Friday, December 1, 2017

Ranking Thor: Ragnarok

My family went to see Thor: Ragnarok last weekend and a good time was had by all. Oddly, the first Thor movie was lackluster but each sequel has only gotten better--not the usual progression for movies.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. StrangeGuardians of the Galaxy 2, the Man-Thing, and Wonder Woman.

So Thor:Ragnarok could just as easily have been called Thor/Hulk Team-Up, because the Hulk plays a major part in this movie. There's also a great cameo appearance by Dr. Strange. I think one reason the movie works well is because it takes two of the best and most grandiose stories for both Thor and the Hulk and combines them--Walter Simonson's run of Thor comics from the 1980s, and Greg Pak's Planet Hulk from 2006-07, plus elements from the 1980s Contest of Champions mini-series. It tosses them all together and adds in a hefty dose of humor. What comes out at the end of the process is one highly entertaining movie.

Another thing that struck me is that Loki in the movie is not a bad guy. Sure, he's self-serving and can't be counted on, but he does help his brother Thor when it's in his interests. And I found it interesting that at the beginning, when Thor returns to Asgard after a long absence and finds Loki has banished their father, Odin, and ruled in his stead, Asgard has not turned into some dystopian nightmare. Actually, it's a pretty fun place, with lots of drinking and funny dramatic works to honor Loki, and the people don't seem too put upon. Of course, Loki hasn't been vigilant about protecting Asgard from external threats, which is a problem, but he's not some awful tyrant. I think a simpler movie would not have had such a nuanced portrait of the trickster God.

The first Thor movie rated an avoid, and the second one was okay, but with this third one, the Thor franchise has reached pretty good.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men (1999)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Scary Movies: Carrie

Working through a backlog of horror movies we watched this past October, and now we come to a personal favorite of mine, Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1976. I haven't seen it since I was a senior in high school, but it was near the top of my list at the time, and remains so after this viewing.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is in high school and lives with her religiously fanatical mother who believes that all sex is sinful. She refuses to let her daughter date boys or really hang out with any other kids in school, and even the smallest signs of rebellion on Carrie's part result in her mother dragging her into a dark closet and locking the door on her. It's during one of these sessions that Carrie discovers when she is under extreme emotional duress, she is capable of moving objects with her mind.

The movie starts in a girls' locker room when Carrie gets her first period and, not knowing what it is or that menstrual blood won't hurt her, believes she's dying and starts screaming. The other girls stand around and make fun of her (shouting "plug it up!") until the gym teacher intervenes. One of the girls, Sue (played by Amy Irving, the future Mrs. Steven Spielberg), feels bad about what happened, and decides to ask her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy is captain of the football team, but is actually really sensitive and kind of likes Carrie, and agrees.

However, one of the mean girls, Chris, gets wind that Carrie is going to the prom, and decides to play a cruel prank on her. I won't go too much into exactly what happens then, except to note that Carrie's breakdown and telekinetic revenge against her tormentors at the prom is one of the great scenes in horror movie history.

Seeing this as an adult, what strikes me is that this a feminist film. The only ones who have any real idea of what's going on are the women--the gym teacher, Sue, Chris. They easily manipulate the clueless men in the movie--the school's principal in the gym teacher's case, their boyfriends in the girls' case. I suppose you could even make the case that the problem with Carrie's mother is that she never taps into her female sexual power; traumatized by the rape that produced the daughter she hates, she has submitted herself wholly to the masculine religion of Christianity. And of course, Carrie herself, who's felt victimized all her life, takes control of the situation when she discovers her true power.

Carrie (1976)

Story/Plot/Characters--Great script, pitch-perfect acting (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie's mother, both received Academy award nominations for their roles), tight plotting based on a story by Steven King. (4 points)
Special Effects-- Not a real heavy special effects movie, at least until the climax, but pretty good once they get going. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Some tense moments but not a real scary horror movie. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Set in a suburban high school with lots of daytime scenes, the atmosphere is not really what this one is about. Carrie's home life is pretty freaky, I guess, and her candle-lit house on the edge of town, decorated with horrific icons of Christ's crucifixion, is a nice touch. (1 point)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Carrie (1976)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1992)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What I'm Reading: Sachiko

Sachiko is the story of Sashiko Yasui, who was a five-year old living in Nagasaki in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded only three-quarters of a mile from her house.That one moment became the defining event of her life, as the blast took her family from her--either immediately, in the blast, or over the coming years, from radiation sickness and cancer.

But Sachiko has lived to the present day, after a successful operation to remove her cancerous thyroid gland in the 1960s. At the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, she began speaking to local school groups about her experiences, and has since toured all over Japan and North America.

She is also an admirer of Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and has worked for a peace and anti-nuclear organization in Nagasaki for several years. It is her hope that by telling her story widely future generations will not have to go through what she did.

The author of this book is Caren Stelson, an American woman who saw Sachiko speak in Minneapolis in 2005 and thought there needed to be an English-language version of her story in print. I have labeled this as a memoir, however, because my impression is that this is more of a translation of Sachiko Yasui's own words than the collection and interpretation of multiple sources that would be correctly labeled a biography.

Though aimed at middle-grade level readers, it is quite an intense book, with accurate and detailed descriptions of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki and its aftermath. It might be hard to read for more sensitive readers. For those interested in the topic, though, it would be tough to find a more immediate first-hand account than Sachiko.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What I'm Reading: Play Winning Chess

Play Winning Chess is the first in a seven-book series by former US chess champion Yasser Seirawan and international grand master Jeremy Silman. The series as a whole is highly recommended in a number of chess reviews, and they all agree you should start with the first book, even if you think it might be too basic, because it introduces you to Seirawan's system and anyway, even an intermediate player could still pick something up.

