Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Reviews-Damballa, Breakshot, Harlem, Neverwhere

by Charles Saunders
I love pulp novelists, especially the older 1920's-1940's stories that centered on adventure, fantasy or the weird. There was a sense of wonder and imagination in those stories that has shrunken in modern times. The world grows smaller while our knowledge of the world expands and travel duration drops.

Unfortunately, from my POV, many of those classic stories also had a strong streak of racism, that ranged from the casually contemptuous to the insanely hateful, depending on the author. About the best you could hope for as far as black characters was that there weren't any. Asians, Indians, Hispanics and even whites of non-Anglo/Nordic/Celtic heritage were also stereotyped in various ways. There were some authors who were exceptions to this rule of course but not many. I may discuss them later.

Charles Saunders is a current day black author who was deeply influenced by pulp stories. He is best known for his Imaro fantasy stories. Damballa is his attempt at writing a black pulp hero who is akin to such pulp creations as Doc Savage, The Shadow, Marlowe, etc. The story is based on the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight as well as the adventures of Dr. William Sheppard, known as Congo's African-American Dr. Livingstone.

In Saunders' story, the world heavyweight champion is an American black man named Jackhammer Jackson. The German challenger is one Wolfgang Krieger, a huge blond man known as the "Aryan Adonis". Unwilling to leave anything to chance, Nazi scientists, overseen by the racist and arrogant Dr. Von Dunkel , have created a serum that exponentially raises a fighter's strength, stamina, speed and aggression. It also runs the risk of shortening his life or permanently turning him into a ravenous beast but the callous Nazis feel that the danger to Krieger is worth the glory to the Fatherland. They pump Krieger full of the juice.

The mysterious Damballa gets wind of this plot. The masked hero tries to find a way to short circuit the Nazi plan, one that does not involve Jackson losing or cancelling the fight, as Jackson is adamant that he can beat any man who steps into the ring, augmented or not. Damballa is reluctantly aided in this task by NYC Detective Bynoe, one of the city's first black detectives, and by the mysterious aged Congolese wise woman Mamadou, who has some strange connection to both Damballa and Von Dunkel.

This was a good story but not a great one. The villain lacked a little bit of well, villainy. The sense of danger that would normally attach itself to Nazis wasn't always there. I liked Damballa's origin story but would have liked to have a bit more storyline from Bynoe, as he tries to work within a racist police department. And although Jackson's girlfriend gets some time, there isn't really a femme fatale in this story nor is the girlfriend ever in any real danger. So the story missed some possible excitement there I thought. But it is set up for a sequel and I'm interested to see what Saunders does next with Damballa. Finally this book was typeset in an Art Deco font, which is cool beyond belief. I like Art Deco almost as much as I like Gothic or Baroque.

by Kenny "Kenji" Gallo with Matthew Randazzo V
As a kid I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. Each character had to have an ethos/morality alignment which was a combination of Good, Evil and Neutrality mapped against a construct of Law, Chaos and Neutrality. This made for nine possible different alignments. Now there were and still are epic flame wars about which fictional character or real-life person falls into which alignment. I've set off a few wars myself back in the day. (Ned Stark is obviously Lawful Good and anyone who feels otherwise simply hasn't read the books!!!)  But if there was anyone who could ever be said to epitomize the Chaotic Evil alignment, it would have to be Kenny "Kenji" Gallo.  A Chaotic Evil person doesn't give a flying fig about anyone other than himself, can't be trusted to honor deals, goes out of his way to hurt people, can't stand hierarchy or order or any restriction on his "freedom", and generally lives by the belief that if you're weak you deserve to be exploited. Gallo is sort of a real life Alex from the movie A Clockwork Orange.

Gallo is of Japanese/Caucasian descent. Despite having grown up upper middle class in Orange County, Gallo very early turned to violence and crime as a lifestyle.  He wasn't abused or denied anything. By his own admission he was just bored. He enjoyed the thrill of hurting people or committing crimes. Gallo was running his own crew of drug dealers, thugs and thieves before he was 21. He and his friends terrorized their high schools and neighborhoods. Gallo is the sort of person who would throw a homemade napalm bomb in your car just to see how it worked. And if he didn't like you..well that called for something more inventive.

Unsurprisingly he came to the attention of the local lieutenants for the Medellin Cartel, who bankrolled his crimes and taught him how to be even more vicious. He also popped up on the radar screen of a local lrvine police department detective, who per Gallo, mentored and protected him, in return for a cut of the profits and an occasional piece of useful information.

Ultimatey his boss runs afoul of the Medellin Cartel and gets murdered. Gallo tries to work for the new boss but finds him just too disturbing.  Gallo's best friend was also murdered. According to Gallo though he had nothing to do with it. One of Gallo's other friends, a black (and stupid) enforcer takes the fall for the crime. Right. As the 80's draw to a close and cocaine demand drops in favor of heroin, Gallo takes the opportunity to transition to a different line of business. Lacking the interest or connections for heroin dealing he becomes a strip club owner, pimp, adult film producer, and white collar criminal extraordinaire. Needless to say he also becomes a dyed in the wool misogynist.

