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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Tune Maker of Star Wars

I know the story that goes something like this:

The early cuts of the original Star Wars film did not look good and did not play well. The movie seemed bad until they added in John Williams's original score. The music made all the difference in the film's success.

I also know the story John Williams told where George Lucas had planned to use existing symphonic music like Holst's The Planets to score the film. In this story, John Williams had to persuade Lucas to use an original score. Frightening to imagine we almost never got to hear Williams's original--now classic--themes. But there is another story...

John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl, Credit Alec McNayr
Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a different version of history, Lucas says he always intended for there to be an original score. The only persuasion came in the form of Steven Spielberg recommending Lucas hire John Williams. Just so long as we got the original score, I care less which version is most accurate.

However, not until viewing a short video published on the official Star Wars YouTube channel did I learn a new fascinating detail. Williams prefers not to read the script before seeing the film. He wants to experience it as much as possible the way the audience will. This enables him to score a movie with a first-time audience in mind.

Here is his explanation. YouTube does not allow embedding of this video, so please follow the below link. What a delight to listen to the composer share his deep connection to Star Wars!

Thomas Gray Mingles with Jedi Lore

For those of you who haven't yet read it, I recently posted a new elegy which adapts a classic British poem into new verse for Star Wars. Accompanied by original artwork, this poem is my way of celebrating this wonderful franchise, and all the memories and daydreams it has made possible. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Images from a Big Two-Hearted Road Trip

I took an overdue road trip for Halloween weekend, with several stops Up North in Michigan. From early Saturday morning until Sunday evening I managed about 1,000 miles. If Monday had stayed away, I would have kept going. 

There is much I am trying to write about this trip. Hopefully some of my journey will end up in stories. I lucked out and scored the following image before crossing back over the Mackinac Bridge on Sunday afternoon. Would you believe I did not even notice the cloud formation until I had already pulled over?

I also finally saw Tahquamenon Falls up close. The Upper Peninsula is incredibly photogenic, even for smart phones negotiating so-so lighting. 

Like most of my road trips in adulthood, I took this one solo. I was not entirely alone though. It has become a personal tradition of mine to borrow the library's copy of Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams Stories as read by actor Stacy Keach. This is easily my favorite audio book. Listened to while driving the same ground as Hemingway and his protagonist trod makes the experience hypnotic. I highly recommend it!

The below early evening image of the Straits of Mackinac as seen from Mackinaw City may not be the most exciting shot. Nevertheless, it best sums up the mood and rewards of my Big Two-Hearted Road Trip: solitary, drizzly, ponderous, a bit lonely, but blessed with beautiful scenery. I am fortunate to have wound up in this state. Michigan has truly become my Michigan.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Two Pieces for Star Wars Gone By

I. May Nostalgia Be With You

"I had this image of a middle aged guy
reenacting Luke captured by the Wampa...
lamenting his lost youth." 

II. Elegy Written for a Country Space Opera

Twin sunsets fade like knells of parting day,
As whistling droids whir--steadfast--o'er a dune,
The fanboy starward dreams his leery way,
But leaves that world to Disney all too soon.

Now silence cloaks a landscape raised for mirth,
He treads its gravel waves, rock mem’ry spice,
Like one who shirked the moisture farmer’s worth,
Then nearly perished, sown within Hoth’s ice.

For such, the glimm'ring landscape of the night
Fades out, marked by the telling Mynock shrieks,
Save where a vast white screen now waits for light,
To cast again the Falcon fandom seeks.

Can any reprise hope to freshen lore,
Which strikes back with new lessons harder learned?
Son's eyes reflected matching suns before,
Tear-glazed, their father's pyre light returned.

Let not awakened icons wear out joy,
First witnessed as wide grins in Yavin's nave;
Though medaled hero stood then as a boy,
The paths of sequels lead but to the grave.

So too, the fanboy grays into a man,
No more to pilot drive-in playground swings.
His mind a hermitage, this would-be Han
Now smuggles fondness for his old musings.

Full many a boy of Jedi’s worth now lives,
The dark nonfiction caves of this world bear;
Full many a Leia to drubbed Luke now gives
A savior’s kiss in grounded city air.

Far from the cineplex, this rustic youth,
Who read dire word crawls from a pickup bed,
Was led by Ben Kenobi’s tailored truth;
Delusions grand--Yodaic in his head-- 

Forbade by life’s rude lot prequels to pen,
This almost-George, no Empire’s rod did sway;
He left the greatest tale of Anakin
Unwritten long ago and far away.

“Oh, be wan,” gibes Salacious ‘neath the sand. 
“Would all could rest their heads on Disney’s hearth, 
Who’ve lived within, like each new rebel band, 
The bosom of their Father and their Darth.”

--Jake Christensen, September 2015


This elegy is patterned after Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173564

Special thanks to cartoonist Jay Fosgitt for giving my Elegy an advanced read and adapting the themes in a clever and wonderfully poignant way.

Thanks also to Wookieepedia, for several needed vocabulary refreshers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Fanboy Awakens for Star Wars' Trailer

As part of quality control on my blog, I have pre-watched the following video seven times and counting. There continue to be some bittersweet feelings and anxiety for old-school fans. As a boy, I watched the original trilogy unfold in the late 1970s and early 80s. For the record, I am optimistic for this new incarnation of Star Wars.

Coming Soon to this Blog: An Elegy

I've been working hard on a new poem with a Star Wars tie-in. Totally geeky, I know! It should hopefully be a fun piece for those of us feeling nostalgia for the original trilogy. As a literary wrinkle, this new elegy is inspired by a classic: Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".

