Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Marvel Star Wars, Vol. 5

Title: Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 5
via Amazon
Volume 5 collects the final 22 issues (#86-107) of Marvel's Star Wars comic book series of the 1970s and '80s.  I've made it to the end.  My reflections on previous volumes are here: One, Two, Three and Four.  Marvel continued with their spinoff Ewoks and Droids series for a couple more years but after 1987, there was radio silence on the Star Wars comic book front until Dark Horse picked up the baton in 1991.

My highlights from Volume 5:

Lumiya
via Wookieepedia
Marvel's most interesting Star Wars invention was the character Shira Brie.  Shira first appeared in issue #56 as a Rebel pilot.  In time, it is revealed that she is actually an Imperial agent, assigned by Darth Vader to go after Luke, who ultimately avoids her traps and leaves her for dead.  She reappears in Marvel #88 as Lumiya, an agent of evil with cybernetic enhancements much like Vader's.  She is bent on revenge against Luke and has no scruples about switching allegiances in order to achieve it.  Apart from the interesting back story, she also wields a super cool electro-whip thingy that initially baffles Luke.  He is compelled to construct a second lightsaber in order to defeat her.

Lumiya survived the Marvel era to have a more meaningful role in the Expanded Universe.  She featured prominently in Legacy of the Force, a nine-part novel series by Aaron Allston, Karen Traviss and Troy Denning.


I Say Kazhyyyk, You Say Kashyyyk

Marvel Star Wars #91 provides the first comic book trip to the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk (spelled with a z instead of an s by Marvel).  I have long decried the scarcity of Wookiee stories in Star Wars lore so I am always grateful for them when they do spring up.  Unfortunately, all is not well in the neighborhood.  Wookiees, including members of Chewbacca's family, are being kidnapped by slave traders.  Their leader is a mysterious figure with a really dumb name: Knife.  He is the first contact for the Alliance from a new nemesis:


The Nagai
via Wookieepedia

These punk rockers from another galaxy cause no end of trouble for the newly formed Alliance of Free Planets.  Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the Empire, while employing many of the minions of that deposed entity, the Nagai work to find a foothold in the galaxy.  Their Spartan approach to life and warfare gains them a lot of enemies very quickly.  But the Nagai story gets complicated when the Alliance discovers these pests are moving in on their turf because of an even less desirable culture, the piratesque Tof, who have followed them to the new hunting grounds.  United by a common enemy, the Nagai and the Alliance look past their considerable differences and join forces to drive away the Tof.  The Nagai story is one of forgiveness for the sake of the greater peace.


As discussed in previous posts, the Marvel comics are low canon in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Given very little to go on by the Lucas people, the comic artists had to create stories of their own.  As a result, the Marvel creators built a fairly well-contained universe.  Some of their creations, such as Lumiya and the Nagai, turned up in later higher-canon work but most did not.  As a fan of the franchise, I am glad to have read them and will seek out the Ewoks and Droids series if only for the sake of thoroughness.  I also look forward to exploring the numerous Dark Horse series as well, those being a higher canon level than the Marvels.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

On the Road: Christmas in Washington

It had been a long time since we last spent Christmas away from home.  Over the past few years, our tradition had been to spend Christmas Day here in Vermont, then travel down to visit my parents in Washington, DC the next day.  But my father lobbied for us to come earlier so that we could attend his Christmas concert.
via Choral Arts Society of Washington
As discussed in a previous post, my father has sung with the Choral Arts Society of Washington for nearly 40 years.  The annual Christmas concert at the Kennedy Center was an important family tradition growing up.  Neither my wife nor our daughter had ever been to one so I suppose it was high time.

The group has a relatively new conductor.  Founder Norman Scribner retired in spring 2012 after 47 years and was replaced by Scott Tucker, most recently of Cornell University.  Choirs generally reflect the personality of their directors and a more relaxed, playful atmosphere is quite apparent in the new regime.  This year's concert was sponsored by the Italian Embassy so Italian music was predominant, including works by Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1585) and Salomone Rossi (ca. 1570-1620), a Jewish composer entirely new to me.  Also on the program were selections from Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and Handel's Messiah, for both of which the Choral Arts Society was joined by the astonishingly talented Children's Chorus of Washington.

Three highlights for me:
  1. Holst's sublime setting of "In the Bleak Midwinter," a piece I have sung myself - hard not to tear up for that one.
  2. My father's performance in the smaller Chamber Chorus.  He claimed he was nervous but it certainly didn't show.
  3. The sing-along at the end of the concert, a long-standing tradition.  In addition to the usual choral power pieces like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," we sang verses of both "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" in Italian.
Overall, it was a very short visit - just two full days wedged between our travel days.  It was supposed to be three but the ice storm here in Vermont held us back a day.  So, not too much time for the touristy stuff.

My parents did introduce us to a new (to us) restaurant on Monday evening: Napoleon Bistro & Lounge.  It's a short walk from their apartment so they've been many times.  However, the restaurant has just hired a new chef so the menu was new to all of us.  My Wife and I split the pate appetizer, then I had the hangar steak.  I also got a bite of the chocolat fondant for dessert.  All were lovely.  She had the duck confit, but thought I'd ordered better - that doesn't usually happen.  The raviolini was a big hit with Our Girl.  She cleaned her plate.

Back to the land of ice and snow on Thursday.  It was a nice visit - short but relaxed.  Hopefully, we'll be back again before too long.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Treasure Island

Title: Treasure Island
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
via Wikipedia
Treasure Island provided a prototype for countless pirate adventure tales to follow.  Treasure maps marked with an X and pirates with peg-legs and parrots have their origins in Stevenson's classic.  While I have seen film versions before, I had never read the book until this month. 

