On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the RoadThis review contains spoilers.

“… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

 

On The Road, by Jack Kerouac is a picaresque novel set between 1946 and 1950. I understand that it is based on some of Kerouac’s real life experiences with Neal Cassady. Although I haven’t read any biographies, I know he was also friends with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Since I’m unfamiliar with his life, I’ll focus my comments strictly on the novel.

It is divided into five parts and written in first person past. The novel tells the story of the friendship between Sal Paradise, a New York (New Jersey) writer and his friend Dean Moriarty. Starting as it does just after World War II, Sal is a former G.I. who has also been married once.

He hangs out with his young, intellectual friends, but is determined at some point to get out on the road and see the country. Like a lot of youth in all different time periods, Sal is anxious to play around and become a part of the scene. The particular scene at this point in time consists of bars, jazz clubs, steamy Negro night clubs, and lots of booze and grass.

Dean is high-level bullshit artist who is half-crazy. From Denver, he spent a fair amount of his youth traveling with his father, who is a bum, and in reform school for stealing cars. Sal is attracted to him right away and they strike up a friendship as they travel back and forth across the country.

The brief plot involves Dean’s mad dash between women, most notably Marylou in Denver, whom he marries, Camille in San Francisco, whom he divorces Marylou to marry. They have two children. Eventually, he divorces Camille to marry Inez in New York, though he abandons her to live with Camille. Another plot element is the intensity of the parties that these guys and their friends have, growing crazier and crazier until Dean finally abandons a feverish Sal in Mexico City.

I can tell that I’ve grown old because there are many things in this novel that I loved when I was young and that I now find abhorrent. One, of course, is the treatment of women. Dean treats them like garbage and even Sal agrees that the perfect woman is one who simply lies there and tolerates the “gone” behavior of their men with a smile. All of Dean’s women seem to mature far beyond Dean, yet they tolerate his behavior.

Dean is one of the least admirable anti-heroes I’ve ever read. He is a self-centered thief and con man who doesn’t care even the tiniest bit for anyone that he hurts–and ultimately, he hurts everyone, including Sal. I’m down with a certain amount of drinking and drug use, but stealing one car after another, wrecking cars he’s been entrusted with, going through one woman after another with no concern for any of them, recklessly placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy, abandoning his friends, I can’t understand any of that. Nor can I understand why and how Sal still loves him at the end of the book. 

As far as telling a story, the books pretty much tells the same story over and over till the last page. There is no real character development and book doesn’t seem to have much to say, except this: take chances with your life and do not settle for a life unlived.

Although there are big sections of the book that are poorly written, there are also sections that absolutely sing with life. The long passages cobbled together with all kinds of metaphors sometimes achieve a roll and pitch that makes them almost musical and takes the book to a whole new level.

A brief note on the movie that was released a few years ago starring Kristen Stewart as Marylou. The film takes the story of the book and alters it in such a way that it clashes severely. One example of this is that homosexuality is severely looked down on the book, yet it is an important part of the movie. In the book, homosexuals are routinely referred to as “fags” and “queers,” yet the movie makes Carlo Marx homosexual and Dean a bi-sexual, yet he’s supposed to hate the “queers” more than anyone else. The great parts of the book are completely ignored in the film and it is really just a two hour orgy of sex and drugs. Not at all worth seeing. Read the book.

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Enchanted

EnchantedWalt Disney Pictures has given us a most enchanting film in this entertaining blend of animation, CGI, and live action. Released in 2007, Enchanted was written by Bill Kelly and directed by Kevin Lima with an eye toward both parody and reverence toward the Disney classic animated movies.  It contains wonderful songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and sparkles with good humor.

It begins with animation in the make-believe world of Andalasia, where only good things happen. Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) lives alone in the forest communing with her little animal friends and pining for some hero to come sweep her off her feet. She has been constructing a mannequin to represent her true love, but can’t find lips.  Stepping to her window, she sings a little refrain that calls all the forest animals to help.  As she sings “True Love’s Kiss,” bunnies, fawns, birds, and other forest animals sing along with her.  Elsewhere in the forest, Prince Edward (James Marsden) also sings the song while looking for the love of his life and hunting trolls. He rescues Giselle from a troll, they fall in love and decide to get married the next day.

However, his wicked stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) has other plans. If Edward gets married, it means she’ll have to give up the throne.  When Giselle shows up at the castle the next day, Narissa turns herself into an old hag and pushes Giselle into a deep well.  After plunging through water, she emerges in the sewers of Manhattan as a real live person, which is the first time we actually get to see Amy Adams.  As she wanders around New York City trying to get help, she her tiara stolen and gets drenched in rain.  At last she sees a casino decked out like a palace and tries to climb up to get in the door.  Along comes Robert (Patrick Dempsey), an attorney, with daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) and the rescue the Princess and bring her back to their apartment.

