Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review: Colonel Stierlitz by Robin Wyatt Dunn


I needed to take a break after a few pages of Robin Wyatt Dunn's "Colonel Stierlitz" ... not due to any fault in the book itself, but to bring myself up-to-speed on the book's protagonist, the literary/television/film tradition from which Dunn drew the protagonist, and the original creator of that tradition.

I recommend those who want to read Dunn's novella do the same ... and I certainly DO recommend reading "Colonel Stierlitz."

Imagine a vodka-fueled, stream-of-SUB-consciousness journey through the heart and mind of a Soviet agent ... a journey that takes him around the planet (and even off the planet) ... as a man or as a horse, by himself or with an incredible array of companions, pursuing missions and activities that stretch credibility while fending-off antagonists that include Swedish agents, a reanimated Stalin, and Yulian Semyonov (that "original creator" I mentioned in my first paragraph).

Think of a cocaine-fueled Sherlock Holmes dating Irene Adler as he deals with Moriarty and Doyle, or a martini-fueled James Bond dating Miss Moneypenney as he deals with Blofeld and Fleming, and you have some idea of what to expect in "Colonel Stierlitz."

The novella is not for everyone ... if you wish an easy read, with a conclusion that ties-up all the ends nicely, I cannot recommend it. But if you would like to stretch yourself some, I VERY MUCH recommend it.

And really, 'stretching' can be a good thing for readers. I did it fifty years ago when I tackled Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49," and it was good for me. And while I do NOT place Dunn's work on the same level as Pynchon's, I certainly DO recommend "Colonel Stierlitz" to you as a stretching exercise, a glimpse into a bygone Russian literary tradition, and (most of all) a good read.
__________

NOTE: I received a free e-copy of this work through LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The REAL “West Texas Investors Club”


Up until now, I’ve resisted the temptation to comment on “reality television” ... but now that genre has hit a little too close to home – quite literally – for me, and I find myself compelled to rear-up on my hind legs, step-up to the keyboard, and put in ‘my two cents.’

That ‘hit’ comes from West Texas Investors Club, which recently began its second season on CNBC (part of the Universal media family). The show’s website describes it as a series that takes place "deep in the heart of Texas, where self-made multimillionaires Rooster McConaughey and Butch Gilliam carved their fortunes from a harsh and unforgiving land. For the past several years, they’ve chosen to pass on that success by investing in promising entrepreneurs – but only on their turf and their terms." To me, it comes across as something of a mix of different ingredients ... a pinch of “Shark Tank” sprinkled lightly over huge portions of “Black Gold” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Now don’t get me wrong ... I realize that one doesn’t watch reality television for the reality, but for the fun of somebody’s spin on what reality would be like if they were the master of the universe, capable of dramatic changes to the time/space continuum ... and that’s fine. I hardly watch it at all, except for a couple of cooking competition shows ... but I realize that it is a hugely-popular genre.

I watched the first three episodes of the first season of “West Texas Investors Club” ... but I probably won’t watch any more. I’m not questioning the sincerity of the show’s hosts, or their generosity in contributing a portion of their good fortune to business start-ups. What annoys me the most is in the production of the show itself, the context in which the show is presented, and how much of West Texas has been cut out of that context ... including what I would call the REAL West Texas Investors Club.

After a brief introduction by the show’s hosts, the episodes I watched would begin with the contestants’ arrival at Midland Airpark, a small airport devoted to private air traffic on the north side of Midland, a city of about 150,000-or-so in western Texas, in the heart of what we call ‘the oil patch.’ For private air traffic, Midland Airpark is a more convenient alternative to Midland International Air/Spaceport, ten miles to the west, which is devoted to commercial and military traffic, as well as additional private traffic.

This is where the context-cutting begins ... the contestants’ arrival at the airport is shot from a variety of angles and ranges that exclude any views of the south, where you would see a collection of high-rises in downtown Midland ... the business/government/social district that gave Midland its nickname, “the Tall City.” Those high-rises also provide reminders that investors have been busy in West Texas for the better part of a century, investing many millions in a variety of business start-ups ... and not just in the energy industry, either.

