June 30, 2005

BOOKS: Improbable, Adam Fawer (2005)

Every now and then, a thriller comes along with a plot so loopy that you just have to give in to the wackiness and let yourself be pulled along for the ride. Earlier this year, there was Kevin Guilfoile's Cast of Shadows; now, there's Fawer's Improbable.

Our hero, David Caine, is an epileptic statistics lecturer whose gambling problem has gotten him over his head in debt to the Russian mob. In hopes of getting his seizures under control so that he may once again hold down a steady job and pay his debts, he takes an experimental drug; as a side effect, he finds that he's having visions, apparently of the future.

Meanwhile, David's schizophrenic twin brother, Jasper -- you see what I mean, right? And I haven't even gotten to Nava, the glamorous former KGB agent (now CIA, but secretly working for the North Koreans).

(And for what it's worth: Jasper? Jasper? Has any parent anywhere in the last 40 years or so actually named a child Jasper?)

It is admittedly hard to scold this book for its astounding heaps of coincidence. The book is called Improbable, after all, and when the hero is given the ability to see all possible futures and pick the one he likes best, coincidences are no longer far-fetched, they're practically obligatory. Even so, I couldn't make it through the last chapter without giggling, as every minor character in the book is revealed to be connected to every other minor character.

A somewhat more serious flaw is found in the book's frequent dumps of exposition and math lectures; we are given a lot of statistics and probability along the way. It is to Fawer's credit that he makes the material comprehensible to the non-mathematical reader, but there are a few too many passages of 3-4 pages that feel like a freshman math class.

It's a wacky mess of a book, but Fawer keeps things moving fast enough that you don't have much time to think about just how implausible it all is.

...life imitates art...

When I posted a few weeks back after reading Katharine Weber's The Little Women, it would never have occurred to me that the novel's central conceit -- an author is forced to allow her subjects to offer editorial comments within the work -- would come to pass in the real world.

But now, via About Last Night, comes this news from Germany: Deirdre Bair, the author of a biography of Carl Jung is being forced to allow Jung's heirs to comment on her work, in the form of annotations to the notes at the end of her book. It's all you can do these days to stay one step ahead of reality.

June 29, 2005

June 28, 2005

BOOKS: Mammoth, John Varley (2005)

Megalomaniac zillionaire Howard Christian flits from one eccentric obsession to another, and his current ambition is to bring the mammoth back to life. The research expedition he's funded in Nunavut finds him a relatively intact mammoth corpse, buried deep in the ice, from which it might be possible to extract enough DNA to clone a mammoth. The mammoth isn't the only body Christian's team finds, though. There's a man huddled next to it, and his body, like the mammoth's, has been there for 12,000 years or so.

So how is it that he's wearing a wristwatch?

Varley's Mammoth is an amiably meandering tale of time travel, cloning, and the Little Guy who must battle the Evil Tycoon. There are some terrific moments, notably the spectacular arrival of a herd of mammoths on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Varley does better than most at closing the weird loopholes that pop up in time travel stories.

Pleasant, if not essential, reading.

June 26, 2005

MOVIES: March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005)

The mating ritual of the emperor penguin is an arduous process involving 70-mile hikes to the breeding ground, laying an egg in 80-below-zero temperatures which will kill the egg in seconds if it's not properly protected by the mother or the father, hikes back to the sea (and then back to the breeding ground again) for food, and (for the father) a stretch of over four months without any food at all.

March of the Penguins documents the process in remarkable fashion. It's beautifully photographed under horrific conditions, and it's a marvelously entertaining movie.

My only quarrel with the movie is that it's prone to anthropomorphize the penguins. The ad line on the posters reads, "In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way." But what the penguins are doing has nothing to do with love or romance, and the process is quite fascinating enough on its terms that turning the penguins into happy little Disney critters is unnecessary. It's easy to understand the temptation -- the penguin chicks in particular seem genetically engineered for cuteness -- but it trivializes something that's quite remarkable as it is.

MOVIES: Mad Hot Ballroom (Marilyn Agrelo, 2005)

Documentary about a program in New York city schools to teach fifth-graders ballroom dancing, culminating in a city-wide competition.

The movie wants to be this year's Spellbound, but falls short for lots of reasons. The biggest problem is that there are just too many kids to keep track of, and we don't get to know any of them well enough to develop any rooting interest in them.

