Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: Michael Jackson "The Immortal World Tour" by Cirque du Soleil

I saw a bunch of advertisements for the Cirque Du Soleil Michael Jackson show, and I figured that my son, who is a big fan of Michael Jackson, and who may have even had his first experience with anyone's death when the superstar died some years ago, would likely appreciate this show.
            So I got tickets for it, and took him on Friday night.
            We arrived late, mostly because I was at fault. Yet, when we got there, the show had not yet started, so we caught a break.
            I did not know what to expect, truth be told. Was it going to be some guy that looked like Michael Jackson lip syncing while doing all sorts of vintage MJ moves and dances? Would it be more like a circus with the accompaniment of Michael Jackson's music? Would it be some mix of the two?
            It wound up being actually very good. It was a tribute show to Michael Jackson, but it certainly could not be considered in the category of a tribute band, or anything like that. It was also not quite like any Cirque du Soleil show that I have seen before, although you could definitely still tell that is what it was. It was just a very good show, and a tribute to Michael Jackson.
            My son enjoyed it immensely. He was taken by the pyrotechnics and the acrobatics, and of course by Jackson's music.  Even I was taken by it.
            Maybe I should explain something at this point. I remember the whole huge deal when his "Thriller" album was all the rage, and how his dancing was unlike anything that anybody had ever seen to that point. He was best known for his trademark "Moonwalk", and his songs dominated the radio waves. An argument could be made that he was the most popular recording artist since the Beatles, and it would not be laughable.
            I was taken by it, too. Just a small boy yet at the time, it was hard not to be impressed by the flashiness and all of the hoop la that seemed to surround him. The music was catchy, and his dance moves were amazing!
            Yet, he was never my type of musician, if you will. I grew up on many of the 60's British Invasion groups, and the Hippie and peace & love music of the later 60's and early 70's, although that was already largely seen as outdated. Later on, I got into heavy metal and punk, back in the mid-1980's. But since these were always kind of under the radar, there was a bit of resentment towards Michael Jackson and other pop stars, because they represented another reality to me, one filled with big money and over the top showmanship. Sure, he was talented. But did he deserve all of the attention and the headlines, and screaming fans?
            I was all in favor of the grunge revolution, if you will, or the rise of alternative music, which had suddenly, seemingly unexpectedly, thrust musicians like Michael Jackson and Madonna into the shadows. It felt at the time like people were actually starting to have good taste.
            Of course that did not last, but that matters little to me now. I understand that radio is not necessarily the best place to find or listen to good music.
            As for Michael Jackson? Well, it seemed clear that he had personal problems. In one of his shows, his hair caught on fire during a mishap with pyrotechnics. By the late 1980's, and certainly at latest by the early 1990's, jokes abounded about his skin appearing considerably lighter than in the past, not to mention a straighter hair style, and many people claimed he was trying to be more white. He spoke in a strange voice, and I still remember when Oprah asked him if he was still a virgin, and he responded by laughing embarrassed manner, and telling her that was such a personal question. He eventually got married to Lisa Marie Presley, and made a show of kissing her publicly. It always seemed that he went out of his way to prove his masculinity, that his image was taking a hit because he hardly seemed normal in most people's eyes.
            Of course, his largest problem with his image always seemed to center around children. Paradoxically, his focus on children was also perhaps the greatest enhancement to his image. He was praised for his care for children, and kids were allowed to swarm to the stage during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXVII.
            Yet, there were other kinds of headlines that Jackson had with children, including some that suggested that he was a pedophile. These were settled out of court, but some controversy remains regarding these charges. Some feel he did what he had to do, and that people were targeting him, which is a valid point, and certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Yet others feel that if he was as innocent as he said, he should have endured the trial in order to clear his name and prove his innocence before the world. From that point onwards, he always seemed to be plagued by new charges.
            There was also the time when he stood on a hotel balcony before screaming, adoring fans, and held a baby before him, then hung him over the banister, with nothing to prevent a long fall if something happened. The wrong kind of headlines again.
            There were financial concerns, as well. His Never-Never Land was elaborate and legendary in it's opulence, but apparently too much for him to afford. In fact, he lived a lifestyle that was beyond his means, and that of course is saying something, given that he was a very rich man. When he died in 2009 of a premature heart attack, another issue that he apparently had to face, as well as being severely underweight), he owed something of around $500 million dollars, which far from being a small sum, is actually quite a princely fee.
            My own feelings were mixed. I had long dismissed him as a money making machine, and thus a sellout, for all intents and purposes. His strange behavior made it hard for me, personally, to take him seriously. As catchy as his music was initially, his music was overplayed after a while, and I grew tired of even hearing him, generally speaking, and would switch the stations when he came on, more often than not.
            That said, he will always be remembered as "The King of Pop". I had largely forgotten about Michael Jackson until that summer day when news of his death spread like wildfire. My son took a strong interest and began to love his music and his videos, and perhaps rather ironically, I began to enjoy his music again, for the first time in a long time. The show last night was terrific, and recommended to me by someone else who was a bit skeptical about it all, but was won over. I enjoyed the show, like he predicted, and in fact found myself in the mood to listen to more of Michael Jackson's stuff. Funny how things work sometimes, isn't it? 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tibet and the Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monks

There are some unbelievable protests in and around Tibet going on right now. Of course, Tibet has long been a center of attention and a point of criticism for the growing Chinese Superpower, ever since the invasion over sixty years ago. It remains a source of controversy to this day.
What marks these latest protests are the images of the self-immolation of monks in protest of the Chinese authority and of Chinese domination over Tibet.
Tibet is a land that used to be a Buddhist backwater, as has been described in some famous books and movies (such as "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun", for example).
There are differing accounts of what Tibet was like prior to Chinese invasion (the Chinese call it the "liberation" of Tibet) and occupation. Listen to many Tibetan Buddhists, and it was almost a religious utopia, like a heavenly haven, literally among the clouds, as Tibet is mostly perched atop the Himalaya Mountains, and was the most isolated country on Earth.
The Chinese have another version. They claim that Tibet was a rural backwater lacking progress and the possibility of improving the lives of those inside the country. Michael Parenti wrote an interesting article, "Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth" (see the link below), that delves into the subject of the popular imagination and perceptions of Tibet's mythic past, versus a more sober assessment of the reality, and explained that, in fact, far from being a spiritual utopia as if often portrayed and believed, Tibet was a country of crushing poverty, where religious rulers demanded high taxes from the people, in order to sustain their lives of opulence. The Dalai Lama had even admitted that it had been a backwards place, and that the toll placed upon the regular people was likely too high. He, and the Tibetan dilemma that he personifies in general, have become a cause célèbre for many around the world, and this, often highly idealized. This does not always mesh with reality. The Dalai Lama travels the world, and tries to keep pressure on China for greater Tibetan autonomy, and his government in exile hopes to someday return to a Tibet free of Chinese domination. That may not happen, but the Dalai Lama has come to represent an alternative to the militant and distorted propaganda of a notoriously self-serving Chinese approach, and moreover, a rejection of modern consumer-society values. He has become a much revered figure world wide, and is considered one of the noted elders. Still, all of that deification of the Dalai Lama and the has served to muddy the waters about Tibet's past, which was much less idyllic than many seem to assume.
Be that as it may, China came in with guns blazing against a much smaller, peaceful nation that did not even have a real army. Also, of course, China can hardly be trusted to actually tell the truth in such cases, so systematic is the propaganda machine, and their military takeover can hardly be considered a "liberation" in the strictest sense, since they subjugated what had been an independent nation and essentially annexed it. The native Tibetan population at the time have had to sit by and watch foreigners come and settle their land.
Protests against the Chinese occupation are nothing new, of course. But the protests had not been quite as attention grabbing as these. There is just something about this particular form of attention that grabs the attention of cameras and of headlines the world over.
This is not a new practice, of course. This form of protest became well-known back in the days of the Vietnam War. Yet, the shock value of this particular form of protest is more powerful than probably any other. Just the mere thought of being entirely consumed by flames is too horrifying for most of us to really imagine, yet here are some Buddhist monks willing to do just that! They obviously have to feel strongly enough about it to not only take their own lives in such a public way, but in such a painful way, on top of it! Hard to imagine! 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Trayvon Martin