In his new career path he moves closer to traditional organized crime and winds up becoming an official associate to the NY based Colombo Crime Family. This is something that Gallo at first avoided because of the Mafia's notorious ethnocentrism/racism. Ironically though, Gallo is just as big of a hypocrite as his Italian-American bosses. While he complains about "dog eater" or "gook" comments directed at him, he rarely misses a chance to racially insult some of his Black or Hispanic partners/employees. Gallo also married an adult film actress who shared the same warm loving feeling for black people that Pat Buchanan has.

Anyway, once Gallo got some serious charges aimed at him he of course flipped and started informing for the FBI. He saw this as no different than any other criminal act he committed-he got over on people who would have gotten over on him, given the chance. Gallo is convinced that many other criminals are rats. Gallo sent the next Colombo boss-in-waiting, a few small time hoodlums and madams to prison. On a man-to-man basis Gallo is contemptuous of most Mafia members, thinking that few of them have the brains, guts or physical skills to go head to head with him. As a result he still lives semi-openly after his "rat" role was revealed, feeling that the supposedly fearsome powers of Mafia retaliation are not what they used to be. I can't say that I enjoyed this book. I do think that the time has come to seriously reign in the ability of federal prosecutors and FBI agents to give "Get out of Jail Free" cards to snitches. Many have committed worse crimes than the people they're betraying. And they continue to commit crimes after they've flipped. I can't help but feel that Gallo got away with too much.

On the other hand if you want an inside view (albeit self-serving and questionable) of how the late 20th and early 21st century Mafia and other organized crime groups work, this is a good book. Gallo worked a lot with people who he described as the ghetto thugs of the NY Mafia. The book also has some interesting stories about real life mobster turned actor, Tony Sirico, best known for his Sopranos role as "Paulie Walnuts". Kenji is currently a mixed martial artist and gay rights activist. Go figure.

Harlem, a Century in Images
by Thelma Golden, Deborah Willis, Cheryl Finley and Elizabeth Alexander
Pictures speak louder than words oftentimes. That is probably the case with this book which is a photographic essay of Harlem and its residents from the turn of the century to now. The book is split into three parts (the first years of the twentieth century, mid-century through the seventies, and the eighties until present day). It is interesting to see how fashion styles have changed and in some cases come back full circle. Generally, until the sixties, every man is wearing a hat.

It's about 250 pages and includes people both famous and anonymous, preachers, hustlers, good people and bad, people who knew they were being photographed and people just out doing their daily thing. Photographs are in both color and black and white. It was a fun book to "read". Probably no other neighborhood is as closely associated with Black America as Harlem and this book delves into why. This is a great coffee table book and would make a nice gift for someone or for yourself if you are so inclined.
I picked this up at a Borders' closing for $15. Usual retail price is $55 but it can now be found for anywhere between $33 and $45 on Amazon. Good stuff. Again some of these photographs are quite well known, others are obscure. This is a book that can take you on a time travel trip through Harlem. Lots of joy, lots of sadness, lots of life. I may never visit the 125th Street Metro North Station, Riverside Church, or play checkers outside the Adam Clayton Powell building, but this book lets me know what all that looks like.

by Neil Gaiman
There are quite a lot of books out now that sort of combine an Alice in the Wonderland/Narnia theme in London with a very adult mystery or fantasy storyline. Someone from our mundane world is transported to a very different world, one in which completely different rules of physics and magic apply.  This other world touches on our own but generally speaking can only be reached at certain times by very special people. I won't say that Neil Gaiman was the first to do this (in some respects it is just an update of the Faerie and Tuatha De Danaan legends) but he is among the best.

There are a few authors who stand out among their kin because they can create a world so fantastic and yet so real that you get lost in it and think the characters are real people. Gaiman does this so easily that it's not until you read other authors and miss that feeling that you realize how much skill is involved in doing this.
Neverwhere is a relatively short book by the bloated standards of modern mystery/fantastic literature, clocking in at just under 400 pages in paperback form but it moves so very quickly that you barely notice the length.

Richard Mayhew is a bit of a loser, a nowhere man in a nowhere job that he hates. He is going to a meeting with his pushy fiancee's (Jessica) boss when out of nowhere he sees a young girl begging for help while she's bleeding to death on the sidewalk. Against Jessica's admonitions and threats of ending their engagement Richard takes the young girl back to his apartment to help her. Suspiciously soon afterwards, Richard is visited by two disturbing men of indeterminate age-a Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, a unfailingly polite duo who claim to be looking for their sister. The shorter Mr. Croup does all the talking.

The men radiate violence and menace and wrongness despite Mr. Croup's kind words. So Richard denies he's seen anyone fitting the girl's description. They ignore him and search his place but do not find the girl-which ought to be impossible since Richard was just talking to her minutes ago.