Another problem is that ballroom dancing -- especially the Latin dances which make up most of the competition (merengue, rumba, tango) -- is about sex, and it's more than a little creepy to see these ten- and eleven-year-old children taught to shake their hips and wave their arms in such an erotic way when most of them haven't even begun to think about the opposite sex in anything remotely approaching a romantic fashion.

And finally, I couldn't help but think that there would be better ways for these kids -- most of them from poor neighborhoods -- to spend their time in school. When two of the ten-year-old girls agree that their first priority in a boyfriend will be "doesn't sell drugs," you realize that ballroom dance is a luxury these kids can't afford. They need to be preparing themselves for college, not for the cotillion.

June 25, 2005

MOVIES: Bewitched (Nora Ephron, 2005)

The original TV version of Bewitched was successful (aside from the fact that it was funny) because it spoke to so many audiences. It managed to please both feminists -- Samantha had all the power -- and anti-feminists -- she used that power almost entirely in service of her husband's goals and desires; it was easily read as an allegory about an interracial marriage, or about a gay couple (not by accident was she usually called "Sam," after all).

The new movie version makes a half-hearted attempt at a story about female empowerment, but it never achieves even the sitcom-deep level of thought that the TV show managed. Granted, the movie isn't as horrifically awful as the buzz would have you believe, but it's pretty bad. A lot of good actors (Amy Sedaris, Steven Colbert, Richard Kind, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Badalucco, Steve Carell) are wasted in very tiny parts, and the idea of making the story about a remake of Bewitched never really works.

It's not the fault of the cast, who generally do fine work, given the limitations of the material. Nicole Kidman is sweet and charming as Isobel, the witch hired to play Samantha, and Will Ferrell is in his comfort zone as Jack, the blustering egotist who's playing Darrin. (Ferrell really needs to take on a different type of role, though, very soon.) Michael Caine is very funny as Isobel's flirtatious father, and the movie could have used more of Shirley MacLaine's Endora. Only Carole Shelley feels miscast as Aunt Clara (who, somewhat confusingly, is Isobel's aunt in the "real world," not Samantha's aunt in the TV show); she's not quite dithery enough. (It's a shame that Joan Plowright, who was originally cast, had to drop out; she'd have been ideal.)

But the writing here is terrible. The jokes aren't very funny, and Jack is such an overbearing ass that it's impossible to understand Isobel's attraction to him. The characters are inconsistently drawn; Isobel veers from being so naive that she doesn't know what the word "dick" means to being a sharp, scheming conniver.

The creative thinking seems to have stopped here after the initial idea to make a meta-story about the making of Bewitched, and without a decent script, the actors are left to flounder. Disappointing; with this cast, the movie should have been amazing.

June 23, 2005

Via A Cappella News:

A Texas 17-year-old has been denied the opportunity to audition for a statewide music festival as a soprano, despite the fact that his voice really is that high. Boys are allowed to audition only for the traditional male parts -- tenor and bass -- and any young man who has a higher voice is out of luck.

The organizers might be able to make a case that the countertenor voice is different enough in weight and timbre that it would be difficult for him to blend with the rest of the sopranos in the festival chorus (though the director at his high school doesn't seem to have had any problem), but have instead chosen a significantly weaker argument, claiming that it is damaging for young singers to sing so far outside their "natural" range. Well, yes, it can be, if singers actually are being forced out of their range -- many young sopranos who read music well are often made to sing the more difficult alto parts, for instance -- but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

A foolish decision, and rooted, I fear, in sexism and homophobia. Can't have boys running around singing like girls, after all; no telling what ideas that might give 'em.

June 19, 2005

MOVIES: Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich, 1992)

In this film version of Michael Frayn's brilliant stage farce, we are watching a troupe of actors perform Nothing On, a typical British bedroom farce with lots of closing doors and people just missing one another, and we see the first act of that play three times. The first time, we're watching the final dress rehearsal, which isn't going all that well, but the cast manages to get through it. The second time through is seen from backstage, and takes place several weeks into the play's tour, by which time the romantic entanglements and jealousies among the cast have begun to take their toll on the play. The third time we see the play, we're watching from the audience again, and it's now late in the tour; by this time, the actors are actively working to sabotage one another.

