Monday, July 30, 2007

Pretty Damn Accurate

Over at jillmwo's blog, I followed a great link to Blue Pyramid. Answer a series of six questions, and they'll tell you what work of literature represents your innermost soul. Here's mine:

You're The Guns of August!
by Barbara Tuchman

Though you're interested in war, what you really want to know is what causes war. You're out to expose imperialism, militarism, and nationalism for what they really are. Nevertheless, you're always living in the past and have a hard time dealing with what's going on today. You're also far more focused on Europe than anywhere else in the world. A fitting motto for you might be "Guns do kill, but so can diplomats."

It's almost scary how closely this reflects me, although they would have had to go with A Distant Mirror to be 100% on target. It's fun; try yours.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summer Series Round-Up

Besides the fun Burn Notice, I've sampled three other much-hyped new series:

  • Saving Grace. Holly Hunter's trying way too hard to be lewd and bad-ass (although she looks good doing it). Despite many reviewers' earnest assurances that Grace isn't pushing any particular religious agenda, I found it to be pretty standard default Christianity. Laura San Giacomo adds a bit of needed spice, but not enough to keep me tuned in. My verdict: yawnsville.
  • Mad Men. I'm soooo tired of movies and TV series that think that advertising = creative genius. I don't know what Mad Men has to be so self-congratulatory about, considering that their protagonists are universally corrupt. As a woman and a Jew, I find my fuck-you meter going off at an alarming rate. I get that they're trying to scoff at the unenlightened bad old days, but the writers are having too much fun seeing what they can get away with. Still, the production values are lavish; the characters, however slimy, are interesting; and John Slattery is ornamental. My verdict: I'll keep watching until they piss me off too much.
  • Damages. Glenn Close is giving a great steel-magnolia turn as litigator Patty Hewes, and newcomer Rose Byrne holds her own as her maybe-not-so-naive young associate. Dark, twisty, and layered, this looks like prime entertainment. My verdict: where's the popcorn?

Monday, July 16, 2007

200 Book Limit? Please.

My sister-in-law just turned me on to my latest hobby: LibraryThing. It's a way of cataloguing, rating, and reviewing the books in your library. The other fun part, of course, is getting to see the catalogs of people who have done the same. With luck, you can find your reading soulmates who will eagerly join you in a debate on whether Maddie in Tell Me Lies is Too Stupid to Live and happily provide a lifetime of spot-on reading recommendations.

The system lets you call up the databases at, the Library of Congress, and other sites to add to your catalog, but the interface is a little clunky. There doesn't seem to be a way of adding more than one book by an author at a time. So if you want to, say, list every book Barbara Hambly ever wrote (damn, she's prolific), you have to link them one by one, tediously scrolling through the same screens again and again.

The biggest catch, the one they're counting on, natch, is that only the first 200 listings are free. What avid reader, the kind who would be interested in this kind of site, could stop at 200? It's like telling King Kong he can only climb to the third floor of the Empire State Building. I've barely begun to scratch the surface of my wall o' paperbacks and I'm just about at the limit already. *sigh* I have a feeling $25 of my hard-earned dollars will soon be winging their way to the geniuses who started this genius idea.

I'll be adding to my catalog sporadically as time and attention span permit. If you want to see what I've read and am hanging onto, visit the site and look for MuseofIre.

Edited July 18 to add: Yup, had to cave and pay for the lifetime membership. Am up to almost 400 books. Also joined up to get the chance to receive advance copies of new books to review. If I ever receive two books, there's my membership paid for.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Not Burned, but Smokin'

I think I've found my new summer obsession. Burn Notice is the story of freelance spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), who has the rug pulled out from under him in the middle of negotiations with a Nigerian warlord. Wounded, with his cover shredded and his bank accounts frozen, Westen is dumped in Miami, where he must navigate between the Scylla of FBI watchers and the Charybdis of his neurotic and demanding mother (Sharon Gless) while trying to figure out who burned him and why. His only allies are his violence-loving, IRA-gun-running ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar); an alcoholic, livin'-off-the-alimony ex-spy who quit one second ahead of being burned himself, Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell); and his extremely reluctant handler (I don't know and you can't make me tell).