The story is, at its heart, very straightforward.  A treasure map is discovered.  A ship is acquired and a crew assembled to find the island depicted.  The crew, it turns out, largely consists of seasoned pirates.  Naturally, they mutiny, wanting the booty just for themselves.  The account is narrated mostly by Jim Hawkins, a twelve-year-old boy caught up in the adventure.  Standard pre-pubescent boyhood fantasy - it could happen!

This is, in fact, my second recent Robert Louis Stevenson novel.  In August, I read Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (reflection here).  My gripe with that book was a lack of compelling characters - once you get past the whole transformation thing, that is.  Treasure Island, on the other hand, has one highly fascinating character, indeed: Long John Silver.

Silver is a prototype in his own right for the morally ambiguous antagonist.  He is indispensable ally at the beginning of the journey only to turn ruthless, greedy murderer.  Regardless of his place on the ethical spectrum, the story was always most interesting when he was involved.  I missed him whenever the narrative shifted focus to other characters.  I didn't care nearly as much about Jim or his supposed good guy friends.

Largely because of Silver, I preferred Treasure Island to Jeckyll and Hyde.   The text is richly detailed, especially in regards to setting - Stevenson's wheelhouse.  My nautical vocabulary is quite lacking so the description of the sea voyage was not as meaningful as it might have been.  As with Jeckyll and Hyde, I am glad to have read it for my own cultural literacy and will henceforth keep an eye out for Stevenson inventions in other pirate tales.

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: January Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, January 31st.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 2013

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong
Authors: The Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts
Editor: Jonah Keri
via Barnes & Noble
In my experience, baseball is the most geek-friendly of all sports.  With each Major League team playing 162 games a year and detailed box scores available from the past century and beyond, the sample size for statistical data is enormous.  As such, the endless stream of numbers one can throw around provides the illusion of understanding for fans and journalists alike.  But since the 1970s, a growing legion of mathematicians have examined the game more closely and challenged the meaningfulness of such dearly held measures as batting average and RBI (runs batted in) in evaluating the effectiveness of individual players.  These number geek revolutionaries have developed new statistics known collectively as sabermetrics.  Their work was made famous by Michael Lewis's book Moneyball (reflection here) and the subsequent Brad Pitt film of the same name.

Baseball Prospectus is a stats website.  Its writers devote their energies to probing the mysteries of the game to determine what, in fact, makes a player valuable to his team.  The most well-known writer for Baseball Between the Numbers is Nate Silver who has since gone on to create the popular and astonishingly accurate political prediction blog, FiveThirtyEight (soon to move to the ESPN site so Silver can split time between his two loves).  The book is structured much like Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: conventionally held beliefs are examined in relation to available data.  Some assumptions hold true: most free agents are overpaid and new stadiums are a shameful waste of public money.  Others don't weather the stat storm so well: clutch hitting, for instance, is essentially nonexistent.

Baseball Between the Numbers is probably not worth much to anyone who is not a baseball fan.   But for a sports and numbers geek such as myself, it's tremendous fun.  I've been an avid fantasy baseball player over the past few years and while I had been thinking of scaling back a bit on that hobby, this book has helped stoke the flame.  I'd love to toy around with the stats we use in order to be more saber-friendly.  Of course, I said the same after I read Moneyball and nothing ever came of it.

If you're still reading and are genuinely a baseball fan, Baseball Between the Numbers has a lot to offer.  On-field performance is explored in-depth, of course, but other topics are covered as well, including team finances and effective use of the amateur player draft.  James Click even offers a crash course on the ins and outs of statistical analysis - correlation v. causation, regression analysis, standard deviations, sample size, etc. - in his chapter "What Does Mike Redmond Know About Tom Glavine?"  If you're not a baseball fan but you are interested in what statistics can tell us about the world we live in, I highly recommend Freakonomics.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post January's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is January 31st.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Star Trek: Tomorrow Is Yesterday

Episode: "Tomorrow Is Yesterday"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 19
Original Air Date: January 16, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"Tomorrow Is Yesterday" provides an opportunity to discuss what I consider to be one of Star Trek's great weaknesses: time travel narratives.  As mentioned in previous posts (like this one), I'm picky when it comes to time travel stories.  The Doctor Who franchise does it very well.  There are rules and even the Doctor, as powerful as he is, must abide.  Even he cannot interfere with anyone's personal timeline without pterodactyls swooping down to cleanse the universe of temporal wrong. The rules in Trek are not as well defined and, at least in my experience, the writers tend to be sloppy as a result.

That said, I quite enjoyed "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," definitely one of my favorite episodes so far.  I don't mean to say that there are no problems as far as the time travel is concerned.  We'll get to that in a bit.  First, the story:

The Enterprise is thrown back in time to Earth, 1969.  When the ship is detected as a UFO by a US Air Force base, our heroes beam Captain John Christopher aboard just before the tractor beam destroys his plane.  The dilemma is clear.  Christopher can't be allowed to return for fear of corrupting the time line - cruel, though acceptable reasoning by my time travel standards.  But the crew discover they must return him because his future offspring are critical to the future of space exploration.  Combine this with the needs to clean up all other evidence of the Enterprise's appearance in the 20th century and return the ship to its own time and you've got a fantastic set up.

