Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Look. Up in the Sky!

A few weeks ago, I got pretty sick. This hybrid flu/black plague/Klingon chicken pox thing that has been going around and is so bad this year. The combination of Nyquil and Codine-laced cough syrup really gave me the chance to contemplate life. That and watch a bunch of movies. One of them was a recently released DC Comics movie, Superman vs. the Elite. It’s based on a Superman comic book story called What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? I’d forgotten about the story until I watched Superman vs. the Elite. I’m not really here to do a review of the movie (other than it’s awesome) but it really got me thinking about a lot of things that have been going on lately.

In it, Superman faces off against Manchester Black and the Elite, a new group of superheroes who are more brutal than Superman. They claim they are a superhero group for the 21st century, willing to kill those villains that Superman just arrests, willing to use the full expanse of their powers to stop those they really view to be a threat. They initially get acclaim, becoming more popular that Superman because of their willingness to kill. The story ends with Superman fighting them, appearing to agree with their more brutal methods, but he uses his super-speed to pull the members of the Elite out of harm’s way before actually killing them. (oh, yeah... spoiler for a 10 year old comic book) He shows people that violence isn’t always the answer (by outsmarting them) and that he’ll continue to fight for his own ideals.

I guess I kind of gravitated towards this story right now because of the reminder of the upbeat message. Not just the non-violence method... this isn’t some anti-violence rant. But lately... we’ve gotten kind of cynical as a country. 20 kids are shot, and the first reaction is putting more guns in schools and arming teachers. (I should probably clarify that I’m a FAN of Die Hard, I am not, in fact, John McClane. Thank you for thinking of me.) Someone we don’t like is running for President, rather than coming up with a passioned defense of why we should vote for the other guy, we immediately attack just about everything from how they dress to whether or not they look like the Joker (The crazy scary Heath Ledger version, not the fun, whimsical Jack Nicholson version). Our heroes manage to let us down. And I fear our reaction is to let it get us down, think the worst of people and just sort of sigh and let it weigh us down. Even more.

Superman has always been a story of hope. Think about: Superman can do anything. He’s super strong. Super fast. Super everything. And he uses that power to help people. And he does it without killing them, despite the fact that he can bat around an eighteen wheeler the same way an Olympic Team might cheat at badminton. Yep. We live in a world where we’re coming off an Olympic badminton cheating scandal. We live in a world where badminton is an Olympic sport.

Moving on.

Superman was losing against the Elite not because they could overpower him (he proved that) but because he was starting to doubt himself. That part is extremely easy. Not the losing to a guy who can read minds, but doubting yourself. It’s easy to get defeated, we all doubt ourselves. And it just seems to be getting easier to be defeated and to doubt ourselves. Lord knows I’ve been doing that more than I should lately.

But... and this was the main theme of the movie... you can’t doubt yourself. Superman is Superman not because he wears the cape, but because he’s the eternal optimist. He puts Lex Luthor in prison because he hopes against all hopes that Lex Luthor is eventually going to use his vast wealth and intelligence for the forces of good, not for the forces of Lex Luthor. 

As the world gets scarier, it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to fall into self doubt, and we break this cycle of getting more and more cynical. We need to stop thinking that the only way to combat cynicism is with more cynicism. Hell, how many scientists immediately run out and disprove that your favorite movie could happen? It seems like that’s all they do lately, while avoiding curing that cancer thing or making a diet soda that actually tastes great. Yes, I’m aware that there will never be an Incredible Hulk. I don’t want to know the science behind it. I want to watch him punch a giant alien spaceship. That’s why I’m in the movie theater. (A lawyer also went and found out how binding Biblo’s contract was in The Hobbit. If you needed more reasons to hate lawyers.)

So, take a chance. Just take a chance on a little optimism. Try not fighting fire with fire, and hoping for the best, rather than expecting the worst all the time. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see how great we can be.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Not Featured: The Real Princes of Disney Castle

This weekend, I treated myself to a movie. I decided to go see the delightful new romp, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters which imagines the pair after they’ve grown up and developed their bloodlust for witch. (And it is very anti-eating a candy house you find in the woods.) Me being me, I decided that this can’t be the only story worth telling that continues a popular fairy tale. So here are a few more.

Jack The Giant Security Consultant. After breaking into the Giant’s castle and stealing the magic harp and the goose that lays golden eggs, Jack decides to sell his services in showing other Giants just how he was able to sneak in, and how they can defend from other home invasions. 

Humpty’s Revenge. Horses and men, dying one by one. A scrambled egg, rising from the grave. Sheer terror.

