Monday, March 30, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 3)

One of the worst things about growing up in the South was learning that the last place where racism should exist was often the first place you'd find it: at church. And you wouldn't just find it there; racism was subtlety built into the structure of whole denominations. It was pervasive in that same way where you don't notice a bad smell when you've been around it too long. You can only notice it if you step away and come back or if someone points it out and you put some effort into smelling the thing they're talking about. Not that a lack of racial integration is true of churches just in the South; it's true of churches in general. As Joshua DuBois recently said, "Right now, 11:00 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." And it's better now than when I was a kid.

When I was a kid...
There were no black people who lived on my street. However, if I went around my block to the next street, it was all black. Well, there may have been what was referred to as "white trash," which I didn't understand any better than I had understood "porch monkeys." The only point of context I had for the term was that there was a kid in my grade, John Spain, who was really mean and constantly in trouble and my mom used to tell me to just ignore him because he was "just white trash," so, in my mind, "white trash" meant "bully," not someone who shared the same socioeconomic position as, say, the black people on the street behind mine. [I say behind because it was the block behind my house, not the next block over in front of my house.]

And there was a marked difference between my street and the street behind my house. All of the houses on my block had nice, green lawns, even the house that was mostly unlived in. There were no cars on any of the lawns or broken bikes or toys. And there wasn't any trash. I mean actual trash, garbage, which tended to pile up at the curbs on the street behind mine. Most importantly, I suppose, at least to the people on my street, there were no black people. Ever.

Which was a problem, because I had a friend who lived on the street behind mine, and he was not allowed to come over to my house to play. I think, actually, that was more his mom than mine. There was this one time when I wanted him to come to my house and, when his mother said no, he protested, and she started whipping his butt right there and dragging him into the house. [That was not necessarily uncommon no matter what color you were.] I don't think either of us ever brought that up again.

At some point, I wanted to invite him to church with me (I think around 3rd grade), and, because it came up when I was with him, I just asked him. Without checking with my mother first. That was probably a mistake. I ran home to ask my mom; he went inside to ask his mom. His mom actually said yes; mine did not. She told me she didn't think it would be a good idea. I, of course, didn't understand why it wouldn't be a good idea.

Now, she did actually make an attempt to explain it to me. But it didn't make sense to me. See, there were actually two black kids in my church. A boy in my grade and his younger sister. They were it, though, in a church of 1200-1500. Not that I was aware of the numbers. I pointed out to my mom that, look, there were these two other kids, but she could only tell me that they were a special circumstance, something which I never found out the why of even when I was good friends with both of them later in high school.

However, I do think that my mother was probably, actually correct in her assessment of it not being a good idea. That wasn't something I understand until I was in high school, though, and which I'll talk about next time. All I knew at the time was that I had to walk back around the corner to his house and tell him he couldn't come. I had to crush his excitement (and he was excited) by saying no. It was one of the hardest, longest walks I've ever made, It was just a trip around the block, but, to my 3rd grade self, it was like walking to an execution.

Which it was, in a way, because that was the beginning of the end of our friendship. It just wasn't the same after that. I don't know if it was just me or if it was both of us, but it felt like something broke when I had to tell him that he couldn't come after all. And he wanted to know why, and all I had was, "It's not a good idea." What a horrible phrase, that.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lyon's Legacy (a book review post)

To be honest, this book didn't work for me right from the start. And the sad thing there is that I really wanted it to. I just couldn't get past the premise. The idea here is that sometime late this century there will be born the great-granddaughter of a 1960s pop star. And that's okay except that, evidently, this guy was such a huge star that people still recognize her (all of the family) when she's walking down the street and come up to her all starstruck about her great-grandfather. But, see, we barely care about the kids of famous people, now, unless they become some kind of star in their own right. This book expects me to believe that at some point in the future we suddenly have some kind of holy reverence for the descendants of dead 60s and 70s music stars. You know, in the same way that we have reverence for the descendants of all those great stars of the early 20th century. You know, like... Oh, wait, we don't even remember the stars of 100 years ago, let alone their children.

So, yeah, the idea that anyone would expect Joanna Lyon to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather just didn't make any sense. I couldn't suspend my disbelief for that. Maybe that's my issue and no fault of the book.

Then, there was the issue of first person. I've mentioned before that I'm no real fan of 1st person writing (despite my love of The Dresden Files), and this book pushed all of my buttons on the reasons why I don't like 1st person. It (first person) offers way too many shortcuts, and Almazan took them all, frequently telling us how other characters feel and what they think without actually showing us the interactions to back those things up. But, at least, she didn't have Joanna stand in front of a mirror and describer herself to us, because that is the worst.

