rikers high

Rikers High (Book Review)

Books

A novel about a teen who has been sent to Rikers Island due to a fairly small charge, and becomes stuck there for months due to an ineffective court system seems like a pretty solid read. Plus, the novel is written by someone who spent years teaching at Rikers Island, to top it all off? This should be something good. Looking over some of the reviews for this novel on Goodreads, it seemed to be fairly well received, getting a score of 3.8/5.

Perhaps I would be getting into the novel version of Dangerous Minds, where a teacher really can make the difference in the life of a young, troubled person?

Sadly, I found none of these things to be true about Rikers High, and really feel that this novel was superficial and flat, in the end.

Martin is a teenage boy, sent to prison on a charge of “steering,” which involved him telling an undercover cop where to by weed in his neighborhood. A harmless enough charge, given that we are told time and again that Martin is a good kid. But he gets stuck on Rikers for months, due to what we are shown to be incompetence by his lawyer, and a system that just doesn’t care.

Returning to the prison after one of his failed court dates, Martin is caught in the middle of a scuffle between other inmates, and has his face slashed by a razor blade, leaving behind a four-inch scar that will be with him for the rest of his life.

rikers high2Eventually he is moved over to another section of the prison, where they send the students to school, so they can continue with their educations, or get their GEDs, or whatever else. There Martin is supposed to find his inspiration, influenced positively by the teachers he encounters, and the new people he is forced to live with.

The story is pretty straightforward, and we know from the start that it is on a finite timeline, because we know that Martin is going to be getting out of prison soon. So we know that he won’t be there to graduate in some heartfelt storyline, where his teachers break down and cry over all the positive changes he has gone through. In fact, he is only in the school portion of the prison for about a week, leading to one of the major problems of this novel: everything is superficial, and rarely goes beyond the surface of what could have been an emotional story about change.

Sure, Martin would love some revenge on the guy who cut his face, but despite feeling angry a couple of times, nothing really comes of it. He is able to stay away from the regular prison issues, and is able to fight off his anger, fairly easily.

All of the characters in Rikers High, Martin included, are pretty flat. We don’t really learn anything about any of them. And this definitely left me not caring that much about them. No details about the lives of his friends are given, so we can’t relate to them at all. There is no sympathy for the characters, only knowing what is happening. The writing in the novel very much felt like we were distantly being told a story, and we were not at all involved in it, as readers. This left the whole story lacking, for me.

The character that meant to be the inspirational teacher, does very little in my mind to deserve that. He treats the prisoners with respect, which is great. He holds their attention in class, but no reason is given why. He teaches them English, and has them do a series of amateurish assignments that are directly from cliched movies about great teachers. For some reason, these tough kids totally buy into these assignments, and really take their time and care to do them well. They even engage in deep conversations during class time. But why? How do they trust this teacher? It is just assumed, from our first meeting with him, that he is the good guy, and people really like him. That’s it, the only explanation that is offered.

In fact, the inmates like all of their teachers, save one. I feel like it’s rare to find a high school where kids like, and respect, all of their teachers, let alone one on Rikers Island. I found the whole school portion of the novel to be unrealistic, and almost pointless. Martin really doesn’t learn anything from the school. We know that he was smart before he walked into the prison, and nothing about that changes during his time there. He feels some kind of bond with his English teacher, which, again, we are unsure of why it is happening, or what it stemmed from.

The author, Paul Volponi, taught at the Rikers high school for years, and states at the beginning of his book that many incidents that he writes about are based in fact. That may be true, but it somehow seems almost too tame for what one would expect.

Another issue with Rikers High is that there is very little suspense in the storyline. Will Martin ever come face-to-face with the kid who cut him? Will he get out of prison (we know, without a doubt, that he will)? What little build up there is, really fizzles into nothing. The head goon on their ward, who controls everything, offers some potential incidents that could have changed the course of the novel, but literally nothing ever happens with him. He acts tough. Martin doesn’t bite. Moving on. There is also the story of the kid in the bunk next to Martin, which I suppose offers the emotional end to the story that it needs. Sanchez, who is going to be soon going upstate to the adult prison to finish his sentence, is looking for a way out. I guess the fate of this kid helps Martin understand something that he didn’t before…no, wait. He definitely knew all he learns before. Perhaps this incident was just something to reinforce the idea that…prison is bad?

Even the “suspense” building up to one of Martin’s fateful last evenings on Rikers, seems to be shallow. There isn’t much more to it than that. We have seen these types of scenes before, and this one was stolen right from The Shawshank Redemption, which did it emotionally and brilliantly. Rikers High, on the other hand, did it without flair or real concern over what was happening.

I did not like this book, and would find few YA readers to recommend it to. I feel that even a younger audience would see through the skimpy characterization and general lack of interesting incidents to keep the plot moving forward. We never feel scared about Rikers High, and it actually seems like a pretty decent place, which couldn’t have been the intention of the author. There was potential here, and not having read any of his other works, I don’t know if this is along the same lines of his other writing, or just an idea that was there, but just didn’t take off.

I think that the average YA reader wants some more depth in the books they read, and I didn’t find that there was much depth at all in Rikers High.

anchor

Anchorman 2 (Film Review)

Film

A person has to dig pretty deeply in the history of comedies to find an instance where the sequel is as good as the original, not terrible, or even watchable.

Considering more recent attempts to continue a comedy franchise have not been good. Think how much of a photocopy The Hangover Part II was compared to the fantastic original. It was impossible to even eke out a laugh there, because we had actually seen each of the gags before. How about something a little more distant, like Ace Ventura 2? It should make us pretty worried about how the sequel to Dumb & Dumber is going to end up. Probably not good, despite how much we may still love the original for its amazing stupidity and fun.

anchor3Which brings us to Anchorman 2. There is more to the title, something about the legend continuing, but who really cares. This film is absolutely terrible. The first version of the story of Ron Burgundy became a bit of a cult-classic, a highly quotable film with some humour that was not completely run-of-the-mill. It was not a purely slapstick film, but made its fame on its weirdness, which made it so great.

Cut to the second installment. There is an impressive array of repeated jokes from the first one, so if you feel like hearing/seeing them again, but with ageing actors performing them, here you go. Need another round of jazz flute? Check. Maybe some more (now more purposefully attempted to be random) “catchphrases” from Burgundy? There is an endless supply, like they just threw them in there wherever there was the slightest pause in the dialogue. Maybe you didn’t think Brick was odd enough, and thought his adorable quirkiness from the first film needed to be blown up into full-on psychosis, to the point where he isn’t funny, but just a sad attempt to get laughs? Definitely check on that one. Ron Burgundy warming up before going on air? Yup. Making mistakes on air? Of course.

Even the greatest scene from the original, the battle between the networks and their news teams, had to be perfectly recreated. Sure, it gives us a chance to see a ton of cameos, with the likes of Will Smith, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Liam Neeson, Jim Carey, Marion Cotillard (seriously? She is a tremendous actress, what was she doing here?), John C. Reilly, and others showing up. But by that point, we just don’t care anymore. We have seen the fight before, and it was funny, and original, and ridiculous. In Anchorman 2, it was lame, over-wrought, and worthless to the plot.

I have long said that Will Ferrell should not get to star in his movies. He was always much better, and far funnier, in small, secondary roles. Let Vince Vaughn run a movie, and have Ferrell as the best friend or something. That works. His lines are funny when you hear a few of them per film. But here, he is unleashed, and it is truly terrible. By the end of the film, his acting becomes increasingly putrid, and we even grow to despise the famous Ron Burgundy voice. In this film, he is definitely more of a lead actor, whereas in the first one, there was definitely more time taken up by the secondary characters. They are cheated a little bit here, as the focus is more on Ron, and the consistent over-acting of Ferrell. Yes, I realize that this is a comedy role, and a silly one at that, and that I shouldn’t critique the acting, but seriously…watch it. He is bad. And annoying.

