Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Jean-Paul’s rating: 5/5 stars

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a children’s book in the same way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are for children.  Ok, maybe not that bad, but Gaiman has a particular gift for seeing adult themes through the eyes of a child.  There is a matter-of-factness in children when confronted with things that stretch the boundaries of their knowledge.  There almost has to be since they are constantly assaulted with new information.  And even though there is a suicide and nudity and sex in this book, I would still consider it a children’s book just because Gaiman captured a child’s spirit so well.  That isn’t to say that what we have here is only a children’s book.  Far from it.  “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” should appeal to just about everyone.  All the characters are fully flushed out and entertaining.  The story is compelling and dreamy and thought-provoking.  Gaiman’s descriptions make it seem like you are there witnessing the goings on in the story.

What I like best about the book is that even though the protagonist is a young boy, he is helped along his journey by a triumvirate of strong women in the Hempstock family.  Even the main villain is female.  This is such an unusual occurrence in literature or any form of art that it is worth pointing out.

The story itself is best described as a fairy tale if one were to assign such designations to books.  The Hempstocks are aglessly old.  Even the youngest, Lettie, is aged beyond description despite appearing only thirteen.  One of the best lines is when the boy first realizes it.  “How old are you?”  “Thirteen.”  “How many years have you been thirteen?”  The entire book is filled with dialogue like that.

This book draws you in and doesn’t let go.  Dream and reality are combined.  Oceans fit in buckets.  The world is filled with monsters who mean well but cause havoc anyway.  It is a complete delight from start to finish and I’d highly recommend you all read it.

Dream Fluid Dynamics

Normally, when I remember dreams they are wisps of memory floating away from my newly awakened body that I must reach up and grab before they escape me.  This morning, I had absolutely no recollection of my dream from last night and it was only later as I was reading “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” on the train that the wisps came floating back to me and coalesced back into memory.  (Great book, by the way.  Neil Gaiman.)  That my dream was water based and one of the main themes of the book is water may be a coincidence, but it’s a striking one nonetheless.  On to the dream.

I was in a bathroom washing my hands.  The bathroom was all white.  In the process of washing my hands, I discovered that the sink was leaking from somewhere and water was pooling on the floor.  There was a compartment of some sort located just under the sink.  To open it, you just pulled off the door.  Kind of like it was only held on just by magnets only not.  I pull the door off and water comes out, only not like you would normally expect water to behave.  It came out in a cube formed to fit the dimensions of the compartment.  After it had fully escaped the compartment, it behaved exactly like normal water and fell to the floor.

I decide to take this opportunity to teach everyone else in the house about fluid dynamics.  I gather everyone around and put the door back on and let the compartment fill with water.  I position a garbage can under the compartment to catch the water and then I pull off the door.  The water comes oozing out as before.  As this is happening, I explain to everyone assembled that the water holds its form because the water molecules bond with each other when in an enclosed space and the resulting surface tension is strong enough to hold the water’s shape until it clears the container.  I reposition the garbage can slightly and the water clears the compartment, starts behaving like normal water once again and every drop gets caught by the garbage can.

The end.

Ideas In Radical Democracy

There are two things wrong with our system of elections; the people who run for office and the people who vote the people into office.  The former is true because it is an almost universal truth that anyone who puts so much effort into seeking power is distinctly unsuited to hold such power.  The latter because it is impossible for a member of the general public to make an educated decision on which candidate is truly qualified to hold a position.  The answer is usually “none of them” but we have to go with the system we have.  Or do we?

I am a much higher information voter than the general public and I am woefully unqualified to pick a good candidate for, I would say, 80% of the votes that I cast.  Judges?  Forget it.  Metropolitan Water Reclamation District?  Pshhht.  President of the United States?  Please!  Ok, I’m joking about that last one, but I do seriously believe that the sheer act of running for President of the United States automatically makes you one of the worst people to be allowed to be President.  

