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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Basic Training by Kurt Vonnegut

Basic Training, now being offered as a Kindle Single, is an unpublished 20,000 word story by a young Kurt Vonnegut. Though the story is compelling and displays great ability, it is evident to this fan that the piece was written before the author had discovered his unique voice, the thing that separated him from the many other talented writers of his generation and made him a lasting American icon. Though it offers some entertainment value, Basic Training shows the strain of being written by a young author trying to get published in the leading magazines of his day and thus secure a more stable position for himself and his family. It feels a little too targeted and broadly appealing.

Haley Brandon is a sixteen-year-old piano prodigy sent to live at his distant uncle's farm after the tragic deaths of his adoptive parents. His uncle is an eccentric war hero committed to the value of hard labor who insists that his children refer to him as The General.

Basic Training follows Haley as he struggles in his new environment. Two of the General's three daughters are straining against his authority, and Haley finds himself caught in the middle of their acts of rebellion. He also winds up warily befriending the General's possibly lunatic farmhand.

Vonnegut stuffs Basic Training with loads of moving pieces, and capably shifts them into position for a satisfying resolution. If someone submitted this to your writing workshop you would think they were a major talent. But for Vonnegut, it just doesn't stack up to the revolutionary novels that came later. What could?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

MLB 2012 Predictions

AL East

New York Yankees (94-68)
Tampa Bay Rays (91-71)
Boston Red Sox (89-73)
Toronto Blue Jays (83-79)
Baltimore Orioles (63-99)

AL Central

Detroit Tigers (85-77)
Cleveland Indians (83-79)
Minnesota Twins (73-89)
Chicago White Sox (71-91)
Kansas City Royals (70-92)

AL West

Los Angeles Angels (96-66)
Texas Rangers (93-69)
Seattle Mariners (70-92)
Oakland Athletics (68-94)

NL East

Miami Marlins (95-67)
Philadelphia Phillies (94-68)
Atlanta Braves (84-78)
Washington Nationals (81-81)
New York Mets (72-90)

NL Central

Cincinnati Reds (89-73)
St. Louis Cardinals (85-77)
Milwaukee Brewers (84-78)
Pittsburgh Pirates (78-84)
Chicago Cubs (70-92)
Houston Astros (61-101)

NL West

Colorado Rockies (88-74)
San Francisco Giants (86-76)
Arizona Diamondbacks (82-80)
Los Angeles Dodgers (74-88)
San Diego Padres (73-89)

AL Playoffs

Tampa Bay over Texas

Los Angeles over Tampa Bay
New York Yankees over Tigers

Los Angeles over New York

NL Playoffs

Philadelphia over San Francisco

Miami over Philadelphia
Cincinnati over Colorado

Miami over Cincinnati

World Series
Los Angeles over Miami

AL MVP: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

AL Cy Young: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels
NL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mad Men: A Little Kiss

Everyone's favorite melancholy alcoholic advertising executives returned to television last night after seventeen long months off the air, and their a double-episode that featured plenty of what we all love about the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and as a bonus: No Betty! If only every week could be like this.

Opening on Memorial Day weekend 1966, Season 5 of Mad Men plunges the characters and us into the midst of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, which may finally be encroaching on the comfortable white upper and middle-class lives of our protagonists. A rival firm has embarrassed itself with a childish prank on assembled protesters, and SCDP decides to rub their faces in it by proclaiming themselves an "equal opportunity employer", however unready they are to live up to that title.

Everyone's favorite Quebecois import, Megan, has now become the second Mrs. Draper, and she's got a few tricks up her sleeve. Like performing a near burlesque at Don's surprise 40th birthday party while singing "Zou Bisou Bisou", with all his co-workers in attendance. Though Don is angered by the routine, it's clear that Megan has been able to use her sexuality to her own ends. She's managed to become a junior copywriter under Peggy's watch, albeit one who gets to come and go as she, or her husband, pleases.

Joan has had her baby, and with Dr. Carpet-Rape off in Vietnam awaiting his inevitable death by incompetence, her acerbic mother is in residence, trying to get Joan to settle down and leave the advertising world behind. Joan already feels guilty about how much she wants to go back to work, a feeling that boils over into tears when she confronts Lane about the want ad. It's extremely touching and sweet to watch Lane comfort Joan with the honest truth about how badly the firm needs her. Peggy may get all the acclaim as a pioneering feminist, but it's a debate which woman is actually better at her job.

As for Peggy, she doesn't have much to do in "A Little Kiss" except pitch ballet to a bean company, deal with a swaggering (but often hilarious) Stan, and worry about Don's seeming complacency at work. Also, am I letting my imagination run away with me, or was her reaction to Zou Bisou Bisou a little lustful? After all, there was that understated Zosia Mamet storyline.

