March 31, 2010

BOOKS: Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary (2009)

World history is always the story of how "we" got to the here and now, so the shape of the narrative inherently depends on who we mean by "we" and what we mean by "here and now." Western world history traditionally presumes that here and now is democratic industrial (and postindustrial) civilization.

But what if we assumed a different "we" and a different "here and now"? That's what Ansary does in Destiny Disrupted, which presents world history from the point of view of the Islamic world. A brief prologue sets the scene for Ansary's beginning point, the founding of Islam in the early 7th century and Mohammed's journey from Mecca to Medina. He follows the first several generations of the Islamic community very closely, as it is here that we find many of the doctrinal differences that lead to today's often-clashing branches of Islam (Sunnis and Shi'as and Sufis and ...).

As Ansary acknowledges, we don't have firm documentary evidence of the events of these years, certainly nothing firm enough to make the average academic happy. For these early events, Ansary says his goal is "mainly to convey what Muslims think happened, because that's what has motivated Muslims over the ages and what makes their role in world history intelligible."

He's a fine storyteller, and the first half of the book is particularly entertaining reading. I found that things got a bit sluggish and began to feel bogged down in names and dates -- as I often do when reading history -- around the time of the Crusades, which arrive about halfway through the book. And by the time Ansary is detailing the post-WWII founding of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan, and the other countries of the region, I really found myself missing the less academic prose of the early chapters. Even here, though, it's eye-opening to see these events from a non-European/American perspective, and to see just how badly things were bungled during those years.

I surely won't remember as many of the details as well as I'd like to, but I do feel I have a better understanding of this part of the world, and I'm happy to know that Ansary's book is there when I feel the need for a refresher course.

March 30, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: R&B/Soul

Usher is our mentor for a stroll through the R&B and soul songbook, and it's a particularly uneven night, with some of the season's best performances and some of its worst.

The rundown:

Siobhan, "Through the Fire" -- The opening verse -- you know, the part of the song that she actually sings -- is quite pretty, but then there are a few sour notes in the chorus, and then she starts screaming at us again, and I'm starting to wonder what happened to that singer I liked so much a few weeks back.

Casey, "Hold On, I'm Coming" -- He's right that this song is exactly his style, and it's a solid performance, but it's never exciting or distinctive in any way, which is becoming Casey's pattern. He's a really good bar band singer, but I'm less convinced each week that he's ever going to be a star in his own right.

Michael, "Ready for Love" -- Very nice. It's not much of a song, and I think he ran out of breath a little sooner than he'd expected on the last big note, but it's well sung.

Didi, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" -- Well, she may feel a deep emotional connection to the song, but not a lick of it makes it into her performance, which is emotionally empty. And as is always the case with Didi, there's such a wide wobble to her voice that she never quite seems to be on pitch.

Tim, "Sweet Love" -- Oh, dear. There was nothing good about that. The song is too big and too difficult for his limited skills. It was almost enough to make one long for the song stylings of Sanjaya Malakar.

Andrew, 'Forever" -- That was lovely, sweet and charming, with more personality than Andrew has shown in weeks. There's not much to the song, but he doesn't try to make it anything more than the fluffy little bonbon that it is. Nicely done.

Katie, "Chain of Fools" -- She's got a strong voice, but there's no soul here at all. It's just a series of very pretty notes with no emotional force behind it. Dull.

Lee, "Treat Her Like a Lady" -- Lee has improved more and faster than any of the other contestants since the semi-final rounds; he's turning into a serious contender. This had energy, excitement, and more passion than almost anything we've heard tonight.

Crystal, "Midnight Train to Georgia" -- The piano is distracting her from the singing a bit at the beginning, but she's good enough to get through it, and once she stands up, she's terrific. It's just enough outside what we expect from her not to feel as predictable as last week's performance did. She's still the frontrunner to win this thing.

Aaron, "Ain't No Sunshine" -- Another pretty voice with no emotion to back it up. It's not an awful performance, but there's nothing memorable about it. The tween girls and the "he's such a nice boy" grandma vote will keep him around for another week or two, but that's about all he can hope for.

For the night: Andrew, Crystal, Lee, Michael, Casey, Siobhan, Katie, Didi, Aaron, Tim

For the season: Crystal, Michael, Andrew, Lee, Casey, Siobhan, Didi, Aaron, Katie, Tim

Let's send home: Tim.

