Sunday, October 28, 2018

Great American Read Books #4 and #7

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have proven very difficult to obtain! I don't like doing things out of order, but that's just how it has to be sometimes. The same idea applies to many other things I don't like doing such as paying student loans or working every day/night of the week, but whatever. I think being slightly irritated most of the time makes me a better writer. Or a better drinker.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

There were two books I refused to read in high school----Great Expectations and this. I didn't read Great Expectations because someone I hated in 10th grade English always monopolized the conversations we'd have in class about it (and obviously anything she liked was poison) and I found it difficult and boring, which is fair, even now, for Dickens. A Separate Peace was apparently assigned sometime along the way, but I do not remember anything about it, whose class it was for, or even opening the book, ever. In high school I loved reading and often enjoyed the classics they gave us, but there had to be something creepy going on in order for me to actually read it and think about it (i.e., teenage love + suicide in R&J, ghosts and betrayal ala Hamlet, clever murder as in The Landlady or The Lottery, or all that sub-textual male whoring around going on in The Grapes of Wrath). I'm quite well-read now of course, but never forget that I went from Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume directly to V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. Apologies to all of you who are now backing away slowly, but it's the truth.

To return to the point, I would not have had the attention span in high school to read about two 1940s-era teenagers, athletic vs. nerd drama, and the threat of World War II--at that time there just wasn't anything for me, an insufferable brat, in a story like that. But for an adult (or a more mature teenager than I was), there is actually quite a bit worth reading about and I think the book is an important one. There are wonderful moments of nostalgia that happen when main character Gene revisits his old prep school, beautiful language used to describe items such as the school's gym (and its smells), alpha male Finny's ideas and enthusiasm for life, and the natural world that surrounds the boys throughout the various landscapes (the lakes, the tree, the grounds) which pose a different kind of danger than the ever-present war. It's about jealousy, worry, and regret---all very common, very human reactions during the coming-of-age years. I'm glad this was on the list and very much enjoyed reading it although the experience had a very lamenting feel and wasn't at all happy.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This was what I wanted from Rhonda Byrne's The Secret so many years ago----less on the money obsession and more on experience! It's a very easily-read, very simple narrative of a young shepherd who has been inspired to seek adventure and follow his dreams. The story suggests that every aspect of the journey of life, even the struggles and the negatives, contribute to the overall path of finding the PERSONAL LEGEND. Everyone's personal legend is different, so as the story goes, results will depend on what you want to achieve (although let's face it, few of us would say no to any sort of monetary gift in these troubling times). To unpack a little further: If we, as readers, apply this to ourselves it means that everything that has happened to us was designed to 1., teach us something about our own personal legends, and 2., bring about action or change that further inspires us to follow and achieve our personal legends. To disregard the personal legend or to ignore the signs that God or The Universe gives us may lead us down a path more challenging, but the idea is that the personal legend wants very badly to be realized in each of us, and God or The Universe does everything possible to keep showing us how to achieve it and corralling us back to the proper path----we just have to be paying attention. Implicit in this philosophy is the idea that we are responsible for our own fates but also that beauty and opportunity can be found in unexpected places and among the random people we meet (in other words, my very favorite idea: everything matters).

I realize that allegory might not necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but the message is a positive one and the story is interesting and well-written so I believe that regardless of belief systems or religious affiliation, it can still be widely enjoyed. It was featured in the young adult section at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, and it made me wonder if that particular population is actually open to this kind of story. My kids seem to get the most out of books they are assigned in school or the ones I insist on reading to them out loud. In both these instances, they are required to provide some sort of proof that they've absorbed the story and can comprehend what's happening (school = tests and homework, me = asking them each in turn nerdy questions about the content); it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on this story, although I already took it back to Augsburg. I enjoyed this book very much, but more than that I enjoyed the idea of it and hope that we, as both readers and people, can all still appreciate this kind of innocence and hope. It seems in very short supply these days.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Star is Born (semi-quickly)

Sentimentalists, this is for you.

A Star is Born 
(2018). Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Eliot

Yes, it's a third-time remake. Yes, Bradley Cooper, a non-musician, sings as well as directs (he did both smashingly). Yes, he's country, Gaga is pop. But I swear, it works, it was great, and I honestly can't remember the number of times I cried but it was a lot. I think people initially thought this was going to be a really bad, really cheesy film (and by "people" I mean mostly me) but it wasn't either of these things at all. I am still kind of crying about it now, actually.