But if the people who run suck and the people who vote suck, what’s a Democracy to do?  How about we stop having candidates and stop having votes?  If we want a truly representative democracy, we need a larger pool of potential office holders.  And by larger pool, I mean everyone who is constitutionally qualified to hold that specific office.  You say you’re from Illinois, are 30+ years old, and a citizen of the U.S. for at least 9 years?  Guess what?  You have a chance to become the next junior Senator from Illinois.  How in the world would we manage voting for such a large pool of candidates?  Simple.  We don’t vote.  We hold a lottery.  Your name gets picked, you’re elected.  

Holding office should be a burden, but it should be a burden that everyone is willing to accept if called.  In this way, it would be similar to another burden we all must bear as upright citizens; jury duty.  Jury duty is wholly necessary to our justice system and its one major flaw is that it’s ridiculously easy for people to get out of doing it if they so choose.  With this new system of elections, it would be nigh impossible to shirk the duty.  In fact, I’d change jury duty to be the same way as elections.

Goodbye two party system!  So long good ole boys network!  Ta ta money’s corrupting influence on elections!  See ya dynastic political families!  Au revoir voter suppression.

Sure, there will still be corruption.  Yes, there is a chance that you may get some bad apples elected as a result.  But I believe those odds would be dramatically lowered with this new system.  And with an almost zero chance of being re-elected, those bad apples will be able to cause much less damage than your 18 term Congresspersons of today.

It would certainly be a hard sell.  Voting is so ingrained in our mind as a necessary component of a thriving democracy that people will rail against the idea just on principle.  It would require changing the Constitution at both the Federal and State level and likely also require additional prerequisites for certain positions like judges.  In the end, it all boils down to one idea: A person who has power thrust upon her for a period of time is much more likely to use that power to achieve what they believe in than they are to abuse it to achieve their own ends.

The Islamic State

Do yourself a favor and watch this VICE News video on ISIS.  Warning: there are some very graphic images at times.

What amazes me the most about the video is how perfectly normal and perfectly matter of fact most of the ISIS people seem.  Well, until they cut off your head or crucify you.  It’s almost surreal.  Their daily experience is so far removed from what we are used to and the veneer on the horrors that they are perpetrating only cracks every once in a while.  What especially got me was the policing of the Sharia Law stuff.  So polite, almost courteous.  So deadly.  It gives me chills.

VICE News is doing some amazing reporting around the world.  Their in-depth reporting is around the best I’ve seen.  It’s what real reporting should be.

Book Review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The world is an exceedingly strange place.  Take the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for instance.  It is certainly a museum.  But what the heck is Jurassic Technology?  Well, keep guessing, because the museum’s curator, David Wilson, will only give you an answer that is equal parts satisfying and confusing.  The exhibits in the museum are equal parts baffling and revealing.  All are tantalizingly real, with professional audio and authoritative sounding placards.  You want to believe they’re true.  After all, they’re in a museum.  And some of them are real, but you’re never quite sure which.  Thus begins “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology”.  Weschler describes many of the exhibits on his first visit to the museum and later tries to fact check some of them.  Down the rabbit hole we go.

David Wilson is an anachronism.  Here it is, the 20th century (the book was written in the 1990′s), and here is this beautifully maintained museum of nonsense.  Well not nonsense, but certainly not sense either.  The museum is a throw-back to when rich people collected the oddities of the world and displayed them for public consumption.  Somewhere down the line, logic and reason took over and we now have large museums of peer-reviewed exhibits instead of the hodge-podge collection like Wilson’s.  This is both a blessing and a curse.

The book is split into three parts.  The first part is quite entertaining as it describes both the museum and introduces us to the curator and his family.  I was mildly put off by Weschler’s prolific use of SAT words near the beginning, but I either got used to it or became resigned to the fact that a place as odd as the Museum of Jurassic Technology deserves triple word score words.  The second part kind of lost me.  It goes into excruciating, and often dry, detail of the history of Wunderkammer, or Wonder Cabinets, of which the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a worthy successor.  There is some interesting historical sleuthing here, but Weschler’s use of notes, which can span pages, to add more depth to topics he is discussing really threw me with having to constantly page back and forth from the story to the notes section.  Many of the notes, I was left wondering why he didn’t just include it in the main text.  Part three wraps things up satisfyingly as we travel back to the Museum of Jurassic Technology and are once again treated to the many oddities the Museum has to offer.

