Archive for January, 2012

This book is perhaps best described as a sparse, relatively short account of the situation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s obviously written by someone who was directly involved, as Mr. Kennedy is careful to explain that all heated debate and all actions were reasonable due to information at hand or which was lacking, natural human response, and so forth. He takes paints to be sure not to insult anyone or even remotely sound as if he is “pointing fingers.” Yet on the flip side, this book is often very vague and lacks detail about what happened during the meetings of the Ex Comm, probably because that information is either classified or so entirely full of dithering that it was less relevant than the outcome of each meeting. Many parts of the retelling also seem repetitious — yet the reader must recall that during those days of crisis, everything was hashed and rehashed endlessly and thus a lot of what was discussed was in fact repetitious to the point of being entirely maddening.

The account by Mr. Kennedy is, as previously stated, short. A large section of my copy is an afterword by another author; thereafter is a smaller yet still substantial “Documents” section. There is, furthermore, a foreword. Even so, Mr. Kennedy’s part is over before you hit triple-digit page numbers. I believe that this is a good thing as there isn’t much else for him to tell which is of lasting importance other than what he’d already written, however, a prospective reader should not go into the book anticipating that it is all Kennedy’s tale. The foreword and afterword are crucial in setting up the scene and thereafter discussing the impact thereof.

All in all, this was a quick, interesting read. The thing that I took away from it most strongly was the emphasis during the crisis on America’s moral obligations to the world, particularly in light of subsequent administrations’ decisions as regards the international political scene. During the crisis, JFK and others were very highly concerned about the example the US would set in its course of action, and how a secret invasion of Cuba to destroy the missiles would be the US “picking on” a smaller country, using brute force when diplomacy should have been the first course of action. At one point, some of the pro-invasion members of the Ex Comm had actually proposed to either a) send a letter to Khrushchev advising him that the US would invade in 24 hours or b) drop pamphlets over Cuba advising what sites would be bombed so that civilians could evacuate.  These ideas, as history shows, were vetoed along with the whole notion of invasion, although there were a few “close calls” when it might have very well come about.

The interesting thing about the crisis is that JFK was so adamant about preventing the US and USSR’s slipping into war to “save face” or due to rashness, etc; was so adamant about preserving life of the people of all countries involved (and not involved); was so adamant about upholding the moral standard of the US that he very nearly faced impeachment over it. The timing of the Cuban Missile Crisis was also during the campaign season, yet that also did not cause him to alter his position.

Of course, this book is written by the former President’s brother and thus is of course biased to a certain degree. However, other reports by various members of his administration — and also his ultimate decisions to most frequently ignore the recommendations of his Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Ex Comm — back up this claim.

When I consider JFK’s strong stance and juxtapose that with what we have seen in the last ten or fifteen years in Washington, I can only shake my head and sigh. I think that Kyle put it very succinctly when he stated to me today that “we have become a nation of parties not politicians.”

On another note, reading this has made me want to read more about Oppenheimer.

You may recall my review of Watch Out for Fireballs!, a retro video game podcast. Both of the hosts also run other shows. Gary Butterfield’s is called Dead Idea Valhalla. It is a variety podcast which most commonly features a monologue by Gary covering whatever topic interests him at that time, music that he has written/recorded, as well as a variety of skits performed between himself and a character he either adapted from an external source or created independently. I’ll cover each segment separately before discussing my overall impressions of the podcast.

First, the rants. They’re interesting and thought out. The topics Gary selects to talk about are varied and often pertain to whatever is happening in his life at the time, but he doesn’t just switch on the mic and speak off the top of his head (or if he does, it doesn’t show). Anything from GLBT rights, gender equality, vignettes of his life, and quirks of bus travel and universities and where he lives are fodder for his podcast. These segments are the parts where you learn the most about Gary as an individual. As I am always interested in other people (characters in fiction, likewise, are what will make or break a story for me), this is perhaps my favorite segment. I’d liked the rants so much that I’d actually e-mailed Gary with some of my responses while listening to the podcast, typing the message as I listened. He was grateful for the reply, although I’m a bit too wordy to respond to I think. 😉 I have listened to all of the episodes, and thereafter began listening to some of them with my boyfriend Kyle as well. Each time we sit down together with Dead Idea Valhalla, the rant segment is cause for a direct discussion between me and Kyle of the same subject Gary talks about. Whether you agree or disagree with Gary’s viewpoint, his presentation of the subject at hand includes a thoughtful argument for his case.

