Monday, December 31, 2012

Walk of the Penitent, 2012

Dread prowls like the raptor's shadow on a mousey meadow.  December 30th, here in Portland.  Stark sunlight lays bare our sorry condition.  Reservoir 1, empty, tawdry and dilapidated --crumbling concrete, moss. Muddy runnels gouge the pathways on Tabor's flanks. Maples stand bare and devastated, their naked arms raised to the empty sky.

It is the closing of another arbitrary chapter in humanity's chronicle, the Year of Our Lord 2012.  I would stand at Julija Laenen's park bench and pay homage to the Old Man.  (He serves as well as any other manifestation, methinks.) 

Portlanders, in their stocking caps and mittens.  Portlanders leading their dogs on long leashes.  They infest the park.  A sunny day, after all.  By their bright eyes, by their smiles and laughter, I sense I am alone with my fear.

Cleansing sunlight gives sharp definition to the shadows --shadows of needled evergreen boughs, waving with the breezes, shadows of changeful humans, in their myriad posturings.  

At the top, I look upon his glory.

I think of all those things that may come to pass in this next chapter, 2013.  That I might offer a prayer, you understand.

I'm afraid of things I can't name.  But to ask for anything is hubris. 

I try for a while, but can't get beyond a single word.  "Father..."

Adieu, 2012.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie review: Django Unchained

Spike Lee, apparently, is offended by Quentin Tarantino's new flick, Django Unchained.

"American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."  Thus he tweeted.

Lee says he hasn't and won't see the flick, and it's probably just as well.  There is a lot in it to offend if one is so inclined.  It's not so much the racial slurs littered throughout the dialog.  "Nigger" and "pick-a-ninny" may be vile and out-of-vogue, but they're also historically accurate.  It's more the tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation/spaghetti western tone of the flick that offends, methinks.

Lee has a fair point.  There are some subjects that today are too painful to be treated with even a hint of irreverence.  How would the public react, for example, to a campy film about Auschwitz?

But, on the other hand, Tarantino doesn't exactly pull any punches in depicting slavery as brutal and obscene.  Django Unchained is a tale of cold vengeance, full of Tarantino's trademark graphic, over-the-top violence, tight dialog, and twisted humor.  It's the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave who partners up with bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christopher Waltz) to obtain the freedom of his wife.  The two locate Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), on a plantation known as Candieland, the master of which is a young Southern aristocrat named Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio).  The story unfolds --"erupts" might be a better word --from there.

Taking into account Spike Lee's concerns, I still have to say, Django Unchained is highly entertaining.  It's tense, uncomfortable, brutal, and hilarious by turns.  And there's real cathartic value to watching Django and Dr. Schultz inflict brutal vengeance on racists and Confederates. 

Tarantino inoculated himself from criticism by consulting with (and winning the benediction of) acting great Sidney Portier, and I suppose that's good enough for me to enjoy the movie guilt-free.  By the way, Tarantino has a real knack for stirring up interest in his work, wouldn't you say? Kind of makes you wonder...

Christopher Waltz had a good quote about the movie and it's cultural importance.  And I quote:  “In a way, slavery is an unresolved issue, a topic that hasn’t been universally addressed. You would think that the victory of the North over the South would have ended the discussion, but it’s never been properly dealt with.”  Read more: New York Daily News

Django Unchained is a good flick. Definitely worth the admission.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Misérables on Christmas Day

Merry Christmas, friends and family.

It's been a peaceful Christmas Day at the Cariaga household.  I hope it is peaceful where you are, too.

Maty had to work this afternoon, so I went to the theater to take in Les Misérables.

Les Misérables

If you liked the Broadway musical (I saw it twice back in the 90s), you'll love the film.  I loved it, in spite of the so-so reviews I'd read beforehand.  Those reviews agreed on two points: 

1) Anne Hathaway's rendition of Fantine's Death was fantastic (warranted);
2) Russell Crowe's singing sucked (unfair).

Hathaway delivered a stark, beautiful performance as Fantine.  But Russell Crowe (in the role of Javert) isn't a bad singer; it's just that he's outgunned by his costars, who are all great singers.  Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) surprised me.  She trills.  She scales all the way up the ladder.

The role of Jean Valjean demands much, but Hugh Jackman bears the burden well.  His facial expressions fill in the spaces between his words.  That's pretty much true for the entire cast, though.  The tears started flowing early in Act I and they kept up for the duration.  I heard a lot of snuffling in the audience.  When Valjean sang "Bring Him Home"  there was audible sobbing.  Not a dry eye in the place.

But that's why we go to Broadway musicals, isn't it?

Christmas Wish

Les Misérables is a very Christian story.  Catholic-style Christian.  It's a story of redemption.  It's a story of charity and forgiveness. 

I'll tell you one thing.  That's no easy freeway:  being a Christian.  To be a Christian, to be a real Christian, you've got to be willing to lay it all down.

I haven't seen it much, frankly.  But we all do what we can.

Try to remember the weak, and the hurting, and the vulnerable, will you?  I'll try, too.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas shopping at Clackamas Town Center

Memorial Christmas Tree in Clackmas Town Center at the site of the recent mass shooting
Am I going mad?

Wayne LaPierre was on television on Sunday morning, pitching the NRA's idea, its  "meaningful contribution," to the nation's search for a solution to the mass shooting problem.  An armed guard at every school.  That's the solution proposed by a man who makes a near-seven-figure salary protecting the interests of gun manufacturers.  More guns.  (By the way, it appears there has been another mass shooting.  This morning, in New York.  Someone set a trap for firemen.)

Here's what he is doing.  He's creating a pseudo-debate, a distraction.  He does not want to talk about Sandy Hook.  Anything but Sandy Hook.  So he floats this idiotic idea to put an armed guard in every school.  (By the way, there was an armed guard at Columbine.)

He hopes to distract.  The Sandy Hook Massacre resurrected the national debate.  LaPierre wants to debate about his idea, not about the sale and manufacture of deadly weapons. He doesn't care if his "meaningful contribution" is never implemented. What matters is that his ridiculous solution is the subject of the debate.  (By the way, brass knuckles, which have the sole function of hurting human beings, are illegal.  Assault rifles with expanded ammunition clips, which have the sole function of killing human beings, are completely legal.)

Nice little thoughts
As it happens, Maty and I went to the scene of the horrible thing that happened right here at home. Clackamas Town Center.  This wasn't the most recent mass shooting.  It was the mass shooting before that.  The one from three days before.

Two days before Christmas and the mall was packed.   Cops, armed cops, were a visible presence.  I bought Maty a skirt and a jacket. 

At the Food Court, the very site of the horror, they'd erected a memorial Christmas Tree. On a fold-up table top, there were shiny red and white cardboard stars and Sharpie markers.  Write a message, a Christmas wish, on a star and they hang them on the Christmas tree or tape them to the glass of the safety rail that encircles the open floor.   Maty wrote "God Bless."  Other stars said "Forever in our hearts," or "You will be missed," or my favorite "Gone but not forgotten."

