Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Reviews: Known to Evil

Known to Evil
by Walter Mosley
This is book two in Mosley's Leonid McGill series. You can read a review of book one here. Or if you don't care to read an entire other review there are some very basic points which you should understand before reading this book. Mosley thoughtfully weaves them in and out of the story although he doesn't do anything as obvious as an information dump. Leonid McGill is a middle aged New York private eye who's trying to turn over a new leaf morally speaking. He's spent a great deal of his life running in some very dangerous circles and doing business with or favors for evil and dangerous men in both the NYC underworld and upperworld. A few years back McGill underwent a moral epiphany. He decided to only do legitimate private eye work. No more setting up innocent people in insurance scams. No more tracking down witnesses for the Mob. No more fixing juries or paying people to perjure themselves in court. And McGill promised himself to try really hard not to kill anyone if he could avoid it. McGill decided to try to make amends where possible to some of the people he hurt. He also chose, as penance for his misdeeds, to stay with his beautiful wife Katrina, who has given him three children, only one of which is his. Katrina is as faithless as she is striking. She's always searching for something bigger and better. The only reason Katrina may be staying with Leonid is that the years are starting to catch up with her, though she remains stunning for her age. Most of the more successful men Katrina might prefer want younger women. That's what Leonid thinks anyway when he imagines Katrina's motivations, which isn't often. 

He may still be married to her but it's a loveless marriage as far as Leonid is concerned. Leonid's mind is often elsewhere. It's not as if he were 100% true either. In this book Leonid continues to attempt to make amends but learns that you can't just wash your hands once they've been dirty. He's hired by arguably the most powerful man in New York City, the political fixer Alphonse Rinaldo, to find a young woman named Tara. It's supposedly an easy job with no nasty work required. And even a man as stubborn and as independent as Leonid doesn't like to say no to a man like Alphonse Rinaldo. Even more so than Leonid, Alphonse literally knows where all the bodies are buried. Alphonse has access to power which could greatly help or harm Leonid.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

There's No Crying at Work!!!!

There is a common blues couplet that reads "Crying won't help you/Praying won't do you no good". I tend to agree with the spirit of those lyrics. Leaving aside the very serious events in war there are only a few situations when I would grudgingly concede that it is theoretically appropriate or excusable for a grown man to cry. These times are few and far between but would probably include such traumatic occurrences as the death of a parent, wife, sibling or child, the joyous occasions of a child's birth or daughter's wedding, and possibly such horrific fictional events as the shooting and eventual death of Sounder, Cochise's death or the Red Wedding. Snicker. These are my rules anyway. I'm not saying they should be yours. Humor aside, I am saying that for better or worse a man who runs around crying at every little thing will inevitably discover that he will lose respect from both men and women. A fellow who lets other men, women or life's ups and downs regularly reduce him to blubbering helplessness shouldn't be allowed to call himself a man in my view. There are very few problems that are solved by crying. And no matter what fresh hell we may find ourselves in at any given time it's a certainty that the world is going to keep turning. The Sun rose yesterday despite all the horrible atrocities that occurred to people who aren't you. And the Sun will rise tomorrow if you get some terrible news today. That's just the way the world works. As both of my grandfathers were prone to saying (fortunately jokingly by the time I arrived on the scene), "Hush up that crying before I give you something to cry about!" I view most crying by men, outside of the previously listed exceptions, as an announcement of utter incompetence, childishness and weakness. Life does not reward such behavior in general. As the Godfather informed us it's important to act like a man!! So whatever problems you face in your life remember that other people have faced them and survived. Or to quote an influential local DJ of my teen years , "Whenever you feel like you're nearing the end of your rope, don't slide off. Tie a knot. Keep hanging, keep remembering, that it ain't nobody bad like you." 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Movie Reviews: Secret in Their Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes
directed by Billy Ray
This film with an A-list cast was based on a Argentine novel which was previously made into an Oscar winning Argentine film. Unfortunately I suspect that a little was lost in translation. Every actor and actress in this version does a good job but they never quite make you completely forget that it's a movie. As thrillers go this film might also have been hamstrung by its PG-13 rating. There are a few subject matters and themes that actually are better served by an R rating. This film needed to be able to stretch out a little more than it did. So if you're someone who likes thrillers but doesn't care for unending stylized grotesque depictions of violence, don't worry. This film doesn't have them. I liked the film marginally more than I disliked it but again this isn't a film which will leave a mark on you or leave you wanting more. It definitely has its exciting moments. There are the requisite set piece scary moments. But despite the film's seeming focus on externalized evil it's really about the impact that evil has on its victims and survivors. I had no problem with that decision. I just thought the film could have done a better job of examining that internal damage.  One character has tons of motivation but is strangely absent from huge swaths of the film while the other keeps everything so tightly wrapped that you don't know why they got up in the morning. 