Belle the Beast Whisperer. Having trouble training your beast? Belle decides that having tamed the Beast that was her prince, she can use this power to help other beauties that were mercilessly sold by their fathers to horrible beasts. She’s able to tame them, and if possible, break any curses associated with them. Comes to it’s natural conclusion in Belle: Brother Husbands when they all live together in one giant castle.

Red Riding Hood: Animal Rights Activist. Feeling guilty that a wolf was murdered to save her life, Little Red Riding Hood makes her Grandmother’s house a base of operations for the Storybook Land chapter of PETA. She’s driven insane when she’s forced to choose between the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs.

Cindy Boo-Boo. Not wanting her children to grow up with the same life that she had, Cinderella decides to enter them into every children’s beauty pageant she can possibly find. Luck strikes when they hit a reality show contract.

Fairy Godmother: Agent of M.E.R.L.I.N. Following her successes in bringing Cinderella to the ball on time and turning Pinocchio into a real boy, the Fairy Godmother is drafted into a super secret magical spy agency. She’s eventually teamed up with an older wizard who’s only days away from retirement. Can they get along?

Pinocchio, My Life as a Puppet. Stirring drama in which Pinocchio doesn’t just live his life saddened as he no longer has anyone pulling the strings, but he makes a special trip to find Kermit the Frog and liberate him from his life of puppet-dom as well. Watch the emotional journey as a love triangle forms between them and Ms. Piggy. Gonzo and the Swedish Chef also star.

Prince Charming is going to Die Hard. After coming home from a hunting trip, Prince Charming finds that Show White’s has been kidnapped by Hans Grueber, and locked in their castle. Can he get the castle guards attention? Who will help him? And why did he take off his boots to relax?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Report: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

When I decided I was going to go full on with this whole “writing” thing, I took a step back and thought about who I really enjoyed reading. I love Dave Barry, if you couldn’t tell from the fifty times that I’ve mentioned it (in only 118 posts... not bad.) I like Richard Russo... Empire Falls still holds a warm place in my heart the fourth time I read it. I like filmmakers like Kevin Smith (I haven’t mentioned him just yet) who are able to capture what I’m feeling at any given moment.  But there’s one writer that I don’t just really like... I really want to try to emulate. I want to be a writer as good as this one day. That writer is Steve Martin. 

Steve Martin is a great comedian and actor who’s managed to write some amazing stuff. He wrote The Jerk, a great movie. He wrote Bowfinger which not only managed to make Eddie Murphy funny again, but also managed to satirize reality shows back before reality shows were a big thing. He has written some amazing novels that are funny as they are thought provoking. But one book still stands out in my mind as one of the best that he’s written: An Object of Beauty.

An Object of Beauty is about a young woman, Lacey Yeager as she sleeps/works/scams her way through the art world in the early 1990’s headed straight towards 9/11. The novel itself is told through her friend, Daniel who only has a small part in the novel, but tells the story anyway. As he says early on: “I have found that-- just as in real life--imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience” letting us know that while this story is unabashedly Lacey’s, he is going to tell it to us (for reasons that are clear towards the end of the book.)

It’s obvious that Martin did his homework on the lofty idea of what “art” is. He goes into such detail about some paintings, but he manages to do it in a way that’s not off-putting or makes you skip ahead thinking, “Great... another art lesson.” You actually start to care about the facts, you start to think about how important art is. Which really helps to drive sort of the conflict between Lacey and Daniel (if it can be called that) which is how he really feels the way she treats art is to sort of devalue it. Martin gets us to really care about art that we never really get to see and appreciate, and then pulls the rug out from under us as Lacey does what she does.

There are some really good twists later in the book, particularly ones that focus on what I mentioned, with Lacey and her ultimate devaluing of these pieces of art we’ve learned to love for hundreds of pages. It’s important to remember that while I call these “book reports” because I want to analyze the books, I want a forum to devour them; I want you to read these books, so I don’t want to spoil EVERYTHING. (Maybe I should consider getting a group together. Maybe a “club” of people to “read” and analyze books before we devolve into drinking wine and shouting at each other.)

Martin’s writing is once again incredible. He’s able to put tiny details into an interesting way that in lesser hands would have you scratching your head or maybe counting the pages until the book was over. But he’s also able to make things funny in a way that’s undoubtably Steve Martin... there were times when I caught myself laughing out loud at a few moments. But almost instantly he’s able to move us back into the book, caring about what is going to become of Lacey even as she does some terrible things. (She’s not the most likable of protagonists. I don’t think we’re supposed to like her. As Daniel may have some lost feelings for her, I don’t think he likes her much, either.)

Ultimately, though, the book is able to convey the problems that arise when you start attaching value to different objects - any objects - of beauty.