Not all of the REAL West Texas Investors – the ones who have been cut out of the reality television show’s context - contribute their good fortune to businesses ... they have a HUGE impact on the community at-large, in a variety of ways.

For example, once the show’s contestants have arrived at the airport, they are transported to the West Texas Investors Club in an old pickup truck with a good ol’ boy behind the wheel ... an opportunity for some in-the-cab exchange between the contestant and the driver, and a chance to get some insight into the contestant. During that portion of the episode, I’m watching the scenery going by in the cab’s windows.

More than once I have see brief snippets of the Midland College campus whiz-by ...

“MC” is a genuine testimonial to what the REAL West Texas Investors have contributed, but there’s no place for that in the show’s context. And that’s a shame ... not because I work there, but because it’s hard for me to accurately convey the full impact the REAL investors have made to their community over the decades, through their contributions to that college. There is the funding of buildings and programs, and the technology needed for those programs, both academic and vocational/technical. And then there’s the scholarships. Students that successfully graduates from a high school – public or private – in our county can apply for free tuition to this two-year, community college ... provided they have the grades, and commit to forty hours of service to a long and diverse list of approved non-profit organizations in the community ... all thanks to the generosity of the REAL West Texas Investors Club.

That same generosity can be seen in contributions to the building and capital improvement funds for those same non-profits, in monetary and in-kind donations to schools and churches, and in support for local museums, lecture series, entertainment venues and annual festivals that bring a broader range of culture to our admittedly-remote part of the country.

We interrupt this program for the following rant ... the first contestant on the first show was a young man who had developed a phone app for ordering drinks in busy bar situations ... I thought this was a GREAT idea for a place like Midland, Texas, where the labor market at that time was such that restaurants and bars were seriously understaffed. But why take it to Corky’s, in nearby Odessa, for testing? I’m as big a fan of Corky’s and its atmosphere as the next guy ... but I couldn’t help but think there were so many places around here where that app could have REALLY shown its advantages. But again, many of those places would not have fit the context created by the show’s producers ... okay, end of rant.

I wish the hosts of the television show nothing but luck in their new venture ... may the ratings gods continue to be more-than generous to you! But it wouldn’t hurt to zoom-out a little bit with your camera, and give viewers a more accurate context for where you are and what you’re doing ... and how you're not so much reviving a tradition, as you are contributing to an ongoing tradition that has lost no steam over the past century.

For everyone else, I hope that you’ll have a chance to come and visit us here in Midland, Texas, sometime. It’s a good town, and the gateway to some of the greatest country in the Lone Star State ... the Big Bend, the Davis Mountains, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico. It’s a good place to visit, and a good place to live, whether you’re an old-timer or somebody looking for a fresh start ... thanks, in great part, to the REAL West Texas Investors Club.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review ... The House of Fox by S.J. Smith


As I sit down to review S.J. Smith's "The House of Fox," I have in mind a line one hears in televised cooking competitions, where the judge has sampled a contestant's offering and says something to the effect of 'I admire your conception, but your execution left a lot to be desired.'

That's exactly how I feel after finishing "The House of Fox." Not a bad premise, to begin with - four friends lost in an otherwordly realm, their exploration of that realm and discovery of its true nature, and each finding their own means of acceptance or escape. Plenty of opportunity for developing the premise through humor and action (including prurient) ... but all is lost in Smith's devotion to excessively (and unnecessarily) detailed descriptions of said prurient action.

By the time I reached the final page and the story's conclusion, my response was 'meh.' I had long since stopped caring about the story or its characters.

And I DID reach the end, by the way. If it were up to me, I'd have stopped after a chapter or two. But under the terms of my accepting this book, I was obliged to read-and-review it.

I have done that ... and I am done with the book ... and probably done with anything else by S.J. Smith that may come my way in the future.



NOTE: I received a free copy of this work through LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

Friday, June 10, 2016

I am PCUSA ... and PRO-Fossil Fuel ... another reason why


In the Presbyterian Church USA's debate over divestment of church funds from fossil fuel producers, there are some considerations that are not being presented, especially when it comes to oil and natural gas. Here is one I would like to present. Those who are demanding that we "Keep It in the Ground" may not realize ... it's NOT just oil we'd be keeping in the ground .

