Wednesday, July 30, 2014

You Can Call Me Al

Last week, for the first time in his decades-long career, an artist was honored with an album debuting at number 1. It wasn’t he most recent pop artist that released a song that was remixed, edited, promoted, and eventually paid to play on various radio stations, commercials, movies, to force you to download their music. No, it was a guy who makes fun of all that. That’s right, Weird Al got his first number one album.

The truly funny part of all of this is that many of the people that Al has parodied over the years debuted with number one albums, then vanished from our collective memories, while this guy with the funny hair, loud shirts, and who plays the accordion (of all the hard rocking instruments in the world) managed to last for, as I said before… decades.

What makes this event truly remarkable is the fact that… Let’s face it, Weird Al shouldn’t exist anymore. I’m not saying that I dislike Weird Al… I’m not. The very first album I bought with my own money was Bad Hair Day. I still have all of his stuff today, and I laugh at each song like I’m listening to it for the first time. (I was originally was going to write “This song was a favorite of mine”, but I kept replacing it with a different song. It’s safe to say that all of them are my favorite songs.) But today, try finding a popular song that DOESN’T have some kind of parody. I mean, they’re nowhere near as good as Weird Al, but they’re out there. 

Remember a little movie called Frozen? Remember how it had that one song Let it Go? Yes you do. Y’all know what I’m talking about now. Someone releases a great song, and then we have to have a million or so different versions of it by next week. That’s what Weird Al was competing with. And yet, and it shows on his new album, he does it better than everyone else. He doesn’t just parody the song, he injects it with an idea, a story, or a hook. He lovingly crafts every word… while “tacky” obviously sounds like “happy” and it’s easy to sing to Pharrell’s ever-present anthem to not being sad (It’s like I’m in a room without a roof) Weird Al takes that and runs with it, instead crafting an anthem to not being a bad person. 

I could go on, but my point is that while there are ton of people trying to do parodies out there, Weird Al is the one who takes them and does a clever parody. One that people will share and want to listen to. How many time has Word Crimes been shared? How much similarity does it actually share with Blurred Lines? Although I do wish his video featured Emily Ratajkowski, too. But that’s a minor detail. And has ore to do with me liking Emily Ratajkowski. 

Moving on.

Weird Al is probably the first artist I listened to on my own. In my house, we always had some kind of music. I can still remember my parents listening to The Beatles as we cleaned up after a move. I can remember listening to Billy Joel, and that being the first “acceptable” music I really listened to. But there’s something about Weird Al. He wasn’t always cool. And he didn’t care. He was the silly parody guy, who came out with an album every couple of years and that was it. But you know what, he kept doing it, because he enjoyed it. And I think that’s an important lesson. 

It’s one I sort of take with my blog and my writing. I’m not delusional while writing this. I know I’ve got about 112 fans on my facebook page. I know I’ve got some loyal readers. I know I’ll probably never achieve the same numbers I did when I was posting daily with Nanowrimo. But at the end of the day, I do this because I enjoy it. Like Weird Al. It’s fun for me. It gets my voice out there. Whether I reach 80 people or 8, I’m glad I’m doing it. And it should be a lesson to all of you. 

I still remember when Weird Al came out with his anthem to all things me, White and Nerdy, which spoofed Riding Dirty by Chamillionaire. I don’t remember the exact quote, but when asked about Weird Al parodying one of his songs, he said something along the lines of, “I went platinum, I had a number one song… where do I go from here? Weird Al calls.” So people realize that being called by him means something. 

So keep doing what you’re doing, Mr. Yanovic. Your comedy was some of the first for me, and what was what made me want to do more with it while I was growing up. I know you’ve got roughly a billion fans at this point, so one more person telling you to keep going may not seem like much, but your music has always meant a lot to me. And it will continue to work for me for years to come.

Stay Weird. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The First Rule of Movie Club is Cookies.

As I mention frequently, I love movies. I can actually pinpoint my love of movies to one movie in particular, Ghostbusters, which is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this year, and I don’t want to admit that I was able to see it first run in the theater, because that means I have been watching movies for 30 year. In some ways, that makes me old. In others, that makes me awesome. I’m going to choose emphasize the latter, because, let’s face it, I’m pretty awesome.

In any event, watching movies in theaters is important to me. The smell of the popcorn. The giant screen. The surround sound. The feel of a movie ticket in your hand as you walk up to the concession stand to order food that’s offers limited nutritional value from the kid that wishes they were ripping the tickets instead of getting someone an extra-large plate of nachos. The 20 minutes of trailers, nicely ranked.  It’s all part of the experience for me.  I get that you can replicate many of these things in your own home (although hiring someone to serve you nachos every once in an while gets expensive, fast) and you can watch almost any movie you’d like almost instantly these days, without the hassle of having someone try to hide their bright, bright screen under their jacket as they text someone, or the obnoxious talking… but that’s part of it for me. A large communal experience of going to the movies.

It was under this that Movie Club was born. It was started with a buddy of mine, Jerome. I rarely speak of other people in this blog. You do know Jerome from the Oscar Movie Marathon blog posts. He’s a good guy, a little slow to adopt technology, a huge Steelers fan, and someone I worked with a lot and we got into a lot of fights. But we realized we enjoyed movies, and decided that once a week, we’d head off to the movies together. The day bounced around a lot until I started graduate school and realized I got student discounts on Thursdays. Then we started going on Thursdays.

