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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Out with the Old, In with the Aging

This blog gets less of my time and energy these days. Expect that to continue in 2014. It's a gift for you friends and family who stop by once in awhile. You will be missing less. Still, stop by, please. I like the slow uptick in my analytics.

The reason for this blog's neglect is good. In the last few months I have written a lot. Most of this writing comprises a long term project: a novel. Some of the output heads for contests. In 2014 I plan to continue this habit of focusing on putting my writing in front of professional editors and contest judges.

In the meantime, I hope the winding down of your holidays goes well, Reader. My holidays were choice, thanks mostly to the efforts of friends and family. Thanksgiving, a holiday I remain cynical about as a matter of honor, softened my heart a little. Thanks go to a coworker who invited me to a family gathering. Fellowship resulted. I abstained from patronizing my coffee shop even though it was open. The day was good.

For Christmas I rented a car and travelled to Kentucky to visit my parents and my sister's family. The rental car office gave me a free upgrade to a Chrysler convertible when the intermediate Sedan earmarked for me got stuck in the mud at a nearby shop. I accepted the upgrade because my lunch break was almost over.

Ah, cruising through Ohio late in a December evening with the top...up. Silly, pointless luck getting that free upgrade. Cruising in a convertible in the dead of winter. Wondering what the hell several buttons in the car are for. Dodging potholes and right-wing pundit radio stations. Hoping I don't roll over physically or ideologically as I run the Death Star trench that is freeway construction in Dayton, Ohio. Cursing my dumb luck to get a useless upgrade in winter and...hey, look at that cutie in the next lane also driving a top-up convertible. Hey, fellow convertible driver, care to join me for coffee and waffles in Wapakoneta?

Still, it was fun to gauge the reactions of coworkers and family as I approached with unexpected class! Christmas is a holiday I continue to love with minimal cynicism. I don't know why my fellow humanists are trying to popularize a new atheistic holiday in December when Christmas has proven so pliable already--a spiced mix of Christian and Pagan and Secular. Me and Christmas are getting along just fine.

I feel no special enthusiasm for the New Year. I live in a country that seems increasingly driven by fear, anger, and--as Facebook status updates routinely demonstrate--sloppy writing. Yet, the opportunities for a good year are plentiful. Bonding with two of my wonderful nieces and nephews over eggnog and bootleg Disney clips on YouTube reminded me of the promise of youth. Come on, New Year. Let's dance!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Considering 'Love Actually' with NPR

The folks at NPR brought to my attention that some people hate the movie Love Actually. In fact, this Christmas season the debate between thoughtful lovers of the movie and bitter foolish haters has reached fever pitch--this year being the film's 10th Anniversary. For an excellent debate on the matter, check out NPR's awesome pop-culture portal, Monkey See: 'The Case for - and Against...'

As a detached observer, sworn to objectivity, my interest in the Love Actually debate is, shall we say, platonic. Like many guys, I encountered this film when a girl I cared for deeply and wanted to make out with made me watch it. Given that the film is the cinematic equivalent of cake and ice cream, the viewing was far from tedious. Suffice it to say, the movie has its attributes and meets the needs of a certain demographic prone to effusive displays of...effusiveness.

Lacking the chemical dependency some people exhibit toward romantic comedy, I have not re-watched Love Actually this Christmas season. I do not feel a need to. Besides, as a trained critic, I tend to find the milder temperatures of late winter and early fall a more agreeable time to reexamine the film's technical and cultural merit while eating a Hershey's Symphony Bar.

At any rate, for those of you who adore the film, but more especially for those who flog it with your base cynicism, I call on you to follow the below link to a wonderful, laughable, and likable video tribute to one of Love Actually's most famous scenes.

The NPR 'Jump' for My Love

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cosmos Highlight for December 2013

Every now and then, usually in the early morning, I look up for three to five minutes and watch a bright point of light arc silently overhead. It never ceases to inspire me.

Click on Image for Larger Version 

On December 6, 1998, International Space Station assembly began
Image Credit: NASA

From the full caption at nasa.gov:
"On Dec. 6, 1998, the crew of space shuttle mission STS-88 began construction of the International Space Station, attaching the U.S.-built Unity node and the Russian-built Zarya module together in orbit. The crew carried a large-format IMAX® camera, used to take this image of Unity lifted out of Endeavour's payload bay to position it upright for connection
to Zarya."

Friday, November 29, 2013

When the Lights Went Out

I submit that this grouping of burnt-out lights is no coincidence.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Salient Pessimism 4

Yesterday, we commemorated the death of a good man who envisioned an ambitious near-future of human spaceflight. Yet I--as have others--kept thinking about the person who may have played the single most consequential role in sending Americans to the moon in 1969.

I kept thinking about Lee Harvey Oswald.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thoughts on 'A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage'

Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in AmericaDoes Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your relationship with the Bible." This tends to be the first question I want to ask anyone who identifies as both homosexual and Christian. Perhaps, in terms of a person's walk with God, it is not the most important issue. Still, as a former Mormon Christian and a devout agnostic, it's the most pressing question in my mind. My decision to commit to an agnostic lifestyle was directly precipitated a few years ago when I sought to re-read the Bible.

Mr. Chu responded to my request with a wonderfully thoughtful answer, reflecting the keen observations and nuanced analysis readers will find in his book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? Jeff said he has a great respect for the Bible. (So do I.) He said he loved the poetry of the King James Version. (Preach it!) Then he spoke of the difficulties of conveying meaning, especially filtered through translation. (Hallelujah, Brother!) He astutely described how even with contemporary writing people often miss the point, sometimes willfully misreading text. (Amen!)

However, as Jeff wrapped up his response to me, I gathered that he is less willing than I am to take a clear stand on the Bible's various injunctions regarding sexual morality. (For the record, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalizing gay marriage.) Yet, Jeff never came around to saying what I believe--that whole sections of the Bible are horrifically archaic by any reasonable interpretation, and in consequence it is irresponsible to patronize politically active organizations that persist in marketing the anthology as inerrant. Shucks! I was hoping he had the same opinion I do. Nevertheless, I bought Jeff's book and had him sign it.

"Dear Jake, God Bless You!" reads his personalized autograph on the title page. Thank you, Jeff.

Does Jesus Really Love Me has a great deal of depth with regard to unpacking the larger issues and comparing the various factions Jeff encountered on his "pilgrimage". This is a work of non-fiction, but there is a story arc built in around two people: 1) the author; and 2) a closeted homosexual in Nevada called Gideon. Over the course of the book, I came to see organized Christianity as the well-intentioned antagonist. The tension plays out between individuals and the collective. Most of the time the focus is on relationships, not theology.

The longer I live as an agnostic, the harder time I have sympathizing with people of faith, especially people who persist in practicing religions that oppose their lifestyle. I sometimes forget that many homosexuals are motivated by a genuine Christian spirituality. They have felt the burning in the bosom; they have heard the “still small voice” after praying about Jesus. This book gives them a greater voice.

Yet, Does Jesus Really Love Me is not a one-sided analysis. The stories and heartfelt perspectives of fundamentalist Christians are also examined. There are several fascinating passages rendered as oral histories, where the interviewee speaks at length and uninterrupted. These include a passage of reflection by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard. This diversity of perspectives should ensure that any reader, me a prime example, will find himself alternately validated and challenged in his current opinions.