And that's pretty much what I concluded--it was a little too basic overall for where I am, yet I still learned a few things. Especially helpful was the chapter on pawns. I knew about things like pawn chains and doubled pawns already, but Seirawan provided a more systematic way of looking at your pawn structure. I especially liked a little diagram he included about how to make sure your pawn is the one that passes and becomes a queen when two pawn masses meet.

Other helpful tidbits included some good advice on using your knights to work your way into your opponents line, how to counter an opponent who's brought out his queen too early, and some interesting profiles of famous chess masters from the past.

I would highly recommend this book to a beginning chess player who wants to improve--this is a great place to start. For an intermediate player, you will almost certainly learn some things, and I'm assured this volume will prepare you for Seirawan's more advanced books to come. Indeed, I've already started the second book in the series, on tactics, and find it is much more challenging for my level.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Scary Movies:The Birds

I assume I don't have to explain too much about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette, it's one of Hitchcock's best-known movies, although it was my first time seeing it. Everybody in my family enjoyed this one, with interests held from beginning to end. In retrospect, it may have been little too intense for my eight-year old daughter, although she did comment it wasn't quite as scary as Jaws. It was fine for my twelve-year old son.

The movie takes place over a weekend in the small town of Bodega Bay, California. Melanie Daniels, a young and pretty, but rather bratty, lady meets lawyer Mitch Brenner in a pet shop in San Francisco, where he is searching for a pair of lovebirds to give to his much younger sister as a birthday gift. Melanie is another customer but poses as an employee, but when it turns out there are no lovebirds in stock, decides to order a pair and deliver them the next day herself to Bodega Bay, where Mitch returns to visit his mother and sister every weekend.

Melanie only intends to deliver the birds and go back to San Francisco, but Mitch convinces her to stay for dinner, and then to attend his little sister Cathy's birthday party the next day. Meantime, a couple odd incidents take place concerning the local birds: in one scene, a gull attacks Melanie while she's in a rowboat on the water; in another, a gull flies into a door and dies. But the movie really gets underway at Cathy's party, when gulls attack the kids as they're playing party games, and the adults have to fight off the flock and carry the screaming children inside.

I won't give away what happens from there as the characters struggle to understand why the birds have turned against humans, and how they can escape the town.

The Birds (1963)

Story/Plot/Characters--The premise is just the slightest bit silly but the script treats it as deadly serious and pulls it off. The acting is excellent and the characters completely believable. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Dated by today's standards but effective for what they are. (1 point)
Scariness--Genuinely creepy with a few scares. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The small town of Bodega Bay is a good setting for a story like this--a small, foggy seaside village. I think the sense of isolation of the town is undermined a bit by several references to the freeway that passes a few miles away.  (1 point)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Scary Movies:Tales of Terror

Tales of Terror is one of a series of several horror movies Roger Corman directed in the 1960s based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. Actually, this movie is an anthology, with three stories--the first based on the Poe short story "Morella," the second a sort of mix of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado," and the third based on the short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Richard Matheson, probably best known for writing a number of the Twilight Zone episodes (although he was also a prolific horror and SF novelist), wrote the screenplay.

The movie doesn't lack for star power, as it features Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. Quite a line-up! I found the first story forgettable, while the third, about a man hypnotized on the brink of death and not allowed to die by his hypnotist, is somewhat creepy but slight (although my daughter found it frightening.).

The second story, however, is immensely entertaining. In it, Peter Lorre plays a wicked old drunk named Montresor Herringbone, who's always trying to wheedle more drinking money out of his wife, while never failing to kick her black cat out of the way. One day he comes across a wine-tasting event, where he matches famous oenophile Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price) drink for drink in a hilarious tasting contest. Fortunato takes him home, where Montresor passes out. Fortunato really hits it off with Montresor's long-suffering wife, and soon she's cheerfully giving Montresor drinking money so she'll have time alone to spend with Fortunato. The other drunks  at the bar clue Montresor in to his cuckolding, however, so one evening he gives Fortunato a glass of amontillado (his favorite) with sleeping powder in it. When Fortunato awakens, Montresor has chained him and his wife to a wall in a niche in the basement, and bricks them in alive. Montresor thinks he's committed an unsolvable murder, and practically invites the police to search his house for the missing persons. He overlooked only one little thing--the black cat was bricked in too, and begins yowling as the police search the basement, giving away Montresor's secret.

Tales of Terror (1962)

Story/Plot/Characters--A top-notch script and great acting, with Vincent Price in the second story really outdoing himself as the foppish Fortunato. It might have been nice if they'd found a way to tie the three stories together in some way. (3 points)
Special Effects--The effects do what they have to do and are in line with other 1960s films. The color-wheel hypnosis machine in the third story is eerie. (1 point)
Scariness--The first two stories aren't really scary, while the third is moderately creepy. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Great atmosphere--the creepy mansion in the first story is the only good part of it, while the twisting streets of 19th century Boston in the second story really support the "drunk" viewpoint of Montresor. The third story gets definite points for freakiness. (1.5 points)
Total=6 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Friendship Experiment

I guess The Friendship Experiment, by Erin Teagan, is actually a middle grade novel, rather than a YA, as I have it tagged on this post. Maybe I need to create a separate middle grade tag, as I may be reading a lot more soon. TFE is the first book of the year assigned in the Parent-Teen Book Club at my son's middle school. I have to imagine most of the other books in the club we'll be reading will be middle grade as well....

