Saturday, May 30, 2015

Book Reviews: The Turner House

The Turner House
by Angela Flournoy
Every now and then you run across a first time novelist that writes something so true to life that you are surprised that this is their first novel. Angela Flournoy is such a writer. The Turner House flows very easily and doesn't take a long time to read. It has a huge cast but some people are more closely or lovingly detailed than others. But even the people who just pop in and out without saying or doing much are still well crafted. There are people like that in life of course. An aunt's nephew whom you only see at weddings and funerals turns out to be a rising film producer. A peripatetic cousin who married someone overseas comes back with three kids and no place to stay. Say you're not doing anything with your finished basement are you? Or maybe a younger sibling moves halfway across the country. 

Although they're always polite they make it crystal clear that they would just as not be caught up in any family business and refuse to discuss their own. Don't call them and they certainly won't call you. The other interesting thing about family is that as much as our gender and sexuality and whatever specific combination of genes we got from Mom and Dad influence us, so does our birth order, early responsibilities and old jealousies and resentments. People can reach adulthood and remain, by choice or not, trapped in these roles. The older siblings may feel greater levels of responsibility for everyone, whether or not they're truly capable of bearing those burdens. The younger siblings may have come along at a time when the parents had mellowed out in terms of discipline and so have had an easier time of it. Or the younger siblings may be seething with resentment at having been constantly compared to their older brothers or sisters. The younger ones may reject being told what to do. They could become embittered at people automatically assuming that they need help or oversight. People enter these roles and often embrace them as part of their identity, even if they are harmful. 

The family rebel, often younger, may spend decades needlessly struggling against restrictions or expectations simply because that's what she does. The older brother might worry himself into life threatening problems with hypertension or cardiac disease because he's always trying to ensure that everyone else has their stuff together. Or maybe the older siblings are not actually more reliable people but rather instead are serious control freaks who really get off on exercising authority. It all depends on your perspective. Of course families also provide a sense of love and protection. A healthy family is the first place that we learn to love and get along with people, even when they may work our last nerve from time to time. That sense of affection and contentment is critical. Who else but an older sister might safely call her precociously developed younger sister "Jug-a-lug" and affectionately tease her about not being able to run high school track for fear of putting her eyes out? Years later when the nickname is shortened to "J", curious nieces and nephews might innocently ask why everyone calls their aunt "Aunt J" when her given name doesn't even have a "J" in it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I Completed My First Half-Marathon!!!

The AIRBNB Brooklyn Half-Marathon

The excitement, nervousness, and post-race pain have subsided so I can now share the journey with you all. Yes! On Saturday, May 16th I completed the Brooklyn-Half Marathon. I ran the first 10 miles of the race nonstop until my wireless headphones, iPhone and body failed me and died :) Before I share all the tidbits on the race, let me take you back to the beginning of the journey. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Gift

