Thursday, April 11, 2019

January 2019 Reading Recap

The first month of my reading year, and I finished six books, three children's books, and two periodicals. The books I finished were:

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy * * * * 1/2

Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips * * * *

The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz * * 1/2
A disappointing thriller has a young mixed race woman returning to where her famous poet father died in the Mississippi Delta, and investigating his "suicide." The reader never gets to know the protagonist, the first one hundred pages stagnate, and the climax basically involves a supporting character just kind of saying "oh, here's what happened." Sprinkled with preachiness, and you will tire of hearing about how different life is on The Delta, Benz seems lost in her own story. And no, one of my parents was a fourth generation Mississippian, so I am familiar with the state and its history. I'm not someone who has no life experience in the deep South. Of course, life sure is different out here on The Prairie.

It's Getting Harder and Harder to Tell the Two of You Apart by Casey Renee Kiser and Johnny Scarlotti * * * 1/2
A poetry chapbook where the verses are free form and interesting (although Kiser's obsession with mirrors is obvious), but I did enjoy reading it.

The Martin Chronicles by John Fried * * * * 1/2
An outstanding blind pick is the story of a New York boy growing up in the 1980's, told through a series of vignettes that jump back and forth in time. I think I am the same age as the character Martin, and Fried captures the teenage angst perfectly. I was sorry to see this boy's story end, I can't wait to list this as one of the best books of the year in a few months.

The Trailsman #365: High Country Greed by Jon Sharpe * * 1/2
Yet another ghost-written Western adventure featuring Skye Fargo, this was an easy read. I used to read the series during the slow times at a call center job I had over two decades ago, and nothing has changed- 150 pages or so of bloody violence, some sex, and evil bad men.

Children's Books:
Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)
David Goes to School by David Shannon (* * * 1/2)

Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment September 2016 (* * * 1/2)
National Geographic History September/October 2017 (* * * 1/2)

Completed Reads Ranked Best to Worst (year):
-Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips (* * * *)

-The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (* * * * 1/2)
-The Martin Chronicles by John Fried (* * * * 1/2)
-It's Getting Harder and Harder to Tell the Two of You Apart by Casey Renee Kiser and Johnny Scarlotti (* * * 1/2)
-The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz (* * 1/2)
-The Trailsman #365: High Country Greed by Jon Sharpe (* * 1/2)

-National Geographic History September-October 2017 (* * * 1/2)
-Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment #170 September 2016 (* * * 1/2)

-Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
-Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)
-David Goes to School by David Shannon (* * * 1/2)


Reading Diary: January 21-January 31, 2019

What I read this week (and a half):
-It's Getting Harder and Harder to Tell the Two of You Apart (finished)
-National Geographic History, September-October 2017 (finished)
-The Trailsman #365: High Country Greed (finished)
-The Martin Chronicles (finished)
-How to Win Friends and Influence People
-Strength to Love
-David Goes to School (finished)

WHAT DID YOU READ?? (year): 1 non-fiction book, 3 novels, 1 novella, 1 poetry chapbook, 2 periodicals, 3 children's books

Completed Reads Ranked Best to Worst:
Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips (* * * *)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (* * * * 1/2)
The Martin Chronicles by John Fried (* * * * 1/2)
It's Getting Harder and Harder to Tell the Two of You Apart by Casey Renee Kiser and Johnny Scarlotti (* * * 1/2)
The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz (* * 1/2)
The Trailsman #365: High Country Greed by Jon Sharpe (* * 1/2)

National Geographic History September-October 2017 (* * * 1/2)
Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment #170 September 2016 (* * * 1/2)

Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)
David Goes to School by David Shannon (* * * 1/2)

Reading Diary: January 14-January 20, 2019: 227 pages

I'm curtailing the blogging on my reading a bit, just to give me more time to read. From here on out, I'm just posting stats every Sunday!