I wrote 5 words.  "What are we gonna do?"

Business as usual
Cardboard stars on the Christmas Tree and armed guards in every school, huh?  That's our answer?

Come on, people.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter solstice potpourri

Solstice.  Winter solstice.  The dead part of the year. 

The National Rifle Association holds a press conference today, promising “to offer meaningful contributions” to the national debate in the wake of the horror that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut.  Let us hope.

Yesterday evening, the Republican caucus in the US House of Representatives had a very public meltdown.  Speaker Boehner was forced to pull his "Plan B" initiative for the nation's future tax policies.  He formulated the plan as a way to demonstrate Republican solidarity in the face of the Obama steamroller.  Instead, it laid bare the rift within.  The matter-of-fact release from the Speaker's office last night as Congress suddenly and unexpectedly recessed for the Christmas holiday without voting:  "The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass. Now it is up to the president to work with [Senate Majority Leader] Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. The Senate must now act."  Who could have known that the Bush tax cuts, passed a full decade ago, would become the undoing of the Republican party?

Sister Mia made me aware of a band called "The Staves."  Beautiful vocal harmonies backed by open-tuned guitar.  Very reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her heyday.  Check it out:

The Mayan calendar ended yesterday, and as my friend Jaime pointed out, zombies didn't rise up and kill us all.  So we haven't yet reached the nadir that Cormac McCarthy envisions.

If I may offer some advice for the weekend.  Brew yourself up some tea, sit down in a comfy chair, put in your earbuds, and set your Pandora to the Classic Christmas station.  Just for 15 minutes.  You'll thank me when it's over.

Winter solstice.

Darkness take us on down into the dead of the year. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No meaning

Cold, rainy, Portland, days from the solstice.  This was the time of year when the pagans would hang evergreen boughs above their doors in defiance of the darkness.

Three thousand miles to the east, the sad memorials have begun.

Just like everyone, I want to know why.  Why do these things happen?  Why did this thing happen?

Andrew Solomon wrote a book, Far From the Tree, about parenting.  It is highly-acclaimed, but I have not read it.  He spoke to the Newtown massacre in an interview in Salon.

Dear reader, if you, too, are searching for answers, I encourage you to read the entire interview.  The story is titled "There's no meaning to be found in Sandy Hook," and you can read it here

At the end of the interview, Solomon says this:  "I think the capacity for this horror is out there. What one eventually has to come terms with is the fact that [the why of it is] unknowable."

My heart broke when I read that.  I knew it for truth the instant I did.

There is nothing to learn from this horror.  These things are.  They exist.  I'm sorry.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie review: killing them softly

Whatever it may say about our culture (especially in light of recent horrific events), America loves quirky gangster flicks.  The Everyday Joe professional hit-man is such a staple protagonist in American film-dom as to be almost cliché.  But while Andrew Dominik's killing them softly is a quirky gangster flick about an Everyday Joe hit-man it's also fresh and funny and delivers stark social commentary.

Dominik is relatively new as a feature film director.  killing them softly is his third major film.  I didn't recognize any of his other titles.

killing them softly is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, in the waning days of the (Junior) Bush presidency.  Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires street punks Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to knock over a mobbed-up card game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  The heist goes off, money goes astray, and times get tough in gangster land.  The powers that be, represented by Driver, their shady lawyer (Richard Jenkins), hires out Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to discover and eliminate the perpetrators.  Jackie subcontracts his buddy, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him.

The atmosphere Dominik creates in the film recalls the dread that was so prevalent in the fall of 2008 when the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse.  He sprinkles the story with headlines, television news commentaries, and other media from the era.

In one scene, Cogan confers with Driver about the state of the gangster economy.  "Since the game got knocked over, everybody's afraid," explains Cogan.  "Nobody's comfortable putting money at risk.  We gotta take care of this and get people doin' what their supposed to be doin'."  In another, Driver, complains that his superiors seem afraid to make decisions.  "What is it," an incredulous Cogan asks, "a committee?"  Driver shakes his head.  "It's all corporate nowadays."

Ultimately, the film works because of two things:  the writing and the acting.  The script is tight and the dialog sharp. 

McNairy and Mendelson have some hilarious exchanges as they bumble their way into trouble.  And the role of Mickey is a natural for James Gandolfini.  Think Tony Soprano after his kids leave home and Carmella finally divorces him.  Brad Pitt delivers a hard-hitting monologue at the end that carries the weight of sincerity; as if Dominik were speaking directly to the audience.

The camera techniques are hit and miss.  Dominik's transitions between myopic blur and sharp focus at times distract and some of the scenes ran a little long.  But these are minor complaints.  (And on the positive side of the ledger, there's a fascinating/repellent slow-motion hit scene that occurs mid-flick.  It's a beautiful montage.)

Dominik is enormously skilled at creating high tension, funny, and/or horrifying scenes on the power of his dialog and the craft of his actors.  Comparisons with Quentin Tarantino are inevitable and justified.  But, although killing them softly is violent, Dominik spares his audience the gratuitous gore that Tarantino seems to revel in. 

This is a great flick for any red-blooded American movie-lover.  It's a quirky ganster flick.  Americans love quirky gangster flicks.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What are we gonna do?

At the office on Friday, someone said something at the coffee-maker, I think.  Or maybe I heard someone talking in the hall.   I had a dim awareness that something awful had happened in Connecticut.  But I didn't delve.  I didn't want to know anything. 

Friday lunch was sushi at a place a couple miles north on I5.  On the way back to the office, one of my coworkers, eyes intent on her smart phone, announced, "The President ordered flags to fly at half-mast."  Okay, I thought.  Whatever it is, it's bad

By the time I picked up Maty from work that night, I knew everything.  I saw the reports on television.  I saw the stories popping up on the internet.

She'd had a long day of caring for old, feeble people.  She jumped in the car when I pulled up.  She turned to me smiling, but her smile faded.  "Honey, what's wrong?"  

"I'm thinking about those kids," I said.  

She understood.  She'd heard already.  They cried about it at work.

The gall.  The unmitigated gall of it.  Not even three days since Clackamas.  How many does that make this year?  How many were there last year?  How many will there be next year? 

I wasn't going to write anything about it, but you know, that would be a kind of cowardice.  We all need to talk about this.  All the time.  What are we gonna do, people? 

To those who claim agency I ask, can you hear the devil's cackle?  And isn't this a fine world we've made? 

But if predestination's your bag --well then, River, sweep us swiftly on!  

Take us away from this dark place

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lord of the Rings: Tolkien versus Jackson

Note If you haven't read The Lord of the Rings or if you haven't seen the movies and someday plan to, be forewarned.  This post contains "spoilers."

This weekend marks the opening of the movie, The Hobbit:  Peter Jackson's latest desecration of the works of JRR Tolkien.  I had thought I might peek in on it, but as reviews of the flick trickle out, I'm not sure I could stomach it.  (Radagast the Brown riding in a sleigh pulled by rabbits?  No, I think not.)

