Monday, March 23, 2020

Deal Me In: "Heaven and Nature" by Edward Hoagland

On another blog, I've written a response to Edward Hoagland's essay, "Heaven and Nature." This is for the Deal Me In challenge. The essay deals with a very difficult topic, and one that people understandably don't like to think about.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Two Movies to Watch With Your Kids

More people are staying home these days, and some family-friendly entertainment may be what you're looking for. (Or maybe these movies will drive you nuts, and you'll let your kids watch them if they want while you hole up in another room to get some work done.)

Title: Annie (2014)
Director: Will Gluck
Language: English
Rating: PG

You would think by reading some of the reviews for this film that it's a horror show, that it will make you want to claw your eyes out and stuff your ears with cotton balls, but what I found was something different.

- The lead actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, approaches her role in a lovely way. She plays a quick-thinking sweetheart of a girl who powers through life with optimism and charm, and her performance doesn't feel forced.

- Jamie Foxx's performance is pretty funny and, at times, genuinely moving. He plays an out-of-touch billionaire running for NYC mayor who tries to boost his performance in the polls by throwing money at everything – sound familiar? – and he does it well.

- There are tongue-in-cheek moments and self-awareness in the film. Even though some scenes are played in earnest, other times the movie nods to its own ridiculousness and lets in some sly humor. There's a scene poking fun at Twilight types of movies, an acknowledgement of how little privacy people have in the age of smart technologies and social media, a look at the corrupt strategies a political campaign will resort to, and some fun with the conventions of a filmed musical (how can someone succeed at being mayor if they're dancing and singing so much?). As an adult, you can watch this movie with kids and still find enough humor in it yourself. It doesn't take itself so seriously, though it does touch on some serious issues (like, it's all well and good to sing about how everyone has a shot at success, but what do you do about poor education or parental neglect?).

- The movie is sentimental, but I didn't find it so cloying – first off because of its self-awareness, and secondly, because I accepted the rules of this fictional universe, where a poor kid will get adopted by a billionaire whose basic decency has been buried under money and workaholic habits. The performances from the main actors and supporting cast work pretty well too, balancing earnestness with an awareness that this is a fun bit of entertainment. (Among the supporting actors, Rose Byrne plays an especially sweet character.)

- Are the musical numbers powerful? I don't think they're breathtaking, but they're still engaging, and the actors hit some of the right acting notes during each (even if the singing isn't mind-blowing).

- I enjoyed some of the footage from around NYC (shout out to the 125th street stop of the 1 train!)

I think some of the people who gave it awful reviews loved the 1980s Annie, which I might have watched as a kid but don't remember. If you're a fan of that one, you may approach this one with mistrust and distaste, and you maybe won't allow yourself to enjoy any of it. I can't help that. All I can do is recommend 2014 Annie for people in search of a reliably entertaining family-friendly musical.

Title: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)
Director: Patricia Rozema
Language: English
Rating: G

A movie based on an American Girl doll? Yes, and it's entertaining, with enough to enjoy even if you're an adult. Set in Cincinnati during the Great Depression, the movie features Kit (Abigail Breslin), who dreams of becoming a reporter. When her dad loses his job and heads to Chicago to find work, her mom turns their home into a boarding house and takes in lodgers for money.

Kit winds up experiencing some of the struggles of the Depression, writes about what she sees, and identifies the real criminals behind a series of thefts while preventing someone innocent from being arrested. Along with its clever and cute scenes, the movie shows some of the harsh realities of poverty as well as efforts people made to get by and help each other.

The villains wind up being a bit Scooby Doo-ish in their final act, where they're thwarted by those meddling kids. And there's a schmaltz overload at the end. But it's still a decent movie with good work from the child actors and an array of well-cast actors among the adults. The standouts are Julia Ormond, who gives an affecting performance as Kit's mom, and Wallace Shawn, who plays a cantankerous newspaper editor. Also, Colin Mochrie from Whose Line Is It Anyway has a small role as a hobo.

Additional suggestions:
Check out the movies I've been recommending on this blog, including other family-friendly ones like Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Lilo & Stitch.

Week in Seven Words #502

With these Weeks in Seven Words posts, I'm still catching up to the current week... and it's eerie to see the contrast between life then and now (virtually empty Times Square, for instance, and going to a restaurant).

She opens the door, receives the gift, and closes the door after a bland thanks that says nothing.

We walk up 7th Avenue, the lights of Times Square tiring our eyes, before we switch to 6th Avenue. Homeless people are folded under scaffolding.

When we arrive at the restaurant, it's empty. At one table, three workers are on their phones. One of them springs up to take our orders, which we take with us to a round green table several blocks away by a massive library.

If I deny my own past, if I pretend that I was wiser than I was, then I also deny how I've matured.

"La, la, la, la... la, la, la, la... Elmo's song... La, la, la, la.... la, la, la, la... Elmo's song..." The toddler keeps squeezing the doll, bringing forth new bursts of Elmo's song. More Elmo's song. Elmo loves singing.

