Thursday, February 25, 2021

Keep Calm and Stay a Dittohead


As a reader, reviewer, and occasional writer of fiction, I have become familiar with the term "shocking but inevitable" when describing a plot twist or an ending. All the clues were there that the event, or something like it, would happen, and yet when it does, we still taken off guard, whether from denial or from misinterpreting the signs or from being too caught up in the flow of events to pay attention.

And so, the news or Rush's passing should have shocked no one, and it did not shock me, as such, the way Andrew Breitbart's untimely death had some years ago. How could it? We all have known for a year about his terminal illness followed the updates on the treatments, watched the hope for recovery fade, and accepted that every day Rush was on the air might be his last.

Nor should a death of a seventy-year-old who had lived a profoundly meaningful life and achieved professional, financial, and at least from the outside appearances, personal fulfillment, be considered anything but a natural course of events, to be met with a quiet nod of acknowledgement of human mortality, including our own.

And yet, I have been feeling off-kilter ever since, more than usual, which is quite something during the period of time in our history when practically nothing and no one is steady and normal in the traditional sense of the word.

I've read several tributes from people I respect, and inevitable attacks from those who only confirmed themselves to be unworthy--not even foes because that word implies a measure of honor. I've reminisced of my years as a fan going back to my first "real" job as an assistant at a printer shop, listening to the radio, fascinated by the voice I instinctively knew was different from the rest, even if my still limited English prevented complete understanding. I joked with my husband, also a fan (thanks to me), about the time we were in the audience of Rush's TV show, and he briefly appeared on camera with a dreamy smile on his face from listening to Rush describe a particularly delicious cut of steak. He received calls from a few of his students who saw him on TV, and in those days it was all in good fun, and did not get him cancelled as it would have today. Even our children, now with views of their own, not quite as in line with ours as we would have liked, shared our sense of loss. Much of their childhood was spent with the Rush show in the background, and all of them are aware of the origin of the unusually bright-colored ties in their father's closet. A period of our lives had come to a close, and knowing that millions of Rush's fans have gone through a version of the same process should make it easier t bear, and it almost does. Almost.

All of the above kept me from organizing my thoughts until now, from seeing the true source of my unease and profound sadness. I think I finally understand what it is.

What made Rush so successful is the same reason he is irreplaceable. His unique combination of wit, intellect and unshakeable conviction made him into a one-stop recharge station-slash-sanity check for many of us on the loosely defined "Right." It's not that, as Rush used to quip, he told us what to think. But he did provide consistent analysis from a certain perspective, and did it accessibly, with kindness and respect towards the listener, as a patient teacher... 

... Or as a father.

Rush Limbaugh, a man who had no children of his own, was nevertheless a great patriarch of the pro-American, pro-liberty, pro-human dignity movement. 

Much as I miss Rush, this realization gave focus to my generalized sadness, and it also gave me peace. It is not a job of a patriarch (or any leader with a large following) to "finish" his life's work or establish a singe successor, much less one biologically related. What is important for a lasting, meaningful legacy is to give those left behind both motivation and the tools to continue, while staying united in their purpose. Rush has accomplished all three, brilliantly.

Sure, we have our work cut out for us, but it keeps us from becoming complacent and relying on someone else to step up. Just like financial wealth needs upkeep, so does intellectual and spiritual legacy, and even more so because it's not something that can be stashed in a bank earning compound interest. Freedom lovers made this mistake once, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, thinking that the threat of totalitarianism had gone forever, and can not, will not make it ever again.

There will never be another Rush, but his influence can be seen in the new generation of conservative voices, now successful in their own right. The anti-elitist common sense and relatability of Sean Hannity, Mark Steyn's unfailing sense of humor, Tucker Carlson's fearless intellectualism, Mark Levin's superb analytical skills--all qualities necessary to carry on a successful movement live on present in his younger successors, just like the traits of biological parents manifest in varied manner in their  children. 