Jeff's book does have one key limitation--a point on which it opts for exclusivity instead of inclusiveness. He limits his pilgrimage to Protestantism. The question of if Protestantism is the sole synonym for authentic Christianity is one I won't debate here. Through personal study and frequent debates during my Mormon mission, I came to appreciate the theological distinctions whereby Protestants often claim they alone are authentic Christians. However, this denominational focus does mean that people coming from other versions of Christianity will find their traditions neglected by Jeff's tome.

That is arguably a minor criticism though. There are so many gems of humanity in Does Jesus Really Love Me? The insights are keen and affecting. Take this one from Episcopal bishop Mary Glasspool, after realizing her sexual status had become a newspaper headline:

"I feel like only one aspect of the complexity of the person I am is being singled out."

In a world with an Internet, where we repeatedly post our beliefs in an attempt to drown out dissent, Jeff's book has the potential to be an antidote. You cannot read it fairly without setting aside your assumptions and giving your full attention to people with different perspectives. For that reason in particular, I highly recommend reading Does Jesus Really Love Me?

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Joining the Chorus of Well-Wishers

I am thinking of this short young blond girl--and I mean short, about up to my waist. Around 10 years ago she stood next to her mom on the front door of a suburban Utah home. They formed a barricade as I stood sheepishly on the porch.

The mom looked down at the little girl and said, "This is Jake. He wants to take your older sister out on a date. Do you have any questions for him?" The little girl, who like everyone else in the house must have known I had no chance with her older sister, shrugged and scurried off in search of her twin. The little twins, their older sister who wisely passed me over, their brothers, their mother and father, became one of my favorite families.

They never judged me for being a foolish brooding bachelor. They offered true friendship and hospitality. In fact the women of the family, including those little twins, let me tag along to an Avril Lavigne concert in Salt Lake City. That's right, I went to an Avril Lavigne concert. And I went with not one, but four classy gals from one of my favorite families.

That was around 10 years ago. The little twin girls are now young women. And one of them is in the Philippines. The damn typhoon went right over the top of her and the people she is working with there. That's right, Mother Nature. I just swore at you.

As I watch for more updates, I do the only paltry thing many of us can ever do. I hop on the Red Cross website and make a donation for Disaster Relief. I hope you will too, good reader. Today, like every day of the year, is a good time to support humanitarian aid.


A Facebook post from the mother confirms she is "safe"; however, as the post also pointed out, others remain unaccounted for. Support for relief efforts remains critical.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Finally Caught by 'The Catcher in the Rye'

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book has been an act of repentance. It is one of the novels I slacked off on when a high school English teacher assigned it. When it came to assigned reading I was a brat in high school, alternately loving and resenting the books assigned to me. A classic gesture of hypocrisy, I did to J.D. Salinger’s novel what the main character Holden Caulfield did to his school. I blew it off.

I resented my teacher’s focus on identifying and interpreting symbols in the text. That approach felt forced and distracting to me at the time. Moreover, in high school I was a rather privileged/ungrateful mamma’s boy, and hardly a rebel. To me The Catcher in the Rye was an uncouth story about a foul-mouthed cynic who runs away for the mere sake of rebelling. I simply did not identify with the protagonist. I read a few chapters and then I quit ‘and all’, to borrow Holden’s signature two-word tag.

I came back to this book in my late 30s to celebrate Banned Books Week. Having done a great deal of rebelling since high school, I was surprised to find I still don’t strongly identify with Holden. But now I kind of wish I did. Holden is remarkably take-charge about his rebellion. That was generally not me. However, with a college English degree and a great deal of life experience at my disposal, the book still hit home.

The Catcher in the Rye is a triumph of narrative voice. Holden’s slang, his phrasing, the way he improvises assertions and then walks them back, betray a painful self-awareness. There were a few moments, and a whole chapter or two, where I identified completely.

Holden is intelligent and thoughtful, even as his speech is roughshod and rambling. As a portrait of discontent, he is marvelous and richly drawn. I’ll leave the social implications and the stigma of obsessive fans for other critics to mull over. Instead, I’ll say this is a masterful first-person novel and rightly a must-read. I’m sorry I waited so long to give the book, and Holden, my full attention.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Salient Pessimism 3

One drinker proclaims the glass is half full. Another retorts it is half empty.

The glass brims with propaganda.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Buffalo Humor and Pumpkin Hunting

Decency forbids me repeating the joke I told, but obviously one buffalo found it hilarious. Or maybe he needed a quick back scratch. In any case, lazy domesticated buffalo are good company.

Good times were had by four generations of my family as we visited
Heritage Farms Market, south of Hesperia, Michigan. Autumn is a wonderful time of year.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Tale of Two Parties

I looked at two houses, or thought about them as if they were once again in front of me. Two populated houses of people with passion. They each had money and a following. They each had a long-term plan in mind for how they wanted things to be. And since they were different, they stayed always at each other's throats.

There commitment remained to self-validation and self-revelry. They were always marketing themselves to themselves. And to the ladies. Let the ladies in, whether openly or secretly. Get the ladies on our side, each would say.

They battled. They fired off salvos of pranks, of minced words and the like. I must confess it was quite fun to watch. Sometimes individuals from opposite sides seemed on the verge of liking each other. But it never lasted. I also confess this was invigorating to watch, the being-pulled-back-in-and-deciding to-be-staunch. Ruffled feathers are invigorating to watch.

At last, after much fun and revelry, after back-room deals and altercations, even a little death that no one proved culpable for, everything exploded in an orgasm of cultural catharsis and devil-may-care melee. It was a sight to see. And you knew that people had stopped pretending that everything was okay, and it was exciting and troubling in equal measure. I confess it was exhilarating.

You dared not consider the amount of cleanup and repair that would be required to make things livable again. And so you, why am I saying you, I mean me, I shouldn't try to pull you in.

Anyhow, everyone just kept trying to feel momentous so long as they were being watched. But you could tell most everyone just wanted to go somewhere quiet and cuddle another and fall asleep. Or drive off alone, or with a new lover. Because maybe the fall and still of night would do all the cleaning and reconciling magically. And when they woke up in the morning, maybe these two warring houses would at last be set at peace, enjoying stasis and maturity.

Gosh, I love the movie Animal House! ...wait. What did you think I was writing about?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Is 'Doctor Sleep' a Shining Sequel?

Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Enough with all this Alcoholics Anonymous chit chat! I want the supernatural scare fest I was promised!” Some part of me wanted to stand and say that to Stephen King while reading his new novel, Doctor Sleep. After all, this story is a sequel to The Shining , a true blue--which is to say green and slimy--horror house thriller.

Having survived the literal monsters of The Shining, Young Dan Torrance has grown up into a womanizing alcoholic with a violent streak. As character reprises go, Torrance is a plausible and well-crafted offspring of his haunted father. Yet as literature, Doctor Sleep is better compared to King’s recent 11 22 63 . They share similar sentiments about individual and collective character. King even recycles my favorite line from 11/22/63. And both plotlines embellish one man’s internal struggle by covering a great deal of country and time. Torrance bottoms out as a 20-something alcoholic. After a period of wandering, he encounters a young girl who also has psychic gifts and is plagued by soul-sucking villains. These catalyze his personal growth.