Christopher Tolkien, executor of the Tolkien estate and son of the professor, had this to say about Jackson's films:  "[Jackson] eviscerated the book by making it ... an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.  And it seems that 'The Hobbit' will be the same kind of film."

Jackson, with his ham-handed direction and his tin-ear script-writers, has really done a number on the majesty of the original Tolkien works.  Kids introduced to Middle Earth by watching Jackson's visually-dazzling-but-ultimately-stupid trilogy are, I fear, forever excluded from the subtle beauty of the original work.  The movies set expectations that the book was not written to fulfill.  The Lord of the Rings movies are Hostess Twinkies; the book is a JaCiva Lovelight cake.

There are myriad examples I could mention, but here are just two.

The Departure of Boromir

At the Falls of Rauros on the Great River, the Fellowship of the Ring dissolves into chaos.  Boromir, driven mad by the power of the Ring, attempts to seize it from Frodo.  At that very moment, orcs from Morder and Isengard discover the party and attack.  In the ensuing melee, Boromir attempts to rescue the two younger hobbits, Merry and Pippin, whom the orcs are trying to capture.  Boromir fights valiantly, but is mortally wounded.  The hobbits are subdued and carried off toward Isengard.  Aragorn comes upon the dying Boromir beneath a tree near the river.

In the movie, here's how it goes:
Boromir: They took the little ones! Frodo. Where is Frodo?
Aragorn: I let Frodo go.
Boromir: Then you did what I did not. I tried to take the Ring from him.
Aragorn: The Ring is beyond our reach now.
Boromir: Forgive me. I did not see. I have failed you all.
Aragorn: No, Boromir. You fought bravely. You have kept your honor.
(Aragorn reaches for an arrow. Boromir grabs his arm.)
Boromir: Leave it! It is over. The world of Men will fall. And all will come to darkness. And my city to ruin.
Aragorn: I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you, I will not let the white city fall. Nor our people fail.
Bormir: Our people. Our people.
(Boromir reaches for his sword. Aragorn hands it to him, and he lays it over his body.)
I would have followed you, my brother. My captain. My King.
(Aragorn kisses his forehead.)
Aragorn: Be at peace, son of Gondor.
Notice how, in Jackson's version, Aragorn is the focus of the exchange.  Dying Boromir names Aragorn his king.  Aragorn, for his part, makes a meaningless and boastful vow to save Minas Tirith --something that Tolkien's Aragorn would never do.  The emphasis of the exchange is all on the task ahead of Aragorn.  Boromir, his corpse not yet cold, is dismissed with 6 words.

Now compare this to how it goes down in the book:
Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. "I tried to take the Ring from Frodo " he said. "I am sorry. I have paid." His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. "They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them." He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again.

"Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed."

"No!" said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. "You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!"

Boromir smiled.
"Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?" said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.
What I find particularly poignant about Tolkien's version is the wisdom and compassion displayed by Aragorn.  "No!  You have conquered.  Few have gained such a victory," he insists.  But what is it that Boromir has conquered?  After all, he failed to rescue the two hobbits and lies dying, never to return to his beloved Minas Tirith.

The answer, of course, is redemption.  By expending his life trying to save the hobbits, Boromir atones for his sin of trying to seize the Ring from Frodo.  No matter the outcome of the greater struggles, redemption is the one goal within Boromir's grasp and he takes it.  And since Aragorn loves Boromir, he seeks to impart peace on his dying kinsman. 

Jackson, of course, plows right over this beautiful lesson so he can get to the next sword fight.  Talk about disdain!  Jackson really doesn't think much of his audience.  His treatment of this scene proves it.

Theoden King

Another Jackson slander is his treatment of Theoden, King of the Rohirrim.  In the movie, Theoden is a caricature, a stock medieval king, experienced but not old, a bit rash, a bit vain.  What a sad transformation from the kindly, grieving old man who, in the book, wishes nothing more than to spend his last years in his hall, telling stories by the fire.   In the book, Theoden is plagued by self-doubt.  He is unsure that he is equal to the challenges laid before him.  But he rises to the occasion.  He bravely leads his men onto the Pelennor Fields at a crucial moment and turns the tide of the battle.

Good news for Minas Tirith, but bad news for Theoden!  With his courageous charge against the Haradrim, Theoden attracts the attention of the Witch-king who strikes down Snowmane, Theoden's horse,  from above.  The dying steed falls onto his master, crushing him into the ground.

From the book:
And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain... and he looked on the face of the king, fallen in the midst of his glory. For Snowmane in his agony had rolled away from him again; yet he was the bane of his master.

Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

'Farewell, Master Holbytla!' he said. 'My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!'

Merry could not speak, but wept anew. 'Forgive me, lord,' he said at last, 'if I broke your command, and yet have done no more in your service than to weep at our parting.'

The old king smiled. 'Grieve not! It is forgiven. Great heart will not be denied. Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me! For never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, as I promised, or listen to your herb-lore.' He closed his eyes, and Merry bowed beside him.
Jackson stays more or less true to this particular scene, but without Tolkien's careful development of Theoden, the reluctant warrior, the cinematic adaptation lacks poignancy.  Jackson's Theoden is a stock character, an empty suit.  There is no hint of the diffidence and resigned courage of Tolkien's Theoden.  In the book, Theoden is vindicated.  Though he dies a violent death, he is at peace.  He met the great challenge of his time.  "My body is broken.  I go to my fathers.  And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed."

Of Peter Jackson's many sins, I find his treatment of Theoden to be one of the most egregious.

In conclusion

You'd never know it by watching the films, but the book is a complex examination of morality, free will, and the seduction of power.  (Tolkien, being a devout Catholic, has a particular take on things.)  Jackson is either too thick or too greedy for the subtlety such examinations require.

Ah, well.  As Tolkien demonstrates with his work, beauty ultimately overcomes desecration.  Future generations will learn, once again, to revere Tolkien's great invention long after the Lord of the Rings film fiasco is but a dim memory. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mass shootings in America: We're learning to live with it

Jacob Tyler Roberts, the 22 year old kid who went on a killing spree in Clackamas Town Center last night, worked at a gyro shop downtown.  He lived off 82nd Street, south of Flavel.  About five miles from my home.  According to people who knew him he didn't seem the type.  But he killed a hospice nurse and a father and he severely wounded a 15-year-old girl.  More evidence of a troubling truth:  anyone can snap.

Gun violence occurs daily in these United States, so it is difficult to categorize the various forms it takes.  Some things just don't make the national news.  Like the thing that went down in Tulare County two days ago.  But if we use a reasonably restrictive definition --say incidents in which a crazed killer opens fire at anonymous victims in a crowded community gathering place --there have been three such this year.  Besides this thing in Clackamas, there was the thing in Wisconsin back in August when that Nazi shot up a Sikh temple.  And there was that thing at the cinema in Colorado in July. 

As I said back then, random gun killings are a part of our American way of life.  So-called Second Amendment advocates have won the public debate.  In this country, there will be no restrictions on lethal weaponry.