This year, with Summer Movie Season, came a new edition to our group, Kim. She also has contributed to the Oscar Movie Marathon, bringing her special brand of baking and cookies along with her opinion. She has decided to pledge to join Movie Club, which made us realize that Jerome and I never had any official rules on joining. Oh, we had some unofficial rules we’d follow. For instance, we each had one veto we could use per year if there was a movie we didn’t want to see. I, not being a fan of Madea, would often invoke this during one of Tyler Perry’s latest antics. 
Of course, our movie going is so important to us, we never really met anyone who was so crazy to attempt to join us in our movie going antics. But, as she frequently brought cookies (and sided with me on Madea  movies) we decided to let her join. But it was then that Jerome reminded me that I was supposed to write our clubs bylaws last year, when we had another pledge that just didn’t work out. (Sorry, Nagib). 

I COULD write our bylaws in private. But where’s the fun in that? This way, you all get to share in it, and it’s in a public space, so later Jerome can’t claim I made something up at the last minute. Unless you know, I go back and edit this blog. I guess rule zero is that Cheating is encouraged.

Movie Club Bylaws.

1. The movies shall be picked on a rotating basis. The rotation was picked long ago, and quite frankly we don’t remember how we decided. Pledges do get a space in the rotation, and get first pick once they decide to officially pledge. However, all pledge picks will be heavily scrutinized. In fact, all picks will be heavily scrutinized, because scrutiny can be fun, especially when making fun of movie picks.

2. The Toy Story 3 Rule. You see, there was a day when Jerome and I went to see Up. Fortunately, it was my second time seeing Up, so I was well prepared for that first five minutes which was better than any other movie that year, but sadder than… No, there’s nothing sadder than the first five minutes of Up. However, didn’t work so much for Toy Story 3, which neither of us had seen, so we weren’t prepared for the sobbing from both of us at the end. As a result, any movie that will result in heavy, heavy crying is off the table. Renamed this year as The Fault In Our Stars rule. Will be renamed the Dumb and Dumber To rule, when we sob realizing that they made a Dumb and Dumber Sequel.

3. The Trailers will be ranked. All trailers are ranked on a simple “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs Down” rating that we totally didn’t steal from Siskel and Ebert. This will be the basis for all picks, as hopefully we agree on what is being shown. A “hand-wave” may be used for any movie that we do not have a strong feeling for, one way or the other. Pledges do get a hand wave. 

4. Baked goods aren’t required, but they are strongly encouraged.

5. STRONGLY encouraged. Forget that “Don’t bring in outside food” rule. I want cookies when Tom Cruise is blasting an alien.

6. No M. Night Shyamalan. He’s ruined enough chances. 

7. Everyone, included the Pledge, gets one veto per year. This veto, as mentioned, can be used once, and can be used to override one pick. The decider then gets to make another pick. Please note that it is the MOVIE being vetoed, not the pick itself. That means, for instance, if someone vetoes Think Like a Man Too one week, no member can pick it the following week. The movie is off the table. 

8. Dressing up is encouraged. There haven’t been as many opportunities for us to dress up in costume, but with Oscar Movie Season coming upon us, I think we may need to start dressing in costumes more. I mean, how can we enjoy that 18th Century Period Piece if we’re not dressed up in hoop skirts and masks?

9. Membership Dues. All membership dues shall be paid in cookie form. To me.

10. Nicolas Cage movies are automatic. They don’t require a pick. They’re a given that we will need to see them, and lovingly dissect how wonderful it is on a scale of “Awesome” to “mega super awesome.” 

11. All movies shall be ranked, and kept in the official file for later analysis. This is just because some of us like playing with spreadsheets. Really has nothing to do with anything else. All ranking is on an arbitrary scale from 1 (The Last Airbender) to 5 (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.) 

I really think this just about covers it. Officially, pledges are really only pledges for one month, and we’ve only had two people pledge. Out of those two, only one managed to make it through our rigorous screening process. There’s the Oscar Movie Marathon sub-bylaws, but those are WAY to extensive, and get into whether or not we should be seeing that new James Brown biopic this weekend despite the fact that it’s probably going to get nominated for an Oscar. That’s where it gets complicated. We’ll talk about that one more in March.

Friday, July 18, 2014

If I Stay By Gayle Forman

What makes you who you are?

A lot of the time, you don’t think about it. You are the sum total of all your experiences, but have you sat down and tried to figure out exactly what makes you who you are? Probably not. You don’t have a lot of time to think about it between work, school, reading excellent blogs, and whatever else you have going on in your life. 

A sense of self is at the heart of the excellent book, If I Stay by Gayle Forman. The book follows a 17 year old girl named Mia dealing with the aftermath of a fatal car crash that took the life of her parents (and possibly her brother… this isn’t answered until later in the book.) and left her in a coma. Stuck outside of her body, she watches as what’s left of her family, friends, and boyfriend Adam, talk to her, encourage her, and wait to see if she does make that decision.

Most of the book’s story is in flashback form - get your favorite hankie and/or box of tissues handy, reading about her parents after their deaths will get to you a lot more than you think - and deals with Mia as she tries to make that decision that’s in the book’s title: should I stay? Should I cling to life? Should I remain on Earth, when a lot of what made me who I am keeps me here? Interweaved with her loss of family are memories of her boyfriend, whom she loves.

