Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Center Cannot Hold

by DionysusPsyche

"Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One's center gives way. The center cannot hold. The 'me' becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal. There is no longer a sturdy vantage point from which to look out, take things in, assess what's happening. No core holds things together, providing the lens through which to see the world, to make judgments and comprehend risk."

Elyn Sak's life unfolds before us in this amazing non-fictional novel about her life and struggle with schizophrenia. From page one, she holds your attention as she tells you about her childhood and turbulent journey into adulthood.

The author has both the strength of iron and a weakness that she has difficulty harnessing. She is an extremely intelligent and captivating woman who is diagnosed with what science later call a psychotic disorder. She is hospitalized several times in the book and forced to take medication, most often against her will.

As we see throughout her story, Elyn's tenacity runs deep and her determination is almost superhero worthy. She points out that in the middle of the 20th century and further back that doctors and the medical community locked up people like Elyn with any and everything that was considered abnormal. When sent to these mental institutions, the prognosis for the return to a normal life was very slim. She describes the inside operations as unbearable and more concerned with restraining those inside than looking for potential solutions to send them back out into the real world. The idea of the past was that if you had a drinking problem, an eating disorder, or something else, you should "just stop," which the author conveys as something people who don't understand say. It was common for most to believe that it was just a matter of will power, something Elyn feels throughout most of the novel even after prescribed medication.

"My brain was the instrument of my success and my pride, but it also carried all the tools for my destruction."

Elyn truly believes throughout the majority of her story that despite her brain's deception, her body's inability to cope with stress and change, and her deterioration of physical hygiene (all are common in patients with schizophrenia) that she can think her way out of this. The woman graduates from law school and becomes a PhD, so although the reader might be shaking his/her head while reading it, this smart lady has reason to believe that she can find a way out if she just tries harder. She talks about how (as the case is with crime and politics) when we hear of someone with schizophrenia, it is almost never with accolades for their accomplishments but because something unthinkably horrible happened when their disorder took a turn for the worst. We don't hear of their success stories or their plight of redemption.

While Elyn spends her life in and out of the hospital, she decides to pursue the law. She recognizes the flaws in the mental health system and that there are those like her who not only can overcome their mental incapabilities with counseling, medication, and group homes but must. She aids in their defense. This proves to be challenging and all her cases are closely monitored. Along her journey, Elyn has to change medication doses and psychoanalysts (despite the criticism from the health system who feel it's a waste of time) and travels through more up and downs than a roller coaster.

In the end, she flourishes and gains ground. She finds paths for dealing with her stress, argues with her doctors, and also adheres to their judgement. What Elyn proves by her life and telling of it is that people with schizophrenia can be incredible people if given a chance. They can help monitor their lives and can be members of society. She concedes that schizophrenics must be closely watched but not always put in a straight jacket. Support is needed for them and the mental health system can improve their lives if they know what they and their doctors can do for them.

My criticism of the book is that after the first half of the book, the second drags. I felt like she could have thrown out half of the chapters and potentially retained her original fast paced flight of the first part. The story would've remained the same, and it still would have worked. The message is important, and I feel that if it were adapted into a short story that it should be required reading.

Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle

by DionysusPsyche
Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle is a comedy that follows the one night adventure of a duo on the quest to satisfy their late night hunger.

The weekend opens Friday afternoon in Harold's (John Cho) office. We meet Douche #1 and #2 who decide to blow off the rest of their day and load up "the Asian guy" in accounting with work so they can skedaddle. Harold returns to his abode defeated while his best friend and roommate, Kumar (Kal Penn), encourages him to party and forget about his report that's due the next day. Harold opts to work in the car, and the two heroes escape to their valiant steed for a late night road trip to Whitecastle (a real life burger joint).

Kumar has his own worries, but since he is the Ernie to Harold's Burt, his method of tackling issues involves avoidance instead of the power chug to get through. His father is a prominent doctor who pushes his brainy son to follow in his footsteps despite Kumar's rebellion.

Not Your Average Stoner Comedy
Anyone who's over the age of 10 is aware of the fact that this film is about two stoners on a mission to satiate their need for the munchies. Yet, Harold & Kumar does more than provide laughs. It's not another brainless attempt at stoner amusement. The film's ultimate objective is to put into perspective marijuana and the place of stereotypes.

