Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review: The President's Vampire by Robert Damon Schneck

In the past, I have often found that many books and anthologies on unexplained phenomena and bizarre events are either sensationalized accounts with vague descriptions and no concrete details, or dry and inspirational regurgitation of other source materials with more footnotes than original material. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered Robert Damon Schneck's book The President's Vampire.

Schneck's approach is far from exploitational. His attention to detail and devotion to searching out the truth behind the sensational and unverified leaves no doubt to the author's curiosity or credibility. Exhaustive and well-documented historical research is devoted to every subject, even when possibly debunking an even more remarkable aspect to a story. But neither is his writing boring or overly-clinical. Schneck's academic yet personal approach to his subject matter does not hide an almost uncontainable passion for the unusual and unexplained phenomena he writes about, and more importantly, it does not detract from how fun and compelling his writing is.

Most chilling and disturbing is the final chapter, Bridge to Body Island, an examination of a

OuijaImage via Wikipedia

friend's recollected close call with a supernatural bogeyman. Many authors would present the tale on its own with perhaps a few embellishments for dramatic effect. Schneck, however, tells the story (which is genuinely creepy and unsettling) and then proceeds to examine the possible explanations for the events that took place, including research into possible real-world connections. His historical and scholarly comparisons and explanations are as captivating as the story itself, and do nothing to prevent readers who have used a Ouija board in the past from losing sleep.

That is where Schneck's approach to such Fortean tales as God Machines and Presidential Pardons for Vampires is a step above other authors in the field. He might not hold a flashlight under his face while leaning over the campfire to tell a spooky story, but that is because more often than not, the facts are far more disturbing. Robert Schneck delivers them, and thankfully so.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

White Pride? Officer Who Arrested Gates Refuses to Apologize

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Image via Wikipedia

Everyone's heard the story by now. Renowned black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. gets a visit from police officers after someone reports a someone trying to break into Gates' home. The perp, as it turns out, is Gates himself, who locked himself out of his home. On the off chance that the well-dressed sixty year old man that answered the door for police might still be some kind of burglar, Gates was asked to prove his residency. At the end of the debacle, during which the noted literary critic and intellectual demanded the police officer's name and badge number, he was arrested for "Disorderly Conduct."

Of course, when I first heard the news, I immediately thought of the Dave Chapelle routine about black homeowners and their reluctance to call for police in major cities like New York or Los Angeles. "Open and shut case, Johnson! Apparently this black guy broke in and hung up pictures of his family everywhere!"

There's been a lot of debate over the whole thing, of course. Whenever a minority is victimized or singled out in some fashion, whether initially justified or not, there is going to be a heated debate. One side will insist it is indicative of institutionalized racism and unfair treatment of minorities by racist cops, whether the person was guilt or not. The other side will rabidly defend the innocence of the police despite any evidence to the contrary, and complain about political correctness and affirmative action. Even the President of the United States of America weighed in on this one, calling the arrest "stupid" and taking the institutionalized racism side. Of course, since Obama is America's first Black President, it makes sense that he would have to give his opinion on the major news story.

But of course, the part of this story that surprises me the least is that the arresting officer, James Crowley, refuses to apologize.

I've known police officers, both directly and through family members, and one major gripe they've always had is the negative attitude that the general public feels towards them. Its a justified complaint; spending your life in service of the public, only to have that public constantly dismissive and suspicious of you, can be a major emotional drain. But no matter how many positive and even outright pro-police propaganda television shows and films are cranked out, public opinion of the police in general is on the negative side. For the men and women in law enforcement, that kind of publicity can make you wonder if the job is worth it.

So who do you blame for negative public opinion of the police? For a start, idiots like James Crowley. Of course, that's a little unfair to Crowley; he isn't the first cop to refuse any civil response to an awkward situation, and it isn't just individual officers spreading that kind of pig-headed stubbornness around. When Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot forty-one times by NYPD officers because they claimed his wallet looked like a gun, there was no humility on display in their public statements to the press. Granted, no one expected them to throw their own officers under the bus. But not only did they continuously defend shooting an unarmed man forty-one times as a reasonable response and well within the line of duty, they (meaning the

New York City Police DepartmentImage via Wikipedia

NYPD as a whole) also never showed any real remorse for Diallo's death. And they sure as hell never apologized for accidentally killing the man.

Is this kind of bully-boy arrogance really necessary? I'm not saying that cops should run around saying Please and Thank You and asking permission for every little inconvenience. But when someone like James Crowley pulls an obviously ego-driven bonehead move like arresting someone in their own home for being 'belligerent', especially when the racial ramifications of the misunderstanding are painfully obvious, would it really be damaging to police department's public image to shout out a quick "Oops, my bad?"

