Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Everything I Consume: The Golden Compass

I was reading this book on the subway when a woman started talking to me about what a great book it was. She felt it was much better than Harry Potter and the writing was fantastic. No one had ever done that to me before but I think I would have done the same thing if I saw someone else reading this book.

I loved The Golden Compass. I've never been a big fantasy fan — I read the first Harry Potter and stopped there - but this kept me hooked from start to finish. I was even sneaking to the bathroom to sneak in some reading. It's the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy and begins the story of Lyra, a twelve-year old girl in Oxford in an alternative universe where everyone has an animal daemon. She begins and epic quest involving disappearing children, talking bears, her mysterious uncle and an even more mysterious woman. The less you know, probably the better so forget I told you even that. Except that Iorek Byrnison is now my fifth favorite fictional character.

The writing is really first rate. The fictional world felt real to me and the action scenes were thrilling. There's a serious theme of the danger of organized religion and government's control over the truth. In fact, the controversy over whether this book is anti-religion was the first place I heard of it. I think this book is more about how any giant organization bends the truth and performs awful acts to support its own agenda but I have two books to go.

This series is so popular it has it's own Wiki, which is pretty cool.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Certain Common Themes in the early Fantastic Four

For the past few months I've been reading old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comic books to my daughter. I was glad to share one of the crown jewels of American literature with Gwendolyn but I noticed certain, shall I say, recurrent themes in these stories. In order to make sure I wasn't just imagining them I decided to make a chart of how often certain things occured. Please click on the chart below, it's a bit easier to read that way.
We can see how the classic Jack Kirby splash page of a crazy Reed Richards machine doesn't show up for quite awhile. Notice how the early themes of Ben transforming back to human form and his fights with Johnny slowly fade away. Reed is always there to catch a falling Human Torch until the FF's change of direction with issue #30. And Stan and Jack never got tired of a final panel of the whole team or the word "Bah!"

Well, enjoy. God know I wasted plenty of time on this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Everything I Consume: Fright

I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed reading Cornell Woolrich. He's just so creepy. All his novels and stories seem to involve questions of sanity and what really happened. Characters are always trapped with no way out. Often main characters are suspected of a crime and they're pretty sure they didn't do it but not totally. And the books end with a cruelly ironic twist that could put The Twilight Zone to shame. In The Bride Wore Black the main characters husband is killed on their wedding day. She spends years chasing down the men she believes responsible for his death only to find out at the end it was an accident and she's been killing the wrong people. That's cold and I think you have to be pretty cold to write something like that.

Woolrich's writing could be a little stiff and over-the-top with the plot proceeding proceeding at a glacial pace. I admit I was getting a little tired of Fright as it reached it's climax. Sometimes he seems like he's padding and it seems a little weird out of context but on the whole his books are very suspenseful. For example:

Death of a chocolate bar. Death and burial of a chocolate bar. Death of a man? What was the difference? Death was death, always death.
Woolrich's books inspired some great movies like Rear Window, Phantom Lady and The Leopard Man.

Anyway, back to Fright. It's about a man who sleeps with woman who then blackmails him. She keeps coming back for more until on his wedding day, he's taken all he can take and kills her. But things don't get any better as his fear of getting caught takes over and destroys his life. I liked it and recommend it but it's not as good as the best Woolrich like Black Alibi, Black Path of Fear and Deadline at Dawn. The main character just gets worse and worse and it pained me to read about how awful he made the life of his wife.

Everything I Consume: The Dain Curse

This movie dates from the late 1970s, the Golden Age of TV mini-series. It's actually three episodes coming in at about five hours. I'm a huge Dashiell Hammett fan but had never gotten around to seeing it for one reason or another. While it wasn't as bad as many of the commenters on Netflix think ("borderline horrible due to a weak script, hammy overacting/miscasting and a mind-bogglingly AWFUL jazz score that never shuts up") it's not that bad either. I'll admit some of the acting is pretty bad and the lead of Gabrielle is horribly miscast. Also, I wasn't crazy about giving the Continental Op a name and setting the story in New York instead of San Francisco. And there's a lot of padding. But on the whole it's kind of nice in a meandering, casual viewing sort of way. The crazy plot had enough going on to keep me interested and the sets were awesome.

