Archive for May, 2014

On equality and America: Rush Limbaugh vs. the historical record

May 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 30, 2014

I have no sermonizing for you today; simply snippets of transcripts and documents.

I ask, dear reader, that you do one thing: Contrast the way in which conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh describes the founding principles of the United States (particularly the passage that I’ve highlighted below) with actual historical evidence about how America’s founders and esteemed citizens viewed and treated the African-Americans who labored for them.

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“The story of humanity on Planet Earth since the beginning of time has been tyranny and bondage. Most people who have lived did not have very much freedom or liberty.

“They did not have the right to own property, and they certainly didn’t have a whole lot of economic opportunity. The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet have had really hard lives. They lived under tyranny, authoritarianism, dictatorship, you name it. There never was a nation before the United States, which founded itself and organized itself on the belief that the citizen was the center of the universe.

“The free, liberated citizen was the engine. Every other nation on earth that had been formed or every other population — even if it was not a nation with borders, just any population group — was always dominated by brutal, tyrannical, dictatorial leaders who led by intimidation, punishment, brutality. The United States came along and was the exception to all of that.

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Stumbling toward decency: ‘The Leftovers’ in Perrotta’s 2011 novel grapple with the aftermath of a mysterious vanishing

May 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 29, 2014

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, spins a moving story based on an unusual premise.

One mid-October day, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth. This eerie phenomenon is not the Rapture, because many of the departed were Jews, Muslims and others who did not worship Jesus as the messiah. Perrotta, one of my favorite American novelists, mainly tracks the aftermath of what is called the “Sudden Departure” from the perspective of the Garvey family.

Following the stage-setting prologue, in which mother of two Laurie Garvey joins a cult that forbids its members from speaking, the main action begins three years after the still-unexplained mass vanishing. Kevin Garvey is now the first-term mayor of Mapleton, a small town that seems to be located in central New Jersey; he decided to run for office after selling the chain of liquor stores he inherited and expanded. Most of his constituents have gathered for the town’s first Day of Heroes celebration. The event is a sort of curative, meant to keep the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure from being too depressing.

Kevin’s wife, Laurie, is struggling to adjust to the vow of silence, and the effective life of penury, that is required by her “organization,” the Mapleton chapter of a new sect called the Guilty Remnant. Her commitment is affected by her first trainee, a lonely, vulnerable young woman named Meg who has broken her engagement to join the G.R., as the group is called.

Their son, Tom, has also separated himself from his family to join a different cult-like group. But unlike the G.R., which is growing, the Healing Hug Movement is on the verge of disbanding. Its central figure, Wayne Gilchrest, a.k.a. Holy Wayne, has been arrested on a battery of tax evasion, sexual assault and other charges.

Tom’s growing disaffection with Gilchrest and general malaise is disrupted when a teenager named Christine, Holy Wayne’s fourth “spiritual bride,” shows up at the San Francisco Healing Hug Center. “Congratulations,” Christine tells Tom. “You’re my new babysitter.” Tom finds himself drawn to the pretty young woman, despite her being pregnant with Gilchrest’s supposedly prophesied miracle child.

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Painting a family’s story over four generations: Dara Horn triumphs in ‘The World to Come’

May 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 27, 2014

Dara Horn’s wonderful 2006 novel, The World to Come, is the tale of four generations of a family and two artists whom their progenitor met in the Soviet Union in 1920.

The tale begins in the present day when a man steals a Marc Chagall painting. The thief is a twin whose mother died recently; at around the same time, he was divorced by his unfaithful wife after an 11-month marriage. The dual blow, which follows the painful death of his father when he was 11 years old, has left the intelligent but shrimpy and uncharismatic man bereft.

Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother — dead six months now, though it felt like one long night — hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.

Benjamin Ziskind takes “Study for ‘Over Vitebsk’” when it is left completely unattended during a cocktail reception at a New York City museum. (In real life, that painting actually was stolen in just those circumstances.) The theft is impulsive, a crime of opportunity, but Ziskind also views it as an act of redress. The Chagall study had long been in the family; he thinks of it as having been stolen, for reasons that aren’t revealed until the book is nearly over.