Pages Read (week): 227
-The Gone Dead (189 pages) finished
-How to Win Friends and Influence People (38 pages)
-The Martin Chronicles (0 pages)
-Little Faith (0 pages)
Pages Read (year): 615
Children's Books Read: 2

WHAT DID YOU DO?? (year): 1 non-fiction book, 1 novel, 1 novella, 1 periodical, 2 children's books

Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips (* * * *)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (* * * * 1/2)
The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz (* * 1/2)

Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment #170 Sept. 2016 (* * * 1/2)

Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)

Reading Diary: January 7-January 13, 2019: 195 pages

I did finally finish the two and a half year old issue of Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment. I bought the issue for a pricey almost ten dollars simply because of the cover story about author Shirley Jackson. What I got was a very surface article that I could have cobbled together from ten minutes of DuckDuckGo researching. The rest of the magazine was very good, despite the one Trump joke. Wow, how edgy, a joke about Trump...yawn. Paul Joseph Watson is right- Conservatives are the new counter-culture. My next periodical is the September/October 2017 issue of National Geographic History...yup, I buys me some magazines, and thens I hang onto them for months and years at a time!

I also finished Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips. A great little volume about God, The Bible, and churchgoers. You can read the full review HERE. My next non-fiction book is another change of pace. I ordered some books online a while back- five books that "every successful entrepreneur should read." First up from that group is Dale Carnegie's classic How To Win Friends & Influence People. I've heard about this book my entire life, so I am looking forward to reading it!

Finally, while I am making my way through the novel The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz, I am not enjoying it very much. I'll cover more in my review once I finish it, and I'm hoping it will pick up steam here soon, as I am only a third of the way through it.

Pages Read (week): 195
-The Gone Dead (106 pages)
-Plain Christianity (65 pages) finished
-Rue Morgue Periodical (24 pages) finished
Pages Read (year): 388
Children's Books Read: 2

WHAT DID YOU DO?? (year): 1 non-fiction book, 1 novella, 1 periodical, 2 children's books

Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips (* * * *)

Rue Morgue: Terror in Culture & Entertainment #170 Sept. 2016 (* * * 1/2)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (* * * * 1/2)

Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)

Book Review: Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips

John Bertram Phillips was an English Biblical scholar and translator who wrote extensively about the Bible. He also suffered from depression, which plagued him his entire life (1906-1982). So how did I end up reading Plain Christianity, a short transcript of radio addresses he gave in Great Britain and Australia, first published in 1954?

Like a lot of my books, I came across this library-withdrawn volume in a book lot off of eBay. Theology books sometimes do well, sometimes do not, but if you are ever interested in Christian reading, and can't get to your local independent or Christian bookstore, try throwing some offers out on eBay. I came across a ton of reading material this way.

Phillips is best known for translating the Holy Bible into modern English vernacular. Plain Christianity's talks are nothing heavy and ponderous, but also not simplistic and pandering. He mentions in a very brief introduction that they have no literary merit and are conversational in style. This completely works to the Christian theology reading novice. His subjects range from practicing Christianity to his more familiar field of Biblical translating. He doesn't lecture the reader, and provides a ton of insight that I never thought before concerning my own religious beliefs- like calling out lapsed churchgoers for not heading back to church based on their Sunday School vision of who God is, ignoring His infinite greatness. I love the point he makes that God is too vast to be a certain denomination. God is not a Lutheran or Methodist, His believers are.

While the subjects have quite a range, this can easily be finished in one sitting. It's a very interesting little book, under one hundred pages, but Phillips does well with such a big subject. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Tomorrow, I will be posting my weekly reading blog, and revealing my next non-fiction book to read. Thanks for reading!


Reading Diary: January 1-January 6, 2019: 193 pages

I started and completed the Bantam Classics version of The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. The novella was only 99 pages, but I am also including the 34 page Ronald Blythe introduction in my total! You can read the full review HERE. My next fiction book will be the novel (in Advanced Reader's Copy form) The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz.

I did start Plain Christianity by J.B. Phillips, another short book. This book consists of radio sermons Phillips gave, and should be another quick read to start off the new year. Finally, I cracked open the September 2016 issue (wow, I've held onto this thing for almost two and a half years?!) of Rue Morgue: Horror in Culture & Entertainment, reading every article, and will finish it very soon. I also read two children's books belonging to my daughter, who at one year old, is more concerned with chewing on the pages than looking at the pictures. These I will not be including in my page total, but I am keeping track of them just because. Just a brief diary entry this week, I hope to get more read next week, and post every Sunday night. Thanks for reading!


