Babel (2006)

From the title, and the trailer, I was expecting Babel to be a modern day reinterpretation of the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel where languages divided the workers. However, this wasn't quite what the movie was.

The base story is that Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett are off in Morocco on a vacation of some sort with their children left with their Mexican maid. A family of local goat herders in Morocco acquire a rifle to defend the herd from the ravenous jackals. When the boys decide on a little extra target practice, the tour bus gets hit by the bullet. Blanchett's character ends up with a bullet in her- more on that later. We then follow the couple as they seek medical care in a desolate desert, and counter to that the Moroccan authorities search for the shooter. So far so good.

Kind of like the film Magnolia, we have some other stories that intertwine this base story. One subplot follows the Mexican maid taking the couple's children south of the border to attend a family wedding. All right, at least this fits into the plot somehow. However, the last subplot involves a precocious deaf Japanese teenager, and here estranged relationship with her father in light of the recent loss of her mother. While it does finally tie into the main plot, it is cursory at best, and adds almost nothing to the film. It really slows down the pace of the plot to a standstill, and should have been mostly edited out instead of having scenes drag on- even with the remote punched up to 8x! Seriously, there is just too much distraction going on from the main plot.

Once again, I take issue with the injury, the treatment, and how the medical issues progress. Above, I've pasted in the image of where the bullet entered Blanchett's character. Later on, they do confirm that her clavicle was fractured from the trauma. It is a left supracavicular penetrating trauma. If one were choosing a location to be shot, this is not the place to request.

To the left, I've pasted in the relevant anatomy. We can see that of great concern would the sublavian vessels- the artery is in red, and the vein in yellow. Both run just underneath the clavicle. Also remember that a bullet will cause a cone of injury, and unlike a knife, injure surrounding tissue. From the site of entry of the bullet, Blanchett's character would have bled to death quite quickly. There is also, not pictured in the diagram another important structure known as the left lung. When a bullet enters the chest (pleural cavity), it will almost always cause a tension pneumothorax, which is another rapidly fatal cause of trauma death. Between the subclavian vessels causing exsanguination, and the lung collapsing, there would not be time to wander around the desert like depicted in the film. Oh, and a vet (no less) sewing up the skin from the outside would do nothing to temporize things, and would make the pneumothorax worse. All right, I feel better after explaining that there is no way she was walking out of any hospital looking fine.

So what's the final verdict? While the base plot in Morocco is riddled with implausible "medicalese" issues, at least it held my attention. The rest, including the side trips to Mexico, and even worse, Japan, needed some more diligent pruning. I'm aware Babel got nominated for a bunch of awards, I'm still recommending that you pass this one by.

Overall Grade: B-

Read another opinion of this film here.


AZU-1: lifehack

Joseph Picard's novel AZU-1: lifehack blends horror, action, and science fiction together in a novel broken up into four parts. Alas, the result is less an infusion of originality or excitement in the genres than it is a case of weak writing.

In the not-too-distant future, the city of Autar is intended as a technological marvel of housing and technology. Regan Grier -- a spunky, irreverent lesbian -- comes here to visit and mooch off her brother Harold, who's working on experiements in nanotechnology in the city. In almost no time at all, something happens and Autar is filled with rampaging zombies!

Fast forward two years, and a military team enters Autar to find Regan the sole survivor. In no time at all officer Alisia Terone is hunting zombies (and fending off Regan's sexual advances), a mad scientist pops up, the zombie threat is contained then spreads again, Regan's ex shows up, the heroes go zipping around on their own specialized helicopter-type vehicle, and lots of guns get fired.

Nothing in AZU-1: lifehack is wholly creative. Worse, Picard really needs help with his style. Description is frequently scarce, sections called "infodumps" are little more than third-person omniscience that is somewhat like a file (but is too subjective and current to work as such), chapter lengths vary without reason or effect, the characters are largely one-dimensional, and several pop-culture puns are just painful. This book also could have used better editing: I caught several typos, not to mention the invariable use of "it's" for "its."

AZU-1: lifehack is an okay throwaway read, but that's about it.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch


Blood Diamond (2006)

Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo Dicaprio is startling look at the diamond trade along the Ivory Coast of Africa. It is gritty, violent and realistic, and I believe based on a true story, although we are never quite told that. While it drags on at over two hours and twenty minutes, it is a tale that is not soon forgotten, and quite an eye opener.

Dicaprio plays Ben Archer, a mercenary that got into diamond smuggling. The plot follows the trade of the precious gemstone. Sierra Leone mines the diamonds from the river, but they are banned from exporting them because they are a conflict zone. The Western countries go along with this because in the end it pushes up the prices of the diamonds and is good for their business. Neighboring Liberia, which has no diamonds of its own, exports them by the millions. This is already bad enough.

The real atrocities occur as Sierra Leone, which has a government only on paper, is in a state of borderline anarchy, at least in 1999 when Blood Diamond takes place. Outside the major city, the only law is that of the gun. Warring factions and revolutionary armies inflict torture and killing on towns, and take people as slaves to obtain the diamonds. These then infuse cash into the rebels that can in turn buy more weapons, and thus the cycle continues. Unfortunately for Africa, their own worst enemies are themselves. We see firsthand how little a life is worth in Sierra Leone.

The tale is told as we follow on African, Solomon who is taken to work for the rebels. His family gets divided, and his son turned against him. He crosses paths as Ben Archer hears of a rare, and particularly large, pink diamond comes into his possession. Predictably, the quest to retrieve this exotic diamond involves danger, tenuous partnerships, and some bloodshed.

In my view this film has three weaknesses. The first is that it clearly is too long. While the scenery of equatorial Africa is beautiful, there is too much of it. The movie drags on as we look at scenes that should be on some Discovery HD feature. Also, they could have ended it way sooner. I won’t give it away, but the last fifteen minutes could have ended up on the cutting room floor, and no one would have missed it. The other weakness is that Blood Diamond works a little too hard to try to make us Westerners feel guilty that our obsession with diamonds causes so much misery in the Third World. They admonish us to buy “conflict free” stones, but I can’t even make sure my tuna is dolphin free, and there are no chemical differences, and they get mixed in with the legitimate rocks, so I have no idea, short of mining it myself, how anyone would do that. As I don’t buy jewelry, I have little to be guilty of in this department anyway. The last weakness is that Dicaprio’s character, with his African accent, makes him unintelligible at times. Without the subtitles on the DVD, I would have really struggled to follow the film.

