Marvel’s Cash Sucking Formula

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Title: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Rating: 4 Stars

I have to hand it to Marvel. They really do have the formula for making money down pretty pat. I’m not a huge fan of the Avenger’s universe. I couldn’t care less what happens in the X-Men universe. The Fantastic Four? eh…

However, they suck my wallet dry with the Guardians of the Galaxy. For whatever reason, it has the exact right combination of snark, slapstick, action, thwarted love interest, daddy problems, anti-hero, and overt, maudlin, violin-string schmaltz that makes me rush to the theater and leave oh so satisfied.

It clearly is a formula. I picture a room full of psychologists, comedians, and stunt coordinators, carefully designing a script via an extremely explicit deterministic process in a massive war room full of charts, graphs, and stop watches.

But, goddammit, it worked. I laughed and was thrilled, and a couple of times pieces of dust blew into my eyes.

Each character has a role. There is Drax, who is hilariously socially inept. You have the sociopathically amoral raccoon that of course has the secret heart of gold. You have the strong heroine, Gamora, not so secretly in love with Quill. You have Quill himself, the prototypical action hero who’s actually a charming doofus.

And of course, you can’t forget about Groot, the most adorable sentient plant to ever exist.

The charm of all of these characters is their emotional frailty and their uneasy dependence upon one another. They are a self-chosen family that probably at some level, we all wish that we could be a part of.

With the exception of Groot, they all have family problems. The most obvious is Quill, who feels abandoned by his father as he watched his mother die. He was then kidnapped and raised by a semi-father figure Yondu, who terrified him but yet raised him, albeit in a haphazard manner. In Vol 2, we get to meet Quill’s real father, a god named Ego.

This is the main source of conflict in the film. You have Quill’s real father finally coming into his life and offering him everything that he can imagine, but at a cost Quill pales from paying. In comes the reprobate thief, Yondu, to try to save Quill and be the father that he wishes that he could have been.

Will Quill choose the god-like Ego or will he choose the thieving but true Yondu? If you really think there’s any doubt about his choice, then this might not be the movie for you.

Along with that, you have the two sisters, Gamora and Nebula, constantly at each other’s throats, all because they both, even now, are themselves subconsciously competing against each other for their absent father’s (Thanos) love.

It’s not exactly subtle that the names of the fathers at the center of the plots are called Ego and Thanos. Thanos was the Greek god of death. The Latin meaning of the word Ego is I. Can there be two words that are more self-centered than I and death? The two names speak to the impossibility of ever understanding or getting succor from the father figure.

Parental loss is a common theme across comic books historically. Superman’s parents died on the planet Krypton. Batman’s parents were murdered. Batman became Robin’s guardian after Robin’s parents were murdered. The X-Men mutants are sent off to live at the X-Mansion. Tony Stark’s (Ironman) parents are killed in a car wreck. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) lives with his uncle and aunt, and his uncle is then murdered.

This is not a coincidence. Clearly the comic superhero archetype has now gone mainstream, but remember that the original comic books were targeted at young boys. Breaking free of the parental bond, especially if the young boy reading the comics had a troubled relationship (or no relationship) with his parents must have made seductive reading. This was a major theme in Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

With comic superheroes now gone mainstream quite literally around the world, the missing / troubled paternal relationship truly does seem to be a universal motif.

Having said all of that, it was a fun movie. I have no idea why Sylvester Stallone was in it, but thankfully his time was short. On the other hand, David Hasselhoff has a brilliant cameo.

Speaking of cameos, Stan Lee as usual makes one. In hindsight, it’s obvious, but when you first hear of it, it seems amazing that Stan Lee is the greatest grossing movie star of all time. Clearly, the lesson to learn here for movie studios is that they need to cast Stan Lee in more movies.

So, you win again Marvel. Although I despise what you and your ilk are doing to the movie industry, I had a wonderful time watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.

Congratulations Marvel, and fuck you.

