The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane

Review: A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler


And so we find ourselves once more visiting the quaint, upstate New York town of Union Grove, as the Christmas season gets underway. Since A History of the Future is the third novel in James Howard Kunstler’s A World Made by Hand series, there are no plastic Santas, electric Christmas lights or endless airings of It’s A Wonderful Life on everyone’s TV. No one will be glued to the tube to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, because the other shoe dropped years ago, when we ran out of cheap oil, the world was beset with wars and rumours of wars, and all the comforts and conceits of the cheap-oil era went the way of the dinosaurs.

In this world, there is no TV anymore. No gas, no internet, no jet travel. Welcome to Union Grove, Kunstler’s post-oil, post-iPhone vision of small-town America, in which the world has become a much larger place, the idea of a “global village” left to the dustbin of history. I happened to drive 40 minutes last night from Glens Falls to Greenwich, NY (the town Union Grove is loosely based on), a trip that I would have had to make on foot or horseback if I lived in the world Kunstler has created, and it would have taken days to get there, not 40 minutes. That’s how it will be after The Long Emergency plays out, and with ISIS bearing down on Iraq’s capital city as I write this, I wonder how soon it will be before Kunstler’s fictional War in the Holy Land becomes real history unfolding before our eyes. (I am a faithful follower of Kunstler’s weekly blog Clusterfuck Nation, which more and more seems like the Pre-History of the Future to the world of Union Grove.)

Opening up A History of the Future, I was delighted to visit the town of Union Grove once again. Kunstler deftly weaves together numerous storylines that have been developing over the course of the series, and we learn, finally, the truth about what happened between the world we live in right now and the world Kunstler first revealed in A World Made by Hand and further developed in The Witch of Hebron. All Union Grove’s notable personages are here, from the carpenter and default leader Robert Earle and the truly fascinating religious leader Brother Jobe, to the wealthy, powerful and somewhat scary plantation owner Stephen Bullock (did you hear what Bullock did to them fellers that broke into his place?).

Kunstler’s facility in bringing these very different characters to life is a genuine joy to experience. Booklist’s review of the novel, to be released this September, notes Kunstler’s “increasing literary finesse,” and while the author’s extensive exploration of this environment and its inhabitants may play a role in just how smoothly and delightfully this narrative goes down (it’s a true page-turner with many, many pleasures to behold), I have to say I had a similar thought while I was reading the book. I’ve admired Kunstler’s prose both fictional and non for over two decades now, but A History of the Future is a new high-water mark in showing off his gifts for storytelling, structure and character.

And what a story it is. Lots of things happen to lots of people here, not all of them pleasant or cheery, but the core of the narrative is right there in the title; Robert Earle’s son Daniel miraculously reappears after two years lost out there in what’s left of America, and over the course of the novel he lays out his long, harrowing journey; it’s a trek into the heart of Bible Belt darkness, in which Earle the Younger encounters the leader of the Foxfire Republic, in the personage of former country singer turned racist political leader Loving Morrow (perhaps the greatest character name in modern fiction).

Loving Morrow isn’t just a two-dimensional Tea Party satire, though. Kunstler paints her with nuance and complexity, so much so that by the time her story reached its climactic moment, I felt genuine sympathy and perhaps a little pity for her, despite the fact that she is unquestionably a monster of the most vile kind. The relationship that develops between Daniel Earle and the Republic’s Leading Light (Praise her!) is a highlight of the novel, and its ultimate resolution was one of the most compelling moments I’ve found in fiction in years. Just brilliant stuff.

There’s lots of other joys to be found in Union Grove at Christmas. Brother Jobe and his brethren have opened up an actual tavern with food and drink for the townspeople, and I found myself cheering inwardly at how something that would be so mundane in our time seems such a noble accomplishment in the new times Kunstler is documenting.

I don’t know if I’ve used the term “post-apocalyptic idyll” before to describe this series of novels, but that’s the best way I can explain the genre Kunstler has created. In other hands this would be hard-boiled sci-fi with terminators roaming the landscape, but Kunstler’s rumination on our nearly inevitable, tragic and bucolic near-future is so far above such facile ideas.

I recommend this series of novels to anyone interested in current events, the course the world inevitably seems to be sliding toward, or great fiction in general. By now the residents of Union Grove seem as real to me as the people next-door. I love them and care about them and want very badly to know what happens next in Union Grove. Happily, I am informed there will be a fourth novel in the series, so I’ll get to find out. Unhappily, I am going to have to wait a while for Kunstler to write it.

The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review. Pre-order A History of the Future from Amazon.comYou can listen to my most recent radio interview with James Howard Kunstler here.

