1/11/13

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Hard to Close


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012)
By Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 978-0374214913
* * * ½

If Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore were a mall movie, the poster tag line and review pull out quotes might include: “Bound Books-Meet e-Books,” “Nostalgia in a Steel-cage Death Match with Innovation,” “The Luddites Battle the Techies,” “Utopia Takes a Holiday,” or  “Vanity Versus Basic Biology.” I’d label it “The Da Vinci Code for Geeks,” and my one-line assessment is that it’s an engaging page-turner that should not be confused with great literature. It may be my favorite “guilty pleasure” of 2012.

Our protagonist is Clay Jannon, a guy in his twenties who may be too bright and too clever for his own good. He’s a quick study for just about everything that doesn’t involve deep human interaction: computer hacking, design work, typography, detective work, electronic systems, cryptology…. His intellect has made him mildly jaded. He’s a dilettante with pronounced slacker tendencies who has done very little with his talents beyond designing Websites for concept bagel emporiums that go under at the drop of a sesame seed, whilst buddies from his college days raked in cash from high tech ventures as profound as hardware development and as banal as making superb boob-simulation software! Faced with the need to pay his share of the rent in the San Francisco digs he shares with two other people, Clay takes a job at a shop whose name intrigues him: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

This is no ordinary bookstore. Clay works the graveyard shift and seldom sees a paying customer. He does, however, encounter numerous “members” who borrow ornately bound books shelved in high stacks. They come and go quickly and Penumbra gives Clay the odd charge of writing down their member number in a massive logbook along with everything he observes about them. He’s also told not to snoop among the reserved stacks, remove anything from the store, or investigate any of the logbooks. Can you say “Pandora’s Box?” As Clay grows more and more curious (and bold), he adds some coconspirators: college friends/entrepreneurs, a roommate, and Kat Potente, a gorgeous high flier who works for Google. Her name means “powerful” (aka/potent) in Spanish, German, and Italian, and is a synonym for “stiff” in the latter language. Kat is both strong and stiff, but before long Clay is in love (or is it lust?) with her. She seems to reciprocate, though it’s very clear that she loves Google more than anything or anybody.

The book’s central mystery is straight out of Dan Brown by way of National Treasure. To say too much would be a spoiler, so let me tantalize you by asking you to think of a secret code, a possible search for immortality, a bicoastal caper, and what it might be like if your favorite book group consisted of a bunch of Rosicrucian wannabes. Got that? Of course you don’t!  It’s the job of Clay and his team to make sense (or not) of all of this. Like a Dan Brown novel–also guilty pleasures–or a Nick Cage National Treasure film–way too banal to suppress my guilt instincts–Robin Sloan’s novel relies on too many coincidences and sudden flashes of insight about amazingly arcane things to be  plausible. It also depends on technology that doesn’t actually exist yet and levels of secrecy unlikely in the age of, well, Google. But, as good mysteries do, Sloan’s pacing and setups are such that you are willing to suspend disbelief to see how things resolve. If you can get past the fact that Sloan’s prose is occasionally turgid and the narrative structure is frequently contrived, Sloan has a fascinating yarn to spin. You also have to give him credit–it’s not everyone who can fashion a novel loosely based on the life of Aldus Mantius (1449-1515), the late medieval printer who developed a favored form of slanted italicized type (with the help of punch cutter Francesco Griffo), the semicolon, and standardized punctuation. (If you think that’s no big deal, try deciphering a pre-punctuation Latin manuscript!)

Sloan used to work for Twitter; hence he has at least passing familiarity with some of the issues he raises in his novel, including what constitutes a “cult.” Google comes across as an amazing innovation incubator, but are its devotees any less scary than robed cultists from the past? Other conundrums are raised. Does the digital future portend a kind of salvation, or the rise of new slave masters? Will that future destroy the past, or will that which survives be the only hope of a better future? What does tomorrow hold for art? Will technology bring eternal life, or death of the soul? (If tech-based immortality seems preposterous to you, check out inventor/futurologist Ray Kurzweil’s belief in the “technological singularity.”)

