Ambrose Bierce and ‘Can Such Things Be?’

Imagine back to the year 1893. The United States Civil War had been over for nearly 30 years. Grover Cleveland would commence his second term as US President in March. It would be 21 years before Ambrose Bierce of Ohio and Indiana, a combatant in the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Chickamauga, would disappear in Mexico in the year 1914. The year 1893 also saw the release of Can Such Things Be?

Can Such Things Be 2(Ambrose Bierce wrote Can Such Things Be?)

Can Such Things Be? comprises 24 distinct short stories, or Gothic Short Stories, that get into subjects of death, horror, psychological tension, or intrigue. Perhaps the most famous predecessor of this tradition was Edgar Allan Poe. Early selections in the collection of stories include The Death of Halpin Frayser, The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch, One Summer Night, and The Moonlit Road.

Can Such Things Be 4(The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch)

Light and dark, life and death, natural and psychological site and premonition, and language that evokes a sense of feeling all strongly evoke feelings of trepidation, tension, and similar feelings of being outside feelings of the normal, sure, and trustworthy feelings of safety, sanity, and comfort. Mood plays a part in the stories mentioned, and all of the stories within this collection.

Can Such Things Be 3(Ambrose Bierce wrote Can Such Things Be?)

Other tales within this series include Beyond the Wall, A Psychological Shipwreck, and John Mortoson’s Funeral. Each takes a different take on the notions of tone, setting, interpersonal connection, and somewhat the notion of satire. Making inferences throughout these stories continues a trend in these and other, better known works by the author, Ambrose Bierce.

Can Such Things Be 5(A Psychological Shipwreck)

The feelings of psychological tension, doubting psychological reason, and the like continue with such tales as John Bartine’s Watch, The Damned Thing, and The Stranger. The first of these three far outweighs the other two concerning the emotional investment from the reader. John Bartine’s Watch gets into the notion of time in a way similar to A Psychological Shipwreck while asking for some curiosity and self-reflection in a way that is more lacking in The Damned Thing and The Stranger. The latter two share a group setting with a larger collection of characters, which in terms of a short story perhaps proved challenging for our noble writer.

Can Such Things Be 6(John Bartine’s Watch)

Despite some efforts that were a bit weaker than others, the overall tone of these stories were appealing as a ‘welcome to autumn’ sampling. I rate the collection of Can Such Things Be? as 4.0-stars-out-of-5.

Matt – Tuesday, October 16, 2018


Season One of television series ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’

So I recently watched the 8-episode first season of Amazon Prime Original Series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Starring John Krasinski as Dr. Jack Ryan, the series first came online in August 2018 as a reprise of characters from a series of best-selling “thrillers with detailed themes of espionage, military, science, politics and technology” (Biography.Com) written by Tom Clancy. Jack Ryan as a character was central to many of these books.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan 3(Wendell Pierce, left, and John Krasinski in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan)

The series starts with the premise that it will be telling a story based on characters from the Tom Clancy universe of books. While many of the thrillers were based on the Cold War and aftermath, with the book The Hunt for Red October first being published in 1984, the series makes no apologies for being set in the modern day with a modern set of stories for the characters to face.

An early scene in the first episode brings Jack Ryan into accidental contact with Vice Admiral James Greer, who is in the Central Intelligence Agency in the books as well as in this series. Both characters are portrayed essentially true to their known characters, though both find themselves basically being introduced to each other and in a different place in their careers than you might expect walking in. Greer is played by Wendell Pierce.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan 2(Writer Tom Clancy)

Character Dr. Cathy Ryan (nee Mueller) as portrayed by Abbie Cornish brings home a solid introduction to the character that is sensitive to Jack Ryan yet with the intelligence to question and trust the man the audience knows Jack Ryan to be.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan 5(Abbie Cornish)

Besides introducing the audience to characters we know, there is an actual story that is told in a world aware of the events of the early 2000’s and beyond.  It seems fair to point out that much of the story of season one aims to set the viewer up for the expectation of multiple threads of stories that are occurring in strands and threads that, if told like a true story by Tom Clancy, would come together by the end of the season to bring together loose strands into a tightly weaved whole.

The analytics of Jack Ryan play a part in the story. The backing of James Greer in pursuing some zany thoughts of an unproven analyst also play their part. The role of the character played by Ali Suliman is important, though precisely his tale or backstory are worth the effort to watch.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan 4(Ali Suliman)

The story of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was compelling, and the known characters were properly likable. The known characters were largely true to their original vision, yet the alterations and switches in personality and character points were welcomed and not off-putting.