"All rulers are either butchers or meat."
We'll we're back after last week's controversy. There were some people on these here interwebs who pontificated that strictly speaking what happened between Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark Bolton was not technically rape as it is expected for a wife to have sex with her husband on the wedding night. That may well be but it is hardly expected for a husband to lock his wife in her room and visit her only to slake his lusts and terrorize her. Sansa was raped last week and has been raped daily since then as we see her bloody and bruised, cowering in a low cut nightgown when Theon Reek goes to bring her food and drink. Sansa refuses to call Theon "Reek" but reminds him of his Greyjoy heritage. She asks Theon for help, saying to Theon that things can't get any worse. Theon responds, as only someone who's been castrated can know, things can always get worse. However Sansa is able to break through to Theon and get him to go light the candle in the highest room of the broken tower. Isn't that the spot where Jaime threw Bran out the window? In an impressive bit of camera work we see Theon grimly climb the steps with the candle, looking out for Bolton soldiers all the time. He finally makes it to the highest point. But when he opens the door who should be there to greet him but Ramsay, who is snidely curious as to what Reek is doing there. It turns out that Reek wasn't climbing up the steps of the broken tower at all, but rather Ramsay's tower. The fear is strong in that one. Although the misdirect was very nicely done we probably shouldn't have been too surprised. Theon is a broken man who has been degraded beyond all belief. He bit his own sister rather than be rescued. It will take something more than Sansa's first pleas to get him to reject Ramsay's conditioning.
Sansa is summoned to see Ramsay, who is chillingly calm and polite. He tells Sansa that the coming battle will not go well for Stannis as his men are not northerners and are unused to the harsh long winters. When Ramsay says that one day he will be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, Sansa reminds him of Walda Frey's pregnancy and of his younger brother's trueborn status as opposed to Ramsay's bastard one. What if Roose disinherits Ramsay for his legitimate son?  Ramsay counters that he was legitimized by King Tommen but Sansa calls him a bastard as well. Ramsay lets Sansa know that her bastard brother Jon Snow is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch so apparently illegitimate status isn't the handicap it used to be. It's a new day in the North. But enough of all this family values talk. This isn't a political convention. Ramsay invited Sansa to the Winterfell courtyard to see the tortured, crucified and flayed body of the woman who gave her the candle. His serenity thus restored, Ramsay has Sansa taken back to her room. In many ways a calm Ramsay is an even more frightening Ramsay. I guess Reek was right. Things really can get worse.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Rape of Sansa Stark and Feminist Outrage

If you believe that HBO Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Daniel Weiss or A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R.Martin are despicable misogynists who enjoy creating rape scenes then I don't know how to change your mind. I don't find enough evidence to justify the misogynist claim in their televised or written creations. I don't think that Weiss, Benioff or Martin hate women. That's a pretty strong accusation to make. Last week's Game of Thrones scene depicting the rape of Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully and in-universe last publicly known Stark heir to Winterfell, was hard to watch. But rapes should be hard to watch should they not? I don't think that there's a universe of people out there who are eagerly tuning in to HBO each Sunday at 9 PM EST to enjoy watching a woman get raped. And if there are people like that I don't know them. I think some of the outrage over the Sansa rape is understandable (I hated the scene) but is definitely misplaced. I will explain this below but it will inevitably involve some mild spoilers/discussion from the books. So if you can't tolerate one scintilla of book knowledge then you know what to do. And if you have read the books, please don't take this as permission to blab all over the place about what's yet to occur in the story (not least because it may not occur on screen) or discuss or link to other book theories or future events.

Although the amount of published source material yet to be adapted for the show is shrinking ever more rapidly there are still other moderators or commenters on this blog who would strongly prefer to see events play out on screen as they have not read the books and are unlikely to do so before the series completes.

Book Reviews: Die And Stay Dead

Die And Stay Dead
by Nicholas Kaufmann
This is installment two in what I believe to be a planned trilogy. The problem with a lot of middle books, whether they are in a trilogy or an even longer series is that they neither reflect the promise of the first book that introduced you to the author nor do they tie anything up, being too busy moving characters and events into place for the finale. Die and Stay Dead doesn't have that problem. Not in the least bit. It's about as hyperactive as the first book, Dying is my Business, reviewed here. But Die and Stay Dead also gives you some very important clues about both the past and future. It perhaps even reveals the secret of the hero's identity. 
Just to briefly recap, a man named Trent who doesn't know who he is or where he's from does odd jobs for a mob boss named Underwood. Trent seemingly can't die. If he ever does, then not soon after his corpse will steal the life force of whoever is unlucky enough to be closest to him and voila, Trent is resurrected. By the end of the first book, Trent discovered that there's someone behind Underwood who's been playing them both. Underwood is just (literally) a puppet. 
In book 2, Trent has broken free of Underwood's control as well as the person who was behind Underwood. He's a member of the Five Pointed Star, an X-Man like ragtag group of misfits and magicians who are struggling to limit the influence of magic and evil in the world. They're the good guys. Sadly, lately they're fighting a losing battle. There are more and more people infected with magic who are going off the deep end and causing harm to themselves and other people. 
Along with Trent, this group includes Bethany, a sorceress who might be only half-human and who also might have a thing for Trent, though they both deny it, the group leader Isaac, a powerful mage who is able to wield magic without becoming infected, something most people can't do, Phillip, a nigh indestructible vampire outcast who owes a debt of honor to Isaac, and Gabrielle, the lover and fiancee of the now deceased group member Thornton, a werewolf.
The  Five Pointed Star is doing its normal thing, chasing down and eliminating creatures infected with magic, when they stumble across what looks like a connection between one of their cases and a doomsday cult. As such cults are wont to do, this group tried and failed to bring about the end of the world by the classic method of summoning something they couldn't control. Snicker. 
You might ask yourself if megalomaniacal magicians shouldn't think twice before opening dimensional gates they might not be able to close. I mean how often does that really work out. But then again I suppose being megalomaniacal tends to warp your judgment a bit. You don't hear the words "No that's a bad idea." very often. And even if you did you'd ignore them because after all you're megalomaniacal. It's what you do.

