Thursday, November 13, 2014

Revival by Stephen King



Photo: The book's cover art, from its Wikipedia page

Another compulsively-readable book by Stephen King, Revival is one of his recent best.  A mish-mash of Frankenstein (thematically) and Lovecraft (in plot, Otherness, and The Angry Ones, as well as some fairly fearsome Gods) and Hieronymus Bosch, it reads like a first-person confessional (which is a well King has tapped for some time now) and it ends with one of the more horrifying things that King--or anyone I've read--has ever written.
 
Especially if it's true, if that's really what's waiting for us Afterwards.  If you've ever seen Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins or his Garden of Earthly Delights, you'll know what I mean.  Nasty, disturbing and memorable stuff.  This book's ending--and the potential ending for us all, good or bad--are just that: nasty, disturbing and memorable.  Frightening, because the "good" or "bad" doesn't matter.  The ending depicted here isn't the ending of the bad.  It's the ending of all of us.

In recent interviews, King has said that the views expressed by the narrator are not necessarily his--a fact that any reader is well aware, in anyone's writing.  But he has also said recently that he thinks about Death and God a lot (which King fans have always known), and that he does believe in God.  Sometimes he says that there has to be a God, because otherwise he would not have survived his accident or his addictions.  (This begs the question: Since others have not survived being hit by a car, or concurrent alcohol and coke addictions, does that mean there isn't a God?  Or does God simply not want them to live?)  Lately, King's been using Pascal's Wager to express his views.
 
(Pascal's Wager has always seemed like a cop-out to me, but it's really not meant to be.  And as I get older, and I contemplate that slab of stone more and more, Pascal's Wager sounds infinitely more rational.  Though I don't know how one can live a life as if one believes in God, which is what the Wager advises, if one truly does not believe.  But I suppose an agnostic like myself could pull it off.)

This is actually not much of a digression, as a belief in Something is very much at the core of this novel.  Picture an agnostic who grew up with devout, religious parents, and throw in some family tragedies, a wasted life of coke and booze, and some Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, with Bosch's view of a potential eternity in Hell and a Frankenstein theme, and some hellish chaos on Earth at the very un-Stephen King-like end (after all the Frankenstein / Lovecraft / Bosch stuff), and you've just about got the narrator and his story.

There are some other horrors until then as well, neatly tucked into this novel.  There's a car accident you won't soon forget, and a dream about dead family members that those of us with dead family members will all relate to--and not happily.  And his ending after the ending (a writing style I've pointed out in my last ten or so reviews of King's work) is even more unforgettable.  It's debatable, in fact, if the first or second ending is more horrible.  Since I don't believe in the existence of the first, and since I very much believe in the existence of the evil--or of, worse, the tragic inexplicable--portrayed in the second, I'm going with the latter.  You watch the news, you see this.

The writing is as compulsively-readable as always, but--finally!!!--here are some horrors, terrors and chills, too.  If forced to rate out of five stars, I'd say this is a four--only if compared to his truly great stuff, like IT and The Shining.  But compared to his most recent stuff--some of it quite terrible, and sometimes, at best, rather pedestrian--Revival would get five.  Though the title refers to the revival of the narrator and a few of its almost-dead characters, it could well refer to King's horror writing as well.

Read it, regardless.  And then Wikipedia Pascal's Wager, if you have to, and tell me whether it makes more pragmatic, rational sense than it may have in your youth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Scientists Find Mechanism for Spontaneous HIV Cure


Photo: from the AFP, at this website.  The entire article is copied below, but here's the source.

In case you missed it.  Not only a landmark in the fight against HIV / AIDS, but also a strong comment about evolution.  First, the short article--found on this site--and then my comments / thoughts.  (Remember, I am not a doctor.  Don't take my thoughts as solid medical advice.  Cuz, like, they're not.)

__________
French scientists on Tuesday unveiled the genetic mechanism by which they believe two men were spontaneously cured of HIV, and said the discovery may offer a new strategy in the fight against AIDS.
 
In both asymptomatic men, the AIDS-causing virus was inactivated due to an altered HIV gene coding integrated into human cells, they wrote in the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection.
This, in turn, was likely due to stimulation of an enzyme that may in future be targeted for drug treatment to induce the same response, they said.

"This finding represents an avenue for a cure," study co-author Didier Raoult of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) told AFP.

Neither of the men, one diagnosed HIV positive 30 years ago and the other in 2011, have ever been ill, and the AIDS-causing virus cannot be detected with routine tests of their blood.

In both, the virus was unable to replicate due to DNA coding changes that the researchers proposed were the result of a spontaneous evolution between humans and the virus that is called "endogenisation".

"We propose that HIV cure may occur through HIV endogenisation in humans," they wrote. "We believe that the persistence of HIV DNA can lead to cure, and protection, from HIV."