Some of the threads of the story tied together better than others. While parts of the story felt like there was material to fill-in the narrative length of an 8-episode season, nothing in the season felt supremely out-of-place, either. Those familiar with books of Tom Clancy might recognize some things in the resolution to the larger story of the season. My grade for the first season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a 3.5-stars on a 5-star scale.

Matt – Friday, October 5, 2018

David Grann and the book ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’

Do you like to read about true crime? Is a good exposé up your alley? How about a little intrigue about the murders of a Native American tribe relocated to Oklahoma with negotiated mineral rights that led to government sanctioned theft, racism, and at least tacit sanctioning of murder against the relocated Osage? Take all that, and mix in the early tactics that accompanied the burgeoning Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, and you get David Grann‘s book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Killers of the Flower Moon 2 - David Grann(Killers of the Flower Moon author David Grann)

Killers of the Flower Moon, a 2017 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction, approaches “one of the most egregious racial injustices in American history” in three movements. That quotation is from the author himself, incidentally.

The first movement in the tale gives a brief history of the Osage Indians, their location into Oklahoma, and the agreement struck with the American government for the rights to the tribal lands where the Indians and their descendants would stay. Ostensibly, the tribe was given the right of self-rule, though a system of federally administered liberty theft that robbed individual members of the tribe from personal administration of their own wealth. The effect was described with specific examples of vastly rich individuals that lived in poverty and no rights of redress; corrupt administrators spent lavishly not on their wards but on themselves. Members under this system then began systematically dying, with the administrators gaining control of the highly lucrative land and mineral rights following highly suspicious deaths that were not properly investigated.

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the brutal murders behind white settlers’ attempted dispossession of an Osage family’s Oklahoma lands, under which lay some of the world’s most valuable oil fields. That this conspiracy of theft, terror, and genocide helped launch J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI deepens the narrative’s moral complexity. Structured taut as a noir, researched like an indictment, and written with hard-boiled empathy, the book leaves us to wonder at the unresolved and unrecorded crimes against Native Americans.” –National Book Award Judges’ citation

As suggested by the above quotation, the second section reflects a process wherein the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to investigate. A largely corrupt organization that largely was learning to overcome its own corruption and spin its own narrative, the story of the undercover FBI investigation headed by former Texas Ranger in Tom White is told. Evidence of wrongdoing in the Osage community is uncovered through an ethical pressuring of suspects to testify in a combination of state and federal trials. A conspiracy is proven in court, and a mastermind behind some of the crimes goes to jail. While this is just, the mastermind is later given early release despite orchestrating murders, bribing juries, intimidating and killing investigators and witnesses, and more. That this figure ever is freed is in furtherance of David Grann‘s claim of an egregious racial injustice having occurred.

Killers of the Flower Moon 3(Killers of the Flower Moon was a National Book Award finalist for author David Grann)

The third and final section of Killers of the Flower Moon goes further into investigating evidence of murders for profit and the bitterly suspicious deaths among Osage Indians under federal monetary control. Evidence that was in the hands of the FBI yet never prosecuted is shared. Additional research and evidence is uncovered in museum archives and libraries where families and record keepers had gathered information that suggests reasonable levels of suspicion on other bad actors that were never brought to trial or attempted justice. In other words, the one convicted mastermind brought to justice by the FBI was one of multiple parties that, in a just system, would also had been brought to justice.

Killers of the Flower Moon 4(Osage Indians)

I found this book enlightening of a 20th Century injustice in America that continued to befall Native Americans in the America. My rating for the book Killers of the Flower Moon is 3.75-stars-out-of-5.

Matt – Saturday, September 29, 2018

Daniel Goleman and his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’

You should probably read the book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman. The information included within can help parents, teachers, people in business, those interested in leadership, and those wishing to respond more calmly to the world around them.

Emotional Intelligence 2 - Daniel Goleman(Emotional Intelligence writer Daniel Goleman)

An early point that Goleman makes in Emotional Intelligence is that the three qualities of self-control, zeal, and persistence are more predictive in the success of people as they work through life than the standard metrics of IQ scores, standardized tests, or some of the aptitude tests used to gauge entry for students looking to gain admittance to college. Goleman suggests a potential path for teaching and reinforcing emotional learning from early education through high school, should school systems wish to adopt it.