 

Miss Congeniality – Indian Song And Dance Style

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Title: Chitrangada

A person that I work with is appearing in a play being put on by The ACT Theatre. This is kind of a big deal. It’s a musical / dance play written by an Indian playwright way back in the 1890’s. I went primarily to support a friend / co-worker, but was curious to watch an Indian play.

It pretty much surpassed all of my expectations. It was engaging, entertaining, and somewhat surprisingly for a musical, a bit thought provoking.

Chitrandaga is an Indian princess. Her father, the ruler of Manipur, decided that, instead of bringing her up in feminine ways, that he will raise a great warrior. Therefore, she is brought up learning how to lead and to fight. She grows up to be a strong young woman that her subjects respect for her fighting ways.

One day in the forest, she meets Arjuna, a warrior monk. She instantly falls in love with him but he is on some kind of penance and has taken a vow of chastity. He declines her affections.

Thoroughly smitten, she does not give up. She prays to the god Madan to turn her into a beautiful woman. He does so and she once again ventures into the forest. She meets Arjuna, who this time promptly falls in love with the beautiful woman in front of him and they end up together.

Over time, Arjuna becomes discontented. He feels languid. He’s losing his warrior ways. He hears of a great battle fought of invaders attempting to raid Manipur. The warriors of Manipur fight off the invaders. Arjuna asks them who their leader is, and they describe this great female warrior.

Arjuna longs to meet such a strong woman. Chitrandaga, also wanting to be herself again, begs Madan to change her back. He does so and she meets Arjuna as herself.

As expected, Arjuna and Chitrandaga are still in love and they live happily ever after.

A couple of things.

First of all, I found the strong Indian female protagonist interesting. You hear about the gender imbalance in India as a result of sex selected abortions. You hear about the violent crimes against women that take place there. You hear of the old tradition of Sati, where a wife would throw herself upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Yet here is a strong story of a woman. Sure, there is the interlude where she thinks that the trick to getting a man is by being beautiful, but ultimately she realizes that the only way that love can last is by exposing her true nature. Without a doubt she is a strong leader and a fierce warrior to her people. She comes out of the play as a strong woman.

Although I do have to admit that I was a little amused at the idea of a strong woman feeling the need to fem it up to catch herself a man. I felt like I was watching possibly weird grand step-uncle or something like to Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality.

Arjuna does not fare so well. He’s this great warrior monk doing penance, but hey, a beautiful woman comes along, and fuck that! He throws aside his warrior nature and whatever religious penance he was practicing and promptly takes up with her. Ultimately, he gets bored with the dull life of actually being with a woman and longs for his life again. He hears about Chitrandaga and promptly starts obsessing over her. When she does appear (and remember, she looks totally different than the woman that he supposedly instantly fell in love with), he falls in love again. Sure, it’s the same woman, but to him, it’s a completely different woman. Maybe at the end of the day, Arjuna is expressing men’s not so secret desire to be able to cheat on their loved one in a manner that is not cheating?

But…now that he’s with Chitrandaga, will he at some point start longing again for the beautiful woman that first stole his heart? Will Chitrandaga recognize that, and with heavy heart still have to make occasional supplications to the god Madan to change her back to that beautiful woman? Or will Arjuna end up bored with both women and will she have to assume yet a third (or more) identities? If you look close enough, the play starts developing Lynchian overtones.

I found the fight scenes quite amusing. There is nothing like trying to re-enact a battle in dance. This was the best fight action scene expressed in dance since Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

The play was well acted and well danced. Arjuna, with his bright eyes and happy countenance, makes for a perfectly feckless hero. The girl that played the child Chitrandaga was actually an amazing dancer.

My friend, who had multiple roles, danced outstandingly well. I had no idea of his talents.

What other secrets lurk in the hearts, minds, and bodies of my fellow co-workers?

 

Make $10,000 A Month From Your Home!

I know that times are hard. The economy has been inching along in a gradual recovery for many years now. This is the new economy where there are no safe assumptions. There is no such thing as a job with security. There is no such thing as lifetime employment.