On the evening of February 26th, a 17-year old by the name of Trayvon Martin, on a trip to Sanford, Florida, from his native Miami, was walking to the local shop to buy a couple of items. He never made it back alive.
There was an altercation, and there remains some ambiguity regarding the circumstances of the altercation that led to his death. The only person who knows for sure what exactly happened is George Zimmerman, a 28-year old neighborhood watchman, who was found with a bloody nose and other signs of a physical fight, and who would eventually pull a gun and shoot the young man to death.
Zimmerman claims that he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense, citing a law in Florida that makes it lawful to shoot trespassers on one's property.
However, many people vehemently disagree with that account, and claim that there are double standards in how the case was handled. Also, it appears that Zimmerman might have used a racial slur, which if true, would likely make this a murder case and possibly even a hate crime, and certainly would severely damage Zimmerman's claim that this was self-defense, as he has been consistently claiming.
There are several aspects to this case, which has come to dominate the media headlines, in the age of the internet. Major media outlets were forced to pay closer attention to this case that seems to many to be a clear cut case of racial prejudice and double standards.
Trayvon Martin was walking back to “The Retreat at Twin Lakes ”, a gated community where he was staying. He had an Arizona Iced Tea and a pack of skittles on him, but no weapons. Also, he was on the phone with his girlfriend, and his girlfriend gives a radically different account of the events that unfolded from what she can tell, and she was on the phone with Trayvon, actually trying to tell him to get out of there as quickly as possible. The girlfriend was never questioned by police. Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon dead, never spent a night in jail, or anything. He remains free to do as he wishes to this point, and it seemed that the local police turned this into an open and shut case, presuming George Zimmerman's complete innocence automatically, and eliminating any possibility of exploring any wrong doing on his end.
In New York, there was a “Million Hoodie March”, to show solidarity with blacks who have been victimized by stereotypes, as well as to Trayvon's family. They essentially are talking about the double standards that a young black male would automatically be seen as suspicious and treated differently simply for wearing a type of clothing that is actually quite popular at the moment.
It appears that this case as not as open and shut as the Sanford Police Department, located in the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, seemed to have made it out to be. They accepted Zimmerman's account point blank, and did not appear to scrutinize this episode as much as perhaps they should have, which has subsequently served to discredit them and cast their findings into serious doubt. Whatever people's opinions are, a lot of people seem to agree that the police department could have handled the case a lot better. Zimmerman was taken into the back of a police car, but that was just about the extent of it. After killing a black kid, he did not spend a day in jail, and was essentially set free, presumed innocent beyond even having to be subjected to a serious inquiry, when there was a dead teenager involved.
A lot of people, mostly whites, claimed after the election of Barack Obama that marked the beginning of a post-racial America. When episodes like this occur, let alone the controversy to reactions to it, it seems clear that we still have a ways to go as a nation to reach that point. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Toulouse Shootings and Ramifications

International headlines were made in France earlier this week, when this mad shooter took the lives of Jewish children and their father near a school in Toulouse, and did so ruthlessly.
It was later determined that this man, Mohammed Merah, a 23 year old of Algerian Muslim descent, had also been responsible for earlier shooting deaths of some French troopers, answering an add in the paper from one of them, who was trying to sell a scooter.
The police made the link, noticing that the same gun was used, and that these crimes were likely the product of the same gun.
Suddenly, theories went wild. It was assumed that the shooter was likely a white supremacist, and that these were racial hate crimes from an extremist neo-Nazi type of guy, or perhaps even some group.
It wound up being another kind of extremist, and a hate crime of a different sort.  Mr. Merah was an Islamic extremist, having even trained in terrorist camps, and claimed these shooting to Al-Qaeda, which he claimed to be a member of. He committed the shootings in the name of Palestine. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, for his part, disavowed this, and condemned the shootings. This came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had proclaimed this to be an act of anti-Israel "propaganda".
It obviously generated considerable attention the world over, but it was used as a political football not just internationally, but domestically, as well. It is, after all, an election year in France, and thus, something that drew this much attention would obviously be noticed and commented on.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the current President who is facing a very tough election year which he has been trailing for quite a long time, and who has low approval ratings and is often blamed for not improving, and in some cases exacerbating, France's problems, has tried to maintain calm following the incident, aiming to avert an anti-Muslim backlash.
Another French politician, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme rightist Front Nationale, had been quiet initially, when rumors swirled that it might be a white supremacist. It seemed at first that this was an embarrassment to the party that has often been associated with white supremacists, and so she quietly gave her condolences and showed her opposition to these crimes. However, once it was deemed that the shooter had been an Islamic extremist, Marine Le Pen gave voice to her traditionally anti-immigration stance, proclaiming that tougher measures are needed, and that this is a real problem that needs to be recognized. Having been pressured to silken initially, she was the first major French politician to speak out on the issue.
From my end, I had a sickening feeling, right away, that this would be used by many Americans to reaffirm their own prejudices towards France in general, no matter what the shooter's intentions.
Sure enough, those comments did not take long, either. A coworker of mine mentioned how he thought the French were "pussies" for not simply storming the house and forcing the surrender of the murderer, who opened fire and shot two officers in a shootout, and who later kept negotiating with police, and at some point expressed pride in his role in the shootings, claiming that he had brought France to it's knees, and that his only wish was that he could have had more victims.
It seems amazing to me that the senseless actions of a madman that everyone is trying to distance themselves from, albeit for various reasons, would end up being exploited by many prominent politicians to meet their own end, and to score political points
It cheapens the event and it's victims, and illustrates why politicians are often viewed as snakes. One might almost get the impression that these politicians were waiting around fro something to happen, for some headlines that would finally allow them to react to and possibly make headlines of their own. It did not take long. It shows that such stories are getting less and less shocking, which is to say, they are getting more and more accepted, frankly. Yes, it generates attention, but look at how quickly politicians, international and domestic, utilized this as an opportunity to forward their own propaganda, whatever position they were taking.
Add to that that common folk, such as my coworker, have to chime in and use this tragedy to confirm their own prejudices, disregarding that the shooter was acting out on his prejudices, and the whole thing was just an ugly and tragic event, from the actual actions, which were inexcusable, to the reactions, which were more often than not close to inexcusable themselves. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Cheapest Tickets in New Jersey

