Sunday, October 30, 2005

Ten Great Halloween DVDs


Okay, Psycho's a great Halloween flick, and so is Halloween, of course. But how about a little more cerebral fare? Here are my suggestions for some off-the-beaten-path movies for All Hallows Eve.

1. The Wicker Man 1973
This tops the list, with its pagan rituals done in full light of day, before the eyes of aghast Christian bigot Sergeant Howie (Played by Edward Woodward). Britt Ecklund and dozens of other lush young ladies dance nude, a cheeky Jennifer Martin talks back to the sergeant, and it all ends with the virgin Sergeant sacrificed to the goddess of the fields. Creepy, spooky and tantalizing all at the same time. Wonderful!

2. American Psycho 2000
The biggest question we're left with at the end of this film is, did anyone get murdered? Was it all in Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)'s twisted mind? There's gore aplenty here, but it's never quite clear how much was spilled, and how much was fantasy. We do get plenty of clues about Bateman's existence as an empty mask, a hollow imitation of others. The horrifying thing about this story is not the murders, but the fact that dreaming about them is the only release available to Bateman.

3. Dracula 1979
This is the version with Frank Langella in the title role. What Langella captured was the "fatal attraction" of the blood-drinker for the women he encountered. The heavy sexuality and blatant come-hither the Count received from naughty Mina (and even from the engaged Lucy Seward, played by Kate Nelligan) played well off the languid good looks of Langella, then at the height of his beauty. In previous films, Dracula was a beast, a boorish dirty old man with special powers. Langella made him rapturously, dangerously delectable.

4. Hocus Pocus 1993
Campy, goofy, and thrilling, this movie is a Disney-fied version of a scary tale. Three witches who feed on the life-force of young children (played to the hilt by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sex in the City's Sarah Jessica Parker) are brought back to life on Halloween when a virgin (boy) lights "the black-flame candle." Among the delightful touches in this silly romp: a witch, unable to find a broom, takes off on the museum's vacuum cleaner. Careful, though—this flick is scary to young kids where American Psycho would just put them to sleep.

5. The Exorcist 1973
The original, still the best. Forget the jokes and lampoons—just give yourself over to the story, and let it surprise you again. The scariest part of the film, to me anyway, is in the middle, as the young girl begins to change in appearance and demeanor. Horrifying and startling, creepy and shocking, this is a movie that still packs a punch. Not for the youngsters, even now.

6. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires 1974
This is classic kung-fu fare, with Dracula thrown in. Peter Cushing makes a bland Van Helsing against a totally forgettable Dracula (I've forgotten the actor's name already!), and the real thrills come from the Chinese brothers who join the Count. My all-time favorite "death of vampires" scene is in this movie, as the seven masked and robed vampires collapse in the light of day. As their empty robes flatten, little puffs of ash come out of the masks' eyeholes... Terrific effect!

7. The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T 1953
Horror! Frights! Endless piano lessons! Amazingly surreal (especially for its day), thanks to author Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Suess), this is the story of a young boy whose mother has been hypnotised by the sinister Dr. Terwhiliker (Hans Conreid) into assisting him with his army of mind-numbed young pianists. Only the true love of "independent contractor" August Zabladowski can rescue her, and save young Bartholomew Collins from a fate worse than death—piano practice! (No, really, this is a creepy movie, I promise!)

8. Blade 1998
The best thing about this movie (another meld of vampires and kung-fu) is the music, and the horrid way the vampires move. Modern techniques let the sped-up images of the vampires mix with the regular-speed "citizens" and Blade (Wesley Snipes). The result is an almost subliminal sense that something is wrong. This moves the creep-factor way up, even before the opening credits have finished—and it doesn't slow down once until the finale. I sometimes put this DVD in just for the opening scene in the club, and the throbbing beat that climaxes with the shower of blood. Tasty.

9. The Witches of Eastwick 1987
This is a great movie about the seductive power of evil. The Devil (Jack Nicholsen) tempts three women, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer—and they take the bait. Once he has them hooked, though, the Devil (how like a man!) stops wooing them, and begins using them. Some of the best scenes involve a witch of a different sort, a local biddy who pokes her nose into the witches' affairs, and winds up spewing cherry pits in church. Fun, powerful and sexy, all at the same time, this is a winner.

10. Cat People 1982
I prefer the version with Nastassja Kinski, although the 1942 version is also powerful. The brooding sexuality of Kinski suits the role well, and the haunting music by Giorgio Moroder was a mainstay on my tape player for years afterward. Malcolm McDowell makes a very scary brother to cat-woman Kinski, and lets you see the predator lurking beneath his surface. It is the female cat, however, that terrifies and tempts us with her beauty. Don't worry about subtexts; this movie works quite well as a surface tale of horror and shape-shifting.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Next Week in the Bookstore: Rice's Christ, Piazza's Elvis, and a Holiday Princess


Anne Rice's genre-breaking tale of the early years in the life of Jesus Christ tops the list this week, along with a new Scott Turow, biographical works from Billy Crystal and David Halberstam, and a commentary on political virtues from President Jimmy Carter. Four for the younger crowd include a new Princess Diaries novel and three Narnia offerings.

Monday, October 31
With 700 Sundays to play with, comedian Billy Crystal re-creates the magic of his successful one-man Broadway show in this heartwarming memoir that brings to life his lovable, eccentric family and his happy childhood on Long Island's South Shore. "Once Crystal is finished with shtick and on to the story of his marvelous Long Island family, readers will be glad they can savor it at their own pace. There's the story of Crystal's uncle Milt Gabler, who started the Commodore music label and recorded Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" when no one else would... There's even Louis Armstrong at the Crystal family seder, with Crystal's grandma telling the gravelly-voiced singer, 'Louis, have you tried just coughing it up?'" —Publishers Weekly

Tuesday, November 1
In Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow, a man discovers the startling truth about his deceased father's wartime activities when he stumbles across a secret stash of letters. Bestselling novelist Scott Turow departs from his courtroom thrillers for a spellbinding story of WWII intrigue. "Inspired by the experiences of his own enigmatic father, who served as commanding officer in a World War II medical unit, Turow weaves together numerous narrative threads, the most compelling of which is Dubin's uneasy tenure as commander of a beleaguered rifle company. While Turow's fans might prefer the lively verbal skirmishes that suffuse his legal fare, the author's action sequences (like that white-knuckle free fall onto the battlefront) do plenty to quicken the pulse." —Allison Block, Booklist

Vampire novelist Anne Rice departs her usual genre with Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Rice brings her formidable storytelling talents to bear on a bold new literary endeavor ten years in the making—a fictionalized narrative account of the early life of Jesus, told in the words of the Gospels. "A triumph of tone... As he ponders his staggering responsibility, the boy is fully believable—and yet there's something in his supernatural empathy and blazing intelligence that conveys the wondrousness of a boy like no other.... With this novel, she has indeed found a convincing version of him; this is fiction that transcends story and instead qualifies as an act of faith..." —Kirkus Reviews

In Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, President Jimmy Carter turns his attention to the political arena. "[Carter's] assertion that Christian fundamentalists are uniformly rigid, domineering, and exclusivist paints with a broad brush. His concern over the doctrine of "pre-emptive" war is well argued, but his consistent criticism of Bush foreign policy drips with the partisanship he claims to decry. Carter may be a kind, decent, even admirable man, but this book preaches to the choir and will not change many minds..." —Jay Freeman, Booklist

