To Hustle or Not

Curiosity brought the missus and me to the ticket window this past weekend to see American Hustle, and I admit I went in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I’d seen the previews so many times I could recite them, and I’d grown wary of good actors shouting their lines, and satirizing the seventies as they shouted. And my wariness didn’t vanish until some thirty minutes into the movie. Then the story line took hold beneath these eminently talented actors’ skills.

 

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But what exactly is the story line? It’s hard to synopsize because the hustle is so intricate, but think of the Abscam scandal of that same era, in which an FBI agent posed as an Arab sheikh, offering money to a number of U.S. congressmen for asylum in the U.S., and for other related requests. Here, it’s much the same, but those caught up in the sting are New Jersey politicians of various ilks. Christian Bale and Amy Adams – two nobodies aiming to embrace the “American Dream” – initiate the movie’s hustle, get caught, and are made front persons for the FBI sting, led by Bradley Cooper. It’s a bumbling, witty, and in the end near-genius ploy that Christian Bale and Amy Adams use to free themselves from the FBI’s grip and go legit.

This is life in America, I thought as we left the theater. There seem to have always been two avenues to success and a place at the table here in America:

  • Hustle your way up the ladder, and damn the beatings, the humiliation, the ongoing prospects of losing everything in a New Jersey minute.
  • Develop a craft or a profession and earn your way up – ever so slowly – through hard, honest work. The danger here is of the Willy Loman type – the steady drip, drip, drip of such hard work in order to remain afloat in America.

In the end what troubles me about this movie is not the yelling, the gaudy, profane grasping for recognition and status, but that Amy and Christian’s characters are glamorized for such reaching. But then that’s my bias, I suppose; my place at the table has been the sure but steady plodding though hard work, and hoping I don’t lose my soul to that drip, drip, drip.

This movie will surely be among the Academy Awardees this year. Who among its stellar cast will win prizes? Bradley Cooper, I think, for his portrayal of the FBI’s lead agent in this sting, and Jennifer Lawrence for Christian Bale’s gaudy, not-altogether-with-it wife. If this proves true, then that will be a bit of irony beyond the movie’s scope.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. 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.

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A Magnificent Sprawl

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

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Quite often it’s the flawed novels that stick to your ribs, not those approaching literary perfection, and this book is a great, magnificently flawed novel that I’ll find hard to forget.

The story is one of the Sawtelle family, principally son Edgar, who was born without an ability to speak. The family train and sell dogs, and part of the story’s charm is the practiced interplay between Edgar and his student-dogs. But father Gar dies suddenly under what later prove to be suspicious circumstances, and Edgar and mother Trudy carry on the family business – until Uncle Claude slithers in to complicate life for Edgar. Edgar runs away and stays away for months, during which time Claude beds Trudy. Edgar finally does return, intent on proving Claude culpable in Gar’s death, and that sets in motion Wroblewski’s tense  but overwrought end to the story.

If this all too brief synopsis seems vaguely familiar, it should be. Hint: think Shakespeare. It that doesn’t do it for you, think Denmark.

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But what do I see as flawed about this ultra-inventive novel? First, one has to read to mid-book before it becomes clear that the author is taking the story somewhere. And then there’s the too-long stay in the woods and on the road. Such storyline doldrums lead me to believe that Wroblewski has turned writer’s block on its head by writing until a story begins to emerge.

If I seem unfair to the author, let me list the book’s assets. Wroblewski’s prose style nears perfection, and I put his writerly voice up there with Cormac McCarthy, his ability to evoke mood alongside Steinbeck and Guterson. In various sections, he paces with the greats, and his ability to build tension is breathtaking. Wroblewski has magnificent literary chops in this novel, but such abilities can be a burden as well as an asset. If he can tame his storytelling tools, he’ll be among the greats.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

The Brave New Future

 

Note: I occasionally post on magazines; I’ve always read them, and would seriously bemoan their passing. While I don’t have the time to do all the mags justice that I might have an interest in, I do try to post regularly on the ones I think have the most substance to offer readers.

 

The Atlantic, December 2013

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I remain heartened by this magazine’s approach to informing its readers. Much of what interests me here is apparently gained from polls on various subjects, particularly the modern effect of male-female interactions.  In a similar form we come face to face with capitalism’s amoralities, and their effect on social unrest.