Monday, May 18, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

"House Lannister has no rivals."
With this installment HBO's Game of Thrones has officially moved from an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire to something that is inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire. This was a tough episode to watch for a number of different reasons. More on that in a minute. At the House of Black and White Arya continues to clean and wash corpses, but isn't allowed in the secret rooms. When Arya wants to know who the creepy girl is and why Arya isn't allowed to do anything more than the basic tasks the girl gives Arya a very convincing story of her exile from Westeros before asking if Arya really believed that story. Evidently lying is part of the training or "game". Arya may not yet have the ability to tell truth from lies but her sensei Jaqen H'ghar does. He asks Arya questions and whips her every time she tells a lie. Curiously one of Arya's lies is apparently that she hates The Hound. Imagine that. We also hear that Arya left the Hound to die. While Arya is cleaning floors a man comes into the House of Black and White with a sickly dying daughter. He can't afford to pay for any more treatment or take care of her any longer. He wants a mercy killing. Acting like she saw Jaqen do, Arya comforts the child and tells her all sorts of lies before giving her a poison drink. Jaqen watches from the shadows. Afterwards, when she is cleaning the child's body a door is left open, and Jaqen leads Arya into the sub basement. There are many pillars there all with human faces hanging from them. Jaquen says that although Arya is not yet ready to be no one she might be ready to be someone else. So Arya is making progress on something. For what purpose we're not sure yet. I don't think that mercy killing and murder are what Ned and Catelyn would have wanted for their little girl but they're not around any more are they. That's life in Westeros and truth be told our world as well. Things don't always work out. Get used to it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Reviews: Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL warrior

Damn Few: Making the Modern Seal Warrior
by Rorke Denver w/ Ellis Henican
When is the last time you really challenged yourself? It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical feat like weight loss or exercise. How often do you learn a new language, close an important deal at work, continue professional education, volunteer for a difficult assignment, write a novel, start a blog, change careers, or otherwise leave your comfort zone to improve yourself?  You can improve your knowledge and become a better human being by stretching yourself beyond your boundaries. By definition, most of us fall within the normal distributions of human accomplishment. Some people have the drive and discipline to improve and test themselves continually. They are working their plan, not someone else's. And a small percentage of people decide for whatever reason to join the Navy and become SEALs. It's the story of those men that Rorke Denver, a Navy SEAL, combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan,  Bronze Star recipient, SEAL training director and Commander in the SEAL reserves tells in Damn Few. The very first thing that you notice in this book is that unlike some other central figures in military stories, Denver comes across as humble. He's not looking to prove anything to the reader or to anyone else. I think that's in part because of his makeup and also because he's already proven himself to his wife, family, fellow military teammates and most importantly, to himself. So even when he's discussing things that are very difficult or seemingly superhuman he maintains a matter of fact and occasionally self-deprecating tone. So this was a very easy book to read. I doubt that Denver is telling us everything that he knows about being a SEAL or everything he's done in the military but he does provide a very interesting look inside the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school or BUD/S, and the many other schools and classes which prospective SEALs must pass before receiving their trident and becoming a SEAL. There are (or were when Denver wrote the book) roughly around 2500-3000 active duty SEALs at any given time. It's an elite organization. 