Ironically, the novel’s chief problem is the extent of its restraint. In contrast to the vivid and sometimes overwhelming savagery employed in past novels, here King errs on the side of minimalism and suggestion. It’s not to say he altogether spares readers horror. But where he does get graphic and macabre, King is relatively brief and to the point. Unlike The Shining, this novel is not unrelentingly spooky.

Doctor Sleep spends most of its ink developing human drama. And herein lies one of the novel’s weaknesses. Most of the characters are not memorable. They may be a cut above flat caricatures, but they fail to transcend their mere utility nature. In particular, the individuals who make up a villainous cult named the True Knot are mostly forgettable.

Still, as a collective voice the True Knot prove intriguing. They are evil but not mindlessly diabolical. They display love, loyalty, and personal struggle in ways that merit some empathy. Their coldblooded killing is more than a recreational pursuit. Motivated by a sense of survival and dependency, they feed on the vitality of younger generations. Holy cow! Am I just now realizing how the True Knot’s self-serving rampage makes an excellent allegory for Baby Boomer politics?

As explored through interviews and author’s notes, King seems mesmerized by real life crises. So much so that Doctor Sleep develops at the expense of the supernatural, rather than by virtue of it. For most of the novel, the protagonist’s chief adversary is not a monster; it is a vice. Likewise, Torrance’s shining protege is predominantly hounded by her own temper, not the villain's.

I struggled in trying to decide whether to give Doctor Sleep three or four stars out of five. No, I don’t wish I could give it three-and-a-half. I’m saying this novel merits either three or four stars depending on how I look at it. As a sequel that adeptly transcends rehash, that provides a thoughtful and entertaining development of an established character, this is a four star novel. However, taken as a thriller it feels patchy.

Still, as I followed Doctor Sleep on his journey I felt myself appreciating the lesson Torrance plays out. The demonic forces we should be most concerned with are not in this or any King story, they are in our souls. It may even follow that some people read Doctor Sleep and decide to give AA, or one of its off-shoots, a try. Yes, one might read a Stephen King novel and be the better for it.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Returning to NASA Glenn

65 feet high
130 feet in diameter
17,000 fiberglass wedges, each 2 feet thick
3 jet engine test rigs
1,000+ degrees Fahrenheit testing conditions
Dozens of microphones
Zero echoes

The Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory

The above video showcases a far-field microphone array in the AAPL located at
NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. If the laboratory reminds you of a recording studio, it should. That is precisely what the AAPL is. (Prefer a photo tour?
Jump to my gallery.)

Microphone Arrays at NASA's AAPL

A key feature of the AAPL is the ability to measure jet engine noise from near and far. It's not enough to stand next to a running test rig and say, "Yup, that's loud." At the AAPL, scientists and engineers study a jet's noise output from multiple angles and distances, just as it is experienced in everyday life. Jets today are loud, but keep in mind they could be--and once were--much worse.

Jet engine test rigs at NASA's AAPL

Above at left is the Small Hot Jet Acoustic Rig. To the right is the larger Nozzle Acoustic Test Rig. Researchers use both to try out new and hopefully less noisy jet engine designs. They tend to focus on the engine's backside. As was explained to my tour group, one motivation for altering the back of the engine is convenience. In terms of safety regulations, it's much more troublesome to modify the front of the engine--where things get sucked in--than the back of the engine--where things get blown out.

Enough about tech issues. Let's talk about raccoons. ...yes, raccoons.

fiberglass acoustic wedges behind wire mesh

Notice the wire mesh covering the above acoustic wedges? NASA installed the mesh to keep birds from nesting in the dome. Alas, though the wire mesh solved the bird problem, it created a raccoon problem.

A few of the stripe-tailed scavengers snuck into the AAPL, took one look at the wire mesh, and decided it must be climbed. And they made it to the top. Furry critter advocates will be happy to know this story does not end with dead raccoons. Upon discovering the unauthorized visitors, NASA staff left a door cracked. The raccoons let themselves out overnight--presumably after discovering that the AAPL deprived their squeals of cool reverb.

NASA Glenn on Second Thought

A jet fan test rig at NASA Glenn Research Center
The Advanced Noise Control Fan test bed

The above cluttered photo is not my favorite. But in terms of capturing NASA Glenn's essence, it is probably the best picture I can share. Glenn's exterior is a jungle of tan bricks and weathered steelwork. It shows the blight of age and funding cutbacks. Yet when you enter its facilities, especially AAPL, Glenn becomes awe-inspiring. This is one of NASA's workhorse centers. One of its oldest buildings, dating to World War II, was originally used to troubleshoot overheating B-29 Bomber engines. Today it houses research into ion engines intended for deep space.

This was my second visit to NASA Glenn. I attended 2012's Mars Curiosity landing social. I'm already daydreaming about a third trip. The place has an industrial charm. The staff display warm hospitality. The work they do, especially in aeronautics, is critical. I encourage paying a visit. Public tours are free but limited. Advanced registration is required. Visit the NASA GRC website for details.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How Cleveland Charmed Me

Looking down through a glass case, I examined century-old rivets so badly gnarled they resembled pulled taffy. Yet these thick metal pins once held together the RMS Titanic. They were torn from the hull as the steel ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Now the rivets and other artifacts surrounded me in a dimly lit exhibition room. Inevitably, I felt haunted.

Later I rode up an escalator, walked into another room, and found myself a few centimeters from the above Skylab 3 space capsule. An authentic 1970s Apollo command module, it still bore char marks from a fiery plummet through Earth's atmosphere. Yet as the undamaged crew seats assured me, the capsule landed quite safely, proving itself air-, space-, and sea-worthy. It would have felt absolutely inspiring...but I was still thinking
of Titanic.

This past weekend, I traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to make my second visit to NASA Glenn Research Center. My first visit was entirely about exploring NASA's Midwest campus. This time I allotted an extra day to experience a bit of Cleveland. Priority one was a visit to the Great Lakes Science Center, which serves as NASA Glenn's official visitor center. Over five full hours, I saw many cool exhibits and attended two IMAX films. I am pleased to say this venue is excellent and well worth visiting. Give yourselves a full afternoon or more. Let the kids enjoy the many hands-on exhibits. Heck, enjoy them yourselves!

The above image is of a test version of the Mars Pathfinder rover's landing bag system. You can see more pictures here, including shots from my facility tour at NASA Glenn. On the strength of the science center's permanent collection, the citizens of Cuyahoga County can be proud. Still, I happened to visit while the Titanic Artifact Exhibition was in town. Seeing relics of that tragedy in close proximity to a triumphant piece of Apollo space history gave me pause. Shakespeare's auspicious line comes to mind: "What a piece of work is man!" Then again, that is a line from Hamlet.

Following my visit to the Great Lakes Science Center, I found a short walking trail with a great view of Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline. The above picture was taken at the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. As the sun went down, I drove into the nearby suburb of Lakewood and found a small diner. There I enjoyed a tasty double decker club sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries and a glass of ginger ale. The service was friendly. Moreover, the diverse and neighborly mix of employees and customers helped dissolve some of my preconceived notions about the city.

