Category Archives: Blog

Update 6/10/12

Rattlesnake root?

Here’s a hodge podge of me news from the last few months or so.

First of all, I took a biology course at Austin Peay to make myself more marketable to graduate schools. It was an introductory course, but an intense one. It took place over three weeks and covered topics such as respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis, genetics and evolution. From the courses I took at Vanderbilt I had actually learned quite a lot of the information covered in the class, but the class put it all together in a neater arrangement, and there were a few things I hadn’t run into before that I was able to learn about.

I did well in the course and got an A. I signed up for a human anatomy and physiology class in the Fall, because that course isn’t offered in the Spring and the other courses filled up or I needed prerequisites for them. I need to figure out what prerequisites I need and sign up for another class. I also probably need to start applying for graduate schools again and maybe sign up for the biology GRE. I didn’t show up last time for the BioGRE because two years ago I couldn’t find the will to wake up early in the morning. Now I’m a more responsible person and I have a better sleep schedule, so I should be able to do it.

I’m still trying to look up some of the plants around my parents’ property without much luck. The professor of my biology class recommended I talk to somebody at Austin Peay, but I still haven’t made contact due to my not wanting to waste anybody’s time. I found one plant that’s about 6 ft tall with hastate leaves in an alternate arrangement and with a circular stem about an inch in diameter. I’ve narrowed it down to family asteraceae and it looks like it might be in genus prenanthes, as it looks a lot like the pictures of the purple waldlattich in the prenanthes link, only that plant is supposed to only go to 150 cm and this one was as big as I am. Also, I haven’t seen any flowers on it yet. Every plant identification site seems to only care about the flowers. It’s a bit frustrating.

On a musical note, I’ve started to practice playing the piano, which has been surprisingly entertaining. Right now I’m trying to play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I can almost get through the first two lines before madness sets in.

Review of A Dangerous Method

image from IMDB

This movie is about Sigmund Freud ( played by Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) and their interaction with a patient/ doctor named Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley). I’m a fan of both Viggo and Keira, so I was looking forward to seeing this not just for the intriguing subject matter, but for the acting as well.

Unfortunately the movie was something of a mixed bag. The worst thing about it was Knightly doing her crazy freak out routine. The story begins as Sabina is taken by force to the institute Carl Jung works at while she writhes and screams. She pulls out her jaw, arches her back, whips her arms around. She looks like she’s possessed. She does a pretty good job, but the problem I have is that it goes on for too long. About a minute into the freak out session I remember that Keira Knightly is not crazy, and that this is a performance. Then it begins to just seem ridiculous and I question whether anybody actually reacts like that.

I don’t blame Knightly for this. I blame the director, David Cronenburg. He started  out making horror and scifi movies like The Fly. There was a movie he made in the seventies that involved an a woman with a stinger in her stomach that she used to suck blood out of people. One of the things that becomes evident when watching these movies, is that Cronenburg  enjoys shocking people. More specifically, he likes scenes where the humanity of a character is questioned. So I think this is why he let the freak out scene happens so long. It’s a director’s responsibility to let an actor know when they’ve done enough, and Cronenburg was probably egging her on.

The movie went over a number of themes. There was the question of whether we should quench our passions or let them rule us. Carl Jung decides to have an affair with Sabina, but later regrets it, even though he ends up getting another mistress that’s more or less just like her.

There was an issue of race. Sabina and Freud are Jewish, while Carl Jung is Aryan, and this is brought up at odd moments as the characters talk to each other. This puts an interesting light on things as the second world war happens a few years after the movie, but sometimes it seems a little forced.

There is also the question of Freud’s insistence that sex is central to all human motivations. Carl tries to prove that Freud is wrong about this, but he offers in place of sex bizarre ideas about telepathy and mysticism. There’s even a scene where he predicts that something will occur in Freud’s office based on a burning sensation in his gut. It does occur.

Finally, there’s the issue with Freud’s resentment of Jung’s relative wealth, and the dissolution of their friendship as a result of this, the Jewish-Aryan thing, and the affair that Jung has with Sabina. Freud at one point acts as a mediator between the two of them and he cites the event as the main reason he lost respect for Jung, thought the movie leads one to suspect that it might have been for other reasons.

Viggo Mortensen, well known for his role in Lord of the Rings and his tough guy characters in crime movies and westerns, does an amazing job as Freud. I can’t say how true it is to the real Freud, since I never saw a video of the actual guy, but his accent and mannerism made me forget it was him most of the time. Kiera Knightly, aside from the freak outs that happened early in the movie, also did a good job becoming a different character. Her performance was completely different from her character in Pirates of the Caribbean and  her character in Domino. Michael Fassbender did a good job too, but before I checked the actors on IMDB I thought it was the best acting job Ewen McGregor had ever done.

Overall, the movie didn’t do much for me. The ending just sort of sits there like the last roll in the basket waiting for someone to pick it up. There’s an epilogue which seems to tell a more interesting story than the movie itself.  So I have to say that despite the great acting and the subject matter, the movie isn’t something I would recommend to most people. I give it a 6.5/10

The Meaning of Good

What is the meaning of “good”?

