Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fathoms by Jack Cady (Book Review)

By Jack Cady
Published by Underland Press, 2016
Ebook Price: $5.49

I had never heard of Jack Cady until I read a review of this book in Locus Magazine a couple of months back. Since it was only around $5 I decided to give it a shot. Apparently, Cady is pretty respected in multiple genres, not just those of fantasy and horror. Lots of "mainstream" writers sing his praises. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be adding my name to a list of his fans.

There's no clear delineation in the table of contents of this book saying which pieces are fiction, which are essays, and which are short memoirs. I took them all as one until I read the the piece about gardening called "Wintering" which was just a rumination on the passing of the seasons and writing and gardening with his wife. There's even a short piece of literary criticism about military fiction. To me, the strongest parts of the book were the fiction stories.

Cady's fiction to me is a mix between Jack Kerouac's sense of wonder and wandering, Marquez's magical realism, and Ray Bradbury's nostalgia for the past. The problem is, at least to me, that instead of feeling original, Cady seems like a watered down version of those writers instead of doing something powerful and visionary.

The most successful story is the longest, "The Night We Buried Road Dog" about some young dudes driving in the Pacific Northwest and inventing all kinds of rituals and rites of manhood while dealing with ghosts and mythic drivers running the roads. It was great but like so many of the stories in this book, Cady usually ruins it in the last pages explaining the end and trying to tie up all the loose ends instead of leaving a bit of mystery, almost like a Scooby Doo cartoon. It's almost like the narrator has to rationalize to himself how the supernatural occurrences happened.

In the end, Cady came off as a poor man's Bradbury. Trying to do what Bradbury did, but with less talent. Don't get me wrong. He's worth reading but after finishing the book, you'll probably forget most of what you read. But when he's at his best, he's good.

My Grade: C

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Manhandled (Blu-ray Review)

Manhandled (1924)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Screenplay by Frank W. Tuttle
Released by Kino Lorber

I have to admit that I've never seen Gloria Swanson in her prime until I watched this movie. The only role I've ever seen her in was playing a silent film star at her nadir in Sunset Boulevard...a role that pretty much reflected her own life at that time. She struck me as a really creepy actress. Very strange looking, and not at all beautiful. So I didn't know how I would react to seeing her in this movie. She was great and I plan on buying Stage Struck, another Swanson silent that was also released by Kino Lorber this week.

Swanson plays a shopgirl named Tessie McGuire that works in the clearance section of a superbusy department store for $17 a week. She has a workaholic boyfriend named Jim (who looks 20 years her senior) that is a mechanic by day and a taxi driver at night that she really loves. Problem is that he's so busy working he hardly has time to spend any time with her. They're supposed to get married but Tessie can't really envision any future but one of continuing drudgery and struggling to get by financially.

Tessie's fortunes seem to turn when she is invited to a party that is attended by important artists and rich businessmen. I think they invite her just to liven the party up a bit but also because of her looks. At the party, she is warned again and again that she shouldn't get too involved with the men she meets there because they probably only want her for one thing. But she wants to make more money so she takes jobs with the men, knowing that one of the reasons, even the MAIN reason they are hiring her is that they are attracted to her.

The thing that surprised me the most about this movie is how modern it seems. It reminded me of something the #MeToo movement has overlooked. That women use sex or the implication of sex to get things THEY want sometimes. I have read accounts of women that claim they were sexually abused or exploited by celebrities like Matt Lauer but if you read closely, particularlly in his case, some of the women were trying to use HIM to further THEIR careers and only bailed out of the relationships when their hoped for promotions, special treatments etc came to an end.

In this movie, Tessie takes jobs with different men, all of whom she has been warned are mashers, simply because they offer her a lot of money. In essence, she is using them as much as they are using her. She dumps each one as soon as they make a move or want more. Then she's on to the next guy as long as they are going to give her a pay raise.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about her ethics. I like the fact that she's trying to use the system. She deserves more. I liked that she was using the cads. I just think this kind of behavior is ignored by the #MeToo movement where all women are pure snow white virgins who are being preyed upon by abhorrent wolves.

