Tim Blake Nelson's 'O' (2001)

This statement evokes feelings of shallowness, but considering the cast of this movie the quality of the film surprised me. Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer, and Julia Stiles all give top-notch performances in this modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. I believe that I was 17 or so when I first saw Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor and I thought he was so cute and so boring. His performance in The Virgin Suicides was a little more compelling, but the role was small and he was basically playing Cute Boy, not a very demanding role. As Hugo, Hartnett displays more range than those two previous performances combined. He could have played Hugo as a manipulative egotist and nothing more, but Hartnett brings an unexpected vulnerability and humanity to the character, which makes Hugo equally despicable and pitiable. I first encountered Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, which remains one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, and she is terrific as the rebellious, flinty Kat. She failed to sparkle in subsequent films such as Mona Lisa Smile and The Bourne Identity, but her performance as Desi in O renews my belief in her acting talent. Stiles plays Desi with a beautiful trusting openness but gives her enough backbone at the right moments. Mekhi Phifer steps away from his brash, egotistical persona of Dr. Pratt on ER, bringing charm and vulnerability to the character of Odin.

I found the script a surprisingly good adaptation that distills the essence of Shakespeare's tragedy and successfully transplants the plot into a high school setting, crafting an exploration of the origins of school-age violence. Being conscious of its source material, I recognize the intricate weaving of the plotlines and lucky coincidences as pure Shakespeare. But Brad Kaaya's script and Kate Sanford's tight editing ratchets up the dramatic tension slowly, involving the viewer so completely that she forgets to dwindle on the contrivances.

'Gilmore Girls': Wholesome Is Tasty

So far season seven? HAAATE. We're not at a season three low, but wait for it. I'm not blaming Palladinos or Non-Palladinos because I do really like some bits of the season. Some scenes have been deliciously old-school GG, and, dude, does it get any better than Paris and Doyle hip-hop dancing?

HATE, the first: The Marriage. The effing MARRIAGE. It's not so much the marriage, even though ARGGH!, but the mushy writing (or perhaps it's a miscommunication between the writers and the actors?) concerning the marriage. I have no idea how Lorelai feels about this situation. Most of the time she doesn't seem that happy, but when Christopher or anyone gives her a chance to say that she wants out she doesn't say it. And Rory? Does she have a reaction? I figured that after initially admitting her annoyance at Lorelai getting married without her that Rory would stew about Lorelai committing to something she shouldn't have. But Rory seems to be stew-free and not even that soupy even, at least in respect to her mother and father. In fact, she doesn't really seem to care either way. Which is WEIRD.

HATE, the second: Where's Rory? I feel like she has received all of five minutes of screen time this season. And with those five minutes, she has engaged in fascinating storylines like treading water in her relationship with Logan, meeting two hyperactive, melodramatic Yale quirks (who can never rock as hard as Paris rocks) one of whom has a voice Jennifer Tilly would find grating, and Marty? Boring! But Alexis Bledel? Acting fabulous, looking fabulous, and managing to interact with people a little less awkwardly.

HATE, the third: Luke. Let me rephrase: I do not hate Luke. In fact, I like both him and Scott Patterson very much, even though Luke acted like an ass last season concerning the whole April thing. But this season? I feel like he shouldn't even be on the show anymore since he broke up with Lorelai, especially since they are having incredibly strange, tension-free scenes together. At the very least, he should not be receiving as much screen time as he is. Sorry, Scott. I do hope that Luke and Lorelai mend fences so that I will no longer be annoyed by your on-screen appearances.

And maybe they use more paperbags than the average TV show, but until I watched Gilmore Girls I hadn't noticed that propmasters use extra-thick bags to minimize that paper rattle sound, which would necessitate a lot of looping.

I didn't think that I could love Lauren Graham anymore, but she loves The Sound of Music! And she went to a sing-along!

Paul Dinello's 'Strangers with Candy' (2005)

Sadly, this movie kind of sucked.

It kind of....wasn't funny. I love Stephen Colbert. Really I do. And I love a lot of the film's supporting actors, like Alison Janney and Chris Pratt. But the movie kind of sucked.

The plot is ridiculous, of course, but a ridiculous plot does not necessitate a film's failure. But an unlikable main character? That kind of inevitably causes suckage.

I'm sorry, Amy Sedaris. My friend really likes you and I'm willing to give you another chance, but you kind of suck in this film. Sure, you give Jerri Blank your all, I see that. But you do not seem to possess the comedic talent to make this unlikable character palatable and sympathetic for the audience. Look at Colbert. He manages it somehow. Maybe it was the writing, Amy -- the script was not serving any of the actors well. But you helped write the script, didn't you, Amy? On paper I like you, Amy. I like that you have a cupcake business and an imaginary boyfriend named Ricky. I like that you are so involved in rabbit rescue. And I think that you are super cute. I don't think that I will give Jerri Blank another opportunity to woo me, but feel free to hit on me in other capacities, Amy. In capacities that don't suck.

