Thursday, September 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Underground Airlines by Ben Winters


Ever since I read Ben Winters' pre-apocalyptic mystery-thriller The Last Policeman trilogy (The Last PolicemanCountdown City and World of Trouble) last year I have been something of a fanboy of this speculative fiction author. I was VERY psyched when I learned that his first book published after The Last Policeman was going to be called Underground Airlines and set in an America with an alternate history where slavery persists to the 21st century and based around a modern analogue of the Civil War-era Underground Railroad. 

Underground Airlines is out now and clearly has an incredibly compelling premise. The alternate history is based around a seminal event which bifurcates Winters' fictional timeline from ours: the assassination of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and the subsequent "grand compromise" which defuses the tension between the states that in our timeline led to the Civil War. The ratification of five constitutional amendments have the effect of maintaining slavery because they allow every state in the Union to determine its slaveholding status, and includes a fiendishly clever clause which prevents the enactment of any future amendment to the Five Compromise amendments, cementing slavery into the fabric of our nation forever.

Most familiar historical events that occurred in our timeline (e.g. 9/11, Michael Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt) also occurred in the timeline of Underground Airlines but there are some fascinating (and horrifying) ways that the absence of the Civil War from our past has warped the timeline presented in Underground Airlines

Interestingly, it's not the entire South which has legalized slavery (or the preferred term "Person Bound to Labor") in the modern era. Slavery is alive, well and bureaucratized in the Hard Four: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina (North Carolina and South Carolina are reunited).

While Underground Airlines has an amazing premise, it also has a VERY complicated protagonist. He is a former slave named Victor who is now working (via coercion) for the U.S. Marshal's Service as an undercover agent to locate escaped slaves in the North and return them to involuntary servitude. Victor is a very problematic character (and in my mind, not very sympathetic). [This may be a feature of main characters in Ben Winters novels--the titular cop in The Last Policeman is also an anti-heroic figure.] Victor's circumstances are almost excessively complicated; he is in Indianapolis, Indiana looking for an escaped slave named Jackdaw when he runs into a troubled young white female with an adorable young African-American son whose future becomes entangled with his. Through the machinations of the (somewhat convoluted) plot, Victor becomes a double agent and perhaps  even a triple agent as he gets sucked into a particular situation that involves searching for a "mcguffin" which could potentially have a devastating impact on the rotten institution of slavery. However, to do so requires Victor to travel to the Hard Four which leads to some of the most harrowing and pulse-pounding scenes in the book.

Overall, despite my misgivings and issues with the main character, the setting of the book provides author Ben Winters with multiple opportunities to include mordant, thought-provoking commentary about race, class and history in our society which elevates Underground Airlines above the multitude of other media sources of entertainment which compete for our attention but ultimately fail to resonate as strongly with the conscience and memory of the reader.

Title: Underground Airlines.
Author: 
Ben H. Winters.
Paperback: 336 pages.
Publisher:
 Mulholland Books.
Date Published: July 15, 2016.
Date Read: September 27, 2016.


OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY:B+.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A-.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

GRAPHIC: Crime Rate versus Stop-and-Frisk in NYC

Kevin Drum has an excellent post today describing the facts about stop-and-frisk in New York City which graphically shows the relationship between the crime rate and stop-and-frisk policy (which stopped doing in 2014 after a federal district court judge ruled the NYPD's policy was illegal racially profiling Black and Latino men).

Since a picture is worth a  thousand words, I'll let the graphic speak for itself! But you can also read Kevin Drum's piece yourself.

Monday, September 26, 2016

6 Weeks Until #ElectionDay: Clinton 0.546, Trump 0.454


I've been busy all day so I didn't get to post the latest prediction by FiveThirtyEight.com about the candidates' relative chances to be president with 42 days remaining (6 weeks) before election day. Hillary Clinton has a probability of 0.546 while Donald Trump has a probability  of 0.454. Last week, Clinton had a probability of 0.589 while Trump had a probability of 0.411.

EYE CANDY: Veto Swain (reprise)





Veto Swain has appeared as Eye Candy once before (June 27, 2016). The fitness model and bodybuilder is very active on social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook). Enjoy!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A View From Above

Where do you think this is? I took it from the plane yesterday. A major American city....

Saturday, September 24, 2016

FILM REVIEW: Sully


Last weekend I was in Los Angeles and I was able to get together with a group of friends and we went and saw Sully the latest movie from Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper) and starring 2-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks (Philadephia, Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies). The movie is, of course, a cinematic adaptation of the incredible story of the "miracle on the Hudson" that occurred when a U.S. Airways jet with 155 people on board (passengers and crew) experienced a freak collision with a flock of birds that destroyed both engines a few minutes after takeoff from Laguardia and forced Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberg to make a controlled emergency landing on the near-freezing water of the Hudson River in January 2009.

The makers of  Sully has a difficult dramaturgical problem to address: the events of the Miracle on the Hudson are so well-known that making a movie about it means that one has to find a new source of tension separate from wondering what will happen. To their credit, they do come up with some dramatic tension that does pique one's interest in the film.