Denver talks about how pre 9-11 there wasn't as much for SEALs to do. Few people outside military circles knew of SEALs. After 9-11 everything changed. SEALs were on the front lines, but were also taking on some very critical secret missions. Denver finds good and bad in this raised profile. Civilian leadership and military brass were impressed with SEAL capabilities. They wanted more SEALs. The lower ranking SEALs and training instructors enjoyed the acclaim but didn't want to lower standards to make more SEALs. Denver mentions that he wouldn't be too eager to lead a platoon of men who needed more than a few chances to pass various physical or mental tests. Mistakes and lack of attention to detail get people killed.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Legendary Blues Singer B.B. King Dead at Age 89

Legendary Blues Singer B.B. King Dead at Age 89
LAS VEGAS — B.B. King, whose scorching guitar licks and heartfelt vocals made him the idol of generations of musicians and fans while earning him the nickname King of the Blues, died late Thursday at home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

His attorney, Brent Bryson, told The Associated Press that King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT. He said funeral arrangements were underway. Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg confirmed the death.

King’s eldest surviving daughter Shirley King of the Chicago area said she was upset that she didn’t have a chance to see her father before he died.

Although he had continued to perform well into his 80s, the 15-time Grammy winner suffered from diabetes and had been in declining health during the past year. He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, later blaming dehydration and exhaustion. He had been in hospice care at his Las Vegas home.

Rest In Peace.

Here is my favorite memory of B.B. King:


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Michigan State Senator Virgil Smith and Domestic Violence

The Bible tells us that only the person without sin should throw stones. It also informs us that we should judge not lest we be judged. That might be good moral advice but of course a working society requires that we do judge certain sins and crimes and punish those who engage in them. That's just the way it is. Although I think everyone has dealt with lust, jealousy and anger at some point in their life not everyone lets these sins get the better of them. You have to maintain control over your actions. The result of losing your temper could be disastrous for you and those around you. Michigan State Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) is finding this out the hard way as new details and conflicting stories are emerging about a confrontation between Smith and his ex-wife that turned physical.  Two sides emerged Monday in the story of a lurid domestic shooting involving a state senator with longtime family connections to the the halls of power in Detroit and Lansing. State Sen. Virgil Smith told police that opening fire at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz with a rifle early Sunday morning was “the most stupid thing” in his life. In a statement Smith gave to investigators, he said his ex-wife, whose name is being withheld by The Detroit News, “was banging on (the) bedroom window,” at about 1 a.m., a Detroit Police report said. Smith said he opened the front door, and his ex-wife, “kicked the door open and pushed (past) him. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Kill the Boy