These are interesting and important questions, but don’t expect Sloan to resolve them in any substantive way. In the end, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore isn’t much more than pulp fiction for the Millennial Generation. In fact, it’s the sort of book that’s probably going to look very dated in about five years. All the more reason to read it now! It’s a quick, breezy read that’s a bit like hot air-popped popcorn: filling without being bad for you. Go ahead; indulge and damn the guilt! --Rob Weir

1/9/13

Not Fade Away Needs a Decent Script

NOT FADE AWAY (2012)
Directed and Written by David Chase
Paramount, 112 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)
* * *

 Not Fade Away has thrilled some critics and chilled others. Most viewers are likely to experience it as a classic 3 of 5 stars movie. Grade it C, an A for ideas, music, and class awareness and an F for scriptwriting.

The setting is New Jersey in the 1960s, specifically the time period in which grief over President Kennedy’s assassination inexorably gave way to the giddiness of the early British Invasion. It was, of course, also the time in which the first wave of Baby Boomers came of age, discovered the Generation Gap, and began to articulate value systems quite different from those of their parents. The protagonist of our story is nerdy, pimply Doug (John Magaro), a working-class kid with very little luck with girls but one helluva record collection of black R & B records, a drum set he’s learning to play, and an emerging perception that his town is too small for him. His companions are just like him–guys with not-so-bright prospects, wild ideas, and an abiding love of the new music they’re hearing. Doug’s best friend, Eugene (Jack Huston), plays pretty good guitar and fancies himself a vocalist, though he’s really a copycat channeling others. Before long, a musical dream begins to play out in the basement of a down-market small town. We watch Doug morph into a guy who looks like Dylan, dresses like Dylan, sings like Dylan, and writes songs like Dylan. The open question is how far talent can take the band, and part of that answer depends on whether it can stay together, or if some of the band members even want the fame, travel, and spotlight they claim they desire.

I enjoyed the class dynamics of this film. At times I was reminded so much of my own teen years in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town that it’s as if I knew some of the people populating the film. I certainly recognized the tension between those chomping at the bit to leave, those content to be the big fish in a poi pond, and those whose deficiencies (intellectual, monetary, imaginative) cemented them in place. Blue-collar dreams are not often presented in American movies and director/writer David Chase hits a lot of correct notes, including the manner in which wage earners often held stereotypical views of the middle class. Doug’s “unobtainable” desire is Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote), the younger daughter of pretentious parents who only appear to be high on the totem when viewed from the bottom. Certainly Doug’s working-class stiff father, Pat (James Gandolfini), sees them that way. Like lots of dads during the era, his ideal scenario for Doug is a bit of college, some ROTC training, and then home to earn a paycheck.  We all know what Vietnam did to that sort of dream.

Not Fade Away captures the look of blue-collar life–the crowded ranch houses, the Formica counters, TV trays, the faux wood paneling…. You can almost smell the mold in the shag carpeting. It also has a killer soundtrack–iconic blues, 50s skiffle, pop hits from the 60s, and some pretty nice original stuff. Alas, this is where the good ends and the bad begins. Chase may or may not be a good director, but he’s not much of a writer. There’s more enigma in his script than in the average Dylan song. Chase was born in 1945 and is clearly enamored to the music and culture of his youth. Alas, he tries to jam in everything. What we get isn’t the 1960s so much as cartoon and poster images of it–a JFK image here, a Rolling Stones concert snippet there, dropped references to civil rights, oblique mentions of Vietnam….  His episodic cameos are like his blue-collar interiors:  all surfaces. Chase is certainly correct to present small town America as a place where the 60s came in through the backdoor, but his skip-the-stone approach leaves us with characters that change for no apparent reason.

A stronger cast would have helped. Gandolfini–who is always good–is the closest thing to a “star” in this lineup. A small film such as Beasts of the Southern Wild can shine with no-name actors–of the right quality. John Magaro is very good and Jack Huston–John Huston’s grandson–is competent. The rest, not so much. It’s hard to judge whether the actresses are any good or not, as Chase’s script is abysmal in the area of gender. Women simply appear in the film; they have no character or depth. Molly Price plays Doug’s mother as if she’s a mash of every imaginable stereotype of dowdy Italian mothers. Dominique McElligott appears as Grace’s trippy older sister, but we have no idea of why she, or Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) are in the movie in the first place.

