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Where Love's Concerned, This 'Magic Barrel' Is No Magic Bullet

Jul 31, 2014

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Lena Finkle is a 37-year-old, twice-divorced Russian immigrant and a self-described "toddler of relationship experience" — when a friend asks how many guys she's "been with" in her life, she can only hold up three fingers. Anya Ulinich's new graphic novel, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is her account, told in expressive dark-inked drawings and hand-printed all-caps dialogue, of her quest to find true love — and good sex — and resuscitate what she depicts as her freeze-dried heart.

Finkle's saga takes us from her girlhood apartment block in Soviet Moscow — where she's molested by a pervert in the elevator — to a scathing guided tour of the nutcases and illiterates she meets through the online dating site OkCupid, some of whom are creepily similar to the students she teaches in her New York writing workshops. She tells one lover who asks what she likes, "I'm 'kinky' the way a tangled garden hose is kinky ... obstructed." His response: "You're good with words."

Bernard Malamud's classic story "The Magic Barrel" provides a template for Ulinich's novel; it stars rabbinical student Leo Finkle, who hires a matchmaker to find him a wife.

Like her near-namesake, Lena is aghast that she's never loved anyone body and soul (except her two daughters). She married her first husband, a stoner she met at a Phoenix 7-Eleven, in exchange for immigration papers shortly after she and her parents flew to Arizona on tourist visas in 1991. She met her second husband not long afterward, in the library at Arizona State University. Her story begins shortly after she decides to end their hostile 15-year marriage and move into a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her daughters.

Malamud's matchmaker claims he's got a whole barrel of additional prospective brides if none of his initial offerings suit fickle Finkle. Lena's own magic barrel houses a similar overflow, a seemingly endless supply of available — if not actually suitable — men. Yet, as Ulinich makes clear, there is no magic barrel or bullet where love is concerned. Instead, there's "panicked grasping for some kind of meaning."

Ulinich pulled off a similar tragicomic mix with Petropolis, a coming-of-age novel about a Russian mail order bride's search for her long-lost father (not to be confused with Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran after the Islamic revolution).

But she throws a lot at us in the opening sections of Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel. The blocks of dialogue, commentary, thought bubbles, and arguments with a miniature Lena — who represents her skeptical conscience — all vie for our attention and occasionally induce eye-strain and brain-drain. Background information is conveyed in facsimiles of ring-bound notebooks bearing titles including "The USSR Eighties" and "The Brief Romantic History of Lena Finkle."

I nearly bailed when I hit the dizzying two-page graphic spread titled "Romantic Inevitability—->And the Student Body, Arizona State University, 1992," but I'm glad I hung in there for her ghoulishly funny dating saga. Who would want to miss the bucktoothed weirdo whose shelves are lined with empty prescription bottles, the veterinary technician whose bedside table holds the unclaimed, mummified remains of someone's pet bunny, and the Don Draper lookalike who shies at sex? To her friends' consternation, Lena readily jumps into bed with some pretty horrific prospects: "It was kind of thrilling to get so close to a stranger — to get inside his house, his body — so fast!"

The novel deepens when Lena spots a man reading Malamud on a bus. Ulinich captures this intriguing character, with his glass eye, "odd face ... like a child and an old man," and high-pitched, soft voice in beautiful, haunting close-ups and intense conversations. A seemingly penniless carpenter who sleeps on a mattress in the Chinatown tenement he's renovating, "the Orphan" turns out to be a wealthy heir who hates money. He has a history of getting women (including Lena) to open up to him — but then he leaves "while the sex is still really good." Lena not only ignores all the red flags but lets us know what's coming, with early allusions to her "year of unreasonable grief."

Don't expect even a wishful happy ending like Malamud's, filled with fantasies of "violins and lit candles" revolving in the sky. This absorbing, brio performance is about a woman with a Russian soul who doesn't sugarcoat anything.

"No one ever truly arrives!" Lena exclaims. In other words, this immigrant's quest for love and connection in her adoptive home will continue.