Maddie's grandfather, a famous scientist and the person she most looks up to in the world, died over the summer. It was her grandfather who showed her how to write a standard operating procedure (SOP) for tackling any difficult problem in her life. It was her grandfather who encouraged her most in swabbing gross things she finds so she can culture them in agar later and see what grows. And she could really use his advice now, because Maddie just started sixth grade at her new middle school, and things are not going well.

Her best friend from elementary school, who wants to be a scientist just like Maddie, is going to a private school so they hardly ever see each other. The new kids in her classes are weird, especially Riley, who went to Space Camp over the summer and wants to be an astronaut, but is really just a show-off. And her older sister's Von Willebrand Disease (a type of hemophilia), which Maddie also has, seems to be getting worse. Things are so much more complicated than when she was in elementary school. Without her grandfather's guidance, how will Maddie deal with these new problems?

This is a really fun book. I mean, it's just easy to read, Maddie is so likable, and everything moves at a nice, brisk pace. It's slightly quirky but not enough to be off-putting. I do have one objection, and that's that one of the major plot twists in the book is lifted straight from Harriet the Spy (do kids not read that book anymore?). I don't want to give away the twist, but if you've read Harriet you probably have a good idea which scene I mean. But this is a great book for middle schoolers, especially those who like science, and their parents who've joined them in book clubs.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Scary Movies: Alien 3

We're coming up on the scary movie season and we have some great movies lined up this year. Before we get to that, though, I need to clear the decks. My son and I watched Alien 3 a couple months ago, so I need to add that. (I reviewed Alien last year here and Aliens here.) Not my first choice, as I remember it was quite poorly reviewed at the time, and I don't recall anybody every saying it was worth watching. But my son really wanted to see it.

So how was it? Hmm. Not good. But not as bad as it could have been. The premise was decent, writing and acting much better than usual for a horror film, even Sigourney Weaver was back. But it was still just...flat. Not scary. Or even suspenseful. There might have been a good horror movie somewhere in the footage they shot, but what made it onto the screen was not it.

One big problem is that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has an alien queen egg implanted inside her. Apparently other aliens can smell or otherwise sense that, so they simply leave Ripley alone. Not very suspenseful when your main character is immune to the monster.

Moreover, there is only one alien here--after a whole planet full of them in the last movie. And even that alien is not used well. The tension doesn't build, and the places where the scares should be are too predictable. During scary movies, my son will often go sit on the stairs out of view of the TV during scenes that are too tense--and he didn't do that once for this one. A bad sign.

Quick plot recap: After escaping the alien planet in the last movie, Ripley's ship crash lands on a prison planet. All the others on the ship besides her die in the crash, except one visitor they didn't realize was on board--yes, they had an alien stowaway. The prison planet was once a major destination for criminals, but the prison is being decommissioned, and all that's left are a couple dozen prisoners with life sentences, plus the warden and his assistant, and a doctor. The prisoners have fallen under the sway of one particularly charismatic prisoner who preaches that they can achieve salvation by living pure lives and keeping their thoughts pure as well. The female Ripley landing on the planet--the first woman any of them have seen for years--puts a terrible temptation before them.

Is Ripley safe from the prisoners? Are the prisoners safe from the alien they don't realize is loose among them? Will the movie take advantage of a potentially interesting premise? I'd say the answers to all three questions are definitely "no."

ALIEN 3 (1992)

Story/Plot/Characters--Good acting by horror movie standards. A good start to the plot but doesn't follow through. Some characters seem interesting at the beginning, but aren't developed. The only one we find anything about, the prison doctor, is killed halfway through. (1 point)
Special Effects--The effects, sets, and costuming in the Alien are consistently spectacular. But by this point we've seen it all before, and this movie doesn't add anything new. (1 point)
Scariness--I guess the alien is inherently somewhat scary, but this movie is one of the worst horror films I've ever seen for building tension. It simply doesn't do it. The editing is off, or something. There's neither suspense nor jump scares. I mean, it's not for kids, but nobody above the age of 10 is going to be bothered by this. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--There's some good atmosphere in the abandoned industrial settings of the once busy prison colony. That's probably the best part of the movie. (1 point)
Total=3 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm Reading: Ancient Brews

Ancient Brews, by Penn biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern, explores the alcoholic beverages our distant ancestors enjoyed and how we know that.

Dr. McGovern first explains how he uses various molecular sampling techniques to determine the ingredients found in the residue of an ancient cup, amphora, or pottery vessel. For instance, if his tests find tartaric acid in a sample, that's an indicator that the vessel the sample if from once held grape juice or wine.

In succeeding chapters, he tells of his trips to various archeological sites around the world to discover what the ancient Iranians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Scandinavians, Incans, and others liked as a tipple, followed by his attempt, along with Dogfish Head brewery chief brewer Sam Calagione, to recreate the ancient beverage in the modern day. Each chapter includes a recipe for a homebrewer who might himself like to try to create the ancient beverage (good luck! Some of the recipes are fairly complicated and call for obscure herbs or other ingredients that might not be that easy to come by) as well as a recipe for a complementary food pairing.

Because I recently listened to the Modern Scholar lecture series on the Incan Empire by Dr. Terence D'Altroy, the most interesting chapter to me in Dr. McGovern's book was the one on chicha, the corn beer brewed by the ancient Incans. It is still a popular drink today in modern Peru, often still made using the ancient method of chewing the corn kernels and spitting them out into a big bowl to get the fermentation started. (Yes, for Dr. McGovern's recreation of the beverage, there's a great photograph of him and Sam and their colleagues sitting around, chewing and spitting the red corn.) The alcohol kills any harmful bacteria in the resulting drink, by the way, so it's perfectly sanitary, if disgusting by our modern standards.