So, unless and until we can find another solution, we're going to have to learn to live with occasional random mass murders.

But we seem to be getting better at it.

(I wish State Senator Ginny Burdick all the luck in the world with her efforts.  But I don't hold out much hope.)
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be....  War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. --Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Horror at Clackamas Town Center

My God!

Unfolding as I write.  Another crazed gunman goes on a killing spree.  Right now.  Seven miles from my home.  At least two dead. 

Eye witnesses report seeing a man in body armor, face hidden behind a hockey mask.  He reportedly carried an assault rifle and ran through Macy's at the Clackamas Town Center to the food court where he began firing indiscriminately.

Now, police say the suspect is "neutralized."  People are still hiding in the mall. 

God, I feel for those souls for whom this is a reality.  The people in the thousands of villages in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan.   

Shit!  What am I saying?  This is our reality

This world we're living in. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Movie review: Anna Karenina

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  --Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

So begins Leo Tolstoy's master work, the novel William Faulkner pronounced "the best ever written," Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy portrays a Russia on the verge of cataclysmic change, paralyzed by fear of its future and miserable in the chains of its past.  The vast sweep of the novel encompasses Russian society at all levels, from the complex and treacherous workings of the aristocracy to the pastoral drudgery of the peasants.

With that in mind, you have to admire Wright's ambition.  Anna Karenina.  That's aiming high.

The path that leads from novel to screenplay is always narrow and treacherous.  Translating essential intent from the infinitely rich and varied medium of the novel into the relative confines of screen (or stage) seems almost an impossible task.  Even the great masters fail.  But Wright seems determined to conquer.  He already tackled Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to critical acclaim and now Anna Karenina.

His effort is a smashing success. 

First off, it is visually captivating. The richness of detail in the sets and costumes mesmerizes. Wright deftly uses light and shadow to set mood. The choreography, and there is a lot of complex choreography, particularly in the court scenes, is fascinating.  (Is that really how aristocrats comported themselves?  Fascinating, I tell you!)  Screen-writer Tom Stoppard's dialog is sharp and packed with meaning.

Secondly, there is the acting.  Keira Knightley positively bewitches as Anna.  This is her third collaboration with Wright and that, to me, speaks to her work ethic.  Because, judging from the high-level of the performances, Wright places big demands on his cast.  (I've already mentioned the choreography.)  Jude Law mystifies as the cuckold, Alexi Karenin; and Aaron Taylor-Johnson evokes contemptible admiration as Vronksy, the dashing cougar-hunter.  It feels wrong not to mention others, but I'll point you to the IMDb database.  The film presents a multitude of characters.  (This is Tolstoy, after all.)

But the prime reason the film succeeds is its structure.  Wright presents the story as a five-act play as if to draw a clear distinction from the novel.  This allows him to use the advantages inherent in theater.  Imagery and symbolism give significance to every flash of emotion, every frozen backdrop. 

The film runs long (140 minutes), and you'd better be on your toes, because it doesn't let up.

Any great work of art --play, novel, portrait or sculpture --is a multifaceted mirror turned in upon itself.  Joe Wright has one such with this brilliant interpretation.

Friday, December 07, 2012

High times in the Evergreen State

Yesterday, my neighbors to the north, the good people of Washington state, began enjoying the benefits of their open-mindedness.  Specifically, they can now get high without any hassles.

Washington's recently-passed ballot measure, Initiative 502, legalizes the production, possession, delivery, and distribution of small amounts (an ounce or less) of marijuana to persons 21 years of age or older.   The law went into effect yesterday.

This, of course, puts the state of Washington into direct conflict with federal law.  According to the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug.  This means that, in the eyes of the federal government, marijuana is no different than heroin and classified thusly:
  1. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  2. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
  3. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
This classification is absurd on its face, of course.  There are plenty of web sites out there that can explain why.  Here's just one.

This act by Washington voters is a perfect example of how to effect change in the face of authority.  If the Tea Party folks could pry open the rusted jaws of their steel trap minds, they might learn something.  If you want to change law, find a peaceful means for pointing up its absurdity.  As Washington begins to implement the new regime, conflicts between federal and state law will arise.  For example, Washington's colleges and universities, which rely on federal funding, will have to remain mindful of the Controlled Substances Act regardless of the state law.  But try telling that to Washington state college students!

As these conflicts become more numerous, the entire nation will be forced to reevaluate its antiquated drug policies.

Granted, an overly zealous US Attorney General (think Alberto Gonzales) or even a federal prosecutor looking to score points could, at any point, crack down on Washington state residents.  But any such crackdown would come at a high political price.

Mark my words:  with this change in Washington state law (and with the similar measure passed in Colorado) the United States has started down the path toward full legalization of marijuana.  Although we failed to pass a similar measure in Oregon this election cycle, you can be sure that another measure will be up in the next.  Other states will follow as well.

Just as with gay marriage, legal marijuana use is on its way. Nationwide.

Funny.  I was just thinking the other day that I hadn't been up to Vancouver in a while...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

John and Jim have a little talk

SceneDecember 4th, 2012.  Waning days of the 112th Congress.  South Carolina Senator Jim Demint relaxes on the Corinthian leather couch in his office, shirt sleeves up, television remote in hand.  His gaze is intent on the television screen.  His peace is disturbed by a commotion in the lobby.  There are sounds of scuffling, a sharp "Excuse me, sir!", the fine hickory door flies open.  Speaker of the House John Boehner storms in, followed by Georgia, DeMint's personal assistant. 

Georgia:  Sir, it's the Speaker.  He insisted.
Boehner [entering, he plants his feet, hands on hips]:  Wouldn't you say it's time we had a little talk, Jim?

[DeMint assesses for a moment.]

DeMint:  It's fine, Georgia.  Why don't you go home for the evening?  And give my compliments to your husband. 

[Georgia hesitates. Glances at Boehner.]

 DeMint:  It's alright.  You go on home, now.

[Exit Georgia.  The Senator stands, points the remote at the television.]

DeMint:  I tell ya, John.  There is a lot to learn from the old televangelists.   Take Jim Bakker, for instance.  Nobody but nobody could work a crowd like him.  They'd cry for him while he went through their pockets. 

[He flicks off the television.]

Boehner:  You're killing our party.

[DeMint smiles, saunters to the wet bar.  He pours himself a whiskey.]

DeMint:  Drink, John?

Boehner:  I don't need a god-damn drink!

[DeMint pauses in the act of stoppering the whiskey bottle.  His eyes flare briefly.]

DeMint: John, I'm worried about you.  With all due respect, you seem to be losing your nerve.

Boehner:  That's one way to put it.  Or you could say I know who my friends are.

DeMint:  I didn't much appreciate how you disrespected those boys on the Budget Committee.  Amash and Huelskam.  They're good people.  Tea Party folks.