***SPOILER ALERT***

The trouble comes when Captain Christopher and an air policeman - who is also mistakenly abducted - are returned to their own timelines.  Basically, each is beamed back into their own selves at the moment immediately prior to their contact with the Enterprise crew with no apparent memory of their adventures.  It's the loss of memory that bothers me.  After all, our heroes maintain recollection of what happened.  Why wouldn't Christopher and the policeman?  Or do they remember, but without any concrete proof no one will believe them so the risk of paradox is negated? 

Too many questions.  Time travel stories need to be tidy and this one wasn't, even if it was highly entertaining anyway.

***END OF SPOILER***
via Memory Alpha
Roger Perry (Captain Christopher) was born May 7, 1933 in Davenport, Iowa.  Perry brought real world experience to his Trek role as he had served in the Air Force in the early '50s.  He made his television debut in 1958 in U.S. Marshal.  He played the son in Harrigan and Son, a sitcom which ran for one season (1960-61) on ABC.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Philadelphia Story

Title: The Philadelphia Story
Director: George Cukor
Original Release: 1940
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
I have three favorite movies: The Empire Strikes Back, The Usual Suspects and The Philadelphia Story.  Apart from my great affection for them, the three have very little in common. They represent different decades, different genres and very different parts of my own life.  ESB is my childhood.  The Usual Suspects is my first year out of college.  I watched The Philadelphia Story for the first time on my second date with My Wife and it has been "our movie" ever since.  We watch it every year in December.

The story, I have to admit, is very silly.  Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia aristocrat played by Katharine Hepburn, is getting married.  Unfortunately, her ex-husband (Cary Grant) has just turned up with a tabloid journalist (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) in tow.  The family has to let them stay because there's a dirty blackmail threat aimed at Tracy's philandering father.  While Tracy is certainly a strong female character, the sexual politics of the story are frequently obnoxious.

Not much of a sell.  What's so great about the movie, Squid?

The writing.  Oh my lord, the writing!  The Philadelphia Story is one of those films with dialogue that trips off the tongue and floats across the screen.  A small sampling:

Mike (Stewart): Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven. Either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me.
C.K. (Grant):  Shall we toss a coin?

***

Tracy: Thank you, Mike. I think men are wonderful.
Liz (Hussey): The little dears.

***

Tracy: South Bend, it sounds almost like dancing.

***

Liz: Wouldn't you know you'd have to be rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this?

The cast is rock solid, top to bottom.  Hepburn, Grant and Stewart are all in top form and Hussey (my favorite) ably matches the heavyweights swing for swing.  Stewart won his only Oscar for his role.  The screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, also won, adapting Philip Barry's stage play of the same name.  Hepburn and Hussey were both nominated.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • I'm pretty sure Our Girl doesn't like the movie.  She never comes out and says that because I think she realizes how much we like it but she tends to squirm when we watch.  I expect most of the humor goes over her head but we're hopeful she'll learn to love it in time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Star Trek: Arena

Episode: "Arena"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 18
Original Air Date: January 19, 1967
via Memory Alpha
In my first semester of college, my freshman writing seminar was entitled "UFOs in American Society."  Among other topics covered, we discussed the changes in the depiction of alien beings in science fiction movies, changes that reflected prevailing attitudes toward foreign cultures in general.  Star Trek was just one step in the path between the monstrous invader images of the 1950s and the kinder, gentler entities in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  "Arena" is one episode that seeks to push that evolution along.

The Enterprise arrives at Cestus III Outpost expecting a warm reception only to find the installation destroyed, apparently by an unprovoked alien attack.  Our heroes pursue the offending ship, bent on vigilante justice.  Suddenly, an unseen third party identifying themselves as the Metrons, seize both vessels, freezing them in space.  Both Kirk and the captain of the opposing ship are instantly transported to a desert plan where they are instructed to fight to the death, the fate of their ships resting on the outcome.

The Captain's adversary is a Gorn, a reptilian humanoid species.  With all of the grunting, roaring and stumbling around, the Gorn is very much the image of the old B-movie alien, the sort that must be destroyed immediately and without remorse.  But of course, this is Star Trek and despite Kirk's initial vengeful anger, all shakes out quite differently.

As with the last episode (reflection here), there is some Q foreshadowing in this story.  The Metrons stand in moral judgment of both ship crews just as Q will in his tales.  The idea of a superior civilization deeming Earthlings unworthy of survival is actually a fairly common one in science fiction well beyond Trek.  If the scary, green otherworlders aren't out to kill us, probe us or build an interstellar highway through us, surely they'll condemn us for our many sins: Cosmic Ethical Darwinism.

*****
via Memory Alpha
Carolyne Barry (credited as Carolyne Shelyne) plays the Metron who finally appears to Kirk near the end of the episode.  Her voice, however, is performed by Vic Perrin.  Barry was born Carole Stuppler on July 20, 1943 in Brooklyn, New York.  In addition to hundreds of acting credits, she is a professional dancer and dance instructor.  She majored in dance at UCLA with a minor in theatre arts.
via Memory Alpha
21 years after "Arena," Barry appeared in the Next Generation episode "Home Soil" as an engineer. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Family Movie Night: Holiday Inn

Title: Holiday Inn
Director: Mark Sandrich
Original Release: 1942
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Without a doubt, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby were all titans of the 20th century entertainment industry.  The three combined forces for the 1942 classic, Holiday Inn.  If all you want out of a movie is snappy tunes sung in smooth baritone with the God of Dance floating around on tip-toe, Holiday Inn has it all!  If you're looking for sharp acting and a compelling story, it's probably not the best choice.