The book is a decent read.  It really makes you think.  For instance, after reading about so many truths and half-truths and lies and mischaracterizations associated with the various Wunderkammen, who’s to say that anything Weschler wrote is the truth.  Who’s to say that the Museum of Jurassic Technology actually exists.  After reading “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”, you’ll look at the world slightly differently than you did going in.

Movie Review: Lucy

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A very fun movie if you don’t think about it so hard.  Decent plot with some great visuals.

Did you know that humans only use 10% of their brain?  You did?  Well you shouldn’t because we don’t.  Regardless, that’s the premise of “Lucy”.  Not a good way to start.  The good news is that they very quickly establish that the science in the film is going to be over the top made up so the 10% lie actually fits.  I would have probably hated the movie otherwise.

Scarlett Johansson does a great job playing the titular Lucy.  Lucy is a woman on an extended vacation in Taipei.  She ends up going on a delivery drop with her boyfriend who ends up forcing her to make the delivery herself.  We are treated to cut over shots of a mouse approaching a trap and then a gazelle being stalked by cheetahs.  I absolutely loved this as a cinematic device.  It helps build the tension in what would normally be just a woman waiting for a person to come meet her.

Of course, you know that Lucy eventually has something happen to her that makes her able to use more than 10% of her brain.  The lead up to that is very fun.  At no point do you really quite know what’s going on.  I assume this is on purpose since you’re basically seeing everything from Lucy’s point of view.

Once Lucy gets her powers, we’re treated to a roller coaster action sequence as Lucy goes on a rampage taking out the people who did this to her.  It is all well done and it’s quite fun watching Lucy attain more and more powers as she unlocks more and more of her brain’s capacity.  We’re treated to her digging into people’s minds to get information, Lucy changing her appearance simply with a thought, and her being able to visualize phone calls that are going on around her and picking the one that she wants to listen to.

Really, the only downside to the movie is the ending where we’re treated to a longish sequence of visuals which don’t really serve much purpose.  Lucy is also quite inconsistent in who she kills and who she lets live.  This is partially because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she killed the main bad guy right away.  I also like to think, though, that her inconsistency is due more to her not even recognizing humanity as alive after her powers manifest to a certain point.

As long as you remember to turn off your brain, “Lucy” is a heck of a lot of fun.  I think this is a requirement for enjoying this movie.  Enjoy.

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Jean-Paul’s rating: 3/5 Stars

I picked up “Gone Girl” because I had just finished my previous book and because it was both immediately available to download from the library and I had just seen that it was going to become a Ben Afleck movie.  I had heard of “Gone Girl” before, but it never piqued my interest until I saw about the movie, which I will still likely see despite my, as you will see, somewhat tepid review of the book.  As a general rule, I like to read the books before I see the movie.

“Gone Girl” starts out quite good.  The two main characters, Amy Dunne and Nick Dunne, are fleshed out really nicely.  The storytelling for the first half of the book is done alternating between a first person perspective through Nick’s eyes starting the day Amy disappears and a series of Amy’s diary entries retelling events from years ago when Amy and Nick first met up to the day that Amy disappears.  It is a very cool, very effective way to tell a story.  If only the story it had to tell was worth it.

My biggest problem with the story was the incessant bludgeoning of the reader with detective story cliché after cliché.  When the twist comes along, you get to understand that all the clichés are kind of the point, but by that time you already feel like you’re stuck in a crappy detective novel.

What saves the book is that the twist is pretty freaking cool.  I will not give anything away, but suffice to say, I was very pleasantly surprised at it and it fit in very nicely with everything that came before.  Unfortunately, it then proceeds into another series of clichés that again reduces it to more of a tedious than enjoyable read.

The end is a huge let-down.  It does one of those leave you hanging things where you’re left to wonder what happens to everyone.  Normally, I go for this kind of things, but the preceding events are so outside of normal human experience that it’s very difficult to come to any conclusion as to what any of the characters are thinking.  Seriously, there is some effed up psychological stuff going on here, which is again, kind of cool.