"Kill the boy and let the man be born."
The Unsullied are said to be the finest warriors in the world. They ask for no quarter and give none. And yet so far they've yet to impress with their battles against the lightly armed and generally unarmored Sons of the Harpy. One reason for this is that the Unsullied are not designed or trained for police or occupation duties. As mentioned before, seven to nine foot spears can be devastating when properly massed on a battlefield. But in a street fight the weapons and tactics of The Unsullied might be more hindrance than help. The Sons of the Harpy have forced The Unsullied to fight when and where their supposed advantages are neutralized. GRRM and to a lesser extent the show creators are apparently making commentary on the types of wars the US and other Western colonial nations have fought since World War Two. Often the stronger military is unable to completely or thoroughly defeat the indigenous resistance and must come to terms of some kind. Sometimes they even get ignominiously kicked out. The White Man's Burden gets heavier and heavier over time. Obviously Daenerys Targaryen doesn't see herself as a colonialist. She thinks of herself as a liberator. Her primary opposition is more akin to the southern terrorists in post-Civil War America than it is to the Kenyan struggle against British colonialists. All the same she is down two of her military leaders thanks to the rebellious Sons of the Harpy. Ser Barristan is dead while Grey Worm is unconscious for three days. Angered, Daenerys flirts with the idea of just feeding all of the upper class leaders to her dragons, whether they are guilty or not. She makes an object lesson of one. The dragons burn him alive and squabble over the smoking remains. The others, including Hizdahr, are arrested and imprisoned.  Daario thinks that Daenerys needs to retrench in one section of the city and slowly go house to house looking for insurgents Sons of the Harpy.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Movie Reviews: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron
directed by Joss Whedon
This was a good summer movie that was very obviously aimed at a worldwide audience. You did not have to speak English as a primary language in order to understand or enjoy this movie. In some aspects I guess that's a good thing but in other ways it wasn't. But you don't go to movies like this for character development or long soliloquies that only are of interest to aspiring screenwriters. You go to movies like this to watch things go boom and to enjoy (depending on the angle of your dangle) the fleeting down blouse shots of attractive women or shirtless shots of attractive men. The dialogue, when you could hear it was pretty snappy, but as mentioned forget about character development. This will be an atypically short review because of time constraints and because this film is not at all that different from the first Avengers film. If you liked that film or generally enjoy comic book movies you will enjoy this film. The differences are few. I am not an Avengers expert but my brother, who is, assures me that this storyline and primary villain was created long before the somewhat similar storylines in Terminator and The MatrixIf you will permit an aside some of the oldest myths and actual histories feature a creator begetting children who will kill him/her. The Greeks had the Uranus-Chronus-Zeus cycle. King Arthur had Mordred. The Roman emperor Nero murdered his mother (and alleged lover) Aggripina. The Norse Aesir will do battle at Ragnarok with some of their own monstrous offspring and lose. And so on.

Maybe there is something in human nature that continues to be called back to this theme. Perhaps Freud was onto something. Or maybe not. Who can say. Anyway that old myth is what drives this movie. It's updated technologically but it's the same story. The mad scientist/creator brings his "child" into being. But the created child doesn't want to play his assigned role and proceeds to attempt to destroy or take over the world. It goes without saying that it has a special dislike for its parent. It resents its parent and wants to show that it is better than its parent.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

NSA bulk metadata collection found unlawful

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that the NSA bulk collection of phone records or metadata was unlawful. It is not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. You can read the entire 77 page decision for yourself here if you are really into such things. I'm no legal expert but I am quite happy to see that at least somewhere in some part of our government there are some people who still take seriously the idea that the government doesn't automatically have the right to know EVERYTHING about you. Many people have cursed Edward Snowden and called him out of his name but this metadata tracking warrantless program was one of the things he revealed. This is why I think Snowden is and remains a hero and a whistleblower. Now that the legality of warrantless metadata collection has been found wanting, I hope that both the legislators who will be tinkering with the relevant sections of the Patriot Act and the citizens whom they purportedly represent will take some time to cogitate on what kind of world we want to build. Laws that are written in haste and panic as the Patriot Act was can often have some unforeseen and unpleasant consequences. But if we truly believe that a citizen has, absent individualized suspicion of wrong doing, a right to be left alone then we should applaud this ruling. This decision could start to ever so slightly hinder the government's "eye in the sky" as it were from rifling through our every communication and digital thought.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Handicapping Major Party Declared Presidential Candidates

Hillary Clinton
Why she can win: 
Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. All your votes are belong to us. Clinton has the money, the name, the media attention, and the air of invincibility. For those voters who really, really, really want to see a woman in the Oval Office, she could also be the culmination of years of dreams. And right now there's no one else in the Democratic Party who has the name or the organization to compete. The Clinton machine is sucking up a lot of the available donor money and the professionals who are needed to run a multi billion dollar campaign. Clinton is in it to win it. She obviously wants to be President very badly. There's no shame in that. There is in some quarters a nostalgia for middle class accomplishments during her husband's Presidency. Clinton is ready to take any and all rivals to poundtown. She's back. And this's personal.

