Friday, November 27, 2009

Prepare to Meet Your Dome!

Under the Dome
by Stephen King
New York : Scribner, 2009

Stephen King's newest novel, Under the Dome, is probably the best thing he's written this decade. In the very near future, the town of Chester's Mill is suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible, impenetrable dome. There is no warning, and several people (and one unfortunate woodchuck) suffer the consequences immediately. For everyone else, the horror escalates rapidly as one thing after another goes wrong; the town's propane supply is mysteriously short, the most powerful politician in town becomes increasingly despotic, and the sky begins to darken, slowly but inexorably.

In the tradition of Needful Things and Tommyknockers, Under the Dome features King's signature style of ensemble casts. Though the story closely follows a handful of characters, the whole town is placed, as it were, under the microscope. Also, like most of King's writing, the horror and tragedy stem from basic human emotions and responses more than on any supernatural malevolence. Though the Dome has created a terrible situation, it is ultimately the actions of the townsfolk which drive the hellish pace of the story; and it is hellish.

Though bulky and somewhat recycled (is there any small town in Maine safe from annihilation?), the story is paced beautifully. There are no lulls in the action, and there are several scenes, including the climactic ending, which truly filled me with dread. One of the best things about this particular story is its horrible inevitability, and while there are some surprises, it is even worse knowing what's going to happen, and watching it still happen anyway.

The best part of this story is its thorough modernity. Under the Dome does not ignore the changing nature of communications technology, and in fact relies on it in several places to advance the plot. The media and military know about what's happening; in fact, the whole world knows, and must watch as the reader watches with sick fascination as calamities descend on Chester's Mill. They helplessly watch as the town shows signs of climate-change in miniature, rape becomes an epidemic, and the drug-culture literally blows up in their faces. If the dome is a trap, it is also a funhouse mirror, reflecting the times in stark relief.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recent Books on Rwanda

It seems to me that people cannot look such terrible events as genocide in the face. They have to approach traumatic events from a more humanitarian angle that makes the harsh reality more palatable. The recent popular film “Hotel Rwanda” focused on the inspirational story of the rescue of a Tutsi population and foreigners residing in a Luxury Hotel from the marauding gangs of killers during the genocide. In this particular Rwanda is fortunate for having an inspirational story in the current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Paul Kagame’s biography is the story of Rwanda and its neighbors through the past twenty years through the Hutu domination of Rwanda and the exile and persecution of the Tutsi population. Kagame started life as a Tutsi exile in Uganda who prepared himself for leadership and eventually led an army into Rwanda to take control during the political chaos of the genocide of 1994. He also led the early government in Rwanda that sought to reconcile the ethnic groups in one government that could pick up the pieces.
Nevertheless, the lasting effects of the genocide have to be dealt with. In 1994, nearly a million Tutsi were slaughtered by their Rwandan friends, neighbors and, in some cases, relatives who were members of the Hutu tribe. European leaders quietly observed the slaughter and may have even contributed to it. Most notably, the U.N. failed to intervene on any level to save lives and the U.S. simply ignored the slaughter.
The Author of “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man who Dreamed It”, Stephen Kinzer, tries to tell the entire story of Rwanda from the beginning with Paul Kagame as its hero. It's a difficult story of the slow build up to hatred and mass murder and one that deserves the attention of a world that looked the other way while it was happening. Many of our international leaders have used the word "genocide" often without looking into its real meaning. However, the details of the events of that year in Rwanda show all the horrible aspects of this kind of event. The use of that word can only take on its full meaning when one looks at the realities of a civil war and an internal policy of systematic hatred of an ethnic enemy intended to unify a fraying central government. Kinzer effectively uses the words of Rwandan President Paul Kagame to tie together this half-century history of the nation. In this bestselling book author and journalist, Stephen Kinzer, not only recounts this shameful event in vivid detail but he also provides the valuable back story. Most significantly, he outlines the startlingly inspirational recovery that Rwanda has begun during the decade or so since the genocide.

Kinzer’s main focus is Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in its war against the Rwandan government beginning in 1990 which both sparked and eventually put an end to the genocide. Any book about the last quarter-century of Rwandan history could not help but focus on Kagame. He has dominated the picture with his leadership. It is clear Kinzer is taken by Kagame’s disciplined and business-like manner, his sharp focus on problems, and his ability to get things done despite the odds. In his estimation, Kagame is an outstanding leader who has brought possibility out of chaos and horror.

“Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Power, Genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front” by Colin M. Waugh is another very thorough examination of the career of Paul Kagame and the devastation of the genocide. In this book we get a very clear view of the difficulties of life as an exile and the growing hopes for a revival of his country. We learn about the very clear headed and cautious style of leadership of Kagame and reasons why he was so successful. By bringing discipline and reason into Rwandan government Paul Kagame was able to bring the country into the light. It is an inspirational read about what is possible with vision and just leadership even in the most difficult circumstances. This book adds many details to the story of the major decisions of President Kagame and how these wise decisions reconciled communities in conflict and gave hope to the people. This is the kind of inspirational story that people want to read and that adds to their lives. Darkness alone doesn’t sell. But that is for a good reason.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dystopia Schmystopia

If you’re anything like me and many Generation-X pseudo-nerds, then you have a love/hate relationship with future dystopian sci-fi novels. Don't get me wrong—I've read and love a lot of these books. I think they resonate especially with we jaded Gen-X'ers who grew up in the shadow of the last decade of the Cold War. Remember the movie 'Red Dawn'? Enough said.

Although we're no longer terrified of the Soviets lobbing a city-killer sized nuke over Canada, we've experienced a scary last eight years. Partly because of the newly rekindled fire feeding the spread of terrorism (“Bring it on!”), I think we're feeling a slight return of that distant sense of doom. The other day I saw a guy walking around DC wearing a t-shirt that read One Nation Under Surveillance. That's what I’m talking about. Way to distill it to four words, shirt company! Maybe I'm imagining this mood on the street, maybe I'm projecting, but I'm not imagining the hundreds of underground anti-establishment podcasts with themes of mistrust, anarchy, and disdain for our ruling authorities. I listen to them on my lunch break and they make me A) glad to have the freedom of speech B) want to reach for a future dystopian novel.

One problem is the immense number of these novels that are out there—it’s impossible to keep up. If you look to the past you have to go all the way back to Mary Shelley in the 1820s to see this genre first taking shape. In the mid 1900s come the most crucial post-industrial dystopian novels: A Brave New World, Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451. There were also many other lesser-known masterpieces like Naked Lunch, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Postman, and it’s really never stopped since then. Okay, end of sermon. But I would like, O’ my brothers, to talk partially about a novel published in 1962, and what is in part the target of this malenky report, my merry droogs, this being the audio book presentation of a novel of future London, that is, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess.

In high school and in college, people kept telling me I had to read this book. “Dude, you've read Nineteen-Eighy-Four, now you need to try something harder.” But I’d pick up a paperback edition of Clockwork with tiny type on gray paper and end up putting it down shortly thereafter and start making up excuses: I just can't get into the lingo. It's immediately too dark to get into, it just doesn't click. That all changed two months ago when a library patron returned a 6-disc audio book version of it and suggested, no demanded, that I rip it to my iPod. (BTW, recommendations of patrons, by the way, are how I’ve come across most of my favorite books. Bog bless Washington’s enthusiastic readers and well-stocked libraries!)

Anthony Burgess wrote dozens of novels from 1956 to 1995, but to his chagrin it was Clockwork that won him superstar status. Burgess expressed regret over this any chance he was given. The small tome was just one of many books he'd written over the decades, and not his favorite by any means. Nevertheless, for better or worse, it is for this quirky chronicle of teenage depravity, and largely due to the hit film based on it, that people remember this author and vision of the future.

When I think of the sixties, I picture people sitting around on shag rugs listening to the first Pink Floyd record, often in altered states of mind. But this book was published in 1962, before the hippie thing had exploded. It was in this silence before the coming social hurricane that Burgess gives us his terrifying vision of a bleak, sprawling future full of unrestrained crime carried out by poorly parented teens, all living in fearful concrete suburbs. The only reason I know this is because of Tom Hollander, and Recorded Books.