The girl, whose name is Door, is the last surviving member of her family. Her family was slaughtered by the inhuman and immortal (?) assassins Croup and Vandemar. She is from London Below-a magical and usually unreachable mirror of London. She possesses something which the unknown employer of the assassins wants desperately.
Door sends Richard to meet with the last noble still loyal to her family, an Afro-British man named the Marquis DeCarabas. Once the Marquis arrives both he and Door disappear.

After interacting with Door, Richard notices that he has become invisible to people in our world. Having no choice he stubbornly sets out to find London Below and assist Door and the Marquis in their quest. Words can't describe what a pleasure reading this book is. Just get it. London Below is full of magic, danger, terror and excitement. Gaiman also has a number of multi-cultural characters but doesn't make a big deal out of it. Perfect.  Door reminds me of the character Arya Stark from A Game of Thrones. They are both skilled and dangerous people who miss their families very much.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Police Spray Protesters at UC Davis

I don't really have a lot of words for this other than to say this is why generally speaking I don't have much use for police or think that a man or woman that puts on a blue uniform is automatically a hero, a good person or worthy of my respect. Some are decent; some are not.
Some of them have the moral capacity of Rottweilers or Cane Corsos. They're also much more savage and dangerous.

Should the police officers spraying the protesters be permanently removed from duty?
Should the UC Davis chancellor , Linda Katehi, resign?
I thought putting women in charge meant that we'd have a kinder, gentler world and better outcomes. Gee, someone let Senator Gillibrand know...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Music Reviews-Freddie King, Donnie Hathaway

 Freddie King
King in full effect
There are three great Kings of the Blues: Albert, BB and Freddie. Each man had his own unique musical fingerprint. BB's sound could be described as sweet, stinging and sassy while Albert's tone had all the implacable bassy menace of the trucks and tractors he used to drive. Freddie King possessed the aggressive fiery attack one would think proper for a man described as The Texas Cannonball

The youngest of the three men, Freddie King matured musically at the same time that people like Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Bo Diddley were in the process of creating rock-n-roll. King's playing showed these modern influences. Freddie King was just as comfortable playing surf-rock, Chuck Berry style grooves, and other uptempo instrumental R&B as he was playing slower blues. King's early albums were attempts to cash in on the early sixties surfing craze. He was briefly on the same label as James Brown but unfortunately I don't think they ever recorded together. Maybe I'm wrong and there's some cut out there with Freddie King backing up Soul Brother Number One! King also spent a lot of time as a session guitarist for Chess and Cobra records during the day while by night he was making a name for himself as an up and coming blues guitarist on Chicago's competitive west side guitar circuit.

Like the other Kings of the blues he had a HUGE voice to go along with his guitar stylings.  Freddie King was among the last major blues guitarists with an instantly identifiable sound. He was not a great songwriter but was a talented improviser.
Freddie King eschewed a normal pick attack but played with a thumbpick and fingers, something which was quite common for the Texas country blues guitarists he had grown up emulating. He had a very distinctive and immediately familiar vibrato in his playing.  

King was also playing much more loudly than most other blues guitarists and quite a few rock guitarists in the early seventies. Unlike most rock guitarists though King had mastery of dynamics and tension. He wasn't just playing loudly ALL the time. As were many musicians of his generation, Freddie King was a direct influence on several rock musicians -most notably Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, the Vaughn Brothers, and Grand Funk Railroad to name a few.
"Up all night with Freddie King/I got to tell you poker's his thing" -We're an American Band -Grand Funk Railroad
King and Clapton
Freddie King was one of those musicians who could and did in the same concert venture from a slow traditional 12/8 shuffle blues, to straight-ahead rock-n-roll, to lumbering loud blooooze-rock (see Going Down), back to funk, stop in for a visit at soulsville, and end the night with some old time acoustic fingerstyle blues. Unfortunately King died too young (at 42) from stomach ulcers and pancreatitis. He left behind a fascinating diverse body of work. King also had an astonishing resemblance to one of my paternal uncles so I was always kindly disposed to him.
Ain't no Sunshine    Have you ever loved a woman  Ghetto Woman  Ain't that I don't love you
Hideaway      Going Down   Ain't Nobody's Business if I do   Gambling Woman Blues

Donny Hathaway
In my view Stevie Wonder did his best work during the seventies but Wonder wasn't the only keyboard prodigy around during that time. Although he's probably best known for his admittedly magnificent duets with Roberta Flack and of course the song This Christmas, Donny Hathaway was an excellent singer, songwriter, bandleader, arranger and musician-talents which are not often found together in the same person. To me, his versions of Jealous Guy, A Song for You and To Be Young, Gifted and Black are the DEFINITIVE versions-I was SHOCKED to find out he didn't write them. His live version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black takes the gospel call-and-response to a place of pure beauty-the audience should have gotten writing credit on that one.