Neil Jordan's 'Breakfast on Pluto' (2005)

In a rare occurrence, this film's previews sparked my desire to see it. Granted the film is strange, but the previews made it seem even stranger. In other words, I expected to see a lot of drug-induced hallucinations. And while I did not dislike the film, I struggled to engage with the characters.

Cillian Murphy attracted attention from stateside audiences with roles like Scarecrow/Dr. Crane in Batman Begins and Jackson Rippner in Red Eye. In the case of Breakfast on Pluto, Murphy uses his razor-sharp cheekbones and androgynous appearance to deliver a pretty convincing portrayal of a unswervingly optimistic gay transvestite. The one fault of his performance? His apparent unwillingness to kiss another male actor. Sure, he creates some chemistry with Gavin Friday in particular, but Jordan does not require any intimate contact. In fact, the most romantic scenes between Kitten and his love interests tend to occur outside with the characters wearing heavy overcoats. Sexy, right? In the interview of Murphy included on the DVD, Murphy makes a point to mention that he differs from Kitten in the area of sexuality, which suggests that Murphy is not the most gay-friendly of individuals.

I struggle to pinpoint what exactly didn't click for me with this film. It is very episodic and sometimes I didn't think that the transitions between episodes were very effective. For example, Charlie pulls Kitten out of his magic act with Bernie; Bernie chases them for two seconds and then we never see him again. Considering that he basically told Kitten that he loved him, I have difficulty believing that Bernie would say to himself, "Huh. I chased him for half-a-block. I guess I can let him go now."

The momentum in the film is generated by people finding Kitten's optimism and individuality compelling, but oftentimes the connection between Kitten and various characters felt forced. I blame this misstep on the script or editing rather than Murphy's performance. Though perhaps Murphy does share some of the blame. I found Kitten's nonsexual relationships – namely Charlie, John Joe, and Father Liam – most believable, which might suggest that Murphy's failure to embrace homoeroticism more fully deteriorated those sexually charged connections.

Speaking of Father Liam, I wish that more time had been spent on developing that relationship between him and Kitten. I like that Father Liam becomes a keeper of social misfits at the end of the film, but I would have liked to see how he progressed from completely dismissing Kitten at the confessional to coming to London and providing him with Eily Bergin's address.

I enjoyed the conclusion of Kitten's search for his mother because it was not a typical Hollywood ending. However, I wish that storyline had had more momentum. Kitten seems to spend an inordinate amount of time fucking around London instead of actually trying to look for his mother, his purported reason for even being in that city.

Jordan explores layers of storytelling within the narrative. Patrick/Kitten narrates as, the audience assumes, the Patrick/Kitten outside of the experiences which he describes. Jordan also uses the viewpoint of two robins to tell bits of the story, and uses some camerawork that mimics a bird's point of view, e.g. the swooping crane shots in the one of the first scenes in which Father Liam takes baby Patrick to his foster mother. I assumed that these bird bits were separate from Patrick-as-narrator's retelling of his life, but are they actually woven into Patrick's memoirs? Patrick-as-character also weaves quite a few stories within the frame of Patrick-as-narrator's retelling, including that hilarious recounting of his supposed conception.

'The Closer', or TNT is a tricky bastard

I feel betrayed. I swear that the two-hour event of The Closer the other week, featuring a very special appearance by the incomparable William Daniels, was a season premiere and not a season finale, but I seem to be wrong. The previous episode was all the way back in September. Why the hell did TNT wait so long to close out the season?

I do not understand why I like this show. Is it Kyra Sedgwick? Does she have powers beyond human comprehension that emanate from her hair or something? I guess that I appreciate The Closer because it is a little less exploitive, a little less gross than the majority of the current crime dramas out there. I think the writing has become a little more melodramatic in the second season, but the stories are still interesting. The character of Brenda is also the large appeal for most people, I think. I like that Brenda is a powerful woman and that she does not diminish that power or act ashamed for possessing it. But she also experiences insecurities and doubts, though not in a way that turns her into a victim.

‘Kill Bill’: The “I Don’t Have to Pander to Quentin Tarantino’s Ego” Edition

First, I would like to thank TNT for allowing me both to review films that I have not seen in some time and for giving me an opportunity to attempt films that I have been hesitant to watch, including Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. I had not seen any of Tarantino's films before watching Kill Bill, nor was I fan of kung fu movies or Japanese films in general. Thus, I did not rush to see Kill Bill because I did not consider myself part of its demographic. But thanks to TNT I watched Vol. 1 and became intrigued.

Ultimately, I think that Tarantino shot himself in the foot with these films. Separately, they are both enjoyable in two very different ways, but both seem bloated. Tarantino is so in love with himself and his creation that he often fails to give Sally Menke enough lattitude in the editing room. But I very strongly believe that within these four and a half hours of footage there IS a good two-and-a-half-hour film. Therefore, I offer my critic's cut of the film.

