August 31, 2005


The idea first came from Hugh Hewitt: "perhaps the bloggers could agree to set a day for a unified blog beg."

September 1 is Blog for Relief Day. I'm giving to Habitat for Humanity, whose work I've admired for a long time, and there are dozens of other fine organizations at work in the wake of this disaster.

The Truth Laid Bare and Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit are keeping track of the bloggers taking part; there are already over 400, and it's not even September 1 yet. If you're a blogger reading this, I hope you'll join in the "blog beg," and blogger or not, I encourage you to give whatever you can to the relief effort.

SEP. 1, 6 PM:
An update: More than 1,100 bloggers are now taking part, and roughly $125,000 has been raised so far. If you've donated, please go to The Truth Laid Bare and log your contribution so that there's an accurate record of how much has been raised through this campaign.

August 29, 2005

TV: Prison Break

Fox jumpstarts the fall season with this 2-hour premiere of the show it's hoping will be its next 24.

Lincoln Burrows is in prison, due to be executed in a month for murdering the Vice President's brother. Lincoln is, of course, innocent, having been set up as part of a high-reaching conspiracy (there are at least a few Secret Service officers involved).

His brother, Michael Scofield, robs a bank in order to get himself into the same prison, planning to break himself and his brother out before the execution. For you see, Michael is a structural engineer, and worked on the recent upgrade of some of this prison's facilities. He's had full access to the blueprints; in fact, he has them cleverly disguised in the full-torso tattoo he's wearing.

Are you laughing yet? This show doesn't require the mere suspension of disbelief; it asks you to hurl disbelief into the river and watch it drown. It's a shame, because the cast is fine, the show looks marvelous, and it tells its ludicrous story with great style and energy. I may give it another week or two, just to see if the story gets any less silly, but I'm not optimistic.

August 28, 2005

MOVIES: Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

Quickly rising stars Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy star in this neatly efficient thriller. She's hotel executive Lisa; he's Jackson, the cute guy she meets at the airport while waiting for their delayed flight to leave. They wind up seated together on the plane, and he turns out to be a terrorist. The assistant director of Homeland Security is arriving at her hotel the next morning, and if Lisa doesn't arrange for him to be moved to a specific suite, thus facilitating his assassination, Jackson's colleague will kill Lisa's father.

Nearly half of the movie takes place on that plane, and director Wes Craven (along with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman) do a nice job of creating a claustrophobic mood with lots of tight closeups. The screenplay by Carl Ellsworth is tightly constructed, with lots of early details that pay off nicely in the final act.

There are, as there always are in this sort of thriller, a few implausibilities. Lisa spends a fair amount of time after the plane lands running away from the very authorities whose help you'd think she'd be desperate for, and she turns out to be more proficient in hand-to-hand combat than one would expect a hotel executive to be, but that's part of the genre.

McAdams and Murphy both do better acting than this sort of movie normally gets, and there's great comic relief from Jayma Mays (in her first film) as the assistant who's running the hotel in Lisa's absence.

On the whole, a terrific popcorn flick.

MOVIES: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005)

Let's start with punctuation, shall we?

The title is properly punctuated as I have it above -- "40-Year-Old" as a single compound word. The newspaper ads, however, have "40 Year-Old" and the opening titles of the movie itself have "40 Year Old." I suppose I should be grateful that they didn't find a way to stick an unneeded apostrophe somewhere in there...

As for the movie: Major disappointment.

Steve Carell has been very funny on The Daily Show and in supporting roles in Anchorman and Bruce Almighty. This is the first time he's been asked to carry a picture, and he's just not up to the task. He doesn't have the range to pull off this character, which is well outside his "pompous jerk" comfort range; as a lovably sweet loser, he's a total bore.

The movie's not very funny, either. The jokes are sophomoric gross-out comedy -- vomit and urine jokes are common -- and there's a lot of very nasty "you're so gay" banter among Carell's sidekicks that left a sour aftertaste. Lots of good actors -- Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Jane Lynch, and Catherine Keener, playing a much sweeter character than her usual sharp-edged neurotics -- are wasted in this piece of garbage.

BOOKS: Ten words...

If I see any of these words in the blurb, the book is going back on the shelf:

  • Dylan
  • erotic
  • fable
  • faerie
  • Faulkner
  • heartwarming
  • hippie
  • Lithuania
  • McSweeney's
  • yarn

(I suppose you get a pass if your name happens to be Faulkner McSweeney. But let's face it: If your name is Faulkner McSweeney, then my not reading your book really isn't at the top of your list of problems, is it?)