Like Wonder, Hathaway excelled both live and in studio, but for me Hathaway's best work was usually recorded live. He was a very organic musician for lack of a better word. Hathaway, like Wonder, worked with some of the best soul, jazz, and R&B musicians around.  He demanded and received a very high level of quality of work from himself and from his fellow musicians. Luminaries such as Stanley Clarke, Phil Upchurch, David Newman and Cornell Dupree worked with Hathaway. 

Similar to many other soul musicians, Hathaway started out singing gospel as a child and took many of those abilities and influences into popular music. Hathaway was an educated musician, having attended Howard University on a music scholarship. At Howard, Hathaway was recognized as being so skilled that when he bothered to come to music theory and composition class, his teachers would often let him teach the class. For those of you who are into such things, Hathaway was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Hathaway and Flack
Hathaway was skilled in a variety of genres-jazz, soul, R&B, soft rock, blues, etc. He didn't seem to recognize boundaries. Unfortunately Hathaway suffered mightily from depression and evidently took his own life. I remember the tragedy when it happened. People didn't want to believe it. There were rumors about other things going on. I don't know about that. I do know that it's one of life's paradoxes that often the greatest music is made by people with quite severe personal problems. Hathaway was as talented as Wonder, Joel, John or any of the other pop pianists of the seventies.

When you listen to these cuts notice how well produced and mixed they are-the vocals are upfront but everything fits together. You can simultaneously pick out all of the individual instruments but no one instrument dominates the sound-with of course the occasional exception of Hathaway's piano. I really like these sounds. In my opinion production like this has become something of a lost art.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black   Giving Up    Be Real Black for me   
Jealous Guy    A Song For you    I love You more than you'll ever Know   Some day we'll all be free  Where is the Love  The Ghetto   Magnificent Sanctuary Band   We need you right now 
This Christmas    You've Got a friend  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Reviews- The Berkut, Bran Mak Morn, This Side of Glory

The Berkut
by Joseph Heywood
In 1945 with vengeful Russian soldiers less than a mile away from his bunker, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide. He had no intention of being captured alive and strung up like his good friend Mussolini, or worse yet turned over to the tender mercies of a legendarily merciless former ally, Joseph Stalin.

That is what happened as far we know. Because of the inability to bring Hitler to justice, the murkiness of Hitler's demise, and the belief that the profoundly selfish Hitler would be unwilling at the end to take his own life, there have always been theories that Hitler somehow survived and escaped from the bunker in those final days.

The Berkut picks that idea up. It combines real life history with just a few minor speculative changes to look at what would have happened if Hitler DID escape the bunker. It's a sad truth that once some vengeance was taken both the Russians and the Western Allies were VERY interested in getting their hands on Nazi medical and scientific research and of course the Nazi military intelligence and weaponry. This meant making deals.

NASA as we know it would not have been possible without the input of several former Nazis, most famously Werner Von Braun. Under Operation Paperclip, Project Odessa, and other such initiatives, Nazis with something to trade or with some wealth either escaped to South America or joined Western military/intelligence organizations. This book uses that real life history to imagine that Hitler was well aware of such programs and had set up his own escape ratline well in advance of Germany's defeat. The Catholic Church also assisted.

The book is primarily told through the viewpoints of two highly skilled operatives on opposite sides: SS Colonel Gunter Brumm, who has been tagged to rescue the man they call "Herr Wolf" from the ruin of Germany and spirit him away to safety, and Special Operations Leader Vasily Petrov, who is one of Stalin's most trusted warriors and has been assigned to disrupt the SS operation and bring Hitler back to Moscow-alive. When Stalin orders something, failure is of course, unthinkable.

The American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) gets wind of the plots and has its own man on the scene to try to snatch Hitler. This was a long (600 pages) book but I thought it was worthwhile. If you like mystery, intrigue and are interested in that time period you may enjoy this book. There is a fair amount of sex, double crossing and last stands.

Bran Mak Morn-The Last King
by Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard is a favorite author of mine despite his many literary and personal faults. Howard was of primarily Scots-Irish ancestry. Interest in his heritage runs throughout his works. Most of his heroes are stand-ins for Howard and have similar backgrounds. Bran Mak Morn is the last king of the Picts , in our history a pre-Celtic people that mostly lived in Scotland.

In this collection of stories Howard altered Pictish history somewhat so that the Picts were both aboriginal inhabitants of the British isle, pushed out by the Celts and later the Romans and Saxons, and a sort of uber-Celt, a representative of fierce Celtic resistance to Roman colonization.

In any event Bran Mak Morn is the Pictish king but he is king of a dying people-a people who are physically degenerating and who will not be long for the world. Nevertheless he leads resistance to both the Romans and the Saxons in Britain (Howard loved mixing up time periods in one big mashup).