The problem with the movie, and I think it's an insurmountable one, is that farce belongs on stage; the thrill of watching all of those doors closing and opening with perfect timing, the nervous fear that something might go horribly wrong -- that's the whole point of farce. And while Bogdanovich shoots as much as possible in long takes in an attempt to sustain that tension, it's just not the same on film, where we know that if something goes wrong, they can just do a retake. (A somewhat lesser problem is the unnecessary addition of a framing voice-over from Michael Caine, who plays the director of Nothing On.)

Still, if you must film this play, you couldn't ask for a better cast than this: Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, John Ritter (who does a spectacular pratfall down a flight of stairs), Christopher Reeve, Denholm Elliott, Mark Linn-Baker, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, and Nicolette Sheridan. The second "backstage" act, performed largely in silence (so that they won't be heard by the audience), is especially well done, and features some great physical shtick involving the effort to keep Elliott from getting his hands on a bottle of whiskey. Seeing Noises Off on stage would of course be preferable, but if that's not an option, this is a reasonably entertaining version of the play.

BOOKS: I Right the Wrongs, Dylan Schaffer (2005)

Gordon Seegerman works in the Public Defender's Office in Santa Rita, California. (For "Santa Rita," you may read "Oakland," which based on the geography of the city, is surely the model for Santa Rita.) Gordon is usually assigned to misdemeanor cases, the sort of minor things that can be resolved with a simple plea bargain; beyond that, Gordon's presence in a courtroom is rarely required. And he likes it that way. The job is easy and can be coasted through without too much effort, leaving Gordon free to focus him time and energy on his real passion, which is singing with Barry X and the Mandys, a Barry Manilow tribute band.

As this book opens, it's a good time to be a Mandy; the band's just gotten a gig in Vegas the night before Manilow himself opens there, and there's a possibility that they can get him to attend their show. Work is -- as usual -- not too demanding; Gordon's been assigned to defend Marcus Manners, a high school football star, on charges of kidnapping a dog, the mascot of a rival school.

But when the wife of the dog's owner is found dead, Marcus is the most obvious suspect, and Gordon finds himself faced with the possibility of a real trial, and a high-profile one at that. Marcus's godfather and guardian, it turns out, is a Santa Rita city councilman, currently running for mayor, and the city's African-American community (stirred up by the councilman) is watching very closely to see how the justice system treats their hero Marcus.

This is Schaffer's second book about Gordon (the first was Misdemeanor Man), and he balances the legal drama and mystery with a fair amount of humor, which is somewhat unusual, and very entertaining. It's a bit too easy to figure out the identity of the actual shooter in this one -- the Law of the Unnecessary Character comes into play in a big way -- but the motive and the details of the crime were still a bit surprising. And because the book's not only about the mystery, but about Gordon's family life and the band as well, the ease of solving is less annoying here than it might be in a book that was nothing but mystery.

Charming, light entertainment.
Can the Supreme Court justices agree on anything? Maybe not...

(via The Tin Man)

June 17, 2005

Lorna Thayer died earlier this month. The name probably isn't familiar; she was a character actress who worked in movies for more than 40 years without ever coming close to fame or stardom. But she will be remembered for one great moment: She played the waitress in the chicken salad scene in Five Easy Pieces.

That scene has been included in as many tribute nights and highlight reels as any scene of its era, and I'd wager that Lorna Thayer's name wasn't mentioned at any of them. She seems to have never been bitter about the lack of recognition; her daughter says, "She told me, 'There is no competition in true art, only contributions.' "

We read so much about the Movie Stars that it's easy to forget that there are a lot more Lorna Thayers in Hollywood than there are Brad Pitts, actors who scrape by from one small part to the next, doing the best work they can in parts that don't offer much opportunity for creativity. ("Oh, just think what I can bring to the role of Barfly #3!")

I'm glad to be reminded every now and then to pay attention to the actors in the background, and I hope next time it won't take a death to remind me.

June 16, 2005

Nice post here about a chance encounter with celebrity.

My own "brush with fame" story happened at intermission of Ragtime during its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles. I was getting a drink, and heard someone call my name across the lobby. I turned, a bit too abruptly, and crashed right into Ann Miller, wearing her usual helmet of hair and the sparkliest gown I'd ever seen. Nothing spilled, thank god, and I started stammering out an apology. Miss Miller silenced me with an imperious wave of her hand, said, "Young man, it'll take a lot more than that to knock me down!" and swept back into the theater for Act II.