If this causes you unrest, don’t read the article on inmate control tactics in the nation’s prisons – a subject mostly hidden from the public – the article leaving this reader wondering how widely these tactics might be applied to the rest of us.

Too, we gain insight into John Kerry and his approach to foreign policy, which may very well ask you to wonder what he might’ve been like as president.

One subject bound to unsettle readers has to do with data and data mining in the workplace and how that might affect your life as a worker. Altogether fitting for sure, but big data need not be a workplace onus. Such data systems, properly used, can set workers free from almost all clerical work and much of the drudgery of reports, analyses, and the like. Why not, for instance, set these freed workers down in front of the organization’s future, using them creatively to further improve such organization’s products and services?

There’s more here, of course, and The Atlantic is doing those of us committed to reading this fine magazine a most welcome journalistic service.

 

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

Smooth Writing, Smooth Read

Pronto, by Elmore Leonard

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I hadn’t read an Elmore Leonard book in ages, definitely not since I began writing full time, and I’m planning to write a sequel to one of my mystery novels next year, so I decided to read something by him again, to size up his chops. He wrote Pronto toward the end of his career, and I can note evidence of  dependency on formula, a certain casualness that comes with repeatedly writing in a genre.

Leonard’s genre is crime fiction – the tough guy, sexy babe, shoot-em-before-they-shoot-you sort of story. He’s read by the same crowd that reads Raymond Chandler, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley, and James Lee Burke (yes, there are female writers in this genre, but not many).

So as a writer/reader, how did this story set with me? I was more taken as a writer with the book – how he did what he did  – than with the story. But then that’s part of how Leonard shows mastery of his genre. Let me explain.

The story begins with a Miami bookie, Harry Arno, preparing to “retire,” i.e., to skip out on his money man, Jimmy Capotorto, from whom Harry has been skimming for years. But complications arise when Harry is hunted down by an Everglades hit man. Harry shoots the guy and is arrested for murder. But before the local cops and Feds can get their wits about them, Harry goes on the lam, ends up in Italy. A federal marshal, Raylan Givens, goes hunting for Harry and his gal, Joyce, as do a true Mafioso, the Zip, and a young muscle man, Nicky, who wants desperately to be a made man.

Here, under Leonard’s smooth story telling, Harry fades to the background and Givens comes to the fore. He saves Harry, steals his girl, saves Harry again, shoots the Zip, and the stage is set for subsequent Rayland Givens books, which end up as the FX TV series, Justified.

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Leonard’s characters are no more than six inches deep, largely defined by sex and circumstance. His dialogue is clipped, tense, and slightly tongue in cheek, as if he’s not really taking his characters seriously. He also works references to Ezra Pound and his poetry, Pound’s flirtation with fascism, his life in Italy, into short but effective narrative segments. It’s clear that Leonard is in this for the money, yet he doesn’t cheat the discriminating reader; his rather shallow storyline is perfectly executed, dragging his characters along with deceptively erudite writing. Leonard has drawn criticism for pandering to the baser human instincts, but that’s only the surface of his writing skills. His tone here seems instead to tell us that violence and depravity are a part of the human experience, but “Please, don’t give it more social worth than it deserves.”

 

My rating 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

Of Lists and Being Seduced by Technology

The Atlantic, November 2013

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There are many ways to reconsider a year that’s nearly at its end, and The Atlantic makes a unique stab at it this month by using this the Technology Issue to consider the 50 greatest inventions since the wheel. It might be fun to make your own list and compare, but here are a couple of hints: the Internet isn’t #1 and neither is the personal computer. So scratch your head with this poser and have fun.

Bookending this listing is Nicole Allan’s “The Inventors.” The interesting thing here is not various simple widgets invented, or even the more complex ones, such as the airplane or the PC. Instead we find in this list corporate twists to invention, such as Amazon.com and Minecraft.

Since the Internet version of this mag is drifting toward Power Point type displays, Joe Pinsker’s “Die Another Day” chart only follows. In it we discover that over the past century and a half, U.S. life expectancy has almost doubled. How? Take a look at the diseases prominent in each decade.

