Marooned on Mars: A man fights (and thinks) for survival in Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’

September 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2014

Mark Watney is a man with a problem.

Actually, he has lots of problems, but they boil down to one issue: How can he survive being stranded on Mars?

Roughly a decade or two in the future, Watney is part of an American expedition to the red planet. A violent dust storm strikes six days after landing, and during a chaotic evacuation, Watney is struck by debris and swept under the sand. With the wind battering their liftoff vehicle, the mission commander orders a launch, leaving behind what they think is their colleague’s corpse.

But Mars hasn’t killed the astronaut, a botanist with expertise in mechanical engineering. It’s merely wounded him and, by destroying the expedition’s communications array, cut him off from the rest of humanity. Watney drags himself to safety and begins grappling with the hard realities of life as a space-age castaway.

In his favor, the mission’s habitat is essentially undamaged, giving Watney a nearly full complement of food, water and supplies that was originally intended to last six people for a month. Unfortunately, the next spaceship isn’t due for approximately four years…

This is the relatively straightforward setup of The Martian, a science fiction novel by Andy Weir. The book has an interesting history: The first-time author, a California software engineer, began it as a series of posts on his blog. Weir self-published the work as an electronic book in 2012. Earlier this year, Random House released a hardcover edition, and movie rights have been optioned.

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A psychiatrist unravels mysteries of love and art in Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Swan Thieves’

September 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 15, 2014

The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, is the understated tale of the intertwined lives of a psychiatrist, a painter who comes under his care, and the 19th-century Frenchwoman with whom the painter has become obsessed over the years.

I described one of the characters just now as “a painter,” but in fact, all of the main characters paint: Dr. Andrew Marlow; the almost completely silent patient, who is named Robert Oliver;  Mary Bertison, Oliver’s lover; and the key 19th-century characters, Béatrice de Clerval Vignot and her husband’s uncle, Olivier Vignot. Only Oliver works as a professional artist; Marlow and the rest are essentially amateurs of varying talents and dedication. (Bertison makes a living as an art instructor.)

In this 2010 novel, Kostova mainly spins her tale through the reminiscences of Marlow, the doctor; an unpublished memoir written by Bertison; the people whom Marlow interviews in his quest to understand his patient’s derangement; and letters exchanged by Béatrice and Olivier. A few segments, evidently imagined and written down by Marlow, portray some events from Béatrice’s point of view.

Throughout the narrative, which spans 561 pages, Kostova teases out several mysteries: What dark obsession motivates Oliver? Why did Oliver attack a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.? How have history and other forces conspired to obscure Béatrice’s artwork?

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Prominent authors contribute original, mainly horror-tinged tales to ‘McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories’

September 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 13, 2014

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories is a 2004 anthology edited by Michael Chabon with a notable bent toward horror-tinged tales of the supernatural. The book’s stories, all original, are penned by an impressive list of authors, but I found their quality to be a bit uneven.

Margaret Atwood contributes the first story, “Lusus Naturae,” narrated by a deformed young woman whose family fakes her death in order to mitigate their shame in her existence. (The title is a Latin phrase for “freak of nature.”) The tale is short, and its plot relatively unimaginative, but it generates sympathy for the shunned protagonist. Atwood also strikes an enjoyable sardonic note in the final paragraph.

“What You Do Not Know You Want,” by David Mitchell, is a mystery with supernatural elements. The narrator, a memorabilia dealer, is visiting Hawaii in order to locate the dagger his partner had acquired just before killing himself. The protagonist is disaffected — he’s engaged to be married but notably unenthusiastic about his fiancée. The story’s tone is naturalistic, but it ends with a disturbing otherworldly killing.

“Vivian Relf” is a curious short offering by Jonathan Lethem about a man who meets a woman a few times. Nothing happens between them, even though their lives seem to be intertwined in mysterious, indefinable ways.

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‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’ presents the quirky sensibility of essayist David Sedaris

September 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 12, 2014

David Sedaris is a comic essayist whose most frequent subject is himself. Raised in Raleigh, N.C., by an alcoholic housewife and the son of Greek immigrants, Sedaris himself was an aimless drug-using alcoholic artist wannabe for years before developing a career as a popular writer.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris’s 2008 collection, is his sixth book, and it’s up to his usual standards. The various essays look at outrageous episodes from his childhood, adulthood and present life; often, the essays touch upon more than one of these periods.

A frequent trope is Sedaris as misfit. “Road Trips” describes some of his awkward early attempts to grapple with his homosexuality; “Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?” is a catalog of the author’s sartorial follies; “Keeping Up” compares the discomfort he’s witnessed among foreigners visiting Paris (where he’s lived for some time) with his own misadventures as a tourist with his boyfriend, Hugh.

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A few championship hands: Blurry recollections of poker wins and losses

September 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 10, 2014

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my accomplishments and misdeeds at the poker table. A lot has happened since then.

I got credited with my Memorial Day tournament win and wound up with eight for the six-month-long season. This disappointed me, because 10 wins would have automatically qualified me for World Tavern Poker’s national championship finals. But it turned out I qualified for the finals anyway — I had enough high-scoring near-misses to land in the top 1 percent of players in the region, the state and the nation.

The World Tavern Poker season ends with two weeks of postseason play. First, each bar or restaurant holds a championship tournament, in which every player with a ranking in the bar starts with the same amount of chips. The following week, each venue holds a tournament of champions (yes, the names are similar), in which anyone who has ever garnered a top-three finish in any tournament at the bar is eligible to play. Here, chip stacks are based on the player’s number of times earning a finish in the 1, 2 or 3 slots.

I had two notable games from postseason play, and both were at a sports bar called the Upper Deck in Cary, N.C.

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Trivial anecdotes from a recent Saturday night

September 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 9, 2014

Saturday. Before 8 p.m., I stop by Alivia’s in the Brightleaf district of Durham, N.C. I order shrimp with cheese grits — light on the cheese. There are two college football games on the televisions: Michigan State at Oregon, the day’s marquee match-up, and a pixellated, halting Internet feed of Duke at Troy. The meal is good, but not light enough on the cheese. Shrimp with grits: Great, in my book. Shrimp with cheese grits: This, to me, is much less enjoyable.

I don’t feel like staying after I finish eating. I pay my bill and drive over to Iredell Street. I park behind the Whole Foods and amble a short block over to Ninth Street. Then I walk up the long, long, long block to Dain’s, a bar popular with Duke graduate students.

More college football is showing: East Carolina vs. South Carolina, Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Michigan at Notre Dame. The Irish are crushing the Wolverines and the Gamecocks are holding a 10-point lead on the Pirates, but the Hokies are acquitting themselves well vs. the Buckeyes.

I order a New Belgium Snapshot wheat ale — my first alcoholic beverage in a few weeks — and nurse it for the better part of an hour; maybe longer. I also sip some water. At one point, I ask a bartender to switch ECU–South Carolina over to the Michigan State–Oregon game, and he obliges. The Spartans had held a modest lead for much of the third quarter, but suddenly the Ducks get a wide-open receiver and a way-too-easy touchdown.

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Hollywood denizens grapple with the good, the bad and the in-between in Bruce Wagner’s ‘Still Holding’

September 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 5, 2014

The intertwining lives of three people form the center of Bruce Wagner’s 2003 book, Still Holding. The work, subtitled A Novel of Hollywood, tracks Kit Lightfoot, a superstar film actor searching for personal and professional fulfillment; Becca, a young actress and Drew Barrymore lookalike taking a shot at stardom; and Lisanne, 37-year-old single executive assistant grappling with pregnancy and motherhood.

What’s intriguing about the book is not so much the characters as the difficulties they face. Becca, the book’s least interesting protagonist, becomes involved with Rusty, a headstrong Russell Crowe lookalike. Through him, she meets Grady and Cassandra Dunsmore, a hard-partying, wildly ambitious couple who hope to transform a pair of rich malfeasance and wrongful-death settlements into a film and television empire. The attentions of these three mercurial acquaintance are by turns enticing and frightening to Becca, who vacillates between concealing and playing up her rural-Virginia roots.

Becca also gets an opportunity to become personal assistant to Viv Wembley, Kit’s TV-actress girlfriend, which gives the would-be starlet an opportunity to spy on Lightfoot’s glamorous existence without ever actually getting to meet him.

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Funny? Meh. Fun? Yeah!!! (In which I explain why you should probably have seen ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ already.)

September 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, the most recent release from the Marvel Comics movie empire, is a fun, light-hearted science-fiction action-adventure film that you probably should have seen several weeks ago if you have any interest in that type of thing.

The movie’s protagonist is the wise-cracking, bubble-gum-chewing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). In a brief prologue set in the 1980s, Peter is abducted from Earth by an alien group known as the Ravagers moments after the death of his mother. This isn’t quite as shocking to Quill as it might have been to the ordinary middle school student, since his mother had always told him that his father was an extraterrestrial.

Roughly two decades later, we find Quill visiting an abandoned alien city, where he combines advanced technology and 1970s aesthetics. On his way to recovering a mysterious orb, Quill dances to a portable tape cassette playing one of numerous vintage songs featured in the movie.

With the job nearly accomplished, Quill (or Star-Lord, as he sometimes calls himself) is accosted by some second-tier alien villains whose names I did not catch. (I thought of them as Chief Henchman and the Expendables; all are employed by a notorious religious fanatic named Ronan the Accuser.) The human uses skill, daring, clever gadgets and luck to make his escape, but his troubles are only beginning.

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Up in the air: J.J. Abrams juggles balls aplenty in a dynamic, overstuffed ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

August 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 28, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams’s second entry in the rebooted Star Trek series, is packed to the gills with characters, plot threads and action. Unfortunately, the 2013 film is guilty of trying to do a bit too much.

Into Darkness is fun, no doubt. It recapitulates one of the most popular narratives in the Star Trek oeuvre: The story of Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered warlord who was frozen in a cryogenic tube and exiled from Earth after the bloody Eugenics Wars of the late 20th century. Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering 1966 television show featured Khan as the villain of the week in “Space Seed,” a first-season Star Trek episode; 16 years later, the character formed the dark heart of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many still consider to be the best of the franchise’s dozen movies.

Abrams’s movie combines elements of both outings while adding plenty of new twists. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, charismatic but far paler than any man playing a character named Khan should be) and his frozen coterie of superhumans are discovered by a Starfleet commander other than the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk, and Khan’s 23rd-century machinations take quite a bit of unraveling as our heroes seek to learn just who he is and what he’s about. (As superfans already know, the movie is chockablock with dangerous newfangled torpedoes, and there are a pair of characters named Marcus, but there are no signs of the U.S.S. Reliant or the planet-shattering Genesis project.)

The film begins with an action sequence on the planet Nibiru, where Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks all the rules to preserve a primitive civilization and the life of his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto). The opening act sets up several character arcs by displaying Kirk’s immaturity and Spock’s refusal to engage with the emotional needs of his friend (Kirk) and lover (communications officer Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana).

A few minutes later, a Starfleet facility in London is destroyed and a gunship kills several officers at fleet headquarters in San Francisco. This prompts a furious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to dispatch Kirk to the Klingon home world, Qo’noS (pronounced Kronos), with orders to kill the fugitive responsible for both attacks. But it turns out that the fugitive is not who he seems, and neither are some of the other characters who are either crewing or focusing their attention on the Enterprise.

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Crimes and misdemeanors: Considering criticism of The New York Times’s Michael Brown profile

August 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 26, 2014

The New York Times published dual profiles Sunday of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The former man, of course, is an unarmed 18-year-old who was killed this month  in Ferguson, Mo., while the latter man is the police officer who fired the deadly shots.

The profile of Brown, written by John Eligon, was poorly received. The sticking point was essentially this, the fifth paragraph:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

The complaints seem to boil down to the following two points:

• Why does Eligon mention Brown’s very minor offenses — experimenting with alcohol and drugs, scuffling at least once, making rap music — when these are things that many, many teenagers have done?

• Why does Eligon characterize the shooting victim as “no angel,” which many read as an implicit condemnation of Brown’s character?

I’m not impressed by either of these objections. Let’s examine them in order.

The first complaint is by far the flimsier one, to my mind. Brown’s use of drink and drugs, his one known fight, and his rap music are relevant because those are among the things that Eligon found in his reporting.

And Eligon didn’t exactly focus on Brown’s possible failings to the exclusion of all else. Here is the very next paragraph in his story:

At the same time, [Brown] regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.

Might it have been better to put more emphasis on these details? Perhaps. But if the profile’s fifth and sixth paragraphs had essentially been flipped, I have a hunch that critics still would have focused on references to some of Brown’s questionable behavior.

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