Back in Andalasia, Giselle’s chipmunk friend, Pip alerts Prince Edward that his love has disappeared down the magic well, so he and Pip jump in to follow her and also end up as real beings in New York searching for the lost girl. Narissa sends her incompetent assistant Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) after them in an attempt to ensure that Giselle does not get rescued.  In the midst of this, as Robert and Morgan are falling in love with Giselle, Robert’s girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel) is fighting to keep him.

Seeing the state of Robert’s apartment, Giselle opens the window and sings her little refrain to call the forest animals, but she’s in New York, so she gets pigeons, rats and cockroaches who all dance and scrub happily away as she sings “Happy Working Song.” The combination here of live action and CGI mesh so well that one’s attention is strictly on the action and the song and it is SO SO funny!  Later, walking in Central Park with Robert, she sings a big production number, “That’s How You Know” that has a HUGE ensemble of dancers and moves seamlessly through the park.  It’s almost impossible not to walk away singing the song.

There is one other great song, but it is not sung by characters. At the end, Carrie Underwood sings behind live and animated action the song “Ever Ever After” that concludes the movie.

This is a truly creative, entertaining film, probably one of the best Disney films I’ve ever seen. The songs, sets, locations, costumes, photography, and animation are all first rate.  Amy Adams is really, really funny and her naïve naiveté is part of what makes the film succeed.  Anything less than real belief in Princess Giselle’s goodness and purity would have failed.  Susan Sarandon is wonderful as the arch villainess and all of the other actors do an excellent job.

A great movie for kids or adults!

Young Victoria

theyoungvictoria-2This review contains spoilers (as if history didn’t contain enough).

In 1836, when Princess Victoria of Kent (Emily Blunt), the heir apparent to the throne of England, first meets Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Rupert Friend), she is in a very delicate situation, both politically and personally.

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) is heavily under the influence of her brother, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), who devoutly wishes an alliance with Britain to keep Belgium safe from France, and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), the comptroller of her household, who wants King William IV (Jim Broadbent) to die while Victoria is still a minor so that the Duchess will be appointed Regent and he can rule England from behind the scenes.

Victoria herself is in rebellion against both of these constraints, siding instead with King William. She resents the control that Conroy exerts over her mother and she resents the domestic restraints that they both hold on her.  While she is ill, Conroy even attempts to force her to sign an agreement for a Regency, but she bats the document away.  Conroy treats her quite brutally, once grabbing her physically and throwing her on a sofa.  When her mother stands by and allows this to happen, she warns her mother that she will never forget it.

King Leopold decides that the best way to keep England friendly is to have his nephew, Prince Albert, become very friendly with Victoria, perhaps even marry her, so he sends Albert to England for a visit. Trained to know all of her favorite music, reading, and opera, Albert tries to forge a friendship, but Victoria sees right away what he’s up to.  Changing tacks, he decides to be honest and disagree with her when their opinions differ.  Immediately, Victoria notices and decides to give him a little slack.  The more they talk, the fonder they grow, gradually falling in love, until, at last, Albert must return to Germany.

When King William dies, Victoria has come of age and she makes a few quick decisions. Although she allows her mother separate apartments at Buckingham Palace (built by William, Victoria was the first regal tenant), but she banishes Conroy.  Making friends with Lord Melbourne, she takes him as an advisor.  Although she desires to improve the living conditions of the poor, Melbourne steers her away from that and arranges her household as he wants it.  When Melbourne falls from power, Queen Victoria refuses to change her appointments to suit the new Prime Minister and the government falls.  There is a huge reaction in the public against her, there are riots outside the palace, and in one instance, a window is broken by a flying object.

Confused and needing help from a friend, she calls on Prince Albert to come to her, not just as an advisor, but as a husband and they are finally able to consummate their simmering love. Just when things would appear to be quite well, Albert makes the mistake of making a decision without consulting her and Victoria reacts strongly, feeling that, like Conroy, he was attempting to rule England behind her back and they have a vicious quarrel.  At a public appearance, a gunman appears and tries to assassinate Victoria, but Albert takes the bullet for her, thus proving his real love.

The two then form a true partnership and rule England successfully for another 20 years when typhoid takes Albert. Alone, Queen Victoria then ruled England alone until she was over 80 years old, supervising England’s management (not always successfully) of the Industrial Revolution and leaving a false impression of extreme prudishness.

This film is beautifully made. The art direction, photography, costumes, locations, acting, directing, music, and photography are all first rate.  Much credit must be given to director Jean-Marc Vallée for imposing strict control over the length of the film and the editing.  Some period dramas like this run amok by running two or three hours in length, but the timing of this film feels just right.  The script by Julian Fellowes maintains as much historical accuracy as possible, while still bending reality to make it a pretty good movie.  It is focussed, as it should be, on the love story, but the love story is underpinned everywhere by the politics and Fellowes did a fantastic job of merging the two worlds.  Much credit should also go to Sandy Powell for her Academy Award winning costumes.