For "All Things Elvis" you want The King by Jim Piazza. This is the ultimate tribute book, a gorgeously designed rhinestone-studded keepsake filled with little-known biographical and anecdotal information and crammed with hundreds of photos and illustrations, including movie stills and posters. "Romps through the decades, highlighting Elvis events with a chronological time line floating at the top of each page, while amusing anecdotes punctuate a striking selection of magazine covers, paintings, photos, posters and other entertaining ephemera, from cinema curiosities to Elvis imitators. Paging through, readers encounter an explosion of sidebars with revelations such as that a suicide note ('I walk the lonely street') inspired 'Heartbreak Hotel.'" —Publishers Weekly

Warm up the oven! Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook arrives next Tuesday. Domestic doyenne Martha Stewart has returned from Camp Cupcake armed with dozens of tempting new recipes for scrumptious breads, delectable cookies, and other "good things." "Here, you will find the recipes and how-tos for the popovers you dream about, the simple crumb cake that you always want to whip up on Sunday morning, the double-chocolate brownie cookies that will make you a bigger hero with the after-school crowd, and the citrus bars that you could only find in that little bakery that's no longer under the same management.... Baking offers comfort and joy and something tangible to taste and savor. We all hope that these recipes provide you with years of pleasure." —Martha Stewart (Publisher's release notes)

Bill Bryson's whirlwind tour of scientific imponderables, gets a first-class upgrade in Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition, in this special collector's edition teeming with illustrations that provide the perfect complement to the author's witty, engaging prose. "Bill Bryson's words are supplemented by full-color artwork that explains in visual terms the concepts and wonder of science, at the same time giving face to the major players in the world of scientific study. Eloquently and entertainingly described, as well as richly illustrated, science has never been more involving or entertaining." (Publisher's release notes)

The Education of a Coach by Pulitzer-winning journalist and author David Halberstam focuses on Bill Belichick, one of the NFL's most successful coaches, and the game of football as a team sport with rich detail, exacting research and colorful anecdotes. "As he's done in the past, Halberstam takes the classic sports-bio formula--one stellar performer's rise to the pinnacle of American sport--and transforms it into a nuance-rich story of individual triumph and social history." —Wes Lukowsky, Booklist

Holiday Princess: A Princess Diaries Book by Meg Cabot, with illustrations by Chesley McLaren, takes us to Genovia with Princess Mia for the holidays. "A princess always knows how to celebrate the holidays. There's Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Chinese New Year, Saturnalia... to name just a few. Then there's gift giving, the royal Genovian Fabergé advent calendar, hot chocolate with marshmallows—oh, and all those fabulous holiday movies. How will YOU celebrate this holiday season? Mia and her subjects have a few ideas." (Publisher's release notes)

Step into Narnia by E.J. Kirk is a guidebook to the places and characters of Narnia. "Just in time for the live-action movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in fall 2005, this companion book is perfect for children too young to read the original. It's packed with fun facts about characters, places, and magic, and has interactive sections such as a bravery test and mix and match columns."
Note: Although Amazon says Step into Narnia can be shipped today, it is actually not released until November 1st.

Also timed for release with the film, The Chronicles of Narnia Full-Color Gift Edition Box Set by C.S. Lewis, "contains paper-over-board gift editions of The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe and The Magician's Nephew in a box set with full-color classic Pauline Baynes art."
Note: Although Amazon says The Chronicles of Narnia Full-Color Gift Edition Box Set can be shipped today, it is actually not released until November 1st.

And finishing the trio of Narnia offerings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Read-Aloud Edition is C.S. Lewis' beloved classic, in a large-sized, illustrated read-aloud edition. "Pauline Baynes' illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia span a remarkable career, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1949, and continuing with the hand-coloring of all seven books forty years later."
Note: Although Amazon says The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Read-Aloud Edition can be shipped today, it is actually not released until November 1st.

I've waited as long as I can for Rice's Christ, so that's definitely on my list. The Martha Stewart cookbook is there too—she had me at "double-chocolate brownie cookies." Ummmm, chocolate!

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Week 3: Ballroom Bootcamp on TLC


In a departure from last week, Ballroom Bootcamp focused on guys this week—the Artist, the Old Dog and the Football Player—trying to kick up a jive to competitive level. Once again, these first-time dancers were paired with dance experts Gocha Chertkoev, Christian Perry, and Susannah Cuesta, as they learned how brutal it can be to match speeds in a hot jive triple-step.

Fans of last season's Dancing With the Stars will recall the way boxer Evander Holyfield came to life in the Jive. The dance uses "fast twitch" muscle fibers and demands a high level of aerobic fitness, as competitors bounce, spring, twist and hop vigorously. Knowing that, you may understand why this is the first week of Ballroom Bootcamp in which I pre-picked the winner, and felt the judges were totally justified in their choice.

The "artist" of the title is John, a slightly clownish fellow who doesn't take the contest seriously at first. He and his coach, Gocha Chertkoev, almost came to blows over John's lack of focus and unwillingness to treat his coach or the dance with respect. This week was the first in which they showed even a small part of the partnering process after the initial coaching sessions—and I felt that John only got as far as he did due to the efforts of his girlfriend and the coaching of Gocha's wife (who was John's professional partner.)

Hank was the bearded "old dog," staying solo in a residence hotel as he learned to jive. In addition to lessons in Jive, Christian Perry took him come out for a round of golf, jive-style—carrying both bags, and practicing the triple-step at each of 18 holes, to build up his wind and increase his fitness. This old dog quickly learned his new tricks, but never quite got fast enough to perform an enjoyable jive.

Interestingly, both John and Hank went through a makeover as part of getting ready for competition. John's eyebrows were trimmed back, while Hank lost all but a small patch of his weedy white beard.

All three men looked very "dancer-ly" in their costumes from Randall Designs. John got the best deal here, with a shoulder-broadening swash of glitter, while Hank looked svelte and elegant in his '50s-era suit.

It was Erdolo, however, who was the obvious front-runner in this week's contest. This athletic young man had immigrated to the US from Africa with his family, and brought a real joy to his performance of jive from the first lessons. Susannah Questa had to break him of a bit of shyness first—the scene where he runs screaming when she shows up at a basketball pick-up game, and jumps a high fence to escape her, is a hoot—but once he is comfortable with dancing in front of others, he's a winner.

Thanks, TLC, for the replays! A cable outage Friday night cut me off from watching this show in its first outing, but fortunately, I had my connection back by the time the final replay was on today. Check the broadcast schedule on TLC to make sure you don't miss any of these sometimes frustrating, sometimes delightful—but always, fascinating bootcamps!

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Lost in Translation

I began my BlogScans nearly a year ago, with the chance discovery that many blog-posts centered on a "wandering" theme. I feel as if I've come full circle to discover that many more contain a complaint that someone or some idea is "lost in translation."

This was triggered, perhaps, by a reasonably clever Blogcritics post examining how The Simpsons might survive translation to suit the Arab world. (They don't.) And Homer's translation to a sober, wise patriach in a series bereft of beer, bacon, Bart's backtalk, and Lisa's self-conscious feminism is a paradigm for other such losses in international and trans-Web communication.

For a 180-degree twist on this concept, I read John "Vampire Slayer" Blyler's complaint on JB's Circuit that his studies of vampire bloggers and dead kittens had been taken out of context. I never knew that dead kittens were a trick to trace vampire bloggers (parasitic denizens of the cyberworld that suck original ideas out of the blogs of others). But The Bay Area Is Talking had the rest of the story. Just Google the phrase "Bloggers kill kittens" and you'll find ample evidence of the propagation of an absurd idea through the Web.