My Star Trek Into Darkness Review

Click over to Star Trek Galaxy to read my personal and spoilery review of Star Trek Into Darkness.

Bates Motel Season One

I was dubious that this would be any good at all, having seen some of the “sequels” to Psycho over the years. But at a time when Mad Men and Game of Thrones are both running new episodes, it’s quickly become a close third for me in my lineup of shows I can’t wait to watch.


The tone of the show is similar to Twin Peaks — David Lynch is in there somewhere, but more in the sense of chaos under the surface than in any overt sense. The performances are human and real and the feeling of quiet, tragic inevitability is relieved more often than you’d expect by the hope that Norma Bates and her son can figure out their lives and somehow find balance and peace, and yet violence and secrets and death always seem one mis-step around the corner. But I find myself forgetting who and what Norman will become and genuinely feeling pity for the cruelty and confusion he experiences.

Norman’s mother and half-brother both clearly care about him, but their own fears, histories and business ventures are all conspiring to take Norman even further down the dark path he has already taken his first tentative steps upon. His new friend Emma suffers from cystic fibrosis and is pretty, loyal and sad. But Norman only has eyes for Bradley, the prettiest girl in school. Emma taking Norma to see what Bradley’s all about a couple of weeks back added layer upon layer to the emotional complexity and unexpected depths the show frequently plumbs.

Norma is vulnerable and beautiful and occasionally demonstrates a terrifying iron will and monstrous, sociopathic selfishness. The scene in last week’s episode where she, out of genuine concern for her son’s sexual awakening, explains with words and gestures the physical changes the act of lovemaking causes in a woman’s body was literally the most disturbing thing I have seen on TV since Leland Palmer danced with his murdered daughter’s cousin and then caved her head in because she was going back to Missoula, Montana.

If you love serialized drama and are curious about how terminally damaged human beings end up that way, I strongly recommend giving Bates Motel a look. Its characters and mysteries have totally sucked me in, and the tragedy it is visiting on people who you can see actually trying to be better human beings than they seem destined to become is breaking my heart on a weekly basis.

Everything’s Safe on the Moon: A Review of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Shirley Jackson's frequent themes of alienation and isolation seem to find their ultimate expression in her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one of the two novels reprinted in The Library of America’s collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.

Mary Katherine is the narrator of the story, and although I would not go so far as to say she is unreliable, her baroque view of the world she lives in does not always immediately reveal the objective truth of her circumstances.

Jackson as a writer excelled at depicting small communities and the small-minded people within them (see her classic short story The Lottery, or the lesser-known but equally compelling The Summer People, for example), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with Mary Katherine (“Merricat” to her big sister Constance) enduring an agonizing journey from the Blackwood family home on the outskirts of town into the village proper, where she seems to be viewed as a freak, an outcast and a curiosity by the townspeople. The story is completely told from Mary Katherine’s point of view, and we slowly get hints of why she and her family are shunned and feared, but at the same time Jackson makes it clear that Mary Katherine and Constance, who live in the Blackwood family home with their handicapped Uncle Julian, keep a clean home and maintain always a strong air of order and decorum.

Eventually and in tantalizing puzzle-like pieces we learn that the order rose up from one particularly chaotic and horrific evening when the Blackwood family was forever changed and diminished, and when their reputation in the community was sealed in blood. The years since have been spent with the family mostly alone by itself, with only one progressively-minded resident of the village willing to come for weekly tea with Constance, who never, ever leaves the Blackwood property. Mary Katherine is responsible for the weekly shopping excursion, which we fear is always a horrible ordeal, but she has also created a magical world for herself and her sister, Uncle Julian, and cat Jonas, in which they are protected by family heirlooms buried on the perimeter of the home or nailed to trees in the surrounding woods, talismans that mostly succeed in keeping out the world, at least for a while. One day, Merricat promises, they will all go to live on the moon, where they can truly be happy (“Everything’s safe on the moon,” she says), and of course, truly be isolated from the world that they work so hard to avoid.

The world has other plans, of course, in this case executed by seemingly-kindly cousin Charles Blackwood, who has come after many years to see what is what in the Blackwood home, and perhaps secure the family safe, said to contain untold riches. 

The Blackwoods, you see, don’t believe in banks, and Charles is certain there was a lot of money and other valuable items in the home on that night, that terrible night, after which no one wanted sugar in their tea.

Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin recently regarded Jackson as one of the best writers of the 20th century, and I second that idea. Although I read the entirety of the LOA collection, I was most impressed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle and wanted to explore a little just why it is such an extraordinary and powerful novel. 

