Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Cee Lo Green

31 December 2010

Dear J-

One last for 2010 — I’ve bought music this year, the first time I’ve purchased any downloaded music in fact — and it wasn’t until Glee and Gwyneth Paltrow redid Cee Lo Green’s Forget You that I pulled the trigger on his third solo album, The Lady Killer (where, in keeping with his vision, I got the unedited version, where Forget is replaced by another F- verb also often paired with “You” — the unedited version is more fun, but we play Forget around the house, at least for now).

Glad I did.  And funny, it’s not F– You that’s my favorite:  it’s Satisfied, with its soaring accompaniment and retro riffs embellished with brass and class that has earned regular rotation around here.  If nothing else the soundtracks aren’t leading me astray still; I get to find new favorite artists.




30 November 2010

Dear J-

I finished up Neal Stephenson’s Anathem today — three days short of the three-week due date and faster than I’d predicted, given that I was only halfway through on Saturday.  The story picks up steam towards the end, and there’s a lot of endless philosophizing that just needs to get plowed through, unless that’s your bag and the thought process behind thought and reality gets you going.  I understand why there’s a few reviews that slagged Stephenson for producing what they considered a bloated (890 pages of main story in the hardback edition; if there’s a paperback you’re a better person than me), unreadable (like some other recent books I’ve read you’re dropped directly into the world and a new set of terms without any gentle introduction — sink or swim, people) wrack of a novel, but I also believe that they didn’t have the time it demands.

If you really want to know why I love reading stuff by Stephenson it boils down to this:  he takes care of the reader without pandering.  The hero/narrator, Erasmas, isn’t some extraordinarily infused specimen, meaning that he’s not the strongest, nor the smartest, nor the best behaved of his peers and in doing so, you believe that the extraordinary things he does do are achievable by anyone.  Contrast this to the book I’d just read before, Boris Starling’s Visibility*, which is a sloppily-done spy/police thriller set in London’s Great Fog where the confirmed-bachelor protagonist somehow ends up with the one beautiful woman who actually understands him instinctively and completely over the course of a single meal.  Worse, the centerpiece of a Cold War-era espionage novel is an encoded secret, but the code consists of nothing better than a grade-school caliber single substitution cypher, which is then decoded at great length and detail in the plot as though it was a staggering accomplishment.  Anathem does not insult you like that.  It assumes a reasonable level of intelligence and parades big questions in front of you, philosophical dilemmas and forces you to re-examine what you’re doing.

It’s not completely faultless:  without giving too much away I never felt like any of the main characters were in much jeopardy although there are tragedies along the way, and they find themselves in an impossible, one-way-mission situation later on.  Said situation is actually responsible for the best (hilarious gallows) humor in the novel and maudlin facing-death-bravely manly man actions; it comes at just the right time, when the plot threatens to bog down in endless conversations of hypotheticals and what-may-be after an exciting journey.  It’s strange, though; the first hundred pages or so I couldn’t tell where he wanted to go with the story and we’d be subjected to endless pages of life in a monastery run by math geeks.  But once it takes off, hold on:  the ride is just as memorable as all the other Stephenson books I’ve been lucky enough to lay hands on.


* Ironically, the version of Visibility that I read has a “Great Read Guaranteed” sticker on the cover; if I hadn’t checked it out from the library I’d definitely ask for my money back.

Given Day

28 September 2010

Dear J-

As a follow-up, I finally finished Lehane’s The Given Day late last night and having had some time to let it filter through my unconscious mind, I’m standing by my assertion that most of the heroes stuck out like a sore thumb, being unusually progressive and modern-minded. The strange feeling never really went away; even as the story moved along to its gripping conclusion (Lehane does know how to tell a tale) those characters stood in stark relief to the villains, who were painted with flat, broad strokes.