But that isn't so much lost in translation as stolen. For a look at an absurd idea both lost in translation and propagated freely, check out respectful of otters, where they repair a fractured news item purported to be from ZDF News (a highly-respected Dutch news program). Did President Bush visit a specially-built food-supply depot in New Orleans after Katrina, only to have it torn down after he left? No, the bloggers conclude; the initial translator missed a segue from the story about the Presidential visit to one city with news about different day's visit to a completely different state.

Arabic and Jurdish text on a blackboard, Image Hosted by

Saddam called Yehzidi faith Satanism

According to Michael Yon: Online Magazine, the Yehzidi, a little-known, reclusive Kurdish tribe, had their religious beliefs mistranslated as devil worship by Saddam Hussein.
Some believe Yezidism is over 5,000 years old... Some tenets of Yezidism are readily understandable to westerners: Yezidis worship one God... They recognize and respect both Jesus and Mohammed, but as men of faith, not prophets. Where the doctrine starts to become hazy is when the angels appear... [W]hen this seventh Angel, most beloved of God, fell from grace, he was the most powerful angel in Heaven and on Earth. He rose as the Archangel Malak Ta'us... [T]he name, Malak Ta'us, literally means, "King of Peacocks."

Saddam Hussein's hatred for Yezidis and Kurds was matched only by his desire to eradicate every last one of them from Iraq. Even though most Kurds are actually Sunni Muslims, as is the now imprisoned dictator, his hatred for them remained unabated, and was relentless. Hussein knew that a collision of religious beliefs carved fault lines between the Yezidis and the Kurds who surround them. He used his common point of reference with the Kurds to sharpen their divide from the Yezidis, by calling them "Devil Worshippers." But just because the Yezidis don't have a Satan figure in their holy book, doesn't mean they can't spot a devil when they see one. Together with the Kurds, they resisted Hussein's will. Today, while the real peacock sits in jail, the unvanquished Yezidis are rebuilding their homeland.

On Always On, Bernard Moon writes about a blogosphere lost in translation. Is the Web's lightning-fast transmission of ideas actually barred by lousy translation software? His thoughts range from French outrage over Google making libraries available online, to the real need to communicate with people who speak from another cultural and linguistic stance.
That, in turn, led me to think about other topics and issues from around the globe that people not only want but need to read about from the perspectives of the people who are on the ground experiencing them. What are Iraqis saying about the situation in their country? What would the people of Rwanda have written to make us understand the horrors that took place there? ... Other than what people like Mohammed and Omar from the Iraq the Model blog—who are writing in English—have to say, we're missing out on these voices because we don't understand their language.

Sometimes, losing something in translation is worthwhile, says Hack A Day [beta]. He recommends using the lossy translator of Babelfish, for example, to make it easier to create texts for steganography. The quote is as it appears on the blog.
There are a couple disadvantages to this method of steg: the low bitrate and the fact that you have to transmit the source and the translated text. There are also some attacks to expose this method. If the same sentence appears twice in a text and is translated two different ways it would set off a red flag. Also if the machine mistakes are inconsistent: using the word "foots" in one place and "feets" in the other. If someone developed a large statistical model of all MT systems it would be easy to see that the steg doesn’t fit the mold, but the steg could also use this model to make sure it fits (an arms race).

The blogger at is another who wants to work the system to bring sense back out of what has been lost in translation in trans-cultural business deals. "A good agreement cannot fix a bad relationship, but a good relationship can fix a bad agreement... So relax and do what Asian and European dealmakers have been doing for centuries: wine, dine, and (then) sign... then wine and dine some more."

Riding Sun points out that dead-tree media also seem willing to use translation losses to provide deniability while making a point. He cites a Japanese headline on a Newsweek cover in February that proclaims "America Is Dead." Neither this article, nor its cover illustration, an American flag tossed into a garbage can, made it into the issue published in the US. That featured Hilary Swank, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio instead, under the title, "Oscar Confidential."
It's one thing for Newsweek to actively promote the notion that America is a "dead", "rotting" country overseas. But it's quite another thing indeed to hide those efforts from its American readers. If Newsweek really thinks America is dead, and our flag belongs in the trash, why won't it tell us? ... If I were to offer Newsweek a suggestion, it would be this: Any story or cover you're ashamed to run in America probably shouldn't be used in other countries, either.

Finally, lost in translation celebrates the sheer joy of losing it. Check out the Babelizer, which guarantees jabberwocky for your efforts. I plugged in "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?" with "Include Chinese, Japanese, and Korean" turned on—and out came:
And you have gone old hour these feet more retimber the English

Extreme calm of it! (Babelized version of "That's so cool!")

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Next Week in the Bookstore: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a Lost Capote Novel

There's excitement on several levels next week, as new Danielle Steel, David Baldacci, and Patricia Cornwell novels vie with a new book by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a resurrected novel from the vaults of Truman Capote.

Monday, October 24
Driven From Within by Michael Jordan with Tinker Hatfield pays tribute to the teachers, mentors, and friends who have guided him in the development of his athletic skill, his ethics and his determination to be the best.

Tuesday, October 25
Dr. Kay Scarpetta is back. Predator by Patricia Cornwell follows her on a freelance assignment with the National Forensic Academy in Florida. "The teasing psychological clues lead Scarpetta and her team-Pete Marino, Benton Wesley, and Lucy Farinelli-to suspect that they are hunting someone with a cunning and malevolent mind whose secrets have kept them in the shadows, until now." (Publisher's release notes)

Toxic Bachelors by Danielle Steel relates the intertwined tales of three men, 40-something best friends who face their worst fears. "One by one, they find themselves falling deeply in love with (surprise!) women they wouldn't even have considered dating casually. A breezy read, this contains some of the usual Steel plot mechanisms (Will the handsome, wealthy bachelor successfully woo the beautiful but no-frills social worker?) and happy endings that will keep her fans reading and waiting for more. Librarians may need duplicate copies." —Kathleen Hughes, Booklist

Middle-aged men also feature in The Camel Club by David Baldacci, in a far different scenario: four men investigate the death of Secret Service man. "The Camel Club is conducting their own investigation, and before long they realize they've got a massive conspiracy on their hands, one that could affect the global political arena. Baldacci is a master at building suspense, and the conclusion of his latest novel will leave readers breathless." —Kristine Huntley, Booklist 0446577383

The Truth (with jokes) by Al Franken skewers the Bush Administration and the rest of the Right with satirical barbs. "Because after Lies comes The Truth..." (Publisher's release notes)

It's not too early for Christmas inspiration, apparently. The Christmas Hope by Donna Van Liere is the story of a girl who needs a home, a couple who take her in, and a doctor who fulfills a last Christmas wish. "Emily is a beautiful five-year-old without a place to live (her mother died in a car accident; her foster parents had to leave town suddenly) and, against the rules, Patti brings her home rather than take her to the local orphanage. Emily—who believes in angels and is possibly the gentlest, sweetest child to ever cavort across a novel's pages since Little Nell—quickly insinuates herself into the Addison hearts... Van Liere serves up another heart-tugging holiday tale." —Publishers Weekly

The centerpiece of the Spiderwick Chronicles has finally arrived! Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi is a "gorgeous, must-see guide to the creatures found in their bestselling series—plus 15 more! It comes with lavish, full-color illustrations, deluxe gatefolds, and snippets from Arthur Spiderwick's personal journal—and that's just for starters. Recommended for ages 9-12." (Publisher's release notes)