This is a film with three leads. It starts thirteen years prior to the current day. It's just after 9-11. The national law enforcement/intelligence community is embarrassed, humiliated and angered about having missed the 9-11 conspiracy and attack. The word from the top is to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again. The means that law enforcement grunts like FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwitel Ejiofor), US Attorney's investigator Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts) and local LA Detective Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris -Hank from Breaking Bad) are supposed to spend their every waking moment tracking down leads on Middle East inspired terrorism. 24-7. They aren't supposed to be wasting time surfing the net, sneaking out early to baseball games or writing blog posts. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Reviews: The Stranger

The Stranger
by Harlan Coben
I have an older relative who apparently considers it his sacred duty to share unflattering details about even older kin, most of whom are no longer around to contradict, challenge or clarify his statements. He claims that the younger generation needs to know certain things. Well maybe we do and maybe we don't. My view is that if I didn't ask there's a good chance I didn't want to know.  And even if I did want to know, the semi-public nature of Facebook makes it a poor arena for learning that Great-Grand Uncle Mendacious Mike did this or that wrong or stole this or yada yada yada. Of course when your older relatives have departed this plane of existence, learning some unpleasant facts of their lives may not matter much when all is said and done. Bottom line is most of them did the best that they could do with the limited resources they had. So I can view their alleged foibles or misdeeds with equanimity. 

Those things don't really impact me for the most part (I mean besides learning that second cousin Pookie Mac stole your Grandfather's fledgling business back in 1959 and that's why that branch of the family never shows up at family reunions). But what if instead of having an older relative trolling you on Facebook about people who are usually long gone, you were minding your own business when out of the blue a stranger walked up to you and told you something ugly, shocking and true about someone close to you who is still living? Let's say you discovered something very nasty about your husband, wife, father, brother, mother, sister, son or daughter. What would you do with that information? Would you try to live just as before and pretend that nothing had changed? Or would doubt and suspicion inevitably worm their way into your soul, harming the relationship with your loved one or making you boil over with anxiety and anger?  

Or maybe you'd see this as justification to do something illicit. There are some things that your loved one might be doing in secret that are really none of your business. But there are other activities which may have great impact on you. Could you forgive any transgression by a loved one? Coben's thriller The Stranger introduces the reader to a New Jersey yuppie lawyer Adam Price. Adam appears to have the world on a string, at least by the standards of the upper middle-class semi-rich circles he inhabits.

What a Friend we have in Dog

On the weekends I run many different errands. Over the past weekend I stopped at the vet to retrieve some medicine and specialty food for my German Shepherd. While I sat in the reception room waiting for my order to be fulfilled, I noticed that there was another gentleman there with his dog. His dog was a male 14 year-old Beagle. That is positively ancient for just about any dog. This Beagle was completely blind. He had suffered some sort of disease that required his eyes to be removed. The medicine (or maybe it was just the age and stress of surgery) had also caused his fur to turn completely white. Nevertheless despite his advanced age and blindness the beagle was still lively, running around to sniff everything. Obviously this was a bit problematic because he would often bump into things or me. This is probably why his owner had the Beagle wrapped in a thick doggy-sweater in order to minimize bruising. Talking to the owner I could see that he had a lot of love for his dog. He described changes that he and his family had made to their daily routine, two story house and yard in order to ensure that their dog could go about his daily affairs with a minimum of discomfort. The man's face shone with love for his pet. I thought this was interesting because in the old days for many people dogs were more utilitarian than they are today. Down south my grandfather had Beagles which he used to assist him in hunting. I don't think people forty or fifty years ago would have been willing to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars on extreme health measures for an old dog. People probably would have done a quick cost-benefit analysis which placed high emphasis on the costs and not so much on the benefit to the dog. Obviously veterinary science has improved since the sixties but even so we view our pets differently than we used to do. This man was willing to spend no small amount of money on surgeries and medicine to save his dog's life and ensure that his dog would be as comfortable as possible in the short time that remained to it. I think that is a good thing.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Trump's Fascist Rallies and Violence