I learned a lot from this book. My main impression of ancient beverages is that our ancestors basically mixed together everything they had--wine, mead, beer, plus lots of herbs--into one giant grog. Even when the wine culture took over in the Mediterranean, the ancients mixed it with pine resin as a preservative, and lots of other herbal additives as well. In Europe into the Middle Ages, a grog known as gruit was one of the most popular drinks. It seems our modern, purer conception of distinct drink categories that should not be mixed is a more recent phenomenon.

All in all, a fun and informative book, obviously great for beer drinkers, but really of interest to anybody who wants to know about what ancient cultures ate and drank, as well as the work of  archeologists in the subfield of cuisine archeology.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

What I'm Reading: Logical Chess

I’m in a chess arms race with my son (age 12). I’ve always been able to beat him in chess, but last spring he beat me two out of three games. I knew it was time to upgrade my skills! I started playing chess online at chess.com. I prefer the 15-minute rapid game, and settled at a rating in the mid-700s.
But then my son opened his own account there, and started playing online. And when we played, I could tell he was getting better. So I did some research, and found that this book, Chess Logic, by Irving Chernev, was highly recommended by several folks on the interwebs who seemed to know what they were writing about. Chess Logic contains 33 actual historical games, with each and every move clearly explained for a chess beginner—why does Capablanca move the knight and not the bishop? Why does Tarrasch castle now and not later? And so forth.
And the book has worked—I feel a lot more in control of my chess game, my rating has risen to the low 900s, and most importantly, my son hasn’t beaten me in months. But now the real problems has arisen—I think I’m addicted to chess. I never considered it anything but an amusing diversion before, but now things are different. When I start playing, I feel a little shaky as the adrenaline starts to flow, and when I lose a game online and my rating falls, I’m upset for the rest of the day. I’ve mostly given up beer with dinner so I’ll have the clearest possible mind when I play in the evening. Worst of all, my playing is even starting to cut into my writing time.
So do I recommend this book? Well, if you're not interested in chess, obviously it's not going to be something you'll want to read. And I don't think it would work for a novice, either--you have to have some familiarity with the game to make sense of it. But for an amateur chess player who's been playing for a while and wants to improve his game, this is the consensus book for doing so, and I'm inclined to agree with the consensus. I mean, I've never read a chess book before, so maybe reading any chess instruction would've improved my game, but I doubt other books would have done so well as this one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What I'm Reading: Symposium and Phaedrus

I had originally included these under the roundup, just below, but decided they deserve their own entry.

Symposium I've also reviewed other dialogues by Plato--the Republic and a collection of five dialogues related to the execution of Socrates.

First, let me address the question--"Oh, you're reading Plato. Isn't it hard to read?"

And the answer is, no, not at all, I know this is philosophy, but this isn't Kant or Hobbes or Schopenhauer or somebody like that. Plato writes dialogues, i.e., conversations. His main character is always Socrates, an immensely likable character (how much Plato's Socrates reflects the real historical man is a matter of endless debate among scholars) who has a knack for leading his friends and students in discussions of philosophical matters that feel totally natural and are pretty easy to follow.

The Symposium is one of Plato's most beloved works, mostly because it relates the events of a Greek drinking party. Socrates and several others have gotten together to celebrate because their friend Aristophanes, the famous Greek comedian, has won an award for presenting the best play that year. Before they start drinking, they decide each will give a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love, and at the end they'll judge who gave the best speech.

Each gives a speech in turn praising love, with Aristophanes in particular giving an odd and humorous account. At the end, Socrates gives a high-minded speech about how the best kind of love is philosophical love, which benefits all mankind, and you think that's the end.

But then the party is crashed by a very drunk, semi-belligerent Alcibiades, the notorious Greek playboy, who tells them all not to heed a word of Socrates, because he doesn't know a thing about love. Alcibiades gives a rambling but funny account of trying to seduce Socrates, which he thought would be easy because Socrates is an older man, only to find himself thwarted at every turn.

The party ends at dawn with everybody drunk and passed out. Only Socrates remains awake. He walks to town, performs his morning prayers, and goes about his day none the worse for wear, his rational nature completely unaffected by a night of drinking.

Phaedrus Okay, the book with the Symposium included this dialogue as a sort of bonus. It starts off a little lightweight as far as Plato's dialogues go, though charming, and by the end has reached unsuspected depths.

Socrates runs into his friend Phaedrus one morning on walk in the countryside, and they agree to walk together while Phaedrus explains a speech his friend Lysias gave him, trying to talk Phaedrus into sleeping with him even though they aren't in love with each other.

At a beautiful creek that they think must by the home to water nymphs, Socrates explains why Lysias's speech was foolish, point by point. He then goes further, elucidating why one should avoid sophistry like Lysias's speech and always tell the truth, with digressions on such things as the nature of the soul. At the end, Phaedrus and Socrates walk back to Athens.

Simple in some ways, but so profound I anticipate rereading this in the near future.

What I'm Reading: Roundup

It's been a while since I've written on here. I'll do a quick roundup of what I've been reading.

Fuzzy Mud A middle-grade novel by Louis Sachar, who some may know for writing Holes. We listened to this on our recent trip up to western Massachusetts and it managed a tricky feat--keeping the interest of the eight-year old girl, the twelve-year old boy, and the two adults in the car.

Fuzzy Mud has two parallel stories: the first follows three students at a private school in Pennsylvania--the third-grader Tamaya, a goody two-shoes who has to walk to school with her older neighbor Marshall, who in turn is bullied by his classmate Chad; the second story follows a scientist testifying before a Senate subcommittee on a type of one-celled organism he has developed that could provide an energy source superior to oil, but which has some very troubling side effects.