Pages Read (week): 193
-The Death of Ivan Ilyich (99 pages plus 34 page introduction) finished
-Plain Christianity (22 pages)
-Rue Morgue Periodical (38 pages)
Pages Read (year): 193
Children's Books Read: 2

WHAT DID YOU DO?? (year): 1 novella, 2 children's books

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (* * * * 1/2)

Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton (* * * *)
Indestructibles: Baby Faces by Kate Merritt (* * * *)

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

I felt a lot of trepidation going into my first Russian novel. I have heard, and myself joked for years, about such massive tomes as War and Peace, full of hundreds of characters and thousands of pages. Luckily, and not by choice, I picked up the much shorter The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which clocks in at a reasonable novella link of 99 pages, and the Bantam Classics version has a 34 page introduction by Ronald Blythe. I'm glad I did. While this was published in 1886, it contains observations about life and death that are still relevant over one hundred and thirty years later.

Author Leo Tolstoy was going through a bit of a spiritual crisis after his publication of Anna Karenina. He didn't write any fiction for nine years, obsessed with his own mortality as family members around him were dying or ill. His reactions to their passing is mirrored in this novella- the story of a high court judge who is blindsided by a terminal illness, and the selfishness of friends and family who surround him.

The opening pages are almost comical, as friends gather to pay their respects after Ivan's death (no spoiler, it's the title of the book!). His widow is fishing for government pension assistance while Ivan's body is lying in domestic state, and other friends are put out because the funeral service is cutting into their nightly card game. There's a meme floating around, asking why someone would keep working for companies that will simply replace you if you died tomorrow, and I was reminded of that as I read the opening pages. We are then given a brief sketch of Ivan's life, and we find out he was actually a decent guy. He works his way up to being a high court judge, fair and balanced and very popular. His home life is a mess. He has two surviving children (two died very young), and a wife he has come to loathe. He is financially strapped, despite his high profile job and higher wages, spending too much money on a suite of apartments to appease the high society he has become a part of. After banging his side, and not getting it treated, he begins feeling pain but works through it. He consults doctors too late, as his injury goes from a simple bruise to a terminal illness, with learned doctors poking and prodding and blaming his excruciating pain on all sorts of ailments. He finds relief in his servant Gerasim, who cleans out his chamber pot and even let's Ivan rest his legs on his shoulders to provide relief. Ivan is drawn to this pure kind soul, as is the reader. Ivan gets worse, and soon he faces the most horrible thing someone dying can face- regret (as a follower of Gary Vaynerchuk, this also speaks to today's society, and again, was written one hundred and thirty years ago).

Tolstoy's descriptions and plot are all compact and easy to understand. I was never overwhelmed by his literary style, only having to look up a few words a couple of times. The translation by Lynn Solotaroff is not awkward in the least, I kept forgetting that English was not the original language of the source material. Blythe's introduction does get wordy and bogs down here and there, but it is important to read first before starting the novella. Excellent background about how death was viewed in nineteenth century Russia, and how Tolstoy himself saw his own impending end ('we're all going to die so make the most out of this life' is another cornerstone mantra of Gary Vaynerchuk's inspirational and sometimes foul mouthed videos on YouTube) is covered. Tolstoy himself would eventually die in a rather bizarre way, alone at a train station, where he had fled to escape the materialism that surrounded him, longing for a simpler existence.

I'm still weary of reading giant epic Russian novels. I received this book in a batch of classics off of eBay for pennies a tome, but I am glad I read this one. The first book completed of the new year, and already one of the best! I give The Death of Ivan Ilyich (* * * * 1/2) out of five stars.


Book Review: The Indifference of Heaven by Michael Allen Rose

I guess a disclaimer is in order for this first review of the new year based on the final book I read last year (yesterday): I've known Michael Allen Rose for almost two decades now. I went to Minot State University with him back when I was going for an English teaching degree, or something, to get out of my retail warehouse job (I didn't get that degree, and ended up doing warehouse work for another fifteen years). I think we appeared in a couple of plays together, sharing some scenes but never any dialogue. He moved to Chicago a while back, and has been on a writing and performing streak since- see, I can Facebook stalk too! His novella, "The Indifference of Heaven," came out in the summer of 2018, and I snagged it, since I like to support friends' and acquaintances' literary and musical efforts. I'm still a writer, blogger, and critic first, so just because I know Michael doesn't mean he gets a pass from me. When I was an online film critic and website editor, I would get shocked emails from film makers who would send me their crappy film, and then get mad when I wasn't falling over myself praising it ("I sent you a FREE DVD, but I guess we'll agree to disagree"). I would become friends with some of them, before leaving full-time film criticism for good. What's I'm saying is- while I like Mike, I start with a blank slate when it comes to his book. The good news is is that I really enjoyed "The Indifference of Heaven," and in a nostalgic way:

George is a typical bar owner, the kind we see romanticized in movies and on television. He has regulars and employees straight out of "Cheers" and Billy Joel songs, but he literally has to get his hands dirty keeping what he calls his second home clean- and that includes the public bathrooms. Thanks to seeing my best friend play in bars in and around my home state, I've witnessed some horrific facilities, the kind that eat away at your very soul. George's bar bathroom seems a little better than that- stalls covered in graffiti, and so on.

He notices one stall in particular that doesn't feature the usual jokes and rhymes. It's almost an entire short story written on the door. As he looks at it a little bit, before he cleans it off with bleach water, it isn't really a short story at all. It reads like a confession to a murder. He copies down the words, washes the door down, and tries to forget about it- until the confessional rantings continue the next night in the same stall on the same door. Soon, the words and images begin invading George's home life, as his brain succumbs to the nightmarish ramblings, and a terrifying dream world starts invading his safe awake world- or are his two worlds really one and the same?

I don't do electronic devices when I read (I tried, but it wasn't for me), and in this case, the physical book format works better. The font that the bathroom scribblings are in is a little creepy on it's own, looking innocent and mechanical when describing a horrific murder and it's aftermath. The novella is set up as George's diary, taking down "evidence" in case law enforcement or anyone else needs this information should something happen to him. Michael throws in a story from one of George's regulars, known as The Commander, that seems out of place until you realize George is grasping at straws, recording everything, hoping one of his regulars or employees will fess up to this unfunny joke.

I mentioned that I enjoyed the book in a nostalgic way. I'm not casting aspersions, but "The Indifference of Heaven" reminded me of Stephen King's drug-addled output of the 1980's. I read everything King wrote, right up to "Insomnia." I inhaled it, and all of my frantic high school and college short stories read like King's did- half-baked ideas, really fast wrap-ups, vulgarity, and lots of italicized F-bombs. Michael doesn't fall into that same structure trap, but we get as deep into George's head as King used to take us into his characters' minds. This is pure psychological horror, done very well. I gravitate toward a lot of Avant Garde and Dadaism in my reading, but I don't pretend to get the Bizarro genre. Reading the novella took me back to a purer time, when I grabbed anything with King's name- before his mainstream experiments and political tweets.

Michael keeps his story flowing assuredly, building the suspense and compelling the reader to go on. Even The Commander's story is terrifying, although the reader figures out the supernatural aspect of the confessions before George does (and thankfully we don't get a bunch of creepy stories from all the regulars, with an Agatha Christie-like unveiling at the end). The confessions themselves ran long in a couple of spots, and I wondered why George would copy all of this down to begin with- something he does right away instead of giving it a few good washings before realizing there is more here than meets the eye.

Over my fifty years (ugh), I've been surrounded with creative people- artists, musicians, and especially writers. I've tried my hand at fiction, but mostly stick to nonfiction now, the internet explosion finally gave me a tiny audience who read what spills out of my brain. Michael writes books and stories, gets them published, and people read them. He also plays music and is a performance artist, and his home life seems as creative as his professional life. He's living the dream, and I couldn't be happier for him. I give "The Indifference of Heaven" (* * * *) out of five stars.

Book Review: Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

Although first performed in 1956, I found a lot of contemporary connections to this infamous play.

Jimmy and his wife Alison work menial jobs, hanging around on weekends with neighbor and close friend Cliff in the couple's teeny-tiny attic flat in England. The play never leaves this claustrophobic setting, and right away the audience is introduced to Jimmy's mental abuse toward his pregnant spouse (she hasn't told him), and best friend. Why does Jimmy act this way towards people he supposedly loves, and why do they seem to tolerate it? Playwright Osborne offers no answers except through the actions of the characters, and even then nothing is explained away in a revelatory way.

I think part of the criticism of the play has more to do with the hatred toward Jimmy than anything. I wanted to backhand him almost immediately. He isn't a nice person, and Osborne never provides a sympathetic scene for us to come around with. It's a mystery why Alison sticks around, although she does leave the marriage at one point. These characters are spinning their wheels and wasting their lives, talking big but not following through on anything except tearing each other down. Osborne provides more than physical stage direction, he instructs the actors as to what the characters are doing and thinking, providing...I don't want to say "insight," but awareness as to what (especially) Jimmy is doing, what he's trying to accomplish through his constant berating and verbal attacks, with a couple of physical altercations thrown in for good measure.

