Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Heart of Darkness

I read something in high school, or at least I think I read this... it's been many years now, you know... well anyway, I remember reading something, it might have been a short story or a novel, it could have been a poem, or even a reading out of some reader... The only thing I can be certain of is the impression this reading left.

The moral I carry with me, from this reading, is that when one seeks to enslave and control something (or someone), one instead becomes a slave to it.

I think the setting was British imperialism in either Africa or India, where some great white man thought himself quite alright enslaving a native population, but in the end he found that he was the real slave. I put the question to Yahoo answers, but got only reading suggestions I had come up with on my own. One being A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, another being Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Reading plot summaries of these, I didn't think either of these were it, but I got them on CD anyway to make sure. Why? Because it's driving me mad to know what this freakin' reading actually was!!!

So I listened to Heart of Darkness on CD. Before having listened to the novella, I read a bit about it on the web. All kinds of deep, metaphorical meanings are attributed to it and the title, about how it relates to the darkness of man. I know my high school AP English teacher would have a conniption, but I honestly thought it was nothing more than an eloquent yarn, a tale. And it seemed very Euro-centric: unapologetic about the imperial marginalization of natives and lauding the virtuosity of even idiotic white men. I was unimpressed. And I thought this was perhaps because I am only a quasi-intellectual.. but then I read the wikipedia entry and learned I was not alone in my opinion. A Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe criticized Heart of Darkness in a 1975 lecture, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." I'm too tired to look into this lecture more, but from the wiki snippet, I think Achebe was right on.

Heart of Darkness was probably autobiographical, and so I think it was just a tale of a trip up a river in Africa under European imperialism, with white men being all super-duper wonderous and the natives being seldom more than 'niggers' unless they served the white man in some capacity. Were I teaching a literature class, I would offer this book as nothing more than an example of the times. I could find nothing deep here. Darkness in man's heart? Oh wow, what a revolutionary concept.

I don't think this was 'the story,' though. The character Kurtz does end up controlling a tribe, and goes mad in the process... on second thought it may have been it. I could very well imagine my AP English teacher, Mrs. V. (name withheld to protect the innocent) coming up with some dictation that in enslaving this tribe to pursue his own greedy wants, Kurtz became a slave to the ivory he feverishly (literally) sought and to the tribesmen he used to get it, and in the end losing his life because of it.

Perhaps I'll never know.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Olive, the Other Reindeer

A few years ago, a cute little book made it's way into our home. It was Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold. My daughter absolutely loved the story, and I found it cute and amusing, especially the illustration. In brief, the book is about a little dog named Olive that hears "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer" on the radio and thinks it's saying "Olive the other reindeer," rather than "all of the other reindeer." So Olive sets out to the North Pole to help Santa.

The movie is not new, made in 1999 for TV, but I just ran across it at the library. A few share production credit (including Drew Barrymore - who is also the voice of Olive), but the standout is Matt Groening. I didn't know this when first watching the movie with the kids (guess I missed the credit on the jacket), and so I was beside myself at how fantastic the movie was. The story, although quite different from the book, was hilarious, and the animation was top-notch, especially because it closely followed the book's illustrations.

In the movie, you had The Postman (Dan Castellaneta) as the spectacular antagonist out to ruin Christmas. Olive (Drew Barrymore), goaded on by her pet flea, sets out for the North Pole in response to Santa's radio broadcast plea for help from "Olive, the other reindeer." On her journey, she encounters and is aided by a hilarious cast of characters including Martini the penguin (Joe Pantoliano), Richard Stans the bus driver, and Round John Virgin, the lumberjack-type guy. Along with Olive, these last two are mondegreens (here's your vocabulary word for the day). Richard Stans from the Pledge of Allegiance, and Round John Virgin from Silent Night. Ha ha!

Another witty reference in the movie that had me rolling on the floor was when Olive was trapped in the mail truck with no apparent way out. She suddenly notices a package addressed to her from a company called "Deus ex Machina" In it is a file which allows Olive to escape. You'd have to see the movie and understand Deus ex Machina to get it, but it is quite funny.

This movie goes right alongside Christmas Story and Elf as must-see holiday flicks.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fire Sale

Another VI Warshaski novel, another good read. This time VI is thrust back into South Chicago (her childhood haunt) where a charitable stint as a high school basketball coach lands her in a web of corporate malfeasance, neighborhood activism, arson, and murder.

Religion takes a negative hit in this story, and I haven't really noticed if a negative view of religion is a common theme in Paretsky books. It was in both Ghost Country and Fire Sale, with religion and faith viewed antiquated, useless, hypocritical, or even harmful. Paretsky tries to be coy about it, presenting religion and faith in a matter-of-fact fashion with little narrative judgment, but we know that framing and lighting can be everything.