In the end, the problem with “Gone Girl” is that it doesn’t really cover any new ground.  It’s the same old ground that twists into the same old ground.  A cool twist is not enough to save a book.  So why would I ever want to see the movie, you may ask?  Because, in the right hands, I think this could make for a very good movie and I am interested in seeing how they bring the twists and ending to the big screen.  We shall see.

Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom line: Some good action.  Close to zero character development.  Close to zero laughs.

How do you make Will Arnett not funny?  Star him in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.  Seriously, Michael Bay, how do you make Will Arnett not funny?  Joining Will Arnett in not being funny was everyone else in the cast.  The saddest thing was you could tell how very hard they were trying to make things funny, but there was no material to work with.  All the comedy was shoehorned in there along with a bunch of poorly executed nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to the old TMNT series.  Please tell me you made a lot of money on this movie, Will.

And then there’s the character development.  Or lack thereof.  You have April O’Neil (Megan Fox) whose entire schtick is telling people how she wants to be a serious reporter over and over again.  Then there’s Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) whose entire purpose is to drive April everywhere and pine for her.  There were also four turtles who we get to know by them repeating their names.  I’m Leonardo and I’m the leader!  I’m Michelangelo and I’m the goofball.  I’m Donatello and I’m the smart one, see, I have glasses!  I’m Raphael and I’m the broody one.

There are a few kind of cool action scenes.  The best is the one where they inexplicably choose a semi-truck with trailer as an escape vehicle and go sliding down an inexplicably snow covered mountain with other vehicles in pursuit.  The final battle against the Shredder was also decent enough before being ruined by some unbelievable silliness.

There’s not much to say about the plot.  The origin story is different than the TMNT of old, but it’s not so bad.  The Foot Clan is reduced to machine gunning mercenaries with a few ninjas thrown in for good measure.  Of course, Splinter almost dies and the Turtles need to save his life while simultaneously saving the world.  How they are able to save Splinter’s life is beyond idiotic.  They basically give him an infusion of their own blood because it has magical healing powers.  But, um, wouldn’t Splinter’s blood also have that healing power?  The answer is yes, yes it would.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is decidedly in the do not go to see category.  Save your nostalgia for a rainy day at home where you can loudly lament Michael Bay killing another childhood memory.

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A very enjoyable variation on the Superhero theme of movie.  Lots of likeable characters, some good humor, slightly touching.  The larger ship fight action scenes fall flat because they are mostly impossible to follow.

Well, Marvel has yet another winning franchise.  Who’d a thunk that a movie about a bunch of misfit heroes with pretty much zero name recognition would be both a success and as good as it actually was?  A lot of this has to do with the fine cast of second tier stars.  Chris Pratt started off a little soft and appeared to be a little uncomfortable as Peter Quill (Starlord), but he very quickly pulled it all together to create an incredibly likeable character.  The interactions between Gamora (Zoe Salander) and Drax (Dave Bautista) were entertaining.  Vin Diesel gives the acting performance of his life as Groot.  And Bradley Cooper steals scene after scene as the raccoon, Rocket.

The key to this film’s success is actual, honest to goodness character development.  Marvel seems to be really good at this, but this is really the first time they have gone full-bore introducing five new heroes and yet still cram the story full of character development for all five of them while at the same time telling a pretty decent story.  Another key factor to this movie’s success is the lightness of the story.  Yes, serious stuff is happening all around, but there’s also always time for a well placed and very well-timed joke.  Like when Rocket says he needs the prisoner’s mechanical leg to help them escape.  Classic.

The only real downside to the movie were the way too hectic battle scenes.  The close up action worked really well, but get more than a few ships speeding across the screen at the same time and you really can’t tell what’s going on.  Messy visual spectaculars are all the rage these days, unfortunately.  Of course, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on in those scenes so it’s easy to look past it.

Yep, there will be another “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, you can all but guarantee it.  This one was too fun and appears to be as successful as it needs to be to make it happen.  It’s a great group of characters and I’m looking forward to seeing their next adventure.  In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll watch this movie again once or twice.