The thing is, her relationship with Adam was… reluctant. She never saw herself as having a boyfriend, she was focused on her music and getting into school and her future. The accident is a good reminder that our future is rarely something that we get to control. This book is very aware of that, particularly when discussing the past of Mia’s family, and the changes that were made with them. Her parents used to be hard partying future rock stars who settled down, but never quite lost their edge. Adam seems to represent their past while also trying to be part of Mia’s future which is more uncertain than ever now that she’s a disembodied spirit, roaming the halls of the hospital while people work on her body. 

It’s difficult to go too much into this book. It’s short. And the ending manages to be extremely abrupt while giving a definitive answer as to whether or not she stays. (Quick spoiler, this book came out in 2009, and there’s a sequel called, Where She Went, which I’ll be tackling in a few weeks. So… yeah, you can probably figure thing out a little bit.) I don’t want to give too much away while I want to sing the praises for a book that seems to understand that life is a series of changes. This is the big, major one - the loss of her family at a time when she’s trying to get into school and trying to navigate having her first major boyfriend… etc.

None of this is meant to be a criticism. The scenes where Mia is a ghost are a bit disorienting at times, but it works. There’s no “spirit guide” or Grim reaper giving her instructions. It’s Mia at her most alone, examining her past while attempting to decide what happens in the future. Most of us never get a chance like that to reflect, and sometimes that reflection is what we need. Mia is experiencing a story parallel to her parents: what does one wan to “give up” to go further in life or because of the situation? Her parents changed aspects of their lives for their kids. Now Mia, a classical musical artist, is falling for the rock star, does she necessarily have to change?

One of the most poignant moments in the book, for me, is when Mia’s grandfather is speaking to her. He gives her “permission” to let go. This brings a sense of calmness to Mia, but to myself as the reader. At the start, you want her to fight because, well, that’s what you need her to do. She’s the books protagonist, 17 with her whole life in front of her, you don’t want her to give up. But at the same time, this quiet moment acknowledges all she’s lost. it acknowledges that her life will never be the same. And i think too often, we tend to forget when we have big life changes, we sometimes need a reminder that “letting go” is an option. Nothing as dire as death, but letting go of our problems or a bad situation is always an option. I still wanted her to fight after this point, but I felt better about things. It was oddly calming.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what I alluded to several times during this essay on this book, which is the fact that music plays a hard role. Mia the classical artist. (She plays the cello. I’m unfamiliar for the term for the person that plays the cello, and spell check isn’t helping me, so I’m going to refer to her as an artist.) Her parents and boyfriend are hard rockers. It’s a book, but music is weaved into it so easily that it’s like you’re listening to it while reading. It just works well. 

I highly recommend this book. It’s very addicting, I managed to finish it in two sittings (the record is Fault in Our Stars in One, but to be honest with you I had obligations which pulled me away from this one, sadly.)  Probably more so than any other book I’ve read. It’s a reminder that not only is life fragile, but it’s constantly evolving. And it evolves to places that we never expect. In fact, once we think we know where we’re going, there’s going to be a sharp left turn that changes everything. We have things figure out, but then in a blink of an eye, it really does change. Never before has a book so perfectly captured for me not only the fragility of life. We may not get the opportunity to reflect on it like Mia, but it’s like Monty Python says, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” 

Life, Wesley, and Time Traveling Aliens

I’ve long chronicled my absolute love of Star Trek on this blog. I first got into it a little bit with re-runs of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, boldly going to gangster worlds or cowboy worlds. I reveled in the adventures of Picard and Riker. I really loved the complex writing and characterizations with Sisko, Odo, and O’Brien. And I certainly tolerated the adventures put forth by the rest. (Voyager and Enterprise weren’t as bad as everyone said, but that’s another post for another day.)

I also have been chronicling my adventures in figuring out just who I am. It started this year with the confirmed revelation that I didn’t want to be a high school teacher, something that I allowed myself to be defined by for so very long, whilst getting into graduate school (again) for more study in the field of English, getting my masters degree in Literature. I was surprised, the other day, when the two things dovetailed together in an interesting way, and I learned something I probably should have thought about a long time ago.

All of this introduction brings us to how my life was forever changed by everyone’s least favorite character, Wesley Crusher.

For those of you who don’t know, Wesley Crusher was introduced in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the son of the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher. His father had served with Captain Picard back when he wasn’t so-Captain-Picard, and well, some of his command decisions resulted in his father’s death. It’s also important to note that while Wil Wheaton is a very cool guy now, Wesley Crusher really wasn’t that accepted by a lot of fans. Let’s put it this way: Yeah, Star Trek is cool now, but there was a time when it wasn’t and you hid your fandom away. But even Star Trek nerds (back when nerd was a bad thing) made fun of Wesley. 

Wesley’s path was laid out pretty early on in the show. He started as a kid, fascinated with how a Starship ran. Things changed around the first season “Where No One Has Gone Before” where the Enterprise encountered a being named “The Traveler”, because his name was unpronounceable by humans. (Bear with me on this… I have a point.) In any event, there was some spaceship shenanigans and the Enterprise was thrown to the edge of the universe where everyone started suffering from space madness or something. Wesley was able to help get the ship back, and the Traveler told Picard, “He’s going to be important. Don’t tell anyone.”

