Friday, December 9, 2011

Stephen King Reigns With Captivating Journey Back In Time (December 9, 2011)

With more than four dozen novels and several short story collections on his resume, Stephen King is one of the most successful authors of his generation and hardly needs more validation to confirm his talent. All the same, he recently received another accolade when his latest best-seller, “11-22-63,” was selected as one of the New York Times’ ten Best Books of 2011. Maybe literary snobs and others who have rejected his work until now will now realize it’s time for a second look.
In its praise, the Times noted, “Throughout his career, King has explored fresh ways to blend the ordinary and the supernatural.”
Over the years King has been criticized and praised, but in this passage from an article in the Times Magazine in 2000, Cynthia Ozick put the debate in perspective: “Never mind all the best sellers and all the stereotypes — this man is a genuine, trueborn writer...He writes sentences, he has a literary focus and his writing is filled with literary history.
Eight years ago when King received the National Book Foundation’s prestigious award for lifetime achievement, cranky members of the literary elite grumbled because his body of work, they argued, "had little, if any, literary value.” Much of the negative criticism faded as his career progressed and his work became more infused with grand splashes of humanity, passion and emotion, not to mention his partiality to weaving in repeated pop culture signposts that his Constant Readers (King’s affectionate term for his fans) treasure.
King was pigeonholed as a horror writer from the start but, even when he detoured, critics and some readers still shunned his work. Nonetheless, he scares the heck out of us when he tackles eerie ghost tales or other creepy elements, then can offer a riveting plot about every day horrors, such as domestic abuse, the loss of a child or a spouse or other life traumas.
Stephen King excels with long novels — “11-22-63” and three others are more than 700 pages — as well as compelling shorter stories, particularly “Different Seasons,” a quartet of non-horror novellas, including “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.” (The latter was the basis of the hit movie, “Stand by Me.”) Though most of King’s works are packed with minor diversions they seldom seem like padding or slow down the narrative. Yet, when the story cuts-to-the-chase they prove to have bona fide ramifications.
“11-22-63,” which recently debuted in the top slot on the Times’ best seller list, is no exception. King’s time travel plot is a tactical departure and a fresh foray in the realm of historical science fiction, but it still supplies page-turning suspense that readers anticipate when they curl up with a King story.
King touched upon time travel in 1979’s “The Dead Zone.” After a crippling accident the main character wakes up with the capability of second sight and, at one point, asks the physician guiding him through his recovery, “If you could go back in time to change history, would you do it?” That inspiration prods King’s newest protagonist.
Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of mid-20th century American history might have guessed that the title refers to the day when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The tale also brings up the uncertainty that if we could we go back and change things, how will it affect the present?
A few previous time travel and alternate histories have effectively blended fact and fiction. My favorite is “Time and Again” by Jack Finney to whom King notes in the afterword that he almost dedicated the book. The “Twilight Zone” episode, “No Time like the Past,” written by series’ host Rod Serling, had the protagonist go back in time to alter three historic events. But, after he fails he realizes it is impossible to change the past. 
  With that in mind I started King’s opus, curious as to how one of the world’s most successful authors of the last thirty years would handle time travel. Early on, King makes the reader aware that each time the past is visited, there is a reset and everything achieved on the previous trip is erased, which makes his time travel credible and terrifying. After discovering a secret portal back in time to 1958, Jake Epping, an English professor in Maine, spends five years on a mission to stop JFK’s assassination, and revise the course of history. Along the way, the man, now named George Amberson, tracks Lee Harvey Oswald and meets a beautiful high school librarian, who becomes the love of his life — that sets up a secondary conflict.
King builds the tension to a nail-biting climax without scaring the heck out of us. Nevertheless, it would be daunting if the past could be changed, knowing someway, somehow, someone would use it not only for good, but evil.
Unlike private memories, November 22, 1963 is a defining moment that reshaped the national consciousness and became a collective bookmark for most Americans over 50. (A watershed event, as King calls it, like 9/11/01 is for another generation.) The date generates instant recall of where we were when we first heard the shocking news. It’s summons up Walter Cronkite’s emotional broadcast of Kennedy’s death, as well as photos of blood on the First Lady’s dress, countless images of the wounded president slumped over in the back seat of an open-roof limousine preserved in the haunting Zapruder footage we’ve seen dozens of times.
For baby boomers, King’s journey also evokes nostalgia identified by such bygone cultural icons as cheap gas for gas-guzzling American-made cars, early rock and roll on AM radio, rotary telephones with words for exchanges before numbers and frequent scenes of smoke-filled rooms before the habit was a health hazard.
One thing’s certain, if Stephen King found a portal to go back in time he wouldn’t change a thing in this marvelous, captivating novel.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bits & Pieces from the Attic in My Mind (December 2, 2011)

