A Couple of Sunday Afternoon Book Reviews

The Earhart BetrayalThe Earhart Betrayal by James Stewart Thayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.

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The Girl, the Gold Watch & EverythingThe Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?

Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.

And now I want to see that TV movie again…

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Well, Hell…

When I logged into my blog this morning, I was planning to finish a draft entry that’s been hanging in limbo for several days, and then if my day job was slow enough, maybe throw together a Friday Evening Video for tonight. Instead, I discovered to my horror that all my published posts since April 29 and a number of in-progress drafts had evaporated. A quick text to my webmaster Jack confirmed the worst: he’d been forced to roll Simple Tricks back to an earlier state in order to solve a problem with the server. He said he’d try to recover the missing content, but wasn’t very confident that it could be done. The Internet Archive’s last snapshot was sometime last year, so no help there either.

It’s not a huge catastrophe — as best I can recall, there were only three published posts since April 29, and one of them was just a reprint of a poem, not my work at all — but it still bothers me to lose any of my writing. I do so little of it these days, it all ends up feeling so precious to me. Losing the obituary I wrote for Anthony Bourdain especially smarts. I wrote that one in a welter of emotions, straight from the heart, and I don’t think I could begin to recreate it now with a week’s distance from the event. Not that anyone would care if I did; the news cycle has already churned on and his death may as well have happened a year ago. The people who are interested in that subject have already read all about it and moved on to other things, and there’s no sense in looking back.

That’s the real bummer about mishaps like this: They remind me of just how ephemeral online writing is. If it’s not obliterated outright like these entries, it has a sell-by date that’s almost as absolute. I don’t blog much anymore, for reasons too complex to bother going into here, and when I do get around to it, I’m usually behind the curve already before I even get the entry published. And then you give it a week or two down the road and it’s as irrelevant as the newsprint wrapped around your fish and chips. Just more blathering into the void, and to what end?

Why yes, I am feeling like it’s all for nothing, thank you. I used to at least have my little community here, my Loyal Readers, to give me the sense that I was reaching somebody. And then social media happened and that absorbed all those other communities, and I myself got old and found I couldn’t sit up half the night writing this stuff anymore. Is there anybody out there right now? Anyone receiving? I tell myself I write for my own satisfaction, but that’s bunk, isn’t it? I like to think I’ve got an audience waiting to hear from me. But I don’t really believe it anymore. It’s hard not to feel like this blogging thing is over and done.

Even so, this morning’s little debacle has inspired me to make a couple of changes. I’ve installed a plugin that will make daily backups, saved to the cloud, and I’m exploring offline editing software. I could just type everything in Word, of course, and copy-and-paste it over when I’m ready to publish. But like I said… I’m exploring. I definitely want something that will let me save local copies of everything; no more blogging directly on the site! I lost The Girl with the Grey Eyes during the big hardware failure a few years ago, and now I’ve lost Bourdain, and I’ve had enough of losing my words. I should’ve taken these precautions years ago… but like I said, I’m always behind the curve.

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Twenty-Five Years

Twenty-five years.

You probably think that’s a long time, don’t you? Well, let’s think about that.

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency and nobody had heard of Monica Lewinsky yet, including Bill himself. The big headlines that spring had been about a truck bomb at the World Trade Center that left the twin towers damaged but still standing, and a long siege by the FBI of the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas, that left more than 70 people dead.

Twenty-five years ago, the Unabomber was still mailing out his explosive packages from a cabin in Montana. Women pilots in the U.S. Air Force were just gaining the privilege to fly in combat. And “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a new policy solution that didn’t really satisfy anybody.

The Internet had been around in one form or another for a couple of decades, but most people didn’t know much about it, and the World Wide Web was just in its infancy. Even though Windows was an established thing, it wasn’t unusual to encounter a computer display consisting of green or orange letters glowing against a black background. Boxy CRT-style monitors were still in use, and only stock traders and Hollywood agents carried cellular telephones, which were roughly the size of a brick at that time.

Music was delivered primarily on compact discs then. And while many cars still came with cassette decks as a standard feature, nobody was buying vinyl records except aging hippies and jazz fanatics.