June 14, 2005

BOOKS: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

This is a hard book to talk about, because there's a lot that should be left for the reader to discover (all of the reviews I've seen have given away far too much), so this attempt to describe the setup and say something about the story is of necessity going to sound a bit vague.

Kathy H is 31, and has been in her current line of work for eleven years, an unusually long time. She is finally preparing to make the transition to the next phase of her career, and she reminisces about two long-time friends who she's known since childhood. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grew up together at Hailsham, a private school of sorts in the English countryside that raises children and trains them for the unique challenges of their eventual career. After leaving Hailsham, the three drifted apart, but they've recently been re-united; as they get to know one another again, the secrets and lies of their childhood (and of Hailsham itself) are revealed.

It's a lovely book, sad and stately, and not nearly as simple as it first looks. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of parceling out the details and the explanations of what's really happening fast enough that we never get too frustrated, but slowly enough that there's always something hovering in the background that we can't quite get a grasp on until the very end.

I feel obliged to comment on the book's genre, while worrying that to do so will itself give away too much about the book, and possibly scare some readers away. For while it's not being sold as such -- you won't see the words anywhere in the marketing -- Never Let Me Go is a science fiction novel, set in an England where scientific advances and morality have progressed rather differently than they have in our world. As a science fiction reader, I'm offended whenever publishers avoid mentioning a book's SF credentials for fear that it won't be taken seriously as literature.

It is true, of course, that when a non-SF author ventures into SF, the results are sometimes not pretty. Authors who don't know the genre think they're being clever and original when they're restating ancient cliches (Audrey Niffenegger's ghastly The Time Traveler's Wife is a recent case in point). In this case, though, either Ishiguro has done his homework or he's just lucked into a reasonably fresh story. The book works both as science fiction and as literary fiction, which aren't nearly as incompatible as most literary types would have you believe.

June 13, 2005

TV: thinking about the Emmy Awards

Time to start thinking about this year's awards, and who might get nominated. There's room for a relatively large amount of change to the lists this year; of the 50 nominees in the top categories (series, lead actor/actress, supporting actor/actress), 20 are not eligible this year, because their shows either went off the air or aired no new episodes. (Two of those 20, James Spader and Matt LeBlanc, played the same characters that they were nominated for last year, but in different series.)

Last year's nominees, winners listed first:

SERIES: Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City, Will and Grace
ACTOR: Kelsey Grammer, Larry David, Matt LeBlanc, John Ritter, Tony Shalhoub
ACTRESS: Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, Patricia Heaton, Bonnie Hunt, Jane Kaczmarek
SUPP. ACTOR: David Hyde Pierce, Peter Boyle, Brad Garrett, Sean Hayes, Jeffrey Tambor
SUPP. ACTRESS: Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Megan Mullally, Doris Roberts

SERIES: The Sopranos, 24, CSI, Joan of Arcadia, The West Wing
ACTOR: James Spader, James Gandolfini, Anthony LaPaglia, Martin Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland
ACTRESS: Allison Janney, Edie Falco, Jennifer Garner, Mariska Hargitay, Amber Tamblyn
SUPP. ACTOR: Michael Imperioli, Steve Buscemi, Brad Dourif, Victor Garber, John Spencer
SUPP. ACTRESS: Drea de Matteo, Stockard Channing, Tyne Daly, Janel Moloney, Robin Weigert

A closer look at some of the possibilities this year:

On the comedy side, neither Enthusiasm or Sex and the City is eligible; of the other three, only Will & Grace seems at all vulnerable. Desperate Housewives will surely take one of the open spots, and were it up to me, Scrubs and Gilmore Girls would get the other two. It will be interesting to see whether Boston Legal is submitted as a comedy or a drama; I think its chances for nominations are better in the comedy categories, and if it's submitted there, I think it'll be one of the nominees.

Of the leading actors, only Tony Shalhoub remains eligible; Matt LeBlanc could be nominated again, this time for Joey, but that show's done so poorly that he could easily be left out. If Boston Legal goes comedy, then Spader's a cinch for a nomination, and probably Shatner, too. With so many open spots, perhaps Zach Braff will finally be noticed for Scrubs.

