Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making Unpopular Literary Connections

TelefonImage via Wikipedia

About two hours into my late night English class, an integral part of Project Unending Education, Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening came under scrutiny when one of the students interrupted the Professor's praise of the rural imagery to point out that many people consider the poem to be about suicide.

A friendly yet heated debate broke out, with the Professor rejecting this interpretation despite its growing popularity among the students. Not be left out of the conversation, I decided to add some cultural background to the discussion:

"Actually, it seems to be a common interpretation," I blurted out. "The last stanza of the poem was even used as the trigger phrase to activate sleeper-agent suicide assassins in the Charles Bronson espionage thriller Telefon, which ironically was an adaptation of a novel by the same author who wrote the book that Die Hard 2 was based on."

The entire class freezes in an uncomfortable, wide-eyed silence, all eyes focused on me sharing the same
mixed expression of confusion and disbelief.

Someday I'll learn that not everything has to do with movies, even when it does.
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Review: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

Web Goodhue is what many might refer to as a loser. A former schoolteacher turned full time slacker, Web divides his time between surviving off handouts and pissing off anyone he comes in contact with. Things begin to change rapidly, however, when his friend and roommate loses what remains of his patient understanding and forces him to take a job with a mutual acquaintance. This plunges Web into the bizarre and gruesome world of Crime Scene Cleaning, launching him on a frantic and brutal journey that will force him to examine his few crumbling relationships, re-evaluate his life, confront hidden memories of a traumatic past, and deliberate on the best way to clean brains and skull fragments out of shag carpeting.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is one of the few stand-alone novels of Charlie Huston, the popular crime fiction author responsible for the successful Hank Thompson and Joe Pitt series. Departing once again from his popular serialized novels, Huston has created a wonderfully captivating story of self-discovery and evaluation with enough criminally insane characters and violently graphic murder scenes to please even the most jaded pulp fan.

The majority of the book’s success rests on the shoulders of the main character Web, whose first-person narration guides us through his personal journey. Web is the perfect anti-hero, displaying anti-social behaviors and poorly motivated decision-making that repel the thought of emulation, yet with a level of self-awareness and confusion that never risks alienating the reader. The slow reveal of the source of his post-traumatic disorder not only explains his behavior without excusing it, but its revelation is a surprisingly human and believable scene, and a true testament to Huston’s mastery of true-to-life dialogue and the frailty of human emotion. Also, his sudden relationship with the daughter of the suicide victim of his first crime scene cleanup, while convenient for the advancement of the story, is far from contrived or easily explained away.

Nevertheless, this is a gritty crime story, and Web’s road to emotional discovery is heavily paved with ruthless killers, street-hardened hoods, delusional criminals, and a wide variety of inventively graphic deaths. The title of the book refers to the newly chosen career path of Web’s, Crime Scene Cleanup, and a good portion of the story dwells on the darkly humorous potential inherent in scraping up and hauling away the aftermath of violent crimes and messy suicides. From detailed explanations of how to get blood off wallpaper to the results of committing suicide with a pipe-bomb suppository, Mystic Art dwells in so much bloody minutiae that the reader will occasionally wish they had a hazmat suit of their own. Of course, this sort of detail could easily devolve into a tedious grocery list of factual data reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk’s works, but Huston never comes close to overwhelming or boring his audience with the research he obviously put into the novel.

Charlie Huston is well known for delivering top-notch work, and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is no different. It is an unflinching exercise in gallows humor and crime drama with a solid plot and remarkable yet wholly believable characters. Not only will you enjoy it, but you might even learn how to detect blood splatter on upholstery.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are The Children Our Publishing Future?

British editions of the seven Harry Potter booksImage via Wikipedia
Harlan Coben to write Young Adult Novels

It seems like a lot of authors are making the switch to teen audiences these days. Harlan Coben signs a three-book deal to write about a teenager attempting to expose a conspiracy behind his family, F. Paul Wilson has a new series of young Repairman Jack novels on the way, and the list continues to grow. And it isn't just books, either. The next batch of James Bond movies are going to focus on a young, teenage Bond (presumably minus the martinis and gratuitous sex), and have you see the new Doctor Who? More like Doogie Who-ser, M.D. Of course, it isn't unusual for Hollywood to tone everything down to a broader PG-13 audience when things get tight, but at this point I'm waiting for Dan Brown to announce a new young adult series featuring a teenage Langdon skipping his study hall to chase down adolescent Templars.

So what gives? Have teenagers suddenly grown as a literary market? It seems kind of contradictory that Young Adult sections at bookstores and libraries are doubling in size at the same time that parents and other irrational busybodies are crying out that texting and twitter are raising a generation of functional illiterates. Then again, I've always been wary of the naysayers who claim that the advancement of communications technology actually has teenagers communicating less. But even if I disagree with that, can I deny that teens are spending more and more time online, texting, tweeting, messaging, and playing video games that becoming eerily realistic? How can teenagers squeeze all of this in and still have time to read the last Young Adult series? They must be, as I would hope the publishing industry has sales numbers to back their big push to enlarge the YA market.

Harry Potter and Twilight might be a major reason for the move. All of those young kids who started reading the first Harry Potter have grown u along with the scar-faced wizard, and have joined forces with the equally obsessive (if not more so) Twilight crowd. With such a large fan base of teenagers devouring Atlas Shrugged-sized tomes about glittery vampires and dysfunctional warlock apprentices, and spending great wads of cash on anything tying in with the books and movies in the process, there is definitely money to be made. But how does that translate into bigger book sales overall, especially in a recession that has even the major publishers scrambling to justify their roles in the marketplace?

My theory (and I'm sure it isn't mine alone) is that the blending of technologies into the world of print, far from being the death knell of the publishing industry as many have predicted, has actually begun to breath new life into it. While eBooks and eReaders have yet to take over the marketplace, they are definitely gaining in popularity, and have helped make written works more easily accessible to those with powerful handheld communication devices, and we all know how much teenagers love their powerful handheld communication devices. Add this to the growing number of teenagers actively reading or writing in the ever growing blogosphere, and you have a new generation of children actually being led to the literary world by the very machines we feared would destroy it.

So yes, we will most likely see an increasing number of established authors jumping gleefully into the Young Adult pool. And as eReaders and ePublishers begin integrating animation and interactive features into their eBook releases, more and more kids are going to be tricked into thinking that books are just as cool, if not cooler, than 3D movies and PSP.
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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Itawamba High School, Educating the Bigots of Tomorrow

Location of Fulton, MississippiImage via Wikipedia
That sounds a bit harsh, I suppose. After all, where do I get off accusing an entire school of being ignorant, backwards, redneck, homophobic redneck bigots? Seems kind of cruel, doesn't it?

Indeed, let's talk about cruel.

If you watch or read the news with any regularity, you've probably heard about the struggles of young teenage lesbian Constance McMillen, who has been jumping through legal hoops in order to take her date to the Itawamba High School prom. Usually not a big deal. But it suddenly becomes a big deal when your prom date is of the same sex, and school you attend is populated by uptight judgmental tools abiding by a morality system half a century out of date.

First, they told Constance that she would not be allowed to attend the Itawamba High School prom with her girlfriend. Constance rightly deduced that she was being unfairly discriminated against, and with the help of the ACLU got the courts to force the school to allow her to attend the prom. Not to be outdone, Itawamba High School cancelled the prom, insisting that it was being cancelled for a completely unrelated and unspecified reason. Constance, the ACLU and the courts saw through this clever ruse, however, and promptly ordered them to hold a prom.

So, what did the proud members of Itawamba High School, which laughingly includes the word "empowerment" in its Mission Statement, finally decide to do? Begrudgingly accepting the court decision and take a reluctant step into the dawn of acceptance and tolerance would have been way way to handle the decision. Instead, Itawamba High School decided to adhere to playground rules and hold a secret prom.

Just to be clear, this is not an exaggeration or embellishment for dramatic effect. A "fake prom" was held at a Fulton, Mississippi Country Club, to which only seven students were directed to: Constance and her date and five other students, two of which were students with learning difficulties. The rest of the students were apparently directed to a "secret prom," or as I like to call it, a No Gays Prom, at an undisclosed location.