I'm glad I wasn't in this play in my acting days in college. There are many long stretches of dialogue that frankly would have been very tough to break down and memorize. Although I briefly lived in England in the early 1990's, some of the references were over my head as well. The play was turned into a film, but I've never seen it. I've heard about the play for decades, and finally read it when a copy fell out of a classics book lot I won on eBay. I give it (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

I don't plan on starting anymore books or reading until the new year, and then I hope to keep a diary blog of everything I feast my eyes on! I don't like making resolutions, per se, but I am determined to read a massive amount of material in 2019, just for kicks and giggles. Keep an eye out for that, and click on any of the affiliate links if you can, every cent helps! Thanks for the read.


Book Review: Life's Amazing Secrets by Gaur Gopal Das

I think I have been having an existential crisis lately, turning to all sorts of gurus and self-help books. Many have helped me (Gary Vaynerchuk, Dave Ramsey, Jay Shetty), but many of them use their charisma to sell you a webinar or book. I stumbled across Gaur Gopal Das' videos on YouTube. Here was such a sincere man, with a simple (not simplistic) message, and I was hooked on these few minutes of wisdom he was broadcasting. When I found out he had written a book, I snatched it up immediately.

Using the framework of being stuck in traffic with a new friend with some very old and universal problems, Das compares balancing one's life to the four tires on a car- when one is low on air, then the other three also suffer. The four "wheels" are personal life, relationships, work life, and social contribution. While the conversations with friend Harry are sometimes stilted, the knowledge and truth that Das is speaking of make all the sense in the world. I am ashamed to say I know we should treat others kindly, forgive, etc., but we need reminders like this to bring us back around, especially in this day and age. Das is as human as you or I, bringing up stories from his own life when he showed some very un-monk-like behavior. Practicing spirituality doesn't make you wishy-washy and weak, Das points out, but if your example can cause even one person to change their behavior, then maybe eventually the world could be that "better place" we always seem to strive for?

Das doesn't talk down to his reader, and he doesn't turn Harry into a magically enlightened being after a two hour car trip. Practicing what Das preaches will take time, work, and effort, but seeing the sincerity in this monk's eyes on YouTube, and reading it in his book, makes you believe you can do anything. No, you're not bulletproof, or can shout down an army (Das makes a surprising argument for seeking justice as well as forgiveness against someone who has wronged you), but maybe taking a couple of deep breaths, and calmly dealing with today's drama will have a positive effect on your life and the world around you.

The book is an easy read, and I even found out a few things about life in India that I never knew! I do recommend it, giving it (* * * *) out of five stars. Watch this blog for other reviews coming in the new year!


Book Review: If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

I love when a blind pick out of a pile of Advance Reading Copy books proves to be not only a wonderful surprise, but speaks to events going on in my own life right now. The narrator is an unnamed postman living in Japan (the novel was written in Japanese, and then translated into English by Eric Selland). He is writing a letter/last will and testament to the reader, since he has just received news that he has terminal cancer. He is estranged from his father, and his only companion is his cat, Cabbage, a favorite pet of his late mother.

Enter a doppelganger named Aloha. He makes no mystery about the fact that he is the devil. He looks just like our postman, except he wears loud Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and sunglasses perched on top of his head (hence his name). Aloha makes a deal with the postman. The postman must eliminate something from the world, and his life will be extended one day. As the postman tries to deal with an ex-girlfriend, and trying to put off such a monumental decision (his first choice is to eliminate cell phones), Cabbage is suddenly gifted with speech, and then the postman must not only face his own mortality, but also try to make things right with those he has hurt over the years.

No, I don't have terminal cancer, but reading all the emotions running through the head of the narrator had me thinking back to my "stress episode" from this past autumn. The postman has an obsession with films, something I had right up until a couple of years ago. The last quarter of the book is an emotional roller coaster as he begins to realize that he has no legacy, much less no one to leave it to. Aloha, while he is the devil, lets him in on why he has such obnoxious, un-demonic characteristics. The best scene occurs midpoint, when the postman goes to a video rental store and must break the news of his impending death to a good friend, who reacts exactly how we imagine any of our own friends would react to this kind of news.

