Friday, December 16, 2016

Soaring, Stunning, Exhilarating!

Review: The Eagle Huntress, documentary film by Otto Bell


From the opening scenes, breath-takingly beautiful scenery and uplifting emotions carry to the skies this lovely film about a young woman in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia who seeks to follow her father's and grandfather's footsteps, and become an eagle hunter, despite long tradition that limits this role to men only.

Director Otto Bell and his film crew have done an outstanding job of letting the harsh landscape, the demands of life on the mountains and steppes, and the stunning courage of 13-year-old Aisholpan and her family, inform every part of this incredibly moving story.

I actually teared up at the beginning, watching an eagle hunter (Aisholpan's grandfather) release an eagle back to the wild after seven years of hunting with it. Then the tears struck again at the memorial credit at the end of the film.

In between, the thrilling saga of the girl's dream—and her work—to capture an eaglet, train it and herself, and compete in the national Eagle Hunters Festival in Ulgii is told simply and with little pontificating. Like all successful dreamers, Aisholpan doesn't let the negative feedback from more traditional-minded Eagle Hunters keep her from pursuing her goal.

The choice of a Sia song for the closing credits, Angel by the Wings, is totally appropriate:
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
Look up, call to the sky
Oh, look up and don't ask why, oh
Just take an angel by the wings...


This film is only in "art cinemas" rather than a wider release, so we drove in pouring rain to a neighboring town and climbed three flights of stairs to watch it in a local cinema. Ken Cummings, who suggested the film, and I, with our respective spouses joined three other people to watch the matinee showing in the tiny theater.

Despite these drawbacks (limited release into smaller venues, English subtitling, lack of Hollywood "names" being involved—although Daisy Ridley, "Rey" of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, provides the narration), I predict the film will do well. It deserves to. And with a G rating, this is a much better choice for family viewing at Christmas than some films in theaters over the holiday (Rogue One, and Assassin's Creed, to name two), and if the word gets out about it, it may even hold its own against heavyweights like Disney's Moana and J.K. Rowlings' Fantastic Beasts and Where to FInd Them.

I believe adults who take their children will also thoroughly enjoy The Eagle Huntress, which is more than I would commit to for either of the other two kid-friendly films.  

Post-Brexit Romp

Review: 54th State by Ian Thompson


Start with a now-American rocker named Tristan Beaver, politically and scientifically clueless, with his celebrity space shot. While Mars and the Moon are old-hat destinations on a well-travelled route, Beaver will make a splash with a crew of non-astronaut groupies and a startling destination: Jupiter's Red Spot.

Add a paradigm-busting US president whose idea of a great deal is to purchase new states (most recently, Cuba), plus a hopelessly incompetant British government surviving only by the efforts of mid-level clerk-assistants, with a post-Brexit space program hoping to be revitalized by Beaver's probe—all the elements needed for a romp. 

Okay, Beaver is not a former Canadian (despite the evocative title of the first paragraph: "Rock Stars, Eh?"), but is instead from rural-industrial England. He became an American, we learn, to avoid British taxes. 

And the free-market-dealing US President is a Libertarian—and a one-time member of Beaver's entourage. (Thompson would appear to have been equally taken by surprise by the recent US election results; his clueless Brit politicos refer on more than one occasion to "that lady President" who preceeded the current fictional holder of the office.)

The resulting farce is rollicking, hilarious, and satisfyingly irreverent in the way all good political comedies are. The Brexit result is called upon to explain the dire finances of Britain, and the ham-handed financial finagle of their treasury chief takes care of the rest. The interplay between the Prime Minister, Sir Barnaby Chamberlain, and the actual chief mover of the government, his aide Forbes, parallels that government's supposed philosophical dissonance with the British electorate.

Wrapped inside this satirical goofiness is a serious thread: a terrorist threat, the struggle of the Beaver Probe's crew to survive their ridiculous mission in a sabotaged spcecraft, plus a truly unexpected twist that takes the reader by surprise. It keeps the story from disintegrating into sniggers and stereotypes.

In fact, my next act after finishing this book was to buy Thompson's previous novel, EZICASH (subtitled How to usurp a totalitarian behemoth with a monkey wrench.) At less than a dollar, the purchase was another steal, and I look forward to reading his "satirical look at Health and Safety mixed with greed." 

I'll have to wait for my sides to stop aching from laughter before I undertake the next journey into his hilarious take on British politics!



Liner Notes:


I nominated 54th State in the Kindle Scout program, but since it was not selected, I purchased it for the princely sum of 99 cents. That's US pennies, by the way. Once again the program has introduced me to an author who has joined my "read everything by" list. If anyone wonders how I manage to read 200 to 300 books a year, the Kindle Scout program is a serious factor in feeding my To-Be-Read stack!

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Quality of Light

Review: Penric's Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold


This novella abounds with observations on light and the lack of it. Clarity of vision is contrasted with the blinding of a central character; the thrilling quality of an illuminated sky is juxtaposed with absolute darkness in a dungeon in the same city. For travelling cleric Penric with his demon companion Desdemona, this contrast is thrust upon them when the two (who share a single body, Penric's, are siezed in the course of a diplomatic mission, and shoved unceremoniusly into a dungeon oubliette. Penric's captors mean to prevent him from using powers lent by his demon indweller. 

Instead, they force the two to expand those powers to create "action at a distance." Penric and Desdemona must visualize the flow of water through cracks in the rock surrounding them, and call on the Fifth God's love of chaos and dissolution to escape.