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on the "mastery of men" that allowed Lincoln to bring his gifted rivals into his cabinet and conduct a presidency of enduring signficance. "Do we need another Lincoln biography? In Team of Rivals, esteemed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin proves that we do. Though she can't help but cover some familiar territory, her perspective is focused enough to offer fresh insights into Lincoln's leadership style and his deep understanding of human behavior and motivation... Lincoln may have been "the indispensable ingredient of the Civil War," but these three men were invaluable to Lincoln and they played key roles in keeping the nation intact." —Shawn Carkonen, review

More spellbinding historical investigation than a bio of the artist, The Lost Painting: The Search for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr is the story of the quest to recover a priceless artwork. The author of A Civil Action uncovers the mysterious, colorful life and staggering genius of Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. "The narrative unfolds at a brisk pace, skipping quickly from the perspective of 91-year-old Caravaggio scholar Sir Denis Mahon to that of young, enterprising Francesca Cappelletti, a graduate student at the University of Rome researching the disappearance of The Taking of Christ... But while adept at coordinating dates and analyzing hairline fractures in aged paint, Harr often seems overly concerned with the step-by-step process of tracking down The Taking of the Christ, as if the specific artist who created it were irrelevant..." —Publishers Weekly

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate's first work of fiction in 10 years, chronicles a 90-year old man's pursuit of a 14-year old virgin, and the revelations that ensue. "'The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin,' he boldly—and, perhaps, in a delusion of potency—declares. It is soon revealed... that his sexual gratification has always been bought and paid for. What his brazen plan to celebrate this milestone birthday comes to entail is a confrontation with a heretofore unrealized aspect of his 'inner self'—namely, that sex without love is an empty house in which to dwell." —Brad Hooper, Booklist

In the 60 Minutes newsman's second memoir, Between You and Me, Mike Wallace mixes interviews with commentary about former presidents and celebrities, and includes a 90-minute DVD of clips from his long career. "In this tepid memoir, the 60 Minutes grand inquisitor appears rather manipulative, turning on a dime from unctuous insinuation to prosecutorial grilling, always searching for the point of emotional revelation when his subject weeps, rants or flounders in self-incriminating panic... Wallace does offer intriguing, if defensive, accounts of journalistic crises like CBS's censoring of a 60 Minutes interview with tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. Otherwise, the book is a dull and not illuminating read." —Publishers Weekly

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote is the lost novel that the author set aside to write Other Voices, Other Rooms, and worked on for at least another decade before abandoning it. "Thought to be lost for over 50 years, here is the first novel by one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century... Set in New York during the summer of 1945, this is the story of a young carefree socialite, Grady, who must make serious decisions about the romance she is dangerously pursuing and the effect it will have on everyone involved." (Publisher's release notes)

The title says it all: Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats by charming, down-to-earth celebrity chef Rachael Ray presents a full year of menus for finicky cooks and their families, providing 365 delightfully different recipes for meals that are quick, easy, and simply delicious. "The organization takes some getting used to. Helpful but occasionally jarring "tidbits" pop up everywhere, and many "recipes" make more than one dish, so cooking just one requires a fair amount of reading... Still, the recipes are great. They vary in technique and ethnicity, and many give instructions on expanding the dish (after making Spicy Shrimp and Penne with Puttanesca Sauce, for example, 'now try' omitting the olives and capers, swapping linguine for the penne, reducing the number of shrimp, and adding lump crab meat and mussels to make Frutti di Mare and Linguine). As Ray would say, 'Yummo.'" —Publishers Weekly

I'm mildly intrigued by the Lincoln book, and the search for The Taking of the Christ—but I know it's a dry week when the most interesting descriptions are for a novel from Danielle Steel and an add-on to the Spiderwick Chronicles!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sin and Redemption in The Natural


The iconic baseball movie The Natural can be viewed as a piece of schmaltzy fluff, feel-good nostalgia. Critics of the movie point to its almost-cartoonishly simple villains and heroes as evidence of this.

It is true; many of the figures who inhabit this film are starkly good or evil. No question that The Judge is a black-hat, for example; he shuns the light of day. A "spider at the center of his web," he is the embodiment of the cardinal sin (or "deadly passion") of Avarice.

No debate either that Glenn Close plays a good girl, despite her unwed-motherhood. If there were any doubt, it is erased by the way the film garbs her in white and light. Not only is she Roy Hobb's redemption, she is also Madonna, the mother of his child.

Far more interesting are the ambiguous players, like Max Mercy, The Whammer, and Harriet Bird (the lady in black), and the redeemable characters of Bump Bailey, Memo Paris and Hobbs himself. It is in the development of these smaller sinners and weaker saints that The Natural transcends the cartoon.

Max Mercy (played by Robert Duvall) is a cynic, the embodiment of Doubt. Max is convinced that he is irredeemable—and therefore, so is everyone else. Doubt is a minor, venial sin, but it is just a breath away from the deadly sin of Despair. That Max has nearly reached Despair is evident in his counsel to Hobbs, and also from his before-the-event cartoons. He has no doubt that Hobbs will take the easy downward path, because Max himself would.

The Whammer (Joe Don Baker in a cameo), like Max (in whose company Hobbs meets the famed hitter), is a venial sinner. His hedonism is just this side of the deadly sin of Gluttony—not the relatively innocent lust for good food and wine, sex, and other such bodily pleasures, but the far more grave equation of pleasure with Good. In fact, The Whammer is rescued from stepping over the brink from venial to mortal sin by a small wound to his pride: the loss to young Hobbs in a casual three-pitch contest.

The sins of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) seem obvious. The lady in black murdered several other athletes, and attempted to shoot Roy Hobbs. But beyond the murders, Harriet commits the cardinal sin of Envy. She wishes to possess the fame of the athlete by removing him from life. Only Harriet will know that Roy Hobbs might have been "the best that ever was." Her desire is obviously twisted and sick—but all Envy is sick and twisted. Harriet Bird slips that knowledge in under our guard.

Bump Bailey, who has accepted the bribes that Roy turns down, is a classic picture of little-g greed on its way to all-consuming Avarice. Bailey wants it all: fame, fortune, a lovely woman, the semblance of virtue with the pleasures of vice. Bailey chases his final ball so fervently, he collides with an unyielding wall and dies. How explicit can a parable be?

Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) and Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) are presented as opposites. Memo dresses mostly in black. She is openly manipulative of the baseball players, though she seems to be directed by Gus—Darrin McGavin—in all she does. Her sins of lust are no greater in commission, really, than Iris's, though perhaps less innocent in motivation. Yet her major sin is Sloth. Memo does nothing productive; in fact, she sucks power and purpose away from the players with whom she becomes involved. Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) knows Memo is the problem, even if he cannot be specific. "Some people are just bad luck," he warns Hobbs.

That leaves Roy Hobbs. Robert Redford plays the central figure of this morality play perfectly. Hobbs is the symbol of the redeemability of man—although in the past, in his glory as a young pitcher, he was guilty of sins in their venial measure, and in the present, he begins to make the same mistakes, in the end (with Iris' help), he is able to atone for past errors and regain glory.

The classic Western virtues are also displayed in the latter half of the film. Hobbs serves justice in delivering Pop Fisher from the false partnership with The Judge; he displays fortitude and courage to return as a middle-aged rookie to the game in which he might have been "the best there ever was." And although his temperence is tested by the lure of Memo Paris and the fast pace of the city, in the end, he chooses the simpler life, the ranch and fatherhood.