Several times during the day, a Randy Newman song played in my head: "Burn On." Equal parts charming and haunting, the song references the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. Like the Titanic exhibit I had visited earlier that day, Newman’s tune perfectly captures the dichotomy of achievement and folly that is human industry. One line swells with nostalgia: "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic..." Heretofore only acquainted with the city's maligned past--and overlooking the wry undertones of Newman's bass line and lyrics--I used to find that line odd. On September 6th, I finally came to embrace the multifaceted import of the song. Thank you for a great and thoughtful day, Cleveland. I hope to visit again.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Call Me Sci-Fi Writer, Please

Asimov. Clarke. Bova. Christensen.

These names do belong together...just barely. And I mean just barely. Three are phenomenal sci-fi authors and Bova is just a hack. Kidding! I'm kidding, Ben Bova. Seriously though, I am proud to say that on September 1st, Childe Jake became a published author of science fiction!

I am the 2013 winner of Current magazine's Flash Fiction Contest. I invite you to open the following link, proceed to page eight, and read all three sentences. Yup, my story is only three sentences long. Flash fiction indeed!

by Jake Christensen

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Consider 'The Movement of Stars'

The Movement of StarsThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While living in the constrictive Quaker society of 19th Century Nantucket, Hannah Price dreams of discovering a comet. This feat would make her a professional astronomer. So goes the premise to Amy Brill’s first novel: The Movement of Stars. Yet this book is not about astronomy. Rather, it focuses on a gifted protagonist struggling to avoid pitfalls that would leave her ordinary.

Hannah’s increasing attraction to a dark-skinned sailor named Isaac Martin quickly becomes the novel’s primary source of suspense, overtaking Hannah’s observations of the night sky. They meet when Hannah agrees to teach him navigation, which in the 19th century required astronomy. The inevitable social tension generated by their association threatens to foil both Hannah and Isaac’s worthy professional ambitions.

19th Century gender and racial dynamics are of course well-worn trappings for novelists, in part because they can be so engrossing. Still, so much of the book reads dry and rather stiff. Certainly a great deal of this can be attributed to the culture being depicted: a religious community for whom restraint and decorum are elevated forms of religious expression. However, the novel spends a surplus of time in the doldrums. I almost gave up reading a third of the way in. Fortunately, I was rewarded by seeing the novel to its conclusion.

Partly due to my personal experience growing up in conservative religion, I could appreciate the excessive posturing and naivety stemming from Hannah's sexual repression. Early on she lacks the ability to interpret even basic biological attraction to Isaac Martin. Ms. Brill is careful and cautious in escalating the attraction between Hannah and Isaac. As their attraction deepened, so did my interest in it.

In terms of drama, things really get going when Isaac challenges Hannah's intellectual assumptions. This is a great storytelling choice, given that Hannah begins the novel as one of the more enlightened characters. Yet Isaac teases out her shortcomings, almost always in a gentlemanly way. By halfway through the novel I wanted these two together. And if you can get a curmudgeon like me invested in a love story, you have accomplished something not easily done.

Yet even as she begins to open up and take chances, Hannah remains difficult to connect with. She keeps others at arm’s length, including those most well-intentioned. Before novel's end, she is faced with at least three positive outcomes. I found myself somewhat annoyed with her devout hesitance. I wanted to lock eyes with her and say, "Hannah, say yes to someone." Yet her destiny remains fixed in orbit around the fate of real life female astronomer Maria Mitchell, whom the author crafted Hannah after. Far from parroting history though, Brill finds emotional depth and significance by tying pseudo-historical Hannah’s fate up with fictional Isaac’s…which is to say I haven’t spoiled the ending.

The Movement of Stars fits well alongside two other commendable works I have enjoyed: Percival's Planet and Shine Shine Shine . All three offer rich character-driven stories while integrating compelling science. Science fiction often indulges the latter while neglecting the former, thus alienating itself from a broader readership. Yet I can recommend this novel independent of its astronomical motifs. You may not end up on the edge of your seat, but The Movement of Stars rewards the committed reader with a genuine and touching human journey.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Scourge of Small-town Parades

Paul's Epistle to Me
A little kid hopped off the Baptist Church parade float, ambled over, and handed me a pamphlet copy of Romans from the New Testament. Sparing him the 25-year-long story of my journey into agnosticism, I accepted the gospel tract and said, "Thank You."  But I was offended. Extremely offended. Not that he tried to force his religion on me. It's just...why didn't he throw me the pamphlet from the float so I could catch it? That would have been awesome.

It's a parade. All around me little kids are crawling over the sunbaked assfault--did I mispell that?--ravenously scurrying like little squirrels in search of nuts. Only instead of nuts, these kids are catching treats thrown from parade floats: hard candy, soft candy, leaky melted freeze pops the kids quickly hand to mothers in lawn chairs who grimace, then look up at the float of small-town VIPs and manage a semi-sincere thank you. 

The Jiffy Mill float is handing out boxes of muffin mix. Granted, can't throw those. It would be dangerous. The local used bookstore is handing out free paperbacks. Probably shouldn't throw those from a moving vehicle either, though as an English Major I am rather moved by the image of books soaring over the heads of little kids groveling and battling in the literal gutter for Tootsie Rolls. You see, I grant that certain freebies should not be thrown to parade goers.

BUT for Peter and Paul's sake, this was a thin paper pamphlet of The New Testament Epistle to the Romans. You roll it up like a scroll, you tie it off with a little ribbon and then you throw it from the damned--excuse me--you throw it from the saved parade float so that I can catch something at the parade. I walked most of the parade route on foot. There was candy everywhere. I could have picked up my share. But I didn't want to risk even the possibility of picking up a Tootsie Roll that some little hopeful 4-year-old was also eyeballing. So I stood politely near the corner of Main and Old US 12 and waited for a chance at something the kiddies weren't going for. Is it too much too ask of the local evangelicals that they throw the gospel at me? It's the one event of the year I wouldn't have minded.

A Cranky Lady and a Frisbee: 
My parade highlight was being recognized and waved to by not one, not two, but three of the awesome baristas from the local Biggby Coffeeshop. Being recognized by someone in the parade, being waved at from the pinnacle of a float or the edge of a six-foot-wide banner carried by three of your favorite baristas is...well, it's a special feeling...until you realize they aren't throwing free espresso beans. Then you get depressed again and tighten your grip on that epistle in your pocket. And you start wondering when the parade will end so you can cross the street safely and get to the coffee shop.

Most honest thing I heard from a fellow parade goer: a grown woman to my right looked back along the parade route, wiped high-noon sweat from her forehead and said, "Jesus, there is still a lot more stuff comin' up the road." The parade was about half-over. 

A Democratic candidate for Congress showed her willingness to work across the aisle with Republicans by throwing 5 percent less candy to children than in previous parades.

Okay, that last one wasn't true, but I haven't stopped giggling since I thought it up during the parade. What is true is that two-thirds of the way through the parade I turned left and what did I see coming my way?

Was it the Amish? 
Was it the Wells Fargo wagon? 
No, it was an antique, fully restored horse-drawn hearse made of beautiful black lacquered wood and shimmering glass windows. I squinted through the glare to see inside. Who was the 2013 Chelsea Fair and Parade Cadaver? 

No corpse, just a bunch of cardboard boxes full of frisbees. I crammed Paul's Epistle to the Romans deeper in my pocket and got ready to play catch. But the morticians were favoring parade goers on the eastern side of Main Street. Damn easterners. Damn 1st Precinct that always gets the bigger better room at the education center on Election Day. Why do they get all the funeral home frisbees? 