Therefore, now is the time to strike out on your own. Now is the time to chase your dreams of starting up that business that’s always been there in the back of your mind.

Yes, now is the time to clean out your basement and set up your own private jail. And, boy, do I have the web site for you! This is just a little bit nuts.

Want a spit hood? You can get it right here!

Want a full head restraint that looks like it’s right out of Abu Ghraib? Look no further!

You’ve got a slightly unruly teenager that’s getting on your nerves? Three words…Full body restraint.

It’s all here. There is literally everything here that you could want to set up a jail. You can get everything from holding cells to inmate uniforms to handcuffs. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no check to determine whether or not you’re actually a governmental agency at all. In fact, they advertise that you can buy 1 or 1000.

One stop shop for torturing serial murderers! Act now!

And yes, all major credit cards and PayPal are accepted.

The Vastness of War In Small Stories

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Title: The Things They Carried

Rating: 5 Stars

The Things They Carried was recommended to me by a friend. In all honesty, I almost didn’t want to read it. Although I was too young to be a part of the Vietnam conversation, it’s colored my culture and politics for a large part of the last 40 years.

How bad is it that Bill Clinton protested the Vietnam War while he was a student in England? How bad is it that that great chest-thumping chicken hawk, Dick Cheney, got five draft deferments to avoid Vietnam? How bad is it that conservatives, those that allegedly value war service so highly, mocked John Kerry’s swift boat heroism and attacked triple amputee Georgia senator, Max Cleland (and in the case of Ann Coulter, mocked his wounds)? How bad is it that George W Bush avoided the war by joining and sporadically participating in the Texas Air National Guard? The war has been used as a pinata by both sides of the aisle.

This topic has been such a dull, background roar in my cultural life that I’ve grown fatigued by it. I’ve read several histories of the war over the past twenty or thirty years, but beyond that, I’ve actually actively tried to avoid reading too much about it. It’s still too close to me for some reason.

I trust my friend’s judgment though, so I finally yielded. This is one of the best collection of short stories that I’ve ever read. I’m not just talking about war but any topic in general. In about twenty stories covering about 250 pages, O’Brien manages to distill the entire life cycle of the Vietnam War.

Do you want to know about the struggle over whether or not to serve in a war that you consider unjust? Read ‘On the Rainy River’, a story about receiving a draft notice, trying to ignore it, deciding to run off to Canada, and the final moment of determining what is right under the quiet guidance of a taciturn elder guide.

Do you want to know what it is like to take a life? Read ‘The Man I Killed’, a story about a young man trained to kill, now in a foreign country, happening upon another young man trained to kill that happens to be, for reasons not obvious to either young man, enemies. O’Brien describing the young man, dead by his hands, lying at his feet and imagining who that person was is a haunting story.

Do you want to know what it is like to be shot? Read ‘The Ghost Soldiers’, which describes the two times that O’Brien was shot. The second time was particularly horrific, where he legitimately thought he was going to die, his initial care was bungled by a medic, and his painful recovery. He writes about meeting up with his comrades later, now that he is out of the field, and realizing that he is no longer one of them, that they consider him a citizen, an outsider, and how sad that leaves him. He does not really miss being out in the field, but he understands that he will never have relationships like that in the future.

I can go on. He has other stories about the boredom of war, the unfeeling brutality of it, the utter strangeness of it (in one story, a soldier manages to bring his girlfriend from the states into his camp), and coming home.

In all seriousness, there is not a weak story in this collection. They all speak to a truth. The stories are fiction, but he uses fiction to get to some inner truth about the war that is deeper than the actual reality that he experienced. In the story ‘Good Form’, he talks about the distinction between happening-truth and story-truth. The story-truth is used to bring the past into the present, and he does this to wonderful affect.

 

A Motion Picture Without Motion

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Title: La Jetee

Rating: 4 Stars

I just finished Time Travel, by James Gleick. Although I didn’t love the book, there were some topics that I found interesting. In particular, he was discussing movies involving time travel and he mentioned La Jetee.