Check back in a few days!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Repeatedly, Wantonly Touched By Time

I have decided I do not like the phrase, "untouched by Time." Its linguistic beauty and thematic sentiment not withstanding, it is in fact a three-word dose of bull crap. Bull crap I say. The phrase in question was recently used in a photo caption for a marvelous photo celebrating a marvelous culture. There is no fault that I can see in the sentiment of this phrase. I should forgive the bull crap aspect of it. But I cannot. I am Jake. Hear me curmudgeonize.  Might have just invented a word. How bull crappish of me. If only my writing had been untouched by Time. The thing is...nothing is untouched by Time, except maybe photons at light speed, though us beings of matter will likely never know. MORE TO THE POINT, the subject of the photo I saw, like anything else to which "untouched by Time" might be ascribed, is invariably some person, image, or culture who has not only been touched by Time, they have been ravaged by it. The Grand Canyon, shall we say, has not been untouched by Time. It has been slowly and steadily groped by it until geologists of the present day can look at it like some audience members look at 50 Shades of Grey--which is to say, lots of ways but none of them involving an absence of touching. Show me a culture untouched by Time. Nope. They have all been slapped or run roughshod over by it. And somehow, despite Time's considerable touching of said culture, they have wound up looking more beautiful and noble than ever before. It is the very fact that Time has repeatedly touched them, and yet we look on adoringly, that makes them--ironically--worthy fodder for the phrase "untouched by Time." There. I've got that gripe out of me. It is what it is...they also say.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting Serious about 'Humans Orbiting Mars'

The Planetary Society issued a new report detailing a path that puts humans on Mars by the late 2030s. As a Society member, I helped fund this report. I have a vested interest. Happily, this report is designed with non-scientists like me in mind. You don't need to be an astrophysicist to follow along.

Humans Orbiting Mars:
A Critical Step Toward the Red Planet

Visit the Society's Page for Highlights

Mars mosaic, featuring Valles Marineris, Photo Credit: NASA

A friend recently asked me when I thought a mission like the one depicted in the smash hit The Martian might plausibly happen. I told her notwithstanding calls to get us to Mars in the 2030s, I didn't see such a mission taking place anytime before mid-century...so 2050s. Even that seems a bit too optimistic on my more negative days.

Without a Kennedy/Cold War mandate like we had in the 1960s, there simply isn't enough money going into space exploration. Getting to Mars by the 2030s would take--at least on the scale depicted in The Martian--far more money then NASA currently receives. The Society's report backs this up.

For people wanting to take a step beyond the entertaining spectacle of The Martian, this report is an ideal starting point. Over the course of 40 or so pages, including helpful illustrations and bullet points, you'll get a sense of what it will actually take to put "boots on the ground" on Mars in our lifetimes. I'm not a big fan of that militaristic image, but its the title of Chapter 4.3 and well worth reading.

The key idea in "Humans Orbiting Mars" is having the first human mission to Mars orbit but not land on the planet. Test the technologies. Prove the concept. Then return for the flags and footprints ritual later. It worked for the Apollo space program. Count me in. (The plan also includes a very cool touchdown on a Martian moon.)

Here's a great quote from the report. It sums up my frustration: "The history of humanity's effort to reach Mars is defined by a disconnect between ambition and budget." So true. The good news in the Society's report is that a human mission to Mars is possible, even if NASA's budget only rises with inflation. We don't need another Cold War.

I hope you'll at least take a peek at this report. Here is a link if you want to dive straight in (PDF, approx. 3 MB).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The 'Aftermath' of my Childhood's Star Wars

Aftermath (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seeking a Particular Charm

There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.

The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)

Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.

A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward

Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!

The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.

In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.

These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.

Wendig the Tinkerer

If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.

Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.

As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”

Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.

The Fate of Canons

At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”

Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.

As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rocketing Up the Present Time

Hop on google.com, enter search terms relating to NASA and speeches, and you will find troves of addresses. I do not mean the rightly famous Kennedy speech about going to the moon, or Reagan’s moving tribute following the Challenger disaster. Rather, I mean speeches given by NASA’s administrators. Lower profile by historical standards, administrator speeches contain perspective and expertise politicians tend to lack. Moreover, these prepared remarks offer an opportunity to explore NASA as a potentially rich source of literature: thought, rhetoric, and a dose of good old-fashioned prose.

Lori B. Garver, August 2009
Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On September 11, 2012, then NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver spoke at the AIAA Space Conference in Pasadena, California. The AIAA (America Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) describes itself as the “largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession”. This annual conference brings together government, industry, and academia. For Garver, the audience doubtless included peers, allies, and even opponents of her efforts at NASA.

2012 was an election year. President Obama, who had nominated Garver to be NASA’s second in command in 2009, was struggling to be reelected. Yet, Garver did not lack achievements to tout. The previous month, NASA landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars after a dramatic and perilous descent. In May, fast-rising commercial enterprise SpaceX made its first docking with the International Space Station (Garver, 6).

Now we wade through a rough and hectic 2015. Commercial space companies are regrouping after recent launch failures. Next year’s presidential election is already soaking up the energy and attention span of the media and public. Taking some of the attention back, NASA recently celebrated the first ever flyby of Pluto. Now seems an appropriate time to revisit Administrator Garver’s speech. Below is a link to the text of her address. My analysis of the speech as a work of literature follows the link.


Disclaimer: This is an analysis of the text of Garver’s prepared remarks, not of the speech as actually delivered.

Space Shuttle Atlantis in the final flight of NASA's Shuttle Program
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Picture a NASA space shuttle lifting off, a trio of conical blue flames firing beneath it, bright exhaust erupting from two additional booster rockets. Now let’s go metaphorical. The rising shuttle symbolizes the Unites States space industry in the Present. It represents the efforts of everyone participating in space exploration and utilization today: elected officials, agency personnel, private industry, research professors, and amateur enthusiasts. The two solid rocket boosters symbolize the Past and Future, specifically NASA’s historical achievements and its ambitious goals for coming decades. The dual visions of where we have been and where we seek to go rocket up our current endeavors by adding prestige and conviction.

The above analogy is my own. That being said, I arrived at it by reading Lori Garver’s 2012 speech. Speaking to key players in the aerospace industry, Garver employs Time itself to sell her message. In ways both practical and philosophical, Time accentuates a speech aimed at justifying NASA’s course under the leadership of President Obama.