“Do You Find Me Sadistic” - I give credit where credit is merited: the opening of the film is fantastic. This short, simply shot scene introduces a strangely tender rapport between The Bride and the man who shoots her, whom she later intends to kill. The scene also introduces the very soap opera-ish premise of the film and The Bride's character in a way that does not rely on a lot of tedious exposition.

Main Titles: Bang Bang - Tarantino's choice of Nancy Sinatra's torch song remake of Sonny and Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" can be called nothing less than brilliant. The song's lyrics serve to build the relationship between The Bride and Bill and musically the song encourages the audience to mourn for The Bride and sympathize with her position.

Chapter One 2 - I think that Vivica Fox does a lot with an underdeveloped character and I do enjoy the interaction between her and The Bride ("I shoulda been motherfuckin' Black Mamba"). But the script does not serve Vernita well – the audience doesn't care if she lives or dies – and her scenes do not give any unique information, with the exception of introducing the Deadly Viper Squad and The Bride's code name as Black Mamba. I do recognize that Tarantino is trying to infuse some momentum into the film at this point, but I will discuss an alternative further down.

"We'll Have Us a Knife Fight" - See above.

Chapter Two The Blood-Spattered Bride - Yes. That's right. I'm cutting out Chapters One and Two. Why? I just don't think that they are necessary. In the case of Chapter Two, the audience doesn't care about the characters and the scene does not offer any information that is not explained in a more interesting way later in the film.

“Word of Advice, Shithead, Don’t You Ever Wake Up” - I love Elle; more specifically, I love how much I love to hate her. Daryl Hannah gives the finest performance that I have ever seen from her, and she creates Elle as a terrific foil to The Bride. This hospital scene develops Elle as an interesting character and establishes the dynamic between herself and The Bride. The scene also answers a question that the audience most likely will ask: why didn't the Deadly Viper Squad finish off The Bride when she was at her most docile? And it continues to build the relationship between Bill and The Bride. The Bride's voiceover that introduces the Deadly Viper Squad during one of Vernita's scenes easily could be moved to the hospital scene.

“My Name Is Buck, And I’m Here to Fuck” - Initially, I did not see the value of the inclusion of Buck and his whoring out The Bride to other perverts, but my friend commented that her being raped while comatose puts The Bride at a nadir at the start of her quest for revenge. Because Tarantino paints them so evilly, the audience also can be forgiving of The Bride killing Buck and his necrophiliac friend to obtain something that she needed, namely freedom from the hospital and a mode of transportation. Speaking of that mode of transportation, there is no way that the police would not have stopped and questioned The Bride in two seconds for driving around that spectacle of a truck, which belonged to a murdered man.

“Wiggle Your Big Toe” - Even though the scene slows the pace of the film a bit, I like the "Wiggle Your Big Toe" scene because it demonstrates The Bride's determination.

Chapter Three The Origin of O-Ren - While I applaud Tarantino's attempt at using multiple visual styles within the film, the anime segment is superfluous and it unnecessarily distracts the viewer from The Bride. None of the other Deadly Vipers receive as much backstory as O-Ren, and really this backstory does not service O-Ren's character development much. Lucy Liu creates O-Ren as an interesting and sympathetic character without the aid of the anime piece.

Chapter Five Showdown at House of Blue Leaves - This scene that introduces O-Ren as the leader of the Tokyo Underworld easily replaces "The Origin of O-Ren" and it features a brilliant bit of acting by Lucy Liu. My one edit would be to remove Gogo from the film entirely. She isn't interesting and her fight with The Bride is slow and boring.

Chapter Four The MAN from OKINAWA - These Okinawa scenes slow the pace a bit, but I recognize that they comprise an important part of the mythic hero quest, i.e. the hero(ine) obtains a magical weapon. And Sonny Chiba is having too much fun with his character for me to remove them completely.

"Funny, You Like Samurai Swords, I Like Baseball" - First of all, is Tarantino serious with that line? I mean, glah! That scene in the attic(?) with the swords isn't very interesting. Add the exchange about You know I don't make weapons anymore, Why should I help you? to the scene in the restaurant and move on to the sword ceremony.

"If On Your Journey You Should Encounter God, God Will Be Cut" - I like that line that Tarantino stole.

“The’s” - Obviously, one cannot remove this scene entirely because it sets up the most impressive fight sequence of the films. However, a lot of the stuff in this section is pretty useless. Tarantino really wants the audience to know what a goddamned genius he is, given all of the tracking shots in this sequence. He also has an excess of his trademark "cool" shots, but if the Council meeting scene were moved earlier in the film they would remind the audience of these characters.

"Tear the Bitch Apart!" - I'm curious if perhaps this first piece of the fight could be rewritten slightly and moved earlier in the film to replace the fight with Vernita. I think that the "Trix are for kids" exchange would make a nice transition out of this scene and into the flashback in the hospital.

