Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Sea of Tranquility: One of My Favorite Books of 2022 That Made Me Cheer

This might be my favorite book of fiction for 2022 and I didn’t even pick it.

I’ve been a part of a four-guy science fiction book club since 2009. Each month, one of us picks a book and we meet the first Tuesday of each month. Over the past year or so, I’ve started a new thing: on the books I don’t select, I don’t read the book description. I just download the audiobook and start listening.

I want the book to reveal itself it me without any preconceived notions. Now, typically, around the 20-25% mark, I might circle back and read the description but not always. I ended up doing that for this book because after the first section, I was genuinely curious what kind of book this was.

Think about it: when you hear the words “Sea of Tranquility,” what do you think of? The moon, right? Me, too. Well, there are scenes in this book set on the moon, but I think the title speaks to something more.

So, what is this book about? Well, it involves multiple characters over multiple times. Oh, and there’s time travel (but don’t worry: there’s not a lot of science to get in the way of a good story).

In 1912, a British scion from a prominent family is walking in the woods in British Columbia when, suddenly, he has the feeling of being somewhere else. He’s inside a great room he interprets as a train station. He hears something mechanical that he cannot identify. And he hears violin music.

In late 2019, at a party in New York, a woman is approached by a man. He asks her about her brother, a performance artist, who includes a snippet of video they shot in the forests of British Columbia when they were teenagers. On the video, the camera catches something that appears to be a hanger, and a few notes of violin music.

In 2203, a famous author is on a book tour and she’s in an airship terminal in Oklahoma City and, as the airships disembark, she sees a man playing violin and she has the sudden feeling that she's in a forest.

And in a future time (honestly I forgot what year this part takes place in), a time travel agent volunteers to research the strange anomalies that may or may not link all of these people.

Had I read the description, I would have been all in, but experiencing it the way I did—just the opening chapters set in 1912 then instantly jumping to 2019 with a reference to the upcoming pandemic—was a bit jarring. But I was hooked.

And the book didn’t let up. With each shift of characters, Mandel also shifts the point of view. Oh, and the audiobook was fantastic: with each POV change, it was a different narrator, so if you enjoy audiobooks, you’ll love this one.

I am not going to give away any more details because if I do, you might be able to infer the ending. I’m happy to say that I didn’t see it coming, but when it did, I literally cheered in my car as I drove to the office. It is a great ending to a wonderful book.

In the days since, I’ve told the story to my wife, my parents, and to a fellow saxophone player in my orchestra who went out and bought the book herself.

Of all the books I’ve read in my SF book club, if I’m measuring by emotional impact, then John Scalzi’s Redshirts still takes the prize. But The Sea of Tranquility will now be ranked as one of the best books I’ve read, both this year and of the entire and ongoing book club.

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@Barrie Summy

Monday, December 5, 2022

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

Are you ready for 2023?

I’m a firm believer in constant renewal, be that daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly resets. That is, after all, what New Year’s Resolutions are: a reset. A chance to start a new habit or break an old on.

But it is a good idea to plan ahead and be ready for your start date, and that’s where it’s good to review the current year. I actually started the process this week at my office during my lunch hours. I found an empty conference room with a large white board and started taking stock of 2022 in terms of my writing. I made various lists including the following:

  • What went wrong?
  • What is changing?
  • What to change
  • What kind of writing system works best?

For those that top line item, I was brutally honest with myself. Why had I not produced as much writing as I wanted to back on New Year’s Day 2022? I dug into my answers, looking for ways to improve. Because if something isn’t working for you, have the courage to confront it, ask why, and then change. That’s vital to having a sustainable, repeatable system.

I realized my paltry fiction output in 2022 was a combination of two things: my son moved out of the house (and I wasn’t prepared for the pre-move/post-move emotional wallop that produced) and my day job is the most creative day job I’ve ever had. These past few weeks, I’ve recognized how these two threads play into my psyche and have adjusted.

The Changing/Change list are the positive aspects of my life I’m implementing to address all that went wrong. I made sure that the items on these lists are all positive. I went through a terrible time in the beginning of the last decade where I’d chastise myself when I faltered and that didn’t lead to anything good.

The system part is the nuts and bolts part of writing. I’ve tried various ways to write novels and stories. Some don’t work. Some do. My challenge to myself is to take stock of what works and implement it and make it repeatable.

The good thing about taking stock and looking ahead, at least for me, is that it makes my excited to start. I’m purposively limiting my start date to New Year’s Day 2023 to build up anticipation and excitement.

But I pave the way by a month’s worth of preparation.

Have you started?