From the first line, What’s it going to be, then, eh? The character of poor Alex is vividly and effortlessly imagined thanks to Hollander’s perfect cockney accent, urbanized and infused with Russian slang. This isn’t a book report and I don’t want to color anyone’s opinion of the work. I'm not addicted to audio books like some people—I still prefer hard copies. All the same, I do want to throw this out there: I’ve been through A Clockwork Orange three times (!!!) now on my iPod, after having picked up and put down the paper version at least twice as many times. Put it on hold—it’s painless and well worth the minimal trouble, even if you’re a lazy reader like me. You will get pulled in and, if you're anything like me, you'll like it so much you'll laugh out loud on the train and embarrass yourself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Where's Eric?

I know the kids at story time have probably been asking, "Where's Mr. Eric?"

Well you can tell them that I'm helping to install the new Northwest One library at New Jersey Ave. and L St NW! I've been working with a great team of staff members to put together a brand new library, and it's coming along just fine. We're having a grand old time unpacking box loads of books, CDs and DVDs.

I'll be out here for the next few weeks, but I plan to return to my normal story time duties the second week of December.

The new Northwest One Library opens to the public on December 7. Stop by and see how much DC Public is changing.

Check it out!

Friday, November 13, 2009

National Gaming Day: Saturday Nov. 14

Are you a gamer?

I am.

I had an Atari when I was 6, started building D&D characters when I was 12, played Yahtzee with my family when I was in my teens, played Euchre when I was in high school, got into Vampire: The Masquerade in college... Yeah, I've been playing games for a LONG time now.

So, come and join us here at Watha T. on Saturday the 14th of November for National Gaming Day, and get into some hot new games. We've got Letter Jam, Wits and Wagers, Say Anything, Pictureka, Set, and Wii Sports. It's going to be an AWESOME day.

And this is open to all ages. Don't think that games are just for kids. No, no. Everyone of every age is welcome to play.

So, come on over and check it out!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thelonious Monk, Beethoven, etc.

As an experimental/rock musician and songwriter, I don’t claim to always be able to understand jazz. We appreciators of music tend to find that our tastes and aptitudes travel in cycles. For a month at a time we get obsessed with garage rock, then Beethoven, then bebop, never paying much attention to why (And who really cares anyway.) After buying a really nice pair of headphones, I automatically got back into the richness of acoustic instruments, namely classical and jazz, because of the high standards of sound quality demanded by unrelenting jazz and classical fanatics. My favorites tend to be the crazier of the composer/performers, like Beethoven and Thelonious Monk.

The first Monk I ever heard was not Monk at all, but rather an original vinyl LP of Chick Corea and his phenomenal combo doing a very admirable job at impersonating the often puzzling and always brilliant style of Mr. Thelonious, playing all covers of Monk tunes. I was walking home listening to a song called ‘Brilliant Mississippi’, track three on Thelonious Monk Live at the Monterrey Jazz festival 1964, and discovered a brilliant gem -- the perfect solo.
It’s like listening to Bach improvising a folksy musical joke, channeling the muse flawlessly—some lusty teenage giddiness that is helplessly contagious.

As usual he morphs all his mistakes expertly into gorgeous eccentric statements, like he’s proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the non-existence of mistakes. At least if you’re in the mood for bebop. It’s musical aikido, redirecting purposely unbalanced artistic thrusts into oddly fitting harmonic motion. It’s feeling the flow and following it, and all the while creating it. Even to a non-musician Monk's phrases on 'Brilliant Mississippi' can be heard line after line obscuring and then decoding themselves, creating a sort of exaggerated wonky musical expressionism similar to Van Gogh’s blossoming, fantastically colorful flowers, which only someone half-crazy could pull off so perfectly.

It’s easy to tell when it’s a composer who is improvising, Like Hendrix or Miles Davis or, from what I’ve read, Beethoven and especially J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Beethoven were unmatched at simply sitting down at a piano (L.V.B.) or church organ (J.S.B.) and improvising for hours, playing around with themes they’d heard on the street that day (L.V.B.), a bird’s song (L.V.B.), the never-repeating melodic patterns of clanging church bells, etc. Listening to Bright Mississippi I picture city traffic and car horns and people hollering between apartment buildings changing, like with Beethoven, into secret representations. Same difference.