Second, the music. This is the part of the podcast that I feel is Gary’s biggest interest, as he has been in a variety of bands and has written/performed music for years (much as I’ve written stories and drawn for years). This is his biggest creative outlet, but because music is subject to each person’s individual tastes I feel like listeners may have a variety of responses to it. Simply put, Gary’s style is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Kyle for example listens to a great deal of metal; I listen to a lot of J-rock and bellydance music. This does not mean that we don’t appreciate the songs Gary composes as we both do listen to a variety of genres, but my point is that not everyone listens to a range of styles, and not everyone listens to the sort of music that Gary produces. My personal favorites were the rap songs he did long ago with a friend under the monniker HWP (Honkies With Privileges), a lot of the music from his prior band The Metroids, instrumentals (I love instrumentals! :D), and random songs from the skits such as the music of The Bindle Suite. The songs related to skits are often rather distinct from one another and therefore remain very memorable. All of his music is also quite catchy, so it’s frequent that I find myself randomly recalling a lyric or humming a tune. There are a few episodes devoted to the songs Gary has recorded, but by and large this is the smallest segment of the show, usually only evidenced as a single song placed between the rant and the skit.

Third, the skits. The characters are recurring and will pop up again every few episodes. The stories range across the spectrum, from a new imagined ending for Brokeback Mountain to radio advertisements from a fictional town where Gary places a lot of the skits. Although I haven’t asked him, I believe that Kyle’s favorite part are these skits as he quotes lines from them incessantly and refers back to them often. He loves, for example, the stories of The Saga of the Dungeon Mister and The Behaunter of the Lobby Station. He’s asked to listen to these multiple times in a row, in fact. I must admit that these are often hilarious and full of references back to prior episodes of the podcasts, the rants, and also to whatever subject matter prompted the creation of the skit in the first place (D&D in the case of Dungeon Mister and Victorian novels in the case of Behaunter). They have the feel of a modern version of the radio adventure shows back in the era before TV was invented, and are very creative. This segment is, in my opinion, the most likely to be successful as the subject matter for a future podcast, whenever Gary decides to make another one (see below).

In short, I love this podcast. I quote it, I refer back to it, I think about it more than any other podcast I’ve listened to and/or reviewed here. Sadly however, it has suffered from a lack of listenership and so Gary has struggled with what he calls “The Void,” that is, a lack of feedback. This is a monster that plagues all creative people, myself included, and so I strongly sympathize with the sentiment and the war against it. It leaves a creative individual with the horrible sensation of, “why am I doing this anyway? No one seems to care.” As a result of this feeling, which has been magnified by a series of personal issues he’s been wrestling with in the past few months, Gary has decided to finish out the show and has posted the first half of the final episode as of the date of this review. He’d stated that he will likely create something new after his life has settled back down again, and after he’s dealt with the dilemmas which challenge him presently. Kyle and I both look forward to that time, and both wish him well.

I strongly recommend downloading and tuning in to Dead Idea Valhalla, either directly from Gary’s website or from iTunes. Should you do so, please take a moment to rate it on iTunes, friend it on Facebook, or just shoot Gary a message to let him know what you think of the show.

The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E. Howard is a wonderful collection of classic fantasy stories. By and large they were serialized in a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, which is why they are arranged in an episodic fashion. Originally written in the 1930’s, the Conan stories have fascinated readers ever since. Howard is lauded as the “grandfather of the sword and sorcery genre.”

The world of Conan is richly embellished, based on the actual history and speculative prehistory of reality. Even the names of the various peoples and places in the tales are often derived from antiquity. Howard was highly interested in the past, and that line of study served to lend authority to his writing. Even now, the free-to-play MMO Age of Conan is based in Howard’s world; Red Sonja – whom was based upon a character created by Howard – is also popular in comics and saw her own movie produced in the 80s. But what exactly makes Conan so interesting?

Conan is based rather directly upon Howard himself. Howard was a large man who took up bodybuilding in order to be strong enough to take down anyone who might try to bully him. He had blue eyes just as his main character, and his demeanor and bearing were often likened to Conan’s. Conan in that way is an alter ego for Howard, who admitted that the character more or less “wrote himself” unlike other protagonists he’d envisioned. This is by far the point which made Conan so strong and likable: he was real. His stories and situations were invented, but he was none other than the author himself.