The book is not a dark, Faustian nightmare. There are no bloody scenes as cell phones, and then clocks, disappear. On the other hand, this is not a "Bruce Almighty"-like romp, full of goofy physical comedy and pandering preaching. There is a happy middle ground found here, and I can see why this short novel sold tens of millions of copies in Japan, as well as being made into a film.

Maybe it doesn't help that I read this at the exact same time I was reading Gaur Gopal Das' "Life's Amazing Secrets: How to Find Balance and Purpose in Your Life." I guess I'm having an existential crisis of my own, and my subconscious steered me to these two books. I'll be posting a review on Das' book soon, and Kawamura's novel isn't available in this country until next spring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, almost finishing it in one sitting. Out of five stars, I give it (* * * * 1/2). Thanks for the read, and watch for more blog entries and reading diaries when we ring in the new year!


I Watched This, and Was Taken Aback: "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" (2016)

It's not a masterpiece, the pacing drags, but putting human faces on such a political football really hits home. Being an Air Force Brat, I'll never know what my father went through in service to his country (or any of the generations of military veterans I descend from), and I have family members who just can't hunker down and tell stories about combat. I don't automatically assume they have PTSD like I do (from childhood trauma not associated with combat or military service), so I can associate with not blabbing about things that you have seen or have had happened to you. I can joke once in a while about what happened to me, but usually only to my wife. The men who tried to save Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012 had friends and families, and their onscreen loss is palpable, but obviously not nearly as tough as what their families went through in real life. I've been a worrier all my life, and would sometimes fear that when my father would leave to go fly, I might not see him again. If anything, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" answers Clinton's oft-quoted line "what difference at this point does it make?" While she has been misquoted and taken out of context, the film shows that there was no support sent. The situation was a bureaucratic nightmare, with way too many initialed agencies with their spoons in the pot (and we sit and wonder why this twenty trillion dollar debt looms over the country).

As to the film itself, Michael Bay's normally flashy direction is almost restrained. The pacing does suffer, but the performances all around are excellent. Clinton and Obama are never mentioned by name or referred to in the film, the soldiers in the line of fire aren't arguing politics and blaming candidates. This was the most real aspect of the film. They worry about their families and whether they will see them again (I can't even imagine having the Internet and cell phones back in the Cold War days of the 1970's and 1980's; that kind of communication ability is exciting to see for today's military personnel). I give the film (* * * *) out of five stars.

"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is MPAA rated (R) for physical violence, strong gun violence, strong gore, profanity, mild sexual references, and some adult situations.

I Watched Four Short Films, and Was Mildly Entertained: "Film-Fest DVD: Issue 4- Hawaii (2000)

I picked up a DVD entitled "Film-Fest 4" (a 'video magazine') at a local thrift store for $2. The disc covered the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, complete with interviews with Kevin Spacey, Johnny Rotten, and Heather Graham. While I did skip those talks, I did watch the four short films that were included on the disc (which also had ads for a couple of websites, both of which are long dead).

"Call Me Fishmael" (1998) Directed by Steve Dovas
This okay animated effort is only three or four minutes long, and is a Hollywood pitch about a singing sea monster who sounds like Mel Torme. Ends just as it wears out its welcome. (* * *) out of five stars.

"Enchanted (Verzaubert)" (2000) Directed by Christian Ditter
A German effort with no dialogue, a young man trims his hair before heading to a library to see his cute female crush he hasn't spoken to. His young siblings take some of his discarded hair, glue it on what looks like a Ken doll, and are able to unknowingly control his movements with this rudimentary voodoo doll. In black and white for no reason, and it makes it's little joke early and often, but the cast is likable. Basically, another short film that ends just in time. (* * *) out of five stars.

"Protest" (1999) Directed by S.D. Katz
Breathtaking visuals of massive elephants throwing themselves off of tall skyscrapers in a city quickly gives way to a conservation message that feels tacked on. Impressive right up until then. (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

"Jorge" (1998) Directed by Joel Hopkins
The longest of the four films on the disc is a standard romantic comedy buoyed by nuanced performances by Tunde Adebimpe and Loreni Delgado. Adebimpe is George, who meets Alicia when she comes to temp at his travel agency. The pacing is very slow, however, and the ending left me unsatisfied. (* * *) out of five stars.