BOOKS: Survival, Julie E. Czerneda (2004)

There's an interesting story here, but the pacing is badly off; the first half of the book is very slow, and the last forty pages or so are crammed with plot and surprise twists, before the whole thing abruptly ends mid-stream, with nothing to be resolved until the sequel (Migration, published earlier this summer).

Our heroine is Mackenzie "Mac" Connor, who studies salmon at a wildlife refuge in the Pacific Northwest. Her routine is interrupted by the arrival of Brymn, the first member of the Dhryn race to have visited Earth. There has been a series of catastrophic attacks, wiping out all life on several different planets, and Brymn believes that Mac's expertise in biology may help him figure out who's responsible. Mac doesn't see how she can be of help, and is reluctant to leave her research, but when her best friend is kidnapped by the race that is the principal suspect in the attacks, she has no choice but to join Brymn.

I'm getting really sick of SF novelists who insist on breaking up one story into two or three volumes without providing any warning to the reader that the first volume is not a stand-alone story. But I liked the characters, and the Dhryn are an interesting race, with customs and culture different enough from our own to feel believably alien. The questions Czerneda's left hanging here have me curious enough that I will probably pick up the sequel, and hope that the story is actually finished there.

August 22, 2005

BOOKS: Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson (2005)

Johnson argues that the pop culture we love to trash -- video games and TV -- are smarter and more complex than they've ever been, and that they are contributing to making us a smarter society.

No, a video game's not a book, Johnson says, and he's not suggesting that people give up reading, but video games develop different sets of intellectual and perceptual skills that are just as important as the skills developed by reading. And as video games have gotten more complicated to learn and play -- visualize the different levels of complexity, for instance, from Pong to Pac-Man to Tetris to Myst -- the skill sets needed to play them well have also gotten larger and more complex.

As for TV, Johnson points out that in every genre, the best TV shows are more complicated, more open-ended, and trickier to follow than they were 30 years ago. A show like Dallas, which in its day had a larger cast and more intricate sets of interpersonal relationships than most, now looks painfully simplistic when compared to today's 24 or Lost. In today's TV, more happens in an hour, and less of it is instantly comprehensible than ever before.

Even the genre that gets the least respect -- reality TV -- is vastly different from game shows of the past. When you watch Jeopardy, you know exactly how the game is going to be played, and the players aren't connected in any meaningful way; watching Survivor, on the other hand, requires the ability to analyze an enormous number of social relationships and to adjust to constantly changing expectations and surprise twists.

And Johnson presents evidence to support his claim that we're getting smarter. The average IQ score in the US, for instance, has been steadily rising for several decades now, and the rate of increase is itself has gotten larger in the last 20 years. (This trend has been somewhat masked by the fact that IQ tests are re-calibrated every few years in order to keep the average score at 100; the re-calibrations have consistently had to take into effect that the average test-taker was doing better.)

But what about all that sex and violence, you may ask? Johnson addresses the issue briefly, suggesting that we seriously overstate its impact on behavior. A 2004 study from the Departments of Justice and Education, for instance, showed that violent crime in American schools dropped by half between 1992 and 2002, a major drop among precisely that demographic that is theoretically the most at risk from exposure to violent media.

It's a fascinating book, and entertaining to read, too.
Y'know, if I played the piano well enough to own one, this is the one I'd want to own.

(via The Well-Tempered Blog)

August 21, 2005

MUSIC: a hodgepodge o'CDs

Three CDs that I've been enjoying for the last few weeks:

Golddiggas, Headnodders, & Pholk Songs, The Beautiful South -- I first heard this band on Brian Ibbott's terrific Coverville podcast when he played their version of "Don't Fear the Reaper" a while back; when he went on to play their "You're the One That I Want," I knew I had to have this album. It's an all-covers CD (and I'm always a sucker for a great cover record), tackling everything from the Ramones ("Blitzkrieg Bop") to Willie Nelson ("Valentine") to The Stylistics ("I'm Stone in Love With You"). Now I need to hear some of their original material. Any fans out there who can suggest a good starting point?