This is not a show that goes in much for toughness or edginess, but I do enjoy Westen's way with a one-liner and his James-Bond-meets-McGuyver approach to problems (going through the wall rather than the mega-reinforced door, "guns make you stupid, duct tape makes you smart.") It doesn't hurt that Donovan is so easy on the eyes. And while Campbell may not be as slim and chiseled as in the days when he was Briscoe County, Jr., he still looks pretty good to me.

Pass the mojitos.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Reading Diary June 2007

Books read online are in green.

  1. Red Lightning, John Varley. Disappointing, depressing follow-up to the exuberant Red Thunder. First half in a tsunami-struck Florida (interestingly, written pre-Katrina) is absorbing, but ultimately has nothing to do with the point. Mars and Martian society never really come alive, and the part about the revolution has been done better by Robert A. Heinlein. Varley is also all too eager to score points regarding contemporary politics to do service to his story. In all, reminds me of how Star Trek III messed up everything that was good about Star Trek II, and there's no condemnation lower than that. Edited July 4 because I'm an idiot. That's the trouble with movies that have numbers instead of names. Thanks, Damian!
  2. The Truth-Teller's Tale, Sharon Shinn. Another lovely, romantic fantasy in the world of Shinn's The Safe-Keeper's Secret. Not much suspense, but Shinn writes so well I don't care. She writes the kind of books that make you want to race ahead to see how everything comes out while turning the pages slowly because you don't want them to end.
  3. Midnight Choir, Gene Kerrigan. Very mixed feelings. Starts out as an interesting, many-layered police procedural set in modern Dublin, but about halfway through begins to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Synott is too sympathetic a character to be someone I love to hate and too hypocritical and corrupt to be someone I can root for.
  4. Bone Valley, Claire Matturro. A little high on the wackiness scale at times, but some good moments. Loved the Florida panther. Hard to believe that a dedicated crunchy-granola-type like Lilly would be so ignorant about the gigantic environmental mess on her doorstep.
  5. If I Never Get Back, Darryl Brock. Bloated time-travel fantasy, deeply unsatisfying on so many levels. Well-researched but too eager to show it off, as with gratuitous encounters with the James brothers and too many quotes from contemporary documents. If Brock wants to write about the beginnings of pro baseball, why does he drag the Fenians into it; and if he wants to write about the Fenians, why does he spend so much time giving us play-by-plays of baseball games and completely bypass their failed invasion of Canada? Only the least interesting of the plot strands is resolved, and the ending is an obvious cheap set-up for a sequel.
  6. Still Life, Louise Penny. A pretty good effort from first-time novelist Penny: thoughtful, with engaging characters, and often beautiful prose. But her inexperience shows in her unsure grasp on the omniscient authorial viewpoint, whipping in and out of people's heads at an annoying rate, and the way various plot points fail to add up (if Yvonne thought she had inherited Jane's house, why paper over the walls in a way that would have made it impossible to live in or sell?). After such a leisurely, unconventional build-up, it was disappointing that the final confrontation with the villain was pure Thriller/Horror Movie 101.
  7. The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood. Tony, Charis, and Roz are great characters, but I couldn't empathize with them as much as I wanted to. Still moping about the worthless men Zenia took from them 30 years earlier? Zenia did them a favor, and I loved it at the end when she told them so. Hated Boyce, the gay assistant -- the only thing more annoying than a guy who quotes at you nonstop when you're trying to have a serious conversation is a guy who quotes at you and then finishes off with the author's name.