Blood Diamond
is a far more realistic view of Africa than is too often shown in American films, like in Out Of Africa, or even The Constant Gardener. It tells a bloody tale that should not be ignored. If you’re looking for a moral lesson, which will convince you to never purchase a diamond again, (or book a vacation to the Dark Continent), than Blood Diamond is sure to fit the bill.

Overall Grade: B


White Death (2003)

I’ve rarely been disappointed with a book with Clive Cussler’s name on it, but this one did disappoint me. This is the fourth book co written in the NUMA Files series with author Paul Kemprecos, and is the sequel to Fire Ice. Perhaps it should be renamed the “Eco Files” as this series tends to focus more on ecological issues, than some of the other Cussler novels.

I was pleased that White Death did use the two background story technique that is only rarely used (my favorite novel that uses this is Sahara, definitely read the book and for sure skip the movie). The background stories focused on a sea battle from 1515, and a Nazis hydrogen airship on a secret polar expedition.

The formulaic elements are mostly present including the series heroes Kurt Austin, and Joe Zavala. We also get the visits from maritime historian St. Julian Pearlmutter, and Admiral Sandecker. White Death has the domineering multinational corporation looking to take over the world with their new technology- bioengineered fish. There are also some new technology toys such as the dive suit and the Sea Lamprey rescue sub. So far, this book isn’t that different from most of the novels of the series.

The weakness of White Death lies in the prose. There are a few too many characters to start with. Then, let’s add in that the prose is simply not as crisp as the works that Cussler writes alone. While he can outline the plot, and subplots for the coauthor, the crisp Cussler prose, that is quite poetic at times simply cannot be easily duplicated. This makes this book the written equivalent of a direct to DVD movie. It doesn’t make it bad per se, but not exactly A-list stuff either. At times, the plot gets quite confusing, and that is rare in a Cussler work.

Who should read this? For those of us who are true Cussler fans, than we want to read all of his works, and then White Death belongs on the list for the sake of completeness. It does have some redeeming scenes, but they don’t fit together as neat and tidy as in some of his other novels that gel so nicely at the conclusion. For those looking to get introduced to this author, I’d strongly suggest that you start with the original Dirk Pitt series which is considerably stronger than this offshoot.

Overall Grade: B-

On The Lot (FOX Television)

At first I rolled my eyes when I saw that they were going to have a competition to become a film director into a reality based television show. Was this simply another attempt at Survivor or The Apprentice? Having accepted the fact that Treasure Hunters wasn’t coming back for a second season, I decided to check On The Lot out.

From thousands of short film submissions, fifty aspiring film directors were brought out to Universal Studios in California (as an aside, if you’ve never been there, it’s a really fun place for a visit). The goal is to have one emerge as the winner of a movie studio contract.

Judging the competition is legendary director Gary Marshall, almost has been Carrie Fisher, and Brett Ratner known for the X-Men series. In the end, we can hardly say that these three haven’t had enough experience to know what goes into directing a movie.

Their first task was to pitch a movie. They were randomly given one of five taglines, and literally overnight, had to come up with a sketch of a plot and characters to try to sell their movie to the judges who played the role normally occupied by Hollywood moguls. As Marshall points out, at over 100 G’s a day to shoot a film, these guys don’t want to take a chance on a project that the director is not sure of himself. In the end, the pitch is about selling oneself as much as selling the film itself.

After the pitch, we were down to thirty contestants. The next task is to work in groups of three to write and direct a 2.5 minute short film using three included locations. On this task, those that don’t work and play well with others are clearly at a disadvantage.

Based on the pilot, so far I’m hooked. I learned something about film making, and look forward to seeing how the competition progresses. On The Lot also looks like it will use the internet to interface with the audience to allow them to view the films that these young directors produce during the competition. Look for the show on Thursday on the FOX network at 9:30 PM, EST.

Overall Grade: B

Eric Bogle, At This Stage (Rouseabout, 2005)

Over the years since he emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1969, Eric Bogle has developed an enormous reputation in folk and Celtic circles. It could be argued quite compellingly that nobody has written better songs about war. Bogle's songrwriting covers many facets of the human condition, though, with plenty of humor to counterbalance the sadness. The original version of the album At This Stage consisted of a concert from 1984 and contained most of what would be considered his greatest hits. This two-CD set, released in 2005 with the same title, contains all the material from the original version along with some performances of newer tunes.

Every song except the very first one ("Hard, Hard Times," about the plight of aboriginals) is preceded by an introduction on a separate track. The listener thus has the option of skipping all the talking, which gets quite lengthy at points, but the introductions do provide a considerable amount of insight into Bogle's personality and songwriting, along with the true stories behind most of the songs. "A Reason For It All" was inspired by an article about a woman whose body was found in her house nearly a year after her death; nobody, not even her two children, had checked up on her during that whole time. "No Man's Land," a classic song about the brutally pointless waste of an entire generation of young men in the First World War, was written after a visit to a hopelessly vast French graveyard. Bogle's trademark song is the often-covered "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a song about an ANZAC soldier critically wounded by a Turkish shell in Gallipoli. In the introduction to this song, Bogle mentions a letter received from somebody who identified himself as A. Nonymous. This person felt that the song was crippling the moral fiber of Australian youth and preventing them from opposing communism. When the yellow tide reaches Australia, the writer went on -- Bogle wasn't sure if the "yellow tide" referred to the Chinese or Russians with jaundice -- he hoped Bogle would be among the first to get shot. On one level, I suppose it's reassuring to know that crude comments from ignorant right-wingers preceded the internet by at least a decade or two.