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‘Godzilla’ brings the monsters and action but leaves characters (plus a potentially important environmental subtext) behind

May 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 26, 2014

The opening credits of the new film Godzilla follow a conceit. We are viewing classified photographs and footage from the 1940s and 1950s, accompanied by snippets of text from formerly secret documents. As is typical when governments release such papers publicly, many of the words are censored — thick lines appear before our eyes, obscuring material that is still deemed secret. The words that remain are names and titles. (For example, we’ll see “music,” censor lines and then “Alexandre Desplat,” the name of the film’s composer.)

I found this to be an amusing approach to the material at hand, which incorporates real-life nuclear weapons tests into its fictional story. We’re told, for instance, that the bombs detonated in the Pacific were actually strikes against Godzilla, an enormous prehistoric predacious lizard that was somehow discovered in the 20th century. Would that the film had been able to be so consistently clever throughout. Alas…

The film opens in 1999 when scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) walk into the remains of a long-dead Godzilla-type creature that has just been discovered at a remote mining operation. Inside the immense corpse, they find two pods. One is intact and evidently dormant; the other, apparently catalyzed by exposure to air, has just hatched, releasing…something. The scientists, who work for a secret project known as Monarch, gape in amazement at the trail of flattened trees left in the something’s wake.

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Will the future resemble the past? Our changing atmosphere and our peculiar institution

May 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 23, 2014

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past few days reading about two disparate issues. One, climate change, is very contemporary; the other, slavery, continues to affect American society despite the fact that the practice was outlawed about 150 years ago.

Let’s start with climate change — specifically, with Bill McKibben’s 6,200-word essay on the subject from a 2012 edition of Rolling Stone. It is subtitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and it focuses on three numbers: The amount of temperature rise that the planet might — might — be able to sustain without triggering catastrophic environmental and geopolitical changes, the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide that scientists estimate humanity might be able to pump into the atmosphere while still retaining a chance of keeping below an unsustainable temperature rise, and the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide that would be added to the atmosphere if all known reserves of coal, oil and gas reserves are extracted and used.

McKibben focuses on those three numbers, as stated, but the most frightening part of the article can be boiled down to one sentence: Known fossil fuel reserves are capable of producing roughly five times the amount of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere is thought to be able to absorb safely.

Consider the other topic for a moment — slavery, which has euphemistically been called America’s peculiar institution. The Atlantic has just posted a comprehensive feature article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled “The Case for Reparations.” The work comprises about 15,000 words; it’s also accompanied by “An Intellectual Autopsy,” a 2,100-word addendum (that I have yet to read) in which Coates explains how his opposition to reparations changed over the last four years.

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Eight minutes to detonation: A disoriented soldier returns time and again to the past to thwart a terrorist bombing in the intriguing ‘Source Code’

May 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 21, 2014

A man wakes up on a train. A woman he’s never seen before tells him that she took his advice. She calls him Sean. The man slips into the bathroom. When he looks in the mirror, a stranger’s face stares back at him. The wallet he carries contains an ID card for Sean Fentress.

Minutes later, the train explodes, and the man wakes up in a capsule. A woman’s voice asks him: Did you identify the bomber? No, answers the even-more-baffled man. Concentrate, the uniformed woman on the capsule screen tells him. Shortly afterward, she projects him back into the strange man’s body. He is once again sitting across from a strange woman who tells him that she took his advice. The man has been assigned a mission by the uniformed woman and her superiors: To relive this gruesome scenario until he can locate the crucial intelligence that authorities hope will enable them to prevent further deadly terrorist attacks on the United States.

This, simply put (or about as simply as I can manage!), is the premise of Source Code, a gripping 2011 thriller with a smattering of science-fiction elements written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones. This is Jones’s second feature film, a follow up to 2009’s brilliant Moon, and indeed the two movies have a number of things in common. Both are cerebral stories featuring a protagonist who has been isolated by his superiors in circumstances that he doesn’t fully understand. Also, most of the hero’s contact with other people is mediated through some form of machinery.

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Spider-Man in love (and war): ‘Amazing 2’ offers a fun romp, despite being stuffed to the gills with plot points

May 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 19, 2014

Your favorite urban web-slinger is back, and yes, the tales are true: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is indeed an entertaining romp.