There was also the issue of the love story, which is of the insta-love variety, and another of things that push my dislike buttons. It's too frequent that we have a female protagonist telling us how she just can't find the right guy and she doesn't know how to act around guys and, besides, guys aren't that important, anyway, and BOOM! there's the perfect guy and she loves him and he loves her and there's never any question about what's going to develop. Then, once the characters have sex, the deal is sealed. That's it for life. Does that even happen in real life? Ever? And it's not that I expect a fantasy (in the sense that all writing is fantasy) to necessarily be true to life, but there could be some complexity to it other than the neurosis of the protagonist.

All in all, the book didn't feel fleshed out. There are too many gaps, too many things not followed through to their logical conclusion, too many things left unexplained.. Then, to top it all off, the book just stops. It's like Almazan got tired of writing and cut it off without any kind of resolution. Reading it on the Kindle made it even worse, because I was only at the 85% mark when Lyon's Legacy stopped. The rest of the book is promo stuff for her other works.

As I've said in other reviews, maybe these issues are with me. The book has generally very positive reviews, so, maybe, my standards are just too high. But, then, they are my standards for what is enjoyable reading for me. Either way, this book didn't work for me.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Codes (a book pre-view post)

Okay, so any of you who have been around for any length of time will know that I really don't do cover reveals or book promos or any of that stuff. Generally speaking, it's because I don't want to support a book I haven't read and which may turn out to be something I wouldn't have supported if I'd read it first. But, see, that has more to do with not having read anything by the authors who usually ask me to do that kind of stuff. I just can't pre-support a book by what amounts to an unknown quantity no matter how I feel about the actual person. Sorry, but you can be a great human being and still be a lousy writer, so I might think the world of you and still think you should find another line of work.

None of that is the case with Briane Pagel. At this point, I've been reading his stuff for years and like nearly all of what he produces. I loved Eclipse, and the farther away I get from Up So Down, the more I like it. That to say that I feel confident in announcing Pagel's new book: Codes
It's currently available for pre-order from Golden Fleece Press. Or it's supposed to be. I don't actually see a purchase link, but it is listed in their upcoming books section. Maybe it's just not live yet? Anyway, hop over to Thinking the Lions to follow Briane and get all the updates about his new book.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 2)

Ironically enough, my first encounter with racism had to do with myself. Let me explain!
But, first, go back and read part one of this series.

I didn't get very many birthday parties when I was a kid. In fact, I got a sum total of two. The first one was during first grade. My mom actually gave me a party at McDonald's, which is probably something that I wanted to do because what kid doesn't want to do that? Okay, kids these days probably don't want to do that so much but, back in the 70s, it was a cool, new thing to do. The problem was that, due to the cost, I was limited to something like only five friends. Or four. Some small number. It meant making some hard choices as to whom to invite.

Three of the people were a given. Two of them, the boys, were my best friends all through elementary school. Well, that elementary school, at any rate. The other was a girl who would end being my longest running friend. Basically, she and I grew up together from kindergarten until we graduated high school. Of course, I didn't know that was going to be the case in first grade, but it says something, I suppose, that she was one of my best friends even then. All three of them were at that party.

There may or may not have been one other person there but, if there was, I can't remember who it was.

The issue, though, arose over the "last person" I invited.

I remember the discussion with my mother about whom I was going to invite. On the list were the three (or four) people who ended up coming, and I had one more person to go. I was conflicted. I could either invite Derrick, a black boy in my class at school and next in line on the "friend scale" after the people I had already invited, or I could invite Chris, a boy who had lived down the block from me before we'd moved and had gone to my school until he moved. He had been one of my close playmates for a couple of years, but I hadn't seen him since he left my school. Playdates weren't a thing back in 1977 so inviting him to my party seemed to be the only way to get to see him again. I ended up choosing Chris over Derrick.

That turned into a problem. Chris didn't show up to the party, so my mom wanted me to call Derrick to see if he could come because she had to pay for the guest whether there was a person there or not. So there we were at the party and my mom was telling me to call Derrick and also telling me about how upset Derrick had been not to be invited and that Derrick's mom had even called her and said that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. Basically, my mom was shifting the racism comment onto me.

Of course, she hadn't told me any of this ahead of time. She waited until we were actually having the party. Evidently, she'd suspected Chris wasn't going to show because his mother hadn't RSVP'd, and my mom was upset about wasting the money. The problem is that I can't remember whom she'd wanted me to invite in the first place. I remember there being a discussion about it, but the only part I remember is that I wanted Chris to be at the party more than I wanted Derrick at the part because it had been close to a year since I'd seen him.