When Tamaya and Marshall are walking home from school on a shortcut through the woods one day, they meet Chad, and to keep Marshall from getting beat up, Tamaya throws a strange kind of fuzzy mud in Chad's face. It's here that the two stories meet in a heartbreaking way that I won't explain.

One of the reviews on Amazon describes this as an eco-disaster novel, and while accurate, I'm not sure that fully captures the book. This story definitely took some twists I did not foresee. It's probably a bit darker than a lot of middle-grade novels, but the characters are so well-drawn and sympathetic--even the bully Chad, once we learn a little of his backstory--that I imagine any middle-schooler will find this hard to put down. Any adult too, for that matter. I highly recommend this.

Unsound The most recent comic series by highly-prolific horror comics writer Cullen Bunn. I have previously reviewed Cullen Bunn's series Harrow County (which is ongoing, by the way, and remains one of the two or three best comics I read on a regular basis.)

Unsound is a four-issue mini-series following Ashli, who has just accepted a job as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital housed in a century-old building with quite an unpleasant history. By the end of the first issue, Ashli discovers she may have more in common with the patients than the rest of the staff, especially since she has some unresolved mental issues from her own past.

We're up the third issue of this, with the fourth issue due out in September. The series is more creepy than scary, with a number of really bizarre scenes. I have no idea where it's going, though more because the story is a freak-out than because it plays fair with genuine narrative twists. Still, fun for those who like scary things.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seventh Most Important Thing

Arthur, age 13, lives in Washington, DC, in 1963. When he picks up a brick and throws it at a black homeless man people call the Junk Man, everyone assumes it's racially motivated violence, and the judge is prepared to send him away to juvie for a long time.  But it wasn't race that motivated him. His father died three months ago, and he saw the Junk Man wearing his father's old motorcycle cap, not knowing his mother had thrown it away.

But at the hearing, the Junk Man, whose real name turns out to be James Hampton, asks the judge if instead of being sent to juvie, Arthur can be sentenced to help him with his work, since his arm is broken and he can't do it. The judge agrees to the unusual idea, ordering Arthur to work for Mr. Hampton for 120 hours of service. When Arthur shows up on a snowy day at the address the court gives him, he finds an old garage with the Junk Man's cart outside it. Taped to the cart is a sign on cardboard asking Arthur to collect the seven most important things: lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.

What does the Junk Man do with these things? What's in the garage? Why, whenever he sees Arthur, does the Junk Man refer to him as St. Arthur, and to himself as St. James? And will Arthur be able to finish his sentence so he doesn't have to go to juvie?

An added bonus for me is that the book is set in Washington, DC, so there are references to local sights like the Smithsonian and the Washington Senators baseball team. But it takes place in a working-class neighborhood, so we get a glimpse of how real Washingtonians live. And the mystery of what James Hampton, the Junk Man, is working on, turns out to be tied to a real Washington location--although I won't reveal any more than that.

The Seventh Most Important Thing, a YA by Shelley Pearsall, would be good for any kid from 10 up to read, and many adults as well, I think. It's attention-grabbing from the first page, the characters are realistic and well-drawn, and despite offering some deep lessons, there's a lot of humor throughout. In fact, I think I'm going to go hand it to my own 12-year-old son to read tonight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ranking Wonder Woman

Went with my family to see Wonder Woman last weekend. It was a fun movie! I noticed my daughter wasn't bored at any parts, as she has been with other superhero movies. Is that because Wonder Woman is an especially good superhero movie, or because it has a female protagonist? Not sure...

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and the Man-Thing.

So we start off with Wonder Woman's origin story, who grows up as the child, Diana, on the hidden island of Themyscira. She is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a warrior race charged by Zeus with battling the god of war, Ares--only Ares has not appeared on Earth for millenia. As she gets older, Diana proves to be the fiercest warrior of all, skilled in every sort of athletic event, yet her mother never fully lets her take part, claiming she is not meant for war.

When World War I spy Steve Trevor crash lands on the island in a plane, Diana rescues him. He tells her of the war raging across the globe, unbeknownst to the sheltered woman of Themyscira. Diana immediately connects the World War with the return of Ares, and wishes to accompany Steve back to the outside world. Her mother is against it, and Diana sneaks away with Steve at night on a boat.

In 1910s London, Diana is horrified by the pollution, poverty, and and crime she witnesses in the city. She wishes to travel as soon as possible to the frontlines, assuming she'll easily find Ares there. Steve Trevor has to slow her down, even as he tries (mostly in vain) to make bold, naive Diana less obtrusive in Edwardian society. Eventually he is sent on a mission behind enemy lines, and takes Diana with him.

I won't say what happens after that, except that the adventure could rightly be described as rollicking, and there's a lot of good humor. This is one of the best DC movies in a long time, not quite excellent in my rating system but pretty close.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Finished Another One

The Love Machine, my latest novel, is done.

Well, at least the not-quite-final draft of it. I finished it this morning, fulfilling my 2017 New Year's goal of having it done by June. It took about 18 months.

Because I've been reading each chapter to my writers' group a few weeks after completing them, and then going back and polishing, the book should need very little work further work, I think. I'll take a week or so off, and then do a final read-through and polish.

My next goals?

1) I have two open short stories. I'll finish one of them. Should take 7-10 days.

2A) Polish query letter for The Love Machine.
2B) Send The Love Machine  out to agents. Maybe start in a month.

3A) Go back to novel #3, which I need to make one semi-major change to. May take a few weeks for that. Otherwise, I think this one is good to go.
3B) Novel #3 also needs a title! My various working titles (most recently, Out of Place) have not worked for me.