Monday, November 28, 2022

When a Movie Stays the Same But You’ve Changed

For six years now, my family of three have watched “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” the night before Thanksgiving. And yeah, it is still a funny and heartfelt as it as always been. Heck, minutes before any given scene or line of dialogue shows up on screen, I’ll find myself laughing at it. Case in point: when that pickup truck driver arrives to drive Steve Martin and John Candy to the train station.

The other movie tradition is “Home for the Holidays,” the 1995 film directed by Jodie Foster. Holly Hunter stars as Claudia, a forty-year-old single mom who travels from Chicago back home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. She’s just lost her job, her sixteen-year-old daughter matter-of-factory announced that she’s planning on sleeping with her boyfriend at her boyfriend’s family house, and she’s just counting the hours until she can get back on the plane and fly home. In between, she has to survive being with her empty nest, retired parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), her straight-laced, bitter older sister (Cynthia Stevenson), and her hyper, over-the-top, gay younger brother (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tagging along with her brother is Leo (Dylan McDermott) who Claudia assumes is with her brother but is actually there to meet her.

The family is dysfunctional and the first time I saw it, that dysfunctionality bothered me. You see, I’m not from that kind of family. I’m an only child of only child parents so growing up, if all the grandparents showed up, there was only seven people in the room. But even when I think about my extended family, I can’t think of any member who doesn’t get along with everyone else.

As the years have gone on and I’ve watched some truly wonderful acting, many of the film’s little moments stand out. It could be an off-hand remark Claudia says to her brother or Downey Jr.’s eyebrow raised to say more than words could say or Durning’s chance answering of the phone and hearing his son’s husband on the other end of the line and this straight-laced, old fashioned man summon up the words to congratulate him while softly touching his son’s face.

But on Thursday night, another scene just walloped me and I should have saw it coming. Late in the movie, on the morning after Thanksgiving when Claudia has to fly home, she walks down to the basement. There she finds her dad, sitting alone, watching his home movies. There, flickering on the white screen, are the images of his past, his children as kids, and he and his wife as they used to be. The film is made to look like it was shot in the Sixties, with slightly overexposed colors.

Her dad, having just experienced the latest in a probably long line of difficult Thanksgiving dinners with his adult children and their families, starts to give his daughter life advice. He recounts a day that he considers one of his best memories. It took place back in 1969 when his family watched as a 727 took off and he and Claudia watched with eyes wide open. They were fearless and that’s his advice to his adult daughter: be fearless and go after Leo.

The subtext of that scene is bookended by the home movies and the last words he says that ends the scene: “I wish I had it [that 727 moment] on tape.” Durning is a retired empty nester whose family has grown up, moved away, and changed. He can’t get back what he had, so he’s comforted with memories and home movies.

Last year when my family of three watched this movie, my son still lived with us. This year, he returned home from his own apartment to stay with us these few days. My wife and I are empty nesters now, and while that scene of this wonderful movie has not changed, we have. We all three have. Life always moves on.

So cherish each and every moment of your life for it won’t ever happen again. And take as many pictures and videos as possible to help you remember. Because one day, we’re all going to find ourselves watching home movies or flipping through a photo album (physical or digital) and remembering our favorite moments of life.

And always be fearless.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Mary Robinette Kowal and the Five Words That Sold Me a Novel

She had me with five words: The Thin Man in space.

Still, I hadn’t read the book yet so I honestly waffled over whether or no to attend Mary Robinette Kowal’s author event promoting her new novel, The Spare Man, at Houston’s Murder by the Book. I ended up saying ‘yes’ and I’m so glad I did. Not only was the event one of the more entertaining I’ve been to, but the writing advice—and the personal advice—was more than I could have expected.

Knowing next to nothing about Kowal other than she wrote The Calculating Stars (a book I’ve not read but know it won multiple awards), one of the questions I was going to ask if I got the chance was how she came to be the narrator of her own books. Well, that question never needed asking because soon after her event began, she did a reading. Or, rather, she performed a passage from her new book. She had a narrator voice, a female voice as her main character, and then a good male voice as that character’s husband. Not only was she reading, she acted as well as she could holding up her laptop. Moreover, unlike some narrators who are challenged when speaking for the opposite gender, Kowal does a great male voice. Now that I've started listening to The Spare Man, I can say that not only does she do good male voice, she does multiple ones. I know I'll have a lot of great listening time as I consume her audiobooks.

(Speaking of the audiobook of The Spare Man, literally as I'm typing this post (on Thursday), Kowal just posted on Instagram that Audible has named the book one of the Best of the Year.)