Of course, then Picard told everyone, apparently, but that’s beside the point.

Picard, taking this to mean that he should encourage Wesley’s natural talent, promoted him to acting ensign where he had to wear an even dorkier sweater, but nonetheless was on the path to join Starfleet. Eventually, Wesley does join Starfleet, and does what everyone expects of him: tries to be the best that everyone thinks of him.

Here’s where I start to empathize. Later in the series, he comes back for a visit and he’s moody, depressed, and not really sure where he fits in. There’s an episode that features the Enterprise trying to remove a colony from a planet that had been negotiated back to an alien empire. Wesley thought it was wrong to remove these people, and resigned from Starfleet Academy. Against the expectations of well… everyone.

See, the thing is, he had a ton of support. I had a ton of support when I was going to be teacher. More support than I ever thought I would get. And I can understand how easy it is to get caught up in the “rah-rah” ness of it all. Just like in Star Trek, Starfleet is the ultimate goal for a lot of people, and it’s not easy to get in. Several times over the course of the series, Wesley would try to get into Starfleet but Wil Wheaton’s contract as a regular wasn’t up he would get rejected. This wasn’t easy.

Rewatching “Journey’s End” was important to me at this point. Wesley doesn’t quit Starfleet for some concrete reason. He doesn’t quit what’s supposed to be the best thing in the galaxy that millions of different aliens tried to get into for a solid purpose. He quit it because it “wasn’t for him”. But the important thing, and what I struggled with and couldn’t really articulate for a while, is that he quit for the unknown.

Teaching provided a clear path for me. I took XXXX class which fed into XXXX class, which fed into an internship, which fed into teaching, which fed into whatever. Like Wesley, I took a leap of faith when I exited the internship program. Granted, I wasn’t following a mystical alien onto other plains of existence, but sometimes it felt like that. I didn’t have a full time job, I didn’t have a real plan other than I knew that teaching wasn’t for me. And now, I’m enrolled in an English Program and I don’t have a full time job, but a series of part time jobs that are cobbled together into a full time job. (And I’ve never been happier, mind you.)

This episode just randomly aired one day while I was flipping through the channels. What was odd was that I don’t normally watch that much television during the day… this was an exception. But for the first time, watching Wesley remove his uniform, become his own man… I started to understand my own feelings about what I was scared of in my new path. Having something set in front of you that’s pretty stable then changing it for a wide open adventure… that’s the definition of leap of faith. 

I’ve often said that literature and inspiration come from many different places. It just surprised me that it came from this unlikely source. It surprised me that I was finally able to articulate what I wanted from life. It surprised me that something I watched so many years ago then put away would have this much influence on me. But it did. A lot. And I’m glad it did. And while I do wish that my new worldview came from the sooth baritone of Captain Sisko, or the Universal worldliness of Captain Picard… I’m glad it came from the guy who was trying to find himself. The guy who just wanted to do what was right. The guy who wanted to live up to his potential, and got caught up in what that meant. Wesley Crusher. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Numfar, do the Dance of Joy! Summer Movie Season is Awesome

Whelp, by The Whedon we are officially past the halfway mark in the Summer Movie Season! It’s only fitting that a movie featuring the man himself, Kelsey Grammer, would mark the halfway point for this summer. I must say, from food trucks to Disney villains to timey whimey adventures to teenagers dying of cancer, it’s been quite the adventurous movie season. A good one, too, with the exception of one movie that featured a lengthy sheep urinating gag, they’ve all been pretty good.

By my count, at this point I’ve seen about 16 movies released this summer. I had to cross out some of the movies that I wasn’t sure about seeing this summer, not realizing that they were either limited releases, direct to on-demand, or Jersey Boys. Also, we had our first casualty of the summer, Jupiter Ascending, which ended up ascending to another date in February, which means it will probably conflict with our Oscar Movie Marathon, but that’s something for the future. Something something Matrix Joke. 

I’ve enjoyed the movies this summer, with some things surprising me. In a summer with two movie franchises I’ve enjoyed (X-Men and the Andrew Garfield era of Spider-man), I was surprised that one of my favorite movies has been about a guy starting up his own food truck selling sandwiches. I was also surprised with all my Groundhog Day meets Halo jokes, that Edge of Tomorrow actually ended up being a surprisingly good movie, even if we’ve all been watching it for years when we play video games, find a save point, die, then go back to it. And I’ve only doubled up on one movie, that being Angelia Jolie’s perfectly sculpted cheekbones vs. CGI Faeries, which ended up being one of two movies that just stuck with me well beyond the credits. (The other one involved CGI Apes.)

Let’s look a quick rundown of what we’ve seen so far:

Kelsey Grammers: 3. 
Blue Kelsey Grammers: Just the one. 

Hulk jokes during Deliver us From Evil: at least 3. Maybe 4. I watched a lot of it through my fingers.

Times Seth Rogen took off His shirt: Too many. (I’m not one to judge, though. Still love you, Seth.)

Speaking of which, number of international incidents caused by a trailer: One. But it looks really good.

Number of times I cried in the theater: 3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Fault in Our Stars, and a Million Ways to Die in the West. (For the last one, I just felt bad for those poor actors.)

James Francos: Just a cameo. 