Further chaos and destruction ensue when Penric meets a young widow focused on helping her brother, the popular general who was the focus of Penric's mission. General Arisaydia has been deliberately blinded to set a hideous example for his men. As a martyr, he might become a rallying point; as a maimed man dependent on his sister, he is an object of pity.

Penric spends weeks hiding out with the two, determined to reverse the general's maiming. He hopes the cure will convince the general (and his sister) to come with him to the Duke of Adria, which will complete his mission. With the Bastard God and Desdemona involved, however, nothing could ever proceed as planned...


I loved the astute way Bujold played with physical and mental vision, using philosophical and emotional light and darkness as characters in her novel. Like a previous Bujold star, Miles VorKosigan, Penric is an intelligent young man with a crippling disability, whose story is always woven with dark threads of the reaction of others to his impairment, and the bright threads of his overcoming it. 

Penric has far to go; I look forward to accompanying him on the next leg of his journey.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Story: 10, Grammar and Punctuation: 2

Review: Born a Witch, Drafted by the FBI! and Conjuring Quantico by T.S. Paul


The first two offerings in the Federal Witch series by T.S. Paul will likely be the only ones I buy. Despite an admittedly great story with an intriguing, vaguely alternate-history, plot-gimmick, I can't force myself to wade any further through the extremely poor editing.

I might have been warned by the cover composition, and the fact that these books are only available in e-format.

The concept is a good one: magic users (Paranormals) are a sizeable group in every country, and have been at the center of each historic conflict since the Great War (WWI in our history), which they call the Great Purge. Because the Allied victory in this war involved killing off the vampire clans in Europe (including neutrals, and those allied to Britain), the paranormal community is extremely leary of cooperating with government agencies like the FBI.


Born a Witch

Agatha Blackmore is not only a witch, she is the most powerful witch of her generation. She is also a loose cannon with a tendency to commit wild magic with unintended consequences. Who better, then, to finally step up to work for the FBI? If her magic goes awry, as expected, at least she'll not be anywhere near the witch community.

This prequel tells Agatha's back-story: the "incident" when she was six that terrified her widowed mother and her aunt, and brought into her life the familiar Fergus, a My-Little-Pony-sized unicorn that talks—and cusses. The story reveals her strong bent toward law enforcement, and provides some reason to why she would comply with her family's desire to have her out of the community.

It also establishes the bias and bigotry of the FBI Academy's director and staff, not only toward Agatha, but toward other paranormals like her Were roommate Cat. The characters each have their own voice and set of quirks, including the politically-incorrect Fergus.

The novella would have been an enjoyably quick read if I hadn't spent so much time documenting the dauntingly numerous instances of apostrophe-abuse and number disagreement. What writer old enough to have a wife, as T.S. Paul's bio indicates, does not know that plurals do not have apostrophes, and possessive nouns (except pronouns) do? I reported dozens of such errors from this short 55-page novella.

Paul is lucky I ignored the apparent inability of the author to use commas; I would have still been reporting them if I had not. Leaving them out makes the reader work so much harder to figure out who is speaking to whom.



Conjuring Quantico

Agatha Blackmore and her roommate Cat are both accepted to study at Quantico. I didn't expect to find a close match with actual FBI Academy practices in a novel about witches and were-cats, so I wasn't disappointed when I didn't. It felt more like the movie Feds: cute girl roommates and a dweeby guy form a pact (or in this case, a Pack), and triumph as student-agents by using teamwork. 

In this iteration, however, they're pitted against a team of powerful demons instead of clueless fellow students.

Here again, the story and character development rates a 10, but the apostrophe-abuse continues. And Paul adds a new issue: rampant capitalization. Random nouns are "properized" by capitalizing them. "Were" (a shape-shifter Paranormal) is proper in one sentence, and uncapitalized "were" in the next, and "were-cat" is just as likely to be rendered "Were-Cat" or "Were-cat." (It doesn't help that the Were Cat is a were-cat.) 

I finally blew my stack when "Dike" and "Sill" (the igneous geologic structures) were properized.

I was sensitized by the time I came across two instances of blatant number disagreement. "There was two..." and "There was several..." made me see red. And don't get me started on the author's blatant disregard for the proper use of commas. "See Cat being a natural leader..." is just not the same thing as "See, Cat, being a natural leader..."


I wanted to love these books. I really did. I'm angry that the abyssmal editing prevented me from doing so, and even more incensed that I spent my own money to experience such a disappointment.

I can't recommend them to anyone else.

Double WriMo!

Final Validated Word Count: 102,421


Late last week, I looked at my per-day stats, and realized I was within shouting distance of a WriMo Double: not 50,000 words written in November, but 100,000. The story was coming easily, and even though a good chunk of it may vanish in editing, that is a concern for December, or next year.

Now the story is finished, and only the editing is left. 

And I'm not the only one. My region, California, Sonoma County, has a large group of WriMos who've obviously been cranking out words as well.

Collectively we're closing in on 5 million words written in November.

We're writers. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it shows everyone willing to try that writing is a simple task. It doesn't require talent, skill, or genius, only perseverance.  

Publishing? Well, that's a different kettle of fish entirely. To be an "author," you must publish. To be a writer, on the other hand... typing, handscript, or Dragon dictation is all you need.

In order to write, you just do it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Aiding Liberty

Review: Angeleyes by Michael Z. Williamson


Williamson's work can be described as mil-scifi with more than a slight libertarian twist. As such, it belongs in the same genre as Heinlein's Starship Troopers, or L. Neil Smith's Probability Broach series. 

