Monday, November 30, 2009

Wintergreen Virginia

Just a few photos from our weekend trip to the Wintergreen Resort. Text to follow soon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Playing Favorites, Installment #8

(It's been awhile since I've contributed anything to "Playing Favorites," my discussion of what are not necessarily the greatest songs, but, as the name says, my personal favorites.)

Installment #8 - "Life in a Glasshouse" (Radiohead) - Radiohead (2001)

“Life in a Glasshouse” opens with some weird, atmospheric shimmering sounds that could be interpreted as church bells tolling. I offer up that interpretation only because what follows is a slow dirge in A minor featuring trumpet, trombone and clarinet, instruments often found in New Orleans-style jazz, but in this case they carry a funereal flavor.

Once again, I'm in trouble with my only friend
She is papering the window panes
She is putting on a smile
Living in a glass house

You could say this is mourning, pure and simple. Pure and simple, maybe, but its effects are deep and far-reaching. It’s more than just the loss of innocence that’s being mourned, it’s the loss of something you can’t return to or improve upon; but it is something that can get worse. Celebrities pay a high price for their status. I’m sure they often read the papers and tabloids (and watch the cable and web equivalents) thinking, “Isn’t there something more important to cover than us? We’re at war; people are starving!” And I’m sure there comes a point when the famous actually want to share something of substance with the world, in fact they’re probably dying to share. But they can’t. "We are hungry for a lynching," after all.

At the end of the second chorus, “ Well of course I'd like to sit around and chat,” is followed by a string of the word “only” repeated over and over with white-hot intensity while the clarinet wails, a soul overwhelmed with indescribable loss, a great mass of pain looking for just a drop of comfort. It’s almost a dwelling, or rather a lamenting on the fact that the singer can’t share this with you, but only if he could, it might just benefit us all. But it’s never going to happen. The last line “There’s someone listening in” is delivered in an exhausted resignation, devoid of hope. The horns end on a C - F# interval, one that longs for a release that never arrives.

“Life in a Glasshouse” is far from a great Radiohead song, but it is one I will always remember because of my friend David. We were driving to a leadership retreat a couple of years ago, talking about music. David had Amnesiac with him and slipped it into my car CD player. “Listen to this, listen to this,” he would say about every thirty seconds, turning up the volume and pointing out some musical or lyrical particular. I think we only made it through two or three songs, since the other people riding in the back seat were getting tired of the Radiohead seminar. But David told me to hang onto the disc for awhile. I listened to it, thinking it was great, but the last song baffled me for awhile.

When David passed away a few months later, I always associated that album with him. His brother Brian insisted that I keep the CD, that David would have wanted me to have it. Although we never got the chance to discuss “Life in a Glasshouse,” I always think of David when I hear it. David's life, attitude and outlook were as far from "Life in a Glasshouse" as you can get. He was hopeful, with a bright and joyous outlook, full of wonder. I often dwell on Radiohead's music and this song in particular, wondering what thoughts David would have had on a particular lyric or musical choice. I can almost hear him in the car now, turning up the volume to drown out the naysayers in the back seat.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Twilight Zone, Episode 5: “Walking Distance”

"Walking Distance" (aired October 30, 1959)

New York advertising executive Martin Sloan pulls his sports car into a lonely gas station on the outskirts of a small town called Homewood. It happens to be Sloan’s hometown, a place he hasn’t visited in years. Needing a break from the fast-paced advertising world, he decides to take a walk into town while his car is being serviced. When he arrives, the phrase “Things haven’t changed much” takes on a whole new meaning.

“Walking Distance” is one of the handful of Twilight Zone stories that has stood the test of time for several reasons: Serling’s touching (but not sappy) script, Bernard Herrmann’s outstanding musical score, experiments in camera work and lighting, and a superb performance by Young.

Serling’s writing sometimes seemed a bit heavy-handed, sometimes a bit pedantic, but with “Walking Distance” he simply stood back and told a great story. You can’t go home again and even if you could, it wouldn’t work. It’s almost as if Serling is telling us there’s an order to the universe and you can’t tamper with it. It’s often sad, often regretful, but there it is; you can dwell on it or you can move forward.

This is the first episode where I actually noticed many of the weird tilted camera angles that would help define the series. In “Walking Distance” this technique (as well as the symbolic lighting) works perfectly, showing us a world that’s somehow out of kilter, one that needs restoration. Yet the technique is not overused.

