Monday, April 20, 2015

Book review: Replay


Remember the 1993 Harold Ramis film, Groundhog's Day?

If you've seen the movie, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, you'll recall that the protagonist, Phil Connors (Murray), is stuck in a temporal loop that requires him to relive one particular day in his life until he gets it right.

Ken Grimwood's novel, Replay, first published in 1986, reminded me of that film. When I read Grimwood's novel, and realized its premise, my first thought was of the Ramis flick.

The comparison is manifestly unfair, of course. Grimwood published his novel seven years previous to the film. So to the extent that the concept of reliving one's life while retaining memories is original, the credit goes to Grimwood.

You see, as the novel opens, the protagonist, Jeff Winston, a 43-year-old radio journalist, dies of a massive heart attack while on the phone with his wife only to return to his life 20 years earlier as a college student in Atlanta, retaining the memories from his previous existence.

Something of a mind-blowing concept, no? If you had a chance to do it all over again, with foreknowledge of what is to come, how would your life choices differ? Jeff Winston gets the opportunity to find out. Several times.

Over the course of the novel, Jeff repeats his life multiple times, each time choosing a different path: fabulously rich tycoon (his foreknowledge of events allows him to make millions betting on sporting events), ascetic hermit, humanitarian, and more. Whenever he reaches the age of 43, he is again felled by a heart attack. However, after several repetitions, he notices that each return to life advances his starting age slightly. As the novel progresses, Jeff and his reincarnating companion, Pamela Phillips, begin to wonder what will happen when they return to life at the precise moment of their respective deaths.

I enjoyed this book, but mostly because of the originality of plot and story line. Grimwood is imaginative and readers will recognize the love that the author put into his work. (Grimwood himself succumbed to a heart attack in 2003. Kinda eerie, eh?)

But I found the novel's prose to be overburdened and awkward, and frankly, I found the characters to be rather flat. And then, the novel's core supposition (dealing with the limits of free will in a clockwork Universe) seems contradictory and un-thought-out.

Replay is a fast and worthwhile read, though. I'd recommend it as a great vacation book. Good beach reading.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Peaceniks: Now is the time to prevent war with Iran

Fellow peaceniks, take a trip back in time with me, if you will. Go back to March 19, 2003.

Do you remember that date?

I do.

It was one of the worst days of my life. That was the day the Machine pulled the trigger on Iraq. That was the day Junior Bush sealed his legacy, not as a mere well-intentioned bumbler, but as a figure of historical infamy. Forever and eternally.

I recall that day. I watched the military-approved pressers on teevee. I saw prancers and fakers from both political parties shape their faces into expressions of solemnity and heard them utter platitudes about determination and sacrifice.

I was overwhelmed. By horror and disgust. And grief. And contempt. And a deep, burning anger. Only two days before, I'd joined 30,000 other individuals on the streets of the Rose City to register my protest. Worldwide, there were 10 million demonstrators. But by the time we got organized and took to the streets it was too late. The Machine had ground past us.

The gullible American public had been manipulated into accepting a war brought about by obvious and demonstrable lies.

On March 19, 2003, over 12 years ago, the killing that continues to this day, started in earnest.  Both the killing and my anger will continue through the day of my death.

Do you feel that way, too?

Well, fellow peaceniks, take a look around, because it is happening again.  But this time, the target is Iran.

The shaky negotiations currently underway between the United States, Iran, and other interested parties are hopeful, but not enough, in themselves, to halt the slide toward war.

Those who would benefit from it are relentless.

A lot of the very same personalities that endorsed the Project for a New American Century (Jeb Bush and John Bolton, to name just two) are now leading advocates for an aggressive Iran policy. (Recall that PNAC advocated war with Iraq in 1997, four years before 911!)  And there are plenty of jingoes in Congress who are playing right along. Recall the letter, penned by freshman senator Tom Cotton and signed by 46 of his Republican colleagues, that attempted to undermine the negotiations.) It's as if peace is offensive to these people.