While the film is guilty of glorifying marijuana to an extent (it still fits the genre), it also dispells myths about those that partake. Both of our main characters are extremely intelligent (Harold is an account and Kumar is going to school to become a doctor) and have jobs/career plans to advance and better their lives. Unlike the pothead concept of sitting inside getting baked, these guys get shit done and take initiative. As opposed to Dude, Where's My Car or Half-Baked, Harold and Kumar try to rise above stereotypes of stoners and racial ignorance. Like older screwball comedies that were conceived in a time where Hollywood enforced rules about what could and couldn't be discussed, Harold and Kumar take a similar route that is not overt and doesn't distract from the movie. Stereotypes can be hilarious, but they are not an end all be all conclusion, especially when taken in a negative, misguided context.

Our heroes address issues and find that there isn't just one thing that defines you. There are a number of ignorant people who will judge you, but it is the individual's job to take the higher road, rise above their misconceptions, and let them know how much you can be. By the end, they learn that talent and intelligence mean so much more than boxed ideas and other people's expectations.

Harold & Kumar is a great movie, and I found the sequel Escape from Guantanamo Bay worthwhile. Both have their fair share of ridiculousness, but the moments of truth define it just as much as its laughs.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Heroes Die - As Reviewed by Joe the Revelator

Written by Joe the Revelator

If ever there was a fantasy novel that got so little recognition or popularity, yet deserved it more than Heroes Die, I wouldn't believe it until I read it. In fact, getting your hands on a copy of Heroes Die or the sequel, Blade of the Tyshalle, may involve fellatio with the devil, an exchange of souls, or rappelling through a skylight into the vaults of a major publishing house. But I will say this before I get any further: buy, borrow, or steal a copy of this book.

Author Matthew Woodring Stover has published a few other titles like Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, and has also written for the Star Wars and Magic The Gathering franchises. One thing I've heard consistently about his writing style are his dynamic fight sequences, and from what I've read I'm forced to agree. His fights are bloody and violent, often inglorious and messy, the way real combat can be. Swordfights in Heroes Die often devolve into brawls so rich and telling that you can almost hear the snap of bones and the grunts of desperate men. Matthew Stover attributes his success in this to his experiences with martial arts and sparring. If this is true, I demand all fantasy writers be sent into the ring at least once.

Author: Matthew Woodring Stover

Rough and Tumble:

The beginning of Heroes Die has the subtlety of plunging into a frigid lake with a cinder block cuffed to your ankle. It's sink or struggle. In first-person perspective we experience through Caine, the assassin, the murder of a sleeping king in some faraway fantasyland and the ensuing escape attempt. The fighting, the bloody battle, and the near-death experience is intimate and thoughtful, told in a sort of real-time narrative that gives the story immediacy. He tells it as it happens.

This is all brought to a screeching halt as the story shifts to the here and now in 3rd person: a gray, plastic, hover-car future where "actors" visit parallel worlds to record videos of their exploits. Caine is the top actor of his time, bought and paid for by the networks. His assassinations of important other-world figures are rented on disk and replayed by the millions. He- the gruff, knife-wielding, ass kicking, explosive bringer of death, is considered mere property.

While Caine remains retired in his mansion his estranged wife, also an actress working under the alias Pallas Ril, is away fighting midevil soldiers in the alternate world. She is bright, driven, understanding, and compassionate in every way that Caine is not. But when the rise of a new and magical God-King threatens to end her humanitarian mission and her life, it's Caine to the rescue. With a bit of television spin coverage and a public relations meeting, and the approval of the network, Caine is sent back into the action.

Sequel to Heroes Die

Tough to chew, good to savor.

I make special mention of the jump between the real world, a drab future worthy of Heinlein, and the narration of the fantasy world, because I think it may be a stumbling block for readers initially. The writing style between the two worlds is very different and takes some getting used to, though I wouldn't have it any other way. The constant shift lends drama to the story. We cycle between a complete view of the situation, to being forced into the body of a warrior. It may take some adjusting.

In my struggle to understand the reason behind Heroes Die being out of print, aside from the flip-flopping narrative, I've also speculated that it may be too deep and dark for the average fantasy reader. Sci-Fi seems a much more accepted medium for contraversial or radical notions (1984, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dying of the Light, etc). In the end, a fantasy reader asks themselves; "Did this story make me feel good?" And if the answer is a resounding "No.", if they can't think back and recall lengthy descriptions of sweeping plains and glorious green hillsides, monotonous battles with swords and knights and grateful big-breasted damsels, then they tend not to recommend the story to their friends.


Stover's writing makes Terry Goodkind look like the crotchety old neighbor who goes on long rants about "what's wrong with kids today". In the same neighborhood Robert Jordan would be the polite old milkman, too kindly to ring the doorbell early, lest he wake anyone.