Sadly, that's not an isolated incident, and not nearly the worst example to be made. I could spend pages listing children and elderly people being tasered to death and being placed in fatal choke-holds, unwarranted brutality and abuse at the hands of chest-thumping 'roid gorillas with badges, gross mishandling of innocent people by the system at a bureaucratic level, and an endless stream of harassment of private citizens for purely personal, political, or ethically unsound reasons. Not all of these examples take place in New York, California, and Texas, either. Honest.

Many will argue that cops shouldn't have to say "I'm sorry." My response is that nobody has to say "I'm sorry," but they tend to do so diplomatically when mistakes have been made. And my warning is that, if you are going to fight the occasional act of grace and courtesy so vehemently, then I don't want to hear you asking why so many people distrust, fear, or outright hate the police. You know why.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: Chronicles of the Undead by A.F. Stewart

Author A.F. Stewart has managed to accomplish a none-to-easy task in the realm of the vampire novels. She has managed to create a unique and captivating voice in a realm populated mainly by Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton clones substituting melodramatic whining and gratuitous sex for depth and substance.

Chronicles of the Undead
offers the reader a closer look at the lives of two Victorian era vampires residing in London, and the people whose lives intersect with theirs, through a series of diary entries. The diaries cover the span of thirty-three years, during which the various authors reveal their own fears and desires through the recording of their thoughts and the descriptions of daily events told through the filter of their own perceptions.

The author's adherence to the diary format seems a little light at first, but after awhile the lack of overly descriptive narrative and meandering dialog becomes a welcome absence, as the characters distill themselves and make the gradual discovery of who and what they are even more interesting. Also, the book's division into entries from different diaries lends a contrast to the writing and perspective that prevents the format from stagnating.

If there is to be a complaint about Chronicle of the Undead, it is that the diary format unavoidably makes for a quick read that leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied. But then again, good books always leave the reader hungry for more.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Book Review: Woodsburner by John Pipkin

Historical Fiction is probably one of the harder genres for an author to succeed in, especially when it is not written as a sub-genre of Mystery, True Crime or Romance novels. Taking historical people and events and placing them within a fictional narrative can be a precarious balancing act; too much historical accuracy can weigh down a story, while taking too many liberties can unintentionally turn the whole thing into a farce. Tackling a historical literary figure can be even more daunting, as readers familiar with the author's works will no doubt possess their own vision of his or her personality.

With this in mind, John Pipkin took a perilous task in hand when he decided to pen a fictionalized account of Henry David Thoreau's accidental act of wildfire arson in Woodsburner: A Novel. His theory that Thoreau's unintentional decimation of 300 acres of woodland forest might have sparked the emotional and philosophical journey that would inspire much of his later works (most notably Walden) is intriguing. But Pipkin's interest isn't merely academic; Woodsburner strives to understand and examine the spiritual journey that would sprout from such a traumatic event, and on this level he succeeds.

The pace and tone of Woodsburner matches the style of its subject. Not a thrilling page-turner, it is instead casual and reflective, admiring the landscape (of both the Massachusetts wilderness and mid 1800s) the as it examines and dwells upon it. Switching the narrative between three other main (fictional) characters besides Thoreau as the fire spreads and builds gives the reader a perspective of perceptions and realities that aids in the illustration of Thoreau's personal journey, and helps to further explore the time period. In short, Pipkin handily succeeds in turning a historical footnote into a provoking and engaging novel.

Woodsburner has enough heart and soul for readers interested in the motivations and decisions characters make, flavor and detail for people looking for the historical perspective of the time period, and penetrating prose for those hungry for a more personal look at a famous literary figure.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: Still Life by Joy Fielding

With over twenty books under her belt, Joy Fielding is bound to improve with every novel, yet occasionally produce work that feels like it is a step backward to her faithful readers. Still Life: A Novel, while well-written in spite of a tricky Plot device, still manages to fall short of what Fielding fans have come to expect.

The gimmick of having the books narrator spend the majority of the novel non-communicative yet fully aware of her surroundings in a coma, attempting to solve her attempted murder and prevent a successful second go at it, seems intriguing and inventive at the start. It is.

But the longer you read, the more you begin to realize that you've heard this story before. There isn't much extraordinary material in the book to separate it from other variations on the same theme, including the ever popular "ghost attempting to solve own murder" yarn, no matter how well Fielding handles the self-imposed restrictions of the plot device. Add to that a few instances of non-essential back stories that serve little more purpose than running up the page count, and you can't help shake the feeling that, as competent and well-written Still Life might be, it might have been better served as a short story.