The folks in the audience were clearly existing fans of Kowal because they asked specific questions almost as if it was a continuation from an earlier speaking event. A curious one was about her cat, Elsie, who, evidentially, can communicate with her. At the live event, Kowal described a panel of buttons in which a word (spoken by Kowal) is activated when Elsie presses the button. It is a fascinating idea and I had to see for myself. There are multiple videos on her Instagram page (MaryRobinetteKowal) and it's so fun and cool to watch. The funniest story she told to those of us gathered at the bookstore was a time when Elsie pressed the buttons to say "lie down, sleep" and Kowal interpreted that as Elsie wanted a nap. When her cat hadn't joined her on the bed after a few minutes, Kowal investigated and discovered Elsie eating Kowal's sandwich.

But this is an author event and the focus turned back to books, the writing of books, and how her experience as a puppeteer helps her create good prose. Using a small stuffed dog--to represent Gimlet, the little dog the two main characters in The Spare Man own (modeled after Nick and Nora Charles's dog Asta in the Thin Man movies)--she explained how puppeteers create emotion with only movement. Her ingrained knowledge of that craft permeates into her fiction as she breaks down the body language her characters show and reassembles them into words.

When I rose my hand, I asked her how she came up with the concept of The Spare Man. After all, I told her, she sold me the book in five words. She revealed she often has an elevator pitch to describe her current writing projects because it gives her more focus on what the story's DNA is. Too often, we writers, when asked about a book we've written, start to blather on and on about this character or that setup. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. Having the story's idea condensed to a few sentences at the beginning of a project can sure streamline the writing. I've actually got that in mind on my current work in progress and I'll admit, it's a great idea.

If these pleasantries were all that Kowal offered, it would have been worth the trip. But what I wasn't expecting was some excellent writing insight, and it was prompted by a question about NaNoWriMo.

Kowal was diagnosed with ADHD at age 49. Like many folks with ADHD--I likely have it although not formally diagnosed--there are moments of hyper focus and then there are other moments when you just can't get things done. One of the reasons why Kowal mentioned she enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much was of four factors: Novel, Interesting, Challenging, and Urgent.

In this case, Novel is both the literal novel someone is writing as well as the other meaning of the word, 'new.' Typically, writers who do NaNoWriMo start a brand-new novel in November. Thus, we're all excited. Interesting is self-explanatory. You have to be interested in your story for you to actually write it. Challenging is also self-evident. It is challenging to write a book, but it is even more challenging to do NaNoWriMo which is 50,000 in the 30 days of November (that's 1,667 words per day). I've done it numerous times but I have also failed so I know what it's like to be on both sides. But when you hit the groove, boy is it something. And Urgent. Again, with the 1,667 words-per-day threshold hanging over your head, if you miss a day or two, it can be daunting to catch up. Thus the urgency embedded in NaNoWriMo is a motivating factor.

When Kowal mentioned these four things, a light bulb went off in my head. It helped to explain, in part, why I've been so challenged this year in regards to writing. There are other major factors as well, but her short list helped me see myself in a different light.

It also made me wish I'd have started NaNoWriMo this year. But there's always next year.

In my research on Kowal, I found two immensely helpful posts. One is an interview on the Strange Horizons website entitled "Writing While Disabled" (2021). In this lengthy interview, Kowal uses her own experiences and diagnoses to explain how she works through her challenges and produces the award-winning works she does. I ended up printing it out and highlighting multiple passages.

The second is from her own website (and it's referenced in the interview). In a 2015 post called "Sometimes Writers Block is Really Depression," Kowal describes how her depression knocked her away from writing and the tools (both tech as well as interpersonal) she uses to overcome her challenges. The links she provides might be helpful to some writers who might be struggling.

To top off this wonderful author event, in each chair were the best handouts I've ever seen. Here's what she provided.

That's a "brochure" for the inter-planetery cruise liner the characters in The Spare Man are in. That's Gimlet, by the way. The laminated card on the left is a "baggage tag" while the center one is a "boarding pass" (the number on which was used for a drawing to give away the plush of Gimlet). And, of course, an actual "do not disturb" door hanger (with "service requested" on the back). Seriously, how cool is that? Plus check out the design. It is so 1930s.

Mary Robinette Kowal has been on the peripheral of my radar for a few years now, but with The Spare Man, she is firmly in my sights. In fact, I already have my next selection for my science fiction book club already picked. Have a look at her website. I bet there is something there that you'd like to read. For mystery fans, I'd recommend starting with The Spare Man.

I mean, why not. She sold me in five words.

How about you?

Monday, November 14, 2022

Do You Re-Read Books?