The restaurant is still a small cube where people are crushed elbow-to-elbow at the counter. But they've broadened their menu. I pick a salad with barbecue chicken and tortilla strips and find a bench in a nearby park outside of a museum. "Enjoy," says a guard, eyeing the salad bowl with unmasked appreciation.

She tries to hide by ducking behind her backpack and slipping on a pair of shades. It's like when a younger kid plays hide-and-seek by sticking the top half of their body under a bed but leaving their legs exposed.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #501

Round every corner you turn, there's a TV. At least one of them is on at all times, sometimes two.

"Please don't take a photo of my work," she says, emerging from her art booth. "Buy it."

She hops on my lap to lick watermelon droplets from the table. She disregards the calls for her to stop, and the reminders that she's not supposed to eat from the table, because watermelon is worth being disobedient for. Besides, as a good dog, she gets a lot of leniency, because her main offenses are eating from the table and attempting to steal and eat toilet paper. Nothing serious.

Feeling a bit sore and bruised inside after receiving entirely positive, detailed feedback on a piece, only to be told vaguely that it's not a good fit.

Eating a chicken sandwich that tastes mostly like salt, ketchup, and bread.

The heart-shaped anniversary balloon was bobbing around by the ceiling. Now it sinks towards the tile floor, where it's kicked around by restless feet.

A male deer, looking puzzled and wary, slips into a backyard away from us. We watch him through the gap in the faded wood fence.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Week in Seven Words #500

She uses "heavy" to describe anything big or adult-like.

Even though he's more experienced with JavaScript than I am, he can still find it perplexing. Like why 2019 gets interpreted as a number even though it was typed as a string.

Right after we step into the store, the wind picks up, and the storm rushes through the streets like an overflowing river.

I'm caught up in a flurry of impatience with myself. But impatience is preferable to feeling undeserving and inadequate.

The salesman, crimped and white-toothed, hovers too much, but he does point me to something worth buying.

An old woman walking with her spine perpendicular to her hips refuses help with her bags. She's holding one in each hand, and they seem to balance her.

The doctor's office is tucked below street level. It looks grubby and shabby, and the air is thick with the tang of disinfectant.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday the 13th Short Story Rec Roundup

I've done this sort of post twice before, to recommend some short stories that are twisted and dark, that depict people who suffer bad luck or make self-destructive choices.

Title: Before the Law
Author: Franz Kafka
Translators: Willa and Edwin Muir
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.
It isn't clear what the Law refers to – maybe some deeper understanding of justice, answers about how the world or universe works, who knows. In the story, we never find out, because instead of the Law, what we see are three "f"s: fear, frustration, and failure. Should the petitioner have tried to push more forcefully past the doorkeeper, or ask different kinds of questions? Or would the petitioner have failed at any attempt to gain admittance? Let's add a fourth "f": futility.

Title: Forgotten
Author: Anne Mazer
Where I Read It: Sudden Flash Youth

Two children who have been playing out in the forest return home in expectation of warm food, their beds, and motherly attention. When they return, no one opens the door for them. They see their mother inside, absorbed with her baby, but she doesn't notice them. It's as if they're on another plane of existence, have become ghosts, or never existed to her. A child's nightmare.

Title: The Happiest Place
Author: Gordon McAlpine
Where I Read It: Orange County Noir

Most of the strength of the story comes from its narrator, a security guard at Disneyland in Anaheim. He gets fired after footage shows him apparently trailing a teenaged girl. But later, the head of security contacts him and asks him to investigate his third wife on a suspicion of infidelity. Is the narrator being set up? Or is he quite shady, unreliable, and possibly a murderer?

Title: In For a Penny
Author: Lawrence Block
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

Paul kept it very simple. That seemed to be the secret. You kept it simple, you drew firm lines and didn't cross them. You put one foot in front of the other, took it day by day, and let the days mount up.
An ex-con needs to find ways of filling up his free time and keeping certain temptations at bay. We eventually get a better idea of what these temptations are, and the fact that we don't fully learn what they are makes the revelations more chilling. On his way to work, he passes a nightclub and tries to avoid it in different ways, like crossing the street or changing his typical route. But like a tractor beam it pulls him in. The story does a good job depicting his attempts at resistance, and his surrender.

Title: The Long Sheet
Author: William Sansom
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

I recommended a Kafka story earlier in the post, and while this one isn't by Kafka, it's Kafkaesque (not in every respect, but in its depiction of a certain kind of imprisonment and futile labor). In "The Long Sheet," people are held in a long, doorless, metal room where there are skylights but no windows. They're divided up into cubicles, and through the cubicles runs a sheet that's thoroughly soaked. They need to wring it dry with their hands and not stop until it's completely free of dampness. In the meantime, their captors thwart them in different ways; for instance, they release bursts of steam.