  8. Flight, Sherman Alexie. A very slight book -- read it in a morning -- not as funny as I'd hoped, but with a very affecting ending. Zits is too young to know this, but if some random guy comes up and starts quoting Nietzsche at you, watch yourself. Made me want to know more about Crazy Horse.
  9. The Target, Gerri Hill. Equal opportunity suckitude: proves that books about lesbians can be just as stupid, predictable, and badly written as those about straights.
  10. Transformation, Carol Berg. Got interested in Berg through her shared site DeepGenre. Was rewarded with this thoughtful fantasy about culture conflict and the unlikeliest of friendships. Convincing characterization and well-drawn cultures. A bit disappointing that, after the kickass magical battle, the climactic physical battle takes place offstage while one of the heroes is recovering.
  11. North of Market Street: Being the Adventures of a New York Woman in Philadelphia, Harriet Boyer. I always enjoy reading things set in Philadelphia, but this was very odd. The book is entirely devoted to complaining about how unfriendly Philadelphians are and how living north of Market St. puts one beyond the social pale. It might be true (even today North Philadelphia is pretty undesirable), but seems like a very slight premise for a novel. Something with an actual, you know, story might have been nice, like the experience of being a female medical student in the 1890s (which is what I thought this was about).
  12. Don't Look Down, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer. Fun but not totally successful collaboration between romance writer Crusie and action/adventure writer Mayer. Crusie seems to have set the tone, but she's lost control of some of the stuff that make her books so great: the way the lovers get together is unconvincing, their later conflict more so, and some seriously loose ends are left dangling (hello! did Daisy try to kill herself, or what? And how's she doing?). On Mayer's territory, the whole art theft/mob/CIA plot is impenetrable and the body count disturbingly high for what's, on the whole, a light romp. On the plus side, Lucy's a great heroine, her relationship with Daisy and Pepper is terrific, the sex is hot (Crusie's into bondage these days, it seems), and details like the coin check convinced me that Wilder is the real deal. I'm looking forward to the next Crusie/Mayer project, since advance word is that they've ironed out some of the kinks.
  13. California Fire and Life, Don Winslow. The opening, with its short, smartass chapters, is a bit offputting, but persevere and soon you'll be swept along on a wild ride involving arson, murder, the Russian mob, the American dream, corruption, and true love. A good writer can make anything interesting, and you'll be eager to absorb whatever Winslow tells you about fuel loads, insurance law, and Georgian furniture. Jack Wade's a great hero, smart and stubborn, although a few hundred pages too slow to realize one crucial fact; but when you think you've got everything figured out, the story twists hard, then twists again.
  14. The Compass Rose, Gail Dayton. OK, so sexy magic chick is married to 4 count 'em 4 smokin' hot men (and another woman) and she won't have sex with them because sex is too complicated? And she doesn't see that not having sex is what's complicating everything? Suuuuure. There's some good stuff going on here, but the large number of personalities and relationships makes for very uneven storytelling; Obed and Aisse get especially short shrift. Also completely ignores the possibility of homosexual relationships, even among the Spartan-warrior-pair-bonded Tibrans. The final battle is laughably anticlimactic.
  15. Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The Apocalypse has never been funnier.
  16. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See. There's a story in here somewhere screaming to get out, but it's trapped in this conventional, cliched tale of friends who have a misunderstanding. See has beautifully depicted women's nu shu language and life and culture in remote 19th Century China ; I wish her characters had received the same attention.