The new Bruce Springsteen album, Only the Strong Survive, was released yesterday. It’s an album of soul and R&B covers, most of which I don’t know. The album is wonderful, brimming over with joy that’ll just make you smile, get up out of your chair, and dance.

This new record marks Springsteen’s third album since 2019’s Western Stars (fourth if you include the live, slightly tweaked versions of the Western Stars album) and I know this new one will be one I live with and listen to for months to come.

The idea that I’ll be listening to this album over and over got me to thinking about books. The average album more or less lasts around an hour. After sixty minutes, you’ve heard all the songs and then you’re ready to move on or listen again.

Books are a different animal. I’m not sure how fast you read, but my reading speed is just average. I’ve never actually timed myself reading a book. Judging by all the audiobooks I listen to via Audible or the Libby app that is tied to my local library, however, many books range from seven hours to ten. Lots of them land in the 8.5-hour range.

So, it certainly takes longer to read/listen to a book and you certainly have more “first time” with a brand-new book, but how often do you go back and re-read a book? For me, it’s pretty rare. Usually when I re-read a book, I’m studying how it was written, structured, and marking up the pages with annotations and post-it notes. I’ve done this with The Da Vinci Code and Naked Heat, the second Richard Castle book, but I can’t remember the last time I re-read a book just for fun.

What about you? Do you return to favorite books and re-read them?

Monday, November 7, 2022

Why Do You Not Read Non-Fiction?

At my science fiction book club meeting this week, I learned a surprising fact: the other three guys in the group rarely read non-fiction.

We’re all middle-aged Gen Xers and we’ve been doing this book club every month for about a dozen years. I followed up, asking them why they don’t read any non-fiction and then wondering how many non-club books they read.

To answer my own questions, 2022 has become the Year of the Memoir. Starting with Dave Grohl’s memoir in February and going on up to now with Matthew Perry’s book, I listened to about a half dozen memoirs. They’ve been a nice change of pace from my normal non-fiction selections which are mostly history written by historians. Most of them, including Grohl, Perry, Steve Martin, and Ron and Clint Howard have the audiobooks narrated by the people themselves so that’s an added bonus.

On the regular non-fiction side of things, three books stand out. The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman and Watergate: A New History by Garrett Graff got that history itch scratched while James Clear’s Atomic Habits served to give me a template to help my daily life.

Beyond the non-fiction, I’m almost always reading another non-club book. That’s where my mystery love is served. In fact, I’m following up my first Leslie Meier book (Back to School Murder) with another seasonal offering: Turkey Day Murder. Throw in magazines, short stories, and a ton of news items and I’m basically always reading something.

One of the guys mentioned he reads about 1.5 books a month with the club’s SF book always one of them. He just prefers fiction to non-fiction. Another literally has a stack of books on a bedside table but just doesn’t seem to get to them. His excuse: “too much streaming.” My wife is an avid reader herself—she probably read a book a week in 2021—but her pace slowed this year partly as a result of watching instructional YouTube videos on jewelry making and gemstones so she can improve in her jewelry-making business.

One huge reason why I get through so many books is that I’m an avid audiobook listener. I get to listen to a book while in traffic, dusting the house, or going to Trader Joe’s. That does lend itself to having more time to read other things when I’m actually holding my Kindle or a physical book in my hands.

And maybe that’s the key. Maybe it’s as simple as audiobooks filling in the gaps of time when we have to do other things—grocery shopping, driving to and from work, cleaning the house—and we can’t sit and read a book. Because sitting and reading a book is and has always been wonderful.

But these anecdotal facts got me to wondering: how much non-fiction do you read?

Monday, October 31, 2022

I’m Not a Professional Bookseller But I Kinda Was Last Week

I used to work in a bookstore back in the 1990s. It was a Bookstop and I enjoyed many days during my tenure as a professional seller of books.

In the late 2000s, I started a blog and began writing reviews of books I had. This included all the crime and mystery books I was introduced to as I started to see just how broad and deep the genre was. In the written word, I go into great detail about the authors’ style, the plots they developed, and how much I enjoyed the book. As an aside, I rarely write about a book I don’t like so if I’m reviewing it, chances are all but certain I loved it.

I received lots of comments over the years. Many agreed with my take while other thanked me for letting their authors know about a book that they could add to their To Be Read pile. It always made me feel good to connect readers with books.

But there’s something special about doing it in person.

Last Sunday, my church had their occasional book fair. These are all used books, most in boxes used to deliver reams of paper, and they run gamut of genres and styles. The folks who are in charge of laying out the books are readers themselves. They collect certain authors—James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, Clive Cussler—in the same box or rolling cart while other authors are collected by genre.