Took my son to another Nets game last evening, after an absolutely hellacious weekend, and a Monday that seemed almost to be the cherry to top it all off with. There was a point when I almost thought of not going.
But I do love to go to these events, and the Nets are not going to be in town for more than five or six weeks more, tops. No way that they are going to the playoffs, obviously. They are seven games out, with maybe fifteen or so games left. It is not mathematically impossible. But the way that they played last evening, it was clear that they are just not that good of a team.
They came out flat, allowing Cleveland to jump out and grab the early momentum, and they made good use of it, taking a double digit lead early and dictating the tempo of the game. New Jersey was clearly cold and looking completely lifeless.
It did not help, of course, that there were only a few thousand fans attending in a mostly empty arena. That has always been a perennial problem, of course, but this season, evidently, it has reached ridiculous proportions, as offended New Jerseyans, angry at the impending move to Brooklyn, have made a point of boycotting the games. Ticket prices have literally bottomed out. No joke, I paid a grand total of $2.10 for the pair of tickets yesterday. They were not the greatest seats, but really, how better to spend a couple of dollars, which amounts to basically spare change in most people's wallet? It's a joke.
Perhaps what is even more of a joke is that, given the prices, the games are still so empty and bereft of people, let alone enthusiastic support. It is a strange situation, of course.
I have never paid so little for tickets to a professional sporting event, and it was not a preseason game or anything! It was a regular season game, and late in this season, relatively speaking. I mean, tickets looked cheap, and I figured that it might be an opportune time to see a game. However, the cheapness of these tickets even took me by surprise! How do the people that actually bought these tickets make money, anyway? Is it really a protest against the move? When I mentioned it to a coworker, he almost screamed out that I overpaid! Overpaid!! At $1.05 a ticket, and he is claiming that I spent too much money. Apparently, on StubHub, tickets are on sale for – get this – 1 cent! I mean, what the hell? Granted, the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the New Jersey Nets in 2012 is hardly a marquee match up. Neither team is likely to qualify for the playoffs, let alone have a strong impact later in the season. But still, it is a professional basketball team at the truly elite level! When will I ever be able to get tickets to any such event for literally a couple of bucks and change again? It's 2012, after all, and that's less – significantly less – than what a gallon of gas presently sells for. So, yes, I loaded up on tickets, some good, some not so good (like last night), figuring it would not be a big deal if I paid a few bucks and then wound up not being able to attend the game or games. But no single game was as cheap as yesterday's, and just out of principal, I made a point of going to it. Even parking was cheap, at $5.00, which was more than double what I paid for the tickets, of course. Between that and gas, I paid probably far more on this stuff than the actual tickets!
Anyway, back to the game.
The Nets were being badly outplayed, and it became an uphill struggle for much of the rest of the game. They did claw their way back, and even had a lead at some points, after falling behind pretty badly in the first half, and largely staying there throughout that early part of the game. So, it seemed like they were going to pull it out when they had a lead with minutes to go.
However, perhaps they exerted so much energy on the comeback, that they had little left in the gas tank when the game was tight and the result on the line. Cleveland was able to regain control with a strong finish, and they showed the killer instinct that the Nets have not had in quite a few years now, ever since the days of at least Vince Carter, and perhaps more the days of Jason Kidd, and two consecutive Eastern Conference Championships and NBA Finals appearances.
Those days sometimes feel like ancient history, however, and perhaps never so much as last night. New Jersey has some talent, but they just cannot seem to put it all together. They have bad luck, true. Perhaps their biggest producer, Brook Lopez, is basically out for the entire season. This move, and the negative fan reaction, understandable in many ways as it might be, certainly could not help. A few days ago, the Nets seemed a shoe in to pick up Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic, which would likely have made them instant contenders. Instead, seemingly out of nowhere, he decided to finally end all of the drama by remaining in Orlando, but this meant that the drama in New Jersey continues until the team relocates to Brooklyn.
Who knows? Perhaps when the move finally takes place, and the team is solidly entrenched in their new home, they will have better luck for Brooklyn. Until then, however, the Nets are still in New Jersey, although clearly, they have one foot out the door, as they have these last three or four seasons in particular. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Some Corporations to Avoid....

I am writing about corporations to avoid, because I just saw a list of the top 15 deadliest corporations to avoid, if you can, and it seemed to me that they were missing some corporations. I do understand a few of the choices, though, of course. Haliburton was not a surprise, and I have been trying to avoid that one since first hearing about it, it's no bid contracts in the Iraq war fiasco, and the company's association with our creepy ex-Vice president, Dick Cheney.
Exxon also came as no surprise, as did BP. Even Chevron, and any of the major oil companies. These days, that just seems a given, although sometimes, you have to get your gas somewhere. I specifically try to avoid Exxon and BP already, to the extent possible.
Pfizer also did not come as a surprise, because somewhere along the line (although I cannot remember precisely where), they seemed to pop up on a similar list, and I had heard a couple of things like that about it elsewhere, also.
I had also heard about Nestle, although admittedly, this is a company that I have not made such a strong point of boycotting, or anything. Yes, I have enjoyed a Nestle Crunch bar, or the occasional Butterfinger. But, since that stuff really is not good for you to begin with, maybe I should get a little more active, and health conscious along with that, and add this to my personal list.
Monsanto was no surprise, as well. Genetically modified food is a very controversial issue I the present day, and no company seems to represent this more clearly than Monsanto.
DeBeers, the diamond sellers, is not a real surprise, either. I first heard about the evils of the diamond industry back in the days of apartheid in South Africa (as an aside, perhaps we should remember some of the corporations that so willingly conducted highly lucrative business there during the days of legalized segregation and white domination), back when I was actively keeping up with that issue. But the evils remain, although apartheid does not. Anyone who watched "Blood Diamond" might be a bit familiar with how the diamond process works, and the unethical nature of this. So, DeBeers is hardly a surprise. That said, it is not everyday that I buy diamonds, and I don't know many people who recently have bought diamonds, either. When the time comes again, if the time comes again, then I will try to be more conscientious about my decision, and hopefully be more informed. But that was not a huge surprise, either.
There were some surprises, however. Not shockers, or anything, since corporations are corporations, after all, and in general, their interests are in making money and expanding and increasing profits at almost any expense. That said, some corporations you do not necessarily think of too much, until you find them one day on such a list. Coca Cola, for example. I did not see that one coming. Also, Ringling Barnum & Bailey Circus. Who knew? I am glad I did not purchase those tickets to the circus for my son, Sebastien, because I had been meaning to do that, in fact.
Some of the biggest surprises were in the corporations that did not make this particular list. I mean, I was expecting to see Walmart high on the list. This is a corporations that I have tried to go to great lengths to avoid like the plague. Now, I am hardly rich, and yes, the prices in Walmart are out of this world, simply fantastic. But my conscience bothered me every time that I would shop there, because as good as their prices are, their policies and practices are a reflection of the darker side of that. Hell, it has a whole movie targeting it, and it has come to represent the evils of corporate America more than almost any other corporation. It is, or recently was, anyway, the biggest corporation in the world. I first sotpped shopping there after hearing about one store in particular in Chicoutimi, Quebec, where the workers had finally won a long fought battle for union representation in the store. Within days, Walmart announced the closing of the store, claiming it was not profitable. Not much later, a similar story in Ste-Hyacinthe, Quebec, a town maybe forty minutes outside of Montreal. That angered me, and I tried to stop shopping there, and succeeded, fro maybe a year or so. Then I began shopping there, somewhere around 2007 until perhaps sometime in 2009, I think. It was a drop, and a major one, admittedly. I would buy stuff there, and literally feel guilty about it, until it proved too much. I have not shopped there since late September of 2009, and have no intention of going back.
McDonald's seems an obvious choice, as well. I am not entirely sure that there is a food chain that represents the excesses of corporate greed and disgusting practices as McDonald's. I mean, you think about strange food sources, not knowing exactly what you are eating, and McDonald's s almost a poster child for that. It was merely a few weeks ago that McDonald's made headlines by eliminating what has come to be known as "pink slime". Lovin' it? How about lovin' all of those countless acres of forest, most famously in the Amazon Rain Forest, in order to clear land so that more beef can be produced, so that more food can be produced cheaply, with very detrimental environmental consequences. I have tried to avoid McDonald's like the plague, and was largely successful for quite a few years, until a relapse in 2008 until 2009 (about the same time as my relapse with Walmart). But I have been Mickey D's free since, and it has been a few years since I last went into one of their stores and bought anything. Anyone who wants to learn more about the horrible health effects of such a fast food chain should watch "Supersize Me". I also try to avoid KFC, Taco Bell, and Burger king, personally. Increasingly, Wendy's is edging nearer to this list, as well. I still got here on occasion, because these places target children, and Sebastien, being a child, is attracted, understandably. I try and take him to Friendly's as a treat every now and again, or some other such place. Maybe Dairy Queen, for example. But he does ask why daddy does not go to McDonald's or Burger King, when mommy treats him to these places regularly. That kind of bothers me, but what can I do? I have spoken to her here and there about it, but old habits die hard. Eventually, when he is perhaps old enough and mature enough. I will explain my position to him more clearly, and hopefully, he can make his own decision about it, one way or the other.
In any case, let me wrap this list up, because I am running out of time, and it is starting to get long.  There are plenty of others (don't even get me started on banks, and other financial institutions, for example). It could go on and on, but in the interest of keeping this relatively brief, let me just add the specific link that got me writing on this particular subject, and let you, the reader, make up your own mind on this. Feel free to share any companies that you make a strong point of avoiding, as well. 