The basic idea's a lot of fun.  Jim Hardy (Crosby) leaves his glitzy singing career behind to open a little hotel in the Connecticut countryside, offering top-notch entertainment with one wrinkle: the joint's only open on holidays.  Young, innocent and talented Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) walks into his life as a singing and romantic partner.  All's going according to plan until Jim's old pal Ted Hanover (Astaire) turns up and tries to steal Linda away as a dancing partner.  Unfortunately, neither Bing nor Fred was much of an actor.  Their careers will built on other, admittedly considerable talents.

Irving Berlin wrote twelve new songs for the movie, nearly all associated with particular holidays. He also incorporated "Easter Parade," a song he'd written for the Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer.  By far the most popular song of the baker's dozen was the timeless "White Christmas," '43's Oscar winner for best song and one of the best-selling recordings in history.  The song has been covered by hundreds of performers but it will always belong to Bing Crosby:



The Lincoln's Birthday sequence is a bit troubling by 21st century standards.  Jim decides it would be a great idea if they perform the song "Abraham" in blackface.  AMC cuts the song out of their annual airing of the film but Turner Classic Movies leaves it in theirs.

The movie is definitely fun.  Crosby and Astaire both dazzle.  I could do without seeing it again but Our Girl loved it.  She's a sucker for holidays so this was right up her alley.  I expect this one will come around in the rotation again.

And yes, the hotel chain is named after the movie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Star Trek: The Squire of Gothos


Episode: "The Squire of Gothos"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 17
Original Air Date: January 12, 1967
Trelane via Memory Alpha
"Charlie X," the second Star Trek episode to air (reflection here), is the first story on a path to the creation of the franchise's most beloved and fascinating recurring character: Q.
Q via Memory Alpha
Q is a godlike being who can't resist toying with his favorite space explorers, beginning with Jean-Luc Picard and his Enterprise crew in The Next Generation series.  One important Q predecessor is the character Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos."

Trelane, a being with superior powers, kidnaps both Sulu and Kirk right off the Enterprise bridge as they're passing his rogue planet.  Decked out in fancy-shmancy 18th century garb, Trelane welcomes the investigating away team to his Earth-style manor where he collects (creates?) various trinkets, including a harpsichord.  He claims a fascination with Earth, though the time period he favors suggests that he hasn't accounted for the speed of light delay for the images to reach his own world.

Several story elements foreshadow the coming of Q: characters teleported instantly from place to place, Trelane's jovial manner, his fascination with Earth and a brief courtroom scene.  Trelane is never heard from again in the televised Trek universe, though he does make appearances in the Star Trek novels with a more firmly established relationship to Q.

*****
via Memory Alpha
William Campbell (Trelane) was born October 30, 1923 in Newark, New Jersey.  He made his film debut in 1950's The Breaking Point.  In 1956's Love Me Tender, he became the first person to sing onscreen with Elvis Presley.  By the late '60s, he was making his living starring in B-movies like Dementia 13 and Blood Bath.  "The Squire of Gothos" was his first of three appearances on Trek.  He returned as Klingon Captain Koloth for two episodes: "The Trouble with Tribbles" in 1967, then 30 years later on DS9's "Blood Oath."

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Director: Brian Henson
Original Release: 1992
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
The Muppets were a big part of my childhood just as they have been for millions worldwide.   I have written about them before here.  In short, I can't imagine my life without them and I'm still sad about creator Jim Henson's early passing in 1990.  The fact that they are now an important part of my daughter's youth warms me to no end.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film to be released after Jim Henson's death so the faithful among us were still getting used to Steve Whitmire performing Kermit.  I saw it in the theater while I was in college.  I may even have dragged a friend on the hour drive to Des Moines so we could watch on opening night.  I have never read the original book by Dickens but the movie earns high marks from critics for its faithful rendition.  It is my second favorite of the Muppet movies - after the first one in 1979, of course.  The usual Muppet hijinks offsets the dark Dickensian atmosphere very nicely.

Gonzo narrates as Dickens himself with Michael Caine as an outstanding Scrooge and Kermit playing Bob Cratchit.  Most of the old favorites make cameos, too.  Statler and Waldorf are Jacob and Robert (Hahaha!) Marley.  Robin plays Tiny Tim.  Fozzie is Fozziwig.  Scooter is notably absent.  His puppeteer, Richard Hunt, had also recently passed.  The best new puppets are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.  The last is wonderfully creepy and served as my mental image of the Dementors while reading the Harry Potter series.

via http://holidaymovies.tripod.com/id14.html
Music, unfortunately, is not the strong suit for this movie.  Paul Williams wrote the songs.  Williams's songs for the original Muppet Movie were absolutely brilliant but the collection here is weak.  The song "When Love Is Gone," sung by Belle (Scrooge's fiancee) was left out of the theatrical release because the Disney folks felt it wouldn't appeal to kids.  I hate to say it doesn't really appeal to me either.  It is included in the VHS copy I own but has been left out of some of the DVD releases.

