June 26, 2009

BOOKS: Watching What We Eat, Kathleen Collins (2009)

For as long as there has been television, there have been television cooking shows, and Collins gives us an informative history of the genre.

For the most part, Collins takes a decade-by-decade approach, focusing in particular on one iconic figure from each decade -- Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and Jeff Smith represent the 60s, 70s, and 80s, for instance. Once she reaches the 90s and the birth of the Food Network -- what she calls the "modern era" of TV cookery -- that approach no longer works, as there are simply too many names to consider, and no single chef dominated those decades in quite the same way. (I think you could make a strong case for Emeril Lagasse as the TV chef of the 90s and Rachael Ray for the current decade.)

The great philosophical debate that has always dominated TV cooking has been education vs. entertainment. Is it better to demonstrate proper technique and elaborate recipes at the risk of intimidating the viewer, or to provide user-friendly convenience at the risk of dumbing down the recipes? That tension has been present since the beginning; in the 50s, the sides were represented by the very formal Dione Lucas and the more casual Poppy Cannon, who believed that a can opener was one of a cook's most important tools. Think of them as the Martha Stewart and the Sandra Lee of their era.

Collins' writing style is a bit on the stodgy and dry side, and I occasionally found myself wishing that she'd let herself have more fun with her material. It never descends into that pompous academic style that marks the dissertation-turned-book, though, and it's not difficult reading so much as it is bland. But it is a thorough and interesting history, and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic.

June 24, 2009

BOOKS: Losing My Religion, William Lobdell (2009)

In his late 20s, during a period of difficulty in his life, Lobdell turned to religion, becoming a born-again Christian. He came to believe that his profession, journalism, did not do a very good job of covering and reporting on religion in America, and began seeking a job as a religion reporter.

In 1998, he got that job, and began writing about religion for the Los Angeles Times. At first, he found the experience immensely rewarding, and enjoyed having the opportunity to write interesting stories about people who had largely been ignored by the mainstream media. But over time, the increasing number of financial and sexual scandals in various religious organizations, in particular the horrific sexual abuse coverups by the Catholic Church, drove Lobdell to a crisis of faith. His final piece as the Times religion reporter was a long essay in which he discussed how and why his faith had collapsed; this book is, in part, an expansion on that essay.

It's tempting for me, as an atheist who has no use for the superstitions of the various Invisible Sky Bully cults, to snicker at Lobdell with a hearty "Told ya so!" But I can't be that callous; Lodbell's sincerity, and his genuine struggle with his dying faith, are deeply moving. More than mockery, I'm moved to sadness that he wasted so many years trying to find meaning where none exists (and for the countless millions who continue to waste time on that fool's quest).

By the end of his journey, Lobdell finds peace and happiness, and looks forward to facing the rest of his life with a newfound freedom and gratitude that he has finally been able to abandon what he calls the "placebo of faith." This is a profound and courageous book, and Lodbell's willingness to share the process of soul-searching that he's been through is commendable indeed.

June 22, 2009

BOOKS: The Family Man, Elinor Lipman (2009)

I'm always happy when a new Lipman novel hits the bookstores. I think she's one of our funniest novelists, with a great character for creating vivid characters and putting them in realistically comic situations.

Our hero this time around is Henry, a middle-aged gay Manhattanite who suddenly finds himself reunited with Thalia, his stepdaughter from a long-ago marriage. Thalia was only three or four when Henry was married to her mother, and they haven't kept in touch over the intervening twenty-five years, but both are delighted to have reconnected.

Henry has, to a large extent, withdrawn from the world; he's mostly retired, and doesn't date or socialize much. Thalia's social life is far more complicated; she's a would-be actress, currently posing as the girlfriend of a would-be horror movie mogul who needs to be seen with a hot girl on his arm.

It all sounds like the setup for some insufferably broad slapsticky comedy, but Lipman's characters are so well rounded that their every word, every decision, every gesture feels real. I had been mildly disappointed in Lipman's last two novels, but this is a return to top form. Highly recommended.

June 21, 2009

BOOKS: In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent (2009)

You've probably heard of Esperanto, the language invented by Ludwik Zamenhof at the end of the 19th century. The goal was to provide a common language for all of humanity, thereby ending international strife, war, and suffering.

Didn't quite work out that way, of course. But that's nothing new; for nearly as long as there have been languages, there have been attempts to create the perfect language, and none of them have ever achieved their lofty goals. (The earliest documented invented language was created by Hildegard von Bingen, 12th-century nun and composer.)

There have been isolated pockets of success. The pictorial language Blissymbolics turned out to be of extraordinary use in the education of disabled children, and the story of a Canadian school's battle with the language's increasingly megalomanical creator is one of Okrent's most fascinating tales. And though it may have to failed to unite the world, Esperanto has enough speakers to sustain a handful of newsletters and annual conventions.

