The Girl On The Train – Movie Review

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This past summer as I nursed a failing metal knee replacement and another bit of personal trauma I see fit not to mention here, I holed up watching movies – terrible movies, movies I’ve seen a million times, streaming movies, movies on demand. While I purport to review movies here, I’ve failed miserably to live up to that claim. And, given my description above of the movies I’ve been watching, you may thank me for failing to do so. And to compound the felony, I’ve quit going to theaters. Why? Perhaps because there might be a crazed shooter in the lobby. Who knows?

But now the movies I really wanted to see these past months are showing up on On-Demand, and so tonight I broke out the Visine and watched one: The Girl On The Train.

I’d read Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train a year or so ago and was curious how that complex story was handled in cinema. (You can find my review of the book somewhere on this blog). The story is built around Rachel, who of course rides the train, and is an alcoholic. What the movie makes abundantly clear is that Rachel has mental issues beyond her taste for booze, which gives the story its kicker. She fantasizes about a couple she used to live near, thinking them the perfect couple – until the wife disappears.

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From that point, director Tate Taylor paces the story perfectly, his work complemented by Danny Elfman’s musical score. The acting is excellent, particularly Emily Blunt’s Rachel, who has the pancaked personality of the poor woman down pat. One of Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay tricks is Rachel’s voiceover that easily mimicks Hawkins’ narrative delving into Rachel’s angst.

To my mind, it’s rare that a movie is able to follow the sensibility of novel as well as this movie did. Congratulations to all concerned.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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A God By Any Other Name

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On Mysticism, by Jorge Luis Borges

For many, mysticism conjures laughable things. Others allow it to be the freeway to their concept of God. In Borge’s thinking, at least as far as this thin volume of essays goes, mysticism in hidden somewhere in the plumbing of science, philosophy, novels, poetry, or perhaps the urge to idealism. He can’t seem to divorce himself from something to analyze here, whether it be bardic poems, the multifold pronouncements of poets, even in a young man who has met with a tragic, crippling accident.
But what he doesn’t seem to understand, even in his reply to an interviewer’s request, is his concept of God. Borge says, “I don’t know if God is in the beginning of the cosmic process, but possibly he’s at the end.” This is altogether in keeping with futurist architect Paolo Soleri’s thought that God is still in the process of inventing him/her/itself. Both men seem to imply that mysticism, and its end result, a nestling into Godhead, is to be found in the individual human’s experience, whether that experience is pointedly directed toward a concept of God or not.
This is the way of the most adventurous thinkers, certainly; i.e., to explore manifest reality in an attempt to understand reality at its root. Eventually that exploration leads along its many paths to a sense of something transcendent, to a sense of the eternal. Borge did come across this sensibility in his essays, but he seems to have ignored it, looking instead for something to quantify.

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Such books, whether you agree with their philosophic approach or not, are worth reading. Their authors are attempting to bring something unquantifiable into the realm of the human mind, as if this unquantifiable substance were an object to be weighed, tested, and assayed like a strange new mineral or gem. As you read, watching the authors go through their mental gyrations is like watching an arrow leave an archer’s bow to arch in flight and finally strike near, but not into the target’s center. I’m reminded of a poetic lyric from a long-ago piece of operatic-type music in which a story is being told of a seeker who finds a mystic he’s been searching for and asks him the meaning of life. The mystic tells him he much first spend years in study and contemplation, which the seeker does, then returns, asking once more the meaning of life. The mystic answers , “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk…isn’t it?” Meaning such searches are futile without some sort of pure experience of the thing one is seeking.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Texas: A Geography, A People, A Feeling

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Over the years, as I pick books I think I might like, I find one set in Texas more often than you might think. Why Texas? And what draws readers like me to these books? Just what makes that place compelling enough to draw me to novels about this sprawling state?

Good questions, right?

For answers I looked back at the novels I’ve bought and read. A couple of points do come to mind:

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  • Texas is a large enough state (it could have been five states) to encompass a wide variety of geography: eastern Texas looks much like the rest of the south – pine forests, farmland. Then the rolling hills west of San Antonio. Prairie to the north. From this it’s easy enough to declare the geography itself a character in the best novels.
  • Texas, as one friend tells me, “accepts an oddball for every regular person there, all on equal terms.” From oil workers to motorcycle gangs to business types to self-styled cowboys to some of the finest musicians in the nation, all somehow fit into the state’s psyche, making the state’s people industrious, quirky, down to earth and sometimes even a bit dangerous.
  • This last trait says a lot about the way the state seems so diverse, so odd, so interesting. From the streets of lawyer-laden Dallas to the oil country of the football-crazy panhandle to yuppie-fied Austin there’s a feral streak in Texas, a wildness, that remains untamed, that touches everyone, everything. Even the youthful wildness remaining in me.