Heaton and Kaczmarek are the only returning actress nominees, and they'll surely be joined by at least two of the Desperate Housewives; Teri Hatcher is the surest bet, followed by Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman. I'm hoping Lauren Graham will finally get noticed for Gilmore Girls, but the Housewives gang may keep her out yet again. I have a soft spot for Jennifer Finnigan of Committed, but that ain't gonna happen.

Only one empty slot for supporting actor, though I wouldn't be surprised if Sean Hayes drops off the list this year. Most deserving of being added, as he has been for the last few years, is John C. McGinley from Scrubs. I'd also be happy to see Gilmore's Scott Patterson or Housewives' Steven Culp on the list.

Supporting actress has lots of room for fresh blood, with only Mullally and Roberts returning. Kelly Bishop had a big plotline on Gilmore this year, separating from her husband, and I hope that will be enough to win her a spot. Candice Bergen for Boston Legal seems likely, and I'd be happy to see Harriet Sansom Harris from Housewives or Cynthia Stevenson from Dead Like Me (that last one is quite unlikely, to be sure).

And on the drama side:

Only The Sopranos is ineligible of last year's best series nominees, but I'd be surprised if Joan of Arcadia didn't also drop off the list. Lost is a sure bet to be nominated, and I think House also has a very good chance.

Among the actors, Gandolfini can't be nominated; Spader could be, for a different show, but assuming that Boston Legal goes comedy, that leaves two spots for new nominees. Hugh Laurie of House seems a sure thing, and Matthew Fox of Lost will probably get in, too. I'd be very happy, though, to see Michael C. Hall from Six Feet Under recognized for his fine work in last year's carjacking story.

Edie Falco's the only one of last year's actresses who can't be nominated this year; of the other four, I think Garner and Janney are relatively safe bets, and Hargitay and Tamblyn could go. But this is a weak category; the only name that comes to mind that would really make me happy is Christine Lahti, who was the best thing about Jack and Bobby.

Two vacancies in the supporting actor category -- Buscemi and Imperioli -- and lots of strong contenders to fill those slots, or to bump other names off the list. Heck, you could fill most of this category with the men from Lost, of whom I think Terry O'Quinn and Daniel Dae Kim are the most deserving. I'd also be happy to see nominations for Ron Rifkin of Alias and James Cromwell of Six Feet Under.

Only Drea De Matteo is ineligible among last year's supporting actresses, but neither of the West Wing actresses seems a particularly sure bet to return. Among the deserving are Mary Lynn Rajskub and Shohreh Aghdashloo, both from 24, and Lost's Yunjin Kim.

Anyone you're rooting for who I've left out?

June 12, 2005

TV (on DVD): Wonderfalls

Wonderfalls lasted for only four weeks on Fox in the spring of '04, but the three-DVD set includes all 13 episodes that were filmed. I'm not normally one to get upset when TV shows are cancelled -- the business is what it is, after all -- but oh, we lost a good one here.

The main character is Jaye Tyler (played by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas), who's recently graduated from Brown with a philosophy degree, but has no idea what she wants to do with her life, and is working as a sales clerk in a Niagara Falls souvenir shop. Her dull routine is shaken up when inanimate objects -- wax lions, stuffed bears, cow creamers, lawn flamingos, anything with a face, basically -- start speaking to her. They always want her to do something, and their instructions always lean to the cryptic; "save him from her," for instance, when there are three or four possible "hims" and "hers" to be dealt with.

The show was created by Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller, who had previously worked (separately) on such shows as The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Dead Like Me. The cast is largely unknown in the US -- Diana Scarwid and William Sadler as Jaye's parents are the biggest names -- but they're all top-notch; Katie Finneran is particularly good, stealing every scene she's in as Jaye's uptight lesbian sister.

High spots include "Barrel Bear," with guest stars Rue McClanahan and Louise Fletcher battling over their role in a piece of Niagara Falls history, and "Cocktail Bunny," a beautifully paced thriller of an episode. It's such a shame the show didn't last, because it just got deeper and richer and more perfectly in control with every episode. (And if you're a Netflixer, yes, it's available there, and you should add it to your queue.)