  I follow up last week’s cornucopia with this potpourri. As the year winds down I decided to empty the attic in my mind where I stored these bits and pieces.
***
Like she’d done many times before, last June Stella Harville and her black boyfriend visited her parents and attended the family’s all-white church in rural Kentucky. After the service, a member of Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church told her father that his daughter’s boyfriend, who had sang before the congregation during one service, couldn’t sing there anymore.
However, after that, church members, with their attitudes firmly rooted in the 19th century, voted 9-6 to bar interracial couples from church services and functions after members of the congregation said they would walk out the next time Chikuni sang.
By the way, funerals were the lone exception to the ban. Good to know they at least respect the dead.
The motion that the church “does not condone interracial marriage” drew an avalanche of criticism and leaders scrambled to overturn it when the church’s national organization was inundated with angry phone calls, as well as a deluge of e-mails.
They pastor nullified the vote last weekend, but his reason wasn’t exactly humane or righteous. Pastor Stacy Stepp said that the decision was reached because the vote “violated church bylaws” since it was not done in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.
Does that mean if a subsequent vote is taken months from now and the rules are followed, the pastor would allow such segregation IN A CHURCH?
We’re a decade into the 21st century and Southern white Christians act like the Civil War just ended.
So much for inalienable rights and equality IN CHURCH!
***
When one youngster recently asked where the North Pole is during a geography lesson, the teacher, at a school in upstate New York, apparently told her class of second graders that there is no Santa Claus and that Christmas presents were brought by their parents.
Like the church members in Kentucky (see above item), here’s another example of an adult with little compassion. Or maybe the Nanuet, NY educator was just rehearsing to play Scrooge in a local production of “A Christmas Carol” and was taking the “Bah, humbug” routine way too seriously. 
The Santa myth was debunked again a few days later when a news anchor for Fox News  the defender of fair and balanced reporting — in Chicago told her viewing audience that kids should be told Mr. Claus is just a myth.
The teacher and the female anchor should get coals in their stocking this Christmas.
C’mon, we were all young once and even those of the Jewish faith, like my brother and I, and other non-Christians at one time may have believed that a stocky bearded man, sometimes known as Kris Kringle, brought all the toys. Or was it Hanukkah Harry?
There’s no reason to lie to children, especially if they’re old enough to understand the truth.
Let’s not forget the last part of the 1897 New York Sun editorial, published after an eight year old Manhattan girl wrote the newspaper to inquire about St. Nick’s validity: “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
“…he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
For a child, believing in Santa Claus is comparable to an adult having faith in a Supreme Being  you either have it or you don’t.
***
It’s time our federal — and state and local — lawmakers think about this. When they make laws, they should not be exempt. Laws should apply equally to everyone — rich, poor, senators, representatives, judges, etc. If they don’t like it, they need to find another career path.
They make the laws, but they should not be above the law.
Last month, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” ran an eye-opening segment alleging that some of our senators and representatives have been making money by indulging in the type of insider trading in the stock market that would probably have most of the rest of us thrown in jail.
This week, the House Financial Services Committee proposed new restrictions to limit insider trading to restore a degree of confidence from a nation that likely has more faith in Santa Claus (see preceding item) than our elected representatives.
What’s most upsetting is that past attempts to ban the practice met with little support in Congress. But now that some light has been shed on the issue, all of a sudden there’s a rush to end it.
First of all, none of the investments made by senators and representatives, which reportedly reaped them healthy profits, was illegal. Furthermore, previous studies have indicated that lawmakers’ portfolios tend to do better than that of your average investor.
 “60 Minutes” reported that the insider trading was bipartisan with both Democrats and Republican partaking, including House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The report indicated that due to members of Congress being privy to specific information as they consider legislation, they have legitimate access that the public does not, which, because of a lack of regulations, allows them to make investments that may add to their annual incomes.
Congress only seems to be taking up this issue at this time to prevent its approval rating, which was about 9 percent at the moist recent polling, from falling any further. Alabama Republican Spencer Bacchus, chairman of the committee, promised a vote next week to restore the public’s trust, adding “If this is the answer so be it.”
In other words, Congress knows this trading on information not available to the public looks like they have an advantage over the average investor, so they better make some changes before OWS protesters are joined by more of the 99 percent to march on the Capitol.
This is just another example of the arrogance of some politicians who, once they take office, tend to legislate what’s not necessarily best for constituents, but rather what will likely benefit them. Any elected representative who follows that career path, not only should be exposed and voted out of office, but deserves no respect.
To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest and cronyism, Congress must create reforms with rules that put an end to legislators and their families trading in stocks based on any information obtained as part of any Congressional activity.
After all, when America adopted the phrase “In God We Trust” as its motto 55 years ago, it didn’t give our lawmakers leeway to toss aside the trust we should have in them.

