November 30, 2002

Ex Libris Reviews

The December issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now up!

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:56 PM | Comments(0)

March to the Sea, by David Weber and John Ringo

Some time back I favorably reviewed March Upcountry, the tale of a spoiled young prince who ends up stranded on a nasty planet with nothing but his personal guard (a company of marines) and a handful of other retainers. It's military science fiction, but it's also a tale of growth, as Prince Roger MacClintock, detested by his guards, matures into a capable leader the marines will follow anywhere.

March Upcountry gets Roger and his marines about a third of the way to his destination, the planet's only starport, which is currently in enemy hands. This book takes up immediately afterward, and suffers all of the problems the middle book in a trilogy usually has. There's only limited character development; Roger did most of his growing up in the first book. There's no real resolution; we get farther along the path home, but that's it. What there is is military detail aplenty, and it's very good if that's what you like, but I'd been hoping for a bit more.

Nevertheless, I'm quite looking forward to the third and final volume, March to the Stars; I really want to see what happens when Roger gets home.

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:32 PM | Comments(0)

November 29, 2002

Snit V0.71

>Snit V0.71 is now available for download from the Snit Home Page. Snit is an object framework for the Tcl/Tk programming language.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:47 PM | Comments(0)

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

It's funny, but every time I read this (and I've read it three or four times previously) it makes more sense and is more fun.

When I read this the first time (I was in junior high school, I think) it didn't make much sense to me. I got it at the local library, and I think I must have gotten a badly translated or bowdlerized edition because I remember some details from it that simply aren't there in the unabridged translation I have now. (Of course, I could be dreaming.)

When I read it the second time it made more sense; but there were some long digressions, as it seemed to me, that I just didn't understand the need for. And I remember it as being a bit of a slog between the good bits, but I didn't have that problem this time. Instead it just flowed from beginning to end in the most lovely way.

Anyway, if you've never read The Three Musketeers, and you think you know the story, you probably don't. It's a good one, and Dumas (and his collaborators) write with romance, flair, and great good humor.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:53 PM | Comments(0)

November 28, 2002

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

It must have been in grade school that I first read Jane Eyre. I suspect my older sister had a copy and I snitched it. I have read it since, most likely in high school, and then pretty much ignored it as a nice little romance. Been there, done that. At the local Large Chain Bookstore, I saw it on display with a bunch of other "classics" and I bought it, I am ashamed to admit but it's totally true, for the picture on the cover. The Oxford Classics edition has the most interesting painting of a young woman knitting with absurdly long needles and a cunning little yarn basket hooked to her wrist. The needles must be at least a yard long and she is working on a huge ribbed afghan with stripes in teal and white. Saw the picture, had to have it.

I finally got around to rereading it last weekend. Why I dismissed this book as a romance is beyond me because it is disturbingly weird. The basic story is that Jane is an orphan taken in by her aunt by marriage, treated badly, sent to a horrible charity school where she manages to learn all sorts of accomplishments and then ends up as governess for a child whose guardian is enigmatic to say the least and living in a seemingly haunted house. Not to mention she has all these depressive thought patterns that could seriously warrant therapy. That's the first half of the book. She ends up falling in love with her employer but finds out at the altar, no less, that he has a lunatic for a wife and he was just about to disgrace her with bigamy. She leaves in the middle of the night, spends some time starving on the road and is taken in by a pastor and his sisters. The pastor sets up a girl's school for the local peasants for her to teach in and then thru coincidence they find out that they are cousins of some sort. He is going to India as a missionary and even though he doesnít love her he wants to marry her because she will be a good wife to a missionary. She refuses and then hears her name called to her on a dark and gloomy night on the wind by her former employer. She goes back to see him and finds that his wife has set the house on fire and he has been blinded and maimed in the fire. She marries him and they live happily ever after.

Not only does Jane have really bad luck with the guys in her life, she inhabits a world with of haunted houses and voices calling her in the night. I used to think Emily Bronte was the sister whose work showed some scary psychological disconnects with reality but after reading this one, I think it must have been in the family. If they made a movie plotted from the book instead of the normal Hollywood sunny, sanitized version, it would seem more like a Stephen King movie than anything else. What a weird book!

Posted by Deb English at 09:13 PM | Comments(0)

November 27, 2002

Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

Probably every long-time science fiction fan has read Heinlein's short story "Universe"; as the first story to describe the now familiar "generation ship" concept for planting space colonies, it's been widely anthologized. What I'd never realized is that Heinlein wrote a sequel to it called "Common Sense". Orphans of the Sky is simply the pair of tales back to back.

The gimmick is simple. Earth launches a colony ship; it's supposed to get to Proxima Centauri a couple of generations later. But there's a mutiny shortly after launch, and in the ensuing fracas most of the officers are killed. The remaining loyal crew drive off the "muties", but in the meantime the ship's main drive has been turned off, and the ship drifts quietly through space....for hundreds of years.

And then our story begins. The descendants of the mutineers, now "muties" in truth, occupy the center of the ship and the areas of low gravity, including the main control room; the descendants of the loyal crew live in the high-gravity areas in a theocratic society based on what little they can understand of the remaining science texts.

"Universe" has a warm place in my heart; it was truly a great story when it was written. But the ideas in it have become commonplace, and the writing isn't stellar. I'd recommend this book for the Heinlein completist only.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:38 PM | Comments(0)

November 26, 2002

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I took Dave to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets this afternoon, and was not disappointed. The movie is as faithful to J.K. Rowling's novel as the first one was, and the special effects were even better. The spiders alone...well, without giving anything away, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Dave has nightmares. The whole thing was well worth the money, and I'll gladly pay for the DVD when it becomes available.

That said, the movie has the same flaws as its predecessor, only more so. There's too much crammed into it to really do most of the scenes justice. Kenneth Branagh is outstanding as Gilderoy Lockhart, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, but even he isn't given quite enough screen time to do the character justice. Must less time is given to developing the characters of the principles, Harry, Ron, and Hermione; they simply have too much to do to waste time being themselves. The dialog suffers correspondingly. Some of the minor characters seemed rather wooden as well. Draco Malfoy wasn't nearly as satisfyingly poisonous as in the first movie, and Moaning Myrtle could have said her lines better as well.

But, when all is said and done, I'm satisfied. I think of it as a series of illustrations for the book, and at that it succeeds very well.

I'll pick just one nit: mythologically speaking, basilisks are lizards, not snakes. But I can't blame the folks who made the movie for that.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:57 PM | Comments(0)

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

The witches have returned from their trip to Genua and are settling back into their lives in Lancre. Magrat Garlick is going to marry King Verence who used to be a Fool and is now the King. And crop circles keep turning up all over the place. Plus there is a new contingent of young girls dressed in black who want to be witches to plague Granny Weatherwax. She has her hands full since the crop circles are a sign that the Lords and Ladies, euphemism for Elves, are trying to come back.

This one wasnít as good as the previous witch books by Pratchett. There are some funny bits, like Magrat wandering around the castle bored out of her mind. And there is the long ago story of Mistrum Ridcully and Granny Weatherwax. And the Librarian has a humorous part to play. But Pratchett wasnít at his best, which means the book is still wonderful, just not so funny you have to stop reading to let the tears clear from your eyes. Anything with Granny Weatherwax is worth the time.

Buy it, read it, enjoy!

Posted by Deb English at 12:13 PM | Comments(0)

November 24, 2002

Oh Happy Day!

Terry Pratchett has a new book out, called Night Watch. Predictably it's about Sam Vimes. I've just started reading it to Jane; I'll post a review when we're done.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:55 PM | Comments(0)

Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

Today I spent most of the day at home with a sick kid. She called me shortly after I got to work and way before I had consumed enough coffee to face the spreadsheets I had planned on tackling this morning. Anyway, when I got her home, medicated with Tylenol and tucked in, the couch called me. Loudly. But, of course, any really fine nap is preceded by a short read in a good book so I picked up my son's copy of Witches Abroad and started in. And two hours later I finished it. So much for napping.

This is another Pratchett book about Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. After Desiderata, the good fairy godmother, placidly dies leaving her magic wand to Magrat, they must travel to the city of Genua to prevent the marriage of the girl to the handsome prince. Along the way they take the magic out of just about every fairy tale told to children. It reminded me of the spot on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show called "Fractured Fairy Tales" that I loved as a child. And Pratchett has this way of writing that includes little comments that are hysterically funny. There's one about panty girdles that I had to put the book down til my eyes quit tearing up from laughing so hard. His nod to Tolkein is a hoot, too.

As always with Pratchett books, buy them, read them, enjoy!

Posted by Deb English at 04:53 PM | Comments(0)

November 23, 2002

Good Eats Watch

A couple of years ago, the TV show "Good Eats" did a Thanksgiving special called "Romancing the Bird", all about how to prepare turkey. It was a good show. A week later, "Good Eats" was "preempted" by a "documentary" about the making of "Romancing the Bird". (The "documentary" was in fact just an episode of "Good Eats" in disguise.) A young filmmaker, Blair McGuffin, and her crew had supposedly been following Alton Brown and his crew about during the making of "Romancing the Bird", but it was after shooting was finished that the real drama began: it started to snow. Within hours a full inch of snow had fallen and the city of Atlanta, Georgia was paralyzed. There was no way for the "Good Eats" crew to disperse to their homes. There followed a week of isolation, dread, and....lots of turkey leftovers.

It's one of their best shows, and when they re-ran it this past Wednesday night we had the opportunity to analyze it a little. The highlight of the show is when AB's cooking equipment lady, "W" (think James Bond) is revealed to be...a cyborg. "C'mon," says AB. "Nobody living could possibly talk like that." Apparently they use W to store all of the data from their past shows; as AB speaks he's got her hooked up to a PalmPilot and a folding PalmPilot keyboard.

Then there's the "Big Brother" like moment when, late at night, Blair McGuffin tearfully confesses to the camera how hungry she is (they've been on short rations) and how guilty she feels at lifting the key to the 'fridge. About that point the amorous and revolting Cousin Ray sneaks up behind her and the camera fades out.

Then, finally, there's the name: "Blair McGuffin". "Blair", of course, from another noted "documentary", "The Blair Witch Project". But then there's that word "McGuffin". In film, "McGuffin" is the name for the device or plot element that drives the logic of the plot. And, in the context of this episode of "Good Eats", that's Blair McGuffin in a nutshell.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:50 PM | Comments(1)

November 22, 2002

Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis

Just the other night, David and I finished reading Prince Caspian together. It was lovely: Lewis' prose is a joy to read aloud, just flowing off of my tongue effortlessly. For comparison, after even a couple of pages of Redwall I was tired and ready to stop. Part of the difference is that Redwall is written in a cinematic style; it's as though a camera is following the characters around. Lewis, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned story-teller. Where it's appropriate to be terse and just tell us something, he does so without dramatizing it. But that's not the whole difference; Lois McMaster Bujold writes in a cinematic style, and her prose is also lovely to read aloud. I dunno.

I'd never Prince Caspian aloud before, or so slowly (one chapter a night), and so I'd never really noticed what an odd book it is. It's supposedly about Prince Caspian's efforts to regain his throne from his usurping Uncle Miraz with the aid of "Old Narnia" (the Talking Beasts, dwarves, woodnymphs, and of course Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy). And yet the central conflict in the book has nothing to do with Caspian at all. Morally speaking, the book is about Lucy and her willingness to follow Aslan's guidance even if it means angering her siblings, or even leaving them behind. Lewis devotes the better part of three chapters to it, in what is (after all) a very short book. And upon reflection, it becomes clear that Caspian's victory and the salvation of Narnia are both rooted in Lucy's courage in following Aslan in the face of stern opposition. Interesting.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:47 PM | Comments(1)

November 21, 2002

Tanner On Ice, by Lawrence Block

This is a reprise of a character Block created in the 60's, fast forwarded into the late 90's. I haven't read the rest of the series with Evan Tanner so perhaps my critique is not valid but I found this whole book just plain cheesy.

Ok, so maybe that is a little harsh. Evan Tanner is brought back to life after a Swedish Nationalist splinter group puts him into a cryonic coma because they want him out of the way and yet, being highly evolved humans, donít want to kill him. Yeah, right. After springing from his hospital bed with no side effects except a tendency to be chilly, he goes back to his old apartment, which is still there after 25 years, and finds his name on the doorbell. And the child he had taken in has grown up into a breathtakingly gorgeous woman who home schooled herself without anyone noticing and kept his apartment for him. Yeah, right. Then we get to watch as Tanner "catches" up on the happenings of the last 25 years via Internet which only takes 6 months because he doesnít have to sleep. His sleep center has been destroyed by shrapnel in the Korean war. Yeah, right. So somehow, he finds himself going to Burma on some lame scheme for some guy he worked for all those years ago. Now th e book turns from sci fi to thriller and we get to watch Tanner walk thru Burma with this bombshell chick he picked up, both of them posing as Buddhist monks and no one stops them. James Bond, eat your heart out.

The whole book is cheesy, lame and just plain silly in parts. I finished it, though, which says something.

Posted by Deb English at 06:22 PM | Comments(0)

November 20, 2002

The Hundred Days, by Patrick O'Brian

Being at home sick for a day, I put the Burton bio aside for awhile and picked up this, the penultimate volume in O'Brian's long, long saga. I've gotten the impression from little things I've seen here and there that many fans don't think much of it; and to be fair it never really seems to catch fire. Plus, O'Brian did some really obnoxious things. The book begins with a passing mention of the death of Stephen's wife Diana; and toward the end another of my favorite continuing characters is killed with hardly any notice taken--and to no literary end that I can see.

Apart from that it's a pleasant enough book; lots of nautical to-ing and fro-ing about the Mediterranean Sea and a few nice sea battles, with the escaped Bonaparte floating about Europe and a complicated Islamic plot to help him back into power. Of course, by the time Aubrey succeeds in forestalling said plot Wellington has succeeded in defeating Bonaparte at Waterloo, rendering the whole thing rather moot.

I have some suspicions on where O'Brian might have been going. I say "might have been", because I haven't yet read the final book, Blue at the Mizzen, and because he had just begun writing a subsequent book when he died. But in the previous book, The Yellow Admiral, Stephen meets a lovely woman, a naturalist in her own right, and the wife of the governor of Sierra Leone. Though she doesn't appear in this book she's mentioned a number of times; and it's rather pointedly mentioned that (1) the governor has just died, and (2) the marriage was not as happy as it appeared to be, and in fact was never consummated. It begins to look as though O'Brian was getting Diana out of the way, so as to interest Stephen in somebody new.

So I'm quite curious to see what happens in Blue at the Mizzen, a book about which I've heard none of the unpleasant little whispers. But that's a tale for next month.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:55 PM | Comments(0)

November 19, 2002

The Burglar in the Closet, and The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block

When I was a kid I worried that someday, in the distant future, I would run out of good books to read. Seriously. Thinking back, that probably speaks more to my innocence and ignorance than to my taste in books at the time. But I did and now, many, many, MANY moons later, I have yet to hit that tragic moment. And I highly doubt that I will. This has little to do with Lawrence Block's books except that they are a new discovery for me and whenever I find a new author to read I experience a slight feeling of relief. I haven't run out yet.

Anyway, these were my first two Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries and already I have figured out Block writes with a formula. Bernie breaks into someone's house after some sort of treasure, something goes wrong, like a murder, and he has to solve the crime himself or get the rap pinned on him. A formula book is comforting. You can sit back and watch how the writer varies it without horrid little surprises coming your way. And Block is funny, an added bonus. The Mondrian book was a little more developed than the Closet book. Block had developed additional characters and expanded Bernie's social life a bit. He has found his sidekick in Carolyn, the lesbian owner of a dog washing business. And he has developed Ray Kirschmann, the cop on the take who somehow always ends up helping Bernie out of the mess he finds himself in.

These are good books. Not great literature and not really even classics in the mystery genre. Just plain good reads. And there are lots of them so I donít have to worry about running out of good books for awhile. Phew.

Posted by Deb English at 06:53 PM | Comments(0)

November 18, 2002

It's Amazing What You Can Do With The Right Tools

A couple of days ago, Jane showed me a list of words that David is supposed to learn to recognize. And it occurred to me, "Gosh...I could probably make Dave a flashcard program." The current release of the Tcl programming language includes all of the bells and whistles that I needed. So yesterday morning I sat down, and in a couple of hours I had a simple program that displays a word in really big type. When Dave presses the "???" button, a recording of my voice says the word, then spells it letter by letter, then says it again. When he presses the "Go!" button, another word appears. When he presses the "Stop!" button, the program ends.

And most of that two hours was spent recording the words and the individual letters; the programming was simple. There's a reason I like Tcl.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:32 PM | Comments(0)

November 17, 2002

Diamond Dust, by Peter Lovesey

I am not going to say much about the plot of this book. First, it's still in hardback and unless you want to spring for the $23 it's priced at, any plot description is going to be a spoiler.

Second, and this is the main reason, I have my knickers in a knot about what Lovesey did in this book. I will say it is the end of the Peter Diamond series. And if it is funny in any way, I totally missed the humor. You kind of grow to expect certain things from a series and when the author throws the right hook he did in this one, it's a little disconcerting. Donít get me wrong. The writing is great. The murder investigation is interesting and has some twists you can't see ahead of time. I am just a little ticked at Lovesey for doing what he did to Peter Diamond. I kept waiting for it to be an elaborate charade similar to what he has done in previous novels. It isn't. Rats.

Posted by Deb English at 07:40 PM | Comments(0)

November 15, 2002

Bloodhounds, by Peter Lovesey

This book explores the locked room mystery plot. A murder victim is found in a room locked from the inside with no discernible way that the murderer could have gotten in or out. But Lovesey is not only writing a book with the plot. The opening chapter of this book reads like a Who's Who in crime fiction. A young woman joins a meeting of Bloodhounds, a bookclub dedicated to crime fiction that meets weekly in the crypt of the Abbey. Her fellow club members are all eccentric, opinionated critics with their own favorite authors in the genre, which they discuss in painful detail. When someone sends a riddle to the local radio station predicting a crime, the group decides to work solve the mystery, thankfully.

Lovesey is writing his normal humorous murder mystery with all the twists and dodges that he has put in the other books of the series. Peter Diamond is his normal grumpy self. The end is unpredictable at the beginning unless you are paying very, very close attention. However, it's not the best in the series. I found it a bit repetitive, though still totally enjoyable.

Posted by Deb English at 06:20 PM | Comments(0)

November 14, 2002

GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy

Here it is the 14th of November, and I haven't finished reading even one book. Part of the problem is the Burton biography; I'm trying to finish it before going on to anything else, and while Burton's life was the stuff of adventure, the bio is nothing like a novel. I sometimes wonder why I bother reading biographies; I don't care for tragedy, and most bios end only with the death of the principal.

But it wouldn't be fair to blame the whole thing on poor old Richard Burton. A lot of blame has to be put squarely on our Nintendo GameCube. I bought it six months or so ago; I thought the kids would enjoy it, and I'd get to play it, too. The way it actually worked out is that I play it and the kids watch.

"GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy" is one of the games I've been working my way through. It's surprisingly fun considering that the graphics are a couple of generations behind the GameCube's best output, and the user interface is a disaster. As you go along you collect power-ups of various kinds, and after nearly completing the game I still have no idea how to figure out reliably what power-ups I have with me at any given time.

It's your basic "dungeon crawl". You're playing a mean, nasty, violent, hair-trigger, suspicious sort of person, which is a good thing because the world is full of nasty monsters trying to kill you. I find this sort of thing relaxing. It lets my back brain freewheel on whatever problems it's working on, while my conscious brain works off stress. Sometimes in the evening I'll tell Jane, "Jane, I'm going to go upstairs and kill things." She says, "Have fun, dear."

I've doubtless now lost the respect of many of my long-time readers by making this admission; ah, well. If I get to feeling anxious about it, I know the cure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:40 PM | Comments(0)

November 13, 2002

The Bohemian Murders, by Dianne Day

I realized after about 2 paragraphs that this book is part of a series that needs to be read in order. It takes place in Carmel, California in 1907. Fremont Jones, the heroine, has moved to Carmel after the San Francisco earthquake to take a temporary job of lighthouse keeper. On watch one day she spots a dead woman floating in the sea, unknown by anyone around and unclaimed by family.

Fremont Jones reminded me a little of Amelia Peabody or Mary Russell. She is the "independent woman heroine," refusing to give into accepted norms for women's behavior and lifestyle for the period. If you accept the conceit and ignore the unlikelihood of such a heroine, the novel works fairly well. This book didnít have the slapstick humor of Peters mysteries but I enjoyed it nevertheless. She includes a love interest named Michael who is some sort of spy--I think that came out in previous novels. My only gripe with the book is that for all the detecting going on, Fremont doesnít really figure out much of anything. And I wish I knew more about Michael and what he is doing sneaking around in the background of the plot. I have to read the earlier books in the series.

Posted by Deb English at 04:46 PM | Comments(0)

November 10, 2002

Lessons in Capitalism

Some time ago we started giving Dave a small weekly allowance. We don't actually give him the cash; instead, he accrues a certain amount each week in the Bank of Dad. That means that when David asks how much money he has, I check the record in my PDA and see how many weeks it's been since I last paid anything into his account. Then I add the resulting amount to his balance and tell him how much he's got.

Now, for quite some time David has been agitating for a Bionicle. (It's a kind of Lego toy.) For quite some time we've been telling him that if he saves his allowance he can buy that kind of thing for himself; in the meantime Christmas is coming.

This afternoon he said, "Dad, when it's my birthday I want you to take my seven dollars and buy me a Green Bionicle." I said, "Dave, you're a little confused. If I buy you a Green Bionicle for your birthday, I'll be spending my money, not yours. And if you have seven dollars (or whatever a Green Bionicle costs), then you don't have to wait until your birthday."

So naturally he said, "Dad, can we go to Toys'R'Us today?"

I checked, and indeed his account in the Bank of Dad was well over seven dollars, and so there I was, stuck, the victim of my own teaching. And so we did. It wasn't what I had planned to do with my early Sunday evening, but on the whole I think it worked out rather well.

And so did the Green Bionicle. Dave put it together all by himself, following the instructions, and it's really rather cute.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:54 PM | Comments(0)

November 09, 2002

Soccer Update

My five-year-old has been playing AYSO soccer this season, as I believe I've mentioned before. It's been something of a trial for me, as the games are scheduled on Saturday, and usually Saturday morning.

Now, Saturday morning is my chief project time. I can get a lot done on personal projects in the evenings, but Saturday is the only time when I can tackle larger things--when I have several hours together and have the gumption to focus on something difficult for that length of time. Having a soccer game take (effectively) a two-hour bite out of that time has brought my productivity to a screeching halt.

Today, however, the soccer game isn't scheduled until 1:30 this afternoon, so I have the morning to myself. Well, mostly to myself; Dave is sitting on the other side of my desk playing with Legos and occasionally making staccato "Twang, Twang" noises (I think he's shooting something--best not to ask). It's looking like a good morning.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:53 PM | Comments(0)

November 08, 2002

More Kvetching

The dearth of book reviews early in the month isn't helped by the fact that my current book is a slow, thick one: a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton was a 19th Century soldier and adventurer; he's best known these days for his pilgramage to Mecca (he was one of the first Europeans to go there), and for his translation of the 1,001 Arabian Nights (the original translation, and still the raciest, I'm given to understand). More about him when I've finished the book.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:35 PM | Comments(0)

November 07, 2002

Good Eats Watch

There's exactly one TV show that Jane and I make it a point to catch every week: Good Eats. It's a cooking show on the Food Network, and it's funny. The chef, Alton Brown, is a regular kind of guy; he wears hornrim glasses and he's got bad hair and he usually wears Hawaiian shirts--or sometimes bowling shirts. The show is filmed inside of a house the purports to be his (nice Craftsman-style kitchen), and it's all about cooking well--not just how to prepare a particular dish, but the secrets, the gotchas, and why it all works the way it does.

And it's funny. The show is rife with weird camera angles (it often looks like you're looking out of the oven or refrigerator), weird props (a Magritte-like painting of a roast turkey floating in mid air), and odd story lines.

For example, there was the show where Butter was on trial, complete with an English judge in a wig. There have been several episodes of Food Gallery (a take-off on Rod Serling's Night Gallery show); one of them was on how to do souffles, and another was about cheesecake. There was the Scrap Iron Chef show. There was the show about crepes, where Alton's psychiatrist insisted that he get in touch with his French side. There was the Thanksgiving show on how to properly cook a turkey--and the following week's show which purported to be a documentary that was originally about the making of the Thanksgiving show but turned into a documentary of the horrible things that happened when the cast and crew were snowed in together after the Thanksgiving show. There was the show where Alton's wife sent him on a vacation to the Pacific Northwest to get some enforced rest and relaxation with absolutely no cooking; he caught a salmon and smoked it in a large cardboard box outside his hotel room. There was the Oats show in which Alton and a partner, both dressed in kilts, showed (more or less) how to make haggis with a claymore and an outrageously bad Scottish accent.

You get the idea. It's on at 6 PM and 9 PM PST (9 PM and 12 PM EST) Wednesdays and Saturdays on Food Network. The Saturday show is pretty much always a rerun.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:00 PM | Comments(0)

November 05, 2002

Kvetching

One problem I had not considered when I started this web log was the dearth of material at the beginning of the month. I usually write book reviews a few at a time, and then post them over the next few days. It gives you folks something to read every day, and means I don't need to be writing every day. But the last thing I do every month is finish writing reviews of all of the books I've read, and then those reviews go into Ex Libris instead of into the web log. And then, the next day, I have no reviews to post. Which means I need to write bilge like this to fill the space.

I suppose I could drone on about the California election, but the only thing on the ballot that I'm at all exercised about is a proposal to allow voter registration up to and including Election Day. At present, there's a deadline--you have to register some weeks (30 days?) before Election Day.

Now consider--Joe Blow goes to the polls on Election Day, and registers to vote--at every precinct in the county. How can this be prevented? The proposed measure provides for stringent new anti-fraud mechanisms, but I think it's wishful thinking. Rigging an election can be a powerful temptation, and the stakes can be high; I'm in favor of putting as many obstacles as possible in the way.

So I'm agin' it. We'll see in the morning how many folks agree with me.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:15 PM | Comments(0)

November 04, 2002

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

If you've got kids of the right age, you've probably heard of Redwall; not only is it a popular and still growing series, but the first book was made into a PBS TV show. That's where David first encountered it, and he was too excited for words to find out that we actually had a copy of the book for me to read to him. It took us the tail end of September, all of October, and the first few days in November, but by golly we did it.

A quick plot summary: the peaceful mice of Redwall Abbey are known all over the countryside for their willingness to help others. But an evil rat, Cluny the Scourge, is coming with his horde; he wants to take Redwall Abbey for his castle. The Abbey was founded in part by the great warrior mouse Martin, who defended it and then pledged himself to peace. Now a young mouse, Matthias, must find Martin's armor and sword, and take up arms to defend Redwall as Martin did. So it's about knights and armor and derring do and battles and brave scouting missions; it's a coming of age story, naturally; and since it's written for kids there's lots of good stuff about the importance of forgiveness and turning enemies into friends. Martin succeeds, of course, and a great celebration is enjoyed by all.

I find I need to approach this review from two points of view, David's, and my own.

David loved it. He was thrilled. I couldn't possibly have had a better audience. If Redwall the novel has any faults, David was immune to them.

Now, my point of view. I bought our copy of Redwall some years ago; I often like kid-lit if it's done well. I liked it, with caveats, but didn't feel at all motivated to by any of the other books in the series.

Nothing about this reading changed my mind. The writing isn't great. The prose frequently edges into the purple; a good editing could make it a much cleaner, crisper read. The plot is rather contrived. The quest for Martin's sword involves hints which require Martin to have been seriously prophetic, for which no decent explanation is given.

The laws of physics get stretched in a cartoon-like way far more often than I like. And no, I'm not being overly critical here. It's one thing if the laws of physics are stretched by magic--that's part of the story. So are talking mice who live in an abbey. But in this case, they are simply stretched to make the story work properly.

I can almost hear the author saying, "Yeah, that's implausible, but the kids won't care."

And he's probably right a lot of the time. But I think that books for younger readers must play fair and follow the rules. The author is free to set the rules; and one of the rules for Redwall is that it's a world more or less like our own. The rules of physics apply. To break them just to make the story come out is an insult to the readers and an unwarrantable liberty on the author's part--the more so as (given its vocabulary) Redwall is clearly aimed at the teen market. These kids are smart enough to notice these things.

It doesn't really read-aloud well, either (most flaws are at their most visible when read aloud), and it doesn't break up into nice chunks for for bedtime reading. You finish a chapter with Matthias in a serious cliffhanger, and it doesn't get resolved until a full chapter later, for example. Plus, the chapter lengths vary widely. I can't really criticize these last two points so much, though, as it just reflects that Redwall is really a book for much older kids.

Now, there's a lot to like here as well. The plot is fine, and the storytelling was adequate. I wasn't writhing in bored horror as I read the tale to Dave. Jacques clearly accomplished what he set out to do. But I really wish the writing was better and the solutions a little less strained.

I believe this was Jacques' first book; it may be that his writing improves in the subsequent volumes. I have every reason to expect that I'll find out...but it's with a sigh of relief that I remember that we'll be starting Prince Caspian tomorrow night.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:30 PM | Comments(2)

November 03, 2002

The Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa

The Seven Samuria is a good flick. Dave Jaffe brought it over on Friday night, and we watched it and ate popcorn and (it's a loooong show) I went to bed rather later than I usually do. I'm afraid I'm not enough of a film buff to understand why it's considered such a classic, though I will say that Kurosawa certainly understood how to let the images tell the story. The dialog is kept to a minimum, and used pretty much only to impart information that couldn't be gotten across visually. The acting was good, too, with the exception of the early scene where the villagers are falling all over themselves emotionally because the bandits are coming. That was a little too far over the top, a little too pathetic for words.

If you've never seen The Seven Samurai, as I hadn't, a plot summary would be helpful.

You see, there's this small community that's being preyed upon by bandits. The bandits are just waiting for the harvest before they make another attack; until harvest, the community won't have anything worth stealing. The community sends out one of their number, a positive-thinking if slightly odd fellow, to go find some warriors to protect them from the bandits. He finds a troupe of warriors and brings them back home, only to find out that they are in fact a troupe of travelling circus performers. Still, with luck and a little ingenuity, they manage to drive off the bandits for good, and all is well.

Oh, wait...that's not The Seven Samurai, it's A Bug's Life. The Seven Samurai is somewhat different--the village sends out several men who manage to enlist one samurai, who enlists the others needed, and the successful battle owes everything to the skill of the samurai and little to any particular peasant. There's no "Flick the Ant" in this movie. But there's a distinct family resemblance.

And I guess that just goes to show how influential Kurosawa is.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:13 PM | Comments(0)

November 02, 2002

Ex Libris Reviews

Ex Libris Reviews for November has just been uploaded; it includes a least a dozen reviews that haven't appeared here in this web log. Happy reading!

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:38 PM | Comments(0)

November 01, 2002

Bolinda

"From what I just read, she was enough."

"Enough to be getting started with, I guess. You can't run a sideshow with only one attraction."

"But what an attraction!"

"That's true. She was the foundation of his fortune, right enough. 'Course, she ruined him too." Hank leaned over and spat in the can by the wood burning stove, then tipped back in his chair, front legs off of the floor. "You never saw her, I collect?"

"You know I never did, Hank. That was all before my time. Hasn't been a carny through here since I was a boy."

Hank nodded. "Has been a long time at that. Used to be we'd get 'em three times a year, spring, summer and fall, like clockwork. All us boys'd skip school to watch 'em set up. 'Cept in the summer, of course, there was no school in the summer in those days. We'd sneak into the sideshow to see the geek, and have nightmares for days. I recollect how Bobby Hill terrified our entire boyscout troop with a dead chicken head after that. But I'm rambling. It gets that way after a while...."

"So go on about Bolinda, Hank."

"Oh, yes, Bolinda of Bolivia, the Living Atlas. 'Course, she was really from Brooklyn, but it's not like anyone was paying to hear her speak. They had this booth, d'ye see, a big booth with canvas all round, open to the sky, and a little stage at one end, with a curtain behind it. You'd pay your nickel to get in, and then she'd come out from behind the curtain wearing a few inches of cotton. 'Tain't nothing to what what you see on TV these days, like that Pamela Anderson, but let me tell you back then it was hot stuff, with North and South America curving down one side, and Africa on the other. All us boys knew that after supper they did a special show, where you paid 50 cents and got to see the Azores, and maybe even Australia. We thought a lot about Australia in those days. Never met anybody who'd actually seen the special show, though some boys liked to claim they did."

"So how did she ruin him?"

"Well, it was the drinking, wasn't it."

"She was an alcoholic?"

"'Twasn't so much that as the beer. You throw back enough sixpacks while sitting on your little stool behind the curtain, and it's bound to have an effect. Got so she'd come out from behind the curtain in stages, like the phases of the moon, and then she'd be so tipsy she'd kind of sway. We're not as scientifically backward out here as the cityfolks like to think, but I guess twarn't no one wanted to see continental drift up close and personal." Hank spit into the can again. "I finally got to see Australia when I was in the Navy. It's a fine place, but it didn't have a patch on old Bolinda."

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:02 PM | Comments(0)