Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Month That Was - February 2013

The Month That Was - February 2013: Well I just got a new Kindle Fire 8.9, and a new camera - a Canon point-and-shoot. These, however, will be topics for next month. As will the return of travel posts. I have a couple of trips planned for March. February was pretty much same ol' same old. It was exactly as a cold as you would expect for a Michigan winter. I got the snow blower out twice. And, as usual for February, reached a point where I got sick of winter. Like I said, typical. Oh, and after a false start, I finally closed on my condo -- back to owning a single household -- with only a small snafu or two.

I have been alive for 629 months. February 2013 was one of them.

[Books] Book Look: Erasure
[Detroit] Fluff Among the Ruins
[Movies] Flick Check: Gettin' Some Action

[Books] Book Look: Erasure, by Percival Everett

Book Look: Erasure by Percival Everett: A gem. This book stands as a fine example of the what I would like to see more of in novels, so regular readers are going to get an eyeful of repeat commentary.

Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is a literature professor, a skillful wordsmith who riles up academia with unpopular tracts on the sorts of post-modern literary theories that are completely undifferentiated from the schizophrenic rants of street people. He comes from an upper middle class family -- nearly blueblood -- he has a sister and a gay older brother who are both doctors, his father has passed and his mother is deteriorating, he likes woodworking and fly-fishing. In short, he is the perfect picture of the bourgeois. He is also black.

Here we have the formula for some heavy-handed socio-political commentary (Everett is also black) and education on the correct ways of thinking, but instead we get sharp and funny satire with outside the box characters. A very pleasant surprise. The socio-political angle is that Ellison, a skilled experimentalist, a man who is truly passionate about literature, simply cannot deal with the fact that the latest bestseller is an abomination of a illiterate ebonics that is being celebrated as a gritty, genuine take the authentic black experience, entitled We's Lives in da Ghetto. It disgusts him both personally and artistically.

So, in a fit of spitefulness, Ellison writes a novel: My Pafology, an illiterate, profane, recounting of the life of an animalistic ghetto-dweller. A parody that no one will see as such. He invents a false identity (Stagg R. Leigh) under which to publish it and proceeds to get rich -- disgusting himself in the process, but also providing for family and loved ones.

While that is the clever and quite humorous scaffolding, the meat of the novel -- and what appeals to me so much -- is that it is deeply personal. By that I mean much of the novel is taken up with Ellison's personal life. His siblings, though loving, have unresolved issues with him, since he was always the favorite, the special one. His elderly mother is quickly descending into senescence. His gay plastic surgeon brother is deep in debt and is in a legal battle to see his children. He discovers his late father had an affair that produced a child. His sister is killed in the bombing of her abortion clinic -- even this is not treated as a socio-political event but a personal loss. He is fighting to just to stay engaged with a world where he really has no kindred souls, or at least feels he doesn't. The big open issue is whether he is truly out of place or has separated himself. And, by the way, much of this is terribly funny.

The key take-away: All the bombastic societal satire has less meaning than the personal tale of a family no more or less unusual than any others. In the midst of the seemingly boundless social symbolism he embodies, his normal life is what counts. For me (as you know by now) this is huge. It's as if all my whining about the subjugation of the personal to glorify to socio-political is the arts has been heard. Well, was heard: Erasure is 12 years old now.

Should you read Erasure? Yes. I can't imagine anyone not getting a kick out of it. Everett has a lot in his bag of tricks -- imagined dialogue between historical figures, POV shifts, fantasy sequences, and of course, the entire novella-within-a-novel of My Pafology -- and these can at times seem pretentious, but since his lead character is a bit of a pretentious academic it's appropriate. Nice comedy. Good stuff all 'round. Makes me want to check out his other titles.

Aside: A bubbling sentiment running through Erasure is the apocalyptic frustration an author feels when he tries to write with subtle insight and intelligence with an eye towards illuminating some sliver of humanity, only to see some formulaic sixth-grade level potboiler or vampire novel soar to the top of the bestseller list while his sales are confined to friends and family. It's an ugly sentiment, one rife with arrogance and pettiness, one we know to suppress, but we all have it. Good on Everett for having a bit of fun with it.

[Detroit] Fluff Among the Ruins

Fluff Among the Ruins: For whatever reason, Detroit has popped up in the news cycle again. A new book by Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, and Governor Rick Snyder's attempt to appoint an emergency financial manager for the city probably have a lot to do with it. And as usual, the popular press gets a hold of the stories and passes them off couched in a superficial narrative. I feel the need, once again, to disabuse folks of a few notions that may be encountered.

1) Don't confuse Detroit with the Detroit suburbs, all of which are boring, but some are doing well and quite nice to live in. Don't confuse Detroit with nearby cities such as Ann Arbor or Flint. Ann Arbor is doing quite well, thanks. And Flint is...well, you are forgiven for confusing Detroit and Flint. Lastly, don't confuse Detroit with the whole of Michigan. Michigan is an astoundingly beautiful place that you should count yourself lucky to see. Detroit is Detroit and only Detroit.