15 deadliest corporations:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

An Irish Tradition

So, another St. Patrick's Day has passed. A day to celebrate Irish heritage, something that the author of this piece does not actually have, but still nonetheless honors in his own small way each year.
Usually, my mom will make her once a year Irish dish of corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, carrots. We try to remember to wear green. I got myself a green bagel, and maybe would have gotten myself a green beer, if I had not been working. I have had one or two in my day, but not excessively or anything like that.
Mostly, it is in recognition of a country that is often viewed in almost magical terms. It really has a fascinating culture and history, and there is a certain lore about the place that is hard to dismiss.
I have never been there, but would love to go someday. A land of evidently numerous shades of green that you can really appreciate best as you are flying over it, from what I have heard, thus justifying it's nickname as "The Emerald Island". It is also a land of country fields spotted with the occasional cottage, some charming villages, old castles and ruins of castles, often covered in moss. It is a country of rich traditions and folklore, of music. Ireland is a land of ancient traditions dating back to the druids, to the Celts. It did more than any of the other nations in the British Isles of preserving their past culture and language, although it has not been easy. Gaelic is an official language, but it pales in comparison with English, spoken only by a tiny minority of the population. Still, efforts have been made, and are still being made, to keep it active, and these have been met with some measure of success, at that.
The history of Ireland has always been fascinating as well, if steeped in tragedy. It seems that it is dominated by stories of wars of conquest, of periodic famines, sometimes of epic proportions (a large part of the reason why there are so many people of Irish heritage in countries like the United States and Canada), and of crushing poverty (just read some of Frank McCourt's works, for example).
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, himself famously drove out all of the snakes from the Emerald Isle, and used the shamrock as a symbol that has now largely come to represent Ireland itself. These are not the only legends surrounding him, of course, but they are among the most famous, to be sure. They are the ones that people seem most familiar with.
Ireland has changed a great deal over the years. Dublin is a growing city, and very diverse. Like almost every western European nation, it has been greatly changed by immigration. Many Eastern Europeans have found a comfortable abode upon Irish shores, and the capital city is a huge reflection of that. It is supposed to be a very young city, where everything is new, in a land of ancient traditions and cultures. It is rather ironic.
What is also ironic is that this tiny island remains a symbol of division. Northern Ireland remains predominately Protestant, although it is hardly a wide majority. Yet, the society there remains often strictly divided, and thus, filled with tensions. A lot of people forget, but in the days just before September 11th, when the terrorist attacks would obviously dominate international headlines for a good long while, the international news that was gaining the most attention prior to that came from northern Ireland, when attempts to integrate Catholics and Protestants into the same schools resulted in extreme violence and further division, and were compared with the violence and ugly scenes in the days of legalized segregation in the Jim Crow South, back in the fifties and early sixties. Nor is the controversy restricted to Ireland or Northern Ireland, for that matter. Every now and then, you will still see a 26+6= 1 bumper sticker, and there still exists many anti-British sentiments regarding this issue in particular. Proof that the charm that marks Ireland and it's traditional cultures does not make it immune from modern day political realities, ugly as they may be.
Ireland has punched harder than it's weight in terms of the impact on the world that this relatively tiny island nation has had. A huge portion of Americans, for one, can trace their heritage to the Irish, almost all of whom made their escape from the crushing poverty found in the place at the time. The United States had it's Irish Catholic President in John F. Kennedy, one of the most admired and famous of the Presidents. Irish musicians have enjoyed considerable success the world over, including Sinead O'Connor and, most obviously, U2. It is a land that produced some prominent literary figures, including the giant figure of James Joyce, especially.
So, St. Patrick's Day is over, at least for another year. Many are those who look forward to this traditional drinking holiday, whether they are, in fact, Irish or not. A few years ago, I saw in an Irish pub in Warwick, New York, a countdown clock. This was not for a New Year, in anticipation of some other momentous occasion. It was for the next St. Patrick's Day. I guess it's time to set the clock and begin the countdown all over again, right?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Triple Digits!