Bogle also has written some very humorous songs, which provide some needed relief from the very weighty material in his typical set. "Nobody's Moggy Now" was inspired by a truck route into the outback that evidently runs through some residential areas, leaving colorful displays of feline roadkill along its sides. (Cat lovers might consider skipping this one, but if you know the song and like it, Bogle's flub on the word "masticating" is worth the price of the CD.) Giving equal play to dogs, "Little Gomez" tells the tale of a rather horny chihuahua who meets his match trying to mate with a St. Bernard. His set closer is "I Don't Know Any Bob Dylan." It was the curse of folkies in Bogle's generation to be asked to sing Dylan songs everywhere they brought their guitar, whether they wanted to sing Dylan or not, and Bogle vents his frustrations in a very funny way with this song.

The performances on At This Stage are quite solid throughout, and at least match the studio versions that I've heard. As Bogle's "best of" CD's are much harder to find presently than this album is, this is as good an introduction to Bogle's music as you're likely to get. Certainly "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and "No Man's Land" (also called "The Green Fields of France" by some of the performers who've covered it) are songs that everybody should know. Of the newer songs, my favorite is a light-hearted song about continuity in life called "The Dalai Lama's Candle," originally recorded in 2002. Eric Bogle is a master of eliciting powerful emotional responses from his audiences. Sometimes he'll make you laugh, and sometimes he'll have you reaching for the kleenex. At This Stage brings together most of his best songs in a live context, complete with the stories behind them. Any fan of Bogle, and anybody interested in hearing a great singer-songwriter, will like this recording.

Overall grade: A


Snakes On A Plane (2006)

I had heard that Snakes On A Plane was dismal, but I decided to watch it anyway. You may recall that the studio kept this one under wraps, and kept any advance screenings, and thus critics away, relying solely on some type of internet marketing scheme. In the end, that was a wise move, as this film is simply a flop.

Samuel Jackson lends his credible star power to the effort, but it can’t overcome the weak script, and clichéd dialogue. The plot revolves around a star witness against an organized crime boss. They need to get him back from Hawaii to California for his testimony. The criminals decide not to simply shoot the witness, not to bomb the plane, but rather to load the 747 full of poisonous snakes. This has to be the dumbest plot idea since lasers on sharks in Austin Powers, and that was a spoof, and at least humorous.

A few hours into the flight, we have snakes slithering around the aircraft, chewing through avionic wires, and hissing through the floorboards. I don’t generally like flying, and I like snakes even less, but all of this combined to be more outrageous than anything else. Adding to the ridiculousness is that the snakes are obviously computer generated animated, and just not too realistic. It simply appears that they are superimposed on the scenes, and they are never convincing. This type of film could have redeemed itself on the special effects, but clearly only dropped another notch in this department.

Adding to the ludicrousness is that there are no snakes anywhere on the Hawaiian Islands. That’s right, those reptiles without legs are not even part of the natural ecosystem, and they are banned from being introduced onto the islands. Even tourists get screened from bringing them in, so it would have taken a really big smuggling effort to bring in that many snakes. Of course, it’s not impossible, but the whole premise is not too plausible to begin with.

Overall, you can add me to the chorus of critiques that feel that Snakes On A Plane is a complete bust. There is simply no reason to recommend this film to anyone for any reason.

Overall Grade: D

Traveler, ABC Television

Traveler is the first of the summer season shows to make a debut on the ABC network. While I watched it last week because it was after Grey's Anatomy, it looks better than most "fill-in" shows that sub in during the warmer weather.

The show starts with a bang- literally. Three recent Yale graduates, and collegiate house mates embark on a cross country road trip to prolong their adolescence for one more summer before starting their jobs. They drive just a hop away to the Big Apple for the first leg of the journey. While two of them pull off a prank that involves roller blades at a city museum, the third is somehow involved with a deadly explosion. The pranksters are on surveillance video, and presumed to be in on the plot as accomplices. One of the graduates is a lawyer, and he computes that there is zero chance of a fair trial, and decides to go on the run. The bomber, who studied chemical engineering, is suggested to be dead, although I have my doubts.

The show adds depth to the characters by showing flashbacks to their time at Yale. After all, these two roomed with the bomber for two years, but how well did they really know him? The on the run in a conspiracy against them aspect of Traveler reminds me of CBS' cancelled The Fugitive, and more recently, FOX's Prison Break.

For those tired of remade reality shows this summer, Traveler is a drama of quality. While waiting for the postman to bring your next Netflix video, check it out Wednesday's at 10 PM EST. It returns on May 30th, but if you missed the debut episode, you can catch up online here.

Overall Grade: B+


Hazard Pay, Discovery Channel

The latest twist of reality television brings us Hazard Pay. Here, host Curt Doussett takes us on a weekly adventure to do dangerous jobs that don’t generally pay all that much. In short, he tries his hand at the type of employment that thankfully someone else will do, and makes our current job seem not that bad after all.

What types of jobs am I talking about? Some of them are animal based like a 'gator catcher, a killer bee remover, or a snake venom extractor. Others involve extreme heights like a window washer, or climbing a radio antenna. Still others involve their own dangers like a San Fran bike messenger, a deep sea welder, or a fireworks technician. Finally, some will likely get you bodily harmed such as a prison guard, hockey goalie, extreme fighter, or doing car repossessions.

Needless to say, most of us wouldn’t make it too long in any of these positions, and thankfully don’t have to. Each hour long episode focuses on two or three of these jobs. They go through the inherent dangers, and then Curt gets some minimal training. He then gets suited up, and does his best to get the job done. I will say that I’ve been impressed that just about every task he has been given he has accomplished. I would have run out of the snake warehouse far faster than he did, especially when the poisonous snake got loose and tried to bite! Just in case you’re thinking this is a job you’d like, after he’s done it, they show the reimbursement of the position which should convince you that it is simply not worth it (seriously, $55 for removing a killer bee’s nest sounds way too cheap!). In more than one episode, I was surprised that he wasn’t seriously hurt, and hope that the show doesn’t have to be canceled because the host suffered an untimely death.

In summary, Hazard Pay is an intriguing look at some jobs that need to get done, but we don’t hear much about. Whether for entertainment, or contemplating a career move, this is a good show that successfully combines imparting knowledge with some fun. Check it out on the Discovery Channel Wednesdays at 8 PM, EST.