I loved Gloria Swanson in this movie. I still think she is kinda odd-looking, almost mannish, but she has a great screen presence and charisma. She's very expressive but not in a over-acting K-drama way. I like the way she moves. The way she gestures. And the fact that this movie is a comedy with some social commentary gives her a lot of range and emotions to deal with, from sadness and seduction to physical comedy and joy. That was a thing that was cool about her. She could switch from sad to gladness in a heartbeat.

The director, Allan Dwan, had an extensive directing career but the only film of his I've ever seen before this is The Sands of Iwo Jima that came out about 20 years after this. I was really impressed by the direction in this film, especially any scenes that involved crowds such as the famous subway scene and in the department store. I'm so used to CG that it's nice to see very busy shots that don't involve computer generated actors. There's just so much more life to old movies like this even though all the actors are dead.

The film quality of this Blu-ray isn't that great but is to be expected from a film released almost a hundred years ago. It's the best version you will probably ever get. It was mastered in 2K from 16mm film elements. This is the most complete version currently available.

I really loved this movie and will also be picking up Stage Struck which reunites Swanson and Dwan again. This Blu-ray also features a lovely piano score by Makia Matsumura and an audio commentary by film historian Gaylyn Studlar.

My Grade: A+

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Shape of Water (Movie Review)

The Shape of Water
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Written by: Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Streaming HD Rental: $5.99

I've never been a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro, but if I had to say which of his films I've enjoyed most, those would be Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. Blade 2 was good, at least back in the day. The only one of his films I HAVEN'T seen is his first, Cronos. So keep that in mind when I say negative and positive things about The Shape of Water. I've gotten the impression online that if you didn't like this film it's because you're dumb or you just don't get Del Toro or that it's just backlash now that he's "mainstream". So what I'm going to write is from the perspective of someone that has seen 90% of his work.

The Shape of Water, or, as one of my friends affectionately called it, "Grinding Nemo", is about a lonely middle aged woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) that works as a custodian in a secret military facility in America during the early 1960s. There she meets and falls in love with The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

The monster is being treated pretty hideously by Bill Hader (aka Michael Shannon) with a cattle prod in what is another in a long line of evil military dudes that want to use the creature's physiology to make stronger soldiers. He has no sympathy for the creature and sees it as an animal. It probably didn't help that the monster bit off two of his fingers.

What happens over the course of the movie is that Elisa and the monster bond and fall in love and Elisa has to figure out how she can free him (?) from the clutches of the evil American military. One of the subplots is that the Russians are also trying to get their hands on the monster as well.

The first thing I thought as I started watching the movie was how much it looked and sounded like the 2001 French film Amelie. All the greenish tints, the music, the film's style. The film seemed so stuck in the early 2000s. Then it dawned on me as the film progressed that it was simply a hodgepodge of other films I had already seen. King Kong, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Every Tim Burton movie, La La Land, Man of Steel, and of course Amelie. By the end I wasn't impressed at all with the film.

Del Toro, like Tim Burton, seems to be trapped in an infantile landscape where everything has to look Gothic, everything is quirky and weird. His films look dated. In 20 years, I think people will look back at this film and go "Why?". Del Toro IS overrated. His films have always been mainly "ok". I've never seen the genius in his work. He isn't a Kubrick or even an Inarritu. He made Pacific Rim, for god's sake!

His sets seem as artificial as anything out of George Lucas's prequel trilogy. His characters are caricatures we've all seen hundreds of times. The weird lighting, the puke green tints straight out of 2001.

There were no original ideas here. And a lot of the ones ON display were pretty dumb.....the scene where Elisa puts a towel under her bathroom door and is somehow able to fill the entire bathroom from the floor to the ceiling with water so her and the monster can do the is that water being held in????