Boehner:  Jim, how long's it been since you were in the House?  I think you forgot how it works.  You see, I'm the Speaker.  And that means if you're a Republican in the House of Representatives,  Job One is to kiss my ass. Eric Cantor and everybody else.  Amash, Huelskam, and Schweikert didn't understand that.

DeMint[grinning like a carnivore]:  Feelin' your oats, are ya?  Funny you should mention Cantor.  I might have to buy that boy a drink one of these days.  If I can catch him when he's not lightin' up the Menorah.  

Boehner:  Take your best shot.  But you better watch your own chickens.  You know how Senators are.

DeMint:  Didn't you see what I did with that Disabilities Treaty?  Even with the old stiff sitting in the well!

Boehner:  Don't fool yourself, Jim.  Dick Lugar may not be coming back.  But Orrin Hatch and Richard Shelby are still here.  And they're not likely to forget how they had to vote.  They're old fashioned.  They think friendship means something.

DeMint:  John, if you object to how Leader McConnell is handling his caucus... 

[Boehner throws back his head and laughs.  DeMint smirks in spite of himself.]

Boehner:  You can play your games with Mitch all you want, Jim.  But let me tell you this:  I'm not gonna stand by and let you kill off the Republican Party.  We lost the election.  And that means we need to deal with this administration.  If I have to, I'll sit down with Nancy.  That's right, Jim.  I'll cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi before I'll let your Tea Party clowns crash land us.  This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Jefferson Davis. 

DeMint[sneering]:  I always knew you were just a damn Yankee carpet-bagger.  But here's some news for you, John.  You're too late. The South has awoken.

Boehner:  You folks never learn, do ya?  We always end up having to beat it into ya.  Just like General Grant.

[A long silence while the two men assess each other.]

DeMint:  Mr. Speaker, I thank you kindly for this visit, but if you'll forgive me, I'm to meet Mrs. DeMint shortly.

Boehner:  Oh, I'm leaving.  Give my best to Debbie.

Update:   [Two days later, on December 6th, Senator DeMint announced he would resign his seat in order to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Looks like Boehner and McConnell worked something out.]

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Maty learns to drive

Getting settled in America is a lot of work.

The little immigrant gal from Africa has already studied English at PCC, earned her state certification as a nursing assistant, and been awarded her Permanent Resident (Green) card courtesy of the federal government of the United States.  In the future, there is another certification to earn, more education, and full United States citizenship.

But the immediate goal is an Oregon Driver's License.  It's something Maty needs not just for practical reasons, but for personal fulfillment.

So a couple months ago, Maty got her state-issued Instruction Permit.  I'm teaching her to drive.

I'll be honest.  I had considerable doubt about the wisdom of this endeavor.  "I'd rather stay married to her than teach her to drive."  That was my line of thinking.

It turned out to be nonsense.

On Saturday, Maty drove us all the way to Grand Ronde.  Sixty-some miles in heavy weekend traffic.  It went smoothly.  I won't say there weren't some --let's call them "animated" --discussions about driving tactics on the way down.  I take my job as driving instructor seriously, after all.  But she did great.

The reward on arrival was a delicious supper at the Cedar Plank Buffet in Spirit Mountain.  Maty loves the fresh-out-of-the-water crab.  I could tell she was proud of her accomplishment by the way she smiled when I praised her.  It was a full-grin smile, a smile that would not be denied.

I took the wheel going home.  We stopped in Wilsonville and took in Life of Pi.   We talked the entire time.  

There have been trials this year.  We faced them together and we're doing alright.  The trust between us has grown.   We've risked reliance and it's paid off.  Every time.

It makes me laugh:  Did I really worry about teaching her to drive?  What a ridiculous notion!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Book and movie review: Life of Pi

It's "Two-for-one Sunday" here at the Sound and Fury dispatch desk.

On Saturday morning, after about a month of picking away at it, I finished reading Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi.  I had to read the last ~150 pages of the novel in a frenzied 6 hour reading period in order to finish it in anticipation of Date Night with Madame Cariaga who, it being her turn to choose, wanted to see the eponymous movie.  The fruit of this complicated (yet mundane) set of circumstances is this blog post, which reviews both the novel and the movie.

For what it's worth...

Life of Pi, the novel

After everything I'd heard about this novel and all its acclaim I had high hopes.  Sister Paige spoke highly of the book, and it famously won the Man Booker Prize.  Even now, 12 years after publication, there is an impossibly long hold list for the book at the Multnomah County Library.  I started reading the book before I was even aware that a movie was at that very moment, being edited for release.

Life of Pi is the story of an Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel.  Piscine (or "Pi" as he is called) is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India.   He's precocious, wise, and likeable.  He's a spirtual seeker.

The first third of the novel describes Pi's spiritual growth.  In addition to his indigenous Hinduism, Pi discovers and adopts Christianity and Islam.  All of this in spite of  the mild consternation of his rational father, the knowing indulgence of his mother, and the taunting of his older brother.  As the zookeeper's son, Pi knows much about animals and relates many interesting, but little-known facts about them.

This part of the novel moved slowly.  I found Pi's childhood experiences to be mildly entertaining and at times humorous, but not particularly profound.  Nor did I find the writing to be compelling.  It took me a good long while to get through this part of the novel.  By the time I reached the point in the book when Pi's father announces that he is selling the zoo and moving his family to Canada, I was convinced that Life of Pi was yet another oversold mediocrity a las Sisters Brothers or The Art of Racing in the Rain.

Not so! 

The second third of the novel is very different.  Fourteen-year-old Pi and his family and many of their zoo animals (which have been sold to various North American zoos) embark on a Japanese freighter bound for Canada. But the ship never makes it.  As they cross the vast Pacific, an unexplained disaster strikes and the ship sinks, taking with it everyone but Pi, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  At that point, the novel becomes a recounting of Pi's 227 day ordeal trapped on a lifeboat with dangerous animals.

One by one, the animals meet their demise until only Pi and Richard Parker remain.  As Pi struggles against the elements, he comes to realize that he and Richard Parker need each other to survive.  It's a gripping story of survival, of suffering, and of profound spirituality. 

But it isn't until the last third of the novel that Martel's genius is revealed.  The scene is a Mexican hospital, where Pi is being interviewed by two Japanese officials investigating the disappearance of the ship.  As Pi recounts his experiences, readers must reexamine the tale they've just read in light of new possibilities.  That is, they must confront the infinitely complex and uncertain nature of truth.

This is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel.  Like all the best novels (indeed, like all great works of art) Life of Pi poses deep, difficult questions without crassly imposing answers on its readers.

A great read, a brilliant novel.  Yann Martel is a writer that I look forward to reading further.

Life of Pi, the movie

Having finished the novel that very morning, I went with Maty to the evening showing of Ang Lee's film adaptation.

Ang Lee is a fantastic director.  His crown jewels, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are superb.   And in his capable hands, Life of Pi, the movie, does a decent job of representing Martel's novel.  Decent, but not perfect.