While it's true that a large majority of oil and natural gas is devoted to fuel for transportation and energy. There are a LOT of what we call petroleum by-products ... materials derived from crude oil (petroleum) as it is processed in oil refineries. Here is a partial list (compiled by Edmond, Oklahoma-based Ranken Energy) of an estimated 6,000 products made, in one way or another, from petroleum by-products ...

This is NOT to say that we continue to burn as much oil as we possibly can. Here is where a comprehensive energy package - one that includes oil and natural gas - comes into play. The power needed in factories to manufacture the products listed above could come from a wide variety of alternative energy sources whose availability has grown dramatically in recently years.

Another item I would like to submit for your consideration ... use of these petroleum by-products could actually help reduce your carbon footprint in some ways. Take local transportation for example ... think about getting around town with some petroleum by-products - bicycles and bicycle helmets, backpacks and athletic shoes - instead of automobiles.

This is one more reason why I am asking Presbyterian Church USA to consider redirecting their investment into responsible fossil fuels producers ... they are producing things we need and use each-and-every day.

Thank you for your consideration.




NOTE: As the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA meets in Portland this month and considers demands for an immediate and total, blanket divestment of the denomination’s investment funds from “fossil fuel producers,” I have to ask ... is blanket divestment the answer? Shouldn’t we, instead, consider reinvestment of those funds into responsible – even moral – fossil fuel producers?

Let me give you some idea of my background - the context in which I am composing these posts. It’s important to the consideration – if any! – that you will give to what follows ...

For the past 32 years, I have lived and worked in and around the city of Midland, in the western region of Texas ... smack-dab in the middle of what they call ‘the oil patch.’ There is some cattle and some cotton in the foundation of this community, but most of Midland today is built upon the energy industry, and the production of oil and natural gas plays a major -even predominant role - in our local economy.

I do not work directly for the energy industry ... though I have been happily married those same 32 years to someone who is. As for me, I first worked in in this part of Texas as a contract archaeologist ... but my vocation has changed more than once with the ups and downs – especially the downs! – in the energy industry over the past three decades. So I have also worked as a television writer/producer, a newspaper reporter/editor, a website/social media manager, and for the past eight years in the public information and media office of a community college.

This has given me a tremendous opportunity to observe the industry ‘up-close and personal,’ as we used to say in the news business. I suggest that I might have more insight than some others into the industry, its people, its technology and practices, and the changes in said technology and practices. I have seen, reported-on and learned from – to borrow a phrase from a movie title – the good, the bad and the ugly of fossil fuel production ... and the beautiful, as well.

Let me qualify that last paragraph, though ... my experience observing fossil fuel producers has been exclusively with oil and natural gas. I have no such current experience with the coal industry, and I am not qualified to comment upon changes that may have taken place in their technology and practices. When it comes to coal, all I have to go on are the 50-year-old memories I have of that industry – actually, the remnants of that industry – in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area of northeastern Pennsylvania ... observations which helped set my course down the environmentalism path as a teenager way-back-when.

Anyway, that is where I come from. Where I am going, in the days ahead, is to develop my pro-fossil fuel thesis, and to suggest options for a position within the Presbyterian Church USA that still promotes protection and restoration of God’s creation, yet encourages responsible – even moral – energy production that includes fossil fuels. Thank you for your time in reading the above. I welcome any comments you wish to make in the space below ... regardless of your stance on fossil fuel production. It is my hope that this will be the start of a discussion among those who ultimately share a common goal, a common destination ... though for now, we may be reaching it by different paths.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Review ... Wild Card Run by Sara Stamey

It's been more than 75 years, now, since Harry Bates' short story "Farewell to the Master" closed with the realization of who (or what) truly is 'the master' ... bringing that story to a satisfying (or unsettling, or both, take your pick) conclusion, and setting readers off on a new path for thoughtful speculation.

Speculation over our control of technology - or its control of us - has fueled many contributions to the genre of science fiction over the years, and Sara Stamey's "Wild Card Run" is a good addition to that tradition.