If you have ever wondered about the sort of people who attended lynching parties in the America of the 20s, 30s or 40s and asked yourself how could they watch, cheer and participate in the brutalization, torture and murder of their fellow human beings you can satisfy your curiosity by looking at a Donald Trump rally. Human fecal emission John McGraw, 78 years old, thought that he would be a big brave man by throwing an elbow to the eye of 26 year old Rakeem Jones. Jones was being led out of a Trump rally. Unsurprisingly immediately after the assault the police swarmed on Jones, the victim of the crime and not McGraw, the perpetrator. At 78, McGraw mostly missed out on the classic period of American lynching, in which lynchings were announced days beforehand and whites sent each other postcards and other memorabilia to commemorate the event. But McGraw is the perfect age to have been one of the people protesting the desegregation efforts of the 50s and engage in some of the violence that took place then. I wouldn't be surprised if we find out that McGraw was among those who flocked to Woolworth's sit-ins to insult, spit on or attack civil rights protesters. Trump has consistently exhorted his followers to violence against protesters in his rallies. He's talked about how things would have been handled back in the day. Trump initially refused to disavow David Duke and the KKK. So it's not at all surprising that his supporters, riding his rhetorical wave of hatred, have felt emboldened to lash out against the other, that is anyone not supporting Trump, especially black people. People can talk about Trump's position on trade or illegal immigration or whatever. But it's clear that for a not insignificant number of his supporters, their support arises from the fact that Trump panders to their worst instincts. They want to beat up people who disagree with them. They want to torture or kill the families of terrorism suspects. And they want to kill dissenters. There is no reasoning with people like McGraw. McGraw's a coward of course. He never would have put his hands on Jones were they mano a mano on the street. But there are a lot of people like McGraw in this world. They get courageous when they and likeminded people outnumber you 10,000 to 1. However there is a solution. North Carolina and several other states are stand your ground states. Jones and other protesters should obey the law but make it clear that anyone illegally laying hands on them won't get a chance to do so again. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michigan Primary Results

Last night Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders managed to beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the March 8 Michigan Democratic Primary by 49.83% to 48.3%. This slim margin of victory for Sanders was astounding given that polls shortly before the vote showed that Clinton was ahead by double digits. Michigan has a primary which is closed (technically defined as closed because you have to declare party affiliation before you can get a ballot) but there is not a requirement that you are a registered member of one party or another. So there might be some sour grapes among partisans of one party or another who are convinced that their preferred candidate only lost because of those rascally rapscallions of the other party who lied about their party affiliation just to cast a vote in a different primary. But at this point there is no evidence of that. Michigan is different from the southern states which Clinton was winning handily (like Mississippi which Clinton won 83-17) in that (1) there are still white Democrats in Michigan, (2) there is still an active (but dying) union movement, and (3) Michigan lacks a huge Hispanic or Asian population. Sanders' attempt to make his case to Black voters paid off in Michigan. He got roughly 30~35% of the Black vote, which coupled with a more competitive percentage of the white vote allowed him to win. In Michigan in particular there's a strong undercurrent of discontent over NAFTA, "free trade" and globalization which was likely more fertile ground for Sanders' message. Michigan is ground zero for the loss of high wage middle class manufacturing jobs. In any event Sanders still has an uphill battle for the nomination but last night showed that it's not time for his political funeral just yet. Clinton will need to alter her message a bit so that it can resonate with a few more male voters in the Midwest, especially white ones. I think it's interesting that Clinton has mostly run up the score in states that will almost certainly be in the Republican column on election day. Michigan is whiter than the nation as a whole but it's also a state which usually leans Democratic. That Sanders won here after being down by such a huge margin has to give pause to some people in the Clinton camp. The big question will be if Michigan is just a bump in the road to the inevitable Clinton nomination or is it a harbinger for a comeback which hasn't been seen in modern times.