The approach hitherto has been the opposite: to try and clear all traces of HIV from human cells.

The teams said they did not believe the two patients were unique or that the phenomenon was new.

____________

Okay, so like I said, I'm not a doctor.  And I'm not a scientist.  But I do find lots of things very interesting, and hopefully I'm a fairly intelligent guy.  So, here's my two cents, if you care:

As far as I know about viruses (which is not far), they can mutate at any time.  In fact, they have to mutate.  Like we have to breathe, they have to mutate.  Again, no doctor, but it seems like viruses like HIV / AIDS and the common cold and, for all I know, Ebola, are always evolving, sort of uncontrollably, without their will.  If viruses can be said to have will, which is maybe a conversation for scientist-philosophers.

So this seems to be yet another example of evolution, for all you Creationists out there.  (For the record, I, too believe in creationism, to a degree.  In fact, I think the Creator has a lot of weapons at His disposal.  One of these is called evolution.)

Secondly: I'm reminded yet again of Ebola Reston, as written about by Douglas Preston in The Hot Zone.  (Read that if you haven't.)  The short story about Ebola Reston is that the Ebola virus inadvertently let loose in a medical / research facility in Reston, Virginia mutated--but by the grace of God, or something--into a strain that was not lethal to humans.  It gave lots of them very bad flu-like symptoms, but did not make them crash-and-burn, like Ebola Zaire does.  (And still is, now in other countries in Africa besides Zaire.)

Anyway, I'm reminded of this because Ebola Reston mutated--luckily; no reason it had to--into a strain that was not lethal to humans.  Viruses mutate.  It's what they do.

And so, apparently, did this Ebola virus into these two men, thirty years apart.  If a virus mutates, someone's got to be the host for that newly-created mutation, right?  I mean, if it goes into John Doe as Ebola Zaire X and mutates into Ebola Zaire Y somewhere either in John Doe or in the next victim, then that person is carrying around the newly-created strain, right?  That's what happened with Ebola Reston--it mutated between a few gibbons and a few people, and somewhere along the way it became a little less virulent and it didn't kill any people.

These two guys mentioned in this article, thirty years apart, apparently were two lucky guys in which the virus mutated into a form that couldn't kill them.  In fact, if I'm understanding the article correctly, it mutated into a form of the virus that could not replicate itself because both of these men stimulated enzymes that integrated into the virus's DNA and made it impossible to replicate itself.  Scientists call this "spontaneous evolution."  But to me it sounds like the thing is trying to replicate itself so it can live in its host, and then mutate, but it couldn't, so it didn't.

Replication, for those who don't know, means that the virus has to make tons more of its exact self in order to live in a host.  A virus, like a cold, enters your system as one virus, one single-celled (?) organism (like mononucleosis, which is what the word actually means), but--unlike mono, I think--most viruses have to make exact Xerox copies of itself inside you, or it can't live in you.  Your DNA and cells help them to do that.

But the protein / enzyme-happy systems of these two guys prevented the virus from doing so.  

(I'm probably butchering the science here somewhere, but I think I have the gist of it.)

And these two guys killed it upon contact!  They are, in fact, immune to Ebola Zaire, or whatever strain it was they had.  I'm assuming it was Zaire, as that's the lethal one we're all hearing about.  Being immune to Ebola Reston, for example, won't help us.

This "spontaneous evolution" is another checkmark to prove the existence of evolution.  I say this only if you had those "evolution is a theory" textbooks in your science classes in Arkansas or Pennsylvania, and not for the rest of the known world, for whom evolution is as basic as the world being round.

Just food for thought.

Maybe guys like these are the beginnings of homo-sapiens's (that's you and me) way of starting to become immune by the Ebola virus.  I mean, we already are mostly immune to the common cold virus, at least to the extent that it's a minor annoyance and may keep us out of work (or give us a sinus infection afterwards, thanks very much).  But it can't kill us.  That's because our species got used to it.  It's part of our DNA now since we and the cold virus have been around each other so long.  It can kill the Martians in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (and in the movies, like Spielberg's) because the Martians were brand new to it, and so therefore hadn't become immune.

We, as a species (though probably not in our lifetime), can also get used to it by living with it long enough.  Like we did with the common cold.

Well, one strain of it, anyway.  Before it mutates.  Before it changes.  Until it evolves.

So, who are these guys, and how can we extract and harvest some of their proteins?  And, how can I get some of that?  (Or, does it not work like that?) 

I'll have whatever they're having!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Comic Con 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island



Photo: The entrance for this year's Comic Con in Providence, Rhode Island.



Photos: Hundreds of people, if not more, stood in line outside the Convention Center, in howling wind and rain, and never got in.  These were amongst them.  I took the shot of these cold, disgruntled people as I left the Con and went to my car.  The line started in the lobbies, went downstairs, then started again at the doors outside, snaked around the building, and ended past these people, in front of the garage I parked in.  Poor souls.