Iranians flashing peace signs at Tehran's Mehrabad airport.
The Iranian people don't want war any more than we do. And if we don't want war, the time to act is now.

Let me urge you, fellow peaceniks: Make known your demand for peace! To anyone and everyone. But most especially to your elected representatives. Up to and including the President of the United States.

I don't want any more of that anger that will never go away. I don't want more death, waste, and destruction. Nor do you, peacenik.

Demonstrate! Advocate! Make yourself heard!

The time to stop the war with Iran is now.


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Procedure: Determining Your Place in the Universe

Note: On this April Fool's Day, I send this out to all my fellow technical writers. A content-modeled procedure for determining your place in the Universe. 

Determining Your Place in the Universe

Abstract

You can approach enlightenment by accepting what must be.

Prerequisites

Live for enough years to understand that you are not the prime element in an infinite and (perhaps indifferent) Universe

Procedure

  1. Contemplate instances of triumph and defeat in your life.

    Note: This may lead to unsettling revelations about one’s existence.
  2. Realize that these events came about because of the infinite circumstances that defined each moment.

    Free will was not involved.
  3. Read Tolstoy's War and Peace.
    • Examine Tolstoy's portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte.
    • Contrast the world views of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Bolkonsky.

  4. Wrestle with the implications of your demoted position in the Universe relative to your previous beliefs.
  5. Don't despair.
  6. Proceed as described in the following table:

  7. If you want to ...Read...
    LaughBlood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
    CryThe Mysterious Stranger (Mark Twain)
    Rage at the injustice of it                 Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

  8. Recognize the freedom in submission.
Results

Your consciousness should approach that depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1. New Awareness

For More Information

Consult the following writings:
  • Torah
  • Bible
  • Koran
  • Upanishads

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Book review: Kindred


Once again, I find myself the lonely curmudgeon. My book club's selection for this go-round, was Octavia E. Butler's "slave narrative" novel, Kindred. Everyone in our group not only enjoyed it, but sang its praises to the heavens. Except me. I didn't like it.

Octavia Butler is a celebrated author and something of a pioneer in that she is a black woman, writing in the science-fiction genre, which is largely dominated by white men. We're all familiar with Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, right?

I suppose Kindred could legitimately be considered science-fiction. It does, after all, involve time travel. But it is science-fiction only in the loosest sense.

Really this book has very little to do with science and more to do with sociology and evolving social mores. It centers around Dana, an African-American woman in Los Angeles in 1976, who is transported "magically" to early nineteenth century Maryland. Her experience is somehow tied to the experiences of Rufus, a white slaveholder with a propensity to put himself in life-threatening situations. Dana is transported between these two time periods several times over the course of the narrative. The novel examines the evolution of her perceptions and attitudes as she alternates between existence as an independent, self-determining black woman and a submissive, shackled slave with no rights.

An interesting premise, to be sure. The parallels between Dana's relationships in her two existences are intriguing, and the potential for social commentary is undeniable.

But, unfortunately, Butler doesn't deliver. Firstly, I was put off by the careless manner in which the time travel element was assumed. It didn't make sense and it wasn't explained satisfactorily. Over the course of the novel, all the characters --Dana, herself, her modern-day husband, Kevin, her "owner," Rufus, her fellow slaves --all seem to casually accept this impossible phenomenon. It didn't ring true.

But more than that, I found Butler's prose to be dull and colorless. The narrative was detached. There was very little imagery and almost no sense of immediacy. Butler seems to studiously avoid the whole "show, don't tell" writer's adage. Here's a sample:
"A couple of Kevin's friends came over on the Fourth of July and tried to get us to go to the Rose Bowl with them for the fireworks. Kevin wanted to go --more to get out of the house than for any other reason, I suspected. I told him to go ahead, but he wouldn't go without me. As it turned out, there was no chance for me to go, anyway. As Kevin's friends left the house, I began to feel dizzy.

I stumbled toward my bag, fell before I reached it, crawled toward it, grabbed it just as Kevin came in from saying good-bye to his friends.