So, I got kind of tied up in some of the recent blogs. Tied up enough, that is, that I did not even notice reaching a major milestone:
My 100th blog!
That is an accomplishment of sorts, at least, and it seems that I should acknowledge it in some way. Since this is a blog, what better, more appropriate way, than to actually do so in a blog entry?
It has been a strange way to get there, admittedly. I approached it tentatively, let it lapse, had only a few entries months and months into it, perhaps even the first year, and then just allowed it to blossom and explode with growth after about the first year. Now, it has become a regular part of my writing each day (with a few exceptions here and there, of course), and has afforded me the opportunity to establish the discipline of a daily routine that I have stuck to, for the most part.
Writing is not always easy. When you think about it, in fact, it sounds incredibly, impossibly difficult, in fact. You are creating something out of nothing. Very few things can compare to that. People make things with their hands, things are manufactured. Perhaps some natural resources are dug up from the earth's bowels and then polished and fine tuned, processed and perfected for use. People make other things that do not come naturally. Our lives and homes and garages and workplaces are filled with them. The computer that you are reading his on, and the computer that I am writing this on. The internal wires that carry and communicate this message, quite magically, even. The electricity that it takes is not exactly made by human beings, but the power plants that utilize it certainly are, and we have developed the ability to create energy in new and startlingly efficient ways. I am writing this, and mostly, my writing has come from prior writings, from books and magazines, which are also made, physically (although increasingly, they too are available through that magical kingdom known as the internet, where all of the world's material comforts are available, almost quite literally, at your fingertips. So much that is made or produced. Cars, our homes themselves, the furniture and other household items that fill them. The clothes we wear, the beds we sleep in. The kitchen aids that help us make or refine the foods that we consume. Our wallets, and the money in them (always assuming that there is money in them, of course).
Yes, all of that stuff is made. You can see them, feel them, smell them, even taste them, if you are so inclined. All of these things have been created and, what is more, will continue to be created. They might change, like money nowadays. The American currency looks much different than it did when I was a child, much more colorful. In much of Europe, they now share a common currency, another major shift from the days of my childhood.
Writing is an art, and art can change, too. Art can change because the people making art change. A sculptor might have different pieces that bare little to no resemblance to one another, and perhaps it is hard for anyone to believe that they came from the same sculptor. Ditto for a painter. Ditto for a writer.
The thing about creating something like that is that it really is like a miracle. I mean, you actually are producing something that did not exist before, and would not exist if not for you actually creating it. When it is something in the arts, and hopefully something that you can feel proud of, there really is no higher feeling than that. I have felt it, but not nearly as much as I would like to have felt it. Hopefully, I will feel it more often in the future.
This blog has helped in that facet, though. It has allowed me an outlet where I feel comfortable writing and sharing my thoughts in a forum that can, and has, be viewed by others. I am not exactly a great salesman, and am particularly nervous when it comes to sharing my thoughts. Never assumed that most people would agree with my line of thinking, based on past experience, and I am guessing that I never will. Still, it is nice to write something that may be read by others. Nice to see the beginnings of a body of work in one place.
My own blog, and it is starting to have a bit of history. It is starting to be relatively extensive. One hundred entries, and the vast majority of theme are considerably lengthy, not merely a sentence or short paragraph about things. I have tried to approach it with care, and to really get absorbed in whatever it is that I am writing about. It has been varied, of course, because these are a reflection of my eclectic tastes. I can write about politics or religion, but am comfortable writing about lighter things, like sports or movie reviews, as well. Perhaps an exhibit, or simply some other thoughts.
All the while, I am trying to maintain some writings separate from this blog, of course (that would be the fiction, as well as some other things), it nonetheless feels nice to be able to open something with my name and my writing style attached to it, and see words written by 9who else?), yours truly.  Sure, it's not a book, like I have long dreamed of. It is not even an outside publication, like when I wrote for the school newspaper, or the local paper, the "Neighbor News", many years ago. I am not even really seeing my name attached to it in any direct sense – although I have been meaning to actually add a  biography and "About the Author" section, or whatever it is called on this blog site.
All I am saying is that it is nice to have at least something of an outlet for my particular creativity, which would be writing. To anyone reading this – always assuming someone actually is – I hope you have been enjoying it, and hope also that there will be plenty more for you to enjoy! 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

America's "Image is Everything" Problem

Yesterday, I meant to start talking about America's image problem, and meant merely to introduce it with the origins of this saying by briefly mentioning Agassi's use of it in the early nineties, and then essentially giving a very short history of why it seemed that he was dismissed as being only image, and nothing deeper. Instead, I wound up talking at length about Agassi, going on for pages and pages, and decided instead to dedicate the entirety of my writing to him, since I had, surprisingly, quite a lot to say about him.
However, it was meant to focus more on this country and what has been going on just lately, because America's image has been taking a hit, left and right, and if Americans simply stopped and took a more serious, less superficial look at how they are truly perceived around the world, I think it might shock them.
I had an old classmate, a kid who was picked on really badly back then, and we are now Facebook friends. It does not extend beyond Facebook at this point, but I remember him being quite political way back then. Not much has changed. He considers himself a conservative Democrat, and was mulling over the idea of leaving the Democrats not all that long ago. That is fine by me, personally, since I am neither a Democrat or a Republican. In fact, I think that Americans tend to focus too exclusively on the two parties as the only real choices, and not enough on the limitations of narrowing their choices to two parties. Ultimately, almost every election cycle comes down to “the lesser of two evils”, or, more appropriately, “the evil of two lessers”.
Indeed, that is the truth. But this guy, he has made many claims, and some of them raise my eyebrows from time to time. One thing that he mentioned was just prior to the Oscars. He mentioned that this was the reason the entire world hated us. I am guessing that he meant the Hollywood glitz and glam, the superficiality, the money, the plastic surgeries and the actresses that starve themselves to look beautiful, and the false facades all around. Indeed, that would be one aspect of American culture that can be rightly criticized.
Yet, it occurred to me that this is such a small part of the overall American culture, and fixation on this, demonization on this, seems to tend to detract from criticism of other, more substantive, issues. When you focus almost exclusively on this, you are missing the larger picture of what is going wrong with America today, and why the image of the United States, once stellar and impeccable just decades ago, is now tarnished, probably permanently.
It is about far more than Hollywood, Hollywood glitz and glamor culture is more of a symptom of it, than the source. No, American culture has spread like wildfire around the world, and yes, this includes Hollywood. But it would be far too oversimplistic to just single out Hollywood as the reason, or the source, of the world's hatred to us. In fact, what he seemed to illustrate better was the fixation of many Americans towards certain aspects of American culture that they do not like, and then claiming that anyone with a shred of common sense would automatically agree with them. That, typically, dumbs down the argument.
If there is one thing about American culture that I really dislike, it is this very tendency to dumb down arguments, to take complicated issues and simply them enough that knee jerk, often xenophobic, close-minded, even redneck attitudes tend to define them. That we are, at least for now, the most powerful and influential nation in the world, and that we hold such viewpoints and indeed carry them in our hearts as if they are indisputable facts, is also an indication of a larger malaise, one that is not so easily defined by simply pointing to Hollywood.
I think America's biggest problem is that it is simply too big, too powerful, and that people here have been closed off for entirely too long from any other viewpoints, really, but their own. Most Americans cannot see beyond their borders, almost literally. It is like anything that happens outside of America is irrelevant to them.
That is a recipe for disaster, and it is not only closing one's mind off to things, but also blindfolding oneself to other examples, both the successful ones, and the failures. It is refusing to learn from anybody else, and there is a good way of describing that: being pigheaded.
America has it's fair share of problems, and it will take a while to diagnose them. But I think it is overdue, and it needs to be done in a serious manner, not in some lighthearted, or frivolous manner, as many Americans tend to do.
I am running out of time, so I will have to make this part one, and to be continued over the course of future blog entries.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Image is Everything"

