Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Castle" Recap - Episode 2: "The Double Down"

Spoiler Alert: While I don’t name names, I give away plot points. Be warned.

If I had to select one of my favorite scenes from the sitcom “Friends,” it would have to be the one where Joey, of all people, corrects one of his co-stars on the correct usage of the word “whom.” In that scene, Joey merely states “whom” and all the cast members look at him in disbelief. As a writer, this one always gets me.

Last night on the second episode of “Castle,” "whom" made a cameo. At the crime scene, the dead therapist had words written on her face. Castle, ever the grammarian, noted the incorrect use of the word “you’re.” A few scenes later, Castle and Detective Beckett interview the dead woman’s BFF. The BFF mentions that the dead woman needed her help as a lawyer. Beckett presses the BFF to name the person “Against who” the dead woman needed a lawyer. Castle, unperturbed, utters “whom.” I cracked a smile. That would be the winner of the Best Quip Award for the episode, an understated one, but much preferable to Castle’s groaning on about the killer murdering the English language.

“The Double Down,” may have taken some of its humor from grammar, but it started as far from a textbook as possible. The opening scene had Beckett at her desk, doing paperwork. Castle sat next to her, eating popcorn, while a general melee erupted around them. Ever the horn dog, Castle took particular interest in one suspect's, uh, cleavage as it banged across Beckett’s desk, giving the writer an eyeful. A bit later, as the coroner arrives at the crime scene decked out in fancy clothes (“Unlike you, Beckett,” the coroner said, “I don’t wait around the station waiting for the call.”) she chastises Castle to “quit looking at the girls.” Castle complies, then falters, then complies again.

The humor that drove last night’s episode was the wager. Castle, unbeknownst to Beckett, bet Detectives Esposito and Ryan that he and Beckett could solve their case before they could crack theirs. We got to see lots of little scenes of other folks in the squad room exchanging money and quickly looking away from Beckett. Now, as any reader of mystery fiction or watcher of innumerable crime shows could tell you right then and there, the cases would be linked. Robert Downey, Jr. even riffed on that theme in the movie “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” But our detectives couldn’t figure out how.

As usual, Castle’s daughter provided the key. In a recurring theme, Alexis’s teenage troubles help Castle provide the nugget he needs to solve the case. Is it me or can Molly C. Quinn say so much more with her facial expressions that dialogue can express? The scene where she tells Castle about Owen getting all googly-eyed at a prettier (and bustier) girl was heartbreaking and elegant. Now, as much as I love the chemistry Castle has with Alexis and his mother, I certainly hope future episodes give them something more to do. They are part of why this show is so utterly charming. So far this season, it’s been a little scant with them. Nevertheless, Castle rushes back to headquarters and does the thing so many of his literary and television ancestors do: have the big reveal on how the crimes were perpetrated. He poses the question that gets the real detectives thinking…and they nab the perps.

I enjoy every episode of Castle, from season 1 through last night. Of all the shows so far (ten last year, two this year), this episode was the one that felt most like a cop show. Castle and Beckett had less chemistry-building scenes together. I know you can’t have every scene with the two of them bantering wittily as that would dilute the good ju-ju the show thrives on. However, I would hope the writers don’t move “Castle” to being just another cop show. It would lose that special something that makes “Castle” so watchable and enjoyable.

Beckett is clearly a great detective so she deduced the wager before the halfway mark. That was a given. However, as various leads sprang up, she started betting on her and Castle as well. One of the highlights of the show was when Beckett and Castle are in the interview room, grilling a suspect. You see Castle writing something on a notepad. Cut to the exterior of the interview room: Esposito and Ryan are there, looking in. We see what Castle wrote (paraphrased): “Beckett knows about the bet. You’re toast.” Made me laugh out loud.

Beckett’s Mom Case Watch: there was a reference by Beckett to her mom’s murder. I hope this means the writers will give us a special episode later in the season but not focus on it week-to-week.

What did you think of the episode?

And don’t forget to check out these sites for other takes on last night’s episode:
EW.com's Popwatch (not posted yet)
Bookspotcentral.com (not posted yet
And, for some great exclusives, I recommend the great exclusives at CastleTV.net for some behind-the-scenes news and interviews.