The party was... traumatic. The only thing I remember is being on the phone, listening to it ringing and ringing, and my mom telling me that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. And crying. I was pretty horrified, too, at the thought that Derrick would think I left him out because he was black, which just wasn't true. And, of course, no one answered the phone. Because Derrick's mom had taken him to do something fun and special because he didn't get invited to my party. The party I can't remember.

I don't remember our friendship being the same after that, and I have always always felt bad about what happened over that birthday party. Sure, yeah, I know it wasn't my fault. I was barely over a hand old. But that doesn't change the emotion involved. In general, when they ask that question about things you would change in your past if you could, I don't have a lot of those things, but this is one. I would certainly go back and invite Derrick instead. If I'd known how important it was to him, I wouldn't have cared about Chris being there at all.

But I didn't know.

It was this relationship, though, that inspired the character of Derrik in "Christmas on the Corner." See, I did grow up in the South, and I did have black friends. Let me rephrase that: I had friends who also happened to be black, because I never thought of my friends in colors. They were just my friends. Derrik is a reflection of that dynamic and, I think, an important one. But Sam won't be having any birthday parties that Derrik doesn't get invited to.

Friday, March 20, 2015

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (a book review post)

I read a lot. Yeah, obvious statement, I know. Because I read a lot, I don't really come across all that many books anymore that I just don't want to put down. Not that I want to put books down, but I don't often find a book that I just want to keep reading and don't want to stop reading when I need to. I don't even find one of those once a year, anymore. This was one of those books. If I could have, I would have read straight through this one without stopping. Darn that thing called life that demands that you do things like take kids to school and cook dinner.

Also, I am not much of a fan of first person writing, as I've stated many times before. It's not that I have a thing against first person in-and-of itself, it's just that, with the flood of indie writers, first person has become a shortcut to bad writing. And writing that all sounds the same from author to author. I tend to be very wary of first person, especially in debut novels.

However, first person was completely necessary to the story in the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. That's the way I like to see first person used, as something that adds to the story itself, not as an easy out to get out of the intricacies of description and explanation. This book has a unique voice, and it is that voice that makes it necessary to the story. No, I'm not going to explain, because you should just read the book and find out for yourself.

The other thing I really liked about the book (other than the unique voice) is that the story is not really the story. I mean, the narrator thinks he's telling one story, but, really, he's telling another story entirely, and it was pretty amazing. The way the author handled it, I mean.

That's really all I have to say, I suppose. Yeah, not a single negative about this one. I enjoyed it immensely and will probably look at re-reading it in a few years and see if I still feel the same way about it. I don't re-read often, so that ought to tell you something.

Look, just go read the book. Oh, one thing, if you have any desire to read any Sherlock Holmes, you should go read The Hound of the Baskervilles, first, before you read this. That is, you should if you don't want spoilers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 1)

I grew up in the South. I don't mean the quasi-South like Missouri or Tennessee; I mean the deep South. Louisiana. Even so, I grew up without any idea that race should ever be an issue. I'm not sure why this was so other than that my parents weren't particularly racist. They weren't particularly un-racist, either. For instance, at some point when I was a kid, I remember my dad using the term "porch monkeys," and I had no idea what he was talking about. When I asked, because I couldn't find the monkeys, no one would explain to me what he meant, so, I suppose, he was ashamed enough for having said it (and my mom ashamed of him) that no one would explain it. Later, when someone did finally explain it to me, I still didn't understand. The term just didn't make sense to me; it was years before I understood that it was a racial slur.

The Oscars this year, "the best and whitest," have me thinking a lot about race and how and where I grew up. I am not much a product of my environment. For instance, I don't have an accent. Someone asked me recently about how long it took me to get rid of it after I moved to California, but, see, I never had an accent. And, no, there is no explanation for that, because my family most definitely does have an accent. In fact, I can barely understand my brother anymore.

I went to a desegregated elementary school. Of course, I didn't know that. I'm not sure any of us knew that when we were kids. I don't know for sure if it made a difference, though. The school was mixed, sure, but the classes, on the whole, were not. I never realized that until now in thinking about all of this. Supposedly, the classes were divided based upon ability and, to some extent, I'm sure that's true, because there were a few black kids in my classes, but, mostly, the black kids were in one class, and the white kids were in the other class. I'm pretty sure there were no white kids in any of the "black" classes. The white kids got a white teacher, and the black kids got a black teacher. Except 1st grade: In first grade, both teachers were black, but that was the only black teacher I had until I got to middle school.