The biggest song of the year twenty-five years ago was Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”

A gallon of gas cost slightly over a buck, and that same buck with some change would get you three crisp tacos at Taco Time.

Twenty-five years ago, the name “Loreena Bobbitt” made men everywhere reflexively cross their legs, and Gen X was shaken by the tragic (and tragically squalid) drug-induced death of one of our own, the actor River Phoenix, on a Hollywood sidewalk.

My favorite television shows were Highlander: The Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I was building a collection of movies on VHS, and I dreamed of someday being able to afford a laserdisc player. In the theater where I worked, the movies opening this final week of April were The Dark Half, Indian Summer, and Who’s the Man?, but The Sandlot was still playing if you’d rather see that, and the original Jurassic Park was coming up in June.

I still had most of my hair twenty-five years ago, as well as a lot fewer pounds around my middle and a pancreas that worked reliably.

Yeah, twenty-five years seems like a very long time ago, doesn’t it? Except it wasn’t. Not really. To steal a line from the Boss, it all passed in the wink of a young girl’s eye. And for some mysterious reason, that girl is still with me, even after all that time. I’ve given her a million reasons to not stick around, but she’s done it anyhow.

Happy anniversary, Baby Duck. Here’s to another wink of your eye.

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “I Want a New Drug”

Huey Lewis himself may have mocked the idea in the song “Hip to Be Square,” but for a couple years in the mid-1980s, he really was cool. I always thought so, at least. He and his band, The News, had a style and attitude that was entirely their own. They weren’t fey preppies like so many of the New Wave guys, or trying to look dangerous like the rockers. They didn’t have weird hair or an aggressive “screw it all” attitude like the punks. They just were who they were, without pretense. And to an insecure kid like me, that air of self-assuredness seemed, well, pretty damn cool. Cool enough that The News is one of the few music acts that was allowed to take up valuable real estate on my bedroom walls when I was a teen (my taste in cheap posters from Spencer’s ran more toward pin-up girls than rock bands). In fact, this is the very poster that hung over my bed:

Tell me that red suit isn’t cool. Seriously, I’ve never been a suit-wearer — I’ve always tended to dress more like Johnny Colla, the shorter guy to Huey’s right — but I’d totally rock that red-suit-black-t-shirt combination.

Anyhow, these days, it seems like the only Huey songs that still get much air play are the cutesy pop tunes “Stuck with You” and “If This Is It,” and of course the Back to the Future theme, “The Power of Love.” However, my favorite News tunes were always the rowdier, more rock-oriented pieces — naturally — and The News never rocked harder than it did with “I Want a New Drug,” the second single from the band’s breakthrough album, Sports. Here’s the video:

“I Want a New Drug” was released in January 1984 and went to number six on the Billboard chart. A dance remix hit number one in April, while the original single finished out the year in 55th place overall, so the song was pretty much inescapable throughout the year. Bizarrely, it became the center of a lawsuit when Lewis claimed that Ray Parker Jr. ripped off the melody for his 1984 hit, “Ghostbusters,” which Lewis had supposedly been approached about writing for Columbia Pictures but had to turn down because of his involvement with Back to the Future. The suit was settled out of court. Meanwhile, the video stands as a classic of the early MTV era and is one of my favorites. I love the bit where Huey plunges his hungover face into a sink filled with ice water, a gag I’m pretty sure he stole from Paul Newman. (Newman did the ice-water trick in at least two movies that I know of, a 1966 detective film called Harper and in The Sting, from 1973.) In a fun bit of continuity, the blond girl in this video — a model named Signy Coleman — was also seen in Huey’s previous video, “Heart and Soul”; there’s a fun interview with her here, which includes a more recent photo, if anyone is curious. And of course, the video features that infamous red suit. I still wouldn’t mind owning one of those.

I suspect I’m babbling a bit more than usual in this entry, for which I apologize. I’m reeling a bit from this afternoon’s announcement that Huey Lewis has had to cancel all his scheduled 2018 concert performances, including a date here in Salt Lake that was just announced a couple days ago, because he has suffered a sudden, catastrophic hearing loss. His statement on the band’s Facebook page is hopeful, but from the sound of it — forgive the pun — this may be a permanent condition. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Huey and the News three times over the years, once back in ’86 or thereabouts, and twice more in the past decade. Even though I wasn’t planning to see him this summer, it’s shocking and depressing to think that maybe I won’t ever have the opportunity again. I can only imagine it’s even more depressing for him; if this is the end of his career, what a sad and abrupt brick wall at the end of a long ride.