You Must Be Gogo - Bye, Gogo. We don't care.

The Crazy 88s - Yes, this fight scene is impressive and well-choreographed, but it goes on FOREVER. As my friend said, "I would rather it be The Crazy 22s."

"That Really Was a Hattori Hanzo Sword" - I like the fight scene between The Bride and O-Ren, mostly because of The Bride accepting O-Ren's apology for ridiculing her. Oh, and did I mention that Lucy Liu rocks?

"They'll All Soon Be As Dead as O-Ren" - I would axe Sofie's bit, but I like Julie Dreyfus and she's a vehicle to reintroduce Bill, whom we have not seen in a while.

“Revenge is Never a Straight Line” - Most of this scene can be removed because the previews for the next film are unnecessary -- we're soldiering on. I also think that Bill's line about Does The Bride know that her child is still alive? should be removed so that the audience will be as surprised as The Bride when she meets her daughter toward the end of the film. So, I guess all that we're keeping from this scene is her writing her death list on the plane. Eh, you don't really need that either. Let's get rid of it.

"I Am Gonna Kill Bill" - Don't need the recap of Vol. 1, but thanks, Uma.

Chapter Six Massacre at Two Pines - This scene begins to flesh out the incident that instigated everything that has preceded it in the film. I considered moving this bit and the following scene earlier in the film, but I think that it provides a nice break from the swordplay and blood.

“Are You Gonna Be Nice?” - This scene is actually quite moving and really firms up the affection and longing that existed between Bill and The Bride before he tried to assassinate her. The scene could use some trimming because it does feel overly long, but it is well-acted and provides character development.

“That Woman Deserves Her Revenge, And We Deserve to Die” - I debated removing this scene entirely, but I really like the dynamic between Bill and Budd. In fact, I just like Budd period. Besides Bill, he is the most humanized of the Deadly Vipers and I like how pragmatic he is.

Chapter Seven The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz - Whee! More Budd.

A Satisfied Mind - I think that the misdirection of Budd looking out the window when he hears a dog bark could be taken out, but this scene is all about furthering the plot.

“This Is for Breaking My Brother’s Heart” - Again, the scene could use some editing, but it pushes along the story.

"Once Upon a Time in China" - Include a mention of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique when Bill leaves The Bride at Pai Mei's and move on. Their farewell at Pai Mei's tells the viewer the exact things about Bill and The Bride's relationship as the bonfire scene.

The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei - I would cut out Pai Mei entirely, but I recognize that in creating his kung fu pastiche, Tarantino needs the training sequence. And Gordon Liu has so much fun flipping his beard.

“OK Pai Mei, Here I Come” - Rollin', rollin', rollin', let's get this plot a-goin'.

Chapter Nine ELLE and I - Take out the unneeded shots of The Bride walking through the desert, but otherwise leave this scene untouched. "You know, I've always liked that word 'gargantuan.' I so rarely have an opportunity to use it in a sentence." Ha!

“Bitch, You Don’t Have a Future” - Elle! 'Nuff said. Oh, but does The Bride really have to step on Elle's eye? That seemed a bit excessive.

Last Chapter Face to Face - I can't say that I really like this scene between The Bride and Esteban, partially because it introduces a new character late in the film whom the audience really doesn't care about, but mostly because I cannot understand Esteban very well. Michael Parks does a good accent, but he mumbles. I would cut the scene, but Esteban leads The Bride to Bill. And Uma is such a badass.

“Bang, Bang” - Good scene, but would have been better if the audience had not been told that BB was still alive. I like that Tarantino chose not to portray Bill one-dimensionally and shows him to be a loving father.

Emilio’s Story - The Bride just looks kinda stupid during this scene. (Sorry, Uma. I still think that you're fabulous.) I think that "Bang Bang" could easily transition into the scene in the bedroom.

"Were you being a bad daddy?" - I think this bedroom scene accomplishes Tarantino's objective of the Emilio scene more effectively and efficiently. In my opinion, "Emilio's Story" establishes the tenuous truce that Bill and The Bride declare around their daughter. Bill does most of the talking during these scenes, demonstrating that he is willing to be generous to The Bride by allowing her time with BB, despite the fact that she has come to kill him. Tarantino blocks this scene in the bedroom so that Bill has his back to The Bride for most of the scene -- how would an assassin better display trust and vulnerability than turning his back to an enemy? The Bride actually engages in this scene, which makes it much more interesting than her stare-with-her-mouth-open stance of the previous scene.

Superman Speech - Good scene. One of the few scenes in the film with really good dialogue.

Pregnancy Test - Good scene. ("Congratulations." Ha!)

“You and I Have Unfinished Business” - Good scene.

Next Morning - Good scene.

And FIN. Can I say that I really don't understand that contrivance of censoring The Bride's name in the first film. I mean, I understand WHY Tarantino didn't want her to have a name — her identity is completely tied up on in her quest for revenge — but Tarantino could've just not written her name into any of the scenes. Nor do I understand what's up with the credits. It seems like Tarantino promised every actor that he would credit her name at least three times.

