Stars Wars is Straight Outta Compton


I’ve never bought rap music, or listened to it closely until the other night. That was when I watched Straight Outta Compton. I’m dense, I guess, but I never gave much thought to why the rise of the group NWA attracted so much attention. This was in the era of the Rodney King beating by L.A. cops, and the significance of that newsworthy event was that the beating wasn’t particularly newsworthy to black residents of Compton, California. Just ask the surviving members of NWA, who chronicled their similar lives in their music. This harkens back to the 60’s and Vietnam, when folk and rock music became a way of communicating both newsworthy events largely ignored by the mainstream press and the feelings and frustration of young folks about the direction the U.S. seemed be heading in that era. So it was, too, with Compton, as NWA poured their frustrations and rage into their music, and by so doing connected with the same in so many young blacks around the U.S.


Then last night Jane and I went to see Star Wars. Such movies don’t become popular by throwing reality in your face, as Straight Outta Compton does. Instead that reality is cloaked in metaphor. A collection of misfit creatures on the arid planted, Jakku (not unlike Compton in some ways), is suddenly attacked by the First Order and their soldiers, who are dressed in white armored suits (Getting the parallel here?). The First Order goons are merciless and brutal with the Jakku residents, who in their turn are both intimidated and enraged. Not unlike the residents of Compton, I should imagine, at the random unprovoked attacks by the L.A. police. Of course, in Star Wars, right prevails, at least for the moment, while we still have Ferguson and other such blights on race relations in the U.S.

It’s interesting that the misfit underclass in Star Wars is cheered, while the members of Straight Outta Compton are called gangsters. This is the gift of art and metaphor – you can get an audience to cheer right and hate evil when they don’t have to personally identify with one side or the other.

And btw, Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton, did a heck of a job with that role, and deserved to have been nominated for an Oscar.


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The New Slavery



Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

For those who haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories religiously, Mycroft is Sherlock’s older brother. Jabbar, who apparently has read the Holmes mysteries avidly, has decided that there is much to make of Mycroft apart from Sherlock and Watson. And so he’s created a very Holmesian novel, although with distinct characters and settings.


The story? Mycroft is seemingly happy and about to celebrate his engagement to Georgiana Sutton, when his beloved abruptly leaves London for Trinidad, her place of origin. This bumfuzzles Mycroft, and he engages friend Cyrus Douglas, a black tobacco trader, to accompany him in following Georgiana to Trinidad. On shipboard, they’re accosted for no apparent reason, but finally reach the island, only to discover that Georgiana is engaged in nefarious activities involving an attempt to resurrect slavery.
At its root, the story here is something of a morality tale of how the poor and disenfranchised are exploited for commerce. The writing is a blend of Doyle’s style and modern language, and it works quite well.
If there’s a quibble to unearth here, it’s that the authors give us too many twists and turns. In doing so, they diminish the effect of the famed Doyle’s storytelling that they seek to expand on.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

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While Burnside’s quote seems all too true from a distance, today it proves dreary and too monochromatic to engage my senses. It’s days like this that make me yearn for spring.


Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible.

~ John Burnside ~


Taking It Lying Down


Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman

I rarely read such books, and when I do it’s principally because someone has thrust them on me. Not always, though. I agreed to give this one a read because of its seeming parallel to a book by one of my favorite writers, Ron Hansen: Mariette in Ecstasy. But the dissimilarities are more populous. In Hansen’s, the girl falls into trances, has stigmata bleeding-but there are hints of abuse. In the end, Hansen leaves it to the reader to decide whether the girl’s experiences are real. As if subjective experience can be judged to be real.
In Lying Awake, this book’s girl clearly has a Church no-no: epilepsy, and in its throes she also has ecstatic experiences. Her choice – and Salzman’s – is much more mundane. She must decide to have surgery and live a “normal” cloistered life, or to retain her epilepsy and its consequent ecstasy. I won’t spoil the choice she makes, but its essence is more mundaneness.


What’s common to both books is an interesting observation; that even within cloistered walls spiritual experiences are looked on with utmost suspicion. As a result the successful life behind these walls in one of cognitive dissonance: living a life devoted to religious devotion and spiritual pursuit while all but denying such devotion as anything but failure, of pursuing ecstasy that is always looked on with suspicion.

Too, Salzman’s writing is a bit of a mess. His attempts at writerly eloquence is pedestrian, his bouncing around in time as he spins a potentially interesting story is without apparent design. His spiritual device is clumsy and its eventual end is disappointing and hardly thoughtful.

My rating: 11 of 20 stars


Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.

~ Abraham Lincoln ~

Lincoln’s quote reveals the real value of literature. Truth, the deepest observations of humankind, never really changes in its essence. It simply puts on the clothes of the time and society it’s written in.

To Kill or Be Killed


Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich

There are only a few types of novels these days, although the form is replicating itself. We have the stud of the twenty-first century, the literary novel, with its various permutations, and we have the genre novel, where most writers learn and earn their bones. Newly minted writer Brian Panowich is of the second persuasion and has learned the gift of non-linear storytelling. Meaning he can tell a story complex in time and structure. And for the most part Bull Mountain is a decent first effort.


His is the fictional story of the Burroughs family of rural and mountainous north Georgia. These gents are violent-from-the-grave ne’er do wells, and their women are not far behind. Panowich plays with the Southern theme of persons locked into place, as if their land were another character – and in Panowich’s hands, north Georgia is. I won’t burden this down with their lineage, but it leads in 2015 to a death-dealing, almost biblical conflict between the two remaining brothers of the family, Clayton and Halford. Clayton is a local sheriff and brother Hal is a drug dealing psychopath. Events conspire to bring them to a showdown, both legal and familial, and the author leads us readers into it with page-turning expertise.

Panowich still has some to learn concerning structuring such complexities, and his dialogue can be overwrought in places. Still, his storytelling gift brings him to the writer’s table, and with this he’s inspired.

My Rating: 16 of 20 stars

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Reading Makes You Smarter?


There’s been a lot said and written in past years – particularly since the advent of tweets, blog posts, and e-mail – about the value of snippet reading. It’s a great way to amass information, they say.

But let me work the other side of the fence for a moment. Yes, those snippets will allow you to be a walking encyclopedia. But will grabbing headlines, dashing off tweets or speed reading e-mails enable you and your end users to use make use of such information? Better, will this gulping down of information make you smarter? Or by inference, more valuable to your nation, your community, your family, your place of work?

Here’s a blog post to help you think this through.

Note, near the end on the Guardian post the comment on reading literary fiction.


But why would literary fiction engage your latent intelligence so well? That’s a subject to be dealt with in depth on another day. But my short answer is that literary fiction presents you with conflicts that are all too human without providing solutions to those conflicts. This enables readers to consider possible resolutions from each reader’s experience and level of understanding. In other words, in a complex era of human development, there are no easy answers; each person must arrive at such understandings as if truth were relative. Perhaps in some future time we’ll  have the ability to see such complexity as a unified whole, and literary fiction will, I feel sure, lead us there.


Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.