So music is a beautiful thing, but it can also be . . . difficult. Being a musician, a writer, or an artist and staying true to yourself and what you want to say can be difficult. Life, past and present, can be difficult. These difficulties are what make the film emotional--- it's not a particularly glamorous look at stardom but one that embraces the realities of the human experience within the lives of two musicians. Jack and Ally (Cooper and Gaga) aren't totally like us, but they are a little or just enough in that they have relatable flaws, they mess up, and bad things happen to them. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an accomplished songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist but drinks a lot. Some of his demons get explained, some don't, but his self-destruction is evident from the very beginning and we sympathize because he seems a nice, honest fellow with a back-throat Good Ol' Boy manner of country speaking. Ally (Gaga) is strong and reactionary in a had-it-with-the-world kind of way but full enough of insecurities for the audience to get swept away by everything right along with her. We root for her through our concern---everything is an ascending whirlwind and whirlwinds are exciting! Songs get written in the moment, substance abuse is constant, and yet things go on more or less okay for a while, causing us to hope against all odds for happiness or barring that, the energy and passion of the film's early scenes (illustrated perfectly by the song, "Always Remember Us This Way").

It's impossible, of course. No spoilers, although there are big hints throughout the film (and if you've seen the previous productions, of course you already know). We all have our issues; sometimes music or being loved by someone can save us. Sometimes it can't.

A few more nice details:

1. It's very inspiring to watch two people in the music, enjoying themselves. Lady Gaga is a gifted vocalist, songwriter, and pianist---most everyone probably knew this already---but some of the greatest scenes are when she and Cooper perform side by side; they make quite lovely harmony together. The bluesy/rock instrumental jam, "Out of Time," is a great accompaniment for some of these happy moments (and I can't stop playing it on my Spotify).

2. Vulnerability is portrayed very well by both actors and addressed often and in many ways, but Cooper especially puts himself into this quite skillfully toward the end of the film when everything unravels. He's done some emotionally impressive work with this role, which couldn't have been an easy thing to explore.

3. Sam Eliot is great in everything. There's a guarded closeness between his character, Bobby, a much older brother, and Cooper's Jack that really resonates, and many of the emotional scenes (some done with violent outbursts others with begrudging care) focus on this relationship as a sort of guidepost for many of Jack's problems. Their last interaction, the words Jackson speaks to his brother, and the reaction they bring are part of what's keeping me emotional about this film----"It wasn't Dad I idolized."

Well done, Coop.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I See What You Did, There: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I not only saw what author John Irving did there but I loved it. LOVED IT. It was a long road reading this book, I don't mind saying. 617 pages, which isn't the longest thing I've ever read but certainly an investment nonetheless. I started it in July, took it with me to China, and then really, really dug into it when I got back. It took a very long time, but this is a story that takes its time and really cannot be rushed, so it worked. I read The Hotel New Hampshire last year and liked it fine, but this is infinitely more my kind of story. Clever, clever. 

A Prayer For Owen Meany
by John Irving

The back of the book quotes the first chapter's first paragraph, stating, "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice----not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I've struggled all week with putting together some sort of synopsis for this book, and even a little with my decision to cop out by including the above back-jacket blurb instead of coming up with my own. There are several aspects of the story that are straight-forward and quite easy to talk about but the opening passage identifies them all. There are spoilers, big ones, that I'm not touching because "arriving" at them, however fast or slow a reader you are or how deep you choose to invest yourself into a novel is your own business. The only advice you'll get from me is to pay attention, especially to the chapter titles (which, together with the events they describe elevate this story to, well, a lot more than just a story). There is something very clever, I daresay very LOST-like (well before LOST was created) about all this, which is of course why I'm singing its praises. The overall value of the Owen Meany experience is in its cleverness and its emotion, something we Americans need in our books these days.

Clever, not as in "here are a bunch of long, fancy words and metaphors that prove that I, John Irving, am well above you lowly peasants slogging through my never-ending chapters," but clever as in everything you read about, every character's experience, every current event that gets described, every bit of dialogue matters. EVERYTHING. Why is that clever? You have to get to the end.

And emotion, as in the description of feelings, thoughts, and reactions that are complicated, sad, and sometimes very strange and often quite funny. You spend so much time with the two main characters that you begin to feel for them as only someone who has spent years invested in their lives can (which basically by the end, you have and will). Some recent authors of popular books can do this well, but many cannot. You can read an entire stack of mediocre stories with flimsy characters and cheesy dialogue and have nothing in the end to show for it but a pile of conquered books that don't mean anything (and don't misunderstand, I'm all for reading no matter what the level or topic) but you can also read something that stays with you long after you're done, something that touches your heart and opens up an empathy and appreciation for writing you didn't know was possible. I loved all these characters, I loved every blasted thing that came out of their mouths, and I love John Irving for writing it all. That's emotion. I look at the book, which I keep now among my most treasured, and think of all my favorite moments big and small: the damned armadillo and dress mannequin, the pickle in the champagne, Owen's voice in ALL CAPS, the endless books and films described, Owen's newspaper articles, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Hester always drunk and vomiting, all of it, and I didn't just enjoy it, I believed it.

Listen here: 
"Although it was only two o'clock in the afternoon, Hester had already consumed several rum and Cokes: she was sound asleep in her bedroom---as oblivious to Owen's and my discussion as my mother was. 
'I don't feel like it,' I said.
From Hester's bedroom---even though the door was closed---we could hear her breathing; Hester's breathing, when she'd been drinking, was something between a snore and a moan.
'Why does she drink so much?' I asked Owen.
'What's that mean?' I asked him. 'Do we have a generation of drunks to look forward to?'
'How do you know?' I asked him.
'I DON'T KNOW HOW I KNOW,' said Owen Meany. 'I JUST KNOW THAT I KNOW,' he said.

Even now, looking back over the pages I bookmarked, I'm smiling and enjoying the book all over again. On the strength of this, I cheated on the Great American Read booklist and grabbed myself The Cider House Rules at the library just because I wanted more of this guy (and ended up loving that just as much if not more). Read John Irving. It's a lengthy journey but you're in good hands; he knows exactly what he's doing.

I now believe that Owen remembered everything; a part of knowing everything
is remembering everything.

Monday, September 17, 2018

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 11, All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

Events: Jack learns of Claire and Charlie's disappearance, which he takes personally as he had blown off Claire's stories of being attacked as pregnancy stress and paranoia in the previous episode (Raised by Another). A search group sets out but there are more disagreements about where to look and whether or not the camp can spare Jack, the survivors' only doctor. In one direction, Boone observes Locke's abilities as a gifted outdoorsman; in the other direction, Jack and Kate find Charlie's finger bandages, a threatening Ethan, and later, Charlie hanging unconscious from a tree, whom Jack revives. As Boone and Locke attempt to return to the camp, they stumble upon a strange metal structure in the jungle.

"That's how you shape a soft metal into steel."
Through flashbacks we learn that Christian and Jack worked at the same hospital and that there was an issue during a procedure where Jack was ordered, by Christian, to stop heroic measures to save a patient. After the woman dies, Jack confronts Christian about his drinking, which led to the error that then caused the death, but Christian convinces Jack to back him up with a pat on the shoulder. Later, Jack sees Christian use the same gesture with the patient's husband, who is threatening to sue the hospital over what happened. When a board member reveals that the patient had been pregnant, Jack refuses to lie about what happened and exposes his father's responsibility for her death.

Greater meaning: Jack continues to be stubborn when it comes to problem-solving, needing resolution immediately while putting his own health and safety at risk. Jack and Locke are at odds with each other as Locke seems more comfortable on the island and better able to appreciate Jack's worth as a healer. In many ways this echos the father/son dynamic observed in the flashback sequences---Christian, more experienced and who often thinks he knows better, tries to change Jack's mind but cannot just as Lock, also older and more experienced tries to get through to Jack and cannot. We can assume that Jack's bombshell admission had negative consequences for Christian (although we can't be sure that the comment in White Rabbit by Jack's mother was in response to this act---"You don't get to say, 'I can't,' not after what you did,"), we know that Christian died in Sydney just before Flight 815 crashed, and we know Jack seems to have unresolved issues about his father's death. Going after Claire and refusing to give up on reviving Charlie speak to Jack's unwillingness to give up and his constant need to be the savior. Out of guilt? Out of desperation? His role as a doctor fits with the needs to fix and save, but we also see that Jack is a very different doctor than his own father, Christian and that the issues he's faced with on the island are very different than those of a typical medical professional.