Emotional Intelligence 3

Emotional Intelligence is broken into five main sections. As you can surmise from the separate parts, the book takes trouble to root the theory of emotion in the science of how the brain works in the opening chapter. Six chapters get into the definition of emotional intelligence while another six chapters (parts three and four) look to offer guidance on how you might use the concept. The final two chapters get into why the effort of employing the theories of the book will take effort, part of which is a cost related to learning. The five sections of the book are these:

Part One: The Emotional Brain (Chapters 1 and 2)

Part Two: Emotional Intelligence (Chapters 3 thru 8)

Part Three: Emotional Intelligence Applied (Chapters 9 thru 11)

Part Four: Windows of Opportunity (Chapters 12 thru 14)

Part Five: Emotional Literacy (Chapters 15 and 16)

Emotional Intelligence 4

Much useful information comes from the theories shared in this book. Better leaders and your better friends, I hope you recognize, use the quadrants of motivation in measuring their actions with awareness while getting into the five components of emotional intelligence, namely self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

My selection of this book was motivated from a study of leadership styles and aiming to raise my own interpersonal skills through awareness of my emotions, moods, and the relationships of both to the people around me. My feeling is that this book provides things that help me. Whether you read the whole thing or select pieces from within to review, my recommendation is that you pick up a copy of this book and get to work on yourself. My rating is 4.0-out-of-5 stars.

Matt – Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh, and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

When it comes to detective novels and murder mysteries, Agatha Christie is perhaps best known for her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. The first movie edition of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was received warmly by critics and audiences alike. The recent remake, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), received less warmth from critics and audiences.

Murder on the Orient Express 2 - Kenneth Branagh(Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot)

Kenneth Branagh directed and starred as Hercule Poirot in the 2017 rendition of Murder on the Orient Express. A star-studded cast joined Branagh, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman, Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados, and Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett. Many others joined in the story.

Murder on the Orient Express 3 - Michelle Pfeiffer(Michelle Pfiefer as Caroline Hubbard)

This version of the movie maintains the larger framework of the book written by Agatha Christie while looking to bring in a contemporary moralizing and sensibility from a book written in 1934. If written today, the more likely means of locomotion would be an ocean cruise at sea for 2-3 days or a transcontinental flight meant to be in the air for a good long time with delays built in.

Murder on the Orient Express 4 - Judi Dench(Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff)

The movie begins as an extravagant train ride through Europe that, on the surface is a vacation for Hercule Poirot and the guests alike. The keen detective that is Poirot has his antenna up from the beginning when, quickly into the tale, the suspense and thrills of murder, clues, and detection begin.

Murder on the Orient Express 5 - Willem Dafoe(WIllem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman)

Everyone seemingly has a motive for murder. The really baffling quality of the mystery here is that one lead after another after another leads to apparent dead end. The clear culprit defies the straightforward explanation that one would expect. Is the murderer Caroline Hubbard or Princess Dragomiroff? Might it have been Gerhard Hardman or Pilar Estravados? Many have plausible motives for murder, though not one of these suspects lends themselves to a satisfactory answer to the question who committed the murder?

Murder on the Orient Express 6 - Penelope Cruz(Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados)

My goal here is to give you a sense of the suspense. The discovery of the answer is one that I recommend you determine through reading the book or watching one of the movies.

Murder on the Orient Express 7 - Johnny Depp(Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett)

The critics consensus for this version of this movie, as shared on Rotten Tomatoes, is this:

“Stylish production and an all-star ensemble keep this Murder on the Orient Express from running off the rails, even if it never quite builds up to its classic predecessor’s illustrious head of steam.”

The critics consensus for the 1974 version, from Rotten Tomatoes, is more generous:

“Murder, intrigue, and a star-studded cast make this stylish production of Murder on the Orient Express one of the best Agatha Christie adaptations to see the silver screen.”

I personally enjoyed the 2017 version of the movie. That there were clues to unravel, multiple folks whose guilt was in question, and the underlying cleverness of an Agatha Christie murder mystery to outsmart were all there. For the very astute watcher, the solution to the crime is detectable. Regardless of the above stated critical reception, this basic quality was present in the movie.

The new Murder on the Orient Express is worth stream through Amazon Prime, HBO, or any other service of choice. Rent a copy from the library if you must. I’ve read the book. I am interested to see the 1974 version all the more for the glowing review above. My recommendation is to choose your path and immerse yourself in the mystery.