The flick is visually beautiful.  Viewers are treated to a panoply of enchanting scenes:  a Pacific Ocean so calm and still that Pi and his lifeboat seem to drift in a white void neither sky nor water, constellations of phosphorescent jellyfish, vast landscapes of roiling water.  Apparently, Richard Parker, the tiger, is the result of digital wizardry, but you'd never know it while viewing the film.  The special effects were dazzling.  (Did I mention that this is a 3D movie?  You've got to wear those ridiculous glasses.  But it's worth it.)

Suraj Sharma did a fine job as castaway Pi, but here's where I took issue with the film.  Castaway Pi, as depicted by Sharma, is a young man.  But in the book, Pi is a boy.  It's a crucial difference.  Certain critical events take on much different significance as a result.  

Lee also made a difficult decision about how he presented the interview with the Japanese officials.  He relied on Pi verbally recounting an alternate version of the story, rather than depicting it as flashback.  Far be it from me to second-guess a master like Lee, but I really do think presenting the alternate story visually would have been more effective.

(And, really, Mr. Lee, was the superfluous and underdeveloped romance between Pi and the Indian girl even necessary?)

In the end, Life of Pi, the flick, joins Cloud Atlas, the flick, as another cinematic adaptation that comes close, but cannot in the end live up to the majesty of the novel it depicts.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Senator Merkley pushes for an end to Afghanistan nightmare

Hats off to Senator Merkley.

On Wednesday, Oregon's junior senator and 23 others signed and delivered a letter to President Obama, urging an accelerated withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan.  Then, yesterday, the full Senate adopted the letter by a vote of 62 to 33.  Perhaps as an indication of the degree of war-weariness dragging on the country, the "ayes" included 13 Republicans.

(Although Oregon's senior senator, Ron Wyden, signed the original letter, for some reason he did not participate in the full Senate vote.  Sigh.  Aren't you getting ready to retire, Ron?  Maybe that would be for the best...)

The administration has already set a date, the end of 2014, as the goal to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  If it adheres to that schedule, we will have been militarily engaged in that country for 13 years --the longest war in the history of the United States.  As explained in the letter, the United States is spending $10 billion per month on the effort in Afghanistan, which is not to mention the 2000+ casualties we've sustained since the obscenely-named "Operation Enduring Freedom" began.  (And should I mention the nearly 13,000 civilian casualties?  Or would that be in poor taste?)

This letter reminds and remonstrates the President:  Part of the reason you were elected is because supporters believed you would get us untangled from the Afghanistan nightmare.  It is time to make that happen.

Will it make a difference?  Hard to say.  In its first term, the Obama administration stuck pretty closely to the playbook advocated by top brass military.  Undoubtedly and perhaps despite his personal sentiments, President Obama played it that way in order to avoid the typical Republican "national security" attack when he ran for reelection.  Well, as we all know, that bird has flown, so the President has more of a free hand when it comes to these matters.

But, perhaps and at the very least, Senator Merkley's advocacy for a quick withdrawal is symptomatic of something else.  Might it be that liberal and progressive lawmakers are growing more assertive, pushing on President Obama from the left?  If so, that would be an unlooked-for but welcome result of this month's sweeping repudiation of the political Right in the national election.

Thanks, Senator Merkley.  Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An' she purty tonight?

A path of stone and concrete took me to the river.  No rain fell in the moment, but the city was water-saturated and the rain not far off; a taking of breath between inundations.  Gutters choked on fallen leaves and the air was sweet with rot.

Light dies swiftly at this time of year.  It was daytime as I started across Hawthorne Bridge.  By Waterfront it was night.  The sky whispered rain walking north along the river-wall.  Morrison Bridge arced the changeful void.

The sated river lolled and cast back the stark and beautiful audacity of the City of Roses.  Bright little city, if not happy, at least comfortable in the rain. 

As I beheld her, my heart swelled full as the river.  But the river sang low.   "An' she purty tonight?  An' she purty?"

Mock, if you must, Willamette.  We'll rise and fall and you'll just push on past.  But we make a pretty little spark against the void.  If I do say so myself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Plutocracy wobbling

Things don't look so good for Grover Norquist right now.  The super-influential lobbyist, the man who created the anti-tax pledge and held the whip hand for Republicans in federal budget negotiations is facing some snarl and snap from normally faithful lapdogs. 

There was a time --hell, it was just last year! --when no Republican congressperson would dare suggest that he or she might consider raising revenue as a means of addressing the federal deficit.  To do so, would be to invoke the wrath of Grover and his multimillion dollar Americans for Tax Reform lobby.  Any Republican who went off the Norquist reservation could look forward to a primary challenger and a huge money bomb in negative advertising when it came time for reelection.

But in the wake of President Obama's November victory--a development that seems to have caught Republicans flat-footed --some in the GOP are making noises like they are willing to give on the revenue issue.

Check these quotes:
  • "We are so far in debt that if you don't give up some ideological ground, the country sinks." --Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC
  • "[W]e’ve got to deal with the crisis we face. We’ve got to deal with the political reality of the president’s victory.”  -Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL
  • "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with [Norquist] about that."  --Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-GA  (I know, I know.  Patriotic sanctimony from a poltroon like Saxby Chambliss is hard to endure, but the statement illustrates my point.)
This is just a taste.  There are more quotes out there.

Up to now, Grover Norquist has enjoyed nothing but dogmatic support in his drive to "drown the federal government in the bathtub."  But as the above statements reveal, the times they are a-changin'.

Grover has been on teevee stating that he's not worried.  He claims to believe that, when push comes to shove, his Republican minions will fall into line.  And he may be right.  Fear is what motivates Republicans, and they're a craven lot. 

But they're in a very tight spot.  Hearken back to December, 2010.  In the lame duck session of congress that followed the sweeping GOP victory of the mid-term election, the President struck a deal with Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on taxes.  Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income levels for 2 years in exchange for other legislative goals. 

Well, at the end of this year, if Congress does not act, the Bush tax cuts will expire.  The President wants an extension for middle and lower incomes, but has vowed to veto any legislation that extends the tax breaks for upper incomes (those making $250K or more).

This puts Republicans in an untenable position.  If they hold the line, as Grover Norquist demands, the tax cuts expire and everyone (lower and middle incomes as well as plutocrats) gets an increase in taxes.  The President can then follow up in the new congress with a bill to lower taxes for the middle class and dare Republicans to oppose it.  None of them want to do that.  But if the Republicans concede the upper income tax breaks and pass a partial extension, Grover Norquist goes apoplectic and the GOP blood-letting begins. 

It's a no-win sitch for Republicans and they've brought it upon themselves.  No matter how it goes, somebody is going to have to walk the plank.  Who will it be?  Grover Norquist?  Mitch McConnell?  John Boehner?  Eric Cantor?

No one knows for sure.  But as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier!  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Movie review: Lincoln

One thing I'll say for Steven Spielberg:  the man can fill a theater.  Even this afternoon, more than a week since Lincoln opened, the viewing I attended was quite nearly full.  No surprise when you consider the long list of films on Spielberg's ceevee.  Lots of big hits.

