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» 2007 » June

Monthly ArchiveJune 2007

Books 30 Jun 2007 05:26 am

Koontz and summer


The Husband is another thriller from the prolific Dean Koontz, who puts aside supernatural elements this time in favor of straight-out suspense.

The main character is Mitch Rafferty, a gardener whose wife is kidnapped and held for $2 million in ransom. The problem: What gardener has access to that kind of money? Rafferty believes the kidnappers when they threaten to kill her if he goes to the police, so he is on his own.

Koontz does a fine job wringing suspense out of a simple premise. He never allows Rafferty to turn into a Superman, but rather has him deal with the book’s many complications the way a normal, albeit determined, person would.

Despite the grim topic, there are moments of humor. In one chapter, Rafferty steals a car before he realizes it has a backseat passenger: A dementia-addled old man. What happens next is off-the-wall funny, yet totally believable.

This is a great summer vacation read. Throw it in the beach bag or the suitcase and enjoy.

Movies 29 Jun 2007 08:07 am

Under the bus


 A movie technique called a “bus” is the use of a loud noise or random visual, unrelated to a real threat, to scare audiences. It is the visual or audio equivalent of a non sequitur or false alarm.

The ”bus” is named for a scene in producer Val Lewton’s “Cat People” (1942) where the heroine’s flight from a woman whom she believes can turn into a panther is interrupted by the loud hiss of a bus’s air brakes, reminiscent of a panther’s hiss. It is a great moment, and writers and directors have inserted “buses” or bus-like moments into movies ever since. (Think of all the supposed monsters that turn out to be the family cat. Whew! That was a close one!)

I remembered the “bus” recently when I watched another Lewton film for the first time, “The Seventh Victim” (1943). This movie has several “bus” moments, not to mention a tense shower scene that predates Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Lewton’s movies are understated and suspenseful, and I enjoy them more than most modern horror movies, where the emphasis is on gore and on-screen perversion. The things you don’t see are much more frightening.


Commentary 29 Jun 2007 05:28 am

Conundrum of the day

I want to do my own thing, just like everybody else.

Commentary 28 Jun 2007 09:04 am

What the — ?

Today’s top Internet searches on Yahoo, as of 10 a.m., include the new immigration bill, pygmy hippopotamus, Serena Williams, Dick Chaney, and — at number one — Bryce Dallas Howard of “Lady in the Water” and “The Village” fame.

Make of this what you will.

Books & Comic books 28 Jun 2007 07:32 am

New splendor


Cleveland treasure Harvey Pekar is back with a new entry in his “American Splendor” series. This volume, “Another Day,” features more slice-of-life moments — including the tragedies and triumphs of unclogging the toilet, waiting in the airport terminal, running errands, and dining out.

Some people might find this sort of thing utterly boring, but I find in Pekar a kindred spirit. The humdrum matters of life, anybody’s life, are interesting and illuminating. Pekar’s daily affairs, illustrated here by a variety of capable artists with differing styles, may be of more interest to future historians than the front pages of newspapers or the memoirs of the rich and notable.


Movies 27 Jun 2007 08:54 am

Die Hard Lite

I have never been a supporter of the MPAA ratings system — the voluntary self-censorship arm of the motion picture industry — because it demotes movies from works of art to mere product and undercuts artistic freedoms.

Ratings are a lazy way for parents to determine if a movie is appropriate for a particular child, a one-size-fits-all determination that too often takes the place of thoughtful consideration of the child in question and his or her sensititivities.

Moreover, the ratings system — G, PG, PG-13, R, and the seldom-used NC-17 — has become just another marketing tool, a way for Hollywood bean counters to usurp creative authority that rightfully belongs to screenwriters and directors.

They use ratings to market to certain demographics, knowing that a 14-year-old would rather see a PG-13 movie than a G-rated one, but can’t get into an R-rated picture without a parent (and since taking a parent to a movie is to risk mortification worse than death, that isn’t going to happen).

With big-budget Hollywood productions, before a word of script is written or a frame of film is shot, producers have already determined the demographic they seek and the rating that will best help them achieve it. The rating, not the creators, determines content. Hence, sometimes violence, sex, and profanity are added to stories where the plot doesn’t strictly call for them; at other times, these elements may be deleted from more mature storylines if it is determined that the film will appeal to a younger crowd.

Creativity by committee can work, of course, but it often doesn’t.

I have enjoyed the three previous Die Hard movies — although neither sequel holds a candle to the original, in my estimation — and am looking forward to the fourth, due out today. However, a story Wednesday in USA Today, gives me pause. There, it was reported that

(t)his will be the first Die Hard to tone down the violence and language to avoid an R rating in favor of a more teen-friendly PG-13.

“The times have changed since the first movie,” in 1988, says Chris Aronson of 20th Century Fox, which will distribute the film. “If you’re going to survive in a marketplace this competitive, it helps if you can market to every segment of the audience.”

Again, this is using the ratings system in a way it was never intended — not as a guide to the movie’s content, but rather to help “sell” a film to a particular audience and increase money flow at the box office. Ugh.