The only slightly redeeming part of this film, and something they completely underused, was Paul Rudd. I like that guy. He makes me laugh. But he only had a few lines. And they were the only ones that could even elicit a snicker from me while watching it. The rest, was pretty much garbage.

anchor2Oh, I forgot to mention the pretty racist stuff that goes on as well. Sure, Burgundy’s womanizing ways of the first film were funny, but in this one, where his new boss is a black woman, it gets pretty uncomfortable with the racism. Not funny uncomfortable, just odd, misplaced, and in poor taste.

It is not a mistake that I haven’t mentioned the plot of this film. Simply put, it is abjectly terrible. I get the idea of the new news network, and the changing of the media at the time. Okay, go with it. Maybe they could have something intelligent to say, a running commentary below the surface…no. Ron needs to go blind instead. And raise a shark as a pet. And sing a silly song. All of this happens.

I don’t normally hate movies. I either love them, like them, or am indifferent to them. But I really hated Anchorman 2. The fact that it is nearly two hours long, and that I watched all two hours of it, makes me angry.

We, as fans of the first film, shouldn’t have expected anything from this movie. It was, after all, a sequel to a comedy, which never works out well. But the complete disregard they put into the making of the film comes across as a money grab, which makes me feel bad about making the first one such a hit.

Anchorman 2 is garbage. Even though it is now on Netflix, and free, I’d still skip it. Keep quoting the first one, because there is nothing of value here in the second.

mile

Mile…Mile & a Half (Film Review)

Film, North America, Sports, Travel

This adventure documentary, which can be found on Netflix, is about a group of friends, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and sound technicians, who set out to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California. The hike is over 200 miles, crosses snow and desert and mountain passes and rivers that are bigger than they might seem. It will take the group 25 days to cross the entire trail, and show us their adventures along the way. 

Mile…Mile & a Half works for two simple reasons: 1. the scenery is absolutely incredible. Having talented people on the hike means that there are beautiful panoramic views of waterfalls and mountains throughout the film. It is incredible to see the untouched nature that lies in California, a place we often imagine with only beaches, surf, and bustling cities. But there remains a massive part of the state that is open to those who want to see it, and the JMT is a great example of that. The second reason this film works so well is because of the people. They are fun, and enjoyable to watch throughout the film. These are not jacked-up adrenaline junkies, doing crazy things that normal people could never pull off doing. They are regular folks, who love the outdoors. This is not a life-testing hike, and despite a couple of dangerous spots, we know that they are going to come out alive on the other side. There is nothing terribly extreme about the JMT, just a ton of natural beauty, enjoyed by some pretty fun people, that by the end of the film, we totally wouldn’t mind meeting along the way on a hike. 

mile2Perhaps the best part of the documentary is the other people that the group encounters along the trail. They aren’t making a film selfishly, about themselves, and about overcoming the obstacles of nature. They are making a film about being in it, and loving it. And a part of that is the lives of the other people that they meet along the way. They give them screen time, and we get to know their stories as well. The teachers from Colorado who join up with their group. The young painters, who hike every day with heavy loads of canvas and paints on their backs so they can get some incredible views in the early morning light. The musicians, who they meet near the end of their journey. And the Japanese woman, who is doing the trail alone, but in the end realizes that she really wants to share in her success, and wants the camaraderie.

While the film is about nature, it is about people too. And that is what makes it such a fun watch. While they challenge themselves, they remain real people, and they like to have fun. They get goofy, give each other nicknames, make bets, and play games along the way. 

For those who love nature, and perhaps have never seen the incredible, pristine beauty that California has to offer, Mile…Mile & a Half is a worthy film for you to watch. 

nfl

NFL Prediction Time!

NFL, Sports

Here comes an attempt to guess the correct standings for the National Football League, which will get underway this week. I’ll also give a shot at guessing team records, which will basically be a massive failure, but hey, why not give it a shot? (* denotes a playoff team)

nfl2AFC East:

  1. *New England Patriots (12-4)
  2. Miami Dolphins (8-8)
  3. New York Jets (7-9)
  4. Buffalo Bills (4-12)

Is anybody choosing a team other than the Patriots to win this division, which is possibly the worst in football? When the main competition is quarterbacked by guys like Ryan Tannenhill, Geno Smith, and EJ Manuel, they kind of seem like a lock. Brady did a lot with little last year, and they seem to be better off this year. 

 

nfl3AFC North:

  1. *Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
  2. *Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
  3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
  4. Cleveland Browns (2-14)

Kind of a toss up for me between the top 3 teams here. The Bengals have their moments, to be sure, but I will go with the Steelers, after a couple of down seasons, but their lofty standards. Give the Bengals a wild card berth. 

 

AFC South:

  1. *Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
  2. Tennessee Titans (8-8)
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
  4. Houston Texans (5-11)

The Colts are the cream of the crop here. A lot of experts are picking bigger things from the Titans this year, but I am definitely not sold on Jake Locker picking up his game that much, and I think there are questions on their O-line. 

 

AFC West:

  1. *Denver Broncos (13-3)
  2. *San Diego Chargers (10-6)
  3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
  4. Oakland Raiders (5-11)

The Broncos are the pick for one more year, barring any type of injury to Peyton Manning. The Chargers got the offense rolling last year, and they should be able to overcome a questionable D to get the wild card.

 

NFC East:

  1. *Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
  3. Washington Redskins (7-9)
  4. New York Giants (5-11)

Ugh. This division is pretty ugly. Even as absolutely brutal that Dallas D is, they still are the least awful team in this division. The Eagles have potential to be very good, but I think they take a step back this year. 

 

nfl4NFC North:

  1. *Green Bay Packers (12-4)
  2. *Chicago Bears (10-6)
  3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
  4. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

A healthy Aaron Rogers means a division crown for the Packers. I like the Bears this year too, thinking perpetually that Jay Cutler will figure it out and have a great year at some point.

 

NFC South:

  1. *New Orleans Saints (11-5)
  2. Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
  4. Carolina Panthers (6-10)

Big drop for Cam Newton and the Panthers. You need receivers to catch the ball! Saints take it easily, over a couple of teams that are improving, but not there yet. 

 

nfl5NFC West:

  1. *Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
  2. *San Francisco 49ers (11-5)
  3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
  4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Sorry Rams, but Shaun Hill is not an answer at QB. They needed to address this earlier than after Sam Bradford got injured, which we all kind of knew was going to happen at some point. He has been a band-aid over the past couple seasons. The Champs and the Niners are still among the best teams in the NFC, and the whole league. Seattle is just too silly good at home to not think they will go 8-0 or 7-1 at home again this year. They will take it once again. 

 

Way Too Early Super Bowl Pick:

I’ll go against all the traditions and statistics, and pick the Seahawks to win it all again. If they have home field advantage in the playoffs, they will roll, but I think they are good enough to go into Green Bay, New Orleans, or San Francisco and take a playoff road game. I’ll take them beating the Patriots in the big game. 

murakami-us

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Book Review)

Books

I was beyond excited to see that my favorite author, Haruki Murakami, had released a new novel recently. I was initially drawn in by the very cool cover the book offers, but seeing his name at the bottom of the page made me nearly giddy.

I love Murakami novels. All of them. There has not yet been one that has disappointed me, and they are all great, for their own reasons. For those who have not read him yet, it’s time to get started. Read Kafka on the ShoreThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, Norwegian Wood. Read them all. His stories are incredible, unbelievable, and written (and translated) so beautifully, that it is understandable why he has achieved such high sales across the world, specifically in Japan (where Colorless Tsukuru sold 1 million copies in its first week of release). 

Easily one of our best current writers.

Easily one of our best current writers.

There was no disappointment in reading the wonderfully titled Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. In this novel, Murakami may have created his most straightforward, and honest, work of fiction to date. There are things that are typical of all of his novels: strange meta-physical happenings that have profound effects on the protagonist, extensive discussions about music, whether it be pop music or classical, and several overtly sexual scenes, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in reality, where the male character “releases” himself into the women in his life. All above can be found here as well, save the metaphysical. He gives us a hint that something like that could be happening, but never completely goes there, making this work more of this world, and more simply pure than some of his other novels. 