 

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Texas is a feeling as much as it’s a people, a geography. I might sum it up by having you listen to my friend Eric Taylor sing about the state, his song, Texas, Texas. Then hustle on down to your indie bookstore and start browsing. You just might latch onto one set in the Lone Star State.

You can find the song at: https://www.reverbnation.com/erictaylor/song/26853675-texas-texas or at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwAWRDKI4lE

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

How Much Editing Is Enough?

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You’ve had a request for your complete manuscript from an agent or editor. Suddenly your mouth goes dry. Your knees are shaky. Is your manuscript REALLY ready for prime time?

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Let’s say you’re a DIY person, and you publish yourself through Amazon or Smashwords, or some other self publishing organ. Will your readers toss your book in disgust because it’s so amateurishly edited?

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Maybe you’re hyper-anal or compulsive, and you don’t know when to stop the editing process. When, exactly, is enough enough?

To my mind there’s no “exactly” possible; it’s my contention that there’s never been a perfect novel or non-fiction book written. Still, don’t use that as an excuse to take a lazy approach to editing.

Some newbie writers don’t much care for the editing process; it’s not where the creative process is, they will tell you. And some high-dollar writers feel this way, too. But editing can be very creative, very enjoyable. Here are some hints at where good editing lies:

  • Spelling – you may not be a good speller, but at least some of your readers, or editors/agents will be. Use your dictionary. Plain and simple.
  • Punctuation – Too many commas, too few punctuation marks otherwise. It’s normal to insert commas wherever your thought process stops and starts, but will the reader need them, or will they get in the way? Make sure you punctuate so that your written intent is clear to the reader. You don’t want him or her to have to keep re-reading a passage to gain its meaning. Also, word processing software isn’t always of help with punctuation. If you leave a period out or fail to close quotes, for instance, your software may not catch it. And these things will be glaring to the reader.

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Okay, those are the easy ones. Now here’s where editing can get really creative. The central thing to remember here is: Will your reader enjoy reading your book, essay, or short story? Remember, you’re writing for your reader, not you. So when you have a good draft – or you think you’ve edited enough, set the manuscript aside until you can look at it as a reader, not its author. Then consider these things:

  • Have you varied your sentence structure? Don’t keep  writing long, complicated sentences just because you’re confident that you can punctuate them properly. Or only write pages and pages of eight word sentences.
  • Are dialogue tags, i.e., the “he said” “she said” tags doing their job in making clear who is speaking? Don’t get overly creative with these. Sometimes you can make these perform multiple purposes, but strive to keep the reader’s attention on what’s between the quote marks (if you use them).
  • Are you sure of what you’re trying to say in your piece, whether book-length or flash fiction? If not, take a break and write down what the theme of your piece is meant to be. Summarize your manuscript in a single paragraph. Then you’ll more nearly know how the manuscript should be structured,whether or not it will work for the reader.
  • Is your voice consistent? Or after reading chapter 1 and chapter 12, do they seem to have been written by different people?
  • Does your narrative appeal to the senses? All of them? But if it’s an abstract, informational essay, for instance, you may not want to heavy up on the piece’s atmosphere.
  • Do your scenes “pop” with energy, emotion, intimacy? Are your characters vividly portrayed in ways in which the reader can know them and perhaps identify with them?
  • Does your writing alternate action and energy with a release of such tension?
  • Let’s say your manuscript is 300 pages in length.  You’ve worked hard on the first 30 pages, because you want to hook your reader. Read the piece’s middle three chapters. Are these three as enthralling as those first 30 pages? Quite often, even with seasoned writers, a long manuscript’s middle section drags, as if it’s there for nothing more than filler. I call such ho-hum middle sections the Kansas and Iowa of a manuscript, i.e., the energy of the work has stalled here. (Apologies to Midwesterners)

Okay. There are other things to consider, too, but these may be unique to your manuscript. If you have given the above considerations your best shot, your editing is probably sufficient. HOWEVER: any publisher, agent, or editor may want to change your manuscript, to lop out portions, or to heavy up on others. GIVE THESE CAREFUL CONSIDERATION. More than likely, their suggestions will improve your manuscript in some way. But if you feel very strongly about your manuscript segments or its totality, defend your point of view. The person requesting changes may very well back down in the face of a good argument.

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Dystopia of The Self

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With the overwhelming presence of dystopian literature and movies these days it would seem that, if you believe art a precursor to real world happenstances, the human experiment is on its last legs. After all, there’s so much to prove art the forerunner to failures of social, political, religious, and scientific import.

Then there’s the wildly popular rationale of conspiracy theories that purport that the governments of the world are plying us with fear to keep us in line, even as information is instant and raw and never seeming to be in context. Or that we’re being manipulated by advanced beings from other planets or star systems who want whatever we have – whatever that might be.