Lately, it seems like more and more of my heroes are coming to the end of their rides in one way or another, and I really haven’t figured out how to cope with that yet.

Here is Huey’s statement:

Huey Lewis and The News cancel all 2018 performances

Two and a half months ago, just before a show in Dallas, I lost most of my hearing. Although I can still hear a little, one on one, and on the phone, I can’t hear music well enough to sing. The lower frequencies distort violently making it impossible to find pitch. I’ve been to the House Ear Institute, the Stanford Ear Institute, and the Mayo Clinic, hoping to find an answer. The doctors believe I have Meniere’s disease and have agreed that I can’t perform until I improve. Therefore the only prudent thing to do is to cancel all future shows. Needless to say, I feel horrible about this, and wish to sincerely apologize to all the fans who’ve already bought tickets and were planning to come see us. I’m going to concentrate on getting better, and hope that one day soon I’ll be able to perform again.

Sincerely Huey

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Just Another Day on Social Media…

I’ve had this happen to me. Well, metaphorically speaking. No actual restroom confrontations, thank the Force. But yeah. The haters are… tenacious. And I’m so very tired of everything being a fight. Not just Star Wars, but pretty much everything that has a fandom. Sigh…  Remember when that stuff used to be fun?

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Friday Evening Videos: “Glory Days”

If there was ever a song that seems custom-tailored for my basic preoccupations, it would have to be “Glory Days,” the fifth of seven hit singles from Bruce Springsteen’s smash album Born in the USA. Like so many Springsteen tunes, I liked this one back in the day simply because I liked its sound: the aggressive guitar opener, the calliope tone of the synth, the rise and fall and rise again into a big climax and a definitive ending instead of the more usual fadeout. But as I’ve grown older, nearing and then surpassing the age Springsteen actually was when he recorded it — he was 34 in 1984, and I’m 48 now — the song has come to have real resonance for me. Not merely because it reminds me of the time when it was popular, but because I now relate to the lyrics. Time really does pass in the wink of a young girl’s eye, and when you settle into that middle-age rut of commuting and working for The Man, it’s very hard not to look back at your youth and wonder if your best days are behind you. Well, it’s hard for me, anyhow. Your mileage may vary.

The great thing about “Glory Days,” though, is that it’s not a maudlin or depressing song. It approaches its subject with a sense of humor and an upbeat tone. It doesn’t say, “Life is over and doesn’t that suck?” It’s more like a gentle nudge in the ribs as a friend says, “Hey, remember all that stupid shit we used to do? Good times, huh?” There’s a hint of melancholy under there, but it’s quickly washed away with a swig of beer and a good laugh. This song makes me feel good about knowing what Bruce is singing about.

“Glory Days” was a sizable hit in the summer of 1985, when I was 15-going-on-16. It peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Top 100, becoming the second highest-charting single from Born in the USA (“Dancing in the Dark” was the highest; it reached number 2). Oh, and one more bit of trivia for those who are interested: the video was directed by John Sayles, the writer and director of well-regarded indie films like The Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out, about the notorious Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919. No wonder he seemed to latch onto the verse about playing baseball for the video’s concept…

And now I’m going to drift out into my Friday night. This morning’s rain showers have blown over, and out my office window I can see blue skies and puffy white clouds… happy weekend, everybody!

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This Makes Me Smile…

Okay, this will take a bit of setup, so bear with me for a moment, please.

As part of its all-out exploitation, um, that is, expansion of the Star Wars brand, Disney has recently begun producing animated shorts set in the SW universe and released through the Disney YouTube channel. These shorts, collectively known as Star Wars Forces of Destiny, are each two to three minutes long and focus on the female characters of Star Wars (there is, however, at least one centered on Luke Skywalker). I’ve seen a few of them and they’re… nice. They’re obviously aimed at a very young audience, and they’re too short for any deep storytelling — mostly they’re little vignettes that fill in plot details you never knew you were curious about — but they’re cute, upbeat, well drawn and animated, and — I especially like this — they include familiar voice talents from both the SW feature films (Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, and even Mark Hamill) and other animated SW series (Ashley Eckstein from Clone Wars and Rebels, Vanessa Marshall and Tiya Sircar from Rebels).