The principal, though, was black: Mr. Hudson. I loved Mr. Hudson. By the time I was in first grade, he called me Dr. Leon. I was Dr. Leon to him all the way through 4th grade, my last year at that school. He said it was because of all my brains. Or something like that. He was always very serious with me and would shake my hand when he saw me in the hall. Evidently, race wasn't an issue for him, and he was the first adult male I admired other than my grandfather.

Middle school... I went to an experimental middle school. It was following in the footsteps of the experimental high school I would soon go to. These were some of the first magnet schools in the country and an aberration in Louisiana. I suppose the logic was that if they could get magnet schools to work in Louisiana, which was (and still is) among the worst educated states in the country, then they could get them to work anywhere. And they did work. CPMHS was in the top ten high schools in the country the entire time I was there. In Louisiana.

So, yeah, I had some black teachers in middle school and in high school... but they weren't academic teachers. They were P.E. teachers and an art teacher. The only exception to that was my biology teacher in high school. However, she barely counts, because they let her go half way through the year, because she was not able to handle the academic load of teaching the AP Bio II class. This class was geared toward academic decathlon training, so they had to find someone able to teach that class above all else. Just to be clear, she was not the only teacher let go from Magnet because the teacher couldn't handle the academic load in the advanced classes, and it was her first year teaching.

Also, to be clear, there were some black teachers of academic classes at my high school, but I was in all honors and advanced classes, and they didn't teach any of those.

My high school didn't have the regular team sports associated with high school. No football, no basketball, no baseball. We had what our principal called "Olympic sports": tennis, fencing, track. I only say that to reinforce that this was an academic school. There was testing to get in and you had to maintain a certain GPA to stay there. Each year, we lost about half of the freshman class. As opposed to my elementary school, at which the more advanced classes were more than 90% white, there were plenty of black students at my high school, and they weren't there to play sports. These were smart kids who had done the work to get into a kind of elite school. As I was reminded frequently by my friends at other high schools, we were the "nerd school."

Mostly, though, I want to focus on my elementary school, since it was a typical school in Shreveport. [I would like to think that my high school was more merit-based in its decisions on teacher hiring, and I think that it probably was because of the emphasis on the academic decathlon.] It makes me sad, now, thinking back, that my school got by by following the letter of the law while discarding the spirit of it, and I'm sure that my school was indicative of the "way things were." Probably not just in Louisiana, either. I have to assume that this was the way all schools got around desegregation all through the South. "Sure, we'll have mixed schools, but no one said anything about the classes."

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Influence of a Life

Terry Pratchett died.

I don't quite know what I think about this, because I haven't quite come to grips with how I feel about it. I mean, it's not like I was what you'd call a fan of Pratchett's writing in that I haven't read any of the Discworld books. The only thing by him that I've read is Good Omens, and I read that because of Neil Gaiman.

However, there is no denying the influence he's had, through Gaiman, on my writing "career." In fact, it would be safe to say that without Prachett, I would never have started writing. It was one of the first things I talked about way back in the time before time when I started this blog: 400 Words. So there it is, even without ever really reading anything Prachett wrote, I would never have decided to "sit down and do the writing" without him. He gave it a context for me as something that was possible.

Knowing that he's gone has left me with a... hollow feeling just below my sternum. You could say that I'm sad, and I am, but it's not exactly like sadness. It's just the feeling of something missing that ought to be there. It's left me feeling more than a bit out of sorts.

It's also made me think about "influence" and what that means. How we influence people. How often we are deliberate in our influence. What impact do we, do I, have on the people around me? All of that but, specifically, as a writer. What do I want my influence to be?

Of course, when writers talk about influence, they are usually talking about what influenced their style. Or their genre. If they are talking about the why, it's usually in some less practical way of "When I read Tolkien as a kid, I wanted to grow up and create worlds just like he did." And I have had unmistakable influences on the things I write about. There's a direct nod to Lewis in The House on the Corner and one to Tolkien in Christmas on the Corner and, when I needed to develop my villain for Shadow Spinner and was trying to think of the scariest thing I'd ever "encountered," it was a character of Gaiman's that came to mind.

But, still, none of that would have mattered if I had never sat down to do the writing, and I have no one else to look to for that influence other than Gaiman for telling the story about how Pratchett started out. Gaiman wouldn't have had the story to tell without Pratchett.