June 11, 2005

MOVIES: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Doug Liman, 2005)

What a terrific surprise this was! Sharp, witty dialogue; exciting action scenes; and a story that's about something more than just Blowing Stuff Up Real Good. It's a Hollywood rarity -- an action movie for grownups.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (the celebrity press has taken to calling them "Brangelina," which sounds like some awful high-fiber citrus drink) play John and Jane Smith, whose marriage of five (or six) years is starting to go a bit stale. They go off to work each day, take occasional business trips out of town, and stare silently across the dinner table at one another.

What neither knows about the other is that they are both professional assassins, working for different organizations (Government? Private? We never really know anything other than that they are competitors). And when their organizations send the two of them to kill the same target, they not only learn each other's secret, but they're now assigned to kill each other.

The movie could be a bit more subtle, I suppose; the central metaphor of marriage as a minefield of dangerous secrets is pounded home a bit too heavily, but everything else works so well that this is a minor flaw.

The action scenes are great, with a fabulous freeway chase scene and a great Pitt-Jolie brawl (and what fun to see a movie that's not too PC to let Jolie be an equal partner in that scene, pounding and getting pounded just as much as Pitt). The final battle plays out in an IKEA-type store, against the fake scenes of suburban domestic bliss that nicely parallel the fake marriage that John and Jane have lived in for so long.

Pitt and Jolie both look fabulous here, and they sizzle as a couple. Jolie is riveting (and it takes a special woman indeed to draw my attention away from Brad Pitt), and she's very funny, especially in non-verbal moments; watch her facial expressions when she's unexpectedly handed a baby at a neighborhood cocktail party.

This one's a winner. You should go.

June 10, 2005

BOOKS: Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2005)

The authors tell us at the outset that there will be no "unifying theme" to this book, a series of explorations into how the methods of economics can be used to answer questions where they don't seem intuitively useful.

Levitt's an economist, and Dubner's a journalist; Dubner's 2003 New York Times profile of Levitt led them to collaborate on this book, which asks (among others) the following questions?

  • What are likely to be the most popular baby names in 2015?
  • If there's such a huge market for crack cocaine, why do crack dealers all still live with their mothers?
  • How do you catch teachers who cheat on their students' standardized tests?
  • Were contestants on The Weakest Link racist?

Most controversially, we get Levitt's explanation for the plunge in the crime rate in the early 1990s. The major cause, says Levitt, wasn't new policing strategies (that had virtually no effect) or the increased number of police officers (though that did contribute); it was the legalization of abortion 20 years earlier. An entire generation of children who might have been born to single mothers living in poverty -- precisely the children most likely to become criminals -- hadn't been born because those mothers were able to have legal abortions.

Freakonomics feels more like a series of magazine articles than it does like a book, but the subjects explored are so interesting, and Levitt & Dubner's style is so accessible and entertaining, that it's terrific reading.

BOOKS: More Book Lust, Nancy Pearl (2005)

Nancy Pearl is the closest thing you'll find to a celebrity librarian. She talks about books on NPR's "Morning Edition;" she was one of the creators of the first "One City, One Book" programs; there's even a Nancy Pearl action figure.

This is her second collection of book recommendations, and it shares the strengths and weaknesses of the first Book Lust.

On the plus side, this woman reads a lot, and does so with great generosity. She has a knack for finding interesting ways of grouping books together; the book is organized into about 120 1-2 page mini-essays, each dealing with a specific author or topic. Among the lists in this book: "Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers" (books about the clergy), "Gallivanting in the Graveyard" (fiction set in cemeteries), "It Was a Dark and Stormy Novel" (books to read when you're in the mood for something really bleak), and "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" (fabulous books with unappealing or misleading covers).

The downside, and it's a big one, is that Pearl whips through titles so quickly that she doesn't really give you enough information to know whether you might enjoy the book. Most books don't get more than a sentence or two, and some of the lists are just that -- lists of author and title, with no additional information at all.

Even so, a fairly quick skim through the book turned up a dozen titles that interested me enough to add them to my "someday I'll read that" list (because, you know, with only 30 feet of bookshelf space full of books I haven't read yet, I'm obviously in need of more books for that list). The Book Lust books aren't as useful as they might be if Pearl focused on fewer books in greater detail, but they're interesting snapshots of one reader's mind.

BOOKS: Anywhere But Here, Jerry Oltion (2005)

Sequel to The Getaway Special, which I commented on here.

Trent and Donna Stinson, who were minor characters in the first book, take center stage for what is essentially a rewrite of the first book: A likable couple leaves Earth in their pickup truck, tricked out with a new hyperdrive engine, in search of habitable planets and friendly aliens.