The Wife likes to point out how the hair often gives away the year a movie is made even if it's set in the past or future. This movie has some severe 1970s hair.

Here's a cool page of old Dain Curse covers.

I almost forgot there are some nice touches for the Hammett fan. One of the character's last name is Collinson (Peter Collinson was an early nom de plume of Hammett) at one point a detective asks the Op, "That girl in Poisonville trusted you, didn't she?" a reference to Red Harvest.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fearless Predictions: League Championship Series

I went 3-1 in the divisionals (thanks, Cubs).

Only a fool would bet against the Rockies at this point, that's the easy one. The ALCS looks like a classic matchup but the Red Sox were clearly the best team in baseball this year and I have to go with them. But since I'll be rooting for the Indians it's a win-win situation.

I guess that's one fearless and one feckless prediction.

Everything I Consume: Ghost Wars

This book was like Afghanistan itself. I struggled mightily and picked up the book in stops and starts but, after much longer than expected, I finished it. Ghost Wars is the history of American involvement in Afghanistan from just before the 1979 Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. It's a story of failed opportunites and general half-assing it by the U.S. government. Despite enormous resources and dedication the government never comitted to actual action agains the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Unreliable foreign govenments like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were consistantly used to acheive American objectives instead of making a serious commitment. There was always something more important to do. After giving a detailed picture of Afghan politics the focus shifts away from Afghanistan to Washington after the Taliban takes over which is pretty telling. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 8, 2007

That can't be bigger that 1.25 square miles!

I hate to bag on the American Museum of Natural History, which is the greatest of all museums, but I was at the Mythic Creatures exhibit this weekend and the caption for the kraken stated that it was one of the largest of imaginary creatures at perhaps 1.5 square miles.

This is classic example museum speak in trying to exaggerate something to perk interest in it. How can you possibly scale imaginary creatures? It can't be verified. They exist in people's imaginations. And maybe one sailor was imagining a 1.75 square mile kraken while another was imaging a 1 square mile kraken. You know what? I just imagined a chupacabra three miles high. You think that's big? I'm imagining a kappa that carries the entire universe in the bowl of water on his head. My imaginary creatures dwarf the puny kraken!

Did sailors even try to put any kind of size descriptor on a kraken? I bet they said something like, "large enough to swallow this vessel whole" or "stretching from there to there."

I hate this sort of thing. If you can't get excited looking at the giant kraken model or realizing that explorers like Christopher Columbus and Henry Hudson believed in mermaids and sea monsters or by looking at beautiful old maps filled with pictures of krakens, sea serpents and other creatures some silly made up fact about how big a fake animal is won't do it for you.

Anyway, Mythic Creatures is a great exhibition and everyone should see it.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Everything I Consume: R. Kelly: Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22

This was a letdown after the first twelve chapters of Trapped. It just didn't have the audacity and energy of the original. The part in the restaurant (the one where you can smoke cigarettes and cigars!) felt endless and the main Sylvester character has been toned down, sort of like the way they make regular characters more likable over time on sitcoms. The worst part is since it ended on a cliffhanger I'm just going to come back for more.

Some of you sequel haters (and I know you're out there) might say all sequels are worse than the original so here's a partial list of sequels that are better than the original:

  • Aliens
  • Empire Strikes Back
  • Bourne Supremacy
  • Superman II
  • Evil Dead 2
This is a rip-off of my brother's obsession. Really, he can go on for hours about sequels that are better than the original movie.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Everything I Consume: Kill Now, Pay Later

This was another Hard Case reprint. Kudos on a wonderfully lurid cover, yowza! I got a lot of stares of the subway for reading this one. The rest of the book wasn't so hot. The writer just seemed to keep throwing out plot and hoping it would stick, much like the women in the book who keep throwing themselves at detective Ben Gates. I mean, he doesn't even try with these women and they're all over him.