All of that to say that I feel a great sense of loss at Pratchett's passing. And, yes, while everyone knew it was coming (of course, death is coming for everyone, so we knew it was coming), this is one of those battles where knowing doesn't help anything. I knew my grandfather was going to die when I was 20, but it was still devastating when it happened, and we knew my mother-in-law was going to die, but that still rocked our family. I wish I could tell his family the impact that he had on me. Not that it really helps, except that it does.

Not to mention, if there's anyone out there that I may one day look like, it's probably Terry Pratchett.
According to my wife, I just need to make a shift to black.
And, yes, that really is how I go out. I had no idea about Pratchett and his signature black fedora until I was writing this post.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything (a book review post)

So a bit of preamble about this one:
1. This is not a religious book, not in the traditional sense. The "God" Ehrenreich is talking about is not the Christian god nor any kind of monotheistic god. It is not god in any sense that we generally think about "God."
2. I've previously read a couple other of Ehrenreich's books (Nickel and Dimed and Bright-sided) and really enjoyed them. She approaches her topics with dogged determination and doesn't let go till she gets to the truth of the matter. I've never, however, taken the time to learn anything about her other than that she was a journalist who eased into books. As it turns out, her background is in science and she, in fact, has a PhD in... well, I forget in what, because she shifted what she was studying numerous times, and I forget what the doctorate finally ended up being in (and I don't feel like trying to find it, now). Something to do with immunology, though, I think. The science background explains why her investigative work has always been so thorough, though.

Speaking of science, this book contains a lot of hard science, descriptions and explanations, things I found fascinating (especially her experience with the silicon oscillations), but I can understand this being a barrier to many (maybe most?) readers. In fact, I scanned through some of the negative reviews of the book and many of them had to do with "too much science" or "I couldn't understand all the science." This book is definitely not written to be easily accessible to a large audience as her other books are. This book is personal, so all of the science, which is intensely personal to her, is left in. I'm not sure the book can even get to where it's trying to go without the science.

The other thing that can be an issue with the book is that it takes Ehrenreich a long time to get where she's going. She mentions in the foreword that there was an "event," a mystical experience, that happened to her when she was a teenager and that figuring out exactly what that was was part of the impetus for Living with a Wild God, so you start reading and expect to find out about this event and her quest, but... what you get is her childhood. And it was a horrible childhood, not that it seems she saw it that way at the time. When you grow up in that, though, you think it's normal.

It takes a long time to get to the event and, the whole time I was reading, I kept wondering what the point was of all the stuff she was telling me. Why did I want or need to know about her childhood and, well, everything else? But I trusted her, based on my prior reading experience with her (and the story she was telling really was interesting even though it seemed as if it had nothing to do with what the book was supposed to be about), to be going somewhere, so I kept reading. Then, eventually, we do get to the event, and it all made sense. I mean, without all of the background (and I do mean all of the background), I don't think you can really understand the significance of what happened and what happened after.

So I'm going to go back and say that this is not a religious book. This is not a book about how some atheist went out searching for the Truth and had a conversion experience (as in The Case for Christ). This is a book about an atheist who went out searching for the Truth and found... something. Something unexplainable. Something that isn't the "good and loving" god that Christians so often hold up as a happiness dispenser. What she found was something... primal. Chaotic. Only "good" in the sense that a storm can be good or a forest fire can be good.

This is not a book for people who already think they know it all and who think they have all the answers, especially about who and what god is. This is a book for those, like in Wizard of Oz, who are willing to look behind the curtain. Don't plan on an easy read.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It's Not You I Have a Problem With...

...It's people.

Back in 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in Queens. Reportedly, that murder was "witnessed" (not necessarily seen but heard) by dozens of people and none of them called for help or reported the crime. The entire attack, during which Genovese was raped and repeatedly stabbed, took about half an hour. It wasn't until then that a neighbor finally came to see what was going on, only to find Genovese dying and her attacker gone.

Although it turned out that the neglect of the people that "witnessed" the crime wasn't as bad as it was reported to be (for instance, neighbors heard the disturbance but thought it was only a lovers' quarrel or something so never went to see what was happening), the bystander effect (which is a very real thing where people do nothing because they are waiting for someone else to do something) has come to be known as Genovese Syndrome.

It all has to do with "diffusion of responsibility," which is to say that the more people who are present, the less likely any one specific one of them will do anything as far as standing up for someone else. It's the same kind of behavior that possible made what the SS did in Germany leading up to and during WWII: People are disappearing but no one is going to say anything because, hey, at least it wasn't me. Right? Someone else can do something about it. Not me.