As if all that weren’t gratifying enough, though, I just spotted something in one of the latest ones, “Bounty Hunted,” that really made me smile. See if you can catch it, too, about 14 seconds in:

Did you see it? Did you? Eh, probably not. The moment passes quickly, and you’d have to be an old super-nerd like me to even know what you’re looking at.

At 0:14, there are a couple shadowy figures in the foreground who, on closer inspection, appear to be Jaxxon, the six-foot-tall green humanoid rabbit from the original Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s, and Skorr, a cyborg bounty hunter seen in the Star Wars newspaper comics of the same period, which were drawn by the legendary Al Williamson. (Skorr was meant to be “that bounty hunter [they] ran into on Ord Mantell.”)

It’s funny that this would cross my radar this morning, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the early days of the Star Wars phenomenon, in particular that short-lived period between the release of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when there really weren’t any rules or conventions yet. Today, the franchise labors to breathe under decades of backstory, questions of what is or is not “canon,” and, most significantly, the weight of expectations, both from the property owners and the fans themselves. But back in the day, 1977-1980, well… it seemed like anything was possible then, and the only thing anyone really cared about was that there should be more. My friend Kelly recently called that period “the gonzo years,” and it’s an entirely appropriate title. The stories being published by Marvel and in the very earliest tie-in novels by Brian Daley and Alan Dead Foster were colorful, freewheeling, frequently weird, sometimes awe-inspiring, and most of all, they were fun. (I think part of the reason I responded so positively to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie is because I saw in it the same pleasingly anarchic sensibilities as the early era of Star Wars.)

It makes me happy that somebody at Disney remembers “the gonzo years” and was able to honor them even in a small way.

And it makes me even happier that Jaxxon is now officially canon…

However, on a slightly grumpier note, I thought the last line of this short, the one about telling Han that Leia is a keeper, was a real heartbreaker considering what we learn about them in The Force Awakens. Han and Leia not being together, or at least not getting back together, was one of the many reasons I didn’t like that movie, and one of the many fundamental decisions underpinning the sequel trilogy that I disagree with. But that’s another entry…

 

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Shatner!


Well, the planet has made another trip around the sun, the hard gray skies of winter are softening into the rain clouds of spring, and it’s time once again for my annual tradition of wishing a very happy birthday to the irrepressible William Shatner. The once and future Captain Kirk is 87 today, and, as always, my offer to buy him a celebratory drink applies any time he (a) hears about it and (b) wants to take me up on it.

In case you’re wondering, this year’s birthday photo comes from The Shat’s latest television project, a short-run series called Better Late Than Never, in which he and three other older celebrities — actor Henry Winkler, ex-football player Terry Bradshaw, and former heavyweight boxer George Foreman — along with a young sidekick named Jeff Dye, travel the world and experience other cultures. It’s admittedly a pretty silly show that sometimes labors a little too hard to generate its fish-out-of-water laughs; nevertheless, I find it weirdly endearing, if not downright inspirational. Given my fears about aging and letting too many opportunities slip past when I was younger, it’s reassuring for me to see old people still out there trotting around the globe in their Golden Years, and Shatner in particular is amazing with his curiosity and sense of adventure. He was a hero to me when I was young for playing Kirk; he’s a hero to me now, in my middle age, for setting an example of how to keep living instead of simply… diminishing.

I hope I’ll still be traveling, discovering the world, and spending good times with friends when I’m in my 80s, just like Bill…

 

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Book Review: The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon AdventureThe Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.

While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.

In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.

As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.

And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.

But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.

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The Point of Star Wars

This just reminded me of something I said myself not too long ago…

The point of Star Wars isn’t exactly to turn your brain off, but it is to turn your heart on, and let that organ be the shepherd that guides you through all the stars and all the wars.

— Chuck Wendig

 

 

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