CSI: Miami Recap - Episode 2 "Hostile Takeover"

Riddle me this, Batman: how was last night's CSI: Miami episode like a Batman story? To find out, you'll have to check my inaugural episode recap over at Bookspotcentral.com.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars - Haiku

Offense not bad. D
Like a sieve. Defeat snatched from
Vic'try's jaws...again.

Houston Texans - 24
Jacksonville Jaguars - 31

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Guess I'm Inspiring...

Fellow blogger and jazz lover, Chris, who runs The Louis L'amour Project, has written a nice post about a series of book reviews I did under the common theme Adventure Week. He now wants to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, and Tarzan of the Apes. I'd also add The Return of Tarzan, book two in the series, since it picks up the action immediately after the first book.

Thanks, Chris. Glad my enthusiasm for themed ideas like this gave you enough enjoyment that you now want to read them. Anyone else have a hankering for some classic adventure?

P.S., And thanks for the well wishes about the Houston Texans today. Alas, per usual for a Houston team, we played down to the competition and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I'm writing a haiku per game this season. Tune in tomorrow for Game 3.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Castle" - Season Premiere Recap

Of all the returning shows, ABC's "Castle" with Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic, was the one to which I most looked forward. It was the one my wife and I watched live (while taping CSI: Miami; watched that one at 10pm CST, and that one was quite good, too). For my money, last night's season premiere didn't disappoint.

"Deep in Death" picks up the story of Richard Castle (Fillion) at an indeterminate amount of time since last season's finale. Castle is holding a photo shoot in the NY police station and an annoying fangirl of a reporter interviews Katic's Detective Beckett about Castle's invaluable contribution to solving cases. Beckett, of course, rolls her eyes, but is put back in line by her CO, who wants all the good press the NYPD can get.

Cut to the murder-of-the-week: a dead man in a tree with signs of strangulation. Beckett and Castle both offer potential reasons and motive before Beckett all but orders Castle back to the morgue with the body. Halfway there, the ambulance is attacked and masked men steal the body. A clearly shaken Castle utters one of his patented one-liners and we're off.

What follows is an hour of television that is flat-out fun. I found myself chuckling a lot at the two supporting detectives (Javier and Kevin), especially when you see them exchanging money and laying odds on when Beckett will forgive Castle. The murder-mystery is more interesting than those cases from season one, clearly riffing off our current economic uncertainty: an unemployed man goes to desperate measures to maintain the fiction of his life. It's almost plausible...to a certain point. Having cameos by Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly is just icing on the cake. The relationship Castle has with his daughter and mother is almost enough to spin off on the Family Channel. And Castle's quip about Hollywood making a movie based on the Asteroids video game wins my Best Quip Award of the evening.

“Well, they just optioned Asteroid the video game, so my guess is yes. But Ryan Reynolds is playing the wee triangle [here, Fillion holds up his hands in a triangle shape], and he’s good.”

A write-up like mine can't do justice to the chemistry Fillion and Katic have on screen. Their witty banter, flying at light speed, brings to mind Moonlighting and (from what I've heard; never watched it) Bones. Fillion plays Castle as a man who knows he's charming and disarming, almost to a fault. Katic plays Beckett close to the vest, letting out little dribbles of back story per episode. More often than not, I'm watching this show with a big, goofy grin on my face. Ken Tucker, of Entertainment Weekly, once pronounced Castle was too cute by half. That may be so, but it's damn cute.

From more than one source (Gerald So's Twitter and the fan-based Castletv.net), it appears Castle beat The Jay Leno Show last night. Not bad, considering CSI: Miami is a ratings juggernaut. The thing I fear most is that Castle stays in this time slot and gets slaughtered by CSI: Miami, which is pretty much going to happen every week. If the ABC execs start thinking about cancelling this fun show, I sure hope they consider changing the time slot rather than cancellation. That's my plea.

I don't think that cancellation is likely in the near term, ,however. ABC commissioned a real Richard Castle book. In the show, Castle is promoting Heat Wave, the story inspired by Beckett, and featuring NY detective Nikki Heat. Well, you can actually go and purchase Heat Wave at your nearest bookstore. If you want to read a few chapters, head on over to the Castle page at ABC.com. It's a neat synergy. Speaking of synergy, Central Crime Zone posts an interview with Richard Castle (yeah, for real). It's cool reading the Q&A and hearing Fillion's voice.