And then there is the rest of us, millions of Dittoheads, all inspired by his example, united not only in admiration for one man's accomplishments but in knowledge that success is possible, even now, as we enter what is likely to be one of the darker periods of this country's history. The iconic greeting of "Dittos, Rush!" has never meant "I agree with everything you say" but "I love your work. Please never stop." 

This is our chance to make those words ring true, as we come to terms with Rush's passing. It is the time to make sure his work never stops even if he is no longer here to do it.

Mourn the man, but celebrate his life. Build on his work, and make him proud.

Dittoheads Forever.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Smile at What Is Possible


Time flies when you're having fun... And even, as it turns out, when you aren't. My last post on this blog is dated in May of 2019, and it seems both like yesterday and a century ago.

Be that as it may, I am compelled to put my thoughts in order tonight, and my long-neglected blog seems an appropriate place to do it.

A line from a lesser-known Ayn Rand novel has been haunting me over the last few weeks, as the remnants of hope for a last-minute miracle had evaporated and the stages-of-grief about our current situation have begun to run their course.

We the Living, Rand semi-autobiographical tale of life in Soviet Russia in the early years of the glorious revolutionary regime, is not quite an "Ayn Rand book." It's philosophy is more reflective of Rand's early flirtations with Nietzsche than Objectivism, and its tone and content are unrelentingly, overwhelmingly bleak, in sharp contrast to the aggressive optimism of her iconic later works.

It is the only one of Rand's novels I don't own, and the only one I never had any desire to re-read. And yet, here it is, decades later, demanding attention with that one heartbreaking line:

She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible. 

This concept, this vision of realizing the full promise and potential of life just as it comes to an end, is, of course, not original to Rand. However, this particular turn of phrase speaks to me today, not on a personal level--my life has been blessed in more ways that I can count--but as an American.

Over the last four years, on many levels and in the manner we never could have dreamed of, we have been shown what was possible. I will not go through the list of all that has been accomplished--there are plenty of articles on the matter, and that's not really the point. Many of the achievements will turn out to be fleeting, to be reversed in mere hours and days of the new regime; some will persist in their effects; and a few might even go on, with the credit accruing to those who have done nothing to deserve it.

But the possibility of something previously unimaginable, once seen, cannot be unseen. The lie uncovered might be declared truth again, but it will never be truth to those who have witnessed the revelation. Those who have tasted clean water might be forced to go back to drinking sewage, but they will never mistake one for the other.

Unlike the doomed character in the intentionally tragic story, we seen the possible--and are still alive. 

We're still Americans, we're still proud of our country, and in the few short years we have caught a glimpse what it could be, and what it can yet become. It's OK to be angry and even depressed at the current turn of events. Take the time to work through all the feelings of frustration and disappointment, but know that you need, you must come out on the other side, stronger and more inspired than ever,

We will smile at what is still possible--and will get back to work at making it happen.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: Hell Spawn by Declan Finn

Maybe it's a result of too many Marvel  movies, but I view Hell Spawn, the first in Finn's Saint Tommy, NYPD series, as essentially a superhero origin story. In the first action scene, Detective Tom Nolan discovers an ability he can't explain; his powers unfold at various points throughout the story; and the climax has him performing feats which would not be out of place in the next comics-based blockbuster.

However, I suppose the story is more properly classified as urban fantasy since the meat of the plot centers around a police investigation of a particularly nasty serial killer, and the story, while sprinkled withe a generous dose of the other-wordly, is firmly grounded in our time and place.

In other hands, the tone of the story could have turned intolerably dark, what with the gruesome murder of a child, the unrelenting stream of violence and the general feeling of evil presence gathering ever closer to the protagonist and those near and dear to him. What makes all the difference in this case is the setting, or rather its idealized version.

Seen through the eyes of the protagonist whose life has been dedicated to serving his community, we see New York City as a home to people who are decent, loving, loyal, and doing their best to make it in a harsh and imperfect word. Early on, Tom makes a point that even the criminals he encounters and arrests as part of his duties are generally good people who simply made the wrong choices and are capable of being reformed and rehabilitated.

