First Armchair Critic Podcast, March 2007

I've debated with starting a podcast to support the site. While I'm still not sure of the ideal way to accomplish this, I've decided to follow the old Nike ad: "Just Do It." To that end, our first podcast is ready for public consumption. I'd appreciate any comments, and this is a work in progress so it may take a while before we standardize the format. Anyway, here goes, and enjoy.

FYI: It's in the mp3 format for max compatibility, and can be listened to on screen, or downloaded for offline consumption later. Consider loading it onto an iPod or similar device and listening on the way to work, etc.

The Cabinet of Curiosities (2002)

The Cabinet of Curiosities is actually the fourth book in this series by coauthors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs (The other novels are Relic, Reliquary and Thunderhead). Both authors have far reaching knowledge, and one worked at a natural history museum. In the other novels I have read from this duo, a "man vs. nature" theme dominates, but this time things are a little different. (As an aside, it's not "man vs. nature" like in a Jack London novel. Rather it's a high tech modern man who thinks with his expansive knowledge of science he can control and dominate nature. However, nature ends up winning in the end like in the London works).

The cabinets referred to in the title refer to collections of objects that were around in NYC in the mid 1800's. They were put together by amateur collectors, and inexpensive admissions attracted the masses. They were a blend of a little science, and a lot of shock value. Our modern equivalent is a Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit more than any natural history museum. Still, out of these exotic collections, New York's American Museum of Natural History, a collection unrivaled anywhere, was born.

Our novel starts when Nora Kelly, an archaeologist for the Museum of Natural History, is summoned to a stunning finding- thirty corpses in an old coal tunnel on the former site of one of these cabinet of curiousities. With boyfriend Smithback (both characters from previous novels) they embark on a dig to the truth that criss crosses both modern day Manhattan, as well as the city from the latter nineteenth century. Quite appropriately, there are multiple stops at the Museum where a bulk of the plot takes place. There is also a side trip through the Five Points area of 1870 Manhattan, which doesn't exist in modern day, but you may recall it from the setting of the film Gangs of New York which even has a DVD featurette about this haven for the poor and immigrants.

Warning: Science Content!

True to my new mission, there are some medical mistakes in the end. The description of the abdominal gunshot wound, and its treatment is riddled with errors. I can tell you that there is no way that a bullet that ruptures a spleen, would also take out the left colic vein as it is quite far away and take out quite a few other structures getting there. Also, like in many other parts of the body, the veins and arteries are bundled together. That means that any bullet that destroys a vein would also destroy the artery, realizing that unlike a knife, a bullet causes at least a cone of injury as it passes through structures. Finally, the description of the patient ligating their own colonic vein, which is virtually impossible without the artery as well, thus requiring a colon resection from the subsequent ischemia is far more fantasy than any reality. I'll buy someone suturing their arm or leg, but a self done trauma laparotomy, by someone with no medical training other than "pre-med" (which is basically nothing for surgical procedures) is never going to happen. It would have been better for the other character present, who took a medical school anatomy class, to control the hemorrhage.

Breathe a sigh of collective relief with that off of my chest. That medical moment was sponsored by The Armchair Critic. Feel free to comment below either way.

Medical nitpickin' aside, The Cabinet of Curiosities is one well planned, researched, and written novel. It is seriously creepy, and held my attention throughout with quite a bit of suspense at several points. While I thought I had it figured out early on, I was only partially correct, and it was far more complicated than I envisioned. If you want something a little different than a traditional thriller, with a side trip thrugh the bizarre, then put The Cabinet of Curiosities on your reading list.

Overall Grade: A-


The Marine (2006)

Think back to those 80's action hero flicks when Ronald Reagan was president and MTV was new and had only music. I'm sure you'll you remember, stuff like Schwarzenegger's Commando, and Stallone's Rambo series. Recall if you will, the simple plot lines, the Neanderthal dialogue, and the explosions and gunfire galore. Now combine what is most mediocre about those films, and you'll have a pretty good idea what The Marine is all about.

Let's see, John Cena is a professional wrestler. Let's cast him as an ex-Marine who gets an early discharge for saving his buddies from certain death. Next we see him as a security guard "rent-a-cop" and he's not exactly adept at that when he throws someone through a window. So next, he decides to take a vacation to the mountains with his wife. While refueling, his wife just happens to get abducted by a bunch of jewel thieves. Of note, the robbers are led by Patrick Robert who does a good job acting as the prototypical bad guy, but with a sense of humor. The rest of the film is Cena as the unstoppable Marine, in pursuit to save his wife. And just when we think it is over, just like in The Terminator, there is a little more action.

The Marine is one of those mega action movies that has almost enough plot to glue the whole thing together. While preteen and early teen males may enjoy this type of thing, I doubt that wider audiences will think much of this film. Proceed at your own risk, and let's hope for a sequel... NOT!

Overall Grade: C


I-CON 26

This past weekend I attended I-CON 26, my 9th straight I-CON convention. This is an annual conventionat SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, NY that covers science fiction, gaming, fantasy, medieval, anime, and a multitude of other topics. And this year had everything that keeps me coming back year after year.

For me, the highlight was running a panel on a very fun, very unusual topic: "Super(hero) S&M!" I can't go into too much detail here, for fear of offending some Armchair Critic readers; if you want more info, post a comment. I did have a packed room of between 60 and 80 people, everyone seemed very entertained, and I even got a form of my demonstration to work! And I already have plans for a similar panel next year...

I found lots to in many other areas. I enjoyed panels ranging from how to run a successful convention (including a veteran whose first convention was in 1939) to a hysterical panel on the 10 worst video games ever (and why you probably love them). Peter David and company entertained us with true tales of the comic industry, and some parapsychologists/debunkers discussed "real" paranormal phenomena portrayed in movies. A surprising disappointment was the normally entertaining "Why People Suck" panel. Maybe it was the absence of Randy Milholland, maybe the panelists weren't angry enough, but this event quickly degenerated into awkward silences, side-conversations in the audience, and the panel members passing some booze back and forth between them. What a letdown from the previous angry hilarity. Maybe next year it'll be back in form.