It also serves as a good piece of detective fiction, as Ruth Kurtis is dispatched to the planet of Poindros by a cyberserf. It is NOT a trip Kurtis wants to make, leaving the many satisfactions of her current position at Casino, to return to the physically and emotionally stifling homeworld she fled years before. But she is left with no choice by the serf who seems to have found a way around cybernetic benevolence directives.

Once in the field, Kurtis has plenty of experiences that reinforce her original reluctance to return. But at the same time, she begins to make observations that draw her interest, and may perhaps tie-in to the unspecified problem she has been sent to investigate.

There is Kurtis' self-interest as well ... even as she pursues the mission of the CI back on Casino, she also finds herself being drawn into the mission of a Poindros-based movement, which may hold even less appeal for her than the dispatch that sent her to Poindros to begin with.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, the reader's interest is raised as well, with more than enough speculation over whether characters and events are truly what they appear to be. It carried me easily to the end of Samey's story, and has me looking forward to future installments of the promised "Cybers Wild Card" series.



NOTE: I received a free copy of this work through LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

Monday, August 24, 2015

PCUSA ... and PRO-Fossil Fuel ... Part 1

Consider how Christians might respond to a call for a blanket divestment from Christianity, inspired by a variety of things that have taken place in the past, or are taking place right now ... things that had (or have) nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ and the kingdom He proclaimed, yet were done (or are being done) in His name, and in pursuit of a very worldly and wrongful pursuit of His kingdom.

How might Christians respond to such a call?

Me? My response is that a blanket divestment from Christianity is NOT the answer ... and would suggest, rather, a reinvestment. That process would begin with a thoughtful and considered look at Christ’s message, and how that message – and Christ’s love – is being lived and shared by others. Based upon that search, and upon what that search revealed about other Christian gatherings, I would reinvest my heart and my mind, my body and soul into where those others are gathered, and join them in their mission.

This is what comes to mind when I read about those within the Presbyterian Church USA who demand an immediate and total, blanket divestment of the denomination’s investment funds from “fossil fuel producers.” I have to ask ... is blanket divestment the answer? Shouldn’t we, instead, consider reinvestment of those funds into responsible – even moral – fossil fuel producers?

Before I go any further, let me give you some idea of the context in which I am composing this post. It’s important to the consideration – if any! – that you will give to what follows ...

For the past 31 years, I have lived and worked in and around the city of Midland, in the western region of Texas ... smack-dab in the middle of what they call ‘the oil patch.’ There is some cattle and some cotton in the foundation of this community, but most of Midland today is built upon the energy industry, and the production of oil and natural gas plays a major, even predominant role in our local economy.

I do not work directly for the energy industry ... though I have been happily married those same 31 years to someone who is. As for me, I first worked in in this part of Texas as a contract archaeologist ... but my vocation has changed more than once with the ups and downs – especially the downs! – in the energy industry over the past three decades. So I have also worked as a television writer/producer, a newspaper reporter/editor, a website/social media manager, and for the past seven years in the public information and media office of a community college.

This has given me a tremendous opportunity to observe the industry ‘up-close and personal,’ as we used to say in the news business. I suggest that I might have more insight than some others into the industry, its people, its technology and practices, and the changes in said technology and practices. I have seen, reported-on and learned from – to borrow a phrase from a movie title – the good, the bad and the ugly of fossil fuel production ... and the beautiful, as well.

Let me qualify that last paragraph, though ... my experience observing fossil fuel producers has been exclusively with oil and natural gas. I have no such experience with the coal industry, and I am not qualified to comment upon changes that may have taken place in their technology and practices. When it comes to coal, all I have to go on are the 50-year-old memories I have of that industry – actually, the remnants of that industry – in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area of northeastern Pennsylvania ... which helped set my course down the environmentalism path as a teenager way-back-when.

Anyway, that is where I come from. Where I am going, in the weeks ahead, is to develop my pro-fossil fuel thesis, and to suggest options for a position within the Presbyterian Church USA that still promotes protection and restoration of God’s creation, yet encourages responsible – even moral – energy production that includes fossil fuels. Beyond that, I am hoping that those options might make their way into a ‘fossil fuels reinvestment’ overture that would be submitted to the next PCUSA General Assembly for their consideration/approval.