Overall Grade: B

Gomez, How We Operate (ATO Records, 2006)

Gomez have now been a part of the British indie-rock scene for a full decade. They released a live album called Out West and a compilation album Five Men In a Hut since their previous studio album Split The Difference came out in 2004, before returning with new material on their 2006 release How We Operate. The new album is not quite as quirky as some of their past work, consisting largely of straightforward guitar rock. This has drawn some criticism from long-time fans, but as a recent convert I'm still impressed by the overall quality of their writing and musicality.

The band is fairly unique by today's standards in that it boasts three capable singers in Ian Ball, Tom Gray, and Ben Ottewell. All three also play guitar, with bassist Paul Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock filling out the band's sound. Each singer contributes some good songs to How We Operate. Most of the songs deal with the ups and downs of relationships. Often this is done with some humor; Gray sings of a "Girlshapedlovedrug" that messes with his mind, while on "Cry On Demand," Ball laments getting into trouble with his girlfriend because what happened in Vegas didn't stay there. But like I said when reviewing Five Men In A Hut, Gomez reaches a different level when the husky-voiced Ottewell sings lead. This is especially true on the brilliant title song, and the hard-rocking "Tear Your Love Apart."

I've still really just scratched the surface with Gomez, but so far I've found lots to like. How We Operate suggests that the band are still at the top of their game ten years in, and that they'll likely have plenty to offer in the future.

Overall grade: A-

One-Half of Robertson Davies - Robertson Davies (1977)

This book, subtitled "Stories, Lectures, Secular Sermons," is a collection of speeches written by Davies over the years to be delivered at various occasions - after dinner speeches, eulogies or memoriams, graduation addresses and the like. As such they cover a wide range of topics, each one suitable to the audience, whether it is undergraduate writing students or an association of professional architects. Each individual piece is short, or at least shortish, and although the subject matter is diverse the wit and humanity of Davies shines through in each piece.

Davies, as I have written before, is a very human writer. Whether you feel about his characters, they are unmistakably human, partaking both of angel and devil, in a way that literary creations often fail to do. Davies is a keen observer, an accomplished and erudite writer, and possessed of a great affection for the grand but often messy creatures that make up mankind. All of those qualities shine in these short, primarly non-fiction pieces. (In addition to the speeches, there are a few ghost stories written for Gaudy Night celebrations at Massey College where Davies taught.)

The book is broken up into a few sections, poetically named "Garlands and Nosegays" (tributes and memorials), "Giving Advice," Jeux d'Esprit" (mostly ghost stories), "Thoughts About Writing," and "Masks of Satan" (meditations on the nature of evil). The result is a range of insights into a fascinating man. The book is ideal for bedtime reading or casual browsing, since the individual pieces are short; one can dip into the well of words and then drift gracefully off to sleep in the company of a great mind.

While the book stands on its own, it is most interesting to those who are familiar with Davies' literary output (which is highly recommended). The reflections of the man inform the fiction and vice-versa. However, traveling the other way would be a fascinating journey as well. I can hardly imagine anyone who could read the piece entitles "The Conscience of the Writer" without wishing to see the "speaker" put his principles to work. For that matter, I find it likewise difficult to imagine that any fan of literature would not also wish to seek out those whom this writer himself esteems. Indeed, it was after reading the piece entitled "Gleams and Glooms" that I sought out the works of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, the Irish writer of uncanny stories who died in 1873. I have not regretted that quest. (LeFanu's work is available via Project Gutenberg.)

In short, the book is thought-provoking, charming, amusing and warm. It serves well as either an introduction to Davies, or an accompaniment to his fiction. In either case, it is highly recommended.

Overall Grade: A-

Deep Storm (2007)

I've enjoyed the Preston and Child novels, so when I saw that Lincoln Child wrote a solo novel (it is actually his third...) I took a look. In terms of originality of plot, Deep Storm is up there. This novel focuses on Peter Crane, a naval doctor who is well known for his clinical acumen in diagnosing underwater diseases. When a mysterious outbreak occurs at a deep sea archeology site, he is called in. He soon realizes that this dig for a lost civilization is not what it seems, and there is substantially more going on here.

While Deep Storm is intended to take place in the present, it reads more like science fiction. The fantastical descriptions of the undersea dig site are rich, and well done. They are also more plausible than a lot of science fiction that leaves me cold.

Throughout the novels of Preston and Child, we have the undercurrent of man vs. nature. No matter how much man prepares and plans for every possibility, nature always wins. This theme runs throughout Deep Storm as well, and carries it forward.

I was pleasantly surprised that there were no medical errors. It probably helped that the disease doesn't exactly come out of any medical textbook. On the other hand, there was an obvious error in WiFi network frequency. Lincoln, just so we're clear, both 802.11b and the newer 802.11g operate on 2.4 GHz not 5.1 GHz like you stated. Perhaps you were thinking of the less common 802.11a, which works on 5.8 GHz? While it is a small point, I do expect my technothrillers to get the tech accurate.

Overall Deep Storm is an awesome read. Its original plot, combined with the intrigue consistent with this author's previous works make it the must read of this year. Any lover of science fiction or thriller literature will treasure this book.

Overall Grade: A


Spacetime Donuts - Rudy Rucker (1981)

Spacetime Donuts is a rare combination of psychadlia, counter-culture sci-fi and abstract mathematics. It is territory Rucker covers in other books, notably White Light which predates Spacetime Donuts in publishing history but postdates it in actual time-of-writing.

The book itself is a delightfully chaotic mish-mash. Set in a dystopic-disguised-as-utopic future US, called now Us ("Us is Users and Users is Us - Us needs you, 'cause you're Younique!"), the book's plot concerns a sixties-style counter-culture revolution with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll with some bombs thrown in for flavor. What makes it special though is the science and philosophy that Rucker manages to inject into the narrative.