There’s a scene of Gig Young in a drugstore having a soda that’s just about as good as TV got in the 1950s. He’s reflecting on his life, his youth, where he’s been and where he is now. He’s driven himself too hard in the advertising world and you can see it in his walk, his stature. But when the camera comes in for a close-up, you can see the lines on Young’s face, lines the character Martin Sloan shouldn’t have at age 36, but they’re there. (Young was actually near 46 at the time.) You can also see it in Young’s tired eyes. The drugstore soda fountain stood could almost be a barstool, a place where the weary pour out what’s left of their souls to anyone willing to listen.

Sadly, Young’s offscreen life was an extremely dark one. Although he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, alcoholism destroyed his later acting career. (Young took both his wife's and his own life in 1978.) I can never watch “Walking Distance” without wondering what Young’s life might have been if he could have really experienced what Martin Sloan experienced.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Turning 50 in 2010

No, I'm not, let's get that straight right now! But here are just a few things and people who will be turning 50 in 2010. (Doesn't hurt to look ahead, right?)





Kenneth Branagh
Adam Clayton
David Duchovny
Neil Gaiman
Daryl Hannah
Mike Lookinland
Aimee Mann
Julianne Moore
Cal Ripken

Sunday, November 15, 2009

God Grew Tired of Us (2006)

A few months back I was talking to a guy from my church about films, documentaries in particular. He recommended that I see a documentary called God Grew Tired of Us. I thought that, if nothing else, it was an interesting title.

The film (directed by Christopher Quinn and narrated by Nicole Kidman) tells the larger story of southern Sudanese Christians who were driven out of their country by northern Sudan's Muslim Arabs during the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Thousands of refugees walked over 1,000 miles to northern Kenya for sanctuary, where their hollow, emaciated bodies sought food and shelter. (I warn you: the footage in this section is graphic.) Relief does come to many; several of these "Lost Boys" are given an opportunity to go to America where they might work to rescue those of their families who remain behind.

Yet the smaller story of three of these boys (men by this time) is the main focus of the film. Daniel Abol Pach and Panther Bior get placed in Pittsburgh, John Bul Dau in Syracuse, NY. While in America, they will have to earn enough money to first pay for their airfare to America before they can help support their families.

From this point, God Grew Tired of Us becomes a multifaceted film that touches on themes of joy, cultural confusion, adjustment, loneliness, striving, unrest and hope. These men have no idea how to react to American culture. Some of them have never even experienced electricity. Without realizing it, the men point out some of the less attractive aspects of American culture. After one year in America, Panther comments, "In the United States, people are not friendly. You can find someone that's walking in the street by himself, you know, don't even talk, you know. You cannot go to the house of somebody you don't know, though you are all Americans. They call the police and say, 'why did this guy come to my house? I don't know him." In one of the film's most telling scenes, John looks in wonder at all the Christmas lights, Christmas trees, all the signs of commercialism and says (paraphrase), "There are so many ways to celebrate Christmas here... All our people have is Jesus Christ."

The camera follows these men for three years during which time they work two or three jobs so they can send money home. It doesn't take long for them to understand that people working minimum wage jobs can't get very far. In one scene, John sits down, tired from all his work, and reflects on what life was like during the genocide in Sudan. He's clearly thankful for his new life in America, but longs to see his family again. He realizes that because of the genocide (which at this point is still going on), this may never happen. When he was a boy of thirteen in Sudan, one of his jobs was burying the bodies of the slaughtered. "I began to think," John reflects, "that God had given up on us."

God Grew Tired of Us shows us all the things we take for granted as Americans. It shows us what it's really like to be a stranger in a strange land. And it shows us the lengths that some people will go to in order to provide for the ones they love. I don't want to tell you too much more; I'd rather you see the film for yourself. Be prepared for an incredible experience.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Await Your Reply (2009) - Dan Chaon

In the first chapter of Await Your Reply, we see Ryan Schuyler, a college dropout, racing down the highway with his severed hand in an ice chest. In the next, it's Lucy Lattimore, recent a high school graduate running away with her history teacher. Then we have Miles Chesire, searching for his twin brother who vanished 10 years ago. From there, it's a wild ride.

Wild, but not chaotic. I could tell you more about these characters, but I won't. (And I'd advise you not to read too many reviews that might reveal more than you want to know.) Dan Chaon masterfully unwinds these parallel stories that seem to have no connecting elements other than identity.

Await Your Reply is all about identity and the possibility of starting over, a concept attractive to many people in these unstable times. But the novel is also about family, relationships, trust and fear. Alternating chapters told across various timelines add an almost insurmountable tension, keeping the pages turning at a brisk pace. Yet read too quickly and you'll miss some wonderfully resonant writing that requires patience.