Exploding Robot Cars: Turns out, a lot. You wouldn’t think that you’d get bored of watching exploding robot cars, but wow, at some point you want them to stop exploding and end the movie.

Number of glasses used to turn handsome people into scientists: 4.

Evil Faeries: Zero. One of them was so/so for a while, but she got better.

Dragons Trained: Two if you count the one that can turn into a raven.

Dramas marketed as Comedies: Tammy had a lot better movie hiding inside of it, and the trailers didn’t do it any favors.

Minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy Previewed: 17. And I can’t wait to see the rest!

Cuban Sandwiches consumed after watching Chef: 3.

And, as we go through this list, it’s important to remember that there are still plenty of other movies coming out. We still have a lot to look forward to as we drive towards the inevitable dumping ground that is Labor Day Weekend. I’m still looking forward to some Ninja Turtle Action. Zach Braff tries to help us forget his flying monkeyness with another movie about people coming to terms with stuff. There’s still an entire Kelsey Grammar we have to get through.  And let’s not forget that a certain talking Raccoon is teaming up with a talking plant and Chris Pratt’s Abs to help save the galaxy, and hopefully feature a Tony Stark cameo. 

Let’s not forget to praise Joss, the Patron Filmmaker of Summer Movie Season, for our bountiful summer movie season. Let’s not forget Tom Hanks, and eventually, Nicolas Cage, who preside of the rest of the Movie-Going year.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Report: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

What is love? 

(Anyone who watched the Will Ferrell/Chris Kattan era of Saturday Night Live just got a certain song stuck in their heads while they got images of the pair bopping them back and forth. I’d like to apologize, but it’s Friday.)

In all seriousness, what is love? What makes someone “worthy” of love, either being able to accept it, or being able to freely give it? And of course, there’s the more complicated nature of first love, which in and of itself is a tricky beast, threatening to consume us when we’re most vulnerable: not understanding just what is going on with our own lives. 

A lot of these questions are at the heart of the most excellent Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I’m happy to say that as of this point, it’s one of three books that I’ve managed to read in one sitting this year, because it was so unputdownable. Hey, Apple Pages says that’s a real word. Score. 

Eleanor and Park is set in Nebraska in 1986. The narrative switches back and forth between both Eleanor and Park as they are forced to sit together on the bus, Eleanor being the new kid (and redheaded, and overweight) and Park enjoying his life of comfortable anonymity by being able to slip on his headphones, listen to the Smiths, read his comic books and escape into his own little fantasy world. It’s pretty obvious from the foreshadowing (or flashforward, in the parlance of our times), and well, the book title, that these two are eventually going to start dating and fall in love. But the journey is interesting enough to keep following. For one, Park is bi-racial and has to deal with some mild bullying on his own. Not as much as we will find out (more on that later.) 

Part of the real story of Eleanor and Park lies in that of Eleanor. She is coming to the school after a stint staying at a friend’s house after being kicked out by her abusive stepfather. Most of the narrative is told through her eyes, and while Park has his own issues to deal with (mostly acceptance of his father.) a lot of it revolves around how Eleanor survives in her own household, a place where her baby brother crying invokes fear in the family for bringing on the stepfather’s wrath. 

As it’s pretty evident, I enjoyed this book. A lot. Setting the book in 1986, pre-cell phone and more importantly, pre-iPod, allows for a very different story to be told. When Park is starting to bond with Eleanor, first over Watchmen comics, (which makes me wonder if they enjoyed the movie. Probably not.) then over music, and she has to keep it secret, it adds to the urgency of sneaking out, lying to her mother about where she was going, and not falling back on the simple ability to being able to send a text. (Unlike some books where sending a text would solve every problem, quickly, and end the damn series two books early. I’m looking at you, Twilight.)

This also allows for the time honored tradition of the mixtape to be used. Ah, the mixtape. Back before iPods, when most music had to be purchased from a store (and if there was something you really wanted, you had to line up on Monday night to purchase it on Tuesday) when two people were trying to tell each other how they felt the’d make a mix tape. Making mix tapes was both infuriating and amazing at the same time. You’d carefully pick out each track. Make sure you had a pen to write down the full name of the song, including artist. Then you’d have to put it in your boom box. If it was before a certain age, you’d record it off another tape. Then you’d have a keepsake that would last almost a year before becoming warped. Eleanor and Park captures the magic of what it meant to have one of these tapes, slipping it into a walkman, and listening to it. I’ll admit, I love being able to carry around all my Billy Joel and show tunes on one device smaller than a credit card, but there are days I miss my big, clunky walkman. It said something. 

That’s right, we still have a book to review.

There’s also the magic of first love, which as I mentioned before is complicated enough before adding the many issues that a biracial kid and a redhead from an abusive family would have in 1986 Nebraska. I don’t mean that as glib as it sounds, but a lot of the issues come from Eleanor’s unspoken question, “why do I deserve to be loved?” Her family doesn’t show it, at least not her stepfather nor her mother, one of the more infuriating characters in the book. But it’s a credit to the writer that the question never really gets spoken, but at the same time shows up throughout the book, a lot. Especially… well, I urge you to read it.

The characters help make this book, as well. I mentioned earlier Park being bullied, but in the end it’s his “bully” who helps save the day. As it turns out, he wasn’t a bully so much as a well-meaning idiot who just never saw what he was saying as offensive, rather trying to be funny. Rowell really builds up her characters well. When Park’s father discusses Eleanor’s stepfather with her, you get the sense that he probably knows that something is up, and would like to help. 

