Archive for September, 2014

Lost in light: A city descends into chaos in José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’

September 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 30, 2014

In 1995, the Portugese author José Saramago published a novel in his native tongue. Two years later, a translated version of the work was released in English under the title Blindness, and it attracted a great deal of acclaim.

At some point, I acquired a first edition of the American publication of the book. I started reading, but I got no more than 30 or so pages in before I stopped.

I carted the book around with me from home to home to home, but not until a few weeks ago did I resume reading. (Actually, I restarted from the beginning. Quibbles, quibbles…)

This is a strange book, due both to the unusual proceedings that it depicts as well as as its unique style. The story begins at a busy intersection during afternoon rush hour in an unnamed city when a driver stops in the middle of the road:

Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.

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Noticing something that isn’t there

September 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 29, 2014

Speaking of mishaps involving my bicycle.

On Friday afternoon, I drove southeast from Durham to Raleigh. The plan was to visit at least one of Raleigh’s second-hand stores — I’m rather partial to Edward McKay Used Books and More — and unload some unwanted books and DVDs.

Suddenly, I realized that my car was missing something. I looked in the rear-view mirror and twisted my head. Sure enough: I confirmed that I am now the former owner of a bicycle.

After I tumbled off of my two-wheeler in August, a generous couple drove me and my bicycle home. Someone brought the bicycle into my parent’s garage, and it remained there, essentially untouched by me, until it was time to return to Durham. Then I strapped the conveyance to my car’s bike carrier and secured it with my bicycle lock.

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Arms, wrist, elbow, knee: Notes on my healing process

September 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 27, 2014

About six weeks ago, I fell off my bicycle. I visited some doctors and applied many bandages.

Marks from the fall linger on my arms; although they may continue fading, I expect that some of the blemishes will be permanent.

There are also two spots on my arms that haven’t quite healed. One is on my right wrist; I accidentally banged this against a chair and reopened it at the beginning of September. There’s currently a little scab there.

The other is near my right elbow. At the start of the week, this site broke out in blistering, as if the skin had brushed against poison ivy. I wasn’t sure why this happened, but I thought it might have something to do with my frequently resting on my right elbow.

I made a conscious effort to stop leaning on that arm while reading in bed. The blister collapsed, and it seems to be healing.

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Following up: The marketing tie-in and the stalker in ‘Amélie’

September 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2014

I wanted to follow up on my essay about Amélie with two quick notes about the film.

One is that I experienced an unexpected jolt of recognition at the subplot involving the protagonist’s father. Amélie — minor spoiler ahead! — removes the garden gnome with which M. Poulain seems to be obsessed and gives it to a customer at her café who is a flight attendant.

Only we don’t actually see what Amélie does with it, because the movie diverts our attention. When Amélie walks into the central Paris train station with the gnome, she encounters the movie’s love interest for the second time. Nino Quincompoix chases a man out of the train station, and Amélie — carrying her father’s gnome — runs after him.

It wasn’t initially clear to me who Quincompoix was chasing or why. Later, it became apparent that he was running after a character known as the man with red shoes. (I won’t reveal who the man with red shoes is or why Quincompoix takes an interest in him.) The relevant event here is that, as part of his pursuit, the love interest hops on his motorbike, takes off after red-shoes-man’s car, and suddenly swerves to avoid an oncoming vehicle. That change in direction sends a photo album flying out of the bike’s side saddle and on to the ground, where Amélie — ornament still in her arms — comes upon it and picks it up. The very next scene is all about Nino’s photo album.

Here’s where the jolt of recognition comes in. Several minutes later, Amélie visits her father, who is mystified by envelopes that he’s been receiving in the mail. These envelopes contain no written messages — just photographs of the gnome standing in front of various international locales.

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Oddballs find love in Paris: The quirky charms of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie’

September 24, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 24, 2014

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a French moviemaker with whose first English-language feature film was 1997’s lamentable Alien Resurrection, the fourth and presumably final entry in the pioneering science fiction and horror crossover series. Jeunet’s 2001 follow-up, Amélie, was about as different a movie from Resurrection as could possibly be imagined.

The eponymous protagonist of Amélie, a French-language comedy set in contemporary Paris, is a pretty young waitress enamored of whimsy and mischief. An only child, she grew up with an emotionally distant father and a highly neurotic mother (now deceased). The Poulains home-schooled Amélie because her father, a physician, mistakenly believed that she had a weak heart and was unable to bear the stress of having rough-and-tumble playmates. As an adult, she tends to keep to herself.

On the night of Princess Diana’s death, the adult Amélie (Audrey Tatou) accidentally discovers a cache of childhood mementos that was hidden in her apartment decades previously. When she returns the box to its owner, he is greatly moved, and Poulain resolves to do good deeds for those around her.