I-CON had plenty of ongoing and informal events. The dealer's room was large and very open, with plenty of comic books and gaming, dvds and signed autographs, old memorabilia and new toys. The gaming rooms provided both scheduled gaming and a variety of games that people could borrow for some informal play. (I won at Marvel Heroes, came in 3rd out of 5 in Ticket To Ride, and lost to fellow Armchair Critic Scott at Betrayal At House Of The Hill.) And many people went in costume, some of which I've posted.

For anyone interested in I-CON 27, the countdown has begun! The website is www.iconsf.org and while it's more than a little early for more details to be available, it's worth checking now and then to see what's happening in the planning for next time. I'll see you there!

Andrea Hoag, Loretta Kelley, & Charlie Pilzer, Hambo in the Snow (Azalea City Recordings, 2006)

Traditional Scandinavian fiddling has enough of a foothold in this country that folk dances featuring live music take place in several cites, and a handful of rural areas as well, on a regular basis. Two of the best known American fiddlers in the Swedish and Norwegian traditions are Andrea Hoag and Loretta Kelley. Recently the pair teamed up with bassist/accordionist Charlie Pilzer to record a CD called Hambo in the Snow, featuring tunes inspired by the Nordic winter.

Most of the tunes on Hambo in the Snow either come from, or are based on, the many different styles in the Swedish fiddling tradition. Kelley adds a few pieces from Norway, which she plays on her hardingfele. (The hardingfele, or hardanger fiddle, is a specially tuned violin unique to a particular region of Norway, with many strings underneath the four bowed ones that provide harmonics and give the instrument a distinctive sound. If you know the Rohan theme from the Lord of the Rings movies then you've heard the instrument, although that particular motif is played in much more of a classical fashion than a folk one.)

The twenty-one tunes on this CD encompass a wide range of styles. Most of the pieces are variations of the polska, a 3/4 tune with emphasis on the first and third beats in the measure. Many villages or regions in Sweden have not only their own particular style of polska, but their own dance to accompany the tune. There are also waltzes, schottishes, and polketts for variety. Hoag and Kelley add a few songs, and a medley of Christmas tunes contains a song sung by the children of a friend of theirs. There is more than enough variety in the style and tempo that anybody even remotely interested in fiddle music should find something to their liking.

Ironically, Hambo in the Snow is truer to the tradition than a lot of the "modern folk" recordings coming out of Sweden and Norway on the NorthSide label. While I've always been partial to the newer, generally edgier Swedish folk music purveyed by the likes of Väsen and Hedningarna, recordings like this one enable the listener to fully understand appreciate the tradition behind what the new Nordic folk musicians are doing, and are perfectly enjoyable on their own terms when superior musicians are performing.

Indeed, Hambo in the Snow succeeds largely because of the quality and clarity of the playing. As a member of the New York Spelmanslag (spelmanslag is a Swedish term for a group of traditional musicians) for the past seven years, I have had a few opportunities to meet Andrea Hoag and Loretta Kelley. I have learned much from playing with the both of them, and was already familiar with much of the material performed on the CD as a result. I can say without exaggeration that Hoag and Kelley set a standard for performance on Hambo in the Snow that our group aspires to attain. Fans of fiddle music in general will certainly enjoy this, and anybody curious about Nordic musical traditions should find this worth their while as well.

Overall grade: B+


The Holiday (2006)

The Holiday is a newly released DVD that fits in the romantic comedy genre. It stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslett, Jude Law and Jack Black who all perform well in this film (As an aside, it’s always a little strange seeing Jack Black in a more serious role… I always see him as the washed up teacher in School of Rock, but that's another story.).

Both leading ladies are involved in completely dysfunctional relationships with their current men. They both simultaneously decide that they need a serious break- we're talking about a "holiday" (gotta love those Brits!) on another continent. So the two meet online, and decide to exchange homes for two weeks (I have heard of folks actually doing this so this is not as far fetched as this would seem). While each is busy trying to escape their current life, they end up finding what they were looking for all along.

While The Holiday is a lengthy 2:15 film, particularly for a romantic comedy genre film, it really is needed, as the parallel journeys of the two women are told. If you're looking for a clever date movie to watch with your significant other, than this film should be near the top of the list. I thoroughly enjoyed this well acted film which had several memorable and touching scenes.

Overall Grade: A-

Just One Look (2004)

Just One Look is the eleventh novel by author Harlan Coben. It is a thriller which hooks you in, and has as many twists and turns as a labyrinth. The opening hook is when a Jersey suburban mom finds an old photo in with her newly developed prints that shows her younger husband, and several friends. Discovering the origin of the image, and the identities of the friends comprises the plot of this book.

This compact novel weighs in at 370 pages, but it reads like a longer work. The prose is well crafted with lots of specific details, and vibrant action words. The author also uses short chapters that remind me of a Dan Brown novel. However, I've read novels that are substantially longer that read easier, flow more smoothly, and aren't nearly as much of a chore to plow through.

Given the basic ingredients, I generally like this type of thriller/conspiracy novel- however, I didn't. To begin with, for a tight compact novel there are simply too many characters. I had trouble keeping them all straight and found myself trying to remember all of them as I read along. Additionally as the work progresses, we find out about relationships between seemingly unrelated characters. Rather than being shocking, most of the time they seem contrived, and artificial like they were put in for shock value intentionally, rather than significantly enhancing the plot.

While there are several medical advisors acknowledged at the end, much of the anatomical details, and health care was more fantasy than reality. For example, no one, and I mean no one, tapes or wraps fractured ribs anymore. Maybe it's just me, but when the medicine is off, I start to wonder about the rest. Also the descriptions of pressure points are about as realistic as Superman succumbing to kryptonite; in other words the science is very suspect.