4) Start on novel #5. I have a really killer premise and am ready to start. Maybe after Labor Day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Wow. I'm finally done with The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, i.e., Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, these are his memoirs, upon which the famous movie is based, and I feel like I've been reading them for months. I have been reading them for months. Too good to put down, too intimidating to pick up for reading before bed, I've read it only when I've had an unbroken block of 30-60 minutes.

Lawrence had studied archeology in college, I think, and had spent time on digs of crusader castles in Syria, where he perfected his Arabic and spent much time traveling around, familiarizing himself with the land and its people. When World War I broke out, he was a perfect prospect for joining British intelligence in Egypt. The British thought it might help their cause to encourage a rebellion among the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords in Turkey, who were allied with Germany, and sent Lawrence for the job.

Lawrence's first task was identifying which of old, doddering King Hussein's three sons would be a good leader for a rebellion, and found the ideal man in Prince Feisal, a calm, fair-minded, Turkish-educated natural leader of men. Together Lawrence and Feisal led a motley collection of Bedouin tribesman and local Arab peasants from Jeddah on the Red Sea coast up to, eventually, Damascus and the ultimate defeat of the Turks in Arab lands.

Lawrence himself becomes a legend in Arabia through the course of the book, a strange blue-eyed figure, a non-Muslim and a clean-shaven man, both great rarities in the desert, yet acting as a sheik and a military leader, with the authority and white robes of Mecca, and a gold Meccan dagger presented him by Prince Feisal himself. When he arrives in an area where he hasn't been before, the locals all come to see this odd sight firsthand, though of course they already know him by reputation. And he strives to live up to their expectations, living the same hard life as a Bedouin, and even going out of his way to learn words in local dialects and details of local clans, so that he can greet a stranger and ask him of his family on first meeting. Quite an incredible man!

I'm naming this book as one of  my Shortcuts to Smartness, by which I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas it's like a college class in and of itself. But in this case, I'm also including a caveat, which is that this book is so huge and mighty, and much of the knowledge provided so esoteric--the different types of sand in the desert, how to coax a she-camel to travel when she is mourning a lost calf, the difference in what the English and the Arabs conceive of as hunger, and on and on--that it takes a reader truly willing to accompany Lawrence on his journey, including all the immensely interesting, though often lengthy, digressions.

In fact, if you think the movie is long, it is only the thin outer layer of the fruit. I think my favorite part is learning about how to feast in the Bedouin tradition, with goat and camel meat roasted and presented steaming (rude to wait until it cools--too bad for your fingers!), and an elaborate hierarchy of who gets to eat from the common dishes first, who eats second after the best parts are taken, and who gets the bones and other remains.

Or maybe the history of Auda, the old desert warrior who becomes a general in the Arab army, who has killed more than 70 Arabs with his own hands in his life, and so many Turks he doesn't even know (because who counts Turks?), and who describes to all who will listen the adventures of his life in the most heroic terms.

But these are just two of the many, many interesting descriptions and stories--hundreds, not dozens--sprinkled throughout the main narrative. This book may not be for all, but if you have the will, the desire, most of all the time, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is worth your attention.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

James Bond: Movie Rankings by Category

Okay, here's a little project I've been working on for a while, based on my categories for each James Bond movie I've ranked (11 so far, reviewed herehereherehere, and here). So here's each category with the movies ranked in order by quality beneath:

Story/Plot
Top 4
1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Goldfinger
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
4. A View To a Kill

Top 8
5. Casino Royale
6. Skyfall
7. Spectre
8. Thunderball

Doesn't Rank
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun
Live and Let Die

Action
Top 4
1. Casino Royale
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. Skyfall
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Top 8
5. A View To a Kill
6. Die Another Day
7. Thunderball
8. Spectre

Doesn't Rank
Goldfinger
Live and Let Die
The Man With the Golden Gun

Villain
Top 4
1. Goldfinger, Oddjob (Goldfinger)
2. Stromberg, Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me)
3. Blofeld, Fraulein Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Raoul Silva (Skyfall)

Top 8
5. Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
6. Blofeld (Spectre)
7. Scaramanga, Nick Nack (The Man With the Golden Gun)
8. Mr. Big, Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)

Doesn't Rank
Zorin, Mayday (A View To a Kill)
Colonel Moon, Zao (Die Another Day)
Emilio Largo (Thunderball)

Setting
Top 4
The Spy Who Loved Me
Casino Royale
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The Man With the Golden Gun
Top 8
Die Another Day
Goldfinger
Live and Let Die
Skyfall
Doesn't Rank
Thunderball
A View to a Kill
Spectre

Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs
Top 4
1. Goldfinger
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
4. Die Another Day

Top 8
5. The Man With the Golden Gun
6. Thunderball
7. Casino Royale
8. Live and Let Die

Doesn't Rank
A View to a Kill
Skyfall
Spectre

Bond Girls
Top 4
1. Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me)
2. Solitaire, Rosie Carver (Live and Let Die)
3. Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale)

Top 8
5. Jinx (Die Another Day)
6. Monica Belucci, Madeleine Swann (Spectre)
7. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
8. Mary Goodnight (Man With the Golden Gun)

Doesn't Rank

Severine, M (?) (Skyfall)
Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
Stacey Sutton, May Day (A View To a Kill)

Musical Theme
Top 5
1. Goldfinger
2. A View to a Kill
3. Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
4. Live and Let Die
5. Skyfall

Doesn't Rank
Thunderball
Spectre
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Casino Royale
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun

And as a reminder, here are the overall movie rankings:
Overall
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ranking Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and wanted to rank it with the other superhero movies, and also realized I had never ranked the first one on here. So let's do them both now.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil War, Dr. Strange, and the Man-Thing.