As soon as I finished the novel, I wanted to start it again just to see if I could find the clues that I'd missed the first time. You may have the same reaction. Don't be surprised. And don't plan to get much sleep once you've started this one.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Twilight Zone, Episode 4: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (aired October 23, 1959)

In an episode very reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, aging screen actress Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) can’t bring herself to realize that time has moved on, that her onscreen glory days have vanished. Day after day she sits in her private screening room, absorbed in the roles of her past. Her agent Danny Weiss (Martin Balsam) finds her a part in an upcoming film, but Barbara Jean refuses to play (gasp!) a mother. Instead she retreats further and further into her previous films, until... Well, you’ve seen this plot enough times to know what comes next.

“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” is nostalgic without becoming hokey, largely due to strong, yet restrained performances by Lupino and Balsam, probably one of the stronger duos to appear in the show's first season (if not the entire series). Yet time has not been particularly kind to this episode. Again, we’ve seen this theme of the aging star trying to capture her former glory many, many times. For 1950s television, it was quite effective. Now? Not so much. Still a good episode, but not one of my favorites.

Interestingly, Lupino became one of America’s first female film directors, directing nine films and fifty television episodes. Just a few months after “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” aired, Balsam appeared in one of his most famous roles, Detective Milton Arbogast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This is For the Mara Salvatrucha (NF 2009) - Samuel Logan

This is For the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang - Samuel Logan

I put this book on my “To Read” list after reading about it in Publishers Weekly, hoping to gain some insight into how gangs work, especially the MS-13. The book does give some insight into the gang, most of it from the point of view of Brenda Paz, a former teen gang member who turned police informant. Rather than a full focus on the gang itself, the book is mostly Paz's story, one that is both gripping and horrifying.*

Paz desperately sought acceptance and friendship. We all do, only most of us have friends and family who provide those needs. When those needs are absent, young people are going to find someone to meet fill the void. Paz discovered that MS-13 did provide acceptance and friendship, but also introduced her to a world of crime and violence.

The story of how Paz turned into a police informant and became the youngest person ever admitted into the Witness Protection Program is the strength of the book. It is a narrative both amazing and sad. I was engaged by Paz’s struggle to find love and acceptance in an atmosphere of violence and death. I was not engaged by the author’s points of view. Logan often recounts events, thoughts, feelings, emotions from the point of view of a character who is about to be murdered. Sorry, you can't do that. It may make your story more exciting, but it's a lie, a falsehood; cheating. This speculative form of writing (omniscient point of view) is fine in fiction; in non-fiction it destroys credibility. Even worse, the book includes no notes or citations, so the reader can never be sure of the accuracy of any of the information presented.

While This is For the Mara Salvatrucha is an often gripping, disturbing look (maybe “glimpse” would be a better word) into gang activity, it’s not a book I can recommend.

*For a more credible (although far less graphic) account of gangs, gang structure and how they work on a day-to-day basis, read Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Great Short-Story Collection Purge, Parts 14 & 15

The Great Short-Story Collection Purge has been on hiatus for quite a few months, but with all my recent book purchases, I believe its return is inevitable. For those of you new to The Purge, I'm reading at least one story from every unread short story collection (but not anthologies) I own. After reading a story or two, I'll decide whether to keep it or purge it. So here we go with Parts 14 & 15:

The Avram Davidson Treasury: A Tribute Collection (1998) - Avram Davidson

I picked up this collection and the one below at a library sale a few years ago, both library discards. I had only heard of Davidson, but what I'd heard was stellar: smart, humorous, literate, wildly creative, cranky, imaginative... the list continues. I read the first two stories from this collection, "My Boy Friend's Name is Jello" and "The Golem," both of which confirm all of the above attributes. The stories contain excellent writing, a sharp wit and a bit of a sting (in a good way). The volume also features introductions and afterwords by some pretty heavy-hitters in speculative fiction, among them Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, John Clute, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Swanwick, Lucius Shepard and many more.

The Verdict = Keep it.

The Other Nineteenth Century (2001) - Avram Davidson

Focusing on historical tales of the fantastic, The Other Nineteenth Century contains stories from the 1970s and 80s, several of which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, although many appeared in F&SF and Asimov's. So far I've only read one story from this collection, "The Singular Incident of the Dog on the Beach," which was, as I expected, well-crafted, clever and enjoyable. I'll read at least one more before making a final decision, but I'll probably stick with The Avram Davidson Treasury and see how it strikes me first. If I like it, I'll seek out The Other Nineteenth Century.

The Verdict = Purge it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Books Read October (Yes! With Comments!)