In the end, I would characterize Just One Look as a beach thriller. It is a novel that is fine for losing oneself in for an afternoon or two, but don't expect anything more. When it comes to this reviewer's eyeballs, there are plenty of authors I'd rather read. Of course if Mr. Coben wants to hire me as a medical advisor that's another story altogether.

Overall Grade: C+


Uncle Dynamite - P.G. Wodehouse (1948)

There are two, no make that three, kinds of people in the world. Those that love P.G. Wodehouse, those that don't get it, and those who haven't read him. Let me speak to each of them in turn.

If you love P.G. Wodehouse, you will enjoy Uncle Dynamite, for it is Wodehouse being Wodehousian. You might like it less than the Jeeves stories, or more than them. Less than his golf stories or better. But, ultimately, it is Wodehouse and you will like it.

If you don't get Wodehouse, then you won't like Uncle Dynamite for all the same reasons.

Ah, but if you are in that third category, you have either a great treat or a sad dissappointment in store!

Wodehouse is one of the great stylists of the English language. His technique and tone are inimitable and gems of something which seems to veer dangerously close to nonsense without ever quite falling off that particular verbal cliff. His stories are bubbling froth, delicate confections - like a Champagne sundae or carbonated whipped cream. The plots are universally ludicrous and contrived, the stuff of farce. If there is not a case of mistaken identity, a pair (or two or three) of star-crossed lovers and usually some sort of activity which is not, strictly speaking, legal then it's almost certainly not a Wodehouse book that you're reading. Perhaps you picked up something by Dostoevsky by accident. Wodehouse himself referred to his work as "musical comedies without music," which should tell you something.

This particular novel features the Fifth Earl of Ickenham ("Uncle Fred") striving to reunite his nephew with the woman that Lord Ickenham is sure is the right one for him. That this all involves breaking up his nephews current engagement, impersonating South American explorers, breaking into English country houses belong to old school chums and several plaster busts makes perfect sense once you enter the delirous world that Wodehouse has created. Everything is resolved tidily enough at the end, of course, but the trip from here to there is delightful and fraught with all sorts of calamity.

Is Wodehouse serious? No. Is it serious comedy? Absolutely. This is not comedy which functions by being shocking or extreme, Wodehouse does not work blue, rather it is diaphanous comedy spun out of wit and words.

And for those of that like this sort of thing, this is sort of thing we like. If you've never read Wodehouse, try it, you might like it. Try nearly anything he's ever written and you'll get the idea about whether or not you will quick enough. The Jeeves stories are the easiest to find and usually considered the best. I'd suggest leaving Ukbridge and PSmith till later, but aside from those, anything goes.

Back to Uncle Dynamite, though. It's a fairly solid piece of Wodehouse, which is pretty good by anyone's standards. If you want to start with this one, you'll be fine.

Overall Grade: B+


J. J. Cale and Eric Clapton, The Road To Escondido (Reprise, 2006)

Eric Clapton's fondness for the songs of JJ Cale has been evident ever since Clapton covered Cale's "After Midnight" on his 1970 debut solo LP. Cale, a Tulsa native, has been playing his distinctively laid-back, bluesy rock since the sixties. While he owes most of his following to Clapton covering "After Midnight" and then later "Cocaine," his approach and general sound influenced the early recordings of Dire Straits even more so than Clapton. At this stage in his long career, Clapton seems to be taking the time to perform with some of his idols and influences whom he hadn't sat down enough with in the past. He made a pretty good collaborative album with B. B. King, called Riding with the King, which came out in 2000. Now Clapton has gotten together with Cale for a new studio album, called The Road to Escondido.

While I mostly liked Riding with the King, I felt that Clapton seemed so determined not to dominate the proceedings that he didn't take the spotlight enough, especially with his guitar playing. A very similar criticism can be made here of The Road to Escondido. Most of the songs on this album are written by Cale, and consequently most of the album reflects Cale's style more than Clapton's. Clapton largely follows Cale's lead here, to the point where it's very hard to tell at points who is singing lead and who is doing which guitar solo. Even on some of the album's strong tracks like the opening song "Danger," it's not clear what Clapton brings to the song that Cale couldn't have done himself.

Having said that, The Road to Escondido has plenty of good moments, including "Danger" and the sing-along closer "Ride the River." Fans of laid back, front porch blues will like the record, although I'd still recommend Dion's 2006 CD Bronx in Blue to them more enthusiastically. Ironically, the album works to the extent that it does on the strengths of J. J. Cale more than Eric Clapton. The album could only have benefited if Clapton had asserted himself a bit more.

Overall grade: B-

The Bothy Band

With St. Patrick's Day this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to write about traditional Irish music. In particular, I decided to look at the history of the greatest of the traditional Irish bands, The Bothy Band. The Bothy Band only produced three studio albums and one live album in their short history, but all traditional Irish music that has come since bears their influence.

A handful of developments helped to make the Bothy Band possible. First, while groups like The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners were popularizing the Irish singing tradition in the sixties, The Chieftains began revitalizing the instrumental tradition, especially with regards to the fiddle and the uilleann pipes. Second, the band Planxty incorporated a number of Eastern European influences into their sound, most notably modal chord structures and a Greek plucked instrument called the bouzouki, when they emerged onto the scene in the early seventies. Perhaps the most important influence, though, was the growing cultural impact of rock and roll, which had begun to leave its mark on other musical styles as well. At least a few rock musicians in England were aware of Irish music; for example, The Beatles took a day off from recording Abbey Road so that The Chieftains had a place to record their second album. A couple of bands took their interest in the traditional music and folklore of the British Isles a bit further, though. Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span used fiddles and performed a lot of traditional material in a style that was always more rock than folk. These two bands have never had a huge following among rock audiences, but their repuation in folk circles remains enormous. Indeed, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill (guitar and vocals) cited Fairport's 1970 LP Full House, and the playing of their guitarist Richard Thompson, as major influences on the development of his style. So with a handful of bands incorporating folk music into their rock arrangements, it made sense that somebody would come up with the idea of bringing the energy and spirit of rock and roll into traditional music.