Early in her remarks, Garver acknowledges the date: September 11, 2012. She emphasizes it being “the 11th anniversary of 9-11” (Garver, 1). Beyond the act of commemoration, this statement introduces Time as a mark and measure of significance. As a means for providing perspective, this may seem a usual choice and not especially significant. However, over the course of her remarks Garver repeatedly invokes Time to strategic policy ends, not merely as an engine of nostalgia.

On the second page of her speech, Garver cites AIAA’s 49+ year mission to achieve “progress of engineering and science in aviation, space, and defense…” Having cited the organization’s age, she can later draw a parallel to NASA’s similar age. She does so by mentioning the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and also the 50th anniversary of Kennedy Space Center (6, 8). The kinship of NASA with academia and private industry is quantified through their similar ages. I am reminded of a coworker who, on my 40th birthday, welcomed me into the 40-something club. This produced a sense of belonging.

Clearly, one of Garver’s goals with this speech is to underscore NASA’s bond with the AIAA membership. In part, she does this by noting the passing earlier in 2012 of both Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride (2). In addition to being iconic figures of a government agency, both dedicated their careers to the advancement of space exploration through academia and industry. However, this speech does not focus on the passing of heroes. The bulk of Garver’s remarks detail NASA’s ongoing efforts to advance society through exploration. Her chief tool for accentuating NASA’s contribution is Time.

The theme of AIAA’s 2012 conference was “Creating a Sustainable Vision for Space” (4). According to Garver, this “fits perfectly with the mission NASA” pursued over the previous four years. This four-year time frame marks the first term of President Barack Obama. She reiterates this four-year period over the course of the speech (4-5, 9, 13).

In a move that could be considered politically careful, Garver makes a point of mentioning how President Obama “inherited” the previous administration’s decision to “end NASA’s 30-year Shuttle Program” (4). She does not mention President George W. Bush by name and this is the most specific Garver ever gets when mentioning opponents of Obama’s vision for NASA.

Focusing back on Time, in the above example Garver refers to the Shuttle Program by its age. Elsewhere, she does this for both AIAA and Kennedy Space Center. Doing so instills a sense of mortality, not merely for aerospace players, but for their programs. Garver speaks of bipartisan legislation from 2010 that extended “the life of the International Space Station” (4-5). The implication being that without adequate support the ISS (like the Shuttle Program) would have died.

Garver pivots from the ending of the Shuttle Program under Bush to the present efforts of Obama with back to back utterances of the four-year time frame. “What a difference four years makes:” ends one paragraph. The next paragraph begins, “Over the last four years, the Obama Administration has proposed a record four-year investment…” (5).

From here forward, the speech takes on a State of the Union flavor while continuing to mark significance via Time’s passage. There are references to the years by which certain achievements will take place: “By 2017”; “by the mid 2030s”. Citing the almost half-century since Apollo, she highlights NASA’s “dual-track exploration strategy”. This strategy transfers the task of shuttling supplies and astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit from NASA to private industry. In turn, this frees up NASA to develop the Space Launch System, which will take “human spaceflight farther into space” than any mission flown in the four decades since Apollo missions (6).

Crowds watch the Curiosity Rover landing coverage in Times Square
Image Credit: Toshiba via NASA

Garver also blends time references with geographic scale to nationalistic effect. She does this while recounting the Curiosity Rover’s momentous landing on Mars: “The whole world literally held its breath on the night of August 5th or morning of August 6th (depending on which coast you stood)…” (9).

Let’s pardon her for using “literally” in a hyperbolic way. It’s safe to say many in the world did not follow the landing in real time, if at all, let alone holding their breath during a landing sequence dubbed the Seven Minutes of Terror. Suffice it so say, this was a tense and thrilling event for the literal crowds who followed it live. Garver, by citing coastal time zones, imbues the excitement of the occasion with from-sea-to-shining-sea imagery. Nationalism, à la the hymn America the Beautiful, finds itself boosted by this reference to continent-spanning time zones.

Arguably the greatest effect of the above passage is to put supreme emphasis on the Present (or at least the very recent Past). Garver’s cited era of space achievement spans 80 years or more, factoring in references to the 1960s and looking toward the 2030s. The Present becomes a bustling industrial program where the Future is under construction. Garver speaks of the Future in architectural terms both here and near the end of the speech (9, 13).

As she concludes her remarks, Garver returns to the memory of astronauts Armstrong and Ride, placing herself and AIAA on their shoulders. She credits all “who have laid the foundation for an even brighter future”. Quoting Armstrong’s family, she characterizes NASA and AIAA’s ongoing efforts as honoring the astronaut’s desire to push the limits of exploration. “That is our mission and this is our moment.” With this closing remark, the Present is made an imperative. The Present becomes a crucial point in Time, its worth and intensity rocketed up by an esteemed Past and a triumphant Future.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Treading "In Harm's Way"

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its SurvivorsIn Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."

Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.

The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.

For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.

Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Riding With the "Lords of the Sith"

Lords of the SithLords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges their disparate storytelling styles. In this novel, the stately bureaucratic world of Episode III provides a framework which is quickly torn asunder--quite entertainingly--by the Wild West outer rim of Episode IV. This book comes as close to being the Star Wars novel I’ve hoped for since the now long ago and far away Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.

In Lords of the Sith, we encounter an early attempt at a rebellion against the Empire. We follow a younger, more acrobatic Darth Vader. He flanks a quite nimble Emperor Palpatine eager to take his eerie needling personality on the road. They head for Ryloth, a planet key to Galactic Trade...no, no, don’t tune me out. This novel is no trudging prequel mired in trade negotiations. We get just enough political background to justify Vader and the Emperor taking a Star Destroyer to Ryloth to quell insurrection. Almost immediately, battle breaks out and does not stop until the novel ends.

As for the nascent rebel band scheming on Ryloth, I did not find any of them especially memorable. Isval, a hot-blooded second in command is easily the most interesting. She reminds me of a younger, impetuous Luke Skywalker, though without being a brat. The cast is not especially large, which serves the novel well. We get to know a few people, spend appropriate amounts of time witnessing their internal monologues, before embarking on the next action sequence.

