Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

This novel has characters that extend from Ellen Meeropol’s first novel House Arrest.
They are both under 300 pages and I would recommend reading

House Arrest first although Kinship of Clover can probably stand on it’s own if House Arrest is not available. On the other hand even House Arrest only refers to certain traumatic event as happening in the past, these events are more re-enacted here.

The story is set 12 years after twin boys have a traumatic event occur in the cult they were born into. The novel tells the story of Jeremy, now in college, experiencing unexplained psychological emotions that cause him to feel and see plant vines growing around him and through him until he gets lost in them.

  It also tells a story of someone on the other side of life with dementia getting worse. Here Flo is losing herself. She had a strong individual identity but is losing it.
Does Jeremy want to get lost, become part of the plants, and Flo want to hold to what she was, not ready to drop ego and become one with nature? She’s an activist, about The People.
I liked that about the atmosphere of the novel. A multi-generational activism is assumed, or at least a natural part of life.
Both of these stories affect the people connected to Flo and Jeremy. Meeropol creates characters with convincing real family connections so the feelings connected to the human difficulties of the main characters reverberate through the others. The emotions of human connection are familiar to this writer, she knows how to work with them, present them convincingly. The difficulties, the dementia and the hallucinations, are drawn with detailed composition and regarded as the mysteries they are. She creates families that are believable and like that found in the world:”OK, we are no longer married but I'll live in the upstairs apartment and help out with the kid.”

It is not all about family stuff. There are big issues out there and committed activists struggling in one way or another, for change. It is hard for the young and innocent Jeremy to properly read the intentions and tactics of the people he is getting involved with.

Jeremy's hallucinations are told in a way that shows them as interesting and scary at equal proportions. This seems realistic. Does the patient wish to drop this fantastic part of himself for the sake of some normality standard?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

This novel is a snapshot of current affairs, the emotional environment of USA, and we who inhabit it.
The USA is not really a easy place to find a feeling of home and community. Some of us feel that is made worse by clever marketing strategies of international corporate interests that have learned that divide and sell is a profitable business model. I don’t mean to suggest that there was necessarily a conspiracy meeting of big business cabals that came up with this, but rather it is a result of mass media run as for-profit business by for-profit businesses and supported by the backing of for-profit business, naturally supporting its interest. We are set against one another to sell things. The buying choice of children is not understandable to parents, this aids in moving product and causes more alienation from one another since we have little to identify ourselves with other than our product purchase choices.

This novel is not about business and mass media, but this has set the mood.
It is simply a story of teens in Los Angeles area, Southern California and blowback of US imperialism. The man figure of the novel is Raz, the USA born son of middle aged Iranian immigrants. In a way it parallels the stories of early 20th Century European immigrant children whose parents have made the very bold and radical move to an attempted a new better life in America, once A Good Country, only to find their children groundless, between worlds, subject to abuse by the children of the those who came here a generation or so before them, looking for a place to belong and susceptible to conscription in street gangs.

Here the setting is not the tenements of the Lower East Side with its poverty, but the children of very successful immigrants in fine houses with swimming pools in Laguna Beach, yet still lost, abused by religious intolerance made far worse by religious fundamentalism global terrorism that is a result of USA’s and The West’s century of manipulations in the mid-east. And what does popular USA
corporate secular culture offer? It is apparently void of a spiritual center, or even basic community. This environment is ripe for the fundamentalist fringes, of whatever origin, religious, or political, to come to the rescue.

The novel is really a very simple story, lucidly and believably told, of a bright sweet teen boy’s final high school years and his yearning for a place to belong with loving partners, friends.
The novel is written by a woman who is very good at creating the world of a young man including his sexuality and the casual marijuana use of him and his young friends.

In the news terrorist attacks cause the plot to shift toward tragedy in this engaging yet simply plotted novel.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

This was Bellow’s first novel.
It is set in Chicago during WWII.
The character, Joseph, writes about his life in first person journal entries. He is in his 30s. He is dangling because he might get drafted into the army soon. Since he might be drafted he is not working. He is married and his wife is working. He is basically just hanging out. They are living in a rooming house.They lost their apartment because of a dispute he had with the landlord.

