Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Barker's Dozen by Robert Warr

The Barker's Dozen
reminiscences of an early police dog
by Robert Warr
373 pages
1 star - oh dear, I very much wanted to like this book
ALR Green

The Barker's Dozen is a set of (oddly) 13 short detective stories which take place in England during the Victorian era. Snuffles the spaniel is companion to Inspector Richard Thompson of Scotland yard and plays no small role in solving crimes.

Snuffles, it turns out, is capable of human speech and each chapter is told by Snuffles under the pretext of entertaining Inspector Thompson's nephew. 

The writing is often clever and one is reminded at times that the narrator is, indeed, a dog, by passages such as this:

For a young dog, this was an extremely exciting occasion. Not only was there a murder to investigate but Maygrove House had a large lake, with ducks! It was a hot day and I must admit the thought of a swim appealed to me. For me, to think is to do. I have always been a dog of action. I ran down the lawn towards the lake. I must admit that I so forgot myself as to bark at the ducks. I even ignored your uncle's clear instructions to stop. Splash! I entered the water, only to find that it was four inches deep and covered thick [with] mud. It was some few minutes later that I was dragged from the lake, covered with mud and embarrassment.

Unfortunately, Snuffles reveals his doggie nature rarely and mostly the text is comprised of his matter of fact recounting of how events played out. 

Now I wanted to like this book. A great effort and, I suspect, self published (I assume, based on discovering typographical errors), and I am always one to encourage new authors. Sadly, the book missed the mark as both a dog book and a detective book. The mysteries had a sameness to them and there is no opportunity for the reader to try and figure things out. In the set of stories that I did read, the major clues are revealed simply during conversations that Snuffles has with various cats, birds, and other wildlife and, by the end, all that remains is for him to figure out how to convey his information to Inspector Thompson without actually speaking to him (a behavior that is reserved for Inspector Thompson's nephew). 

So, no, I did not finish the book and it is off to the library this very day.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo

by Jo Nesbo
translated by Don Bartlett
1998, 368 pages
2 stars - well, that was disappointing
ALR Blue

Well, having given Jo Nesbo's 6th Harry Hole mystery, The Redeemer, four stars, I was looking forward to stepping back to the second book in the series, but it was not what I expected. 

In this book, Harry Hole, alcoholic Norwegian detective, finds himself assigned to solve the murder of the Norwegian ambassador to Thailand. Given that the ambassador's body was discovered in a brothel, the Norwegian officials are anxious to keep things under the radar until a palatable explanation can be found. One and only one detective will investigate and Harry Hole is assigned to the case. 

Harry's barely holding on to his sobriety and his boss is curious regarding the assignment, but since the order came down from above, nothing to do but send him packing.

Well, if nothing else, Mr. Nesbo has succeeded in deterring me from any thoughts of visiting Bangkok as he describes the city to be full of crime, traffic, unsavory characters, and impossible weather.

The story, unfortunately, did not engage me. I admit to being flummoxed by both the Norwegian and Thai names and keeping track of characters was difficult, but that wasn't the real problem. It was all just too scattered and even in the end, when the plot came together, I still wasn't entirely sure what had happened. 

That said, I've gone ahead and put Harry Hole #3 in my reading queue. You never know, maybe Mr. Nesbo was still finding his voice while writing #2. It's worth a shot.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Parenthood - the television series - midterm review

2010 - 2015
3 stars - you'll see
ALR Green - heck, nobody even has a dog until season 4

OK, I'm only halfway through season four, but I'm on kind of a review role today and figured I'd get this one out of the way (I can always update it if I change my mind by the end of the full six seasons).

Parenthood is a soap opera type series about the Braverman family. Mom, Dad, four adult kids, and their families. This show rates three stars because it is a nice, mindless fluff when one is ill or otherwise requires a distraction. I binge watched during our endless winter of weekly blizzards as it seems that I wasn't able to do much other than look out the window and worry. 

I'd liken this to a 21st century version of The Waltons meets The Brady Bunch. Now I know several people that I like who swear by this show and to those among you who couldn't bear to see it end, well, best to stop reading right now, because there is so much I don't like about it that I'm going to have to limit my commentary. So why do I keep watching? Well, because there are still times when I need something to shut off my brain and this seriously fits the bill.

Here's my (partial) list of why I think Parenthood is a dorky show (in no relevant order). Warning, contains spoilers.

  1. Do these people ever work? For real. It seems like everybody is ducking work at all times of the day to attend to family affairs. And when they aren't ditching work, they've got family members just dropping in for a chat. Seriously? If my brother or sister kept showing up unannounced at work they'd get a serious talking to. What a relief when Julia finally gets caught out for a major screw up at work because she's been playing hooky to (hello?) wait in the parking lot outside of school all day so her adopted son doesn't freak out. Then, of course, she takes the high road and quits before she can be fired, but husband Joel is going to have to sharpen up his saws because it will take a lot of bathroom renovations to make up for her salary. Oh, and speaking of adopted kid whose mom went to prison, what's up with that? No visitation? No lingering behaviors (other than the ones which can be overcome by Braverman love)?
  2. Every scene (and I mean every scene) is a setup for yet another family moment. Yes, friends, nobody is every really doing anything except waiting for somebody else to show up and have a chat. Sure, Grandma might look like she's puttering in the garden, but not for long, because within 30 seconds, oh look, it's Crosby looking for advice on child rearing. 
  3. Pack life. Every family member at every family event, every time. Nope. Oh, and no friends outside of the family (well, some friends with benefits - see item 5).
  4. The women always seem on the verge of crying. Yup. What a weepy bunch. Gah! The men don't fare much better. They fall into the categories of flaky, overly macho, or stoic. They all like baseball. 
  5. With a couple of minor exceptions, any new character who gets more than a few lines is destined to either have sex or try to have sex with one of the main characters. It didn't take me too long to figure that one out. By season four, it wasn't even a challenge to figure which Braverman they would hit on. Once a character has served his or her purpose, they get written right back out. Like they never existed. Be gone, non-Braverman!
  6. How old is Grandma anyway? This one bugs me. What a missed opportunity! I'm saying, "Hey, that Bonnie Bedelia doesn't look old enough to be mother to Peter Krause et. al." Turns out I was right as she's only 17 years older than him. Oh boy! We could have a plot twist about how she got knocked up and had a shotgun wedding and she might even get to show some real emotion. Nah, that would never happen.
  7. Where did the money come from to pay for Cornell? Because Adam got fired and invested all his money in the Luncheonette and then didn't sell it (WTF?) even for $2M and according to Kristina they went through all their savings and yet, somehow, they paid the tuition to send Haddie to Cornell. Maybe through good thoughts.
  8. The season to season tightening of clothing. At least this only happened with one character, Julia, but, oh man, how does she even move with all that body hugging spandex on? 
  9. I just don't like these people. Well, except for Max and Drew (two of the Braverman grandkids). They're cool, but they don't get much face time, so there's that.
  10. Finally, there is the myriad of sloppy details. As in why does Kristina switch from an electric toothbrush to the old fashioned kind and why did Haddie's hair get bigger all of a sudden?
Well, I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Watch it, don't watch it. Just don't ever confuse it with reality. 

Newjack: guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover

Newjack: guarding Sing Sing
by Ted Conover
5 stars - sad and important
ALR Green

Thwarted in his attempts to get meaningful information about prison life in the US through normal channels, writer and anthropologist Ted Conover decides to become a Corrections Officer (CO) and find out for himself what's going on.

A year after applying to CO school, Mr. Conover received his acceptance notice and was told to report to CO boot camp. There he trained to become a CO and upon graduation was assigned duty in New York City's Sing Sing prison.

This book chronicles his year as a Sing Sing CO and provides a sad, but important, view into the realities of life in prison for both the guarded and the guards.

Prison, my friends, is a horrible place. Can any of us really imagine the impact on the soul of a total loss of liberty? Having others tell you where to go, when and what to eat, when to shower, who to talk to, and even who to bunk with should send chills up the spine of any person. Even a prison environment recreated in the comfort of one's own home would cause severe distress to the average person. Add to that the tension of being side by side with potentially volatile inmates and the inevitable politics and turf battles that will draw you in and it paints a truly daunting picture.

Then there is the life of those who guard. Even if everything goes like clockwork, the logistics of running a crowded prison with limited personal is difficult to comprehend. Thousands of men who need to be moved about according to a schedule, guided by one or two unarmed individuals. It's amazing that prison riots don't happen more often.

This is my second reading of Newjack (which is in my personal collection of "keeper" books). It's very well written and as relevant today (sadly) as it was when it was published, fifteen years ago. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any other developed country and yet it hasn't touched crime or, more importantly, drug use. Mandatory drug sentencing has crammed our prisons to bursting and forced the housing of non-violent offenders side by side with sociopaths. 

And to what end? While there have been some reforms since the book was published in 2000, our default status of dealing with things is still to "lock 'em up." Even worse, I see more and more instances of children being tried as adults, forcing a teenager into an upbringing by inmates, only to be released  some 20+ years later with no knowledge of the outside world. 

Am I preaching? Allow me one more point. That being the automatic denial of employment at so many companies to any person who has served any time whatsoever in prison. Yes, some people are dangerous sociopaths whose mental state makes them dangerous around some or all of the citizen population. However there are many folks leaving prison having been incarcerated for nothing more than getting caught at being foolish youngsters. Are we really such a punitive people that we hold people accountable for every misstep for the rest of their lives? Do we really believe that people can't change? Imagine if every indiscretion you committed in your teens or twenties was put on your resume for decades to come. Smoke some dope when you were 18 and maybe sell a bit on the side? Uh oh. Now you're fifty and can't even get a job interview despite being clean for 30 years. 

Well, you can draw your own conclusions, but regardless of whether you agree with my views or not, I highly recommend this book. The prose flows easily and there are stories, both good and bad, of inmates and COs and how the very fact of prison affects their lives.

Fargo - the television series

starring Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, and Martin Freeman
directed by Randall Einhorn, Adam Bernstein, Colin Bucksey, Matt Shakman, and Scott Winant
written by Noah Hawley
5 stars - every bit as good as the movie
ALR Green - despite brief scene (see spoiler at end of review)

First off, let's get one thing clear. Neither the movie nor the television show is based on a true story. That's just some humor from the original that was carried over.

As with many fans of the movie Fargo, I was reluctant to watch the television adaptation. How, I wondered, could anything ever stack up to the original? Particularly in light of the American television show inclination to dumb down stuff.

Boy was I wrong.

The television series captures all of the elements that made the movie exceptional. 

Rather than depend on quick camera shots, manipulative music, and characters who are one dimensional, Fargo gives the viewer lingering scenes, characters who do ordinary things, and, wait for it.... silence. Yes, silence. Silence during which some very gifted actors and actresses allow the viewer time to figure out for themselves what is going on. Characters don't need to voice their thoughts, their struggles are apparent on their features. No more so than with two of the leads, played by Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman. Was there ever a presence as menacing as Bill Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo? Ish. I got weirded out just looking at his eyes. 

Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard does an equally good job. He oozes insecurity and the personality of a man on the edge. He's just as creepy.

The cinematography is wonderful. Lingering scenes of frozen highways and farmland to lend a sense of isolation. No CGI here. It appears to me that even scenes in houses and diners were shot with the benefit of extras actually milling about outside the windows. 

There are many unexpected twists and turns, but somehow all in keeping with the surprises of everyday, rather than the somewhat predictable "twists" that one can smell coming in many series just based on what characters get introduced and when.

Oh, and the characters. As with other series that I rate high, Fargo shows characters doing everyday activities. Even bad guys and nutters have to eat, sleep, go to the store, whatever. For example, one minor character is first seen at his water aerobics class. We don't need anything to happen there (and nothing does), just an acknowledgement that shady characters of a certain age need to stay in shape. Why not? Reminds me of Tony Soprano brushing his teeth. Just brushing his teeth because that's what people do. Bad guys care about dental hygiene too, right? 

No character is one dimensional and not every move they make is explained. That's life, right?

Yes, there is murder (and quite a bit of it), but the camera doesn't linger over the blood and suffering in the near pornographic way that we've grown accustomed to. Not even all the violence is shown, sometimes, just implied (which can be even more scary than a close-up).

I'm giving this TV series a huge thumbs up. Can't wait for season 2 to come out on DVD.

Oh, wait, I almost forgot, here's the brief plot synopsis from iMDb

A drifter named Lorne Malvo arrives in small-town Minnesota and influences the population with his malice and violence, including put-upon insurance salesman Lester Nygaard.

That's all you need to know.

****** WARNING - SPOILER ******

A dog is killed off screen and his body is shown briefly. Sad, but there is no indication that the dog suffered and it does not present a scene that will haunt most animal lovers

Friday, March 6, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie
477 pages
1 star - nope
ALR Blue

I've added a page count to my review summary at the top. Not sure why, but I did.

So, big no for this one. I think that when one finds oneself trying to calculate how many hours will be required to get through a book that it's time to bail. I didn't even survive 100 pages. Yeah, I might have hung in longer if this were my last book, but with more on reserve waiting at the library, why suffer?

I found this to be just too dense and meandering for me. The first chapter was great, but then it kind of took off and I couldn't keep track of where I was in time or place or who the characters were. Plus, I didn't really care to figure it out.

The book has received many positive reviews and, in fact, there is a wait list at the library, so best of luck to whomever gets it next.

From the dust jacket:

... a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo

When watching people walk was America's favorite spectator sport
by Matthew Algeo
3 stars - nothing new under the sun
ALR Blue - not about animals in any way

It was like watching a NASCAR race in super-slow motion: hypnotic, mesmerizing, with the promise of imminent catastrophe.

Hardly a ringing endorsement, yet, for a few decades in the late nineteenth century, this describes the great spectator sport in America (with some spillover to England).

It all began in 1861, when Edward Payson Weston, having lost a bet on the outcome of the presidential election, was compelled to walk the 478 miles from Boston to Washington DC. He accomplished his mission in 10 days, 4 hours, and 12 minutes.

Both showman and athlete, Weston walked in the clothes of a dandy and carried a switch which he applied to his own limbs now and then. Along the way, he handed out fliers (for which he had been paid), occasionally played the coronet, and broke into song, all for the entertainment of the crowds that gathered along the route to watch him walk.

Thus began the craze for pedestrianism which was comprised of different sorts of "walk until you drop" challenges. In addition to races for distance over the course of several days, there were competitions such as walking a mile an hour for 1000 hours (um, hello, that's 41 days) and a quarter mile every fifteen minutes for equally incomprehensible periods of time. 

In order to capitalize on the enthusiasm for walking that the population demonstrated, great events were staged in venues such as London's Agricultural Hall and New York City's Gilmore Garden (later to become Madison Square Garden). 

It's an odd little clip of sports history which goes a long way to demonstrating the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun. So, along with the races themselves, we also see tailgating parties, ticket scalping, riots, doping scandals, allegations of foul play, gambling, and athletes as rock stars. Indeed, the athletes did enjoy monetary riches commiserate with sports figures of modern times. Purses for competitors, even those who lost, were in the equivalent of 2015 six figure sums and the grand prizes could total over $200,000 in current US dollars. Not bad for five or six days of walking in circles.

Sadly, women were excluded from the fun. Ada Anderson attempted to enter in by walking 2700 quarter miles in 2700 quarter hours. She enjoyed brief fame on the walking circuit, but it quickly became apparent that spectators had no taste for seeing woman staggering about in distress as the inevitable toll of sleep deprivation and exertion became visible. 

It's an interesting read with a lesson. That being to keep moving (and walking is easy and available to all). While the great pedestrians ultimately were forced into retirement, many of them lived to phenomenal ages for the time and continued to perambulate about up until their deaths. Sadly, the father of pedistriansim, Edward Weston, was crippled after being hit by a car at the age of 88 and died two years later after being bitterly deprived of his number one joy in life.

On a personal note, oh how I miss my modest, yet refreshing, walks with my faithful dog, Dexter. The winter weather has limited us to one walk a day (at most) as my encroaching cataracts and increasing fear of falling has shut down after dark walks when there is snow or ice. Even our morning walks have taken a beating. Often we face surfaces too rough for more than a mile or so. But spring will come, eventually, and I will once again be covering acceptable distances, although certainly nothing approaching true pedestrianism.