At last the man who may one day fill my veins with...don't go there Jake...still, a few seconds before my shot at a free frisbee came, it occurred to me--I am in my late 30s. I have already had my first *TMI ALERT* prostate exam. No way in hell am I accepting a free frisbee from a funeral home. But now it was like I couldn't dodge these little plastic discs embossed with the funeral home's name and contact information. 

It ricocheted, I kid you not, off of the traffic light pole nearby, eluded the cranky hands of the cranky woman who had invoked her Lord and Savior to proclaim her frustration upon realizing the parade was only half over. And then that macabre giveaway skidded over the asphalt and stopped two feet away from where I was crouched down, stretching my lower back and silently echoing the refrain, "Jesus, when is this parade going to end?" 

Accepting my fate, I turned and retrieved the funerary frisbee. Then, still crouched over, I turned back around. The cranky lady approached, brandishing an empty Mountain Dew bottle, and extended her hand to me indicating the frisbee was rightly hers. Had this been a foul ball at a baseball game, we would have had a problem. But lucky for her, it was a frisbee thrown into the crowd by a mortician. Smoothly, without any indication that I also had a claim on the thing, I handed it up to her. She thanked me, turned, and began gawking at a flatbed tow truck carrying a handsome young man and the wrecked full-sized sedan he'd used to win the demolition derby at the fair a couple of nights earlier.

 A couple more vehicles back was a fixed-up two door Firebird with the top down. Crammed in the back, a large poodle slumped deathlike against the upholstery, too tired even to pant in the hot sun. A little girl in the gutter paused from her Tootsie Roll foraging, looked up, and watched as the comatose dog rode past. I think, in some way, we were all of us ready for it to be over...the parade I mean. Life is good.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Salient Pessimism 2

Notwithstanding my skepticism toward prophesy, I grant the possibility that the meek may one day inherit the earth.

I just don’t think they will stay meek.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mars Haiku Approved for Launch

Over 12,000 contest entries. Five winners chosen by popular vote. A handful of honorable mentions. In garnering 91 votes, which placed it in the top 10 percent, my poem earned the right to be loaded onto a special DVD that will fly with the MAVEN probe bound for Mars. The launch window opens in November. Here is the little bit of my mind now being copied and transferred for a rocket ride:
Lone wispy devil,
Spinning past the Valles rim,
May I have this dance?
I strongly encourage you to head over and read the winning entries and the honorable mentions. It is a delightful collection. And I am happy to see it includes another Haiku dedicated to the famed Valles Marineris.

Time for a fair question: What if any substantive connection does this offer me to the red planet? MAVEN will orbit, not land. MAVEN will not return to Earth. The DVD is on a one-way trip. Barring its acquisition by an alien race--who would assuredly single out my haiku from the other 1,100 or so on the DVD, resulting in my being the first intergalactic poet laureate--the official copy of my poem going to Mars is just a few bits of computer code that will never be accessed again.

As I wrote to one family member, who expressed frustration the contest website was preventing them from voting multiple times, my substantive connection to the mission is here and now. Thousands of people around the world pondered Mars and the upcoming mission. We celebrated exploration together. We cultivated a sense of affection for the cosmos and for Mars in particular. This is to say we generated enthusiasm for exploration and discovery. And in the most quantifiable sense, we poets drove a great deal of Internet traffic to the mission-sponsored website. We raised awareness.

Lastly, in a tradition dating back to the plaques mounted on the twin Voyager probes, the MAVEN probe will bear a literal mark of humanity on its robotic mission. It will carry a commemoration of life to the sky of another planet that may once have held, may still hold, life of its own making.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking or Leaving 'The Stand'

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes I finish a book or movie and I am confident in my assessment of its being either good or bad. The perplexing situation is when I come to a novel prepped by other people's opinions and walk away feeling differently. Such was the case with Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand. The sum total of recommendations and reflections I've received from other King readers over the years led me to believe The Stand is rightly one of his most highly regarded novels. Yet, this story never came close to gripping me the way my favorite, It, did. Why didn't I go for this one?

The easy explanation would be the novel's length. But I like a good epic. The Stand cries out to be a long novel, though perhaps not as long as this uncut version is. Certainly the story's crisis, the near extinction of humankind, merits expansive prose. I suspect part of the novel's popularity comes from its explicit Judeo-Christian motifs. There are other examples of this. Think of the most popular Indiana Jones films. Think of the Dan Brown novel that made the biggest splash. Biblical fare. The Stand also has a nationalistic tone that many would find enticing. But I'm disenchanted with both the Bible and nationalism. So King didn't rope me in with either selling point.

The Stand isn't a bad novel. King plays masterfully with the duality of the plot. He mines Biblical notions of good versus evil, light versus dark, Heaven versus Hell. And over the course of the story he achieves a richness of characterization as various members of the ensemble cross from one side to the other. Some flirt with changing but then hunker down in their rut. Quite like life seen and lived under the influence of Sunday School mythos.

King explores a doctrine of two ways for all its worth. My favorite examples are the worldly Larry Underwood and the troubled orphan Harold Lauder. Both take winding routes up onto literal and figurative ridges between good and evil. Sometimes they climb with passion. Sometimes they tiptoe. Sometimes they backslide (and not just toward evil). It's a rich and plausible depiction of humans struggling to adapt, to connect, to be fulfilled. Internal and external forces push or tug (just like the various forces that decide if you end up enjoying a book).

At its best I found The Stand haunting in thoughtful ways. This was especially the case with a trio of characters who are chosen to travel through the Rocky Mountains and spy on behalf of the community we assume is the good side--put another way, the side worth saving. Their story evokes the poignancy that the best of other King works attain. King also proves crafty with his tried and true narrative devices, including the intentional spoiler. Just try and look away, he dares us.

I didn't worry too much for the first half of The Stand. Slow boil I thought. King will hook me any page now. 300 pages from the end I still wasn't gripped. 200 pages out, 100 pages, and I still lacked a special connection. I plowed through, appreciating tidbits, enjoying any given chapter but never feeling immersed.

I can respect those for whom The Stand is their favorite King novel. But like a certain contingent of the gathered protagonists, as the final pages arrived I found myself ready to leave. If a book is a town, this one just ain't mine. Oh it was good to visit--necessary 

even--but my heart is calling me somewhere else.

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pressing 'Against the Fall of Night'

Against the Fall of NightAgainst the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Prologue to Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night is so mesmerizing I thought I might have another Childhood's End on my hands. The first page or two encapsulates all that is most poignant in the book: a child looks to the heavens and wonders if all that is best about his world has already past, lost forever in a desert of myth and apostasy.

However thought-provoking this novel may be, as an early outing by Clarke it seems underdeveloped. The grand technology-driven themes, the operatic flavor with which Clarke embues time and space, the profound puniness of humankind--all these are present and vibrant. Yet the novel as a whole feels shy of richness.

The premise is engrossing, if a bit conventional. A promising young man living in a stagnant society of the distant future finds evidence that Earth was once much greater...and may yet be again. The protagonist becomes something of a chosen one--a John the Baptist type, driven by a considerable ego to search for lost knowledge and a scientifically plausible messiah. It's quite intriguing.