Angeleyes, the latest in Williamson's outstanding Freehold series, looks at an unusual Freeholder. "Angie" Kaneshiro is a rolling stone, a spacer with multiple skills whose primary lifestyle is "moving on." After Earth's crackdown on its former colony of Grainne, Angie lists her origin as "Caledonia," because as Earth ships and uniforms become increasingly prevalent, new regulations tighten down on travel for all, but especially Freeholders.

Blessed by her parents with an opaquely-spelled name (Aonghaelaice) and the right to return to her real homeworld of Grainne, Angie prefers to camp with a series of friends, or kip in the odd spaces of habitats and stations until she can find a berth on a ship going somewhere—almost anywhere—else. She has a talent for spotting those unused, unmonitored spots in the interstices of her stop-over worlds. These are places she can live free, if with little comfort, until it is time to move on. She's made a life out of living briefly in such places before she ships out again.

When war actually begins, Angie realizes that her knowledge is vital to her homeworld. She contacts a Freehold Special Ops base, and volunteers her expertise. The rest of the story is a delicious sequence of sneaky maneuvers, sabotage, and mayhem centered around Angie's teammates, with Angie supplying the hideouts and cultural data to prevent their discovery by the Earth forces arraigned against them.

The most intense part of the story, which like Freehold, is definitely not suitable for young readers, is when Angie is seized as a spy, and tortured by her captors. Readers of the earlier books in this series will recognise Williamson's unwillingness to "prettify" warfare. We know Angie doesn't die, but there are no guarantees about any other character in the novel. 

This is fiction at its closest approximation to real life. You could believe this action and these people taking life in any setting of current day or history, anywhere on Earth. That it is set in space simply leaves us free to notice how well the reasonable libertarian society functions despite its philosophical enemies.

It is not for the squeamish, nor the statist.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-Apocalyptic Networking

Review: Web of Everywhere by John Brunner


The societal consequence of instantaneous matter transportation is a recurring science-fiction theme. No one has ever done it better than Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination, though many have tried. (Or have not tried, as with the inconsequential matter transmitters of Star Trek.)

John Brunner came closest to out-Foyling* Bester with this little-noticed novel. Unlike Brunner’s The Infinitive of Go, published six years later, WoE concentrates on the social and political implications of a matter transmitter called a “Skelter.” In the mid-70’s, with the horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders still fresh in everyone’s minds, the name was evocative. 

And like the “helter skelter” cult, the result of the Skelter technology’s free access to everywhere was murder, plus explosive plagues, terrorism dwarfing 9/11, and the collapse of civilization. A “puerperal fever” kills 80% of the world’s women, leaving many of the rest sterile. Only the invention of the “privateer,” a method to lock the Skelter doors against uninvited guests, and a strict law against using unauthorized Skelter codes, has managed to salvage what remains of civil society.
Theseus / Blinded by the dark / Followed Ariadne’s clew of thread.
Ariadne / Has ceased her spinning / And all doors lead to the Minotaur.
—Mustapha Sharif

Hans Dysktra is a deeply unsatisfied man. He is married (a rarity in this post-Skelter world), but his wife is shallow, vain, stupid, and fat. He works exploring the nuclear-ravaged Skelters of Europe under the aegis of a world-wide government headed by the inventor of the privateer, Chaim Aleuker. But secretly he explores unauthorized locations, documenting the state in which he finds these abandoned houses and the restorations he applies. His secret work, he tells himself, must not be revealed until after his death.

His partner in these efforts is Mustapha Sharif, a blind poet with a method for discovering Skelter codes. Sharif is the opposite of Dykstra in many respects; he lives calmly in a non-Skelter community, he is respected, even revered by many of the world’s leaders, and he deeply appreciates what he has. Despite Sharif’s disability, it is Dykstra who is blind, and Sharif who leads him.

Dykstra’s dark-room work on his latest “find” is ruined when his wife opens the door before the photos are developed. To punish her, he accepts her “treasure hunt” invitation to a party at Chaim Aleuker’s house, and solves the puzzle himself so effectively, he comes to the attention of the world leaders. When the party is overrun by local terrorists, he grabs a young “wild girl” guest and flees with her. Like trying to grasp a cobweb without breaking it, his attempts to have the things he believes he wants lead Dykstra only to destroy them.

The action in the novel is physical as well as mental, but the webs that unite each place to everywhere else serve also to bind people together. Cobwebs in unused dwellings echo the threads of connection that link people to each other. At the center of all these webs dwells Mustapha Sharif, a Way of Life believer whose household is Muslim, a respected elder who directly abets Dykstra’s crimes, a peaceful man whose former partners met violent deaths, a blind man whose observations are sharp and precise.
Once I met a man / who every day / went around the planet counterclockwise.
He said by this means / he gained a day / and would therefore live for ever.
Unluckily for him / Death measures time / otherwise than with clocks and watches.
—Mustapha Sharif

You can now get this novel on Kindle, but for the full experience, you’ll want the paperback edition. You’ll have to watch for it in used bookstores. Ignore the cheesy cover art. This is a story that deserves a wider exposure.

Liner Note

*Gully Foyle is the central character of The Stars My Destination, an unwitting champion at using jaunte energy, who has succeeded in breaking the planetary barrier to "jaunting," as the self-transmission is called. Even after 50 years, TSMD is still the starting point for many science fiction readers.

Why I Re-Read Favorite Novels

I am currently re-reading my whole collection of Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan stories. There's a reason that's specific to Lois McMaster Bujold and her Vorkosigan oeuvre, and there's a wider reason that pertains to every novel I've ever read and loved.