I would recommend this book. It’s certainly got some hard pages to read, especially those focusing on Eleanor’s family life. This book is more about Eleanor than it is about Park, and as mentioned there were a few scenes that are pretty dark. But life can be dark, and this is a reminder that no matter what you think someone is going through, you can never fully know. That mask is another theme of the book, the face we put on when we go outside. 

I could go on. But at this point, you really should just pick up the book yourself. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Take A Look, It's in A Book

“But you don’t have to take my word for it.” 

For some people, those words mean a lot. They mean that Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton was about to turn over his show to the people he had been speaking to, the kids, and letting them review books. It was a short but extremely powerful message, one that got down to the core of Reading Rainbow, which was this, “How do we encourage kids to read?” And it got to a very simple answer: Ask them what they think.

If you haven’t been paying attention, recently former Reading Rainbow host and former Geordi LaForge (Oh, like I wasn’t going to put in a Star Trek reference. He even dedicated part of his show to the behind the scenes look at The Next Generation. Like you haven’t read this blog before) recently used Kickstarter to bring back Reading Rainbow. The show has been off the  air since 2009, after an impressive 26 year run. It attracted a lot of attention, setting records and even getting Family Guy himself, Seth MacFarlane, to match donations to ensure that the program would reach as many people as possible.  (And presumably to make up for A Million Ways to Die in the West.)

I love to read. Pulling back the curtain and showing the inner workings of Bad Shakespeare, the truth is that little tab that says, “What I’m currently reading” remains unchanged so long because I’m usually reading a few books at a time. I generally have a few books put aside that suit my mood. Maybe a comedy mixed with a mystery mixed with a coming of age novel where people come to terms with stuff. Maybe I’ll take a break from my science fiction novel to check in on some old friends. And typically have a bookmark placed in Good Omens, one of my very favorite books. I can trace this to a television show that started out with a butterfly.

I’m glad that LeVar Burton is working hard to bring it back. I know it was around in App form for a few years (which everything is nowadays.) I can honestly say that this is one of the things that really fostered my love of reading. 

Reading for pleasure is sort of an abstract thing. It’s one thing to sit in an English class and be told what to read. You have to read it. But why should we read outside of the classroom? Why should we read at all? The best part about Reading Rainbow was the fact that LeVar Burton used to show us why it was important. He’d visit some location that tied into the book, and showed us the story behind it. he would show us why reading was important. He showed us why knowledge of the outside world wasn’t a bad thing, and even if a story was fiction, it tied into the real world. 

But then, there were those reviews from real kids. Rather than an adult (and celebrity narrator) just talking at kids for the entire show, everyone would take a step back and ask the kids what they thought. They’d ask the kids why they wanted to read, why they were reading, and why they enjoyed a certain book. It gave them power over their own reading for enjoyment, not just something  grown-up told them to read. That’s important when encouraging kids to read. 

Of course, with Kickstarter Campaigns breeds controversies as people jump over themselves to find some reason to hate something. Because in this day and age, any time someone does anything, even if it’s encouraging a person to read, we have to find a reason to hate it or a flaw in the plan. A poorly researched Washington Post article (that I won’t link to because… I don’t want this person to get the views) called out Reading Rainbow, much in the same way a bully calls out someone weaker than them. No, “writer” who can’t be bothered to do any research on Reading Rainbow, it was not cancelled because because it wasn’t effective. It wasn’t cancelled because it wasn’t being watched. It was cancelled because their funding was pulled. You know how I figured that out? Research. I’d recommend you do that before you write your articles. 

But that’s just a small portion of what’s going on. Reading Rainbow meant a lot to me as a young reader. It means a lot to me today, as someone who reads for fun, and as someone who writes as much as he can.  I’m hoping that it continues to mean a lot to people as readers, and raise a new group of people that read not because they have to, but because it’s fun. Because it helps you learn. Because it can take you to a new place that you’ve never been before, make you a new person. 

I hope that people will take advantage of Reading Rainbow coming back. I thought of a few different ways I could end this post, but I’m going to leave it up to LeVar Burton, who will hopefully forgive me for taking his line.

“I’ll see you next time.” 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Teaching vs... well, Teaching, I Guess

As some of you know, I recently decided to change my graduate school focus from “Teaching Secondary Education with a concentration in English” to “English Literature.” Or as some of you have let me know, “You selfish [something stronger than jerk but I’m going to go with jerk because it’s my blog and I get to write what I want], think about the children.” I’d like to say it was a long transition, filled with peril and adventure, but other than a few negative comments and needing to update my immunization record, I just had to reapply, then cross my fingers until I got into the new program. Then I was in.

Allow me to clarify real quick (I sum up): The decision to leave the education program was a long, difficult decision and I catalogued it all right here. That being said, the actual physical act of saying, “I want to be in the English Program instead of the Education program” just involved taking some paperwork and refilling it out. Mostly because I had been accepted to the English Program, back when I first thought that “hey, maybe I don’t want to be a teacher anymore,” but then talked myself out of it because, well, what I’m about to get into.

Being in the English Program now, I had to register for classes, and that’s when it truly and totally hit me that I was no longer studying to be a teacher. I mean, I obviously had inclinations before, mostly that I was no longer showing up at my internship anymore, and for some reason I got a lot less of the teacher jokes that were posted on Facebook. 