Emily Blunt is simply stunning as Victoria. She shows such a range of acting that I found myself completely won over within the first few minutes of the film.  Rupert Friend was a wonderful casting decision as Albert because he brings both restraint and passion to the performance.  The chemistry between these two is really terrific and one completely believes not just the love, but the political realities of both of them.

You don’t need a PhD in History to understand this moving love story that involves two kingdoms, ministers, lords and ladies. It is passionate, well-made, well-timed and beautiful to watch.  I highly recommend the movie!

The Devil Wears Prada

Devil-Wears-Prada-1

This review contains spoilers.

Based on the novel The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger, the 2006 film of the same name brings a great deal to the table, namely moral, ethical, and economic issues usually absent from a comedy more concerned with appearance than reality. If you spend any time at all examining different takes on the David Frankel film, you will find a full range of opinions as to whether they got the fashion world right, whether they perverted the novel, even the simple question: is it any good?

Young Andrea (“Andy”) Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is looking for her first job as a journalist in New York City. She is a bit of slob, but she applies for a job at Runway, the world’s leading fashion magazine as an administrative assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the most powerful person in the world of fashion.  Miranda’s first assistant, Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) cannot believe that Human Resources would send someone so unfashionable for an interview. In spite of how bad it goes, Miranda hires her anyway.

The job is horrible. Miranda is a cold, insensitive, domineering woman who makes completely unreasonable demands on her assistants, Emily is a complete snob, and Andy fails time and again in doing a good job.  She complains to her boyfriend, Nate Cooper (Adrian Grenier), a chef, and Lily (Tracie Thoms) who runs an art gallery and makes fun of the ephemeral world she works in.  Nonetheless, she continues because of the boost such an assignment might give her career.

Devil-Wears-Prada-3At wit’s end, she solicits help from the only friendly person at Runway, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), the Art Director. Although at Size 6, she is considered “fat,” Andy blooms overnight into a fashion afficianado under Nigel’s guidance and she begins to gain Miranda’s trust, so much so that she is entrusted with delivering the mock-up book of the magazine to Miranda’s home.  Although Emily gives her explicit instructions on how to do it, Andy is distracted by Miranda’s twin girls and accidentally overhears an argument between Miranda and her husband.  Offended, Miranda gives her the impossible task of obtaining the latest Harry Potter book for her twins, even though it hasn’t been published yet.  Andy solicits the help of a successful writer she met at a party, Christian Thompson (Simon Baker) who comes through for her.  Thus proven, Miranda increasingly adopts Andy as her prime assistant and demotes Emily, going so far as to banish Emily from the annual trip to Paris and giving the opportunity to Andy.  To make the assignment as nasty as possible, Miranda forces Andy to give Emily the news.

After missing Nate’s birthday because of work, her relationship becomes strained and falls apart. In Paris, she sleeps with Christian and watches as a political move by Miranda kills Nigel’s big chance to leave Runway and take part in a major worldwide release of a fashion mogul.  All along this chain of events, Andy is given warnings that she has changed too much and she doesn’t believe them, until she is in Miranda’s car in Paris and Miranda tells her that they are very much alike.  Andy doesn’t believe it, saying that she would never do a thing like Miranda had just done to Nigel.  Amused, Miranda tells her that she has already done such a thing–to Emily.

Disillusioned, Andy walks out and seeks her future elsewhere. 

My first reaction was that I didn’t like the movie.

I didn’t like what I saw as an homage to a plastic world where so much time, energy, and currency are wasted. After all, we have serious problems in this world and we are certainly no closer to solving them when billions of dollars of our resources are essentially flushed down the toilet on fashion that will be old and discarded in a matter of weeks.

I didn’t like the stereotyped characters up to and–yes–including Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda, but I do believe that is more due to the script than Streep’s acting. The same could be said for most of the characters.  Hathaway is fine as Andy, although I wondered sometimes at her casual reaction to tongue-lashings that would have made most of us upset.  The best performances in the movie are given by Emily Blunt, who is allowed to bring great humanity to Emily (the script) and Stanley Tucci, whose own remarkable performance makes Nigel a three-dimensional character.

Aside from being a predictable plot, which isn’t always a bad thing, the holes in the story are deep and wide. After a lifetime of leaning on highly fashionable assistants and with a “million girls” aching for the job, why on earth would Miranda suddenly, inexplicably hire a slob?  There is no motivation at all for “giving the smart, fat girl a chance.”  Having worked for some powerful people in my time as an Administrative Assistant, I can say with some authority that Andy’s failures simply would not be tolerated on any level, yet the powerful Miranda never actually fires her.  Miranda herself shows so little humanity that she comes across completely as a stereotype.  Then there is the question of why Andy herself never leaves the job.  She is not functioning as a journalist on the staff, she already has the job on her resume, and there is no reason at all for her to stay, especially given the opinions of Nate and Lily.  Add to that all of the instances where it is pointed out to her that she’s changing in a profound and unappealing way and yet she doesn’t get it.  I lost respect for her and wondered how this intelligent, down-to-earth girl could possibly be seduced to the point where she cannot see the painfully obvious shallow person she is becoming.  That disrespect was fully cemented when she slept with Christian.