Wearing Someone Else's Clothes, Jason Robert Brown -- Brown is best known for his work in the musical theater; The Last 5 Years has been playing regional theaters for a few years now, and Parade was a critical success on Broadway. But this is an album of pop songs, and they're terrific. Brown's lyrics are marvels of economy, and his songs feel like a cross between early Billy Joel and Stephen Sondheim. He can be funny ("I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You"), deeply moving ("Over," sung in the voice of a just-killed American soldier), and ruthlessly honest ("Music of Heaven," which is one of the best songs I've heard in years). He sings better than most songwriters; he's certainly got a better voice than the croakings of Elvis Costello, for instance.

Shakespeare in Song, Phoenix Bach Choir (Charles Bruffy, dir.) -- fine program of unaccompanied choral music, all with text by Shakespeare. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frank Martin are the best known composers represented, and there are premiere recordings of work by several younger composers, of whom I think Matthew Harris comes off best. The Tempest is the most common source for text, with three settings of "Full fathom five" alone (the classic by Vaughan Williams, which has long been a favorite of mine; a version from Martin's "Songs of Ariel," and a lovely setting by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). But half a dozen other plays are represented, along with a sonnet or two. The enunciation could be a bit clearer -- not an insignificant flaw when you're singing Shakespeare -- but that's the only serious flaw; intonation, ensemble, and emotional sensitivity to text are all top-notch.

August 20, 2005

MOVIES: Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005)

Madeleine and George (Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola) have been married for six months, and are making a road trip from Chicago to North Carolina to visit his family, who did not attend their rather hasty wedding. For Madeleine, it's also a business trip; she hopes to acquire the work of a local artist for her gallery, which specializes in "outsider art."

It sounds like the setup for Meet the Parents, but Junebug is no broad piece of slapstick; it's a comedy, but a deeply moving one about the importance and the frustrations of family, the ways in which we find ourselves locked into certain roles, and the shock of realizing that those we love are more complicated than we'd realized.

The Johnsten family doesn't exactly greet Madeleine with open arms. Mother Peg (Celia Weston) still harbors the dream that George might return home to live one day, so she's prepared to hate Madeleine from the start -- as she would any daughter-in-law -- for shattering that dream. Father Eugene (Scott Wilson) doesn't display much emotion, or even talk much; in the face of Peg's large, often judgmental, personality, he's withdrawn into the isolation of his basement woodshop.

George's brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie, of TV's The O.C.), is struggling to obtain his GED, and is frustrated by life; he's angry at everything and everyone, not least at his own lack of ambition. His wife, Ashley (Amy Adams, in a star-making comic performance), is the sunniest and most optimistic member of the family, and she immediately takes Madeleine to her heart, awed by Madeleine's big-city glamour and sophistication.

George isn't much help to Madeleine; he's changed in his years away from the family, and the George they remember isn't the same George that Madeline knows. The impossible challenge of maintaining both personas is more than George can deal with, and he largely isolates himself, leaving Madeleine to deal with the family on her own. (There's a certain irony, of course, in George's fear that Madeline will freak out at the discovery of his rural roots, when her career is built around the fetishization of the untaught, usually rural, artist.) The movie has very few scenes in which George is in the company of both Madeleine and another family member.

One of the few such scenes, though, is a stunner; the family has gone to a church potluck dinner, and George has been asked to entertain the crowd by singing a hymn. As he sings, quite beautifully and with complete sincerity and faith, the camera pans across the faces of the family. Peg beams with motherly pride, and unconsciously mouths the words of the refrain each time they occur: "Come home." Madeleine watches in amazement, realizing just how much she doesn't know about her husband.

Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan do not judge or over-simplify their characters. Madeleine isn't just an insensitive sophisticate, looking down on her new relations; the Johnstens are not just uncultured hicks. The acting is top-notch across the board, with particularly fine work from Adams and Weston. This is one of the year's very best movies.

August 19, 2005

A pair of public figures who deserve praise:

Bob Costas was supposed to be filling in as host on Larry King's CNN show all this week. But last night, Costas "respectfully declined to participate," saying that the evening's tabloid topics -- another round of Natalee Holloway hype and more on the BTK killer -- were "not the kind of broadcast [he] should be doing." It's refreshing to see that someone in the world of TV news still understands that we should be paying attention to real news instead of these TV-movies in the making.

And hip-hop star Kanye West has called for an end to the homophobia that pervades the hip-hop community. On an MTV special that aired last night, West said, "Not just hip-hop, but America just discriminates. And I wanna just, to come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, `Yo, stop it." It'll be interesting to see whether his comments have any impact, either on the world of hip-hop, or on West's record sales.