I had a great Saturday at Comic Con, though it apparently turned into a horror show for everyone who arrived after 12 p.m. or so.  Ticketmaster or the Convention Center (they're playing tennis with the blame) never stopped selling tickets, so that thousands of people past the max showed up.  When I left at about 3:30 p.m. (I got there at 8:30 a.m., waited with hundreds of others in The Dunk--as opposed to many hundred who waited outside in the cold, wind and rain--until the doors opened at 10:00 a.m.).  But when I walked out at 3:30 p.m., there were hundreds of people waiting in the lobbies, another hundred or so downstairs, and many hundreds of others outside in a long line, in a pouring rain.  Most of those outside never got in at all!

But I did.  Got there early, despite the protests of my friends, who said I was crazy, that it wouldn't be crowded.  (Though driving there was a breeze; took about 20 minutes.)

I spoke to, got pictures of (and with), and got autographs from:

1.  Anthony Michael Hall (Very nice and humble.  Different than I'd heard, and he'd lost a lot of weight since The Dark Knight.  I was his first fan of the day--he was about a half-hour late, as were most of the other celebs.)

2.  Karen Allen (Still very pretty and funny-feisty.  Same exact smile and laugh.)

3.  Michael Biehn (He's had a stroke, or he has MS or MD or something similar.  Looked really, really bad, more of a walking dead than Scott Wilson or Seth Gilliam.  Really too bad; one of my favorite 80s actors.)

4.  William Katt (The Greatest American Hero, though I still prefer him in the original Carrie.  Looks about the same; very fit and looking good for his age.)

5.  John Rhys-Davies (His last name is pronounced like Davis; didn't know that.  I prefer him as Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Karen Allen, though he's very good, of course, as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I got his autograph and Karen Allen's on the same Raiders picture.)

6.  Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel from The Walking Dead.  Extremely fit and lean and athletic-looking.  Very energetic, positive, pumped kind of guy.)

7.  Took a break from autograph-hunting to sit in the audience for a panel discussion with Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies speaking of Raiders.  I went to the mike and asked a question to them about being directed by Steven Spielberg, as I had also been "directed" by him as an extra in Amistad.  A friend took a video of me asking my question, and their 5+-minute answer.

8.  Scott Wilson (Hershel from The Walking Dead.)  He had by far the longest lines of any celebrity there that day--much longer than William Shatner and the other Trekkers.

9.  Eliza Dushku.  I've only seen her in True Lies, long before she was in Buffy, and Angel, and other things I never saw.  Had a couple of bags stolen from her by a guy Channel 10 said was wearing "an Egyptian costume."  Maybe Sallah?  Incredibly, unbelievably beautiful, far more than the "supermodels" and "models" there.

Not a bad day, despite being packed in like sardines (since the Con violated fire safety laws and went way over the limit), and despite, once again (as at Terror Con in the same building), dealing with a staff who didn't know anything about anything.  At both Cons combined, I asked the staff about ten questions--mind-boggling things, like "Where's the nearest exit?" or "Where's the ATM?"--and each time I was told, "I don't know."  Literally, each and every single time.

So there's a lot of stuff for a lot of blog entries.  I'll cover one at a time, in the order I got their autographs, or their picture.  The list above is the exact order.

There'll be lots of pictures of the celebs and of their autographs, plus a bit on what they were in and how those movies or shows effected me.  Hope you like 'em.

Friday, October 31, 2014

American Horror Story--Freakshow--Edward Mordrake, Part 2--Episode 4--An Excerpt

Photo below: Just as last week, from http://verumfabula.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-curious-case-of-edward-mondrake/



Photo below: from the Huffington Post, at this site.



It's late at night and I've got writing to do, so--very quickly:

--Well, I sort of called it, as I did say that the Killer Clown was by far the most worthy of Mordrake to take with him.  AHS's creators did a good job of making the trailers look like Elsa was going to go.

###  Go to the whole blog entry at my AHS site to read the deleted stuff.  ###

--John Carroll Lynch--a.k.a. Twisty the Clown--has played tons of other roles in good TV shows and movies.  I remember him most as the main suspect in Zodiac (Didja catch the Zodiac homage in the first episode, the killings at the lake?) and as the pregnant cop's husband in Fargo.  Ayuh.

--And, strange to say, sorry to see Twisty go.  Felt the same about Gareth in Walking Dead.  They had charisma, man.  Which is hard to do if, like Twisty, you don't have any lines.

--Heard today that Lily Rabe will be back this season after all.  And she's bringing Sister Mary Eunice with her!  Apparently she'll explain how she and Pepper got to the Asylum.