Kooks Put Squeeze On Absorbing Cartoon Character (January 27, 2005)

After reading this week about Fox News implying that Hollywood leftists have influenced the new Muppet movie with biased views to influence impressionable children, I felt duty-bound to post this column I wrote six years ago.
There’s much to grumble about the obsession with pop-culture. But last week I read one of those are-you-kidding-me stories that make a laughing stock out of faith-based associates of the conservative movement, as well as an excess of over-the-top political correctness.
Political correctness, originally meant to bestow respect and acceptance for minorities, the handicapped and others who society typically ignores and treats as second-class citizens, has strayed from the boundaries it intended to mend.
Last week, amidst the inaugural hoopla taking place in Washington, DC, came perhaps the most preposterous reaction to a four-minute video, starring the popular, porous cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants, scheduled to be sent to almost 70,000 school districts nationwide, including New York City, in conjunction with its March 11 debut on Nickelodeon, PBS and the Disney Channel.
The pro-multiculturalism video — which I have not seen — was produced last November by music impresario Nile Rodgers, for his nonprofit We Are Family Foundation. It is a remake of the 1979 Sister Sledge disco hit, “We Are Family,” which Rodgers penned, and employs the voices and images of about 100 cartoon characters, with the absorbent yellow, kiddy character as the focal point. Rodgers set up the foundation to facilitate the nation’s healing process and encourage tolerance in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It features scores of recognizable kiddy characters, such as Barney, the purple dinosaur, the Rugrats and Winnie the Pooh, as well as human cameos by Bill Cosby, Diana Ross and Whoopi Goldberg.
A few conservative, pro-family activist groups claim the video includes veiled references to homosexuality that could persuade young children to embrace the gay lifestyle.
(Stop laughing and continue reading, please.)
At the forefront of the uproar is Focus on Family, a conservative Christian organization, which implied the video subtly substantiates that SpongeBob is gay!
The group’s president, Dr. James Dobson, recently told The New York Times, “We see the video…as manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids.”
Where, of all places, did Dobson choose to disclose his revulsion for the video? At one of last week’s countless black-tie inaugural events in DC for political supporters and Congressional allies.
In other words, after President Bush talked about freedom (27 times) and liberty (15 times) for the world in his inaugural speech, some reckless, rabid, supporters essentially rejected those very notions for fellow Americans.
A few Christian groups also object to We Are Family’s web site tolerance pledge that reads in part: “To…have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”
They have a problem with that? Sounds like a phrase that wouldn’t be inappropriate if it were included in the Declaration of Independence!
It certainly doesn’t sound like an invitation for youngsters to consider homosexuality!
Do these narrow-minded media watchers believe that homosexuals have conspired to entice children into their particular lifestyle through cartoons they judge subtle, subversive, civilization-dooming propaganda?
SpongeBob, who resides in a giant pineapple on the Pacific Ocean bottom, is frequently shown holding hands with his pink starfish friend, Patrick, and occasionally watching an imaginary television show, “The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.” Those instances previously led intolerant right-wingers to question the animated, gap-toothed, yellow sea sponge’s sexuality when it was discovered he was popular in the gay community, only to have the assessment quickly dismissed.
Would they publicly disapprove — without being branded racists — of Patrick, if he were black or brown?
I’d think these homophobic, do-good pretenders have something better to do than analyze cartoon characters that bring joy to children around the world.
Their time would be better spent exposing facts about scores of clerics who escaped justice after being implicated in sexual molestation cases in which dozens of children’s lives were adversely affected, or condemning the latest edition of Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton’s “The Simple Life” for promoting idle, rich-girl stupidity!
So, now, as television networks fall in line and do everything to avoid repeats of last year’s Janet Jackson Super Bowl gaffe and the Nicolette Sheridan towel-dropping “Monday Night Football” vignette, foolhardy conservatives chose to target beloved, harmless cartoon characters they perceive as homosexual.
Rumors are rampant that they plan to expose other cartoon character relationships, i.e., the longtime ménage a trois between Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd, and the May-September tryst between aging Yosemite Sam and naïve, young Dora the Explorer that is reported to be an upcoming National Enquirer exclusive.
Perhaps the saddest news is that these same kooks plan to out — from the proverbial closet — Wily Coyote and Road Runner, and Tweety Bird and Sylvester the Cat, citing their antagonistic rivalries as masquerades to conceal homosexual relationships. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Then again, sometimes a cartoon’s just a cartoon.