I’d forgotten La Jetee. I remember when 12 Monkeys came out. I have a weakness for perplexing, non-linear plots and it certainly filled the bill. I enjoyed it and later researched it a bit. I remember reading that it was based upon La Jetee, an odd French film from the early 1960’s.

Reading about it again led me to try a hunch. I ventured over to youTube, and sure enough, there was a version available. This version apparently was played in an auditorium in the Philippines, with musical accompaniment and English narration. Since it’s only 28 minutes long, I sat down to watch it.

And I was properly amazed.

Warning, below are some spoilers. However, the movie was made in fucking 1962, so if you’re gonna get upset by me giving away plot points in the year 2017, may I suggest that there might be bigger battles for you to fight.

It’s the story of a man who has a single childhood memory of being at an airport, seeing a mysterious woman, and then something horrible happening (that he does not remember). Shortly after the time of that memory, some cataclysm hit the planet and nearly all people have perished. The few remaining ones are now deep underground with at best steampunk technologies.

Scientists underground have come to the conclusion that the only way out of their predicament is to send someone either backward or forward in time to either stop the cataclysm or to be provided with advanced technology.

Time travel is attempted by many but all of the experiments fail horribly. The man is selected because of the fact that he still has such a strong memory. This implies that he might have the proper mindset to cross time (for you literature geeks, think Time and Again, by Jack Finney).

The man is successful and on successive trips, recovers more memories. He meets the enigmatic woman and they fall in love. The scientists then send him into the future and he returns back with some kind of energy device that will allow them to start advancing civilization again.

Later, the people from the future visit him and offer to take him to the future, away from the current misery of underground existence. He declines but instead asks them to send him back to his past so that he can be with the woman.

So, he is sent back to the past to stay. He ends up at an airport. It’s the airport of his original memory. He sees the woman and heads over to her. He turns and sees that one of his keepers from the underground has followed him and intends to kill him. As he’s preparing for his death, he realizes that the memory from his childhood is in fact witnessing his own death as an adult.

If you’ve recently seen and/or remember 12 Monkeys, you can see how much of that plot was lifted from La Jetee.

What’s amazing about this movie is that it was told as a series of montages. As far as I can tell, there is only one truly filmed scene, where the woman opens her eyes. All other scenes are just a series of stills. For a film trying to make a statement about time, how cool is it that it tells the story in this manner? For, if you think of time as being just a series of moments, isn’t a movie ultimately just a series of images?

Just like in Finney’s book, I found it interesting that time travel can only happen to someone that is already susceptible to memories. Is having detailed memories a form of time travel? Especially if the memory is so detailed enough that it can trigger you to enter almost a different state? Not to make too much of this, but can the point be made that when Proust’s narrator takes a bite of the madeleine and is immediately flooded with an involuntary flood of memories that he might actually be transported in time? In fact, is that ultimately the meaning behind In Search of Lost Time?

At one point, the character is described as ‘no plans, no memories’. Does that mean at that point he is effectively out of any concept of time? If he has no plans, then he has no awareness of the future. If has no memories, then he has no awareness of the past. Without knowing of either the past or the future, what does time mean?

The fact that such questions can come out of a less than thirty minute film made over fifty years ago that consists of only one moving image is a testament to its greatness.

Time I’ll Never Get Back

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Title: Time Travel

Rating: 2 Stars

Time is a fascinating concept. We know intrinsically what it is but ultimately no one can describe it. Often times dictionaries define time to be the duration between events. Fair enough. Perfectly clear. In some cases, those same dictionaries then define duration as the time during which something occurs.

Ummm…can someone say circular definition?

This book takes as its subject time. First of all, I found it interesting that even the concept of time passing is fairly new. Sure, the sun goes up and down and the moon waxes and wanes. Time itself, however, was not actually celebrated. It wasn’t until the year 1900 that centennials were widely celebrated.