That’s a question I’ve been struggling a little with lately. I’m not concerned with “good” in a moral sense, that question has its own difficulties. I’m just talking here about “good” as in “that was a good book I read.” Or “that was a good movie.” So, okay, this is a subjective thing. You either like something or you don’t. If you like it, it’s good, if you don’t like it, it’s bad.

Hold on. That’s overly simplistic! There are some things I like more than others. That doesn’t mean some of them are all good and some are all bad. There’s a spectrum. Some things can’t even be called good or bad; they’re just “okay.” So there’s a region on the spectrum where things are bad, and a region where they are good and an area where maybe they’re just okay. I can even assign a number from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 indicating how good I think something is.  I can assign a rating, and so can anybody else. Putting a large number of ratings together into an average, then can give an indication of  how good something is to most people.

Okay, but, let’s face it. Most people are idiots. All of us have probably felt the frustration of not liking something that was extremely popular. In my experience almost every book or movie that made it big had some major flaws in it. Lord of the Rings was full of unneeded exposition and involved a long trek that could have been avoided with much less bloodshed if Gandalf had pulled out the rocs earlier. The system of magic in the Harry Potter universe has no logic to it. Curses and other bad magic things happen, and then other people poof it away.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation as to why some things work and some don’t, which is fine in a fun YA romp, but becomes a bit frustrating when situations become more dire. How fast, for example, does an avra kadavra shot fly from a wand? Is it instantaneous or can the victim dodge? Is there another spell that can block it? When Voldemort and Harry are dueling with their wands, what governs who beats whom? Is it sheer will? Is there some skill or strategy involved?  In the Twilight books you have sparkly vampires. The Hunger Games is has a scene or two where someone is about to commit suicide. You might disagree with me on some of these problems or that they’re problems at all, but the point is that, assuming for the moment that these issues exist, why are these books popular when there are other books that don’t have these problems that no one seems to know about?

Okay, so maybe it’s a matter of luck. Maybe some of the authors had good publicists or the right people read the work and liked it. Maybe I’m a weirdo and these problems don’t really exist. Then again, it could be that the factors that govern whether something is popular are different from those that govern whether something is good.

Hold on a second. That seems obvious, but if you can’t figure out what is good based on popularity how can you tell if it’s good or not at all? We’re back to saying it’s subjective. We tried that line of thought already, but maybe we can come at it from a different angle. Everyone has different criteria for judging things. Some people like Rap. Some people like Rock and Roll. It’s a matter of taste. Okay but there are bad Rap songs and bad Rock and Roll songs and people disagree there too.

So even the people who agree, disagree? Does the word “good” even have a meaning? We’re beginning to veer into postmodernism. The only reason any word has meaning is because a sizable group of people have agreed that a given collection of symbols or sounds should mean a set thing.  If no one can agree what is good and what isn’t, how can anyone be sure what the word means?

Complicating the issue further,  generally people like things that are original. In order for the public to think something is good, that thing must change public opinion in some way.  So you can’t say that just because something falls in line with what the rest of the public usually thinks is good, that the public is going to like it.

Lifted from http://www.songsandsonics.com/category/trick/

So if you’re a creator of some work, how can you judge whether it is good or not? Your own enjoyment may have been in the act of creating the work itself, and furthermore you might run counter to the popular ideals of your time. If you are sure that no one else will appreciate it, then you can keep it to yourself and move on to some more pedestrian project when and if you want to make money. How can you tell if what you’ve done is good in a more universal sense though? I don’t really know, of course, but I feel obligated to come up with some answer, and I think it might be that you have to be true to your own idea of good, but provide a bridge to the popular idea of good.

Maybe you’re in a world where everyone loves dogs and hates cats, and you love cats. Maybe you write a story about a dog that befriends a cat. Or maybe you make art with dogs and cats getting along. I don’t know. The idea probably falls apart if you try to think of making something truly abhorrent, like killing children, popular.

Oh wait…what’s The Hunger Games about again?

Hmm…

(I actually liked the Hunger Games BTW. I’m just making a point)


Review of The Windup Girl

Image from http://bit.ly/9zOK9t

It’s a dilemma we all face to one extent or another: we like technology, but we hate what it does to the environment. We like driving, but not oil spills. We like electricity but we don’t like to think about what ecosystems are being damaged to produce it. You’ve got solar cells? Great, what are they made of? Is that recyclable? We are in the process of resolving this conflict, but we’re not there yet. Let’s say the fossil fuels we rely on finally go out. Let’s say all the things environmentalists have been warning us about actually happen. What’s next? How would people cope?

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in a different world. A world that is born after the world as we know it ends. The primary sources of energy are metal springs wound by hand or by the use of elephantine beasts of labor, and the methane produced when burning the refuse from men and beasts alike. The main police force is the Environment  Ministry,  who patrol the city in their white uniforms, ruthlessly burning or destroying anything that might pollute resources too much, or release plague into the populace. The only edible plants that survive are genetically modified to resist such plagues and even then have to be closely monitored. The “white shirts” are at constant odds with businesses, who often hire mercenaries to protect their cargo from destructions when bribes to corrupt white shirt officers don’t work. And then there are the people who are genetically modifying the crops. Called gene rippers, they are loathed by all because they are the source of the plagues that threaten the populace, but tolerated because without them, there would be nothing to eat.