Additionally, Tom Hanks gives yet another excellent performance, and he has amazing chemistry with Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) who plays the co-pilot on the famous flight. The acting is just one highlight of this surprisingly short film. In fact, this film almost seems like a play because the story is so slight and the action is so limited. It's pretty amazing that the film was even made, but it does serve as a pretty effective vehicle for Hanks.

Overall, it's probably not necessary to rush out and watch Sully in the movie theaters. It's a good movie, but one that you can enjoy most of its virtues in the comfort of your own home, unless you are a fan who is also a Tom Hanks completist.

TitleSully.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Running Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.
Release Date: September 9, 2016.
Viewing Date: September 16, 2016.

Writing: B+.
Acting: A-.
Visuals: B+.
Impact: B.

Overall Grade: B+ (3.3/4.0).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell




British author David Mitchell is most well-known for his seminal work 
Cloud Atlas (which is one of my favorite books of the 2000-2009 decade and was made into a fascinating, underrated 2012 movie by the Wachowski siblings starring Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry).  His latest book is The Bone Clocks which I received as a present for Christmas in 2014 and I am ashamed it took me so long to pick it up and finally read  because in my opinion it's even more compelling than Cloud Atlas. The two books have a lot in common in that they are both written using the same structure, Mitchell's signature writing device (interlocking chapters or novellas set in various settings or styles featuring characters who are loosely related to others that appear in earlier chapters). Mitchell's books are often quite acclaimed by critics and are also recognized by fans and award nominating committees as belonging to the speculative fiction genre that encompasses science fiction and fantasy. For example, The Bone Clocks was the winner of the 2015 World Fantasy Award while Cloud Atlas  was nominated for the Man Booker, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. In Cloud Atlas, the interlocking chapters/novellas are written in various genres (a series of letters, historical love story, hardboiled detective mystery, far-future science fiction, etc) with very different characters in different times and places. However in The Bone Clocks, while several characters weave in and out of first-person perspective chapters, the setting moves from 1980s Thatcher's England to a near-apocalyptic 2034 United Kingdom and constantly revolves arounds a central science fiction-y mystery (involving the existence of creatures who can transfer their consciousness to achieve immortality). As with most of Mitchell's work, the writing is flashy but beautiful also.

If you liked Cloud Atlas  (and after 150,000 ratings on Goodreads it is above 4.0 on a 5-point scale) I am confident you will also love The Bone Clocks.

The central character in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes. In the beginning of the book she is a mindless teenage git but somehow she grows on you, even if she is not always front and center in the story.  (She's one of the characters that persist through the multiple novellas that make up the book). By the end of the tale she is a resourceful grandmother trying to insure a hopeful future for her extended family in a future dystopia. 

The book grabbed me on page 5 and never let me go for 600 pages and 48 hours later. It is divided into six sections set in six different years  over a half-century (A Hot Spell, 1984; Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, 1991; The Wedding Bash, 2004; Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet, 2015; An Horologist’s Labyrinth, 2025; Sheep's Head, 2034). Some of these are not as successful as others but the last three (in particular) are absolutely sublime and the effect of reading them is entirely engrossing.

Overall, The Bone Clocks was one of my most enjoyable reads of 2015; a compelling, thought-provoking book whose characters and scenes resonate in the mind long after you turn the last page.

Title: The Bone Clocks.
Author: 
David Mitchell.
Paperback: 640 pages.
Publisher:
 Random House.
Date Published: September 2, 2014.
Date Read: June 25, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A+ (4.25/4.0).

PLOT: A+.
IMAGERY: A.
IMPACT: A+.
WRITING: A+.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

7 Weeks Until #ElectionDay: Clinton 0.589, Trump 0.411


There are 7 weeks (49 days) until election day, November 8 2016. FiveThirtyEight.com's forecasting model of the 2016 presidential election gives Hillary Clinton approximately a 59% chance of winning, compared to Donald Trump's 41%. Last week, these numbers were 0.682 (Clinton) and 0.318 (Trump).

2016 EMMYS: Comparing The Winners To My Predictions


I predicted the winners of the top categories at this past weekend's Emmy awards. I was correct in four of the six categories. However, in the two categories I missed, the actors I wanted to win Rami Malek of Mr. Robot and Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black won, which was awesome!

SHOULD WIN: Modern Family
WILL WIN: Veep.
DID WIN: Veep.

Outstanding Drama Series
SHOULD WIN: : Game of Thrones.
WILL WIN: Game of Thrones.
DID WIN: Game of Thrones.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
SHOULD WIN: Rami Malek. 
WILL WIN: Kevin Spacey.
DID WIN: Rami Malek. 

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
SHOULD WIN: Tatiana Maslany or Viola Davis. 
WILL WIN: Keri Russell.
DID WIN: Tatiana Maslany.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
SHOULD WIN: Thomas Middleditch.
WILL WIN: Jeffrey Tambor
.
DID WIN: Jeffrey Tambor.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
SHOULD WIN: Tracee Ellis Ross.
WILL WIN: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
.
DID WIN: Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

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