I’m sure many of my friends are tired of me recommending me this book at every chance. I’m going to keep doing it... you should read this book. It’s a fantastic read and by the time you’re done, you’ll want to find something similar to read, but you won’t be able to because this is a unique book. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

So They Found Out Your Girlfriend is Fake....

Recently, a young athlete from Notre Dame, Manti Te’o was duped into believing that the young woman that he started dating online and died a noble, tragic death and giving him his great love story wasn’t actually dead or his girlfriend. Or he made the whole thing up to have a tragic story for everyone to follow and the whole thing blew up in his face. (Because that’s what we do now. We make up a soap opera-esque story for everyone to follow, hook’em with that, and then sit on the bench for the Jets all season when someone realizes we can’t play.) Either way, everyone will have a laugh, take a few pictures with their arms around no one will really care because he can play a game really, really well. 

However, since the whole thing blew up he’s really be handling it poorly. He’s denying everything, he’s saying he was duped, and going anywhere people will talk to him so they know he was duped. I mean, he’s not the first person to be caught with a fake girlfriend who lives just far enough away that she can’t meet your friends. I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point or another, making up something that we wish we hadn’t. But what’s really important is how you handle it.

The first step is to not admit to everything to quickly. The first thing Te’o did was deny that he’d ever met this woman, despite the fact that many, many news stories talked about their magical meeting at the end of the Stanford game, and he never took a moment to correct anyone. Most of us aren’t going to have stories written about the first time we fictionally met our girlfriends, so most of us won’t have to talk about how it’s the truth until some fact checker does their job and finds out that it’s not true. Don’t admit it. Remember - there’s the truth, then there’s what we can convince people. 

Double check where you get your pictures. I joke about my girlfriend, Emma Stone, all the time. If I show anyone a picture of Emma Stone, it’s pretty obvious that I pulled it from Entertainment Weekly and just photoshopped myself into the picture. She’s never really re-enacted episodes of Star Trek in my basement with my cats. (She would make a pretty cute Captain Picard, though....) Double check your source materials, people. Even if you pick “random” pictures, they’re pictures of a real person. Make sure they’re not in your circle, or it’s going to be pretty awkward explaining why you have pictures of your best friend’s cousin’s roommate’s brother’s girlfriend sitting on your desk. 
Social media is your enemy on this. You were supposed to be having a good time with your fake girlfriend in Boca Raton at Spring Break, but you just HAD to post all those pictures of your risotto for one during that time. I mean, I’m sure it was good, but it just exposed you. Here’s what you do: you just say that you posted everything to Myspace. You’re just getting ahead of the trend and waiting for it to come back. No one will double check this. If they do, head to Friendster, if any of it still exists. If people still continue to check, change your name. It’s a lot less hassle than trying to remove your presence from Social Media.

Love letters, fake clothing, and sending yourself flowers may be old-school, but they can be effective at throwing people off your scent of admitting. How can they ignore the extra large cuddle teddy bear? Plus, if you order a large one, you can hide in it when things really hit the fan. It worked for Sean Connery in The Avengers that came out a few years ago. (The bad one. Not the cool one with Mark Ruffalo.) But you don’t remember that Sean Connery was in one of the worst movies ever made. And people will be thrown off as you hide in your giant teddy bear suit of armor. As a plus, you’ll look extra cute.

If all else fails, hire an actress. Look, there are a ton of actresses that can be hired out as fake girlfriends, and if romantic comedies have taught us anything, they’ll end up falling in love with you after you win over the woman you’re actually trying to make jealous by having a fake girlfriend to begin with, then you realize she’s not the one you’re want to be with, and you can go back and win the actress over with a big romantic gesture as she slowly walks away to the indie soundtrack. Ah. True Love.

(Side note: this post may seem a bit mean spirited, since yes, I am focusing on Te’o and his fake girlfriend. What’s more mean-spirited is trying to get the edge on the NFL Draft by having a story - one with factual errors you never correct despite countless new stories reporting it - using it to play on everyone’s sympathies, then crying “victim” when you are found out. This is part of a larger trend that is the sad price of reality shows: it’s not enough Te’o can play a game well, but without his story then he’s like all of the other people who can play a game. He needed a hook. A story. So he came up with one, and was found out. And he didn’t come clean.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The National Mall

Today is a very special day... it’s Inauguration Day! Now, while I speak about politics from time to time, it has to do with education and politics, so no, I’m not going to speak about Inauguration politics. I don’t really care about that. To be honest with you, some dude won, and now he gets a big party. It gives me a day off, so I’m happy about that. However, it’s the side effect of the big party... the influx of tourists... that I’m not so happy about.