Esperanto is certainly the most successful invented language, but nipping at its heels is Klingon, created by Marc Okrand for the Star Trek movies of the 1980s. Trek fans often tend to be on the obsessive side, and the thought of being given an entire new language to learn was a thrill for some of them. There are now Klingon translations of the Bible, Hamlet, and other classic literary works.

The language inventors whose stories Okrent tells are, for the most part, lovable crackpots, but their intentions are good, and it's kind of nice to let yourself get caught up in their crazy dreams of improving the world through improving the language.

MOVIES: Married Life (2007, Ira Sachs)

Equal parts Hitchcock and Sirk, Married Life never quite makes up its mind whether it wants to smirk at melodrama or to be melodrama. Despite the tonal uncertainty, though, a talented cast makes the movie worth a rental.

It's 1949, and timid Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) has embarked on an affair with a young war widow (Rachel McAdams). Harry introduces Kay to his best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), and tells him that he plans to leave his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), to be with Kay. Try though he might, though, Harry just can't bring himself to break the news to Pat. He is so convinced of her devotion to hiim, and so certain that a divorce would devastate her, that he finally comes to the conclusion that the kinder thing to do -- the only decent thing to do, really -- is to kill his wife instead.

That's a premise that could make for a terrific dark comedy, and there are moments that live up to that potential; a scene in which Harry buys poison at a photo shop, for instance, generates precisely timed nervous titters. But too often, the movie wallows in sentiment, never enjoying the horrible wrongness of Harry's plan, trying instead to convince us that he really is a nice guy at heart.

Still, the performances here are superb. Cooper, getting a chance to play more of a milquetoast than usual, makes the most of the opportunity; he's a man who can't hide anything, and every emotion flashes across his doughy face. Clarkson finds every subtlety in the role of a woman who's not entirely happy in her marriage, but who believes that her husband needs her and has found ways to cope.

Best of all is Brosnan, as the playboy best friend (had the movie actually been made in 1949, James Mason would have played the role). Brosnan is at his best playing the cad, and nearly all of the moments that most live up to the movie's potential come from him.

McAdams is the weak link. She's a promising young actress, but not quite up to the level of her three co-stars, and it's a little difficult to understand what Harry and Richard see in her. (She's not helped by the very bad choice to turn her into a platinum blonde with a very unconvincing dye job.)

Not a great movie, but a reasonably entertaining time-passer if you stumble across it on cable.

June 17, 2009

BOOKS: iPod and Philosophy, D.E. Wittkower, editor (2008)

There are now more than 30 volumes in the "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series from Open Court Press, each of which presents a collection of essays for the layman on various philosophical issues as seen through the lens of some pop culture icon. Zombies, Johnny Cash, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica, The Simpsons -- they've all had their own volumes.

They're entertaining books, though a certain sameness sets in if you read too many in too short a span; TV and movie storytelling, whatever characters you're dealing with, tends to lend itself to discussion of certain philosophical ideas more than others. But this volume, only the second in the series to deal with a machine (see also volume 18: Harley-Davidson and Philosophy), heads into territory I hadn't run across in the other volumes I've read, and it's a refreshing change.

Alf Rehn's "Wittgenstein's iPod, or, The Familiar Among Us" gets the book off to a fine start, exploring the notion of familiarity. Just how is it that we can be presented with a white iPod Nano, a black iPod Touch, and a bright red iPod Classic, and recognize them all as being the "same" somehow? Scott F. Parker makes the case for the iPod as an educational device in "Philosophy by iPod: Wisdom to the People," and Daniel Sturgis's "Today's Cheaters, Tomorrow's Visionaries" argues that the iPod moves us one step closer to a culture in which remembering information (as opposed to being able to quickly access it) is seen as an irrelevant luxury.

Not all of the essays are successful. Joseph C. Pitt's "Don't Talk to Me" presents the obligatory grumpy-old-man argument that the iPod is isolating us from one another and destroying Society As We Know It; Jon Austin's "The Unbeatable Whiteness of the iPod" goes overboard in presenting the displacement of (black) vinyl records by the (white) iPod as a statement about global race relations.

The collection as a whole, though, is entertaining and thought-provoking, and it's worth taking a look at the volumes devoted to your own particular interests. (Here's the full list.) As for me, I'm off to see if my library has yet ordered the newest volume -- Stephen Colbert and Philosophy.

June 13, 2009

BOOKS: Reading the OED, Ammon Shea (2008)

Sitting down to read a dictionary -- any dictionary -- would seem a pointless exercise to most people. It's just a long list of words and definitions, after all. There are dictionary geeks in the world, though, just as there are obsessives on virtually any other subject you can imagine, and for them, there could be no finer way to spend an afternoon than to wallow in definitions and etymologies and obscure words.

Even for a dictionary lover, though, reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary is a daunting thought. At 21,730 pages spread over 20 volumes, it's the largest dictionary in the English language, and given its mission -- to track the historical usage of words -- it has a greater preponderance of obscure, obsolete, and outdated words than any other.