From this short description, you can already get an idea of the vast amount of world building that Bacigalupi did for this book, and his characters are as complex as the world they inhabit.

Anderson Lake is a gene-ripper who has a cover job as the overseer of a massive kink spring factory. The factory is huge, with giant elephant beast turning giant cranks in giant baths of algae. Helping him out with the logistics of this operation, and with bribing the necessary officials is Hock Seng (pronounced hock sahn), an Chinese refugee from the genocidal massacres that had taken place in Malaysia several years before. Hock Seng’s entire family was killed during the tumult there , and he had barely made it out alive. So now, even as he pretends to do Anderson’s bidding, he is secretly making plans to steal enough money to establish himself as a merchant in a country where he won’t be persecuted.

The book starts as Lake finds a bizarre fruit in a market that seems to be immune to plague. Realizing that this means there must be another Gene-ripper around, and that this gene-ripper must have access to other sources of genetic information, Lake quickly makes meetings with important business leaders in order to leverage himself into getting access to the gene pool. One of these meetings takes place in a brothel where a beautiful looking Japanese girl, with skin eerily white and smooth, serves Lake. She moves in stops and starts, identifying her as a genetically modified or “new” person. She is Emiko, the wind-up girl.  She is lower than a slave in the brothel, only allowed to exist because of the bribes paid to white shirts. She is mocked, ridiculed and despised by almost everyone she comes into contact with. But Lake is intrigued by her, and he tells Emiko of a village of wind-ups to the North where Emiko might be accepted. This gives Emiko hope for the first time in years.

Finally there are Jaidee and Kanya. Jaidee is the captain of a squadron of white shirts. He started out as a Muay Thai boxing champion and carries his fighting spirit into his job. When there is a ship full of suspicious cargo, he doesn’t bother trying to sort through it, he burns it all. Even while most of the Environment Ministry are despised by the people for their corruption and meddling, Jaidee is well-liked because of his pure motives. But his exuberance has cost a lot of powerful businessmen, and they are going to try to make him pay for it.

Kanya is Jaidee’s first officer, and where Jaidee is boisterous, Kanya is quiet. She rarely ever smiles. She seems at first to be a relatively minor character, but she has many secrets, and after a series of catastrophes, she becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

The Windup Girl is science fiction written as epic fantasy. If you’re ready for it, the plot is intricate and engrossing, but if you aren’t, it can also be complicated and confusing.  There are also several sections depicting gory scenes, and there are two rape scenes that I find disturbing. These scenes aren’t gratuitous. They are important to show the arcs of the characters, but you should know this isn’t a book of chaste kisses on gleaming spacecraft or anything. This is a gritty depiction of an all too possible future, a future that you could argue is already taking place in some developing countries.

So why should you read it if it’s so depressing? First off, I wouldn’t call it depressing. I would say illuminating and even uplifting to an extent. The book illustrates an important point about the conflict between technology and nature: there is no real conflict. Technology comes from us, and we are part of nature. Nature changes all the time, and like all creatures, we must adapt or perish. We can now control larger and larger areas of nature. As part of nature, we have to adjust to this. We can’t eliminate technology, but we can’t be reckless with it either. We’re grabbing the steering wheel of the Earth-mobile. If we don’t pay attention, this could go very badly.

This isn’t the only theme of the book,  and I’m not sure if the author would even agree completely with my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with the theme to like the book, though. The characters carry the story. They are all flawed people trying to do the right thing even while they end up fighting against one another. Anderson Lake is my least favorite of the point of view characters, but even though he can be arrogant and inconsiderate, even cruel, he has a discernible arc, and his motives are understandable.  All of the characters, Anderson included, had numerous moments where I was rooting for them.

http://paolobacigalupi.blogspot.com/

On the negative side, there were some ends that were a bit too loose at the end of the book. Particularly for Hock Seng. He was the biggest underdog in the story and his fate was a bit too unclear for my taste. Although some things made sense after thinking about them for a while, the ending initially felt a little too abrupt too. I wasn’t sure about the arc of all the characters. Once I figured out how everything tied togethera couple days after finishing the book, I was struck at how moving it all was. As I figured out, there is an emotional theme along with the semi-political one. To paraphrase Jaidee…Cities don’t matter. Plans don’t matter. In the end, what matters is people.

There were some moments as I was reading to the book that I didn’t like it much at all, mostly because some of the scenes with Emiko were a bit hard to get through, and because it took a while to get a grasp on the plot, but by the end of the book, it was a 7/10, and after I reflected on it, it reached 8/10. (This is a pretty high score. For comparison, the Lord of the Rings movie series gets an 8/10 from me).  I bought the book after attending a panel at The Southern Festival of books where Bacigalupi was a guest. He does an incredible amount of research for his books and seems to look deeper into things than most people. After reading this book, I want to meet him again so I can be properly impressed.