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Water filled the stairs to a parking structure adjacent to the main entry doors of Pauley Pavilion, home of UCLA basketball, after a 30-inch water main burst on nearby Sunset Boulevard Tuesday. (AP)

20 Million Gallons Later, UCLA Water Main Finally Plugged

Jul 31, 2014

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After 30 hours, work crews have finally succeeded in shutting off the last of the water that gushed from a broken water main near the University of California, Los Angeles, campus.

There was so much water that police and fire teams had to rescue people from underground parking garages that became flooded by the estimated 20 million gallons that spewed from the 30-inch pipe.

Albert Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the main was completely shut off at 9 p.m. PT on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

Rodriguez said repairs are expected to be finished late Friday or early Saturday.

According to AP:

"At its peak, water was gushing at 75,000 gallons per minute out of the riveted-steel pipe, and by Wednesday afternoon it was still spewing 1,000 gallons an hour.

"Rodriguez says workers had a giant inflatable plug at the ready to stop the flow, but it wasn't needed.

"The break in the 93-year-old pipe left a swath of the UCLA campus including its basketball arena swamped with water."

Drought conditions in southern Calif., have led government officials to begin fining people for using too much water, a fact that struck many as ironic given the water main break.

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Getting a pizza delivered to a remote nuclear missle base is tricky. Unfortunately, the Air Force won't let you use their helicopters. (Dan Gage/USAF)

How To Order Pizza From A Nuclear Command Bunker

Jul 31, 2014

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I spent months working with the U.S. Air Force to get access to a remote underground nuclear bunker in Nebraska for our radio series on America's missile forces. There was only one question left to answer before I left.

What did I want for lunch?

The menu provided by the press office was eclectic. It included everything from a hamburger to chicken Alfredo with garlic toast to something called the "minuteman muffin" with sausage — a riff on the name of the Minuteman III nuclear missiles the crew oversees.

Faced with a multitude of choices (including the mysterious "gravy bowl" for $1.65), I decided to play it safe and order a grilled cheese for myself and a BLT for Sam Sanders, my producer.

But I was wrong to be worried. The men and women who keep the proverbial finger on America's nuclear button are actually a bunch of foodies. The job of nuclear launch officer requires them to undertake grueling 24-hour alerts, often twice a week. Food is what keeps them going.

"When I go on alert, it's my cheat day," Capt. Joseph Shannon told me as we loaded coolers packed with food for the missile base into the back of our military-issue Ford Taurus. On his menu: mozzarella sticks, french fries and purple Kool-Aid, a childhood favorite. "You've got to make it a home away from home," he says.

When we arrived at the above-ground section of the missile base Foxtrot-01, it did feel homey. Security and maintenance forces stay in what looks like just another house on the plains. There is a kitchen, with a chef who prepares all the meals.

Lt. Raj Bansal, the other member of the two-man missile crew I visited, was horrified to learn that I'd only ordered grilled cheese. "He's got to try the gravy bowl," he told Staff Sargent Nicole Boynton, the on-duty chef.

The chef didn't exactly recommend it: "The gravy bowl is a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, corn, chicken strips, gravy and cheese," she said. "It's a lot of food."

The bunker that controls the missiles is 60 feet below the surface building. When we arrived downstairs, we found food on the mind of the outgoing commander Lt. Kirsten Clark. Cable TV is allowed in the bunker — it keeps crews alert during evening shifts. Clark says she often watches the Cooking Channel.

The controls to nuclear weapons are kept behind an eight-ton door. But, believe it or not, crews do occasionally order out for pizza, using a phone they have in the bunker. The nearest pizzeria is in the town of Kimball, about 10 miles away.

But missile crews cannot leave the underground command center to pick it up. The security forces — the guys up top with the big guns — have to do that.

"The key is that you have to order pizza for everyone on site, in order to get the pizza," Capt. Shannon says. Otherwise it won't make it past the blast door.