Heroes Die is deep and compelling, and more substantial than nine-tenths of what you'll find on the fantasy shelves of the bookstore. Read Heroes Die, cover to cover, and tell me it isn't amazing. That way I can challenge you to a duel myself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

LOST (2004-2010)

by DionysusPsyche

I want to point out that the blog creator has a collection of Lost posts that he has been writing. Since he has also identified his posts as "spoiler alerts" and encouraged me to write my own Lost blogs as a compare and contrast to his, I'm ever so happy as to oblige his requests. This will be a non-spoiler review. For other more in-depth/spoilertastic entries, please see his previous posts. I might also do some more spoiler worthy entries in the future.

The Hype that is Lost
Lost is a drama television series created by Jeffrey Lieber, J.J Abrams, and Damon Lindelof that follows the lives of survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious tropical island. “They must negotiate an unknown monster, an unpredictable group of prior occupants, strange, other worldly island inhabitants, polar bears, and each other as they try to survive and attract rescue. The main ingredients that have made Lost an icon for success have been its international ensemble cast, plot line of mysteries and flashbacks” (Lostpedia).

May 23rd marked one year since audiences tuned in to the season finale of this sci-fi drama that will leave dedicated viewers breathless for years to come. That's not to say that everyone was happy with the ending, but love it or hate it, it was the end of an era.

For the rest of the world, Lost may be mysterious, but they remain unconvinced by its popularity. It can also prove as a source of aggravation. The fanbase is more than avid viewership and borders on obsessed. The comparable fan based shows would be Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, the Twilight series, Twin Peaks, X-Files, and The Sopranos. As someone who did not watch Lost “from the beginning,” I can understand the skepticism of people who don't watch the show and whose only exposure is their Lost-soaked friends (I am now one of “them”). To outsiders, the show is nothing more than a fictionalized (well, more fictionalized) version of Survivor. Yet, if you watch the show or give it a chance, it is so much more.
The Meat of the Show
Lost encompasses several different genres throughout the series ranging from drama to comedy to thriller/horror to sci-fi. Its main component and initial strength is its character development which is most emphasized the first season but continues to the series end. While some episodes feature several different character perspectives, most episodes split up the episode into two sides—the action sequence, i.e. what is happening on the island among the survivors and the flashbacks of the survivors. As the series continues, there are additional characters added to our group and those that cycle out, but the story focuses around a group of the following survivors:
  • Jack, the doctor and appointed head of the survivors
  • Kate, a strong individual and deviant of the law
  • Sawyer, a con-man with a penchant for cruel nicknames
  • Charlie, a washed up, has-been musician
  • Locke, an Zen-like outdoorsman who enjoys hunting
  • Sayid, an ex-communications officer and basically the McGuiver of all things technical
  • Hurley, an unlucky friend to all who frequently addresses those around him as “dude”
  • Sun and Jin, an unhappily married Korean couple
  • Shannon and Boone, a brother and sister with an antagonistic relationship
  • Michael and Walt, the artistic father and his mysterious son
  • Claire, the sweet pregnant girl
In addition to having an ensemble cast, the show has a group of fantastic writers and some memorable guest actors like Julie Bowen (Boston Legal) and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle). A few of the main actors (Hurley, Sun, and Sayid) had roles written for them while Sawyer's role was tweaked when the writers met Josh Holloway. The series was filmed almost entirely in Hawaii, although ironically the few times it was not filmed there, you would never be able to tell.

Lost isn't afraid to make you hate characters or their decisions, since good versus evil within all is one of the motifs of the show. Some series are afraid to have characters change, grow, and develop into something new unless they're getting killed off. However, Lost's characters do change, and it's not always as simple as for better or worse (occasionally it happens every other episode). Their personalities are deep, their issues are real, and their actions are typically justified (debatable). A viewer who dislikes a character one season may find him/herself enjoying that same character in a different season and vice-versa. The island also serves as a kind of character in and of itself and an environment where characters are given a second chance, or as Locke says “a new life.”
Easter eggs are scattered throughout the show—literary references, allusions, numbers, rewound words, and repeated phrases that all act as clues on the show. Some of these phrases often end up defining the characters throughout the series. Locke's “don't tell me what I can't do,” is said ad nauseaum. Instead of “whodunnit,” the audience is always left asking questions about the characters or coming to their own conclusion as to where the plot is going and what the island is.
Season Breakdown
The first season could be described as “Lord of the Flies” meets “Jurassic Park.” The survivors adapt to their current situation together, doubt and fear each other, and run from the island's dangers. They plan potential rescues, appoint a leader (Jack, the doctor), and struggle with their own inner demons. Jack especially, has to learn to be the hero he is reluctant to become and to make hard decisions that need to be made in order to keep his people safe. We learn that the island is “special,” and that the people who end up on the island could be special also.