As stories go, Lords of the Sith owes more to Episodes IV through VI than the prequels. It’s a relatively lean ensemble piece. There is even a bit of romance, similar to what we see between Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. Isval and the rebel leader Cham struggle to keep their feverish attraction at bay while chasing Vader and the Emperor to the surface of Ryloth. Most of this novel sees Vader and Palpatine on the run, but eager to make tactical stands and show off their Sith abilities. Making them, and their loyal soldiers, the novel’s prey, creates occasional odd moments of worrying about their safety.

This is an exciting novel. It does not obsess with tying every tiny string of subplot together from the movies it fits between. The plot is simple, the characters interesting if conventional. Perhaps its greatest weakness, in my mind at least, is its relative lack of humor or charm. Everyone is very serious and broodingly aware of their place in the galaxy. The novel is exciting, but it lacks the character-driven charm of Episodes IV and V. Yet, this is something I feel all Star Wars novels I’ve read lack. Capturing that charm may be impossible, given it was created by an ensemble of talent, not solely by George Lucas. So I suppose the next best thing is a really good chase across the deep of space to an exotic world tailor-made for adventure. Lords of the Sith is precisely that.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gawking at 'The Death of Superman'

The Death of SupermanThe Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic novel, the serial nature of this publication seems explicit. That being said, DC Comics ultimately packaged and sold this multi-part story as a single work, which is how I encountered it this weekend. Special thanks to the group of local public libraries that diligently engage in inter-library loan, making it possible for me to read this work at no charge in one of its delightfully color-saturated 1993 editions.

The title of The Death of Superman is also a good summation of the plot. From the first chilling ram of super villain Doomsday’s fist against his subterranean prison wall, this entire story is all setup and execution (pun intended) of Superman’s demise. I am not cynical about this, sincerely. Comic books are forever reinventing and re-adapting their icons. Superman the icon was never in jeopardy, just this particular incarnation of him in the comic book realm. And I think periodically killing off our superheroes is a perfectly worthwhile narrative experiment.

There are a handful of highly suspenseful moments, in the context of a story whose title is a wanton spoiler. At one point, Superman has to choose between rescuing a victim trapped in a fire or completing the more tactically important task of keeping Doomsday busy. Another gripping moment, late in the story, involves Lois Lane trying to convince Superman not to kill Doomsday--because killing is not what Superman does. What a shame the authors wait until the final pages to hastily address what could have been the paramount moral question of the novel.

The creators of The Death of Superman do not spend significant time, or emphasis, on character study. If this had been a graphic novel in genesis, perhaps they would have. But this is actually a high action, multi-part story originally told in monthly comic book form. With token exceptions like those mentioned above, it is a single relentless action sequence. In this respect, I found it grandly successful. Yet, it hits with all of the intellectual nuance of the last 30 minutes of any given superhero flick. Exciting? Yes. Thought-provoking? Not especially.

The creators can’t even be bothered to supply an aftermath. Superman dies. The end. They may have supplied a proper aftermath in the monthly single magazine format, but not in the graphic novel form in which this story now exists.

Like I indicated earlier, The Death of Superman is all setup and execution of a single story beat. And the setup is lots and lots of fighting and chasing. There is a TV interview sequence spliced into the battle. It plays as overt exposition, with all of the charm of a just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Nothing subtle or gray here.

Still I am glad I read this work. I was entertained. Superman has always been a messiah story, rightfully so. Messiahs usually die. Their mission seemingly demands it. Yet there is a risk for authors of getting lost in the spectacle of the hero’s demise. When this happens, something that could have been thoughtful winds up feeling merely sensational. In the context of a proper sendoff, that seems a missed opportunity to say the least

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Five Times a Moth

A little over a year ago, I performed at a Moth StorySLAM for the first time. Telling a true and personal story live was something I wanted to try. It was nerve-wracking. But it was the adventure I needed. Tonight was my fifth time performing. Each storytelling has included a lot of struggle and second guessing (and wishing storytelling came easier to me). Each time has been worth it.

The audiences at a Moth performance tend to be awesome and gracious. After the performance tonight I had the chance to talk with a few people about the experience. This meant, in its own way, as much as telling the story did. I'm so grateful for the people who approached me afterward and visited. It took me a good hour to wind down, and chatting with people from the audience helped. If any of them should read this, thank you. I hope we meet again in a place where great stories are told.

A photo posted by Michigan Radio (@michiganradio) on

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Salient Pessimism 7

I hate to play Devil's advocate (which is to say I love to but have a sense of diplomacy). Case in point, I have long been itching to say the following:

If your willingness to use the "born this way" argument extends only to people you like or toward whom you are sympathetic, you are shying away from science.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Welcome Eng-Fi, Thanks to 'The Martian'

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a moment in The Martian when NASA, almost out of options, goes to China and asks to borrow a rocket. Considering the non-fictional United States currently has no human-rated rocket and has been buying seats on Russian rockets for years, there is nothing farfetched about this premise. But I digress. NASA asks China to borrow a rocket they have built for a flagship science mission. As China gives its answer, their representative conveys--quite reprovingly--how the U.S. is asking to take a rocket that would have been the scientific pride of a nation and relegate it to emergency taxi. The takeaway? In order to salvage a human mission, science takes a hit.

This is a real debate ongoing in space exploration. Astronomically expensive human spaceflight, mostly just an engineering feat with political motivations, crowds out cheaper and more scientifically valuable missions. Is it worth it?

In The Martian, the answer is clearly yes. A human life is at stake--an astronaut stranded on Mars after a violent sandstorm. Put the science on hold and preserve life. Notwithstanding, it means a lot to me that author Andy Weir reserves a page of his engineering thriller to wax poignant and philosophical about larger issues of science versus politics. It elevates this novel above the level of techy procedural and provides some thematic nourishment.

Though I am a dedicated space enthusiast, I had not even put this book on my to-read list. I let it slip by like most sci-fi, especially Mars stories, which tend toward the dismal. Only when the book club I attend made it this month’s selection did I run to the bookstore and buy a copy. Our book club has a good mix of age and gender, married and single. They uniformly enjoyed this book. The intriguing problem solving that drives the plot, the likability of the protagonist, the Apollo 13 style suspense, all made for a satisfied book club. If it had been a more pretentious, dystopian sci-fi novel, even a classic, I’m not sure the response would have been so favorable.