Why Death Valley is Better than The Walking Dead

For those of you who don’t know, there are (at least) two shows on television right now that deal with zombies. One is on AMC, called The Walking Dead, and like many shows on AMC it has a lot of interesting elements but tends to be a little…artistic. The other show is Death Valley, which shows on MTV and is fast paced, humorous and done in a reality tv style similar to Reno 911 where a task force of police are in charge of taking care of paranormal nuisances that are plaguing the city. On the surface, Walking Dead seems to be the show to watch if you have the choice, but here are a few reasons why I think watching Death Valley is the better way to spend your time.

1. The Walking Dead is boring. Yes there are some intense scenes of zombie violence, but these are brief moments in a series of long, drawn out scenes where people talk about how they’re feeling and admire the scenery. You can call this “atmosphere” if you want. I call it filler. The stuff in the book you flip past to get to the good stuff. While you can scoff at Death Valley’s sophomoric humor and sensationalized violence, when it comes right down to it, things actually happen  in Death Valley. The plot moves forward, whereas in Walking Dead the characters  can spend a whole hour long episode trying to fish a zombie out of a well

2.Death Valley has vampires and werewolves as well as zombies. Much as l like a good zombie movie, the intense feeling of trying to escape a shambling, inexorable wave of undead former friends and loved ones is something that is difficult to sustain over time. After a while, I begin to wonder why the zombies haven’t expended all their energy yet. How are they moving? Why haven’t the people tried a more systematic approach to eradication?  These questions start to come up during quiet moments of building tension, and Walking Dead doesn’t really do much to answer them. Death Valley, however, neatly skirts these problems in three ways. First, it’s not all about the zombies, so there’s some variety to distract from niggling details. Second, the premise centers around a task force in charge of systematically eradicating the zombies. The zombies aren’t an apocalyptic force, they are just problems that need to be dealt with so that the general populace can be protected, which to me seems more realistic. Third, even though in the title sequence of the show, Death Valley says that no one knows why the zombies came to the city, the show actually explains a lot of the questions about how the zombies operate. Because of the reality TV-esque nature of the show, the characters will often argue over whether a zombie does one thing or another, and by the end of the scene you find out.

The cast of Death Valley

3.Death Valley has better, more rounded, believable characters, whom I actually care about. Every character has humorous moments, moments where they are the hero, and a definite worldview that you can see play out against the other characters. Even the most MTV-ish character, the guy always says perverted things as part of his schtik (he’s holding his pistol gangsta style in the photo), looks out for his partner (the older-looking bald guy) and actually works as a foil for him. Death Valley doesn’t have to endanger children to get its thrills. Its characters are good enough that when they’re in danger, you worry about them without any added reason. Walking Dead’s characters, on the other hand, are all tortured souls living one day to the next. At least half of them have threatened suicide at one time or another and all of them have done something morally reprehensible. The women all have to cry at least once an episode, and the men all want to sleep with their best friend’s girlfriend. Nobody seems to have a plan to stop the zombies. They’re all just stumbling over each other and dying at random intervals. This isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting arcs. It’s just that I’m not as vested in characters if they don’t have any motivation, aren’t any good at what they do, and have only a vague sense of morality.

4.Death Valley has an arc. One thing you can say about Walking Dead is that it’s not episodic. Things don’t go back to normal at the end of every episode. Story lines thread through several episodes and end naturally. At first glance, Death Valley doesn’t seem to do this. Everything seems cheerful and breezy, there’s heart gripping terror, things get resolved and that’s the end. But slowly, as the episodes continue, a conspiracy is starting to reveal itself. Although some of the culprits are known, there is a tantalizing amount of mystery to it. It creates a new challenge for the characters they have to figure out. Meanwhile, the arc in Walking dead, while not episodic, hasn’t moved forward much. The people are still trying to survive in the face of a zombie apocalypse. No new information, no real change in the problem. Basically every episode involves retrieving some resource from a zombie infested area. No one has thought of, say, luring a large number of zombies into a trash compactor. Or off of a cliff. Or using a series of traps to keep them in place. Or figuring out what keeps them moving. Or anything really.

5.Death Valley has a higher death toll. I watched a little of the Talking Dead, a interview show about the Walking Dead hosted by Chris Hardwick. He had a segment where he went over the death toll in the show and it was depressingly low. I think it was one human and three zombies. By contrast, in the last episode of Death Valley alone, a whole elevator full of zombies (about 8 of them maybe) was mowed down by automatic rifle fire and a grenade. Then, later on, one zombie with an incendiary device attached to it blew up in a dumpster. A higher death toll doesn’t make a show better, of course, but it does give a coarse reading of the amount of action that takes place. More stuff happens in Death Valley. There are emotional scenes, but they last only as long as they have to and then it’s on to more humor, horror, or violence.

The season isn’t over yet, but I would say so far that Death Valley gets a 8/10 from me, while this season of Walking Dead gets a 6/10.