These lessons are not preached; they are not even made particularly explicit. Yet audiences have responded—we know good when we see it. Like Roy Hobbs, we do not always choose the good we see, but we recognize our choices.

The message of The Natural is that, even years later, we can change; we can make the better choice. Man is redeemable.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Week 2: Ballroom Bootcamp on TLC


This week saw three new women—the Free Spirit, the Shy Girl and the Hippie Mom—taking on the Ballroom Bootcamp challenge, to learn ballroom-style Tango at a competitive level. As with last week's premiere, the best part of the contest comes as the participants approach the dance for the first time. Once again, these dancer-wannabes are paired with dance experts Gocha Chertkoev, Christian Perry, and Susannah Cuesta.

So we see mom Michelle, who wants to learn to dance, coming to her first lessons with confidence, then losing it as she compares herself to Susannah Cuesta. We watch free spirit Melody brangle with her instructor, Gocha Chertkoev, and finally dissolve into tears at her inability to come up to his standards. And back-up singer Cherish finds the steps easy to learn, but the attitude of tango eludes this shy girl.

Period illustration of tango instruction, Image Hosted by

1914 Tango instruction

Instructor Christian Perry is certainly a believer in the value of cross-training—last week he sent his student Krystel to belly-dancing class. This week, he sends Cherish to take Aikido lessons. Her martial arts coach coaxes some "ki-ahs" out of her, first tentative, and then snappingly definite. The lesson doesn't transfer to the dance floor immediately, however.

Cuesta also resorts to outside instruction, sending a life coach to counsel her student Michelle on the value of letting go and living in the moment. "Behave as if learning to dance is the most fun you know of," he tells her. "Skip into the dance studio." She does, too—and it helps her to relax into the lead of her partner.

All three women are again costumed from Davis Designs, the same atelier that produced the stunning dresses for Krystel and Monique last week. It would be easy for a single design shop to produce cookie-cutter outfits for the contestants each week, but so far, all five dresses have been distinctive and beautifully suited to the individual dancers. (Jeff, the Tour Guide from the first week, did not have such luck—perhaps because men's costumes are less exciting than women's, by their nature.)

Once again, the actual competition was disappointing, compared to the lead-up. The learning curve for Tango is steep, even for trained dancers, so one of the best things about this series is the way it shows a little of the hard work and effort that goes into dancing well. When so much credit is given for "the look" and so little, comparatively, to footwork and frame, you have a disputable result.

That was the case with the winner selected for this contest. (No spoilers, in case you haven't seen it yet!) I will be watching it again (it is rebroadcast on TLC this evening and again on Sunday), to see if I can spot why the judges made their choice as they did—because last night, I didn't see it at all!

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21 Things to Love or Despise


This was a challenge I couldn't resist: list 21 favorite and 21 anti-favorite (hated) things. The challenge was to do it without repeating, otherwise my favorites list might have been 20 book titles and a menu.

So here, in no particular order, are my favorite things. If you notice a theme, you may understand why I am not a slender person.
  • A well-executed gancho in Argentine Tango
  • Free books in the mail
  • Discovering that a new Honor Harrington (Neal Stephenson, Connie Wilson, Sherri Tepper, etc....) novel is out in paperback
  • Kissing in the rain
  • A fire, a glass of Pastori port, and a new book to read on a cold day (or evening)
  • Fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies... Brandied pears with dark chocolate sauce... Chocolate-chip croissants from the City Bakery in San Francisco
  • A purring cat in my lap
  • Payday!
  • Finishing a project, and planning a new one
  • Vals cruzada
  • Wine-tasting tours
  • Falling back in the Fall
  • Bean soup
  • Twitty's Barbeque in Oklahoma City, Basil's in downtown Minneapolis, Margherita's in Elk Grove, IL, Mumtaz in Amsterdam, Seasons Grill (now called Roxii) in El Segundo, CA, My Brother's Bar and Pagliacci's in Denver, Papagallo and Browns of Rivonia in Johannesburg, East West in Sebastopol, and C.J. Borg's at SeaTac.
  • New shoes that don't squeak
  • Venison stew
  • An expert foot massage
  • A weekend visit to Wilbur Hot Springs
  • Saving the day at my job
  • Viewing Fourth-of-July fireworks from a kayak in Richardson's Bay
  • New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles

On the other side, there are surely at least 21 things I despise. Here, again, the effort goes into finding classes of things to avoid repetition.
  • Spam eMail and all its relatives: mortgage-lenders who call at 6 pm, junk mail, trash comments on my Blogcritics posts, eBay and payPal spoofers, worm and virus creators
  • Burnt popcorn
  • Cat vomit (and hairballs and other effluvia of kitty...)
  • Getting caught out when I'm BSing
  • Climbing out of a warm bed on a cold winter morning
  • Name-calling substituted for political or philosophical discourse
  • Office politics
  • Springing forward in the Spring
  • Airport security checks
  • Deer dead in the road (wasted food)
  • French onion soup... boiled cabbage... overcooked liver... undercooked bacon... watery pasta
  • Being asked to explain a joke
  • Tripping, stumbling, or otherwise looking like a goof on the dance floor
  • Bad breath
  • Wardrobe malfunctions on guys (especially me!)
  • Rose-scented perfumes
  • People who drive (or walk) "unconscious"
  • Getting sick
  • Pay cuts... getting "laid off"... unemployment
  • Falling asleep on the sofa in the middle of a party
  • Flat tires

Looking back, I can't believe I left off the biggest favorite of all: Sex. Hot monkey love. Doing the dirty boogie, the horizontal mambo, tangoing between the sheets.... But that's a different list of 21.

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Weekly BlogScan: Karl Rove

Depending on your point of view, Karl Rove is either a sinister kingmaker-puppeteer behind every policy move President Bush makes, or he is simply a brilliant consultant, one of many in George W. Bush's coterie of advisors. Both views concede that this man is a power in the White House.

Either way, I think you would be hard-pressed to find another modern "consultant" to a President with the quite the amount of press coverage Rove has garnered. Who filled Rove's position in the Clinton White House? Who was LBJ's advisor? Nixon's? Kennedy's? Even in the administration of George W. Bush's father, there is no figure with a comparable prominence in the public eye.

The Wizard of Oz, Image Hosted by

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain....

Avowed Republicans are not immune to accusations of being swayed by the ophidian eye of Rove. RadioBlogger captured this Beltway Boys discussion of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, in which Hugh Hewitt announced:
Yesterday, Karl Rove made the argument to me that she has sat for three years in the judicial selection committee, vetting judges with [President Bush], with the vice president, with the then-White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, with John Ashcroft, making comments, making arguments, helping select, or you know, thumbs-up or thumbs-down. And it is impossible not to know someone's judicial philosophy after three years of such a process. I find that very persuasive.
(Following this, on his own blog Hugh Hewitt noted that "an anonymous tipster to Ed Whelan asserts that I have been misled by Karl Rove" on the issue of Harriet Miers.)

And The Rude Pundit, "proudly lowering the level of political discourse," states that Rove's persuasive powers were also enlisted to quiet James Dobson's opposition to Miers.'s quite something else to assure people that a nominee's Jesus-lovin' will absolutely have an impact on his or her decision-making. But that's exactly what Karl Rove did for James "Behold My Stereotypically Creepily Effeminate Voice" Dobson, head of Focus on the Family and, apparently, someone who has so much access to the White House that he must be hand-jobbed into complacency by a much-distracted Rove.