Rucker has a Ph.D. in set theory and firm grasp of higher math and theoretical physics. The title Spacetime Donuts refers to the idea of circular scale, if you take something and start expanding it, eventually you roll all the way around and without ever changing "directions" end up approaching where you started from the small end of the scale - the way if you take a circle drawn on the inside of a donut and start "rolling" it up, the circle gets larger until it reaches a maximum size, and then starts shrinking, although you are still rotating it in the same direction. (Rucker admits, in the mouth of one of his characters, that it's a flawed analogy, but still ...)

Another point which Rucker works entertainingly into the story is that of the nature of consciousness, the paradoxes inherent in self-awareness and how this is a problem for "Artificial Intelligence."

All this, and quotes from Frank Zappa!

Ultimately, the book is not quite as good as White Light. It's a little dated and not as assured as some of Rucker's later work. However, it's still pretty darn good, and manages to work the math into the story so smoothly that it just seems like a series of cool concepts rather than some dry academic exercise. Well worth the time spent reading it.

Overall Grade: B+


Bachelors Anonymous - P.G. Wodehouse (1974)

I often read Wodehouse as a sorbet, a palate cleanser between heavier attacks at the world of literture. They are always delightful, never dull, and invariably end on an up note with conflicts resolved, heroes triumphant - or at least not disinherited.

This particular Wodehouse is not one of his series books, rather it is a stand alone. Written in the 70's, it reads as if it was written in the 20s and is set in a world which is pure Wodehouse. That world is perhaps his greatest achievement; whether he is writing of Jeeves and Wooster or, as in this case, of Ivor Llewellyn of Superba-Llewellyn studios, the world is clearly Wodehouse's own. A world where confirmed bachelors have formed Bachelors Anonymous, a society patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, to protect themselves from such things as giving a girl dinner, for who knows where such things might lead?

Such things have led Ivor Llewellyn, aka I.L., to five marriages. Thus it is that Mr. Ephraim Trout of Trout, Wapshott and Edelstein flies to London to prevent I.L. from falling, as he is all too wont to do, into the clutches of yet another female. Of course, there are also several young couples whose courses of true love are not running true, they never do you know. Coincidence follows coincidence, incident follows incident, and soon enough everyone is married or engaged - all happily.

One doesn't read Wodehouse for plot, one reads him for style, and his style here is in fine form. There really is little more to be said. The prose shimmers, and if it is not quite the delightful nonsense Bertie Wooster spouts, it is still full of tidy bon mots and turns of phrase. Ultimately, it is Wodehouse - and therefore recommended.

Overall Grade: B+


Armchair Critic Podcast #2

It's been too long since the last podcast, but this should remedy that deficit. In our second podcast, I talk about a request from an author.

Download or listen here.

The file will play, or you can download it for an mp3 player by right clicking and saving to your computer.


FYI: Clicking on the podcast tag below will bring up both posts with our podcast. Now I just need a few more, and iTunes here we come!

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman (2005)

Gaiman, like Tim Powers (reviewed elsewhere on this site), often writes about Ur-mythology, the underlying myths that ever culture seems to develop in some variation. Where Powers tends to develop cross-cultural parallels into a coherent whole, Gaiman delights in transporting ancient myth into the modern day. This was developed most fully perhaps in American Gods, but it is a trick utilized to splendid effect in Anansi Boys.

Gaiman returns to one of his favorite "characters," Anansi, the Ashanti spider-trickster god in Anansi Boys. Anansi, who often appears these days as an old black man in a sharp hat and yellow gloves, has died. (Sort of.) His son, Fat Charlie Nancy, unaware of his father's divine state learns about his heritage the hard way.

The book is a delirious romp across cultures, as well across the boundary between "reality" and "mythology," both in quotes since they both seem like rather flexible concepts in this book. Fat Charlie discovers love, a brother he didn't know he had and enemies of his father who have transferred their enmity. He gets into trouble, gets out of trouble, and gets into more trouble - all in the lovely prose of Neil Gaiman.

This is not a very serious book. It is much lighter in tone than most of Gaiman's work (with the notable exception of Good Omens), but that's not a bad thing at all. As Donald Wolfit said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." It's true in writing as well as in acting, and Gaiman shows that he can do funny fantasy as well as dark fantasy. And that's hard.

Overall Grade: B+

The Great Train Robbery - Michael Crichton (1975)

Crichton's earlier works tend to be overshadowed by the massive success of the Jurassic Park franchise, which is a mixed blessing as producers dip into his back catalog and do things like make Eaters of the Dead into the movie The Thirteenth Warrior, but the blessing comes if it inspires people to take a look back at books like The Terminal Man or The Great Train Robbery.

Having said that, I'm not sure The Great Train Robbery stands as one of his best books. It is certainly a compelling read, and the intricate plotting is fascinating, as is the window into the Victorian era it provides. The book, clearly, tells of the complicated plot to rob a train of a payroll shipment of gold, a plot engineered by the enigmatic Edward Pierce. Therein lies the problem, the enigma of Edward Pierce. The novel unfolds like a piece of finely designed clockwork - and with the same warmth and humanity.

Which is not to say it's a bad book. Far from it! The unfolding story, with the turns and reverses, captures the mind and imagination. It is possible, even, that the enigma of the central character, and of the others as well, is a strength allowing the reader to spin fantasies of his own as to motive and emotion.

The end result, however, is not quite satisfying. It's good, and a fine quick read, and if it fails to hit the mark squarely perhaps it is because Crichton aimed too high.

Overall Grade: B


Stórsveit Nix Noltes, Orkídeur Hawaí (Bubblecore, 2005)

Scenes for Balkan folk music have developed in a lot of places well outside of the Balkan region. As I've mentioned before, the Balkan scene in New York City is particularly strong. The CD Orkídeur Hawaí, by the band Stórsveit Nix Noltes, indicates that a vibrant scene for Balkan music exists as well in the extraordinarily unlikely location of Reykjavik, Iceland. Despite their extreme northern location, the band plays mostly traditional Bulgarian instrumentals on the CD, throwing in one Greek tune and an Eastern European klezmer piece for good measure. Like Balkan instrumental tunes in general, the pieces on Orkídeur Hawaí are characterized by lively tempos, minor keys, and complex rhythms. While certainly not mellow by normal standards, Stórsveit Nix Noltes actually do sound a bit restrained in comparison to the Brooklyn-based Balkan bands like Romashka and Luminescent Orchestrii. Their sound is a bit more guitar-oriented than most of the Balkan music I've heard -- three of the band' nine members are guitarists -- but the style is immediately recognizable, and the accordion, violin, and trumpet all get a fair share of attention. On the whole, I found this CD to be a fun offering, comparing well with what I've heard locally. People who like the kind of music played at Golden Festival in Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan every January will find this worth their while.