Book Festival and Margot’s

http://bit.ly/pgPk3L

The Friday before last, I went to the Southern Festival of Books, which is thrown every year by Humanities Tennessee next to the courthouses of Nashville. I like this convention more and more each time I go. The first time I went, it was actually held in Memphis and it seemed to be just a string of tents with some vendors selling books there. Then some years later I ran into it again in Nashville and learned that there were talks given,  just like in the sci-fi conventions that I was more familiar with. And what talks! The first one I went to was hosted by Susan Orlean who wrote the Orchid Thief, the novel that one of my favorite movies, Adaptation, was based on. Since then I’ve learned at least one new thing each time I’ve gone. I learned about the history of beef, about the southern gothic genre of books, how dependent we are on utilities, and how networks propagate over time.

At the book festival the emphasis is on books, rather than a specific genre. At this point in my life I find I like to read a lot of nonfiction; so I appreciate the relaxation of the guidelines. There is an emphasis on the south, which those of us who grew up here knowing how to speak correctly usually have something of an ambivalence about, but because the people at the festival can read and in fact do so avidly, you get to see all the interesting parts of Southern culture without lamenting the fall of civilization quite so much.

This year I went to the festival with my father and saw an interview between a host of a podcast and Tom Piazza, who among other things, is one of the writers that work on Treme. He mainly talked about music and some of the stories he wrote about the characters he met while reporting on the subject. They were entertaining stories, and I got his book, Devil Sent the Rain, because of them, but I’ve got to say that I’m more impressed that I got to shake the hand of a guy who works with David Simon. Homicide was good enough. The Wire made me rethink how a crime drama could be made, and Treme…well I don’t like Treme as much but a lot of people do like it and anything that allows Lucia Micarelli to make her awesomeness more apparent is good.

Anyway, after I got Piazza’s autograph, I asked him a couple questions about the show. One question was whether he was on board with the death of John Goodman’s character and  he said that he was against it originally, but that he warmed to the idea eventually.

Dad later asked him something to the effect of why do people in New Orleans blame Bush for Hurricane Katrina when the real problem was that the levees weren’t adequately maintained. While I agree with Dad that blaming Bush for that situation is something of an oversimplification, I didn’t think that that particular moment was the best time to engage in a political discussion.

Thankfully a friend of Piazza’s showed up and he had to go. After his panel, Dad and I went to the last half of another panel about the biographies of people that no one remembers, which was actually kind of interesting. The idea was that you can get an idea of the atmosphere of a time by knowing about the lives of people who were influential, but stayed more or less in the background.

The front of Margot's Cafe and Bar

After that, Dad and I wanted to sit at a bar and talk about things, so I looked at the map function on my phone and found Margot Café and Bar. It was rated highly and it said “bar” in the name so I figured it would be good. It was. It was great. But it was a little classier than I had thought from the name. Dad was dressed well, but I had just worn a t-shirt and cargos that day and felt a little scruffy. We were both wearing our Irish hats, so maybe that masked some of my uncouthness, but we were seated in the far corner, so maybe it didn’t. They didn’t cast any overt aspersions, and the service was excellent. So I can’t complain.

I got to try a few dishes I had heard about on cooking shows. Margot’s had scallops that tasted great and seemed to melt on the tongue. Dad got the mushroom risotto and found that very enjoyable. Good food, great service; it was an excellent cap to the day.

 

Review: Ring of Fire

Last Saturday I got the chance to see a production of Ring of Fire performed by the Gaslight Dinner Theater at the Renaissance Center in Dickson, Tennessee.  The show plays until October 15th and features excellent performances of songs by Johnny Cash as well as scenes depicting times in his life. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it, but the sheer amount of talent on the stage was mind blowing. Every one of the twelve cast members acted, sang, AND played a musical instrument as good or better than anyone I’ve seen on the stage, and I’ve seen several Broadway musicals.

The show is really more of a concert than a musical. In fact, I felt that some of the acted out scenes took away from rather than added to a few of the performances, but the blocking and musical-style frame work did allow each performer to showcase their considerable talent and it prevented the scenery from seeming stale as it can with a standard concert.

I would caution that the show is a PG or PG-13 affair, as they do go into the time Cash spent in prison. If you are familiar with Cash’s oeuvre, though, this isn’t a surprise, and it provides a nice contrast to the other songs in the show.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Cash’s music. I give it an 8 out of 10, which is a high mark for me (I would have to have a quasi-religious experience to rate something a 10 out of 10). I’m a Johnny Cash fan by way of U2 and Nine Inch Nails, so I’d say you don’t have to be a country music person to enjoy the show. On the other hand, don’t be expecting Walk the Line in musical format. Although the show does dip into the darkness a little with a few somber set ups, it doesn’t have the sturm and drang of the movie. That’s a good thing, though, as far as I’m concerned. Ring of Fire is a fun, feel-good showcase of the songs and life of Johnny Cash. The feeling I got from watching it is actually similar to watching a good show at at Opryland: A friendly atmosphere punctuated by explosions of talent.

Review of After Dark

If you’re interested in being a writer, every now and then it’s good to go ahead and read, watch, or listen to something you’re pretty sure you aren’t going to like. First,  you might be surprised and actually like it. Second, even if you don’t like it, there might be things about it that you do like and you can use them in your own writing. Finally, if you still don’t like it, you can try to figure out why you don’t like it so you can make sure never to do those things yourself.