Kudos to Mr. Weir, who has provided a wonderfully entertaining novel. We call this novel sci-fi. Yet I would argue it is more appropriate to call it engineering fiction, or eng-fi. This is not a novel of scientific discovery. It is a story about applying established knowledge. The Martian proceeds from problem to solution to subsequent problem to next solution. It has a level of techno-speak comparable to the show MythBusters. Some of the finer scientific points may go over the heads of readers like me, but the context remains clear and accessible. Save the Martian! Good read. I highly recommend it.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Blind Date with a New York Gal

It's not what you think. I sooooo wish this blog post is what you might think after reading that headline. But it is not. For the second time in my perennial bachelorhood, the Marian Librarians of Chelsea Public Library have taken pity on my solitude and set me up with an engaging fountain of intellect. Move over, Innocence. May I buy you a drink, Experience?

For those of you who haven't read about my previous library blind date, you can do so via this post. I'm not trying to entice you to delve further into my blog. Suffice it to say that post is far more sexual...also mingled with violence and...no, I did not read 50 Shades of Grey.

This is how a library blind date works. The library set up a display of books covered in brown paper, with short phrases hinting at what the book was about. I was not allowed to open the book until after I checked the book out from an authorized Marian...I mean librarian. Sight unseen I committed to paying a late fee if the date went badly--or rather, if the date went really well.

As you can see above, I chose a book that promised to center on "humorous essays," "world travel," and a "catalog of house pets." Like other blind dates, I chose to be optimistic and take a chance. I tried to imagine what my date would look like and talk like. I asked myself, "Do I really want to go through with this?"

I ended up spending several evenings with Sloane Crosley, a New York-based author who wrote How Did You Get This Number. I was hoping for a quick read, because I have a backlog of other books that I need to read, including a monthly book club selection. A book of essays sounded accessible.

How did it go? Pretty well! I rated this book four out of five stars on Goodreads.com. My review follows:

How Did You Get This NumberHow Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, this is a book by a New Yorker. Most importantly, it is a book I likely would have never tried otherwise. No offense to Ms. Crosley, but she was not on my radar. Nothing personal. Just LOTS of authors out there. The radar is crowded. But my local library set me up with this book on a literary blind date, so...

As with books by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, here I found myself reading long-form reflections by someone who is from my generation. At one point, Crosley says, "I was a child of the '80s but a teenager of the '90s." I have often described myself the exact same way.

This blind date wasn't perfect. At their best, essay books are a fascinating chance to explore someone else's mind, to experience the joy of another person's notions resonating with your own. In such moments, a book makes you feel less alone. At their worst, such books become an excruciating one-sided conversation. At various times in this date, I experienced both extremes.

Crosley is an astute observer of the world--able to encapsulate her experience in meaningful, often playful, prose. Her zingers and witticisms are hit and miss. Her sense of humor did not always jive with my own. Although, perhaps I shouldn't chalk that up to a flaw. She is capable of great twists, sending you in one meaningful direction so she can suddenly yank you in another. That is good essay writing to me.

Still, during her chapter about visiting France, what started out intriguing eventually dragged on too long. Have you ever been at the table with someone very much in to what they are rambling on about? You wish you could be as in to it as are they. But you know what? I have never been to France. I might never go. Keeping with the blind date metaphor, during the Paris chapter I had this inner-dialogue while reading: "Right now this night is all about you. And if it does not become about us pretty soon I probably won't ask you out a second time."

In her last essay, Crosley hits a home run. My notions of New York City have reached toxic levels of dreaminess under the influence of a certain sitcom which for eight full years remained motherless. Crosley took me deep into her New York experience, including a disastrous relationship. I believed in her Big Apple by the end, full of dreams and downfalls, but very much a place where powerful connections can happen.

So the date went well. I don't know that we will see each other again, but the time was not wasted. We should all find ourselves out with someone different, who challenges us more than they charm us. Thank you Sloane. And thank you to my library for fixing me up once again.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Attending Hubble's 25th Anniversary NASA Social

Image of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder on display at NASA Goddard.

For all I was privileged to see as an attendee of the Hubble 25th Anniversary NASA Social, the above picture typifies what I learned. When Hubble Space Telescope launched into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990, it contained three reel-to-reel tape recorders. Reel-to-reel! The above is one of two that were replaced by solid state drives in subsequent servicing missions. (A solid state drive provides storage on the smartphone you may be reading this on.)

Now, keeping the old reel-to-reel in mind, watch the spectacular video below. It combines Hubble’s observational keenness with digital wizardry to achieve a 3D rendering of a nebula. See how far we’ve come in a quarter century of Hubble observations!

I first watched the above video on Thursday, April 23rd, on a gigantic HD screen at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I and my fellow NASA Social attendees applauded the visual treat. We were among the guests for a televised press conference and image unveiling: Star Cluster Westerlund 2. The image comes from 20,000 year old light emanating from 2 million year old suns.

Jennifer Wiseman, Charles Bolden, and John Grunsfeld, speak at a NASA Press Conference for the Hubble Space Telescope 25th Anniversary Image Unveiling.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who piloted the shuttle mission that released Hubble 25 years ago, presided over the press conference. Seen at center in the above photo, he was joined onstage by Hubble Senior Project Scientist Jennifer Wiseman and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld (like Bolden an astronaut with first-hand Hubble experience). Not seen in the image, but also speaking at the event was Kathy Flanagan, Interim Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

NASA Social attendees view the Space Environment Simulator in Greenbelt, MD.

Following the press conference, NASA Social attendees were bused out to
Goddard Space Flight Center for behind-the-scenes tours of facilities like the above Space Environment Simulator--a high vacuum cryogenic facility that chugs super-cold liquid nitrogen by the gallon. As was a recurring theme throughout the day, our celebration of Hubble transitioned into discussions about the James Webb Space Telescope which should launch into space in 2018.