The second season begins to better connect the characters to one another. They form more lasting friendships, yet their fears and desires also work against the interest of the group. Coincidences begin to rise, and the survivors realize that they truly are not alone. Instead of planning for rescue, they plant roots and worry about the inhabitants of the island.
The third season becomes convoluted in terms of mind games, secret agendas, and illusions that craft the characters into a tug-of-war game of lies and revealed truths. Fourth season tackles the “You don't always get what you wish for” aspect of the main characters, fifth season is defined by science fiction confusion, and the sixth season tackles a type of alternate reality while finishing up the series.

The six seasons can also be divided into two categories. The first half focuses on the characters, leaving their past behind, banding together, and the history of the island. The second half focuses on the future of the characters and the full-circle ripples of their development. More than a few times, my friends and I would come to the end of an episode baffled by what happened and say to one another, “I'll have to watch that one again.”
Regardless of your hesitation, I recommend this to anyone looking for a new television show to watch. I will admit that Lost has its flaws, but I believe it is worth the journey. It is best viewed in linear fashion, i.e. starting at the first episode and going forward. It's not the type of series you can pick up halfway through, and although this may sound boring, once you get into the show you'll understand that it is not boring to watch. I don't think I was truly hooked on the show until the fourth or fifth episode, so watch a few before making the decision to quit. Warning! this show is very time consuming, and more often than not the episodes end on cliff hangers. If you have a busy lifestyle and don't consider yourself someone who enjoys watching tv often, this show probably isn't for you.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jurassic Park (Novel)

It is remarkable that a book with paper thin characters can keep my attention. It is downright mind-boggling when a book like this turns into an insanely fantastic page turner. Thus, having finished Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, I am beginning to question what it is that I love the most in a story.

Intricate Plot versus Character Depth

Previous to this, I've always been a stickler for compelling characters with depth. To be lost in a story, I've long believed that you have to have an incredible degree of empathy for the characters that populate whatever setting is at hand. For example, Star Wars would be nothing without complex lovable characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. The plot of the movie is simply too basic for it to have much weight without them, which is a big reason why the prequel movies failed; the vast majority of the characters in those movies were simply too poorly written/acted for us to give a damn.

However, I've begun to notice that these books by Michael Crichton manage to be incredibly compelling in spite of the fact that the characters can often seem like cardboard cutouts. Hammond is the one-dimensional park creator who thinks only in how Jurassic Park can become a fantastic amusement park. Gennaro is the lawyer who assesses the Park for safety and profitability. Ellie Sattler is there just for her perspective on botany. Wu is present to provide perspective on genetics. Ian Malcolm is there to harp endlessly on chaos theory. And the children are in the book to scream and whine a lot as a cheap way to create drama.

Long story short, the characters are defined by their professions, and have next to no depth outside of that. But, though I make it sound bad, the weird thing is that this totally works. What makes Jurassic Park so incredibly interesting is the science, technical ramifications, and operations of the dinosaur park and the step-by-step process of how it all goes to hell. Thus the park itself becomes the main character and the pages just keep on turning; the characters are vehicles for different perspectives on how the park works and whether it should work. And this writing functions brilliantly to keep you invested in what is going on, even when you forget who this character is and ask yourself why you should care whether he is in trouble (I'm looking at you, Harding and Regis!).

Book vs Movie

In terms of book versus movie, as is often the case, I found the book to be the better of the two. However, I would note that the movie does a far better job of making you care for the characters, but this is achieved by adding facets to the characters that are not present in the book. For example, Hammond (the park creator) comes off as single-minded and deluded in the book, but in the movie he is an empathetic older gentleman whose dream has gone sadly awry. Ian Malcolm becomes snarkier in the movie, with an added twist of coming off as a ladies' man. Romance is hinted at between Grant and Ellie, but only in the movie. Samuel L Jackson brings Arnold to life, whereas in the book he is pretty much identified just as "that guy who is always in the control room trying to fix shit".

But the intricacies of the book can't be thrown aside and I found them, in the end, to be the far more exciting fare. As I mentioned before, the characters are identified by the perspectives of their professions, and it is through this that we get an interesting analysis of the concept of dinosaurs being brought to life and whether this is something to get excited over or something which you want to run very, very far away from. Muldoon, the park warden, explains to the reader how intricate and difficult it is to maintain a park of this size, particularly one populated by dinosaurs. Gennaro provides information on how investors would look at such a feat, and how funding for it would feasibly work out in real life. Malcolm harps endlessly (albeit hilariously) about how chaos theory postulates that the park is doomed to failure because of humanity's inability to compensate for random events. And there are countless more perspectives that analyze things in an interesting manner, making you really think about how incredible it would be for a park like this to exist, and how feasible or infeasible it would be to contain and create dinosaurs like this.