You wanna know what kind of weekend I had?

I watched Charlie’s Angels two-and-a-half times, that’s what kind of weekend I had. And I had definite opinions concerning the television edit neutering the pacing of the movie. I swear though — Bill Murray popping up with that perfectly rendered gun made from soap with his teeth kills me every time.

probably the best line I’ve ever heard on ‘Law & Order’

Coroner: “I have to remove a javelin from a body.”
Lennie: “Why did you pursue this line of work?”
Coroner: “Free javelins.”

Notes from having watched three seasons of ‘Gilmore Girls’ very recently

  • Lauren Graham is edging past the scorching side of hot and should have about 27 Emmys on her mantle at this point.
  • Season three was a crappy season. The non-entity boyfriend Alex, a pointless and ridiculous reappearance of Max, Jess being an asshole, Lorelai being enormously self-centered and actually annoying me, Nicole and her heart that could cut glass, terrible actors acting in terrible flashbacks.
  • I can tolerate Rory annoying me by acting like a brat if it’s an attempt to make her character a little less perfect and more interesting. However, I cannot tolerate Lorelai annoying me. It makes me angry at the show.
  • I’m embarrassed to admit that my enjoyment of the show increases significantly when every episode doesn’t contain several scenes of actors wearing Chilton uniforms instead of pretty, pretty clothes. How girly is that?
  • Shut up, Kirk.
  • No more “quirky” (read: annoying as hell) townies. And cut back on the townies in general. They can be charming in small doses. Oh, except for Sookie and Michel. More Sookie and Michel please.
  • More Paris please, too. Liza Weil is an awesome, beautiful mad genius.
  • Rory has terrible taste in guys. To date, and in order, she has dated an adulterer, an asshole and a creep.
  • For two very sexy people, Lorelai and Luke have the most asexual relationship ever depicted on television.
  • Alexis Bledel does not know how to hug. The girl needs some classes or something.

Things I’ve Learned from Watching ‘Queer as Folk’

  1. A lot of people from Pittsburgh have Canadian accents.
  2. Lesbians don’t wear bras.

“I loathe the bus”

I’ve been sick the past two days. And I mean sick. There’s some nasty shit residing in my nasal passages. It’s terrible being sick when you live by yourself. Especially when you don’t have a dishwasher. I mean, you’re using dishes to make tea and oatmeal — two of the few things that don’t irritate the gravel that has been living in my throat — but you don’t want to stand up long enough to wash the dishes when you need spoons. You run out of tissues, but you don’t feel enough in control of your faculties to drive to the market to buy more. My nose can only take so much toilet paper, dude.

Today was better though. Not only am I feeling better, but my friend Anne loaned me her copy of Sixteen Candles, which — deep breath — I had never seen before. Too many delicious lines to quote! Too many great characters! Too unfathomable that John and Joan Cusack have fewer lines COMBINED than an actor named Michael Schoeffling!

Nothin’ says staying home sick like John Hughes.

'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe (1719)

I finally, FINALLY finished this novel. I have been reading it for over a month for several reasons. First, I’ve been busy getting ready for the meet to open at Churchill. Second, Defoe’s writing style is very dry and difficult to get into. Third, whenever Defoe as Robinson would say something that offended me, I had to lock the book in my closet for at least a day so that my pissed off-ness could subside enough for me to continue reading. And toward the end of the book when Robinson starts declaring everyone who sets foot on the island his “subject,” the book was destined for the closet every couple of paragraphs, which really slowed the reading process.

Before I talk about Robinson Crusoe, I would like to discuss the idea of art as presented by Scott McCloud in his fascinating book, Understanding Comics. McCloud takes a pretty broad approach to art, describing art as anything humans do that does not directly ensure survival. This book, surprisingly, seems to support that description of art. When Robinson first arrives at the island, he has pen and paper, which allows him to record his doings. Keeping a journal is not essential to his survival, but Robinson seems determined to keep a record because, well, it’s what you do when you’re stranded on an island and expect someone to find you, or at least your manuscript, one day. When his ink runs out, he finds an outlet for art in other, more “primitive” expressions of art, namely making baskets and pots. I believe at one point Robinson mentions that he has an entire store of pots in one part of his castle and I cannot imagine that one man would need that many pots. The boat that he builds to cruise around the island also is a piece of art. However, when he uses the canoe he realizes that he must fight for his survival. The canoe then becomes abandoned because it does not fulfill its purpose, that is to be an escape from the tasks he performs to survive. When the threat of the “savages” completely overcomes Robinson, he forsakes all of his art to ensure his survival, fortifying his “castle” and finding a new stronghold in a cave.

Speaking of the journal, I found it equally annoying and interesting that Robinson as the narrator insisted on including the contents of his journal in his account, even though most of the entries recounted events which Robinson the narrator already described. Why did Defoe include this second voice of Robinson as island resident? What implications are suggested by the fact Robinson the narrator felt compelled to both detail his experiences on the island and include the much briefer journal entries?

Robinson uses language in his conquest of the island, but his claiming of different parts of the island also relates to the colonialism in which England was beginning to engage. Robinson’s first venture into colonialism — his experience with Xury — is not a difficult affair because he had the advantage of size and weapons over Xury. On the island, the task of colonialism is not quite as easy. But similar elements are used to ensure his dominion over the island, namely his reliance on weapons and destruction to assert authority.

Even though Robinson finds himself in very much the same situation as the “savages” he so often condemns, he strives to note in his recounting that he somehow lived above the “savages” on the island. He will often compare the ways which he constructs something to methods used by more primitive cultures, so he definitely sees the connection between his life and theirs. However, he calls one of his homes his “castle” and the other his “country house,” relying on his audience’s British upbringing to mentally upscale his living conditions with his use of these phrases. He also furnishes himself with a few trappings of British middle-class lifestyle, most obviously a tobacco pipe. He faces his ultimate challenge when he sees the footprint on the beach. At first, he schemes to kill the “savages” should he encounter them, however he eventually dismisses that idea as foolish. And the idea is ridiculous, but Robinson seems to discard the notion mainly out of desire to not act like a savage or even like a Spaniard, who he says were admonished for their treatment of the native people of the Americas.

And one concluding thought: shut up, Robinson.

'Devil in the White City' by Eric Larson (2003)

I would like to express my great disbelief that writers as immature as Larson:
  1. are published;
  2. are nominated for a National Book Award.
The man seems to take his writing cues from scribes of the noir era. What Larson does not seem to realize is the average modern author mocks such writing. Larson’s prose is clumsy and hackneyed. He telegraphs plot points and uses an excessive amount of ridiculous and/or nonsensical similes, including:
  • “came to see her as an obstacle, just as a sea captain might view an iceberg”
  • “sitting down to dinner with these men was like being a stranger at someone else’s Thanksgiving”
  • “the bride…appeared like a white ghost”
  • “iron-clad wheels that struck the pavement like rolling hammers”
  • “the tension was…like the inaudible cry of overstressed steel”
  • “Chicago is like the man who marries a woman with a ready-made family of twelve”
  • “glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals”
  • “in the heat and haze [the plants] looked like desert troops gone too long without water”
  • “Cinder and smoke drifted like soiled gauze past the window”
  • “Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence”
  • “his eyes…gleamed…like marbles of lapis”
  • “gas jets…hissed like mildly perturbed cats”
  • “in his eyes there was only a flat calm, like a lake on a still August morning”
  • “as if a giant wool blanket had settled over the house”
  • “She felt as if a coarse blanket has been lifted from her life”
  • “the human body was like the polar icecap, something to be studied and explored”
  • “he looked forward to most were the days before his departure when her need flared like fire in a dry forest”
  • “This notion came to Prendergast initially as a glimmer, like the first sunlight to strike the Masonic tower each morning”
  • “Minnie was an asset now, an acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey”
  • “laughter that rang like crystal touched in a toast”
  • “chemical odors ebbed and flowed like an atmospheric tide”
  • “The possession he craved was a transient thing, like the scent of a fresh-cut hyacinth”
  • “[Ferris wheel] cars…stood on the ground like the coaches of a derailed train”
  • “The frontier…stood there glittering in the sun like the track of a spent tear”
  • “pale blue uniforms standing out like crocuses against black loam”
  • “three huge Worthington pumps began stretching their shafts and pistons, like praying mantises shaking off the cold”
  • “the great Golden Door, which arced across the light-red face of the building like a gilt rainbow”
  • “Harrison’s murder fell upon the city like a heavy curtain”
  • “Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead”
  • “[The humidity] clung to Holmes and his fellow prisoners like a cloak of moist wool”
  • “The house was charming…like the gingerbread house in a fairy tale”
  • “For Dora Root life with John had been like living upon a comet”
  • “now that Julia had begun looking at [her husband] as if he had just emerged from a rendering vat at the stockyards”
  • “other days with a silvery medicinal odor, as if a dentist were at work somewhere in the building easing a customer into a deep sleep”
  • “The wind pummeled the balloon as if it were an inverted punching bag”

I also think that Larson has tried to tackle too much material. In a work of this nature, the reader sometimes is confused by all of the one-shot characters necessary to telling the story. By switching between three or four different stories, Larson only compounds the problem. I think that Larson should have detailed Holmes’ killing spree in a separate novel. Though The Colombian World’s Fair provided Holmes a stream of victims, his killing was in no way motivated by or limited to the Fair. He didn’t kill anyone at the Fair; he killed people before and after the event. The connection between Holmes and the Fair seems arbitrarily imposed by Larson. Holmes’ geographic and temporal proximity to the event did not necessitate Larson detailing Holmes’ story along side the Fair’s. The inclusion of Prendergast seemed more appropriate, though I believe that his story could have been greatly truncated.