The story focuses on the titular character, Tsukuru Tazaki. A native of Nagoya, he discusses his high school group of friends, and how the five of them were completely inseparable. After high school, he leaves to study in Tokyo, leaving his other four friends behind, where they make lives for themselves in Nagoya. One fateful day, after years of going back to his home town to visit them, they unceremoniously cut him off from their circle of friends, and from their lives. Tsukuru is shocked, and is provided with no explanation as to why this is happening. He is now faced with a life completely alone. His friends were everything to him, and they had been as close as any group of people had been. Despite always feeling like a bit of an outsider, simply because his name does not translate into a colour (the names of his friends all contain the Japanese words for red, blue, white, and black, which led to their nicknames of their corresponding colour), he knew that he belonged with them, and could not, for the life of him, figure out why he had been ousted from the group with no explanation. 

Like so many Murakami characters, Tsukuru is a man lost and alone in one of the biggest cities in the world, and he lives a simple life that includes working at his dream job, as an architect who gets to fix and build train stations, something he had been obsessed with since an early age. 

Eventually, one of his girlfriends convinces him that there is a hole in his life, simply because he does not know why his friends abandoned him. He needs to find out. And so, Tsukuru undertakes a journey to find his friends, and confront them about what had happened. 

Murakami does a great job of building up the suspense of this situation. We all feel for this man, left alone, for years, always being forced to wonder what happened with his friends, and not being able to move forwards, without truly understanding his own past. He will travel to Nagoya, and across the world to Finland, to get his answers. 

As always, there are wonderful descriptions of Tokyo, and some of the areas within the monster city. For those who have visited Japan, or for those who live there, it is easy to use his descriptions when describing Shinjuku stations, or Tokyo station, or parts of Ginza, and be able to transport yourself back there, as if you were seeing it again. It was also great to have him branch out of Tokyo, and the time his hero spends in Helsinki is perfectly described as well, managing to capture the city in very few words. Murakami has never needed paragraph after paragraph to enable his readers to get the vibe of a city, as he can capture its essence with seeming ease. 

The beautiful disaster that is a Tokyo train map.

The beautiful disaster that is a Tokyo train map.

We wonder along with Tsukuru what could have happened with his friends. There is no evidence, and it really does seem to come out of left field. Does it have something do to with him leaving for Tokyo instead of staying in Nagoya with the rest of them? Is it because one of the girls had developed feelings for him? Does it have anything to do with the very sexual dreams he has of the two friends that were female? In waiting to find out, Colorless Tsukuru becomes quite the page turner. And, despite how wonderful it was, it is kind of nice that this book is a modest 386 (small) pages, compared to the weighty 1000+ pages that 1Q84 offered. 

For fans of Murakami, this book is an absolute must read. He maintains the things that make all of his novels so wonderful and entertaining, while making it different enough that we can probably relate to it even more than his other work. So many people feel burdened by their pasts, and their attempts to rectify the things that have taken place in their lives. Tsukuru is one of those people, and we can feel his needs every time he listens to the piano music of “The Year of Pilgrimage.”

There is no disappointment in finding out what happened to his friends, and as usual, Murakami manages to create characters that are truly haunted in their lives, wrestling with their own demons, regardless of what their exteriors may demonstrate. That illusion masking reality is a common theme in his world, and it comes across crystal clear in this novel. He shares how it aches when you are lonely, and when you find someone that you feel may be right, you just want to hold on, even if it is not the smoothest ride. Despite the risks, there are rewards. For Tsukuru to move forwards, he has to look back, and this is seen clearly by his girlfriend Sara, who pushes him to get in touch with those who had damaged him so completely, 16 years before. 

I poured through this novel, and loved the whole thing. It was everything that I could have wanted from a new work from my favorite author. I would of course recommend this book to his fans, and they should be running out and buying it as soon as they can. For those who have not read his work before, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage actually serves as a great, and accessible, introduction to his work. It is not too weird, without crazy sheep-men, or alternate universes. This is a straightforward book, that is an absolute pleasure to read. 

nhl5

Expanding by Four: Should the NHL Get Bigger?

Hockey, Sports

Over the past week, there have been a bunch of rumours regarding the National Hockey League’s plans to expand their league by another four teams by 2017. This stemmed from a report stating that the idea of an NHL team in Las Vegas was a done deal, and that there were other deals on the table to bring teams to Seattle, Quebec City, and the greater Toronto area (or GTA, for those who live around there). 

Opinions have been going back and forth on why this is a great idea, and why this is a horrendous plan. Expansion is always dicey, but going all in with a plan of four teams is a huge risk, especially in a league that already has more than one floundering franchise (looking at you, Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Carolina Hurricanes). 

I’ve had time to digest the ideas of expansion, and have some opinions, just on the general effects it could have on the league, and on each individual city that has been named. 

The NHL Expanding by Four–The Good

  • massive expansion fees means more money for the owners- that they don’t have to share with the players. They have to be drooling over that a little bit. 
  • Balancing the league. With unbalanced conferences right now, this plan would enable the NHL to even things out, assuming Vegas, Seattle, and the GTA team would play in the West, and Quebec City would play in the east. 
  • New/renewed rivalries. Seattle vs. Vancouver would become a natural rivalry, as would the two Toronto teams facing off against one another. And bringing back the legendary Montreal/Quebec rivalry would be great. 
  • Cities getting something they deserve. Quebec deserves an NHL team. They never should have lost the Nordiques to Colorado in the first place, but the doom of the terrible Canadian dollar at the time sealed their fate, as they were unable to compete. Seattle seems like a good fit for hockey, and always has. It is surprising to me that it has only been in the last while that they have started being mentioned as a possible destination. And Toronto is more than able to support another team, which I will expand on more later on. 
  • Expansion drafts. I have to admit, these are really fun. It is amazing to go through the process of who will be protected by their team, and who will be left to hang in the winds. And then it is interesting to see the picks, as the new teams choose from a pretty good selection of players, only to select cheap plumbers who make us scratch our heads. Maybe with rich new owners, they won’t be afraid to pick up a couple of high priced players to put some butts in the seats, and give their new teams a chance to compete right off the hop.

The NHL expanding by Four– The Bad

  • The product will become diluted. There is no doubt that the NHL is the greatest hockey league in the world. But where are we getting another 120 players to play on these expansion teams? The lure for many players to come over from Europe would have to get much stronger. There would be plenty of more AHL players who would have to make the jump up to the big league, and prove their worth on the largest scale. Looking around the league as it is, there are players all over NHL rosters who don’t deserve to be here (looks in the direction of John Scott). With a massive four more teams, this number will increase dramatically. 
  • Going back to the trap. Expansion teams need to compete in order to create a foothold for fans in their new city, and the best way to do this is to win. And the easiest way to win, with a lackluster roster, is to play defense. And this could mean the return of the trap. Think of the haunting memories of the first years of the Minnesota Wild, and how incredibly boring they were to watch. We could see that type of era return. Play for low scoring games, and hope to keep it within one until the very end. Or play for loser points. It could mean the return of some pretty boring hockey, which the league has tried to eradicate over the past few years. 
  • What happens to the failing teams we already have? Having these cities around now is good, for the day when the inevitable announcement comes along that the Coyotes are going to move. If the NHL expands, it is left with nothing, aside from perhaps Kansas City, to serve as an escape plan if a team needs to relocate. 
  • Even more rare chances of dynasty teams. Teams winning the Cup, or even competing for it, for several seasons in a row has become pretty rare. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have alternated Cup wins recently, and this may be the closest we will ever see to dynasty teams again. Having even more teams in the league, and more roster shakeups with an expansion draft will surely affect this.

The Cities #1: Las Vegas

nhl2

Las Vegas- Hockey Town?