Movie Diary June 2007

Movies seen for the first time are in green.

  1. Going Hollywood (1933), Raoul Walsh. Another movie that promotes the idea that stalking is romantic, only this time with gender reversal, with French teacher Marion Davies going after crooner Bing Crosby. Davies, with her overcareful enunciation, seems lifeless; I've never cared much for Crosby, but I must admit he sounds awfully good here.
  2. Take the Money and Run (1969), Woody Allen. Remember when Woody Allen movies were funny? This mockumentary about the world's worst bank robber is the first of them all where Allen demonstrates his triple threat skills as actor/writer/director. It's amazing how fully formed his persona of neurotic dweeb already is in this first outing.
  3. Too Many Crooks (1959), Mario Zampi. Very slight story about gang of inept criminals who mistakenly kidnap the wife of a shady businessman (Terry-Thomas), only to find he's delighted to have her gone. Best part is George Cole as the head crook, who can't keep his accent on straight. Brenda de Banzie as the kidnapped wife has some funny moments as she takes over the gang, but she pathetically goes back to her husband at the end.
  4. Larceny, Inc. (1942), Lloyd Bacon. Uneven tale of ex-cons who buy a luggage store to break into a bank, from a play by S. J. and Laura Perelman. Edward G. Robinson spoofs his gangster image, something he did much more effectively in the earlier Brother Orchid. Jack Carson engaging as always.
  5. They Drive By Night (1940), Raoul Walsh. Negligible melodrama about truckers, not really helped by the presence of Humphrey Bogart or George Raft. Ann Sheridan co-stars as the waitress who becomes involved with Raft; I'm constantly amazed by the reminder of the crude remarks that supposedly nice guys could get away with making to women. Ida Lupino shows some signs of life as the predatory wife of Raft's boss, although her breakdown is a stupid plot contrivance. It's not her fault, but once Robert Osborne mentioned that Bette Davis had played that role in an earlier film, I kept seeing Bette saying the lines.
  6. The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cecil B. DeMille. Orgies! Lesbians doing seductive dances! Empresses bathing in asses' milk! Lions devouring Christians! Too bad these delights had to be surrounded by a tedious and conventional plot. Starring Claudette Colbert before she became a virgin and Fredric March when he was young and (who knew?) beautiful.
  7. Bound for Glory (1976), Hal Ashby. Excellent, low-key biography of how Woody Guthrie got to be Woody Guthrie, effective without ever being preachy. I forgot there was a time when David Carradine could act (and sing).
  8. Rain (1932), Lewis Milestone. The scene where Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) goes down on her knees to the dominating missionary Mr. Davidson (John Huston), and her subsequent hollow-eyed brainwashed conversion, are appalling. Davidson wins my Fuck You Award. I don't think the movie disapproves of him enough, or for the right reasons.
  9. The Awful Truth (1937), Leo McCarey. I don't like Irene Dunne even when she doesn't sing (and she does); her whole repertoire consists of simpering, smirking, and drawling. But she's punished plentifully for it in this comedy, both by the movie's unquestioning acceptance of the double standard -- Cary Grant has been fooling around, but the only issue is whether she has too -- and by her horrible clothes, which include the world's most ridiculous hats. Grant comes off somewhat better, since he gets to look good until his loser nightshirt at the end. Both of them are arrested adolescents who make things worse for each other and themselves because they can't tell the truth, but Dunne seems more mean-spirited in her attempts to keep Grant from moving on to somebody new.
  10. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Michael Curtiz, William Keighley. Give me Errol Flynn in some tights and I'm a happy girl. But this rousing historical adventure also boasts a top-notch cast, witty dialog, gorgeous costumes, and fabulous action sequences.
  11. I Married a Witch (1942), Rene Clair. Funny, light romance with a very sexy Veronica Lake and Frederic March, no longer so young or so beautiful. Great contributions from Cecil Kellaway and Robert Benchley.
  12. Mississippi Masala (1991), Mira Nair. Disjointed story of intercultural romance, but hello! Denzel is hot. Best parts are the sequences showing the heroine's family in Uganda.
  13. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Albert Lewin. Beautifully crafted and creepily effective version of the Oscar Wilde story. More voiceover than I normally care for, but it works. Script full of Wilde's finest aphorisms, delivered in George Sanders' most cultivated sneer. Fabulous use of color to reveal the portrait at critical moments. Also featuring a very young and lovely Angela Lansbury as the tragic Sybil Vane. Edited August 7 because George Sanders is not a 19th Century French novelist.