The impetus for the formation of The Bothy Band came from bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, famous in traditional Irish circles as a former member of Planxty. He was already developing a reputation for wanting to work with just about everybody in the scene, and he assembled a backing band to accompany an accordionist he was working with on some radio broadcasts. This group originally included Paddy Keenan on uilleann pipes and Matt Molloy on flute. Soon Ó Domhnaill and his sister Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill (clavinet and vocals), both from the band Skara Brae, had joined up as well, and a new band had clearly started to take shape. By late 1975, legendary fiddler Tommy Peoples had been recruited, and the sextet were ready to record their debut album.
The energy level of the playing on The Bothy Band 1975 had not been heard on any traditional Irish recording that preceded it. The band members were all masters at their particular instrument, and the notes always rang clean and true no matter how fast they were being played. Lunny and Ó Domhnaill provided a driving rhythm for the lead instruments to work with, and Tríona provided some balance to the band's sound with songs like "Pretty Peg." The genre of Irish traditional music had been reinvented overnight.
Unfortunately, there was no money to be made from Irish music at the time, and the long touring with little reward took it's toll. Peoples left, and Kevin Burke quickly stepped in to take his place. Peoples' reputation as a fiddler is impeccable, but I feel that Burke's style meshed better with the group. As America celebrated its 200th birthday in July 1976, The Bothy Band recorded the definitive Irish album, Old Hag You Have Killed Me. Once again the playing was superb, but the band showed real growth in its arrangements. The title tune, a three part jig, starts out simply with the melody played on clavinet, but simply soars once the second part begins. The opening tune "Music in the Glen" features a funky clavinet riff on the third parts that evokes Stevie Wonder more than anything Irish. "Sixteen Come Next Sunday" combines some exquisite guitar/bouzouki interplay underneath Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill's sweet vocals. But the most noteworthy track was a short, ninety-second piece of a capella Scottish mouth music that Ó Domhnaill brought to the band and sang lead on. "Fionnghuala," with its frenetically alliterative, oddly harmonized chorus, sounds quite literally like nothing else, and stands as one of the genre's all-time classic recordings.
1977's Out of the Wind, Into the Sun didn't quite match the same heights as its predecessor, but remained quite solid nonetheless. The band continued to push the envelope on a couple of tracks. "The Maids of Mitchelstown" begins by alternating between two distinct melodies that fit the same chord structure, and ends with the two melodies being played simultaneously. On the second part of the set of bagpipe jigs "The Pipe in the Hob/The Hag on the Churn," Ní Dhomhnaill plays a driving bass line on clavinet while Keenan crunches out the melody and Molloy and Burke produce some strident, outside-the-box harmonies. Despite the band's creativity remaining firmly intact, the money just wasn't coming in, and the band began to unravel. The following year saw the release of a live album After Hours, recorded in Paris, but The Bothy Band never returned to the studio, and played their last show in 1979.

The band members have all kept busy over the years, especially Lunny. Lunny was part of the band Moving Hearts in the eighties, and has an enormous resumé of credits as a producer and guest musician. He has worked with some top Celtic acts, including Ireland's Altan and Scotland's Capercaillie, but he's helped add an Irish flavor to plenty of rock records as well. Elvis Costello's Spike, Mark Knopfler's Golden Heart, and Loreena McKennitt's The Mask and the Mirror all feature Lunny on bouzouki. His most noteworthy session work, I think, has been with Kate Bush. Songs like "Night of the Swallow" off The Dreaming, and "Jig of Life" and "Hello Earth" off Hounds of Love, are groundbreaking, genre-bending recordings that benefited enormously from Lunny's contributions. Ironically, these particular songs sold me on Irish music well before I knew who Donal Lunny was or heard of The Bothy Band. Of the remaining members, only Matt Molloy has reaped any huge commercial reward for his playing; he took up an offer to join The Chieftains in 1980, and has been playing with them ever since. Paddy Keenan relocated to Boston and tours periodically. If you'd like to see the best player at his particular instrument in an intimate setting at a local pub, Keenan is well worth checking out. Burke has played in the band Patrick Street, and has toured on his own and as part of the Celtic Fiddle Festival. Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and Tríona Ní Domhnaill have had many projects between them, and played together in the bands Relativity and Nightnoise. Regrettably, Ó Domhnaill died suddenly of a fall in his house last July.

Much contemporary Irish music aims for fast playing and energetic live shows. Bands like Altan and Lúnasa are great to see live, but haven't made albums that do their concerts justice. While I obviously never got the chance to see The Bothy Band perform live -- I've seen all of them, Tommy Peoples included, play separately -- their greatness on record keeps them at a level above all the Irish bands that have followed. It also ensures that everybody can still enjoy them today, as they were in their prime.

The Last Kiss (2006)

The Last Kiss is a modern look at the transition time from our society's prolonged adolescence to the stage of young adulthood. It stars Zach Braff, Casey Affleck, and Rachel Bilson. Braff plays Michael who seems to have his whole life in order and planned out. At 29 he's a successful architect who is climbing the career ladder at work. He has a beautiful girlfriend who is pregnant with a supportive family. The problem is that his whole life is mapped out, and he realizes that without some severe change, the next thirty years will just play out, and he doesn't like what he sees down the road. After a chance meeting with Kim, a college undergraduate played by Rachel Bilson, he gets involved in a side relationship. When his significant other is on to his game, he has a crisis of conscience and is forced to make some decisions. And making decisions, and controlling one's destiny is what being an adult is in the end.

While I was expecting The Last Kiss to be just another light and funny look into young adulthood, I found it dark and introspective. The scenes with the parents, less than happy after thirty years also were a downer along the way. The Last Kiss offers a modern commentary on long relationships in our society, and it offers more realism than entertainment. While it provokes some thought, don't expect to be wearing a smile from ear to ear after the viewing. If you want a sociological exploration into young adulthood, then The Last Kiss is for you.