August 18, 2005

Over at Avant Game, Jane McGonigal proposes the "Ministry of Reshelving Project." She suggests that people go into their local bookstores and reshelve all the copies of George Orwell's 1984, moving them from their "incorrect" location in Fiction to a "more suitable section" such as Current Affairs or True Crime. She describes this as a "revolution" and a form of play, a game.

What will be the impact of McGonigal's "revolution?" Principally, it'll make a lot of extra work for all the minimum-wage clerks who have to re-shelve the books she and her fellow vandals have moved; secondarily, it'll make it harder for those who want to read the book to find it.

McGonigal argues that neither of these will happen, because she's asking everyone who takes part to print out a little card, to be put at the location of the removed books, directing people to their "corrected" location. And since all of her revolutionaries will follow those instructions to the letter, and none of those little cards will themselves ever be misplaced -- well, that's a relief, isn't it?

It's hard to see what's really being accomplished here. As a form of political protest, this is entirely ineffective, and a waste of time and energy that could be spent doing something useful -- registering voters, perhaps. As a piece of performance art, it's trite. And as an act of "gaming?" It seems to me that once you start imposing your "game" on unwilling participants, it stops being a game.

And here's what really annoys me about this: It's so childishly solipsistic. As long as we're amused by our own cleverness, McGonigal seems to be saying, who gives a shit about the inconvenience we're causing to others? It's political protest as re-imagined by a 3-year-old.

August 15, 2005

BOOKS: A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby (2005)

No one's ever very happy at the beginning of a Nick Hornby novel, but the four characters we meet in A Long Way Down are having a particularly rough time of it. Martin was a morning TV host until a sex scandal cost him his job; Maureen is a single mother who's spent her life caring for her severely disabled son; Jess doesn't get much attention from her parents, who are still coping with the unexplained disappearance of her older sister; and JJ -- the American in the group -- has come to the realization that he's never going to be a rock star. And so, on New Year's Eve, each of them makes their way to the roof of Toppers' House in London, a roof notorious as a jumping-off ground for the suicidal.

The first third of the novel -- the New Year's Eve/morning that the four spend together -- is the best part of the book, but the rest, in which the four continue to meet periodically, having decided to form a sort of ad hoc support group, is awfully gooey and maudlin. Everyone realizes that their problems aren't so bad and everyone learns that Life Is Worth Living and oh my god how many times have we read this story before?

The biggest problem with the book is that, like most of Hornby's characters, these four are all terribly clever and witty; that tone doesn't always mix well with them being supposedly so depressed that they're ready to kill themselves. Maybe depression and sparkling repartee really do go together in real life, but it doesn't feel terribly convincing here.

August 13, 2005

MOVIES: Pretty Persuasion (Marcos Siega, 2005)

Pretty Persuasion wants to be a Heathers for the new millennium. Evan Rachel Wood stars as a 15-year-old who decides, for reasons that are both more and less complicated than they first appear, to falsely accuse one of her teachers of sexual assault. The material is too distasteful even for black comedy, and neither writer Skander Halim nor director Marcos Siega has found any way to make it funny, so the cast (which includes talented actors like James Woods, Ron Livingston, and Jane Krakowski) is left to flounder. Not worth the time.

August 11, 2005

Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter will be releasing an album of ABBA songs next year. She's explored the pop world before, notably on her album For the Stars (a collaboration with Elvis Costello), which featured a lovely version of ABBA's "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room." I can hardly wait; this could be terrific.

(via The Fredösphere)

August 10, 2005

I'm always curious about where my readers come from, so I invite you to click on the "SIGN MY GUESTMAP" link that's been added to the right-hand column. It'll take you to a map of the world, on which you can zoom in to find your home and plant a little icon. It's a nifty little toy, and I hope you'll drop in and say hi.

LATER THAT EVENING: The link is not working properly. I've e-mailed the good folks who created this gizmo and asked for help; with any luck, they'll be able to spot the problem and we'll have this up and running sometime soon.

AND STILL LATER: And it's fixed!

August 08, 2005

BOOKS: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (2005)

As you've no doubt heard by now, a major character dies in this volume. No, I'm not going to tell you who; the basic rules of narrative logic should make it fairly easy to guess. (And if you're able to read the table of contents without figuring it out, then you may just be, as me old pa used to say, "too damn stupid to live.")

By a creepy accident of timing, the book came out just after the London bombings, lending a eerie resonance to its early chapters, which depict an England under attack by Voldemort and his followers. As Harry and his friends read the newspaper, the same question is asked each day: "Did anyone we know die?" Security has been increased at Hogwarts, and some students are so scared of what might happen that they've left school.