2) Detroit is not in the midst of a renaissance. Have some artists taken up residence? Yes, but they are using Detroit as a gimmick, a way to attract attention. They are not building an artist's culture. If any of them hit the big time, they will boot for one of the coasts faster than you can chug a Vernors. This is not Tribeca of thirty years back. Of course, there's the urban farming that is going to make up for the fact that there isn't a single grocery store in the city, right? There's a reason why grocery stores were developed in cities. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why local farming cannot sustain a city. Urban farming is another gimmick, a romantic hobby for folks of a certain stripe. What about all the movies being filmed in the city? The production companies are getting tax breaks; they are getting paid to film in Detroit. If Gary, IN or Peoria, IL decides to pay them more, they'll go there. Business relocations? Every sizable business that has moved to Detroit has been bribed. No small businessman in his right mind would start-up in the city. New Stadiums? There is a mass of literature about how new stadiums don't pay off. You can tell this by all the boarded up windows and dilapidated buildings next to Comerica Park and Ford Field after all these years. Casino gambling? Detroit's single lifeline to actual revenue is the three casinos, there will be no more. Whatever you are getting from them each year is your annual income. Forever.

3) Detroit's troubles did not start with UAW strikes or the '68 race riots. Detroit's troubles did not start with the oil crisis and higher quality imported autos. Detroit's troubles did not start when Coleman Young chased out all the shiny, happy white people. Detroit has been dying for the entirety of my life. Anyone who has living memory of Detroit in ascendency is looking seventy in the teeth or the rear view mirror. Detroit is not just down on its luck. These are deeply-ingrained, multi-generational dysfunctions. They will not go away by any plans made in the City Council or bills from the State Legislature or handouts from Obama. Detroit is a goner. It will hit absolute rock bottom, die and become something else, something other than Detroit (a federally controlled charter city? a Road Warrior-style wasteland? who knows what?). How close we are to absolute rock bottom I don't know.

4) Detroit is not a universal cautionary tale. The latest trope goes something like "We had better fix Detroit because Detroit is the future of our cities." Bollocks. Detroit is not New York City is not Austin is not Salt Lake City is not New Orleans is not Chattanooga is not Spokane is not Chicago. Each city varies in geography, financial resources, history -- all the way down to the psycho-social makeup of it residents and leaders. Many old mill towns from the previous century have pretty much disappeared. Many pioneer and gold rush cities are now ghost towns. And, two words: Machu Picchu. Cities fall and vanish without taking the whole world with them.

Although I hear Machu Picchu is currently undergoing a renaissance thanks to the tourist industry.

[Movies] Flick Check: Gettin' Some Action

Flick Check: Gettin' Some Action: Quick hits on three action films I recently got access to by one means or another.

Skyfall.Trying to remember the first James Bond film I ever saw...and I think it was You Only Live Twice, in the theatre when I was very young -- maybe 7 or 8. It may not have been first run at the time, but it was pretty close. I'm sure I saw a few of the Connerys when they hit one of the three networks as big events back in the late 60s, but the next one I remember seeing first run was Live and Let Die, Roger Moore's first effort. I would have been in high school. Hmm. I have no idea what that symbolizes other than that I am old. Skyfall is a high end Bond flick. The plot and dialogue are run-of-the-mill dumb, but not over-the-top shameful like the worst of them. The action is OK, although no match for the parkour sequence in Casino Royale. What this one has going for it is that it is absolutely beautiful. Every shot looks like a framed painting. And then there is the acting horsepower-- Dench, Bardem, Craig -- that make the inane story seem reasonable. Better Bond than most, but not particularly fun.

The Amazing Spiderman. Rebooted so soon? Is that too a sign of my age -- my relatively long take on the passage of time? The first Spiderman movie came out in 2002. For a 22-year-old that's half a life ago. For me it was just yesterday. Top notch action, as my fear of heights will testify. Absolute perfection in casting. Dead on in the Marvel-Comics-irony tone. There's no point in going into it too deeply except to say it is just what you expect, very skillfully done. It breaks no new ground in story, just minor variations on the Spidey mythology. This whole business of "rebooting" makes me wonder whether future generations are going to play with these stories and characters the way we play with Greek Mythology. Superman, Batman, Spiderman -- all have been altered and retold (rebooted) for differing effects just in our lifetimes. Star Trek has also. And I'm guessing Star Wars will. Hell, there have been like nine Hulk movies in the past decade. On the other hand, future generations might just wonder what all this childish nonsense was. Maybe no one will remember we existed. Maybe all three.

MI: Ghost Protocol. Tom Cruise has a redeeming characteristic (perhaps he has more than one, I wouldn't know) and that is that in the face of all the ridicule for his batsh*t insanity, he can laugh at himself. He either doesn't take himself that seriously or he knows how to act like he doesn't take himself that seriously. This is an approach he brings to MI:Ghost Protocol. It's all fun and games, lip service is paid to plot and character, but it's really just a carnival ride that get's your blood pumping without any pretense toward real harm. A minor attempt at a redemption backstory and a touch of geopolitical positioning are happily, and correctly, unobtrusive. Stunts, pacing, and good natured camaraderie are the end itself. That's meant as praise, in case you missed it. Cruise is one of the best at this (ah-ha, another good quality), which can easily be demonstrated by comparison with recent efforts from Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Another compliment: this is a such a quality action film that it doesn't need the big screen. I watched the whole thing on my Kindle 8.9 and still enjoyed it.