There's a bit more focus this time around on the dangers and difficulties of interstellar travel. Aliens are generally hostile; it's harder to find breathable air and drinkable water; and battery power is constantly running low. There's not a lot of plot, and the book is more a series of puzzles, as we watch to see how Trent and Donna will get themselves out of their latest fix.

The increasingly unstable political situation on Earth hovers in the background of the book, as it did in Getaway Special, and the ending suggests that if there's a third volume in this series, that situation will move to the foreground, which would make a nice change. Oltion's writing is entertaining, but I don't think a third book of amiable meandering through the universe would hold my interest.

June 07, 2005

TV: catching up with reality

The summer reality onslaught continues...

NBC's Hit Me Baby One More Time was surely among the year's most depressing hours of TV. An assortment of pop music has-beens -- in the first episode, we got CeCe Peniston, Loverboy, A Flock of Seagulls, Arrested Development, and Tiffany -- are trotted out to sing one of their hits and a cover version of a more recent hit. (In most of these cases, "one of their hits" is inaccurate, implying as it does that they have several from which to choose.) The audience votes on a favorite, and that act's favorite charity gets some money.

Why was it so sad to watch? Partly because whatever talent these folks had when younger has almost entirely disappeared, partly because so many of them have let themselves fall to pieces physically. I'm quite sure, for instance, that when Loverboy was popular, the band's lead singer had only one chin. But mainly because they're all so damned desperate to be popular again that they're willing to stoop to something this pathetic and degrading.

This may be a minority view of the show, apparently, as it drew quite a large audience; I'm hoping that everyone else was as horrified by the spectacle as I was, and that the ratings this week will collapse.

Over at ABC, we find The Scholar, in which ten high school seniors compete for a full-ride 4-year college scholarship. It's a feel-good show, designed to appeal to the audience that loves Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and it is nice to see a show with the goal of doing good. But the competitions are a bit too dry to be interesting, and the show's a bit on the bland side.

And finally (for this roundup, at least), the Food Network gives us its search for The Next Food Network Star, in which eight contestants compete for their own show. Well, nine contestants, actually; gay couple Steve and Dan sent in an entry tape as a team, and are competing as one of the eight finalists.

Right from the start, the contest is clearly designed to find a TV host; the challenges test not only food knowledge and skills, but TV skills as well -- the ability to work on-camera, to deal with unexpected problems, to project an interesting personality. If you're not already a Food Network fan, you probably don't have any reason to watch this, but if you are, it's reasonably entertaining.

Still to arrive this week: CBS's Fire Me, Please and The Cut, which Tommy Hilfiger tells us is not a ripoff of Project Runway. Really. This show about designers competing for the chance to produce their own line is completely different from that show, which was about designers competing for the chance to produce their own line. How could we have gotten them confused?

TV: Queer Eye and the Red Sox

Tonight's new episode of Queer Eye (note the officially shortened new name of the show; it's not just for the Straight Guy anymore, apparently) features five members of the Boston Red Sox as the makeover subjects. This is something of a milestone, I think, for American professional athletes to associate themselves so visibly with gay culture.

Sure, there've been "gay nights" at a lot of different stadiums, and I think a few gay choruses have even been invited to sing the National Anthem. Those are good things, and the teams that have done that are to be commended.

But the very issue of homosexuality in sports still makes people uncomfortable. Team athletes don't come out of the closet until after they've retired, and everyone gets all squicky about the thought that there might be gay people sharing their locker rooms and showers.

So I think it's a big deal for individual athletes to take a gay-friendly stand. Kudos to Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Doug Mirabelli, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield for doing the show, and to the Red Sox for encouraging the idea.

June 04, 2005

MOVIES: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ken Kwapis, 2005)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is based on a novel by Ann Brashares that has been wildly popular with teenage girls for the last few years. The movie, directed by Ken Kwapis, is occasionally a bit too syrupy and its lessons are pounded home awfully hard, but it benefits from having four fine young actresses in its leading roles.

Carmen, Lena, Tibby, and Bridget (played by, respectively, America Ferrera, Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn, and newcomer Blake Lively) have been best friends since childhood, and they are enjoying their last shopping trip together before they all go off on their separate summer vacations. They find a pair of jeans which miraculously fits all of them perfectly, despite their different body types and sizes, and decide to share these magical pants, mailing them back and forth at weekly intervals.

