Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Last Holiday DVD

Queen Latifah, Timothy Hutton and Gerard Depardieu

The mistaken diagnosis of imminent death is a rich field for comedy writers, giving them a chance to explore the honest life values of the protagonist, without actually requiring the character to die. What will the character choose to do with the supposed remaining days of life? In Send Me No Flowers, Rock Hudson's hypochondriac George tries to set up his wife (Doris Day) with a safe mate in a future without him. George's shallow self-focus turns one-eighty with the expected onset of death.

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) has the opposite of Hudson's neurosis; she is shy and self-effacing. She cooks Cordon Bleu-level meals, but only for others — she herself eats only Lean Cuisine. She sings in a choir, but has to be told by the director to sing out. "I thought I was," is her puzzled response. And her love for fellow Kragen department store employee Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) is unrequited only because she doesn't dare say anything to him.

A bump on the head changes her life. A faulty CAT scan shows blank areas in her brain that lead her doctor to give her the death sentence: she has three, perhaps four, weeks to live. Suddenly, her "Book of Possibilities", in which she has recorded all the things she wants to do someday, is a list of things she will never accomplish.

Like George, Georgia makes a one-eighty. She cashes in her savings, splurges on a first-class trip to Prague and books into the ritzy Grandhotel Pupp, in the Presidential Suite, and makes up for lost future-time by ordering seven meals at dinner.

Coincidentally staying at the resort are Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), owner of the department store chain where Georgia was mis-diagnosed, and her Congressman and a Senator with whom Kragen is trying to work some kind of back-room deal. Georgia's straight talk and lust for life puts her into an unexpected competition with Kragen for the respect of these men, the star chef of the Pupp, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), and even Kragen's mistress (played by Alicia Witt).

Done wrong, this story would be schmaltzy or trite. But Queen Latifah has the presence to pull off both the shy, withdrawn Georgia and her fully-blossomed Madame Byrd character. Brilliant writing (including credit for the 1950 Alec Guiness version of the film, written by JB Priestly) and a perfect casting of Hutton as the unlikeable mega-mart mogul and Depardieu as the goofy-but-wise chef let Latifah shine.

This one goes on my "watch often" shelf.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Blaze by "Richard Bachman" (Stephen King)


Before the story of Blaze begins, author Stephen King explains why a new novel under his pseudonym "Richard Bachman" is now being released: it is a trunk novel from his Bachman days, rejected by the author as "...great when I was writing it, and crap when I finished." Other Bachman novels were written before, but published after King's Carrie, which fixed the name Stephen King firmly in the horror-genre frame.

Thirty years later, King returned to the draft of Blaze to begin a re-write, ruthlessly stripping sentiment and purple prose to leave a strong noir-objective narrative, influenced strongly by the crime stories of James M. Cain, and the character-rich style of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. (More than character-development comes from the latter novel — King says the novel is " homage to Of Mice and Men — kinda hard to miss that."

Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., or "Blaze" as his associates call him, has always been bigger than the others around him, but he wasn't always dumber. A series of misfortunes, including a deceased mother, an abusive father who threw him downstairs repeatedly (leaving a cup-sized dent in his forehead and a larger gap in his mental faculties), a tyrannical headmaster at the orphanage, and a series of unfortumate foster-home experiences, have shaped him strangely.

Blaze has survived through having a series of partners who help him cope with life despite his feeble mind, from his buddy Johnny's signals in Arithmetic to his partner George's planning in their career as petty con artists on the streets of Boston. Now, though, George is dead. Blaze is having trouble remembering that, though — he hears George clearly, urging him to do that one last big crime they had been planning before his death.

So Blaze sets out to kidnap the six-month-old son of a wealthy family. This mentally-numb, socially-frozen giant connects with his own childhood of deprivation, the kidnap victim, and the still-functioning depths of his own mind in a story as compelling as any of King's later fiction. I was reminded of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, calling on her inner resources to survive in the wilderness — Blaze's wilderness is in his own mind, and his rescue is also driven by what he finds within himself.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Young Love vs. Old Money

Every adolescent boy in the throes of first love believes his lover implicitly. Even further, he believes in his lover. So when Joel Johnston is hesitant to propose to his sweetheart Jinny Hamilton, it is because he doesn't care for the thought of raising children on credit. Since he's a poor student-slash-musician, and she's no wealthier, he is baffled by her casual approach to their lack of money.