As Clarke's hero delves deeper into Earth's mysterious past--read our present and near future--he develops a deepening conviction that a new age is about to begin--fueled by his discovery of highly convenient and hastily explained advanced technologies. The themes and notions which Clarke explores with such elegance in Childhood's End and
2001: A Space Odyssey resonate well here too. However, the plot languishes in a literal desert. Too much time is spent on diplomatic conversation, and also on summary explanation rather than action. It's pretty good storytelling, but not masterful.

So much of this novel works. There is an intriguing subplot about rival societies with profoundly different value systems. That may be the most relevant part of the book for contemporary American readers. The sometimes helpful, sometimes destructive, nature of ego plays out intriguingly through the protagonist. Will he do himself in like humanity once did? There are also wonderfully bittersweet explorations of knowledge being lost and/or suppressed--usually as a means to consolidate power and control the young.

My ultimate gripe gets back to that notion of richness. Against the Fall of Night is a thin volume filled with lots of summary. It depicts a young man's quest for the truth. Along the way, the author drops increasingly big hints about a dramatic history and the promise of a grand future. The end result for me was disappointment. As I realized in the final pages, I had read about the search for a great story, rather than reading the great story itself.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Becoming Acquainted with an Urban Astrophysicist

The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban AstrophysicistThe Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hopefully, likely, someday there will be a comprehensive biography of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. No rush though. With several published works, and many videos and audio recordings available for free online, the in-process life of Dr. Tyson is quite accessible. And for those of us who want the equivalent of an extended personal conversation, there is The Sky Is Not the Limit. Published in 2004, this book is far from comprehensive. Still, it is a wonderful survey of the life of the man People magazine hypothesized to be the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.

I was hoping for a memoir that focused mainly on relating life events. However, The Sky Is Not the Limit spends a great deal of ink engaging in scientific discussion. In such cases, a briefly recounted memory serves as a springboard to academic discourse. All the material is valuable, but the selling point of memoir is undercut somewhat as a result. A minor criticism, but this book wants for a greater abundance of revealing anecdotes.

At any rate, Dr. Tyson's exciting and candid voice comes through loud and clear. The anecdotes he does share run the gamut from triumph, to tragedy, with humor and surprise included. In terms of offering both vivid personal history and profound reflection, the sections on 9/11 and racism are absorbing. Tyson provides some of his most insightful and bittersweet assessments when recounting his memory of the Apollo 11 moonlanding.

For fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson, this book is of course a must read. For those shopping for a proper introduction to Tyson's scientific knowledge, and his entertaining and accessible style of sharing it, consider trying Death by Black Hole or the more recent Space Chronicles .

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Discovering 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."
--Chapter 8

The above gem of reflection by the protagonist in Neil Gaiman's new novel gets to the core of what I find most fascinating about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here is a novel about a child, told from a childlike viewpoint, but written for adults. As a former child and a current uncle, I take the above quote as something of an indictment. Though, I suspect it's not that adults always win, so much as children, lacking means to survive on their own, wisely relent. In any case, I thoroughly appreciated the engrossing depiction of child-adult tension explored over the course of the story.

This is my first reading of a Gaiman novel. I paid almost $60 to sit in the next to last row of orchestra seating in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor (that price included a hardcover copy of the book). For that price I got to hear Neil read two good-sized portions of his writing and answer several cherry picked questions from the audience. He did so with a perplexing mix of gratitude and pomposity. In still portraits he looks like a proverbial geek. In person, he exudes confidence, poise, and coolness. He's celebrity and he knows it.

Yet, Gaiman is also the real deal when it comes to talent and craft. Fueled by a deep and genuine love of storytelling, Gaiman delivers highly readable prose and a well-constructed plot. Suspense builds steadily. The story unfolds via mystery and revelation that begs new questions. The prose is elegant, poetic at times, with a keen sense of pacing. Each clause within each sentence, variable in length, feels like the next uncertain step of a child going deeper into the woods. I read some of the chapters aloud for the pure enjoyment of it.

I wasn't completely taken in by The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in part because of its fantasy elements. Many twists and turns in the plot are utterly convenient, like so much made-up technology in sci-fi or newly-discovered ability/weakness in superhero tales. The novel also vacillates between profound passages of reflection and action sequences that sometimes felt matter-of-fact and rather procedural. The sublime confidence exhibited by a few good-guy characters has a charm, but also saps the narrative of some of its excitement.

Nevertheless, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a wonderful tale. It engaged me at the outset and kept me involved throughout. It had a bedtime story quality, but with the intellectual depth I expect from adult fiction. I especially enjoyed how things tied together at the end, combining the best fantasy elements with the bittersweet quality of real world outcomes. Also worthy of praise in the hardcover edition is Adam Johnson's jacket design, a hypnotic mix of tranquil color and foreboding images. Gaiman's latest is a very good read.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Attending Neil Gaiman's Book Signing Event

Seen full-size on Twitter, I am visible in the below picture, located in the next to last row of orchestra seating about halfway between the right-center and far-right exit signs. Bit of background: Neil's plane was late due to the horrific crash of Asiana Flight 214 in
San Francisco.

Truth be told, I'm not a big Neil Gaiman fan...yet. (Simply haven't tried much of his stuff.) Last night brought me a step closer though. Neil is a great storyteller. Plus, a hardcover copy of his latest novel was included with the price of my ticket. Thank you to Michigan Theater and Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor for spearheading this Michigan signing event.

I thoroughly enjoyed Neil's reading and Q&A session. However, I gave up on the long wait-time for having my book signed. According to Neil, via Twitter, he finished signing autographs at 3AM. Best guess, based on seating layout and line placement, I would have scored my autograph around 1 AM. So a big fat "You're Welcome" to the few hundred people whose wait time shrank by about 15 seconds when I headed home to get a semi-decent night's sleep before work.

Two compliments for Neil (though he saunters about as one who clearly has received a surplus):
  1. In addition to being an excellent writer, Neil is a fantastic reader. Due to my English Major background, I've been to many readings. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun listening to an author read his prose. Excellent timing and expression without overdoing it describes Neil's style.
  2. If Neil should ever return to Michigan for another reading/signing, I would happily
    go again.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Salient Pessimism 1

I once passed by a church marquee that read as follows:

"Nails didn't hold Jesus to the cross. His love did."

After sampling the warm creamy sentiment, I pulled back and said to myself, "No...no, I'm pretty sure it was nails."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Romantic Currents in 'The Emerald Mile'

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand CanyonThe Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engrossing and often quite intense. Author Kevin Fedarko captures the high stakes nature of this historic time in the Grand Canyon's history. He ably pulls together a wide variety of sources to accurately convey the story. The task is challenging given that many incidents happened amid chaos and tend to be scantily documented and skewed by legend loving.

My only gripe is the effusive nature of Fedarko's prose. Restatement gives way to overstatement, and his unmistakable love for the subject matter sometimes runs wild like the rapids in the canyon. His musings on the wooden boats preferred by elite river guides for example, or any of several aria-like passages of reflection. Such unbridled romanticism captures the sentiments of the players; however, it also sometimes gums up otherwise efficiently engineered reportage.

Here is one example from the Epilogue, not the most verbose, but certainly characteristic of the author getting carried away:
"As this new generation ran the river together, the ferocious clashes of the past--motors versus oars, rubber versus wood--fell away and were forgotten, and everyone became friends."
I could forgive every word up to and including "forgotten" as common positivism laced with hyperbole. But when Fedarko asserts universal friendship, he claims the unlikely existence of a utopia.