Perhaps this was because of industrial inventions such as railroads and telegraphs. Suddenly, time was not a local event that was controlled by church bells. Railroad schedules were published. Greenwich Mean Time was defined. Systems were established that relied upon a standard definition of time.

Since then, we’ve become obsessed with time, what it means, and can we somehow reach outside our time. Of course, H.G. Wells The Time Machine started all of this off and entire generations of science fiction writers / film makers have taken the concept and have run wild with it. You have the idea of the closed loop expressed by a movie like La Jetee (that ultimately was partially remade as 12 Monkeys). You have the idea of multiple time lines, most realistically portrayed in Primer. And then you have movies, like Predestination, that go completely off the rails, where a time traveler ends up being both his mother and his father.

Starting with Einstein, the physicists get involved. They blow away the theory that somehow time is the same for everyone. They then totally lose their minds and start talking about the nature of time, does time actually pass, and what, physically, does it mean to move from one moment to the next. At some point, you end up with theories like MWI (many worlds interpretation), which essentially states that there is a possibly infinite number of universes for every possible action in our past not taken. This then opens up the world of time travel to the past. Go back in time, kill Hitler, and you are now in a different universe. If you’re into Borges, then that plays nicely into all of his compelling but mind blowing labyrinth fiction.

 

 

And of course the philosophers get involved as well. They’re the ones that approach time travel with formal logic and deduce that time travel to the past is impossible, or alternatively, that it’s possible to travel to the past but it is impossible for a time traveler to change the past (eg maybe you try to kill Hitler but you forget to load your gun or some nonsense like that).

So, all of this is interesting. It’s just too bad that the book wasn’t more interesting. Gleick had clearly done a tremendous amount of research and he seems hellbent on making sure that every single bit of it appears on a page somewhere. It’s all a bit overwhelming and scattershot.

There were chapters that pulled me in and kept me interested. There were other chapters where he appeared to be just throwing research sources against a wall to see what would stick.

The problem probably is that the entire exploration of time is just too big of a topic. If he’d just narrowed it down to the concept and problems of time travel, or if he’d talked about the physicists struggle to define, understand, and develop a framework of time, then that could have been a nice, compact, tightly focused work. Instead, it just ended up kind of a hodgepodge mess of semi-related essays.

At the end of the day, I really have no more idea of what time is than when I started, and that could very have been the point.

A Collection Of Short Stories Masquerading As A Novel

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Title: The Heavenly Table

Rating: 3 Stars

Pollock’s short story collection, Knockemstiff, is one of my favorites. His writing style has been called either Southern Ohio Gothic or Hillbilly Gothic. The characters that populate his stories are usually poor, uneducated, brutal, addicted, and are just trying to make through the day.

This is a full length novel, set in the year 1917. The United States has just entered WWI. A town called Meade has gotten much larger as a result of an army base that has been built there.

The main characters are three brothers: Cane, Cob, and Chimney Jewitt. They are absolutely dirt poor, barely having enough to eat. They travel with their father, Pearl, in search of any menial work that they can find. The three boys are bound to their father. Their only relief from their desolate existence is a dime store novel that the oldest brother, Cane, reads aloud to the other two. The story is called, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. He’s read it enough times that all can recite passages from memory.

One day, Pearl keels over dead. The brothers, free at last, debate upon what to do. They decide to steal their employer’s horses and take off to Canada. While trying to steal the horse, they semi-accidentally kill the employer. Now, under the threat of law, they decide that they’re committed to their path and commence to robbing banks, hoping to score a large enough stake to make their life in Canada easier.

At the same time, there is a second plot line involving Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler. They’ve been together for many years and over that period, managed not only to scrape by but saved up a little something for their future. Ellsworth has recently been swindled of those life savings. Nearly simultaneous to that, their only son has discovered alcohol and has found that he has quite a taste for it. He has now run off. So, the Fiddler’s, now in middle age on a nearly barren farm stead, are facing up to having to start over from scratch.

As you can imagine, these two plots eventually do intersect.

The first half or so of the novel is a thrill ride. It’s classic Pollock. The brothers quickly become the most wanted men in the state and various posses set out after him, most of which reach grisly ends. The violence is graphic and explicit. The humor is black as night. I liken reading fiction of this genre to putting your finger in an electric socket. Jolts of raw energy flash off of the page. Characters are introduced, are fleshed out, and are then mercilessly murdered in some gruesome manner.

I was settling in for a wild, satisfying ride. Alas, sometime after the midpoint of the book, the three brothers actually end up in Meade. There, they settle down and try to blend in. In so doing, the action drags. What started out as a thrill ride ended with barely a whimper.

There’s a couple of problems here.

There were just too many characters introduced and Pollock ended up trying to keep at least some kind of plot line for each. Therefore, we end up with an owner of a bar that is actually a brutal serial murderer. We have an upper class army soldier with dreams of dying in battle, suffering from his attraction to men and ultimately becomes a victim of the serial murderer. We have a sanitation inspector, whose primary job is to measure the effluvia levels in people’s outhouses and is tortured by his strict religious teachings and by the size of his enormous penis. We have a black gigolo from Detroit, thrown out by his last paramour, trying to find his next place of repose.

There’s just too much going on, especially for the relatively small size of the novel. It almost seemed as if Pollock had run out of gas on his main plots and was introducing additional characters and stories just to pad it. In fact, you could probably pull out some of the set pieces and create short stories out of them.

It could very well be that Pollock’s strength is short stories. I did enjoy his other novel, The Devil All The Time, but from what I remember it seemed to suffer from the same over adornment.

He is a master of the short story, but he still needs to work on his long game a bit more.

Pull Your Damn Pants Up

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy

Rating: 3 Stars

With Trump’s election, this has been one of the books that has been held up as some kind of attempt to explain it. It is a kind of strange combination of memoir and social analysis.

As a memoir (even if it is the memoir of a 31 year old man), it is extremely moving. It provides a microscopic view of a sub-culture in America that does not usually reveal itself for inspection.

J.D. Vance was born a through and through Kentucky hillbilly (he calls himself that). He’s actually from something approaching hillbilly royalty. On his father’s side, he is a distant relation to Jim Vance, who was one of the key leaders of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (on the Hatfield side). On his mother’s side, his grandmother was legendary as one of the toughest hillbillies around.

He actually lived most of his childhood in Middleton, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Jackson, Kentucky.

He learned the ways of the Scots-Irish from his very earliest days. In the early days of the republic, the Scots-Irish were known to be fighters. You can read narratives from the 19th century where fights in the Appalachian region would regularly lead to eyes being gouged out and ears being torn off.

Even now, any apparent insult to honor leads to brutality. Once someone insulted the mother of one of his relatives. That relative beat the man senseless and then cut him up with a power saw, nearly killing him. Not even arrested, he was instead respected for defending the sacred honor of his mother. In his early days, Vance learns this lesson well.

He had, to say the least, a troubled childhood. His mom was off and on addicted to drugs. Even when not addicted, she clearly had mental issues that included suicide attempts and at least one time when Vance thought she was going to kill him. She was married (I think) five times and took up with numerous other men, many of whom tried to act as some kind of paternal figure to him. At one time, he tried to count the number of siblings (step and half) that he had and figured it was over a dozen.

His life was almost undoubtedly going to end up like those that he knew growing up. There would have been drugs, multiple children with multiple women, jail, unemployment, and just a general sense of defeat.

His saving grace was his grandmother and grandfather, Mamaw and Papaw. Although they themselves were uneducated hill people, they understood the importance of education and wanted Vance to escape his upbringing.

After many difficulties with his mom, he ended up living pretty much permanently with Mamaw.  The three years or so that he lived with Mamaw would constitute the longest consistent stretch that he lived throughout his childhood.

