June 16th of this year. He's walking his kid to piano lessons. He sees Vice President Dick Cheney some distance away shaking hands and having his picture taken with crazy people who still want to have their picture taken with the Vice President. Our hero, Howards, walks over to the Cheney conglomeration and says to the VP, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible." Howards and son walk away. Howards walks back through the same area some time later, presumably after dropping his son off at his piano lessons, and a Secret Service agent, appropriately named Reichle Jr., stops him and asks Howards if he had "assaulted" the Vice President. Howards denies the charge but is cuffed anyway, arrested, and taken down to the jail. Reichle Jr. tells the local authorities to charge Howards with harrassment. Howards gets out of jail and the local DA dismisses all charges. Howards has since filed a lawsuit against Reichle Jr. saying his First and Fourth Amendment Rights were violated. I sure frickin' hope he wins.

Aren't you kinda pissed after reading that? I mean, this is Cheney we're talking about. Cheney himself is reprehensible, but the guy didn't even say that (though that would have been his right as well), he only said Cheney's Iraq policies were reprehensible and then Reichle Jr. decides to give him his own SS brand of treatment. So what sort of message does this story send to the American public? It tells me that if I were to ever find myself in the vicinity of a Dick Cheney or a George W. Bush and I wanted to tell that man what I thought of the job he was doing in respectful terms if not necessarily a cordial tone, than the best I can expect in response is arrest from a goon. The message this story sends is be afraid to speak your mind. Not a good message.

Is it November 7th yet for chrissakes?

Also. If all goes well, I'm going to dilute some of that righteous fury I've just inbued you with by adding a little cosmic wonder. Yeah, I got some photos.

This is the sun with a couple suspicious-looking black specks on it. Those aren't sunspots, silly monkey.

Those specks are in fact the space station and the space shuttle in orbit around the Earth. Some guy with an Earth-bound telescope snapped this one just when the space shuttle and space station's orbit happened to position them between this guy's telescope and the great big ball o' fire we call the Sun. Anyway, I thought this was super cool and now it's on my blog for your enjoyment.

More blogorrhea tomorrow.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Willy-Nilly Monday Post. Herein I Blah Blah Blah about Politics.

Oh blog of ancient lore! I was not prepared to deal with you this night! Not after a day of grocery shopping and laundry and dinner cooking and various other house-husbanding tasks set before me this day. Ahem. Well, here I am, and I said I'd be better about posting this week than last, so I'll just get into it and see what appears.

Has anyone been following the news about the pervy congressman? Apparently, some congressman from Florida had more than one wildly inappropriate instant message chat with a 16-year old page. Every political blog and news site has been obsessed with this thing since news broke on Friday, but not because of what happpened between Foley (the Congressman) and the page, but because the Republican House leadership may have known a year ago that inappropriate emails were going back and forth between these two. Any thing that can be used to show the Republicans in a negative light I'm all for, but I was bored with this story the moment I heard about it. The bigger and more important story today, I think, are the revelations in Woodward's new book, State of Denial. Here's a few:

1) Henry Kissinger, Nixon's now-ancient Secretary of State, is now a frequent advisor to both President Bush and Co-President Cheney. When Kissinger comes to the White House, if Bush isn't in a meeting, Henry's shown right in. At least some of Bush's mindless "stay the course" mantra comes directly from Kissinger who, according to Woodward, believes we would have won the Vietnam war if there'd been more political will.

2) Tenet and Cofer Black of the CIA had a late July meeting with Condi Rice warning her that they were very concerned about the level of chatter they were intercepting, saying, in effect, that a terrorist attack was in the offing and that the federal government should take some steps to prevent this. According to Woodward, Tenet and Black felt that during the meeting she was polite, but ultimately gave them the "brush-off". Condi has since come out and said she doesn't remember the meeting.

3) Even Laura Bush wanted her husband to fire Rumsfeld.

4) The level of violence is much higher than the White House would have us believe. Though the bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites is what's in the news these days, what we're not seeing or being told about is that insurgent attacks on American and Iraqi military forces are so frequent now that, on average, an attack occurs once every 15 minutes in that country.

And the worst part is we've got another 2+ years with this incurious evangelical in the top job.

Anyway, that was Monday's blog, like it or not. More tomorrow.