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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

This week at Re:Print, we’ll be talking all things Pulitzer, paying particular attention to the prize-winning books, fiction and non. The 2008 prize announcement happens this afternoon, and, for the life of me, I can’t even begin to predict which books will take home my literary favourite literary prize.


This is good, however. It means I’ll be surprised. 


My only prediction this year is more a hope than a forecast. I’d love to see Michael Weinreb’s Kings of New York, about the Edward R. Murrow High School chess team, grab the non-fiction prize. Because I loved it, and because it’s time Pulitzer recognized something a bit lighthearted. 


Writers at the San Francisco Chronicle have put forth their predictions, with the leaders Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying for the non-fiction prize, and for fiction, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.


Bybee at Naked Without Books takes a good guess at the fiction prize, with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and The We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris among her picks.


On Tree of Smoke, Bybee writes:


Denis Johnson’s been around for a while, written lots of “serious” fiction and I guess he’s paid his dues. I find him slightly reader-unfriendly, but that didn’t stop James Gould Cozzens from winning with Guard Of Honor back in 1949.


On Then We Came to the End:


Then We Came To The End has gotten a lot of recognition, but it’s a first novel. The workplace setting and the peculiar first person plural narration might be fresh and quirky enough to garner a win.


The folks over at the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Guide have published their 10-strong shortlist for the fiction prize:


1, Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
2. A Free Life by Ha Jin
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
4. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
5. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
6. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
7. Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
8. Run by Ann Patchett
9. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
10. The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates


Is the winner in there? Will Roth do it again, or is it Oates’ turn? Will the young punks battle it out, or is it time DeLillo got up? It’s all so exciting!


We’ll take a closer look at the winners tomorrow, as well as looking back at past winners, nominees, and the historical significance of the award. I’m also going to dig deep within my own personal library and bring out a few rare gems I’ve found in my pursuit of every winning book from 1917. It’s an obsession, I will admit. But, man, it’s a pleasurable one.


 


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

In his NYT column today, Paul Krugman, writing about food prices’ recent rapid climb, sounds a grim, almost Malthusian note, concluding that “cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past.” Wheat prices are astronomical already, and rice stores have become so depleted in Asia that many producing countries are threatening to stop exporting the grain. (I have seen the writing on the wall. Last weekend, I went to Pacific Supermarket and bought a 20-pound bag of Nishiki brown rice. Get it while you can; that’s all I am saying.) Krugman cites a few factors contributing to the problem—oil prices, droughts—and really lays into the biofuel industrial complex.


The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”
This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.
And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.


Alongside the theme of neutralizing the farm lobby is a hint of population-control politics that we haven’t heard much about since its heyday in the late 1960s, when widespread affluence was considered a problem in the West and books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were being sold in drugstores in pocket-size paperbacks. The idea that food prices will remain high (i.e. that food supply will remain scarce, that we have reached some new plateau of productive capacity that caps that supply) could be seen as a harbinger of food rationing and famine, and an indicator that Malthus’s scenario is finally coming to pass—namely that food supplies can’t keep up with a population that grows exponentially. But now the problem takes a slightly different form; with so many people wanting to eat luxuriously, the resources necessary for everyone to eat at all are being hoarded and consumed by the more affluent. Krugman calls it “the march of the meat-eating Chinese” and notes “the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.” In other words, developing countries want to imitate the standards of living that Americans have inaugurated as the prerequisites of economic maturity. National diet (as with wasteful patterns of energy consumption) can function as mark of national status and can stifle potential political unrest with luxuries, and this leaves little room for conservation.


The problem, then, is not so much a population explosion, but an explosion of those who expect middle-class comforts (and those who use those comforts for political control). Not a Malthusian issue so much as a Veblenesque one: That package of expectations and the ideology of entitlement that goes along with it, will probably come under increasing fire. Hence the cult of asceticism that has derived from the environmental movement—the way to be even more middle-class in terms of prestige, from this point of view, is to deprive yourself for a noble cause—limit your choices by viewing them through the lens of “sustainability.” (Whether that can be adequately defined to make it an operational distinction is an open question.) With this ideology, at least the status hierarchy is being leveraged to accomplish some good.


Oh, and on a related note, Jon Taplin points to Merrill Lynch analysts explaining that American households spend more on debt service than food.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-04-07...

This week’s release list looks a lot like last week’s release list.  That is, it’s pretty sparse.  There are, once again, no huge games coming out this week, and a solid half of the week’s releases are on the PC (and half of those are re-releases of things that most fans will have been playing for months already anyway), games that are still readily available elsewhere.  Portal, as a matter of fact, could be the best three hours you ever get for 20 bucks, but it’s a game whose time has come and gone, one of the defining games of 2007, a year when our faith in the FPS was challenged and renewed.


As it turns out, my pick of game to watch for the week is a re-release as well, though this one’s been awfully tough to find for quite some time; that’s right, this is the week that the long-promised Ikaruga will be re-released in HD form for the Xbox Live Arcade.