'Bee Season' by Myla Goldberg (2000)

With Bee Season, Myla Goldberg delivers a rich, sensual novel that explores a breadth of subjects including religion, language and familial relationships. Goldberg creates four distinct characters with very different worldviews, each on his or her own spiritual journey.

Aaron and Miriam seem to be on similar though diverging paths. Eliza’s spelling practice replaces Aaron’s guitar lessons in his father’s study, a time during which Aaron became acquainted with Judaism and prepared for his bar mitzvah. Ousted from the study, Aaron experiences a crisis of faith. At the beginning of the novel, Aaron is hyper-conscious of his body, sensitive that his body has not fulfilled the potential that his masculinity promised: he’s too pale, too thin, too weak, too small. Thus, in his exploration of religions outside of Judaism, he is drawn to ISKCON because of its emphasis of transcending the physical constraints of the body. Rather than transcending his body, Aaron reconstructs his understanding of his body through his religious experiences through Krishna. Once a source of embarrassment, his body becomes the ultimate instrument with which to praise god. The services at the ISKCON temple involve movement and expression with the body, and Aaron’s return to Beth Amichah prompts him to note that god should be worshiped through motion and not sitting in a chair.

Conversely, Miriam seeks a connection to her body or what she conceives of as her body or whole self. Miriam understands herself to be fragmented and describes the objects that she steals as pieces of herself. By “reclaiming” the pilfered goods, she strives to put herself back together. As an expectant and new mother, Miriam dislikes the baby’s demands on her body. Breastfeeding is particularly difficult for her because the baby is taking something from the body she strives to rebuild. Perhaps sex becomes appealing to her during her abstinence from breaking into houses because she feels as her body is being augmented in a way, even if sex is only a simulation of the feeling of reclaiming a piece of her “kaleidoscope.” Judging by Saul’s observations of his wife’s body during these encounters, Miriam does not derive any kind of sexual pleasure.

Aaron’s relationship to language acts as a gauge of his connection to a religion. During his studies with his father, Aaron masters his Hebrew pronunciation, which elicits a compliment from the rabbi on the day of his bar mitzvah. Performing the services in Hebrew that day evokes Aaron’s second experience of god, an experience which to him feels like an actual communion with god. However, Hebrew does not allow him a recurrence of that experience — he performs his part in services automatically, not needing to consult a prayer book for guidance, and plays “sheep” with Eliza. His distance from the language increases when he observes that he does not know what the words he says during services mean, merely how to pronounce them. While Aaron does not know the meaning of the words that he uses during ISKCON ceremonies, his lack of understanding does not concern him because he feels connected to god whenever he says them.

Saul and Eliza’s journeys are more closely connected. Saul’s spiritual path seems very much shaped by his father withholding his Jewish identity from him. Similarly, Eliza sees potential in his path to the national spelling bee because success at spelling could enable her to obtain something that Saul has withheld from her: his being proud of her for any reason but especially for her intelligence and academic performance. When Saul finally recognizes his daughter’s potential, he sets his daughter on a path that he had to abort because of his shortcomings. Besides her spelling ability, Eliza shows an understanding of language superior to her father’s in her ability to detect lies. Aaron notes several times his surprise at his father’s ignorance of his lying. Eliza always knows when Aaron lies and she knows her father lies when he fibs about Miriam after her arrest.

Saul is a character whom the reader both dislikes and pities: dislikes for his manipulation of his children and pities for his inability to attain his spiritual goals. Saul reminded me of a failed child prodigy in a way, in that he seemed to have greater success as a youth and young adult but his potential dried up and his success tapered off. Despite all of his aspiration to become a great spiritual leader, he only managed to be a dorm-room prophet, using his accumulated knowledge of mysticism to seduce young women and achieving spiritual transcendence only through the facilitation of drugs. He realizes the limitations of his collegiate and post-collegiate activities but never ascends higher than a cantor at a temple in his quest for transcendence through Jewish mysticism. Saul recognizes his children’s potential to continue the path that he started. With both Aaron and Eliza, he manipulates them into following a spiritual path: the safe haven from bullies that Saul offers Aaron becomes training for his bar mitzvah and the study help that Saul gives Eliza becomes conditioning for communing with god. Instead of offering obligation-free parental attention, Saul only offers his attention on the condition that the time ultimately results in his child fulfilling a part of his unattained spiritual path, i.e. Aaron becoming a rabbi and Eliza mastering Abulafia’s ladder.