Now, there is no shock when it comes to teenagers acting cruelly or maliciously, or using exclusionary tactics to embarrass or degrade others. Kids are kids, and there will always be those who seek to feel better about themselves by publicly ostracizing or excluding other kids for any reason available that marks them as being "different." If this was just the students, then this sort of behavior, while still unacceptable, would be sadly expected.

But this isn't just about the kids. These are the parents of teenagers, active in the community, no doubt with direct ties to the school board, that actively coordinated the creation of two separate proms: one for "our kids," and on for gays, mentally handicapped, and any other unwanted students.

It goes even wider than that: there can be no doubt that the faculty of Itawamba High School knew about these arrangements, and that word spread to at least some of the residents of Fulton, Mississippi that the grandest display of juvenile exclusionary backstabbing was about to take place. Yet no one saw the need to inform Constance, her parents, or the media closely monitoring the whole scenario that something foul, disgusting, and downright immature was about to take place. Indeed, it seems that the kind of petty isolationist attitude you would expect at a twelve-year-old's birthday party was fully supported by any and every so-called responsible adult that knew about it.

Any rational human being (i.e., not someone from Itawamba High School) might be tempted to feel sorry for Constance, just imagining the emotional impact of having the entire student body, as well as the staff and faculty of Itawamba High School, and a good portion of the town of Fulton, Mississippi tell you that you are unwelcome by inviting you to a fake prom. But there is no pity to be had here, for Constance truly comes out as the victor in this scenario. She not only successfully stood up to institutionalized discrimination and bigotry, she forced the bitter, hateful people of Itawamba High School to show their true faces while simultaneously hiding from public view.

All it takes is a brief trip to the Photos section of the Itawamba High School Website to see the true display of cowardice; the blank page where the Prom 2010 Photos should be is blank, as the school apparently doesn't feel the need to post pictures from either the Fake Prom or the No Gays Prom. There is also no email address listed on their Contact page, only a physical mailing address, although whether this was the case before the No Gays Prom is unknown to me. Their omission reveals their acknowledgement of their complicity, that a whole nation of rational human beings would hold these smiling pictures of happy students and proud parent chaperons, and rightfully declare every smiling face the face of ignorance and prejudice.

I hope colleges across the country are taking note of Itawamba High School's graduating class. I think any institution of higher learning would want to take into consideration a potential college student's involvement in a vast conspiracy to publicly shun and segregate a fellow student based solely on her sexual orientation. Always looks good on a job resume, too. 

Constance is already far wiser than most of the jackasses currently attending her school and teaching her classes. When asked about the fact that two students with learning disabilities were also directed to the Fake Prom, she said "They had the time of their lives. That's the one good thing that come out of this, they didn't have to worry about people making fun of them." It's a sad but intuitive realization for a young girl to have, that sometimes it is better to be excluded than to be mocked and ridiculed by ignorant and immature people full of little more than hate and uncompromising intolerance. Especially when that level of ignorance and immaturity is being displayed by a majority of your town's parents and educational professionals.

Itawamba High School, Home of Intolerance and Bigotry. Now there's a Diploma worthy of framing.
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Monday, April 5, 2010

More Than 200,000 Could Lose Unemployment Benefits This Week

If you ever needed a clear example of exactly how little politicians care about the people whose welfare they supposedly are working for, you won't do much better than this.

The first time this happened, back in February, you could pretty much level the blame at the Republicans exclusively. This time around, however, both sides are guilty of putting the chance of scoring a political win ahead of the importance of lending financial security to the growing number of Americans currently unemployed because of the governments initial failings at monitoring economic policy and procedure.

The Democrats could have easily called the Republican bluff and worked through the Easter break to get the job done, or could have accepted the temporary extension offered and fixed things on the return. Instead, they decided to double down and gamble on some more negative press for the GOP. It is rather unfortunate that the only time the Dems seem to grow a pair is when it doesn't benefit anyone.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost
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