Another dumb plot device was that Elisa has to wait for a canal to be opened so the creature can escape into the sea....even though the creature could have just walked to the edge of the dock and jumped into the ocean....There wasn't a fence or anything...but NO, he for some reason has to jump into the canal FIRST and wait a month for the opportunity to escape?

Really, the only thing I LIKED about the movie were the actors. The screenplay didn't give them much to work with, but they wrung as much of a performance out of as they could, with Bill Hader being the standout more than Sally Hawkins. Michael Stuhlberg as a Russian spy also did a marvelous job.

This movie is worth seeing ONCE. But like most of Del Toro's movies, I will probably never revisit it again.

My Grade: B 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore

Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime
By R.A. Salvatore
Published by Del Rey, 1999
Ebook Price: $7.99

I remember when this series first came out and hearing the hullabaloo about an unmentionable event that happens to one of the characters and the outrage and controversy that ensued. At that time I really had no interest in reading it. Fast forward to my state of mind almost 20 years later and I was PRIMED to try this series. Why? Because after seeing The Last Jedi in December I have no interest in the current films or any other forthcoming project based on the Star Wars canon that Kathleen Kennedy, Disney, and Rian Johnson are creating. Disney has no interest in respecting the characters or universe that George Lucas created. Lucas said it himself. He had story treatments for episodes 7-9 and Disney threw them out. I have been a lifelong Star Wars fan since I saw Episode 4 in the theaters when I was a child. Rian Johnson turned the latest episode into a cross between a Marx Brothers comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy, and I don't mean either comparison as a compliment. I wanted an alternative to the Johnson narrative. One in which everything about the original trio of heroes isn't painted in dark colors of death and destruction. I had remembered the New Jedi Order as set 20 years after Return of the Jedi and also knew there are books set even further in the timeline, almost when the new film episodes are happening. So I decided to give these books a shot and boy, I'm glad I did!

In the universe of the New Jedi Order, the beloved cast members from the original film trilogy are all alive and well. Luke Skywalker is married to Mara Jade, who once worked for the Emperor, and they are happily in love. The only negative in the relationship is that Mara is suffering from a mysterious terminal disease that only her force powers are keeping in check. Luke is also struggling with the thought of creating a new Jedi Council because currently Jedi are pretty much roaming vigilantes wandering the galaxy righting whatever they think are wrongs with no command structure in place. And yes, you read right, Luke isn't the pouty sad last jedi in this book. There are some Jedi scattered across the universe, but very few of them are considered "masters" or close to Luke's skill level.

Han Solo and Princess Leia are married and active in the New Republic and have three teenage kids who are all training to become jedi! Of course, there is no Han without his brother in arms Chewie! And yes, Lando is around too, running an asteroid mining operation.

The remnants of the Empire haven't coalesced into anything like the First Order in the new movies. The threat in this book comes from OUTSIDE the galaxy. An alien race, known as the Yuuzhan Vong have infiltrated planets of the New Republic and are stirring up unrest to make the republic ripe for conquest, which seems to be the Vong's only goal.

The Yuuzhan Vong reminded me of a cross between the Klingons of Star Trek and the Engineers from Ridley Scott's Prometheus movies. The Vong are great warriors and can fight one on one against Jedi even though they have no Force abilities. In fact, they are Force RESISTANT. The Prometheus connection is that all the "tech" the Vong use is organic and alive. Their starfighters are pieces of living coral and are sentient. They even use creatures to shapeshift to look more like humans. They also have technology that causes the shields of starships to fail.

The Vong don’t really have to try very hard to cause chaos and division in the New Republic because its corrupt bureaucrats are already doing that. I wouldn’t say that the government is quite as bad as when Palpatine seized power but its getting close.