Dave Goldberg CEO of Survey Monkey and Husband of Sheryl Sandberg Dead at the Age of 47

Dave Goldberg CEO of SurveyMonkey and the husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, died on Friday while vacationing with his family in Mexico. Goldberg, 47, collapsed while exercising and died shortly after from blunt head trauma. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Sons of the Harpy

This episode walked right up to the edge of fan fiction. However it also made the strongest hints yet to a fan favorite theory which GRRM has not confirmed but is pretty much accepted as gospel among his fans. I liked this episode a lot more than I thought I would. One of the things which GRRM has done in his books and that the showrunners have done with their version is to show that different people can have wildly different interpretations of the same events, even to the point that different conflicting realities are constructed. It's the fantasy version of Rashomon. How do you know what you think you know? More on that in minute. First let's start with everyone's favorite lonesome loser Jorah Mormont. He steals a boat and sails off with Tyrion. Groaning thru his bonds Tyrion finally convinces Jorah to take the gag out of his mouth. The first thing Tyrion asks for is wine but of course receives none. But a sober Tyrion is an even sharper Tyrion than normal. When Jorah tells Tyrion that they're going to see Daenerys, even though Jorah hasn't identified himself Tyrion quickly figures who Jorah is from his accent and family crests. Tyrion also remembers that Jorah was a spy and deduces almost instantly that Jorah must be on the outs with Daenerys. Unfortunately Tyrion isn't smart enough to keep his thoughts or scorn to himself. Jorah belts him one. I guess unrequited love can make a fellow pretty mean. Mace Tyrell, the pompous in-over-his-head Master of Coin, informs the Small Council that the Iron Bank is calling in 10% of the debt that the Crown owes to it. He says the Crown can only afford 1/2 of that but that the Tyrells could make up the difference. Cersei declines the offer but suggests orders Tyrell to go overseas to work on terms with the Iron Bank. To ensure that he goes she sends Ser Meryn Trant as "protection". 

We start to see that just as you should never count your chickens before they hatch it's not very wise to laugh at lionesses when you're on the same side of the cage as they are. The meek Cersei of last week is gone. She goes to see the High Sparrow. Cersei pretends dismay that the war has seen the robbing, raping and murder of septons and sisters. She gives permission to the Church to arm itself again both to protect itself against such crimes and to root out sinners. And by the way Cersei happens to know where a few high placed sinners might be hiding. The High Sparrow says all sinners are equal in God's eyes.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Movie Reviews: Hyena

directed by Gerard Johnson
The evil that police do has been in the news a lot of late. In some communities it's never far from people's minds. Whether it's killing people, beating them, robbing them or even going into business with other criminals, a few bent cops can do a lot of harm to a society precisely because society is not designed to protect itself from the police. Hyena is not really interested in the larger societal issues around police brutality and corruption but rather stays focused on the internal and individual costs of such activity, primarily to the corrupt cops. In this way the film is almost a homage to such flicks as Bad Lieutenant, Filth or Rampart. Other than a few of the victims there aren't too many sympathetic people here. The default "hero" who has his conscience jogged may be as much motivated by lust or ethnic prejudice as by anything else. This film also serves as a reunion of sorts for the two leads from Kill List, though they are decidedly secondary players here. The accents aren't that bad or more likely I've just gotten used to them. More than the story what I liked about Hyena was the settings, cinematography and lighting. 

The film uses all of this to ooze griminess and realism. The leads are mostly not square jawed white toothed heroes nor are they people who would automatically invite distrust once you see them on screen. They are very realistic middle aged men who may have had a few too many rich dinners over the years. Many of them are going to seed physically. But of course generally speaking they don't have to rely on physical brawn to intimidate people. They're cops. Most of the people they brutalize or steal from are not going to have the guts to fight back. The cops know this and revel in it. Their badge is literally a license to do whatever they want to do.