An older lady and I had struck up a conversation about mystery books. She already had a small pile she was moving around. Since we were standing right next to the Picoult box, I pointed out that my wife has read all of those books. She thanked me and we parted.

With my interest in cozy mysteries now—thanks Murder by the Book—I was delighted to see one of the rolling carts featured just those books. I happily knelt and started to read the titles. Having just finished my first Leslie Meier book, Back to School Murder, I was hoping I would find one of the Lucy Stone novels.

Well, I found one and only one: Back to School Murder. Seriously? I want a different book, something I hadn’t read. But then a lightbulb went off in my head. I grabbed the book and went back to the older lady. She had selected one of the Picoult titles as it was on top of her stack. I literally put Meier’s book in her hands and started to explain the story, the series, and how I had literally just finished reading it the prior week. The lady smiled, seemed pleased that Meier’s catalog was twenty-eight books deep, and added the novel to the top of her stack. She thanked me and I hustled back to the sanctuary to sit in with the orchestra for the second service.

That smile was worth me not finding a Meier book. That smile told me Leslie Meier just might have a new reader.

Telling people about books is a lifelong joy to me. Telling them in person is even better.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Give Small Businesses a Chance

Do you absolutely, positively have to have a brand-new book the day it is published?

Okay, for some, yes you do. I remember the Harry Potter years when folks would line up to buy a book at midnight. Ditto for many of the best-selling authors I’ve read over the decades.

But for many of us, our To Be Read pile is so huge that even if we did rush out to a bookstore on publication day, that new book might first find a place on the TBR stack vs. in our hands (even if its place is in the prime position of Next Book.

Note that so far in this example, I’ve been talking about going to a physical bookstore. What about ordering a book and having it delivered?

Well, there’s the obvious option: Amazon. If you really wanted to pre-order and book and have it delivered on publication day, Amazon would most likely make that happen for you. The other online book sellers could also fulfill your request and you’d have that brand-new book in your hands the day of release.

You can have whatever opinion you want on the omnivorous nature of Amazon. I think it’s a great service, and I use it as a writer and a consumer. But as an indie author, I’m aware that there are other options.

So when, Discipline is Destiny, the latest book from Ryan Holiday was announced, I was all in. Even though I’ve not read them all, I plan to read all of Holiday’s books. They are really good and chock full of great, thought-provoking advice.

In the days leading up to the book’s publication, Holiday went on social media and let folks know that if they per-ordered the book—from any vendor—you would receive some bonus content. It was in that moment I opted to order direct from Holiday’s website, The Daily Stoic. Why not? I would be supporting a small business. 

When I placed my order, I received a confirmation email with the following.

"PS: We appreciate your order and want to remind you that we're a small shop. We use local manufacturers and family-run businesses as our partners here in America. While this means we can feel good about everything we make, it sometimes means that products take a bit longer than expected and creates the occasional logistical issue. We don't have a massive supply chain or a massive team of people working 24/7. It's just us...doing our best...just like you. Thank you and enjoy!"

I have enjoyed the book. It’s the new book so there was high demand. Ultimately it took about ten days, but those days were spent finishing another book I was already reading (Back to School Murder) so I didn’t mind at all. And I helped a small business.

So, as our attention turns to Christmas shopping, I would like to encourage everyone to support as many small businesses as possible.

Monday, October 17, 2022

My First Visit to Tinker’s Cove Will Not Be the Last

The books of Leslie Meier first popped onto my radar in 2020 when John McDougall of Murder by the Book here in Houston binge read them. But I didn’t read any. Last fall when I searched for a mystery to read during the Halloween season, I saw her name again. Didn’t bite. Even when John selected Easter Bunny Murder earlier this year as part of Murder by the Book’s excellent subscription service [There are 3 options; have a look], I still didn’t start a Meier book.

But I have now.

I’m a seasonal reader. When it’s summer, I want a summer-type book. Ditto for the holidays, so when September rolled around, I got to think “I bet Leslie Meier has a Labor Day book.” Well, she doesn’t, but she’s got the next best thing as illustrated by the title: Back to School Murder.

A Great Marketing Hook

Starting in 1991 (!) with Mistletoe Murder, nearly every book in the Lucy Stone series revolves around a holiday. Chances are pretty good that you could go through and entire year’s worth of holidays and there’d be a Lucy Stone mystery ready for you. It’s a great marketing strategy and I wonder if Meier had that in mind from the jump or if it was an organic process.

A Delightfully Real Protagonist

Lucy Stone is her amateur detective, but that’s not all she is. In Back to School Murder—published in 1997, it’s the fourth book in the series—she is a forty-year-old woman, wife, and mother of four kids whose ages range from younger high school to toddler. Her husband, Bill, is a carpenter who specializes in restorations.