As for my lunch? I decided to switch, but not for the gravy bowl. I ordered a grilled chicken taco.

It was tasty. And I gobbled it down while sitting at the controls for 10 of the worlds most dangerous weapons.

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Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some adventures together in the terrific new Guardians Of The Galaxy. (Marvel)

'Guardians Of The Galaxy': Let's Hear It For F.U.N.

Jul 31, 2014

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The worst thing about making a post-Avengers Marvel movie is how far ahead of the game you are when you start. Your film will be marketed with brute force, treated as arguably the biggest opening of the summer, reviewed everywhere, and very likely to land among the most commercially successful films of the year, whether or not you do anything interesting with it. From a professional development standpoint, it wouldn't be unreasonable to describe your task as "don't screw up." There's no reason for that not to inspire cautious tiptoeing, for it not to motivate a precise tonal copy of what's worked in films like Iron Man and The Avengers, and ultimately for it not to lead to a zillion-dollar effort to ensure a solid, uninteresting base hit, creatively speaking.

So it's particularly surprising how often Guardians Of The Galaxy feels very unlike other Marvel movies and other comic-book movies.

Directed by James Gunn (who also directed the offbeat superhero comedy Super) and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Guardians introduces us to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a capable and ambivalent wisecracking thief still working for the aliens who abducted him from Earth as a little boy, shortly after the death of his mother. As wisecracking thieves always do, Quill finds himself in a jam, and not long after, he's in jail with the mysterious and fearless Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the grief-stricken and huge Drax (Dave Bautista), a big walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the particularly mercenary Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). They soon find a common purpose, and we're off. There's an orb - oh, there's always an orb - and there's a preening and pronouncing bad guy (Lee Pace) who speaks at all times as if he's an action figure being waved around and given voice by a growling kid who's just recently discovered comics, and there's a message about the importance of friendship and teamwork.

What distinguishes Guardians Of The Galaxy is its tone, which arrives early in the form of the '70s mixtapes that Quill got from his mom, which he still blasts on his adored Sony Walkman. After the brief prologue, we first find him kicking and cool-guy-dancing through the puddles of a faraway planet while Redbone's "Come And Get Your Love" plays. He's very much a Marvel hero, but Pratt - a tremendously charismatic actor whose work as the huge-hearted and slightly foggy-headed Andy Dwyer on Parks And Recreation foreshadowed some of what he's doing here - gives him both a shaggier charm and a much more specifically comedic carriage than most Marvel heroes. This is not the suave, swaggering wit of Tony Stark; it is a much more uncertain and blithely goofy thing.

The simple fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is closer to a pure comedy is what distinguishes it most. Iron Man and The Avengers certainly are witty, but they're not comedies, and this is. Where those films largely depend on well-timed ironic understatement and the occasional Hulk-on-Loki beatdown for their chuckles, this movie has jokes. Lots of jokes. Plain old jokes. Laugh lines. Punchy cuts between serious action sequences and bone-dry, deadpan takes. It has wonderful face-pulling. It has mechanical-eyeball comedy.

What comes through so delightfully is a balance between the weary, sometimes skeptical but deeply affectionate good will of adults who love an enjoyable blockbuster and the campy, self-serious exploration of good and evil that kids can happily bathe in before they start to think of comics as fundamentally a capitalist enterprise. You could see this movie and then have a long debate over exactly what Pace is doing, how in on the joke he is, and how much he knows that intensity-wise, he's doing Release The Kraken MULTIPLIED by Emperor Palpatine TIMES Loki PLUS everybody who gets a mask pulled off his head at the end of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. It's not that he's not doing a real villain, but he's also doing the villain, the idea of a comic-book villain. While he's giving it all he's got when it comes to menace, his delicious super-ferocity is meant to work hand-in-glove with the more obviously comedic stuff that Quill's team is doing. (Interestingly, the constantly joke-cracking Rocket is probably the least successful invention on the team; Groot's limited capacity for comedy - he's a tree, remember - becomes the funniest bit of all.)