I’ve been depressed about Star Wars ever since I saw The Last Jedi back in December and was hoping these “Legends” would somehow give me an alternative to hating and abandoning the franchise. Thankfully, it has. The new movies are just about killing off the old cast and sending “progressive” messages about society, sex, and race. Star Wars was always about good vs. evil, at least to me. Not about black vs. white, rich vs. poor, gay vs. straight, etc. It was about oppression vs freedom. Now with the arrival of Kathleen Kennedy, the original idea of Star Wars no longer matters.

At least these books were written with the approval of Lucas and maybe portended where HE wanted the series to go, along with the original Timothy Zahn books. Lucas didn’t envisage Luke as a bitter old man no longer even interested in his friends and family! You don’t have to turn people into walking basket cases to make them human. In this book, Luke feels fear, he even thinks about yelling and arguing with his wife! He feels doubt. He’s not an all knowing Jedi master with god-like abilities. He doesn’t even know if making a new Jedi Council is the right move to make. You don’t have to turn him into a murderous fearful Gollum like Rian did.

We also get a lot of scenes with Luke, Leia, and Han together. That’s something that will never happen in the new movies. What a squandered opportunity by JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, moreso than Rian Johnson. You KNOW if George Lucas had written Episode 7, he wouldn’t have felt intimidated or felt afraid to write scenes with the original trio. I think that was the major problem with the new movies. They weren’t written by talented or imaginative people. Luke was originally going to be in Episode 7 a lot more but he kept on taking over the movie from the new cast….that’s really a good indicator of how weak the new cast is.

Another thing I loved about this book was Han and Leia’s kids, who are all around 15 years old and are training to be Jedi under Luke and Mara. Jacen is the oldest and perhaps the most Kylo Rennish. Not that he’s shown any evil or dark tendencies. But he believes that the Jedi are smarter than normal people and should be in charge and be allowed to do whatever they want in pursuit of justice. Maybe he’s more young Anakin from Attack of the Clones than Kylo. And yes, the youngest son is actually NAMED Anakin and he’s cocky, confident, and idealistic. More like Luke from A New Hope. And then there’s Jaina, who’s the best pilot of the siblings. The kids are great. I really enjoyed their scenes. They are just as important as the old cast, but not at the EXPENSE of the old cast.

From what I understand there are 19 novels in this series, which is followed by other series set further on in time in this Star Wars universe. So I should have plenty to read instead of going to see any new Star Wars movies. I’d rather live in a fantasy world of noncanoncity than accept the swill Kennedy and Johnson concocted, along with Abrams. If you hated The Last Jedi and would like to see Han, Luke, and Leia not become losers, you should definitely try reading Vector Prime. And don’t worry about it if you haven’t read any of the other Star Wars Legends books. I’ve only read a couple myself and had no problem understanding anything. This book was WRITTEN to be a jumping on point for new readers.

Next up on my reading list is the novelization of The Last Jedi. I’m still trying to make sense of that awful movie. A lost cause, I think.

My Grade: A 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott (Book Review)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
By Edwin A. Abbott
Published by Penguin Books, 1998
Price: $12.00

There is a place unknown to us called Flatland and every being that lives there is a two dimensional shape. In Flatland, social status is conveyed by the number of angles a person has, with isosceles triangles making up the lowest class of workers and soldiers and circles serving as the highest. Women are even lower than the isosceles, with no angles, consisting of only straight lines. In Flatland, females are seen as mindless and temperamental. In fact, because they are straight lines they have pointed ends and when they get enraged, sometimes they murder other people by piercing them like spears. Sometimes they kill just by not being mindful of where they're moving.

Most of the book is a description of the inhabitants of Flatland, their different shapes, laws, and society. It's only in the last 1/4th of the book that any action really occurs. When Flatland came out in 1884 it did not have much success and faded into obscurity until Einstein introduced his theory of relativity. After that scientists and the public began to see this book as an oracle predicting the existence of other dimensions besides just the three we believed we existed in. Some have said that that is the reason why Flatland is a "classic". Simply because of its influence on being a precursor of scientific thought which has become generally accepted in our time. I agree with that statement but also find it a forerunner in other ways.