It was the New York case that really prompted the psychological study of this social condition, and it has been repeatedly shown in tests that the likelihood of someone to offer help of any kind to someone is in inverse proportion to the number of people present. For instance, one of the studies dealt with a woman falling down and being "hurt." When there was only one person present, that person would offer assistance to the woman about 70% of the time. [70%! What the freaking heck! That means that 30% would just walk past! Wait... this sounds like a familiar story.] As more people were involved to witness the woman fall, the less likely it was that anyone would offer help, so, with two people, someone offered help only 40% of the time.

To me, this is insane behavior, and it gets worse the more complicated the situation is, like if someone is being aggressive or attacking someone else. Also, it is this same root phenomenon, just reversed, that leads to mob behavior.

To make things even more interesting (or baffling about how humans have managed to survive for so long), there were some recent studies done on how this phenomenon affects online behavior. In the studies, two people were planted in chat room situations: one to bully and one to be bullied. In these simulations, only 10% of the other people in the chat rooms would come to the defense of the person being bullied. 10%! Let me put that another way: During these simulations where one person would bully and verbally abuse another person, 90% of the participants would act as if nothing was going on. 90%!

These were basically anonymous environments where there could be no actual repercussions from the abusive person, and only one person in ten would do the right thing. After all of the media coverage of online bullying and teenagers committing suicide over it, this is amazing to me. Not in a good way.

I get it. People pretty much suck, but this takes the suckitude of people to a whole new level. I don't know; maybe, science is wrong. Maybe we didn't survive as a species because of our ability to work together. Maybe we survived by always throwing the other person under the bus. Um, I mean the tiger. Or the bear. Or whatever. Or, maybe, we've just gotten worse over time because of our tendency to breed assholes. I suppose the past doesn't matter that much in that respect. What I do know, though, is that if we don't start, as a species, looking out for the other guy, globally, pretty soon, there won't be any of us left. Globally.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Assholes (A Theory) (a book review post)

Assholes, by Aaron James, is a difficult book to walk past and not pick up. With a title like that, it's hard to resist. And I'm sure that it's the title that has made the book a New York Times bestseller. Probably bought as gifts, because, when you see a book called Assholes, you're bound to immediately think of someone who ought to have that book no matter what the book is ultimately about. For me, that person was myself. I mean, here was a book that promised to tell me where assholes come from and what to do about them. I didn't even try to resist.

Perhaps, I should have, though. But, ultimately, it's a different experience standing in the book store with the book in your hand than it is looking up the book online and being able to see what other people are saying about it. I probably would have bought the book anyway just to see for myself, but I would have gone into it expecting more of what it was rather than what I hoped it would be.

See, James is a philosophy professor and, as such, the book is presented more as a research paper than as a book. Or, maybe, like a sermon. It very much follows the practice of (1) I am going to tell you what I'm going to talk about. (2) I am going to talk about what I am going to talk about. (3) I am going to tell you what I just talked about. It makes the book annoyingly repetitive at times.

But that's not to say the book isn't without its charms. It does, for instance, give us a workable definition of what an asshole is:
In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
  1. allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
I think that's a pretty good definition.

From there, he goes into examples of different types of assholes. The only problem is that he's a bit choosy about the examples and fails to actually provide a general description of the sub-types, leaving it to become "an asshole politician is an asshole who is a politician" or "an asshole driver is an asshole who drives a car." Except he gets even more vague about it by saying things like "sometimes, a person is an asshole only when they are driving [or at work or at home or wherever]," or "sometimes an asshole politician isn't really an asshole himself, he is just taking asshole advice from some other asshole politician [as in the case of Bush from Cheney]." He gets so involved in the philosophy behind assholism that he fails to provide any practical "advice" for identifying assholes definitively.

Also, one of the main purposes of the book is stated to be "asshole management" or how to deal with the assholes in your life. Asshole management boils down to a cost-benefit analysis, because dealing with an asshole is never easy. You therefore have to always weigh the cost of taking a stand against an asshole against the benefit you will get from it. And, then, there is no particular strategy or set of strategies, anyway. He leaves it very "every situation is different," which is true, but, then, don't state that you're going to provide keys to asshole management if you're not actually going to do that.

There are some very interesting portions of the book, like the chapter about asshole capitalism, but I'm not sure I can say that the book is worth reading just for those sections. I also don't think there's any good way to know which sections any given individual ought to read. Personally, the thing I found most interesting about the book was how it came to be in the first place, which had to do with dealing with asshole surfers. Unfortunately, then, the asshole surfer thing serves as no more than a brief illustration about the larger asshole picture.