Given all of this, it just seems very strange that her one little scene with Miranda in the car would create the kind of transformation where she could walk away. My first reaction when she did walk away was:  How can you be so stupid?  Give two weeks notice!  Don’t just walk out, but be smart about it.  And later, how could Miranda possibly give her a positive reference after she walked out like that. 

These are all very serious issues.

But when I thought about it, a number of other things occurred to me. First, the film paints the fashion world in such a shallow, mean light that it is actually doing something right.  That most people didn’t see that is something of a wonder.  When I watched the special features on the DVD, Frankel and the producer, Wendy Finerman, said they especially tailored the script to make the fashion world look good.  Although I haven’t read the novel, it certainly made me wonder how bad the novel painted it.  The movies shows us mean, shallow little people with far too much money and prestige and really makes it look bad.  To me, that is a good thing!

And, although Andy surely doesn’t get what her friends are telling her, ultimately she rejects that mean, shallow world and returns being a more humble, real person. That’s a good thing, too.

Technically, the movie is well put together. The art direction and photography are superb and so is the editing.  The music is really terrific.

So, the more I thought about the movie, the more I began to like it, in spite of the extremely poor writing, stereotyped characters, predictable plot, and unbelievable action. I still wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone, but there are some elements that help to redeem it.

Chindi by Jack McDevitt

DeepsixSpoiler Alert! This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Chindi, by Jack McDevitt.  It is recommended that you read the novel before you read this review.  I also recommend reading The Engines of God and Deepsix, the first two novels in the series, before you read Chindi. It’s much more satisfying to read the entire series in sequence.

For those who haven’t read any of McDevitt’s Academy novels, a detailed introduction to the series is available at this site. Additionally, my reviews of The Engines of God and Deepsix are here as well. Chindi continues to develop the various themes that Jack McDevitt started seeding with the first book in the series.

The Earth continues to deteriorate under the burden of man’s existence. Overpopulation, drought, economic ennui, degrading weather patterns, religious strife and global warming all serve to hasten the downward spiral.  Yet humans continue to go on as if nothing was wrong.  The news headlines continue to be both bland recitations of meaningless power drivel, tawdry personal shortcomings and dire predictions.  Life goes on and everyone pretends that everything is okay.

People continue to be defined by their own shallow self-interest. Most everyone puts their own career and personal happiness above all: relationships, species growth, population control and the general health of the society.

The protagonist of these novels, our superluminal pilot, Hutch, is no exception, although she does possess other attributes that make us like and care for her. She herself cares for other people, she thinks positively about the universe and she has a fundamental understanding of how it works.  She’s not obsessed with power, wealth or the manipulation of others.

Author Jack McDevitt again uses many of the same devices that made the other Academy books successful. He starts us out with a Prologue set in the past – in this instance, it is June 2220 – only two years before the main action begins. This time frame for the Prologue is also during the period just prior to the main action which took place in Deepsix.

Unlike the other Academy novels, McDevitt does not break Chindi out into three or four sections, but rather simply goes chapter by chapter.

This book also contains the close escapes that mark most of McDevitt’s work and particularly the Academy novels. With such an intense degree of action, I’m quite surprised that the Academy novels have not been turned into movies or television.  In most of the books, these great escapes are not germane to thematic development, but are used to keep the reader glued to the page.  However, the themes explored in Chindi are based on the concept of risk.

The novel begins when a research vessel near a neutron star intercepts directed radio waves in the year 2220. Unable to trace them down to a source, the project leader, Pete Damon (a popular personality because of his program on the net explaining science to laymen), sends off all of the data to the Academy for review.

Two years later, on the verge of resigning from the Academy, Hutch is asked to perform one final mission. A group known as “the Contact Society” wants to mount a mission to investigate the radio waves.  Their leader, George Hockelmann (McDevitt has a lot of characters named George and they do seem to die), is an extremely wealthy businessman who has always dreamed of contacting an intelligent alien society.  He has built a starship, which he is willing to donate to the Academy, but first he wants to load up his friends and go investigate the radio waves, using Hutch as pilot.  She reluctantly agrees and boards the City of Memphis with George, Pete, Herman (George’s best friend) and Alyx Ballinger, an entertainer who does both live performances and sims, as actor, producer, and director.  She is, of course, fabulously beautiful.  They will pick up two other passengers along the way.