  • Another team in the desert? Haven’t the Coyotes proven that this is a bad idea from the start?
  • Vegas is very much a transient city. Can we expect a solid enough fan base from the citizens of Vegas to keep this team afloat, while they hope for tourists to come from all over the country and shell out money for something they can often see at home? Would you go on vacation from Montreal, where you can see the Canadiens play all the time, and shell out the same money to see an expansion team play the Blue Jackets? 
  • Is it really a good idea to have a professional sports team play in the gambling capital of the world? How long would it take before there are controversies with things like game fixing, sports book controversies, players gambling, players partying too hard, etc? Vegas seems like a problem waiting to happen. 
  • If Vegas is such a good place for a sports team, why haven’t any of the Big Three leagues put a team there already? Wouldn’t basketball or football do better there? Why has the NFL and NBA shied away from this city as a destination?
  • The idea of a team in Las Vegas reeks of gimmick. The NHL has long been the ugly cousin of the pro sports leagues in North America, and has always been fighting for credibility. Going to Vegas, in my opinion, does nothing but hinder their credibility. 
  • Surprisingly, minor league teams in the city have done…okay, when it comes to attendance. 

The Verdict on Las Vegas: It seems inevitable that the NHL will end up here. I feel that this city is better suited as a place for relocation, instead of expansion. This way, they will be able to get a team that is more ready to compete, and quickly, instead of going through several painful years of building. I don’t think the town has the patience for that, and I think the tourist draw is overrated. People won’t specifically be going there for hockey, and the team will be fighting with literally thousands of other fun ways to spend your money in that town. Overall, this isn’t a great idea.

The Cities #2: Seattle

Hockey deserves to be in the Pacific Northwest. I would cheer for a Seattle team.

Hockey deserves to be in the Pacific Northwest. I would cheer for a Seattle team.

  • Seattle is a great North American city. It is a beautiful place to visit, and by most accounts, a good place to live. They have a strong sporting tradition. They love their Seahawks, have generally remained interested in their Mariners, despite years of poor teams, and really did support their SuperSonics, until the owner pulled the rug from beneath their feet over an arena deal. They have a history as a good sports town, making it feel right for the NHL to be there. 
  • Geographically, they are a good fit, bridging the gap between Vancouver and the Alberta teams, and the southern teams of California and Texas. 
  • Could develop good rivalries with Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. The Flames and Oilers need new rivalries.
  • The arena thing is a problem here. The current spot, the Key Arena, is outdated. They were trying to have a new one built for the return of an NBA team, but all of this fell through when the Sacramento Kings decided to stay put. The NHL won’t go here unless there is something in place to build a new rink, something modern and state-of-the-art. This could also help lure basketball back to town, so could work out quite well for the city, if something can get worked out. 
  • Seattle has a hockey history, as there have been junior teams in Seattle and Portland forever. They are well supported.
  • Would an NHL team mean the death of junior hockey in the area? The Thunderbirds would be in big trouble, and a big league team could even filter off some fans from the always successful Portland Winterhawks as well. There are plenty of places that can support major and junior hockey at the same time, but I don’t know if Seattle could do it. 

The Verdict on Seattle: While this may seem like another city better suited to a relocated team than an expansion one, I would like to see hockey in the Pacific Northwest. I feel that it is a geographical fit, and in a city that is desirable for people to live in. Seattle is not a place in the boonies, that people can barely find on a map, like Columbus. It is a major center, and a pretty large media market. I envision Seattle as being a good, strong organization from the get go. Put a team there. 

The Cities #3: Greater Toronto Area/Markham

The blue collar, affordable Toronto team would play here.

The blue collar, affordable Toronto team would play here.

  • Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and there is very little doubt that they could support a second team, and that there is a rabid desire for another team in the area.
  • The Maple Leafs, and probably the Buffalo Sabres, will fight tooth and nail against this, but the league will not be able to resist the millions upon millions that could be made from a team here. 
  • In such a crazy hockey market, the Leafs will always rule. But going to a Leafs game is nearly impossible for the regular fan, as they have been priced out of tickets, and the games are mainly attended by business types. A second team would give Toronto a working class team, one that could become loved by the regular fan. Would that mean they would abandon their Leafs allegiance? Probably not. But the new generations of fans coming up, with little to no allegiance to the team their parents loved, and never having seen a good Leafs team, could flock to the new team. Seeing kids at a Toronto NHL game would be something different, instead of the dull, silent crowds that attend the Leafs now. 
  • Another team in the area would force the Leafs to do everything possible to become a better team. Instead of floundering, as they seemingly have been since the 1993 playoffs, they know that they could lose fans for the first time if they continue to be bad. 
  • Of course, this would be an amazing rivalry, in the same way that the Rangers-Islanders is, even if the teams are in different stratospheres of success. It would be the underdogs against the Leafs every time, and it would be fantastic, especially once the team takes hold and has a loyal fan base of its own. 
  • Another team in Canada just means more revenues for the league. No question about that. The current seven teams basically carry the rest of the league as it is. Why not add more to the pot. 

The verdict on GTA: Nothing to think about here. Just do it. There is nothing but positives here. 

The Cities #4: Quebec City

I'll line up for a jersey if they come back as the Nordiques, with something like this look.

I’ll line up for a jersey if they come back as the Nordiques, with something like this look.

  • When the Nordiques left, it was perhaps the saddest relocation of them all. A dedicated fan base had their team ripped from them, and just as they were getting good. How heartbreaking it must have been as they built up for years, and then won the Cup in their first year in Colorado? 
  • I only want them back if they will still be called the Nordiques, and will still have those incredible blue and white jerseys. Even though they have been gone for a long time, those are still some of the best threads in the league. 
  • They are building a brand-new arena, that will be ready to go as soon as they are awarded a team. 
  • The Habs-Nords was one of the best rivalries in the league, and Montreal has never been able to replicate it. Sure, there is some hate between Montreal and Toronto, but nothing like the in-province rivalry with the capital city. Montreal-Ottawa has never really taken off, considering how close those two teams are to one another. The league wants it to be amazing, but it isn’t. Problem solved with the return of the Nordiques. 
  • This is a fan base that would be patient as they built themselves into winners once again. Giving them an expansion team would be fine, as they fans would follow them with passion until they were good. 

The Verdict on Quebec City: This is my #1 choice for a new team. Bring them back, sign them up now. Being someone who can’t find any reason to cheer for any of the Canadian teams, I would instantly become a Nordiques fan the second of their return. 

Gary Bettman has stated time and again that the league is not thinking of expanding just yet, but we all know that there is probably something in the works. I think if the league is going to do it, then it should do it all at once, to put the new teams on level playing ground, and so that they can grow together. Make it a big shock for the league, all at once, instead of dribbling out new teams over a few years, as they did with their two-at-a-time expansion of the 90’s and 00’s. Make it happen, establish them, and let them grow. 

And then we can worry about contraction.

bojack

BoJack Horseman: Season 1 (TV Review)

Television

New to Netflix is another cartoon geared specifically towards adults, BoJack Horseman. Right off the bat, it feels as if this show is meant to provide people who love Archer with something to do while they wait for the next seasons to be released. In BoJack Horseman, we get a little bit of Archer, a little bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a dash of Arrested Development. There is a long list of talented actors who lend their voices to the show, but in the end, it falls a little bit more flat than I would have expected.