Thank you for your time in reading the above. I welcome any comments you wish to make in the space below ... regardless of your stance on fossil fuel production. It is my hope that this will be the start of a discussion among those who ultimately share a common goal, a common destination ... though for now, we may be reaching it by different paths.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Day's first light

... breaks over the horizon and shines on the Midland College campus just as I am arriving for work.

"For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature's finest balm."

Edwin Way Teale

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Added to my bookshelf ... "The Purple Heart Detective Agency"

Chapter 1 of "The Purple Heart Detective Agency" opens with many of the trademarks of a classic Dashiell Hammett whodunit ... it's a sun-drenched day on the streets of L.A., and hard-boiled detective Clayton Grace is sitting across the desk from a beautiful dame who is offering him what appears to be a simple and straightforward 'missing person' case.

Fans of detective fiction will know, of course, that there's bound to be much more to the case ... you know there will be a colorful and entertaining array of supporting characters popping-up in the chapters that follow ... and there will be speculation that the dame may be offering Grace more than a retainer at some point.

It isn't long, though, before author Rock Neelly begins following his own path, and taking us along for a journey that will have more than its share of surprising twists and unexpected turns. In fact, he first sets foot on that path BEFORE the start of Chapter 1 ... whatever else you may skip in your reading, do NOT pass over the prologue.

It will go a long way to understanding Grace and his partner, Roddy O'Mallery. A pair of Iraq War veterans, wounded in body and spirit, they have lost so much in the course of their service ... but they have also gained much of what they will need to see an increasingly-complex, increasingly-dangerous case to the end

I say 'complex' ... perhaps 'bizarre' might be more appropriate at times. More than once, I was reminded of the fiction of Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte as our protagonists must deal with the something that may be more than charade or showmanship, but may actually be supernatural.

If I have a complaint, it may be that there is too much of a good thing ... to many plot lines, too many characters, too many back stories and flashbacks to the war, too much time taken to get to the story's conclusion.

My recommendation? Read every page, start to finish ... go ahead and speculate about what awaits you down that path, before you arrive at the denouement ... and enjoy the journey whether you're right or wrong about the final destination.
____________________

NOTE: I received a copy of this work through LibraryThing
in exchange for a review.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A precious moment at 1st Prez


A big day at 1st Presbyterian Church of Midland, Texas a couple weeks back ... THE day, really ... not just for Christians, but for all people ... Easter Day, Resurrection Sunday, Empty Tomb Day, whatever.

It was also a day of added significance for me, in a small personal way ... it's the one time I have the courage to go up front and sing in public. As I have noted before, little remains of the fine tenor voice I carried into high school. If maturity had replaced it with an equally fine baritone, I wouldn't have minded so much ... but, alas, such was not the case. I still sing in public, but only that one time each year, and in the particular circumstances we have at 1st Prez that day ... when I am surrounded by a large choir, accompanied by chamber orchestra and organ, and singing for a packed house of people feeling more than the usual level of Christian charity and forgiveness.

On that day, a notice in the church bulletin announces that, "Those who have sung the 'Hallelujah Chorus' and would like to join with the choir in this great anthem, please come to the chancel during the singing of the closing hymn" ... so I do.

I do the best I can with the voice I have ... or maybe it's not the voice I usually have. I remember a quote by Edward Hoagland that I have shared before, about positive expressions of mob behavior ... "It manifests itself, for instance, in the extraordinary quality that singing by a congregation acquires," he once wrote. "The humdrum and unlovely voices gradually merge into a sweet, uniquely pristine note, a note angelic-sounding, hardly believable. Looking about, one can't see who in particular might have such a voice. Everybody in the pew has an expression as if he were about to sneeze, and squawks just a little. It is a note created only when hundreds sing ... it needs them all. No single person is responsible, any more than any individual in a mob lends that its bestiality."
 