I find it a bit surprising, in the Academy universe, that scientists would be so skeptical of the Contact Society. In a world where intelligent aliens are known to exist (the Noks), where some intelligent species somewhere created the Omega clouds, where they know that several intelligent alien societies existed recently (the Hawks and the Monument Makers), and where there are a number of archeological sites on other planets, evidence of previous intelligent existence, why would scientists denigrate any group seeking to find intelligence?  This seems like a vestigial prejudice, something left over from our time that somehow carried forward into 2222.

For that matter, on first thought, it is at least mildly surprising that the Noks are so easily dismissed. Pretty much everyone refers to them as “the idiots” because they cannot seem to evolve past the point of constant warfare.  It has occurred to me that McDevitt might be trying to make a point about our own society – inferring that we are idiots for continuing to make war.  In some of the other Academy novels, Gregory MacAllister repeatedly refers to most of humanity as “morons”, people so caught up in their religions or politics or social beliefs that they cannot see the big picture – that all they are doing is reproducing, contributing waste, destroying the earth and adding nothing to human development and understanding.  Most readers, of course, would strongly disagree with the sentiment, especially if presented head-on.  But by presenting these thoughts in the example of the Noks and through the polarizing character of MacAllister, McDevitt is able to distance himself a bit from an unpopular opinion.

Part of the ridicule of the Contact Society from the world in general, and the scientific community in particular, is to set up a conflict between the “amateurs” seeking to make a breakthrough in contacting an intelligent species and the “professionals” who are certain they will not only fail, but make a blunder of it as well.

The two passengers they pick up are a funeral director, Nick, and an artist, Tor. It turns out that Tor had dated Hutch years before, but put up no resistance when she broke up with him, so she assumed he didn’t care.  In fact, Tor had fallen for her immediately, but didn’t want to seem pushy.  Years later, when he heard about the contact mission through his friends in the Society, he volunteered so that he could have a second opportunity with Hutch.

The relationship between Hutch and Tor is a good example of the shallow nature of the people that inhabit the Academy universe. When he knew Hutch previously, Tor was a failure as an artist, which was one of the reasons she dumped him.  He worked hard and became very good, partly so that he might have a second chance with her.  And she is actually very impressed that he is a good, successful artist.  The dynamic is typical male behavior played against typical female behavior.  Tor knows, for example, that Hutch will think less of him if doesn’t volunteer for dangerous assignments.  And, of course, Hutch knows that she will feel that way, too.  These appear to be simply archetypal reactions, behavior that could be demonstrated in a lab using any heterosexual male and female.  But it is another example of how, despite great scientific advances, people remain the same.

The book is also an example of Gregory MacAllister’s assertion in Deepsix that any time you put men and women together in a room the IQ drops dramatically.

As these members of the Contact Society follow the radio signal to its origination point, another ship follows it to its destination. There they discover the remains of what was once a living planet, destroyed in nuclear war, an old moon base and gigantic stealth satellites that receive the incoming signal.  While attempting to dismantle one of the satellites, something happens which destroys the ship.  Hutch and her group on the Memphis race to find out what happened.

After picking up the body parts, the group decides to investigate the moon base. It becomes apparent that the inhabitants were cut off from the planet after the nuclear annihilation and died from lack of food and oxygen.  Hutch has to babysit the amateurs who are mucking up scene.  Herman even attempts to steal an artifact.  While investigating, they discover that someone else had cut their way into the base long after the inhabitants had died, but they have no clue who or why.

The AI on the Memphis, Bill, discovers that there are a second set of stealth satellites in orbit, pushing the radio signals even further out into space.  They follow the signal and discover a habitable planet, one that looks much like earth and that does support advanced life.  There is a beautiful, intelligent flying species that they name the “Angels”.  George and the others immediately want to go down to meet them, but Hutch is reluctant.  Her past experience tells her that no matter what they look like, the situation could present great danger.  The others somehow talk her into going.

It is a mistake from the beginning. In the first place, you would think that a policy would be in place to prevent humans from barging into worlds where the technological level is low or non-existent.  In fact, humans have not interacted with the Noks because they are believed to be inferior.  Even Star Trek has a non-interference protocol that prevents them from blundering into societies that do not have warp capability.  For that matter, when McDevitt gets to the next book in this series, Omega, the World Council has a Protocol in place that prevents interference.

But George and the others go wading in and get attacked by the Angels. Both Herman and Pete are killed and the others are stunned and appalled that such beautiful creatures could behave so barbarically.  Hutch is vindicated.

Hutch’s courage is called into question quite a bit in this novel regarding the question of risk. She has already seen too many people die from taking stupid risks: Richard Wald, her archeologist friend delaying too long at Quraqua, George Hackett and Maggie Tufu taking foolish chances at Beta Pac III, another four dead at Deepsix and an entire ship just recently destroyed playing with a stealth satellite they didn’t understand.  She sees herself as fully justified in advising caution.  It certainly doesn’t mean that she is a coward, it just means that she is actually using her brains, something the others seem to have given up on.