March 23, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Billboard #1 Hits

Miley Cyrus is on hand to coach the singers, and she is among the show's more inconsequential mentors. It's Billboard #1 hits, and with a theme this broad, each singer should have no problem finding a song that fits his or her style. But this is one of the weakest fields Idol has ever produced, and as usual, they rarely rise above mediocrity.

The rundown:

Lee, "The Letter" -- I like the brassy arrangement, and it's the first time that I haven't found the rasp in his voice an overwhelming annoyance. Not something I'll remember in a week, but very entertaining in the moment.

Paige, "Against All Odds" -- Pitch is off throughout, but it's worst in the quiet moments, when she isn't providing enough support to keep the pitch up. Had she waited another year or two, she could have been a contender, but her lack of experience shows.

Tim, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" -- Not half bad, actually, which is a huge step up for Tim. It's not a "moment," as Simon would say, but it's technically solid and he's at least trying to give us a bit of charisma and some personality.

Aaron, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" -- There's nothing horribly wrong with the performance, but there's also nothing remotely interesting about it. It's bland competence. (And he's not helped by a bad combination of lighting and makeup that makes him look like a negative image of himself.)

Crystal, "Me and Bobby McGee" -- It's a good performance, though (Miley notwithstanding) I think it was pitched too high. But here's the thing: You could hear the entire performance in your head as soon as you heard "Crystal" and "Bobby McGee," and it's too early in the competition to have become that predictable.

Michael, "When a Man Loves a Woman" -- Marvelous. One of the few really good performances we've gotten this season. His enunciation is greatly improved, and there's passion in the song. My biggest quarrel is that the string accompaniment at the beginning didn't quite work.

Andrew, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- The notes are all in place, but where's the anger, the pain, the sense of betrayal? It's emotionally empty, and as a result, it's duller than canned tuna.

Katie, "Big Girls Don't Cry" -- I like the even tone she gets from low to high pitch, and from quiet to loud. But she's pushing too hard, so phrases start sharp, and running out of breath before the phrases end, so the pitch sags. Like Paige, she'd benefit from more training and experience.

Casey, "The Power of Love" -- He's got similar issues to Crystal, in that he's starting to fall into a predictable rut. Working in his favor, at least this song isn't as overdone as "Bobby McGee;" on the other hand, this wasn't as good a performance as Crystal's.

Didi, "You're No Good" -- I still don't much care for her voice, but this is the first time that I could sort of see why she appeals to some. Not a terribly interesting performance, but less annoying than her usual.

Siobhan, "Superstition" -- OK, clearly she's taken all that praise for the big high note a couple weeks back in "Think" too much to heart, because now everything is ending with ugly, shrieky high notes. It was actually fairly good until the very end, but it went to hell in the last twenty seconds.

For the night: Michael, Lee, Crystal, Siobhan, Casey, Tim, Aaron, Didi, Katie, Andrew, Paige

For the season: Michael, Crystal, Casey, Siobhan, Lee, Andrew, Aaron, Didi, Katie, Paige, Tim

Let's send home: Paige, because a performance that bad cannot be rewarded.

March 18, 2010

BOOKS: Blackout, Connie Willis (2010)

It's 2060, and the history students at Oxford University no longer have to rely on old documents and boring books to do their research. Thanks to the marvels of time travel, they can actually go back and study great historical moments first hand. This is a backdrop that Willis has used before. Domesday Book was a fine historical drama about a student trapped in the era of the plague; To Say Nothing of the Dog was a lively comedy set in the late 19th century.

For Blackout, Willis focuses on England during World War II, sending three of her Oxford students to that era. Eileen is studying the children who were evacuated from London by serving as a nanny to evacuees on a country estate; Polly is working as a London shopgirl during the Blitz; and Michael is headed to Dover to witness the evacuation of Dunkirk as part of his research into history's unsung heroes. They've all been programmed with the basic knowledge they'll need to survive the era; Polly, for instance, knows the times and locations of all the bombs that will hit London during her stay.

They all face more than the usual level of bureaucratic fumbling as they prepare for their trips. Departure times are re-scheduled abruptly; the costume department hasn't prepared the right clothing for them; and everyone seems unusually tense at the lab that does the drops and pickups.

And once they've finally gotten back to the war, the problems only continue. Pickup teams aren't arriving when they're supposed; their drops aren't opening as they should; and each of the three begins to have the nagging suspicion that the war isn't playing out precisely as their training has taught them it should. Either that, or something has gone very wrong in 2060 Oxford.

Willis's strengths are well displayed here. Her characters are likable and fully realized; she's particularly good at giving us entertaining supporting characters -- a pair of unusually bratty children for Eileen to struggle with, a cantakerous old sailor who wants to take Michael to sea in a badly battered boat, a whole company of Londoners with whom Polly takes shelter during air raids. Willis does a fine job of building and sustaining tension as our three heroes begin to realize that they may be in far more serious trouble than they'd ever expected.

But there is one huge annoyance here: This is only volume one of a two-volume novel. Not part one of a series, mind you; there's not even any pretense at a resolution. The story simply ends midway through with a note that we'll have to wait for the "riveting conclusion" until All Clear is published in October. There's nothing on the cover of the book, or on the title page, to indicate that this is not a complete novel. It's an unkind thing to do to your readers.

And it is, I suspect, the explanation for the fact that Blackout occasionally feels a bit bloated and repetitive. After reaching that "to be continued" non-ending, I have a hunch that Willis took to her publisher a manuscript that was deemed too long to be published as a single volume, but not long enough to be broken in half; faced with the choice to edit or pad, it seems that Willis chose to pad.

I enjoyed Blackout and am certainly looking forward to All Clear. I just wish that Willis and her publisher had chosen to be honest with us about what we were getting with this book. It's only half a novel, and it's a dirty trick to market it as if it were a complete one.

March 16, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Rolling Stones night

Every now and then, an Idol wannabe will trot out "Satisfaction," and what we are reminded of each time is that the Stones' songs really aren't all that interesting; what we remember is Jagger's performance, his remarkable charisma, and the skillful production. So, faced with a fairly mediocre songbook, the boys and girls give us an astoundingly mediocre evening. There's not a single exciting or memorable performance to be found, just a vast wasteland of mediocrity. I suspect that each performance will have some who love it and some who hate it.

The rundown:

Michael, "Miss You" -- The arrangement's got a nice swing, and Michael is one of the few in this bunch with any stage presence. His voice sounds terrific, but it's still difficult to understand anything he says, which loses serious points in my book.

Didi, "Play With Fire" -- There's no menace, no sense of danger in this performance. The phrase "playing with fire" needs to be more ominous each time we hear it, needs to evoke images of arson and destruction; all Didi gives us is a sputtering match.

Casey, "It's All Over Now" -- The song is so clearly right in the middle of his comfort zone that he ought to be able to knock our socks off with it, and all we get is very nice karaoke. It's fun, and there's nothing wrong with it, but I'll forget it before the next commercial break is over.

Lacey, "Ruby Tuesday" -- Her vowels are ugly, her tendency to scoop into and out of notes helps to cover up the fact that most of those notes are out of tune, and she has the stage presence of a paper clip. Aside from that, it wasn't bad.

Andrew, "Gimme Shelter" -- If nothing else, it's a nice change from his slowed-down dance song shtick. It's a reasonably good performance, with hints of excitement and passion, but they never quite coalesce into more than tantalizing glimpses of what he might be capable of.

Katie, "Wild Horses" -- A few sour notes here and there, and not much emotional force in the performance, but it's the first time I've understood how she managed to get this far. She's got a lovely, powerful voice, but I don't think she's got the maturity or experience to last much longer.

Tim, "Under My Thumb" -- No, no, no. In one of the most spectacular cases of missing the point in Idol history, Tim turns what should be a song of anger, revenge, and cruel domination into a Jimmy Buffett-meets-Jason Mraz stroll down a sunny beach. That was not pretty.

Siobhan, "Paint It Black" -- By far her worst performance yet. Pitch problems throughout, and she almost never sustains the pitch on the word "black," which just droops off at the end of every phrase. The shrieking at the end is just ugly. (And the judges are on crack.)

Lee, "Beast of Burden" -- Very pleasant, and the musical reinterpretation works reasonably well in this case. His voice gets a bit raspy when he pushes the volume, which isn't something I particularly like, but that's a question of personal preference, not of talent or skill.

Paige, "Honky Tonk Woman" -- She's a strong presence on stage, it's fun to watch her, and there's a lovely husky tone to her voice. But there's something missing that I can't quite put my finger on, some sort of wall that makes it very difficult to feel any connection.

Aaron, "Angie" -- The song sounds faintly silly coming from a boyish 16-year-old, but is there a Stones song that wouldn't? There's nothing terribly wrong with the singing -- pitch is fine and all that -- but it's not a very interesting performance.

Crystal, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" -- OK, we get it. She's the laid-back folkie/bluesy chick with a guitar. And she's quite good at it, but it's starting to get a bit monotonous. Still, this was the best performance of the night, and isn't that a sad commentary on what Idol is serving up this season?

For the night: Crystal, Lee, Andrew, Michael, Paige, Katie, Casey, Aaron, Didi, Siobhan, Lacey, Tim.

For the season: Crystal, Casey, Michael, Andrew, Siobhan, Paige, Didi, Aaron, Katie, Lee, Tim, Lacey.

Let's send home: Lacey. By a long shot, Lacey.

March 13, 2010

MOVIES: The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009)

Argott's movie about the controversial move of a Philadelphia museum is too one-sided to deserve being called a "documentary," but as a piece of agitprop, it's moderately entertaining.

In the early 20th century, Philadelphia physician Albert Barnes began to collect post-Impressionist art. He was drawn to painters who the art world was not yet taking seriously -- Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse -- and developed one of the world's great collections of their work. He housed the paintings in a gallery he had built in Merion Township, about five miles outside Philadelphia, and chose to display them in his own eccentric groupings.

When he loaned the art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a 1923 exhibition, the local art critics were not kind, calling it "primitive, debased art." Barnes's response to this was, essentially, a childish snit; he founded the Barnes Foundation, a trust that was to manage the art after his death, and whose charter included his instructions that the art was never to be loaned or sold, and that public access to the gallery was to be strictly limited to a handful of visitors during a few hours each week.

Barnes died in the early 1950s, and his last surviving "apostle" -- that's the word the movie uses -- died roughly thirty years later, setting in motion a decades-long battle for control of the Barnes Foundation and its art; eventually, the Foundation was taken over by the movers and shakers of the Philadelphia art world, who made plans to move the collection to a new gallery in Philadelphia.

As you can guess from the title of the movie, director Argott sees this as an outrage, a great violation of Barnes's wishes, and he isn't much interested in presenting opposing views. We are given frequent "X would not consent to be interviewed for this film" captions, meant to suggest that X is hiding something, or is ashamed of his behavior, when it seems more likely to me that X simply chose not to take part in a project that was obviously not going to present their views with any sympathy.

It is clear, certainly, that there was a great deal of shady deal-making going on, and that those who wanted to move the Barnes collection took advantage of every political and legal loophole that was available to them. On the other hand, those loopholes were available, and it is the job of lawyers to exploit such things. There is no evidence that anyone involved did anything illegal, and if there had been, you may be sure that Argott would have wasted no time in pointing it out.

So I kept coming back to one question that Argott doesn't seem interested in: Who is harmed by the move of the collection to Philadelphia? Certainly it's good for the city, which will see an increase in tourism; art lovers will benefit from easier access to a glorious collection. It doesn't seem that Merion Township was reaping any particular financial benefit from the presence of the Barnes, given the limited number of visitors it could support; when the Barnes did attempt to increase the number of visitors, the neighbors immediately began complaining about zoning violations and the increase in automotive traffic. Barnes is dead, so he's not being harmed.

The only people I can think of who might conceivably be harmed are the students of the Barnes Foundation, which was founded as an educational institution, but there's so little emphasis placed on that role in the last two decades that it's not entirely clear they continue to fulfill that role. Even if they do, the worst their students face is that their access to the collection is no longer near-exclusive.

This isn't a remotely fair or objective movie in any way, but if you make the effort to mentally dial down Argott's hysteria, you will get a reasonable introduction to the controversy.

MOVIES: Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

What a marvelously entertaining movie! It is (among other things) Scorsese's riff on 50s horror, and all of the stock figures and cliches are there.

To wit: It's 1954, and our setting is a mental institution/prison "for the criminally insane!," located on a desolate rocky island with only one way on or off. A prisoner (oops, that's "patient," at the insistence of creepy doctors Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) has escaped from her room in the middle of the night. Federal marshals Leonard DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are trapped on the island by a raging storm that has (of course) cut off phone service to the island.

And naturally, Nothing Is What It Seems. If Ruffalo really is from Seattle, as he keeps insisting, then why is his Boston accent just as thick as DiCaprio's? Exactly how could Rachel escape from her room and get anywhere on the island, in bare feet, no less? Who's the crazy lady hiding in the caves? And what horrific things are happening in the lighthouse?

The lead performances are all solid -- von Sydow is particularly entertaining, walking right up to the line of camp without ever quite crossing it -- but I took the greatest pleasures in the smaller performances. Emily Mortimer as the escaped patient, Patricia Clarkson as the cave lady, Jackie Earle Haley as a patient from Ward C (that's where all the really dangerous patients are kept), Ted Levine as the menacing warden, Robin Bartlett as a patient who's happy to explain how and why she killed her husband -- they all sparkle, taking full advantage of their brief screen time.

Kudos, too, to Robbie Robertson, who assembled the music for the film, which has no composer; he's assembled work from relatively avant-garde composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries -- Penderecki, Ligeti, Marshall, Cage, Feldman -- and used it so effectively that you'd think they'd been written for the movie.

The ending isn't quite as surprising as it thinks it is, and doesn't achieve the tragic depths it aims for. We aren't given most of the clues we would need to figure out what's really going on, but then, most of the movies Scorsese is honoring didn't have particularly lucid plots either, and at least this one does (mostly) make sense when it is explained.

But despite the slight weakness of the ending, I had a ball at Shutter Island. It's a big ol' thrill ride that simultaneously pays homage to and gleefully parodies the B-movies of the past.

March 10, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: men's semifinals, week 3

Unlike the women, the men did not respond well to pressure. There were a few good moments, most of them from unexpected sources, but there was nothing truly memorable or exciting.

The rundown:

Lee, "Fireflies" -- He has a rather pleasant voice in the quieter moments, with an appealing airy quality. But when he gets louder, or moves into his upper register, he starts pushing too hard, and his voice takes on a harsh rasp that's very unpleasant.

Alex, "Trouble" -- I do like his voice, but a kid who looks 14 simply cannot sing "trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born" with any credibility. It's a song selection that brings on giggles.

Tim, "Hallelujah" -- By far the best he's been, and it's a shame that he botched the ending with that weird long pause in the middle of the final "hallelu -------- jah." A major improvement from someone I had been ready to write off.

(On a side note, can we please declare a moratorium of about five years on the use of this damn song? I am sick to death of seeing it eight times a week in different movies and TV shows and commericals.)

Andrew, "Genie in a Bottle" -- The judges have been nagging him to do "Straight Up 2" for weeks, and tonight he finally does. It's a nice enough performance, but it does raise the question of whether he's anything more than a one-trick pony.

Casey, "You'll Think of Me" -- Definitely better in acoustic guitar mode than he was last week with the electric, but his enunciation is sloppy, and despite his strong charisma and stage presence, this is an instantly forgettable performance.

Aaron, "I'm Already There" -- I don't know if it's nerves or if he's sick or if he just can't hear the band, but the pitch is horribly bad throughout. He's pushing a little too hard, which comes out as way too much vibrato. A major disappointment from someone who probably can't afford one.

Todrick, "Somebody to Love" -- This was the most restrained performance he's given, and therefore the best. He let us hear his voice instead of constantly distracting us with vocal doodads and knickknacks. I still don't think he's any threat to win, but this was a step in the right direction.

Michael, "This Woman's Work" -- The tone of his voice is lovely, and it was an emotional performance. But the goal of singing is to communicate, and I could not understand a single word he said, so the performance must be judged a failure.

Who needs to go home? Lee is the only easy call; he's been in the bottom tier every week. But these singers have been so inconsistent that I could make a reasonable case for sending any of the others home. Force me to pick one? Reluctantly, I'll pick Aaron, who needs another year or two of experience before he'll really be ready for this level of competition.

March 09, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: women's semifinals, week 3

Maybe they just perform better under pressure, but it's a surprisingly good night from the women, with some of the women giving their best performances yet, and only one absolute disaster.

The rundown:

Katie, "Breakaway" -- It's a sluggish, listless performance; she's got no energy, and it shows in her pitch, which is consistenly off. Her voice sounds unusually thick and heavy, as though she's been gargling with molasses. Dull, dull, dull.

Siobhan, "House of the Rising Sun" -- My first goosebump moment of the season. She gets to show off her range, both in pitch and dynamics, and it's beautifully controlled. A marvelous performance. (I do wish she'd changed "boy" to "girl" in the first verse, though.)

Lacey, "The Story" -- This is the best she's been, and it's still atrocious, with pseudo-sultry whispers alternating at random with bellowed yelps. Not that being good would help, because her stage presence is so irritating that she could be Dusty Springfield and I wouldn't want to listen to her.

Katelyn, "I Feel the Earth Move" -- Pleasant enough, I suppose, but not distinctive or memorable in any way. Probably enough to get her through to the finals.

Didi, "Rhiannon" -- Very nicely done. Her voice is not my cup of tea at all, but it seems to be what the producers are looking for this year, and she's certainly the best of the Lacey/Didi/Lilly threesome in that mold.

Paige, "Smile" -- The first half was rather pretty, but then the rhythm section kicked in and suddenly she was just another D-list diva wannabe. Given her ups and downs in the first two weeks, it probably shouldn't be surprising that a lack of consistency will be her downfall.

Crystal, "Give Me One Reason" -- Solid for the most part. The bluesy feel works well for her, but the yodel near the end made me wince, and she desperately needs to work on enunciation. She's certainly one of the best of a weak group.

Lilly, "I Fall to Pieces" -- When your voice is this quirky, you've got to be even more careful about song selection. This is a woman's song, and I'm slightly creeped out hearing it sung in that strange little-girl voice. The performance is competent enough, but the song selection is a terrible mistake.

Only one question to be asked tonight: Which two need to go home? Lacey, for sure, and then it's a tough call between Paige and Katie, but I'd send Katie home, because I think Paige has more potential to become someone worth listening to.

March 03, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: women's semifinals, week 2

So, did the women take advantage of their extra day of rehearsal to improve over last week? Afraid not; there were a few exceptions, but on the whole, this was even duller than their first round. Given the general improvement of the men from week 1 to week 2, the women's failure to improve is even more noticable.

The rundown:

Crystal, "Long As I Can See the Light" -- This bluesy gospel style works much better for her than last week's Alanis did. She's got power without losing control of pitch or tone, and doesn't get too breathy when the volume drops. Very nice.

Haeley, "The Climb" -- The last words in a phrase are too often spoken rather than sung. And when she does sing, there are pitch problems, especially on her runs and slides; she gets to the right note eventually, but the grace notes tend to be out of tune.

Lacey, "Kiss Me" -- It's better than last week (how could it not be?) and mostly in tune, but her stage presence is so self-consciously coy and twee that it makes my teeth itch.

Katie, "Put Your Records On" -- Her upper and lower registers are so oddly different in tone that it's almost like listening to two different singers, and neither of them seems at all connected to the song. Yeah, it's a laid-back tune, but that doesn't mean you can be quite this devoid of emotion.

Didi, "Lean On Me" -- Weird song choice that doesn't suit her style or her voice at all. Well done for what it was, I suppose, but I found it more bizarre than entertaining.

Michelle, "With Arms Wide Open" -- She's pushing very hard for most of the song, and that's doing terrible things to her pitch. And there's still a severity to her stage presence that I find extremely offputting.

Lilly, "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- That little-girl voice and that amount of power are an oddly compelling combination. I'm not sure I like her, exactly, but I'd like to keep her around for at least another week or two and hear more.

Katelyn, "The Scientist" -- A few small pitch problems, but this had more emotional power by far than any performance we've heard in four nights of singing. Quite lovely.

Paige, "Walk Away" -- The phrases are not long ones here, and she still seems to be running out of breath when they end. But she does have a powerful voice, and she's very easy to listen to.

Siobhan, "Think" -- A bit too polite and karaoke, but the money note at the end is impressive, and she's certainly good enough to last for a while.

Deserving a spot in the final 12: Crystal, Katelyn, Paige, Siobhan

Deserving another chance: Katie, Didi, Michelle, Lilly

Deserving to go home: Haeley, Lacey

March 02, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: men's semifinals, week 2

Due to the illness of one of the women, the schedule has been changed at the last minute, and we're getting the men tonight. This strikes me as unfair, as it gives the men one day less and the women one day extra to prepare. And given the comments from Simon last week about this being "a women's year," it has the feel of inappropriate favoritism on the part of the producers.

This is live TV, and these are performers; sickness is part of life, and a professional either sucks it up and performs, or accepts the consequences of being unable to do so. Would it be fair for someone to be knocked out of the competition due to illness? Maybe not, but that's life.

So it's a pleasant surprise that the men are, on the whole, much better than they were last week, and there are very few problems that might be explained away by inadequate rehearsal time (memory lapses, for instance).

The rundown:

Michael, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" -- Gutsy choice, tackling an iconic James Brown hit, and he pulls it off quite nicely. Huge improvement over last week, but his enunciation is still ghastly. Final consonants are being ignored, and 70% of the lyrics are incomprehensible.

John, "Gravity" -- He's in a higher part of his register this week, and he seems far more comfortable there. There's still the occasional tendency to overdo the vibrato, and his isn't a voice that I'm particularly fond of, but it's an adequate performance.

Casey, "I Don't Want to Be" -- The low notes are getting buried by the band, which wasn't a problem with last week's more acoustic performance, but that may well be due to insufficient rehearsal time to adjust miking levels. What he does have going for him is charisma, which he's got more of than the rest of the men combined.

Alex, "Everybody Knows" -- He still can't really hit the lowest notes, but I like his conversational, laid-back style. He's not an exciting performer yet, but if he can work through his stage fright problem, there's huge potential here.

Todrick, "What's Love Got to Do With It" -- Pitch problems throughout, and he's especially prone to tossing off the last note of a phrase with no regard for accuracy. The arrangement sucked all of the life out of the song, and he didn't put any of it back with his performance.

Jermaine, "What's Going On" -- Well, that was a mess. He insists on choosing keys that plant him in the weakest, breathiest part of his range, and when he does generate a little sound, it's not a pretty sound at all.

Andrew, "You Give Me Something" -- Pitch is horrible throughout. This is painful to listen to, and he looks so unhappy and miserable to be on stage.

Aaron, "My Girl" -- Not as good as last week, but not horrible. He's pushing a bit, overdoing the runs and flourishes, and this isn't his natural style; he sounds best, in fact, at those moments when his natural country inflections slip through.

Tim, "Come On Get Higher" -- There's nothing terribly wrong with it, which is itself a huge improvement over last week, but it's entirely bland and instantly forgettable.

Lee, "Lips of an Angel" -- Marginally better than last week, and certainly more in tune, but his voice is so unattractive that the improvement is like lipstick on a pig.

Deserving a spot in the final 12: Casey, Alex, Aaron.

Deserving another chance: Michael, John, Todrick, Tim.

Deserving to go home: Any combination of Jermaine, Andrew, or Lee.

March 01, 2010

BOOKS: The Little Sleep, Paul Tremblay (2009)

There's a great big fat suspension of disbelief required for this one, but if you can make that leap, I think you'll be entertained.

Our hero is Paul Genevich, a south Boston private eye who usually sticks to cases involving deskwork and research -- title searches, genealogies, that sort of thing. He's reluctant to take more traditional PI cases that would involve stakeouts, pursuits, spying, etc, because -- and here's your suspension of disbelief -- he's narcoleptic. Severely narcoleptic, no less, prone to fits of catoplexy and the occasional hallucination as he's on his way into or out of a sleeping spell.

But when Paul sees the beautiful Jennifer Times sitting in his office, and she leaves behind a couple of nude photos of herself, he's suddenly involved in a real case. Jennifer is the daughter of the district attorney (who just happens to have been a boyhood chum of Paul's deceased father), and she's become a minor celebrity in her own right as a contestant on an American Idol-type show.

I don't know nearly enough about narcolepsy to know whether Tremblay's depiction of the condition is accurate, but it feels convincing, and Tremblay uses Paul's narcolepsy to generate suspense in unusual ways; what would be a simple 45-minute drive from the suburbs to Boston, for instance, becomes a nightmarish orderal when Paul is forced to do the driving himself.

The narrative voice is entertaining, filled with the sardonic wisecracks that have been almost obligatory for private eyes ever since Raymond Chandler, and the story is briskly plotted, with its fair share of twists and turns. It's hard for me to imagine that Tremblay can sustain a series about a narcoleptic private eye for very long, but the followup has just been published (No Sleep Till Wonderland), and I'm certainly curious to see if he can pull it off again.