The two best short stories in this book are  1) Worms of the Earth, in which Bran Mak Morn uses supernatural means to take his vengeance on a Roman tribune who cruelly executed a Pict as a disguised Bran Mak Morn watched, powerless to save his countryman and 2) Kings of the Night, where the hopelessly outnumbered Picts and Celts call upon their ancient ancestor, King Kull, to aid Bran in a last stand battle against Romans and Saxons. Howard REALLY didn't like Romans.  This is fun reading for Howard geeks and I am one. Because of the setting it lacks Howard's usual racism. The stories are short, to the point and easy to get through. There are of course battles in just about every story. They leap off the page. This book also has some of Howard's poetry, which could either be described as moody (the man did after all commit suicide at a very young age) or pugilistic.

This Side of Glory
by David Hilliard and Lewis Cole
I love The Black Panthers. Lord knows they made plenty of mistakes but when I think about what they tried to do and what they were up against I just have to give them much respect. Also keep in mind that like with any other revolutionary movement, these were generally young people-from 66-73 much of the leadership was in its late teens to late twenties.

With any movement there will be tons of different perspectives. This Side of Glory gives David Hilliard's. The book opens with Hilliard's learning of Huey Newton's murder. Hilliard and other former Panther leaders are invited on various news shows to talk about the Panthers and Newton's life. Out of respect for Newton and loyalty to his memory at first they try to downplay his struggles with addiction and the sordid circumstances of his murder. That becomes untenable and as they try to give a more nuanced and honest view of Newton's life, Hilliard feels compelled to do the same of his own. He details his love and hate for Newton. He discusses his own struggles and shortcomings. He explains how and why the Panthers came to exist. Hilliard knew Huey Newton as a child and was later one of Newton's earliest recruits to the Panthers. This is as much an autobiography of Hilliard as it is a discussion of his time as a Panther. Hilliard makes clear the Panthers could not have existed without the strong family ties among the various southern black migrants to the West Coast and a fierce commitment to justice and resistance to racism.

As police repression increased Hilliard would later be forced into a leadership position, something for which he was not really suited. From Hilliard's own viewpoint he seems to have been more comfortable in a secondary, behind the scenes position. Like many other stories of this time, This Side of Glory details the inevitable tensions in any organization-the jealousies, rivalries, infidelities-all of which were greatly magnified by open police attacks and more subtle COINTELPRO manipulations.

The book also describes the fall of the Party into thuggery, gangsterism, factionalism and ultimately political irrelevance. Hilliard is honest about his own role in this, particularly his later struggles with drug addiction. This is a pretty powerful book. Some of it is contradicted by other Panther memoirs and biographies but no one ever has the same memory or perspective on events that took place 40 or more years ago. Again, this book really pulls the cover off the "Officer Friendly" depiction of the police. After one arrest, Hilliard wisely gives a fake name. Upon arriving to the station a higher up police official recognizes him and angrily tells the arresting officers who he is. They start to beat him telling him "Motherf*****!! We'll kill you. You never would have made it here if we had known!". That's America.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil?

Martyrs to Intrusive Government or Racist Abusers?

Do you have sympathy for the Devil? You may remember that in New Jersey, just about two years prior, this Mommy Racist and Daddy Racist tried to get a ShopRite to make a birthday cake that read "Happy Birthday Adolf Hitler". The store refused and the goobers had to go elsewhere. A Wal-Mart agreed to their request. Go figure. At the time the only controversy was over the right to freedom of expression and the right to refuse service.
However these parents appear to be neo-Nazis (though they deny it) and white supremacists who have given all of their children Nazi inspired names-Adolf Hitler, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie. The incident with the cake evidently placed them on the radar screen of local child protective services. They lost their children. And so far they haven't gotten them back.

The 5-year-old boy, named for the infamous Nazi leader, and his two sisters were taken by New Jersey child welfare officials in 2009.An appeals court ruled last year that Heath and Deborah Campbell should not regain custody of the children, citing the parents' disabilities and the risk of serious injury to their children.
A family court previously found that there was evidence the children had been abused or neglected, but the details were not released because of a gag order.The Campbells, who picketed outside of a child services office in Flemington on Tuesday, have repeatedly spoken out, claiming the children were taken because of their names and nothing more.
"The judge and [the Division of Youth and Family Services] told us that there was no evidence of abuse and that it was the names!" Heath Campbell told NBC 10 News in Philadelphia. "They were taken over the children's names."
It appears that someone is lying here but because of the gag order and family privacy it's not easy for an outsider to determine which party (the state or the parents) is telling the truth. Obviously anyone who abuses children shouldn't be around them and ought to be locked up ASAP. The Penn State tragedy brings that home in a very real way. So if there's actual abuse or neglect then the state is absolutely doing the right thing by removing the children from the home. I think we'd have 100% agreement on that.