All in all, the total running time of the films came in under fifty minutes, and while I have seen worse films, I was surprised at the "meh" level I felt for what I watched. All the film makers are still working today, but almost twenty years ago, this must have been quite a boost to their careers!

I Watched This, and It Was Poor In Almost Every Category: "Desires" (2017)

The opening scene has a young girl under the age of ten bringing herself to orgasm. I'm not sure if the film makers were going for madcap romantic comedy, or Eurotrash softcore erotica, but they failed at both. The characters are absolutely hateful. Watching this family didn't elicit sympathy, but repulsion and pity, with no payoff in the end of the film (as opposed to something like "Dogtooth"). Explicit sex scenes add nothing except to tease the viewer into thinking they could go full on hardcore at one slip of the camera. The characters are disposable people, wrapped up in their selfish lives, without consideration for each other or the audience. I will say the cinematography is top notch: beautiful, colorful, and clear enough to spot a fake sideburn a mile away. Other than that, this cold choice off a streaming service was a very bad idea.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I Read "A Christian Should Never Be Discouraged" by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Liked It

This brief transcript of a sermon, delivered by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, argues that thanks to God, a true Christian should let the frustrations of life get them down.

Effectively using Beethoven and an anonymous parishioner as examples, Peale speaks that just as a person has a plan to build a house or business, you also need a Christian based life plan in order to fight life's discouragements that come your way. Peale also calls out "shallow" Christians who can go to church for decades but never "get" the type of Christianity needed to battle discouragement. He doesn't believe in turning the other cheek, he wants us to tackle life's trials with a Jesus-based can-do attitude.

At only twelve pages, this small pamphlet (which I found tucked in another Christian book) isn't a how-to manual, but a why-not answer to a mass dilemma. You're discouraged? Are you following God's plan for your life? It's as easy as a flow chart- yes, a true Christian can deal; no, a shallow Christian cannot. A quick, inspirational read.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

I Watched This, and Wished I Hadn't: "Foreign Exchange" (2008)

I raided a couple of auctions on eBay, and got just over one hundred DVDs for less than a dollar each. Among the interesting looking movies (whoa, a Criterion disc?), there's a lot of filler to get through. The film "Foreign Exchange" is one of those films.

Four writers were inexplicably involved in the creation of this nightmarish "American Pie" rip-off. Four horny high school senior dudes are obsessed with sex, and get assigned four foreign exchange students, all of whom have a profound effect on their lives...sorry, I made that sound a little more serious than it is. Mainstream character talent like Jennifer Coolidge, Curtis Armstrong, and Clint Howard embarrass themselves in some of their worst work (and in Howard's case, that's saying a lot). The young cast might be familiar to television watchers, I recognized one actor from an "iCarly" episode, but they look lost and uncomfortable, especially one scene where three young actresses must flash their breasts after losing a bet. The scene is cringe-worthy, and the expressions on their faces is heartbreaking. The jokes are misogynistic to the extreme, as the dudes sit around wondering why they can't have serious girlfriends before treating the women in their lives like crap. Racism runs rampant as well (one Asian female is constantly referred to by her last name- Ho...I know, right?); and strap yourselves into your easy chairs as an actual scene centers around the word "Bush," referencing both the political family and the slang term for pubic hair! Oh, stop!

The direction is awful, and I think all the interior scenes were lit by desk lamps and whatever other lighting sources happened to be around. I literally picked this disc off the top of a stack currently sitting on my dining room table, and the only bright spot is that I watched the R-rated version, and not the presumably longer "unrated" version. You've probably never heard of this thing, and you're lucky.

"Foreign Exchange" is rated (R) by the MPAA for strong profanity, nudity, sexual content, strong sexual references, adult situations, and drug and alcohol use.

I Watched This, and Was Amused: "The Rapture" (1941)

The very serious narrator consistently asks "are you ready?" in the somber but unintentionally humorous "The Rapture" (which has no credited cast or crew aside from the producer) from 1941. While the second coming of Christ is not rich with comedic material, simplifying the rapture down to literally vanishing waiters and milkmen is.

The film does eventually address missing family members, and how life on this planet will not be pleasant after the Rapture, but at that point, the viewer is lost, asking questions like "what if my Amazon Prime package doesn't arrive on time during this rapture?" instead of "am I ready?"