After graduating from high school, desiring to attend college but knowing that he wasn’t ready, he joined the Marine Corps. There, he was taught the basic lessons of life (how to get a loan, how to balance a check book) that he never learned. After he was discharged from the Marines, with his new found life skills and iron discipline, he went to Ohio State and ultimately got a law degree from Yale. He considers him a conservative and now works at a venture capital firm that was founded by Peter Theil.

Now, from his perch among the elite, he tries to look back to piece together the path that led him there and whether any lessons can be applied to the Appalachian culture itself.

Considering his background and the obvious deep caring that he has for the people, his opinions must carry weight. He acknowledges the impact that the overall joblessness, loss of manufacturing, and addiction has had on his community.

He also says that choices matter. You can choose not to have three children with three different women. You can choose to work an eight hour day and consistently show up on time every day. You can choose not to take heroin or prescription opioids. You can choose not to give your six month old child Mountain Dew in its bottle.

Those are all fair points. The question that must be asked is, why do people make those choices? When he says those things, he kind of sounds like Bill Cosby telling black kids that they need to pull their damn pants up. He sounds like one of my friends, who says that the problem is not racism but black culture.

OK, but from where does the roots of black culture rise if not from systemic racism? And from where does the roots of Appalachian culture rise if not from centuries of oppression? I recently read about this in White Trash. Quite literally from when settlers first landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, there was a need for what was then called ‘Waste People’. These were people who came over to be worked to death. There was no American dream for them. There was no education for them. There was toil and misery and an early death.

For a personal description of why smart people make poor decisions, I strongly recommend that you read “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America”. It’s a first hand story of Linda Tirado and her struggle to emerge out of poverty and the seemingly poor decisions that she made along the way.

Work ethic and good decisions can lift someone out of poverty. Until we acknowledge that our country has not equipped tens of millions of people with the tools to allow them to make good choices, it seems unfair to condemn them for there lack thereof.

A True Corporate Slave

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Title: Underground Airlines

Rating: 4 Stars

This is an action / mystery wrapped up inside of a counterfactual.

Winters re-imagines a world in which slavery still exists in the United States. This is an interesting challenge because, at its core, it’s pretty tough to imagine a realistic scenario in which this could be true. How do you conjure a reality in which the South does not see the election of Abraham Lincoln as an attack upon their cherished institution and immediately start to secede? How do you erase the enormous material and manpower advantage that the North had over the South? How do you resolve the implacable will that Abraham Lincoln had to keep the South from tearing the union asunder?

In a previous counterfactual fiction (The Guns of the South) that I read many years ago, Harry Turtledove actually resorted to having apartheid South Africa invent a time machine and give the rebels AK-47’s and ammunition from the future. Armed with firepower that far exceeded the unionists, the rebels successfully gain their freedom. The South Africans hopes to have a Confederacy that would align with their values in the future is ultimately thwarted.

In Winter’s counterfactual, there is no such chicanery. Lincoln is almost immediately assassinated after elected. A shocked nation hurriedly comes to a compromise consensus that allows the South to continue its slavery practices but constrains it from growing. Thus the Civil War is avoided.

Now in present day, slavery is still an institution. Over time, slavery has disappeared in most states. In fact, it now exists only in four states, the so called Hard Four. However, the United States has paid a price for this. It’s now universally considered a pariah nation due to its continuing slavery. Export and imports have largely dried up due to international boycotts. Americans can only get inferior products from countries like Pakistan and South Africa. Just recently, a ten year war with Texas had been fought to a standstill due to that state’s disgust with slavery. Even in the North, blacks suffer severe racism. America is an economically and spiritually bleak country.

In this milieu is Victor. Victor is an escaped slave from the Hard Four that was later captured and was forced to become a slave catcher. It’s now his job to track down the slaves that have escaped the Hard Four so that the government can capture them and ship them back down to where the slave escaped from. Victor is very good at the job but is clearly tortured by it.

He’s in Indianapolis to track down a slave named Jackdaw. What seems at first to be a fairly simple case fairly quickly becomes something else. Ultimately, Victor must go back down to the Hard Four himself, exposing himself to much danger but possibly having a chance to truly earn his freedom.