'Dana,' he was saying, 'we can't stay cooped up in this house any longer waiting for something that isn't...'

He was gone."
Here we have an incident that is ripe with potential. But Butler's dull voice makes it fall dead. No drama, no life. Wouldn't it be more effective and entertaining for readers to infer Kevin's desire to see the fireworks through imagery and dialog? Wouldn't the scene be more engaging if we knew something about Kevin's friends? If we heard the actual exchange of words that occurred between them? Couldn't Butler have come up with a more vivid description of Dana's fit than "feel[ing] dizzy?"

There were times, reading this book, when every single sentence I read irritated me. They seemed more likely to have been written by an amateur, by an 8th grade literary arts pupil.

Well, considering that the novel is widely acclaimed, and that it has sold nearly 500,000 copies, there is something in this book that people seem to appreciate. But for me it just didn't work. Hats off to Ms. Butler for breaking new ground for African-American women writers, but I might have hoped that that particular demographic could have produced a more engaging writer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Kitzhaber resigns!


This morning, Governor John Kitzhaber, just a month into an historic fourth term, announced his intention to resign the governorship effective Wednesday, February 18th. The governor will be succeeded by Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown.

The resignation comes as allegations of misuse of state resources and influence plague the governor's office. Allegedly, Kitzhaber's fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, used state resources to promote her own private consulting firm. Ms. Hayes is also under federal investigation for under-reporting her income on federal tax returns. The governor himself may have directed state employees to implement policies that directly benefited Ms. Hayes' interests.

Yesterday, Willamette Week reported that the governor's office attempted to destroy private emails on a state server, raising suspicion of a cover up and perhaps even violating state law.

As political scandals go, this one is pretty innocuous, especially when compared to some of the scandals that have brought down governors of some of our sister states. (Rob Blagojevich, anyone?)

But in Oregon our politics are clean. And we like it that way.

So, today, the governor raised the white flag.

This is a sad day for Oregon and a major disappointment for me, personally.

To say I've been a supporter is to state the obvious. I first voted for John Kitzhaber when he ran against Denny Smith for the governorship in 1994. I voted for him again, when he ran for reelection in 1998.

When he ran for an unprecedented third (non-consecutive) term in 2008, not only did I vote for him, but I volunteered for his campaign and worked hard to help get him elected. And just last fall, I cast a final vote for him, even as the allegations that would become his undoing first surfaced.

Well, here we are.

Responsibility, of course, falls squarely on Kitzhaber's shoulders. At the very least, the allegations reveal a lack of judgment unbecoming for the governor of this great state. Well, he certainly isn't the first leader to fall victim to hubris.

I wonder... could some of this been avoided, or at least mitigated, if the Republican party in Oregon were not in such a sorry state?  Oregon's GOP is a laughing stock. The last four Republican gubernatorial candidates included two Tea Party radicals, a retired professional basketball player, and Kevin Mannix, a man with his own special brand of crazy. Responsible, civic-minded citizens simply could not vote for any of them.

When the opposition party is that weak, it's bad for everyone. For legitimate, sane conservatives there is no one to represent their interests. And it allows Democrats to operate under the illusion that they are invulnerable.

(It wasn't always this way. The GOP dominated Oregon state politics in the 70s and 80s. I actually voted for a few. I voted for Governor Vic Atiyeh when he ran for reelection in 1982. In 1986, I voted for Norma Paulus in her losing effort against Neil Goldschmidt.)

Well, Oregonians, let's try to find the silver lining in this mess. As a Democrat, I can take relief in the fact that Democrats still control both houses of the state legislature, and soon-to-be governor Kate Brown is a Democrat as well.