The biggest difference, for me, is mainly that I have such a wide variety of classes to choose from. Back when I was studying Education, it was a pretty clear cut path: You take this class, then you take this class, after that you take this class, then internship, then you’re a fully licensed teacher with all the rights, privileges, and access to Facebook jokes you can muster. It’s a strange feeling knowing that I can take “Introduction to Cinema” or “World Literature” and it’s all because I want to, and it’s what I choose to learn.

I keep telling people that for three years, I felt like I was in the world’s longest job interview. I’d take a class, then at the end people would ask me, “how was it? Do you want to continue?” Of course, the atmosphere is supportive, so it was more like, “How was it? You want to continue.” I don’t meant that in a bad way, necessarily, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in it all. I know at least one other person in my class that ended up dropping out of the Education program for a lot of the same reasons i did. I probably should have listened when she talked to me, and I had the same debate. 

But it was this long, focused job interview, and at the end, I knew what I’d be doing: getting a resume together and going off somewhere and teaching. The goal is pretty similar with what I’m doing now: I eventually want to teach, just at the college level with all my newfound college smartiness. Also, write and publish things that make people scratch their chins and go “hmmm.” As opposed to now when then scratch their heads and go “whaaaa?” 

I guess it just surprises me, the big change that comes with switching like this. I spent to much time focused on the one goal, having this option and control over what I want to study is almost overwhelming. I say “almost.” Because there really is an Introduction to Cinema class, and hey, I’m going to take it. Because I’m me. And have you not been paying attention?

       But it's an exciting new journey that's remarkably similar to the old one in some ways. I'm going to have to take classes, do my best, and probably have to finish a lot more reading. Like, a lot. 

This also ties into what I was wondering back in March about the direction of Bad Shakespeare. So much of it has been tied into my becoming a teacher, I wondered where it was going to go. Some of you have even noticed less posting, and that’s because I was wondering what I was going to do with it. I love writing this blog. 

I’m looking forward to figuring out what wacky adventures I’m getting into next. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Report: Lexicon by Max Barry

Recently, a blogger who knows better than all of us named Ruth Graham posted an article that I’m not going to link to so she doesn’t get the hits about how adults should be ashamed to read Young Adult Novels, because of reasons. I would like to dedicate this post to her. You see, right before I read her “article” where she chastises people for reading in a society when reading is becoming increasingly rare, I read two novels I intended to discuss on Bad Shakespeare. One was a Young Adult novel. The other was a Sci-Fi Action thriller. I could’t decide which to do first, so I decided that instead of the dramatic novel that was set against overcoming an abusive past to allow yourself to be helped and loved, I’m going to write about the novel about poets that use magic words to kill. Yup. I’m going to review the novel for grown-ups first.

Back when I was doing my internship, one of the things I was constantly “corrected” on was my word usage. Apparently, I was using a lot of inappropriate language. Not language in the sense of words that we all have decided are vulgar and therefor unsuitable for ears attached to the heads of those 16 and under. No, I was corrected for using words that were “too big”. This got me thinking a lot about words. So when I read a review of a book that talked about how using words specifically, (even though it was a fiction book that talked about using words to kill) I was intrigued. 

Words are important. A lot of us don’t think about how important words are in our daily lives, but they’re very important. You’re reading words now. Not just any words, very specific words that are used to identify something or in this case, get an idea across. In this particular case, it’s that the novel Lexicon, by Max Barry, is an excellent book and one you should be reading right now.

Lexicon is the story of two individuals. Emily Ruff is a homeless con artist who is drafted into a secret school in Arlington, VA. This school teaches the importance of words, specifically words that can be used to manipulate or in some instances, kill. (They’re called Poets.) It’s also the story of Wil Parke, a seemingly innocent man who is caught up in this world of killer poets. Between the two of them they unravel a larger conspiracy involving the school and how we consume media. There are a ton of twists and turns, too many that while it’s difficult to write this review without discussing them, I really don’t want to ruin anything for you. Let’s just say it’s all as cool as it sounds.

One of the more interesting things that Max Barry does in this book that I really like is that he grounds the fantastical elements of the novel really easy. It’s difficult to write a novel about words while having to 1) make up some of them and have you believe they’re magic in some way and 2) describe the manipulative words in a way that you can read, process, and understand but at the same time believe they are manipulative, even though they are not manipulating you. Max Barry does this by interjecting each on of the bigger action sequences with a news story. So, while you’ve read a story about a character convincing another character to shoot several people then himself, you’re treated to a news story about how he was “depressed” and this was an “isolated incident.” Basically, it gets you thinking about how you are constantly manipulated by the words around you, even if you don’t know it. 

I do find this concept interesting, particularly as an English Major and someone who uses words the way I do. But interesting concepts don’t make for interesting work all the time, and that’s where Max Barry really shines. And where he shows off his talent as a writer. He gets you to believe in these words, to really understand why they take on certain meanings, and why they are dangerous in the wrong hands. He managed to produce a slow build while dividing the story into two parts. The other part is a lot faster, although I felt that it wasn’t as satisfying. I get the “we need your help at all costs” character, but if Mr. Parke were truly as important as they say, why keep so much from him at the get-go. He didn’t have to know everything, but at the same time it does lead to my least favorite thing in books and movies, “You’re really important, you think we’re the bad guys but we’re not, we just don’t have any time to explain. Now let me kill these four people.”

Again, twists, so I can’t give away too much.

However, this is a small nitpick and a small part of a book that manages to ratchet up the thrills with each section, and manages to surprise you even if you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, like I did. (I picked up one major twist early on, unaware I was about to hit four or five more down the road.)

I highly recommend you pick up this book and give it a read. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book vs. Film... The Fault in Our Stars

A few months back I did a post that was about the Willem Dafoeing of one of my favorite books of all time, The Fault in Our Stars. Now, this was back in September, well before the movie premiered and the only thing we had were rumors and some filming reports. The good old days. I talked about how desperately I wanted the movie to be good, to recapture the feeling I had when I read the book, but I was still wide-eyed and full of hope, like I am now that Star Wars, Episode VII is going to be excellent despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Well, I’ve actually seen the movie. 

I really wasn’t disappointed. In fact, this was one of the rare movies that made me fall in love with the book all over again. 

Watching a movie or TV show based on a book is always a tricky prospect. Firstly, the book is always better. A book is sort of infinite in a way, without much limiting it beyond the ability to keep the reader interested and material for the book to cover. Some books can do that quickly, like The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Shopgirl which covers a lot of emotion and plot in a relatively short period of time. Some books can keep going, like the Historian, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, or The last Harry Potter book, which I’m relatively sure is actually finishing up sometime in the next two years. 

With a movie, that’s harder. For every Lincoln, which enthralls us every minute it’s on the screen, there’s Sandra Bullock yelling in your ear so much that even George Clooney can’t stand being attached to her for very long. (He got to leave the movie early. The rest of us not so much.) You can’t spend as much time in a character’s head because we need action and plot moving forward and things happening. Except, arguably, for Fight Club. Since most of the inner monologue is the main character going crazy on the outside. Oh, yeah, spoilers for a movie that’s been out for a very long time and you should have seen already if you haven’t. And read. 

There’s also the fact that when you have a book that’s told in the first person perspective, like The Fault in Our Stars, there are two ways of handling it. You can do a voice over, which, if used incorrectly, can weigh down the story, or you ignore it completely and completely change the entire meaning of the movie. (I’m looking at YOU, Hunger Games.)

I’m happy to say that The Fault in Our Stars handles everything extremely well. I mean almost too well. To the point that while the book will always have a special place with me, the movie will have a special place too. 

It’s an odd feeling. I wasn’t planning on loving the movie quite as much as I did. Not that I walked into expecting to hate it. No, I’ll save that for Leprechaun: Origins as part of Bad Shakespeare’s Summer movie coverage. (and the final: Let’s dump a movie on Labor Day movie.)

It was never going to be an easy sell. You sort of had the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Guy) in August Waters, who was there to shake the sad, depressed, waiting-to-die Hazel out of her funk. He was a little more grounded than your typical MPDG(uy), further stealing the term coined by Nathan Rabin a few years ago. (It was to describe Natalie Portman in Garden State. The magical girl sent in to save the depressed guy.) You ale have dying teenagers, which is never an easy sell, because, well, we typically go to movies to get some kind of lift, not watch the chick from Divergent get berated by the Green Goblin just before she goes to make out with a guy in the Anne Frank House. 

I have to say, Willem Dafoe really sells his part, and is pretty spectacular in the way he manages to make an unsympathetic character - a drunk, lonely writer who yells at two dying teenagers and tell them that he refuses to help them even if they are dying - a pretty cool character. He’s never apologetic, but exudes someone who desperately wants to spill everything on his mind but can’t communicate it.

That’s not to say the other actors don’t do well, particularly Shailene Woodley, who, as I mentioned earlier, had to do a lot of the heavy lifting as a result of the fact that Hazel is the main character, and the entire book takes place through her eyes. I just needed to point out Willem Dafoe, because I most interested how they were going to bring his character to life.

When I walk into a movie or a television show that has been adapted from a book, I really try to treat it like it’s separate from the source material. At the end of the day, it is different. Even though it’s based on a book, someone took that source material and had to re-write it into a new medium. And, as a book isn’t a play isn’t a movie isn’t a musical isn’t an interpretive dance… (I could go on but I’m assuming you get the point) it’s a separate thing. That’s why the great Game of Thrones debates of late have been disturbing me… too much gloating over knowing what’s going to happen by some of the readers, up until something unexpected happens that surprises everyone, then complaining that something was changed. A Song of Fire and Ice is like a billion pages long. There will be some differences between the book and the show. But for some readers, it seems it’s almost impossible to just enjoy the TV show, you have to jump into the dense tome to fully gain their trust. 

That’s another post, probably best saved for when I get up to the Red Wedding.

My point is I walked in expecting to enjoy it like any other movie, and treat it like that. I underestimated how much the book meant to me, and I found myself comparing and actually enjoying the movie just as much. I’m glad I was able to experience both. I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t shy away from some of the scenes that I’m sure a lot people would prefer being cut. (I do wish they hadn’t cut my favorite line from the book, though. It summed up everything perfectly… including me.)

Regardless, if you haven’t read the book already then you should. If you have, then go see the movie. If you’ve done both, then I recommend doing both twice.