Words can barely express how excited I am about this.


Ikaruga, for those who see little more than a seven-letter, four-syllable Japanese word (which, incidentally, means “spotted dove”) in the name, is a variation on the “bullet-hell” style of space shoot-‘em-up that has come to prominence in the last few years.  While it retains the property of throwing massive amounts of tiny little bullets at you, this version of the game gives you a defense:  Each bullet (and each enemy) has a “light” or a “dark” polarity.  Your ship can switch between the two.  If you are the same polarity as the bullet that hits you, you’ll absorb it, building energy that you’ll be able to use for a special attack.  The downside is that enemies of the same polarity will take more shots to destroy.  Conversely, switching to the opposite polarity of your enemies allows you to kill them quicker, but also leaves you open to death.


Master developers Treasure (who I’ll hold a candle for ‘til my dying day thanks to Gunstar Heroes) take this mechanic and run with it, often forcing the player to switch on a whim from one polarity to another just to stay alive.  This gameplay style makes the game slightly easier than the traditional bullet-hell shooter, but “slightly easier” translates to “reasonable” when you’re talking about this much stuff on the screen at once.  Add in a bonus-producing combo system and some of the most intimidating bosses out there, and you’ve got a classic.  If you have never played the GameCube or the (Japanese import) Dreamcast version of Ikaruga, a slow release week like this one is the perfect time to give it a go.  At a mere 800 Microsoft points ($10), there really is no excuse to stay away from it, unless shmups cause you to break out in hives.


Honorable mention this week goes to Baroque, whose distinct art style and vaguely gothic storyline will show up on the Wii and PS2 this week thanks to those geniuses at Atlus.  Those of you waiting for a dungeon crawler for the Wii, well, your time has finally come.


As always, the full list of this week’s releases is after the jump…


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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008


Gods don’t get more flawed than Charlton Heston. He was a Hollywood he-man that actually found time for invention and experimentation, a gun-toting political conservative who had, at one time, made a life changing career choice championing speculative films that dealt with decidedly liberal issues. By the time Michael Moore mocked him in his Oscar winning diatribe Bowling for Columbine, the public was well aware of his blemishes. Age and a rumored case of Alzheimers solidified such a state. But for most he will forever be remembered as the bringer of the Ten Commandments, a direct pipeline to the Almighty forged out of celluloid and some amazing Midwestern looks.


Heston, who died of undisclosed causes on 5 April at age 84, was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. After an early move to Michigan, childhood became a literal boy’s adventure tale. Outdoorsy and idealized, the only flaw featured was the failure of his parents’ marriage when he was ten. His mother quickly remarried, and the new family relocated to Wilmette outside Chicago. While attending New Trier High School, Carter caught the acting bug, which resulted in a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. From there, he married his college sweetheart, a communications student named Lydia Marie Clarke. That union would last 64 years. After service in the US Air Force, he headed to New York, the natural place for any budding performer to try and cut their thespian teeth.


Working for a time as a model, Carter and his wife struggled. They had a son Frazier, and adopted a daughter, Holly. Taking his mother’s maiden name and his stepfather’s surname, he became Charlton Heston, and it wasn’t long before he was gaining supporting parts onstage and additional work in the fledging medium of television. Like most struggling actors in the late ‘40s/ early ‘50s, he appeared regularly on anthology dramas such as Studio One. As luck would have it, his work in a production of Wuthering Heights earned the interest of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. While Dark City marked his professional debut, it was his turn as circus manager Brad Braden in the much maligned 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show On Earth that made him a known name.


Modern critics have unjustly marginalized this relic from the studio system’s struggles, pointing to its lack of artistic merit and its melodramatic leanings. But it marked an important part of Heston’s career, since it would be the first time he worked with the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Four years later, the famed filmmaker and producer of epics would remember the young man who held together his big top ballyhoo when taking on the Old Testament story of Moses. By then, Heston had appeared in films such as Ruby Gentry, The Naked Jungle, and several subpar Westerns. Yet it would be his turn as God’s instrument on Earth that began the mammoth Heston myth. It would be a role of a lifetime, and an image he could never really live down.


One has to admire what the actor accomplished in the otherwise corny religious spectacle. He is required to be both noble and naïve, driven by a power beyond his comprehension but still able to draw on an inner individual strength to guide his hand. The moments of sacred majesty are all the more real thanks to Heston’s achieved awe, and there is something seductive and sexy about his chemistry with co-star Yvonne DeCarlo. While the rest of the A-list (mis)cast saunter around like celebrity chickens with their cameo heads cut off, the man from Illinois keeps everything somber and sacrosanct. It’s one of the main reasons he could never shake the spiritual aura surrounding the part.