Confessions - St. Augustine (trans. Henry Chadwick)

An amazing, transparent account of Augustine's conversion to Christianity. Augustine's thoughts are so rich, you could dwell on them for years. Many people do. I hope to read this again in a couple of years, sometime after I tackle Augustine's City of God, which will no doubt be a real workout.

Wise Blood (1952) - Flannery O’Connor

One of only two novels O’Connor published (the other being The Violent Bear It Away), Wise Blood is strange, bizarre, wonderful. Coming home from the Army, Hazel Motes believes the only way to escape sin is to not have a soul. After witnessing life in "the city," Motes begins to introduce "The Church of Christ Without Christ." Wonderfully bizarre, often grotesque, people have debated both the novel's philosophy and theology for years. Read it for yourself. (And check out the movie too, which is quite faithful to the novel.)

Marked (YA 2007) - P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast (BFTB)

The kids seem to like this one, but it wasn't for me. I enjoyed protagonist Zoey Redbird's relationship with her grandmother and the idea of being "marked" a vampire, but thought most of the novel predictable with shallow, stereotypical characters. Even so, it’s twice as good as Twilight.

Graceling (YA 2008) - Kristin Cashore (BFTB)

This is more like it. Some thoughts on Graceling here.

The Concrete Blonde (1994) - Michael Connelly

As the novel opens, Detective Harry Bosch has just shot and killed the psychopathic serial killer known as The Dollmaker. The only problem is that Bosch is on trial for using excessive force and "going cowboy" on The Dollmaker. Plus, it seems the Dollmaker killings have not stopped.... Did Bosch kill the wrong man? Hard, hard-hitting Connelly with several disturbing scenes. Not for the squeamish.

The Restless Dead: Ten Original Stories of the Supernatural (YA 2007) - Deborah Noyes, ed. (BFTB)

Standout stories by Kelly Link, M.T. Anderson, Nancy Etchemendy and Chris Wooding make this collection worth a look. I wish all ten had been as good.

Isis (2006) - Douglas Clegg

If you could bring a loved one back from the dead, would you do it? A creepy little Gothic tale with some wonderful illustrations.

Columbine (NF 2009) - Dave Cullen

Previous thoughts on Columbine here.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (NF 2008) - Francis Chan with Danae Yankoski

Chan challenges Christians to take a closer look at the Bible, not so much to follow a list of rules and regulations, but to fall in love with a God who inspires wonder, awe and devotion. A book I plan to read again very soon. (Check out the video "The Awe Factor of God.")

Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) - Audrey Niffenegger

The main story (there are several smaller ones) concerns 20-year-old American twins Julia and Valentina Poole, who have inherited a London apartment from their recently deceased aunt, whom they have never met. But there are two important conditions: the twins must live in the apartment for a full year before they can sell it and the girls' parents must never enter it. I guess if I had to pin this novel down, it's a ghost story, but it's so much more. The writing is wonderful, the atmosphere both humorous and creepy. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of those novels that doesn't quite work (especially as the ending approaches), but I found myself liking it anyway.

That's it for October. Get out there and read something.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Ford Rules

A big congratulations goes out to my 2004 Clarion instructor Jeffrey Ford for winning two World Fantasy Awards over the weekend. Ford was the co-winner (along with Margo Lanagan for Tender Morsels) of the Best Novel award for The Shadow Year and also won Best Collection for The Drowned Life. Way to go, Jeff!

Full World Fantasy Award results can be found here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Lancaster, PA or Food, Drink & Art

On our mini-getaway, Cindy and I stopped first in Lititz, PA where we found the delightful Cafe Chocolate where I had

a chocolate/peanut butter/banana panini. Plus a drink called a Turbo (chocolate and espresso). Good stuff!

Although much of it appears in galleries, many of the shops in and around Lititz and Lancaster feature some outstanding works of art. Unfortunately most of the galleries would not allow photography, but did provide literature with links to art on their websites. As far as art goes, all the locals told us to come back on any first Friday, when Lancaster is packed with art, artists and art lovers.

Here's an art lover right here.

All along the neighborhoods we encountered some interesting and/or spooky local art---

This is my personal favorite.

Cindy and I even got to make our own pretzels at the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. Mine turned out pretty good, don't you think?

And what trip would be complete without a stop at a couple of local independent bookstores?

Cindy and I highly recommend a stay at the Lancaster Arts Hotel, which features some amazing paintings, sculpture, carvings and more (all of which you can purchase).

This beer sampler didn't last long...

Neither did these donuts from The Fractured Prune...

With all this eating, drinking and art, sometimes your best option is just to sit down and take it all in.