There's plenty of heart in Guardians, but it gets its emotional heft largely from the warmth that this kind of comedy inherently contains. Genuinely funny people engender sympathy (see the witty Hans in Die Hard), so comedy isn't just for giggles, it's also for resonance. But here's the thing: it's fun. F-U-N. Remember F-U-N? The thing that blockbusters used to be before they started crushing cities full of innocent people and seemingly forgetting all about them? The thing that the Richard Donner Superman was? The thing that used to at least be one of the most important big-money-movie elements, alongside bloodletting, franchising, and an unrelenting, ashen grimness that could be rounded off to approximate seriousness of purpose?

Yeah. Fun! I missed it.

On the downside, Guardians is probably least inventive in its aesthetic: it doesn't play like a Marvel movie, but its visuals sure look like one. Orbs, explosions, huge spacecraft ... all of this has been seen. There are a handful of very pretty shots - Gunn seems to have a fondness for floating and uses it in several places to lovely effect - and there's a nicely manic fight sequence between Quill and Gamora early on. But the branding of the Marvel Universe is certainly more consistent and more easily felt visually than tonally.

That music, on the other hand, is deftly chosen. Everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Michael Moore has done the bit where you play upbeat music over downbeat images for a kick of irony, but there are a few places in Guardians where songs, including "Hooked On A Feeling" (admittedly a well-worn weapon at this point), create a more complex sensation than the expected orchestral soundtrack would have. And while the other Marvel movies are similarly contemporary, they're also much more Earth-bound; it's a funny feeling - in a good way - to see people having epic battles over ancient artifacts in space and have the music create such a temporal link to this particular man's lost life on Earth.

It's easy to create a clean break between the satisfaction of popular entertainment and the rewards of great art, and that divide, while not quite as easy to define as it seems, is certainly genuine. What's much shakier is the idea that the satisfaction of popular entertainment is valueless while the rewards of great art matter. There's always been a place for F.U.N. - it's always been one of the reasons people seek out culture. To see it done really, really well, with purpose and energy and wit, is itself awfully rewarding.

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The Palestinian sister of Mohammed al-Daeri, 25, mourns during his funeral in Gaza City on Thursday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Conflict In Gaza: What You Need To Know Today

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 31, 2014

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Eyder Peralta

Perhaps signaling a widening of its offensive in Gaza, Israel called up 16,000 reservists on Thursday. That means Israel has activated 86,000 reservists since the conflict started.

USA Today reports that at the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy tunnels built by Hamas "with our without a ceasefire."

"Netanyahu said he won't accept any truce that will not allow Israel to achieve its goal of destroying the tunnel network it says is used to carry out attacks inside Israel," the paper reports. "Hamas said it will only lay down arms once Israel and Egypt give guarantees that a seven-year Gaza border blockade will be lifted."

With that, here's what you need to know as the conflict enters its 24th day:

— A Few Days From Destroying Tunnels:

Reuters reports that Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, said that the Israeli army was "a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels."

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson had a piece last night about network of tunnels:

— The Peace Process:

Correspondent Linda Gradstein tells our Newscast unit that there is still talk of a cease-fire.

"An Israeli delegation arrived yesterday in Cairo and a Palestinian delegation headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and including officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad is due to arrive in Egypt today," Linda reports.

— The Death Toll:

Citing the Palestinian Ministry of Health, NPR's Emily Harris reports the death toll in Gaza is 1,363 with 7,680 injured.

Israeli deaths held steady at 59, which includes three civilians.

— A U.N. Official Breaks Down:

There's one video making the rounds on the Internet this morning. As we reported, for the sixth time in this conflict a school run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency was hit by shells.

It killed more than a dozen and the U.N. condemned the shelling, saying the "world stands disgraced."

Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman, was giving an interview with Al-Jazeera when it all became too much and he broke down in tears:

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