Nevertheless, one of the things which The Emerald Mile effectively relates is the tension between various groups who are inextricably tied to the Grand Canyon. In particular, the book recounts volatility between the free-spirited river culture and the bureaucratic--though similarly idealistic--society of Glen Canyon Dam. And it is in exploring these tensions that the novel achieves true depth from which every reader can draw meaning and appreciation.

Selling Point: The Emerald Mile comes with a great deal of bibliographic material sure to be helpful for readers who want to pursue further reading about the Grand Canyon.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Farewell to my Phantom

Back in high school, in the early 90s, I joined a fan club. The fan club was for an actor named Kevin Gray. He played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and then on tour. I twice saw him perform the role at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Kevin was the youngest actor to play the Phantom at the time. There was a darkness to his vocal style, punctuated by a wide range of inflections. He painted with his voice, shifting in and out of lilting head voice and thick operatic tones. Kevin's wasn't the prettiest or most pleasing of tones, partially because of his firm commitment to acting the music. His performance was unforgettable.

Months after Kevin and the show left town, I was volunteering for the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center. I noticed a flyer for the Kevin Gray Fan Club on a basement bulletin board. I joined on a whim. This was back before high-speed Internet and ubiquitous social networking platforms. The fan club relied on a print newsletter. If you wanted to correspond with other members, you added your name, phone number, and mailing address to the last page of the newsletter. The system worked quite well. It resulted in my acquiring several pen pals, the occasional out-of-the-blue phone call from a fellow fan looking to chat, and even a couple of in-person meetings, including a post-show visit with Kevin's fiancée Dodie Pettit.

Truthfully, Kevin was not my all-time favorite actor or singer. But oh was he a fun performer to follow. Like his distinctive vocal approach, Kevin attacked life and his career with a signature passion. I never met him in person, but I did get a personal letter from him once, along with several autographs over the years. He was worthy of his fans. We were a community building off each other's enthusiasm. Participating in the Kevin Gray Fan Club filled a surprisingly deep need.

As I sometimes do, late last week I hopped on imdb.com and surfed names of actors I'd seen in the past. Kind of a do-it-yourself Where Are They Now segment. I looked up Kevin and immediately noticed there was a date listed for his death. He died of heart failure back in February. He was 54.

I won't speak for others, but for this childe mourning has always had a selfish component. The tears that began welling in my eyes as I sat in my apartment listening to the Music of the Night were sparked in part by taking stock of my life journey. Still, the mourning brought into focus how Kevin, and the kindred spirits he connected me to, helped cultivate my creative self during those precarious late teens. I think of that motto Kevin often added to the fan club newsletter. It's something to aspire to in our lives:

"Believe in the magic and soar!"

Friday, June 21, 2013

Passing Through 'Joyland'

JoylandJoyland by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is something perfunctory about Joyland. Even the Author's Note feels perfunctory, with Stephen King's preemptive rebuttal of carnival know-it-alls and his hasty show of gratitude for the editor, "Thanks, man." The tropical storm that whips up on the story's climactic evening feels perfunctory. None of this is crappy. I enjoyed Joyland at least as much as my annual, which is to say perfunctory, visits to the county fair.

King takes pleasure in exploring the lingo of carnival employees. Yet the cotton candy quality of the dialect is diluted by the need to provide on the spot translations. Perhaps less translation might have left me disoriented in just the right suspense-inducing way. Instead, like so many other elements of Joyland, I felt myself stuck at arm's length from a landscape that I wished would immerse me.

I enjoyed the layout, which bypassed a conventional chapter setup. Instead, Joyland is divided into discreet sections of narrative with a couple of line breaks and a thematically resonant heart icon. In the age of eBooks, presentation feels increasingly important to me when considering the purchase of hard copies. Glen Orbik's painting on the cover sets a wonderfully pulpy tone--a tone that King's story sometimes falls short of achieving.

I can't put it all on King. Certainly my reading was a bit perfunctory at times. Let's be honest, I suspect a lot of us King fans are just passing time until his sequel to The Shining is released this fall. What is more, I genuinely connected with the 21-year-old protagonist's pining. Oh did I pine over girls back then. And I know what it's like to hang up a phone and realize the gal on the other end has lost any special feelings she ever had for me. What a guy wouldn't give for a good murder mystery to divert him away from that heartache. King absolutely nails this aspect of the plot.

So I took a weekend trip to a little carnival Stephen King threw together. Not the funnest weekend I've had with him. Not by a long shot. Heck, I figured out the killer a good 30 to 50 pages before the reveal. I don't generally accomplish that. Still, King got me to try out an offering from Titan Books' Hard Case Crimes. I probably wouldn't have checked them out otherwise. And now I'd be willing to try them again.

Truth be told, when I pick up a straight-to-paperback yarn like this one, all I am really looking for is a nostalgia fix. I'm hunting for an excuse to revisit that young love and virginal heartache--the kind I felt during a fleeting time of life when a creaky old carnival could mesmerize me. Thanks for a ride on the Ferris wheel, King.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

How I Miss the Rocky Mountains

Busy weekend of prepping and submitting three poems for rejection publication. Last night I took a break long enough to watching the following wonderful tour of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. This video is from climber and blogger Alan Arnette. Arnette summited Mount Everest a couple of years back. He dedicates his climbing adventures to raising awareness and funds for Alzheimer's Disease.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Adobe CS5 User Needs Control

Below is a photo I've been meaning to take for a couple of months. Being a professional user of Adobe Creative Suite software, especially Photoshop CS5, has taken its toll on my keyboard...on one key in particular as you can see.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Favorite War Films as Personal Evolution

My Boyhood Favorite: Kelly's Heroes

This film is an action comedy set during World War II. The war serves as the backdrop for a treasure hunt. Sprinkled between sequences of farce and swashbuckling adventure, there are a few moments of touching drama. With the exception of a single tank officer, all of the German soldiers are disposable. Kelly's Heroes never lets the realities of war get in the way of maximizing entertainment value. The flick remains a personal favorite of mine, but not as a war film.

My Favorite as a High School Graduate: Gettysburg

Looking back, I am embarrassed at how infatuated I became with this movie and with one of its main characters. But in hindsight, I must also give it credit for jump-starting my interest in non-fiction history books. There is much to be commended in this film's pensive treatment of individual officers. But in its depiction of battles, it errs on the side of stately and statuesque. One can debate whether or not Gettysburg is guilty of glorifying war. It is unquestionable that many of the movie's fans--myself included at the time--are guilty. Historical fiction has an intoxicating effect. And, to adapt a sentiment from General Robert E. Lee, when we grow too fond of its characters, we may also become too fond of their wars. 

My Favorite War Film as a 30-Something: The Deer Hunter

It may be more proper to call this a wartime film rather than a war film. There are no full-scale battle depictions. The titular image of the movie is a deer hunter not a soldier. Like Kelly's Heroes above, the war is only a catalytic device for a great work of fiction. I see The Deer Hunter as an allegory that hinges on a game of Russian Roulette. 

So asks the allegory: What does war do to a person? What does it do to his friends and family? What does it do to his community? So answers the allegory: drop one to three bullets into a revolver; spin the cylinder to invoke chance; point the gun at your head; pull the trigger. You have a six in six chance of finding out what war does.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One 'Inferno' Begets Another

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"... had already revealed his proclivity for collaborating with the masters and modifying great works of art to suit his needs."