Now, there are two ways I can deal with it. Silently seethe behind my book as I fight my way though the mob, or I can publish the Bad Shakespeare Inauguration Tourist Guide! If you’re reading this... well, spoiler alert, it’s the latter. (What did you think I was going to do? NOT put together a Bad Shakespeare Inauguration Guide? It’s like you don’t know me.) Here are some helpful tips for those newbies coming to Washington DC for the first time.

-Those moving stairs at the Metro are called “Escalators.” May God have mercy on your soul if you dare stand on the left. This assumes that you are fortunate enough to find one that is actually working.

-Yes. The Metro will leave without you, and it will not leave with a full train. (I’d like to say this is just a joke, but this is based on something I actually saw. Those two people were REALLY mad that it left without them. And the station manager didn’t care. Ah, the cycle of transportation in Washington DC.)

-It’s called “The National Mall” but there’s not one JC Penny, Macy’s, or any other store. That joke isn’t funny. It’s never funny. We’ve heard it too many times. You’re not being funny by saying it. Please don’t say it.

-While I’ve been focusing on the Metro a lot, there are a many different ways to get to the National Mall. If any of them involve “driving” or “taking the bus” then you may be “out of luck.” 

-There are roughly eighty kabillion people that are about the cram themselves on the National Mall today. You’ll want to get there early, probably pack a snack. Also, shower. Please, for everyone’s sake  - shower.

-If you stay past Monday to take in the sights, please remember that we all have to go back to work. This means you’ll get to view Rush Hour. This is not a light fun action comedy starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, this is actually a horrible nightmare of an experience that we have to deal with twice a day, every weekday. It’s akin to salmon swimming upstream except we pray for a bear eating us. If you see us during this time, do not attempt to engage us in eye contact or friendly banter.

-There will be plenty of knock off shirts and merchandise for you to purchase. I’m sad I didn’t think to make more things sooner. Next time, my friends. Next time.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mini-Book Report: The Imperfectionists

A washed up stringer. An over-zealous copy editor. A not-quite inventor slash assistant editor slash lacky. An obsessed reader. A nervous newbie. These are just a few of the characters that we meet in the Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists

I have to say, I loved this novel. It’s the story of an unnamed English language newspaper set in Rome, and the lives of the different staffers. What makes this so brilliant is the fact that each chapter is a character study of a different staffer, with the chapter slowly focusing on just the one. What’s great is that it’s written in such a way that when characters do cross over - and they do, after all they all work in the same place - it feels like you’re revisiting an old friend and finding out what they’re up to.

Having each chapter focus on a different person is a tricky prospect, but Rachman is able to do it in a way that moves the story along. The novel, while a collection of short stories, also tells a larger story of this now failing newspaper, and why it was really founded. I was initially skeptical of a story told this way, but it ended up just being a really interesting way of telling a story.

There’s also the fact that it is genuinely a funny novel. There’s some drama... an early story is actually kind of sad. But Rachman does a great job of balancing the the drama with funny. 

It’s really easy to write about a book that I hate. I get to spend five hundred words talking about how much I hate it, and being funny about it. But The Imperfectionists is difficult to write about because I don’t want to tell you all about it, I just want you to go read it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Posted This, Despite My Fear of Blogs

Back when I started this blog, I wondered how much of current news stories on education I was going to cover. I didn’t want to cover all of them. There’s a ton. Then I read there is a teacher in Ohio who is suing her school district because she’s afraid of children, and it makes my job a million times easier because how can I not cover this one?

Basically, the short version of the story is this: High School Spanish Teacher is asked to teach middle school after the Spanish program is cut. Spanish teacher refuses because she’s afraid of young children. Now, she’s suing the school because she was “forced to retire.” For being asked. To teach kids. But she didn’t. Because she’s afraid. Of kids. As a teacher.

Sort of like being a janitor, but you refuse to do your job because you’re afraid of mops.

I’m of two minds of this. Yes, the jump from middle school to high school is a bit of a large one. I’ve had to observe both for my classes, and while there is a difference, I don’t know that I’d qualify middle school students as “young kids”. And each presents their own challenges. Middle school students are usually full of energy, and tough to focus at times. High school students, while more subdued at times, can also be full of energy, but also tend to be driven towards a certain track. I can understand having a preference. But when you sign up to be a teacher, you really get two choices. “Elementary” which means young kids, or “Secondary” which means everything else. Ideally, I’d like to teach High School, which would include 11th or 12th grade. However, also ideally, I’d also like Emma Stone to walk into my house let me know that she needs a a date to the Oscars. (If you're reading this, Emma, call me.)