It is a short novel of one of those extended times between things, before something big might happen. In this case being called up into a war that one might get killed in. The novel is mostly internal dialogue of someone in one of these in between times, and a very stressful one. It is also a portrait of a man without an exterior structure to control his time and actions. It is a place that many find difficult to find comfort. It is easier to just let someone else tell one what to do, show up here, at this time, do this job for this long, eat at this time, etc. He is dangling outside of that structure for a time, that place where one has to be self motivated, or self contained enough to be at peace when the order of the day is to run with the crowd. The novel shows that this can be a difficult place where one needs to be very strong, assured of oneself enough to go on.

There is not much mention of the war.  A war, that at the time of the novel’s composition no one knows  what is going to happen, how long the war will go on, how many will die, or who will win. The book contains that tension that hangs right there alongside that dangling man. It is an extreme time of “we are all together” which can be harder than usual on the temperamentally alienated.
Joseph visits family. His prosperous brother tries to give him money which creates tension. He visits his wife’s family, more tension. There is conflict in the rooming house, and between him and his wife, in the role reversal of the man being the breadwinner.

Aren't we all dangling on the edge of life on the mysterious precipice of death?
What does one do while dangling?

Good novel from a man who was later awarded The Nobel Prize (The Dynamite Prize).

Saturday, July 1, 2017

American Anarchist (2016)

American Anarchist (2016)
“Written” and directed by Charlie Siskel

This documentary is a portrait of William Powell who in 1970, at age 19, wrote a book called The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
The Anarchist’s Cookbook is an manual of revolution, how to make bombs and stuff like that. I’m not exactly sure what is all in it having never read or owned a copy.

The movie is made by Charlie Siskel. Documentaries are funny. If a filmmaker points a camera at someone and asks them questions, and edits all that together, the filmmaker gets to take credit as having written the movie. That seems pretty strange to me, especially in a situation like this where the subject, Powell, does most all the talking, yet he doesn’t even share the writing credit. Who came up with these rules? Powell’s wife also appears some in the movie.

William Powell is a very good talker. The delight of the film is getting to hear what he has to say. He handles Siskel’s interrogations with patient brilliance. Siskel keeps trying to corner him, to rattle him, to get some doc cinema gold with some kind of outrageous or angry reaction. He fails with the cool, thoughtful, and articulate Powell. Where Siskel keeps attempting to give Powell enough rope to get whatever he is looking for, he ends up defeated, hanging himself, as a hack documentary maker thinking he is on some scoop with a ruthless outlaw.
Yet Siskel was more or less fair in the way he edited most of the movie. We do get to see what a wonderful man Powell became, whatever one thinks of his writing 48 years ago.

William Powell, who died on July 11, 2016 at the age of 66 three months before the movie was released, spent his life as an educator of children with special needs. He spent his life working outside the USA. Siskel does spend some screen time telling us about this aspect of Powell’s life.

Even though Powell, as far back at 1976, regretted writing the book and stated that it should be put out of print, Siskel interrogates him bringing up that the book was in possession of the Columbine High School kid killers and others headline sensational killers. This gets to be a bit much with the implication that somehow Powell is responsible in association for the actions to these lost killers. Powells is very good at handling this stating that he was not aware that these people had the book. He says how could he be? He was living out of the USA and not one to investigate on the internet mass shootings. Siskel keeps up with this kind of stuff taking it to a ridiculous extreme at the very end when he attempts to compare Powell to Gavrilo Princip the man who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 which somehow started WWI. Apparently Siskel is very proud of this moment. After he asks this he gives us the movie’s final shot with Powell sitting there a bit stunned at this silly implication and trying to think of a measured response. But what I saw at that moment was how a documentary maker can manipulate footage via editing to make his point, except this time it just doesn’t work because by that time we have looked into the eyes and heard the measured responses for 2 hours of a very good and decent man who clearly spent his entire life helping people, children, less fortunate than he.
Did Powell pay for his sins of free speech other than this interrogation by Siskel? He and his wife say that he did. Although very qualified in his teaching field of labor, when the employer institutions found out about the book, sometimes though anonymous sources, he was not hired at job after job. This is regrettable, most likely the children he could have worked with are the ones who suffered most from this.