On the other hand what if the state is doing an end-run around the concept of abuse or neglect in a physical or sexual manner, and making the claim that merely giving children those names and presumably teaching them hatred is in and of itself abuse or neglect? We know that sometimes states can be rather presumptuous and hasty in deciding to remove children from their home based on rather flimsy evidence or just plain and simple dislike of the parents' lifestyle.

There are many people who grew up in homes that had political, religious or racial beliefs that were far outside the mainstream. That's not enough to take someone's children away from them.  If I want to teach my child to hate someone based on the color of their skin or their religion or heritage, that's an immoral decision, but it's one that a parent gets to make with impunity. It's not the state's business.

I don't have a good take on this incident one way or the other.

1) Abuse allegations aside, have these parents proven to be unfit?
2) Should the state be able to veto certain names for children?
3) Do we have the proper balance between protecting children and familial independence?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Movie Reviews-Captain America, Horrible Bosses and Blood Creek

Captain America:The First Avenger
Marvel is moving merrily along making movies out of all of its major and some of its minor comic book superheroes, with an eye towards releasing a later Avengers movie (a sort of supergroup of superheroes-kinda like if the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Hendrix and The Beatles all got together to save the world). So Captain America was next on my list to watch. If you're not familiar with the storyline, well first of all where have you been for the past 40-50 years. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a literal 90 lb weakling in wartime Brooklyn New York. He has no luck with women and is constantly picked on by bullies. Steve never backs down from a fight though he often has to be saved by his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) a much larger US soldier who has been cheerfully rescuing Steve since they were kids. But their friendship is about to be interrupted as the patriotic but sickly Rogers can't convince any Army recruiters to accept him. Fortuitously, Rogers' plight is discovered by the secretive German refugee Dr. Erskine, (Stanley Tucci) who is working with the Army on a super-serum to produce soldiers of fantastic ability. Rogers undergoes the treatment and goes from zero to hero in a matter of minutes. Now he's ready to go to war for real, not only because it's the right thing to do but also because the painfully shy Rogers finds that he wouldn't mind getting to know (and impress) British Bombshell agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). And if that means leading suicide missions behind enemy lines, gosh darn it he's ready to do it.

Of course every hero must have an opposite and Captain America's is of course The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) a Nazi who has discovered and collected magical and scientific artifacts to produce super-weapons for Hitler, but mostly of course, for himself.
I liked this movie. Unlike Thor, which looked good but had a pretty sleepy storyline with not much chemistry between the male and female leads, Captain America has more action with much better interplay between Atwell and Evans. The only drawback of this film is of course its selling point-the complete and total ahistoricity. There were women officers in WW2 but few and far between. They certainly weren't involved in training male combat soldiers. There were virtually no black combat soldiers or airmen; Blacks were all segregated, no matter their role. Black officers were extremely rare and were generally placed so that no whites had to take orders from them-period. Whites attacked black soldiers in the South. There were also racial incidents between black and white Americans when they went overseas. Black officers were NOT allowed to use the officer's club-that being reserved for whites.

The film happily ignores all of this for an integrated team that is reminiscent of Hogan's Heroes. I guess this is good if we want to make the audience as big as possible and have every viewer feel included. The film does that well. But I wonder if we shouldn't keep the uglier truth in mind. How you feel about this will depend on your preference for escapism. Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers as totally unironic. He is serious about always doing the right thing. Captain America is very entertaining and about 20 minutes too long. This film also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Derek Luke, Dominc Cooper, and Neal McDonough.

Horrible Bosses
This film has a story which has been told before but it's usually fun to watch.
Three friends, Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are all in bad situations at work. Nick, an MBA, works for the tyrannical Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) who enjoys humiliating people if they are 2 minutes late to work. Dale, a little mouse of a man engaged to be married, labors as a dental assistant for the sexually voracious Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Anniston in a very provocative role-yowsa!!) who makes it clear that she wants Dale in every way a woman could want a man and then some. And if Dale wants his job he had better rise to the occasion. Kurt, an account manager at an industrial chemical supply company, had a good spot as heir apparent to his boss Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland) but things go south when Jack dies and power passes to his drug-addled, hair-plug wearing, prostitute patronizing son Bobby (Colin Farrell-initially almost unrecognizable) who deeply resents Kurt for being a better son to his father than he was. The film outlines most of this in pretty broad strokes. It moves a little TOO quickly in detailing the characters' frustrations and building a case as to why they don't simply get new jobs. So I didn't quite believe that murder was the only way out. And as Nick and Kurt constantly remind Dale, his situation is only a problem because of his fidelity, because they would certainly love to be chased around the office by a beautiful woman in cleavage revealing outfits. Anyway the trio agree to the plan and after a few abortive attempts at trying to hire a hit man, they go to the black area of town (that of course makes total sense because everyone knows blacks are more criminal, right) where they hire a "murder consultant" Jones (Jamie Foxx) who will walk them thru the difficult steps of killing someone and getting away with it.