And I can empathize with having a deathly fear of something. I hate snakes. And, you’ll notice, as a result I’m not a snake charmer, nor do I spend much of my Saturday lurking around the reptile house. (Although occasionally I will rock the mic on a killer cover of “Here I Go Again.”) 

The sad thing is that what it looks like to the outside world is an epic hissy fit. A teacher is asked to teach a grade she would prefer not to teach because of budget cuts. And as a result, a school system that is already stretched so thin that they cut the program she was in will now have to cut even more to pay for a lawsuit that will actually read that a teacher had to quit because she has a disabling fear of being around kids. 

I don’t know that I had a point to this post today, other than to try to express how flummoxed I am at the idea that a headline you would read in “The Onion” has somehow entered the real world. I guess don’t pick a profession that is also your mortal fear?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Wolverine vs. Jor-El in a Research-Off! Fight!

      I love literature, and I love theatre, so naturally I was all about going to see the new movie adaptation of Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Wolverine and Jor-El. (You may know them better as Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. But whatever.) I personally loved it. I thought it was a great movie. It hit the right notes (pun... naw, pun intended) I thought the singers were good with a few exceptions, and it was as close to going to see the actual musical you can get without running the risk of hitting a matinee where Hugh Jackman is replaced by a lesser X-Man understudy.

Of course, if I was just talking about musical adaptations then you would have read all about my experiences with Rock of Ages and the literary implications of Tom Cruise singing “Pour Some Sugar One Me.” No, the Les Mis movie brought out something even more disturbing in reviews, and it really started to bother me. It led to the rise of people declaring they didn’t like the movie (which is valid) and proudly declaring they had no familiarity with the course musical. Which sadly, is not valid.

Movies and theatre are two very different mediums. There’s something to be said about witnessing something that is happening now, and something that was filmed. Wolverine will ALWAYS pop his claws at the same moment, Superman will always take flight when he’s supposed to, Bruce Willis will always let out the right cool quip just before he takes down the bad guy. In a play, you run a million different little things changing at each moment, a missed cue, a missed line, a decision to inflect a different moment.... you could go see the same play twice and end up with two different experiences. Movies aren’t plays; plays aren’t movies.

That being said, research is still research. When I write these little posts, if there’s something I have to confirm or double check, you can bet I will double check it. I will do the basic research necessary to ensure that I can talk at least a little intelligently about it. A few weeks back I wrote about The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor. Now, I am not intimately knowledgable about every single thing about the comic book series. I’ve seen every episode of the show, but the book itself is based on the comic book. Now, if I had started my review with “Now, I’ve never read The Walking Dead, and I know nothing about the comic book, so I don’t know why we focused on this sadistic character. Made no sense! I know there’s a show, but I’ve never watched it. Zombies suck!” Seriously how serious does that make my review? I’d hope that you would stop taking me seriously at that point, and discount the review. I don’t have to know all the ins and outs of what makes the comic book tick. But I have to know the Governor is a bad guy, I need to know that the Governor is a major turning point in the book - a focus on other people as bad guys vs. zombies as the enemy, and I have to know why a backstory look at him would be interesting.

But there was a large amount of reviews that started with a reviewer’s distaste of musical theatre, or almost proud declaration that they haven’t seen Les Mis the musical. That’s fine, we can’t all get to the theatre. But it takes five seconds of Googling to realize that the Bishop at the beginning is Colm Wilkinson, one of the most famous Jean Valjeans to date, and when handing Hugh Jackman the candlesticks he is handing him the role - and in essence telling us that he’s in the role now. It takes just a moment to pop in the musical and listen to a few tracks for comparison. “On My Own” is one of the most covered musical songs in history... why wouldn’t you take a minute to compare a few? A lot was made of Russell Crowe’s voice. Do you know anything about the character of Javert?

I’m just trying to say that bragging because you don’t have knowledge of these things isn’t something a good writer or reviewer does. Opening up a review with your distaste of musical theatre? Why would you do that? Then you’re not reviewing things on their merit, you’re reviewing them with your bias. And yes, all reviewers do that to some extent, but it’s not something to be bragged about at the start of your one star review because you get to be the first person to complain about how the Oscar-nominated movie sucked. (You did hate it before anyone else.)

      Good writers take some time to learn something about what they're writing about, even if it's a review or opinion piece. They don't brag because they are more apt to hate something, then they hate it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Book Report: Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel


     For those of you who know me, you know that one of my favorite writers is Dave Barry. Love him. I’ll read anything he writes. So when I found out that he was writing a novel with Thurber award winner Alan Zweibel, you might have well have just told me that Christmas was coming, Santa got my letter and Dave Barry was writing a novel with Alan Zeiwbel. I was excited. And after finishing it... I still am. It was everything I wanted it to be.