The groups in the cubicles carry out their labor in different ways. In one group, the workers do enough to feel smug about their efforts, and their work remains insufficient. In another, the people give up and see the task as hopeless. In the third, they're out of sync and some are trapped in their own neuroses or foibles – one is afraid of sheets because of a childhood incident, another fumbles because he gets distracted, another tries to cheat, and a fourth works well but goes unnoticed. In the last cubicle, the one with the greatest chance of success, the people surpass the limitations of the other cubicles and keep their object – freedom – in mind.
'Unproductive? The long sheet a senseless drudgery? Yes - but why not? In whatever other sphere of labour could we ever have produced ultimately anything? It is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production... Let the hands weave, but at the same time let the spirit search. Give the long sheet its rightful place - and concentrate on a better understanding of the freedom that is our real object.' At the same time, they saw to it that the sheet was wrung efficiently.
What happens when they succeed at their task? Do they obtain the freedom they seek, or do the captors peering through the skylights have a different conception of freedom? It's a sharp, bleak story depicting how different people try to deal with what may be a futile struggle.

Title: Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)
Where I Read It: Sleep No More

Nobody here is nice. Not the elderly father and not his grasping son and daughter. He tricks them into moving him to a more expensive nursing home in this dark, funny story that may contain murder.

Title: Smoke Ghost
Author: Fritz Leiber
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

An advertising executive has a disturbing conversation with his secretary on what a modern-era ghost would look like. "I don't think it would seem white or wispy or favour graveyards. It wouldn't moan. But it would mutter unintelligibly, and twitch at your sleeve." He imagines it as "grimy" and "sordid," reflecting all the terrible things of modern life, from neuroses to soulless industrial jobs to people living in terror of being bombed in their homes.

In the story, an apparition of this sort stalks him. What does it want from him? At the end, he says he'll worship it, give himself over to it, but is it really appeased? (And how will he keep it appeased?)

Title: The Terrible Screaming
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

I'm ambivalent about the way this one ends, but it's still worth reading. The story depicts a city where there's a screaming heard all over, but no one wants to admit to hearing it. They're afraid of looking crazy, so they rationalize what the screaming might be (a product of tiredness or an overactive imagination). When a distinguished visitor arrives and asks about it, the official who welcomes him gently informs him that there's no screaming, and the assistant to the official is afraid of speaking up and losing his job. Also, a specialist is on hand to give people private care and rest from what they think they're hearing.

There's an atmosphere of quiet terror in the story, and I like how the author depicts a society where people are creating a collective sense of denial, a civilized falsehood to mask a haunting truth.

Title: You Are Now Entering the Human Heart
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

This one is set in the science museum in Philadelphia (the Franklin Institute) and mentions an exhibit I've been to: the giant replica of the human heart, which you can walk through. A visitor considers experiencing the giant heart, but winds up first going to another exhibit where kids on a field trip are being shown a snake. The purpose of exposing them to the snake is to ease their fears and decrease the chances that they'll kill a non-venomous one. The guy running the demonstration ropes the teacher into it and wraps the snake around her. Her terror wars with her need to appear calm and dignified before her students. What will triumph – her intense fear of snakes, or her fear of what the students will think if they discover what a tenuous grip she has on her composure?

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Week in Seven Words #499

"I hope I never get tired of this stuff," she says, about cartoonish sculptures on the 14th Street platform of the A and C subway lines. She doesn't want to become jaded.

We eat burgers in a lovely cellar-like restaurant, noisy but cozy.

She's demolishing a large bag of potato chips while watching a Korean soap opera on her phone.

During the first half of the class, she acts as if she knows everything, and only gradually becomes more open to seeing new ways of solving problems. Others never develop that openness.

The instructor acts as if he has clumsily assembled his patience out of plywood. With each question, each hand waving in the air, it splinters.

Some of the sofa cushions feel like taut air bubbles shifting under me. One of them, though, has just the right balance between staying firm and giving way.

Two elegant, well-groomed dogs are crossing the plaza with a mincing walk, and I wonder if they're 18th century aristocrats who have been reincarnated as canines.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Week in Seven Words #498

We find Jupiter with its banded surface, and a tiny, pale Saturn. Strangely, it's our moon that's foggiest and most unclear.

The meal before the fast is full of water-rich foods, like cucumbers, turnips, green beans, and watermelon.

When the fountain leaps to life, one boy steps back in startled wonder. The other climbs on the rim to peer closely at the shifting configurations of water.

I prefer the reading voices of the older men, their raspy, trembling dignity. The younger men recite without feeling in a nasally intonation.

In a park installed on old elevated rail tracks, there's an atmosphere of forest enchantment. Some people paddle their feet in a dark stream. Others are tucked on wooden lounge chairs screened by leaves. A handful of children listen to gentle music while painting tiles in the foggy light. We turn a corner and discover a dark, massive sculpture of a human head.

They order marble cheese cake, strawberry shortcake, and a dense chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate pudding. Without even planning it, I grab one of the extra forks and shave off some of the frosting. It's almost too much in sweetness and richness, and it undermines the resolve I had formed to avoid chocolate for the week.

A thunderstorm brings dusk to mid-afternoon. Lightning dips into the river like a bony finger.