Of the four characters, three have biblical names. In the bible, Aaron is Moses’ brother who leads Moses’ people in building an idol while Moses is up on a hill talking to God and the idol, of course, angers God. Naming the character Aaron as she does perhaps Goldberg alludes to Saul’s placing his faith in the wrong child: he expects Aaron to achieve the highest position in Judaism but ultimately Aaron “betrays” him by joining ISKCON. The biblical Miriam was Moses’ sister, I think, and one of the women who found him floating in a basket on the Nile. She was a prophetess and suffered from leprosy. This biblical characterization of Miriam as a prophet causes me to wonder if Goldberg is suggesting that her Miriam isn’t so crazy after all. And Saul is the first king of Israel whom God replaces with David because he broke God’s rules. Saul is a rather pitiable figure in the bible because God ousts him from his position for rather trivial reasons, including showing mercy to people in battle and not waiting to make an offering to God before heading into battle. Goldberg’s Saul has the namesake of his uncle Solomon, also a biblical king who was known for his wisdom. The combination of these two names describes Goldberg’s Saul rather aptly: he aspired to and was expected to attain wisdom but ultimately failed in a rather pitiable way. Eliza is the only Naumann name with no biblical counterpart, perhaps to accentuate her otherness in the family. “Eliza” is pretty similar to “Elijah,” who was an important prophet in the bible.

'How to Be Good' by Nick Hornby (2001)

How to Be Good had a curious effect on me while reading it. Not to sound like the protagonist — whose continued insistence of goodness based on her occupation annoyed me after the first 20 pages – but I think that I’m a good liberal: I work at a nonprofit organization for very little money; I vote; I help out the Democratic party when I can (and agree); I volunteer at a food bank a few times a month; I don’t eat meat because I disagree with the treatment of animals in the meat industry and I try to stick to my values in other ways. But How to Be Good revealed great gaps between potential liberalism and realized liberalism. There isn’t an empty spare bedroom in my apartment, but I do have an air mattress and a living room that some homeless people could be using. Am I a bad liberal because I would never consider allowing a stranger to live with me? Even though at the most obvious level I was mocking GoodNews and David’s plans for being good, I was provoked to think about things that I do to be good and what I could do better.

In this novel, Hornby managed to create an almost conservative form of liberalism in a way. I’ve always envied staunch conservatives because they have the ability to paint an “us” versus “them” picture of the world. They have a clearly defined world in which there are good people and there are bad people and no one falls somewhere in the middle. Liberals often do not have the liberty of living in such a bifurcated world. Personally, I almost constantly feel trapped in the liberal paradox of we accept everyone except those who do not accept everyone. But GoodNews and David’s reasoning has the clarity and exclusionary attributes of the reasoning of the most conservative Republican.

One very brief part of the novel that I found interesting was the narrator’s ruminations about what life after divorce would be like for her family. Because of their respective careers, the narrator occupies the work sphere while her husband dominates the home sphere, which obviously is the reverse of what one is encouraged to accept as standard gender roles. The narrator’s realization that she fills more of “the man’s role” in her household causes her to ask her son if he thinks of her as his “mum” or his “dad.” I don’t know of any kid whose answer would have differed from Tom because the use of “mom” and “dad” or some equivalent is intended (linguistically at least) to differentiate from male and female parent. However, there is so much more associated with the word “mother” than just a pair of ovaries and a uterus and the same for “father.” When same-sex couples have children, most do not slap the word for a biologically female parent on a male or vice versa (unless one person in the couple is transgendered). Even if one parent in a lesbian couple stays at home with the children and the other works, their children usually call both parents “mommy.” I’m rambling, but I think it’s interesting when literal interpretation and interpretation based on social conditioning begin to tussle.

One small complaint for me about this book: for the first 30 pages or so I was often surprised by references to the narrator’s sex. Hornby most often and most deftly narrates with a male voice and his narrative voice didn’t change that much in the case of his narrator being a woman.

Steven Spielberg's 'Munich' (2005)

I knew that I should not have rethought my dislike of Steven Spielberg films and seen this film. But the previews looked so good. And the reviews were so good. At least the ass didn’t tack on a happy ending to a depressing film as he usually is wont to do. Though given the strange, unsatisfying ending to the film (”There’s a verse in the bible that talks about men breaking bread together. Will you break bread with me?” “No.” [cue Geoffrey Rush stomping on the bread and the macaroni-and-glue picture of the two of them holding hands that Eric Bana made]) a ridiculous, happy ending might have been preferable.

And what most annoys me is that, really, there is a decent, though not particularly inventive, motion picture within Munich. The theatrical release simply needed a more discerning, critical editor and a less egotistical director. And it could have stood for better dialogue, which contains gems like, “Don’t tell anyone about this. […] Just don’t! [cue Eric Bana crossing his arms and stamping his foot before crossing the playground to play with someone else].” I suppose that the really asinine dialogue and the bloated, tedious running length were the real deal-breakers for me. Oh, and the really predictable plot. And the lack of any new ideas to the debate about terrorism and fighting terrorism. Only the most thick-headed, oblivious individuals could consider Spielberg’s depiction of the war on terrorism “eye-opening” and those people are not very likely to see this movie.

So, why did critics like this film so much? I just don’t understand.