Even after the death of his two close friends, George Hockelmann still feels like they did the right thing by attempting contact. Really?  With a species that was not technologically advanced?  What do you gain from that?  I thought the whole purpose of George’s mission was to contact a species that was at least as advanced as our own.  The mission becomes completely muddled after that fiasco – now all they want to do is to “see what’s out there” and that then allows them to do anything they want.

They do have a technological string dangling in front of their eyes: the radio signals. In each system, there are two sets of stealth satellites, one trio receiving signals, a second trio processing and resending them.

They move on to the next system receiving the signal, except that nothing is there and the signal appears to be going out toward a galaxy. Bill does some digging, however, and finds that the signal passes through twin gas giants on the outskirts of the system.  The team moves to investigate and they find two things: first that there is a moon in a vertical orbit that has a house on it and, second, that there is a spaceship orbiting one of the gas giants.

The house they find is quite large and had once been occupied by two very large creatures. It is filled with bookshelves, has a courtyard in the center, and has been frozen by exposure to space for a very long time now.  The view from the house – the gas giants with their ring systems and moons – is awe-inspiring.  McDevitt’s description of the scene is truly fine writing, worth the price of admission on its own.

But the spaceship orbiting one of the gas giants is huge. At first, they think it is an asteroid.  Indeed, it appears to have been built from an asteroid.  Alyx names the ship the Chindi, after the term Navajos use for a “spirit of the night”.  With Tor’s support – and against Hutch’s better instincts, George decides to investigate.  As the trip has gone on, Hutch has come to realize that she  returns Tor’s affection and it irritates her that he has pushed for boarding the Chindi.

They discover that the ship is actually automated – a roving museum, picking up artifacts and broadcasting events via the stealth satellites, a vast network of live entertainment, experienced sometimes thousands of years after it had occurred because it is broadcast at the speed of light. Fascinated, George breaks in and establishes a base to begin his investigation, along with Tor and Alyx.  There is intense pressure to get it done now.  Not only is an Academy team on the way (under the direction of a runaway egomaniac, Maurice Mogambo), but they have determined that the Chindi is simply using the gas giant’s upper atmosphere to refuel and it will be leaving soon.  To be caught on the Chindi during acceleration with limited air and power would be to invite death.  Dedicated McDevitt fans already know (more or less) what is about to happen.

As soon as the Chindi shows signs that it is about to leave, the team scrambles for the exit, but they are a little late.  Alyx manages to make it to the lander, but Tor gets stuck on the vehicle.  George, appropriately, gets swept away into space during the acceleration.

Throughout the novel, McDevitt balances the preciousness of life against the accomplishments of risk. After what Hutch has been through, she opts for life.  George, on the other hand, has made the decision that no matter what happens to his life, accomplishment is most important.  The problem with dying while accomplishing something is that you do not live to reap the rewards.  One has the sense, as George floats away into the soup of the upper atmosphere, that he has just realized this basic truth.  Throughout the novel, George’s major concern was not to make great discoveries, but rather to receive the accolades of accomplishment.  He is so concerned that Mogambo will ride in and take all of the credit that he ends up sacrificing the reward.  Mogambo, on the other hand, is distressed that George’s team has made all of the discoveries and he is scheming to spin the publicity to his own benefit.  With George gone – and given the gullibility of the press – this is actually quite easy.

The crux of the story comes down to the realization that the Chindi is not using FTL propulsion, but rather is running at sublight speed.  When it reaches cruise velocity, it is travelling at .25 of light speed – this is a velocity that no Academy ship can match.  Thus, Tor’s life is in serious jeopardy.

Hutch provides the solution: to use several ships tied together with a massive object, so that they can obtain a greater speed and enter hyperdimensional space loaded with mass. While in hyper, they dump the load and come roaring out into regular space slightly faster than the Chindi.  This proves to be another problem in that the engines are overheated and they cannot slow down enough.

At this point, Hutch throws all caution to wind and risks her own life for the reward of saving Tor. She jumps into a shuttle loaded down with go-packs and air tanks and brakes the shuttle till the fuel is gone, then she jumps out and uses the go-packs to continue decelerating.  Tor makes a net of cables and when she comes roaring in over the Chindi, he catches her and they both break free.

The scene contains all of the usual excitement that McDevitt generates in his bold rescues. The picture of Hutch soaring in over the Chindi at a velocity of 1/4 the speed of light and catching the net is brilliantly written and completely absorbs the reader, much like the conclusion of Deepsix.

It tells you a great deal about Hutch that she is willing to take a serious risk, but not for her ego; rather, she risks everything for her own personal happiness. As we see in the later novels, she marries Tor and they have several children.

But this is the end of Hutch as a pilot. For the remainder of the series, she will be tied to a desk at Academy Headquarters.  It is a terrific way to go out.  And for her, the reward was certainly worth the risk.

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen

Sanditon and Other StoriesThis is collection of Jane Austen’s “unpublished” work is required reading for diehard Jane Austen fans, Janeites, casual fans, English literature students, and anyone who is interested in the process by which one learns to write.