I thought that Winters did a fine job here. I was more impressed with the counterfactual aspect of his work. What would a United States look like in the year 2017 if slavery was still legal? What compromises would the people up North make to allow themselves to sleep at night (like having Clean Hands statutes (eg like organic) to keep goods coming in from the Hard Four)? How would the modern day abolitionists act? In the corporate world of the twenty-first century, how would slavery actually manifest itself? Winters makes a credible attempt to address such questions.

This is reminiscent of Winters’ other work that I’m familiar with, The Last Policeman trilogy. In those novels, a policeman is still trying to do his job as the world is coming to an end (literally; scientists have discovered that an asteroid is heading towards the planet and there is nothing that they can do about it).

In both cases, you have a situation where you have someone trying to do his job (either a policeman or what is effectively a bounty hunter) in an unimaginable situation that they essentially have no control over. The two characters are both competent at their job and doggedly are trying to do it, even as the world itself seems to be collapsing around them.

Also, in both cases, I found the setting that the plot takes place in more interesting than the plot itself. This just might be the way of Winters’ writing. He just might natively be better at conjuring up interesting world views than the actual execution of the narrative.

Regardless, I found Underground Airlines to be both engaging and thought provoking.

Museum For The Second Oldest Profession

Continuing my adventures in D.C., I went to the International Spy Museum. I had very low expectations. Like the wax museum, I thought it would be this very cheesy thing primarily directed towards children. When I saw that their special exhibit was 50 years of Bond villains, my hopes were not exactly raised.

It did not start out well. There had some kind of scavenger hunt game that they handed out to the children, so they were running around trying to find all of the items. It starts off where you’re supposed to memorize your cover identity so that you can pass through customs.

Luckily, that kind of stuff immediately faded away and it then became much more of a traditional museum.

They did have some interesting spy relics. They had a bunch of miniature cameras that could be concealed. There was a camera that was disguised as a cigarette case. There was a camera that was disguised as a suit button. There was even a camera that was disguised as a camera case.

Similarly, they had interesting concealed weapons. There was a weapon in an umbrella. There was a gun disguised as a cigarette case (again! spies must really do smoke a lot). There was a collar that was actually a knife. Note that these aren’t toys. These are actually real items that were donated to the museum that were at least theoretically for field use.

There were other items as well of interest. There was a tool kit that could be collapsed into a tube, which was then inserted into your rectum. There was a pair of glasses that had a cyanide pill embedded in one of its arms. As you were interrogated, you could remove your glasses and innocently chew on your glasses as if you were thinking and give yourself a fatal dose.

They also had a special section on Bletchley Park, which included an actual enigma machine.

As I’ve discovered in my tour of the museums, the things that mean the most to me are the objects that have a personal touch to them.

For example, the biggest mole in CIA history is Aldrich Ames. His story is somewhat absurd. A known alcoholic who suddenly can buy houses with cash, drive Jaguars, and wear tailored suits was still able to spy for years. Whenever he had information that he wanted to pass on to his Soviet handler, he’d mark a post office mailbox with a piece of chalk. Well, that mailbox is at the museum.

They have a letter written and signed by Mata Hari.

They have a letter signed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. That name might not mean much to you, but he was the person that formed the Cheka special police force. This was the original Soviet secret police that led to the NKVD, which led to the KGB, which in turn led to the current FSB. When you think of the diabolical reputation of the Soviet/Russian secret police, a big debt of thanks can be laid at his doorstep.

Finally, the coolest thing of all. I’ve written about him several times before. He is almost without question the greatest / most famous double agent of the twentieth century. Of course I’m talking about Kim Philby. I’ve nominated him for person of the century (you can read about my reasons here). The museum has Philby’s hat, shaving kit, pipe, and flask. Considering the fact that, like apparently most spies, Philby was a raging alcoholic, I’m guessing that the flask got a good workout.

The Philby paraphernalia alone was worth the price of admission (and yes, it’s not a Smithsonian, so there is a price to be paid).