Photo of Karl Rove, Image Hosted by

Karl Rove, high-profile consultant. [Wikipedia]

At fishbowlDC, meanwhile, they're keeping a light shining on the supposed involvement of Rove in the Plame outing. Floating in the bowl is this reference to Karl Rove Neocondoms: "If you passed by DC Superior Court yesterday and thought you saw three seven-foot-tall condoms, you didn't imagine it." The costumed condoms were there to confront Karl Rove, returning to testify before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s Grand Jury inquiry into the Plame affair. Unfortunately, the blogger notes, "Rove entered the courthouse through a side entrance" and never saw the demonstrators.

Not to be outdone, No More Mister Nice Guy links the Miers nomination with the Plame grand jury, asserting that Miers was only named because Rove is on the outs with his boss.
I just talked to a source who told me that Karl Rove has been missing from a number of recent White House presidential events—events that he has ALWAYS attended in the past. For example, Rove was absent from [the] presidential press conference to promote Harriet Miers.... My source tells me that the scuttlebutt around town is that the White House knows something bad is coming, in terms of Karl getting indicted, and they're already trying to distance him from the president.

At his eponymous blog, David Corn turned the Plame/Miers speculation around, wondering if Miers' insider information about Rove and Plame might be a factor in her confirmation.
I did think that it would be interesting to see Miers questioned at her confirmation hearings by senators regarding the leak case. Was she a party to any discussions in the White House about the leak, about the White House's reaction to the leak (in which it issued false denials that Rove was not involved in it), about what legal strategy the White House, Bush, Rove and/or others should adopt?

And according to Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's Bloggermann, Rove's troubles with the Plame investigation are also the cause of bomb threats in New York City.
I referred to the latest terror threat—the reported bomb plot against the New York City subway system—in terms of its timing. President Bush’s speech about the war on terror had come earlier the same day, as had the breaking news of the possible indictment of Karl Rove in the CIA leak investigation. I suggested that in the last three years there had been about 13 similar coincidences—a political downturn for the administration, followed by a "terror event"—a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning.

These are recent events—but Rove has been a lightning-rod for commenters from the left and right much longer than that. On last February, it was noted that Dan Rather's embarrassment at reporting forged Texas Air National Guard documents damaging to the President had been blamed on Rove.
Spokespersons for CBS News, which aired a report based on the phony documents, and the White House could not be reached for comment on [Democrat Congressman Maurice] Hinchey's theory, which he gave during a forum on Social Security in Ithaca... Hinchey blamed Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, for concocting the plan to release phony documents to the media... "They've had a very, very direct, aggressive attack on the, on the media and the way it's handled. Probably the most flagrant example of that is the way they set up Dan Rather... They set up those false papers," Hinchey said.

Oh, sure, responds Right Wing News, it's all Rove.
It was all part of Karl Rove's eeeevvviiillll plan! ... Did you know that Rove sabotaged the engines of Paul Wellstone's plane, founded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and got Jayson Blair hired at the New York Times? It was all Rove! When it rains on the day of a peace march? It's Rove using his secret CIA weather machine! When a Democrat misplaces his car keys? That's because Rove's magical leprechauns move them around! Ever lost a sock in the dryer? Somehow, someway, it's Rove's fault, Rove, Rove, ROVE!!!

Even further back, Thomas M. Spencer predicted on History News Network (HNN) in November 2003 that "If White House political guru Karl Rove gets his way, ...the 2004 election will turn not on Iraq or the dubious glories of the Bush economy but on liberal judges, partial-birth abortion, and gay marriage."

IMAO ("Unfair   Unbalanced   Unmedicated") addresses the accusation that "Republican Talking Points" come by FAX from Karl Rove. (Apparently, because he "likes to personally sign the main copies as a sort of verification." The sample memo is signed "Satan.") In this revealing post, blogger Frank J. tells us he will:
receive a fax at 6AM every day (including weekends) of the Republican Talking Points. I don’t share it with the other IMAO bloggers, and instead just browbeat them into saying what I want... I get ones specifically tailored for bloggers. I assume politicians, pundits, radio talk show hosts, and FOX News get different talking points... You'll notice how IMAudiO [podcast] has less political content than the blog due to the lack of talking points. I am hopeful there will be talking points for podcasts soon...

So there we have it. Karl Rove may be the anti-Christ (he was born on Christmas Day in 1950), or simply the strongest cog in the engine of the Bush White House. Either way, he's a power to reckon with—as P.J. Comix puts it in the DUmmie FUnnies, he's a Perfect Rovian Storm.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Next Week in the Bookstore: Mao, Armstrong, Shakespeare, and Lemony Snicket

Sure to generate excitement this week is Volume 12 from Lemony Snicket (with "cover art "too awful to show"), plus a number of intriguing biographies: a tyrant, a tech-hero, and a totemic writer. Not to mention a new version of the classic style guide from William Strunk.

Monday, October 17
John Feinstein's Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL chronicles the 2004 Baltimore Ravens' season. "According to the punchy start of this sprawling, in-depth account of the 2004 Baltimore Ravens' season, you can forget about all the other pretenders to the throne: pro football is (at least in and around cities that have a franchise) America's sport... The runup to the first game of the young franchise's ninth season is so assiduously documented, the season itself is almost an afterthought... Feinstein wisely avoids the grandiloquent hyperbole often found in sportswriting; there are no references to deities or Greek heroes here." —Publishers Weekly

Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, reunites the coauthors of Primal Leadership. "Resonant Leadership moves from this initial exposition of problems—management ineffectiveness, and/or burnout—to solutions... three core qualities which they believe resonant leaders must continually cultivate: mindfulness, hope, and compassion... Readers of Boyatzis and McKee's latest—whether already-strong leaders looking to maintain their effectiveness, or burned-out ones aiming to get back in the proverbial saddle—will find this is a thought-provoking read." —Peter Han, review
Note: Although Amazon says Resonant Leadership can be shipped today, it is actually not released until October 17th.

Tuesday, October 18
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan follows 11 friends from San Francisco on the vacation of a lifetime on the Burma Road, in a story narrated by their murdered friend, who organized the trip. "[T]he travelers turn into ugly Americans in their pursuit of comfort and amusement until a renegade tribal group kidnaps them... Tan, marvelously liberated, attains new heights with her piquant humor and ship-of-fools cast of charmingly cranky characters. Writing with stinging irony about oppression, genocide, culture clashes, religion, media spin, and corruption, she slyly considers the unintended consequences of everything from a thwarted seduction to a war based on lies." —Donna Seaman, Booklist

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Book the Twelfth (Vol. 12) comes out Tuesday. Fans need wait no longer for the 12th dreadful installment of his Series of Unfortunate Events—although they will need to wait until publication day to learn the book's mysterious title! The image supplied to Amazon simply reads "Art Too Awful to Show." This will be "the last book before the last book" in the series, according to the publisher. Recommended for ages 9-12.