First, the specific reason: it's Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. A frequent motivator to reread earlier books in a series is the acquisition of a new novel in the arc. And ever since I began reading a large percentage of my new-book consumption to the Kindle, I can add the release in e-format of earlier books in a series to that reason, as well.

The broader reason, though, is that my love for a book or a series is triggered by more than a story. I'd like to share those "more" elements that make a book worth re-visiting, whether it is once or twice, or on a regular basis.


Characters

It's easy to fall in love with lovable characters; but I am also drawn to complex ones. They reward a re-read by revealing more of their nature each time I encounter them. I see additional facets of personality or motivation with each new reading. Villains may provide more appeal in this way than heroes, but in the Vorkosigan novels, it is Vorkosigan himself who is most complex. And if the latest novel in this series has little of Miles in it, I can still get my fix from the earlier books. 


World-Building

Vorkosigan's world is political-cultural as much as science-fictional. Bujold shares that ability to create a tasty culture with another author whose entire multi-novel series I feel compelled to re-read each time a new one appears: C.J. Cherryh and Foreigner. But the world a writer builds may be the familiar one we live in, with a single element twisted in an innovative way. Sheri Tepper has done this with The Fresco and The Family Tree, and they are two novels I return to on a regular basis.


High Concept

This is a harder element to pin down. I often do not know until several books into a series why one story-arc will qualify as re-readable and another will not, and the deep, broad, or delicious idea that recolors everything outside the novel for days after I read it is one. Tepper's novels have this, too—I need not agree with the concept to have it set hooks in my brain. Elizabeth Moon's Seranno and Vatta series qualify, for instance, with a cogent question. What changes would access to a real fountain of youth make in society? 



There are other considerations, like "moral" protagonists (Honor Harrington or Harry Potter, for example, whose less-complex main characters embody the moral of the story), or quotable thoughts—anything by Rand or Heinlein is a goldmine for quotes, as are all of the Connie Willis novels. But the three above are sufficient to bring me back, again and again, to relive the joy derived from reading a good book.

Even when there is not a new book in a series-arc.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Unsuspected Value: Chick-fil-A Calendar Cards

Review: Chick-fil-A 2017 Cow Calendar "No Pain, No Grain"


Yes, this really is a review of a calendar. If you haven't encountered the Chick-fil-A cows, they are a family of bovines with decidedly human lifestyles, and atrociously poor spelling. As I write this, I sit in my favorite writing corner of the local Chick-fil-A restaurant, savoring my breakfast of hot chicken tortilla soup underneath a poster of a cow who has just chewed the signature motto "Eat Mor Chiken" out of the leaves on a wall covered with foliage.

In the 2017 calendar, the cow family sweats their way to fitness in a variety of athletic endeavors: cycling, running, working out and otherwise exercising those muscles we rarely think about cows possessing. Probably the cutest image is "Mommy and Moo" with the mama cow exercising her calves in a sweet Pilates lift.

And while the humorous images make it a good calendar to hang on the wall, the real value in this $7 item is the card on the back. You register the card online, and once a month, it is good for a menu item from the Chick-fil-A list. Each month has its designated freebie. In January 2017 you can choose between the "Hearty Breast of Chicken Soup" or the "Chicken Tortilla Soup." Half of the year's worth of offers are a mystery, and half are listed items.

The key is that even the six listed items for 2017 will provide you with up to $20.56 in benefits, almost three times the cost of the calendar. To compare, from the 2016 Cow Calendar, the maximum total benefit for the $7 price turned out to be $43.85, over six times the initial cost.

Here's the way to parlay this into really major savings: buy calendars for Christmas gifts, but remove the cards and register them to yourself! I'm not too chicken to admit I do this, but only for friends and relatives who live nowhere near a Chick-fil-A.

The savings—like the chicken tortilla soup—are just too good to pass up!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fault vs. Responsibility: Dangerous Ideas for Our Time

Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennet


Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, for many reasons. One trivial reason: he writes to communicate, not obfuscate. On second thought, that's not trivial at all. His works on paper include web links, for another, and he chooses accessible illustrations to make his points. 

In the first section of Freedom Evolves, Dennett is discussing whether determinism—the idea that all outcomes/choices/decisions are set by the initial conditions, that "everything's fixed, and you can't change it," as 
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Judas complains to Jesusmeans that no one is responsible for their choices in life. 

To illustrate that 
whether or not you believe in it, determinism cannot affect guilt, Dennett tells the story of the French Foreign Legionnaire who is hated by all at the fort. Tom, knowing that he will be sent on patrol the next morning, poisons the water in his canteen. Dick, unaware of Tom's actions, empties the Legionnaire's canteen and fills it with dry sand. Harry, also unaware of the previous interventions, pokes a small hole in the canteen so its contents will trickle away as the hated fellow marches out in the morning. When the Legionnaire does march off into the desert with his adulterated canteen, and eventually perishes of the lack of potable water, which man is responsible for his death? 

Dennett has said of Freedom Evolves, "If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There’s been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it’s all independent of determinism." [Emphasis mine, Dennet quote from a 2004 interview in ReasonOnline

Exercise for the reader: Was the Legionnaire's death by dehydration avoidable?*

This review is a brief visit because this is not a book to be grasped in a quick scan; that's the main reason I like Dennett's work. I read several pages, then sit back, stunned by the light of reason. Aha! And I must go reread this article, or that book, or even turn back to reread a few pages in Dennett, in the light of that new understanding. 

"Inevitable" is a word I'm hearing a lot these days. So is "guilt," and "blame." Dennet helps put them all into perspective for me.


Liner Notes:

My involvement with Dennett pre-dates this blog by decades; Darwin's Dangerous Idea was the my first encounter. I enjoyed the philosophical exploration of this scientific revolution, with its the pro-and-con arguments from Darwin's time and ours so much that I went Dennett-hunting. Consciousness Explained was next. I found this the toughest to read, because I was also reading Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works at the time, and many of Dennett's thoughts on Thought run counter to Pinker's. Then I got Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and had to reread both of those books in the light of what I learned. All, including Freedom Evolves, are now available on Kindle.

Other writings by Dennett are available on the Web: The Bright Stuff and Two Brights Side-by-Side are on The Brights web site. Kelby Mason does a good job of boiling down the naturalistic world view in Thoughts as Tools: The Meme in Daniel Dennett's Work
Google "naturalistic" or "determinist" plus "Daniel Dennett" for more. You may also be interested in the TED Talk: Dangerous Memes.

*And the Legionnaire's "inevitable" death? There was a fourth man involved with his canteen, the only one who ultimately needed to rely on its contents, whose responsibility it was to make sure the canteen was functional, and filled with clean water. A fourth man, who might, had he thought about it, suspected that the canteen might have been tampered with. So while his death in the desert was not his fault—I'm not blaming the victimit certainly was avoidable.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Growing Up, Growing Better

Review: Annapolis with James Franco, Tyrese Gibson, Jim Parrack; Greenfingers with Clive Owen, Helen Mirrin, Danny Dyer


Life after the semicolon; what changes in us after a disastrous life-turning event depends on what follows after. Do we wallow in victim-hood, or do we move on, up, and out of the pits life has landed us in?

Good films with this theme are not hard to find; it is a common story for us all. I was particularly inspired by two movies that share this theme by telling two very different stories: Annapolis (2006) and Greenfingers (2000).


Annapolis 


This is the tale of a ship-fitter, Jake Huard (played by James Franco), working for his father's construction crew on the docks across the river from the prestigious Naval academy. Jake's dream is attend Annapolis, but he was wait-listed when he applied. So he fills his days with the hard work of a welder and riveter, and his leisure with training as a boxer.

We first meet Jake as he prepares to go into the ring against co-worker AJ, a taller, heavier boxer. (AJ is portrayed by Jim Parrack, who was a main non-vampire character in the HBO True Blood series.) Jake refuses to fight as directed by his father, closing with the larger boxer and defeating him despite multiple knock-downs. The naval officer in the crowd of dockworkers, conspicuous in his whites, has come to offer him a place at Annapolis. Lt. Buxton (Donnie Wahlberg) comments on how unusual it is for an application to come from someone in Jake's position. We get another glimpse of Jake's persistence thereby: he had apparently pestered a Senator daily for over a month to help.
   People who live in Arkansas, you know what their favorite state is? Mississippi. Cause Mississippi's the only thing that keeps Arkansas from being the worst state in the whole country.
   I'm Mississippi.
   Well you sure as hell ain't California. Listen, Cole and Whitaker are so busy tryin' to run you out they forgot about me. As a matter of fact, they've forgotten about every other plebe in this whole company.

For Jake, the "semicolon" is not just leaving the comfortable environs of family and friends to join the company where he will be "boxing over his weight". It is facing life-crippling bias. Jake grows his life in the direction he chooses by feeding his habit of persistence in the face of prejudice, and staying true to his dreams. 
Some of you have only known success your entire life. But this year, your plebe year, you will know failure... because failure is a far greater teacher than success.

And that's the point. Failure is not a stopping place; it can be a launch-pad to success. One only has to survive, and persist.


Greenfingers


The theme I'm exploring, improvement over one's past, might seem to be belied by the opening scenes of Greenfingers, in which we see Colin (Clive Owen) stealing a bouquet of yellow roses and being reincarcerated in a British prison. But all is not as it seems in this movie based on a true story.

Immediately after the initial looting scene, we flash back to Colin's life in prison just one year prior. Facing his parole board, he learns that he is eligible for transfer to a new program in a lower-security prison. He's become resigned to his imprisonment, and tells the board, "If you don't mind, I'd just as soon not change."
Fergus: [Waking up and seeing the flower on the nightstand, then seeing Colin, who had received the flower as a parole gift] What's that old thing doing back here?
Colin: It wasn't ready for the outside world.

Nevertheless, he is transferred, and assigned a roommate, Fergus (David Kelley), and a grim job dealing with the prison toilets. For Colin, there is little to choose between his work and Fergus, whose cheerfulness in the face of life is an affront to Colin's pessimism. He tries, but Fergus refuses to be shut out. Eventually, they bond over the planting of a packet of violets in the snow, and protecting the fragile flowers that bloom despite Colin's conviction that they are doomed.

Like the violets, Colin and the other convicts who become involved in building the prison's formal garden bloom in the regard of professional garden-writer Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirrim).

The moral is that just as winter and death are inevitable, so too are spring and the flowering of whatever seeds we plant. The path to improvement for the convicts of Greenfingers was to choose which seeds to plant, and then tend then carefully.

One need not be a gardener to see the truth in that.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Since Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Review: Dancing Aztecs by Donald E. Westlake


There was a time when the Hustle was the dance we were doing, when a million dollars was a prize worth scrambling for—even in a city known for its hustle, NYC, that collection of "small towns and neighborhoods," where to daily life, "the fact of Manhattan upthrust on the horizon meant nothing."