The author is likely to catch flak for choosing two "outsider" groups, rather than native New Yorkers, to be the focal points of entry for the Big Bad. One of those is the real-life Mexican gang known as MS-13, and the other a national organization whose name is clear to anyone paying even marginal attention. As a narrative tool, though, this setup serves a purpose of creating an image of a city under siege from the forces of darkness which cannot be defeated by conventional means.

To put it simply, New York City of this novel is a community which is capable of producing a Saint, and in desperate need of one. We don't know why or how Tom Nolan gets picked for the job, but he accepts it whole-heartedly, which in itself tells us he must be the right choice.

From the title and the clear Catholic orientation of the novel, one might expect numerous pauses for theological discussions and explanation, but that's not the case. The required information comes to us in pithy chunks, never interfering with the pace or the steadily building tension leading to the climax. Ironically, the only time the story lagged for me is during a prolonged series of fights between Tommy and a large number of ... let's just call them the bad guys, to avoid spoilers. This probably would've worked better in a movie, where we could see and appreciate the graphic, intricately choreographed brawl rather than reading the blow-by-blow description. Perhaps having been spoiled by the fast pace of the book, I did not wish to slow down for anything, not even to enjoy seeing the hordes of baddies beat up over the span of several pages.

That minor criticism aside, the final confrontation with the Big Bad was fantastic, and as should be expected from the first novel in a series of many, left us with just enough of a resolution to want more. There are questions about both the nature of the upcoming threat(s) and about the extent on Tommy's current and potential powers. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, but for now I unreservedly recommend Hell Spawn as a solid start.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

DVD Review: Outland

Some time ago, I read an article by a publisher of a sci-fi review magazine where he offered the following test to determine if a story qualifies as proper science fiction:

Can the story take a place on a bus rather than on a space ship without being fundamentally different?

Outland, an obscure movie starring Sean Connery at the low point of his career, cannot be set on a bus, but it most definitely did not need to be placed in space. It is, no pun intended, fully grounded in the traditional western genre in the theme, plot and pacing. There are even shotguns. Lots of shotguns. In a pressurized environment. All that's missing is the tumbleweeds. We do get treated to the sight of some gyrating balls of... something, but the less said of those the better.

The first part of Outland has all the promise of a Clint Eastwood flick. A stranger (Marshal O'Neil) comes to a small town (an mining space colony) administered by the corrupt (a skivvy manager and a group of "we-just-work-here" support personnel) for the wealthy (a corporate conglomerate). Then, after a brief flirting with a medical mystery, it pivots into an unabashed homage to High Noon and stays there to the extent that the viewer can predict nearly every beat. In fact there is a small twist towards the end that had me thinking, "Wait, that's not how it goes in High Noon!"As someone who believes that execution trumps originality every time, I don't offer this as a criticism but as a straightforward observation.

What is truly remarkable about the movie is just how much it is carried by the actors. Only two actors, to be precise. Sean Connery not so much steals every scene he's in as walks off with it unopposed. It was a treat for me as a fan to see him shine in a non-iconic role, making the most of a middling script and minimal character background.

Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lazarus makes a respectable showing as a hard, cynical, plain-looking woman who does not get any softer or more attractive as the story goes on. What she does get, however, is a character arc and a few tense action scenes, which is just enough to make her memorable in an otherwise forgettable supporting cast.

The tale is not so much a battle of good vs evil, although there are clearly the good and the bad guys. O'Neil is not seeking to bring down the system (it's impossible) or even to save the colonists from what appears to be a mystery epidemic (they are not presented as particularly worth saving, much like the town denizens in High Noon). He, and to some degree Dr. Lazarus as well, want something more fundamental: the ability to look in the mirror and not turn away in disgust. In this case, it means doing the right thing and paying the price even if no one knows, and if it makes no difference to the harsh, uncaring, corrupt world in which they live.