Along these lines I recently listened to an unabridged audiobook of After Dark by Phillip Margolin. The story is about a wealthy female prosecutor, named Abby. She’s accused of killing her soon to be ex husband  and pinning it on a serial killer she had failed to keep in prison.

I got the audiobook at a garage sale because of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and because I thought it would be something to listen to while I was cleaning and what not. Although you might think it was a horror novel from the title, it’s actually a courtroom thriller. I’m not particularly fond of those, which is why I wasn’t very excited about it. But there are a few examples of the genre that I have enjoyed, or at least, I’ve enjoyed the movies inspired by examples of the genre. Anyway, the book wasn’t that bad. There have been novels I actually haven’t been able to listen to because of their terrible-ness and this was not one of them. With four tapes comprising the audiobook and two sides to a tape, I had seven golden opportunities to stop listening, but I kept going, and not out of any bloody minded determination to continue to the end, but simply because I wanted to know what would happen next.

Why was this? Well part of it was, of course, that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The other part was that I cared about what happened next. I would say the first part is relatively easy to recreate in a story: you just don’t tell the reader everything all at once. I say it’s relatively easy, because it can be hard to remember to be coy about exciting details when you’re chomping at the bit to let them all come out in a gush of exposition. The second part is harder, though. It revolves around creating sympathetic characters, or at least characters who are interesting.

The most interesting character in After Dark is the serial killer Charlie Daniels, with his charmingly evil demeanor and love of game shows. You pretty much know he has had something to do with all the deaths, the question is more about how Abby and her attorney, Mathew Reynolds can prove it. Matthew has a quiet intensity and a desire to not let any of his clients get the death penalty. The title of the book, After Dark refers to what defense attorneys have to do when their clients get the death penalty. They have to go to a court house after dark the night they are executed. It is the thing Matthew is most keen on avoiding. The title phrase is used perhaps over much throughout the last part of the book, but I am glad when an author chooses a title for a reason, rather than on a whim.Tracy, Matthew’s competent assistant, is arguably the main protagonist, as she discovers some secrets that provide many of the twists and that move the plot forward, but oddly, I found her to be one of the least fleshed out characters. In fact for half the book I kept confusing her with Abby. Abby is probably the second most interesting character. At least in the beginning, she shows herself to be very resourceful and assertive, but she has to deal with a very difficult situation.

These characters were just interesting enough to make me worry about them and how their stories panned out. Why, though, wasn’t I more interested?

It’s tempting for me to say the story was clichéd, because it felt like a lot of other crime dramas. Even though my experience with the genre is limited to the few Grisham novels I’ve read, I feel like I sort of know the drill. But while it seemed like old ground, it wasn’t predictable. Yes I knew all the way through it that Charlie was up to no good, but the main thrust of the story is proving Abby’s innocence, if she is in fact innocent. All of which left me guessing. So if it’s not predictable, what about the story makes me feel as if it is?

I think perhaps it’s the way the new information is presented. Although I don’t know what exactly a character might reveal in After Dark, I can tell, simply by context, that they’re going to reveal something surprising. It’s unpredictable, but it’s predictably unpredictable. The feeling is a little like watching a soap opera. When the camera comes in for a close up, you know something emotional is going to be said, even if you don’t know for sure what that might be.

The take away of this for me is that although having plot twists may be enough for some readers (Margolin did, after all, get his book published and made into an audio book, which suggests that a good number of people must have read and enjoyed his work), it’s not quite enough to make a work seem fresh. You have to vary the way the twists are presented too. In other words, you don’t want the plot to feel like a mad libs game, where there are surprising moments in a cookie cutter frame work.

I think following a character’s natural motivations will tend to keep the cookie cutter feeling from coming up. I’ve never read any interviews or anything from Margolin, but my guess is that he’s a plot first kind of guy. The characters in his stories are colorful, but they seem a little animatronic, tied to the things they must do to get to the next scene rather than free to do as they really wish.

One place where I feel this most acutely is when Abby is supposed to fall in love with Matthew. At this stage doubt has been placed on Abby’s innocence, and the seductive manner in which she addresses Matthew lends credence to the idea of her guilt, but it doesn’t quite mesh with how she acted in earlier scenes. This isn’t the only problem with Abby. Before her trial starts, she seems like a competent and intelligent woman, but once the trial starts she seems passive and confused about everything. She’s a lawyer, but there are times where she seems ignorant of courtroom procedure.

In one of the Amazon reviews, someone has complained about not knowing whose story the book is telling. I agree with this, but I also know that there are books without a definite singular main character that still work. I think if I have to put my finger on what is wrong with After Dark, it’s that the characters aren’t given enough freedom to act appropriately.

Overall I give the book a 6 out of 10.