Overall grade: B


My Little Cthulhu

H.P. Lovecraft described Cthulhu, his favorite monster, as an amalgam of a man (the body), a dragon (wings), and an octopus (head). While this monstrous entity has been shown in art, in statuary, even in plush toy form (I have two!), he gets the vinly treatment with My Little Cthulhu .

Produced by Dreamland Toyworks, My Little Cthulhu is a 8" vinyl figure designed by John Kovalic (the artist/genius behind Dork Tower, Munchkin, and many other fun geek things). As befitsits name, My Little Cthulhu is adorable! He has the body type typically described by Lovecraft and shown by others, but with cute eyes, adorable spots, and an oddly large head. My Little Cthulhu also comes with two snacks, er, victims; you can get six more in the My Little Vicims Pack, sold separately. All the victims have only a torso and head, like the Little People toys; however, all victims have "realistic dismemberment action!" Thankfully, it's not all that realistic: It lets you split any figure into three pieces, with red showing between the sections.

My one complaint with My Little Cthulhu is the lack of articulation in the figure. I can understand that Cthulhu doesn't need to be as poseable as, say, Spider-Man -- but there's no movement in the arms, or legs, or head, obviating any different poses. With that in mind, My Little Cthulhu is a must if you want some cute eldritch horrors for your home.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year is a film starring Russell Crowe. He plays Max Skinner, the stereotypical, overachieving, workaholic financial businessman who would fit right in with the guys from Wall Street (either the film or the financial district, take your pick...). After another typical multimillion dollar day at the office (actually it's pounds as he is in Great Britain), he learns that he has inherited a wine vineyard from his long lost uncle in France. This prompts a trip to the French estate, and the goal is to sell it for a quick profit. As Max had spent some summer holidays there growing up, this rekindles something inside of him. This results in some serious introspection, self discovery, and ultimately, personal growth into seeing what life is all about.

While the plot of A Good Year is nothing that unique, what stands out in this film is the scenery. This film shows the countryside of France that most tourists to the country don't get to experience. The estate is quite beautiful, and the visual imagery is stunning, reminding me of the film Under the Tuscan Sun at some points.

For those looking for a "movie holiday" into a retelling of a timeless tale, than A Good Year should fill the bill. While it's nothing extraordinary, it's a delightful change of pace and provides a nice diversion.

Overall Grade: B+

Pandora's Clock (1995)

If you want a serious, "edge of your seat," pedal to the metal thrill ride, then the novel Pandora's Clock should be near the top of your "must read" list. Author John Nance is not only a commercial pilot, but also a lawyer specializing in avation law, and an aviation consultant to network television. With those credentials, you can bet that his novels have the background substance to back up his plot.

Speaking of plot, Pandora's Clock centers around a doomsday virus in an airplane. With a bioweapon grade virus loose on a 747, it becomes an international game of hot potato. As the jet's fuel supply dwindles, it becomes clear that they won't be making their transatlantic crossing home to America. A great tale unfolds as airports in several countries refuse the landing as the jet attempts to find a friendly runway as their jet fuel is getting used up.

Pandora's Clock runs a breakneck speed from start to finish. Nance spins a tale that can only stem from someone with his first hand aviation background. Even on the details of the virus, which Nance is no expert in, I can't find fault with! Pandora's Clock is a real page turner that I hope remains only fiction.

Overall Grade: A


The Last Chronicle of Barset - Anthony Trollope (1867)

Trollope tends to be one of those writers you hear about but never read. Less well known, perhaps, than Jane Austen, William Thackeray and Charles Dickens, he was nevertheless a prolific (the introduction to The Last Chronicle of Barset claims that at his death he had written more words than any other English novelist) and successful author. His reputation staggered after his death, but then somehow righted itself and now marches on apace.

Barsetshire is the setting for many of his forty-odd novels, and The Last Chronicle is the final one in that series. The novel is, in many respects, a typical novel of the time. It is wordy and at times discursive, the characters are often fixated on issues that seem to the modern eye to be insignificant or simnply quaint, and it is long. It is somewhat unusual, at least to my not-too-educated-eye, in that there are numerous subplots in the narrative, all at least tangentially related to the central character and plot point. This allows the author considerable scope for digression and reflection of plot and character.

As with much of this type of literature, the plot is secondary to character. Essentially the plot is this: a poor clergyman is accused of pilfering a 20 Pound check and no-one can seem to find a way to clear him. Even he, himself, seems unable to account for his acquisition of the check. In my edition, this is good for nearly 900 pages. The real interest though is in the remarkably human stories affected by this simple problem. A clergyman accused of theft - much less convicted! - is a social pariah, and thus his daughter's wedding is endangered. His situation is use as a gambit in the ongoing power struggled between two factions who are genteelly, but dedicatedly, at war. It provides an opportunity for gallantry by those who are otherwise only involved via distant blood relation. Mixed in with all this, naturally, is social commentary on country life and the inequities and iniquities which afflict mankind.

It is, all in all, remarkably readable. Someone who has never dipped their toe into Victorian literature may find it takes a bit of time to get used to the flow and structure, but since there are more than 800 pages to accomplish this task, time is available. Those who have already essayed Austen or Dickens should find it easy enough to get stuck in. In fact, the style is, if anything more accessible than Austen and more character-driven than Dickens. The time and effort to read the book and make the acquaintance of Trollope - and the inhabitants of Barsetshire - are well rewarded.

