Friday, March 12, 2010

Review of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz

I've never read anything quite like this book. That author Junot Diaz borrowed much of his own life experience cannot be denied. But this story is also equal parts history and cosmic horror. Some have described it as a personalized history of the Dominican Republic under Raphael Leonidas Trujillo. This is correct to a point: certainly most of it occurs in the real world. However, at its heart, this is a supernatural story about a family curse inflicted by an extra-dimensional demon.

I mention this because you ought not pick up this book expecting it to be a standard stuffy, mis-lit tale about people suffering during a time period (the most popular form of contemporary "literature"). It has some of that, but it is much more.

The first thing you will notice when you pick up the book is the informality of the writing style. Most of the story is narrated by a character named Yunior who we meet in chapter three. His style is rife with expletives, Spanish phrases and references to Tolkien, Lovecraft and Stan Lee. It is a joy to behold and a pleasure to read.

Nerds hold a special place in the book. Yunior considers them to be powerful, incidentally reinforcing my own belief that nerds are running the world. He classifies some interesting people as nerds, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, for example If you are unfamiliar with things nerdy, some of the references may go over your head, but this may not be a problem. After all, the Spanish passages go over my head and I still enjoy it.

It's about Oscar, a horribly nerdy and overweight Dominican boy from New Jersey seeking love. It's about his sister who protects him. It's about their mother Belicia whose spirit is crushed in the Dominican Republic. It's about their grandfather Abelard who falls from prosperity. Mostly, it's about the curse (or Fuku) that afflicts their family.

Lastly, it's about Trujillo. The longtime tyrant of the Dominican Republic is introduced in a manner that makes him seem like merely exposition. However, as the narrative continues, the man is built into the book's antagonist. At first, when the narrator refers to Trujillo as "Sauron" or "The Eye" and his underlings like Balaguer and Abbes as "ringwraiths", one thinks that such allusions are merely absurd comparisons to the Lord of the Rings. Then one begins to realize that Yunior is not entirely kidding: in this book, Trujillo, while not literally Sauron, is truly a dark lord of supernatural origin hanging over the narrative like a vile cloud spewed from Orodruin. This blend of fantasy and reality is appealing and compelling.

Overall, it's entertaining, fascinating, infuriating and moving. If you have a passion for politics, an interest in the nerd experience, or a history hard-on, I cannot reccomend this book highly enough.

However, I have a beef. This is something that's been on my mind for awhile now. In the last two years, I've read quite a few books, including this one, that don't use quotation marks. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt come to mind. Oscar Wao also does not always use indentations when a new character begins speaking.

I must say it. Quotation marks are useful, people. They clearly indicate when somebody is speaking out loud, and sometimes thinking internally. In these books I've often been forced to re-read passages because I didn't understand whether the narrator or a character was talking, or whether action rather than dialogue was occurring. Each time I had to do this, it jarred me from the story and pulled me out of the experience.

I'm not sure what justification authors are using to ignore quotation marks. Do they feel that somehow the work is more visceral without them? Maybe they think that it lends a more "childish" style when dealing with the perspectives of children. Like I say, I don't know. In my opinion, the disadvantages that come with not using quotation marks outweigh the benefits. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, contemporary authors of the world, keep using quotation marks. Reading books without them is distracting and subtracts from your narrative. It's easy for you to distinguish who is speaking and action from dialogue because the book is your baby. Readers don't necessarily know, especially on first reading.

So, that's that. Like The Road and Angela's Ashes, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is superb despite the occasional mixup caused by the lack of quotation marks. I blazed through it with relish and satisfaction. Enjoy.
4 1/2 sinister trips to the canefield out of 5

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lament for the Socialist Dream

A Facebook group I belong to recently posted an old recording I heard years ago on LP of Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas reading a poem by Robert Burns, "Is There for Honest Poverty", otherwise known as "A Man's a Man for a' that". I was overjoyed and posted it to my profile. Hearing the final lines of that poem stirred something within me that has long laid in torpor.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Ah, the dream of socialism. It's a dream that began generations ago and was borne by millions. At its core is the simple idea that we, as a society, can afford to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care for all our citizens. Free from want, men will not war. Men and women died for the socialist dream on gallows, in prison cells, and in cobbled streets.

The dream moved me when I was young. I was born in Saskatchewan, where the socialist dream flowered before my birth, an example to all the world. For it was here that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation evicted a pack of corrupt, filthy Liberals from government and erected the beacon of democratic socialism in North America. Tommy Douglas, a little fellow with a big idea, reigned as premier for nineteen years. Amongst his accomplishments: North America's first government arts funding agency, the publicly-funded introduction of electricity, plumbing and telephone to rural Saskatchewan, and of course, the program that changed the face of Canada, Medicare. Douglas was incorruptable, fair and compassionate.

In my lifetime I have watched the flower bed of socialism wither. It was uprooted by corporations and blighted from within. It's heartbreaking. "Socialism" is now a dirty word in North America. Every day corporations and the rich continue their relentless propeganda, hammering on social programs worldwide. Every day community-minded people surrender the dream. Every day the friends of the rich in government bankrupt public coffers by lowering taxes and spending irresponsibly on business buddies, then turn around and say, "Too bad. I guess we can't afford this ______ program, heh heh heh". I cannot bear to watch the news anymore.

One of the most effective arguments which conservatives bring to bear against socialism is "realism". We are told that, "we can't afford that". Examples are shown to us of people who cheat the social safety net. We are told that big government saps strength from the economy, are terrified that a tax hike will cause a plant closure or frighten a potential investor out of town or out of the country. In an era of extremely mobile corporations, it makes no sense to raise taxes which will drive industry into asian export processing zones. I hear all these things and know that they have a point. Yet I still believe in the dream.

For all of its allure, the socialist dream is truly a dream. All dreamers must wake to reality. I believe that warring is programmed into humankind and we will find ways to battle even if we have full bellies. I also believe that people will steal and cheat each other no matter the roof over our heads. These are genetic realities.

Yet, while the socialist dream can never be achieved, we can certainly get close. It is still possible to feed, clothe, house and care for all those who need or want it. While alleviating poverty will not prevent all conflicts or injustices between humankind, it will at least stop people from wronging each other to survive. It's worth it to pay extra tax to make sure the guy operating heavy equipment near your home isn't going to drop a load of ingots on you by accident because he's distracted by a toothache. It's worth it to keep that guy begging in front of the liquor store out of your face. It's worth it to have children going to school with full stomachs so they can actually learn. A world where no man fears for their survival is truly free.

How could poverty be eliminated worldwide? Is it possible? If so, we, as a society, and particularily our rich folks, must be willing to sacrifice some cash. We must look after not just ourselves and our families or even our neighbors, but complete strangers. We must make peace with that most dirty of words, "tax".

Taxation is at the heart of any socialist society. It's annoying. We hate it. Yet without it, there is no communal safety, no government, only anarchy.

In the industrial age, socialism could work because corporations and the rich were not as mobile. This was because, firstly, they didn't have such kickass transportation technology. It was just harder to go anywhere, harder to ship products around the world. Another thing that kept money in place was nationalism. Many industrialists were loyal to their country of origin and opened factories in America because they themselves were American. Nowadays, corporations seem to have little loyalty to place.

Nowadays, socialism can't work. Why? It requires money. We've all heard the stastic that 95% of the wealth is held by 5% of the population. Therefore, you have to get that 5% to cough up some of their dough. And they don't want to do it. There are plenty of historical examples of societies that had no social security net, where charity from the rich was the only way alleviate poverty (medieval Europe, early industrial England), and in those societies it really sucked to be poor. Charity is not enough. Taxation is necessary.

You just can't pin down big money anymore. If you raise taxes on the rich, off they go with their fortunes to Bermuda. If you raise corporate taxes, the factories close and it's off to China. Tariffs on international trade really are counter-productive and amount to a flat tax, rather than a tax which targets only the rich. When socialist parties have been elected to government recently, they invariably fail when the wealth of their constituencies begins to melt away. They are doomed to failure.

Things would be groovy if the rich would just stay put, accept the fact that they can afford to pay more taxes than everybody else and pony up like responsible citizens. Yeah right.

As long as we're in the realm of speculative fiction, let's speculate some more. What's the only way to pin down these rich guys? You have to have a government that can tax them wherever they flee. In short, Earth must have one world government.

Uh oh. It's the capitalist's nightmare. It's what US politicians have been warning us about all along. For decades, paranoid Americans have been terrified that men in baby-blue UN uniforms would parachute into their communities and send them to toil in salt mines. This sounds ridiculous, but they have a point.

You see, over the last hundred years or so, many persons have waved the red flag, yet once they entered power, established crushing, horrifying tyrannies that murdered their citizens. The Soviet Union comes to mind, oh yeah, and Red China and Cambodia and North Korea, etc. The sad fact is that the beacons of democratic socialism like CCF Saskatchewan are historically outnumbered and out-populated by authoritarian socialist regimes that make life miserable for their citizens. If I have a choice between Stephen Harper's lame, corrupt, conservative Canadian government and Stalin's Soviet Union, thanks, but I'm going to take Canada, flawed though it be, socialist dream be damned.

Socialism seems to attract assholes, though I suppose any sort of power attracts assholes. But any government strong enough to wrest wealth from the hands of its most powerful citizens is also strong enough to murder people and choose not to hold elections. That strength in the hands of power-hungry assholes always equals bad.

Okay. So. To cure world poverty you must have a world government. And it must be a democracy or a republic with checks on its military and police. And then the majority of earth's citizens would have to agree to elect socialist governments for long enough to dismantle capitalism as we know it. Only then can the socialist dream be achieved. Easy, right?

I'm going to go ahead and say that the day the socialist dream comes true is a long time in the future. To achieve it, some enterprising country or corporation is going to have to conquer earth. This would be a planet-endangering, socio/political upheaval of massive scale, a World War III. The amount of human blood that would be spilled in such a conflict could flood the Saskatchewan river valley. And even then, the forces of entropy would work on this enormous government, no matter how good its intentions, and it would inevitably become corrupt and a danger to its own citizens. The socialist dream could, if only for a moment, be reality but at a horrible cost.

I guess it's not worth it. The Dream will never be achieved in my lifetime, probably never in the lifetimes of my children or grandchildren. This is the solstace of capitalism. We idealists must watch the rich chip away at the victories of our grandparents. I know in my heart that the day is coming soon when they will take Medicare from us. If they don't win they will keep trying until they do. On that day I'll weep at the injustice of it.

So what's to be done? I suppose I just have to take care of my own, be charitable when I can, and be nice to everybody I meet and vote. Perhaps some catastrophe will rend the machinery of capitalism someday, like the end of oil or global warming or zombie apocalypse or the like. On that day, grouchy old guys like me will be around to help society dust itself off and say, "I told you so."

Perhaps somebody ought to ask the writers of Star Trek how the United Federation of Planets gets formed in the future.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review of Raiders of the Lost Ark

At last we come to number 66 on AFI's list, Raiders of the Lost Ark. That means that my excellent wife and I are one third of the way finished! And it only took us two and a half years! At this blinding speed, AFI will publish a new list before we're finished watching the movies.

It's hard to review Raiders of the Lost Ark. In my life, Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the most influential movies... no, scratch that... THINGS that warped my childhood. There was Mom, Dad, Sis, The Public School system and then there was Raiders of the Lost Ark. How can I possibly detach myself enough to give an impartial review? I've decided I'm not even going to try. Instead, here is a summary of the way this movie made me the way I am.

I'll start with Indiana Jones. He is an icon whose fedora, bullwhip and roguish five-o'clock shadow represent machismo, adventure and courage. He's a perfect alliance of brawn, smarts and tenacity. To my developing mind, he was the unfailing symbol of manhood. To complicate matters, I thought my dad kinda looked like him.

When I was a kid, I wanted to look exactly like Indy. I still think I want to look like Indy. Here's a news flash, ladies. You're not the only ones with body-image issues. Every Gen-X man wants to be Indiana Jones, yet suffers in stoic silence.

It's funny how the tongue-in-cheek aspect of this movie and indeed all the Indiana Jones movies went over my head when I was a lad. Indy was just Indy and went on amazing adventures. Little did I know that Indiana Jones was George Lucas' reworking of corny adventure serials from his own childhood.

My reaction to this dramatic irony changed as I grew older. As a child I was oblivious. As a teenager I began to detect that some aspects of these movies were a bit stupid, over-the-top, and corny. I began to hate Indy. I felt betrayed. Then one day, I got it. "These movies are meant to be cheesy," I exclaimed. And then I started liking them again.

Yet I never could love them as much as I did as a boy, when I took them very seriously. I miss the way they excited me and feel slightly irritated that Indiana Jones is just a joke to George Lucas. Perhaps this why I have such negative reactions to irony in places where it is unwelcome. Little self-references, technical and directorial "jokes" and easter-eggs in movies drive me crazy. In comedies, it's great. Elsewhere, I loathe them. I don't want to know that a shoe flies past the Millenium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. I hate the Wilhelm Scream. I hate anything that winks to the audience and reminds us that we're just watching a movie. I watch a movie to escape, to experience a seamless dream that whisks me out of reality. Unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall ejects me from the movie and reminds me, "Oh yeah, I'm a penniless writer and don't look like Indiana Jones".

The soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark was composed by John Williams. Along with Star Wars, it sealed his reputation as Hollywood's greatest soundtrack composer. The score is exciting and imaginative, as was everything he composed from about 1976 to 1989. It is the standard by which I judge all film music.

There is another way in which Raiders of the Lost Ark affected me. Some readers may be wondering why my personal blog's address is at and I don't blame you. Pharoahphobia is the fear of mummies. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his gal Marion are escaping from an Egyptian ruin. Marion gets separated in the dark and finds herself surrounded by moaning, screaming mummies that grasp at her with withered arms. It culminates when she sees a snake emerging from a mummy's mouth. Indy comes to the rescue and guides her away from mummy chamber, leaving the imagined screams behind. It's all over and everybody's happy. But not for Jeremy. The scene stays in Jeremy's mind and festers with other negative mummy associations, emerging as a full blown phobia a few years later.

I have one last item. It's about what Indiana Jones has become. Like many of my generation, I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and was disgusted. We all saw The Phantom Menace, another George Lucas sequel, ten years ago and felt disgusted as well. What made these sequels so awful for us? There are truly a lot of differences in tone and style, but not subject matter. I think these differences can be summed up with one word: dignity.

It seems strange to be discussing dignity in reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie in which somebody's face melts. It's is also strange to be discussing it in relation to a movie that is based on an ironic premise. But really, compared with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Raiders of the Lost Ark has dignity. Crystal Skull just seems like it's trying too hard to entertain us. It's partly in the overuse of computer graphics, but it's also in the writing too. There are no moments of repose. It's just action action action and it's so grating!


Let me use an example. Some of you may be familiar with the Greek term Deus ex Machina. It means "god from a machine" or "god from a box". It's a phrase used to describe a situation in a story when all hope is lost for the heroes, when suddenly the cavalry arrives, a random meteor squishes the villain or something otherwise happens that defeats the antagonists without the hero having to do anything. In ancient Greek theatre, this was accomplished by Zeus being lowered toward the stage inside a pretty box upon ropes, at which point he would vanquish all evil and put everything to rights. God from a box.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has a Deus ex Machina. Literally. A box, the Ark of the Covenant, is opened by some hapless Nazis and God zaps them. The writers knew the phrase "Deus ex Machina" and knew they were writing one. It's something clever that's there to investigate and think about if you care, but you can ignore it if you don't. No attention is drawn to it. Dignity.

If Raiders was written today, I have no doubt that George Lucas wouldn't be able to resist pointing out how clever he is. Some comic relief character would be there at the end, and he would say something like, "Holy moly! Thatsa a real Deus ex Machina, Indy! Meesa funny! Whoa whoa!" and then he'd slip on something and fall down. Tell me I'm wrong, George Lucas. I fucking dare you.


These are, of course, not the full extent of what I feel is wrong with the George Lucas sequels. Star Wars is coming up on the list eventually and I'll save the rest of this rant for the future. George Lucas must be brought to literary justice for systematically taking a dump on my childhood.

So. Anyway. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good movie. Honestly, a must-see if you wish to understand Western Culture.
5 1/2 kadams out of 5, but take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God, whose Ark this is