As the story opens, Lucy is filling in (for a friend who is helping her mom with chemo) as a reporter for The Pennysaver, a weekly publication for the small town of Tinker’s Cove. Up until the reporter gig, she is a stay-at-home mom who finds herself at a crossroad of life: is being a mom and wife all there is? The reporter job gives her a glimpse of a life beyond the home and one she puts to good use when a bomb goes off in the school.

Yeah, I’ll admit that for a book published in 1991, a bomb in a school struck close to home as I was reading in 2022. But the bomb was only a part of the story. It turns out that one of the teachers, Carol Crane, is seen rescuing a handicapped boy who somehow was not evacuated with the rest of the children. And it’s just in time, for no sooner did all the bystanders see Carol running out of the building that the windows are shattered.

Imagine Lucy’s surprise, however, when a few days later—and after a contentious school board meeting in which Carol stepped on a few toes—the news comes in that Carol was murdered in her bed. Now, Lucy the reporter starts to work on the tribute for the paper…and things don’t add up.

A Murder in the Middle of Real Life

Well, like every good amateur sleuth, Lucy starts to look for more information, sifting through new clues, trying to find out more about Carol and her past. But here’s a key aspect of this book: Lucy does all of this around her real life. There were chunks of this book where Meier just followed Lucy in her night school class or dealing with sick children, the mystery not even top of Lucy’s mind.

Turns out, I rather enjoyed that aspect of the story. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lucy Stone is a fun protagonist, a real person, not some super detective or stalwart police officer. She does what most of us would like to think we’d do: keep asking questions. Partly it’s to protect her community, but it’s also to find the truth. I liked it when she was just a mom taking care of the kids. I liked it when she gossiped with her friends. I liked it when real life interfered with her tracking down the killer.

In fact, I liked this story so much that I’m already looking for the next holiday so I can return to Tinker’s Cove. And with 28 books, I’ll have many happy visits.

Funny History Realization

As an aside, I had to laugh when Lucy’s editor hand carried a floppy disk to the printers so the weekly issue of the Pennysaver could be published. What mad me laugh was my own realization of just how far we’ve come since 1991. When I read a book from the 1940s, for examples, I intrinsically know that there are no cellphones or internet or computers. But somehow, with the somewhat modern setting of this 1991 mystery, I had forgotten that the internet barely existed in that year. And yeah, you couldn’t just email a file to the printer.

My how times have changed. 

Cozy College

It's been awhile since I wrote about my enrollment in Cozy College. Start here, then keep going here.

Monday, October 3, 2022

The Surprising Depth of Ted Lasso

I expected the laughs. I kind of expected some drama. I did not expect the characters and their relationships.

The wife and I finally watched both seasons of Ted Lasso, the Jason Sudeikis-fronted program on Apple TV. From the outside, it looked like just a sitcom about an American football coach brought over to England to coach a soccer team with the end goal being to drive said team into the ground. This being the plan of team owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) as a get-back to her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman and loved the team.

That might serve as the how-it-started part, but that’s nowhere near where it ended up. By the end of the 22 episodes to date, what we got was a show that could make you crane your ear at the TV to make sure you got the joke a character said in an off-hand manner and then next moment have you mute with emotion, with tears likely rimming your eyes.

Each character has a moment to shine, usually in multiple episodes. With Lasso himself, I expected a overly optimistic, shuck kind of guy where nothing much phases him. That’s certainly Lasso’s exterior, but on more than one occasion, Sudeikis lays bare the coach and reveals him to be a man who hides much behind his veneer of happiness.

That’s not to say his joy isn’t contagious. It was fun to watch his outlook on life wash over all the people in which he comes into contact, ultimately making them better people. Or more real, if you want to get down with the truth of this show.

There are so many things you could say about each character and after I watched the last episode, I got on the internet to read some.

Pro Tip: Never go on the internet when you are catching up on an existing show unless you want spoilers. I learned that lesson long ago and now I watch all my TV shows without my phone in my hand. Well, unless I’m watching the live broadcast of SyFy’s Resident Alien because the cast live tweets and they are hilarious and engaging. (But even then, I put the phone down during the show itself.)

But as much as I enjoyed each character’s moments in the spotlight, what I really appreciated was the depth of their relationships with each other. How great is team owner Rebecca and model/publicist Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). On screen, it’s like their sisters who only discovered each other in adulthood. Unlike other shows where these two might be pitted against each other for, say, to get the same guy, Keeley and Rebecca come to really love each other. They bolster each other when one is feeling down and there’s nary a mean things said between. Super refreshing.