We are living in an age of wonders, when Marvel has put out so many movies in their filmic universe that they are now able to insert obscure characters like Ego the Living Planet, Mantis, and Howard the Duck, and still end up with a blockbuster. Then again, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise itself is pretty unlikely, or so I would have thought until a few years ago.

I've never been a huge GotG fan in the comics, but my impression is that it was always intended to be a fairly serious series, along with the Starlord comics. Rocket Raccoon, however, was zany and over the top from his inception, though never a part of the GotG. The movie version takes its tone from Rocket, and mashes him into a particular GotG cast combination that never showed up in the comics. The filmmakers obviously know what they're doing, though, creating a mix of personalities and powers designed to maximize conflict and humor.

The first movie was a little better than the second, I thought: funnier and more focused. They're both pretty watchable, though, holding even my 7-year-old daughter's attention for the entire run time. The second one pushed a little too hard on making the Guardians a family, a group of damaged people who have to turn to each other because their own families are so dead or messed up, but the emotional manipulation didn't outweigh the fun of the movie.

I think we'll put these both in pretty good category, with the first one near the middle and GotG2 closer to the bottom.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

What I'm Reading: Roundup

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Cincinnati Reds Over spring break we went on vacation to Cincinnati. Hey, don't laugh, we had a great time! One of the things we did was take in a Reds game (lost to the Brewers 5-1), and I picked this book up in the great Reds Museum attached to the ballpark. This book was exactly what I was looking for, more or less a primer on the history of Reds baseball, written in a fun, accessible style.

The Reds were the first professional baseball team ever, dating from 1869. Those first couple "seasons" they traveled around the country playing local clubs, factory teams, and so forth, and going more than 80 games without defeat until they lost to the New York Atlantics in June 1870. While they haven't always been the winningest club since then, they've been to the World Series nine times and won five of those visits, most recently in 1990.

I was pretty familiar with the glory days of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, but other aspects of team history were a surprise. I think I liked best learning about Ted Kluszewski, the Reds mountainous first baseman in the 1950s. Kluszewski was widely considered the strongest man in baseball, but was a gentle giant with a humble disposition. There are numerous stories of his feats, both tape-measure home runs and more irregular occurrences. For instance, a game with St. Louis nearly broke out in a brawl. When St. Louis shortstop Solly Hemus ran out of the dugout to join the developing fight, Kluszewski lifted him off the ground entirely and asked where he was going. "Nowhere, Ted, nowhere," was the answer, cutting the brawl short before it could spread.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone We listened to this in the car on the way to and back from Cincy. I had always had the impression that Harry Potter was little more than a mish-mash of well-worn fantasy tropes with the cliche-ridden writing typical of the genre and was not looking forward to hearing this. After actually listening to it, I'll admit I've upgraded my opinion a couple notches, although I still don't think it's nearly as great as its reputation.

As far as writing-style, it does use that high fantasy style, but adds a winking irony and subtle humor. Holy cow, J. K. Rowling is in on the joke! Parts of this book are pretty funny, and on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, the writing has a great deal of charm and is quite listenable/readable. The world-building, too, is remarkable. I think the main thing readers like in this book must be all the various details we see as we accompany Harry on his first visit to Hogwarts, the magical classes and teachers and stores and even candies. Plus, the great sequences with Quidditch, that comically complicated, high-speed broomstick-riding sport Harry excels at.

Once we actually settled into the plot of the book I was somewhat less thrilled, however. As we move on from Harry's initial encounters with a world whose existence he had never suspected, we enter a fairly by-the-numbers adventure in the second half of the book. Oh, trolls, dragons, and a magic mirror. Yawn. Plus, while I won't give away the ending (as if there's anyone besides me who hasn't read this yet), it was very much a deus ex machina-type resolution to the conflict.

Whether I recommend this book is beside the point--every kid who likes reading has already picked it up, I'm sure. It's definitely a fun read, but I don't think Hogwarts is going to join Middle Earth or Narnia as a place that kids will still be visiting in their imaginations decades from now.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ranking A View To A Kill

I previously ranked some of the James Bond movies hereherehere, and here. I watched A View To a Kill last weekend with my son. It was the last of the Roger Moore movies, from 1985. Although it's the one I've probably seen most in my life, as it used to come on HBO regularly when I was a kid, I haven't seen it in probably 30 years. There was a lot I didn't remember!

For one thing, it's actually fairly quiet and circumspect, as far as Bond movies go. That's probably one reason I don't remember much--like my son last week, I probably bailed during the talky parts and only came back during the action scenes. Much of the first half of the movie concerns racehorses being doped at a horse farm in rural France, while much of the second half features a genuine romance developing between James Bond and a sweet heiress who's inherited her family's oil wells in California and is determined to hold onto them, despite the legal maneuvering of the villain Zorin. I was a lot more into the plot as an adult than I'm sure I ever was as a ten- or -eleven-year old.

Since the Bond movies are formulaic and their quality is based on how well they fulfill the formula, I created a little rubric to rank the Bond movies, with several categories a movie can get points in. We're going to tweak the formula slightly for this movie. A Bond film gets 2 points if the movie is one of the top 4 Bond movies for a category, and 1 point if it's in the top 8, plus a couple special categories. Here are the criteria, with a maximum of 14 points available:

Story/Plot--2 points--Is the plot coherent and logical? Are the stakes high?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Action--2 points--Are the stunts exciting? The car chases thrilling?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Villain--2 points--What's a Bond movie without dastardly villains and their henchmen? (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 4)

Setting--2 points--The Bond movies are all about exotic locations. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--2 points--What's the cool stuff?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Bond girls--2 points--The ladies, oh yes, the ladies. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?--1 point--These are the best Bonds (no need to debate) and get an automatic extra point if appearing in the film.

