Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Month That Was - September 2013

The Month That Was - September 2013: That makes 53 times around the Sun. Yes, it can get a bit tedious now and then, but it's still preferable to any alternative that I know of.

Honestly I find myself more annoyed than anything else. The petty annoyances of life have really begun to bother me. Perhaps that is how my mid-life crisis is manifesting. Example, my Camry (180,000+) has developed a sort of howling noise that comes on between 40 and 50 mph. Faster or slower and it's fine. My first thought was wheel bearing but the mechanic said the wheel bearings are fine and I need to get new tires because of uneven wear (the tires can't have much over 10,000 miles). That didn't sound right to me so I figured I would test it by rotating the spare on to different wheels. If I noticed a difference then that would verify it was the tires. I noticed no difference. So now I am trying to figure out what to do.

The overall solution is to buy a new car, which isn't an extravagance when your car is pushing 200K. But there are very few repairs that aren't a good deal cheaper than buying a new car, or even a lightly used one. And buying a car is such a bloody hassle. So I would happily spend a healthy amount of repairs if ANYONE COULD FIGURE OUT WHAT'S WRONG.

I have a couple of similar hassles going now and for whatever reason they are annoying me much more than they should be, much more than usual. Maybe I just feel like after all these years I should get a break on this stuff. I mean, can nothing ever run smoothly?

That would amount to little more than whining, though. How pathetic to have a mid-life crisis that amounts to nothing more than going off on a whinge. Why not expensive cars and cheap women like everyone else? Lame. Oh well, to quote Big Bang Theory, "Maybe this is just the kick in the pants I need to start taking Zoloft."

But then who needs Zoloft? As I write this I am in the Canadian Rockies, a trip you'll hear about next month. It's also why I'm so late and thin on content this month.

[Books] Book Look: Life
[Books] Book Look: Freaky Deaky
[TV] Bad Guys Lose, or Not

[Books] Book Look: Life, by Keith Richards

Book Look: Life, By Keith Richards: Keith Richards wrote a book (the mind reels!) of his life, about which he claims to remember it all (whoa, dude, seriously!). Although it is not as surprising as you might think. Time flies. It's been well over thirty years since Keefer was on smack. Imagine that: There are young couples raising children in suburbia who have never known a world in which Keith Richards was a junky in the headlines.

Keith has always had a way with words. He wrote most of The Stones iconic songs, after all. Life, to his credit, and that of his co-writer, reads exactly like Keith talking: a sort of awkwardly elegant ramble that makes you smile even at its most annoying. If you've never seen an interview with Keith, just read it in your head as Johnny Depp's voice from the Pirates movies.

If there is an overriding concept in Life it's how deeply it reflects Keith's version of the facts and the world in general. There is no hiding it and no pretense of objectivity, no self-questioning. In that sense it is an extraordinarily honest look into Keith's brain. Case in point is the introduction.

Dressed like a queen, in a flashy car that is packed with with an entire pharmacy's worth of drugs, hammered out of his mind no doubt, he and a couple of his friends are driving through the South on their way to a gig sometime in the 1970s. After some restroom drug shenanigans, they find themselves pulled over and arrested. We discover, however, that this is not the result of some bad decisions on their part. It is the fault of Richard Nixon and Southern redneck cops. There are some tense moments before they get out of it using expensive lawyers and their own fame.

Really, it's a remarkable vignette. Placing it in the introduction is brilliant because it tells you upfront what you are dealing with: The World According to Keef. It is, after all, an autobiography. But it is wonderfully clear that Keith's take on things is so deeply non-objective. Keith is the master of don't-judge-me-I-am-what-I-am excuses. When contemplating the notion of a jury of his peers, he claims to have no peers, except possibly Jimmy Page. He is unique, truly special. Late three hours for a show? Well, you'll just be happy that he gets there. It's not his fault anyway, it's rock and roll. Disagree with him in the recording studio? Well, you deserve to have a knife pulled on you. You don't mess with the Keefer.

Keith lived (lives) his life like a true rebel, a dangerous man on the edge. A pirate in the world. A self-destructive bluesman who answered to no one but his rock and roll ways. He's a man who holds grit and devilry close to his heart. Even when he's not being naughty, a lot of bad stuff just sort of "happens" to Keith, such as his penchant for finding buildings to inhabit that subsequently burn down through "faulty wiring." At least he doesn't blame Nixon for that.

Of course, the dirty secret is that he never had to pay for it. Any average person who lived his life would have be locked up for long stretch, first having destroyed and/or impoverished all the people he loved. Keith, in contrast, ends up with a loving family, an entourage of handlers, a compound in Connecticut and a regular vacations at exclusive Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos where his celebrity neighbors drop by for tea. How hard is it to be a rogue badass when there no consequences except being on the outs with Mick Jagger? (Read this brilliant, imagined response from Jagger to Life, by journalist -- not bassist --Bill Wyman.)

So should you read Life, this monument to self-delusion and aggrandizement? Absolutely. It's entertaining as hell in a gossipy sort of way. And Keith is not without his good side. His passion and understanding of music stands out, as does his ability to reciprocate loyalty. Despite all the infantile nonsense and skull-ring posing he does, it would still be pretty cool to be buds with the guy and his mad cronies. Just don't get sucked into thinking you could behave like him. You're not rich or famous enough, and he might just give you knife for your presumption.

[Books] Book Look: Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard

Book Look: Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard: There is probably nothing left original to say about the late Elmore Leonard. Actually that's not true. If you say he sucked, then you would be completely original.

A bit surprisingly, this was my first Leonard book ever. Still, I knew exactly what to expect, from the locomotive pace to the somewhat cliched characters, all of whom are on the make and never at a loss for sharp words.