Soon enough, though, he finds out why she isn't bothered by the thought of debt. His poor lover Jinny is really hyper-rich Jinnia Anne Conrad, masquerading a la Haroun Al-Rashid, to find a love who isn't after her money. Unfortunately, Joel isn't interested in marrying the Conrad fortune, and by chapter 5 he's headed for the colonies.

This journey is the rest of the story, barring the twist at the end in classic Heinlein — and Robinson — fashion.

We aren't told how much of this novel began as a outline written circa 1955 by Robert A. Heinlein and discovered after his death, and how much was written by Spider Robinson. What is clear, though, is that Variable Star is a pastiche of Robinson's wit and knowledge of Heinlein's authorial voice, and RAH's grasp of the interesting story line. It may be uneven; it may ring false a time or two, but it is still a Heinlein story.

What isn't there: Spider Robinson's love of puns and his ardent counter-culture stance, Heinlein's customary view of discipline and hard work (often in the military) as a source of success in life. What is there: the capable and self-determined young hero who characterizes all Heinlein's stories, the odd-ball associates that populate Robinson's novels, and the 50's-conservative philosophy that informed most of Heinlein's tales.

The novel has been criticized as being all journey and no arrival. I don't agree. In a sense, every life is all journey, and to arrive is a conclusion we dread.

You don't have to be a Heinlein or a Robinson fan to enjoy this novel. It's a great story. (No surprise there; Heinlein was the champion of the great story.) If you read it as a posthumous RAH novel, though, you will be disappointed. As capable as his production of Heinlein voice is, Robinson is unable to recreate it entire. A little of Spider slips through — and that's fine, because the collaboration of the two, however posthumous, provides us with something quite unique.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Building Harlequin's Moon by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

Utopia Lost and Found

Utopia always goes wrong; the best laid plans, etc. is truth as well as a cliché. Sometimes it takes generations. In Building Harlequin's Moon, a novel by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper, the plan to build utopia goes off the rails right away for the John Glenn, a colony ship fleeing a Solar System filled with rogue AIs. They were supposed to come out at the planet Ymir side-by-side with another colony ship, ready to deploy nanotechnology to terraform Ymir into an ideal place to build a new Earth. Instead, their engines go out of kilter, delivering them to Harlequin.

Their only option is to assemble the material from Harlequin's rings into a moon, then wake the frozen colonists and lead them through terraforming the new moon, Selene. It will take generations of effort to re-create the supplies and fuel they need to go on to Ymir — which by this time, may be already terraformed by the crew and colonists from their sister ship.

It will mean centuries, even millennia, of effort. They must take care not to let the AI tools they have grow too intelligent, lest the same thing that happened on Earth occur in the Harlequin system. And there will not be room in the rebuilt ship for all the colonists on Selene when they are done.

How they balance the needs of the ship with the needs of the colony, the growing tension between the Earth-born ruling elite from the original ship's crew (who seem to live forever due to repeated freezings) and the Children of Selene (the short-lived colonists), and the dawning realization that Ymir might not be the last best hope for the human race after all, give this novel a strength that we haven't seen since Ringworld.

I had trouble getting into the novel; there is a confusion of flash-back and dreaming in the opening chapters that takes some deciphering. Once I had these sorted out in my mind, however, the remainder of the story was very engrossing. This is mostly due to strong characters — an Earth-born woman refuses to take take further restorative Sleep, Selene's Children are growing aware of the way way they are being short-changed by the ship's crew, and Gabriel, the leader of Earth-born and teacher of Selene Children, will have to make a drastic decision about the future of Selene itself.