The story starts with Gates being drugged at a wedding he is working and involves blackmail, dirty movies, hidden identities and arson. It's a big mess and by the end we're not really sure how we got there. The beginning reminded me of The Gutting of Couffignal and the end reminder me of Rebecca, which are two better stories. So, a servicable read that I was able to trade quickly on

My favorite part of the book was the blurb by Brett Haliday, creator of the Michael Shayne series. Author Robert Terrall was one of the ghost writers of the Michael Shayne series at this time so he may have blurbed his own book. Good for you, Robert!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Al Oerter

Al Oerter died Monday and I think a little attention must be paid. He's been one of my heroes since I saw a TV show about him when I was a kid. Oerter won the Olympic gold medal in the discus four times in a row. In 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968. Was there anyone, anywhere in the world who was the best at what they were doing in 1956 and still in 1968? All four times he wasn't favored, was coming back from an injury and he set an Olympic record. Twelve years after his last gold medal he tried out for the 1980 Olympics and made the team as an alternate but didn't go because of the boycott. Four years later, the 47-year old Oerter was trying out for the Olympic team when he tore his calf muscle before the finals. Less than a year earlier he had a throw that would have won the gold medal if he had been able to duplicate it in the Olympics.

Oerter was one of the old-school Olympic athletes. He worked in computers at Grumman Aircraft during his athletic career. This is a great quote from the New York Times obituary:

In his 60s, after a visit to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he lamented what he saw as a culture of professionalism entering track and field. “I saw athletes in their 30’s training full time,” he said. “That’s their life. What happened to the rest of it? I’m happy that I had a normal life, with a career and family. That makes a person whole.”

After Oerter retired he became an artist often using a discus to create his paintings. That last part is kind of weird but good for him.

Here's a good overview of Oerter and his career. He sounds like he was a nice guy, too.

Happy Shemini Atzerat!

My daughter goes to Jewish pre-school and its closed tomorrow for Shemini Atzerat. It will be the third week since school started that she's off for two and a half days because of Jewish holidays.

Now, I know most of my readers aren't Jewish and I'd love to get you up to speed but I can't because I've never heard of Shemini Atzerat, either. Forty years of being Jewish and I've never had a day off for this holiday. No one has ever made my feel guilty about not going to Synagogue for it, nobody made fun of me for not knowing what it was in Hebrew School, nothing.

Here's the story from

God grows nostalgic, as it were, and pensive. The people of Israel will not come together again in such numbers until Passover six months hence. God will soon miss the sounds of music and pleasure and the unity of the people. The Torah decreed, therefore, an eighth day of assembly, a final feast/holy day. … this day, Shemini Atzeret, is a reprise of the celebration of Sukkot but without any of the rituals. The message is that all the rituals and symbolic language are important but ultimately they remain just symbols.
If you can't read between the lines this is a holiday because there are so many freaking Jewish holidays this time of year. In other words, it's Holiday Day. Now, in Israel where they don't have time to screw around, Shemini Atzerat is merged into Simchat Torah (which is a legitimate holiday). But here in Brooklyn, not only is it a seperate holiday but Gwen's pre-school closes for Erav Shemini Atzerat aka Shemini Atzerat Eve aka Holiday Day Eve! Do Christians celebrate Chistmas Eve Eve? What about the month of pre-Ramadan for the Muslims?

Anyway, I'm outraged, as always.

Fearless Predictions: Baseball Divisional Series

If there's anything I can teach you, America, it's that if you stay you past your bedtime to see a sporting event don't turn it off in the top of the 13th inning when the visiting team scores two runs because the home team might score three. Why didn't somebody tell me this two days ago?

Rockies, Cubs, Indians, Red Sox.

Fearless Predictions Record:1-1

Monday, October 1, 2007

An Amazon Offer Few Will Take

My Work Neighbor Part 2

Just overheard talking to herself, "I hate my haircut, I hate it. I'm so pissed."

Total, Ultimate, Glorious, Victory

From the original British movie of Fever Pitch:
Paul Ashworth: [after Robert missed the goal at the end of the game] If you had to choose between wining this afternoon and Arsenal winning tomorrow night, what would you go for?
Robert: Tomorrow night of course!
Paul Ashworth: There you go then.
Robert: What, you're telling me, Arsenal are gonna win two nil at Anfield?
Paul Ashworth: I can't promise, can I? Well there's a, chance isn't there? You've done your bit, you've missed the penalty. If that's what it takes then it'll be worth it.
Robert: Yeah, course.

Well, I would have taken seeing the Mets in the playoffs over a fantasy baseball title but victory is mine. Hats off to David Ortiz who came alive in the Finals hitting .647 with 8 runs, 3 homers and 5 RBI.