There's a new Muppet film set for release in March: Muppets Most Wanted.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Star Trek: The Galileo Seven

Episode: "The Galileo Seven"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 16
Original Air Date: January 5, 1967
via Wikipedia
Among the devoted, "The Galileo Seven" is best known as the episode which introduced the shuttlecraft - named, of course, Galileo.  Up to this point, the show had used the transporter instead of a shuttle because the effects were cheaper.  How funny to think that what began as a cost-saving measure became such an iconic aspect of the Star Trek franchise!
via Memory Alpha
More importantly to me, the first episode of 1967 is a great Spock vs. Bones story.  Spock and Dr. McCoy lead a seven-person crew (thus the title) on a scientific investigation of a quasar-like formation.  Naturally, disaster strikes and the shuttle is forced to land on Taurus II.  Out of communication with the Enterprise, Spock assumes command of the stranded party.  Predictably, the crewmen take exception to his management style, informed more by cold logic than emotion.  Bones does his best to steer Spock to a more balanced approach.  Meanwhile, tensions mount as hope of rescue fades.

*****
via Wikipedia
Don Marshall (Lt. Boma) was born May 2, 1936 in San Diego, California.  He made his professional acting debut in the 1961 film The Interns.  In 1964, he starred opposite Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) in a made-for-TV movie, Great Gettin' Up Mornin'.  His scifi credentials extend beyond Trek.  Cast in a leading role in Land of the Giants, Marshall was one of the first African American men to feature prominently in a science fiction series.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Double Barrel #12

Title: Double Barrel
Issue #12
Release: November 2013
Writers: Kevin and Zander Cannon
Artists: Kevin and Zander Cannon
via Top Shelf
With this, the twelfth issue, season one of Double Barrel finally comes to a close.  Both Zander's Heck and Kevin's Crater XV wrapped up nicely.  Both stories are available in graphic novel form for anyone keen to read from the beginning.

A second season is promised, eventually.  Both Cannons are full-time freelancers in the comics biz so their other projects are going to keep them busy for a while.  Zander's been doing a lot of DC work recently, including a Justice League book with Geoff Johns.  According to Zander, the second season of DB will be different - more episodic stories released maybe three times a year rather than monthly.  I'm looking forward to following the work of both creators in the meantime.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Family Movie Night: From Up on Poppy Hill

Title: From Up on Poppy Hill
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Original Release: 2011
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

Full disclosure: this movie was virtually guaranteed at least a 4-rating from me for the setting alone.  Yokohama is near and dear to my heart.  Frequent visitors already know that I've spent five years of my life in Japan - three as a child and two as an adult.  I was born a diplo-brat in Tokyo.  When I went back, it was to teach English in Yokohama.  Without a doubt, it was the great formative experience of my young adulthood and the spirit of the city will course through my veins until my dying day.



Not surprisingly, my Yokohama of the mid- to late '90s had changed a great deal from the early '60s version in From Up on Poppy Hill.  By my time, the street cars were gone, the roads were all paved and the buildings were taller.  But some parts of the city - the downtown area and the walk along the harbor at Sakuragi-cho - while certainly less developed, were instantly recognizable, inspiring audible sighs from me and eye rolls from My Wife.  No mere Tokyo suburb, this city of 3 million is fiercely proud of its maritime history and the movie showcases that very nicely.

Of course, there's a story, too, based on Kokuriko-zaka Kara, a serialized comic by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama.  Umi is a teenage girl who raises maritime flags every day as a message to her long lost father.  One day, she meets Shun, a boy at school who is working with his friends to save an old clubhouse.  They fall in love, but there are complications as mysteries about their family histories are unraveled.

Like I said, I was predisposed to liking this film from the start.  But in addition to my affection for the city, I found Umi's and Shun's relationship to be entirely authentic.  No over the top romance here, just a simple warmth that draws them together.  They belong to one another.  Love is everywhere in movies, as if it's something that happens as a matter of course and we as the audience are expected to accept it without question.  Every once in a while, though, I see love I truly believe.  Such was the case here.  I felt their pain when the complications came.

From Up on Poppy Hill was Goro Miyazaki's second film.  While I enjoyed the first, Tales from Earthsea (review here), this one feels like a big step up.  The critics were much kinder, too.

Finally, Kyu Sakamoto's "Ue o Muite Aroko" is featured prominently in the movie.  A major international hit, the song better known to the English-speaking world as "Sukiyaki" topped the Billboard charts for three weeks in 1963.  I sang the song to the school at my farewell assembly, half in Japanese, half in English - so, an obvious sentimental attachment for me there.

Here's one English version, by 4PM:



Sakamoto was from Kawasaki, another city in the Tokyo megalopolis, wedged between Yokohama and Tokyo - 1 million strong in its own right.  He died in 1985 at age 43 in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, the second deadliest airplane accident in history with 520 dead and only 4 survivors.  I leave you with Kyu, in Japanese, with a literal translation of the lyrics:


Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December Blog List


Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, December 27th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:


Friday, November 29, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2013

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Star Wars
Author: George Lucas (ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster)
via Wikipedia

I've made a couple of previous attempts at reading the novelization of the original Star Wars movie.  I first checked the book out of the library as a small child for my mother to read to me.  She had really enjoyed the movie but thought the book was terrible so she gave up.  I was too young to tackle it on my own.  I tried again as a young man but didn't make it much further.

I'm not sure what was different this time but I breezed right through it.  Perhaps it was a matter of expectations.  Knowing the books don't exactly measure up to the sci-fi classics, I read as a curious, lifelong Star Wars fan.  At this point, I feel I know the story backwards and forwards.  In addition to watching the movie dozens, if not hundreds, of times, I've also listened to the radio drama multiple times and read the comic book adaptation.  As such, there wasn't much in the way of new material.  There's one scene with Luke and his Tatooine pals that was cut from the movie but does appear in other renditions of the story.  The character of Biggs, almost entirely cut out of the 1977 film, plays quite an important role in the novelization.  There are other, more subtle changes here and there.  Basically, it's close enough to the movie to bring plenty of smiles to the long-devoted fan but also different enough to keep things interesting.

The novel was published several months before the film release, in December 1976.  The book reads more like storyboard plotting than a polished novel.  Setting descriptions of Tatooine and Yavin are quite thorough.  Characters, on the other hand, are not nearly as engaging as they are in the film.  Narrative tone changes are abrupt and awkward - editing clearly wasn't a high priority.  Most of the dialogue is at least recognizable to the devotee.  The "Let the Wookiee win" line, however, is nowhere to be seen.

In short, if one is expecting a satisfying science fiction novel, probably best to give this one a pass.  But if you're looking for new perspective on an old favorite, the Star Wars novelization is a pleasant romp.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post December's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is December 27th.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Star Trek: Shore Leave

Episode: "Shore Leave"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 15
Original Air Date: December 29, 1966

via Memory Alpha
After an intense drama like "Balance of Terror," a lighter story such as "Shore Leave" makes for a nice palette cleanser.  Our heroes visit a strange but beautiful planet, a seemingly ideal vacation spot for an overworked crew.  But of course, there is a great deal more than initially meets the eye.  Dr. McCoy encounters a large rabbit with a pocket watch, followed by a dead-ringer for Alice of Wonderland fame.  Other crew members have strange encounters of their own.  One-shot Yeoman Tonia Barrows is kidnapped by Don Juan.  Sulu fights a samurai.  Kirk first runs into an old Academy nemesis, then a long-lost girlfriend.  Initial assumptions that the planet was uninhabited were clearly less than accurate.

"Shore Leave" is kind of silly as Star Trek adventures go.  However, one can see the seeds planted for Holodeck-centered episodes in later Trek series.  It's nice to think that even characters in a fantasy world have daydreams of their own.  I also like the idea that stories central to our culture now will continue to be vital in centuries to come.

*****

via Memory Alpha
Perry Lopez (Lt. Esteban Rodriguez) was born July 22, 1931 in New York City.  Initially a stage actor, he signed with Warner Bros. in 1955, appearing in Mr. Roberts, that same year.  (It's a fun movie, if only for Martin Milner's highly amusing monologue as Shore Patrol Officer.)  Lopez's most famous role, however, was as Lt. Escobar in Chinatown.  He reprised the role in 1990's The Two Jakes

Lopez died of lung cancer in 2008.  Lung cancer is the leading cause of death among people I've featured in this section - a lot of smokers at those 1960s TV studios!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Family Movie Night: Casablanca

Title: Casablanca
Director: Michael Curtiz
Original Release: 1942
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
One of the most celebrated romance stories in the history of American cinema, Casablanca wasn't expected to be anything special upon its initial release.  Made on an average budget, compared to the sweeping epics with which it is frequently compared, Casablanca was only a modest box office hit as well.  But the critics raved.  On the strength of its iconic protagonist and solid screenplay, the movie has endured and is now considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made.  I'm not sure I'd go that far myself but it's fair to say the story holds up quite well 71 years later.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Ingrid Bergman is one of the most beautiful women in world history.



The story takes place in 1941 Morocco.  Rick (Humphrey Bogart), an American ex-pat with a shady past, owns a thriving night club in Casablanca.  One evening, an old flame (Bergman) walks into the place: Ilsa, the love of his life who abandoned him in Paris when the Nazis invaded and they were both scrambling to leave the country.  Now in Morocco, she and her activist husband are trying to stay one step ahead of the Third Reich.  Running into Rick, however, was never part of the plan.

As Bogey puts it,"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

It's an interesting movie to watch from an historical perspective.  The United States had just entered the Second World War by the time Casablanca was released.  In fact, the opening was rushed to capitalize on the recent Allied invasion in North Africa.  Watching in 2013, we all know how the rest of the war turned out.  But the viewing public in 1942 didn't.  The prospect of the Nazis occupying London, for instance, would have been a genuine concern. 

Casablanca is the source of film's most famous misquotation.  The line "Play it again, Sam" never actually occurs.  The initial line, delivered by Ilsa, is "Play it, Sam, for old times' sake."  The song in question is "As Time Goes By."  The song was written in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld for the Broadway musical, Everybody's Welcome.  While not yet the American Songbook standard it would become thanks to Casablanca, "As Time Goes By" would already have been familiar to many of the audience in 1942.  Dooley Wilson, the actor who played Sam, was a drummer by trade, not a pianist.  It's his voice in the film but the piano is dubbed.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Write...Edit...Publish: Sharing


Denise Covey is hosting Write...Edit...Publish, a monthly bloghop (details here). November's theme is "sharing."  Alas, I have no story to offer all of you this month.  However, pondering the theme led me in some very interesting directions which I hope will bear fruit in the long run.  I started a story but it definitely needs some time and may fit December's theme of "traditions" much better.  Don't run off just yet, though.  I shall not leave you empty-handed, fellow travelers.  I will happily share some of my discoveries.  Some of you smart people probably already knew all of this but much of it is new to me.

Be sure to visit the other participants as well.  The link list is at the end of my post.

Moons

A variety of inspirations and explorations has sparked an interest in moons.  Let us begin with our own lunar satellite, Earth's steady date for the great cosmic cocktail party.  Our Moon is not the largest in the Solar System but it is the largest relative to its planet at 1/81 the mass of Earth.

via NASA
I was very interested in other planets as a child but never gave too much thought to their moons until this week.  Two in particular have caught my attention.  Europa, the fourth-largest of Jupiter's 67 confirmed moons, is considered by many to be the best candidate in our Solar System for supporting terrestrial life.  In fact, there is some speculation that microbial life could already exist in Europa's under-ice ocean.

via Wikipedia
Titan is the largest of Saturn's 62 confirmed moons and the second largest natural satellite in the Solar System after Jupiter's Ganymede.  Titan is larger in diameter than the planet Mercury, though smaller in mass.  It is the only moon in the Solar System known to have a substantial atmosphere.  Some have theorized that conditions on Titan might be similar to those of primordial Earth, suggesting the capacity for life origination there as well.

via Wikipedia

*****


I hope you will consider joining the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, my bloggers' book club.  Please sign on to the link list at the top right of my blog, where there is also a link to more details.

Please visit others participating in this month's Write...Edit...Publish bloghop:


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Star Trek: Balance of Terror

Episode: "Balance of Terror"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 14
Original Air Date: December 15, 1966
via Memory Alpha

Commenters on my last Star Trek post primed my expectations for "Balance of Terror."  I'd also been looking forward to it myself as the episode which introduced the Romulans, one of the major alien races of the franchise.  Having now watched it, I can understand the fuss.  Like "The Corbomite Maneuver," "Balance of Tower" showcases the moral/ethical underpinnings of Trek that I find so appealing. This one has a better ending than "Corbomite Maneuver," too.

"Balance of Terror" was inspired by submarine movies of the 1950s.  The Enterprise engages in a cat-and-mouse game with a Romulan vessel on the Federation side of the Neutral Zone, a clear treaty violation on the Romulans' part.  According to the history presented in the episode, the Federation and Romulus had engaged in a long, brutal war without ever actually having laid on eyes on one another!  Great set up.  Then the real fun begins.

Through some hocus pocus I don't quite understand, our heroes get a view of the Romulan bridge without being seen themselves.  Wouldn't you know it, the mysterious enemies look an awful lot like Vulcans.  Lt. Stiles, a one-shot character manning the navigation station, lost loved ones in the Earth-Romulan War and suddenly eyes Spock with great suspicion.  There is one extremely poignant shot of Stiles looking askance at Spock with Sulu sitting right next to him.  Sulu, of course, is played by George Takei who spent several years of his childhood in Japanese-American internment camps - impossible to miss the message there.

But that's not even the most interesting thing going on in this episode.  The Romulan Commander - played by Mark Lenard, a frequent Trek guest star over the decades - is presented as a surprisingly sympathetic adversary.  He respects Kirk and acts out of sense of duty and honor rather than hatred.  As he points out near the end, "In a different reality, I could have called you friend."

*****
via Star Trek: Vulcanology

Mark Lenard was born Leonard Rosensen, October 15, 1924 in Chicago.  He started acting while serving in the Army.  An accomplished stage performer, he made his big screen debut in The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965.  In total, he appeared in three different Star Trek series and five different Trek films - as three different characters of three different races!  Lenard died in 1996 of multiple myeloma.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Squid Eats: Lester's


Saturday was an Ikea day.  I have written about my feelings toward Ikea before so I will not belabor the point here.  I must confess that our bounty, including two chairs and storage units for our entryway, has greatly improved our quality of life at home.  Still, Ikea makes for a very stressful day for me.

On the bright side, a trip to Ikea means a trip to Montreal and what I've come to think of as our neighborhood in that great city.  Drawn & Quarterly is our favorite book store and frequent visits have led to modest explorations of the surrounding area.  We have a reliable bagel shop (St-Viateur) and, as of this weekend, an outstanding deli to address our refueling needs.

Lester's has just about everything we look for in a deli.  For our daughter, they have good local bagels.  For My Wife, there is mustard on the table.  Too often, she has to ask for it - even better, they make their own!  She was also pleased with the spray bottle of vinegar for fries.  For me, they passed the club sandwich test with flying colors.  It's the sort of place I can see visiting over and over again, trying everything on the menu.

On the Coffee Table: Ann M. Martin

Title: The Baby-sitters Club: The Truth About Stacey
Writer: Ann M. Martin
Artist: Raina Telgemeier
via BetterWorldBooks

Raina Telgemeier is writer/artist of two of the better graphic novels I've encountered in the past year: Smile (review here) and Drama (here). Eager for more of her work after finishing those two, I discovered this graphic novel series, adapting four books from Ann M. Martin's extremely successful series, The Baby-sitters Club (BSC).  While clearly targeting a preteen, female demographic, the same is certainly true for Telgemeier's other books and that did not interfere with my enjoyment.  Our Girl read the book first and gave it her stamp of approval.  So, why not give it a try myself?

Martin's franchise has sold 170 million books overall so it's highly likely that many reading this reflection are already familiar with the basics.  For those who are not, the club was formed by four middle school girls to run a fairly sophisticated babysitting network. The Truth About Stacey is that she has diabetes.  In addition to the babysitting and other standard female adolescent adventures, Stacey must contend with overprotective parents and friends who don't always know how to react.