Matt – Monday, September 17, 2018

Stephen King and the book ‘The Outsider’

The Outsider by Stephen King came out in hardcover on May 22, 2018 in the United States. The book is the latest in a long line of King books that I’ve read, dating back to my first serious introduction to his writing with the four novellas of Four Past Midnight, which I read about 1990. Many full length novels and shorter works later, I consider myself sufficient fan to delve into at least one work every 12-to-18 months.

The Outsider 2(The Outsider author Stephen King)

During an interview King had in support of The Outsider in May 2018 on Stephen Colbert, King brought up Erik Larson‘s novel Dead Wake. On the show, King spoke of the example of passengers of the RMS Lusitania whose lives were saved because of the chance encounter of seeking another passenger who had looked remarkably like another passenger also on board. This concept of having another person who looked like you inspired the thought that led to a central drama in The Outsider.

The Outsider 3(A hardcover copy of The Outsider)

The story starts with a small town crime against a child. The small town police perform some preliminary investigation into eyewitnesses, forensics, and no interview of the prime suspect, a respected little league coach and family man. Aiming for maximum spectacle and community impact for his reelection candidacy, the small town sheriff has said little league coach arrested in front of a large gathering of spectators at a little league baseball game.

The community experiences strong senses of outrage over the crime as well as the suspected perpetrator. Getting a quality defense attorney involved reveals similarly ironclad evidence that, at the time of the crime, the coach was at a continuing education conference in the presence of hundreds of witnesses. How can this be?

The Outsider 4(Paperback copies of The Outsider)

In getting to the answer of this question, I found myself speeding through the read to find out where the plot would go. The story kept elements of the traditional police procedural, including evidence procurement, lead generation, and pursuit. The story went about addressing the notion of two folks that look like one, or more specifically how one person can be in two places at the same time. As the tension grows, so does the creepy nature for how the answer will be resolved.

The Outsider entertained, kept me engaged, and did not drag on like I feared a book of this length might. The direction of the story wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, which is good from a whodunit. That the story went in a thematic direction that I anticipated with a resolution that I was expecting was somewhat of a disappointment. While entertaining, my sense is that this was not King’s best effort. My grade is 3.5-out-of-5 stars.

Matt – Sunday, September 16, 2018

Charlize Theron and the movie ‘Atomic Blonde’

In paying homage to the time in history ending the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the movie Atomic Blonde (2017) captures a spy game pitted against the falling of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.

The movie Atomic Blonde gets a fair degree of distance out of its stylized action sequences and its nostalgic homage to the past that, stylistically if not with the thematic ‘excess’ that is a hallmark of Tarantino, it brings to mind the cinematic experience forthcoming in movies by Quentin Tarantino. The movie, directed by David Leitch, reflects a bold sense of visual mood setting, intermixing of soundtrack that befits the time period, and action.

Atomic Blonde 2 - Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton(Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton)

Charlize Theron stars as the strong female lead and top level MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. Broughton is tasked taking down an espionage ring in Berlin, where she is ordered to cooperate with Berlin station chief David Percival. The alliance is fraught with duplicity, mistrust, and intrigue that I personally both expect and enjoy in espionage movies.

Atomic Blonde 3 - James McAvoy as David Percival(James McAvoy as David Percival)

The story of the movie is framed around the concept of Broughton (Theron) explaining to a joint MI6 and CIA after-action committee of Eric Gray of MI6 and Emmett Kurzfeld of CIA precisely how the Berlin action went awry. The full story is known only to Broughton at the start, with the full plot circle coming to revelation in the final minutes of the movie.

Atomic Blonde 5 - Toby Jones as Eric Gray(Toby Jones as Eric Gray).

Other reviews of the movie focus on the story being somewhat light. The summary review from Rotten Tomatoes goes so far as to call the story “less hard hitting than its protagonist”. My feeling is that the movie is worth the watch as a first foray into feature film for a potentially effective new director in the form of David Leitch.

Atomic Blonde 4 - John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld(John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld)

The soundtrack of Atomic Blonde includes Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst) by Peter Schilling, 99 Luftballoons by Nena, Der Kommissar by After the Fire, I Ran (So Far Away) by Flock of Seagulls, Voices Carry by ‘Til Tuesday, London Calling by The Clash, and Father Figure by George Michael. That a soundtrack of the 1980s was so intermixed within the movie proved a positive way to take me to when the movie was set.

Atomic Blonde 6 - David Leitch(Atomic Blonde director David Leitch)

Consider seeing this movie. In fact, run (like a Flock of Seagulls) to see this movie.

Matt – Saturday, September 15, 2018