"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Childe's Farewell to Borders

This week I guest-blogged over at Wheat and Tares, my second gig for them. The post recounts my final visit to a favorite store. I hope you'll visit, read, and leave a comment if you feel inclined. Thank you for stopping by.

Happy waning days of summer to each of you!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pilgrimage Vignette

The above vignette utilizes NASA/JPL images taken by the Galileo Orbiter in 1997, the primary image being of Jupiter's moon Europa. On that I overlaid a swatch of blue taken from a false color Galileo image credited to NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. The rest of this piece is original. It was generated using Adobe Photoshop CS5.

For another cosmic poem, read Humility.

--Jake Christensen

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Oh Redford, My Redford

Robert RedfordRobert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him as an iconic American actor. The first time I watched he and Paul Newman go into haunting freeze frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is etched in my mind. My parents used The Natural as a practical tool for schooling me in allegory. While a college student in Utah, I felt the Redford mystique grow during regular trips into Salt Lake City to watch indie films, including a Sundance Film Festival screening.

Robert Redford the book provided big discoveries for me. Author Michael Feeney Callan spent years drumming up over 300 interviews in addition to many sessions with Redford. He also gained access to notebooks, journals and other original research. Initially the book was mesmerizing. Redford’s roots seamlessly interwove with 20th Century American history.

After about 100 pages, my reading slowed. The book became less fun--not less worthwhile--just less recreational. It turns out Redford isn’t much like what I assumed. His silver screen gravitas belies the reality of an often erratic and stubborn personality. In fact, I found the early Redford to be arrogant and annoying. Still, whether deflating or ingratiating, Callan’s study effectively peeled back the glossy Hollywood veneer. I came to see Redford and his colleagues as real people engaged in risky creative endeavors.

As a work of serious biography, Robert Redford has a couple of weak points. At times Callan’s narrative feels soupy and convoluted. Some passages combine a dizzying list of names and minutia with an 'Oh by the way' quality, leaving me unsure of their particular significance. On a related note, the passage of years is not always apparent. At times I felt disoriented as some major developments were mentioned off the cuff. The variable pace of Redford’s career was difficult to track.

In fairness, some of these criticisms probably boil down to the challenge of delivering a cohesive account of a disjunctive professional life. From the days of his “breakthrough” performance as the Sundance Kid, Redford’s acting career took on a Sugar Ray Leonard quality. He has seemed ever on the verge of retiring or staging a comeback.

Ultimately, I have great admiration for Callan’s stalwartness as a biographer. This is no slapdash expose. And if Robert Redford the book is sometimes a rough read, it is in large part because Redford the man is hard to read. About two-thirds of the way through I sent an e-mail to my Mom saying how much I was enjoying the book, even as it chopped Redford down to eye-level. I summed up my newly seasoned appreciation for him this way: "Oddly, I respect him just a bit less but identify with him a great deal more."

Viewing Recommendation: Obviously a reading of this biography benefits from having seen Redford’s major films. I strongly suggest watching both Jeremiah Johnson and Downhill Racer before or while reading this book. These films are often revisited by both Callan and Redford as major touchstones in “Bob’s” artistic development.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

'Little Green Men' Sports Pinball Wizardry

Little Green Men: It's A Big World after AllLittle Green Men: It's A Big World after All by Jay P. Fosgitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, this compilation contains the adventures of three finger-sized aliens trying to conquer Earth. There is simply no way for this premise to be less than amusing. Unless you are a complete sourpuss, Little Green Men comics do not allow for utter disappointment. That said, when delivered through the mind and pen of artist Jay P. Fosgitt, this story becomes rich entertainment for readers of all ages.

My reading of this compilation was skewed toward the nostalgic because of the context in which I got my copy. A few months ago, I preordered it online from Borders and requested in-store pickup. In a poignant coincidence, my copy arrived in the store on the same day Borders began its going-out-of-business sale. Little Green Men: It’s a Big World After All is the last new release I will ever buy from what was my favorite bookstore.

Needful to say, I was in the market for light humor and goofy action, especially action suffused with a charming affection for pop-culture. Happily, Mr. Fosgitt delivered again. He is now three for three with me as a reader. After plopping down in my reading chair, I was treated to a plot that seamlessly mixes slapstick-laden sci-fi, precision parody and cotton candy-flavored Americana. Fosgitt’s Little Green Men is entertainment for folks who love banana splits.

For me there was a particularly magical moment late in the book. One of the aliens sneaks off alone. He rockets through the mail slot of an arcade with the firm intent of going one-on-one with a pinball machine. Keep in mind he’s three inches tall. What follows is a scene of wonderful hijinks and physical comedy. However, it’s the buildup I want to praise. I loved the vitality Fosgitt achieved via a low-angle image of the little fellow striding boldly towards his nemesis. For me it held all the magic of an early Spielberg film--a pure, even tender reminder that I am still in love with my childhood, and so too is Fosgitt.

Bottom line: Little Green Men is extremely fun. I highly recommend it to all carbon-based life forms. To try the series out for free, stop by Apecmx.com.

My Other Fosgitt Reviews:
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Monday, August 1, 2011

A 'Martian Summer' For the Books

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars MissionMartian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission by Andrew Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, there is a sentimental connection to the Phoenix Mars Mission. Along with many others, my name is preserved in a special data disc mounted on the outside of the lander. Phoenix now rests silent on the surface of the red planet. The disc awaits recovery by future Martian explorers.

Martian Summer focuses as much on human drama as it does on science. Many personal stories lie behind the mission, which rocketed a robotic lander all the way to Mars’s polar landscape. To his credit, author Andrew Kessler constantly shines the spotlight on several mission MVPs. Still it’s fair to say the heart of this book is Kessler’s personal quest to access the protected environment of mission control. Consider this profound moment:

“I ended up squished in the back of some half-crazed Hollywood producer’s Mustang with a pile of scientists on my lap.”

Okay, so trying to embed yourself in a space mission can sometimes be a comedy of errors. It’s no exaggeration to say I laughed out loud many times while reading Martian Summer. It is loaded with entertaining gems like the one above. Kessler, who begins the book as an outsider, rightly compares the culture of mission control to the hit sitcom The Office. So if you enjoy that sitcom, there is a good chance you’d enjoy following a NASA mission.

It helps immensely that Kessler is a gifted writer. To keep the intricate story readable, he makes some great choices. He keeps the prose light whenever possible (which is often). He provides needed context without letting the narrative grind to a halt--even as the mission itself progresses in fits and starts. Plus, Kessler always stays close to one or two human subplots. Though a few technical passages went over my head, I never felt lost while reading Martian Summer.

The joy of lively prose notwithstanding, there was a point in this book when I grew disheartened. Not coincidentally, so did Kessler and mission personnel. There were incessant technical glitches, losses of vital image data and distracting intrusions by politically-minded higher-ups. Personally, I started wondering if space exploration is just too challenging for humans. But as I kept reading, I remembered the following line Kessler wrote earlier in the book:

“If I can find the beauty in moving bits across space, there’s hope for me.”

Here on Earth we enjoy, even depend on, an information superhighway. As this book shows, the data route between Earth and Mars is more of a hazardous byway. Yet through cooperation and persistence, the Phoenix mission team traversed the void many times over one summer. Discovery resulted when the data came home safely. And via Martian Summer, a similar gap has been bridged between elite scientists and lay enthusiasts.

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