Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Best of 2008! The Readers Weigh In

January 2, 2009

ribbonWell, the quantity of responses was a little disappointing, I admit. BUT the quality of the responses was anything but.  Each response I got for the “Best of” categories listed warranted either an immediate “Oh, yeah” or an “Ooh, I have to check that out” from me. So kudos to the respondents who were nice enough to participate.

And now, the list:

Best Fiction:

Bestseller by Keith Latch: A horror novel in e-book form, this was an area of unplumbed depths for me. Thanks for eBookguru for the recommendation.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin: This recommendation for this epic fantasy series also comes from eBookguru.

Best Non-Fiction:

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Although technically published in 2006, reader Jill read it in 2008 and loved it. I also read it in 2008 and was utterly blown away by the story, uncomplicatedly told, of Greg Mortenson’s journey from mountain climber to advocate for promoting girls’ education and literacy through his Central Asia Institute organization.

Best Music:

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne and Brian Eno. Reader Pam sums it up when she calls it “some yummy, brainy, infectious popaliciousness!”

Best Movies:

WALL-E (story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon): eBookguru thought this was one of the best films of 2008, and I have to agree. How does a film with so few words qualify as great writing? From the story, which transcended time and genre to transport kids and grown-ups alike.

Rachel Getting Married (screenplay by Jenny Lumet): Reader Jill voted for this film as one of the year’s best, because “I loved the characters who play against type.”

Now, for all you readers who perhaps partook of a little too much eggnog or were busy having family time, and didn’t get the chance to put your two cents worth in, I will still accept your recommendations! It is never too late (unless of course you’re writing about something from 2009, in which case it will have to wait).

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SNL Palin/Clinton Skit: When Satire Hits the Bullseye

September 14, 2008

I am jumping on this bandwagon as surely as the leaves are gonna fall, but I cannot help myself. In the past 24 hours, there have been a flurry of Twitter tweets and links to last night’s Saturday Night Live opening skit, even on the NPR website itself. So, in the event that you, like I, are happily dreaming on Saturday nights like the good nerds we are, I refer to you SNL’s spot-on national address by Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler). In a Presidential campaign that seems to be deteriorating before my very eyes into mean-spiritedness and outright lies, it is so refreshing to be able to take a step back and laugh at the whole thing.

Here’s the thing about satire. In the political arena, it can be more potent as a tool to expose the truth about the fictions that the parties and/or politicians are trying to feed us than any other form of writing. I don’t know if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wrote this particular opening skit (and they well may have), but props to the writers of this address for highlighting some of the biggest absurdities of the campaign to date.

Carefully Written: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red

September 4, 2008

Why Elizabeth George isn’t a mega-famous writer I will never know.  Maybe I’m wrong; maybe she is. All I know is that if I were at a party and mentioned Stephen King or Nora Roberts, everyone would know who I was talking about; if I mentioned Elizabeth George, I bet I’d be met with many more blank looks. Which is a shame, because she’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever ever ever read.

Even if you are a mystery lover, you may not have read Elizabeth George. This is because, while she is an American writer, she writes mysteries in the English style.  American crime fiction tends to be fast-paced, bodies being thrown out a window or otherwise dispatched every other chapter or so. British crime fiction, conversely, tends to have a slower pace, giving much more emphasis on character. You question such a gross generalization, you say? No less a writer than P.D. James has said:

The American crime novel seems to be very much in the hard-boiled tradition that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War – the end of puritanism, the Depression, Prohibition, gangsterism and so on. Your heroes tend to be tough and sensational, reacting very instinctively to danger and absorbing more punishment. Your stories are also generally set in a more violent society. While on the whole the British detective story is gentler, more pastoral. Because it is firmly rooted in the soil of British literary tradition, it shares assumptions that are strong in our literature; for example, the assumption that we live in an intelligible and benevolent universe; the assumption that law and order, peace and tranquillity are the norm; that crime and violence are the aberration; and that the proper preoccupation of man is to bring order out of chaos.

So there.

But back to Elizabeth George. Her latest novel, Careless in Red, is a continuation of the series of detective novels focusing on Sir Thomas Lynley, formerly of Scotland Yard. This is actually a magnificent book to read as a stand-alone way to enter the series, if you’ve never read the previous novels and don’t want to start at the beginning with A Great Deliverance. That’s because Lynley is essentially starting anew in this novel. Having recently lost his wife and unborn son to a horrific random murder, he’s resigned from Scotland Yard and run away from the violence of his world. Unfortunately, violence continues to follow him and he happens upon a death in the cliffside surfing town of Casvelyn.

Where George excels is her characters. There are no bit players in her novels. Every character having any relevance to the story has a full history and is utterly three-dimensional. Offhand, I can think of at least 12 major characters in this book, all of whom have sections devoted to their points of view. And yet the reader is never for an instant lost or left to wonder whose character is talking or did what to whom. She also describes her setting to the extent that it seems as real as the next room, and describes it in ways that give insight to the characters as well. For instance, when Lynley is first seen walking along the cliffsides, she writes:

A site marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following and he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the others.