Musical theme--1 point if in the top 5

A View to a Kill
Story/Plot--The story is well-written, Zorin's scheme to corner the world market in semiconductors by inducing an earthquake in Silicon Valley is fairly sensical by Bond villain standards, and the romance between Bond and heiress Stacy Sutton is surprisingly sweet. An unexpected result: this is in the Top 4. (2 points)
Action--A great climactic scene atop the Golden Gate Bridge, along with an entertaining car chase through the streets of San Francisco, put this in the Top 8. (1 point)
Villain--Zorin, played by a very young Christopher Walken, doesn't quite live up to the standards set by other villains. (0 points)
Setting--Rural France and San Francisco are nice, but not quite exotic enough to score here. (0 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--No special cars or special gadgets, and Zorin's lair is unremarkable. The vast mining operation he is using to drain a lake that will trigger earthquakes in Silicon Valley is more impressive, but not enough to score here. (0 points)
Bond Girls--Grace Jones? I don't think so. Tanya Roberts as heiress Stacey Sutton is sweet but not a classic Bond girl. (0 points)
SC or DC? No
Music--Theme song is by Duran Duran and is a real classic, so much so that it practically takes over the soundtrack. There's relatively little use of the classic Bond theme, with an orchestral version of the Duran Duran song playing throughout. Pushes Thunderball out of the top 5. (1 point)
Total: 4 points

Rejiggered points for other movies:
Skyfall moves into the Top 4 for Action (+1)
Raoul Silva in Skyfall moves into Top 4 for Villain (+1)

On Her Majesty's Service moves into the Top 8 for Setting (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into Top 4 for Setting (+1)
Live and Let Die moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
Thunderball moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into the Top 8 for Bond Girls (+1)
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale moves into Top 4 for Bond Girls (+1)
Thunderball (-1) for Music


And, here are the updated results:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)

Monday, March 6, 2017

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Fatal, But Not Serious A novel by my friend, Frederick Lewis! I think the closest comparable for this book is A Confederacy of Dunces. Both drop a lot of ridiculous characters against a Southern backdrop with hilarious results. Fatal, But Not Serious pits the salt-of-the-earth residents of Williams Island, a fictitious barrier island off the coast of Georgia, against a sham environmental organization that wants the government to remove the island's residents so it can build a sustainable eco-lodge for tourists.

The novel has a deft sense of comic timing and effectively builds the conflict between the island's residents and the environmentalists, who resort to increasingly underhanded means to get the residents to leave. I think my favorite part was when a Brazilian woodpecker, painted to look like the nearly-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker that hasn't been seen on Williams Island in decades, becomes a media sensation and is chopped up in the rotor blade of a cable television camera drone that's tracking its every movement.

What I would like to see in Mr. Lewis's next book is more emphasis on developing characters. Going back to A Confederacy of Dunces, yes the characters were ridiculous, but Ignatius J. Reilly and the others were also believable (to an extent) and sympathetic, with their own foibles and complexities. The characters in Fatal, But Not Serious are more two-dimensional. Nor need it come at the cost of the sharp political satire--Primary Colors comes to mind as a political satire that managed quite a bit of subtlety in its characterization. Mr. Lewis shows a lot of promise and I'd like to see what he manages next.

Complete Peanuts Volume 26 Okay, I've skipped ahead to the final book in this series, because I'm afraid this one will not be in print long. The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  (I have previously reviewed the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, the 1985-86 volume here, and the 1987-88 volume here.)

The series finished the regular run of strips with Volume 25, with Volume 26 containing ephemera--ads, short books, and related artwork that appeared in various media. The highlight to my mind is the comics that appeared in a late 1950s comic book series by Dell. While most of the strips were done by other artists, Schulz did a few himself, and these definitely have the flavor of late 1950s Peanuts. In fact, they read rather like lost Sunday strips. Apparently they have never been reprinted before now.

Some fun things in this book, but this volume is definitely for the completists rather than the general reader.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ranking Dr. Strange

Thinking about going to see the Logan movie tonight, and just realized I never got around to ranking the Dr. Strange movie.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies, Captain America: Civil War, and the Man-Thing.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Dr. Strange is one of my favorite comic characters; I have tons of his comics, and I was really looking forward to this movie. Well, the movie was cool, great special effects, fun story, but somehow it did not capture at all what I like about the comics. That's probably not fair, so I'll try to judge the movie on its own terms. But that overall impression definitely colors my opinion.

The movie follows gifted but arrogant surgeon Dr. Strange, whose hands are injured in a car crash. Even after healing he will never operate again (ironically, the one person who could have fixed them was him), and he descends into a downward spiral of despair and alcoholism. But then he hears about a mysterious healer in Tibet, the Ancient One, who can cure ills not treatable by Western medicine. Desperate, he sets out for Tibet and eventually finds the Ancient One, only to learn the Ancient One has different plans for him than resuming his medical work....

Dr. Strange gets lots of points for its mind-blowing special effects, a real advance in the sophistication of computer generated imagery, I think, very much like Inception. In fact, it reminds me a little of the early 1990s, how The Abyss blew everyone's mind with its effects but wasn't that popular, only for Terminator 2 to come along a year later and show everyone how CGI could be applied to more popular action films. I wonder if Dr. Strange will be the T2 in this situation.

So my overall ranking for Dr. Strange will be in the bottom half of the pretty good category. Others with less previous knowledge of the character might like it better.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)