It is also absorbing because of Niven's strength in describing future technology and cosmic-sized engineering works. We are there for the building of a planetoid from what is essentially space-dust; we come along while the assembled moon cools and is made habitable. This story is even more enjoyable because all the engineering is the works of Man — no aliens lurk in the corners of the narrative. The closest thing to them is the deliberately-crippled AI pilot of the John Glenn, Astronaut, a character strongly reminiscent of Heinlein's Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Larry Niven has a genuine talent for finding collaborative writers, and nurturing them with his other well-known talent: creating elaborate, but believable, technological cultures. With Brenda Cooper, he has written a worthy shelf-mate to Ringworld.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

To Cork or Not to Cork by George M. Taber

The conflict has already become both emotional and vicious... Some... have turned into shills for one camp or the other, often making unsubstantiated and outrageous claims about their favorite products, while self-righteously condemning someone else's...
    Friendships wither away when people can no longer carry on a civilized dialogue about something that in the large scope of things is pretty inconsequential.

George M. Taber has the knack of bringing his readers into the world of wine. He follows the brilliant Judgement of Paris, in which he chronicled an industry-shaking blind taste test in France that awarded top position to a California wine, with To Cork or Not To Cork (subtitled: "Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle").

Anyone who has loving laid down a wine to age, postponing its enjoyment for years to allow it to mature in the bottle, only to be met with aromas of wet cardboard and mildew upon uncorking it, knows the problem. It's called "corked", that musty, unpleasant spoilage, and it utterly ruins the wine. As long as the incidence was low, it was a known but tolerated random risk with wine; vintners routinely replaced bottles that were found to be corked, and ate the loss. It was just part of doing business in the industry.

But as Taber details in this book, during the 1970s and '80s, the incidence of corking in wines grew alarmingly, even as the chemicals that caused it were finally identified. A sensitive palate could detect as little as 3 parts per trillion of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), but wine cork shipments to the US were sometimes measured with ten or even a hundred times that amount of TCA.

New World winemakers suspected they were being sent the rejects of European wineries, although it may have been due to the long-term effects of Spanish Civil War and World War devastation of the cork forests in Spain and Portugal more than a deliberate strategy to short-change Western vintners. When corked wines began to seriously impact their bottom lines, however, wineries began looking for alternatives to cork.

The problem with substitutes, though, as Taber reveals, was that they ran smack up against tradition and perception. The experience of pulling a wine cork was a crucial part of the romantic experience of enjoying a good wine. And the early association of alternative closures with cheap jug wines and low-quality, inexpensive product made consumers reject wines that were not stopped with cork.

Besides that, wine-making is not a science; it is an art form supported by science, experience, and guess-work. Vintners hesitated to use cork substitutes without knowledge of how the cork contributed to the production of wine. When the lead time for a wine might be ten or more years, testing alternative wine-bottle closures meant taking an immense gamble on their product. All agreed that something had to be done, but what?

With careful history interspersed with "Message in a Bottle" anecdotes, Taber tells us what they did in New Zealand and Australia, in the wine country of California and Washington, in the vineyards of France and Germany, and in the cork forests of Spain and Portugal, to battle TCA and build great wines.

I read this one with cork drawn from a Pastori 2003 port, with T-top pulled from a creamy Obsborne Coquinero Sherry, and with screw-top removed from a luscious Lawson Dry Hills Late Harvest Reisling from New Zealand. All wonderful wines — I tasted with a new appreciation of the art of making wine, in which the "inconsequential" choice of a stopper could make such a difference in the end product.


Monday, January 28, 2008

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Juvenile: 5th-9th Grade
Magical Adventure Series

The second book in the innovative series Percy Jackson and the Olympians finds many of the same heroes and villains from the first book, The Lightning Thief, back in danger from the monsters that seek out the sons and daughters of the Olympian gods.

For a change, Percy Jackson has nearly made it to the end of a school year without being expelled. The problem with going to school with non-heroes is that, due a phenomenon called "the Mist", they don't see the monsters that come after Percy — they only see the results: broken chairs and windows, burned school buildings, and bruised classmates. When the Laistrygonians, giant cannibal monsters, show up at Percy's laid-back school, the PE coach just sees the big kids taking on the little kids at dodgeball. If it wasn't for Percy giant (if a bit slow) friend Tyson, he would have been killed by the flaming brass cannon-balls tossed in that game.

Annabeth also shows up just in time to slay the last of the cannibals, but she's really come to tell Percy that Camp Half-Blood, the special summer retreat for the scions of Olympus, is under attack again. This time, the magical border that protects the camp is in danger because the tree of Thalia that gives it strength has been poisoned.