In typical Westlake style, the story begins with a con game, building a cast of idiosyncratic characters, acting in their own self-interest, in expectable, even stereotypical ways. Their dance with each other creates a chaotic, unimaginably complex tangle of events and motivations, with a truly unexpected finale.

First, though, Westlake takes the entire first chapter of this book to list all the things people want in New York. A few that stood out to me:
The Parks Department is looking for trees to cut down and turn into firewood for local politicians. Residents of the neighborhood are looking for politicians who will stop the Parks Department from cutting down all those trees. Fat chance... 
People at the top of the Guggenheim Museum want to get to the bottom. So do ass-pinchers, river-dredgers, and investigative reporters... 
Blacks want to be equal. Women want to be equal. Puerto Ricans want to be equal without having to learn a new language...

Yes, the novel and its language are decidedly not PC. Keep the story's venue and era in mind as you read; the term "political correctness" was not yet even a twinkle in Richard Bernstein's eye. Characters are described using pre-PC stereotypes, in a way that would surely trigger sensitivities in the current social climate. Yet it works, the same way those stereotypes worked in the insanely funny 1963 movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The scramble for riches, with an ever-widening crew of obsessed participants, reminds me of that movie as well. The big difference, of course, is that Mad, Mad World is about "kind, decent folks turning into law-breaking lunatics and ruining their lives for the sake of money." In Dancing Aztecs, folks come into the story already at that highly-cynical level, and proceed on the same lines throughout, albeit at an increasingly intense pace and focus. In both book and movie, the result is wonderfully hilarious.

None of the English covers provided a good visual for the statuette that is the eponymic center of the story. I had to go hunting. I found the best on the cover of the Italian mystery-translation series, Il Giallo Mondadori, which gives a good sense of the figurine's lack of beauty, if not its leg-up dancing pose or its crystalline eyes.

Every time I have picked up a Westlake novel, it's been the result of "outside forces": a clever review, a friend handing me the book with a "you must read this" comment, or a coincidental lack of other reading material at an idle moment. And I've never not enjoyed the thing excessively. So I don't quite know why I never collected the author's work as I have others whose writing I enjoyed.

That is about to change. Because epic wild rides like this don't come along too often, but if you miss them when they're new, you can always climb on once they come around again. 

And if ever this mad world—and Ineeded such a diversion, it is surely now.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Shearly Wonderful with Absolutely No Message

Review: Shaun the Sheep Movie with Shaun, Bitzer, and The Farmer

I was really happy to see this clay-mation comedy turn up in the Amazon Prime movies list, just in time for my anti-election-returns movie binge. My spouse and I watched it on the 8-inch Fire Tablet, and enjoyed every goofy sight-gag, fart and manure reference, and running joke in the show.

For those who missed the Shaun the Sheep TV series—me among them—a quick recap is provided at the beginning of the movie, showing the lamb Shaun tenderly tended by The Farmer, gently gambolling with the puppy Bitzer, and generally enjoying life on Moist Bottom Farm.

Quick transition to present day, in which Shaun sleeps in a shed-sized barn with a fat spider overhead, and The Farmer follows a deeply-rutted routine of feeding, then shearing, his sheep. Shaun recruits the other sheep to assist in a plan to disrupt the routine by fooling The Farmer into staying in bed all day so they can have a day off.

Plans, as they tend to, go awry, and The Farmer winds up in The City, an amnesiac "Mr. X" with a thriving hair-dressing business (due to his long-honed skills at shearing), and it's up to Bitzer and the sheep to rescue him and bring him home.

Best thing about it? Absolutely no words. Not even from The Farmer and Shaun's human nemesis, the Animal Containment guy. Murmurs, shrieks, baas and barks, but no words. For zany antics and a complete lack of message—even "there's no place like home"—it is hard to beat Shaun as an antidote for the sturm-und-drang angst of election returns. 

And the doo-wop sheep chorus near the climax? Shearly brilliant.

Zeitgeist of the 80s


Review: The Secret of My Succe$s with Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, and Richard Jordan


Remember the 80s? Those of you who were alive and aware then recall a time when the question wasn’t “will I ever find a job?” but “how fast can I get promoted?” Distilling the cream from the corporate life was a strong theme in the 80s—and since this was when I began my own checkered career, it resonates strongly with me.

Michael J. Fox was the poster child of those years. With movies like The Secret of My Succe$s, For Love or Money, and Doc Hollywood, Fox seemed to capture the image of the naive newcomer to the corporate ladder, yearning for the big score, but wanting to do it right. Playing off his highly-successful TV role as the conservative son of two ex-hippies in Family Ties, Fox caught the Zeitgeist of an era, and spun it well into the 90s.

Although all three of these movies share some of the 80s spirit, none is so evocative of the time as 1987’s The Secret of My Succe$s, whose tag-line was “There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Brantley Foster took two weeks.” Fox’s Brantley Foster is a college graduate with a fire in his belly, come to make it big in the big city. There he runs into the barriers a farm-boy might have anticipated.

Brantley Foster: No! No exceptions! I want this job, I need it, I can do it. Everywhere I’ve been today there’s always been something wrong, too young, too old, too short, too tall. Whatever the exception is, I can fix it. I can be older, I can be taller, I can be anything!

Interviewer: Can you be a minority woman?

Desperate, he finally asks his uncle, CEO of a large organization, for a job. Working the mailroom wasn’t what he envisioned in his years of college, but he can always work up from there, right? But “you can’t get promoted out of the mailroom—you can’t even get paroled out of the mailroom,” according to the laconic Fred, his mentor at the bottom of the ladder.