Regardless, the story is riveting. Another thing I'd like to point out is the fact the story is set in Chicago, as that is where VI hails from. But Chicago seems to be a commonly used back-drop. Chicago seems to be popping up everywhere for me. It's in all the Paretsky books I've read lately. Time Traveler's Wife was set in Chicago. And while watching the first episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on Netflix instant view, it was revealed that Buck Rogers hailed from Chicago as well. What is it about this town? I was there twice while I lived in Madison, WI. My wife and I spent a weekend in the middle of winter there, walking around in the cold, eating at great restaurants, and riding around in the horse-drawn carriages. Then we spent some more time one summer with my eldest daughter (an infant then) visiting sites and museums. I do have a visceral infatuation with Chicago, and I'm not sure why. I think... I know that I will be spending some time there in the future, but I can't know why...

Anyway, thumbs up on this one.

Fire Sale - VI Warshawski
Sara Paretsky
Putnam 2005

Sunday, September 16, 2007

John Pinette

With the XM Radio, you get XM Comedy, which has accompanied me on many, many a long drive home. On those nights when you just don't feel like music, you're in no mood for the lunacy of AM talk-radio, and you just finished that book-on-CD, some comedy can hit the spot. I've discovered some comics I really like, and some I really don't.

John Pinette is one I really like. Discovered him on XM Comedy, and netflixed a couple of his videos, the last one being I'm Starvin', filmed in Montreal in 2006. He looked good, lost a lot of weight as is really noticeable when compared to this YouTube clip from who-knows-when, which is great. Would hate to lose such a talented guy due to health issues. Although the act isn't all-new -- there's plenty of classic bits in there like the tremendously funny Chinese buffet bit (also in this YouTube clip) -- it was great. Aside from a mild curse word benignly thrown in every now and then, his act is pretty clean. I'd give it a PG-13 rating, maybe even a PG 'cause I'm sure kids hear worse stuff on network television or the playground.

In I'm Starvin', he reveals he spent a couple years on the Broadway musical, Hairspray, as Edna Turnblad. And IMDB shows he's got an impressive filmography. Indeed a talented guy. Never miss an opportunity to watch or listen to John Pinette.

Other stand-up comics I like include Dane Cook, Bob Marley, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, Lewis Black, and Stephen Lynch, to name just a few. Some people I think are quite funny, but I haven't heard them in stand-up venues, include Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, and Dennis Miller.

Some top comedians I simply don't like include Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Maher, George Carlin, and Carlos Mencia. I'd rather listen to silence than the last four.


I like libraries. I like libraries a lot. If perhaps I wasn't so interested in money, I might be content as a librarian. I like the way libraries feel. I like the way they smell. I prefer university libraries because they are much more comprehensive, but even small public libraries can be quaint and exciting. I found a quaint little library on the outskirts of a metropolitan county library system. It was small, but modern and new. They have a little collection of movies. My wife is hogging the Netflix queue with Grey's Anatomy, which is alright, but I was longing to watch something different. I looked for a movie the whole family could watch, and thus, in typical fashion, I chose a really bad movie, Quigley, starring Gary Busey.

The story is about a ruthless, self-absorbed businessman who has an accident and apparently dies and goes to heaven. But they won't let him in. He comes back to earth as a Pomeranian dog, to right the wrong, which he does.

The script was terrible, the acting was terrible, the film making was terrible. I mean really bad. But I watched it because the kids were enjoying it. There were a couple of interesting things of note, however.

First is that the movie had an Evangelical overtone. I faintly recalled that Gary Busey, in recent years, had a bad accident of some sort, after which he become a born-again Christian. This was the case, and this movie was made afterward. Which makes sense, that he involved himself in this project.

Second, neither my wife nor I could keep our eyes off the mom in the movie, played by Jessica Ferarrone. Aside from doing about the only good acting, my wife was transfixed by her ample bosom. I must admit it was distracting, but I also thought her very attractive overall. Amazingly, google images returned almost nothing on her. In fact, this is only one of two pics I could find. What I could find out about her is that she was Lydia Karenin on General Hospital in 2003 and that she's been on NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami. Being such an attractive woman, and from what I saw in this terrible movie, a good actress, I'm surprised she hasn't done more movie work. And being so sexy, I'm surprised there aren't more pictures on the internet.

Third, was the odd ensemble of actors including Oz Perkins, Christopher Atkins (of Blue Lagoon fame), Curtis Armstrong, Bill Faggerbakke, and Dorien Wilson. They seemed missplaced here. Their filmographies don't seem to put them in this kind of movie. Perhaps they were just hungry. It was also interesting to note that Christopher Atkins is straight-edge, which can sometimes be aligned with fundamental Christianity. Perhaps that's what drove all these actors to be in this really bad movie, although I didn't look enough to find out all their religious affiliations. Direction and screenplay for this movie was by a William Byron Hillman, who according to IMDB, has only worked on like seven movies (as either writer, director, or actor) in the past 35 years. I can see why. I just have to share a snippet from a netflix member review,
This movie ranks supreme on the unintentional comedy/bizarro scale... Also, when you watch it, just remember that Quigley's budget was around -5 dollars (hard to forget), and that the pomeranian actually wrote the script. It will provide the most enjoyable experience of your life.