Nonetheless, I can't say I'm a big fan.  Spielberg resorts to gratuitous heart-string pulling and tear-jerks more often than I find tasteful.  Remember how we all cried when Elliot had to say goodbye to ET?  Or how about that cloying scene with elderly Private Ryan on his knees at the graveyard in Normandy?  We all cry at Spielberg flicks, yes?  We all laugh on cue, too, yes?  Remember all the cutesy one-liners in the Indiana Jones flicks and Jurassic Park?

Spielberg has a tendency to lay it on thick.  That kind of emotional manipulation makes me feel sheepish.  And feeling sheepish makes me resent being manipulated.  

This rather lengthy digression is just to explain the reservations I had about going to Lincoln.  But I'm happy to say that Lincoln, the film, eschews the worst of all that.  It's a good film, well worth the acclaim it's receiving.

Start with the cast.  Everyone expects excellence from Daniel Day-Lewis and he delivers.  He allegedly relied on Doris Kearns Goodwin's highly-esteemed Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals in his preparation for the role.  One wonders how much we can really know about Abraham Lincoln the man these 147 years since his death, but Day-Lewis' interpretation worked for me.  His Abraham Lincoln is humble, wise, and charmingly American. Even for the versatile and enormously talented Daniel Day-Lewis, this could be a defining role.

For my money though, Sally Field delivered the best performance.  Her Mary Todd Lincoln was a forceful, determined woman, sharp-witted, terrible, and never for a moment free of grief for her dead son. Those times during the flick when I cried (and, yes, I cried) were due to Field's stark performance.

Even besides those two, it is a star-studded cast.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from Pennsylvania with the outlandish belief that colored people are in every way equal to and as deserving of rights as white people.  Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, the powerful journalist and backroom politician.  James Spader was Mr. Bilbo, one of Secretary of State William Seward's favor-givers.  David Strathairn played Seward.

Credit Spielberg for making an interesting and entertaining film about vote-getting.  That's what most of this film is:  political arm-twisting, backroom deals, and factional subterfuge.  Even given the historical significance of this particular event, that doesn't ordinarily count as good entertainment. 

But of course, the biggest draw of this film is that it is an opportunity for us, the people of the United States, to reexamine one of the men we most revere in our common heritage.  Abraham Lincoln, the man, is a source of endless fascination and reverence.  Lincoln, the film, brings that man to life for all to see.  Any film that does that, and does it well, is sure to succeed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Embrace it. All of it.

Thanksgiving day, 2012.  Pavement still wet from Tuesday's deluge, but it was warm and no rain fell.  If you live in Portland, you learn to take advantage of these days.

On the way up, Tom Waits mourned the Reeperbahn in the earbuds.  I met a family walking a dog. A couple, about my age, with a teenage daughter.

The daughter held the dog's leash and walked a little ahead.  Her face was bloodless, pale as old candle wax. Dark circles under her eyes suggested an apathy beyond the trials of the world.  An enigmatic resignation, shocking to see on one so young.

Her mother's face was also haggard and weary. Pale lips, downcast eyes.  An aura of weary endurance. 

Those morbid miens contrasted with that of the father-husband.  The vital color in his cheeks, the brightness of his eyes, spoke of a world that yet held promise for him beyond the tragic destiny of wife and daughter.

I was struck by the thought that the masks worn by the woman and her daughter were ghastly premonitions.  Of what, I cared not to guess.

In the end, I was able to shrug it off.  After all, God only knows how I appeared to them.  What might they have seen in my face? 

Up on top, the Old Man stood naked.  His long, long thoughts conjured clouds about his temples.  He'd no interest in my supplications.  So I gave thanks.  For wife, for home, for family and friends.  For sight, for sound.  For joy and agony.  For reassuring knowledge that I am a part of it --of all of it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book review: Wool

Wool by Hugh Howey is a grass-roots phenomenon.  Howey published and promoted the book (actually a compendium of 5 novellas) via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing system.  It gained popularity by electronic word-of-mouth and is now an unqualified success.  Howey has reportedly sold movie rights to 20th Century Fox.

Wool is the story of a dystopian society that exists in a vast silo, hundreds of levels deep, centuries after an apparent apocalypse has destroyed the world outside.  So far as the denizens of the silo are aware, they are the only survivors on the lifeless planet.  Their society is governed by hidden hierarchies and subtle politics, with factions distinguished by trades and professions:  politicians, farmers, mechanics, etcetera.  For the most part, the people in the silo are content to perform their duties (and everyone in the silo has certain prescribed duties) and live out their lives.  But occasionally someone expresses a desire to know more about the world outside.  When that happens, the survival of the silo is threatened for reasons that are revealed as the novel progresses.
What I enjoyed most about this novel was Howey's excellent pacing.   Like all the best science fiction novels, Wool discloses progressively.  Each new plot development uncovers more of the truth about this strange world.  And each new revelation is more mind-blowing than the last.  By the time you get to the end of the novel, the world is much different than it appeared at the beginning.

The biggest problem with the novel is its dull language.  The prose is wooden and at times awkward.  Howey is not a poet.  Further (and this is true of many science fiction novels) the characters are thinly drawn and lack complexity.  But, even considering those two weaknesses, the novel succeeds.  And that's because whatever Howey lacks in eloquence, he makes up for in raw imagination.

Howey has already published another book in the Wool series --a prequel.  There is certainly room for it.  The world he created has a myriad of realms to explore.

And just for kicks, here's a tease for would-be readers:  The people of the silo have an important ritual that involves wool.  (Hence, the title.)  After reading the book, see if you can determine why that particular substance --wool --is significant.  (Will Johnson illuminated the rest of us at our book club meeting.)

Happy Thanksgiving, lads!

Monday, November 19, 2012

John and Mitch sink a drink

SceneFriday night, November 16th, 2012.  Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sit at an elegant bar.  A few hours earlier, they stood with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a joint press announcement, expressing optimism in the coming "fiscal cliff" negotiations.  Boehner is well into his fourth apple martini.  McConnell sips gingerly at a mint julep.  They sit in silence for a long time.

Boehner (glancing at McConnell):  One of us is going to have to say it.

McConnell (removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose):  John, I'm not in the mood for this.

Boehner:  Oh, really, Mitch?  Is that right?  I'm sorry.  Didn't mean to spoil your aperitif.  If you need a little time, it's not a problem.  It's not like I'm holding you responsible for humiliating me in front of the entire nation.

[McConnell sips his julep.]

Boehner:  Remember what they were saying back in 2010, Mitch?  They said you were a shoo-in for Harry's office.  They said the Democrats were defending so many Senate seats that even a fool like John Cornyn couldn't screw it up for you.  [Boehner knocks back his drink, waves the empty glass at the bartender.]  Well, here we are, Mitch.  Here we are.

McConnell:  Before you climb up on your high horse, let's not forget that the only reason you're in the Speaker's office is because of the Tea Party.  Without Eric Cantor you're nothing but a sad-sack inebriate stuck on a bar stool.