Even worse, Chiron is suspected of poisoning the tree, so he has been replaced by a nasty fellow named Tantalus. When Percy realizes that his friend Grover is in trouble, and rescuing him will also allow the tree to be healed, Tantalus awards the quest to Clarisse, the daughter of Ares, who is no friend of Percy's. Annabeth, Percy, and Tyson will need to leave the camp without permission if the quest is to succeed.

Once again, Riordan has crafted a winning story, full of action and witty dialogue. Percy is a nice kid without being a wimp or a wuss, and you want Percy and his friends to succeed, and their opponents to fail. A nice twist is introduced when Luke's father Hermes helps Percy as a way to help his son, even though Luke was hardly helpful to Percy in the first book.

The third book in the trilogy, The Titan's Curse, is out in paperback in April. Definitely worth watching for!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Princess of Wands by John Ringo

Trust a woman to get the job done.

John Ringo is known for his thrilling depiction of combat and the future weapons of war, and for the creation of steely-jawed heroes and loathsomely inhuman creatures born either to battle against humans, or fight at their sides. In Princess of Wands, however, Ringo takes a sidestep into the swamps of Louisiana to present a warrior of a different kind.

Barbara Everett is a sweet lady. A devout Christian, she believes it is her duty to stay at home, keeping the house clean and her family nourished in both the physical and the spiritual sense. Her hobby, though, is martial arts, and in her modest way, Barb has become a master at "all forms and all attacks". She's a good wife and Mom, but she's at the end of her rope with managing her children (and her husband's drinking problem). She's off to Louisiana for the weekend to find peace and sample Cajun food.

Detective Sergeant Kelly Lockhart is a skinny graying fellow trying desperately to find a clue in a vicious series of rape/murder crimes that police fear may be the actions of a cult. His hunt for a person of interest takes him to Madame Charlotte, a fortune-teller who warns him to find the "sign of the princess" if he wants to survive his search in Cajun country. One look at the too-small "Aloof Elven Princess" t-shirt stretched tight across Barbara's well-endowed figure, and Kelly suspects he's found his sign. Her familiarity with firearms and other arts of self-defense merely confirms his hunch.

Almadu is a demon. His latest attempt to break through to our world is the root cause of the case police call the Bayou Ripper. He's collecting the souls of those slain by his followers; three more and he wins the toaster. And humanity — especially Christians — is his idea of toast.

The intersection of these three deep in the bayous of Louisiana is simply the beginning of a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. Before they are done, Kelly and Barbara will need to battle Almadu's cult members in the swamps and also in the halls of a resort hotel during a sci-fantasy convention. With the help of a Wiccan and several gaming, technical and hocus-pocus-style wizards, they will fight the good fight against the evil demon. And once they're done, Barb will really have to do something about her home life...

John Ringo's heroine is a winner, so I hope we see more of Barb and her partner Kelly Lockhart. I was impressed with the way he was able to keep Barb sweet and Christian without making her mushy or preachy, and how well she and Kelly worked together without becoming sexually involved. Well-done all around, and a joy to read!

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Juvenile: 5th-9th Grade
Magical Adventure Series

In this innovative series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rick Riordan has broken free of the Harry Potter chains, and given us a fresh hero in a brave old world of magical adventure. The first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, introduces Percy Jackson, a mouthy, dyslexic kid with a little problem: he's the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and he's not supposed to exist. He's come to the attention of the gods on Olympus, and not in a good way.

To protect him from that danger, his mother sends him to a summer camp for other children of Greek mythology. A witty re-working of summer camp frolics has Percy vieing with the other "houses" at the camp, making alliances with Athena's daughter Annabeth, a satyr named Grover, and other scions of the Olympians. Before Percy can relax into this safe haven, however, they learn that the gods are at war, Percy's father is accused of stealing Zeus's lightning, and they need to go to Hades' domain to retrieve it.

The adventure quest is a staple of this genre, and Riordan has given us a good one. The underworld is entered through a record label's offices in LA, and the summer camp is on the Atlantic coast. When they finally get there, Percy and his friends must convince Hades that neither Percy nor his father is the lightning thief. If they fail, the gods will destroy the human race.