The group of guys surrounding Lasso are also great to see on camera. Dubbed the Diamond Dogs, they consist of Lasso, assistant coach Beard (yup, the character’s real name and not just because actor Brendan Hunt sports facial hair), Director of Football Operations Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), and Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed), the guy who went from being a kit manager to an assistant coach. They also keep things together between them and, most importantly, allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other.

By the end of the second season, I found myself thinking about the show over and over while mowing the lawn or commuting to work. The stories, the characters, the depth just stayed with me. Like I wrote about in a review of Resident Alien a few weeks ago, I’m just glad there are shows like Ted Lasso that demonstrate you can have a light and funny show while still delivering the depth and nuance you might only think exists in dramas.

There's a reason so many people respond to this show. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

I Finally Saw Clerks III

What did you expect from Kevin Smith, a man living on borrowed time?

Back in the summer of 2019, I set out to watch every Kevin Smith film leading up to the release of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It was a fantastic experience where I wrote about the movies as I watched them, watched no trailers ahead of seeing the film (leading to a shocker in Jersey Girl), and then ranked my favorite films, performances, and scenes.

Being the pop culture geek that I am, folks are surprised to learn that I only started watching Smith’s films 2019. Up until then, he was only a podcaster (and that only since 2012). So I’m watching all of these films as a guy in his early fifties rather than the younger person I was had I watched these movies in real time. As a result, they strike me differently (just look at my favorite Smith film), yet I suspect Clerks III will affect many of Smith’s fans in a poignant way.

Where We Left Off

At the end of Clerks II (2006), Dante (Brian O'Hallaran) and Randel (Jeff Anderson) had steered their lives full circle and purchased the Quick Stop convenience store, the setting of Clerks. Dante finally realized he loved Becky (Rosario Dawson) and opted to stay with her, especially since she is pregnant with his child. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” quipped Randal as the camera panned back, shifted to black and white, to the wonderful Soul Asylum song, “Misery.”

Little did we know how much misery was in store for our pair of clerks.

Spoilers from here on out.

Where We Pick Up

Just like the first two films, Dante opens the Quick Stop, complete with gum in the padlock. The warm feelings you get from seeing this family setting are immediately doused with water when you see an obituary on the counter: Becky, Dante’s fiancĂ©e from Clerks II, died. Not only that, but she died in 2006, the year the film was released. What the hell? What about the happy ending we got at the end of II?

Well, there was an ending to that movie, but life went on. And life can throw you curveballs, something Smith himself knows all too well. Back in 2018, after the first of two shows, Smith experienced a heart attack, a widow-maker, the kind of heart attack only 20% of people survive. Smith survived and changed his life, his diet, and his vision of life. He’s living on borrowed time, he says, something that Randal comes around to as well as he survives a similar heart attack.

Unlike Smith (who had an established body of work by 2018), Randal laments what he’s made of his life. “You saved my life,” he tells Dante. “I just wish I had a life worth saving.” These two friends—hetero life mates—love each other (in a total hetero way) and Randal gets the idea to make a movie about the life of a clerk at a convenience store. Naturally, he centers the movie on himself, and he uses all of his experiences (i.e., the events of Clerks and Clerks II) as grist for his mill. Then, just like Smith did in real life, the process of making a movie commences.

Making the Movie Within the Movie

There are lots of in-jokes and familiar nods and winks back to earlier Clerks films and other Smith movies during the middle part of Clerks III. I probably missed a few but I got the gist of them all. They’re all fun Easter eggs for long-time fans.

The Heart of the Story, Part 1: Dante and Becky

It’s one thing to see Becky’s obituary on the counter. It’s quite another when you see Dante heading through a graveyard and you know exactly what’s about to happen. But I guarantee you might not be prepared for the emotional reaction to the ‘talking to a tombstone’ scene, especially when Dante talks with Becky’s spirit. It is here we learn the true cause of Becky’s death: a drunk driver. Dante tells Becky he’s stuck, that he can’t go on in life, but she tries to redirect him. She tries to get him to understand that he’s still living, that he still has a chance to do anything he wants. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspirational, and Brian O’Hallaran does some great acting here, the kind of acting that comes from living with a character for nearly thirty years. Sure, it’s only been three movies, but O’Hallaran is pretty much synonymous with Dante for me and a lot of other people.

Dante and Becky have three total scenes together and you get banged over the head with one of Smith’s central themes: life throws you curve balls. You can let them knock you off course, but if you don’t reset, you will wallow in misery, despair, and melancholy. Up until the events of this movie, that’s where Dante’s been for sixteen years.