I chose Freaky Deaky because it is set in and around Southeast Michigan. The bulk of it happens in Detroit, but there are references to locales out in the suburbs and as far as Ann Arbor. But I suspect I could have chosen any Elmore Leonard and gotten pretty much the same thing.

The case involves a bombing as part of a blackmail scheme hatched by a pair of former '60s rebels. Their chosen victim is the guy who ratted on them long ago and got them locked up, so it's about revenge. Except the victim is now enormously wealthy and it's really the money they are after. In fact, the veneer of justified revenge is so thin, they can't help but admit they clearly zeroed in on the easy money. They even joke about how their noble protests of years ago weren't really about anything but making trouble for trouble's sake. The problem is that their target is protected by a former Black Panther, who also doubles as chauffeur and nursemaid, who has crossed paths with them before and has his own designs on the target's fortune. Into this mix comes a burned out cop who gets involved in the situation and gets suspended for it so his last chance is to catch the crooks to save his career.

Crosses and double-crosses ensue. Truths and half-truths, omissions and lies, keep all the characters spinning. And of course the brilliance of Leonard the finish, where everything resolves and this flawless gordian knot untangles.

I think for a while, Leonard will be my go-to for escapist stories. A position previously held by by a long line of mystery writers from Qiu Xiaolong (Chief Inspector Chen) back to John MacDonald (Travis McGee). Although still a genre writer, Leonard seems to be a cut above the rest. He gets pantheon-level marks for tone and atmosphere. Should you read Freaky Deaky? Unqualified Yup. To quote George Will: "Here's what you do, read the first chapter of Freaky Deaky. It won't take long, about ten minutes. Don't worry, the store owner won't mind, because you will then buy the book." Again, Yup.

[TV] The Bad Guys Lose, or Not

The Bad Guys Lose, or Not: [[There are spoilers in this post regarding the ending of Breaking Bad and Dexter.]] Two master criminals retired from the TV screen inviting summary reflections and comparisons: Dexter Morgan of Dexter, and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Comparison mostly came about because the final season happened to be airing on the same night at the same time. There is little else they shared, including quality.

Dexter, as a series, was not worth it. It had two ripping good seasons, followed by six seasons a general suckitude. It's not hard to identify the problems: too much time spent on uninteresting ancillary characters who were discarded like used tissues; thoroughly unrealistic plot points, beyond the ability to suspend disbelief; comically bad dialogue and cliched tropes; the list goes on. You would think that having a psychopath as a lead character would have been a problem, too, but not really. If your lead is incapable of experiencing emotion how do you get a character arc? The answer to that was clever (and missed by most people). Dexter's arc was to slowly build up personal relationships through acting like he was normal, through mimicking the actions and rituals of others. In time he would come to find that it did him no good. He just destroyed everyone and everything around him.

It's not a bad concept...for a full length feature film. Maybe even a trilogy of films or a single season of TV. But eight seasons -- no. You end up with exactly what you got: massive storylines and even entire seasons that were essentially throwaways -- no reason for existing and then abandoned thoughtlessly. There were long stretches where the only validity to the show was the exceptional acting of Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter. In the end, Dexter becomes a lumberjack and I'm left to wonder why I wasted so many hours keeping up on it.

One hundred and eighty degrees opposite is Breaking Bad. A paragon of focus and character development. There is little I need to say about it that hasn't been said in every corner of the Internet. To find fault is to be a supreme nitpicker. With Breaking Bad you waste no time in the evaluation of quality, you jump right to the questions of meaning.

The question at the end was one of justice: Did Walter get his just desserts? Most people would look at him, deem him evil, see that he died in the end and feel that justice had been served. Wrong. Walter got away with it. Remember: he was a walking dead man from cancer anyway. And he got to live and be king for his remaining time on Earth. Walter won. I can't imagine how people are interpreting it otherwise.

Jesse broke even. He was a low life, burnt out drug user to start and he looks to be destined to live a marginal life from now on, although he may be grateful for it after what he's been through. Walter Jr. and Holly won -- although they don't know it yet. The money left for them will cushion them immensely and start them on the right path. Walt Jr. will continue to hate his father but live with it, and Holly won't give him a thought, but my guess is that Walter, like any good parent, would willingly sacrifice the love and admiration of his children to provide for their success.

His wife and in-laws lost, and lost big. Remember how natural it was for them to assume Walt had no options but to beg friends for help with his cancer treatment? It was just Walt right? How could he possibly handle anything? I'm told there is an added scene in the DVD release that emphasizes the dismissive, thoughtless contempt in which he was held by Skyler. To them, and because of them, to himself, Walt was not even a living creature. He was barely worth a thought.

Now Hank is dead. Marie is widowed. And Skyler...well this is best of all. Hank and Marie were complicit in subordinating Walt and treating him like a nonentity, but Skyler made him that way. Walt may have had evil in him, but without Skyler holding him to be such a helpless eunuch it would never have seen the light of day. Now it's Skyler who's the basket case. She has to live with her complicity and her own sins. Let's not forget what she did to her former boss, not to mention how she readily joined Walt when the volume of money was mentioned. Is she going to tell her kids she did it for them or will she just maintain a lie, forever, to maintain a reason to continue? She is compromised to the point where she is can pretty much have no life. I must say Anna Gunn nailed the soul-crushing wife role and followed it with the guilt and anger role even stronger. Without her, the series would have been severely diminished.

So if you've deemed Walt evil, the injustice is complete. It was a total victory for Heisenberg.

I am looking forward to the time in a couple of years when Breaking Bad is no longer fresh in my mind, so I can binge watch the whole thing all over again. I doubt I'll ever watch Dexter again.