My Own Back Yard

Passion flower. Image from http://www.neoninc.org/budburst/resources_plant.php?Species_ID=27

For the last six months or so I’ve been walking the dogs around the field behind my house, and I’ve noticed there is a great diversity of plants there. I got into to plant identification for a while, and it was fun figuring out what everything was, but I had slacked off the last couple of months because I started teaching more classes and other things came up. Last week though, I started reading Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley, an interesting book about the genetic and environmental causes of evil. Oakley writes the book in a conversational yet journalistic style and she often describes the area where scientists live or where their labs are situated by talking about what kind of plants are there. She’ll say things like “The lab is nestled amidst hills of wild barley and bluegrass.” This gave me another reason to look into plant identification: it can help with my writing.

Another factor is that Fall is beginning to influence things. Plants that were unremarkable before now have flowers and color. There’s an area in the back of the field where you can walk between two copses of evergreens. And there, almost hidden in the nettles that the dogs were sniffing through, was a very strange and awesome looking flower. It looked almost like something you’d expect on an alien world. It was pink and purple and had some very prominent stamens or something sticking out of it, and it was on a vine. There were a bunch of them, so I cut one off and brought it inside and showed it to my mom. “Oh,” she said rather matter-of-factly, “That’s a passion flower.”

“A passion flower?”

“Yes. It becomes passion fruit later on.”

Well, this blew my mind. I thought passion fruit was from some exotic place like Hawaii or Madagascar or something. Turns out it’s native to Tennessee. In fact the passion flower is Tennessee’s state flower. The natives in the area called it ocoee and it’s the namesake of the Ocoee river.

Ironweed

After this, I found a strange purple flower along the edge of the field where some dogwoods and honeysuckle separate the field from the road and determined that it was Ironweed, so called because it has a hardy root system that’s difficult to dig out. The Indians supposedly used some part of it to ease stomach aches. There were also several large plants that looked a little like wild carrot, except they were larger and the flowers were much more sparse and not in a true umbel but more of a branched system. I thought that these were cow parsnips until I did some further research for this blog. There’s another plant that looks a little like a thistle mixed with an aster that I haven’t been able to identify, but these set backs if anything, make me want to know more.

All this is very exciting, but civilization places pressures on the situation that I didn’t quite expect. Yesterday a man came by the house to work on the tractor, which has lain more or less dormant since the beginning of spring. Weeds and grasses pushed through its mechanisms, the back left tire had gone flat. When the man got the thing to start by replacing the battery and shorting the starting circuit with a screwdriver, it seemed to be asking us to please leave it alone to die in peace. The man said that he would come back and do some more repairs on it, but that we ought to be able to use it to mow the field if we didn’t care that none of the gauges worked and the screwdriver method was the only way to start it.

Our tractor sitting in our field after Tractor Man looked at it.

We could mow the field.

And I felt a surge of panic. Mow the field? But that’s where all the plants are! You can’t just mow them down! Sure there are snakes and ticks and chiggers and what not that breed and stalk their prey in the tall weeds and grasses, but I still haven’t figured out what all the weeds and grasses are.

Crazily I thought of maybe just asking my brother, who operates the tractor usually, to just mow part of the field. Or maybe leave a circle untouched, but I know the field is going to be mowed eventually. All the plants will grow back next year, just as they have this year, and it someways maybe they are there in the first place because we mow the field. Still, it’s a little disheartening.

Canoeing on the Harpeth

A couple of weeks ago I went canoeing with my friend David and some of his friends and family on the Harpeth river. It’s really more of a stream than a proper river, but it’s a pleasant stream with lots of bends and plenty of wildlife to see along the way, so it makes for good canoeing.

The Harpeth river forms the Harpeth valley, sometimes called the Harper valley, and for a while the area reached a certain level of fame from a country song by Jeannie C. Riley called Harper Valley PTA that came out in 1968. It’s a very simple song (there’s two points where the key changes slightly and that’s as exciting as it gets musically), but it deals with a mother refusing to bend to the will of a semi-theocratic quasi-socialist regime (the Parent Teacher Association) and so the lyrics give it a little punch.

It had been some fifteen years since I went canoeing. I had gone a few times in the scouts, and what I remembered from that was

  • I was going to get sunburnt
  • I was going to get wet
  • I was going to need water
  • Either my posterior or my knees were going to hurt
  • And at some point the canoe would tip over.

Bearing this in mind, in the hour or so I had to prepare before I showed up to the meeting place I rushed through the house looking for swimshoes that I haven’t worn since the Clinton administration, knee pads that were marginally more comfortable than cardboard, a completely dorky fanny pack for putting snacks in, and a few bottles of water, which I completely forgot about when I eventually showed up.

My brother Shane was up as I was searching through the house and he asked me where I was going. When I told him he said, “Ew,” and asked why I would ever want to do that. I said something to the effect that it would be fun and I’d be able to hang out with some friends. Shane asked me if I had ever seen the movie “Deliverance.”

Ignoring his warnings, I got everything I needed from home, put it in the car, and left.

cell phone dry box and dry pouch

My chief concern was that my cell phone and wallet might get wet when my canoe tipped over. So after I drove the twenty minutes into town I went into Walmart and got a water proof cell phone box and a water proof pouch for my wallet. The makers of these items had an interesting sales strategy. They said that their waterproof containers were not intended to be submerged. Now I understand the idea. Basically I can’t go scuba diving and expect them to work, but “submerged” can mean a large range of things, and what I want when I’m purchasing water proof containers is some assurance that they are, in fact, waterproof. So I don’t know, maybe do what watch makers do and say that they’re waterproof up to ten feet or something?