But there is an association between Powell, the Columbine killers and other kid killers who may have had the book. Powell was bullied in schools as a child and sexually abused by an administrator. By the time he was 19 and inspired by the righteous and popular rebelliousness of youth at the time, he channeled his rage into that movement and produced the book.
So Powell did not create himself any more than school killers do? They are all a result of the bullying and injustice of school systems and the abuse of children that often happens there either institutionally or peer bullying, or both in the situation of young Powell. Powell was a bright boy and not a violent person. His reaction to the abuse, coupled with governmental injustice and the Vietnam war, was to call for revolution and write a book not act out violently.

The movie also implies that the Anarchist Cookbook is the only source of this type of information. It has never been so. Powell got some of his stuff from government pamphlets.  And although we see brief footage of Abbie Hoffman from Vietnam protest, the revolution is imminent days, there is no mention of his book that covers a lot of the same material and more and was released at the same time, Steal This Book. Meanwhile this type of bomb building information and everything else in these books has been available on the internet for a least 20 years.

American Anarchist is worth watching.
It is currently playing on Netflix

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant (2013)
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Richard Manello

Set in the same time, this is not Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant in his great short subject which was more or less a contemporary story then.

In this there are two young women sisters who have come to Ellis Island from Poland. One sister is obviously ill so they are not going to let her in. The story centers around the other sister Ewa (Marion Cotillard). They are not going to let her in either, but I guy pays off the powers that be in the island and she is allowed in.

She goes into NYC with this man Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). He is a sort of showman/pimp and puts Ewa, against her will into a tawdry burlesque show in a seedy little theater.

The movie in interesting enough with decent performances and well staged and art directed atmospheric scenes. It also shows the USA to be a lot less welcoming, even back then, contrary to what we are sometimes lead to believe.

Ultimately I’m not really sold on the pimp with a heart of gold theme of the movie which was written by two men.

I watched it on Netflix. There is the thumb up or down rating system on Netflix now. I preferred the old 5 star system because with movies like this that are OK, at least not terrible, I don’t react in such a binary way.  
So I didn’t rate this movie at all up or down in the Netflix software. It’s not really good or really terrible but somewhere floating in between.
There is a lot of stuff like that.

Children of the Streets By Harlan Ellison

Children of the Streets
By Harlan Ellison

This is a collection of juvenile delinquency stories from the 1950s.They are all set in NYC where Ellison grew up.

High school didn’t work then for many teens and still doesn’t work, 60 years later. That’s my opinion because I’m generally anti-school. It’s just basically a place to put people, to condition them to be productive and obedient workers in a complicated society that separates people into categories of age when they might be better off intermixing more organically. I don’t think children should be separated from adults all the time as schools do. Some of us, even when very young, can feel that it is not right, and certainly not nurturing. Most find ways to more or less cope. The ways some find to get through it are not helpful to the community at large. In school the education comes primarily from one's peers.

There is a lot of gang stuff in the stories. Much of it rather extreme with deaths occurring at “rumbles”, even a principal assassinated with a zip gun. That stuff gives the book a feeling of melodramatic unbelievability, but who knows maybe things like that actually happened. After all Tony did get killed in a rumble in West Side Story.

Anyway, the book provides a view of a system that doesn’t work.
I don’t think high school is much better now. Since there was no legal abortion when the kids in these stories were born, many of them were likely unwanted which is not a good position to start life from.
The book has stories of bullying of a gang type and the feeling that high school is almost like prison.

But that’s OK. If school doesn’t work, just bring in more cops, or, as I have been hearing in the news, just arm teachers and other school workers.
Great, good luck, but I’m telling you that isn’t going to work either.