--Speaking of Pepper, I met the real actress--Naomi Grossman--at a recent TerrorCon.  And she's pretty!  I was going to get her autograph, but I was short on cash, having bought waaaaaaaayyyyy too many posters.  Won't do that at Saturday's Comic Con.

--And I made eye contact with her twice, so hopefully I was polite enough to at least say Hello to her.  Knowing my social skills, probably not.  It was sort of like driving by a yard sale, really slowly, looking over everything, but never stopping the car or getting out.  Just a drive-by look and nothing.

***  Go to the whole blog entry at my AHS site to read the deleted stuff.  ***

--And now the twins are getting that way, too.

--Not sure Desiree Dupree's response to that kid was altogether appropriate.  She said, "I'm a woman and a whole lot more," or something like that.

--Let's hope we don't see Evan Peters and Emma Roberts in the tabloids again.  Last year, she apparently beat him up.  But she's likeable, and his character is already much better than last year's travesty.

--Word has it that the last three or four episodes haven't been shot yet, which is why they can add actors to the cast this late in the game.  I mean, Lily Rabe agreed to join the cast this week, which means she hasn't shot her scenes yet.  And only three or so episodes remain to be shot.

--Things apparently don't need to be planned any better than that.  Weird business.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel



Photo: from the author's webpage and bio section.  It's on her latest books, too.  And in Entertainment Weekly, which says that her newest, Station Eleven, is "the must-read of the fall."  I don't doubt that it is.  I love her writing, from her first book, reviewed here, to her online essays.  Good writing is good writing, no matter the form or the genre.

An exquisitely-written, stays-with-you little gem of a book, more about the people who are left behind than about the people who leave.

Very short, at 220 pages, but very deep about obsession, depression, leaving and staying behind.  The characters are all representatives, of course, more than they are flesh-and-blood, exactly, which made me hate Lilia a little less at the end, when we learn in the last few sentences of the book that she lived happily-ever-after (mostly) after all, despite all the (mostly unintentional, but c'mon) heartbreak she left in her wake.

But she has been thrown through a window, seen a man driven off the road, seen a woman pulverized by a subway train, and she never had a lasting friendship or relationship until she married in her late-20s after finally staying somewhere--in this case, Italy.  Some reviews hated on her character, and I could see their point, especially how this waif with tight dark hair just so easily grabbed relationships with men and women (bisexuality is hinted at in the book)--and all she has to do to get them is to read in cultured little coffeeshops...  Yet, I don't doubt that there are a lot of Lilias out there, and that there are indeed affected women who sit in coffeeshops all the time, and bookish male intellectuals trip over themselves to be with them.  Plus, looking at the author's picture, I think it might be a bit of a self-description.  Maybe a little Freudian analysis is necessary here.  But I digress...

Lilia is representative of a type, and not full-blooded, so I ultimately gave her a pass.  After awhile of thinking about it.  Plus, I'd sit down next to her in a coffeeshop...

But all the characters are this way.  They're representative, and many of them come off far worse than she.  There's the aforementioned mother who threw her young child out the window...which was closed, by the way.  And she left the child in the winter snow to freeze, too.  Luckily that didn't happen--the freezing, I mean. 

Then there's the detective father who is the real obsessive of the book.  He leaves his wife and daughter for weeks, months and, yes, years at a time, to track down Lilia and her father, long after her abduction ceased to be worth tracking down.  (She's in her 20s, and plus she was better off away from the free-throwing mother.)  This guy's wife leaves him, then he leaves his 15-year old daughter alone as he again obsessively tracks Lilia down.  Ultimately he ends up returning to his young daughter for a short time, but then he leaves again and disappears forever from her life.  It's possible he commits suicide somewhere. 

This girl, his daughter, quits school, which he doesn't notice, and eventually befriends Lilia, and then her ex- (who Lilia leaves at the beginning and who tracks her down in Montreal, in a fashion, but he actually latches on to this guy's grown-up daughter, kinda gets obsessed with her for two weeks and never really seems that intent to find Lilia...) and then she becomes a stripper, learns something even more unsettling about her father, and then kills herself.

She's the real victim here.

The above paragraph may make the book sound like a soap opera, but it's really not.  In lesser, untalented hands, this would have been a real mess, and worthy of mockery and lampooning--but it's in great hands, and really stylishly and compactly written.  It's not my kind of book, normally, but there's huge buzz right now about Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, so I wanted to read her early stuff first.  I also read a couple of her online articles--one about NYC's reaction to Ebola before the doctor got sick there--and those were very well-written as well.

You've got to read this one.  For the writing.  For the interweaving structure.  For what it says about those who leave.  And for what it shows about those who are left.

It's well-constructed, a bit haunting and lyrical, and it'll stay with you.  It'll resonate.

And, oh yeah--Don't go to Montreal in the winter.