Friday, November 28, 2014

Million Dollar Arm - a movie review

Million Dollar Arm
directed by Craig Gillespie
starring Jon Hamm, Asif Mandvi, Alan Arkin
5 stars - a feel good movie that isn't saccharine sweet
ALR Green - animals as background only

Every now and then, I like to watch a "feel good" movie so I can, well, feel good. But I limit my viewing since most of them leave me feeling a bit sickly from the swelling orchestral score and manipulative scenes (now you laugh, now you cry).

Million Dollar Arm was an exception for me. I didn't find it overly sentimental or contrived, and the characters weren't altogether one dimensional (except for love interest, played by Lake Bell, cool name, by the way).

The movie is a fictionalized account of down and out sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, who sets out to revive his career by recruiting Indian cricket players to train for major league baseball. Over the past decade, I've come to know India from afar as my company has significantly expanded its workforce into that country. I found the depictions of India to be honest, particularly regarding some of the cultural differences from the United States. 

Mr. Bernstein staged tryouts in several major Indian cities looking for young men who could throw both fast and accurately. He finally locates two candidates and brings them to the US to undergo intensive training, all as a prelude to major league tryouts. Ultimately, Mr. Bernstein learns how to chill and think more about people than the bottom line. That's kind of what you'd expect, right? But it happens in a way that is delightfully subtle and his stumbles along the way give one pause to think about their own actions and, perhaps, what is really important in making our way through the world.

Alan Arkin is, as always, delightful in his supporting role. The young men portraying the two lucky ones to fly to the US provide shaded performances which conveyed both their longing to do well and their desire to cautiously partake of all that is American (pizza, yum).

Yeah, the ending isn't all that surprising, but the journey is very pleasant. 

No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley

No Way to Treat a First Lady
by Christopher Buckley
2004 Thurber Prize winner
2 stars - not my kind of humor
ALR Blue - no animals

When the president of the United States is discovered dead, in his bed, the First Lady is accused of his murder / assassination. Enter Boyce "Shameless" Baylor, ruthless defense attorney and former First Lady fiancee. Mayhem ensues.

Christopher Buckley is a talented satirist with a gift for words, but this one missed the mark for me. Allow me to enumerate.

  1. I enjoy humor that allows us to see my own absurdity, not humor that focuses on identifying "them" as the target of derision. In this case, the "them" being politicians, various government institutions, lawyers, the media, and the well-monied. 
  2. If one is going to poke fun at powerful institutions or horrific revelations in the news, best to make it totally over the top (think Hogan's Heroes). 
  3. Sex jokes only carry the day for so long before one feels engrossed in the literary equivalent of a National Lampoon movie.
  4. Having failed in items 1-3 above, attempts to paint protagonists as flawed, but ultimately likable, rouges is too little too late.
So, that's a big "nope" from this reviewer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser (and some movies too)

Command and Control
Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
by Eric Schlosser
5 stars - chilling
ALR Blue

Command and Control is the story of the age of nuclear warfare. Beginning with the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II and ending in the present, Mr. Schlosser draws on recently declassified documents and extensive interviews to lay out the nuclear history of the United States in all its horrific detail.

Interwoven with the historical narrative is the tale of one of the most alarming near misses in United States history. That being the accidental release of fuel and the subsequent perfect storm of oversight, human error, poor judgement, and ignorance that resulted in a Titan II missile in Damascus Arkansas blowing out of its silo in 1980.

I confess to having trouble getting through this book. While Mr. Schlosser's prose is quite readable, the subject matter quickly becomes overwhelmingly nightmarish. Reading about decades of in-fighting over control of the nuclear arsenal, reckless experimentation, and dangerous budget cuts can leave one with a feeling of despair. However, it's an important book and I encourage you to read it and consider the implications.

It could leave you yearning for simpler times when the Cold War was fully operational and the primary focus of the nuclear program was a series of posturing and bluffs between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, with the major military powers realizing that "controlled nuclear warfare" is a fantasy, less circumspect countries around the globe are building up their nuclear arsenals. If nothing else, you'll have a renewed interest in news reports regarding the weaponry of countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran (to name a few).