In the image-obsessed modern world, where companies no longer advertise their social responsibility instead of products, and individuals measure their self-worth in the numbers of followers or likes, the idea of wanting to achieve SELF-respect might sound foreign. And that is the reason Outland, for all its flaws, is worth watching.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hollywood In Toto Interview: Dystopian Writing For the Modern World

Last week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Paul Hair, a contributor to Hollywood In Toto website. Our discussion touched on the continuing appeal of dystopian stories, and how some of the themes in my writing differ from the common offerings of the genre.

HiT: How long did you live in the U.S.S.R. and when did you immigrate to the U.S.?
Marina Fontaine: I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. My family waited for 10 years to be allowed to leave the country, and I was 19 when it finally happened in 1987. It wasn’t easy to adjust to the new country, culture and language as an adult, but I am glad it happened this way.
I can truly appreciate what it means to be free since I have experienced the alternative first hand. It
the product book cover fontaine
also allows me to insert little details into my writing that might sound far-fetched, but come directly from my experience. HiT: Reviewers of “The Product” (Superversive Press, 2016) say there are similarities with George Orwell’s “1984.” But they also mention that it’s hopeful. Why did you make it hopeful when that’s not necessarily common with dystopian works?
Fontaine: After publishing my first novel, “Chasing Freedom,” which is set in the near-future United States and was meant to be grounded in the reality of this country, I decided to have a more traditional dystopian setting for my next project.
The society in “The Product” is further gone on the road to totalitarian rule, and more importantly, the population as a whole has no internalized understanding of the concepts of privacy, traditional family or even basic honor and empathy that we all take for granted.

Read the rest of the interview here. And when you're done, please explore the rest of the site for more author interviews, movie reviews and current cultural commentary. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Book Review: Knight Training by Jon Del Arroz

Set in the world of For Steam and Country, this novella follows one of the original novel's more likable side characters, James Gentry, as he embarks on his quest to become a Knight. The story is fairly self-contained, so you can read this offering as an introduction to the world if you are hesitant to commit to the full-size novel.

This is most definitely YA, the old-fashioned kind, concerned with coming of age, first love and a youngster trying to prove his worth in the company of experienced and respected men. The love--or rather affection that might blossom into love--is sweet and innocent. The danger and violence,  while heave on the adrenaline rush, are not graphic. Most importantly, this story really is a journey, clearly one of many to come. James is a novice, and so, while brave and clever and quite capable, he is by no means infallible, and not invariably successful. The reader gets to witness the growth, the learning, the failures and triumphs along the way, unsure which part of the mission would succeed or fail and even who would make it through. While this used to be the standard arc of YA adventures, I was reflecting how rare such tales have become. For this alone, the author deserves credit.

The pacing is fast, pausing only occasionally to give us the needed insight into the world or the character's backstory and motivations, creating a fine balance between action and time to appreciate the bigger picture. The characters are as well developed as one might expect in a shorter offering--enough to know their main qualities and to keep them straight, but also leaving us with a desire to know more. The world is only described in relation to the main plot and James' backstory. You really need to read the other Rislandia novels to get the full picture, but it's not needed here. The idea of chasing down a traitor is fairly universal, so not much in the way of explanation is required.

The ending provides enough closure to the plot, but there are definitely many sequel possibilities, and the novella is already listed as part of a series, with the next entry available for sale as of last week.

Highly recommended to anyone curious about steampunk, or in search of a light, fun YA novel, and can be read as a stand-alone or in parallel read to the main Rislandia series.

Purchase Knight Training on Amazon

Monday, October 8, 2018

Kilt Blowing: A Play in Three Parts

While attending DragonCon this year, I decided to check out a kilt blowing event. Being, well, myself, about half way through I realized this topic would be great blogging fodder. Thus, here goes my semi-serious attempt to talk about something that's pretty impossible to even mention without giggling.