Following this topic, allow me to share some recommendations, (all owned by WTD Library):

Beethoven, the Universal Composer by Edmund Morris [Book]
Cannonball Adderley Live In '63 [DVD]
Jazz Anecdotes by Bill Crow [Book]
Oscar Peterson Live in '63, '63 & '65 [DVD]
Lionel Hampton Live in '58 [DVD]

I'd like to suggest even more vehemently for any jazz enthusiast to track down a film called Straight, No Chaser, directed by Charlotte Zwerin. I've never seen a better peek into the world of the mad genius himself, Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The New New Post Post Cyberpunk Bonanza

by Cory Doctorow
New York : Tor, 2009.

I have been hearing Cory Doctorow's name in various contexts for a few years, now. As a fan of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk, how could I not have? Yet I never read his work until now. With no clue what to look for, I was happily surprised by Makers.

The book, which was serialized by Tor before its actual publication, bears the cute tag-line, "a Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come", and so it seems to be. beginning in a future so near you actually don't know it's not right now, the story follows an economic, technological and social trajectory into a future which wouldn't make half as much sense if you weren't right there to see it. The genius of the story is that, if you have any working knowledge of recent history, that's exactly how the last hundred-and-change years have gone. In some ways, Doctorow's future is more believable because of its retrospective qualities. Another side effect of the story's modern origin is the giddy hilarity that accompanies its creations; good satire hurts so good because of its dreadful familiarity. Makers achieves this with the same flair and foresighted hilarity of Bruce Sterling's Distraction, or William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Reading this book caused a litany of vocabulary words to create themselves in my head, a cluster of blog tags waiting to be born. Postmodern came up a lot, but then post-postmodern could equally apply. Ana-Randian, anarcho-libertarian, post-post-postfeminist, neorealist, techno-comedy, none of them necessarily apply, but all of them came from my instinctive need to create some simple descriptors for this literary equivalent of the portmanteau. Try it - you'll find yourself bathing in the salty waters of Doctorow's compelling ambiguity.

That said, I couldn't help but wonder about the suspiciously familiar main characters, and (perhaps not so strangely) self-referential philosophies of the "makers" whose lives are the center of the book. Many of the themes in Makers, including the use of Disney as a foil and example of dizzyingly vast corporate monstrocity, are reminiscent of Doctorow's other projects. Not that I mind. Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and he does it all the time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I just finished reading the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It seems like half the staff were reading it all at the same time, and a couple of us watched Blade Runner, the film inspired by the book. It's been sitting on my bookshelf at home for years now, and I've been wanting to read it for a while. Apparently the time was right and it made its way into my backpack and today I finished it.

It was a really great novel. Nobody plays mindgames with the reader, or with his characters, like Philip K. Dick does. The world exists in a state of post-nuclear destruction. The sky is obliterated by radioactive dust, most all life on earth is dead, mutated, or on the verge of extinction. Most of humanity has zoomed off to settle other, non-nuclear worlds with the help of android slaves to build settlements and take care of the major labor. Well, the android models keep getting smarter and smarter, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell androids from humans. So, in order to detect whether or not someone is human or android human police have to administer a test to prove the essential humanity of the individual based on empathetic responses. Rick Deckard works for the San Francisco police department as a bounty hunter who takes down rogue androids. He's been assigned to take out the remaining 6 androids who escaped from their captivity on Mars.

Due to the near extinction of most all animal life humans on Earth have mostly become followers of this empathy cult, whose leader, Wilber Mercer, was a lover of animals. People strive to own and care for living creatures, even though the cost of purchasing, much less caring for, a pet are exorbitantly high given their rarity. Not only do they strive to become pet owners and caretakers, they also spend time "fusing" with the others in the cult through the empathy box, where they share each others emotions as they climb the hill of sacrifice with Mercer.

This becomes the lynch pin in determining whether or not someone is an android. How do they react to animal death? How do they feel about the products that were derived from killing something extraordinarily rare? My own brain goes to thinking about sociopaths like Dexter who have no regard for life, animal or human, because they lack empathetic response. The Voigt-Kampff test they use in the book (and the film) measures how they respond to certain triggering words or situations related to animal cruelty and the death of humans. Interestingly enough, The Wave Magazine in San Francisco used the Voigt-Kampff questions when they spoke with candidates for Mayor of the city. The results were incredibly interesting.