You don’t have to do much research to discover that Jackson had something of a troubled life. Her protagonists are largely isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood, and I strongly suspect that is because she herself was isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood. The Lottery was hugely misinterpreted as non-fiction in its initial publication, very probably because Jackson’s prose is so smooth, so lyrical and convincing that at its best it feels so very true, no matter how extraordinary or shocking are the events it describes. While many regard Jackson as primarily a horror writer, and certainly horror interested her (The Haunting of Hill House is probably the Platonic ideal of a haunted house story, with a brilliant resolution that allows the reader an unparalleled degree of interpretation while still being utterly terrifying), but her greatest gift was her ability to explore the inner worlds of her characters, usually women, usually alienated in some way. Many of her short stories follow a pattern of introducing a woman who is somehow apart from the world or from her family, and then Jackson explores the consequences of that aloneness. But far from being an easy formula, rather it provides the intellectual stem cells that allowed the writer to create an impressive gallery of worlds in which these elements are endlessly, infinitely recombined to deliver shocking cultural commentary (The Lottery), a vision of banal, suburban viciousness (The Possibility of Evil), or outright terror (The Haunting of Hill House).

Jackson’s inability to fit into the world she so eloquently described in her fiction haunted her, and very possibly ended her. The timeline of her life at the back of the LOA Novels and Stories collection holds many hints to the reasons for the wall between Jackson and the outside world, but of one thing there can be no question: Jackson used her pain and her sadness to write dozens of compelling stories, some short, like The Lottery (the story’s reputation is what drew me to her work in the first place), some longer, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Having spent months now immersing myself in Jackson’s worlds, I have come to appreciate her subtle worldbuilding (read any five or ten of her stories and you will start to sense a cohesive universe), but more, I have grown to respect her voice and become astonished and grateful for the eloquence and ease with which she is able to use mere words to take me to secret places where I am forced to confront the horrors she no doubt experienced in her life. I don’t pity her; Jackson’s too powerful a writer to be pitied. But I do sympathize, and like Mary Katherine, I frequently find myself thinking of how lovely it would be to take my loved ones to live on the moon, where we are free to take tea and tiny rum cakes, away from all the pettiness and cruelty of this fallen world.

My Favourite TV Series

* Twin Peaks - It’s unreal to me that this series first aired so long ago, because it still seems ahead of its time to me. Part soap opera, part police procedural and all surreal, probably no TV series in history was more successful at bringing the sensibilities of an auteur film director to television. The incredibly gifted cast of actors brought humanity and individuality to their characters, and when it was at its best, there was no better written series on television. Unfortunately, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost gave up too much control too quickly, and the series quickly spun out of control. By the time Agent Cooper’s sociopathic former partner showed up late in the second season, most viewers, myself included, had either already abandoned the show or were on the verge of doing so. Despite its flaws, the highs that Twin Peaks reached were so impressive and so resonant that an entire generation of quality TV drama owes its existence in large part to the trails Lynch, Frost and company originally blazed. 

* The Prisoner - Talk about trail blazers. No one had envisioned what was possible on television before Patrick McGoohan turned the spy TV craze on its ear and imbued it with realpolitik ambiguity, dream logic and the indomitability of human will. The struggle of McGooghan’s unnamed Number Six to overcome his captors and regain his freedom reflected infinite facets over the course of the seventeen episodes of the series, culminating in a mind-bending two-parter that showed us everything and told us nothing. In addition to  being one of the first true masterpieces of television drama, The Prisoner also provided some of the most unforgettable visual moments in TV history, from Rover to the human chess board to the crazy teeter-totter control room and Number Two’s groovy eggshell chair. You can’t look away because every moment provides you with another bit of visual stimuli you’ll carry with you the rest of your life.

* Star Trek - For a series beloved by millions that has endured and evolved for half a century, I am baffled why I almost always feel the need to apologize for my love of Star Trek, or at least put an asterisk after it, like it somehow doesn’t quite belong in the pantheon of great TV series. Well, fuck it. Gene Roddenberry, flawed and human though he was, had a vision of a starship crew of the future that represented humanity at peace with itself and coming to peace with The Other in the form of alien races like the Vulcans, Andorians and other peoples that made up the United Federation of Planets. The actors on the series had a diverse set of motivations that drove their work, and the writers and directors that contributed to the mythos all had their own sometimes conflicting ideas that they wanted to inject into the proceedings. The fact is, Roddenberry created a big enough canvas that other artists could contribute without destroying the core idea at the heart of Star Trek. Almost everyone since Roddenberry who has worked on Star Trek has added something positive to the mix that allowed it to live and breathe long after its creator moved on from this level of existence. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu (and Chapel, and Rand, and Kyle, and…) will always be my favourites, and will always fire my imagination, but The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all earned their place in the mythos, too, and J.J. Abrams’ nascent revival of the franchise shows every sign of maintaining Roddenberry’s dream long enough for the next generation, and the one after that, to keep the flame alive for decades to come.