Back in the 1980's and early 1990's, rising tennis superstar Andre Agassi, then with a full head of hair and a colorful and sexy image, was a magnet for attention of all sorts, and he obviously received many willing and even eager sponsors. Among these were Canon, who wanted to promote their superior level of cameras, and who made Agassi do all sorts of things, showing him in action and then freezing the picture, with the accompaniment of a kind of clicking sound that a camera might make, showing him frozen in a picture forever. After several of these, the "rebel, rebel" Andre Agassi would smile at the camera and proclaim that, indeed, "Image is everything!"
It came to be ironic, because for a long time, Agassi was known as a tennis player more focused on his image off the court, then what he did on the court. He was a very talented tennis player, with perhaps more natural tennis ability than anyone else, but he always seemed to fall short of glory. This was never more obvious than when he engaged in one of the epic clashes against Pete Sampras, who, if anything, was the complete opposite: a guy who seemed to be bland and boring in terms of image, dressing without any flash or pizzazz at all, but getting the job done, time after time, on the court. The British initially did not like him and called him "gloomy", but he ended up winning Wimbledon in Britain seven times, a modern record that even the great Roger Federer has not yet equaled, let alone surpassed. He won those seven titles, and added seven others (five US Open and two Australian Open championships, respectively) to establish a record fourteen Grand Slam men's titles. He also finished with the number one ranking for six consecutive years, from 1993 until 1998, also a record that has yet to be surpassed by anyone (again including the great Federer). I personally believe that Federer was better overall, and although Sampras was not my personal favorite tennis player, you certainly have to give the man his due. Although many of his records fell to Federer, and although Federer's list of accomplishments may be greater or perceived as better overall, he was not able to overtake Sampras in every category. That's saying something.
Agassi was supposed to be like that, but he never quite reached that level. Now, mind you, this is not to say that he was not a great tennis player, or that his list of accomplishments on the court is somehow something to be scoffed at. Far from it, in fact. He ended up winning eight Grand Slam championships himself (not too shabby), and reached fifteen overall. He became only the fifth man ever to win the career Grand Slam (winning each of the different Grand Slams on each of the different surfaces), a record that Roger Federer and Rafel Nadal have both matched. He also become the first man to win the career "Golden Slam", winning all four major Grand Slams and the Olympic Gold Medal. He finished 1999 with the top ranking for men, finally ending Sampras's streak with a brilliant year, and if you combine all of the different times during his illustrious career that he reached the number one ranking, it amounts to just shy of two years overall, which places him quite high on the list of all time greats. He was the youngest man to ever reach the number two ranking at 18, and the oldest man to reach the number one ranking at 33. He won more majors than anyone in history at the time, a record that I believe still stands. In short, he enjoyed a storied career, and finished with some of the most incredible accomplishments of any tennis player, ever.
Yet, that early problem with his image was the one obstacle that he never really was to fully overcome. People expected him to just win, to sail to the top of the men's field and stay there for a good, long reign of the king of tennis. Yet, he kept losing his first Grand Slam appearances in the early nineties. He watched other men that seemed to come out of nowhere and win the top rankings, including Stefan Edburg, Jim Courier, and then Pete Sampras, who turned out to have considerable staying power of his own, as it turned out.
Agassi was able to break through, finally, by winning Wimbledon in 1992, but then he returned to his old form, and did not reach another major, let alone win another one, for over two years. Then he caught fire, winning two consecutive Grand Slams and reaching the umber one ranking for the first time in his career in 1995, staying there through much of the year. He faced a familiar opponent, Sampras, in the US Open Final, for what was in fact a battle for the number one ranking. Agassi lost, and pretty badly, and you could read the despair on his face. It was a loss, and a bad one, and he did not recover for over four years, with only one truly bright point between then and 1999, when he won the Olympic Gold Medal in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Other than that, it was largely a disappointment. That was the early part of his career, and although he undeniably had enjoyed some great accomplishments, most people viewed him as an underachiever.
He managed to redefine himself to a great extent, breaking through with a miraculous run in the 1999 French Open, which he was finally able to win, after losing the first two appearances and after spotting his opponent in the 1999 Final, Andrei Medvedev, a two sets to nothing lead. Agassi came back from all odds to win, and he sank to his knees in tears after this match, glad just to reach such an opportunity again, long after many had written him off. From that point onwards, his career took an entirely different turn. He went to the Wimbledon Final a few weeks later, and although he again lost to Sampras, who by then seemed unbeatable on grass, he still seemed in relatively good spirits afterwards. He had a tremendous year the rest of the way, winning the US Open and culminating in the number one ranking. He hung onto it for over a year straight, and started off 2000 by winning the Australian Open for the second time. He did not repeat the feat of winning the year end top ranking, but he did win the Australian Open again in 2001, and a final time in 2003, by which point he was 33. He also made it to many Grand Slam Finals during that time, winning some and losing some, but he made it as far as the US Open Final in 2005 after a truly amazing run and some incredibly epic matches, eventually taking on red hot Roger Federer and seemingly having a chance to beat him midway through, until Federer was able to regain control and, eventually, turned the match into a rout. The next year, riddled with injuries, he decided to finally call it a career, and began what seemed to be an amazing run in the US Open, beating then young up and comer Marcos Baghdatis in a thriller. But it ended with him in tears, losing to, as he called it, "B. Becker of Germany" (no, not that B. Becker, this one was named Benjamin, and his list of accomplishments was considerably shorter than that other B. Becker). By then, he was viewed almost as an elder statesman of the game, and as a truly enlightened figure off the court, having opened up a school for disadvantaged kids in his native Las Vegas.
Ultimately, he proved to be more than merely about his "image", although some never really seemed to forgive him his lack of a work ethic or drive to win in those early years. This includes, most notably, Jimmy Connors, who went against the tide after Agassi won the French Open in 1999 by claiming that Agassi did not deserve to be mentioned "in the same breath" as other great tennis champions such as Sampras and himself (yes, he mentioned himself). Thus began a trend that would last literally until that final day of Agassi's career, when he made that last walk through the tunnel and into the locker room filled with other tennis stars who gave him a standing ovation – with one notable exception – Jimmy Connors. So, not everybody was won over, apparently.
Really, though, what does it matter that Jimmy Connors did not ever give Agassi his due. Maybe he was just bitter at having had his butt handed to him against the young and surging Agassi, he of the hair era, back in the late 1980's   The things that Agassi had accomplished, both on and off the court this time, were more than admirable, and he won the respect and admiration of many millions the world over. He had held himself in dignity, and showed a generosity of heart that he shared with his wife, another celebrity, but a considerably less flashy one this time – Steffi Graf. He wrote a beautiful book, an autobiography, that was inspiring and insightful to tennis fans (such as the one writing this piece). So, he had managed to finally change his trademark "image is everything" moniker that had haunted him earlier in his tennis career, even if a few people, apparently including Jimmy Connors, are not happy about it and still refuse to acknowledge this. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"In the Name of God"