None of which stops Shea from setting out on the project. He is a self-described collector of words, and happily acknowledges that "as far as hobbies go, it is as most of them are -- largely useless." In 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, he talks about his trip through the OED, with frequent digressions about the history and purpose of dictionaries. The bulk of the book, however, is made up of his selected lists of interesting or amusing words found within each letter of the dictionary.

Shea has uncovered some delightful words. Some are words that I'd seen before, but would never use frequently enough to remember them -- "kakistocracy" (government by the worst citizens), for instance, or "velleity" (a wish for something without accompanying action to obtain it). Some are obsolete words that have such a glorious ring I wish they'd be revived; insults often fall into this category, like "fedity" (vile or repulsive practices) or "insordescent" (growing in filthiness). (Since discovering these words, I can't think of Rush Limbaugh without the phrase "insordescent fedity" ringing in my head.)

And as a long-time sufferer from the condition, I took particular delight in the word "deipnophobia," the fear of dinner parties.

June 12, 2009

BOOKS: A Devil to Play, Jasper Rees (2008)

If nothing else, Jasper Rees's midlife crisis takes a unique form. No cheap floozies or expensive cars for him, by golly. No, Rees decides that the way to put meaning back into his life as he nears 40 is to return to the French horn, an instrument he hasn't touched in nearly 20 years.

But simply returning to his teenage level of proficiency -- he had been a moderately competent high-school band member -- isn't enough for Rees. He vows that in one year, he will play the third Mozart Horn Concerto at the annual meeting of the British Horn Society. Why the Mozart 3? Well, it's generally considered to be the easiest of the major horn concertos.

Which isn't to say that it's easy, mind you. As Rees lets us know, nothing about the horn is easy. It's ranked by Guinness as the most difficult orchestral instrument (tied with the oboe), and pitfalls seem to lie in wait around every corner for the horn player. Not the least of these is that for a variety of bizarre historical reasons, the horn player, alone among the orchestra, is expected to transpose nearly every piece of music he plays -- that is, to play different notes than are actually written on the page.

Rees's report of his year's journey is a marvelous piece of entertainment. He gives us the history of the instrument, gets advice and lessons from many of its most skilled players (who are a remarkably patient group), and describes his fumbling progress towards an appearance on the BHS stage. Rees's writing is filled with that dry wit that seems to come naturally to the British. He's informative without ever making the reader as if a ton of dry information is being dumped on him. A Devil to Play is a charming book, and anyone who's ever daydreamed about picking up that instrument they used to play (or picking one up for the first time) will love it.

June 02, 2009

MOVIES: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (2009, Gregory Sherman and Jeff Sherman)

The Boys tells the story of Richard and Robert Sherman, the only songwriters ever to be under contract at Disney. Even if you don't recognize the names, you'd recognize their music; they wrote the songs from Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Winnie the Pooh, and The Aristocats; their non-Disney work includes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Tom Sawyer, and Charlotte's Web.

We open with directors Gregory and Jeff, who are cousins and the sons of Richard and Robert, explaining that they never really knew one another growing up despite living blocks apart in Los Angeles. Their fathers, despite their successful professional partnership, were personally estranged. They didn't socialize and barely spoke to one another outside their office at Disney.

The movie never pays off with the story of that estrangement; perhaps the Sherman cousins were unable or unwilling to get their fathers to discuss the matter in depth. There are hints that it might have had to do with money, or with wives who disliked one another, but for the most part, the issue is left hovering in the background throughout the movie, begging to be delved into.

Still, the career of the Sherman brothers is interesting and impressive enough that even the relatively bare-bones "and then we wrote" approach of The Boys held my interest. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that you rush out to the theater to see it unless you have a particular interest in the subject, but it might be worth renting.

June 01, 2009

MOVIES: Timecrimes (2007/US 2008, Nacho Vigalondo)

A Spanish time-travel story with all the usual plotholes you expect from the genre, but with such energy and brisk pacing that you don't have time to notice until it's over.

Hector is lounging in the back yard of his new country home, gazing through his binoculars into the nearby woods, when he spots a topless young woman. He wanders into the woods to investigate, and finds her unconscious; when he bends over to see if she's even still alive, he's stabbed in the arm by an unseen assailant. He runs from the attacker and winds up at a nearby research facility; one young scientist there is studying time travel, and sends Hector back in time about 90 minutes.

From there, we get all of the fun we expect from time-travel -- multiple Hectors, details which had seemed insignificant on the first go-round that take on new importance later, the desperate attempt to set things right -- done with great style, a fine sense of humor, and a marvelous Vertigo-esque plot twist at the end.

Timecrimes is also a sterling example of how to make a movie on a low budget. There are no special effects, a handful of locations, and only four speaking roles; writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (who also plays the scientist) has come up with a clever device that makes it easy for us to tell which version of Hector we're seeing at any moment, and also allows him to show multiple Hectors without expensive digital trickery. There aren't any blindingly original ideas to be found here, but Vigalondo's take on the theme is clever entertainment.