The novel switches the point of view between two main characters. One is Philip Horkman, who’s sort of a down to earth, square fellow who owns a pet store called “The Wine Store” and refs soccer on the weekend. the other is Jeffrey Peckerman who is... well, let’s say less down to earth, and less level headed than Horkman. After Horkman calls a foul on Peckerman’s daughter during a soccer game, the two men get in an escalating war that involves terrorists, warfare, an escaped lemur, and Donald Trump. Yeah. It’s the kind of novel I wish I could write one day.

What is there to say about this novel? It’s pretty much everything you’d expect from two humorists writing chapters back and forth to each other, each one trying to out-do each other in zanier ways. A couple of moments the plot stalls, but as each chapter gets more and more outlandish, the more I actually enjoyed it.

A real testament to the writers’ ability is the fact that it’s told in first person perspective, and I HATE first person perspective, but I still enjoyed every second of the book. I don’t know why I don’t like first person perspective. I feel at times it can be a little bit of a cheat. Rather than have characters try to figure things out, here you have a character that just tells us what he or she is thinking, and keeps that stream of thought going. It worked well in The Hunger Games. Maybe I’m just getting more used to it. Because I loved the way it worked here. I loved the fact that we’d get something from Horkman’s perspective, then shift and learn something completely different when Peckerman interjected his own thoughts on it.

The other thing I loved is the fact that you could tell the writers were just having fun with it, and that came through with each chapter. Obviously there were a few points where they were trying to outdo each other, or they were trying to set each other up with a trap of “how will they get out of this situation?” (Zwiebel wrote Horkman’s chapters, and Barry wrote Peckerman’s chapters). It’s rare that writers are able to inject what they’re writing with so much fun. Joss Whedon’s really good at that. (Bring back Firefly!) But I could barely put this book down because I wanted to read what happened next.

To me, that’s what real writing is: have fun with what you’re doing. I’m not a huge fan of “misery porn” in which writers dump what they can on characters just so something can happen. (Although Joss Whedon is pretty good at that, too. Bring back Fred and Wesley!) And there doesn’t have to be a long slog as characters learn something from the experience. The characters in Lunatics don’t really learn anything, and I don’t think they’re supposed to. But to just imagine Zwiebel and Barry going back and forth, laughing at each other. I’m building up a lot the writing process in my head. I hope I’m right.

Just do yourself a favor, and read this book. I am still laughing as I think about different parts of this book. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. (Yes. It’s over a year old. Read the previous post where I talk about not having time to read!)

As mentioned, Dave Barry is one of my favorite writers so I am predisposed to like it.. I like to pretend it some far off world that maybe, one day while googling his own name to see how many hits pop up he’ll stumble along this blog. In which case I will squeal like a little girl. I would love to write like him one day. I’m anxiously awaiting his next book, which is supposed to come out at the end of the month, and you can expect to see a full write-up on this blog as I tear through it, hopefully as fast as I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Lunatics

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Spy Walks Into a Fast Food Joint

     I've got nothing important to say today. Enjoy this bit of randomness I wrote because I felt like it. 

     Nagib strode confidently into the fast food restaurant that he didn’t bother to get the name of. The name was irrelevant. The fact that he was meeting at a fast food restaurant at all was secret code enough. Forget lasers and man-eating land sharks, Nagib’s greatest fear was that if he survived his time as a ultra-secret spy he would forever associate the smell of fresh french fries with danger.

Of course, he looked out of place in his expensive suit and sunglasses as he walked around the restaurant. There was another guy in a tie, but he was obviously some kind of intern getting food for an office. A lot of food. Poor guy. He wanted to pat him on the back and tell him to buck up but he figured that this guy would figure it out eventually. He looked like a smart kid. There were families sitting down to eat, a few people in line that obviously had no idea what to order despite the fact that they had eaten there for years... but he was able to walk right past them unnoticed. The one thing he learned was the fact that people didn’t notice what they didn’t want to notice. They didn’t notice a tall, suave, dark-skinned man in a nice suit because they didn’t want to notice one. It simply didn’t register that he was part of an organization that saved the world on a daily basis, because those things just existed in movies.

He had just finished his latest mission - he had to stop a military coup in France - and he was ready to relax. But he got an urgent message that it was time to meet. Such was the life of the man that worked for an organization that was so secret that it fell under the jurisdiction of only the Vice President, secretly the most powerful man in the country. Everything about the organization was secret. No one would ever find out about the work that he did. That didn’t bother him. He was happy to do it. Not many people would have the skills.