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, a professor at Auburn Univ. and a former NASA historian, is the first authorized biography of the astronaut. "For the first time, the cool, precise, and celebrity-averse Neil Armstrong has authorized a biography. Its readers cannot expect any more access to his emotional interior than the first man to walk on the moon has ever allowed, but they will learn about everything he achieved in aerospace engineering... Quelling apocrypha circulated at the time of Apollo 11 about the all-American boy who dreamed of going to the moon, Hansen follows the empirical arc of Armstrong's interest in aviation... After the Korean War, Armstrong resumed his engineering career, wrote technical papers, flew hotshot planes like the X-15, and stepped irrevocably into history with Apollo 11." —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, rips the reformer's mask from Mao Tse-tung, exposing him for the bloody tyrant he truly was—a megalomaniacal murderer in the vein of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. "It takes time to get through and more time to digest, but there is no time when its value is not apparent... The first sentence of their startling book underscores the point of view to follow: 'Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.'" —Brad Hooper, Booklist

Sara Moulton serves up 200 recipes for the time-starved in Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals, from the Food Network host and Gourmet Executive. "Besides chapters on soup, pasta, meat and so on, there are several revolving around time-saving tips: "Shop and Serve" has recipes like the fast but tasty Tortellini Pepperoni Spinach Soup, and dishes in "Just Open the Pantry" use items from a kitchen stocked with Moulton's long list of recommended staples. "Cooking Ahead," meanwhile, unleashes the gourmet chef in Moulton with lengthier recipes that can be made on the weekend and reheated. ...cooks willing to put in some time in the kitchen each night will appreciate this book's excellent international range as well as its helpful shortcuts. Color photos." —Publishers Weekly

The Color of Law by Mark Gimenez is a legal thriller with a fresh twist on To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a ruthless lawyer finds his heart when he's forced to defend a prostitute charged with the murder of a senator's son. "Gimenez, former partner at a major Dallas law firm and current lone-wolf attorney in a single practice, not only boasts all the right credentials but also delivers an authentically creepy debut novel. A big part of this thriller's appeal is its moral backbone. The hero, former college-football legend and current corporate lawyer Scott Fenney, has struck a Faustian bargain—his whole life for billable hours—the cost of which is encapsulated when he signs an agreement to terminate the tenure of a friend in the firm who has lost his worth by losing a big client... This is a well-calibrated contemporary morality play, set in get-rich-quick Dallas, with tours of country clubs and gated communities, and knowledgeable forays into Darwinian legal tactics... Fast-paced and thought-provoking fare." —Connie Fletcher, Booklist

Nicholas Sparks offers another glimpse into the lives of True Believer sweethearts Jeremy Marsh and Lexie Darnell, with At First Sight, a romantic confection liberally laced with suspense. "Sparks pulls out all the smalltown stops—psychic grandmother, meddling mayor, sullen townie ex, jealous best friends—and offers Mars/Venus commentary on what makes his characters tick. Jeremy's writer's block, instead of heightening the will-they-or-won't-they tension, is as enervating for readers as it is for him. More compelling are the mysterious e-mails Jeremy receives that suggest Lexie may not be telling the truth (about who the father is, for one thing), and the character of Lexie's psychic grandmother, Doris, who has correctly predicted the sex of every child born in the town... Have plenty of tissues on hand." —Publishers Weekly

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, a popular lecturer at Columbia University, portrays the Bard's artistic evolution in 1599 along with the year's significant political upheavals. "Like other Shakespeare biographers, Columbia professor Shapiro notes the importance of mundane events in Shakespeare's art, starting here with the construction of the Globe Theatre and the departure of Will Kemp, the company's popular comic actor. Having a stable venue and repertory gave Shakespeare the space to write and experiment during the turmoil created by Essex's unsuccessful military ventures in Ireland, a threatened invasion by a second Spanish Armada and, finally, Essex's disastrous return to court. Shapiro is in a minority in arguing for Shakespeare initially composing Hamlet at the same time Essex was plotting a coup..." —Publishers Weekly

A Day in the Life of the American Woman; How We See Ourselves by Sharon Wohlmuth is a new entry in the Day in the Life series. from the winning team behind the photographic trilogy Mothers and Daughters, Sisters, and Best Friends. It chronicles the everyday rhythms of women's lives in contemporary America. "On April 8, 2005, 50 of the world's most talented female photographers spent 24 hours capturing a "day in the life" of American women. The result is a rich tapestry reflecting the full spectrum of women's lives: their daily challenges, their joys and accomplishments, and their changing roles in the family, the workplace, and the community... From the well-known to the unknown, the women portrayed embody the many incarnations of the American woman. Their stories, conveyed in the intimate, resonant style of Wohlmuth and Saline's Sisters, speak to women of all backgrounds." (Publisher's release notes)
Note: Although Amazon says A Day in the Life of the American Woman can be shipped today, it is actually not released until October 20th.

Thursday, October 20
William Strunk's preeminent guide to English composition (Strunk & White), gets a very contemporary 21st-century facelift in The Elements of Style Illustrated, with the fanciful addition of illustrations by renowned artist and designer Maira Kalman. "Considering that millions of copies have been sold to millions of devotees, you might not think to ask what could enhance this (almost) perfect classic. In fact, the addition of illustrations allows readers to experience the book's contents in a completely new way, making the whole learning experience more colorful and clear, as well as adding a whimsical element that compliments the subtly humorous tone of the prose... While giving the classic work a jolt of new energy to appeal to contemporary readers, Kalman's illustrations are hemselves timeless, designed to sit alongside the ever-enduring manual for another fifty years and more." (Publisher's release notes)

Margaret Cho's I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight mixes rants against war, racism, misogyny, homophobia and various prominent Republicans with confessional ponderings of the comedian's identity as a Korean-American. "The cover photo—comedian Cho posing Patty Hearst–style before a Symbionese Liberation Army emblem—aptly conveys this messy personal manifesto's collision of in-your-face militance and little-girl-lost victimology. The political and the personal are inseparable from the celebrity preening: "I wasn't sure... which I hated more," Cho muses, "my skin color or my talent." When she manages to break from her rage, tears and ego... Cho writes with perception and humor. More often, though, she wallows in screeds against the white male power structure, sprinkled with gangsta-rap posturing..." —Publishers Weekly

Jesus Did It Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments for Christians, by Keith M. Kent, is the third book by the former Harvard student whose writings on doing good despite people and circumstances, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, took on a life of its own more than 30 years ago. "Keith writes his third book on the Paradoxical Commandments, this time relating them to Christian faith and the Bible... Each chapter lists the commandment, then draws on a teaching of Jesus or other figures in the Christian Bible to help explain it... Keith's presentation is simple and straightforward, his links between each commandment and the Bible easy to understand, if a bit obvious. This is a pleasing introduction to the Paradoxical Commandments, as well as an easy-to-swallow introduction to the Christian Scriptures. Study guides for each chapter move into deeper discussion and reflection." —Publishers Weekly

Friday, October 21
The Biggest Loser: The Weight Loss Program to Transform Your Body, Health and Life by The Biggest Loser Experts and Cast with Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, PhD, presents the diet and exercise plan tested by the hit reality show's contestants. "The Biggest Loser was NBC’s surprise hit of the Fall 2004 television season, drawing a passionate audience... With this book, people looking for change can accomplish the same type of radical makeover of their bodies, their health, and their lives that they saw on The Biggest Loser. The book features the food and fitness plans from Bob and Jillian, health advice from the show’s medical experts, and motivational tips from the contestants themselves." (Publisher's release notes)
Note: Although Amazon says The Biggest Loser can be shipped today, it is actually not released until October 21st.

Yes, I'll be buying the new Strunk—but for the articles, not the pictures! I already have my order in for the look at Shakespeare's and Armstrong's lives, and I may even give The Color of Law a spin—I always did like To Kill a Mockingbird.

Please join us at BlogCritics to comment on this review.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Avian Flu Fears

Avian flu, bird flu, H5N1 flu virus: these are all hot-words creeping up in the public attention right now. This is not unusual for the fall months, the time of year when we prepare to combat the latest variant of influenza virus to come down the pike (or to jump the Pacific from Asia).