Overall Grade: B-


One of the more risque additions to New York City culture is the museumofsex, an entire museum dedicated to the thrills, censorship, and history of sexuality. This is an impressive experiment in human sexuality, one that isn't perfect but is quite intriguing. The museum has three exhibitions running at a time (discussed below), along with a gift shop that has items you will most definitely not find in any other museum.

The first exhibition there is "Kink: Geography of the Erotic Imagination." This gives an overview of the more, well, kinky elements of sexuality. These include not only "popular" activities like s&m, group sex, and (as featured on the show C.S.I.) furries and infantalism, but more unusual activities: macrophiles (gigantic women), sploshing (thrills from tossing around food -- gotta love the sign "I am pisexual"), and being turned on by inflating balloons. In addition to the descriptions and visual aids, this exhibition includes several tactile props, allowing visitors to feel and try out some of the accessories for the kinks.

Next is "Action: Sex and the Moving Image." Here the museum examines the role of sexuality in cinema. While there are adult-only movies here -- from the early stag films to current porn -- the role of sexuality in mainstream movies is also looked at. You can see how sexuality is treated in "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ways, how it ruled "sexploitation" films, and how it surfaces in serious films like 9 1/2 Weeks and The Brown Bunny. And as you might expect, there are numerous video clips playing to illustrate each area being covered.

Finally the museumofsex has its continuing "Spotlight on the Permanent Collection." This is a hodgepodge of various sexual items always present at the museumofsex . You'll see some of the 19th-century anatomy books that provided the only information available at the time on human sexuality; you'll see sex toys that are technologically advanced; you'll see movie clips and kinky fashions. There's no theme to this exhibit, but it's always fun to see again!

My biggest complaint with the museumofsex is brevity. Each segment of each exhibition is summarized in a few paragraphs on the wall, there are a couple of items illustrating that, and that's it. At times this feels like an introduction rather than an exploration of the area of sexuality it's covering; and while you could spend weeks at many NYC museums and still barely scratch the surface of their contents, you can breeze through the entire museumofsex in an hour or two. Perhaps if the museum moves to a bigger space this problem will be solved.

So if you're looking for a fun, mature way to spend an hour or two in NYC, I recommend the museumofsex . (Before going, though, visit their website for a $5 coupon on the entrance fee.) As long as you're not easily shocked or offended, you'll have a blast! And you never know what fun stuff you'll find in the gift shop...

Reviewed by James Lynch

233 5th AveNew York, NY 10016
(212) 689-6337


Hicks Spring Flower & Garden Show 2007

I've been attending the Spring Garden show for the last several years, and it is always an enjoyable experience. With the beautiful display of flowers, all wonderfully presented, it is an equal treat for the nose and the eye. Take a look at some of these images, and we can see that Spring is truly in the air. It runs until the 18th of March so you've got one more weekend to check it out.

Poseidon (2006)

Poseidon is a remake of the 1972 classic thriller, The Poseidon Adventure. I had seen the original many years ago, and the basic plot of the two films is the same. An ultra luxurious cruise ship flips over from a storm. A group of trapped passengers bands together to try to get to the bottom of the upside down ship for an egress. This time among the passengers we have Hollywood heavyweights Ricard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, and Josh Lucas.

This new version relies heavily on computer generated animations. The film opens with a two plus minute scene of the ship that resembles a video game, far more than film. It's always a challenge to render the ocean believably, but films like Titanic and A Perfect Storm are a lot more realistic.

The other issue with Poseidon is the characters lack depth. The disaster occurs early in the sequence, before we have developed who these folks really are. As the film progresses, the characters remain flat and unidimensional, and never really progress.

Still, I like a good thriller, and Poseidon held my attention. While it takes "poetic license" on some issues- I seriously doubt that anything electrical would function in salt water- it is a plausible story overall. If you're looking for a good yarn of the sea, can accept unidimensional characters, artificial special effects and suspect science, then Poseidon is for you. The rest can let this ship sail into the computer generated sea without them.

Overall Grade: C+


300 (2007)

Time to revel in the glory of warfare -- old school! Specifically, 480 B.C. when three hundred Spartans held off the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae. This tale of a small force against a massive one is based on Frank Miller's comic book 300, and much like his SIN CITY comic and film adaption, 300 is an over-the-top tale of tough guys and evil degenerates.

The massive Persian army is on the march, and their "god-king" Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) demands a tribute of "earth and water" from Sparta. King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) refuses, seeing Greece as entering an age of reason and logic, and a capitulation to a self-proclaimed god as a step backwards. But the mystics (who Leonidas sees as a throwback to supersition) refuse to let him send the Spartan army, so Leonidas circumvents this by assembling his personal bodyguard of three hundred Spartans and taking a walk -- to the narrow pass where he believes his small band of soldiers can hold off the larger army.

This movie isn't as slavishly literal to its comic book as Sin City was. The primary addition is the political struggle in Sparta where Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) argues for the army to be sent. The main focus, though, is combat. The Spartans all wield their shield, spear, and sword to dispatch soldiers with an abundance of gore and slow motion.

300 is extraordinarily simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil. All the Spartans soldiers are heroes (even despite an opening showing that the babies deemed physically unfit are left to die), dressed and armed the same. Their adversaries are all extravagant, either through unuusal weapons (ranging from a giant to armored rhino) or degenerate lifestyle (Xerxes carried on a platform of slaves, an orgy of heavily-bejewelled women). The deformed Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) professes to help, but turns traitor when told he is unfit for combat. The exception is Theron (Dominic West), but he is such a loathsome character with no redeeming qualities that he exists solely for the audience to hate. And everyone who opposes Leonidas is corrupt, of course.