It was worth reading, but unlike the Kenzie-Gennaro series, I’m not sure I’d re-read it in five years when all the details have leaked out or my head. The characters are quite likable, but they wouldn’t be out of place in a modern setting. There’s a note of false drama with the byplays between Danny and Nora, Luther and Lila; Lehane grants us our wishes for a happy ending.

The work of a critic, especially an amateur one, is shockingly easy (just look at any typical Amazon product review). The act of creation, the labor, is apparent in the novel’s craft: compulsively readable and fleshed-out; as with other Lehane novels, I’m transported back to Boston. I just wish the characters were a bit more complex, as most of his earlier ones have been; you could make an argument for Danny as Mary Sue wish-fulfillment. All this is telling me that I need to watch The Wire, his contemporaneous writing project.



5 September 2010

Dear J-

I upgraded Jerry Spinelli to just-read status a while ago, probably sometime after Maniac Magee and definitely after Space Station Seventh Grade.  So in other words I’ll pretty much read anything I can get my hands on, whether short story, novel, or grocery list.  I’m still not sure why it took so long to read Stargirl, though; it’s one of those I keep seeing and hearing about, but never quite getting a chance to sit down with the novel until today.

After getting back from a shopping trip this morning, everyone took a nap and I took the opportunity to work on a little homework (absurdly easy buoyancy problems) and read through the book.  There are characters you identify with, and others you wish you were, and still others you recognize as hiding deep in yourself — like any Spinelli novel, I suppose.  There are uncomfortable truths we have to face about ourselves, and I don’t think there’s one of us who’d feel completely comfortable supporting everything the eponymous Stargirl does.

Although the final work is perhaps not Spinelli’s strongest, the characters are memorable and the ending is a bit wistful as well:  that same what-if that plagues each of us when thinking back to the things we could have done.  Don’t let indecision ruin your plans, don’t be afraid to be laughed at, and most of all, don’t give up hope in your dreams.  Powerful stuff.


Out There

12 November 2009

Dear J-

What is actually out there?  If you accept that of all the stars in the universe, surely some have planets and of those planets, there must be a few that have Earth-like conditions, then there must be someone else out there wondering aloud what’s out there too.  Distance and relativistic limitations mean that we’re unlikely to ever meet, barring some kind of Star Trek warp drive and the acceptance of unacceptable risks (unless you assume that successful extrasolar exploration is predicated on society being peaceful/united enough to support it).

I used to play a lot of Spaceward Ho! when I was in college; it’s a game with some strategy, but it ends up being closer to Risk in space, with some minor resource management issues.  When you start the game you pick the number of planets (I’m assuming planetary systems), the size of the universe, and the number of players; my winning strategy invariably revolved around creating colony ships with long range, no weapons, and slow speed; fighters swift and well-armed; scouts lightly armed but as swift; and ringing all colonies with layers of satellites with state-of-the-art weaponry in case of accidental discovery.  Scouts were expendable to figure out whether a planet was worth going to (or to feel out the other player), with whole fleets of fighters along the front lines until satellites could be established, and colony ships bringing up the rear, ready to pounce on new discoveries as needed.

I would count the number of players I’d run out of existence, and sometimes it was less than we’d started with, meaning that the computer had exterminated itself in internecine warfare.  For some reason it would make me obscurely sad:  though I realize that the goal of the game was being the sole player standing it felt a little like electronic genocide — rather than seeing them as separate players, they always seemed like separate species, unreasoning and uncommunicative, rapacious and just like the player in front of the screen.  I haven’t played Spaceward Ho! in a long time, now.


20th Cent

21 October 2009

Dear J-

The other thing I’ve been obsessed with lately is comic books; I’ve been reading (and can recommend) Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, now licensed and translated by Viz.  The complex plot and vast conspiracy unfolds slowly — here I can’t help but compare it to LOST, except without the annoying pacing deliberately designed to reward the most obsessive of fans (you know, the ones who stand up in panels and ask about the smallest continuity gaffes) — keeping me coming back for more; you want to dissect the smallest details in order to figure out clues to the shadowy villain “Friend.”

I still remember the hype that surrounded Stephen King’s IT when it came out in 1987; folks couldn’t stop talking about how thick it was, or how disappointed they were (you could almost draw a line there in his career, having transitioned from the taut thrillers of his early works to the overblown operatics of the middle period, save The Gunslinger — and that was written years before it was published)  IT is ultimately disappointing (a giant alien spider?  Really?) but there are echoes in 20CB; both stories flip back and forth in time between childhood and adults, showing how characters have grown and how they’ve been influenced.

Most media are focussed on evoking some kind of emotional response from the consumer; whether movie or TV or book.  The unique benefit of telling the story in graphic form lends to the mystery; early on we catch glimpses of the future — the apocalyptic future — strangely familiar and peaceful but knowing that the heroes have failed to stop the plot.  Could you sketch that in words?  Would it have been better to let the story unfold in a linear manner?  Some of my favorite stories — whether Watchmen or Final Fantasy VI — have plots that hinge on hope, with heroes who fail to expose evil in time, yet eventually prevail.  I suppose that the contrast between lows and highs increases the blacker you can draw the blacks.  Recommended.


Curious Incident

6 August 2009

Dear J-

I just wrapped up reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon); the narrator and protagonist is an autistic teenaged boy living in Swindon, England.  There’s been tragedies piled on top  of his life, and the plot revolves around everyone struggling to cope — with life, with school, and the central mystery of who killed the neighbor’s standard poodle, Wellington.  It’s a dry description, but with a scrupulously reliable narrator (he cannot tell a lie) the story is uniquely told, unfolding to reveal the killer and the consequences.  Plot chapters are interleaved with glimpses into the thought processes inside the narrator’s mind, fascinating as a conceit (how accurate?) and world we rarely experience (the author must have done research).  The writing becomes lyrical at times and I never pass up those chances.

But Mother was cremated.  This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke.  I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral.  But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

I hate reviews because most of them pad out their content with plot spoilers so that you might as well not even bother seeing the subject for yourself, so I’ll stop there.  If we accept that his story is an accurate portrayal of autistic behavior (and saying that is like saying a certain shade of red represents color in general; both fail to capture the broad spectrum), then it’s a curious mix of logical rationality (science and math trump religion) and superstition (yellow and brown).  I quite enjoyed it, in fact, and saw echoes — not of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man — of me.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

There is a movement afoot to link childhood vaccines with autism, as widespread vaccination and a rise in diagnosed autistic behavior have both shown up in recent years.  Some of it may be misdiagnoses — perhaps the threshold is lowering; there are any number of obsessive actions, from repeating words to insistence on a place for everything and everythng in its place that figgy shows.  It’s not said to take away from actual issues, just that tying it to vaccines doesn’t make much sense — there are any number of things, from the number of two-job parents to the rise of TV and Hannah Montana that have happened at the same time, and those links haven’t been explored fully, either.  It’s the same kind of lazy logic that infects Internet forums; wanting to believe makes us jump to conclusions well beyond what’s supported.

What struck a chord in me in the novel was the narrator’s social phobias, brought on by sensory overload:  he notices everything, which must then be processed and rationalized, and his mind just doesn’t keep up.  We so-called normals have some kind of automatic filter to help us gloss over certain details instead, but I insist that everyone has some detail they obsess over.  Again, accepting the premise of accuracy, the novel provides a vehicle for understanding, ultimately, our lives.


Chinatown Kid

8 July 2009

Dear J-

You know, J-, as well as I how comfortably suburban we grew up — large lots, green lawns, and shady, quiet streets.  We spent summers in the gentle grace of screen doors, our cologne the sharp chlorine of community pools; smelling distant thunder as a ionizing green threat.  And yet I somehow found myself more often than not in Seattle’s International District — Chinatown, if you will — dragged along as part my parents’ quest to find bargains for the store.  As an outsider entering that (as National Geographic put it, in November 1975) gilded ghetto, we were privy to a surprising number of behind the scenes deals.

I never saw it as a huge imposition until I was thirteen or fourteen and the prospect of ten hours on the road and endless afternoons spent double-parked, wary eyes on the lookout for chalk-wielding patrollers, loading our van to the gills with boxes, bins, and bags marked in foreign characters stretched away into drudgery.  Before that I loved rolling into Seattle mid-morning, stepping amongst the sussurous pigeons in the park; there would always be an opportunity to have an amazing lunch — ordering food is itself an art, you know.  On that strength, indeed, I’ve added retirement in a San Francisco Chinatown walk-up to the list of places to experience life (right there next to Crescent City, New Orleans, and Santa Fe).

This is a Bust:  A Novel by Ed Lin

This is a Bust: A Novel by Ed Lin

Ed Lin has done two favors for me; he’s reawakened the memories (waiting in line to get the right egg tarts — mentally comparing all the other Chinatowns (Vancouver, San Francisco, Oakland, Boston) to that benchmark Seattle district — seeing past the funny names and fading bright paint to the palette of faces beneath) and he’s managed to excise the New York Chinatown of Year of the Dragon from my psyche — all this with two delirious nights spent with This is a Bust.  I ran across the name via back-posts of angryasianman, located copies of his work (his first novel is Waylaid), and devoured it faster than I expected.  Having read free eBooks (i.e. copyright-expired Project Gutenberg classics)  has made me a slow reader, right?  The mystery plotline was secondary to establishing Robert Chow’s Chinatown as a living, throbbing character — and the issues of race were handled with a realism (that is, without resorting to flat stereotypes) missing from the images and words passed down to me; I regard it as a personal tragedy that I know less about the Water Margin, Journey to the West, and the Three Kingdoms than about Norse mythology (thanks, Dungeons & Dragons).  Back to the novel, though — definitely worth digging up a copy for yourself.



19 June 2009

Dear J-

There’s a lot of different things I could talk about; the Olympus E-P1 they announced on Monday, although a surprise to no one (given the officially leaked pictures and rumors), still managed to drive a ton of people nuts for what it was not: blessed with a wide selection of fast primes, “stuck” with a 4/3rds sensor, fitted with optical view finder — for me, as long as it is sufficiently responsive, it’s likely to find its way into my bag at some point, as the prime (f=17mm f/2.8) is smaller, lighter, and faster than the 11~22 I just wrote a paean to; how ignoring the “check engine” light meant that I failed smog this afternoon; the remarkable calm that’s blessed us since watching Departures yesterday. Instead I’ll talk about finding out that Detroit Metal City (Kiminori Wakasugi) has been licensed.

Although the actual mechanics of how the lead singer of the world’s most hardcore death metal band came to be, given his proclivities for easy-listening pop (think of it this way — what if Gene Simmons took off the makeup and you found Andy Williams underneath?), Negishi’s double-identity lends itself to madcap situations. If you make your way through the first book without chuckling at least once or twice, you’re a stronger person than I am — check out Nishida’s stream-of-filthy-consciousness in “Track 5” or the destruction wreaked on poor Negishi’s apartment throughout “Track 6” for instance. Funny thing is that both identities become important to him over time; without the outlet that the Krauser II persona provides, all the frustrations of Negishi’s failures would boil over and overwhelm him — he’s really angry underneath it all.

This is actually the first manga I’ve started reading as an unofficial scanlation prior to getting an official green light; without the efforts of the scum-scans team, I probably would have passed the title over when it showed up in the store. I appreciate the investment and effort that publishing houses put into getting a title on the shelf — and manga’s mainstream enough to command a fair number of shelf-feet in all but the smallest bookstores — but it makes me think that digital distribution can’t come soon enough. If a loosely connected set of internet friends can, in their spare time, scan, translate, edit, and distribute a product with comparable or better polish (lacking only the physical reality, really) to the professionals, and both faster and with better title selection (everything I’ve read from mangascreener is at least as thought-provoking than most of the physical titles I’ve picked up from the traditional publishers — Viz and Tokyopop), then all that’s really needed is to increase the acceptability of digital reading devices — I’m thinking Kindle DX, here.


Wide Zuiko Review

30 May 2009

Dear J-

As part of my sporadic photographic review series, I probably should write up something about the lens that’s lived on the camera for the last six months — really, since I got it, the whole idea of using adapted lenses hasn’t made much sense to me, so it’s almost by default. All the advances of the past sixty years — from automatic diaphragms to automatic focus — were made for a reason, and going to adapted lenses loses much of that, no matter the brilliance in optical designs. On the other hand, I’ve also had another 4/3rds lens in my possession, with a theoretically more useful focal length range; but whether it’s the weather sealing or the feel of the lens, it’s the Zuiko Digital 11~18mm f/2.8~3.5 that’s gotten far more use.

Most folks agree that in the range it overlaps the 14~54mm, the shorter lens is better — whether that means sharper, less distorted, or what, it’s more likely that the 2x zoom lens will be less optically compromised than the 3.9x lens (and 3.9x is already a pretty short range to begin with). I’d looked at the 12~60mm lens as well — having wanted a lens that was at least weather-sealed — but ultimately decided that despite its brilliant sharpness, the 12mm end was too compromised, distortion-wise. One of the problems with wide zooms is that they’re often stretched into something that covers wide-to-short telephoto, and the wide end gets saddled with a complex mustache (“wavy-line”) distortion, where the corners are a bit overcorrected. All this is an exercise in pedagogy, as I have no experience with those two lenses, nor the inclination — for reasons I’ll explain.

I’ve read several different schools of thought on how people employ the 11~22 lens, but the one that resonated with me was the person who said he used it as a prime, with a bit of framing flexibility. To be honest, it’s my first extensive experience with zooms besides the ones stuck on the compacts I’ve used; I sometimes refer to them as bang-bang lenses, as I often find myself hitting the stops on one end or the other of the zoom. Having been raised on primes, though, the zooms made me lazy — instead of walking back and forth, twiddle the dial or play the trombone. Other folks said that f=40mm (on a 135-format camera) was the most natural perspective, so I walked around the first month or so at f=20mm, but unhappily — it was a bit narrow, and once I set it to f=18mm, it felt like I was able to breathe right again.

Pending Noodles 2736 -sm

The most important thing is that once I found the right focal length, the lens doesn’t impede my vision — I bring it up to my eye and it picks out the scene I see; no matter the aperture, there are no funny quirks to be worked around — no exposure compensation penalty to remember when working wide-open, no artifacts, no flare. Aside from the bulk, there are no significant vices to using it. If that’s boring and sterile, I’ll take it over the mental catalog I needed to carry around with each separate legacy lens I put in front of that E-1. The camera is best when it’s not obtrusive; I picked the E-1 because of its quiet operation, which does not disrupt the subject — now the lens doesn’t interrupt my train of thought.

One last thought: where do I go from here? My dalliance with Leitz lenses has been dizzying; both the price and consistency have been spectacular, but will there ever be a digital body that you can use them with automatic diaphragm at a price I can justify? The Nikkors that litter my life make me think that my future lies in the Nikon camp, but I wonder if the backwards compatibility is more than lip service from Papa Nikon. So if I delve deeper into the Olympus world, I go further towards a system that’s prime-lens-deficient; though the zooms are unparalleled, the prime lineup has gaping holes (no wides aside from the fisheye; no long macro, no affordable long lenses) that aren’t likely to be filled soon. Yet the f=18mm “prime” I’m using is seriously flexible, ready for nearly everything I throw at it; six months on, it’s been an incredibly wise investment, and a good first choice for a system.