Further questions: 

1. Is Claire safe?
2. Did Christian Shephard get fired after Jack ratted him out?
3. Was Christian's death caused by this issue?
4. How does Locke know the island so well?
5. What is the metal structure that Locke and Boone found?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Black Mirror, Season 1

This is 100% my kind of television. It's like The Twilight Zone but different. Edgier. And, to be honest, examples of the exact kinds of situations I envisioned back in 2007 when everyone started getting all OMG so into Apple Phones and Ipads and YouTube and Facebook. Yes, I am writing this from a computer and sharing it on social media, so I guess that means that I'm self-aware enough to be able to discuss the destruction of humanity while actively participating in its downfall (but I'm also the one who's been telling everyone "IT'S A COOKBOOK!" too, so lay on, haters). Anyway, full disclosure warning, this show is disturbing (psychologically on the level with the Saw films but not quite reaching The Human Centipede); these stories are not likely to be everyone's cup of tea, but they're still important stories.

Episode 1, The National Anthem, takes on YouTube and social media by exposing just how easy it is to ruin someone's life: a member of the royal family is kidnapped and will only be released if the prime minister has relations with a pig on live television. Yes, A PIG. Our initial reactions as viewers echo those of the PM's---this has got to be a joke (it isn't), and there has to be a way to keep this private (there isn't). Nothing is containable anymore, especially where American news media and Facebook users are concerned! An early version of this idea may have been presented by Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and the conversation about the telephone ransom in Pulp Fiction back in 1994, what's to stop some random person from robbing/blackmailing/harming someone else? These days people are not only more ruthless and righteous in their sabotage of others, the sabotage, the ridicule, the dehumanization are all completely public and broadcasted everywhere for the world to see. The motivation for it is simply to destroy a public figure in the most humiliating way possible, and it works.

yeah, this is us.
This narrative is different than the by-comparison tame Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or even X-Files episodes that explored unexplained phenomena or the evil men do. In the first place, the self-reflexivity used here is significant (and I think, the point of it all). Cleverly, the camera lingers many times on the horrified reactions of citizens during the main event, as it were, and we, the audience, are also implicated as watchers of this disturbing act as we have also chosen to participate and are just as guilty. It's a strange, unpleasant viewing and again, definitely not for everyone, but the experience of watching speaks very effectively to the real-life horrors made possible through technology. We don't like to think about it, but this sort of thing is possible. Second, the unflinching way this dark material is presented, straight up, head-on, and without frilly editing or ceremony seems to thrust the realization at us that THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE NOW. It's accepted----dissected and dealt with I suppose, but accepted. Yikes.

Episode 2, 15 Million Merits explores a contained civilization where young citizens pedal on stationary bikes to presumably provide a sort of fuel for life. Reality television is everywhere: it surrounds each individual living space, it's in the bathrooms and on display in front of the bikes, it even serves as a source of redemption or a threat, depending on how the cyclists perform (the good ones can get out by becoming famous, the bad ones become the targets for a hunting program). Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) has managed to accumulate over fifteen million merits but is bored with his life until he hears Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) sing in the bathroom. He uses his merits to gift her a ticket for a talent show, Hot Shot, explaining, "I want something real to happen." Something real does happen, something really terrible.

This is really just an updated, re-telling of Orwell's 1984 where everyone looks good and already loves Big Brother. Fittingly, everything is wrapped up in the television screens. A single look away brings about a flashing red warning (with the threat of more punishment to come); pornography is offered up constantly based on each cyclist's inner emotions, reactions, and vital signs. Violence and rage are encouraged while objectification is not only accepted, it's the only thing that can save the cyclists from a life of pedaling. Bing's fate eventually speaks to the cleverness of those who have created this civilization----even when someone exposes the evil inherent in such a system, the powers that be know exactly what they're doing and the system continues to work.

Episode 3, The Entire History of You, provides a look at a future where implanted memory grain devices allow everyone to rewind and review anything that's ever happened to them with the touch of a remote button. Memories can be played back within (inside) one's own vision or shared with others on a screen, and this is what serves as entertainment and underscores all interactions. This open access to the past isn't all it's cracked up to be though, a young married couple (Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker) learns that there are some pretty serious consequences to hitting life's "rewind" button.

Is this us?
In 2011, the year this program debuted, it may have seemed like more of a reach--- a future where everyone is wrapped up in themselves, their memories, or the sharing of memories with others, but in today's world this kind of absorption barely garners a reaction. We see it happening on the regular, not with grains but with our phones (note the glassy, removed effects in the watchers' eyes when they "dial in"). Miraculously, one of the story's characters willingly chooses to have her grain removed ("I've never felt better!") but is shunned by the others who are confused as to why anyone would want to live this way.