For those who've chosen to continue their studies, life goes on largely as before, though with added layers of nervous tension. There are Quidditch matches, classes to struggle through, and the annual ritual of a new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor -- Severus Snape. Dumbledore has surprised and worried many with this appointment, but his faith in Snape's loyalty is absolute.

Harry and his class turn 16 this year, and Rowling takes up a fair amount of time with their flirtations, crushes, and jealousies. I could have done with a lot less of that, frankly -- a little of Ron and Lavender making goo-goo eyes at one another goes a long way -- but one of Rowling's themes in these books (pounded home in this volume with a bit less subtlety than usual) is that the ability to love is what ultimately separates the good from the evil.

Rowling's storytelling skill becomes more apparent with every volume; her use of the Pensieve's captured memories as a flashback device to tell the story of Voldemort's youth is particularly graceful. Lots of loose threads from earlier volumes are tied up in preparation for the final battle between Harry and Voldemort.

If there's a flaw here, it's that Half-Blood Prince occasionally seems to be marking time, allowing Harry to age another year in order to reach maturity (we are reminded repeatedly that the wizarding world confers adult status at 17) before that final battle.

But then comes that major death, in a beautifully told sequence, and it changes everything. The stakes are even higher now, and Harry's motives are no longer limited to the relatively abstract importance of defeating evil, or of avenging parents he never knew. Voldemort has taken someone Harry loved (though I fully expect that character to appear in some form in the final volume), and the final volume will no doubt center on Harry's struggle to avoid the rash decisions that may be prompted by the desire for revenge. It should be a doozy.

August 07, 2005

TV: Slings and Arrows

This six-episode Canadian miniseries will be running on the Sundance Channel over the next few weeks, and if the first episode is any indication, it's going to be great fun.

It's a backstage drama set at the New Burbage Festival, a Shakespearean theater company that is beginning to show signs of aging poorly. Artistic director Oliver has been around so long -- this year's opening production is his tenth Midsummer Night's Dream -- that he's barely able to go through the motions; no one dares tell the company's longtime leading lady that it's time for her to graduate from Ophelia to Gertrude; there's a brainless Hollywood hunk coming in to play Hamlet; and general manager Richard is fighting to keep the company afloat financially.

Across town, we meet Geoffrey, who was once a star at the New Burbage, delivering the most brilliant Hamlet the town had ever seen, but is now on the comeback trail after suffering some sort of nervous breakdown; his own small theater company has just been evicted for failure to pay the rent. The ending of the first episode suggests that Geoffrey will soon be returning to the New Burbage, where he will no doubt be haunted by the ghosts of his past.

The cast includes some of Canada's best actors -- Paul Gross (Geoffrey), Mark McKinney (Richard), Stephen Ouimette (Oliver) -- and Rachel McAdams, a quickly rising Hollywood star these days, has a supporting role as the company's ingenue; Gross and McAdams both won Gemini Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy) for their work.

New episodes will air on Sunday nights, with several reruns during the week. Well worth your time.

August 06, 2005

MOVIES: The Island (Michael Bay, 2005)

It's two, two, two movies in one! The first half is a relatively understated and subtle SF thriller (wildly understated by the usual standards of director Michael Bay), and the second half is a thoughtless bore.

I enjoyed the first hour or so, which creates a nice sense of increasing paranoia and dread as it builds to the big revelation about the society in which our heroes live. (That revelation has been given away in all of the movie's publicity, a particularly dumb case of the "too much information" syndrome that's struck trailers in recent years; the movie would play much more effectively if it had actually been a surprise.) Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are as good as the material requires, and both are pretty to look at in their form-fitting white jumpsuits. Sean Bean is suitably hissable as the evil doctor in charge, and Ethan Phillips is amusing in a small comic relief role.

To be sure, even in this part of the movie we're not in any real danger of surprise or originality, as Bay borrows from every SF dystopia since THX 1138 or Logan's Run. Those white jumpsuits? Long corridors to be chased down? Menacing doctors, threatening the citizens who don't want to take their happy shots any more? Check, check, and check.

But at least there's a story to tell, surprises to be revealed, and some visual creativity (watch for a desktop computer that spins off nicely from the floating screens of Minority Report), unlike the second half of the movie, which is a generic series of shootouts and chase scenes. There's almost nothing interesting here -- I did like one beautiful aerial shot of a large group of white-jumpsuited folks against a deep red desert background -- and the last half hour has nearly as many fakeout endings as the last Lord of the Rings movie. Wait for cable or DVD.