Pass on this, unless your kids want to watch it alone.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Now this is a book that would rank on my friend Lisa's "how I know you're gay" list. My wife was reading it and got engrossed in some other book. I was between books and it was by the bed, so I started reading it, although the title and the cover art made it a book I would never read in public!

But I must say it was good. The story is about a man named Henry, who has a genetic disorder that makes him prone to being chronologically displaced, i.e. he time travels. It's also about his wife (thus the title), Clare. If you are science-phobic, fear not, for the book makes no attempt to explain the science behind theoretical time travel. I think we would need Michael Crichton for that job. But this truly does not distract from the story, because how the time travel occurs is utterly inconsequential. What's important is that it does. Rather than time travel being an event arising in the story, it is what allows the story to unfold. And the story is entirely about the relationship between these two people, as it transcends linear time.

Despite it being a somewhat idyllic love story, I found the story riveting because of my recent piqued interest in determinism. As I noted in my 27 Aug 2007 entry about the movie Premonition, it seems the consensus that any attempt to change fate, fulfills it. It holds true in this book, and in the end, it makes perfect sense to me, and sits quite well.

Most of the story is told from two points-of-view, Henry's and Clare's. A superb approach for a couple reason. First, it allowed a much more intensive interpretation of the various scenarios. Something that a single first person perspective, or a third person narrative could not have done. The third person narrative may add an omniscient view, but it essentially becomes a single point-of-view. This multiple person narrative gives us two, and it's much richer. Second, it allowed me to keep on reading. I'm not sure I could have continued through the story had it been strictly Clare's narrative. I could relate and better understand Henry's narrative, so it kept the story progressing for me, even when Clare's narrative became too ethereal.

Kudos to Niffenegger on her debut novel. Change the cover art and I think this book might find a male audience, beyond the Oprah crowd.

The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
2003, Knopf Canada

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ghost Country

So Wifey saw how much I enjoyed the last Paretsky book I read, and so dug up Ghost Country at the library. Total Recall was 2001, and Ghost Country goes back even further to 1998. Certainly not a new release, but a great read.

A side-note on Total Recall. The Paretsky book has nothing to do with the Arnie move, but in one of the recent issues of The New Yorker, I learned that the movie was based on a book by Philip K. Dick. Looking at Wikipedia, it says it right there (what doesn't Wikipedia know??), but the Total Recall movie was so unremarkable, other than being a great (albeit bizarre) action flick, that I never would have bothered looking it up. I'm not enough of a science fiction fan to go down this road, but if you are, you should definitely look into Philip Dick novels from waaaay back in the day. I'll admit I haven't actually read any of his novels, but the long (as all New Yorker articles must be) article made clear that his works are 'interesting' in the vein of H.G. Well's Time Machine or Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, though never considered on the same literary level. Dick, it seems was a prolific pulp writer. Time Machine and Martian Chronicles were required reading in high school lit, but at the time, they seemed confusing mumbo-jumbo. Thinking back, I guess my 15 year old psyche was not ready for the social undertones of such works. But it seems Dick also brilliantly addressed our human condition through nutty fiction novels. And please don't tell me Time Machine and Martian Chronicles were not nutty.

Whoa, that was quite an aside. Back to Ghost Country. Not as fast paced as VI Warshawski books, but engaging none-the-less. Here, Paretsky takes to the homeless underworld of Chicago. I can't help but wonder if she based it on some even happening in Chicago at the time, but I'm too tired to go googling for this right now.

The story takes a couple prominent families in Chicago, with family members of dubious character. These family members fall into the homeless underworld and all hell breaks loose. It wasn't as preachy as I thought it would be about homelessness. Which I'm glad. In my rec reading, I don't need social lectures, but it spoke strongly about human relationships, which I always enjoy. Let's just say it made me look at my sleeping daughters and strengthened my resolve to love, cherish, and support.

I am also a Stephen King fan. Needful Things was a superb work, though rife with tragic ends. In Ghost Country, there is a culminating scene at a church that took me back to the culminating scene of Needful Things. The savage results of mob mentality, in the name of religion. It was pretty powerful in both stories, though Ghost Country spent but a couple chapters, while Needful Things was devoted entirely to the topic. Religion was just the vehicle, though, in both stories. I also don't think mob mentality was really the focus, either. I think the real statement is about the ugliness inside us all. The horrible, ugly truths that lie just beneath our polished veneers. No-one is immune really, and our only salvation is in how we deal with it. So, let the knight say of you, that you have chosen wisely.... if you really do have free will at all.