Donald Trump won the Republican Primary in Michigan with 37% of the vote. I also think he won in part because of his nationalist stance on trade issues. I think he will be the Republican nominee. Cruz came in second at 25% while Ohio Governor Kasich finished third at 24%. Marco Rubio finished fourth with just 9% of the vote and lacks any reason to keep going other than spite. Rubio did win in Puerto Rico but of course Puerto Rico provides no electoral votes. Perhaps Rubio will soldier on until the primary in his home state of Florida but he's currently behind there. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

HBO Game of Thrones: Season 6 Trailer(1)

Well this was unexpected. Enjoy the new Season 6 HBO Game of Thrones trailer. Very interesting. It looks as if some unanswered questions from last year will be addressed. And what's up with Bran standing? Dreams I would guess but who knows? And it looks like the Cersei we know and hate is ready to show the Faith Militant that you don't mess with live lionesses. We shall see. There's a lot to unpack in this short trailer. Hopefully there will be more to come. The fact that Daenerys is walking among a people who think that to walk when you could ride indicates low status doesn't bode well for her standing. All in all I think the trailer raises more questions than it answers, which is exactly what it should do, right?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Movie Reviews: Black Mass, Fatal Instinct

Black Mass
directed by Scott Cooper
This is a horror film masquerading as a gangster movie. I don't mean that it does so because of the explicit violence. Compared to some Tarantino and maybe even Scorsese films this movie is not all that explicit. Of course that said I am likely a little inured to cinematic mayhem so maybe you should take that last statement with several grains of salt. When I compare this to a horror film I mean that Johnny Depp, portraying pitiless South Boston Irish-American gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, does masterful work depicting the soulless cold black hole of a human being that Bulger was during his days of dominion over Boston. Bulger is less a human being than a ghoul. He's something almost unnatural. Depp's Bulger kills at will from cold calculation. He inspires others to kill, often out of pure fear. If nothing else Depp's version of Bulger will put you in mind of Nosferatu. His Bulger is all bulging forehead, bad teeth, stringy hair and arctic blue eyes. He's a predator of other humans. His gravelly voice commands, insults and frightens. Bulger is rarely kind to anyone other than his aged mother, sickly son, brother and less occasionally his wife. Everyone else he regards as someone to be ignored, used or consumed. When Bulger loses two people close to him he sheds all but a thin veneer of humanity. 

There's little milk of human kindness  flowing through Bulger's veins. It's difficult to overstate how thoroughly Depp inhabited or rather devoured this role. His tour de force as the irascible and nocturnal Bulger is a testament to how good of an actor Depp can be given the right material. Depp's acting is the best thing about this film.  He should have won more awards for this. His acting is enough to see this movie even if you aren't too crazy about the subject matter. Often times a powerful performance like this runs the risk of an actor overplaying his hand and going over the top (Pacino in Scarface) . That didn't happen here. Depp provides the best performance by far but everyone else also does a pretty good job. It's an ensemble cast. I was somewhat familiar with this story. 

Believe it or not Black Mass tones down Bulger's real life violence and brutality. If you want to know more there are a number of books which delve into Bulger's activities, including the book which gives this film its title. The movie was shot on location in and around Boston for greater authenticity. It shows all the small winding streets, cobblestones, grocery stores, bars and pool halls that make that town what it is. I think that if you are familiar with that area you will enjoy seeing it so lovingly depicted here.