I suppose, in the end, I would say that the book is worth the read as a curiosity piece. Don't expect to get any actual, practical information out of it beyond the asshole definition, which is something you probably already knew, anyway, but had failed to ever put into words. Mostly, the book serves as a political soapbox from which James can call "asshole" at selected politicians and discuss how assholes caused the financial crisis (and cause most of them). I don't really have a problem with that in a general sense; those guys need more people to point the "asshole finger" at them. However, don't try to disguise that as a guide to identifying and dealing with assholes in regular life if what you really want to do is make a political statement. But, then, James is a philosopher so, maybe, that's all the same to him.

[Also, in posting this review to Amazon, I find it both supremely annoying and amusing that I will have to edit out every usage of the word "asshole" despite the fact that the book is named Assholes.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

John Wick (a movie review post)

John Wick is a simple yet elegant (violent elegance) revenge story. Seriously, it spends 15-20 minutes setting up the "you took my stuff ["stuff" not necessarily being tangible items]; now I'm going to kill you [bitch]" scenario, and everything flowed from there. After that, it's more than an hour of nearly non-stop action and mayhem and lots and lots of bullets. It's kind of amazing in its simplicity, actually, because lots of action movies go for this sort of thing but make the "reason" way too complicated. John Wick hits it just right.

I think the reason it really works is what I'm going to call the "asshole paradigm." See, Wick runs into an asshole. One of those entitled assholes who thinks it's okay to do whatever he wants to do so, when Wick tells him "no," the asshole has to wreck Wick's life. We've all run into those guys (and, yes, "guys" means men because it's almost always men) who think they should just get what they want by virtue of nothing more than who they are and who will resort to violence of some sort (not necessarily physical) to get it. Generally, we are unable to do anything about those people. Which is what makes Wick so great because, after the asshole does what he does, we find out who Wick used to be, and Wick goes after him. It's very... cathartic.

So, yeah, if you're not into action movies, this one isn't for you. If you're looking for a deep, meaningful, complicated story, this one isn't for you. This is pretty much as straightforward as you get. It's as straightforward as two kids on the playground who have a fight because one kid has a toy the other kid (the asshole) wants. But with bullets.

Keanu Reeves is perfect in this part. I mean, he's so perfect that there are, maybe, only one or two other actors who could slip into this role without looking like they were trying to wear a suit coat that just didn't really fit.

Speaking of other actors, all of the other actors in this were great. You might say that it shouldn't be a difficult job to have a small part in a movie like this, and that might be true, but it didn't stop all of them from fitting their roles like fingers into a glove. Of particular note were Alfie Allen (the asshole), Willem Dafoe (the wild card), Adrianne Palicki (whom I am liking more and more and I hope that Marvel goes all the way with her and actually turns her into Mockingbird), Lance Reddick (who is probably generally underrated), and Ian McShane (whom I just like). Oh, also, Clarke Peters (from The Wire along with Reddick and just very good).

These kinds of movies are what I would usually refer to as cotton candy. A lot of fluff but not a lot of substance. However, despite the fact that this movie is probably something like 85% action, it's backed by a kernel of solid story with enough hints at the back story to make it really intriguing. Basically, it escapes my cotton candy classification, and I will actually have to watch it again. It may even be a movie I need to own, which is saying a lot from me for an action movie.

So, if you like action flicks, I'd say that this one is a must-see.

I just hope they don't decide to do a sequel. If anything, go back and give us the back story, but this one feels complete and doesn't need anything after.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I Am Not My Own Demographic

My wife and I went to an Oscars event at a local theater not because we wanted to actually see the Oscars, this year -- both of us were rather underwhelmed with the nominations -- but because we (especially my wife) wanted to see Neil Patrick Harris host the Oscars. In that, we were not disappointed. He made it worth it to me with his opening line, "We are here to honor the best and the whitest..." That followed by his opening number made the expense of going to see the Oscars at a special venue completely worth it even if it was all downhill from there, though I was gratified that Birdman got best picture and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu got best director for it. Oh! The performance of "Glory" from Selma was also amazing.

However, Eddie Redmayne as best actor? Give me a break. All he did was sit in a chair and drool. John Travolta (who is not an actor I enjoy at all), did a better job of presenting than Redmayne did as Hawking. But I digress...

Yes, it was required that my wife and I go out to see the Oscars, because we don't have "TV." We could have followed the results online, but we couldn't actually watch the show without going out... somewhere... to do that. But it was a charity event, so that was kind of cool.

But here's the thing: It was full of people that are of the demographic I should belong to... but really don't. My wife and I were among the youngest people there. Well, maybe there were some people in their late 30s but, mostly, it was white people in the 40s and up. This is the group of people that I should theoretically belong to. And, I suppose, the fact that I was there at all means that I must overlap a some points other than relative age and race, but it certainly didn't feel that way.