The movie is essentially an anthology; each girl's story is mostly separate from the others, though they do provide one another with encouragement through phone calls and letters. The structure works well; none of the stories would be substantial enough to sustain a movie on its own, and anytime any of the stories threatens to get dull, we're whisked away to a different girl.

One of the striking things about the movie is that, unlike many of the teen-girl movies of recent years, none of the girls are pitted against one another (or against other girls, for that matter); the conflicts are principally internal. Lena begins to come out of her shell; Carmen finally expresses her anger to her father, who left her mother; and so on. (There is one brief argument between two of the girls, but it's clearly the result of emotional stress, and quickly resolved.)

The four lead actresses are all well cast; Tamblyn and Bledel are particularly good (and my lord, Alexis Bledel is a lovely young woman). The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a lightweight charmer, and while its messages of female empowerment and solidarity will no doubt resonate with teenage girls, it's a good enough movie that you'll enjoy it even you're not part of that audience.

June 02, 2005

TV: Dancing With the Stars

In which six B-list celebrities partner with professionals for a ballroom dance competition. The women -- supermodel Rachel Hunter, soap actress Kelly Monaco, and the original Bachelorette Trista Sutter -- are even more B-list than the men -- ex-teen idol Joey McIntyre, Seinfeld's John O'Hurley, and heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield.

The stars have had only five weeks of training and practice before the first episode, and given that, they acquit themselves reasonably well. The women allow themselves to be spun and twirled very prettily; the men (especially the lumbering Holyfield) tend to let their partners do more actual dancing.

Ballroom dancing is pretty to watch, I suppose, and if there's nothing else to do on a Wednesday night, I can see myself watching this. It's a good thing that it's a limited run, though; I don't think it could sustain an audience on an ongoing basis.

(Oh, and I'm betting on Sutter and McIntyre and their partners to be the last teams standing.)

TV: Beauty and the Geek

The premise wasn't all that promising -- a competition between teams of lovely women and nerdy men -- but this turned out to be a very sweet and good-natured hour, and I'm looking forward to future episodes.

It's not a dating show, we're told, but a "social experiment," and the contestants are told that their goal is to help their partner improve in their areas of weakness. Each week, the teams will be given a pair of challenges, one for the men and one for the women, which they'll help each other prepare for.

Week one gave us a fifth-grade spelling and history quiz for the ladies and a dance competition for the gents. The only time the show came close to inviting us to laugh at the contestants was during the quiz, where some of the women truly were spectacularly dumb, as in this round of questioning:

"Who was president during the Civil War?"

"Um ... Hoover?"

"No, it was Abraham Lincoln."

"Oh, right! D-Day!"

But aside from a few moments like that, Beauty and the Geek doesn't mock its contestants, who all seem to be sincere in their desire to help their partners and to learn from them. In part, this is a result of good casting; it's easy to imagine the show going terribly wrong with a more shallow, bimbo-y group of woman and an even more socially inept group of men. As it is, though, this is a very pleasant surprise.

BOOKS: Watch Your Back, Donald E. Westlake (2005)

12th in Westlake's series of comic crime novels about burglar John Dortmunder and his associates.

I was disappointed in the last installment,The Road to Ruin, which didn't have nearly enough Dortmunder in it; it felt as if he'd been shoehorned into a story that was conceived without him. But Watch Your Back is most definitely a Dortmunder story, and it's a terrific book.

Arnie Albright, a fence Dortmunder works with occasionally, is back in town after a vacation at a tropical resort, and he's brought a promising opportunity with him. While on vacation, Arnie met a millionaire who's been living at the resort for years (ex-wife problems) and isn't likely to return to his penthouse apartment anytime soon, making its riches a relatively easy target for John and his gang.

But planning the heist is a bit more complicated than usual, because their usual hangout -- the back room at the O.J. Bar and Grill -- is suddenly unavailable, the bar having been taken over by a gang of New Jersey mobsters.

The planning of the heist, the attempt to take back the bar, and the ongoing woman problems of that millionaire are woven together in fine style, with a particularly clever climax in which everyone gets just what they deserve, and all of Dortmunder's hard work nets him (as always) far less than he'd hoped.