There was even some playful smack talk about Hubble versus Webb in the pantheon of observatories. In reality, NASA wants to keep Hubble operational through at least 2020. This would allow Hubble and Webb to observe the deepest regions of space in tandem.

Of my day at NASA Goddard I will say that it was a thrill to see the facilities up close--to observe as dedicated scientists and engineers build and test instruments that must survive in the cold vacuum of space for decades at a time. Much of what launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida is first made space-worthy in labs at Goddard.

Hubble Space Telescope 1997. Image Credit: NASA

Like Hubble, I've been staring up and out for the last 25 years. I remember one of my high school teachers sheepishly explaining Hubble's early technical snafu as it unfolded. Being a brat at the time, I found it a bit amusing. Yet over the years, as happened for so many of us, the improved telescope refined and expanded my sense of the universe and my place within it. A few years ago, I contributed a photo caption to an article celebrating the final servicing mission of Hubble, published by the Planetary Society.

When I watched the IMAX film Hubble 3D at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum back in 2010, I confess I was brought to tears by the shuttle launch sequence. So, by way of geeky tendencies, I have a romantic sense of Hubble’s ongoing mission. Thanks to my Goddard visit, I now have been in the same room with Hubble’s early components. The connection feels more tangible than ever before.

To see the photos I took during the social, visit my Google+ page.

To learn about the NASA Social program and how you might participate, visit their page or follow @NASASocial on Twitter. Lastly, to spend some quality time with the fruits of Hubble’s labor, I strongly encourage you to visit http://hubblesite.org. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Boy Meets a Space Shuttle

When I learned I had been selected to attend a NASA Social commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in Washington DC, I knew I needed an extra day in town. Though a longtime space enthusiast, I had never seen an authentic space shuttle in person. Last Wednesday, after taking the earliest flight into BWI Airport, I drove down onto the Capital Beltway, breezed past the road leading to my childhood home, and headed straight for the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Though I could partially see the shuttle on the far end of the museum, I decided to savor my anticipation. First I ate lunch and strolled along a terrace overlooking the vast Boeing Aviation Hangar. After this playful exercise in procrastination, I walked through the cavernous entrance and stood almost nose to nose with Discovery.

The above video hopefully gives a good sense of scale. Though 6’ 1” tall, I found myself dwarfed by Discovery. The shuttle is 37 meters long (122 feet). In another clip, I try to capture the shuttle’s height of 17m (57ft). The wingspan is 24m (78ft). I took these dimensions from a museum display, of which there are many helpful ones placed around the hangar. Discovery weighs over 73,000kg (over 161,000 pounds). And having said the weight, let us keep in mind that this bird is a glider!

One more clip for fun:

Discovery is hard to shoot. As I found to be the case throughout the packed museum, you can’t get back far enough and retain an unobstructed view. The upside is there are wonderful opportunities to juxtapose big and small, old and recent.

Look closely at the below image. Lots to consider here. At the bottom of the image is an Apollo “Boilerplate” Command Module (test unit, but the inflatable ring around it flew with Apollo 11). To its left sits a Gemini module used to test gliding technology. The gliding sail, ultimately abandoned in favor of parachute/water landing, partially obstructs Discovery (a glider design that made it into operation). Now pan to the right and see an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket. It launches from beneath a cruising plane to deliver small satellites into orbit. A half-century of government and commercial space ventures in a single view!

Ultimately, I sat down on a bench next to Discovery, letting the boy/romantic in me have some time to sit quietly. I thought of the Shuttle Columbia poster that hung in my room when I was a kid. I thought of how I take personal pride in the shuttle program the way my parents and grandparents take a personal pride in the Apollo moon landings. I felt renewed desire to actively participate in space exploration and advocacy.

The Space Shuttle Discovery flew 39 missions from 1984 until 2011. It delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit and later flew two servicing missions. It docked with two space stations. And it was the shuttle that twice returned us to space after the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia. Discovery was both home and chariot for heroes.

Coming Soon:
My next planned blog post will focus on the #Hubble25 NASA Social that I and 49 other bloggers took part in. That event took place on Thursday at the Newseum in Washington DC and at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Welcome Back, Bodie Troll!

Too busy! Too crowded, I said as my eyes bumped and tumbled from the title down the cover. Stripes. Suckers. Fur. Feathers. The cover overflows with a monstrous hoard, oddly vibrant yet pastel. My eyes remained unable to lock onto anything…until I reached the bottom right corner. There I saw a damsel fleeing the chaos above and behind. On her shoulder, shaking his fists defiantly at the charging throng, a lovable creature named Bodie Troll. The moment I saw these two, whom I remembered from previous adventures, the whole panel came into focus and I was giggling with delight.

Artist Jay P. Fosgitt’s cover to Bodie Troll: Fuzzy Memories! Issue 1 showcases the escapade readers will find inside. The title character heads off a new adventure, getting into trouble in his quest to be seen as a fearsome troll. He may have the black eyes of a shark but his body has all the ferocity of a lap dog. The harder he tries to scare, the more endearing he becomes. In this issue, Bodie places a bet he has what it takes to be a true predator, capturing and eating live prey. If he loses the bet, he loses his hair. And as Fosgitt’s drawing makes clear, Bodie would not look handsome bald, let alone scary.

This is fantasy storytelling, a little bit Lord of the Rings, a little bit Popeye. Frankly, Bodie Troll has every right to be stale and belabored. Especially given this is not Bodie’s debut. Yet the adoration Fosgitt has for his characters, the care he takes to make every page a visual feast, infuses the story with freshness and vibrancy. I had as much fun reading this Bodie Troll adventure as I did the original series.

There is playful, goofy dialogue and loads of physical comedy. The creatural ensemble is naturally comedic, only becoming more so as the adventure escalates. There is also an exciting, and frankly gorgeous, new character: Hokum. She is bald and beautiful and…purple. And she has it in for Bodie and all troll-kind. I mentioned playful and funny. Did I also mention action-packed?

I would not describe myself as a hardcore comic book fan, though I’ve spent plenty of time and money flirting with becoming one. When I come to this genre, it is for diversion and for tales like I loved as a young and naïve boy. Bodie Troll tickles these fancies masterfully. I also think Fosgitt demonstrates real storytelling prowess. He nimbly mingles themes and plot points in a fun and compelling way that lead to big payoffs in the final panels. The casual reader likely won’t feel beat over the head. The in-depth reader will be rewarded with subtle references and nifty connections.

Bodie Troll: Fuzzy Memories! gets off to a swashbuckling start with Issue 1. I highly recommend it for the fun and charm saturating every page. The issue also comes with stylistically contrasting takes on Bodie Troll via artful pinups from Kyle Latino, Nathan Pride, and Bruce Gerlach. This issue will be available beginning May 6, 2015 from Red 5 Comics.

DISCLAIMER: As a fellow writer, I am personally acquainted with Mr. Fosgitt and was given a complementary advance copy for the purpose of providing this review. How nice then that the above rave is wholly sincere!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

'The Star Wars': A Long Writing Process Ago

The Star WarsThe Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I apprenticed at a professional theatre company, I had the chance to observe script development. I watched other writers take their scripts through succeeding drafts. One character might disappear. Other characters might be combined. Lines spoken by one person in an earlier draft might be spoken by someone else in the next. It was sometimes frustrating when the writer changed something you liked, but the creative process remained intriguing.

The Star Wars is based on a rough draft screenplay by George Lucas which later evolved into Star Wars. I snatched a copy off a display of newly acquired graphic novels at my public library. This resulted in a highly enjoyable Saturday impulse read. Like my experiences with play development, I was struck by this comic book’s collection of familiar characters, settings, and dialogue—familiar, but often quite different.

I am giving this graphic novel a 3-star review based on story quality, but as a fan experience it was easily a 4-star excursion. Keeping in mind this is an adaptation of a screenplay, not a strict rendering presumably, I am not sure at whom my criticism is best directed. The story seems choppy, often jargon-laden for jargon’s sake. Yet the drama remains well-focused around the fate of Princess Leia. Some panels come with little or no context, feeling aggressively abrupt. Perhaps the roughness of Lucas’s draft was aggravated by the intentionally blocky nature of comic book storytelling?

Parts of the story feel underdeveloped or poorly supported--in particular, the love story between Annikin and Leia, who in this version are not related…hopefully (early draft indeed). Part of what made the romance element of Star Wars the movie work is it played mostly on swashbuckling sexual tension and schoolboy crush. We didn’t see full-on romance in the first outing. Things were allowed to simmer with entertaining results. Here the characters go from telltale antagonism to Romeo and Juliet melodrama in the blink of an eye. Not plausible, and exacerbated by Lucas’s rough attempts at lyrical dialogue (which we know from the film prequels can make it into a final draft).

Still, driven by the tension of a looming Death Star, The Star Wars makes for high energy space opera. It feels more violent and less funny than the finished cinematic product. Yet, as the fantastic cover art by Nick Runge portrays, this earlier draft contains the richness of Lucas’s vision, even if it lacks the charm infused by the movie’s cast and designers. I recommend The Star Wars for fellow fans of that galaxy far, far away.

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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Salient Pessimism 6

I made my bed this morning--a strangely satisfying task.

Doing so reminds me how futility can wrap itself in elegance.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

She Walks in 'Bossypants' Like the Night...

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I write this review, American women are spending tens of millions of dollars to see a movie that features a man who, if I have been correctly informed, wants them to wear handcuffs in bed. I am a bitter lonely writer this weekend for non-cinematic reasons. Still, the above development gives me one more reason to throw up my gentlemanly bachelor hands and say, “Wuh?!”

Granted, I did spend this Valentine’s Day weekend focused intently on a woman who turns me on. I finished listening to the audio edition of Tina Fey’s non-fiction book Bossypants. Whether engaged in memoir, reflection on gender dynamics in contemporary entertainment, or conventional comedic monologue, Bossypants succeeds wonderfully.

The same lean, apology-free writing that made Ms. Fey such a great writer for SNL appears in Bossypants. Fey takes readers through all the high points of her career thus far, all the stuff she knows fans can’t help wondering about, and she presents it with crisp insight and tangy irony. Furthermore, this is not a glossed-over autobiography. Bossypants is a serious and thoughtful, self-critical yet simultaneously hilarious, one-woman show of a book. I can only fault Fey for relying a bit too often on a gag where her voice trails off to stress the occurrence of a punch line. This bit plays best during an anecdote about the time she sheepishly gave an acting note to Sylvester Stallone. Then it starts to feel belabored.

As I listened to one of my crushes read her book aloud, I thought how fortunate to live at a time in our nation’s history when she is not only allowed to vote, but also to produce mainstream entertainment that meets her high writing standards. Why should such women be encouraged to simultaneously pursue a full-time career and motherhood? Here is a selfish reason: so I can enjoy the top-notch comedy that results at gigs like the Golden Globes as hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Allow me to be boyish for a moment. I've had a crush on Tina Fey ever since the first time I watched her do Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. It’s a selfish attraction, replete with what-she-could-offer-me daydreams. No, I don’t mean sexual dreams where I get to put her in handcuffs. This is a holier crush.

Not since Dennis Miller sat in the anchor chair have I so deeply respected and admired a Weekend Update host, a writer so surgically insightful and en pointe witty that he or she need not rely on goofy hijinks to be an SNL cast favorite. I fell for Tina long before she was called upon to lampoon Sarah Palin. I look at a writer like her, physically and intellectually attractive, and I fantasize selfishly about just how awesome of a man I would be if I had what it takes to win such a woman’s affections. This weekend’s box office totals notwithstanding, I am fairly confident it takes something more profound and meritorious than handcuffs.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Yes, Please Read Amy Poehler's Book

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amy Poehler reminds me of the high school theatre girls I pined for…is what someone other than me would say. Since I am currently in love with the show Parks and Recreation, I expected I would fall in love with Amy while listening to her book. I did not. Quite the opposite, she reminded me of the strong-headed, take-charge, sometimes overbearing girls in theatre that I never developed crushes on. Have I mentioned yet that I think Yes Please is a great book and highly recommend it?