For one thing, my wife and I reacted to a lot more of the political talk than pretty much anyone else there in terms of agreeing with it. We laughed at more of the jokes and, I think, appreciated more of what was going on. Especially when it had to with inequities within the Academy itself. [Just to point out, the Academy is more than 90% white and nearly 80% men. Rich, old white guys with OWDS.]

But it was the ongoing disdain from the host and the crowd against super heroes and comic books that really allowed me to see how I just don't fit in with "my" crowd. There were multiple comments about how glad we should all be that no super heroes were nominated for... anything. I just want to point out that super heroes have never been nominated. For anything. However, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were better than at least half of the nominees. Seriously, Whiplash? What a piece of crap. The Theory of Everything, too. Both worthless movies.

Benedict Cumberbatch, though, shined the brightest light on the issue. The host, a little Susan Sarandon number (seriously, if she had said, "Hey, I'm Susan," I might have actually believed her), had a serious thing for Benedict. During the commercial breaks, she was asking trivia questions (for prizes), and she got to this one:
What Marvel character is Benedict Cumberbatch signed on to play in an upcoming movie?
And there was... silence. Which was quite a contrast to all of the other questions which had had people immediately yelling answers. After enough of a pause that it was obvious that no one was going to say anything (and I think she was about to tell the answer), I shouted, "Dr. Strange!" And, see, she was surprised that I knew that. She had not expected an answer. Then, she said, "I don't even know what comic book that is," (or something like that), and I said, "Dr. Strange!" And she was surprised again. Seriously.

There were a couple of hundred people there, and no one else knew that. That's as basic as water to me. Or air. But it's not that I have a specialized knowledge set that that group of people didn't have; it was the reaction to my specialized knowledge set that was the issue. The host was both disdainful and dismissive of it, and she was fairly representative of the class of people that were there. It made me feel as if I was an anthropomorphized raccoon sitting there in the theater.

Okay, so not really.

Because I really am an anthropomorphized raccoon.

Okay, fine! I'm not.

I am Groot.


Anyway, the point is that I don't really fit into this group of people I'm supposed to fit into, and I probably do a lot better job of it here in California than I ever would have done in the South. I'm sure that's why I don't live there anymore. According to my wife, anyway. It might help if I wanted to fit in with the group of "white dudes" or "rich, old white dudes" or whatever. Not that I wouldn't take "rich," I suppose, at least up to a point. But, my gosh, when the only recognition a movie like Selma gets is for the song, then something is wrong. Granted, it's a great song. Again, I'm just going to say, at least Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu got acknowledged for Birdman.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Scarlet Plague (a book review post)

Jack London is a writer I greatly admire, as much (or more) for his work ethic as for anything he ever wrote, though I did love both The Call of the Wild and White Fang when I read them as a teenager. In fact, they started me off on months worth of reading books with animals as central characters. Which I eventually moved away from, because, the farther you got from London, the worse the books got. But I digress...

We often think of post-apocalyptic literature as being a new phenomenon but, really, it's not. In its modern iteration, it goes back almost 200 years, all the way to Mary Shelley, but even ancient cultures wrote apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. With that in mind, London's The Scarlet Plague isn't all the old and isn't all that original in what it does. In fact, there are strong echoes of Shelley's The Last Man in London's book.

What it does do that is interesting, though, is that it jumps 100 years ahead of when London wrote it and set that year as the apocalypse but, then, it jumps ahead another 60 years as its setting and has the last survivor of the collapse of civilization telling the story to his grandchildren. In that, we get both the story of the apocalypse and what happens after the apocalypse.

Of course, one of the big draws for a book like this is seeing how the author was seeing his projected future. London miss-projected on flight and filled the air with dirigibles rather than airplanes. But he got wireless communication even if he did also keep newspapers. I suppose the downfall of physical print media would have been unfathomable during it's rise at the beginning of the 20th century. Amazingly, he also pegged the world population.

There's a section where Smith is trying to explain diseases and germs to his grandchildren. That bit is particularly interesting in light of the current controversy over vaccines. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that London would have been pro-vaccine.

It's a fairly short read, so, in that, it's certainly worth it. It took me less than two hours. And you can get it free for the Kindle, so it's hard to lose there, too. Seriously, it's more than worth it just to see the perspective of someone writing about now from 100 years ago. It's not the greatest thing ever, not even great by London standards, but it's good. And better than a lot of drivel coming out today.