Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Leah" by Ehud Havazelet, A Series of Disappointments

Like Never Before (1998) is Ehud Havazelet's collection of related stories. However, since it’s been a few years since I’ve read the first few stories in the collection, I couldn’t possibly tell you how they are related, except that the main characters are all part of the same extended family.

This morning I just finished reading “Leah”, a fifty page short (?) story in the middle of the book. Sadly, I can’t recommend it. Neither the narrator nor her cousin, Leah, ever endeared themselves to me. Sure, the story does have vivid details as it chronicles the cousin’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.

The main stand-out scene is that of the narrator’s loss of her virginity on the removed front seat of a derelict Buick. It’s not so much the telling of the sex as it is the sense of place, the conversation between the teens, and the chaotic arrival of the entourage immediately following the act. David, the narrator’s dangerous brother, Leah, her religiously devout cousin, and a friend of David’s, Barry, show up with a supply of joints. By the end of this section, it’s clear that the narrator has a tendency to throw all caution to the wind. Her bother’s recklessness and cruelty also come across. And Leah is shown to be restrained to the point of absurdity, even though she clearly is fascinated by the aggressiveness of her cousin David.

The tale disappointed me from that point on. Even though the narrative of Leah’s multiple marriages was supposed to be ironic, given the childhood portrait of Leah praying repeatedly for her future husband, I found no surprise or charm in it. Was I supposed to laugh at the wedding scene where the groom abandons Leah at the altar because he has discovered she lied (or allowed her mother to lie on her behalf) about being a virgin, after two previous marriages?

The narrator’s own series of botched relationships wasn’t amusing either. In none of the relationships depicted is there any believable warmth, even though the narrator claims to love her Rumanian drug-dealer of a boyfriend. I felt nothing at the narrative of his assault and robbery. I couldn’t care less that he had to flee the country.

Lastly there is no sense of epiphany at the end of the tale. Leah pronounces to the narrator, “I’ve watched you your whole life and you’ve never known what would be enough for you.” I wanted to shout aloud, “I noticed that 25 pages ago!”

Leah’s seemingly happy marriage at the end didn’t ring emotionally true either. Her bearded husband and bear-toting child seemed like card-board cutouts.

I only finished reading the story out of stubbornness.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Marillion : Faith (Live)

Beautiful! If you haven't ever listened to Marillion, please start right now. You owe it to yourself! And if you haven't listened to Marillion in a long time . . . well, there must be something wrong with you! ;-) They TRUELY are a global treasure.

Friday, October 12, 2007

BORN Magazine: Art and Literature Together

This morning I happened upon this webzine, BORN, and I can’t recommend it enough. These folks are using computer based multimedia (particularly animation), traditional art, sound effects, and stunning poetic text to provide an intense experience for the audience. Not only did I thrill at the content on the site itself, but also I found myself clicking through a number of the links to learn more about the artists and designers. Think of it as an art gallery where all the artists merge their morphing images with stunning literature and a soundtrack. You’ll be enthralled and amazed! A great place to explore.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Heroes Rant!!!

Ok, this is not so much a review as a RANT! I am so annoyed with Heroes this season. Episode 2 of Season 2 was so awful, I don’t know that I can push through and watch anymore. GRRR!

I’m sorry but it’s not plausible that the Bennet family have relocated with such lavish life-style. Even managers at Kinkos don’t initially make enough for new vehicles and plush accommodations for a family of four—not on a single income! And, PA-LEESSE, you do not keep your job after breaking the fingers of your boss, no matter how annoying he is.

Niki and Micah? Who cares??? Niki is such a whiner. Ditto Micah!

Hiro’s trip to Japan’s past? It’s so silly. He writes notes to Ando and sticks them in the sword handle. What are we back in grade-school here? The notes add nothing to the narrative movement forward. Hiro and Ando were the best thing about Season One, and now they are played strictly for comic relief. What a waste. And I wish that annoying Kensei could kill himself by falling on his own sword. I just can’t stand that selfish SOB.