Obviously things start to go belly up and unforeseen events muck up their original plans. All three men make some critical mistakes and it appears that they may wind up in prison. This causes an argument to break out as to who among them would be the most likely to be assaulted in prison. And there is similar such crude raunchy humor throughout the film. It was quite funny at times. This won't win any Oscars but if you are just looking for something silly to watch this could fit the bill. Kevin Spacey played a similar role in Swimming with Sharks. Anniston seems to be doing her damn best to show Brad Pitt he made a mistake. Assuming that's all her and not body doubles I might have to agree. Spacey and Anniston almost steal the show. Bateman's sly subtley and understated delivery is a nice little contrast to the over the top Spacey/Anniston/Sudeikis roles. This film was well cast. Ioan Gruffudd, Wendell Pierce, Isaiah Mustafa, Julie Bowen, Ron White, and Bob Newhart also have roles.

Blood Creek
This was another film directed by Joel Schumacher that I may not have watched if I had known he was the director. Unlike Trespass though, this was actually a halfway decent film. The Nazis were interested in the occult and speculative science. So this film has the benefit of being at least somewhat based in reality. In 1936, a West Virginia German-American family, the Wollners, is contacted by the German embassy to ask them to host visiting scholar Richard Wirth (Michael Fassbender). Wirth is not only a scholar but also a scientist/magician very much in the mold of the Red Skull. He has identified places around the globe where Viking Runestones of great magical power are located. One such place is this farm in West Virginia. For the man who knows how to use these powers, time and death are no longer meaningful. In modern day West Virginia Evan Marshall (Henry Cavill) is stumbling around depressed because his big brother Victor Marshall (Dominic Purcell) disappeared on a hunting trip two years back and hasn't been seen since. So imagine his surprise when one night a badly wounded Victor stumbles in, asks for a drink and tells baby brother to get all the guns he has and follow him, they have some people to kill. And no, he can't ask any questions. Ultimately this turns into a siege movie and slows down near the end but it was fun. The 1936 movie scenes are in black and white which adds to the creepiness.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Motor City Assault on Bus Driver

Incidents like this are exactly why I no longer live in Detroit or go too far out of my way to constantly defend it against vindictive people who would seek to say that this is typical of all Detroiters. For the record, it's not typical of all Detroiters or even most Detroiters. Like anywhere most Detroiters are people just trying to make it to the next day.
That said though, Detroit obviously has a crime problem. It's out of hand not just because of the number of crimes-assaults, robberies, murders, burglaries, rapes, etc but because of the random nature of these crimes. They can literally happen anywhere. What a bitter ugly irony that an assault on a Black bus driver just trying to do his job takes place in a center named after the late Detroit heroine, Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks died for this nonsense.

Watch Video Here

A walk-out by at least 100 Detroit Department of Transportation bus drivers today has crippled service for bus riders across the city of Detroit.
DDOT passengers have been left stranded throughout the city as drivers say they are afraid to board the buses after one was attacked on a bus Thursday.
Gaffney said two officers inside the station did not help, and Detroit Police officers arrived 30 minutes after the beating started. The driver was taken to a local hospital, where he was treated and released, Gaffney said.
"One of my drivers getting beaten down in the middle of the Rosa Parks Transit Center -- that's what's crazy in this city," Gaffney said. “I don’t know what’s going on with Detroit. Detroit is just going to hell to tell you the truth," said Horace Adams, 60, of Detroit, as he waited at the Rosa Parks Transit Center today. "Ain’t nothing running right."   Full Article

"Ain’t nothing running right"-That pretty much sums up the city. Now of course things like this can and do happen anywhere but the fact of the matter is they are more common in Detroit-and via the media-have become virtually synonymous with Detroit. Southeast Michigan always ranks among the top 10 most segregated areas in the country, something which brings other economic costs to the region. Bottom line, racist or not, no one wants to live or work in a city where there's a good chance they'll get assaulted doing simple things like buying a newspaper, dropping a child off at school or driving a bus.

Until the perception and reality of crime is dealt with in the city we will never see any true revival. More and more people will move out and Detroit will be left with an unwieldy core of dead-ender nationalists, public sector workers, suburban hipsters, and people who are literally too old or too poor to move. This would not be a good thing. This perception and reality of crime in Detroit also impacts the surrounding suburbs as black flight and white flight play themselves out from generation to generation while outsiders, leery of the entire area, question locating businesses in SE Michigan-ESPECIALLY Detroit.

Now I know the probable underlying reasons for this activity-lack of self love, internalized racism, inability to define masculinity outside of violence, short tempers calculated to show potential predators that you're not prey, low education, lack of jobs, blah, blah, blah. And FWIW I mostly believe in those causal factors. But of course I am sure that none of that was going through the bus driver's mind while he was being assaulted. All he wanted was for it to stop. And in my experience the only way to stop such incidents is by either the immediate application of a superior amount of force or by the fear of such force being applied.