The appeal of Tegelmeier's work for me thus far is her frank and realistic portrayal of the world of the preteen girl.  Her protagonists are likeable but not idealized or pigeon-holed - too often the case in stories about the age group.  Unfortunately, I don't feel BSC quite lives up to the same standard.  The story's enjoyable enough but I don't find the characters quite as believable.  Tegelmeier's characters are like kids I know.  Martin's are the more easily categorized versions of the kids I know.  So, while I eagerly await future Tegelmeier publications (a Smile sequel is set for release in 2014), I think I'll give the rest of the BSC series a pass.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Star Trek: The Conscience of the King

Episode: "The Conscience of the King"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 13
Original Air Date: December 8, 1966
via Wikipedia

"The Conscience of the King" is part of a long-standing relationship between Star Trek and the legacy of William Shakespeare.  William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Deep Space Nine's Avery Brooks and Voyager's Kate Mulgrew all have Shakespearean stage credentials on their resumes.  Interestingly, both Stewart and Brooks have played the part of Othello, while Mulgrew has played Desdemona.  The Memory Alpha entry on the Bard provides a list of references over the years.

The episode title itself comes from Hamlet and the story revolves around a traveling theater company.  Captain Kirk is invited to a performance of Macbeth by an old friend, Dr. Thomas Leighton.  Dr. Leighton suspects that the lead actor is actually Kodos "The Executioner," a ruthless dictator long-believed dead.  Soon, Leighton's lifeless form is discovered and a good, old-fashioned murder mystery ensues.  The end of the story revolves around a performance of Hamlet by the company aboard the Enterprise. 

*****

A quick word of reflection on my Star Trek posts thus far: a few of you have asked over the course of my explorations whether or not I like or dislike particular episodes.  I find it a difficult question to answer for most of them, though I certainly enjoy them all enough to keep watching.  I love Trek for its world-building and for the affection one develops for the characters over time.  The original series, in particular, is really more kitschy and charming than slick and sophisticated.  The special effects are primitive, of course, but that's to be expected.  The writing doesn't measure up to the television standards established in later decades by Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and others.  For me, the magic of Trek runs deeper than the appeal of individual episodes.  And to be honest, while some ("The Menagerie") are definitely better than others ("Mudd's Women"), I have yet to find a goose bump worthy episode to claim as my own.  Meanwhile, I am thoroughly enjoying the stroll.

*****
via Wikipedia

Arnold Moss (Anton Karidian/Kodos) was an abundantly qualified casting choice for a Shakespearean episode, having played Prospero, the lead in The Tempest, for 124 performances on Broadway.  He was born January 28, 1910 in Brooklyn.  Apart from Shakespeare and Star Trek, Moss's highest profile roles were in two Bob Hope films: My Favorite Spy and Casanova's Big Night.  Moss died of lung cancer in 1989.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Family Movie Night: Rebecca

Title: Rebecca
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Original Release: 1940
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

Alfred Hitchcock, certainly one of the most famous and influential filmmakers in the history of the industry, only directed one movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards: 1940's Rebecca.  The film was also Hitch's first American project.  Before this weekend, I had never seen it.



The protagonist (played by Joan Fontaine) is unnamed until she becomes the second Mrs. de Winter, marrying a glum yet charming aristocrat, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  The new Mrs. knows her husband is still mourning his dead first wife, Rebecca, but does not realize the extent to which she still haunts his existence until the newlyweds move back to his cavernous mansion.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Danvers, the ghoulish housekeeper (Judith Anderson), does little to make the new lady of the house feel welcome.

The plot is engaging, though the twists are fairly tame by Hitchcock standards.  The acting is solid, especially Judith Anderson.  The cinematography is the highlight, George Barnes's Oscar-winning work incorporating the shadows and silhouettes that would become Hitch staples.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • Our Girl enjoyed the story but was confused by all the talk about the first Mrs. de Winter.  We had to stop the movie a couple of times to explain.

On the Coffee Table: Once More Around the Park

Title: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader
Author: Roger Angell
via Amazon

Roger Angell, now 92 years old, is one of America's foremost baseball writers.  I have reviewed two of his books previously: Five Seasons and Game TimeOnce More Around the Park cobbles together essays from several previous collections but also includes some new material.  Of the chapters I'd read before in other books, the best is "Distance," a profile of Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.  Thoughts on the new stuff - at least, new to me - is on offer below.

My least favorite part of Angell's books is usually the season recaps.  Occasional piercing insights creep in from time to time but generally speaking, those sections suffer from a one-thing-after-another feel.  He is a much stronger writer when he takes the broad view.  Many of the essays in this particular collection address the joys of fandom, following the game through box scores, daydreaming during the off-season and pitting the stars of yesteryear against one another in our mind's eye.  For Angell, this is serious stuff, his own passion for the game anything but casual.  He lives it and in his finest moments, I want to live it with him. 

"In the Country" was probably my favorite chapter.  In that August 1981 essay, Angell profiles Ron, a pitcher in his late-20s trying to work his way back into the game in the semi-pro leagues, and his wife Linda.  That particular story takes place mostly in northwest Vermont, not too far from our home.  My own familiarity with the setting adds significant charm.

"No, But I Saw the Game," first published in Summer 1989, is a brief survey of baseball movies and their varying reflections of the real game.  Angell poured effusive praise upon Bull Durham and, to be honest, I might have stopped reading if he hadn't.  He felt it was the first and only baseball film to present the game and its players in a realistic light.  He was less impressed by Eight Men Out and Major League and thoroughly panned Field of Dreams.  He touched on a few of the older movies, too, most notably Pride of the Yankees and Bang the Drum Slowly.

I am not prepared to devote as much of my own life to following baseball as Roger Angell has but his books always leaving me wishing I could.  Never content with any one perspective, he seeks out stories from fans, executives, coaches, umpires and, of course, players both amateur and legendary.  Baseball is one sport that is almost as much fun to read about as it is to watch and Angell is one of my favorite guides.