One of the things that makes this book really relevant to me is its satire. Abbott was making fun of the rigid English class system of his time which still exists today, although possibly in a less rigid form. The hierarchy of angles in Flatland, at least to me, is symbolic of money and nobility. Anyone with less angles than you is to be looked down upon.

Abbott was accused of misogynistic views in this book even back in his time when the norm was for women to be treated only as homemakers and baby factories. I do not think this book had it in for women. I believe that Abbott was actually trying to bring attention to how women were treated in that era, much as he was commenting on the absurdity of male rank and privilege. Uneducated men and soldiers were given a bad rap as well.

I would say that Flatland is the earliest book I've read that paints a portrait of a dystopia that would later be riffed on by works such as 1984, Brave New World, and more recently, young adult series like The Hunger Games and Divergence. The inhabitants of Flatland believe they live in the best of all possible worlds. Rules can't be changed. All the laws are for the common good. It's just too bad that if you rebel against society or are born deformed, you either have to be imprisoned for life or killed. It's for your own good.

I know this book is a satire but the treatment of deformity and nonconformance gave me the chills because it made me start thinking that about 60 years later a man named Hitler would put some of these ideas from Flatland into actual action. If you are born with uneven sides or odd angles, medical teams try to surgically modify them so you can look normal, but the majority of infants die in the process. If they can't modify you, the baby is put down. It also reminded me of the coming age of cosmetic genetics when parents will be able to change their baby's genes to suit their own tastes.

Flatland was a pretty dull book. I admit that freely. It's a novel of ideas and intellectual horseplay grounded on mathematics. The ideas that Abbott presents are pretty interesting and the fact that it still mirrors a lot of what is going on in our society kept me reading. It also helped that it's a really short book, clocking in at 117 pages. I would also recommend reading it because it's an example of early hard sci-fi.

My Grade: C

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Hererra (Book Review)

Signs Preceding the End of the World
By Yuri Herrera
Translated by Lisa Dillman
Published by And Other Stories, 2015
Ebook Price: $7.99

Makina is a young woman that works as a switchboard operator for the only phone in a small Mexican town. As such, she knows everything there is to know about the town, from marriage troubles to the activities of the drug dealers that rule over the residents. She keeps on everyone's good side by remaining neutral in everything. She delivers any message she gets, she doesn't get too curious about people's business or try to blackmail anyone. She just can't help overhearing all their conversations. Makina says she is "the door, not the one who walks through it."

The main plot of the book concerns Makina's brother. He had heard that their father had left some land in the United States to the two siblings so he leaves Mexico to investigate whether it's true or not. He writes a couple of letters back home but then the letters stop and he's never heard from again. Makina crosses the border illegally with the help of her town drug lords to discover the fate of her missing brother. She's going to have to carry a "package" for delivery in the US.

I don't really know what to think about this book. For one thing, it's so SHORT, you don't really get time to search for a deeper meaning in it. I get it, it's a "quest" book. Makina's brother is missing. She goes to find him. Along the way, she gets to see varying abuse of illegal immigrants, her "compatriots" by "Anglos"....referring, I guess,  to White Americans. I really don't see it as a quest or an "epic journey" in as much as it's pretty easy for Makina to cross the border. She gets on a big inner tube and just floats across the Rio Grande.

And once she's there, nobody really bugs her or questions her except for an evil white rancher. In this book, illegal immigrants are good. The authorities that are trying to catch them or don't want them here are more vile than the drug lords running her town. Yeah, this "novel" wears its politics on its bleeding sleeve. Even the translator gets in on the action by using such terms as "migration, immigration, transnationalism, transculturalism, and language hybridity (?)". Hmm, she didn't mention ILLEGAL immigration. To me, I would be hard pressed to see this "novel" as anything other than a thinly disguised liberal agenda dossier.