Maya and Alejandro. They would not be having nearly as many problems if Maya wasn’t so panicky and dependent. So far I have not seen anything redeeming or admirable about them as characters. They’re just helpless children lost in the woods, even though they are clearly full-grown.

Suresh is such a dope. You just know that he’s got to be dead-meat within just a few more episodes. There’s not even any suspense about his fate. He’s so easily fooled.

Peter and his identity in the box. First, the box idea is a stupid gimmick. There is no suspense for the audience since we already know who he is. Who really cares what’s in the box anyway? Even Peter doesn’t care what’s in it. Talk about a pointless story. Second, why should we be interested in Peter having to figure out his powers all over again? Didn’t we already do that last year?

West and Claire flying. Uh, didn’t I see that in Superman: The Movie (1978)???

Isaac’s paintings. Enough already!!!! Isaac is dead. Will we still be interpreting his premonition paintings ten years from now??? I’m sorry but to attempt to build suspense around a brutal death depicted in a painting can’t work forever, folks. See how the death of the cheerleader painting worked out? I’ve had enough. This is a cheesy gimmick if I ever saw one.

All we need now is another cheesy slogan like: “Save the man in the horn-rimmed glasses—Save the world!!”

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Short Story Kick: J.D. Chapman’s The Museum of Wooden Architecture

I’ve been on a kick of reading short stories. Partially because I have discovered I can read them while exercising on a treadmill or elliptical machine, usually finishing an entire story in about 30 minutes. It certainly beats the heck out of watching a.m. television! Over the next few days, perhaps weeks, I hope to offer a few notes on some of the most exciting stories I’ve read recently:

The Museum of Wooden Architecture by J.D. Chapman, Southern Humanities Review Winter 2007

This is the story of Travis Gruoch who wants to grow up to be astronaut, until the Challenger explosion. As an alternate focus for his Cold War fascination, Travis signs up to study Russian in high school and eventually follows his passion to participate in a Russian-American exchange program. The bulk of the story covers Travis’ outrageously funny stay in Russia.

J.D. Chapman offers up some wonderful character descriptions and details throughout this joyride of a story:

Mr. Metz [the Earth Science teacher] had learned to play the bagpipes in the Air Force, and was good at that; during assemblies and pep rallies he put on his blue kilt, his legs naked and incongruous beneath, like an Airedale’s, and he paraded around the basketball court with the thing under his arm like a speared goose.

[Ms. Kromer, U.S. History teacher] had long legs and hair the color of V-8 . . .

No one encouraged Travis to take Russian, or even pointed out that it was available; it sat there on the mock schedule after French and before Spanish like an auk among pigeons.

The dialogue as Travis interacts with his Russian host family is particularly funny as well:

He [Travis] remembered the word for tasty, and he said it many times though he didn’t find it so. “Big thanks,” he said. “Very, very tasty. Very good.”

After dinner, Vladim put on a bluegrass record. He asked Travis, “Do you know it?” in Russian, and then pronounced, “Bloo-Grras!” in English. He snapped his fingers.

Travis said, “Of course. Yes. Music of Virginia, of my homeland,” and he snapped along with it though it was some kind of phony studio crossover shit with an electric bass and drums, and harmonies all wrong, not high lonesome at all but corny and sweet as a Disney kids’ record, and anyway Travis like John Cougar Mellencamp. He said, “My favorite!”

Vladim opened up a cabinet and took out a bottle of vodka. Tanya said, “No!” and looked embarrassed, but Vladim waved her off and said, “My son! My big, American son!” He poured the vodka into tall glasses, then spooned in sugar and bilberries. It burned, but it was very good. Travis had never been drunk before. His face was warm, and he said, “I love y’all,” and he tried to teach Tanya the buck-and wing.