Boehner (smiling):  Here's lookin' at you, kid.

[Senator Jim DeMint enters the bar, espies the two of them and approaches.]

DeMint:  Well, well, well...  John Boehner and my very own leader.  Just saw you boys on the boob tube with Harry and Nancy.  Mitch, you looked like you just licked a toad.

[McConnell rubs his temples.]

Boehner:  Say, Jim, too bad about your friends.  The caucus room won't be nearly as much fun without Richard Mourdock and Todd Aiken crackin' wise, eh?

DeMint:  Win some, lose some, John.  You, of all people, should know how that goes.

Boehner:  And how!  But I thought you were gonna lead the Tea Party revolution.  What the hell happened?

DeMint:  John, don't get all sassy on me, now.  We've had a setback.  There's still time to set things to right.

Boehner:  That's what they said after Gettysburg.

McConnell:  Jim, the Speaker and I were having a private conversation.  Do you mind?

DeMint: Fine, fine.  You boys enjoy your pity party.  I got better things to do.  [Exit.]

Boehner (watching him go):  That's the difference in our jobs, Mitch.  I can make the idiots in my caucus shut up.  You can only wish you had it so good.

McConnell:  Tell me, John.  Do you think it might be helpful for us to discuss how we're going to coordinate strategy for the fiscal cliff negotiations?  Or would you rather just sit here and bait each other?

Boehner:  Strategy?  There's no strategy.  Tax rates go up on Sheldon Anderson.  Grover Norquist blows a gasket.  We all end up with primary opponents.

McConnell: You're still the Speaker of the House, John.  That counts for something.

[Boehner stares, open-mouthed.]

McConnell: Don't give me that look.  We've managed in the past.  All we have to do is find the right dog whistle.

Boehner:  Mitch, if Rove's meltdown on Fox News didn't convince you, I suggest you take a look at the exit poll data.  There just aren't enough Jim DeMints in this country for us to win that way.  Not anymore.

McConnell: Demographic trends are what they are, but we've got Marco Rubio.  We've got Bobby Jindall.

Boehner (shaking his head):  Are you serious?

[The frosted glass door to the bar bursts open to produce former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich along with their coteries.  Sarah Palin is among them.  One of Cain's aides is carrying a stack of Godfather's pizza boxes.  Boehner and McConnell watch from their bar stools as Cain's party lays the pizzas out on the tables, then distributes paper plates.]

Palin:  Hey, look!  It's Mitch and John!  Perfect.  They can join the discussion!

Cain:  Howdy, boys!  Glad to see you're putting your heads together.  Come join us at the pizza table.  We're going to discuss how to expand our appeal. 

Gingrich:  Yes, gentlemen.  Come join us!  You can share all you've learned from your failures.

Boehner (aside):  I think I'm going to be sick.

[He glances at McConnell, waiting for a response, but there is none.  McConnell dabs at the corners of his eyes with a handkerchief.]

Cain (holding up a slice of pizza):  Future of our party?  It's all about minority outreach! Two-for-one taco pizza from Godfather's during election season!

Santorum:  That's right, Herman.  Splash taco sauce on a cardboard box and they'll come runnin'.  Fence or no fence.

[Boehner slugs down his fifth apple martini.  McConnell, sobbing quietly, is inconsolable.]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

ASL scenario setup: Valhalla Bound

Note to readers: This post won't make a lick of sense to anyone who isn't familiar with the Advanced Squad Leader game system.

Hard for me to believe that I haven't played Advanced Squad Leader in almost a year.  This is by far the longest stretch I've endured without dropping dice into a dice tower since I started playing Squad Leader 30 some years ago.  There are reasons for this hiatus, but perhaps I'll leave those for a later post.

Anyway, a rainy Saturday in fall in Portland, Oregon, got me to reminiscing on the game.  Rainy fall Saturdays will do that.  So, I got out an old copy of the ASL annual of '92 and, just for grins, threw together a setup for an old, favorite:  Valhalla Bound.

I've played this old chestnut a half dozen times, I suppose.  It's a nail-biter. 

As far as developing a setup, Valhalla Bound no doubt seems an odd scenario choice.  After all, as anyone who has played it will tell you, the real test of this scenario comes when the German's reinforcing Panthers crash into the Russian armor long about Turn 3 or 4.  The initial German forces, a couple platoons of infantry, supported by half-tracks and an armored car, are little more than a screening force.

But that initial force has three important objectives.  As I see it, they are:
  1. Slow the Russian advance for a crucial turn or two, buying your reinforcing Panthers time to gain position.
  2. Disrupt the Russian infantry.
  3. At all costs, prevent the Russians from forcing the paved road.
So, with an eye toward achieving said objectives, I submit the following.
The setup.
When I approach a setup, I have a look at the given order of battle and try to organize it into functioning groups with specific purposes.  In this case, I've divided my forces into three groups which I informally name Team Tank Trap, Team Fire Base, and Team Kamikaze.
  • Team Tank Trap consists of the PSW 234/4, the 8-1 leader, and two and a half squads.  They're tasked with guarding the road from Y10 to CC7.  The PSW is in Z10, HIP by SSR, and set up to open fire when a tank advancing down the road turns to face the infantry in Z9 and W6.  Hopefully the little armored car can score a side or rear hit.  At the very least, it will unsettle the advancing Russians.  Hex Z10 is a great hex for the armored car.  Russian infantry are unlikely to enter the hex and inadvertently discover the armored car and anyway they'll have to approach the position from one of two open hexes regardless.  (Credit to Dave Hauth for first discovering this position.) Meanwhile, the hidden squad and panzerschreck-toting half squad will threaten any armor that tries to skirt through the woods.  The 8-1 and his squad will hold off the Russian infantry. 
The setup, up close.
  • Team Fire Base consists of the 9-1, both half-tracks, and a full platoon of machine-gun toting stormtroopers.  This group is here to blaze away at Russian infantry.  If the Red Army tanks approach aggressively, these troops will rely on panzerfausts to keep them off.  The half-tracks can also provide cover for a fall back across the Y1-Z1 road.  (An optimistic scenario.)

  • Team Kamikaze consists of a half-squad, the hero possessing a panzerschreck, and the 7-0 possessing the demolition charge.  This group sets up hidden in hex W5.  Hopefully, this team will find itself with a plethora of targets when it reveals itself.  Hex W5 is an orchard hex where there is no backblast penalty for firing 'fausts or the 'schreck.  If circumstances allow, they will reveal themselves progressively.  That is, the half squad might reveal itself to fire a 'faust.  Then later in the same turn, perhaps when a Red Army tank seeks to overrun the half squad, the hero, assisted by the 7-0 leader fire the 'schreck. None of this team will likely survive beyond the turn in which it is discovered.  Hence, the name.
Ivan sees this.
The Russian wave will wash over the initial German force.  But if they've achieved their three objectives by the time the Panthers engage, they've earned their places in Valhalla.  Survivors can harass the Russians from behind, but there won't be many.  The Valkyrie maidens will be busy.