To that end, Poulain sets up a co-worker with a customer at her cafe, sends her father’s garden gnome on a world-wide journey, shares amusing video clips with her shut-in neighbor, and plays tricks to punish the local grocer for his habit of verbally abusing his slow-witted assistant.

Poulain also hesitantly flirts with Nino Quincompoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome, whimsical young man whom she sees rooting around the floors and garbage bins of automated photo booths throughout the city. She’s encouraged in this dalliance by her neighbor, Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), the elderly shut-in, whose hobby is painting reproductions of Renoir masterpieces.

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An atomic supervillain conquers Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s impressive, oppressive ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

September 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 23, 2014

Pity poor billionaire Bruce Wayne. At the start of The Dark Knight Rises, the 2012 blockbuster feature film based on DC Comics’s popular characters, the former bon vivant is a recluse with a limp and slightly shaggy facial hair. The troubled metropolis of Gotham has cleaned up its act in the eight years since the death of district attorney Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight.

But Wayne (Christian Bale) keeps to himself, either unwilling or unable to move on after the Joker killed the love of his life, Rachel Dawes. And Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, Batman, whom most Gothamites unfairly blame for Dent’s death, hasn’t been seen since that the prosecutor’s demise.

The eponymous dark knight will be needed, however, because a new menace is approaching. The chief villain of British director Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie is Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious masked man whose ruthlessness, strength and intelligence are only matched by his (and Nolan’s) ardor for labyrinthine plots. The Dark Knight Rises’s fast-paced beginning introduces Bane through an impressive midair hijacking in which he captures nuclear physicist Leonid Pavel and kills the CIA crew that had taken Pavel into custody. Bane also leaves behind one of his minions, noting that the authorities will expect a certain number of bodies in the wreckage. The henchmen obeys willingly, thereby enhancing the caper’s already ominous air.

There are a few other new characters (or new to Nolan’s Batverse, anyway). One is the impossibly limber Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive thief whom we first see flirting with a local congressman. Moments later, she spars — verbally and otherwise — with the reclusive Wayne while attempting to steal his late mother’s string of pearls. Wayne is understandably captivated by the cat burglar, whom even casual fans will recognize as Catwoman despite the word not being uttered onscreen.

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Take a picture, it’ll last longer: Notes toward a system for reducing personal clutter

September 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 19, 2014

If my life — particularly my history of housekeeping — were conceived of as a battle between order and entropy, then entropy would be the undisputed champion.

Still, I’m attracted to the idea of an orderly home. Lately, I’ve even been flirting with the concept of discarding books that have taken up space in my home for years. Some of them are ones that I have read; others are unread.

I seem to attach a lot of emotions to objects, in part because I tie them to memories. When I dine alone at a bar or restaurant, if I’ve been watching a particular sporting event, I’ll sometimes write the names of the teams (and the result, if I stay until the end) on the receipt. When I pay my tab after some friendly competition, I’ll note the place I finish in the tournament. If I’ve eaten a meal with a relative or friends, I’ll jot down the relevant name or names on the receipt. The sight of these slips of paper often summon fragments of conversation, memories of what the weather was like or some other recollection about that time of my life.

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Veteran Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch gets a second shot at justice in Michael Connelly’s ‘The Black Box’

September 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2014

Michael Connelly is a best-selling mystery author who’s written more than two dozen books. The Black Box, Connelly’s 2012 novel, is the 16th entry in the Harry Bosch series, which chronicles the exploits of a hard-bitten Los Angeles homicide detective.

I’ve read a few Connelly works, including Nine Dragons, the 14th of Bosch’s adventures. In The Black Box, the detective is working on a cold-case investigation of the murder of a Danish journalist and freelance war correspondent on the final night of the 1992 L.A. riots, which broke out after not-guilty verdicts were rendered against the four police officers accusing of beating Rodney King.

Bosch originally investigated Jespersen’s killing two decades ago, but the riots afforded him only a matter of minutes to search for evidence. With the 20th anniversary of the riots fast approaching, he gets another crack at providing justice for the victim, as this early expository passage shows:

Bosch specifically asked for the Anneke Jespersen case and after twenty years returned to it. Not without misgivings. He knew that most cases were solved within the first forty-eight hours and after that the chances of clearance dropped markedly. This case had barely been worked for even one of those forty-eight hours. It had been neglected because of circumstances, and Bosch had always felt guilty about it, as though he had abandoned Anneke Jespersen. No homicide detective likes leaving a case behind unsolved, but in this situation Bosch was given no choice. The case was taken from him. He could easily blame the investigators that followed him on it, but Bosch had to count himself among those responsible. The investigation started with him at the crime scene. He couldn’t help but feel that no matter how short a time he was there, he must have missed something.

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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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