According to those religious values, indeed, almost everything would fit into the all-encompassing label of "pornography", since in their view, almost all of it detracts from what the Church is teaching, what the Bible has to say.
When they say that there is a "war on religion", they are not wrong- from their perspective. Since they view everything not religious as a threat to religion, they wage war on it, and o we are engaged in a war on religion, but not of our choosing. Religions simply have to accept that not everybody will be a believer, and not everything will back up the church.
Look at some of the most unstable parts of the world today, and it seems that religion is, ultimately, almost always front and center as the focal point on the instability. Look at Israel and it's neighbors in the Middle East. There is constant discord in this region, because of conflicting, and evidently incompatible, religious beliefs. Look at many of the Islamic Republics that tend to go to such extremes, based on their alleged religious convictions. Look at India and Pakistan, and the rivalry largely based on traditional religious differences. Look at the United States presently, for that matter. Look how much religion seems to play a part in the increased divisiveness. The so-called "red states" include the so-called "Bible Belt", while the so-called "Blue States" are allegedly where God is absent, not present in the everyday of the community.
Yes, many of those may seem like generalizations, but is there not some grain of truth to it.
We can look throughout history, as well. We can start with the Bible, where Jesus was alleged to have been crucified as punishment for holding different religious viewpoints than his community. Christians that followed him continued to be persecuted in the early going, being fed to the lions in Rome. Eventually, however, the Empire of Rome itself became Christian, and they went to war against the pagans that surrounded the ever expanding empire, although eventually, these pagans themselves took over Rome. Then, these pagans eventually converted to Christianity as well, much like the empire had (yes, it sounds a bit complicated, doesn't it?). In the meantime, a new religion, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, was developed in the Middle East and quickly expanded, taking over huge tracts of land and building an empire itself. People had to convert to this new religion, known as Islam. In many areas, such as in India, people were put to the sword if they refused to convert to the invading religion. The Christians wanted to get their Holy Land back from the Muslims, and set about on Crusades, a series of wars in hopes of regaining control over their Holy Land, and the Muslims fought back against these "infidels", so they were all fighting ferociously for what they believe, and all in the name of God. There were Islamic invasions of Europe, of course, as well. Eventually, there was a rift among Christians in Europe, as the Protestant Reformation came about, and naturally, this brought about further war in the name of God. In the meantime, a New World had been discovered, and pilgrims brought their new religions to these lands, made their new homes their, and called the native population "savages" for not believing and living as they did. Conquistadors brought down an empire and tore down some of the old and historical buildings of these empires in an attempt to spread their Christian beliefs and, oh, by the way, to enrich themselves. This colonialism spread not only to the "New World" of the Americas, but also to much of Africa and Asia and Australia. Missionaries followed everywhere, undeniably doing some good, but also doing some bad, inadvertently or not. There were backlashes against this, of course, but overall, missionaries began to take an increasingly pronounced role in history, in places as far as Africa and China, and the Americas. Is it surprising that they often grew powerful and rich in the process? Religions spread, particularly Christianity. Wars and instability raged on as well. Their was the Dreyfus Affair in France, showing anti-Semitic views were simmering not far beneath the surface in France. Not too much later, anti-Semitism flared up and exploded in Germany. Jews were forced to wear yellow identifying Stars of David as identifying markers on their clothing, were forced into ghettoes and remained strictly separated from the dominant, majority culture, and eventually, as anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe, Jews were killed by the millions. Those Jews who survived, went to the Holy Land to try and create their own state, and they succeeded in establishing the modern state of Israel. Of course, this did not sit well with the neighboring Muslim countries, as well as the native Muslim majority at the time, living in Palestine. Wars followed. Religious fanaticism grew increasingly rampant in the Middle East, and eventually, there emerged a revolution in Iran that rejected Western values, in favor of a new Islamic Republic of Iran. It was the first of many such movements, which eventually included the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who blew up historical Buddha statues because they were deemed to be icons against Islamic faith. Yellow identifying markers were required of the relatively few non-Muslims inside of the country, which now hosted training camps from religiously fanatical terrorist groups. In the meantime, there was a new wave of religious revival here in the United States, as well. Previously well-defined separations that nobody prominently questioned were suddenly threatened, as religion began to permeate the popular culture. Not surprisingly, things grew more divisive, both here and abroad. When the United States responded to the attacks of September 11, it was seen by many to have religious undertones, which were not quelled when then President George W. Bush, who was a devout Christian and claimed that God wanted him to be President, and that God was on his side (rather than hoping that he was on God's side), slipped and used the word "crusade". The United States got involved in various conflicts in the predominately Islamic Middle East, and it remains there still. Take a look at what happened in just this young year (it's only mid-March!) in Afghanistan: a video of American soldiers pissing on the dead corpses of alleged terrorist suspects became prominent news and sparked outrage, but not as much outrage as the burning of Korans on an American military base, and many Afghanis protested on the streets over that. Then, just when relations were deteriorating to the point that it seemed it could not get worse, a major and senseless, indiscriminate shooting took place just this past weekend, as American soldiers apparently killed 16 Afghanis sleeping peacefully in their own homes. Most of the victims were either women or children. Yet, despite this, there is serious debate in the United States presently about possibly going to further conflict in Iran, and possibly even Syria, as leading Republican candidate bring their religious convictions to the political front, and criticize Obama, claiming he has engaged in a "war on religion".
Got all of that?
I did not even mention the controversy of the religious war on science and the expansion of human knowledge, which seems to be the one thing that devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all agree on.  I did not mention the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan. I did not mention the sex scandals of priests regarding many cases of little boys being abused by priests, or of the Vatican's steadfast refusal to really acknowledge, let alone apologize, for these instances. I did not mention the poverty and hunger and ignorance that run rampant in this world, while too many religions prominently display their wealth and power. Just look at the Vatican, filled with priceless artifacts and with it's own treasury and riches beyond counting! Was that the fulfillment of the vision that Jesus had hoped for?
One of the lowest people that I ever met was a devout Muslim. He wore his religion on his sleeve, and told about how important it was to him. He claimed that if you did not "believe" as he believed, you were doomed to spend the entirety of eternity in the afterlife burning in Hell.  He talked about the beauty of his culture, and particularly of their clean living. Yet, I never met anyone who went to such lengths to try and belittle people at every opportunity. Quite literally, every opportunity, and that is not an exaggeration. He was one of the worst people that I have ever met, and I wonder if it ever occurred to him that he was hardly practicing what he preached in his own personal example with the life he was leading, since he was needlessly making a point of trying to make the lives of others more difficult. He is only the most extreme example of numerous such people I have met.
I am not anti-religious. I am not, really. However, religious beliefs, to me, should remain intensely personal, and not advertised on one's sleeves, not used specifically to divide people, to take a "holier than thou" approach, particularly since it claims to elevate people. All too often, it seems to have the exact opposite effect. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Review: Michael Koryta's "So Cold the River"