For all its black-and-white brushstrokes, 300 remains an exciting movie. The story moves along well, the combat is very exciting, and the film takes us to a world where bravery and sacrifice were all that soldiers desired.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jim Lynch


Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (Bloomsbury,2006)

A governess uncovers a plot to murder the children in her care, but she and her two friends have ways of dealing with people they don't like. A maid enlists a fairy's help to spin flax and protect herself from her husband's wrath. A young woman tries to free her love from a strange lady that nobody can describe the same way as anybody else. The famous Duke of Wellington runs afoul of the townspeople of Wall, and is forced to enter a very peculiar place in order to retrieve his steed. A poor clergyman must find a way to rescue one of the women in his parish from nursing a half-human child. A unique friendship between a human and a fairy leads to a bridge being built overnight -- with a few other ramifications. Mary Queen of Scots, frustrated by all her attempts to get back at a certain cousin of hers by natural means, decides to try something different. John Uskglass, the legendary Raven King of the north of England, keeps finding himself outmaneuvered by a country bumpkin whose pig had been turned into a fish.

These are the premises behind the eight short stories that make up The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, the second book from the British author Susanna Clarke. Her first book, the massive novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, became an instant classic in the fantasy genre when it came out in 2004, and shot Clarke straight to the top of my list of favorite living authors. These stories come from the same world that Strange and Norrell inhabit, where "practical magic" and fairy realms are within the reach of everyday English people. Much like her novel, Clarke's stories combine J. K. Rowling's sense of the fantastic with Edgar Allan Poe's sense of the macabre, along with a generous helping of surrealism and a warped, but inescapably English, sense of humor.

The sheer size of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, combined with Clarke's unique but arcane writing style, made her novel a difficult read for many. The stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories are by contrast more easily digestible and accessible, and actually serve as a better introduction to Clarke's wonderfully whacky world. Of the eight, the only one that I would consider merely adequate is the second one, "On Lickerish Hill"; it essentially pulls Rumpelstiltskin out of German fairy tales into Clarke's mythical England, without really adding anything to the story. Otherwise, the remaining stories make for reading that's engrossing, funny, and fantastic in both senses of the word. "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" are particularly brilliant.

Anybody who likes fantasy with a bit of a demented streak should find something to their liking in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. I do have to acknowledge that Susanna Clarke's writing style doesn't work for everybody, but I absolutely love it.

Overall grade: A


The "John Corey" Nelson DeMille Novels

The latest novel in Nelson DeMille's popular detective series is Wild Fire. For those of us that live around the NY metropolitan area, they are especially enjoyable because many of the locations are familiar to us. Before we get too ahead of ourselves, here is how we got to book four.

Plum Island

Plum Island is the best known of the series. We are introduced to John Corey, a soon to be retired NYPD detective. As he is recovering from an injury on Long Island's North Fork he ends up in the middle of a murder investigation. The trail leads him to Plum Island, a federal government animal disease research facility. We also meet Kate Mayfield, an FBI agent, and his future wife. Plum Island is a tight, compact novel with lots of action. After reading it, I never expected a sequel, but this was too compelling a character to not use in further works.

You can read an excerpt right here to experience it first hand.

The Lion's Game

In this follow up novel, John Corey is retired from the NYPD, and he puts his street smarts to work for the FBI's Anti Terrorism Task Force. This time we have a Libyan nationalist, "the lion" looking to settle an old score. In this lengthy work, we have a cross country game of cat and mouse. The Lion's Game also uses a Cussleresque (I think I just invented that word!) background story that contributes to the mystery and deepens the plot quite a bit. While not a casual read, it is a finely crafted thriller that really gets under the skin of an Islamic terrorist and those in pursuit. Notably, one of the scenes takes place at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island.

Night Fall

The longest book of the series gets followed by the shortest one. The plot of Night Fall centers around TWA Flight 800. Our detective looks into the events of that unfortunate plane crash which many hypothesize was not the accident that our government would like us to believe it is. It also looks at the plane crash from the standpoint of what follows on September 11th and as an initial attack in the still evolving terrorist war. In my view, Night Fall ends way too abruptly, but I believe that the author does that to mirror the sudden, and totally unexpected destruction that a terrorist attack results in, along with the senseless killing.

Wild Fire

All of this brings us to Wild Fire, the fourth novel in the series. This time we've got our favorite detective out to save the world from a secret government plan known as Wild Fire. The idea is to keep the Islamic world from exploding a suitcase nuclear in the US by extending the Russian mutually assured destruction doctrine to the terrorist countries. Along the way, we get to play along as Corey, and his wife Mayfield get to unravel this conspiracy as they have to disobey orders, call in favors, bend the law and work with limited resources. Another of the novel's attractions is its use and explanation of some exotic technologies, like ELF (extremely low frequency) communication. When all of the finely crafted ingredients are mixed, what results is a cautionary tale in our new world order and we realize that geopolitical stability is built on a leaning house of cards in a breeze; it is tentative at best.

Throughout all of these plot driven novels, the character of John Corey is a standout of the literary world. He's the experienced and intelligent city detective that the common man admires. While he is disliked by his superiors, they ultimately have to respect his abilities. His definable characteristic is his wise cracking comments. Even when he stares death in the face, he never loses his sense of sanity and humor. The way DeMille consistently portrays this heroic character through a thick NYC accent, and the street smarts of a career cop make all of these novels very engaging and enjoyable.

If you're looking for a great journey, with a character who is really "one of the boys," than this series is one that is well worth spending some time on. I can only hope that there will be many more novels in this series.

Overall Grade: A

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

It was with great anticipation that I rented Flags Of Our Fathers on DVD. I had seen the trailers and looked forward to a retelling of the famous Battle of Iwo Jima, and the courageous Marines that defied the odds to raise the flag on the hilltop that day. (As an aside, I once met a retired Marine that claimed to have been on the "next hill" when the flag was raised.) This was based on a novel by the same name, and the film was up for plenty of awards recently.

