Sunday, November 12, 2017

Devote 10 minutes to Margaret Atwood's meta-fiction

I haven’t read the Canadian great Margaret Atwood since I was in college. And I’ve been meaning to get back to her writing for a long time.

The Handmaid’s Tale from 1982 is first and foremost on my list of Atwood reading priorities - both the TV version and the book. But for now, I took a look at one of my old college English literature textbooks and found a short story titled "Happy Endings" by Atwood. I sat down and read it and thought it was so brilliant that I re-read most of it a couple of different times to family members visiting in town.

The story starts off: “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.”

From there, Atwood gives different scenarios A through F. John and Mary have a picture perfect - or at least what many of us imagine to be the picture perfect life. But things start to deviate starting with scenario B. Mary is in love with John but John isn't in love with Mary. John only sees Mary at her house when she makes dinner for him. Her friends say that John is a creep and has been seeing eating out with someone named Madge. Mary ends up killing herself and John marries Madge, and they’re happy.

In C, John is an older married man who is in love with Mary but Mary is just having an affair with him and is in love with her boyfriend, who is her own age and who has a great record collection and likes motorcycles. John finds Mary with her boyfriend and shoot them both and then himself. His wife, Madge, eventually finds someone named Fred who she lives happily ever after with.

In D, Fred and Madge are in love but a tidal wave wipes out their neighborhood and a lot of people die, but they escape to live happily. In E, Fred dies of a heart attack and Madge carries out lots of charity work afterwards. In F and the end of the short story, Atwood seems to be saying that all stories have the same ending and that the important thing is how the stories get to those endings.

5 out of 5 stars. Everyone should spend 10 minutes of their lives reading this. And if you want to go deeper in analyzes the scenarios, check this out.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Best Magazine Reads: Beetle Bailey and Connecticut's "Cartoon County"

I've visited Fairfield, Connecticut before because some of my wife’s cousins live there. What I didn’t know about the outer New York City suburb is that it had been home to an inordinate number of famous daily-newspaper cartoonists.

Mort Walker (pictured to the right) is perhaps the most famous of the crew detailed in a fantastic article in the September issue of Vanity Fair. I rank his Beetle Bailey as one of my favorite dailies, up there with Archie, Garfield, Peanuts, and, actually, several other strips emanating from Cartoon County, including Hagar the Horrible, Blondie, Popeye, The Family Circus, and Hi and Lois. The place also has ties to Superman, Tarzan, Prince Valiant, and many others. It’s really pretty phenomenal.

The cartoonists lived different lives than the working men (and the cartoonists seem to have been all men) who headed into the city each day. They sat at home in their offices that smelled of sharpened pencils, tobacco, and whiskey, were pretty domesticated by their families, and only went into the city on Wednesdays to show off their latest works to various publishers and editors. Then sometimes they would go to gatherings with the other cartoonists to drink lots of Manhattans. And they played quite a bit of golf and took lots of naps. Pretty nice work if you can get it. Maybe that’s why “cartoonist” was always on my short list of potential professions!

The author, son of the Prince Valiant cartoon, notes that Cartoon County was a quirk in time. Cartoonists were rock stars, creating the most-read portions of the newspapers, up until the early 60s, when Hearst killed what the group considered its Mount Olympus, the New York Journal-American. Then later Wall Street further killed Fairfield County as an affordable place where cartoonists could live comfortably.

Even I remember a time when the newspaper would clunk down near the front door. I would run out to get it and grab the funny pages, and maybe sometimes the sports section, and throw the rest of it down wherever. At that point, I was a remnant of an earlier age, when just about every kid (and adult) couldn’t miss the cartoons each and every day, with the special, fuller, mostly-color Sunday editions being the highlight of each week.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Battle of the Sexes tries to reach the dramatic level of real tennis

Tennis has been one of my lifelong passions.

But there have been few tennis movies that have come close to matching the drama of McEnroe vs. Borg or Nadal vs. Federer or, heck, even Gustavo Kuerten vs. Sergi Bruguera.