So how do you get these things to stop?
Is it time for a Giuliani type mayor to be elected in Detroit?
Does Detroit need massive numbers of police fanning out to shake down Detroiters in search of warrants or other illegal activity?
Should bus drivers be allowed to carry weapons? Should National Guardsmen be called in?
If you were on that bus or in the area would you have intervened?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The US Senate -It's a Man's World

The US Senate has often been described as a club, a boy's club.  There are 17 women in the Senate. Some people wish to increase that number and are deeply worried about the coming elections. For some activists, political analysts and female Senators, the prospect of having a US Senate with fewer women is just horrible. Worse it's bad for democracy.

Ok. I have no issue with stating that representative institutions should try to be, well representative. That's fine. However as usually is the case when these kinds of discussions pop up the people agitating for more women in the US Senate fall back on hyperbolic claims that the US Senate or democracy itself would somehow be transformed for the better because women somehow have special insights or are just more moral than men.

"When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better," said Gillibrand. "When we have our dinners with the women in the Senate -- the Democrats and Republicans -- we have so much common ground. We agree on so many basic principles and values. I think if there were more women at the decision-making table, we would get more things done."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment at Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women" dinner in April 2010.
When asked about progress on regulatory reform legislation, Feinstein replied, "Well, I actually think that if we had all women [in the Senate],we would solve the problem."
 Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was sitting in the front row at the event, enthusiastically clapped in response.
"There was a moment there at the end of the debt ceiling [debate] that some of the women, on a bipartisan basis, were talking about, 'We need to take this over and get this done,'" said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running for her second term in 2012. "I think we are, by our nature, nurturers and negotiators. We want people to get along, we want to find a solution, we want to move forward. I think sometimes there is a tendency to like the fight for the fight's sake every once in awhile with some of the guys. So I think having more women involved will help."
Senator Feinstein's comment stood out to me, not only because of its obvious chauvinism but also because Feinstein was and is in my opinion one of the more ethically challenged people in the US Senate. She is exactly the sort of person that both the Tea Party and the 99% movement would likely agree on as an example of the odious nexus between big money, big government, war profiteering and private enrichment at the public trough. If we had more women like Dianne Feinstein in the US Senate this country would be in even worse condition than it is.
I've been in the world a while now and although there are obvious deep differences both physically and socially/emotionally between men and women I think these are dwarfed by the similarities. And whatever differences I have noticed between men and women certainly haven't been MORAL ones.
I've worked with women bosses or co-workers that: 
  • were racist or bigoted
  • were bullies
  • used sex appeal or sex to get ahead
  • used seeming weakness to manipulate people
  • were greedy and shortsighted
  • were lazy
  • were unqualified for their position
  • were unable to work well with others or admit mistakes
  • were emotionally crippled
  • were more dedicated to their job than anyone else
  • were gracious and kind
  • went above and beyond to help me and others succeed
  • were extremely smart
  • were incredibly talented hardworking people
In short the women I work(ed) with ran the entire gamut of humanity, just like men did. HOW they expressed themselves might differ a bit from men on average but WHAT they expressed did not. Not at all.
Now Senator Feinstein's and Senator McCaskill's comments, much like Justice Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" crack may not be noticed or may be excused as understandable hyperbole-coming from women that is. It's a minor bigotry as such things go.
But what if say Rick Santorum or Rick Perry stood up and said 
"I agree with Senators Feinstein and McCaskill. Women are more nurturing and that is exactly why we need fewer of them in the Senate. The Senate is not a place for nurturing. It is a place for sober reflection, cold logic and deliberate hardball negotiation. And men are by our very nature, tacticians and philosophers."
Obviously that would be a career limiting move to say the least. But that is one logical outcome of the statements about nurturing.
My fundamental belief is that people are generally the same, morally. I don't believe that women are better than men, that whites are better than blacks or whatever. If the Knesset and Hamas and the PA were made up of all women there would still be rockets and bombs flying back and forth between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. The only difference is the bombs might have pink ribbons attached.
For whatever reason, whether it be biological or sociological there are more men that want to run for office. So more men get elected. As long as their voters are satisfied with the outcomes I don't think their gender is relevant. And the idea that because a slight majority of the population is women means that the Senate representation should be 50-50 or close to it makes no sense to me. Because so many of the people who state that or imply it are not concerned about the increasing decline of men in college or the workplace. It's as if where women are less than 50% of a given population there must be changes made to bring women in but where women are more than 50% of a given population , well that's wonderful progress. Heads I win, tails you lose.
There are some nations in the world which have legally required or informal quotas for female representation in their legislative bodies. I don't think that's going to happen here, fortunately. I think that over time we will see more women in the House and Senate. But I don't think that's something that is going to be imposed from above. And I also don't think it will make a tremendous amount of difference in how the system is run. Again, as Feinstein shows, it's money that makes the world go round..

1) What's your take? Do you think the US Senate needs more women?
2) Would a Senate made up of all women be better for the US?
3) Why don't more women run for office?