This passage not only describes the landscape, but also Lynley’s grief-induced exhaustion and apathy.

Elizabeth George deserves to be read. She’s one of the very best there is.

By the way, if you want to debate the fine differences between American and British crime fiction, or if you disagree that there are any differences, fire away in the comments. I’ll take on all comers.

Slings and Arrows: Right to the Heart of Good Writing

July 11, 2008

I had for a couple years now been hearing about a Canadian series about a Shakespeare Festival that had been shown on the Sundance Channel and had a mad cult following. The series was called Slings and Arrows, and people talked about it as if it were the best thing to come out of Canada since Anne Murray. So, obviously, I had to check it out.

All three seasons are available as a boxed DVD set, which I obtained under guise of an anniversary present, and my better half and I have been having a fine old time watching all the episodes. It has been such a joy to watch that it’s one of those times when you’re sad when you’ve reached the end.

In a nutshell, Slings and Arrows follows the misadventures of the New Burbage Theatre troupe of actors and administrators during three seasons of plays. Its main characters are Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, one of the handsomest men ever, second only to Ewan McGregor – and my better half. . . – dodged THAT bullet!), the new artistic director of the New Burbage who sees ghosts and may or may not be completely crazy; Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, formerly of Kids in the Hall), hapless manager who loves musicals more than the Bard; and Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), the reigning diva actress whose diva-ness masks deep insecurities. In each season, the subplots of the cast resonate with some of the same themes of the Shakespearean play being produced. The series, created and penned by Susan Coyne, Tecca Crosby, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, expertly weaves the stories in and around Shakespeare‘s plays, and manages in the interim, to bring the Shakespeare itself to life as well. The final season’s performance of King Lear is about the most gut-wrenchingly good acting I’ve ever seen.

And lest you think that a show about Shakespearean actors would be serious and dull, consider some of these random dialogue moments:

Guard: Are you a suicide risk? Geoffrey Tennant: Isn’t everybody?

Richard Smith-Jones: What the hell are we going to do? I mean, I know what I’m going to have to do. I’m going to have to go to the Minister of Culture and beg for money like some kind of blind hurdler.

Richard Smith-Jones: Darren, everybody cries when they get stabbed. There’s no shame in that.

Mull that over for a few, then run, don’t walk, to rent or buy this wonderful series. It will be time well spent.

Animal Intelligence: Are You Smarter Than Your Pet?

April 21, 2008

CatAnyone who has ever owned a pet knows that the bond they share with that animal isn’t simply a projection of human qualities onto their pet, but part of the animal itself. Just like we brag about our children, we brag about our animals as well. My current cat will snuggle in front of the fireplace by burrowing under the area rug in front of the hearth, with just her nose peeking out. Considering she has no opposable thumbs with which to pick up a throw blanket and wrap it around herself, this solution seems like pretty smart problem-solving to me.

You can imagine my happiness, therefore, at picking up the March 2008 issue of the National Geographic magazine and reading Virginia Morell’s wonderful article “Minds of Their Own.” In this article, she profiles some of the latest research looking at the behaviors of many different species of animals. The expected brainiacs of the animal world are in profiled – dolphins, dogs, chimpanzees – but evidence of more complex cognition can also be found in animals such as sheep, not normally associated with being terribly bright. Not only is this information on the intelligence of animals really fascinating, but I found it enormously moving as well.

In one section, Morell describes the work Irene Pepperberg did for more than thirty years with Alex, an African gray parrot. Pepperberg theorized that if she could teach him to “learn” English by imitating its sounds, humans could gain a better understanding of avian cognition. As a result, Alex was able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of same and different, higher cognitive skills generally only ascribed to higher mammals. He also was able to assert his personality:

For the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes and materials (wool versus wood versus metal). . . And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird’s brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly,” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was also teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly.”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s just like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door, there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hallway into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

That passage made my eyes leak a little, I must confess. I am absolutely thrilled that the National Geographic website has posted this article online. But as wonderful as the story is, the photo portraits by Vincent J. Musi are equally amazing. Be sure to check out the photo gallery and accompanying video.

What’s your best pet brag?

Deliriously Lost in LOST

March 18, 2008

LOST - The ConstantI have been a fan of the ABC show LOST from the very beginning, with the terrifying crash of Oceanic 815 on the island (I don’t think airlines will ever be showing that episode anytime soon). I held on through seasons two and three, reveling in the introduction of Ben (played by Michael Emerson) – best multi-faceted villain EVER! – and even weathering through the bizarre introduction of Nikki and Paolo. And lo, I have been rewarded with this season of LOST, the very best of the LOST seasons yet.

What makes this show so great? Part of it is that the creators and writers of the series (hats off to you, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse) proceed on the assumption that the audience is pretty smart. Frankly, the series must be an absolute bear to plot out episode by episode: you have to keep the timeline of the island in mind, manage multiple inter-character relationships and dynamics, provide illuminating flashback or flashforward sequences, throw in clues to keep the ultimate mystery moving forward, and throw in Easter eggs and allusions to philosophy, religion, physics and more for the really obsessive fan (me, I’m only mildly obsessive).

But – and this is a big but (sorry, my inner fourteen year old couldn’t help itself) – many of the episodes stand up as standalone episodes, so that even the newer, uninitiated viewer could watch and be sucked into the drama. The best example of that from this season was “The Constant,” written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In this episode, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) has the mother of all bad reactions while traveling to the ship and begins literally to ping back and forth through time; he must find something or someone constant to both times and places to survive. Confusing to the new viewer? You bet. But also confusing to the veteran fan, who spent the first act wondering what kind of bizarro flashback this was. Ultimately, the episode gives us one of the most moving love stories that LOST has given us to date. Desmond connects with his constant – his star-crossed love Penny, with whom he hasn’t spoken in eight years. Their conversation interrupts and overlaps like waves slapping against the shore:

Penny: I’ll find you, Des-
Desmond:-I promise-
Penny:-No matter what-
Desmond: -I’ll come back to you-
Penny: -I won’t give up-
Both: I promise. I love you.

Wow. Goosebumps and welling eyes. It was a truly powerful episode.

What’s been your favorite this season?

THE WIRE Series Finale: Bowing Out Gracefully

March 11, 2008

McNultyMASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!! If you have not watched the finale of The Wire and plan to, or if you are currently still watching earlier seasons and don’t want to know what happens to all your favorite characters, READ NO FURTHER. I do not want to spoil your fun.

For the rest of us, that was just a lovely way to complete the series. No “this was just a dream,” no fading to sudden black, just a bittersweet tying up of all the story threads hanging loose. The episode, entitled “-30-“, was written by David Simon, with its story by David Simon and Ed Burns, the true powerforces behind the series. While the episode was all about endings, like most episodes of The Wire, it took its time getting there, with all the humor and pathos we’ve come to expect out of those characters.

What I personally loved about the finale was that it wasn’t a pure happy ending, but wasn’t a pure downer either. Certain resolutions were unsurprising: Gus getting demoted to copy editor while that putz Scott Templeton wins a Pulitzer; Marlo getting off for his drug crimes; Carcetti succeeding to the Governor’s mansion. Certain ends were heartbreaking: Dukie shooting up, having lied to his former teacher and mentor Prez about going back to school (random note – how awesome was it to see Prez, my favorite character, show up again and be self-confident!!); the fall of Daniels as a direct result of being an honorable man. And certain ends had a transformative redemptive quality to them. I loved seeing McNulty leaving the alcohol orgy of his wake to go sit on the stoop with Beadie, although you could see the worry in her eyes, asking “How long can this last?” I loved seeing Bubbles, having allowed himself to be portrayed as a “good guy” in The Sun, put on his celebrity sunglasses as he sold papers, and be allowed into the main floor of his sister’s house, the basement door finally unlocked. And I especially loved the montage of Baltimore’s faces, which seemed to say to me, “There are a million stories here; we have touched upon only a few.”

My favorite lines from the finale:

At Jimmy’s “wake”:

Landsman: If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you standing over me catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.
Bunk: Shit, if you was layin’ there dead on some corner, it was probably Jimmy that done ya.

And Daniels, talking with his ex-wife councilwoman, after she tells him, “The tree that doesn’t bend, breaks, Cedric.” Daniels replies, “Bend it too far, you’re already broken.”

The Wire never deviated from its vision. It never broke.

Who Needs Therapy? Watching IN TREATMENT

February 24, 2008

Gabriel Byrne - In TreatmentI’m the latest victim to HBO’s insidious viewing experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? For its latest series In Treatment,” rather than introduce the series with one episode per week, HBO has taken the approach of airing Gabriel Byrne and his luscious Irish voice five nights a week. Each night highlights the therapy session of a different patient, with Fridays dedicated to the sessions between the therapist Paul (Byrne) and his own therapist, Gina.

I suppose there that some out there who have sampled the program, decided they hated a certain day’s patient, and have been able to omit that day from their schedule, thus regaining back some of their own life. Not me. I’m as enthralled by the patients I despise (Yes, I’m talking about Laura and Alex) as the one who breaks my heart on a weekly basis (Sophie, anyone?). And I can’t miss Friday, because that’s when you get to hear what Paul actually thinks about having these people lie to themselves in front of him all week.

The show is based on an Israeli series, “Be Tipul,” and the writing has been stellar throughout. Many of the episodes have been penned by the show’s executive producer and director, Rodrigo Garcia (who, in your trivia of the day, is the son of the literature Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez), although many other fine writers have contributed to the series. It must be a major challenge to present compelling drama from what is overwhelmingly dialogue only. And yet, each episode has a short story structure with development and movement. The dialogue is not static and shows us as much as it tells.

I do wonder if there might be a gender divide in viewership, however. The men I have spoken with who have sampled episodes of this show have uniformly disliked it; women seem to be much more intrigued to follow Paul and his patients on their therapeutic journeys.

Who out there is watching? What do you think? I’m listening.