In the end, although I knocked the character side of things, this is a book that I could not put down because I enjoyed it so much. It is comparatively rare to find a 'thriller' where you are encouraged to think intellectually about events within the novel as they occur. You already know that the park is doomed to failure from the popularity of the movie, if nothing else. But knowing this does not take away from the events of the book in any way. Additionally, though they are of course similar, the book and the movie are different enough that seeing/reading one before the other does not affect matters in the slightest. They are both interesting takes on an exciting concept that are equally entertaining.

So, if you have seen the movie and loved it, do yourself a favor and check the book out as well. By contrast, if you are one of those few people who haven't seen the movie, try reading the book first then checking the movie out. Both are superb, and I would be interested to hear the opinion of someone who read the novel before the movie.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Written by Joe the Revelator

Until recently I’ve been largely unfamiliar with the steampunk genre. A few brushes with its anime cousins like Steamboy, or the odd comic heroes who wears petticoats and cravats, about sum up my experience. In fact, there’s a whole subculture (like Goths) that live as if technology peeked with steam engines and clockwork, and dress like train conductors and goggle-wearing propeller pilots. More often than not they come off looking like factory workers from the industrial age who wandered into Hot Topic.

Boneshaker, a novel by Cherie Priest, embodies the spirit of steampunk without ramming it down your throat. From the first few chapters you get a sense of the technology level and its limitations, and the oppressive grit and smog that followed the industrial revolution. Her book is set during the Klondike gold rush, but history is largely rewritten and science it twisted to fit her purpose. Zeppelins roam the sky as commonly as sailboats in great lakes, and copper pipes are threaded through every moving mechanism and marvel. The author also takes the time to note which cities she changed for the purpose of her story. Seattle, for example, is more densely populated in her alternate history, with larger buildings and a generous economy for the time.

Author: Cherie Priest

Zombies again.

The story kicks off with a brief but effective setup. A super-powered digging machine is invented by mad scientist Leviticus Blue for the wealthy Russians. But before it can be utilized by the communists, the machine goes amuck. It begins tearing up the streets of Seattle, crashing through banks and plazas, killing bystanders, breaking up the ground, before it simply disappears under the rocks.

In the boneshaker’s wake, from the cracked earth, a strange yellow gas spreads through downtown Seattle, burning lungs and melting skin. The victims of the gas blight eventually turn into Rotters (Zombies), who gather in mad mindless crowds to devour anyone they can catch. In their desperation the citizens construct a wall around several square miles of city, bottling up the heavy yellow gas, the zombies, the evil geniuses, and anyone unlucky enough to be stuck inside. Over the next fifteen years the wall is fortified and built up to ludicrous heights, and the out-of-sight problems are all but forgotten.

The Goggles...

When Briar Wilkes, wife of the late scientist Leviticus Blue, learns that her son Zeke has found a way under the wall and into the blighted city, it’s time for her to don her gasmask and raise the olde tyme lantern, for a hunt through the zombie-infested city. Along the way she meets up with Zeppelin captains, inventors, civil war deserters, holdouts living in vacuum-sealed tunnels within the city, and the industrious Chinese who pump air into the barricaded buildings.

The character of Briar herself is an interesting blend of emotions and traits. At 35, a bold age for the protagonist considering the youth of target readers, Briar teeters between the urge to smothering her teenage son and letting him run wild through town. She has the sort of passive parenting method that lands kids in juvenile hall. She frequently laments how she hasn’t been a good mother to Zeke, which makes his disappearance all the more motivating for her. Her outbursts and screaming rages are quickly tempered, and we find Briar to be the hard-hitting, gun-totting woman required to brave the dangers of the blight.

Escape from New York: Steampunk

Unintentional or not, I can’t look back on this book without comparing it to the John Carpenter movies. A portion of a city is walled-up and left for gangs of prisoners, ruffians, and undesirables. Although if Escape from NY/LA had this kind of writing, they would have been much better flicks.

By the end of Boneshaker I felt satisfied. Most of the mysteries introduced throughout the book are wrapped up with flare and style, with no small amount of gears and cogs, and in a way that keeps the characters believable. There are a few loose ends but those could easily be used to weave a sequel. In short, Boneshaker is what a fantasy-adventure-SciFi should be, from introduction to execution.