August 03, 2005

BOOKS: To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2005)

Fourth mystery in the series featuring small-town police chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson.

It's 5 AM on Saturday, and the search and rescue squad of Millers Kill, New York, has been called out to search for Millie van der Hoeven, who's apparently gotten lost somewhere in the woods on her family's vast estate. That estate is about to be sold to an environmental group, which plans to stop all logging on the property, putting many of the town's citizens out of work, and threatening the local paper mill, which relies on pulp from those woods. The contracts are to be signed, and the sale celebrated, at a dinner/dance that night which will also serve as the grand opening event for the new chichi resort that's been built just outside town.

As always, Spencer-Fleming gives us characters who are neither pure heroes nor complete villains; we can always empathize with them, even as we realize how horribly wrong their actions are. The several strands of the plot are woven smoothly together by the end, and the ongoing personal story of Russ and Clare (they've fallen in love, but he's married, and while she's not required to be celibate, adultery isn't really an option for a priest) takes another step forward.

This isn't the best book in the series (that would be the third installment, Out of the Deep I Cry); the final series of revelations and plot twists come a bit too fast and furious, crammed into the very last pages of the book. And Russ and Clare are a bit too far in the background much of the time, with most of the story involving the interactions of other characters with relatively little room for detecting or plotting by our heroes. But even if it's not Spencer-Fleming at her very best, it's still a brisk and lively read, and a worthy installment in one of the most entertaining mystery series to come along in recent years.
There's good news for mystery lovers in the founding of Felony & Mayhem Press, dedicated to publishing new editions of books that have gone out of print. Their first dozen volumes are an appealing group (and I would particularly recommend David Carkeet's Double Negative, a charming comedy about a linguist whose theories on early-childhood communication are put to the test when a pre-verbal toddler is the only witness to a murder).

But there's bad news, too; Maggie Topkis, founder of Felony & Mayhem, has decided to sell her books only to independent bookstores, so you won't be able to find them at Borders, Barnes & Noble, or any of the other chains which are the only bookstores available in a lot of places. (Oddly enough, though, they are available at

It is an article of faith among a lot of bookish people that independent bookstores are better than the chains, and I've never understood why. I've yet to find an indie that can match my local B&N on price, selection, or customer service, and my local indie -- a store called Book Soup -- has a stellar reputation as one of the best indie stores in Los Angeles. That reputation perplexes me, as I've always found the store to be cramped, poorly organized, and weak in selection (with the exception of their newsstand, which has a better selection of magazines than the local chains).

Why any publisher would deliberately refuse business from any customer, but especially potentially large customers, is a puzzle to me, and I fear that Felony & Mayhem won't stay in business long with so foolish a policy. That would be a shame, because they're providing a valuable service.

(As a librarian, I wonder if F&M's books will be available through the wholesalers from whom most public libraries buy their books, or if those large companies will be equally unacceptable as customers.)

August 01, 2005

BOOKS: In the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt (2005)

Our setting is the prestigious D.C. law firm Morgan Siler, and we follow several of the firm's partners and associates through two of their cases. There's a Virginia death penalty appeal that the firm is handling pro bono, and a Texas class-action suit against a chemical company whose negligence may have led to the death of several employees in a toxic fire.

But this is not your standard legal drama, and there's relatively little courtroom action. The legal stories that make up the novel's plot are de-emphasized to the point where they are merely a background against which the real business of the novel plays out.

That "real business" is a finely written series of character studies of the Morgan Siler lawyers. We meet everyone from obsessive senior partner Peter Morgan all the way down the legal food chain to new associates Katja Philips, still giddy with idealism about the nobility of the legal profession, and Ryan Grady, who is just beginning to realize what havoc the hours of a first-year associate are going to play with his constant womanizing. These are crisp portraits, and Roosevelt's characters are vivid and realistic.

While the novel feels more literary than most legal thrillers, Roosevelt also does a fine job of laying his plot details into these character studies, and he's very good at planting details early on that will pay off later in the book. The legal details of each case are smoothly presented, and Roosevelt is never backed into a corner where he has to dump a 3-page block of clunky exposition on us.

In the Shadow of the Law is both a terrific legal drama and a solid piece of writing; Roosevelt is every bit as good as Scott Turow. Recommended with great enthusiasm.