It is a decent book, and once you get caught in it, it can be addictive. It is a book that mostly takes place in the real town of West Baden, Indiana, as well as French Lick, the more famous neighbor town that is best known for being the home of basketball superstar Larry Bird. These towns each have famous and rather grandiose hotels that seem largely out of place in rural Indiana, and delve a bit into the local history, including the origins of the hotels that remain in the towns, less than a mile from one another. It also delves into the springs and the mineral water that, for a time, was sold almost as the miracle product of it's age, until it was deemed to be mostly just a laxative, and a not so powerful one, at that. It was a good book, and an enjoyable read, mostly.
That said, I felt that Michael Koryta was a bit vanilla with his characters, who remained largely stereotypical good and bad. In the comments to promote the book and author, he was compared to Stephen King. However, it seems to me that such comparisons, while not entirely invalid, are perhaps a bit misplaced.
I am not the biggest fan of horror, necessarily. Not that I mind it, and I pretty much enjoy anything that is of a decent quality. It's just that horror is not necessarily my thing, if you will. So it may seem strange that Stephen King would rank among my very favorite authors.
That said, open up a Stephen King book. Read some of it, and you will likely see what I find so appealing about his writing. I enjoy his ideas, sure. Enjoy his horror, or his focus on the supernatural, or death. He makes no bones (bada-boom!0 about it himself – that is clearly a field of interest.
Yet, his writing style offers much more than that.
Do similarities exist between Stephen King and Michael Koryta, specifically with this particular book, "So Cold the River"? Yes, absolutely. The comparisons are not entirely misplaced. At least, not to a certain degree, anyway. The book is about tapping into ghosts and such spirits, if you will. It is about a very grandiose hotel in particular. Not quite as isolated as Stephen King's Overlook Hotel from "The Shining", but there certainly are parallels. Plus, Koryta's style of writing, even , can be quite reminiscent of Stephen King. At times, I could see the resemblances in style, in wording, and such, no doubt about it.
There are similarities. Yet, what struck me, the reader, throughout reading this book were the differences. That was what really stood out for me. You see, Stephen King's specialty would be his character building. That is his real forte, and I'm not sure anybody does it better. King does not shy away from things that make his characters more real. There are times where perhaps he has made cliché characters are well, but they are few and far between. In fact, as I write this (admittedly, not with a Stephen King book in front of me for anything resembling research, or anything), but I cannot think of an example of any clichéd characters of Stephen King. Some strange characters, sure. But every single one of his characters, including men, women, and children (even some animals, such as dogs, every once in a while) seem remarkably believable. He pays attention to detail, in a way that many authors do not. He might talk about a character of his wearing underwear of the pee-stained variety, for example. He may talk about a character completely immersed in his political beliefs, either more liberal or more conservative, and he does so convincingly. Maybe one of his characters is of a certain religious persuasion, or maybe their faith is failing (as in Salem's Lot), or perhaps even entirely absent. His characters are perhaps pigheaded, or too strong, too weak. They are not always entirely successful in life. In fact, most of them are struggling, and not just financially. Many of his characters are stuck in crappy jobs, or crappy relationships.
Koryta opens with a character that, if I describe it right away, would indeed soun like he has many of the same believable elements as a Stephen King character. Yet, let me just say this upfront and directly: something is missing. It is not that his characters are entirely unbelievable, or too perfect, or anything. They are flawed, but they are flawed in a strange kind of way. Almost, too idealistic, or perhaps stereotypical way.  It is not bad writing by any stretch of the imagination (he is a published author of a major work, after all). Yet, somehow, his character building did not quite grab me the way that Stephen King's characters tend to grab me. I did not lose myself in them, or feel, as I often tend to feel with King or other authors, that it almost felt like a vacation from myself. It was hard to completely lose myself in the book like I do with some other authors, and I think I know the reason why.
I think it is because he does not entirely let his characters go free. Yes, they are flawed, but they are flawed, if you will, in very stereotypical ways.
Just before I read this book, I read another that really swept me off my feet. It was not from one author, but from two. A combination, sort of a tag team effort, if you will. It was called "Cell 8", and I even wrote a review on this blog about it. These two men collaborated on a brilliant book that really was a page turner, and had very believable, and flawed, characters, that gave me a more "real" feel, if you will. The characters were imperfect, had their own demons to deal with. But they had their own thoughts, they disagreed with one another, and inevitably, one or two of them disagreed with the reader, no matter what the reader's political or religious persuasion, because some of the characters were on polar opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of their political thinking in general, and of one issue, the death penalty, in particular.
Now, the death penalty is a divisive issue, at least, in particular, in the United States. People hold strong opinions about the issue, and it often seems that there is little to no arguing with them on it. The authors, Roslund and Hellstrom, were able to capture this stubbornness, as well. They did not shy away from a serious issue that would generate a lot of controversy and possibly arguments, and they did not pull any punches in portraying the United States and many perceptions from the outside that it is an arrogant power, carrying on like they own the world, and can do whatever they wish with relative impunity, even well beyond their national borders. On the flip side, they are very critical of their own Swedish nation and government, and criticize it for seemingly always backing down to greater political pressure. Not absent in their writing was the politics behind everything, for the fictional events that took place in the book were mostly set in motion by politics –specifically, by political ambitions and posturing, and doing whatever it took to say in power, whether in "capitalist" United States or "socialist" Sweden. There is enough in there to generate controversy on both countries, as well as perhaps others outside of the two, as well. That's taking a chance with writing, and although it is fiction, they are also tackling larger truths. It is the essence of art, I think, this level of honesty. Some people would claim that fiction "is not real". But read a book like that one, and then read the newspapers, the headlines, or listen to political speeches, and then come back and tell me what sounds more "real".
Stephen King takes such chances with his writing, as well as in real life. He came out against the Bush Administration time and again, and he even writes about it quite a bit in his books, directly or indirectly. In fact, "Under the Dome", which was one of his longest, and I think one of his best, books, was all about the United States in particular, and the world in general, the way it is going. He attacked what he felt was a closed mindset, and that takes guts. It also takes honesty. It is admirable, and moreover, it is believable. Also, he makes in enjoyable to read. So did Roslund & Hellstrom. So did Larson, in his historically minded works that read like fiction (such as "The Devil in the White City" and "In the Garden of Beasts"), but which he also seems to be able to weave to illuminate their relevance with present day issues and realities. That was the real beauty of the writing, in fact.
Truth be told, I did not get this same sense out of "So Cold the River". Yes, there are questions about ghosts and the supernatural, and these remain controversial. Yes, the characters struggled with their own demons, as well, and their was somewhat of a "real" feel to it.
Yet, the defining trait for me in reading this book was that it was merely meant as a "fun" book, one not to be taken too seriously. There were some elements of history to it, about French Lick and West Baden, Indiana, and about the hotels that sprang up in these two remote, farm country towns. It was not poor writing by any means, and was in fact enjoyable more often than not.
All I am saying is that it did not quite go to the next level. It remained in the "safe" zone, so to speak, and after reading a book like "Cell 8", which was about the superficiality of much of American popular thinking, thinking that rarely scratches the surface on major issues, it just perhaps seemed a little too "safe" for me. That goes for the book itself, and the authors that populate them. Not a bad book, and it did make me want to visit these little towns in Indiana, and their grand hotels, and even the springs. But it did not get me to think about larger issues or allow me to lose myself in great fictional characters made very believable, like I did in "Cell 8", or like I tend to do when reading a Stephen King novel.