Now, the book cover does say Herrera is "Mexico's greatest novelist". Wow, if this is the best, I'd hate to see their "average" or "worst" writer.

I guess you would enjoy this book if you think white people are evil, illegal immigrants are good and not the uneducated dregs of an entire county, and following the laws of our country are stupid.

You can read this book in about an hour. It is followed by pages and pages of the translator's afterword, thank yous to the thousands it seems people that made the book possible, and a catalog of other books by the same publisher. These pages actually seemed of more weight and importance than the novel itself.

My Grade: D

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho (Book Review)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches
by Matsuo Basho
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Published by Penguin Books, 1966
Price: $9.95

Matsuo Basho was a Japanese poet born near Kyoto in 1644 to a minor samurai family. His family wasn't the most well off. His dad earned a living teaching writing to local children. Basho's big break was the fact that he became the companion to Yoshitada, the local lord's son. Consequently, he shared in whatever education Yoshitada received for free, which introduced him to the world of poetry. When Yoshitada died young at the age of 25, Basho kind of lost direction and interest in serving Yoshitada's father and took off for Kyoto where for the next five years he studied Chinese and Japanese literature and calligraphy in a temple. Soon after he began to publish his own poetry in anthologies.

As he matured he studied Zen and tried to gradually do away with material objects in his life. Some of his fans built him a small house by a river where he would meditate and write poetry. He succeeded at getting rid of most of his stuff but in the end he realized that no matter how many material objects he ejected out of his life, he still had one thing left....his "self". He started a series of long journeys across Japan to erase his self, to become one with nature.

When he started these journeys, he didn't plan things out. He would carry a few things with him like a hat, a rain coat, a little food, and that was about it. He would rely on the kindness of Heaven, temples, fans, friends, fellow poets, and sometimes even complete strangers to aid him along on his trips. Along the way he would write poems and memoirs.

This volume contains five travel sketches in all ranging from a few pages to around 50 pages. The translator in his introduction states the order of the travel sketches is reflective of their quality, with the earliest being the most poorly written and the last being the best. I would argue that the REVERSE is true. I thought that each sketch LESSENED in quality. I felt that in his earlier work, Basho was less self conscious and most open. As he wrote more you could tell that he started playing to his audience instead of actually recording his thoughts and emotions. The last sketch to me was the hardest to get through.

Something that greatly disturbed me early on in this book was when Basho sets off on his first road trip. He soon comes upon a 3 year old kid crying by the side of the river in the middle of nowhere, obviously abandoned. Basho suffers a BIT of distress in one paragraph as he wonders why his parents left this kid to die. So does Basho take the kid to a local village or ask him where he lives? NOPE. He gives the kid a little food and says that Heaven has decreed the kid to be there and that "you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind." It seemed so horrible to me. It's not the only incident that shows his callousness and complete lack of humanity. Towards the end of the book, two concubines ask to accompany him on the road for part of his walk for protection and he refuses them because he has too much to do.

What he did to that child totally refuted and disqualified anything he had to say about life to me. It also lessened his poetry. Here we have a man who claims he wants to lose his "self" but he's so SELF absorbed that he won't take the trouble to help his fellow man when they need him. Do you think the Buddha would have left that child to die? Basho makes a big show of his emotions when he observes the moon or flowers. He cries at the ruins of once mighty temples and castles, lamenting the fleetingness of power and mortality. But he's not aware enough to help the LIVING. He has no motivation to make the world a better place. He shows no kindness. He simply uses the world as a catalyst to crank out poems. And his poems aren't even THAT great. Like I said, the earlier his work, the more interesting and personal it was. His later sketches read like a catalog more than a memoir or diary. Mainly because he lost his ability to empathize because of his fake existence.

This book is worth reading just to get a feel for Renaissance era Japan but Basho's insight and talent dwindled as he aged so just be prepared for the quality of the writing to diminish as you read.

My Grade: B