It is unusual this year, with so much else going on to claim our attention.

Recently, these background fears were brought to the forefront with the announcement by Gina Kolata in a New York Times Health article that research had revealed the source of the 1918 flu pandemic (in which 50 million people died): an avian infection that had jumped to directly to humans. RatcliffeBlog cites a Wall Street Journal article about this revelation, published in Nature:
The findings by Dr. Taubenberger and his team of researchers... follow a nine-year effort to decode the 1918 strain by sequencing its eight genes. The research concluded that the pandemic flu outbreak was most likely caused by an avian virus. The scientists also discovered 10 mutations that distinguish the 1918 virus from avian bugs, suggesting changes that the virus made to adapt to a human host, they said. They also noted that some of those mutations are also present in the currently circulating H5N1 virus, suggesting it could make the jump to humans in a similarly rapid and alarming way.

Web-journalism guru Crawford Killian also writes H5N1, a blog devoted to news about this flu variant and its dangers. He says, "I suspect we're not very far from the 1918 faith in holy medals as ways to stave off disease." In a meta-commentary on his Writing for the Web blog, Killian notes,
ABC News ran a segment on Primetime about avian flu. I'd even found an item on the Web about it, and posted the news. But I had no idea that the program would trigger a remarkable spike in my traffic. From routine traffic of 550 hits per 24 hours, H5N1 was suddenly logging four or five times that. Eventually I realized what was happening, and saw traffic peak, a day or so later, at a little over 6000 hits/24 hours... This was clearly due to viewers of one program, who promptly booted their computers, Googled "h5n1," and found my site as #2 out of close to two million pages.

At Effect Measure, the Editors sign themselves "Revere." (Paul Revere was a member of the first local Board of Health in the United States, in Boston, 1799.) They note that attention to bird flu has ratcheted up in the media.
Without Hurricane Katrina we'd probably be in the Persistent Vegetative State that characterized the previous five years of the Bush Administration regarding any threats not part of the Global War on Terrorism message. But despite the new attention, it is doubtful whether either the Administration or Congress will make much difference. The Senate has appropriated almost $4 billion in new bird flu funds... Most of it, however, is for a big Tamiflu buy, not the wisest use, especially when the US is so far down the client list it won't get the new supply for some time.

Spence at Future Health Solutions reports that thousands of turkeys in NW Turkey have been destroyed due to suspicions of their harboring the H5N1 flu variant. Bulgaria will watch migratory bird flocks to detect possible transmission of flu to domestic birds. And Romania has
...identified three cases of birds killed by the Asia-originated deadly flu strain. London has confirmed the probes Romania urgently sent for research. The first cases were discovered in the Danube delta a crossroad of the migratory routes of wild birds coming from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.

H5N1 Virus Particles, Image Hosted by

H5N1 virus causes avian flu in humans

According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Observer, though, India sees no cause for alarm over an avian flu epidemic. "So far there has been no human-to-human transmission of the virus."

At Bayosphere, blogger Dan Gilmore isn't so sanguine. He blames the Bush administration for failing to get in line for supplies of flu vaccine sooner, and says,
Here's what a more competent and less ideological administration would do. It would say there's an emergency, and launch an emergency effort to get American pharmaceutical companies will make this drug, paying a royalty to Roche. And if Roche balked, we'd do what developing nations are doing in the case of hyper-expensive AIDS drugs: Make them anyway. Meanwhile, we'd be embarking on a crash vaccine program, one designed so we were not dependent on the same drug industry that left the US without nearly enough flu shots last year...

The Freedom Rider seems more worried about a military response to a flu epidemic in the US than he is about the disease itself. "In case of a bird flu outbreak, President Bush says that he would have to call in the troops, here on US soil, to keep us all safe. Somehow the thought doesn't make me feel any safer."

Don't worry, chandrasutra tells us—according to experts, "information is key to fighting flu pandemics." The post cites a number of excellent resources in the battle, including the WHO Avian flu site, and a BBC Avian Flu Q&A.

And at Junkyard Blog, B. Preston notes that the Democrats' plan to create the "next great genocidal smear campaign... will shamelessly use the coming bird flu threat to orchestrate it." Preston points out that the Bush Administration has spent a year building a plan to deal with a pandemic, and notes
Bush literally can't win with them--especially when the failures in New Orleans had "Democrat" written all over them. The closer to failure the Democrats actually are, the more they blame Bush for it. [Avian] flu has been nagging at the edges since 1997. Last time I checked, that means the Clintonistas had a few years to start working on the problem. Did they? Did they?

The threat may be real, or it may be an inflated concern like the 1976 Swine Flu fiasco, when more people died from the vaccine for the flu than from the disease itself. H5N1 could be the next "Great Pandemic." Or it could be only another political football to justify spending our money and curtailing our freedoms.

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Review: TLC's Ballroom Bootcamp


The long-delayed debut of a new dance-reality series, Ballroom Bootcamp, premiered last night on TLC. The premise will remind you of Dancing with the Stars (DWTS): non-dancers (in this case, also non-celebrities) are paired with professional dance instructors, and given a limited time to reach competition level in their performamce.

That's as far as the similarity goes. The non-dancers in the opening episode are "a tomboy, a tour-guide, and a tired mom": a blonde whose name I have forgotten, Jeff, and Maisha. Jeff is afraid of commitment, and hopes to learn how to stick with a project. Maisha works 12 hours a day, but wants to lose weight. And the blonde is an athletic tomboy who becomes energized by the competition.

They are paired with dancers Gocha Chertkoev, Christian Perry, and Susannah Cuesta. Chertkoev visits his student Maisha at home and cleans "unhealthy food" out of her fridge—holding a pan of tuna-noodle casserole out at her, he intones, "I call this a recipe for a fat ass!" He shows up at a staff meeting and has Maisha do ab-crunches on the floor. Perry has his already-fit, but terminally reserved blonde student take belly-dancing lessons to "free her hips" and release her sensuality for the cha-cha. He is encouraged when the tomboy shows up for her next cha-cha lesson with a bare midriff. And Cuesta makes it plain that Jeff has a larger task than either of the two women. He must lead the dance, as well as performing the steps.

The goal for all three students is to learn the dance well enough to compete in a "special category" of The Yankee Classic in Boston, MA. They will have a new partner to compete with—a professional who will be their dance partner (so this is a pro-am competition just as DWTS was). And they will have professionally-fitted costumes worth thousands of dollars to enhance their performance.

I was thrilled by the transformation of Maisha, who lost 15 pounds (much like John O'Hurley in DWTS), and performed beautifully in her sequined, leopard-print adorned costume. Jeff's mobile hips (harder for a man to achieve) and sense of play, and his confidence on the floor, also impressed me. But in the end, it was the tomboy blonde whose flirty skirt-flips and dramatic Latin motion impressed the judges enough to win the competition.

It is unclear if future competitions will involve any of the three students from this week, but we can expect to see Chertkoev, Perry, and Cuesta paired with a non-dancer for new attempts with other dances in the weeks to come. Still to come, according to a PR release for the series: competitors whose real-life jobs include Crime Lab Investigator for the L.A. Sheriff's Department, a nurse technician, a stay-at-home mom with two children under three, and a former college football player.

Future competitions will be at Florida State DanceSport Championships in Sarasota, FL, and the Embassy Ball in Irvine, CA. Winners each week will qualify for a grand ball to be held at season's end.

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