And then there’s the contrived stuff that’s as cheap as a Silvertone guitar. A corny prelude of a Paul McCartney stand-in meeting a John Lennon stand-in is supposed to prefigure the rivalry between Doug and Eugene. I think we’re supposed to see Grace as a Yoko substitute, but that’s one of many threads that flap untied in the breeze. We also get gratuitous “sightings” of rock gods, clich├ęd scenes such as Doug’s vocal debut (A Star is Born), and set-ups that Western Union couldn’t have telegraphed better.  Later the film drifts to Los Angeles, though why an aspirant musician who lives a short train ride from Grand Central would go to LA isn’t very clear. (Film school? Desire to be Jim Morrison? Access to orange groves?) And if you think that’s unclear, explain to me (if you can) what happens to Grace the first night she’s in LA.

When Not Fade Away is at its best, it’s reminiscent of Diner meets The Commitments. When it’s bad–which is frequently–it reminds you of how superior those films are to this one. Should you see it? Sure. But go to dance, not immerse yourself in transcendent filmmaking. --Rob Weir

1/7/13

Football Bowl Games We Probably Don't Need


The site of UMass's first bowl appearance.

I admit that I find football boring. I especially find college football to be a waste of money that could be put to much better use. TV would have you believe that college football is a big-time moneymaker. That’s pure BS; fewer than two dozen NCAA schools take in more football revenue than they spend. Among those that do–Penn State comes to mind–it’s an savory racket dominated by gamblers, grifter alums, and politicians willing to pay whatever it takes to bring glory to the gridiron, even at the expense of public safety, morality, and protecting children.

My own school, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently took the plunge and “upgraded” its football program to Bowl Championship Series level. Oh yeah, it also joined the Mid-America Conference, because everyone knows there’s a natural rivalry between a university in western Massachusetts and those in central Michigan, northern Iowa, and Ohio’s Rust Belt. Hundreds of fans poured into Foxboro Stadium to witness some of these matches. Another brilliant idea: play home games in Foxboro, 90 miles from the UMass campus. Needless to say, UMass lost millions of dollars in a season in which it went 1-11. It didn’t get a bowl bid.

And to that I ask, why not? It’s just not fair. Among the sillier things about college football is that you don’t actually have to be any damn good to get a bowl bid. It’s the every child is an honors child syndrome goes to college. In 2012, a dozen teams went to bowl games, even though they had 6-6 records. Half of them lost, thus finishing under .500 for the season. (Georgia Tech was 6-7 and still went to a bowl.) Another 11 were at 7-5 going into their bowl games. Of course, it’s not about excellence any more; it’s about corporate promotions. The old bowl names are out and the games are now just big advertisements for businesses whose commercials happen to feature gear-wearing shills. Is there any reason in the world not to add more bowls so that really bad teams like UMass can get a piece of the action? I scoured the bottom 25 teams for 2012, a list that includes UMass. (Team chant: “We’re 17, we’re 17!”) Here are a few bowl games we need to have:

Three of the worst 25 are in Texas, where they do love their football and their guns. I propose the NRA Assault Rifle Bowl: Texas State vs. Texas-San Antonio.

How about Florida Atlantic vs. San Jose State in the iMaps Bowl in Bora Bora. Travel expenses will be minimal as neither school will be able to find the site.

Let’s refight the Civil War with Buffalo vs. South Alabama in the Clint Eastwood Bowl. Just to make sure no one gets hurt, the teams will stay at home and scream at empty stadiums.

Akron is so shitty it managed to lose to UMass, which makes it a perfect match for Memphis in the Fake Dog Poop Bowl.

Louisiana generally ranks at the bottom of American education rankings and its Ozark neighbors are just a tick ahead of them. How about Louisiana-Monroe vs. Arkansas A & M in the Jello Brain Mold Bowl?

Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky are genetic naturals for the Spray-On Hair Bowl.

My own beloved UMass will take on Hofstra in the first Ty-D-Bol Bowl. Hofstra doesn’t actually have a football squad any more, but some of those cocky frat boys on Long Island on the intramural flag football team have been running wind sprints and are bragging they’ll take down the Minutemen. The over/under has Hofstra +10.

Finally, let’s give PA Governor Tom Corbett his wish: Penn State gets to play a bowl game against Ball State in Chatham County, Georgia on the grounds of Bethesda Home for Boys, the nation’s largest orphanage. And who better to sponsor it than Dick’s?