We’ve been a world of tribal beings since the first cave dwellers discovered other cave dwellers with different rituals, different food, different…etc. What’s always set people’s teeth on edge is the strangeness of “the other,” always fearing that strangeness, seeing it as a threat to our tribal system of reality. This tribalism is durable in the human soul, hard to ferret out, hard for us to accept tribal differences, whether we call the tribes football teams or nation-states. There’s something in our makeup that wants to abolish all foreignness. But then – how do the many tribes of different types banish foreignness without being subject to banishment themselves? Rather than a conundrum, this question my very well give us a clue to resolving our fear of “the other.”

Thinker Buckminster Fuller posited that we are only able to directly perceive with our human senses 5 percent of what we know to exist between the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, between the astronomical expanse and the atomic smallness. But what if we were to be able to gain direct perception of more, say, twenty percent of what we know as real? Would that place our sense of superficial strangeness in perspective?

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Rather than the dystopian, then, being catastrophic to the outer world of society, what if our writers, moviemaker, poets, artists, photographers, and sculptors are sensing a change in themselves? In all of humanity? What if we haven’t really haven’t become the crown of creation; rather, what if we were to finally realize we are in a state of becoming, that we’re evolving creatures? That as we evolve we become less limited, freer in every way?

Isn’t this what we really see around us now? When we see changes in our social order, our political and economic states, aren’t we simply seeing the outer manifestations of evolutionary changes within each of us, changes that have barely begun?  Isn’t this something to gladly embrace rather than fear?

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

A Shot to the Gut

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Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

One of the challenges to writing fiction is deciding on a narrator. Is it your protagonist? The author – on the outside looking in? Some wild and wacky personage – dare I say improbable?
McEwan, always inventive in his compact little novellas, has decided to have an unborn child narrate Nutshell. Now, before anti-abortionists begin to claim all sorts of talents gestating within such a fetus, we must be reminded that they emerge as tabula rasa, a blank slate. But McEwan’s future child is an expert on wine and whiskey (drunk by his mom), the bits and pieces of poetry and music he hears, human psychology, and various sex acts that occur only a skin thickness away. But to what end, you ask?

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His mother, Trudy, is estranged from the kid’s father, John, and is in an affair with the father’s brother, Claude. Claude is a victim of his senses, a ne’er-do-well, John a failed poet. But John owns a rather expensive but dilapidated town house in London, something Claude lusts for. As a result, Trudy and Claude are planning to murder John in order to reap millions from the sale of the town house. The unnamed babe waxes philosophic in his helplessness, caught in the quandary of devotion to Trudy and a desire to escape hers and Claude’s plot
The ending is somewhat typical of McEwan’s other novellas, but the truncation leaves a loose end or two, something he rarely does. Still, as always, he accomplishes more in less that 200 pages than most authors do in hundreds more.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Trifling With Time

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I stayed up late last night reading an article about the manner in which German writer W. G. Sebald dealt with time in his novels, particularly in The Immigrants and Austerlitz (I recommend both of these fine books). If you’re a writer, or if you’ve taken literature courses, you surely know some of the structural and grammatical techniques for dealing with time within the novel.

But why trifle with time in the first place? What’s so important about time?

The Webster definition of time isn’t much different from any other shot at pinning down time’s nature: the period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues.

But what if you banish such an action, process, or condition – particularly a significant one – from existence. What’s the effect of time? Sebald accomplishes this by omitting any reference to perhaps the pivotal (and here we can call it all three – action, process, condition -so to combine, let’s use the term situation) situation in modern Western history, The Holocaust. To be clear, everything in Europe, indeed the world, that The Holocaust cast its shadow over is left as is, but The Holocaust itself has vanished. Significant time, then, has disappeared, but its effects remain.

What’s gone unsaid to this point is this: What’s the effect on the human mind? We forever look for such situations as a cause for the effects time leaves to us. If we suddenly find ourselves in bed with a leg in a cast, we can’t help but ask: How did this happen? Did I fall? Was I hit by a car? Are my bones brittle? We want to know the cause as part of experience. The leg is in a cast, immobilized, and at least for a while, my life has changed, not necessarily for the better. There is a host of other questions: How long will my leg be immobilized? Will the pain stop, and if so, when? When will I know what happened?

The problem is that there are no answers, only questions. Half of normal human experience does not exist. There are no social or ethical (or medical) standards by which to judge either the leg’s condition or the effects of The Holocaust. And this in turn prevents repair of these conditions or effects. In other words, we are socially without perception because someone or something has created a blank slate of a certain key segment of time. Thus we have no idea what we’re dealing with, much less how – or if – it might be repaired.

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Such a void, as Sebald shows us, reduces us to a primitive human state. We might have the tools of a highly advanced human awareness, but they are so many alarm clocks in a cave man’s hands.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s not that we aren’t prone to horrific human miscalculations and consequent events, but that since we are, we must always question. We must forever find ways to prevent the erasure of time that will keep us from following situations back to their source. Only then is human experience worthwhile. Only then can human experience allow us to understand. If we cannot understand, then human experience is not worthwhile, and our existence as a self-aware species is lost.

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.