The Heart of the Story, Part 2: Dante and Randal

I wrote in my review of Clerks II about the surprise I felt when I saw how Smith broadened and deepened the relationship between Dante and Randal. This pair of decades-long friends truly love and care for each other. In this movie, you see it on Dante’s face when Randal is rushed to the hospital. You see it on Randal’s face later on in the movie, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bare their souls to each other. Randal had a fantastic scene in Clerks II, so it’s Dante’s turn in Clerks III.

Brian O’Hallaran and Jeff Anderson might not get a lot of attention in the acting community but they both knocked it out of the park in this movie. Randal turned his speech from Clerks on its head with his new outlook on life, but it’s Dante’s monologue in the Quick Stop that resonates. It is raw, laying bare the agony he’s endured in the years since Becky died. He had his happily ever after but it was ripped away. When Randal counters with “I almost died,” Dante retorts with “Some of us did die.” O’Hallaran delivers these lines as if he endured Dante’s life personally. This scene will find a place on the list of my all-time favorite Smith scenes, but I wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Dante falls victim to a heart attack.

Now, you might roll your eyes at that, but it was foreshadowed earlier in the film. And it compelled Randal to reexamine the type of movie he was making. He realized Dante, not Randal himself, who was the star of the film. He quickly re-cut the movie on his computer and showed it to a bedridden Dante. Then, you see all the old scenes from Clerks, but you also see a present-day Dante in a movie theater watching the movie, a wistful smile on his face. A hand reaches out and takes his. It’s Becky. And it’s then you realize that if Becky and Dante are holding hands, Dante himself is dying.

And he does. There are a lot of good last lines in movies, but for Dante, his final words are incredibly poignant. When Becky asks if he wants to stay and watch the rest of the movie, he replies with utter calmness and pride: “I trust the director.”

The Overturning of a Famous Quote

I’m not sure how many of the folks in my theater were crying when Dante died, but I sure was. Heck, my voice broke a couple of times when I later told my wife the events of the story. Yes, I cry at a lot of things, but these movies and these characters, even over just three years, have come to represent something. I think lots of fiftysomething folks, guys especially, find pieces of themselves in the lives of Dante and Randal.

But leave it to Kevin Smith to take one of his most famous quotes and change it. A running gag in Clerks was that Dante came into work on his day off. To just about everyone, he kept lamenting that “I’m not supposed to be here today.”

Now, in Clerks III, at Dante’s funeral, it’s Randal looking down at his friend’s coffin for the last time and he laments that he [Dante] isn’t even supposed to be here [at his own funeral] today.

That’s a fantastic piece of storytelling.

The Closing Voiceover

As the credits rolled to the deep baritone voice of John Gorka singing “I’m from New Jersey,” the music faded out and Smith returned. He talked about how immensely happy he was to have made this third clerks film and to the career he’s had. But he goes on to reveal a little bit of a scene that didn’t make the movie. It was a voiceover of a 90-year-old Randal Graves reflecting on his own life and all the movies he made after his celebrated debut, “Clerk.” “I always thought that jobs would have been great if it weren’t for the f*cking customers. But as it turns out, these jobs are great because of the f*cking customers.” Smith return and sums it all up. “He [Randal] means it, and so do I. Thank you to everybody who ever walked through that door of that store and made me think ‘Somebody ought to put this in a f*cking movie.’ Somebody did. Thank you.”

Thank you, Kevin Smith, for making movies like this. I may have been super late to the party, but I’m so glad I joined.

The Verdict

Clerks III is a good film with some outstanding moments that should resonate with its audience long after the credits fade to black. It still has some cringe-worthy moments, but none like the donkey stuff in Clerks II. But it is utterly fascinating to watch this film (actually all three Clerks films) about two characters at different stages of their lives by a filmmaker in those same stages. It’s not quick like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (in which he filmed an actor over a decade actually growing up) but it’s in the same spirit.

The Ranking

Back in 2019, right before I actually watched Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, I ranked all the films. After Reboot, I ended up putting it at number 4. I have honestly only seen Reboot one time—during the tour when Kevin and Jay were on hand to take questions—so I’ll have to go back and watch it again. But Clerks III is going to be side-by-side with Reboot. Both deal with getting older and becoming more sentimental, but in different ways. I might give the edge to Clerks III for its ultimately inspirational theme that no matter how old you are, it's never too late to try something new.

In terms of scenes, the Dante and Randal fight and subsequent Dante monologue in the Quick Stop is one of the best written by Smith and acted by O'Hallaran and Anderson. Dante’s scene with Becky at her gravesite is also right up there. And the short moment at end, with Dante and Becky, also ranks as one of the best moments and lines in all of Smith’s films.