The story is about an actor, who is also a horse, who had a huge hit with a 1990’s family sitcom, and he has never truly recovered, or moved on, since. Never able to replicate his success, and unable to land a job, BoJack Horseman has become a bitter pseudo-celebrity, living off his glory years. And excessively living in his glory years, to the point where he often watches the DVDs of his old show, laughing along with the tired, filmed before a live studio audience, jokes that made him famous. The only gig BoJack has going for him, is an offer to write his memoirs, something he finally gets around to doing when he hires a ghost writer, who follows him around, reliving his stories of fame, and becoming his friend. 

bojack2The cast here is good, and the title character is voiced by Will Arnett, who simply has one of the coolest voices out there. it feels as though he never reaches the potential with his voice acting in this show, however, or maybe it is just that we want him to be more like Arnett is in his other shows. Maybe we just want an animated version of Gob Bluthe, but we don’t really get it. Other primary member include Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame, as Todd, the freeloading friend of BoJack’s who sleeps on his couch, and has to fight just to be allowed to use some closet space. Alison Brie provides the voice of the ghost writer, Diane. There are other celebrity cameos, like Naomi Watts and others, and there are some pretty decent secondary characters, like BoJack’s friend/rival, Mr. Peanutbutters (who is dating Diane), a dog who had a hit show similar to Horseman’s back in the day, and BoJack’s agent, a cat named Princess Carolyn that serves as BoJack’s agent and occasional love interest. 

Overall, it seemed like there could have been more done from the stellar actors they have to do the voices. I was expecting more, at least, and finished the series wondering if it could have been better had the voice actors gone a little further, or a little more extreme, in their creation of their characters. Think of how distinguishable each character is on Archer, simply based on their voices. I didn’t feel that came across in BoJack Horseman

As with most new shows, it takes a while before this one feels like it hits its stride. However, throughout the whole first season, it is not laugh-out-loud funny, as often Archer is, or the other comparable shows are. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this new series to something like the three I mentioned in the opening paragraph, as they have become cult favorites, or true comedy gems. But, since they are going after the same audience, I guess I can justify the comparisons. 

When you finish the dozen episodes of the first season, you are left with something that is…okay. There are some good moments in the show, and they start to string together jokes from other episodes, something that is more and more common in binge-watching TV series. There is a reasonable plot line, and BoJack himself does go through changes as the show progresses, so there is definitely a character arc, for the titular character, at least. There aren’t tons of laughs, but there are definitely worse things out there. Despite the expectations that I may have had for BoJack Horseman, it comes off as something that is distinctly average, unfortunately. But there is hope, as things have been set up nicely, and perhaps from here the writers can take this show somewhere more daring, and different, in order to improve for its second season, whenever that may come along. 

You won’t hate yourself for watching this show, as it is not a complete waste of time. But I wouldn’t go in expecting a gut-bustingly funny show, either. 

Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.

The Drifters (Book Review)

Books, Travel

When I first read The Drifters, maybe 15 years ago, it became an instant classic in my mind, and a book that I had always considered in my top-3 favorite novels of all-time. It was incredible, and encompassed everything that there was for the traveler, for the person who was not quite sure where their place in the world was yet, and was willing to go and find it. Among travelers, The Drifters should be considered the bible. While a book like The Beach did its own thing for a new generation of backpackers, The Drifters has always been there for us to take along on long train rides, time at the beach, or lazy days between bar hopping, in whatever locale you could think of.

drift2Since I first read this James A. Michener classic, so many things have changed. Then, I was first starting to travel, having completed my first six-month journey across Europe. But I never felt complete after that first journey, and knew that I needed to be back out there, my life strapped to my back, and looking for more. The Drifters was a book that resonated with me, because I no longer had to feel out of place among my friends, who had chosen their life paths at 20 years old, and knew what they were going to be doing. I had no clue. But there were many, many others like me, so I felt good in my need to keep searching.

I started reading The Drifters again while I was in Honduras, figuring the tropical setting would be a good place to see again what the characters that I had grown to love got up to during their years of travel across Europe and Africa. To relive their trials and tribulations, their glories and successes, and their soul-crushing failures. I again wanted to sit with them in The Alamo in Torremolinos and listen to music, run with the bulls with Joe and Mr. Holt in Pamplona, or watch the elephants with them in Mozambique.

Reading the novel again, it was easy to once again become engrossed in their lives. And seeing them now from the perspective of an older man, one who has lived, and one who has pretty much found what he is looking for, allowed me to see these characters as they truly were, to see their innocence and views on the world in a different light. Maybe upon my first reading, I was more like one of the characters, whereas now, I am probably in between one of them and Mr. Fairbanks, the older narrator of the novel who is connected to each of the six young people in different ways, and keeps meeting up with them at certain points in their journey. Reading it again allowed me to recapture some of my own feelings from being on  the road for all those months and years in my youth, remembering how I looked at the world in my younger days, remembering the need to find something more important than the typical life that home offered me. Sure, my motives may have been different from the six characters, and the time of their travels was during one of the most intense moments in American history (the book was published in 1971, during the Vietnam War, and this conflict plays a major role in the novel), but the result was the same: we all left home and hit the road to find inspiration.

I am going to write about the characters in the novel as though the reader of this review has read the novel as well. Since it is not a new book, I am going to assume that most people have already read it. So there will be spoilers throughout this review, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to completely write about the characters, instead of cutting myself off, trying not to ruin anything. I am just going to focus on the central six, even though there are other great characters in this novel that play a smaller role, like Big Loomis and Jemail in Marakech, Clive and his purple satchel full of new records, or Jean Victor, who really gets things started in getting the six together. I won’t make specific mention, except in passing, of Fairbanks and Holt, either.

Joe: Joe has been drafted by the American military, and if he reports, will be shipped off to Vietnam. He does not believe that the war is a just war, and he refuses to comply, therefore becoming a draft dodger. His method of escape is to go to Europe, where the military can’t find him. He understands that this decision comes with severe consequences, namely that if he ever returns to the States, he will be imprisoned for dodging the draft. He has such strong convictions about this, that he leaves the US, probably forever. With the help of Mr. Fairbanks and a girl who turns out to be Gretchen, Joe ends up in Torremolinos, Spain, a haven for young people at the time. Plane loads of people would end up in the Spanish beach town, typically for 15-day all-inclusive vacations, that for many people, ended up lasting much longer. It was a place full of beautiful girls, typically German or Scandinavian, and the party scene was non-stop. It doesn’t take long before Joe, pretty broke to begin with, starts work as a bartender at The Alamo, a tiny, dingy bar in Torremolinos, that becomes the central hangout for the drifters during their time in this part of Spain.

Joe is in a way, a prototypical American boy, but at the same time, his strength comes from his silence and his convictions in his belief. Throughout the novel, he is one of the more sturdy characters. He manages to play a steadying role in the lives of the gang, since he seems to be one of the more emotionally stable, and his life tragedy that got him to Spain is something that he continues to believe in. He is not shy about telling people that he is there to avoid the draft, and will verbally battle anybody who feels that he is a coward for stepping out on his country. This is only a point of view held by the older characters, as the young people all agree with him, that the war is unfair, and he should not have to sacrifice his life for a decision (that they believe is poor- I don’t want to get too much into the conflict of Vietnam, and whether it was right or wrong) made by his government. While Joe is doomed to never return to his home, he easily makes a life in whichever spot that he lands in. There is always the awareness that even if the other drifters find what they are looking for, and decide to one day return to their homelands, he will not be able to do so. He will be a drifter forever, or he will need to go to jail. This adds a certain cloud of doom over Joe, one that he impressively never lets interfere with his life, and his living of it.

The issue of his draft status comes up a few times during the novel, and he must make further decisions on what to do about it, to get the government off his back. They manage to track him down in Mozambique, and this leads him to choosing if he should take the drastic draft dodging tactics known as Little Casino or Big Casino. Joe is willing to do anything to not go to war, further endearing us to his position, as he definitely sticks to his guns throughout, despite the outside pressures he must face and defeat in his avoidance of the war. Joe is strong enough to not be beaten by his own government, even if it means severely damaging his future.

Joe’s quest is different from the others, because for the majority of the novel, he is not actively seeking inspiration. He is avoiding something back home. In the end, however, he finds what could become his passion while they travel around Africa, and at the end of the novel we get the impression that this is something that he will pursue in his future travels, as he will begin his journey across Asia, trying to get to the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.

Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.