This is the first Ellison I have read. It’s a good read with action and conflict filled pulp fiction type stories. The 1950s gang jargon is fun to decode.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Don’t Think Twice (2016)
Written and directed by Mike Birbiglia

This is a sad movie about people who live in a dystopia where they cannot connect and respect one another because they are all seeking the attention of the big time with its fame, riches, and relatively mediocre but flashy electronic products. And it’s not a documentary.
There are a solid reliable number of showbiz products that are self referential.  Naturally, that is the world the people who make them have to succeed in to qualify for the production we are viewing. After laboring in showbiz for 10 years I suppose it kind of becomes what life is all about, especially when much of mass media is focused of fame and celebrity in showbiz. So Mike Birbiglia, having labored in showbiz for some years gets to write direct and act in a movie, he’s a winner in the game.

This movie is set in the world of an improv theater company. Having never been in such a troupe I cannot verify the authenticity of detail. I partly saw it as a workplace story.
There is this improv group called The Commune. They are all around 30-40 years old. The Commune is apparently successful because they are putting on shows regularly in a theater somewhere in NYC and people are showing up and laughing even though their stuff is not so, laugh out loud, funny.  But people always laugh at stuff too enthusiastically in movies. Anyway, they all seem clothed and housed adequately, but there is a lure from above, or below, that disrupts their solidarity. There is big media out there hovering above and threatening to elevate or crush depending on its wim and presumed stockholder profit needs. There is a TV network with a show like SNL. Weekend Live is not so great but it is there, an institution and the big time path to stardom, movies, talk show hosting, whatever jewels The Bigtime has to offer.
At the outset of the movie there is a buzz in the theater because a producer or some such from Weekend Live, the SNL- like show is coming to a performance.  A guy from The Commune ends up getting cast on Weekend Live. His old comrades are happy for him sort of but sad for themselves.
There is some indication that the actual work of The Commune is better than that of the TV show.  

There are a few possible lessons from the movie. Don't leave The Commune. The communards will hate and envy you for your exalted betrayal. There is the reward money, but that might not be worth much when you can do nothing for your former friends, useless in getting them even a writing job on the show or anything.  

I don't know if it was the intention of the filmmaker but the thing clearly shows a sad economic set up where no one wins. Certainly not the winners. But since this comes from the pov of a winner it might suggest that the little people, happy to work away in obscurity, are the only ones who come close to winning because at least they have one another. The do- gooder powerful are always blessing us meek. Easy for the winners to say, like the Beetles, “But oh that magic feeling nowhere to go.” But maybe it's true, maybe it is easier to be spiritual and connected to people without all that money to worry about and possessions to tend to. Not to mention defending oneself from the needy, even needy friends who unfortunately need to be left behind because the situation becomes too involved and painful for rich and poor alike that they are better done with one another altogether. The winner is useless and impotent. The woman in the troupe who he loves shuns him and the big time show.  She is happy to labor on with The Commune and work that she finds meaningful. He’s like, “What!?! You had an audition for Weekend Tonight and didn't show up!?!?’”
All this is wrapped up in an acceptable level of dramatic interest, given its existential absurdity. It moves along ok.  Not boring.   
None of the cast was particularly interesting to me. The writer director gives himself a looking for love role in a side story that is not that compelling. Kate Micucci is in the movie. She is funny in other stuff, but hardly used here for much of anything at all. But the movie does bring up the issue of the lure of The Bigtime which is worth some exploration.

I wonder what the world of entertainment was really like 150 years ago before radio, movies, etc.
I have a notion it might have been able to support more entertainers in some way. Certainly there must have been more, out of the home amusements of one sort or another. Now everything is so centralized and in control of powerful media conglomerates. This is a strange and new development in human history.
The lure of The Bigtime is fascinating and seems to never give up in some people. One can be in their mid 60s and still fantasize that somehow the call up to The Bigtime is just around the corner, someone is bound to notice that The Bigtime needs me and wants me to be there to hang out with all the “stars” I identify with.
The power, and staying power, of this lure is impressive given that very few are actually called up into The Bigtime. But you too can be The American Idol.
On the other hand one could react to this by questioning putting any effort into the performing arts at all. It is kind of insane to try to compete with the most skilled and well connected performers in the country or world.
Those lost to The Bigtime lure might just give up altogether.

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol This novel has characters that extend from Ellen Meeropol’s first novel House Arrest. They are both und...