Roger and Pete clash in both halves of "A Little Kiss" with Pete, ever the striver, upset that his office still features an unsightly support column when it's his accounts that are keeping SCDP afloat. The other partners don't really have a strong argument against his having a bigger office, other than their tacit agreement that none of them have ever really been able to stand him. Roger sure doesn't seem like he's doing much at all these days, except spying on Pete's secretary to see what clients he's meeting with and trying to convince the secretary he and Don are sharing that she could sit near his office once in a while.

And what about Don? Has he really changed? For one thing, he's being a lot more open about his past. Megan, who didn't really seem all that formidable in "Tomorrowland", has been let in on the secret of Dick Whitman, and her tossing out the name so cavalierly sure seems like a challenge. As, of course, is her cleaning the apartment in her underwear while telling Don he "only gets to look." Despite Don's forcefulness in putting her on the carpet (what is it with these guys and floor sex?) it sure seems like Megan gets what she wants in the end.

That's an awful lot of stuff to get through, and all of it promises well for Season 5 of the best drama on television.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I read the Hunger Games trilogy in a week's time. The first book took me about a day. The second took me two days. The third took me a full four days to finish. I think that very accurately reflects the amount to which I enjoyed each book.

I don't read much Young Adult fiction, and truth be told I don't read much popular fiction either. This is because I am a snob through and through. Most of the time whenever I make concessions to the popular taste I find myself disappointed. (See: my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) But the ads for the movie version of book one of the Hunger Games intrigued me with their similarity to my favorite Schwarzenegger film, The Running Man. That combined with the first book's low cost on Kindle convinced me to give the series a try.

What I loved about book one was the feelings it recaptured for me. The writing isn't particularly lyrical or breath-taking, but the characters and the obstacles they face were intensely compelling. For those who somehow don't know, the book follows teenager Katniss Everdeen as she is forced by the ruthless totalitarian government that rules North America to fight to the death in an arena populated by two dozen children.

It takes some time to get over the unlikeliness of the high concept premise, but if you can suspend disbelief you will find yourself incapable of putting the book down until you learn what will happen to Katniss. This is something that hasn't happened to me in quite a long time in reading books written for adults. Most writers of literary fiction could learn a thing or two about story-telling from Suzanne Collins.

The second book is also quite good, but suffers a little from repetitiveness, as it finds some of the characters from book one facing similar, if slightly heightened obstacles. Still, Ms. Collins did a fine job in Catching Fire of building the world of Panem and setting events into motion for the finale.

Sadly, Mockingjay does not deliver on the promise of the first two books, and the trilogy ends with a confusing, unfocused morality tale which seems to have a lot to say about human nature, but really has no point-of-view or philosophy behind it.

With Mockingjay it seems as though Ms. Collins struggled to find a way to tie her storylines together, and made the unfortunate decision to opt for quantity over quality. With each extremely unlikely plot point, the book becomes less and less compelling as the reader becomes anxious for the trilogy to just end already before every beloved character is rendered unlikable.

It's an unfortunate occurrence, to be sure, and one that I'm confident is being fretted over by the people who will eventually have to adapt the third book into a movie. Still though, I am grateful to Ms. Collins for reminding me of so many of the things that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. I finished book one at 2am on a Sunday morning, lying in bed with just the lamp over my bed to read by. I couldn't stand the thought of going to sleep without knowing how the book would end.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Lady in the Lake

Raymond Chandler can always be counted on for crackling dialogue and extremely convoluted plots, and I should have kept that in mind when I thought I had the mystery in The Lady of the Lake figured out so early in the story. For even though I did correctly intuit a central plot twist, Chandler had so much more in mind that I was nowhere close to figuring out the whole thing.

Originality is pretty rare in the mystery genre. Between the countless novels and the popularity of TV mysteries, it's devilishly hard to find a solution that can truly surprise you, let alone in a book that was written during WWII. But Chandler is not an easy man to imitate. It would be so easy for an imitation to veer unwillingly into absurdity. The way private eye Philip Marlowe and his adversaries bat their words back and forth is finely tuned that it becomes realistic.

The Lady in the Lake has a classic hard-boiled set-up: Marlowe is hired by a businessman to find his cheating wife and keep her from getting into trouble. But when the neighbor's wife is found sunk at the bottom of a lake, and then another man turns up shot in his bathroom, Marlowe is the only one interested in connecting the cases. Despite being pressured by some unscrupulous policemen and stalled by every potential witness, Marlowe keeps searching for the truth, a far nobler goal than whatever pittance his client is paying.