There’s also an apocalyptic article by Nicholas Carr, “The Great Forgetting,” which reminds us of how dependent we’re becoming on our various technologies.

With the emphasis here on technology, the editors seemed to find it necessary to do some serious grounding and give us Robert Wright’s article, “Why We Fight – and Can We Stop?” In this article, easily the issue’s most provocative, we come to understand that human emotions are eclipsing reason to a greater degree than since the Enlightenment, with a consequent assemblage of neo-tribes based in their members’ emotional components to underscore the point.

This issue gives us yet one more reason to believe that The Atlantic will be around for quite a while yet.

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

A Good Magazine Article Is Hard to Find

Harper’s Magazine, November 2013

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I remember many years ago, when I was just learning to play guitar, I subscribed to a magazine called Guitar Player, and did I ever learn a lot about the nuances from its articles! I cut out tons of charts, musical pieces, and “how-tos. Most of which I still have and occasionally refer back to.  Then a curious thing began to happen. The articles began to repeat – not literally, but different authors would write articles – covering the same player challenges and issues. After a few years of that, I quit subscribing.

I hope that’s not happening with Harper’s, but it certainly seems so. When you manage a magazine specializing in progressive social and political attitudes, it seems fair that you’re eventually going to repeat yourself.

Take Thomas Frank’s essay on payment for fast food workers. Is there anyone who doesn’t know, or at least think about this issue? And in similar fashion, Jeff Madrick wonders about the future of progressivism in a backwards, ultra conservative age. There is another on vets’ coping with return to society, with pointillist artwork, yet.

Nathaniel Rich, in “The Man Who Saves You From Yourself,” pretends to uncover the seaminess of cults, some of which aren’t, and the uncovering only reveals the easiest to catch, those probably not fooling potential cult followers, either. Ken Silverstein’s “Dirty South – The Foul Legacy of Louisiana Oil” enthralls, but again this story is as old as Huey Long’s under-the-table, so-called populism.

There’s art, and the subject is armpits, asses, hairy chests and legs, hitting a deer on a highway, and A Joyce Carol Oates story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” the title telling you most of what you’ll get from this most capable writer’s imagination.

Being an editor of such a periodical has to be as difficult as being a major league baseball manager, or any elective office. I won’t drop my subscription (yet), but I will complain, just a little.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. 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.

 

The Dark Side of History

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

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I don’t often give movie reviews this degree of treatment, but Stone’s  story here is an ultra-long documentary, and it’s somewhat important for what it accomplishes. In the movie’s preamble Stone professes to be disturbed by what’s been left out of any commonly held history of the United States – school or otherwise. It’s a truism that every good thing has its dark side, and Stone wants us to have the benefit of such darkness in order to view our national legacy in perspective.

He begins with World War II and the development and use of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Certainly Germany had a similar program, but they were unable to use it. The U.S. did use it, and Stone’s history has it as being unnecessary. As was the subsequent build-up of our nuclear arsenal and the fight we picked with the Soviet Union via the Cold War. Harry Truman is the culprit here in demonizing the Soviets while building up this arsenal, despite evidence that neither was necessary.  In counterpoint to Truman was his cabinet member Henry Wallace who cautioned against Truman’s posturing. Wallace was eventually fired and held up for scorn during the McCarthy era.

Then there was Korea – and Vietnam, which Stone knew from the ground up, having fought there as a soldier. His thesis here is that what U.S. leaders had us see as a monolithic Communism movement was in reality one severely tempered by the various nationalisms involved, beginning with Czechoslovakia, and eventually ending in the dissipation of the Soviet Union.

In modern times, Reagan spurned disarmament advances by Soviet leader Gorbachev. Cooperation in this regard may very well have resulted in a unique alliance of Russia and the U.S. Finally, Stone gives us G.W. Bush’s spurning of world opinion in using U.S. resources in unilateral war and empire advancement in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, leaving Obama to dismantle some of this and carry on the rest.

Stone’s bottom line here is that the several key, misfortunate decisions by U.S. leaders squandered a large chunk of our nation’s assets, hence its future. His facts are essentially true, I think, his opinionizing occasionally askew, but it clearly shows knowledge of our history and his concern and love for this country.  The documentary was apparently put together hurriedly, and the narration and piecing together of film segments suffered to some degree from it.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. 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.