The above quote from Chapter 58 of Dan Brown's Inferno depicts the protagonist Robert Langdon coming to a realization about the novel's villain. Intentional or not, I believe it is also a case of the author realizing something about himself. Like the stitches Langdon discovers in the back of his head at the tale's outset, something kept irritating me all the way to the last page.

The thematic heart of this novel is neither Dante Alighieri nor his epic poetry. They are like special guest stars brought in to pump up ratings for a sitcom. It's incredibly fun to have them around, but strictly speaking their presence is not indispensable, not with regard to generating compelling literature anyway.

There is no ancient conspiracy in Brown's Inferno, just a Bond-style supervillain with a Dante fetish. This is not to say Brown fails in his use of Inferno imagery. As a thrill ride, this new Inferno delivers. However, a plethora of working vacations failed to provide the author with an organic plot line or cohesive geography for this book. The villain must resort to graffiti and text manipulation to get the right symbols on the right works of art so that Langdon and his hottie sidekick of the day will venture down the right tunnels.

Still, as I closed up my beautiful hard bound edition after midnight, donning earbuds and listening to my favorite theme from Hans Zimmer's score to The Da Vinci Code, I was forced to admit Brown succeeded with this novel. He effectively fertilized his work using Dante's poetry and legacy. More importantly, he got into my head and made me think.

Brown's Inferno asks serious questions about humanity, its potential and its flaws. Not only are these questions serious, they are the right questions--ones we should be asking not only of dead artists and living power brokers but of ourselves. As both Dante and Brown indicate, damnation can be found in avoiding a serious discussion of humanity's flaws. And if the only venue in which we are willing to grapple with the big issues is a pop fiction novel with an average chapter length of four and a half pages, then we are as much the problem as any Brown supervillain could hope to be.

A central idea of this novel is the viral aspect of humanity. Brown is not the first to explore this facet of our species. As just one other example from good fiction, I am quite fond of Arthur C. Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey trilogy. Non-fiction works by accomplished scientists are in need of more readers as well.

Speaking personally, I found this to be the least fun of the Langdon novels, and that is a legitimate criticism because I read Brown's novels to have fun. Yet, I also regard Inferno to be his most compelling work with regard to the fictionalization of real world issues. By way of recommendation, my Dan Brown policy remains the same. If you want to try out his novels, start with Angels and Demons. If you enjoy that one, three more Robert Langdon adventures await.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blah, Blah, Blah, Snake

Busy, busy. Two short stories. One submitted. The other needs a new draft. Just picked up my copy of Dan Brown's latest: Inferno. He didn't even try to come up with an original title. Not promisingNo time for blogging. Here is a picture of a snake I met in Waterloo Recreation Area.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Date with 'The Monster of Florence'

The Monster of FlorenceThe Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal descriptions, I had to choose a book covered in construction paper, check it out, and take it home before seeing the cover. Even after learning which book I had chosen, I did not experience love at first sight.

This book details a serial killing spree in the recent history of Italy. While the material was unavoidably engrossing, it took me about half the book to truly connect with the players and the struggle. Part of the challenge, pointed out by coauthor Douglas Preston, is the issue of the killer never being revealed or caught. However, I also felt Part One of the book relied too much on impersonal fact recitation. The cumulative effect was a sense of detachment from the personal tragedy in deference to an exhaustive outline. The considerable upside is the comprehensive nature of the authors' research.

The Monster of Florence almost could be understood as two books. The first provides a straightforward rendering of the history. The second part deals with the emotional and professional fallout for the authors. If Part One is the chalk outline of the victim, Part Two is the victim's remains. Moving and spine tingling interviews occur in the second half which enabled me to develop a strong emotional connection. Perhaps the most mesmerizing passage occurs in Chapter 36, as coauthor Mario Spezi recounts a monk offering penetrating insights into mental illness and the nature of evil. Here is only a snippet:

"Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood."

Was my blind date with The Monster of Florence good enough to merit another date? Yes and no. It definitely rekindled my interest in the true crime genre. It also reminded me how this genre is a bay window view of our whole society. I may not return to the works of these two authors right away, but they have succeeded in strengthening my enthusiasm for excellent long-form journalism. This book is worth getting to know.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thumbing Lake Huron for Vacation

Vacation is a week that falls between two weeks of working twice as hard to avoid falling behind. Nevertheless, I had some time off this month. On one of those days, the April sun actually made it through the clouds and spurred me to take a day drive along the Lake Huron coastline. Below is one picture I took in Port Austin, located on the tip of the thumb if you think of Michigan as mitten-shaped. To see more photos, skim my Michigan album on Google+. As always, click on the below image to see it full-size.

Swans nesting near Port Austin on Lake Huron

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Literary Blind Date

The last time I went on a blind date I was a freshman in college. It went pretty well. I took her to see Star Trek: First Contact...which in hindsight seems fitting. Though I have gone on many dates in the years since, none have been of the blind type. Then Chelsea District Library decided to fix me up.

That is right. Last week, the public library arranged for me to look at brief descriptions of several potential blind dates. After doing so, I picked one to go out with during
National Library Week. Initially I felt some trepidation but, vowing to be a good sport, I stopped by the library last week for a round of matchmaking.

Shown above, my date is dressed in a modest green outfit. Just behind my date is our chaperon. As has become standard practice for first encounters, we met in a public place. Nevertheless, there was a catch. I was not permitted to learn the identity of my date until after I checked her out.

Going in, all I knew was that our first outing would involve a discussion of true crime, an unnamed Italian serial killer, and an instance of unsolved mystery. That sounded quite interesting to me. In fact, I was so confident the date would go well I took us straight back to my place. Then things became awkward.

Don't get me wrong. I am not offended by nude sculpture. On the contrary, I find it beautiful and evocative. That doesn't mean I'd show up to a first date wearing a t-shirt with a print of Rodin's The Kiss. Nevertheless, my Mom raised me to be a gentleman. So I politely offered to take my date's jacket. Our chaperon then made it clear my date's jacket was not to be removed.

The awkwardness persisted as, during the Introduction, I learned there had been accusations of the author planting evidence. Furthermore, the primary source for this work is none other than one of the suspects. Let's be candid, folks. Blind dates don't always go smoothly. Only a half hour into mine I felt I was getting too much information. Plus, there was the added pressure of having my date hand me a comment card with instructions that I fill it out and return it to the chaperon. I know I shouldn't complain. In exchange for providing feedback, I get entered in a prize drawing. Still, early on it seemed likely I would have no trouble getting my date home well before her April 30th curfew.

After an admittedly shaky start, I am pleased to report the date is now going well. I started getting interested when my date explained the overt pyschosexual themes on the above jacket. The sculpture is called The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. It is in fact highly appropriate, setting the right tone for this shocking study of homicide. Furthermore, as I experience the rich culture and history of Florence, as well as the gritty nature of crime reportage, I am reminded how my reading life would be woefully incomplete without full-length non-fiction.

In another week or so, I will post a review of my blind date with this book. So far I am not as engrossed as I was with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. But you know what? The date is not even half over. Comparisons at this point are both premature and inconsiderate. Like all serious works of literature, this one deserves my full attention. Until next time, good reading to you all. And special thanks to Chelsea District Library for this clever book activity.