The action is fast-paced, other characters from Greek myth who appear in the novel are lightly drawn with a fun twist, and there are plenty of plot twists to delight the reader. The vocabulary is pitched to 6th-grade level, but for reading aloud, those Greek polysyllabic names will be a challenge even to older readers — Poseidon, Procrustes, Charon and Dionysus are a mouthful for many adults!

In a welter of Harry Potter imitators, this series is a welcome relief, but it shares with Rowling's series the appeal for both boys and girls, the sense of wonder and power in a good story, and the joy of reading as a magic all its own.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

Tickets for the End of the World Now Available

Colin Laney may be dying in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but he sees what's coming: the end of the world as we know it. Laney has a talent for seeing the shape of things to come by recognizing patterns in the ebb and flow of information in the Web. But as Heisenberg noted, "the observer interacts with the observed through the process of observation." Laney may be starving and sick in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but his detachment from life isn't helping — there is a perturbation in the shape of what he sees, and it may mean someone else is now able to observe it. And him, as well.

In All Tomorrow's Parties, Gibson has given us visionary insights into how the information age shapes us and the world we inhabit. Pattern Recognition introduced that concept in a current-time setting, while we met Laney and several other characters who appear in this near-future novel, in Idoru and Virtual Light.

These are solid characters, and we recognize them easily by their actions and choices. Laney hides, and obsesses, due to the action of the drug that initiated his skills; Rydell yearns to be a cop as he dances from one low-level job to another; Chevette the one-time bike-messenger/thief moves restlessly from one interstice to another; Rei Toei the idoru lives her virtual life and conspires to make the leap to flesh and blood.

Their lives intersect one final time on the quake-damaged Bay Bridge. Suspended between San Francisco and Oakland, they hunt through the cobbled-together dwellings and lives of the bridge people for the one thing that will trigger the end of the world. Because Laney has foreseen an event coming, and after it nothing will be the same.

Gibson's prose distills the objective style of 30s noir and gives it new vigor with a futurist edge: "Rydell knew that killing was not the explosive handshake exchange of movies, but a terrible dark marriage..."

He uses words with precision and grace, crafting phrases, sentences and paragraphs of such evocative power that they haunt you for hours. "Formal absences of precious things" describes the empty pedestals in a jewelry-store window at night; it also introduces a man whose concealed knife is "a key to a door", and he "is by trade a keeper of the door to that country", Death. Laney calls his interface with the world "Suit", because his black salaryman's costume is maintained with paint; also "the man's ankles are painted, in imitation of black socks, with something resembling asphalt."

As with the novels that preceded it, All Tomorrow's Parties is a feast of life both real and virtual, and not to be missed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Crunchy Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos from Frito Lay

Diet Reward: Intense Flavor and High Satisfaction

Whether you're trying to reprogram your eating habits, or actively dieting, when that need to nosh hits between meals, you can safely fill the hole with a small handful of spicy, crunchy Cheetos snacks.

Not the "Flamin' Hot" variety, which seems to be aimed at achieving a burn regardless of flavor — what I recommend as a daily reward for following a healthy diet is several yellow curls from a bag of Cheetos Crunchy Cheddar Jalapeño snacks. These are spicy, savory, cheesy, and have that satisfying Cheetos crunch, with a mouth-filling flavor that sates the snack urge quickly.

You are left with the feeling (after five to ten medium-size curls) that you have cheated the diet demon, done something slightly sinful. Yet a serving of 21 pieces is only 170 calories, and the secret is: you don't need a full serving to quiet that yen for a treat!

The corn curls are touted as having 0 grams of trans-fat, the latest nutritional jargon for "actually good for you", although the nutitional table on the pack reveals that more than half the calories are from fats, and 17% are saturated fats. To compare a perfectly satisfying handful of 10 Jalapeño Cheetos curls with another popular snack, a 3-cookie serving of Oreos® provides nearly twice the total calories and a little more than the total fat (7g for Oreos vs. 6.5g for the Cheetos). And as points out, can you stop at three Oreos?

That, in a nutshell, is why I reward my good eating with a break from the diet pulled straight from the Jalapeño Cheetos bag. Can't find them? Try the Frito Lay Item Locator!