The reader will also be reminded of the manipulative rhetoric of both politicians and military leaders as well as their own primal inclinations to yield to fear mongering, the desire to feel safe, and trust in modern technology. Just as the systems and controls around our nuclear program have suffered from neglect and human foibles, so too, does our current government control of technological defenses. Make no mistake.

Here are just a few of the things I learned along the way...

  • During World War II and the years following, our military strategy was focused on maximizing civilian loss of life. Yup, no "collateral damage." In fact, statisticians developed models for how best to target civilians to tip a nation from determined patriotism to total psychological defeat.
  • The Berlin Wall went up in my lifetime (sure I knew it came down recently, but I'd always thought it went up right after WW II).
  • The US felt it was too dangerous to fly fully assembled nuclear weapons over US soil, so they convinced their allies to store bits and pieces resulting in the ready to go devices only being flown over countries like England, France, and Spain (well at least we weren't going to blow up the US).
  • Figuring out how to arm, transport, fire, and safely detonate a nuclear weapon is a lot harder than it looks and there were so many transportation mishaps that one wonders how we ever survived.
My parents' book shelf contained a small paperback book about how to survive all sorts of horrific events (I can't find the exact title since there have been many, similarly themed, books published in the succeeding decades). As a youngster, I read it many times so as to always be prepared, but the chapter I read over and over was the one on how to survive a nuclear attack.

The advice consisted primarily of covering your ears, closing your eyes, and curling into a ball to minimize the amount of your body that would get scalded by the blast. And I confess that even as a naive youth, the information never quite jived with me. I practiced the position in my room and I reread the details on the many ways an atomic bomb will kill you and it just never seemed like any of us were going to make it. Not only that, but that most of us were going to perish in agony. I think I understood nuclear war very well.

For readers that enjoy a good movie now and then as well as those who might not feel they can stand up to almost 500 pages of stomach clenching history, here's a sampling of five star movies to watch.

Fail Safe
directed by Sidney Lumet
5 stars

I didn't see this movie when it came out, but I do recall watching it on television when I was in my early teens. It made such an impression that I can still visualize the final moments. The plot? American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Now what? Because, yeah, both the US and the Soviet Union scrambled their bombers on several occasions when one or the other had an early warning system that glitched due to bird formations, rays of sunshine, and once when a worker loaded the thermonuclear warfare simulation tape into the system by accident.

Dr. Strangelove
directed by Stanley Kubrick
5 stars

Here's a movie that deals with the tug of war between military and civilian control of nuclear weapons when a general sets off the system of bells and whistles towards nuclear war. Makes you a bit more worried about countries today with their nuclear program totally in the hands of the military. Plus, this movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (worth it just for that).

If you want a movie a bit less disturbing, but also somewhat eye opening, try Wargames.

directed by John Badham
5 stars

An impossibly young Matthew Broderick confuses the United States nuclear launch system with a fun filled computer game and sets to playing Thermonuclear War, blithely unaware that he's actually launching missiles. This one might make you worry about "hackers just wanna hack" types who try to break in to secure networks just for fun.

The Day After
directed by Nicholas Meyer
5 stars

According to the book, Command and Control, when president Ronald Reagan saw this movie it scared the bejesus out of him and led him to a strong commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiling and seek better checks and balances on the weapons at hand.

I can imagine. It sure scared me. This movie deals primarily with the aftermath of a nuclear blast and, yes, it's totally icky and makes you kind of want to be at ground zero if the big one ever drops.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Paradise - TV Series

The Paradise
4 stars

Fans of lush BBC dramas with extravagant costumes, understated performances, and lots of upper crust angst will enjoy this short series (8 episodes). 

John Moray has opened a department store in a time when one was used to going to separate shops for every small item (one shop for a dress, one for a hat, one for gloves, etc.). It's revolutionary and, well, a bit coarse for some of the locals.

Nevertheless, he continues to enjoy success and is surrounded by a delightful cast of characters including an ominous right hand man, a manipulative fiancee wannabe, and a painfully corseted (in body and spirit) head of ladies' wear. 

Enough character intrigue to keep me watching and a visual delight.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hounded by David Rosenfelt

by David Rosenfelt
3 stars - lightweight entertainment
ALR Green - two dogs get patted and go for walks, but no dog characters (despite the cover art)

Let's get the "this is not a dog book" out of the way up front. Despite the adorable photo on the cover, the two dogs in the book get no play and are not involved in plot advancement whatsoever. 

What we have here is very nearly a cozy mystery. It's got a few more icky murders than your average cozy and the lead character is a guy, but other than that, all the elements are there. Nice guy, self deprecating humor, various colorful sidekicks, and a touch of romance. 

Andy Carpenter, defense attorney, is the main character. His pal, policeman Pete Stanton, has just been arrested for murder and it's up to Andy to prove him innocent. In the meantime, Andy and his girlfriend, Laurie, are taking care of the victim's young son and dog. 

Some interesting courtroom manipulation during the trial. Good enough plot and nice suspense towards the end of the book. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Yellow Room
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
3 stars - a nice procedural
ALR Blue - a friendly dog barks, but that's it

This book arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep some weeks back. What better surprise for a book nerd than an unexpected package from a friend containing a nice little mystery?

The Yellow Room is a straightforward procedural mystery written in 1945. I mention the date because stylistically the book is a bit old fashioned, especially when it comes to women fainting or dying of fright. 

No problem, it's still a delightful read with some, possibly unintentional, humorous touches.

The Spencer family is decidedly wealthy and not suffering much, other than having to cut back on servants, due to the current world war. With brother Greg on his way stateside to receive a service award in Washington DC, twenty something Carol Spencer makes her way from New York City to the family's summer house in Maine (where Mother Spencer feels certain young Greg will want to spend some time "cooling off" from the war while on leave). 

But things are in a bit of a tizzy down east. No sooner does Carol arrive with her paltry entourage of three maids when a body is discovered in the linen closet. Not only that, but the caretaker of the "cottage" is in the hospital having suffered a tumble down the stairs and a broken leg when some person unknown assaulted her one evening right in Chateau Spencer.

And so we begin. The story unfolds in delightful layers with plenty of twists and false leads (or are they). Most curious, is the new neighbor, one Mr. Dane, who is nursing a war wound in a rented cottage but also investigating the murder in the closet mystery on his own. 

One of the most delightful aspects of the book was all the rich folk wandering about late at night in their robes and slippers. My goodness. So much foot traffic up and down lanes, glimpses of other persons, possible clues left secret, and other mayhem. I think the town was more active at night than during the day.

Another telltale to the vintage of the book is the duration of hospital stays. Several days for a broken leg, as an example. No such thing as out patient procedures at the local clinic. 

The title of the book comes from the name of the room occupied by the mysterious dead woman. Yes, the Spencer's cottage has so many rooms that they need to name them to keep them sorted. And so all roads lead back to The Yellow Room and the secrets it holds both to the identity of the murdered woman and the reasons behind her untimely demise.

In a way, this is also a mid century sort of cozy mystery with blossoming romance as a subtext to the more sinister goings on. It's a lovely book for a rainy day. Make some tea, settle in, and enjoy.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
4 stars - ew, just, ew
ALR Blue - OK, maybe yellow for sensitive readers. There's one scene in a slaughterhouse that might put you off your bacon for a bit.

I knew up front that I'd have to read this in one big gulp. Ms. Flynn writes some icky stuff and it doesn't pay to spread out your "enjoyment" over too many days.

This story is wicked icky and also so well written, so seductive, that I found it impossible to stop reading. 

Camille Preaker is a reporter for a small Chicago newspaper who is sent to her Missouri hometown to dig up a good story on the murders of two preteen girls. Camille hasn't been home for a while. Why? Well her mom is kind of, um, controlling, her stepfather is more of a piece of furniture than an actual human, and then there's her half sister whom she's hardly ever met (who turns out to be, well, icky).

Oh, let's not forget that Camille isn't all that tightly wrapped herself. She's recently had an extended sleepover in a psych hospital for reasons that are revealed as the story slithers along.

Camille is on a budget and has to bunk with mom, stepdad, and creepy sister. She's running in to a lot of people she grew up with, digging up some rather unpleasant memories, and all the while trying to figure out just what happened to those two young girls. 

Ms. Flynn brings the reader ever deeper into crazy land with a style that is wondrous to behold. Here Camille is about to interview the family of one of the murdered girls.

I was hoping Betsy Nash would disappear. Literally. She was so insubstantial, I could imagine her slowly evaporating, leaving only a sticky spot on the edge of the sofa. But she lingered, eyes darting between me and her husband before we even began speaking. Like she was winding up for the conversation. The children, too, hovered about, little blonde ghosts trapped in a limbo between indolence and stupidity. The pretty girl might do all right. But the piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake binging. The boy was the type who'd end up drinking in gas-station parking lots.

Because aren't those the kind of thoughts that anybody would have? Maybe, yeah, a little, but who wants to admit it? Grotesque and artful. This is Ms. Flynn's first novel and it isn't quite as flawless as her later works, but still, hardly a misplaced word or sentence. Every turn of phrase pokes down your spine and makes you want to hide in a hole from the nastiness that exists in people.

As a final note, the library copy I received was quite swollen from water damage. Wonder if the last borrower flung it into a puddle. I liked that the book was physically misshapen and injured. Kind of went with the story.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy

Buffalo West Wing
by Julie Hyzy
3 stars - super cozy and light as a feather
ALR Blue - 

Olivia Paras, executive chef at the White House is in trouble again. Sheesh. It's always something.

This time around there's a new president. On the day the new First Family moves in, Olivia finds a mysterious box of Buffalo Chicken Wings in her kitchen. How did they get there? And why is there a note that says they are a special gift for the First Kids?

Following protocol, Olivia sequesters the food away until the source can be found (can't be too careful at the White House). Is there any reader out there who doesn't know the wings are poisoned? Of course they are and after they are consumed by some innocent White House staffers looking for a late night snack, things begin to unravel.

So we've got an attempt to poison the First Kids. If that isn't bad enough, the new First Lady has decided to bring in her own chef. One pompous attention seeking dork face of a guy. Sheesh! 

All the usual one would expect from a White House Chef Mystery (this being #4). Plenty of behind the scenes stuff about how the White House runs in general, and how the kitchen runs in particular (love it), plenty of Olivia working hard to do the right thing and struggling with her lack of social life. Bad guys, a bit of mystery, a couple of twists. In short, exactly what I was looking for to relax my brain.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian

Armenian Golgotha
by Grigoris Balakian
translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag
2009 translation
5 stars - devastating
ALR Blue

It saddens me that prior to reading this book, I was unaware of the genocide which took place in Turkey during World War I. To simplify, Turkey took advantage of World War I to carry out a brutal plan of exterminating the Armenian people. So convinced were they that any war outcome would benefit them in the long run, that they quite nearly wiped out an entire race while the rest of the world was otherwise occupied.

Armenian Golgotha is a first hand account of the years 1915-1918 in Turkey. Written by an Armenian cleric, it chronicles his years in exile, near escapes from death, horrific experiences, and ultimate escape to freedom. 

The English translation is quite new, having been published in 2009 after a painstaking decade of work by the translators, Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag. The resultant volume is rich and very readable, albeit emotionally draining. 

If you, like me, become easily overwhelmed by complex characters, events, and maps, do not let that discourage you. The writing itself is enough to keep you going. 

I found it both heartbreaking and astonishing to learn the abuse the human body can take and still survive (long after the soul has been taken). While the author does not turn away from sights of unspeakable suffering, he does not glorify it, nor dwell on it. He merely logs the facts of his journey and describes what is around him. It is terrible beyond belief. Men, women, children by the hundreds of thousands tortured, starved, abducted, murdered. There are some brave souls along the way who attempt to assist the Armenian people. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they are destined to suffer horrendous fates, but one cannot judge too harshly those who turn their backs out of fear for their own lives, the lives of their loved ones.

I found the opening chapters particularly chilling as they set the stage both for World War I and for the ensuing genocide. How easily a country, a people, can be turned from striving to better themselves to living in fear once war is declared, once hate is the primary tool of control, once the "others" somehow responsible for all the misery in the world have been identified and labeled for extermination.

It's a theme that repeats itself and is always lurking just under the surface. I see it bubble up all too often here, in the relative safe zone of the United States. One need look no further than the current threat of Ebola to see people tipping over the edge from rational thought to a mob mentality. 

But I feel it is incumbent on me not to turn away from the repeated acts of hatred that the human race perpetrates on itself. To deny the past is to hide from the present. So, I recommend this book, strongly, but with the caveat that it will affect the reader deeply.