He didn't have to scan the restaurant to know where he needed to sit, it was always the booth farthest away from the cash register, but closest to the ball pit. It was “reserved” for Nagib and his organization. On days that they weren’t meeting, there was a mysterious spill or a meal there that no one wanted to move. Things miraculously moved when it came time for them to meet.

Nagib was to meet the head of his organization, a woman only known as Liberty. The running joke was that she was the original model for the Statue of Liberty, however the last person to say that joke out loud was given a three year assignment in the middle of a country that technically did not exist. He had only met her once. Most of the time agents were given assignments via special message by the engineering department that kept trying to outdo each other. Once he had been given an official assignment in a dream. To get Liberty out of her secret undisclosed location (That everyone knew was under the Washington Monument, but everyone pretended not to know) things had to be bad.

When he got there, he found that the side of the booth that faced the ball pit contained a petite older woman with a large pink hat wedged in between two large men in black suits. He was about to ask them their names when he heard the man on the left mutter “Mr. Left” and the man on the right muttered “Mr. Right.” 

As Nagib sat down, Liberty cut a piece of hamburger with a knife and slowly brought it to her lips with a fork. She chewed for what seemed like an eternity as Nagib sat, watching her.

“Hello, Mr. Nagib,” She finally said, wiping the corner of her lip with a cloth napkin, “I am glad to see you survived Canada.”

“Yes, Canada,” Nagib said wistfully. He did just barely make it alive out of that one, but that was a few years ago, “It’s a shame that no one will ever know that the Canadians are America’s greatest enemy...”

“Unfortunately, Dr. Armaggedonus survived.”

“That’s impossible!” Nagib slammed his hand down on the table, “I threw him into that pit personally.

“Don’t take it personally Nagib,” Liberty said, using her fork to spear a french fry, “You know that he has backup plans to his backup plans. The lava pit probably had a false bottom, and the pack of wolves you set loose on him were probably trained.”

“Where is he now?”

“Right here, in Washington, DC. Are you familiar with Globotex Corporation?”

Nagib raised his eyebrow. He thought he had heard something on the radio on his way in this morning, but they were cut off. Why does he listen to that show? “I believe I am vaguely familiar with that.”

“Well, I obviously mentioned it because he is operating out of there.”

“What’s his plan?” Last time Nagib tangled with Dr. Armaggedonus he was plotting to kidnap the Queen of England during her Canadian visit. He had an army of robots and was going to work with Canada’s Secret Army. Once she was ransomed, he was going to fund their secret war against America. No one was expected to survive.

“We don’t know,” she said, “That’s what we need you for. We do know that whatever is going on, it will be going down soon.”

“So this is a standard infiltrate and disable from within, then,” Nagib reached for a french fry, but Mr. Left glared at him... well, glared even more intently than before. He pulled his hand back.

“I don’t care how you do it, Nagib. You’re the spy.” At that, Nagib looked around to see if anyone had heard them. He didn’t know why he did, no one really cared. A perverse part of him enjoyed having this giant secret that people were actively oblivious to.

“Well, then. I guess it’s time I get started.”

“Oh, Nagib,” Liberty stopped him.


“Grab me some fresh fries on your way out, these have gone cold.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reading, Raising Rates, and the Ride to Work

        Recently, my job moved from it’s comfy nest at the corner of two roads that are overused during rush hour to a place that OH MY GOD GET OUT OF THE ROAD YOU DRIVE WAY TOO SLOW! As a result, I’ve decided to start taking the Washington, DC Metro in.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Washington, DC Metro system basically take something that’s simple to work, say, sending more trains during rush hour, and do the opposite. Then take some escalators that have been broken so long they legally need to start being called, “stairs” and raise rates whenever someone sneezes. That’s the DC Metro System. 

Although, I come to you today not to make fun of the DC Metro... no, that’s just bonus. Actually, I’m here to talk to you today because the time has allowed me to do something that I have wanted to do for a long time: Read more. Driving into our location has it’s own charms, but it really doesn’t allow for much time for reading. But since I started using the metro (and with the extra time I have waiting for a train that may or may not come) I have had time to start reading without the extra distractions.

At home, there are a million different distractions... the lawn needs mowing, the laundry needs washing, dishes in the sink, the cats need to be walked, brand new episodes of The Walking Dead, bills to pay... plus I’ve been in school which has been fun in reading a lot of books about teaching theory, but very little time to read books I actually want to read. I’d work hard to make time, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work that way. We’re all stuck in that curse of the Mad Hatter, “He’s killing Time!” and then Time turns on us. I'm sort of glad now I get this forced time to finally get down to reading what I want to read.