* The Shield - I have yet to meet anyone that convinced me I am wrong that we all carry a petty, venal little mean streak within us. It’s the will to overcome this base selfishness that allows us to, for the most part, get along and have a society of rules and civility. The Shield’s Vic Mackey, on the other hand, shows us what the very worst in us, if unrestrained, can drive us to do. I have a friend who saw Vic as an anti-hero rather than a true villain, and I was always baffled by the need he had to see Vic as basically good. No, Vic Mackey was an evil, puerile thug, out for himself and willing to sacrifice anyone else to get what he wanted. This was a series about a very bad man and the people who were unlucky enough to fall into his orbit. Those Vic Mackey didn’t utterly destroy were the lucky ones. Michael Chiklis’s portrayal of Mackey was fearless and unforgettable, because he made Mackey vulnerable, and sometimes even likable, but the glint in his eye always relefect the absolute, irredeemable blackness at the center of his soul. Mackey was the last man standing at the end of the series, but no sane human being could possibly have wanted to end up in that place.

* The Wire - If you haven’t ever watched The Wire, you’ve probably been advised to. The advice might have included the caveat that you have to watch the first four or five episodes to start to know the characters and get a  feel for the unique rhythm of the series. And that’s all true. One of the true, rare works of art created for television, The Wire immerses you in a world of crime, corruption, friendship and betrayal in a way no other series, possibly no other work in any artform ever has. The level of detail and the depth of insight into human behaviour is something anyone who enjoys good storytelling should experience. Plus, Omar. Fucking Omar, man.

* Firefly - I must confess I love just about everything Joss Whedon has had a hand in, so far. Buffy. Angel. Firefly. Dollhouse. Dr. Horrible. Avengers. Cabin in the Woods. There’s are common elements to all of them; wit and sarcasm as defense mechanism, the building of a family, the joining together to overcome that which is evil, wrong and bad.  Whedon has been extraordinarily lucky to have a group of incredibly gifted actors in each of his projects, and to have surrounded himself with brilliant and committed producers and directors. At the current moment in time, looking back over all Whedon has accomplished, I think the most perfect expression of his storytelling talent to date has been Firefly. Despite network interference, this series brought together great actors, substantive scripts and a bold and sardonic vision of humanity’s future to create a series so entertaining and so profound in its understanding of humanity that it is almost painful to contemplate. The series as a whole, capped off with the Serenity movie, give us a group of loners who find a common cause to struggle together and love each other, and if there’s a better message than that, or a more thrilling to way deliver it than Firefly, I sure as hell don’t know what it is.

* Seinfeld - Okay, the first few episodes were a little shaky on their feet, struggling to find the right note, the right relationships, the right rhythm. Once Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and their colleagues found that perfect harmony, they had the funniest TV series ever created, and they kept it that way for a good seven years. Sure, the show lasted nine, and outlived its own usefulness, but that’s fine. For what it gave us, we can forgive a couple off seasons, and even a devastatingly sour and unfunny series finale. For The Contest, The Chinese Restaurant, The Soup Nazi, and The Sponge, we can forgive even that.

* Fawlty Towers - The first foreign TV series I learned to love, thanks to PBS rerunning the series in the 1970s. The setup is laughably simple — frustrated, uptight Brit and his all-knowing and unflappable wife run a resort hotel populated by crazy people. Every episode is a gem, and I know it’s sacrilege but I hold this series in higher esteem than John Cleese’s other show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I always found Python hit or miss, but Fawlty Towers is consistently, gut-bustingly hilarious in every moment of every episode. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment.

* Mad Men - I’m wary of including this series because I’ve only been watching it since April. My wife was recovering from surgery and we ran through the entire series in a couple of weeks. The fifth season does seem to have stumbled a bit, for example in including Don Draper’s now absolutely unnecessary ex-wife Betty after the narrative clearly showed that her character had run its course. But I’m including the series because the heights it’s reached so far are high, indeed. Don Draper is a fascinating and flawed protagonist, and we never know if he’ll do the right thing or the wrong thing, and sometimes we don’t even know why he makes the choices he does. His relationships with the other characters, especially Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway, are brilliantly written and acted. Jared Harris’s run on the show was heartbreaking in its humanity and inevitability. I don’t know if I’ll still rave about Mad Men decades from now, like I do The Prisoner, Star Trek or Twin Peaks, but at the moment it seems to me Mad Men, at its very best, can be as good as those series were, and if the writing stays sharp, there’s no reason to think it won’t be remembered as a classic, and one of the best dramas ever on TV.