Obviously not everyone is going to like these negative takes on technology and the hazards of our connected world; technology and being connected have made a lot of positive things possible after all. But has social media improved our lives? Are reality television programs positive experiences for the participants and those who watch? How is all this knowing affecting our physical and mental health? How are the children dealing with it? The series' title is a roundabout way of getting at these questions and the answers don't seem very reassuring.

Monday, September 10, 2018

From my Netflix Queue: 4 Films, Quickly

1. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
directed by Richard Eyre, starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench

Blanchett is a hot MILF art teacher having an affair with a student; Dench, a fellow teacher and grade A stalker, decides she wants some of that. Worth seeing for two amazing actors at the top of their respective games but story is disturbing. As in, extremely disturbing.

2. Elizabeth (1998)
directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes

So being queen is a lot more difficult than one would imagine, but isn't everyone so pretty? Wonderfully sad story, well acted and aesthetic.

3. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
directed by Kevin Reynolds, starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris

Condensed adaptation of the novel, screenplay a little clunky but still impressive and adventurous. Revenge stories to end all revenge stories in which Dumbledore (Harris) teaches Jesus (Caviezel) everything he knows!

4. The Queen (2006)
directed by Stephen Frears, starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen

My favorite of this royal collection! Queen Elizabeth gets berated for refusing to have a public mental breakdown over the death of Princess Diana, whom she couldn't stand. So many rules! So many dogs!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 10, Raised by Another

Raised by Another

"They want to hurt my baby!"
Events: Claire's backstory reveals that she became unexpectedly pregnant and that her boyfriend, Thomas, suggested they give parenthood a try. Claire, being into astrology, goes to a psychic just after this decision, who begins her palm reading but abruptly stops. Thomas changes his mind about commitment and fatherhood a few months later and Claire goes back to the psychic to find out what the deal was the first time. The psychic explains that Claire must raise the baby herself. Convinced she won't be able to provide for her baby alone, Claire meets with a prospective family but is stopped from signing adoption papers when three pens fail to work. Claire's presence on Oceanic flight 815 is to get her to a different adoptive family in Los Angeles and was arranged by the psychic, who claimed his initial position about the baby's upbringing was wrong.

On the island, Claire dreams of a baby crying but after searching through the jungle, only finds a
strange John Locke with black and white eyes, flipping cards. He informs her, "Everyone pays the price, now, Claire." She wakes, screaming, after she experiences a presence of someone trying to physically harm her and the baby. Charlie leads a group to pursue the assailant who fled but they find no one. Claire wakes a second time after having the same experience of someone trying to harm her in her sleep, but again, no one is found. Jack assumes stress is to blame but Charlie is adamant that Claire must be telling the truth. Hurley, concerned that the survivors really don't know anything about each other, decides to create a census of residents with Sawyer's help using the flight manifest. Sayid returns from his island exploration and shares what he learned; eventually Hurley discovers that the one person not on the flight manifest is Ethan Rom.

Greater Meaning: There are several implications at play in this episode. First, Claire's dream shows John Locke at a table, flipping over cards with one black eye and one white, suggesting the game we've seen him play with Walt, backgammon ("Two players, two sides. One is light, one is dark."). Why the pieces in Locke's eyes, is he playing a game? Is he both light and dark as a character? What interest does he have in Claire or her baby? Locke's words echo those of the psychic, so Claire might just be projecting the psychic's vision and insistence that she raise the baby herself onto John, but in the end Charlie suggests that the psychic may have been right---Claire's seat on Oceanic flight 815 ensured that no one else would raise the baby; he knew all along that the plane would crash. Does John Locke possess "knowing" as well? Jack seems totally convinced that Claire is hallucinating her attacker, and in all other instances Jack's knowledge has been respected and expected. Here, he's wrong and Charlie was right, with Claire's dream of Locke suggesting that Locke may also know things that Jack can't or won't accept: things, events, feelings that don't coincide with his doctor's evidence-based values.

Second, Ethan Rom tried to attack Claire twice and wasn't on the flight manifest. Where did he come from? If he is one of the island's "Others," then Rousseau also was telling the truth and must be given at least partial credibility (which Sayid shares with the other survivors). If there are Others on the island, where are they, what are they doing there, and why do they want to hurt Claire?

Further Questions:

1. Will Claire safely deliver her baby on the island?
2. Is it a boy or a girl?
3. Why must Claire be the one to raise the baby herself?
4. Did the psychic know other things about the plane crash or the island?
5. How many "Others" are there?