Amy’s debut book is not a masterpiece, though it is full of humorous and insightful gems. It delivers. It also exudes worthy charm in the form of Amy bringing in other showbiz talents to read certain passages. Patrick Stewart reciting Amy’s haiku is delicious literature. Being of the same generation, I also loved how Amy took me down memory lane with regard to the 80s.

Yes Please feels overly discombobulated at times. I believe, based on some of her introspection, that Amy intentionally lets this book wander and feel chaotic. In doing so she may be trying to capture something that resonates with her life experience. She succeeds, but goes a bit too far. At times I felt disoriented to the point of distraction. In books that are grippingly personal, that is counterproductive.

Perhaps the best chapter involves Amy discussing why she does not want to read your (my) damn script--why I should never plop my unpublished manuscript in her lap, hoping for a shortcut to success. Her insights are keen. In a world teeming with self-publishing “indie” writers who inflate their relevance by acquiring scores of fake Twitter followers, Amy’s unapologetic take on what it takes to truly succeed is invaluable. Hard work. Trial and error, etc. As further evidence of her philosophical merit, Amy demonstrates an awareness that not everyone who succeeds deserves to, and not everyone who deserves to will succeed.

Forgive me for bookending my review with boyish observations about the nature of attraction. (I’m writing this review on Valentine’s Frickin-day). Amy reminds me of the girls in high school theatre whom I did not develop a crush on, but whom I came to respect because I could trust them onstage. Like that girl who co-starred with me junior year in Little Shop of Horrors, who I found a bit overbearing off-stage, but who I was so grateful to have as my scene partner. Would I like more writing from Amy Poehler? Yes, please.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Selma' as a White Moviegoer's Chore

"Take one goddamned guess which movie those two are going to see."

I muttered these words sarcastically to myself as I pulled into the cineplex parking lot in Jackson, Michigan last weekend. Self-righteousness bursts out of me sometimes, especially if I'm in the act of sticking to my guns. The two moviegoers I referred to above were fellow white guys with close-cropped hair, wearing jeans and t-shirts. Impulsively, I regarded them as walking Jeff Foxworthy redneck jokes. In truth, I did not know them. I had no right to judge them. Still, let's be real. If you had to guess which movie these two dudes were headed to last weekend, the best guess would not be Selma.

Late last year, perhaps when I joined the throngs watching Gone Girl, I saw a preview for Selma. The trailer was stirring. When actor David Oyelowo, speaking from the pulpit as Martin Luther King, cried out the word "use" in reference to white power, I remember my breath catching as I thought to myself, Wow, he has King's voice. Then the trailer erupted into contemporary hip hop music as white and black protesters faced off against segregation-enforcing law officers. This is an excellent movie trailer. See for yourself:

That was three months or more ago. When Selma opened to wide release two weekends ago, I had lost the urge to see it. I skipped that weekend. I almost skipped again this weekend. Why?

I suspect I was like those two guys I judged harshly in the parking lot. The movie I now itched to see was American Sniper. You'd think I, we Americans, might start losing interest in Navy Seal cinema, (Lone Survivor, 2013; Zero Dark Thirty, 2012). Yet after one weekend in wide release, American Sniper is on pace to easily eclipse those two films. It has already made almost four times as much as Selma according to IMDb.

How did American Sniper steal the proverbial thunder from my urge to see Selma? Oh that this was a mystery. My eagerness to see the war biopic did not stem solely, or even primarily, from a desire to honor veterans. As with Selma, I found the American Sniper trailer riveting. Moreover, I have always found fictional yet realistic battle sequences thrilling. On an even less dignified level, watching combat-fueled movies provides me a chance to fantasize about what I might be like in battle. Yes, fantasy is the correct term. I needed no special encouragement to go see American Sniper.

Still, I had promised myself I would show up for Selma. Though I was not in the mood to see it, partly out of a sense of obligation I headed to the theater. Keeping in mind Selma's being snubbed for acting and directing Oscar nominations, my self-righteousness kicked in.

As the movie proceeded on-screen, I mulled over my loss of eagerness from last Fall. For starters, I suspected Selma might end up being more of a preachy history lesson than a source of entertainment. Yet audiences embraced Lincoln in 2012, a sermonizing history-lesson of a flick. Clearly, sometimes we embrace the preaching. Seeing Lincoln did not feel like a chore to me, even though I did not fall in love with the film. Why was watching Selma feeling like a chore?

For one thing, the religiosity of Selma turned me off a bit. King's Christian-based movement made some sections of the movie feel like a Sunday School lesson. I'm an agnostic. Bible quoting doesn't attract me the way it did in my youthful churchgoing days. Nothing personal, just not my cup of...well, wait. When the white clergy traveled to Selma to stand alongside the black clergy, I was quite moved. I did not roll my eyes and think, oh great, more preachers. What does that say about me? About my preferences?

In my defense, I loved watching Oyelowo's King speak from the pulpit. As was the case with Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln, I relished watching this fantastic actor embody, not merely imitate, a historical figure. As the film progressed, I found myself connecting more and more, especially thanks to domestic scenes between King and his wife Coretta, played marvelously by Carmen Ejogo. Their emotional range, accentuated by sincere expression and poignant non-verbal cues, exuded dramatic power.

When the closing credits began to roll, I knew I had not fallen in love with Selma--not fully anyway. As with Lincoln, I felt it was an excellent movie but that it did not transcend other Oscar fare. Yet if it is at least as deserving as other Oscar nominees for direction and acting, why didn't Selma receive any nominations in those categories? How does this particular film, its artistic excellence so apparent, find itself largely passed by?

Perhaps the answer is demonstrated by an avid moviegoer like myself having to prod himself to attend Selma at all. Why did my early enthusiasm fail to carry me into the theater on opening weekend? I titled this blogpost with one key part of the maddening answer--perhaps not so much the skin color as the state of mind I struggle to transcend on any given trip to the cineplex. In any case, Selma deserves a bigger audience than it has gotten thus far. It may not sport the gritty action of so many beloved war epics, but it has an American heart equal to any of them which I have eagerly attended.