* The Sopranos - Definitely not a perfect series, The Sopranos made many missteps. Doctor Melfi should have been gone at some point, and we won’t even go into the Columbus Day episode. But as a weekly TV drama, The Sopranos was top-notch appointment television that always left you wanting more. The ensemble of actors gave it their all, and the fact that so many of us could relate to New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano despite having almost no reason to, is a tribute to the excellent writing and acting that were the hallmark of this series. 

* Band of Brothers - I’m not a fan of war stories as a rule. The kind that attract me don’t glorify combat, demonize “the enemy” or make saints of those fighting on our side. Wars are fought by the poor, the oppressed and the unlucky and waged at the behest of the rich, the privileged and the insane. But war stories like the type Harvey Kurtzman told in comics, or Garth Ennis sometimes tells in his comics today, those appeal to me. The ones that show the hopeless futility of war and the random destruction that it rains down, those types of stories speak a basic truth about war that resonates with me. Band of Brothers was an extraordinarily high-quality TV drama that gave us all that, with a visceral reality and no loyalty to anything other than showing what war does to the people asked, or forced, to fight. 

* Louie - Louis C.K. is probably the smartest and craftiest comedian working today, and his TV series Louie shows he is also an incredibly gifted and canny writer, director, producer and editor. His show is pretty much a one-man labour of love, and the heights of comedy and the depths of depravity it reaches make it an instant TV classic. Louis C.K. is the spokesman for our shared humanity, and our shared stupidity. He shows us so much about ourselves while making us laugh. Louie is a gift to each of us, doled out one episode at a time.

* Justice League Unlimited - All of the Dini/Timm animated DC Comics series were excellent: Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited all were high-quality storytelling vehicles that I was happy to share with my kids when they were growing up, and which they were delighted to watch with the old man. But the absolute peak of the creative factory that turned out all these series was the Unlimited incarnation of Justice League, which blended incredible animation, top-notch voice acting, sublime writing, and passionate directing and producing to create a weekly miracle on television. Never before and never since has there been an animated series so perfect in its creative balance and appeal to all ages. DC’s heroes never seemed so engaging and fun, their adventures never seemed so thrilling, as when they were parceled out weekly on Justice League Unlimited. Given the contempt DC has shown its characters, creators and readers over the past few years, I doubt these characters will ever again reach the heights they did on this series, a humble cartoon about a colourful group of superheroes. But I am thankful this series got produced, I am very happy to have the every episode on DVD, and I will cherish it as long as I live.

My Favourite Movies

Citizen Kane - As good a movie as you’ve been told, but you’ve probably been told so many times that it goes in one ear and out the other. Don’t let it. Watch this brilliant story of one man’s life, and see how many other lives his generosity, selfishness, kindness and cruelty affect. The story about seeing a girl on the ferry for just a moment and thinking of her for the rest of your life gets me every time, because that is a thing that happened to me once, while getting gas in Ticonderoga, NY. After you watch the DVD, watch it again with Roger Ebert’s commentary track running and realize you’ve just learned things it would have cost you thousands to learn in film school. (I wrote a bit more about Welles here.)

Dark City - Many of the movies on this list are here because I return to them again and again, because they tell me things about my life, about life in general, and because they just feel emotionally true. That is no truer of any movie on this list than this one. John Murdock’s desperate quest for the truth about his identity is fascinating to watch, the film is absolutely glorious to behold, and the scene where the cabbie tries to remember how to get to Shell Beach breaks my heart every time. I think we all have a Shell Beach inside us, if we could just remember how to get to it. Ebert’s commentary track on this one is also invaluable. 

Casablanca - Here’s a movie that just should not be as affecting and immersive as it is, given how it came together by committee. Well, sometimes committees get it right, I guess. There’s not one wrong note in the entire film, and watching it is an exercise in celebrating our shared humanity, and our love of a story well told.

Royal Tenenbaums - My family was every bit as fucked up as this one. I wish it had been half as much fun as this one is to watch. 

Star Trek - I love Star Trek so goddamned much it hurts, sometimes, so it’s a challenge to limit myself to one movie. But because this one has the most moving performance of Leonard Nimoy’s career, and because it gave me back Star Trek at a time when I really thought it was dead and gone, I choose J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reinvention. Can’t wait to see where it goes from here. (Here’s my review.)

Fargo - Like many of the films on this list, this one is gorgeous to look at and creates a universe I love returning to from time to time. Marge Gunderson is one of the great characters in film history, and every scene of the movie is another tick toward the inevitable conclusion of the disaster set into motion by the hapless William H. Macy character. Absolutely compelling stuff.

Pulp Fiction - Saw it twice in the theater the week it came out, and probably at least once a year since then. Love the mechanism of the plot, the way it all hangs together despite the many characters and many motivations. It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but it’s the most visceral demonstration of his talent, and a joy to watch from start to finish.

Synecdoche, New York - There’s so much in this crazy bugfuck film that feels emotionally true to me — the way people’s lives get away from each other, the way we die a little bit every day from the accumulation of mistakes and regret. It’s a wonder this ever got made, but I’m damn grateful it exists.

The Station Agent - A lot of stories in multiple media appeal to me because they are about the coming together of communities or families, real or substitute. The way the characters in this movie attract each other despite their desire to be alone is an amazing thing to watch, as are the performances of every actor on the screen. Peter Dinklage is profound and dark and funny and sad, and I’ll always love him for what he did with this role.

Neighbors - Few seem to remember or care about this John Belushi/Dan Ackroyd comedy, but I think it’s about the funniest fucking movie ever made. The Italian takeout sequence is one of my favourite things ever, the sheer audacity and hilarity of it.

Winter’s Bone - Hillbilly noir. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad and haven’t seen this, you’re doing yourself a disservice. One of the bleakest narratives ever caught on film, and like many of the films on my list, it has an inevitability to its structure that is almost unendurable. (Here’s my review.)

Glengarry Glen Ross - Perhaps because I’ve spent nearly 30 years working with radio salespeople, the characters in this movie really speak to me. I have worked with almost all of them. I love the dialogue, I love the look, and most of all I love Jack Lemmon, whose quiet desperation is something I think most of us who are a certain age and lacking wealth can relate to painfully well.

Ed Wood - Another film featuring the coming together of an unlikely family. Tim Burton’s least mannered and most engaging film, and Martin Landau and Johnny Depp’s very best film performances.

Donnie Darko - I don’t care if it makes sense, it feels right and true and agonizingly believable, the crazier it gets. Donnie’s alienation and otherness, the hope he feels when he meets the one girl who can bring him out of himself, and the sacrifice he has to make to give her the life she deserves in return for making him feel alive for the first time. (Parenthetically, the way ’80s pop music is used to set mood and reveal character in this movie is pretty awe-inspiring.)

Silence of the Lambs - One of the most suspenseful films ever made, and it earns it every step of the way. Clarice Starling takes us with her into the darkness, and the fact that we know that there are real life murderers as terrifying as the fictional ones in this movie ought to keep every one of us up at night. 

Goodfellas - Brilliantly constructed, with that ticking clock of inevitability once again, and above all the brilliant courage to make us want to know or even be Henry Hill, as loathsome as we see him being. The end result is that we come away from the movie understanding why someone would make the choices Henry makes, even as we understand why not one of them was a good one.

The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler

I am jealous of hell of author Duncan Crary. Might as well admit it right up front.

In my 25 years in radio, I interviewed Jim Kunstler maybe a dozen times, usually short chats to get a sound bite for a news story about local development issues in the Albany/Saratoga Springs/Glens Falls, New York area that I spent my entire radio career broadcasting in and around. A couple of times I did longer interviews with Kunstler, the author of a number of brilliant books about culture and cultural collapse, including the non-fiction landmarks The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, and a pair of hugely entertaining and thought-provoking novels, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. A year ago, I profiled his appearance at a local book fair. I admit it, I enjoy reading Kunstler’s writing, and I enjoy picking his brain every chance I get. But Crary is the visionary broadcaster who got the idea to sit down with him week-in and week-out for a wildly entertaining and informative podcast, The KunstlerCast

In Crary’s deceptively compact new book of the same name, you’ll find the ultimate primer to everything Kunstler, as the author has mined scores of the duo’s podcasts to create an indispensable document of James Howard Kunstler’s personal history, philosophy, observations and predictions.

Crary doesn’t put on kid gloves in their interviews, for example tackling head-on the popular perception that Kunstler was wrong about Y2K (he wasn’t; it could have been a global catastrophe, but because it was a comprehensible, solvable problem, the disaster was averted). There are even a few passages where the pair don’t seem quite simpatico on some issue or other, and Kunstler’s bristling fairly electrifies the page. He’s a crusty curmudgeon, as readers of his weekly Clusterfuck Nation blog no doubt are aware, but Kunstler’s sharp edges are greatly mitigated by the fact that he is a blunt, no-bullshit observer of our times and our culture, and the book nicely encapsulates just why I’ve held JHK in very high esteem over the past couple of decades.  

Readers new to Kunstler will come away with a much better picture of his place in our culture. He is frequently dismissed as a “doom-and-gloom naysayer,” but it’s impossible to come away from these discussions with Crary without understanding in full that Kunstler believes once we get past the long emergency we are now fully engaged in, we could come out of it on the other side with a better world, operating at a more human scale, with smarter priorities and strategies for living. In fact, we have no choice, if the human race is to continue. The Happy Motoring Era, as Kunstler calls the past century-plus of cheap energy and cheaper lifestyles, is now racing so quickly to its conclusion that we are all dizzy from the ride and no longer able to deny that we see where this is all going. There can be imagined no better map and guide than The KunstlerCast book. Stick one in your go-bag and take it on the road with you in your inevitable post-apocalyptic trek through the wasteland that was once America. Let it keep you company as you Occupy your hometown. Put it on the shelves with the rest of your intelligent, forward-looking and wickedly funny books. But whatever you do, buy it and read it. You’re lost without it.

Roger Ebert’s Life Itself: A Memoir

I’m a decade older than my wife, a diabetic of nearly 14 years with a family history of Alzheimer’s and two particularly nasty types of cancer. And yet, I’ve felt pretty well this year, while my wife has had Lyme disease and other medical problems necessitating multiple day surgeries and more trips to the hospital in less than a year than I want to make in my entire lifetime. As I finished the final chapter of Roger Ebert’s glorious new memoir Life Itself, I was informed by my son that his mother had decided while they were out delivering a gift to her mother for her birthday, that she felt unwell enough to stop in and see a doctor at our local health center. This morning, I would have told you that my wife was recovering nicely from her recent procedures. Now it’s afternoon and that is in question. This seems to be the year I am learning one of the same lessons Roger Ebert has learned, which is that your health is subject to change without notice.

My one-way relationship with Ebert goes back to the days when he and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel hosted a movie review program on PBS. I was probably in my mid-teens the first time I saw the two of them discuss (and frequently argue about) the movies of the day. Now, I know a lot about comic books and it seems like I always have, but I know little about film (although, as they say, I know what I like). It didn’t matter, though, because what I liked about Siskel and Ebert on my TV was not the movies they discussed, but how they discussed them. (The learned Ebert scholar will recognize that last sentence as a paraphrase of one of his frequent dictums, by the way.)

I always loved watching the two of them talk, battle, fight, engage. Whether on their own PBS series, or the syndicated commercial program that succeeded it, or the one after that, or on Late Night With David Letterman or on The Howard Stern Show, you could always, always count on Siskel and Ebert (back then it was really just one word) to make you laugh, and often to make you think.

But I’ll admit I was not always a faithful follower of Ebert’s actual day job, as a syndicated writer/critic whose pieces appeared daily, or nearly so, in newspapers around the country. I guess when he reviewed a movie I was interested in, I would read that sort of piece, but as I cruised kind of stupidly through my 20s and 30s, wasted decades I wish I could get back in many ways, I did not seek him out as a writer in the way I do now. And what changed that was the cancer that took away Ebert’s ability to ever eat, drink or speak out loud again.

I definitely noticed when Ebert first got sick and disappeared from the airwaves. I didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time, but I did notice that he seemed not to be reviewing anything on TV or in print, and by that time, the mid-2000s, I had come to count more and more on his opinion before venturing out for a night at the movies. In point of fact, there’s no one whose opinion I trust more when it comes to movie criticism. I was greatly receptive to Pauline Kael’s critical taste and authorial voice, but I only discovered it towards the very end of her life and had to work backwards to see what I had missed. But at the time Ebert disappeared from the scene, I really was quite accustomed to his company, his opinion, his presence in my life, however short the time we were spending together on a weekly basis.

If you’re at all interested in Ebert as a writer or human being, you already know the grueling details of the illnesses and accidents that took away his jaw and much of his mobility, so I won’t recount them here. Besides, he reveals all in Life Itself and I really feel quite strongly that you should read this book, so I’ll let him tell you what happened. The important thing is, what happened to him absolutely transformed him as a writer. No less an observer than Studs Terkel pointed out to Ebert that the way in which he turned to the internet and blogging to find a new voice to replace his lost one was a stunning and gratifying reversal of fortune. I can’t say I am glad Ebert suffered as he did, but I can say I am enormously grateful for the increased and enhanced output he has since issued forth as a writer. I know that every week I can count on one or more new Roger Ebert essays on life, family, politics, health, spirituality and many other subjects, popping up in my RSS feed reader and ready to nourish my soul with his intelligence, his wit, and a lifetime of collected wisdom.