Boy, was I disappointed. First of all, Flags Of Our Fathers tries to tell the tale of the three remaining men that raised the flag that day. In the end, they're not even sure who was really in the photo. We feel empathy towards a mother that maintains that her now deceased son was in the image, that never really gets any recognition as his back was turned to the camera. The whole time sequence of this film is screwed up as it really has more flashbacks that the film Memento (which is a great film if you missed it...). Every time the plot gets moving, either on the Japanese island, or in the later war bond tour, we get interrupted to go back to the other, and the entire thread of whatever that was happening is lost big time.

I also got the impression that Flags Of Our Fathers had more to say about our current war than about World War II. I'm just not sure what the take home message was! War is too expensive? Heroes just happen by chance and are not planned? America needed to continue the fight at a time when the end wasn't in sight? Our soldiers don't get taken care of well after the war is over? Take your pick because all of the above themes permeate throughout the film. With that many half developed themes, it becomes a bit of a mish-mosh in the theme department.

This is simply another example of the trailer not showing what the film is going to be accurately. This lengthy film tips the scales at around 2:15, and it feels closer to three hours. There were points that I felt it couldn't end fast enough! If you'd like to see a great historical military film, then Saving Private Ryan is still a much better choice by any comparison. Somewhere in Flags of Our Fathers there is a better film. Perhaps if we cut out about an hour, and resequenced the film in a more chronological order, there would be something that was worth the effort watching. In its current state, its clearly not to this reviewer.

Finally, much of the film focuses on finding one of the Marine's comrades: Iggy. After scene after scene of yelling for "Iggy" I still have no idea if he was ever on the island, or what his fate was. Really, a film should be clearer than that.

Overall Grade: D

Torchlight - Robert Louis Stevenson III (1997)

For those who like thrillers, and given the success of 24, movies too numerous to mention, and the books of Ludlum, Grisham et al, there are a lot of folks who do, Torchlight is probably going to be a pretty entertaining read. For the rest of us, it doesn't have a whole lot to recommend it. Not that it's bad, mind you, just that it's not particularly good. It is formulaic almost to the point of parody, in fact, and executed in a workmanlike but uninspired fashion.

The plot involves our heroes, who are quite naturally ex-elite forces men, Navy SEALS in this case. They are experts in cold-water wreck diving, and are hired by a bad guy, in this case an arms dealer whose client lists reads like a Who's Who of Enemies of Democracy: Noriega, Saddam (with a few moderately prescient comments about that guy's character and plans), Afghan terrorists and so on. The bad guy has an adopted daughter, naturally she's beautiful and naturally one of our SEALS falls in love with her. The bad guy wants to recover money from a wreck in order to finance a deal to sell Russian nukes to Iraq. The good guys are undercover to scotch the deal with the help of the daughter. Things go to hell on the private yacht and lots of people get shot, stabbed and blown up. The good guys all escape.

As I say, it's not bad for what it is, just not exceptional. Admittedly it would be hard to live up to the standard set by his ancestor, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the book is not without merit, but unless you are a fan of thrillers or scuba diving, the book is unlikely to move you.

Overall Grade: C

A Mixture of Frailties - Robertson Davies (1958)

"Art's distillation; experience is wine, and art is the brandy we distill from it." So says Sir Benedict Domdaniel in A Mixture of Frailties, and the brandy that Robertson Davies offers us is a fine vintage indeed. Davies' work is hard to review in a conventional fashion, because the construction of it is so loving and so fully human that any discussion of simple plot and setting is completely inadequate. Davies' books are essentially long character studies, and his trilogies or quadrilogies even more so. That does not mean that nothing happens, since character is shaped by action, but rather what is important is not what happens but how it effects the characters - a subtle distinction, perhaps, but a crucial one.

To the plot then. A cantankerous old woman dies, leaving a complicated and onerous will which requires her executors to send a young local woman to train abroad in some form of art. The recipient of his largesse is a young local woman, Monica Gall, a singer of some potential. She is sent from her small home town in Canada to England to study. While there her horizons expand, she falls in love and is fallen in love with.

The book serves as an extended meditation on art, as evidenced by the quotation above, and how art can influence lives for good and for ill. An overarching theme is the power of the dead on the living. The will hovers above the entire story, as a faintly malignant force which helps Monica only as a way of controlling her family. Several characters die over the course of the book, and in one case the death frees Monica and in another binds her. Domdaniel comments on the duty interpretative artists owe to the creators of the art they interpret - for a conductor, as Domdaniel is, or a singer, as Monica is trying to become, that often means composers dead for decades if not longer.

As a result, the web of characters and their relationships are not like reality, but rather capture and heighten the essence of reality - they are a distilled brandy that delivers the characteristic taste of life with concentrated power. The impact is delivered with the loving and, I repeat, utterly human, style that marks all of Davies writing.

To be honest, this is not one of Davies' greatest works. Average Robertson Davies, however, is still very good indeed. If you have never read Davies, you have missed a great treat and A Mixture of Frailties is, if not the pinnacle of his art, still likely to be on of the better things you read this year.

Overall Grade: A-

(As a postscript, let me add a personal note. There are very few writers whose books I will buy based purely on the fact that they wrote it. Not only is Robertson Davies one of those writers, but I will often buy duplicates of them when I find them used, secure in the knowledge that I will find someone unfamiliar with him to whom I can gift it with a beneficient smile.)


The Rolling Stones: Truth And Lies (Eagle Media, 2006)

The Rolling Stones: Truth and Lies, an alleged documentary covering the history of one of the world's most celebrated rock bands, does not contain a single second of The Rolling Stones' music.