Overall Grade: B+

Christopher Paolini, Eldest (Knopf, 2005)

Eragon, the 2002 debut novel from then-teenager Christopher Paolini, quickly struck a chord with young readers of fantasy novels. Last fall it was turned into a major motion picture that was quite enjoyable, even though the story was rather severely abbreviated relative to the book. It is also part one of the Inheritance trilogy, of which Eldest is the second part. The third book is still being written, and its title has not as of yet been officially revealed.

The action in Eldest begins immediately after the climactic battle of Eragon. The Varden, a league of rebels united against the wicked king Galbatorix, has defeated an army of fiendish Urgals with the help of the dwarves, the mysterious elf maiden Arya, and above all, the young dragon rider Eragon and his blue dragon Sapphira. Eragon slew the evil shade Durza in the battle, but had become badly scarred in the process. The victory turns out to be short-lived, however, as a surprise ambush by the Urgals results in the death of Ajihad, the Varden's leader, and the abduction of Eragon's close friend Murtagh. Eragon and Sapphira need to visit the elves to resume their training in preparation for the inevitable showdown with Galbatorix. They travel with Arya and Eragon's dwarf friend Orik to the elvish land of Ellesméra, leaving Ajihad's daughter Nasuada in tenuous control of the Varden and their many factions. Eragon spends much time in Ellesméra under the tutelage of Oromis, himself a dragon rider, while Sapphira learns from Glaedr, an ancient, wounded gold dragon. Eragon also realizes that he has fallen in love with Arya, and tries to win her heart.

Meanwhile, Eragon's cousin Roran returns to the town of Carvahall, to find that Galbatorix has sent an army there, along with two man-eating Ra'zac, in order to capture Roran as bait for Eragon and destroy anyone else who stands in their way. The townspeople choose resistance to death or slavery. After holding back the army and the Ra'zac at much cost, they are forced to abandon Carvahall and look for refuge among the Varden. Roran becomes their unlikely and somewhat reluctant leader as they commence an impossible journey. Despite the trilogy ostensibly centering on Eragon and Sapphira, most of the action between the very beginning of Eldest and the battle at the end revolves around Roran.

Two aspects of Paolini's writing of Eldest have received frequent criticism. The first is that the story is heavily derivative of other well-known fantasy epics, most notably The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The claim isn't really disputable. The elves and the dwarves, with their respective languages and mannerisms, won't offer many surprises to anybody who has ever read Tolkien or even played Dungeons and Dragons. Furthermore, many plot twists will immediately look familiar. The most notable of these involves a dramatic revelation, in the climactic scene of the second part of the trilogy, concerning a close relative of the young hero. While these make it difficult to compare Paolini's writing favorably to the works which he borrows from, they can still be mostly forgiven because the writing is engaging and highly entertaining, and can hold the reader's attention through at least two lengthy books. A more specific criticism of Eldest concerns the lack of action on Eragon's side of the story. I didn't agree with that one so much, because I didn't feel that the chapters concerning Eragon's tutelage dragged. Character development is important after all, especially when it's already been established that the story will continue beyond this book.

So Eldest, like Eragon before it, isn't perfect but does make for fun reading. I'd have no qualms recommending it to fans of fantasy books. I found the pacing to be generally good, and Paolini does a fine job of shifting between different characters in the story. I also found that a few details in the first book that seemed superfluous, like the descriptions of various meals, turned out to have a point in the context of certain revelations of the second, so I think it's important to judge the trilogy as a whole more than by its individual parts. In that regard, the third part has been set up very well, and I look forward to seeing the Inheritance trilogy through to its conclusion.

Overall grade: B+


Spinal Tap: The Sequel

From MSN:

Spinal Tap is back, and this time the band wants to help save the world from global warming.

The mock heavy metal group immortalized in the 1984 mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap," will reunite for a performance at Wembley Stadium in London as part of the Live Earth concerts scheduled worldwide for July 7.

The original members of Spinal Tap will be there: guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest), singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Rob Reiner, who both directed "This Is Spinal Tap" and played the fake documentarian Marty DeBergi in the film, will also be in attendance.

Reiner created a new 15-minute film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Those of us are old enough to remember Spinal Tap still get a kick out of their amp going up to 11, or their never ending "jazz odyssey" to fill up the stage time. Well, now the band reunites, online, for a new short film. They are doing it as part of an effort to focus on global warming at the upcoming Live Earth concert.

While the largely forgettable short film does have a few redeeming moments, like the bit about the colon hydrotherapy office, or the internet addicted band member, it needs some more developed plot, and some more humor to make it more memorable. I was also disappointed that there weren't any references to the first film that I could discern. Still, it's nice to see the original band members get together for a worthy cause after all these years.

Watch the video here.

Overall Grade: B-

NCIS, CBS Television Network

At some point, I've watched all of the shows of the CSI franchise: Las Vegas, Miami, and New York, (not to mention the spin offs like Cold Case, and Without A Trace). After a few episodes, at least to me, they start to all become the same- another sex crazed serial murderer on the loose, terrorizing the citizens of (fill in the name of the appropriate city from the name of the show here), and the crime lab one step behind, busily snapping pics, swabbing blood, running fingerprints through databases, and waiting for DNA matches that almost never get done until more than halfway through the show. Once in a while things are a little different, but for the most part, I'm not that intrigued with the whole lot of them and don't currently watch any of them.
The one standout among the CBS network's crime scene shows is NCIS. From the first episode, I was hooked and still am. NCIS stands for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the show started as a spin off from CBS' JAG series, which I never liked. When a crime is committed by or against a Navy or Marine service member, NCIS are the ones that get involved to solve it. On this show, we focus on one team based near our nation's capital, so that the settings often involve Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland (with an occasional field trip to Guatanamo Bay, or an aircraft carrier).

I think the reason that NCIS is far better than the other CSI shows is the actors involved, and their chemistry which is just right. Mark Harmon, who plays Jethro Gibbs, is a former Marine sniper, whose past is always shrouded in more than a little mystery, and has had more than his share of pain and dysfunctional relationships through the years. He is the lead investigator for the team, and really makes the show what it is, as he is the guy that you want in your corner in a crisis. The rest of the characters mesh very well including the street smart former cop, Anthony Dinozzo, the computer savvy “probee,” Timothy McGee, the Goth lab technician, Abbey, the wise British pathologist, Duckie, and the Israeli secret service member, Officer David (although Kate from the 1st two seasons was MUCH better than her).