Ebert wasn’t always wise, although I think he was always meant to be so. In Life Itself he is frank and open about his failures, many of which are connected to his alcoholism, which he overcame many years before life made it impossible for him to drink. Much of the pain in his life seems to stem from his mother’s own alcohol problems, and whatever grace and genius Ebert possesses now clearly comes despite, not because of, her treatment of him when she was at her worst. But he also concedes she could be a great woman, and in one brilliant passage explains in a universally relatable way how his mother could be one person around a group of people, and very different when tearing into him drunk, when they were alone. In this and other passages, Ebert clearly and lucidly explains the duality we all possess, and puts into words the bittersweet awareness of the good and bad in everyone, especially everyone dear to us.

There are many people dear to Ebert, some gone, some still with him, all memorialized and celebrated in Life Itself. The book is not just a recounting of his own life history – in fact, there is some jumping around in time and repeated anecdotes that reinforce his narrative and appeal like the chorus of a particularly hummable tune – but Ebert also delves into the stories and legends of many of the people he has known, from obscure, distant family members to noteworthy and notorious celebrities, fellow writers, and most poignantly to me, Ebert’s longtime partner Gene Siskel. The chapter on Siskel ends with what could be just a funny story about how the two of them would make sure they took turns sitting in the chair closest to David Letterman in their late night talk-show appearances, but in even this seemingly minor story, Ebert mines the experience for every bit of meaning and nuance. I didn’t break down in tears reading Life Itself, but I came close in reading that section. I love Roger Ebert as a critic, as a writer and as a human being, but Siskel and Ebert together were one of my first loves, and losing them as partners still hurts to this day. Perhaps that is why I am so profoundly grateful to still have Ebert’s voice to inform and regale me, and why I am quite certain you will love Life Itself as much as I did. Like the very best movies, I can tell you that I savoured every moment,  was sad when it ended, and was eager to tell others how wonderful it is, an obligation I learned from Roger Ebert. As Alec Baldwin once said in a movie I can never get enough of, “Go forth and do likewise.”

Buy Life Itself: A Memoir from A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.


I really wanted to like this new Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle, but barely made it to the end of the first episode. Spoilers ahead, in case you plan to give it a go.

Everything about this debut effort annoyed, from the splitscreen allowing SMG’s twin characters Bridget and Siobhan to interact, to the acting by almost every lead on the show. Gellar and Ioan “Mr. Fantastic” Gruffudd (here using what I presume is his real accent, at least) both felt like they were phoning it in to get the Pilot payday and hoping it doesn’t go to series and occupy the next seven years of their life. SMG really only seems believable as Bridget, an ex-stripper in witness protection, while twin sister Siobhan, ice-cold and two-dimensional, seems to be Emma Frost by way of Jackie O’s sunglasses. Only Nestor Carbonell, who you may remember as immortal eyeliner guy Richard from Lost, seemed committed to his character, enough so that he seemed familiar, and then near the end I went, “Oh, he’s that guy from Lost.” But at least I bought into his character’s existence and dedication to his job. The actor playing Henry, the guy sleeping with Siobhan, Mr. Fantastic’s wife, is so insubtantial as to barely be there. One is hardly convinced a wealthy woman, even one as eeeeevil as Siobhan, would compromise her marriage for such a vacuous twit. 

Watched this with my son, who was convinced that Siobhan was dead after the boat incident (featuring the lousiest bluescreen/splitscreen effects of the episode) that allows Bridget to assume Siobhan’s identity. I told him “You don’t hire SMG to play identical twins and kill one off for real in the first episode. Just like we’re going to see that gun go off, we’re going to see Bridget’s sister again.” Would have thought they’d saved it for a week or two, though, not for the profoundly cliche-ridden final scene of the pilot.

Ringer wants very much to be this season’s Dollhouse — stylish, chilly, with untapped depths of mystery and cool, and obviously descending from Buffy, not to mention the alt.rock girl-and-guitar music montage featuring a bizarre cover of Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4 — but it’s just Lifetime movie-of-the-week-level awful. 

ADD Reviews Star Trek #1

Click over to Trouble With Comics to read my review of the first issue of IDW’s new Star Trek comic book series, which takes place in the new Trek universe after the events of the 2009 movie.

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