Kilt blowing as done at DragonCon is a performance art, and it tells quite a story.

Introduction: The Origin.

Some years ago, a mischievous young woman decided to investigate if the T-Shit slogan "If I wore anything under my kilt, it would be a skirt!" was an accurate representation of reality. So she did what every self-respecting social scientist does. She purchased a hand-held blower, approached a kilt-wearer at a DragonCon hotel lobby and while engaging him in conversation, "accidentally" pressed the ON button. After the third such "accident," hotel security decided that repeat demonstrations, even for the sake of scientific inquiry, were against policy. Still, the idea was born. The young lady made a suggestion to the Con Committee, and the research continues to go on, mercifully in a hall with adult-only access.

Part One. The Main Attraction.

After explaining the rules (no full frontal, but anything else is up to the participants) and passing out the ear plugs to the front rows in anticipation of much excited screaming, the hosts proceeded to invite the participants to the stage, where the aforementioned lady awaited with the blower. It became quickly obvious that the participants were not pre-screened neither by age nor by physical shape, but rather by their sense of humor and strict dedication to having fun. Come to think of it, even though the event has no direct relation to sci-fi or fantasy, it was highly appropriate that it took place at DragonCon, where people gather for the weekend to put aside their differences and enjoy the out-of-the-ordinary entertainment they can't get elsewhere.

The appreciative screaming by the ladies was indeed deafening (I was not quick enough to grab the earplugs, and boy did I regret it), and was dispensed in relatively equal amounts to bodybuilders, skinny geeks and respectable-looking seniors. The men did vary their performances to keep them interesting in spite of the repetitive nature of the event. Most of them were more funny than either sexy or revealing (although a couple of performers bared enough to justify the adults-only admission). And truth be told, my favorite of them all was a shirtless bodybuilding performance by one of the hosts, who was not subjected to the blower treatment at all.

I noticed quite a few men in the audience. Most were there to accompany their wives or support their performing buddies. Some, such as a young gentleman I met while waiting  in line, attended out of pure curiosity, which as good a reason as any.

Before we knew it, the allotted hour went by, and the blower put away, but the full experience was not yet over.

Part Two. Role Reversal.

Upon exiting the room, the audience members were greeted, loudly and enthusiastically, but the performers, who were lined up a couple of rows deep, along one of the hallway walls. And now I understood why so many of the ladies in the audience were so attractively dressed. While the main event was about men putting on a show for the overwhelmingly female audience, the women were now giving the men something to admire as well. As with the performance, sounds of appreciations were dispensed generously to all. High- and low-fives were given by the passing women to their admirers. It was essentially a recreation of an old "woman walking by a construction crew," done in a manner at once over the top and entirely safe, with not a tinge of disrespect.

And thus the full performance was concluded, with Marriott Carpet pattern beer cozies handed out to the attendees as thanks for participation. However, for those still paying attention after all the excitement, at about 2 AM in the morning, there was something else to observe.

Part Three. Coming Home.

As I was walking through the outer hallway to get to one of the Hyatt Regency famous "go down to go up" escalators, I noticed a group of women congregating along one of the walls. I recognized some of them from the audience,so I became curious why they were lingering.

The women were there to pick up their husbands.

This final touch, while unscripted, could not have been more perfect.

We live in times when certain political and cultural forces work tirelessly to re-define the roles of men and women in society. Having essentially won the fight for women's rights and equality, they are attempting to destroy or at least confuse the most intimate, ingrained component of the male/female relationship: rules of courtship and sexual attraction. While making any kind of social statement had to be the furthest thing from the event organizers and participants, nevertheless it brings home some important and timeless truths,

Generally speaking, men like to strut their stuff, to both admire and be admired by the opposite sex.
Generally speaking, so do women.
But when all is said and done, nothing beats coming home to a partner who loves all of you, body and soul.
And, to quote an old credit card ad, having a partner who supports you occasionally doing something outlandish, and waits for you on the other end with a hug and a smile: