Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Christmas Vacation Media Consumption
or, first omnibus post of the year, part 2.

(In order of enjoyment, lowest to highest)

The Shack by William P. Young

These guys (I use the plural because there's more than just the author behind this) are trying their best to create the next big quasi-religious media movement, like Oprah's The Secret, Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions, the odious Conversations with God series excreted by Neale Donald Walsch and that Purpose Driven Life hoo-ha.

The plot (spoilers ahoy, but are you really gonna read this thing?) is this crabby old guy whose daughter was abducted and killed by a serial killer gets in invite to meet God at "The Shack" and discuss it all. Of course, by attempting to be ecumenical, there's something here to offend about everyone, except the Unitarians.

The writing is abysmal. The "lessons" are feeble, watered-down quasi-Christianity, and the characterizations of the Trinity are eye-rollingly bad. At one point, as the old crab and Jesus are walking across the pond to get to the shack, Jesus becomes distracted by a fish he's been trying to catch and runs off after it. I was embarrassed for all of humanity at that point.

In the end materials, or more accurately the marketing campaign, there's this "society" set up in honor of the fictional child who was murdered to help spread the word about The Shack. I was embarrassed all over again.

I waste time on these things so you don't have to. Don't even expend the calories to hoist this one off the shelf.

The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham

Praises on and elsewhere about this "unflinching" memoir of her father's suicide, interestingly (they claim) organized in the form of an index, and caveats that this wasn't just a wall-to-wall bummer, peaked my interest.

It was merely OK. Maybe you can admire Wickersham for being so objective that she doesn't attempt to hide her own faults while she's examining those of others, but it did leave me sorta cold in that I had no one to identify with. Having gone through a grieving over a loss, one needs to be more gentle with oneself.

There are no insights here, really. The father in question basically fell into the Willy Loman trap, and tied too much of his worth to what he did at work, and when that was taken from him as he aged amongst the younger sharks of the modern corporation, he floundered and then shot himself in his study.

Well, the wife had transferred her emotional intimacy to a mutual friend (male), so the father didn't really have a wife, but a roommate who'd prefer to be elsewhere. That was part of it, too. So maybe there's the one insight: you can cheat emotionally and not physically, and it is just as devastating.

The praises I read aside, this really is a wall-to-wall bummer with not a lot to carry out the other side. Except be good to the ones you love. Remind them they are loved. Often.

But you don't need to read this book to know that.

Dangerous Women: Why Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters Become Stalkers, Molesters, and Murderers by Larry A. Morris

I read this one for the sheer ugly fun of it, not really hoping for insights, but not minding if some did pop up.

And one did: stay away from crazy people.

The psychological diagnosis for most of the women here becomes as predictable as Dr. House saying "it's NOT lupus": Borderline Personality Disorder.

If you read this, DO NOT read the last case history section where the four teenage girls kill a 12-year-old girl, seemingly for the hell of it. The descriptions of the hours torture and eventual burning alive of the child are things that I wish had never allowed into my head.

The only interesting section is the one on the teachers who seduced students. Maybe read that one part while having a latte at Border's or something.

Ted, White, and Blue: The Nugent Manifesto by Ted Nugent

I read Ted because he amuses me. I don't agree with a lot of his life philosophy, but would have no problem with him being my neighbor. I do like the work he does in promoting hunting and hunter's rights. But his child-raising advice, politics, and views on the poor can be pretty harsh.

I think he sometimes loses sight of the fact that he's been a rich rock star most all of his life and the various entitlements it has brought. I've noted that a lot of so-called libertarians and far-right folks often have had a pretty cushy financial life (their emotional lives are a different story), starting in early adulthood, and have no real experience with financial hardship, and how much just one car repair or an emergency room visit can set the average person back.

Unlike his other books, Ted tends to start repeating himself in this one, so once you've read the first couple sections, you've got the drift. If you're a fan, skip back to the expanded rant on topics near and dear to you. Only die-hards should bother to read every word.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

We finally arrive at the good books.

This is my favorite Gladwell book so far. I enjoyed his other two, but my BS meter wobbled a little bit as he tried to weave together some causalities in ways that stretched credibility. (Or, in short: nice theory, but unprovable.) This book cleaves closer to pure facts and data and so is more enjoyable, since you don't have to suspend disbelief.

His main points are these:
- When you are born has a HUGE influence on how you will do in school, in sports, and sometimes in life. This is because we have come up with (seemingly) arbitrary cutoff dates for the inclusion of students in school, or athletes on teams, or you name it. It is proven that kids who are older in a given class really do much better that those who are younger. Gladwell suggests we actually institute 4 cutoffs per year for school age children to eliminate this imbalance. Since so many schools have a non-traditional school year anymore, I think his idea has merit.

When it comes to the moguls - the hyper-successful - all the big "industrial age" guys were born within a couple years of each other in the 1800s, and the big computer guys, like Bill Joy and Bill Gates were born in the mid fifties (born in '54 and '55 respectively), thus both groups were of the optimal age when industry and the computer boomed.

- Being able to get in 10,000 hours of practice (roughly 10 years) in your chosen field or specialty makes you not only competent, but allows you to be on the top of your game. Both Bills had accumulated 10,000 hours of personal coding time by the time the industry was in it's infant stages, which gave them a tremendous advantage.

So, being born at the right time, and having the proper experience under your belt when the moment hits has a lot to do with the difference between mild success and superstar success.

Good book. Check it out.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

The feel of this book is as if you plopped down next to Ms. Fisher at a rockin' party at about the time her buzz was kicking in. You don't really learn any earth-shattering (new) trivia here, but you certainly are entertained.

I was hoping for more dishing on the making of the various Star Wars flicks, but the only new thing I learned was that Harrison Ford's pot was the best.

Fisher has recently gone through a course of electro-shock therapy to treat extreme depression, so her memory has been sliced and diced, as have her narrative abilities. Her novels were much more cohesive, but then again, they were fiction. Real life is messy and doesn't always follow a nice, clean plot.

However, to her credit, she can still craft a hilarious turn of phrase. This is a fun read. It's very short though, and uses the ole school term paper trick of using a big font and double-spacing to try to hide the fact that this is really more like a long article in length than an actual memoir.

Borrow it from the library. Ms. Fisher has plenty of money.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling

In the Harry Potter series, this set of children's stories is referred to as the Hans Christian Andersen of the wizard world. The final tale relates directly to one of the major subplots of the books, as wizards are actually searching for the magical items in that story.

Even at $13, this book is only for the Harry Potter completist. Yeah, it brings back fond memories of the series, it's a nice big warm fuzzy, but you can read these things over a lunch break, so I recommend that. Borders serves sandwiches now, right?

The effect this had on me was to make me look forward to J.K. Rowling's next book, whatever it is, a feeling I did not have after finishing the final Harry Potter. I hope it's something not in the wizard universe, because even though it's apparent that Rowling is a talented author, it'll be fun to see if she can stretch beyond her current genre.

Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid by Dr. Denis Leary

This be the gem of the collection. I thought I would like this book, but didn't think I would enjoy it as much as I did.

I laughed hard out loud. I was moved. I sniggered. I got myself some history lessons.

This is everything a memoir/rant/manifesto/who's-your-daddy should be.

Unlike with Ted, I agreed with nearly everything Leary said. But then he's an old, died-in-the-wool Irish liberal, which - if you throw in a little Swedish - I am, too. It was nice in this day and age to read political polemics and be able to nod along all the way through.

I found only two places where I disagreed with Denis:
- While you shouldn't hover excessively over your kids (helicopter parents), I don't think you should let them fall from the top of the monkey bars for character growth, either. (But then, Denis was talking about himself, not his kids, so maybe he was exaggerating for effect.)
- He is a very lapsed Catholic (which is not what I have a problem with), but he says that when you boil down the beliefs of Christianity and Scientology to a cute sentence, Christianity sounds as crazy as Scientology. Of course I'm biased, but I think an evil galactic warlord dumping aliens into a volcano and nuking them, causing us to be possessed by said alien souls sounds MUCH wackier than God coming down and suggesting we be nice to one another for a change and getting nailed to a tree for it.