The fun starts when Foster, delivering mail, walks into a newly-emptied office and answers a ringing phone. A frantic voice at the other asks for help, and Foster provides it. He’s hooked—he may be paid as a mail clerk, but he’ll do the job he’s trained for, despite them all. The result of this resolution is a wild scramble as Foster assumes a second identity. He will become “Carleton Whitfield,” a suit-wearing executive in “the lofty air of the big cheeses.” Using the knowledge he has gleaned by reading the executive memos and corporate reports before he delivers them, Foster fleshes out his alter ego by creating orders for business cards, his name on the door, and an assistant from the secretarial pool.

The bedroom-chase farce that results from Foster’s need to dress for success whenever he’s masquerading as Carleton Whitfield, but dress down to allay the suspicions of his eagle-eyed mailroom supervisor, is simply hilarious. As his secretary, Jean, says, “I was having fun on this job! You had all this energy, and all these crazy ideas… and you kept taking your pants off.”

The sexual side of things is just as confused, for the same reasons. As “Brantley Foster,” he is assigned to drive an executive’s wife home. They wind up in the sack together before Brantley finds out that she is his uncle’s wife. Fortunately, the sexually aggressive “Auntie Vera” Prescott decides to help Foster up the corporate ladder while she helps herself to his boyish charm. Meanwhile, as “Carleton Whitfield,” Foster has become enamoured of a lovely corporate penny-pincher, Christy Wills—who just happens to be sleeping with his uncle. Coupled with the dual identity Foster is sustaining—which his aunt and uncle know nothing about—this results in a real French bedroom chase near the climax of the movie.

Howard Prescott: Let me get this straight – Brantley is Whitfield?

Brantley Foster: That’s right. Brantley is Whitfield; Whitfield is Brantley.

Vera Prescott: And Christy is the bimbo! Well, now that we’ve all had Mouseketeer roll call, I’m just going to go call my lawyer.

Howard Prescott: [obviously lying] No, wait a minute. Christy is not the bimbo I was screwing around with at the office.

Christy Wills: People better stop calling me bimbo!

This movie is decidedly sweet. Even the hostile takeover—complete with the usually-genial Fred Gwynn in what amounts to a cameo as the “evil investor”—is un-bitter, and merely serves as a springboard for the irrepressible Foster to triumph.

There were real corporate issues in the 80s, and truly hostile takeovers in an era which added terms like “poison pill” and “greenmail” to the language. If you want a glimpse of them, I could suggest Barbarians at the Gate. But for the nostalgic charm of the corporate climb, devoid of the need to do anything but sit back and enjoy, I’d rather recommend this charming comedy.

I guarantee you’ll sleep better afterward.

Coping with the Crescendo

In the multi-year runup to the election this year, I watched the primary debates for both parties. 

Then I watched the candidate's debates, listened to the talk shows, read the Twitter feeds and the blog posts and the op-ed articles, online and in the papers. I carefully made my decisions, and voted first thing Tuesday. 

But this year, I departed from my previous practice with Presidential elections. I eschewed the minute-by-minute follow-up and analysis on the network and cable news channels Tuesday night. Instead, I watched movies last night. In between movies (comedies at that!), I checked the Google Election Results, with its simple count nd report of percentage votes tallied and electoral votes won.

And I checked it first at 7 pm, because we went out to dinner first, in a nice restaurant with no TVs blaring from the walls.

Guess what? I woke Wednesday morning without a headache, without a sense of depression, without feeling abused. And the results had nothing to do with it; living in California, I can pretty much assume that local and state-wide polls will go against my own choices. I try not scoff, because they're my neighbors. Though I do wish they'd quit putting their hands in my pockets!

All this is to say that I'm glad I unplugged before the final moments of this election. If nothing else, it gave me a couple of good movies to review!

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Coming Finale Letdown

That's neither "Final Meltdown" nor "Final Letdown," thank you very much, auto-correct! No, I'm talking about that vague, cast-at-loose-ends, depressed "what next?" feeling we can all expect by Wednesday morning.

Remember the final scenes of The Truman Show? After Jim Curry bid the viewers "Good morning, good evening, and good night!" for the last time, we saw all the obsessed, life-on-hold viewers lean forward and turn off their TVs. I think we'll all have a massive "Goodbye, Truman" moment, day after tomorrow.

Maybe not. This might be more like in the movie as Truman Burbank first realizes that his world isn't real, when the viewers remain mesmerized waiting to find out how it will really end. 

We could wake Wednesday to the prospect of a ballot contest like Gore v. Bush—Florida 2000, writ nationwide. There may be a Tammany Hall meltdown in our future, or a four-year Ken Starr redux to tune into. Whoever wins and however long it takes to decide the election, the real world will still be waiting. 

Because in the real world, no finale is ever final. There's always the cold light of day and the consequences of choices to face, after the lights go dark and the cameras stop rolling. 

NaNoWriMo Cooking: Time to Write and Still Eat Well

Review: Campbell's Sauces: Thai Curry, Toasted Sesame, Creamy Garlic Butter


I make dinner at our house. Actually, I make breakfast as well, but that is only picking from a menu at Chick-fil-A or one of our Sunday morning favorites. Dinner, though, is made at home, ranging in complexity from icebox potpourri (leftovers) to a full Thanksgiving-level roast. With occasional exceptions, on retirement we quit going out to dinner.