But what would be best for Oregon would be for the Republicans to use this opportunity to rebrand themselves, to make themselves into a responsible party. You know? A party that people like me might actually be able to vote for?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book review: The Girl with All the Gifts


Whatever it may say about Western culture these days, a particularly dark, pessimistic genre of art seems to have arisen in the last couple decades. A neighbor of mine once referred to it as "zombie porn." It's a variation on the holocaust meme that ran through earlier books like, On the Beach or Lord of the Flies, but with a twist. Instead of portraying a world in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust (the Soviet Union is some 25 years gone, after all), the new spin on apocalypse is infrastructure collapse, viral infections, or some other equally terrifying cataclysm, in the aftermath of which, survivors must contend with hordes of cannibals or zombies.

M. R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts is one such book.

A young girl, Melanie, exists in a strange world where she and other children are held captive, isolated but for their time in a school classroom, where they are bound to their chairs and taught mathematics, reading, writing, and (especially) Greek mythology. Their lessons are taught by a compassionate young woman, Ms. Justineau, for whom Melanie has developed an admiring crush. An austere administrator, Dr. Caldwell oversees the school and the children. A menacing, hard-boiled military man, Sargent Parks, provides security for the facility.

That's about as much of the plot I want to reveal, since Carey goes to pains to conceal the nature of the world so that the reader may discover it over the course of the opening chapters. Suffice it to say that mankind is under assault, and that civilization teeters on annihilation. (If you really want to know, go to the Wikipedia page. They blab.)

In fact, the process of discovery, which occurs over the first half of the book, is the most intriguing and compelling part of the novel. Unfortunately, once the truth is laid out, a significant event transpires, transforming the story to a standard "zombie gauntlet run."

At times, Carey's prose became tedious. He seemed to overuse the adjective "really" to the point of abuse, which became distracting and annoying. But, all in all, I found Carey to be a decent writer. He put effort into character development. Although I wouldn't call the characters in this novel "complex," he does provide them with plausible backgrounds and motivations. That's more than you'll get from a lot of genre fiction writers.

Carey's creation may lack the eloquence and beauty of McCarthy's The Road, but it is certainly more intriguing than Atwood's drab, half-hearted Oryx and Crake.

All in all, The Girl with All the Gifts is a good, fast read. The perfect pastime for a rainy Portland winter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Signs of a good neighborhood


This is how you know you live in a good neighborhood.

My path home from Mount Tabor's summit takes me past Benjamin Franklin High School where today I beheld a pleasing sight.

English
An organization called Oregon's Kitchen Table is conducting an online survey on public schools as a means, I think, of initiating a public discussion. A worthy endeavor. You can view the web site here. I encourage any Oregonians who might be interested in contributing to public discussion of issues to take a look. Even (or perhaps especially) right-wingers. The idea of a public forum to discuss real issues with a diversity of Oregonians appeals. I plan on signing up as soon as I finish this blog post.

But the reason I learned of the organization at all is because I saw the signs posted in front of Franklin and noticed something. They were written in 6 different languages!

One would naturally expect that there would be signs in both English and Spanish, of course. Spanish is the de facto second language of this country.
Spanish
And no Portlander would be surprised to see signs in Mandarin or Vietnamese. Chinese people have been in Portland since the city was founded. Downtown Portland has a Chinatown section, with Chinese and Taiwanese consulates, but many Chinese people live in Southeast, as well. There are many Chinese restaurateurs and grocers. And the sheer number of pho kitchens (even within walking distance of my home!) attests to the city's ample Vietnamese population.

Mandarin and Vietnamese
And I wasn't too surprised to see the Cyrillic characters of the Russian language on one of the signs. Inner Southeast Portland has a significant Slavic demographic. I think most of the Slavs in Portland are Russian, but there are also many Ukrainians. 

Somali and Russian
But there was one language that I couldn't readily identify. So, when I got home I did a Google Translate language identification. 

The language turned out to be Somali. Apparently, there are enough Somalis in the area that the Kitchen Table folks felt it justified to have a sign printed up in their language.

Well, when it comes to diversity, Portland may not be San Fransisco or Vancouver (BC), but we're getting better. And I find it very cool to live in a neighborhood where there is a need for signs in a half dozen different languages.