The title story, “Sanditon”, is actually Jane Austen’s final novel, which she was unable to finish. A funny, intriguing story of a little seaside resort, its greatest asset in its unfinished state is the comedy.  I’ve always had the sense that toward the end of her life she was returning to the twisted comedic roots of her juvenilia and this would serve to confirm that.  Unfortunately, it is probably only about one-third of a novel.

Another very sadly unfinished story is “The Watsons.”  I liked this best of everything included in this book.  It tells the story of a girl, Emma Watson, who was raised by her Aunt and Uncle.  When her Uncle dies, her Aunt remarries and moves off to Ireland, sending Emma back to her impoverished family without a cent.  Although Emma has been raised to be very genteel, she really adapts fairly well to returning to poverty, mostly because she has a very sunny disposition.  Her family, however, are a little weird.  Although her oldest sister is fairly well-grounded, the other two sisters (only one of which we meet) are full of foibles.  Pushed into acquaintance with their neighbors, she finds herself sought after by the local lothario and the local nobility, all the while finding herself more interested in the 30 year old parson.

The story is very funny and I laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. When it stopped, only about one-third of the way through, I was severely disappointed.  This is one that got away.  Jane should have finished it.

People hear a lot about Austen’s complete letter novel, Lady Susan, being as the main character is such a bitch. It’s all true.  Lady Susan is an unusual character for Austen to feature front and center, for she is conniving, heartless, and unfaithful.  The only charm she actually possesses is her extreme beauty.  And although in the end, her daughter is rescued from her and Susan received her due, she turns it all with a smile and looks for her next misadventure.

There’s not a lot of great writing in the “Juvenilia,” but the History of England is very funny and shows much of the wit she was to develop later in making Northanger Abbey such a hilarious novel and in endowing so many of her comic characters in the more popular novels.

To avoid disappointment, casual readers might want to read Lady Susan and skip” Sanditon”, “The Watsons”, and most of the “Juvenilia.” An excellent sourcebook and essential for Jane Austen fans.

Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

This review contains spoilers.

dragonsdawnDragonsdawn is a prequel to the entire Dragonriders of Pern saga. In fact, there is only one story which occurs in the timeline before Dragonsdawn and that is the short story, The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, which covers the brief period of time that the Exploration and Evaluation team discovered and conducted their examination of the planet that came to be called Pern.  The short story may be found in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, a collection which includes The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, plus four other terrific stories which occur chronologically after Dragonsdawn.

This novel tells the story of the group of colonists who actually settled Pern and it explains most of how the society devolved into what readers encountered when they opened their first Pern book, which is normally (and should be) Dragonflight during the Ninth Pass of the Red Star. If readers had any difficulty understanding that world, this will explain all, from the difference between a wherry and a watchwher to how the dragons were evolved from fire-lizards.

In addition, if anyone has ever wondered how the Holds of Pern got their names, you will get introduced to the people they were named after. For example, Benden was named after Admiral Paul Benden, one of the leaders of the colonial expedition.  The other leaders, Emily Boll, Jim Tilleck, and Ezra Keroon, likewise have holds named for them, as well as three villains among the colonists, Avril Bitra, Bart Lemos and Nabhi Nabol.

It is important to note that Dragonsdawn stands on its own as a novel. It may be read completely independently of any of the Dragonrider series and it will certainly entertain the reader.  It is the book that absolutely marks the Dragonrider series as science fiction and not fantasy.

The description of the three space ships which bring the colonists to Pern and the debarkation itself makes for marvelous science fiction. McCaffrey envisioned colonization from pretty much every perspective she could and she truly makes it work.  One senses the excitement of these war-torn people landing on a pastoral world that they can make all their own.  The work that they do to integrate native flora and fauna with Earth varieties, the pastoral society that they are setting up, and their interrelations are all written with superb understanding.

The characters are brought to life with immaculate detail – especially young Sorka Hanrahan and Sean Connell, the main characters of the tale. But most of the colonists are extremely well written, from the leaders to the botanists, veterinarians, farmers, gypsies, communication specialists, engineers and supply people.  Once again, Anne McCaffrey has performed a great job of drawing her positive characters.

But if McCaffrey has a weakness, I think it is in her creation of villains. I have noticed time and again the disconnect between the characters that we love and the characters we are supposed to hate.  The love works fine, but the villains are thinly drawn caricatures, their motivations paper thin and the evil putty thick.  Here again, Avril Bitra, the central villain, is almost comically unbelievable, having joined a colonial party and given up essentially fifteen years of her life so that she can take a few jewels from Pern, steal one of their small space ships, and spend another ten years of her life in hibernation so that she will be rich when she gets back to Earth.  Even if she could be certain that she could pull this off, why?  Luxury?  It makes no sense.  The other villains are even more unbelievable. 