Books 26 Jun 2007 06:46 am

Audio books

I have been “reading” a lot of audio books recently.

A late convert to the books-on-tape or books-on-CD era, I have only in the last few months given the format a chance. I like experiencing books this way, but it takes some getting used to, and I’m not at all sure it qualifies as quite the same experience as moving the eyes across the printed page.

Generally, I load audio books onto my iPod so that I can listen while I exercise. I get motion sickness when reading on a treadmill or using elliptical equipment, so this is the only way I can enjoy a book during a workout without throwing up. That’s a bonus.

A good narrator adds a performance element that I may not always hear in my head when reading. The variance of voice for different characters, the dramatic pauses, the occasional trading off among narrators — all these belong in the plus column for audio books.

The format has drawbacks, too. It is hard to locate a particular section to listen to again. Some sections in some books invite skimming, something you cannot do easily when listening. I read a lot faster than the narrator speaks, so a book that I could knock out in four hours takes eight hours to listen to completely. Many audio books are condensed, so if this bothers you (it definitely annoys me), you have to seek out only unabridged editions.

I will never give up the act of reading, but audio books make it possible to enjoy a similar (though not identical) experience in situations where reading a book isn’t always practical.

Commentary & Media 25 Jun 2007 09:20 am

Media coverage

According to the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person Information File, 110,484 active missing persons records were open through Dec. 31, 2006. More than half were juveniles under the age of 18.

The recent disappearance of Jessie Davis in Lake Township and the tragic discovery of her body over the weekend were extensively covered not only by local and area media, but also by national networks.

Davis can be added to a small handful of missing persons cases that attract large media attention. Two others who come immediately to mind are Natalee Ann Holloway, who went missing in Aruba in 2005, and Laci Peterson, who went missing in late 2002 and whose body was found in April 2003. Peterson’s husband was found guilty of the murder and is currently on death row.

Perhaps it is the very novelty of the cases above, including the Davis situation, which attracts the media. Davis’s case had many ingredients that would guarantee high interest. It involved an attractive young woman, pregnant, who defied what many still see as a social taboo by dating outside her race. The suspect in the case was a police officer. The family was extremely receptive to the media. The terrain searched lends itself to aerial shots and panoramic camera angles.

In other words, the visuals and words were easy, and the novelty factor was high, just as they were in the Holloway and Peterson cases.

Otherwise, though, the heartache and wrenching sense of loss experienced by the Davis family are exactly the same as those felt by the families of the other 110,000 or so cases, the ones that receive minimal media attention, either because they are more “common” and therefore less interesting or because those missing are not young women whose looks conform to society’s traditional standards of beauty.

If that is true, what does it say about the media? What does it say about us?

Books & Comic books & Movies 24 Jun 2007 04:20 pm

Long live the King!


June has been a big month for fans of comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby.

Not only has “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” featuring characters created or co-created by Kirby, been released into theaters this month, but –

 – “Jack Kirby: Storyteller,” a major biography on the man’s life and work, complete with tributes from a who’s who of comic book creators paying homage to the King of Comics, was released on the bonus disc of the “Fantastic Four: Extended Edition”; and

– “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus: Volume One,” the first of a four-book set reprinting his seminal DC Comics work from the early 1970s, was published.

The former is the first time Kirby has received extensive biographical treatment, and it is well worth the wait. The latter is the first time his massive Fourth World saga — one of the most creative endeavors in all of pop culture, in my opinion — has seen print in chronological order, between hardback covers. Kirby long ago dreamed the story would be collected in this way, but like so many of his concepts, the idea was ahead of its time. Sadly, Kirby didn’t live to see the dream come to fruition, but fans now can enjoy the full scope of his labors.

 If you like comic books and don’t know about Kirby, get yourself an education with these two new releases. Coming in the fall is a massive written tribute to the man by comic book historian (and personal Kirby friend) Mark Evanier, whose online writings can be accessed here.

Books 22 Jun 2007 08:23 am

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

My wife is taking a literature course this summer, so I have been reading many of the stories on her syllabus. It is like visiting with old friends, some whom I see quite often (”The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Harrison Bergeron”) and some whom I see less frequently (The Metamorphosis).

One story I have seen with new eyes is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a wonderfully creepy tale about a woman’s descent into madness. I never knew so much of it was autobiographical until I read the material that accompanies the story in my wife’s textbook.

Gilman wrote this New Gothic horror story as a reaction to a “rest cure” prescribed by a doctor to treat her depression. The cure appears terribly sexist, with implications that women should not indulge too much in intellectual pursuits.

Responding to an inquiry as to why she would write a story that might drive readers mad (it is powerful), Gilman responded, “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

While fictional, the story does name a real doctor, Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), who treated the author. According to Perkins, she later sent the story to him and never received a response, but heard years later that he had altered future treatments because of it.

That puts Gilman squarely in the company of other social reformers who have changed the world for the better through their writing, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath).

Not bad for a humble horror story. Because it is in the public domain, you can read it free here, or do a Google search for the title.

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