Anyway I showed up at David’s father’s house to meet everyone on the trip. It was Me, David, David’s father Tom, David’s wife Kristi, a girl visiting from China named Nicole, and another friend of David’s named Gray. Gray was the only other person wearing swim shoes, which made me feel slightly less like a dork. David was wearing long jeans and army boots, almost daring the river to try to mess with him.

Tom provided us all with Ziploc bags for our cell phones, which I used along with my dry box, because I was pretty sure my canoe was going to tip over. After having a nice chat about our previous canoeing exploits, most of which were variations on the terrible things that could happen if you got tipped over in the rapids, we all got into our vehicles and went down to the company that was going to rent our canoes. The company’s name was Tip-a-Canoe.

It was me, Nicole, and Tom in one boat, David, Kristi, and Gray, in the other. The girls weren’t terribly keen on rowing, so they sat in the middle. The way canoes work is that the person in the back does most of the steering, the person in the front provides thrust and helps with the steering, and the people in the middle try to make themselves feel useful with varying levels of success. Kristi took several pictures on the river, and both she and Nicole helped during some of the trickier areas of the course, so everyone participated.

I was glad to have knee pads as the seats on the canoes are amazingly uncomfortable. I also like paddling better on my knees because of the lower center of gravity, or maybe it make me feel like I’m going faster. Unfortunately the knee pads I was using weren’t intended for extended use. I eventually fell into a rhythm of alternating between sitting on my rear and sitting on my knees as each area got more painful. I like to think that I was better off than my friends, who just sat, but I’m not entirely sure.

I had of course forgotten to put sun tan lotion on, but thankfully the weather was mostly cloudy that day so I only got slightly sun burnt on my arms. It wasn’t too hot either, and there were several relaxing tranquil moments as we let ourselves be pushed by the current and admired the profundity of the nature around us. There were several turtles along the river. Often just as we spotted them, they would slide into the water, making us wonder if we had seen them at all. Tom shared a story with us about how David once had been conscripted to move a turtle off a road. I won’t go into any details, suffice it to say the moral of the story was: “Don’t ever try to pick up a turtle, unless you are sure it’s not a snapping turtle.”

We saw a heron or two launch gracefully into the sky, and at one point we came across a flock of ducks. David shared with us a little song at this point that described the behavior of one of the ducks perfectly: “Shake your butt / Shake your butt / Poop!”

That wasn’t the only singing that took place. Gray revealed that he had quite a good singing voice and belted out a few lines from some of his favorite songs. He mentioned one of his favorite singers was John Denver, which I found a bit odd. The only thing I really know about John Denver is that he died in a plane crash and one of his songs was used to ominous effect in the first Final Destination movie. I couldn’t figure out a way to leverage this into conversation, so I just let it go.

At some point during the trip I started quoting Monty Python, as I am wont to do. This prompted Nicole to ask me how to speak in an English accent. Not being from the UK myself, I had to inform her that I was far from an expert in the subject. Next I told her what my father always said about the accent, which was that the best way to imitate it was to imagine there was a bumble bee in your mouth while you were talking.

Nicole knew a great deal of English, so I was surprised when she asked what a bumblebee was. Tom and I explained it several different ways, describing how it buzzed, how it could sting you, but only once, which was a little sad. How wasps had chemical stingers and could sting you several times and were nasty little things… I got the impression that Nicole figured it out after a few seconds, but let us carry on for the entertainment value.

We all stopped for lunch halfway through. Tom had made a plethora of chicken for us to eat, and we did our best to consume as much of it as we could. It was at this point however that I learned there wasn’t any water in the cooler. There was only diet soda, diet tea, fresca, and Pepsi. The Pepsi was the only thing that didn’t have aspartame in it, and aspartame tastes nasty to me, so I had that. It reawakened my love of high fructose corn syrup. David and I had a discussion about corn syrup’s deleterious effects. He lauded a number of brands of soda that used sugar instead . I said that I kind of preferred the corn syrup to sugar. My main problem with sugar soda is that for some reason it’s almost always flat. It sometimes doesn’t taste quite right either. Maybe I’m just a victim of consumer culture.

At one point we came to a hole dug into the rock on one side of the river, and Tom told us how it had been carved by slaves under orders from Montgomery Bell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were canoeing around the Narrows of the Harpeth, near Mound Bottom an archeological site where artifacts have been found from as early 900 CE. I’m definitely going to want to check the area out on foot sometime. It looks pretty interesting.

Once we reached our end point, we took pictures of each other while we waited for the canoe truck to come by to take us and the canoes we rented back to the starting point. It was a good trip over all. Nobody tipped their canoes over, which I was a little sad about after all the anticipation. We did have to get out quite a few times to carry our canoes over the shallow regions, but it was no substitute. I still have an unfinished feeling about the trip as a result. Still glad I went though.

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