Much like the book's heroine, Still Life manages to exist somewhere between a dead bore and a living, breathing work. You may not hate it, but chances are you won't love it, either. Call it a mystery on life support.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

United Breaks Guitars, Caves to Youtube Video

Just another example of the old story of Airline damages luggage, luggage owner seeks restitution, Airline tells valued customer to get bent.

However, in this case the airline was United Airlines, the luggage was a $3,500 guitar, the luggage owner was Dave Carroll, member of the Sons of Maxwell band, and his response to being told to get bent was to go viral with a Youtube video about his (and his Taylor guitar's) treatment by United's crack customer service team, even going so far as to mention his final contact, Ms. Irlweg, by name.

Surprise, surprise. Months of desperate phone calls and conversations to countless United Airlines officials gains nothing but indifference and rejection. But a music video about the problem with 1.3 Million Youtube hits and major news coverage later, and United Airlines suddenly cares about repaying a customer for the damage done to his luggage.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bernard Goldberg is a Whore

I have a habit of switching back and forth between MSNBC and Fox News when I'm working on

An example of The O'Reilly Factor's Talking Po...Image via Wikipedia

a project and need some background noise. One casual flick of the remote's Recall button at the first sign of a commercial gives me a steady stream of hackneyed biased journalism from both sides of the political spectrum while I tend to more serious matters.

This information serves no purpose other than to explain how I managed to catch Bernie Goldberg on The O'Reilly Factor last night.

O'Reilly appeared to be weighing in on the excessive media coverage of the Michael Jackson Memorial by spending an excessive portion of his show covering it. Not satisfied with just one overwhelming irony, O'Reilly also argued with black author Marc Lamont Hill that the black community shouldn't be heralding Jackson as a black entertainer because he had white children, that there was no racial component involved with Michael Jackson's success because he helped break down racial barriers, and then went on to complain that not enough people were talking about Jackson's child molestation charges during the memorial coverage, even though a year or two ago he had told Hill that mentioning allegations of racism during the week of Jerry Falwell's death was out of line.

Then, just for fun, he trotted Bernie Goldberg out to complain about the media.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Bernie Goldberg is a political commentator that spends the majority of his time complaining that the mainstream media (or MSM, if you must) is overwhelmingly liberal, socialist, and godless. In short, he's just like every other conservative political commentator, with the exception of being so good at his job that he actually inspired one nutjob to go on a killing spree.

During their Michael Jackson Memorial discussion about how shameless and pathetic all of the Michael Jackson Memorial

In Scream, Jackson and his sister Janet angril...Image via Wikipedia

coverage was, Bernie referred to all of the reporters and journalists covering the event as "hookers."

This isn't a shocking accusation. In fact, it's typical of Goldberg's criticisms of any news coverage he finds unfavorable. It is also an accusation lifted from his new book, "A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media," which is (surprise, surprise) a harsh indictment of the media unfairly favorable coverage of Barrack Obama. In the book, Bernie calls Chris Matthews "...a journalist hooker putting out for Obama from the moment the senator showed some leg.”

Now, I am not interested in defending the integrity or honor of the mainstream news media. I don't think there's too much to defend. But Bernie Goldberg's comment caught my attention enough that I looked up and watched the rest of the interview. So I noticed that Bernie Goldberg's book was being plugged on the bottom of the screen during the entire interview.

Bernie has every right in the world to hawk his book, and to make television appearances with the intention of hawking his book. No criticism there. But let's level the accusatory playing field here. Bernie Goldberg accuses television journalists of being whores because their main goal has

Cover of Cover via Amazon

been to attract a wide audience for their respective stations by discussing the Michael Jackson Memorial, with the intention of making money through high ratings. Bernie Goldberg then appears on television to attract a wide audience for his book by discussing the Michael Jackson Memorial, with the intention of making money through high book sales.

If A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C. Bernie Goldberg is a whore. Even worse, he's the kind of whore that parades up and down the street berating the other whores for being so cheap and easy. He's not just a whore; he's a nasty whore.

Of course, if Bernie is a whore (by his own definition) for selling his political opinion, where does that leave bloggers like myself, who spout their own narrow political opinions for anyone with the bandwidth and patience to read them? I can't speak for others, but I can certainly tell you that I am no whore; I collect no revenue for what I do. That makes me a slut.

I can live with that.

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