Maybe that's why I am no longer mindful of my voice, or that lump in my throat - not the result of stage fright but, rather of exhilaration. What can I say? For me, it is a tear-maker as I near the end, "King of Kings, and Lord of Lords ..." It is a wonderful moment. It IS "a great anthem." And even as I mangle this note or that, I didn't care ... I am part of making a genuinely joyful noise, nonetheless.

Easter comes just a week or so before the anniversary of the that night in 1742, in Dublin, Ireland, when George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" oratorio premiered. It's presentation has grown over the centuries, particularly in the expansion of the musical accompaniment. It's reputation and popularity has grown, as well, especially the Hallelujah Chorus. At the moment, historians say that England's King George II probably did not stand during the performance of the chorus ... but the tradition of standing continues to this day, and was observed by all in the pews at 1st Prez-Midland on Easter Sunday, followed by a long and enthusiastic ovation ...


YES, that's right, Presbyterians were clapping and cheering in church!!! For one precious and all-too-brief moment, we were of one voice, one mind and one spirit.

And that made the moment all-the-more precious to me. You see, 1st Presbyterian Church of Midland, Texas is not so much a building or an organization as it is a family ... and like all families, there are times of sharing and times of bickering, times of accord and times of discord. Lately, the discord has become more pronounced. We are part of the Presbyterian Church USA denomination. Actions by that denomination's General Assembly have been in the news over the last several months, as have the reactions of the denomination's individual congregations. Those reactions run the full range from enthusiastic acceptance to outraged rejection, and everything in between.

Right now, we're somewhere in between. Several weeks back, our congregation voted to enter into the 'discernment process' with Tres Rios Presbytery (our regional council of PCUSA congregations in western Texas). For now, a team from our congregation will discuss agreements and disagreements, problems and solutions with a team from the Presbytery. When all is said and done, we could be facing another vote by our congregation, deciding upon reconciliation, disaffiliation or something in between. While they discuss these matters at the official level, we in the congregation discuss them among ourselves at the unofficial level ... how we feel, what path we might take, the consequences of taking one path or another, and the issues that - through the thoughts and actions of others - have brought us to this point.

Please keep our church family in your thoughts and your prayers ... that as we consider and discuss, debate and - yes - argue, we will keep in mind that we are brothers and sisters and that, for our occasional bickering, within us all are shared memories of precious moments in which we have stood up as one, sung as one, and offered praise - to God and one another - as one.

Alleluia, amen.





Saturday, April 04, 2015

... the day before The Day ...

Big day, tomorrow ... and not just for all Christians, but for all peoples ... that's what I believe.

"We are the Easter people," Pastor Jim Miles of First Prez-Fort Stockton would remind us, and not just in the days leading up to Easter, but throughout the year. And that is what we affirm tomorrow, the day for which we have been preparing over the past six weeks, the day for which we live - or at least try to live - at all times.

A promise was made on a joyful, star-lit night, in a stable in Bethlehem ... but that promise was kept on a bloody, storm-darkened day, on a hill outside of Jerusalem ... and later in a place of tombs in the early morning.

On a highway north of Mason, Texas.
Big day tomorrow, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ ... big day ... THE day, really. But I find myself wondering what it was like the day before The Day ... what was it like during those long hours that passed between Christ's crucifixion and his resurrection? I can't help but think it's easier for us, two-thousand years later, with the benefit of hindsight, with the Word in our hands, our minds, our hearts. But back then ... right then, right there? What was it like for the followers of Jesus on THAT very first day before The Day?

I've always felt a little sorry for Peter, one of the first (and perhaps the greatest) of Jesus' disciples. How many times have I listened to some discussion in Sunday school that included talking some smack about Peter and his shortcomings ... it's especially pronounced now, as we are reminded for the umpteenth time of his denial of Jesus outside the house where Christ was being held. What must it have been like - that day before The Day - for Peter?

Of course, that was Peter before The Day, and before Pentecost. The man that emerges from all that is someone and something else entirely. There is still a growing, learning, developing spirit and awareness in him ... but there is no longer any doubt, or any denial.

But before that? I can only imagine ... because I know, now, and I believe ...

He is risen ...
Christ is risen, indeed ...
Alleluia! Amen!