Conan’s character is that of a wild white barbarian from a rugged land. Despite his lack of understanding for the pomp and procedure of civilized society, Conan is not without his own moral code. He protects women, and though he lusts after pretty much every female in every story, he never forces himself on one (most of the time they fall over themselves, madly in love with him). He is “moody” but also as quick to laugh as to draw his sword. He is easygoing but alert, and full of wry humor. He does not fear death. He does as he pleases, and assumes new roles simply because he had never assumed them before – so why not? Throughout the course of Chronicles, he is a mercenary, a freedom fighter, a pirate, a thief, a king. Though he was not raised among society, he is intelligent, eloquent, and knowledgeable about various customs, languages, and histories. He is in short a little bit of everything, and seems to accept and absorb every new situation or bit of information like a dry sponge.

His stories were written in no particular order, so the chronology is a bit jumbled. Certain characters are recurring and will pop up occasionally for a repeat performance, however, so paying attention to names and places as you read will yield surprising results. The stories are at times somewhat redundant, as certain scenarios are repeated for multiple stories (inserting new names and with a few small tweaks to the plot, but otherwise identical), and after a certain point a reader will come to understand how the story will end (Conan getting the girl and becoming victorious, with either new loot or new prospects for what he will do next) much as a reader of Sherlock Holmes knows that Holmes will always clear up the mystery succinctly by the end of the story.

Certain aspects are products of Howard’s upbringing in a rural Texas town in the early part of the 20th century. In his stories, for example, dark-skinned races such as the Picts are considered savages and Conan would save even a treacherous white person from them due to a loyalty to his skin color. Although Conan does not exhibit particular prejudice towards black people (other than saying that he doesn’t care for black women), the stories almost always pit him against some dark-skinned race of crazies. Back when Howard was alive and writing, however, that sort of mindset was popular in the South. His contemporaries such as H.P. Lovecraft (who was also featured in Weird Tales) also expressed this same sort of opinion in his own writing. It doesn’t lessen the quality of the work itself, but it does speak volumes about the man behind the writing and the world he lived in.

Another “dated” aspect is the portrayal of women. All of the women were shapely, with huge breasts and curvy hips; they were almost always either naked or half-naked, or at some point during the story their clothing would be torn off. They often were portrayed kneeling before Conan, clinging to his shins, which is now a trope of the sword and sorcery genre’s art. They cried, they begged, they fantasized about being Conan’s woman. Howard wrote the women as having inborn instincts driving them towards supplication to Conan. Although a few would at times manage to be useful and either help free Conan from imprisonment or guide him through some maze or challenge, they all invariably were useless and needed to be rescued.

There were only a couple strong female protagonists that I can recall from the stories, and only one who lives through her part in Conan’s world: Valeria. However, Howard made her into a lesbian. Only a few hints of lesbianism made it to the final, published version of her story, but his intention was clearly stated in a letter to Weird Tales prior to its publication. Even Valeria found herself impotent for a good half of the story, falling at the feet of Conan and depending on him to save her. An ironic note is that in the 80’s movies, Valeria is the name of Conan’s one true love, who dies during the first movie and is pined for in the second.

Combining these two attitudes together, let’s talk about black women in Conan stories. Well, there’s not much to talk about. They don’t really show up to any great degree. Conan fights against the evil black men, and that’s about it. There are black women, but to my recollection they are mostly unnamed and are only appear for cameos, often juxtaposed with the a white woman of some variation or another. It gets tedious to read the keyword “white” as respects the females in the stories – that’s how you know Conan will get some action (except that one time with Valeria, although Conan saves her just the same).

Being pulp fiction, the tales of Conan the Cimmerian are full of gore and violence. There is a lot of blood, a lot of political intrigue, and a lot of nudity. The audience for these stories has always been white males, so these sorts of aspects are to expected. Yet despite the pulpy nature of the writing, Howard’s style is richly detailed and full of wonderful descriptive and memorable passages. The work is, all in all, a delight to read, though not of course everyone’s cup of tea. I was raised on action movies (including the old Conan flicks), so this book was well worth the time to read.