The cool thing for y'all who might have missed it last night, Castle is on Hulu. You can watch last night's episode, about five episodes from season 1, and various clips and interviews. Take a look.

And watch Castle, even if you have to tape/DVR it. Then, every Tuesday, you can check back here for my take on the previous night's episode. EW.com has added Castle as part of it's TV Recap series, written by Mandy Bierly. Then you can read Marc Bernardin's hilarious confession of a man crush on Fillion, complete with video.

Whew! Is that enough homework for y'all? Hope not. You'll enjoy it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans - Haiku

Heart strings pulled when new
team plays old team. Luv ya blue?
Yup. But not today!

Houston Texans - 34
Tennessee Titans - 31

Friday, September 18, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books. See her blog for the complete list.)

I did not hate this book. I really enjoyed it and easily recommend it as part of the one-two punch that is the origin story of Tarzan. But Edgar Rice Burroughs put so many “Come On!” moments in the novel that he would be slaughtered at any modern critique group. So, don’t forget: I liked the book.

When we last saw Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, (as recent as my forgotten book last week), he had made a decision that made the happy-ending part of me scream. And growl. And beat my chest like a gorilla. Well, not really. My family was still asleep.

Nevertheless, Tarzan leaves America and cruises across the Atlantic on an ocean liner. He injects himself in a quarrel not of his own making...and earns himself a dreaded enemy, the dastardly Nikolas Rokoff and his comrade-in-mischief, Alexis Paulvitch. Tarzan disembarks in Paris and stays with his friend, Paul d'Arnot, and, of course, Rokoff tries to off Tarzan again. And again. And again. Guess the hatred’s pretty deep.

After a time, Tarzan gets himself a job in Algeria and steams out of Paris. Lo, and behold, who should be on the ship? None other than Hazel Strong, Jane Porter’s best friend. Come on! They talk but she doesn’t know who he is. Rokoff’s there and manages to throw Tarzan overboard. And then he swims to shore. Come on! And lands right where he dad and mom were marooned early in the first book. Seriously?! Whereupon he delves back in the jungle and becomes, through various little incidences that don’t amount to much, the King of the Waziri people.

Later, Jane Porter, her dad, Tarzan’s blood cousin William Clayton, Rokoff (now in disguise as Thuran, all get shipwrecked *right where Tarzan just swam to shore*! Yeah, really. I’ll admit I was rolling my eyes at some parts of this story, not a good idea while listening to the audiobook and commuting in Houston rush hour traffic. I almost let out my own Tarzan yell when a car swerved near me.

Finally, there’s a lost city--found by Tarzan--, the great city of Opar. Tarzan himself gets captured but escapes. Yeah, really. Then--and you’re not going to believe this one--his one true love, Jane, gets herself captured, too. Yes! And Tarzan has to rescue her. Yes way! And then some other stuff happens that round out the book and make for a nice happy ending.

Lesson I take from reading The Return of Tarzan: coincidence must’ve been a lot more permissible in the 1910s as opposed to the 2000s. Some of Tarzan’s coincidences I could’ve stomached. But the landing exactly where he used to live. No way.

Taken together, however, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan of the Apes is a great, pulp, adventure read. There are a couple of books I’ve enjoyed just a bit more this year. Other than those two, I haven’t enjoyed a book (they really are one giant adventure) as much as I enjoyed these two this year. They are great fun. Period.

You know, there’s another giant book out this week that lots of people are criticizing. I’ve started it already. I quickly realized that, yes, I have read this story before. But you know what? I don’t care. I had fun reading Tarzan and I’m going to have fun reading Dan Brown’s book, too. Fun is fun.

I’m pretty psyched about reading more Tarzan adventures. I’ve got about ten or so old paperbacks here on my shelf. I’ve mentioned before that I inherited boxes full of old westerns from my grandfather. In those boxes were the old Tarzan books. I recently asked my mom who bought those books. Without a word, she just smiled and tapped her chest with her thumb. Ah. Those are *her* books. Way to go, Mom.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beat to a Pulp: Call for Submissions

David Cranmer, editor of Beat to a Pulp and author of The Education of a Pulp Writer, has a call for submissions for the first ever Beat to a Pulp print anthology. Here's the skinny:

Spread the word, please! There will be only a few openings, but the first print anthology for BEAT to a PULP is in the works. To round out our usual, diverse array of pulp genres, we are actively seeking war stories, sea yarns and cozy mysteries. 4,000 words or less. The BEAT to a PULP print collection will be released in 2010.

Send submissions to: submissions@beattoapulp.com

*Stories not selected for the print publication still have a chance to appear on our Weekly Punch.

BTW, y'all ARE reading the stories, at Beat to a Pulp every week, right? Right? They publish on Sundays so make it a new habit to read the new story right after your favorite professional football team wins/loses their game. Starting this week, probably around halftime of the Texans vs. Titans game, I'll be reading the new story. It'll be loads more entertaining than watching the Texans try to compete with a team that nearly beat the Super Bowl champs last week.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Houston Texans vs. New York Jets - Haiku

The game's object is
to score more points than your own
defense. Am I right?

NY Jets - 24
Houston (defense) - 7

Friday, September 11, 2009

Adventure Week #4: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(This is my latest entry for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books. For today's complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Can we be honest here? Tarzan is far from forgotten. He's so well know, in fact, that we all know the story of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Whether it’s from all the movies, the TV series, the comics, the animated movies of Disney, or the Broadway play (yeah, really, and it doesn't look half bad), Tarzan has entered the collective DNA of popular culture. But how did it all begin? I wanted to know and that’s why I picked up Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel.

Again, y’all know the story so I don’t have to restate it here. In short, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and his wife, Lady Alice, get themselves marooned in equatorial Africa. Soon after the birth of their only son, John, they are killed and the child is adopted by the she-ape Kala, whose own child was also killed. Named Tarzan (“white skin”), little John is raised unaware of his human heritage.

As an adolescent, he teaches himself how to read with books found in the cabin his parents built. Eventually, he sees other humans--native Africans--but he still hasn’t seen a person that looks like him: a white man. A group of white men and women soon get themselves marooned *in the exact same place* as his parents. In this group is a young woman named Jane Porter. Tarzan is smitten and the story really takes off from there.

Not that it was ever boring. Tarzan fights rival bull apes, native Africans, lions, and all sorts of jungle denizens. I was happy to note that Tarzan doesn't always escape his trials unscathed. After a particularly bloody battle, he wears a scar across his forehear that burns with anger whenever the ape man rages. Burroughs basically created a super man, a noble savage who knows right from wrong, cannot be corrupted, and can will himself to do the right thing. The dialogue is a bit stiff and some of the coincidences make you go “Oh, come on!” but they’re not egregious. What surprised me most was the ending. It was a cliffhanger. Pretty bold for a first book.

The stereotypes are present and as you’d expect: Africans are savages, women are frail, and other white men are all out for money and power. Only Tarzan rises above it all. Comparing the stereotypes of King Solomon’s Mines (1875) and Tarzan (1912), not a lot of progress was made in the nearly forty years between the publication of both books.

If you know the Tarzan stories through the movies or radio, then you know the signature thing: his call, yell, what have you. Johnny Weissmuller’s version is the most famous. You can find it here. In the book, Burroughs describes it as a fierce call that chills the blood of those who hear it. What’s better is the way Tarzan looks when he issues the call: after he’s beaten an enemy, he stands with one foot on his kill, and belts out the yell. That’s what I’m talking about.

The setting is the Africa of romance, the Africa of your imagination. It's fantastic. The violence in the novel is much higher than the older movies could ever show. Oh, and there’s another thing the movies could never show: Tarzan’s nakedness. Up until he meets the whites, he’s naked. But he doesn’t care since that’s how the other apes are--except they have hair--as well as the Africans.

If H. Rider Haggard set out to write a book half as good as Treasure Island (and failed), I can’t help but wonder if Burroughs set out to write a book that captured the exuberance and excitement of Stevenson’s pirate opus. Or just made up for Haggard's lesser work. If so, he succeeded. Actually, he blew the wall down.

I thoroughly loved this book--though not quite as much as Treasure Island--and can think of no other way to demonstrate my enjoyment than to say this: I’ve already read the sequel. For that, you’ll have to come back next week.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adventure Week #3: King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

According to The Source of All Truth, Wikipedia, H. Rider Haggard bet his brother that he, H. Rider, could write a novel half as good as Treasure Island, published two years before in 1883. I’m not sure he reached that lower bar. Sure, the book may have been a bestseller back in 1885, but the book really isn't even half as good as Treasure Island.

If Treasure Island was a giant leap forward in Victorian adventure novels, King Solomon's Mines was a few steps back. Following a common thread of the novels I’ve been reviewing this week, King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) is a travel/adventure book. Allan Quatermain, an English adventurer living in South Africa, is commissioned by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good. They want Quatermain’s help in locating Curtis’s brother, last seen hunting for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon, the son of King David.

Here’s where the waves of my preconceived notions going into the novel broke against the hard rock of the novel itself. Before I read this book, the name Allan Quatermain held a somewhat mythical place in my imagination. I remember Richard Chamberlain playing him in some movie I never saw but, mostly, I know Quatermain as played by Sean Connery in the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s Sean Friggin’ Connery so Quatermain was a bad ass. Yeah, well, not in the book. He’s almost a coward and calls himself one a couple of times. That jarred me and, frankly, started to lend itself to a general lack of interest and caring about what happened to him. Besides, the novel was written in first person so you know Quatermain lives. How dull.

The party travels north toward the desert and then nearly dies of thirst. Really? No way. Then they survive and the entire story comes to a screeching halt as Quatermain, Curtis, Good, and the African guide Umbopa, become embroiled in the inner squabbles of a lost African tribe. When I say screeching halt, I mean it. Haggard wrote something like five to seven chapters of the whites trying to help the blacks. Oh yeah, the white chauvinism is rampant in this novel, as you’d expect of a novel published during the high Victorian era. And, lo and behold, Umbopa just so happens to be the true heir to the throne. You saw that one coming, didn’t you? I’ll admit the war scenes were thrilling, filled with typical British stiff-upper-lipness (made that one up) and bravery, even for the coward Quatermain. But that couldn't overcome the boring, political parts.

The one thing KSM has going for it is an over arching story: the hunt for the mines. That’s something missing from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but a trait Robert Louis Stevenson does better in Treasure Island. The ultimate goal that’s achievable is what makes the chapters where the journey stops infuriating. Sure, they have to get out of their predicament but seven chapters worth? Nah.

KSM is the first of the “Lost World” novels, a mantle taken up by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ruyard Kipling, HP Lovecraft (didn’t know that one), and Michael Crichton (in Congo). As a first novel of its kind, it’s not horrible. It’s just that many of its successors did it better.

One of the books I’m now interested in reading is the graphic novel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which features Quatermain and Captain Nemo. I want to see how Alan Moore used these two characters and how, or if, he changed them.

Like 20,000 Leagues, I’m glad I’ve read King Solomon’s Mines but I’m not hankering to start in on the sequels. Anyone read them? Are they worth it?

P.S. this is your last chance to offer a prediction about my forgotten book tomorrow. The only clue you have so far is that it was published after this novel.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adventure Week #2: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Johnny Depp owes Robert Louis Stevenson big time. Were it not for Stevenson, Depp’s resurgence into the popular eye might not have happened. Well, it might have happened but it would not have been because of his portrayal of pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. Come to think of it, Walt Disney himself might not have even had the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. So, add Disney to the list of people who owe Stevenson tribute.

Treasure Island is one hell of a novel. Jim Hawkins is the narrator (except for three chapters) and it’s through his young eyes we see the story. His mother owes the Admiral Benbow Inn and an old, craggy sailor, Billy Bones, takes up lodging. Billy tells Jim to look out for a man with one leg. That’s a man who’s after the contents of the chest Billy keeps in his room. One thing leads to another and, after Billy suffers a stroke, Jim takes possession of a map hidden in the chest. And not a moment too soon: some of Billy’s old scalawags come looking for the map and Jim and his mom barely escape. They turn to Squire Trelawney (wonder if J. K. Rowling is a fan of Treasure Island?) who, along with Dr. Lovesey, realize the map leads to buried pirate treasure. They resolve to form an expedition and go hunt for the gold.

Yeah. I am so there. And so is Jim, who comes along for the adventure. Trelawney hires a man named Long John Silver, an old sea cook, and a bunch of Silver’s friends to crew the ship. Jim’s immediately suspicious since Silver has only one leg. (Cue scary music.) But, onward they sail, all together on the Hispaniola, to the Caribbean. There is some shipboard mischief and suspicion ending with Jim overhearing Silver talk to his lads. You see, they are the former crew of the man, Captain Flint, who drew the map. This expedition is merely their way of returning to Treasure Island and discovering what is rightfully theirs. Or so they think.

Once the crew make landfall, the real excitement begins. Mutiny, battles, and affairs of honor ensue. For awhile, you forget that Jim is a mere teenager for all the derring do he accomplishes. For the most part, even though I had never read the book, I kind of knew the general story line for a century of other pirate books and films. The only outstanding question for me was the fate of Long John Silver himself. I was quite satisfied.

If 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made me yawn and yearn for the Disney movie just to liven things up, Treason Island made me long for another hundred pages. Or a sequel. Or a series. Man! This book was great. Hard to believe that Stevenson’s novel (1883) was published only thirteen years after Verne’s seminal novel. They read and feel like they were written decades apart.

I listened to the audiobook read by Alfred Molina and he hit it out of the ballpark. He nailed all the piratey accents so well that I would find myself talking “pirate” to my family and friends. As big a fan of audiobooks as I am, listening to Treasure Island is something I highly recommend. It was one of the best audio productions I've listened to and, frankly, will continue to listen to this recording in the years to come.

When I finally watched “Casablanca” in my twentieth year of life, I was struck by how many famous lines and scenes were in that movie. Ditto for Treasure Island. I never knew that Stevenson’s novel was the mother lode—nay, the source—of so many things we associate with pirate lore: the black dot, treasure maps, parlay, one-legged seamen, and the black flag, to name but a few. And the song! This is where it comes from. How cool is that?
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
Like I wrote before, the thrilling excitement that was the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie would not have existed were it not for Treasure Island.

I always keep a list of the books I read and rank them at year’s end. Since I read a lot of older books, I allow myself the luxury of naming my favorite book of the year and my favorite classic book of the year. To date, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity ranks as my favorite new book of the year. By far, Treasure Island tops the classic book list. The only one that comes close is the mystery book I’ll be reviewing on Friday (guessed what it is yet?).

I joke about these four adventure books and me reading them at age forty rather than when I was a kid. Here’s the thing: when I listened to Treasure Island, I felt like a kid with all that childlike wonder and enthusiasm. It’s a thrilling book and one you can enjoy at any age.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

History in a photo

Forget about politics, who is talking to whom, and all that mess. Just take a look at this photo from the White House's blog. It's astounding to see all the power in one room.

But what strikes me is this: these ten people (Ginsberg's off screen) are, at this moment, just people. Sure, they are members of the Supreme Court and the President and Vice-President but they really are just people. Really. Take a look. That's history you see.

I've always enjoyed the candid photographs of our nation's leaders. The one's where most of the world is away and you get a glimpse of the real person. That's how I see this photo. Wonderful.

Adventure Week Review #1: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

What do you know about Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Ask that question of any pop culture aficionado and the answer might be “Captain Nemo” or “the Nautilus” if you’re lucky. For those who’ve seen the Walt Disney movie, Kirk Douglas in blue-and-white sailor stripes singing a song with a seal might come to mind. But I bet you any amount of Spanish doubloons that just about everyone knows about the giant squid.

Before I cracked open Verne’s 1870 novel, I put myself in the aforementioned camp. Well, sans the Douglas singing part. All my childhood memory conjures is the squid scene because, for a kid--and, perhaps, anyone--the squid scene is tops. It’s why you read 20,000 Leagues anyway, right? Shoot, it was the main reason I picked up the book: to see where and how the squid attack in the book.

I had a long way to wait. Not 20,000 leagues, but it felt like it.

The first preconceived notion dispelled in the novel was the term “league”: it’s a distance, not a depth. Get outta here. Are you serious? I learned that as the characters sometimes had their adventures just under the surface. Not very romantic, wouldn’t you say?

The main character and the narrator is Pierre Aronnax, a marine biologist, who gets himself recruited on an American ship to go hunt for a mysterious sea monster. Okay, that’s a good start. Conseil, Arronax’s manservant--let’s not call him an assistant, please--follows his master everywhere as does skilled harpooner Ned Land (Douglas in the film). The search is going nowhere until the strange creature appears and attacks the American vessel. The trio are thrown overboard and take refuge on the surface of the creature. They soon discover that the creature is made of metal and it is, in fact, not a creature at all but an underwater vessel, the Nautilus, captained by none other than Nemo.

The next few chapters are pretty interesting, I’ll grant you, because Verne describes the Nautilus and all the various technological wonders it employs to operate. Coming decades before a sub of comparable size was ever invented, it’s fascinating to follow Verne’s mind via Nemo. One particular aspect of the ship is its air supply: like a whale, the Nautilus has to surface and expel the bad air and take in a fresh supply every day. Another is the power supply: all electrical, garnered from various underwater natural resources. Very clever.

Gradually, however, the story begins to plod. The three captives are forbidden to leave because Nemo thinks they’ll rat him out to the world. Nemo and his crew have forsaken the rest of civilization to live under the sea (man there are so many song references in this piece). At first, Aronnax is totally absorbed in the scientific search for greater understanding. Ned Land just wants off.

If you can imagine a small group of university professors discussing the fine points of science and the arts, you’ll get the gist of the rest of the story. It’s a travelogue. The Nautilus goes to one place and a mild adventure takes place. The Nautilus goes to another place and a mild adventure takes place. Repeat. Yawn. Repeat. Yawn. Repeat. Sleep.

Finally--Finally!--the squid attacks and we get some action...but it’s over way too soon. Perhaps it was the Disney movie that hyped up that scene but there should have been a lot more action in this story. But, then again, when you entire story is set in a submarine with no surface ship that can damage it, you don’t have a lot of conflict. Sure, there’s conflict between the human characters and there’s still the mystery of Nemo’s origins, but it’s not enough to keep 21st-Century audiences enthralled. Well, not me, at least.

All in all, I’m glad I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, mainly to say that I have. I’m not, however, rushing out to read anything else by him just yet. Like the other four classic adventure books I “discovered” this summer, had I read this book when I was ten, I might have had a different experience. But, alas, I was too busy with Star Wars thirty years ago to bother with a long, Victorian science fiction novel.

Many of us like to read and write steampunk tales, postulating present-day technology back to the 1800s. What Verne did was more spectacular. He saw the future. To be more precise, young people read Verne’s books and grew up to invent what he created. That’s a remarkable achievement and as good as testament as any to the power of imagination.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Returning fall television shows - What are your favorites?

Now that fall is here, old favorite TV shows--and some new ones--are scheduled to begin their season this month. Of the new shows, I'm most looking forward to ABC's "Flash Forward." Well, let me put it another way: it's the one show I'll give a few views to see how it goes. Another show I'm expecting to work into my viewing life is CBS's "The Big Bang Theory." The more I hear about this show, the more I love it.

I've got old favorites returning: CSI: Miami and CSI (notice the order there) and Lost doesn't start until next year. I'm glad that Jay Leno will be back on TV and hope the experiment does well.

The one show I'm most looking forward to is ABC's Castle. It airs on the hugely congested Monday's at 9pm CST (opposite Leno and CSI: Miami and Anthony Bourdain when his show is airing first runs) so we'll get a lot of use out of our VCR this year. Castle is an utterly charming show with a delightful cast who go about their light work with smiles on their pretty faces. Nathon Fillion and Stana Katic have fantastic chemistry together and it shows, both on screen and on my face, which usually has a big, goofy grin for the entire hour. Sure, the episodes are easy on the brain but not everything can be "The Wire."

I found this neat fansite for all things Castle.

What are you most looking forward to this fall?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Adventure Week is Coming!

As summer officially winds down next week (I'm old-school enough to keep "summer" as the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day and out of the sprawl of longer school years), I've decided to group some of the reviews of books I read into one, themed week. That would be Adventure Week, a place to review and write about some classic adventure tales that most kids read when they're ten yet I waited until I was forty.

Here's the run down, in chronological order with the fourth book a mystery until next Friday's Forgotten Books Project resumes.

Tuesday - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870)
Wednesday - Treasure Island (1873)
Thursday - King Solomon's Mines (1875)
Friday - (Tune in to find out. You're only clue, unless I mentioned it in a previous post and I've forgotten it, is that it was published after 1875.)

If you think you know the answer, leave your guess in the comments of this post. As to the winner, as of right now, I have no prize other than the knowledge that you guessed correctly. I could offer you a free subscription to this blog but, since it's already free, well, you know...

So, tune in next week and join the discussion of some classic pulp adventure tales. I had a lot of fun reading them--some more than others--and I look forward to reading everyone's comments.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Book Review Club: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

(Here is my September contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club)

The thing to remember when you read George Pelecanos's latest novel, The Way Home, is this: it could happen to you.

Now, you may be thinking "hey, I don't live near the inner city, the setting for so many of his novels so I don't think so." Or you may be thinking "Yeah, I live in those types of neighborhoods and there ain't no book gonna capture what I live with every day." Okay, those things are probably both true. But Pelecanos gets you as close as you want to get with the real life.

Since so many of Pelecanos's themes revolve around race, it's important to note that the main character, Chris Flynn, is white, raised in a well-to-do white family in a well-to-do neighborhood far removed from the African-Americans of inner city DC. No matter. Chris makes a series of bad decisions and lands himself in a juvenile detention facility, the only white. About the only thing that keeps him from getting his ass kicked every day are the exploits that got him in there. He's stoic about his life and his predicament while his father, Thomas, safe at home, feels like a failure. Oh, and Thomas is the type of dad who can't talk to his son and, thus, misunderstands just about everything Chris does or says.

Cut to the future: Chris is out of prison and is working for his father's carpet laying business. He's convinced his dad to hire some of his fellow "graduates" and, while things are difficult, they're not untenable. Chris has a girl, he's trying to turn over a new leaf and succeeds, mostly, not that his dad notices. The problem occurs when Chris and another man, Ben, find a bag of cash ($50,000) under the floorboards of a house. Chris and Ben do the right thing and leave it but Ben talks to Lawrence, another graduate but one a little farther off the main street of life. Various miscommunication ensues, guys don't talk to other guys, and it all boils over when the true owners of the money come looking for it. Then, Chris, his dad, and all his friends find out what they're made of.

One of the great traits of Pelecanos's writing is his ability to make you feel empathy for just about anyone in his story, even some of the more brutal characters. Not the owners of the money--they're pretty dang awful and easy to root against. What I'm referring to is a character like Lawrence. He's had a bad childhood, not many chances in life, and when it came time to make a decision about anything, he made the wrong one. Lawrence is the type of young man that most of us, frankly, would cross the street to avoid. In Pelecanos's hands, however, Lawrence becomes someone you can understand. He's a product of his environment and he's where he is because of it. Chris *was* a product of his own environment until he went off the straight and narrow and landed himself in the company of guys like Lawrence. It could happen to any one of us. That's the point I think Pelecanos makes with this book.

The Way Home, while not preachy, is an issue book. Pelecanos makes the case via his characters for a different type of juvenile justice system, one that promotes rehabilitation and education over punishment. As one character in the story says, until he went to prison, he wasn't educated. Prison taught him all he needed to know. Reading between the lines, prison created a monster. Granted, this character is a monster and had it in him all along, but prison exacerbated the character flaws.

I'm a dad and a son and I found lots of "Yeah" moments in the book. My dad and I have a much better relationship that Chris and Thomas Flynn. But there were moments of genuine emotion that flooded from the book into my heart. Yeah, that's a bit weepy but it's true. The book is filled with emotion, honest feelings about family and one's way in life. Sooner or later, you'll find your way home. Of that, Pelecanos has no doubt. The only issue to deal with is how you get there.

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