Denis coins one concept that I will use henceforth: the jetpack parent. The jetpack parent is the exact opposite of the helicopter parent. Jetpack parents have kids as more of a fashion accessory, because it's hip and their friends have done it, and once they have them, do everything in their power to avoid having to raise them or be around them. The hire nannies. They ship them off to boarding schools. The resent it if they actually have to spend social time with them. They are really only interested in jetting off to their next activity (hence the name). I know a few of these kinds of parents. Hell, half the 'rents at my daughter's school are these schmoes.

Denis Leary for President! (Once Obama's had his eight.)

(Again, in order of enjoyment, lowest to highest)

Inland Empire

I will probably always give David Lynch's output a look. Over half the time, it's rewarding, and no one else has ever come as close to laying down the exact atmosphere of a nightmare as he has.

Still, sometimes when watching his stuff, you wonder ... what the fuck happened to this guy?

Something had to have joined the circuits in his head the way they are, and it wasn't shiny happy puppy time. No, he had to have been locked in a closet for a week, or molested by a wallaby, or maybe he lived on Kaboom cereal for a solid month (like most of us kids who upon first bite set a goal to do, but realized after the first box, something was amiss and we felt funny all the time) and all that food coloring scorched a swath of synapses. SOMETHING happened. Maybe his biographer will be able to tell us what it was.

That aside, this is one of his more tedious efforts. It would've been better had it been cut down to about and hour and 45 minutes, but it goes up to or past three hours. Like Rita Rudner says, I don't want to do anything that feels good for that long.

This one's a maybe for fans, but newbies should start with Blue Velvet.

Burn After Reading

The Cohen brothers re-team Brad Pitt and George Clooney (and Frances McDormand) in a goof on the Hitchcockian theme of innocents blundering into the middle of a larger plot of murder and intrigue.

This starts on a high note with the ever-more-hard-to-look-at John Malkovich getting fired, and making a great crack about a fellow spy who's Mormon (who was instrumental in getting Malkovich fired). This is one of my favorite paranoias: the fact that a large proportion of our "intelligence" community is Mormon because only they can pass the ridiculous "purity" tests to get into those jobs (something none of our past 3 presidents, including the incumbent, couldn't do).

Brad Pitt is at his best when he's playing a himbo or a nut, which he combines with aplomb, here. His performance is really the only good thing about the rest of this movie.

Sadly, this is one of the Cohen misfires, and I'd recommend it only for those times where there's nothing better to do, if you're a completist, a big fan etc.

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

The Harold & Kumar franchise has stepped in to fill the void left by Cheech ∧ Chong, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, and other R-rated comedy masters of times past, since that world's been converted to the PG-13 market. As such, Harold & Kumar is glorious.

The setup for the gratuitous nudity moment is one of the best ever, and the recurring character of Neil Patrick Harris as "Himself" (albeit a drug-addled, heterosexual version) is pure genius. Bless him for having the balls to allow himself to be lampooned this way. I literally cried with laughter during the unicorn scene.

If you like these kind of raunchy, adult comedies, have a double-feature party with this and the first one (or if you've seen it, show Beerfest instead), and I guarantee you'll have a grand time.

I just have to share this one scene with you. Here we have Bush, the sequel (only days left!), saying perhaps the most intelligent things he's ever said - and of course it's not him saying them. Language NSFW - headphones, please:

Finally, here's a page of newborn babies' faces to ring in the new year.

Hope it's a good one.


Sya said...

I haven't read Outliers, but I did see a Charlie Rose interview of the author about the book. It does seem intuitively logical that the older kids would do better since they're mentally and physically more developed, but looking back on my own experiences, this wasn't always the case. Before college, I did pretty well academically even though I was a year younger than all my classmates. The only person who often got better grades than me (and was more accomplished at other things) was half a year younger than me.

yahmdallah said...

Sya, guessing from what I read on your blog, you are a pretty smart cookie - probably officially "gifted" - so you kinda wreck the curve, and thus are the exception and not the rule.

I still take your point, tho.

Whisky Prajer said...

We finally watched Burn After Reading, and I completely agree with your verdict. I was happy, however, to watch it right to the end if only to make acquaintance with The Fugs' "CIA Man." Rockin' tune, that.