Britta: It is difficult to read this novel and not consider Britta to be one of the favorite characters. She is the beautiful Norwegian girl from the northern town of Tromso, who is simply tired of the darkness, and needs to always be in the sun. She is trapped by her environment in Norway, and saves up her money to go to Spain in order to escape it. The descriptions of Britta make it easy to understand how the majority of the people who first see her, fall in love with her. She grabbed the attention of nearly every male in the novel, and typically from the first time they laid eyes on the impeccably blonde girl with the amazing figure. And to top it all off, she is as sweet as she is beautiful, making her the perfect girl to fall in love with.

In her desperation to escape the dreary and sunless winters of Tromso, she immediately knows that she wants to stay for longer than the 15 day escape she paid for. Immediately upon arriving in Torremolinos, she starts looking for work. A difficult prospect, since there are hundreds of beautiful girls that want jobs so that they can stay in Spain a little longer. Luckily for Britta, she meets someone who is leaving her job, and sets Britta up as a waitress at The Alamo, and she starts sharing the tiny apartment with the unique sleeping arrangements and the famous sleeping bag on the floor. It is not long before Britta begins her long affair with Joe, taking the most gorgeous girl in Torremolinos off the market, to the chagrin of every man who has laid eyes on her.

It is easy to cheer for Britta throughout the novel, because she manages to maintain her innocence throughout it, and in a way, manages to stay true to herself. She wants the sun, and to have fun, and to see the world. She knows that she may not be destined for great things, and that married life would be a good life for her, but only if it is on her own terms, and not simply out of obligation or desperation. She is partially driven by her father’s lifetime obsession with the island of Ceylon, a place he never visited, but became obsessed with, and she takes on this goal of his, determined to make it there at some point, by whatever means necessary.

For a time in the novel, she breaks apart from the gang, because she falls in love with the much older Holt in Pamplona, and she stays behind after he is gored by a bull and must spend some time in a hospital. Eventually, she rejoins the group in Morocco, and we see that her dream of getting to Ceylon will come true. She has even sent a ticket to her father, to meet her there, at the end of the novel. Britta has achieved what she wanted from the road, and all of her adventures. Despite her young age, she matures quite a bit during the story, even getting to end the novel with one of the more poignant quotes, encompassing the theme of the whole story, that “I now believe that men ought to inspect their dreams. And know them for what they are.” This rings true with the reader long after the book is finished, because she is right. That the dreams are often just that: dreams. And that they are not perfect, and that even on the adventure of a lifetime, tragedy, and real life, can often get in the way.

Cato: Cato is an interesting character, as he brings in a more embattled attitude to the group. A young black man from the US, he flees to Europe after a violent incident at a church, from which he gained a certain level of fame/infamy due to a picture of him in a newspaper, wielding a machine gun. Cato is consistently aggressive, and carries with him a massive chip on his shoulder. His concerns is with the plight of African Americans in the States, and the brewing tensions that were gripping major cities at the time. He felt that there was a war coming, and he would educate himself in order to be one of its leaders.

Cato is interesting, because while he lives the carefree life of the other drifters, he also carries with him a hostility that none of the others share. He is forced to deal with racism, even in the free living spaces of Europe, and especially due to his relationship with the white Monica. There is a darkness to the character of Cato, and as readers, we know that he is ready to blow up at any moment. Cato is a true revolutionary, ready to take to the streets to get what he believes his people have earned, and that makes him scary. He is willing to push the boundaries, and he is willing to fight with whoever he needs to, to get his point across.

By the end of the novel, we are almost appalled with his behavior, specifically towards his friend Yidal, as Cato becomes more involved with Islam, starting to believe that a major step for blacks in America will be to push away the Jews.

His tenderness comes from his torrid relationship with the uber-volatile Monica, the most dangerous character in the book. He truly falls in love with her, and is controlled by her, managing to live through her passions and increasingly rage-induced mood swings. He wants to save her, even if she cannot be saved. He is along for the ride with her, and he is willing to experiment with her along the way, specifically with drugs, which I will discuss later on.

Cato is looking for a solution to his problems back home, and he believes, that by the end of the novel, he has found them. He will reinvent himself, and return to the States and become a force to be reckoned with, for good or for bad, in the battle that he feels needs to be fought in his homeland.

Yidal: As Yidal nears his 21st birthday, his central conflict is to decide which country to remain a citizen of. He hold three passports, and must decide which one he will keep, and which other two he will abandon. He has the choices of the US, Israel, and Britain. Growing up splitting his time between Detroit and Israel, Yidal is a brilliant student in engineering, and gained fame in Israel during the Six Day War, in which thanks to him, a small group of Israeli soldiers were able to hold off and destroy several Egyptian tanks. Yidal’s conflict is interesting, because he needs to decide who he is, and which country he truly belongs to. He knows that there are problems for the Jewish people all over the world, and must choose where he can be the most safe, and the most help, to the cause of his people.

Yidal battles frequently with Cato, and all of the other external pressures in his life. Everybody has an opinion on which country he should officially be a part of. He feels pressure from his family, and his grandfather, as well as the experienced opinions of Holt and Fairbanks. But it is up to him to decide, and he wavers back and forth on his decision.

In Yidal, we also have the one character who leaves the gang more than once. He is forced by his grandfather to go with him while they are in Pamplona, and he is also forced to quickly leave Marrakech after it is discovered by outsiders that he is Jewish, a crime punishable by death in Morocco. He is also the one character that does not get a love interest within the group. Yidal gets plenty of girls over the course of the novel, including a nice string of Swedish girls while in Torremolinos, but Yidal is never able to get over the initial love he felt for Britta, upon first laying eyes on her. While Cato felt the same thing, he moved on quickly when he met Monica. Yidal never moved on, and was never able to be with Britta, even though she was always in the back of his mind. He takes this mild heartbreak in stride, as all of the drifters are able to do. They can move on from relationships with a carefree attitude that never seems to stop confusing Fairbanks.

In the end, Yidal is also able to find his solution. He decides on Israel, primarily because of a savage beating he gets at the hands of Cato. He knows that America is no longer the place to be, especially if Islam becomes the religion of the African Americans who are angry at the state of things in the US. Leaving Marrakech under hasty circumstances, he leaves for Israel, and his new life as a citizen of only one country.

The yellow VW pop-top. You can't read this novel and not want one.

The yellow VW pop-top. You can’t read this novel and not want one.

Gretchen: Even though she is introduced early in the novel as the girl who helps Joe escape the States to dodge the draft, Gretchen is the last of the characters to get to Torremolinos, and become a part of the gang. A highly educated, and brilliant girl, Gretchen made waves in the US before her eventual leaving. She was a part of political campaigns, and was someone who was fighting the good fight in the States. She becomes increasingly jaded as real-life events impact her views on what America is becoming, specifically the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Almost too smart for her own good, Gretchen is wrongly accused of a crime, and is faced with an abusive night in prison at the hands of the police. She is held without crime, and is sexually assaulted by the officers. While she goes against the wishes of several people, including her family, she makes the incident public, and is faced with a police cover up to protect themselves. Without the support of her family, Gretchen decides to leave it all behind, and heads to Spain as almost a broken person, simply needing to get away from the increasing wrongs that she sees in her home nation.

Gretchen is the one who buys the legendary yellow pop top Volkswagen bus, that almost becomes a character of its own in the novel. She does some wandering of her own, even before arriving in Torremolinos, willing to meet new people along the way, and spending all of her nights in her little van, designed with bunks for sleeping. Eventually she wanders into The Alamo, and meets up with the gang, becoming a part of them. Gretchen is always guarded, especially when it comes to men, due to her incidents with the police, that have left her mentally scarred. She does rediscover her love of singing, as she entertains the crowds with her large repertoire of haunting ballads by Child. She always announces her songs with a simple “Child 107,” or whichever number the song may be in the collection of works that was given to her by Fairbanks earlier in her life.