I mean, how can you match the beauty and story of the likes of the above short on Guga's first French Open win or those of my other favorite men's players of all time (ranked):

10. Andy Roddick
09. Roger Federer
08. Pete Sampras
07. Bjorn Borg
06. Arthur Ashe
05. Rafael Nadal
04. Andre Agassi
03. Jimmy Conners
02. Gustavo Kuerten
01. John McEnroe

This week, Hollywood nearly reached the higher plane of actual tennis, when we caught Battle of the Sexes at E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. As an interesting side note, we happened into free tickets because the Secret Service wanted to move us along in line so we wouldn't disturb the entrance of Mike Pence and Josh Brolin attending the premiere of Only the Brave.

I have to admit that Billie Jean King always got on my nerves, but when she was playing, I was far too young to understand the cultural significance of her off-court actions. She never seemed to be that exciting when I watched her play against the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

But I was too young to have known about the match between King and Bobby Riggs, played in the movie with lovable squirm-ability by the incapable-of-not-being-funny Steve Carell. And Emma Stone made me forget any of my biases against King, as she plays her with determined vulnerability.

This movie, like Hidden Figures and other recent historical dramas, should be enjoyable for just about anyone, whether you're interested in the actual subject matter or not.

For me, it's an added bonus that I have that tennis obsession. Now if only I could find the time to get back out on the court to win a few more competitive championships in TennisDC.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Geek Love, a great premise, started the wave of Carny fiction

For a literature major, my book reading has taken a backseat recently due to all the magazines I'm currently subscribed to and, of course, all the time I spend tossing the football and baseball with Jackson and doing "play with me" time with Zoey.

That said, I recently made it through a relatively gargantuan modern fiction classic (from 1989) by Katherine Dunn, which took her many years to write while living in Portland.

Geek Love, a National Book Award finalist, was a trailblazer at the time and set the course for all kinds of freak-show entertainment that has followed, from Rob Zombie's filmography to the Jim Rose Circus to American Horror Story to Stephen King's It.

The premise is the best thing about the book: A man and woman (Al and Crystal Lil Binewski) run a circus that has fallen on hard times. In order to take them to the top, they agree that Lil will start taking drugs in order to deform a whole slate of babies they plan to produce. That way they'll have the best freak show (or call it "geek" show) in the land.

The plan works, and they have Arty the Aqua Boy, Siamese twins Elly and Iphy, telekinetic Chick, and the story's narrator Olympia, a hunchback albino dwarf. Arty is the leader and Oly assists him. She actually tells the story from two points in time, when they are all children and just getting started to bring in the crowds and much later in her life, when she reflects on all her family being gone and watches over her daughter Miranda, who has a tail and doesn't know who her mother is, and certainly doesn't know she is the product of incest.

The whole thing is fascinating, but it drags on far too long. There is way too much descriptive language and Geek Love is easily a quarter-too-long. But a great premise takes it far, and it luckily played a major role in starting a horrifying genre that is tough to get enough of, at least for me.

4 out of 5 stars

And check out this great feature from WIRED about the cult of Geek Love lovers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Best Magazine Reads: 10 nuggets from Rolling Stone's profile of the EPA's evil Scott Pruitt

There is a lot of incompetence in Donal Trumpland these days, but perhaps nobody should boil the blood of voters more than his EPA appointee.

Rolling Stone's Jeff Goodell profiled all his flat-out wicked deeds in Scott Pruitt's Crimes Against Nature, in its August 10 issue. It seems people wouldn't have to be classified as liberals or environmentalists to be terrified of this person's disregard for the EPA's core mission of "protecting human health and the environment," which has nothing to do with supposedly boosting the economy.

Here are 10 interesting nuggets from the article:

  1. Pruitt claimed the U.S. pulled out of the Paris global climate accord because it's a plot by European nations to stifle our economy. That doesn't account for the fact that you can count which nations of the world aren't a part of it on far fewer than the fingers on one hand.
  2. He claims that 50,000 coal-mining jobs have been created by the Trump Administration, even though only about 1,000 have been created in 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Coal is dying and renewables are the future, creating jobs 12 times faster than dirty coal, but oil executives give a lot of money to corrupt politicians. Why portions of the public can't see that or can't be bothered to care continues to boggle my mind.
  3. He hasn't met with any environment groups yet. Big oil executives are the only meetings he ever takes.
  4. Very few, almost none, of the high-level EPA staffers have ever spoken to Pruitt or even gotten an email from him.
  5. After taking $62,000 from the poultry industry in his run for Oklahoma attorney general, he won and dropped a lawsuit against several major chicken producers for dumping their waste into the Illinois River. His opponent took no money from the industry and lost badly. I sense a theme here: it's "go figure."
  6. We often hear about his lawsuits against the EPA as attorney general. It's true, he filed 14 of them, including attempts to promote mercury pollution because "it doesn't pose public-health hazards" and promote more air pollution in national parks. Fun guy! Now you can basically be assured he's taking these similar kinds of stealth campaigns to a national, completely terrifying, level.
  7. Pruitt views fossil fuels not as the remains of dead plants and animals  but as "God's gift to mankind. Let's use them to power the world."
  8. One thing he's focused on at the EPA is removing climate data and scientific information from its website.
  9. The good news is, as Jimmy Kimmel says, "Put simply, Scott Pruitt is a piece of shit," and his lack of loyalty from anyone within EPA extends outside of the agency, even to Republicans and major climate deniers who think he doesn't have the wits to get any of their priorities, good or bad, accomplished.
  10. And back to the bad news, Pruitt is hoping to dismantle enough of the Earth as quickly as possible before he likely jumps the EPA ship in time to run for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 or for climate-boogeyman Jim Inhofe's Senate seat in 2020. 
Note to self, don't move to Oklahoma. And also maybe consider moving to Canada, where climate change won't be as harsh and as soon as it's set to be here at home.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sharknado makes us ask if we're even still afraid of sharks

I recently spent a lazy rainy day at the Lake of Ozarks skipping out on a boat ride in exchange for a triple header of Shark Week movies on the Syfy Channel, the only one of which whose name I remember was Trailer Park Shark.

I guess it just goes to show that I, like many others, will watch anything that includes great whites. There's no telling whether that hillbilly jam was better or worse than the grand dame of the new breed of shark movies, 2013's Sharknado.

I finally got around to seeing that alleged classic last night and, despite an obvious decrease in brain cells reported in my head today, the movie is an indelible must-watch for fans of the 90s classic TV show Beverly Hills 90210. Ian Ziering, aka Steve Sanders in Bev 9er, finally found the one role he was always meant to play, as Fin, the surfer dude whose beach bar is destroyed by waves of sharks. He then goes about crossing Los Angeles to drop bombs on tornados and vanquish the flying sharks with his chainsaw.

Really, does any more need to be said?

3 out of 5 stars. Now I have, what, four more Sharknado movies to catch up on?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Moonlight was indeed important, but was it really worthy of so many awards?

Moonlight, which won the best-film Academy Award for 2016, has beautiful cinematography and tells the culturally important story of what it might be like growing up unsure of your sexuality in a neighborhood hardened by bullies and drugs.

It's the story of Little, who grows up in Miami for years before he realizes he's gay. He gets chased, gets beat up, and has rocks thrown at him. His mother is a pathetic and mean addict. He has no role models until a drug dealer and his girlfriend (played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae) take him in when he needs it most.

The performances are superior. Ali won best supporting actor. And the three actors who play Little as he gets older are also compelling. Part of his struggle to find himself includes three nicknames: Little as a kid, then Chiron when he's older, and finally Black.

Despite Ali's character being a drug dealer, he provides the father figure Little needs and, most importantly, the sage advice to find himself and to be ok with himself if he is truly gay.

We learn that Ali's character, named Juan, has died at some point and Little grows up to continue being unsure of how to be intimate with other people and specifically other men. He becomes a very masculine drug dealer in Atlanta before coming back, in the final scene, to visit his lifelong friend Kevin.

I really like this story. But even if Ali's character had served his point (and that point was probably served even harder by Little having to lose yet another one of the only positive models in his life), I would have liked Ali to get a little more screen time to truly deserve his best supporting actor nod. 

I also couldn't get over how slow the film often moved. Largely because of that, I'm a little unsure how it could have a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and been praised so heavily by Academy voters (other than 2016 perhaps being a bit of a down year for movies). 

4 out of 5 stars