HBO Game of Thrones Extras

There is a new Game of Thrones season starting up in a little less than two months. So far HBO and the involved actors, producers and writers, perhaps stung by last year's leaking of multiple episodes, have been a bit more reticent (with the notable exception of new cast member Ian McShane) about providing information on the new season. Usually by this time there have been one or two trailers which show various teases from the new season. I'm sure that we'll get something as the premiere of Season 6 approaches. But for now there's been bupkis, as my high school chemistry teacher might have said. So what's a fan to do? As it turns out the DVD/Blu-Ray of the past season will be available in a few days. Both to stir up interest in that release and get you excited for the new season HBO has put some of the extras from that package online. These include Ser Barristan Selmy remembering how Robert's Rebellion got started and some more detailed information on the Many Faced God (God of Death). This is as you recall whom Arya Stark is supposed to be serving, that is once she can forget that she is Arya of House Stark and instead become no one. I rather doubt that is likely. Much like Inigo Montoya, Arya Stark has an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. Blind, crippled or crazy I expect her to continue seeking to get some payback on those who destroyed her family. Anyhow please enjoy the two short videos below. They give some greater context to people who haven't read the books. They also provide reminders to those who have read the books but have forgotten one detail or another from roughly two million words of text. In April both book readers and show watchers will pretty much be starting from the same point..

Friday, March 4, 2016

What We Should Take Away From the Van Jones v. Jeffrey Lord Debate

A few things happened on Super Tuesday.  Hillary and Trump had big nights politically, each taking home most of the delegates in their respective primaries.  But as the pundits on the various cable news shows chimed in with their two cents about how to interpret the election results, a different debate entirely was happening on CNN.  In response to a critique on Donald Trump's failure to initially disavow an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan ("KKK") member David Duke (Trump subsequently disavowed the endorsement publicly), pundits Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones actually engaged in a debate about the KKK.  The primary thrust of the debate was supposed to be about how presidential candidates should immediately and unequivocally denounce any support whatsoever from hate groups like the KKK. But then the debate took a turn into the Twilight Zone when Jeffrey Lord suggested that the KKK is a "Leftist" and "Progressive" organization that should be associated with today's Democratic Party.  Watch for yourself:

Jones: The Klan is a terrorist organization.
Lord: A leftist terrorist organization.
Jones: You can put whatever label you want on it, that's your game to play.
Lord: That's history.
Jones: No, we're not going to play that game.
Lord: It is wrong to understand that these [KKK members] are not leftists.
Jones: What difference does it make if you call them leftists?  Call them chipmunks - they still killed people.  And don't play games with that!
Lord: You're right, and you don't hide and say that's not part of the base of the Democratic Party.  They were the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party according to historians.  For God's sake, read your history!
Let's break down this myth after the jump.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Romney Calls Trump a "Phony"

From the LA Times:

Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is charging into the increasingly divisive White House race with a verbal lashing of Donald Trump and a plea for fellow Republicans to shun the front-runner for the good of country and party.

Romney is branding the billionaire businessman as “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” according to a speech Romney planned to give at the University of Utah on Thursday morning. The Associated Press obtained excerpts of his remarks in advance.

Trump, in turn, dismissed Romney as “a stiff” who “didn't know what he was doing” as the party's candidate in 2012 and blew a chance to beat President Obama. “People are energized by what I'm saying” in the campaign and turning out in remarkable numbers to vote, Trump told NBC's “Today.”

In ratcheting up the rhetoric, Romney cast his lot with a growing chorus of anxious Republican leaders -- people many Trump supporters view as establishment figures -- in trying to slow the New York real estate mogul's momentum.

“Here's what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” the former Massachusetts governor said, according to the early excerpts.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Thoughts about Dr. Carson and Other Black Republicans

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been physically assaulted by the KKK.  While I’ve encountered various members – growing up in Missouri, they’re hard to avoid – I never felt physically threatened by them.  They never burned a cross in my yard.  They haven't worn white hoods and robes to harass my family or me. So, by Ben Carson’s rationale, since I’ve never experienced direct racism from the KKK, they must not be a racist organization and I can give them a pass. 

I guess ignorance truly is bliss.

To me, this type of “logic” lacks many vital elements – like facts.  Just because I haven’t experienced racism from the KKK first hand, doesn’t mean that the KKK isn’t a racist organization that has done a ton of damage to minorities in this country.  I have the ability to think, read, and reason for myself.  It doesn’t take much to understand the KKK’s position on many social issues.  Any assessment saying otherwise means the assessor is either willfully ignorant or deliberately misrepresentation of the facts - most likely for personal gain.