There. Now that I've said everything you really need to know about the DVD, the only people still reading this review are those with enough morbid curiosity to wonder just how bad it could get. Obviously the producers did not have the participation or cooperation of the band; on the bright side, I guess that means that Mick and the lads can't be blamed for this debacle. Instead, The Rolling Stones: Truth and Lies relies on news reels concerning the band, plus stock footage that generally has nothing to do with The Rolling Stones. Commentary is provided by David Hepworth, Chris Welch, Pamela Church Gibson, and Paul Gambaccini. The commentators try their best to place the Stones' music and image in a cultural and historical context, but given no actual performance footage to support them, their statements feel hollow. Outside of the commentary, most of the documentary revolves around the various times the Stones made the news. The narration is completely unimaginative; when not discussing a particular wedding or drug bust, the narrator dryly mentions the chart placing of each album, without going into any depth about the music contained therein. The DVD also tries to adhere rigidly to a year-by-year chronology -- except when an awkward edit jumps the story several years ahead in the blink of an eye. There were several of these that I could pick out on just one viewing, but the most embarrassing of these was the abrupt jump from the middle of 1964 to the release of the album Aftermath in 1966. In case you didn't know, "Satisfaction" came out in 1965.

The only moment of insight comes from Gambaccini recalling an encounter he had with Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones as the Stones' second guitarist in 1969 and left the band in 1974, to be replaced by Ronnie Wood. Standing by himself outside a concert hall after a show while the rest of the band partied inside, Taylor lamented to Gambaccini that partying just wasn't his scene. One of England's top young blues guitarists when he joined the band, Taylor was an excellent fit musically for the band and made significant contributions to some of the Stones' best music. He was just too low key to stick around long, though, and Gambaccini's description of Taylor provides depth and even evokes sympathy for the band's most overlooked member.

Otherwise, The Rolling Stones: Truth and Lies has nothing to offer anybody already familiar with the band's story. People curious about The Rolling Stones would be better served by searching out 25x5, a documentary I saw on PBS a few years back which did have the band's active involvement. Of course, you could always just let the music speak for itself. That would certainly be better than sitting through a documentary in which the music doesn't speak at all.

Overall grade: D-

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


Traffic March '07

Welcome, visitors from Brazil, Africa, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Europe, and of course, the good ol' US of A. However you found us, we're glad you did. I'm still waiting for our first visitor from Antarctica...

All The King's Men (2006)

With a cast including Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, and James Gandolfini, a movie has to be good, if not great, right? Well, after trying to watch All The King's Men, it just proves (once again) that no amount of star power can save an otherwise dismal script.

The plot focuses on the life and times of Huey "The Kingfish" Long. He was the original power broker from Louisiana, first as their governor, and then after a one term limit, as their senator. He was also attempting to challenge President Franklin Roosevelt's reelection campaign for the '36 election. With his political power, and colorful personality, I'm sure this is fertile ground to make an intriguing film about this character. Interestingly, his first job was as a door to door salesmen, and he spent the rest of his career selling himself to his constituents.

Unfortunately, All The King's Men is quite the dismal film. The plot line is barely nonexistent. The artificial laid on Cajun accents required use of the subtitles. Gimme a break- James Gandolfini's was especially fake. The whole thing moves at a glacial pace, and barely makes sense. It's really sad when the twenty minute documentary in the bonus features has more to impart than the main attraction. Also annoyingly, even though the film is clearly about Huey Long, they insist on renaming the main character played by Sean Penn to Willie Stark. Why you might wonder? I truly have no idea.

In summary, I recommend All The King's Men to no one, unless you have to see Tony Soprano speak with a fake Cajun accent. Run, don't walk...you've been warned! It was truly a waste of good acting talent on such an ill conceived, and poorly written screenplay.

Overall Grade: F

The Ron Clark Story (2006)

I'm always in the mood for a stand up and cheer movie, and The Ron Clark Story fits the category. Based on a true story, Matthew Perry portrays teacher Ron Clark. This educator is an energetic middle school teacher from North Carolina. He decides to follow his own advice to take a risk and find a challenge. Packing up his life into an old Mustang, he goes to Manhattan in search of some children that truly could use his services. After some searching, he takes on a class of discipline problems at a protypical inner city school. The kids fight him at every opportunity, and have no interest in the education he's offering. The principal of the school is less than supportive. Ron Clark makes personal sacrifices along the way like the apartment he lives in is a rather run down mess. Clark must go beyond the classroom just to keep his students from falling by the wayside. When the year is over, both he and the children are deservedly proud. Those looking for some of their own inspiration should watch The Ron Clark Story on DVD.

Overall Grade: B


The Darkangel - Meredith Ann Pierce (1982)

The Darkangel is the first in a trilogy, but it doesn't read that way; as a novel, it stands perfectly well on its own. The plot is fairly standard fantasy or faerie tale, which is by no means a condemnation. Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago that there are only a few basic plots, it is what you do with them that matters, and it is what she does with them that Pierce shines.

The plot, as I say, is basic. A young girl's mistress is kidnapped by the titular Darkangel and she, prompted by revenge and despair sets out to slay the monster. Captured in turn by the monster, a vampire-like winged creature called an icari (using 2nd declension Latin noun form, one "icarus," two "icari"), she finds friends, goes on a journey, grows up and confronts the monster. All pretty standard. The lovlieness of the book shines through in the details. Pierce has tapped into a rich vein of mythic symbolism, understandable since she claims an autobiography of Jung as an inspiration.

The world of the book is sketched in, some things simply must be taken at face value with no explanation. This is a sort of "soft fantasy" as opposed to the "hard fantasy" of, for instance, Tolkein where the setting is meticulously crafted and the pieces fit together like a fine watch. Rather this is a more sophisticated version of "once upon a time in a land far away," which has the immediate effect of removing the reader from this world and placing them elsewhere.

Some of the conceits in the book are marvelous - I particularly like the golden spindle which weaves cloth of pity, love, charity or whatever other emotional input one gives it. The setting is pleasant enough, the characters decently drawn if a bit archetypal. This book is, indeed, "the stuff dreams are made on." The problem is that, like dreams, it is evanescent. I enjoyed the book, but I suspect that it will not stick with me nor do I expect that I will come back to it again and again.

Although it was a pleasant diversion, I cannot quite give it an A rating. It must settle for a perfectly respectable B.

Overall Grade: B