This time, young Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spidey (Andrew Garfield), finds himself trying to balance his love for the brilliant young Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) with the promise he made to her late father (Denis Leary, in an uncredited cameo) that he would avoid her so that she would never be targeted by his enemies. The main bad guy, played by Jamie Foxx, is Electro, who starts off as a lowly, nerdy, Spider-Man-loving Oscorp engineer; an unfortunate encounter with bioengineered electric eels prompts Max Dillon’s transformation into a glowing blue special effect with godlike powers.

Complicating matters is 20-year-old Harry Osborn’s ascension to the helm of Oscorp following the death of his father, Norman (the excellent Chris Cooper, also uncredited). Both Osborns suffer from a rare, fatal degenerative disease, and Harry (Cole DeHaan) becomes convinced that the regenerative properties of Spider-Man’s blood could save him from a horrific fate.

An increasingly desperate Harry recruits Parker, his boyhood friend, to locate the superhero and ask him for help. (Parker, natch, is the rare photographer to have snapped clear pictures of the Big Apple’s red-and-blue-costumed superhero.) When Spider-Man balks at sharing his plasma, fearful of the potential harm a transfusion might do Harry, Electro and the future Green Goblin form a deadly alliance. The duo proceeds to plunge New York City into a chaotic and potentially deadly blackout.

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2001: A science fiction odyssey — Volume 19 of Gardner Dozois’s excellent ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction’ lives up to the series standard

May 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 17, 2014

If you love science fiction but have never read The Year’s Best Science Fiction, then I urge you to remedy that immediately. Launched in 1984 and now in its 30th annual volume, the series is curated by legendary editor Gardner Dozois. Each edition contains roughly two dozen stories; some are just a few pages long, with others stretching to novella-length. A mix of writers prominent and otherwise is represented each year.

A few weeks ago, I came across two volumes from the series at a used bookstore. The pair included the 19th annual collection, which was published in 2002 and anthologizes top stories from 2001.

The book opens with “New Light on the Drake Equation,” Ian R. MacLeod’s chronicle of the life of a lonely, dissolute SETI hunter. (That acronym stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, natch.) Protagonist Tom Kelly is listening for signals from intelligent alien civilizations on a mountaintop in France a few decades hence. The astronomer has all but shut himself away from his earthly surroundings, which are quite fantastic in their own right: Those who are rich enough can genetically re-engineer their bodies to be capable of flight and their minds to be fluent in other languages.

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The Jews who made America sing: Virtues of ‘A Fine Romance’ far outweigh its flaws

May 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 15, 2014

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs is a strange gem of a book. This entertaining work by poet David Lehman is a hybrid. Most of the relatively slender volume — the main text runs 222 pages, followed by a timeline and end notes (but no index, alas) — chronicles the lives and work of Jewish-American composers and lyricists who enjoyed huge success from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

Lehman appreciates the work of these musicians on multiple levels. For instance, he praises this clever couplet from Lorenz Hart’s “Mountain Greenery”:

While you love your lover let 
Blue skies be your coverlet.

The “incredibly clever and uniquely sad” Hart, Lehman writes, also hit upon such polysyllabic rhymes as Yonkers–conquers, Crusoe–trousseau, and “sing to him”–“worship the trousers that cling to him.”

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Dated ‘Outrage’ attempts to grapple with closeted politicians who harm gay people

May 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 13, 2014

I visited some friends the other day, and we ended up watching a movie. After some wrangling over what would be acceptable to the three of us, we settled on Outrage, a 2009 documentary picture of which I had never heard. The film, written and directed by Kirby Dick, examines — and frankly condemns — closeted homosexual politicians in the United States who vote against gay rights.

The movie’s rather dubious thesis is that there is a conspiracy amongst politicos and journalists to keep the public in the dark about the sexuality of gay officials. One such man, allegedly, was Ed Koch, and we are told of threats of the financial ruin that supposedly thwarted a former lover from publicly talking to reporters about his intimate relationship with the New York City bachelor-mayor. Koch, who died in 2013, was a congressman at the time of this affair, which we hear about from friends of the supposed lover. Rather infamously, Koch ignored the initial outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, which devastated gay communities in New York and across the nation.

We also see footage from a 2006 Larry King interview in which Bill Maher outed Ken Mehlman, who led the Republican National Committee as it distributed anti-gay campaign during the 2004 presidential campaign. Maher’s naming of Mehlman was omitted from repeat broadcasts of the program.

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