While Gretchen does indulge, like the rest of the gang, she always seems to have a maternal role among the group. She is extremely smart, and is looking for her inspiration on what to write about. She first went to Europe to study the 100 Years War, but eventually lost interest in this, causing her to become one of the drifters. She needs something new to become engrossed in, and to write about for the furthering of her education. She eventually finds this upon learning more about the Children’s Crusades, and upon gaining her moment of enlightenment, she knows that it is time for her to return to Boston and live her life. Having her give the pop-top to Joe is one of the sadder moments in the novel, since the car was so much of who she was. But after what she saw during her time in Africa, she knew that the journey was over, and that she had to move on. When something bad strikes, it shatters the illusion of the dream, and Gretchen is smart enough to know this.

Despite her guarded nature, Gretchen does find love, in the case of Clive, and eventually, Joe. She is not a promiscuous girl, as so many were at the time, but she chooses her romances carefully. We are happy when she gets together with Joe, as they are both solid people, and go make a real go of a relationship. But like all good things, and all things in The Drifters, it must come to an end.

Gretchen found what she was looking for, and she stayed true to herself in her pursuit of it. Sure, she may have given into pressure from Monica to try new things, like LSD, but she does these things on her own terms, and with purpose. She is the most driven of the drifters, since she truly knows what she seeks.

Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.

Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.

Monica: From her introduction in the novel, we know that Monica is the true wild card in this story. The daughter of an English lord in the fictional African nation of Vwarda, Monica becomes too beautiful, too quickly, and she is always dangerous. From smoking pot at a fairly young age, to flirting with visiting dignitaries, Monica has sex with one of her teachers, and causes problems wherever she goes. She is forced out of boarding schools in England, and creates trouble in Vwarda, including a not-so-secret affair with a powerful Vwardian official. She is driven towards escape, especially through drug use. Monica essentially runs away, and she is the member of the gang without any real purpose. She just wants to have a good time, and be away from her family, and the expectations they have placed on her.

Monica never needs to work, as she has money from her family, giving her more time to be a wild child. She hangs around The Alamo, and quickly hooks up with Cato, for what will be an affair that lasts until the end of the novel.

Even from the beginning, we know and understand that Monica is doomed to be the tragic character of the novel. She is too carefree, too vicious, and too wiling, to be able to escape this journey unscathed. She has a way of being manipulative, and of getting her own way. She craves action and desires adventure, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Monica smokes more weed than anybody else, and is the first to try LSD, convincing Cato to come along on her trips with her. It is easy to tell that she does not just use drugs recreationally, but is using them to achieve an escape. To find some kind of perfect euphoric state where she can feel bliss all of the time.

One of the background issues that looms over the entire novel is heroin. A drug that gained a surge in popularity during this era, it always stands as the ultimate in drug abuse. Once you go to heroin, there is no going any further. And it looms in the back of Monica’s mind, and we know that at some point, she will dabble with “Big-H”, probably with terrible results. She even taunts Fairbanks one night, stating that she would guarantee that all of the drifters would end up trying heroin before the end of the year. Well, she was wrong about that, but those that did use it faced the tragic consequences of the drug.

In Mozambique, Monica and Cato begin snorting heroin, a pastime that is looked at with shocking indifference from everyone. When Gretchen and Joe start to notice track marks on Monica’s arm, they learn that she has begun popping, the act of injecting heroin under your skin, leaving marks on her pale, beautiful skin. They are concerned with her use, and know that it will be only a matter of time before she begins mainlining, which is shooting heroin directly into your veins. While they try to get her to stop, Monica is blase about the whole thing, knowing that heroin was the natural progression, and natural end point, for her. She tries to convince them to join her and Cato, because she claims that it is the best drug out here, and that she has control over it. This is one of Monica’s issues, believing that she always had control over things that were far out of her control. And this, of course, leads to her downfall, but also allows us to see how she really is.

When Cato nearly dies of an overdose after trying to mainline to please Monica, she never stops, and never even slows down in her use. She begins injecting her veins regularly, even creating an unhealthy abscess on her arm that could become infected and cause the loss of her arm if it had not been treated by a woman in Mozambique. With a drug so powerful, it is not long before she is addicted, causing her to have violent mood swings, and lashing out at the people who care most about her. She will not listen to any voices of reason, including Fairbanks, whom she had trusted for the majority of her life. Nobody can save her, regardless of their attempts. Curiously, Fairbanks describes how she almost became more beautiful during the initial days of being strung out, more slender, and her paler skin being even more luminescent. She has chosen the path, and we know that it will end in her doom. The wild child has found her passion. Unfortunately, it is one that will cost her her life.

Monica dies. Not from a heroin overdose, as we would have expected, but from hepatitis caused by her using her dirty syringe too often. She could have been saved, had the others been paying closer attention to her. In a way, I found it odd that the gang took the blame for her death, thinking that they could have saved her, even if they had given her a clean needle. But Monica could not be saved, because she did not want to be saved. She was reckless with everything, including the hearts of those around her, and her own life. She spend her last weeks in Marrakech strung out on heroin and the potent hash cookies that made their ways around the hotels. She ostracized those around her, including Cato, and fled their hotel for a wild few days, high all the time, and being used sexually by a shocking number of men. When the gang manages to track her down, they only find her body, grotesque from the drugs and the malnutrition, a faded version of the wild Monica they had all loved over their time traveling together.

///

It is the death of Monica that brings an end to the dream for the drifters. While they could have continued traveling together, waxing philosophy about the state of their lives, and of their world, everybody knew that it was over. Monica dying had crashed them back to reality, no matter how hard they had tried to escape it. Real life always found a way to creep into their dreams, but now, it had come crashing through the wall, and the could no longer avoid it.

It was selfish of Monica to do what she had been doing. Nobody truly expected her to become a junkie, but we also must look at her actions as being the completion of her quest, and her journey. She was looking for the true escape, and she found it. Perhaps even she never imagined that it would be as a skeletal version of who she once was, being passed around by men for money, strung out to the point where she was mostly catatonic, every day breaking the hearts of the people who loved her dearly. But did she ever really love them back? Was Monica as good a friend to the others, as they had been for her? Would she have worried as much had it been someone else who fell under the spell of heroin?

We will never know, but we do know that by her dying, by sticking the rusty needle into her arm too many times, she broke up the gang.

driftGretchen found her inspiration, and was going to return to Boston. Probably to change the intellectual world. Cato was going home to start a revolution he could see in his mind. Yidal was going to Israel to be who he really was. Monica was dead, hastily buried in Morocco, never letting us know what her true potential could have been. Britta found her dreams, heading towards Ceylon with Holt, and undertaking part of Joe’s journey. She would stay in the sun. Joe had to keep moving, to keep drifting, as he headed towards Japan in the yellow pop-top that Gretchen simply gave him.

All in their own way, they were done. We are left never knowing if Joe got all the way to Tokyo, or if the tender friendship between Gretchen and Britta was continued, or if Britta ever convinced Holt to marry her, or what it was like for her father to be in the place he had dreamed of his whole life.

Dreams were realized, and dreams were shattered, partly because of the ultimate freedoms they had been able to experience.

The Drifters is an amazing novel, just as much now as it was when I first read it. We love the characters, all for different reasons, and we also fall in love with the places they visit. This novel is a true classic, telling us about the wonders of the road, but the dangers of unchecked freedom.

Imagine what could have happened if Monica never used heroin?

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Blackfish (Film Review)

Film

Blackfish is one of those documentaries that comes out every couple of years that actually gets people buzzing about the message of the film, and quickly becomes something that everybody needs to see. There are plenty of examples of this, including famous docs like 20 Feet From Stardom, Bowling for Columbine, or The Cove

The film is straight forward in its message: the capture and keeping of orcas (killer whales) is wrong, as it leads the majestic animals to feel trapped, causing them to occasionally lash out at their trainers, which often leads to their deaths.There really isn’t both sides to this story, especially because SeaWorld decided not to be a part of the documentary to defend their actions or provide viewers with their side of the story. Due to this, SeaWorld comes across as a monster corporation that does horrible things to the animals they have in captivity. 