I don’t mean to take anything away from the novel – I love it and highly recommend it – but beware that the parts dealing with the evil people are a little unbelievable.

I’ve felt for a long time that Anne McCaffrey should have primarily focussed on the people that we care about, because that is her strength. And in this novel, surviving on the planet itself and the deadly fall of Thread are enough of a challenge to the characters we care about without having to throw in some bad guys.

And I have to include a note here also about the edition that I read, which was the Book Club edition published in 1989 or 1990 (there is no notation in the book). I have never read a book so completely full of typos that it actually detracted from the enjoyment of reading.  Most editors can be allowed a few mistakes in any long book, but this Del Rey editor missed over thirty major typos, including repeatedly calling Jim Tilleck “Jim Keroon” (obviously confusing him with Ezra Keroon).  It is hard for a first time reader to keep things straight with this kind of editing, but it makes a frequent reader grind teeth.  Just beware of this particular edition – hopefully they fixed the problem in later editions.

On the other hand, the cover art by Michael Whelan (one of my favorite sf book cover illustrators) is really terrific, featuring Sorka Hanrahan standing outside a cave seaside surrounded by a fair of fire lizards.

I highly recommend this novel to all lovers of science fiction and fantasy, but particularly to readers who love the world of Pern. Enjoy!

The Adjustment Bureau

1-adjustment-bureau-copyThe Adjustment Bureau, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, is a bit far-fetched, but a very engaging film. David Norris (Matt Damon) is a Brooklyn politician who meets a fascinating woman, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) on the night that he has just lost the Senate election. When she quickly runs away, he is motivated to give a galvanizing concession speech that will reenergize his career.

A year later, the men of the Adjustment Bureau, an organization that adjusts humans to keep us following “the plan,” set up a situation where David’s day is supposed to be interrupted by one of their men Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), who nods off and misses his assignment. When David sees Elise on the bus, the plan has gone awry.  Furthermore, he walks on in an adjustment of his boss, Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly) and freaks out. Everyone is frozen while Richardson (John Slattery), the head of David’s team of Adjustment men, scans his brain.  They have to intervene with him and tell him what’s going on.  They burn Elise’s phone number and tell him he can’t have anything to do with her.  Well, David isn’t having any of this and he sets out to try to alter the plan so he can end of up the girl he loves. 

Matt Damon is excellent as David. Not only is he a believable politician, but his single-mindedness in trying to outwit the Bureau really makes the film move.  Emily Blunt is very engaging as Elise and Terrence Stamp is terrific as the man at the Bureau (“the Hammer”) they call in to make him give up his search

It’s a very fast-moving, enjoyable film with great music and it comes in at just over 90 minutes, so it’s the perfect length. It’s a really fun evening’s entertainment!

Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the CurveReleased in 2012, Trouble with the Curve is a fun little baseball movie that looks at changes in the world of scouting. Directed by Robert Lorenz, the film stars Clint Eastwood as Gus Lobel, an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves nearing the end of his long, successful career.  Although he is having some serious issues with his eyesight, Gus insists on traveling to look at prospects close up, claiming that it is the only way to spot true talent.  A younger scout, Phillip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard) insists that using statistics and computer projections is the way of the future, while the head of scouting, Pete Klein (John Goodman) sides with Gus.  They decide to send Gus out for one more assignment, to look at a prospect, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a kid with a big bat and a big ego to match.

Pete begs Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to go on the road with her father to make sure he’s alright. Mickey is a successful lawyer who is gunning to make partner with her law firm and is in the middle of a big case, so she turns him down, but goes to see her father anyway.  Gus and Mickey have had a strained relationship ever since Gus sent the little girl away to a private school following an incident when she was traveling with him and was nearly raped.  They both have difficulty dealing with the death of her mother, especially Gus.  When she finds him burning his food and sees his difficulty getting around, she changes her mind and decides to join him on the road.

While watching their prospect, a former pitcher now scouting for the Red Sox, Johnny “The Flame” Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), who had originally been recruited by Gus, renews his friendship with the old man falls for Mickey. The central part of the movie deals with their courtship and estrangement following the draft when the Braves take Bo over Gus’ objections that he can’t hit a curve ball.  Gus had assured Johnny that the Braves wouldn’t take him and when they do, Johnny feels betrayed by the father and daughter.

Although the story isn’t really original, nor the script especially creative, the acting carries the movie. Eastwood is delightful as the crusty old scout and gives a truly inspired performance.  Amy Adams is as lovable as ever as tough cookie Mickey who can see the things that Gus can’t.  Their chemistry as a father and daughter feels authentic and gives the movie the heart that the script failed to deliver.  Justin Timberlake is believable and extremely likable as Johnny and he and Adams develop a chemistry that makes the romance work.  It is pure delight to watch these three actors work together and they make the film one that can be enjoyed over and over again.

It may not be award-winning material, but this is a movie that deserves a place in any “feel-good movie” library.