And yet, he continued to try. While still appearing regularly on television, he consistently chose interesting and engaging projects. He took the lead as a Mexican narcotics official in Orson Welles final masterpiece, Touch of Evil and costarred alongside Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s The Big Country. Yet it was his next film that would seal his fate as a film star as big as the stories he appeared in. Winning 11 Oscars, including one for his starring role, Ben Hur remains a brilliant old school Tinsel Town treat. Overblown and bloated with gaudy grandeur, it was clear what director Wyler was up to. With the man’s most recognizable superstar, he was out to out-DeMille DeMille. He literally succeeded.


But if Heston was already carrying a career cross thanks to Commandments, Hur sealed his filmic fate. It soon seemed that every larger than life project needed his uncommon good looks and cloud of confidence. It was evident in El Cid, Diamond Head, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Yet by 1965, something had happened to Heston’s inviolable veneer. Instead of being part of the considered cool of the peace and love generation, he was viewed as an earnest member of the Establishment. Nothing was further from the truth - at least, not then. He had marched with Dr. King in 1963, and worked for JFK. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and petitioned Congress to change handgun laws after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Apparently, all things, including basic belief systems, must pass.


It would be the switch to science fiction, however, that literally reinvented Charlton Heston. As a potent allegory for race in America, his turn in Rod Serling’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes brought him back to box office prominence. As Colonel George Taylor, stranded astronaut in a universe where primates stood as the evolved species, his measured machismo kept the otherwise outlandish premise in check. He would go on to further explore the genre with The Omega Man, a reworking of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Radically different from the book, and seen today as an obvious attempt at showcasing Heston as a glorified humanity salvaging guiding light, the movie does suffer from some specious scripting. But there’s no denying that, before there was a Will Smith, the 47 year old made a fine last man on Earth.


In 1972, Heston got a chance to play one of his favorite Shakespearean roles. He directed himself as Marc Anthony in a forgotten version of Anthony and Cleopatra. It would be one of only three turns behind the camera for the enigmatic actor. The next year, the last of his speculative trilogy arrived with the fabulous future shock schlock known as Soylent Green. As a cop trying to cope with a hugely overpopulated planet, this combination of environmental tirade and hoary whodunit offered Heston at his most hammy. It was also the film that finally reduced his status to crusty and campy. For the next decade, he would appear in cheeky comedies (The Three Musketeers), star studded disaster duds (Airport ‘75, Earthquake), and the occasional return to form (Two-Minute Warning).


Something strange happened to Heston during the ‘80s, however. All the goodwill and support for social causes he carried from the 1960s seemed to wither and die under a caustic conservative ideology that saw him supporting Ronald Reagan, opposing Affirmative Action, and changing his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He quit the performance union Actor’s Equity over their stance on the Broadway bound Miss Saigon (the group demanded an Asian play the part originated by Caucasian Jonathan Pryce) and argued that CNN was undermining the first President Bush’s strategy in the first Gulf War. Yet it was his five year stint as President of the NRA that truly tested his continued credibility.


An avid collector, the gun advocate made the now infamous “cold dead hands” speech in 2000. It would soon become the main thrust of Moore’s controversial Columbine ambush. Vilified by the media, and the subject of some rather sour revisionist history, Heston was seen as an out of touch old coot who lived by a doctrine long dead in post-modern America. Even when, in 2002, he announced that he had the initial stage symptoms of Alzheimers, the criticism never let up. His 2003 resignation from the organization found him repeating his famous stance, and while finally off the public stage, the divided sympathies of the actor remained. Even up until his death many continued to undermine his work onscreen, countering that it represented the efforts of a philosophically suspect personality.


But Heston was more than his stances. He wasn’t just the sum total of his position on abortion (pro-life, naturally) or his battle with prostate cancer (which he conquered in 1998). Anyone witnessing the magnificence of Moses as he admonishes Pharaoh to “let his people go”, or snickered over the oft-quoted quip “take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape” understands the impact of Heston’s presence. He was indicative of the Eisenhower era male, yet someone seemed in step with the progressive. He was a man’s man metering out social sensibility with a set square jaw and a secret sensitive side. Sometimes histrionic, frequently hamstrung by a project’s proposed scope, he still managed to leave his undeniable imprint. He was a force, an undaunted despot, and a symbolic statue of every manufactured male.


He remains pure bravado and musk, eloquent and elusive, as powerful as he was passive. The glint in his steely eyes matched the magic his profile produced on celluloid, while his words frequently confounded even the most ardent of supporters. He was a true industry icon, one of the last remnants of a system that used to make stars, not actors. His last film appearance, listed on IMDb, is for the unknown Italian film My Father, Rua Alguem 5555. In it, he plays notorious Nazi concentration camp butcher, Dr. Josef Mengele. It’s endemic of the chances this actor always took. It is also illustrative of the legacy he leaves behind - precarious, challenging, and never quite predicable. Sort of describes an incomplete deity, doesn’t it. Heston will always be such an incomplete idol.


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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008

Just wanted to point out this interesting article in Norient magazine, which happens to have a number of other good pieces that are worth your time.


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