Thursday, June 16, 2016

Added to my virtual bookshelf ... 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

NOT added to my virtual bookshelf ... 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

Added to my virtual bookshelf ... 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.