  14. Made in Paris (1966), Boris Sagal. The kind of smarmy sex comedy I absolutely cannot stand, with extra added bonus stalking and '60s sexism. But killer clothes (that orange evening gown in Louis Jourdan's show? fabu!) and killer Ann-Margaret. As for the ending, let me just say: wrong choice, girlfriend.
  15. While the City Sleeps (1956), Fritz Lang. Sassy, exciting noir drama about newspaper reporters hunting for a serial killer. Rampant sexual harassment and the usual dubious '50s psychology (best line is when the sissified killer tells his adoptive mother, "You wanted a girl, Dad wanted a boy. Guess neither one of you got exactly what you were looking for"). Interestingly, neither the slutty columnist (Ida Lupino) nor the adulterous wife (Rhonda Fleming) winds up dead.
  16. The Amazing Adventure (1936), Alfred Zeisler. Nonsensical but entertaining story of bored plutocrat who supports himself for a year as a workingman, based on a novel by that perennial chronicler of the upper classes, E. Phillips Oppenheim. Nobody's motivations make any sense, but Cary Grant is as appealing as ever, and the clothes and decor pure eye candy.
  17. Waitress (2007), Adrienne Shelly. I was going to write a whole review of this but realized I don't really have that much to say. Keri Russell was good, Nathan Fillion was cute, and Andy Griffith was funnier than he's been since he hung up his sheriff's uniform. Shelly was really talented and her murder was a terrible tragedy. Didn't mind most of the plot holes but was bothered by the fairy-taleish ending: there's no way Jenna could continue to live in the same town as her controlling, violent, jealous ex-husband without his killing her. (Edited July 18.)
  18. My Favorite Wife (1940), Garson Kanin. OK, I've officially seen this movie ENOUGH. There'd be no plot if either Nick or Ellen Arden (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, in their second go-round) acted like an adult for 5 minutes. Gail Patrick has her usual thankless role as Grant's scorned second wife; I know I'm supposed to hate her, but she's totally the innocent victim here. Randolph Scott puts a manly twist on the emasculated Ralph Bellamy part as Dunne's desert island companion. Newsflash, Cary: your wife was alone on an island with that guy for 7 years? She did him.
  19. The Bigamist (1953), Ida Lupino. Holy cow, how can a movie about a guy violating one of 1950s society's most fundamental taboos be so freaking dull? Lupino plays against type as a nice-ish girl who falls for married Edmond O'Brien in spite of herself; but it's not his fault either, because his wife Joan Fontaine drove him to it by being a career woman and not wanting to adopt a kid. Laughed at one cheeky meta-reference: on a tour of Hollywood homes, the bus driver points out the house of Edmund Gwenn, who here plays the social worker who discovers O'Brien's double life.
  20. Outrage (1950), Ida Lupino. Moderately interesting story about a rape victim (Mala Powers). Enjoyed seeing the operations of the orange grove where she fetches up.
  21. Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Edward Dmytryk. Ever since TCM started their Screened Out series, I've been waiting for them to show this magnificently cheesy, monumentally perverse mess from a Nelson Algren story. You can tell it was written by a man: numerous references to what a soft, easy life the prostitutes have, despite having to sleep with slimy politicians or be beaten by psycho enforcers. Features an unforgettable performance from Barbara Stanwyck as a lesbian brothel owner obsessed with sculptress/whore Capuchine, who's so laden with ennui and world-weariness she's practically comatose. (I really bought them as lovers when Stanwyck coaxes, "C'mon, you can sculpt me again," and Capuchine pouts, "Aw, you don't really want to.") Mucho sexy Jane Fonda makes the most of her small part as a teenage prostitute. Also stars Laurence Harvey as a Texan farmboy named Dove Linkhorn and Anne Baxter as a Mexican spitfire/cafe owner. Really, there's no snark you can add to that.
  22. A Cinderella Story (2004), Mark Rosman. I was willing to go along with this movie up to a point, and that point was when Sam (Hillary Duff) started raging on Austin (Chad Michael Murray) for not being brave enough to deserve her or something, and I went, "Where did that come from?" Duff is a pretty girl, though weighted down with too much eyeliner. And I may be the last middle-aged broad in America to clue into the fact that Murray is cute.