As with all the best short story humorists (Twain, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, to name a few), J.D. Chapman artfully shifts tone by the end of the story to make you feel deeply with the main character. The final paragraphs of the story hearken back to the opening images, but whereas the opening was light-hearted, the last scene is melancholy. There is the shock of mature insight. Through Travis’ eyes we get a strong sense of the impact of Cold War repression and the ongoing poverty of the Russian culture. This is absolutely one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reviews of "Phoenix" Star Trek novels

The Price of the Phoenix (1977)
Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath
Read July 30, 2007 – August 8, 2007

The Fate of the Phoenix (1979)
Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath
Read September 12, 2007 – October 2, 2007

With the upcoming theatrical reboot of Star Trek featuring the original series characters, I’ve been feel nostalgic for the long past days when in Middle School and High School I could while away hours and even days reading Star Trek paperbacks. Yes, once-upon-a-time I would have claimed the label of Trekkie with pride. I guess old Trekkies die hard, since I’ve just finished reading three Trek novels in a row. I’d like to offer some notes on two of those which are among the earliest Trek novels.

The Price of the Phoenix lived up to my memory of it from those long past days of leisure. I had remembered that the novel featured a super-villain who utilized both psychological and physical torture in his attacks against Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. I had remember that this villain Omne had duplicated Kirk as part of his master plan to remake the universe in his image. Most importantly, I had remembered this as one of the most exciting and tension filled Trek novels ever. All these memories were verified in re-reading The Price of the Phoenix. Throughout this 182 page novel, my attention was riveted to this intense battle of wills.

What I had forgotten was the philosophical debates that run throughout the novel, revolving mostly around the value and place of exact duplicates. For example, what do you do with a man who is an exact copy of Captain Kirk? Obviously you can’t have two Kirks on the bridge of the Enterprise. If only one can command, is it irrefutably obvious that the original must have preference? When both are exactly the same down to the memories, how can you say the replica has less of a right?

There were moments in reading this novel that my head hurt from the shifts from extreme physical peril to mind games to moral debates. If it had been any greater in length, I might have despaired. However, as it was, I was quite pleased for the most part to lose myself in the trials Omne imposed on our beloved crew. If there ever was a villain who embodied the sensation of “menace” it is Omne; and as such, his threat gave me a thrill.

Lastly, I also enjoyed the development of the Romulan Commander and the Kirk duplicate who came to embrace the name James. It seems to me that these two were used to great effect as a foil to Kirk and Spock. James slowly starts to find an alternate life in the budding relationship with the Romulan Commander, and James comes to accept that he must relinquish Spock, McCoy, and his ship the Enterprise.

As for Fate of the Phoenix, the sequel, I can’t say nearly as much, at least not favorable comments. Where Price of the Phoenix was tight, intense, and claustrophobic even, The Fate of the Phoenix is a flawed attempt at epic. My biggest disappointment in The Fate of the Phoenix was how Omne turns ally. Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to take a great villain of true menace and turn him into a cuddly friend?

The reason for the alliance is moderately interesting as an idea. Omne needs Kirk, Spock, the Commander, and James to help in a war against himself. Omne has made a duplicate of himself and cloaked this copy in a replica of Spock’s body. Thus Omne has a disguise for infiltrating the Enterprise. However, Omne’s other goes awol, seeking dominance over his maker and cure for a built in death-date. Again sounds okay for a concept but in execution it comes off as contrived and flimsy.

There are so many reversals of fortune as the upper hand shifts back and forth between Omne and his Other, as the Commander fights for her James, as Kirk volleys from the realization that at one time or another his Spock had been replaced, and as Kirk and Spock weigh the morality of keeping one’s word to Omne.

At about the halfway point, I was desperate to be done with the book. I nearly skipped the final chapter a few times, but instead simply read only a few pages each night before bed—like a gulp of bad tasting medicine.

Overall I suspect that Marshak & Culbreath were attempting to create a very different book from Price of the Phoenix, perhaps a space epic. However, their ambition exceeded their gifts. Scene to scene this book feels fraught with contrived and melodramatic events. Also the whole family feel of Star Trek doesn’t quite make it into this book, because everyone had doubts about everyone. I hope I remember to never re-read this one again.