Except in November. In the past, my focus on plot, character development, and world-building made problems with finding time and energy to cook.

I'd find myself saying, "I'll get up in a minute and make dinner." Two hours later, still deep in the keyboard, I'd hear my spouse in the kitchen putting together a cheese sandwich to stave off starvation. Then I'd finally knock off for the day and binge on popcorn to still my own hunger pangs.


Creamy Garlic Butter Oven Sauce

This year, I tried something new. In October, I noticed a new product in the supermarket: Campbell's Oven Sauce. With a minimum of prep time (a few minutes to peel and dice potatoes and brown chicken breasts), I could put together something very like a roast chicken dinner. My favorite of several, the Oven Sauce Creamy Garlic Butter Chicken took less than 5 minutes to get ready for the oven, and rendered up three dinners: the initial feast on Sunday night, a toast-and-chicken sandwich Monday night, with a side of green beans from the original meal, and finally, a sauce over green beans meal with a side of scrambled eggs for the protein. 

We may have been a test market, because the next thing I knew, that single shelf section in the market had become a whole aisle section offering oven sauces, slow-cooker sauces, and my new favorite, skillet sauces.

Like the oven sauces, Campbell's Skillet Sauce is usually designed for pouring over cooked chicken, but the beauty is that they can be bent in unexpected ways to make tasty entrees "with legs." That's our phrase for a meal that has leftovers that can be recombined the next night in a non-boring way.


Thai Curry Chicken

Subtly sweet and slightly spicy, thai curry sauce seems designed to go over chicken. A $5 supermarket-brand pack of chicken tenders, a 16-ouce bag of frozen peas, broccoli florets, or cauliflower, and 10 minutes of kitchen work makes a super-tasty meal with at least one leftover-supper in it.

I snip the tenders into bite-size chunks of raw chicken, brown them in the skillet, then dump the entire packet of sauce, and the frozen vegetables, into the skillet, stirring them together to get everything coated with sauce. Then I lid the pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, set the timer for 20 minutes, and go back to the keyboard.

The resulting sauce can be:

  • added like gravy to scrambled eggs
  • poured over toast
  • spooned into baked potato
  • served over rice, mashed potatoes, or pasta

The surprise comes with using the thai curry skillet sauce to finish fish sticks. Yep, those homely kid-meal favorites can be cooked according to the directions on the packet, then finished in the skillet with the "chicken" sauce packet for a savory meal that works nicely over toasted English muffin. 

Toasted Sesame with Garlic and Ginger Ground Beef

Yes, I know the packet says "chicken." I add this sauce to a pound of browned ground beef, stir in a 10-ounce packet of frozen green peas I cooked in the microwave while the beef was browning, and lid the pan, letting it simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is more like a meaty stew or a sloppy-joe filling than a sauce. We ate it the first night in hamburger rolls with leftover slow-cooker beans. It works over mashed potatoes, but might be too thick to do well on rice or pasta.  Its tangy sweetness reminded me of South American picadillo empanada filling. Next time I make it, I plan to make biscuit empanadas with the leftovers, using ready-to-bake biscuits to cut time in the preparation.


Bottom line? You don't have to dine on sandwiches and potato chips just because it's November. Write a new plot using these amazingly tasty shortcuts, and return to your novel with a sated appetite and a satisfied family.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Repealing the Laws of Physics

Review: The Practice Effect by David Brin


This novel is the reason I began reading everything I could find by David Brin. He took a single premise (what if one of the laws of thermodynamics were repealed?), and wove it into a clever tale of practical magic.

Dennis Nuel is a post-doctoral physics student whose mentor died in mid-experiment. Worse, his replacement, a boring instructor named Flaster, has removed Dennis from the lab he helped design, and substituted his rival, Bernard Brady. Nuel is coasting, waiting for a sign—like the other-worldly flittermaus his makeshift sling brought down at a party several nights ago.

Then Flaster approaches him with a proposition. Nuel will be allowed to take over in the lab again, if he will solve a little problem that has arisen.

The problem is the zievatron. Nuel discovers that Flaster and Brady had been unable to get any results after the accident that killed his mentor, until they tried using Nuel's search program. That's when they found the alternate world, and sent through several robots to explore it. The problem is, the return controls don't work any more—they can send materials (and living things) through the portal, but nothing comes back. Nuel agrees to go through to repair the unit, provided they buy him lots of supplies, in case it takes longer than he expects.

In addition to his camping supplies, Nuel will take with him a piglet-sized winged animal that came originally from the other world. He will also take a mystery: just as the machine warms up, Brady snidely informs him that "one of the laws of thermodynamics doesn't work the same in the new world." Then he's through, and sees something even more disturbing: the reason the return controls aren't working is that the control panel has been ripped apart. Three large copper cables are completely gone, and many smaller components lie smashed on the ground around the machine.

And, from bad to worse, Brady appears to have bought all Nuels' camping supplies from a chintzy source. The camp alarm is set off by the least breeze, and shows no ability to display animals that might be nearby, as Nuel learns when the piglet-with-wings (which he christens a "pixolet"), blunders back into his camp. Then he is astounded by the high resolution of the video that the only surviving exploration 'bot has to show him.

By concentrating on the consequences of a single change, and extending those results throughout the society he created, Brin wrote a classic science-fiction novel worthy of Asimov or Clarke. Further, the central concept of the novel makes explicit the crucial difference between creators and users.

What is the Practice Effect? I could echo Brady, and simply say, "Guess!" Or you could read the book to find out. 

I assure you, the answer is fascinating.