Blackfish_2.jpgThere are plenty of interesting things in this film. Some shocking stories, and a lot of good interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, orca experts, and occupational health and safety people. There are some details from the numerous court cases against SeaWorld over the years, and there are the terrible stories of trainers that lost their lives by being attacked by killer whales. 

But most interesting, is the stories of the killer whales themselves. 

Impressive animals, it is heartbreaking to see footage of them being hunted and torn away from their families, for the entertainment of the paying public. The lies spread by the company have been heard by anybody who has ever visited animals in captivity. Sure, they live longer in captivity. Except, this isn’t true. They are with their families. Not true either. In fact, the whales are taken from different parts of the world, and have difficulty adapting to one another, often leaving them brutalized and bleeding from the abuse they put on one another. The trainers are highly trained individuals who go through years of practice before working with the animals. Also a lie.

Blackfish makes us feel sorry for the animals, before we feel sorry for the humans. It is sad when human life is lost, but by the end of the film, we really can’t blame the whales for lashing out. They live in pools, too small for their massive size, and go through grueling training and performances every day. They are wild animals, and they have been pent up, and we are surprised whenever their instincts take over. 

Seeing the sagging dorsal fin is another of the sad moments of the film.

Seeing the sagging dorsal fin is another of the sad moments of the film.

Perhaps most offensive is the gross negligence of SeaWorld, when they purchased a male whale for breeding purposes, who already had a history of violence against people (and would only increase his list of fatalities as the years wore on). Not only were they breeding his behaviors into new generations of killer whales, but they were keeping the massive whale, the largest in captivity, in conditions that were not suitable for his size. It is sad to watch. Even though the animals often seem like they are having fun, and enjoy performing the tricks, there has to be a point where they want to be free. The researchers interviewed in the film discuss the idea that orcas have the ability to feel emotions in a similar way to humans, and this is demonstrated by their cries when their calves are taken away, or when they seem depressed and won’t move for hours at a time. We, as regular viewers, can plainly see that these creatures have emotions, especially where their own families are concerned, and yet we still support places like SeaWorld, paying to watching them to funny tricks. It was interesting to hear from the trainers, who were always shocked yet not entirely shocked when a whale would attack a human. Once they got past the fun of their jobs, they realized that what they were doing was wrong, and they too, began to feel sorry for the animals, one trainer admitting that he only kept the job because he cared so much for the orca he was working with, and wasn’t sure who would take care of him if he left. 

Destroying nature for our entertainment is nothing new. We have been doing it forever, and will probably continue to do so until awareness by films such as Blackfish turn enough people off the idea of keeping free animals locked away, and keeps them away from the parks that support this behavior.

This is very much a one-sided documentary, making it more of an opinion film than a true documentary. Regardless, the message is clear, and it would be difficult to support a company like SeaWorld after seeing something like this. It is terrible what is done to the creatures. Sure, they are not abused or beaten by the trainers. But some of the techniques are harsh, and the conditions are in no way ideal places for the black and white creatures to exist. They need the oceans to live. Not pools. 

Blackfish is highly interesting, and worth the buzz that it has generated. It is worth watching on Netflix.

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Battleship (Film Review)

Film

I view myself as being a fairly intelligent person. I am well-read, I understand artsier films when I see them, I have traveled the world and seen a great many things. So why, oh why, did I like Battleship so much?

The premise for this action blockbuster is complete insane. It is a film based off of a board game, after all. Anyone expecting more than that is more nuts than the idea to make Battleship. If you decide to suspend your disbelief for the entire 2 hours plus running time, then you may enjoy yourself as you watch this movie on Netflix. 

Humans have decided to beam a signal to a distant planet that they feel meets the Goldilocks standards of Earth, where it may be able to sustain life and water. Okay, fair enough. We’ll ignore the fact that they are able to send this signal light years away in a matter of moments. Surprisingly though, they get a response some time later, in the form of an alien invasion. Oh no, that is not good.

battleship2The human side of the story focuses on Taylor Kitsch, who plays Alex Hopper, a down on his luck guy with infinite potential who continually wastes it away. At the urging of his brother, he joins the Navy, and before you know it, he is a Lieutenant on an impressive Destroyer ship, and on the verge of marrying the girl of his dreams (Brooklyn Decker). I’ve always liked Kitsch, because he was just so good on Friday Night Lights. Since then, he has done nothing particularly memorable, and has never been able to trade his small screen success for big screen hits. Aside from essentially being not great, and pretty cheesy, in Battleship, he is pretty fun. He has some humorous moments, even managing to elicit a giggle now and then, with his goofy antics and being smart, but not really that smart. He sort of has a Maverick-style attitude, and his character growth is based on him being able to think before he acts. Pretty simple, really, but this film is not based on characterization.

It is based on the idea that one remaining ship must fight off this alien invasion before they are able to summon their home planet and, presumably, bring all of their alien friends down to earth. One thing that I found curious about this film, and it is never really mentioned, is that the aliens never attack first. They scan their targets, and when a human does not pose a threat (such as having a weapon on them, or actively attacking an alien), they leave them alone. The same goes for the ships. They never fire until fired upon. Is director Peter Berg trying to sneak in a message into Battleship about the overt aggression of our nation’s military? I don’t know. But I noticed something there. 

There are some other name actors in here, who have minimal roles, and try their best with a pretty wooden script. This is especially noticeable with Alexander Skarsgard, who tends to monopolize most of the lame lines in the film. He is definitely not as cool as he is in True Blood. Liam Neeson makes an appearance, because it seems like Liam Neeson now shows up in every action movie that is released. Which is fine by me. He is bad ass. He doesn’t get a major role, but gets to give a couple of speeches as a high ranking Navy officer, and Brooklyn Decker’s father. 

Brooklyn Decker might be one of the bigger surprises in the film. Despite her plot line being pretty preposterous (she and a Navy vet are on a hike, and end up trying to take down all of the alien communications on their own), she doesn’t ruin the scenes she’s in. Let’s be honest, she has been getting film roles because the majority of her talent rests in her bra, but she is respectable in Battleship. Don’t get respectable confused with good, but she’s getting there. She may be developing as an actress, and I could see her continuing to get smaller roles in action films or romantic comedies, as she has done so far. 

Decker: Is she becoming more than just able to really fill out a tank top?

Decker: Is she becoming more than just able to really fill out a tank top?

I won’t say much about Rihanna and her acting skills, because there really are none. She may be the worst actor in the entire film. 

There are some cool scenes, and some pretty decent battles in the movie. There are big explosions, and lots of cool missiles and guns fired. There is plenty of alien destruction, and they beat up on parts of Earth pretty well, too. 

And I’ll admit, that the lamest/most awesome part of this film is when Kitsch and gang are running out of options, they turn to the museum that is the USS Missouri, the greatest warship in American history, to try and defeat the enemies. Who is going to help him run this ship? Why, they veterans of the Second World War, of course. It is completely ridiculous plot-wise, but it was fun. Seeing the ship magically get ready in one quick montage set to “Thunderstruck,” and an out-of-commission ship that hasn’t sailed in decades is ready to take on the greatest threat to humanity. Of course it is. But I loved it. I’ll also give credit to the part of the film where it is like playing the board game. Well played, Peter Berg, well played.

I thought that Battleship was going to be a complete waste of time, and I would simply have it on in the background while I did other things with my life. But this was not the case, as I was taken in by the cheese, and really kind of loved it. Don’t go into this film expecting to see an intelligent action blockbuster like Terminator 2. Because you won’t get it. But if you’re putting Battleship in a similar range as the Transformers movies, then you are on the right track. Except unlike Transformers, this movie is pretty fun to watch, and you can actually tell what is happening on the screen.

If you are in the mood for a fun dose of cheese, you can do worse than Battleship.