But I’ve actually found the ride in a bit relaxing. I get a half hour where no one really bothers me. (Unless they break the cardinal rule of riding the train in the morning: no talking. It’s not an official rule, more of a suggestion. Your seat-mate is headed to work with you, not your best friend. I digress.) I get a half hour to escape into the world of zombies, or a newspaper in Rome, or two guys escalating a war of suburban proportions. 

Mostly, it has reminded me of what I missed by not spending time reading. And I don’t want it to be a resolution, mostly because resolutions inevitably fail, but I wanted it to be something I should do more. My world slows down when I read a book. I’m able to enjoy seeing a different world, then I can put it down, and then I have to deal with the fact that no, I’m not actually in command of a starship, nor does the planet rely on my next decision. (Which is probably for the best. I’d sell any of you out for a bag of cheetos.)  It’s just a nice time. It’s my half hour I get, each way, spending time with a good book, and the lives of characters I get to visit for a little bit.

Sometimes, I try to make a big point with these posts. I don’t know that I have one today. In fact I know for a fact that I don’t have one today. I just wanted to talk about reading. I plan on reporting on what I’ve read, and you can check out what I’m currently reading on the righthand corner of my blog. Feel free to check it out as I review them.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Book Report. The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor

I’ve always loved a good villain. Heroes are fun to examine sometimes, why do they do why? Why do they feel compelled to save the day? Why with all of their power do they not choose to be a villain? But when it comes down to it, I love it when someone gives us the opportunity to look into the mind of a villain. Which is why I was extremely excited to read a prequel novel to one of my favorite comic book series, The Walking Dead. in this case, it’s The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by series writer (and creator) Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. 
For those of you unfamiliar with The Walking Dead or are only familiar with the television series, the Governor is Phillip Blake, the leader of the seemingly ideal town of Woodbury. The Governor (who calls himself this because he feels that any higher title would make him seem like too much of a dictator) was considered one of the worst villains Rick and his crew would ever encounter. A paranoid man who runs the town with an iron fist, he keeps his zombified... well, we’ll say “daughter” for now... as a pet in his apartment, he makes life miserable for Rick, going so far as to cut off his hand and order the death of Rick’s wife and infant daughter. It’s easy to see him as a monster (and a little difficult to defend him otherwise after that statement) this book tells about how a simple survivor became the murdering, rapist that is the Governor. He didn’t start out so, he started out as a survivor like the series hero Rick, trying to find a safe place in a world now infested with flesh eating zombies.

There was a writer who was talking about writing Lex Luthor. The problem with writing someone like Lex Luthor, he said, was the fact that Lex didn’t see himself as evil. No matter what he did, he wasn’t fighting Superman because he didn’t like the hero. He talked about how Lex Luthor was trying to do what is best for for Metropolis. It’s easy to see the Governor in this light in the book. Society has collapsed. Supplies are low. He is travelling in a group with his brother, the little girl Penny, and two other people. How do they survive? We still have the brutal world that Kirkman has created for his comic book series, but we’re seeing the other side of it. Whereas Rick had a lot of people to lie on, the man who would be come the Governor just didn’t have that. 

Ok, so I’m talking around a lot about a gigantic, hugely wonderful twist which I’m about to spoil. Prequels are hard because you are familiar with the source material, you pretty much know who lives and who dies. You know that Penny will die. You know that Phillip Blake makes it to Woodbury and takes it over. But Kirkman and Bonansinga put in a fantastic twist that just subverts all your expectations. If you haven’t read the prequel novel, stop reading this now. I’ll wait for you...

The big twist is that Phillip Blake in the novel... dies. You see, he’s traveling with his daughter, brother, and two high school buddies while they try to find a place to survive. Phillip’s brother, Brian, isn’t built for the new world, and is unable to kill. Phillip is killed after they find Woodbury, and Brian, who has watched his brother and niece die (and saw the horrible things that his brother did) Brian takes over Woodbury and introduces himself as Phillip. This is brilliant. The subtitle, “Rise of the Governor” wasn’t referring to Phillip Blake’s rise in Woodbury. It’s about what Brian sees that turns him into the homicidal rapist that orders the deaths of innocent people.
For fans of The Walking Dead, this is an excellent book. For even non-fans, this is pretty spectacular. I loved the imagery, I loved it not falling into too many of the prequel tracks that it could have (only one or two loving nods to the series, nothing too cheesy.) This is how a prequel should be done: set up your expectations, play with the knowledge that we have, and then give us a new and interesting story. However the writing is a little... off. It’s cliched in places, and can get repetitive. (In fairness, how many ways can you describe crushing a zombie’s skull?) But it’s not so distracting that it  will completely stop enjoyment of the book.

This is supposed to be part of a trilogy leading up to the Governor in the comics, not the TV show. I’m looking forward to checking out the rest of them.