As we finish up the fourth season with two episodes left, once again it's been a great show to watch and follow. The plots have been relevant and could be taken from today's headlines The acting is well done, with dialogue that is believable and reveals the characters as the shows progress. I also like the way that that NCIS has ongoing plot lines that show the personal lives of the agents, which gives them far more depth than is often found in television drama, and keeps in the human element.

If you haven't seen the show yet, be sure to take a look. I'm sure there will be repeats this summer, and also on the CBS site the entire season can be viewed currently. NCIS airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM, and is one more good reason to not watch American Idol.

Overall Grade: A

Jamestown, Virginia: 400th Anniversary

With the attention this week on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, our first permanent American colony, I decided to dig out some photos I took on my visit last year. The Jamestown Settlement is only a short ride from Colonial Williamsburg, and if you're ever down there, it's an afternoon well spent. It's a "hands on history" museum which unlike a more traditional museum encourages visitors to touch stuff, and try things. After a short introductory film, you visit the recreated settlement, a Native American village, and reproductions of the three ships that brought the original colonists here. The highlight of the place is the costumed interpretors that are quite friendly, love to answer questions, and show off their historically accurate trades and skills. It's a great place for children and adults alike. In fact when I was there, I met a family that brought their home schooled kids there on a "family field trip" for the educational component, and were quite pleased as well.

Overall Grade: A


Hoven Droven, Jumping At The Cedar (NorthSide, 2006)

The Nordic Roots Festival, held every autumn at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, has featured many renowned acts in the new Nordic folk genre. The Swedish band Hoven Droven, who combine the Swedish fiddling tradition with punk and heavy metal, have always been a fan favorite at the Festival. Now I wouldn't say that Hoven Droven have made an album of the same caliber of the genre's best, Like Hedningarna's Tra, Gjallarhorn's Sjofn, or a number of Värttinä's CD's. I wouldn't even call them the best live act, at least strictly in terms of the quality of their musical performances; that distinction belongs to Väsen. But they do throw the best parties. The most memorable of these party/concerts at the Festival took place on October 1, 2005. Hoven Droven were in outstanding form that night, but more significant from my perspective in the audience was the way the band and the crowd fed off each other. The Festival audience likes a good, high-energy show in general. Hoven Droven gave us more than we asked for that night, but we responded in kind. At the band's request, we put all of our seats off to the side about halfway through the show, and the rest of the show just became a frenzied orgy of spinning, screaming, and, well, jumping. NorthSide presciently had the recording equipment running that evening, so the music was preserved and has now been released as a double CD titled Jumping At The Cedar.

Hoven Droven's set combined the most familiar tunes from their back catalog with a bunch of new tunes off their recently released CD Turbo. About a third of the pieces were traditional, with the rest composed either by fiddler Kjell-Erik Eriksson or guitarist Bo Lindberg. While the band did show off its mellow side on a few tunes, like the traditional "Årepolska," they rocked early and often, and usually quite hard. The opening tunes "Bjekkergauken" and "Tachen" got the audience warmed up, but the party really hit full swing with "Okynnewals." Björn Höglund set the tune up by steadily building up the volume on his drum intro, while Erikkson asked the crowd with increasing urgency if they were ready for a waltz. Perhaps the crashing mayhem of Erikkson playing a rock solo on amplified fiddle and Jens Comén getting some ungodly sounds out of his sax in the second half of that track worked better in person than it does on disc, but by the end of that tune Hoven Droven had completely galvanized the crowd.

The CD's do not include the between-song banter. I feel an exception should have been made for the moment when Erikkson asked everybody to put their seats away, because that was the turning point of the show. The "jumping" began in earnest during "Skuffen," a march off Turbo composed by Erikkson. Lindberg started jumping up and down in place during the second part of the tune. Soon Erikkson, Comén, and bassist Pedro Blom followed suit, and within a few seconds the entire audience was doing it as well. The crowd was already quite into it, as can be heard plainly enough on the preceding track "Dortea," but from this point we just kept getting louder and more excited. This can definitely be heard during the blistering schottish "Slentbjenn," so people who weren't there can get at least some sense of the crowd response that night.

All in all, Jumping At The Cedar is an fine example of what a Hoven Droven concert sounds like, and fans of the band will certainly enjoy it. The crowd was a huge part of the performance, though, and even a video recording might have had some difficulty capturing what really went on that evening in a way that could compete with the memory and legend of it for those of us who were there. If you'd like to relive that evening, or get some idea of what went on, I'd recommend getting a bunch of friends together who are seriously into new Nordic folk music and playing this CD with the volume up and the lights down in a tightly packed room. Then, when you get to the second part of "Skuffen," start jumping up and down and spinning whichever way you feel like, and scream your approval as the spirit moves you.

Overall grade: A-

photos by smg58 from 2006 Nordic Roots Festival

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2007 The Green Man Review


Evil Dead: The Musical

A bunch of teens head to a remote cabin in the woods for drinking, fun, and sex. They then battle, or get turned into, Candarian demons. Sounds like a musical to me! Evil Dead: The Musical blends the Evil Dead movie trilogy (Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn and Army of Darkness) into an insanely entertaining musical.

The songs in this musical are catchy, often violent, chock full of profanity (they even censored four song titles on the back cover of the CD) and very funny. While quite a few songs deal with battling zombies (or zombies singing about the benefits of being evil and dead), there are others here too: Ash and Linda sing of their retail romance in "Housewares Employee," and redneck Jake sings of his many accomplishment in "Good Old Reliable Jake." ("Who invented the formula for Krazy Glue? And who nailed all the chicks on The View?") A small-part demon sings of being a "Bit Part Demon" and Annie laments that "All The Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons." There are also snippets of dialogue from the play, painful puns, and the dance tune "Do The Necronomicon."

The songs of Evil Dead: The Musical are silly, twisted, and made me laugh out loud from start to finish. Groovy!

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch