Mad Times

“To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” – Wendell Berry

December 31st, 2007 at 8:16 pm

2007 media review

In 2007 I read a whopping 40 books (actually a few more than that since I’m counting reviews and a few of the year’s reviews encompassed multiple books) which is up about 20% from last year’s total. Not that it matters.

We also watched a bunch of movies (105 compared to 75 last year). The increase may be due to our each watching quite a few flicks solo that the other wouldn’t have cared about. Here’s a list of what we saw and what we thought of them.

The notes are about where we saw the movie and who saw it. “T” indicates we saw it in the theater (only 7). Other letters indicate who attended. The default is Becky and me. If only R appears then Rachel saw it with us. If just “J” or “B” appear then only the one of us saw it. “B, R” means I skipped that one, etc. I realize that all of this nonsense is really only of interest to Becky and me, but whose blog is it anyway?

rating Title Notes
**** Children of Men  
**** Exotica J repeat
**** Howl’s Moving Castle  
**** The Lives of Others T, L&A
***+ American Masters: Andy Warhol  
***+ Factotum  
***+ Henry and June  
***+ In Her Shoes J
***+ Once  
***+ Rattatouille  
***+ Short Film About John Bolton, A  
***+ Shortbus  
***+ Stranger Than Fiction  
***+ Venus  
***+ Volver L&A
***+ Waitress  
*** Adam & Steve  
*** Aeon Flux J
*** Barefooot In the Park B
*** Bee Movie T B w/ Rosalind
*** Bourne Ultimatum, The T B w/ Lorna
*** Casino Royale  
*** Chuck & Buck B
*** Claudia Beard 24wpm  
*** Eastern Promises T B w/ Lorna
*** Fantastic Four J
*** Fountain, The  
*** Fur  
*** I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing  
*** I, Robot J
*** In Her Shoes B
*** Kinky Boots  
*** Libeled Lady B
*** Libertine, The  
*** Lie With Me  
*** Lonesome Jim  
*** Lost In La Mancha J
*** Marie Antoinette  
*** Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School  
*** Motorcycle Diaries, The  
*** Mysterious Skin  
*** Oh in Ohio, The  
*** Open Your Eyes  
*** Painted Veil, The  
*** Platinum Blonde B
*** Porco Rosso  
*** Prestige, The  
*** Price of Milk, The  
*** Prime  
*** Queen, The  
*** Rocky Horror Picture Show  
*** Running With Scissors  
*** Scanner Darkly, A  
*** Science of Sleep, The  
*** Shut Up and Sing  
*** State of the Union B
*** Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The B
*** This Film Is Not Yet Rated  
*** Three of Hearts J
*** Whole New Thing  
*** You Can’t Take It With You B
**+ 2010: The Year We Make Contact J
**+ After the Wedding  
**+ American Dreamz  
**+ Barbarella  
**+ Can’t Buy Me Love repeat
**+ Constantine J
**+ Everything Is Illuminated  
**+ Illusionist, The  
**+ Knocked Up  
**+ Last Kiss, The  
**+ League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The J
**+ Little Children  
**+ Mad Hot Ballroom  
**+ Meet John Doe B
**+ Millions  
**+ Mirrormask  
**+ Music and Lyrics  
**+ Notes on a Scandal  
**+ Pan’s Labyrinth  
**+ Pizza  
**+ Puccini for Beginners  
**+ Slither w/ K&E
**+ Stardust T w/ L&A
**+ Valmont  
**+ Van Helsing J
**+ Wedding Crashers repeat for B
**+ Where the Truth Lies  
** Arthur and the Invisibles  
** Bubble J
** CQ J
** Driving Lessons  
** East Is East  
** Groomsmen, The  
** Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix T
** King Arthur  
** Lake House, The B
** No Such Thing J
** Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End T w/ R
** Rumor Has It B
** Strangers With Candy  
** With Honor  
*+ A Good Woman  
*+ Lady In the Water s&h, j&s
*+ Ultraviolet J

That doesn’t include everything we watched that we’d seen before (a few repeats are included as noted). We don’t actually use stars when we rate movies, we use words. I’ve translated our “Don’t Miss” to ****, “Pretty Good” to ***, “Okay” to **, and “Don’t Bother” to * if that helps you make sense of this. If you’re wondering whether you’d like something on here, leave a comment or send email and I’ll expand.

In other anal-retentive data mining, we returned 126 disks to Netflix this year after switching to the three-disk plan in February. That includes most of the TV we watched this year:

  • The Book of Daniel (complete series (cancelled in first season))
  • Heroes (season 1)
  • Joan of Arcadia (season 2 (last))
  • Once and Again (season 2 (just Becky))
  • Scrubs (first season)
  • That 70′s Show (season 1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Veronica Mars (season 3 (last))
  • Weeds (both of us watched season 1 and Becky toughed it out through season 2)
  • Wonderfalls (complete series (cancelled in first season) ended up buying our own copy)

Plus the series we sampled and didn’t continue past the first disk:

  • Babylon 5
  • Big Love
  • Commander in Chief
  • Dead Like Me
  • Eureka
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Star Trek: Enterprise (just Jeff)
December 31st, 2007 at 6:49 pm

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

space ships swarming towards a planetI’d heard from a number of quarters that this was good, and hey look, everyone was right! Set in a future where Earth has managed to colonize some other star systems, the colonial defense forces recruit 75-year-old folks from Earth with the promise to return them to fighting shape so they can put in ten years of service in the war against the nasty human-eating aliens. If they manage to survive their ten years they can become colonists themselves and have a whole new life.

I’m not usually a huge fan of military SF, but Scalzi’s army populated with people who have lived a whole life already allows him to sidestep most of the obnoxious cliches that result from putting kids with no experience into military situations. Not that there aren’t any blowhard jerks, but the few who make it through basic training find their arrogance resulting in unfortunate mishaps on the battlefield that are disturbingly enjoyable to read.

Lest you think the book is all guns and gadgets (there are plenty of those. I want a BrainPal.), it’s also got some sex and romance. The romance is mostly in the main character’s love for his dead wife, but it is no less touching for its confinement to the past tense. The other romance would be a big fat spoiler (also a mind-boggling coincidence, but I let it pass).

Great fun, and there’s a sequel (plus a short and a novella if I’m interpreting the internets correctly).

December 31st, 2007 at 12:41 am

Philippe Halsman

Halsman's 1950 portrait of Marlon BrandoAfter seeing this picture on local photographer Mark Griffith’s Flickr stream, I followed his link to the Jumping Project Flickr Pool looking for tips on taking jump shots and discovered that the pool was formed in response to the work of Philippe Halsman. I remembered seeing something about a book of jumping portraits by him on BoingBoing or somewhere so I went looking for the book. It’s not in my library, alas, but three other books of his work were: Halsman: a Retrospective (pictured at left), Halsman: Sight and Insight, and Halsman at Work co-authored with his wife Yvonne.

I didn’t know his name, but I knew many of the pictures. For example the classic head shot of Einstein is one of his. Google image search turns up a quick overview. Halsman had over 100 photos on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Retrospective is a collection of photos with only a little bit of commentary and all of the commentary in that book is also present in Sight and Insight which has extensive remembrances about the pictures and their subjects from Halsman. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the personalities of some near-mythical figures. Halsman at Work has not just Philippe’s recollections, but also wife and assistant Yvonne’s and includes some of Yvonne’s photographs, many showing the set up used to produce the portraits which is extreme photographer eye candy.

Each of the books has a few of his jumping portraits and they are uniformly delightful, cracking the veneer of subjects from Richard Nixon to Audrey Hepburn (who if you weren’t in love with her before, seeing her jump should do the trick), Edward Steichen, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe.

Halsman’s commentary highlights the fact that a photographer’s most important tool is between his ears. And for a portrait photographer that goes double since not only does he have to be an absolute master of the mechanics of taking the photograph he also has to engage with his subject on a level that will distract them from the fact that they’re having their picture taken at all. That Halsman was able to do this with the likes of Churchill and Dali and Einstein implies the brain he was carrying around was pretty amazing.

December 31st, 2007 at 12:36 am

Clan Corporate by Charles Stross

woman in medieval dress with a gunThird book in Stross’s series about Miriam Beckstein, a woman who discovers that she is part of a family who can step between different alternate versions of the Earth. This volume is thick with intrigue, some of it nearly incomprehensible in its complexity. And yet despite all the plotting and scheming and maneuvering, there is essentially no change in the characters’ conditions in the entire course of the book until its closing pages. It’s a middle book that I think could have been reduced to a couple of chapters with no loss. Disappointing.

December 31st, 2007 at 12:29 am

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

a tiger and a boy in a lifeboat on the oceanPi is a young boy who finds himself in a lifeboat after the ship carrying his zoo-keeper family from India to Toronto is sunk in the South Pacific. Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that he is sharing the lifeboat with a full-grown Bengal tiger.

A friend loaned me this book several years ago and I’m just now finishing it even though I started back then and have picked away at it off and on since. So the first third of the book is a little fuzzy in my memory. This fragmented approach should not reflect badly on the book. I was just flipping through the first third to check some points and reading it now it threatened to pull me in with each paragraph. The style is conversational, digressive, and funny, moving from childhood trials to facts about the zoo animals to religious issues. But the shipwreck promised by the book’s cover doesn’t come until after that first third. Once Pi is in the lifeboat with the tiger it becomes significantly harder to put the book down. I think I have an inkling now, though, of how much more impact the book would have had if I’d had the concentration to read it straight through from the start. Should you read it, I strongly recommend this course.

December 30th, 2007 at 7:48 pm

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

London theatre district viewed through a swastikaThis is the second book Walton has set in an England which made peace with Hitler’s Germany. Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is again one of the point of view characters. He trades chapters with a new character, Viola Lark who, on the first page of the book, is offered the lead in a gender-swapped production of Hamlet.

The production is dealt a setback when the actress slated to play Hamlet’s mother dies along with another man in an explosion at her house. Inspector Carmichael is assigned to the investigation of the explosion and deaths. The explosion would seem to have nothing to do with the play, but when it’s revealed that Adolf Hitler himself plans to attend the play’s opening night along with the British Prime Minister, things start looking a little more suspicious.

The book highlights how hard it is for people concerned with their everyday lives to believe in atrocities committed in other parts of the world. And even when the atrocities come into focus how hard it is to see how they apply to those mundane lives. Alongside that abstract message, Walton shows how easy it is for her two sympathetic main characters to fall into situations where they may commit terrible acts of their own.

December 28th, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Chin rest

Cat with his chin resting on his owner's hand

Theo is never happier than when he can tie you down by resting his chin on your hand or arm.

December 22nd, 2007 at 12:35 am


bearded dude with two small cats stacked on his crossed arms

Another from back when the babies were small. I can’t imagine how we must have gotten into this position.

December 20th, 2007 at 11:46 am

Recovery Man by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

a spaceport on a moon of JupiterSixth in Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series. I started with the third book which worked okay, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. There’s just too much back story taken as given. New in this volume is a second primary point of view character (at least I don’t remember the narrative being this split in the other books). We meet a young woman named Talia Shindo whose mother is kidnapped from their home on Jupiter’s moon Callisto by a Recovery Man early in the book. Actually there are several other POV characters too now that I think about it, so maybe I’m misremembering the other books as staying closer to Miles Flint.

The setting of these novels has human culture interacting with a large number of alien species. In these interactions, humans become subject to alien laws. These laws are sometimes viewed by humans as trivial or incomprehensible, so humans created Disappearance Services which are like a witness relocation program on steroids: the offending person is given a new identity and hidden away so the affronted aliens cannot exact their punishment (usually death). Humans being the opportunists that they are, a parallel occupation springs up called a Tracker. Trackers will find disappeared people for the alien governments. They’re not very well liked. Retrieval Artists are like human-sympathetic Trackers, they will find a disappeared person, but only under circumstances where that person would presumably want to be found (e.g., when the violated law changes and their offense is no longer fatal to them, or when they suddenly come into a large sum of money.) Those three occupations were in all the previous books. In this book, Rusch introduces a new one. A Recovery Man is someone with the quasi-legal job of returning wayward possessions to their rightful owners. And yes, the word “possession” there does denote that people are a bit out of the Recovery Man’s normal line.

Meanwhile back on our moon, Miles Flint is still working through the revelations from the previous book, Paloma where he found that his mentor wasn’t the ethical pillar he’d thought she was, and in particular he discovers that some of her transgressions may have involved Miles himself.

The major plot points in this book build off events from previous books in a way that feels a little flimsy, like it didn’t occur to Rusch that this might have been what really happened behind the scenes until now. But while those points strain credulity a bit, the execution of the new story line is good enough, and the newly revealed characters interesting enough that I can forgive her. It can’t be easy to maintain a series whose books each hinge on personally life-changing events for the main character. If a little retconning is required, at least it results in an interesting story.

I’m a little worried about the next book, though. It could easily stray into the territory of cop buddy movie cliche (actually a subgenre of that, but I can’t tell you which one without spoiling this book) if she’s not very careful.

December 15th, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Buy my sister’s house!

Have I got a house for sale for you! Sited in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Panoramic views of the San Joaquin Valley. Quiet friendly neighborhood of Cedar Ridge in Tuolumne County. Easy striking distance to skiing and other mountain recreation. The town of Twain Harte is minutes away, Sonora is a few more minutes.

View from Karen's house

The house itself is a nearly-new manufactured home. The build quality and installation are excellent. It feels (and is) solid, roomy, and cozy.

Karen's house

For all the details and to arrange a showing see the agent’s listing. Or if you have questions, leave a comment or fling me an email.

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