Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: September 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, September 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, August 30, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: August 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: Burma Chronicles
Writer and Artist: Guy Delisle
via Amazon
For the first Cephalopod Coffeehouse meeting back in May, I featured a book by Guy Delisle entitled Aline and the Others (link here).  As noted in that post, Delisle is best known for his travel narratives, all in graphic novel form. Burma Chronicles is his third such book.

Delisle's wife Nadège is a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, referred to in the book by their French name, Medécins sans Frontières (MSF).  She was assigned to a clinic in Burma (recognized by the UN as Myamar), primarily to combat malaria but to offer general medical aid as well.  Guy was initially a stay-at-home dad for their son Louis but once a nanny was hired, he was able to resume his cartooning career.  Burma Chronicles recounts his adventures both large and small in adapting to an isolated and impenetrable country. 

I really enjoy Delisle's ex-pat perspective.  Anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows that the experience is entirely different from just traveling through.  The tourist sights aren't such a big deal.  The challenges of building a life are what you remember.  For instance, Guy has great affection for supermarkets as a window into culture.  I also easily identified with his observation that people would ignore him on the street unless his son was with him.  Of course, that happens on native soil, too!

Delisle does not pull his punches regarding the military junta that rules the country.  While Rangoon comes off as a quiet and safe city for the most part, the silence is born of brutal government suppression.  When MSF and other international organizations are banned from certain parts of the country, the prevailing assumption is that the regime is cracking down and doesn't want witnesses.  In theory, the ex-pat community is above the fray but Guy can't help worrying about the Burmese friends he makes.

The book is essentially a collection of vignettes rather than one continuous narrative.  A few of the chapters, including tales of the family's side trips, are entirely wordless.  Some of the stories are quite funny, others heart-wrenching.  While Delisle's book did nothing to entice me to move to Burma, I'm certainly interested in exploring his other travel works.

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 September's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is September 27th.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Star Trek: Charlie X

Episode: "Charlie X"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 2
Original Air Date: September 15, 1966
Image via Tumblr

In "Charlie X," the crew takes on Charlie Evans as a passenger.  Charlie has been stranded, apparently alone, on the planet Thasus since the age of three.  Now a teenager, Charlie has developed telekinetic abilities which ultimately present great danger to the Enterprise.  It is a storyline which the franchise has mined frequently over the decades - a powerful entity gains control of the ship. The original idea for this particular episode came from the short story "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby, which also served as the basis for a Twilight Zone installment in 1961.

A few points of Trek-culture interest in "Charlie X":
Photo via Memory Alpha
  • In an early scene, Spock sits in the briefing lounge strumming a Vulcan lute, a 12-stringed instrument tuned to a diatonic scale.  The lute has been featured in later series as well, most recently in the Voyager episode "Riddles."
Photo via Dreamwidth
  • Three-dimensional chess is a pastime frequently seen in Star Trek series, the first-aired appearance in "Charlie X."  3D chess concepts predate Trek by at least a century, though the board used in the show was designed especially for the series.  While game parameters were never defined within the show, Andrew Bartmess published standard rules for the Trek board in 1976.
One could easily argue that Spock, more than any of the Enterprise captains, is the iconic character of the Star Trek franchise.  Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed the pointy-eared half-Vulcan from the first failed pilot onward, was born in Boston on March 26, 1931, just four days after William Shatner's birth in Montreal.  His screen credits extend all the way back to 1951, his first film lead coming in 1952's Kid Monk Baroni.  Among numerous guest roles on television, he first worked with Shatner in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

There are far too many great pictures of the young Nimoy to limit ourselves to just one.  The following is My Wife's favorite:
Photo via The Trek BBS

This one's mine:
Photo via

A few more gems for good measure:
Photo via deviantART
Photo via Trek Core
Photo via Bonanza Boomers

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Now in Theaters: Fruitvale Station

Film: Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

There are no surprises in Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's debut feature-length film.  The opening scene is cell phone camera footage of the actual murder of Oscar Grant III at the hands of transit police in Oakland, California, early New Year's Day 2009.  So for the rest of the movie, which recounts the events of the last day of Oscar's life, we the audience know exactly what's going to happen - when, where and how.  All of the devices used to portray the victim as a sympathetic character are direct and to the point - again, no surprises.  Yet everything is executed perfectly.

Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, is an ex-con struggling to hold down a job and keep his young family together.  As we follow him through his day, he reveals himself to be a decent, compassionate person despite his obvious shortcomings.  All moments of warmth and joy, all glimpses of a hopeful future are clouded by what we know is coming.  If you don't love Oscar and his family at the beginning of the story, you certainly do by the end.  When the loss finally hits, it's devastating. 

Of course, that's the whole point.  Coogler, all of 27 years old himself, wanted to establish the character as something more than just a name in the news, more than a martyr.  Oscar is human,  a friendly man, easy to like.  He is flawed, just like all of the people around him.  Just like us.  His death is unfair and it hurts.

Yes, go see this movie.  You won't see a better one this year.

And bring Kleenex.

US Open 2013: My Picks

It's been a crazy summer in tennis.  Legends won in Paris.  Legends lost early in London while a national hero finally claimed the prize.  Per usual, the dramas which have been building over the course of the tennis year all near climax as the US Open begins.  Neither of my picks is especially daring this time, though neither is even the odds-on favorite. 

My Men's Pick: Novak Djokovic (1st seed, Serbia)
via Khelnama

Generally speaking, Novak Djokovic is the world's best hardcourt player.  He is nowhere near the sure thing Nadal is on clay or Federer once was on grass but he is the top gun on the surface.  However, an unexpected storyline has emerged this summer as Nadal has gone on a tear, claiming the titles in both Montreal and Cincinnati, beating Djokovic in the semis of the former.  It will be a barn-burner of a final if they both make it.  While he's not the player he once was, I still think that if both men show up in top form, Nadal wins.  But the question with Nadal at this stage of his career and his season is always how well the knees will hold up.  I think Djokovic takes the prize this time.  For the record, I'd love to be wrong on this one.

My Women's Pick: Victoria Azarenka (2nd, Belarus)
via wallfive

As always, the top-seeded Serena Williams is unstoppable if she plays her best.  But age is cruel in tennis and with 32 right around the corner, Serena can't summon her best as dependably as she once could.  Azarenka, last year's losing finalist, is her biggest threat.  She is one of very few women on tour with even a chance at matching Serena's power.  Azarenka has won two Australian Opens so far.  I say she adds the US Open to her Majors tally this year.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

State of the Blog 2013

Squid do not molt in the wild.  But here in the blogosphere, The Armchair Squid undergoes annual transformation, shedding the skin of the previous year and preparing for new adventures ahead.  As the interests of the blog's humble author shift and reader interests shape the conversation, The Squid seeks greater refinement and more nourishing feeding grounds.  To this end, the blogging motto for Year 5 in the life of The Squid is a very simple one: Embrace the Inner Geek.

Blogging Projects

I have been very pleased with the first three months of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, my bloggers' book club.  The idea: each month, participating book enthusiasts shall post about a favorite book from the previous month's reading.  Bloghop meetings are held the last Friday of the month.  I hope the concept will continue to evolve and expand during the coming year.  If you would care to join us, I plan to keep a sign up list in the upper-right corner of my blog for as long as the group remains viable.

Good Reading

I've got big changes planned for these posts.  Comic books have been a major guiding factor in the course of The Squid over the past two years.  Inspired by comics, I tested a new concept during a slow week in February: reflections upon original series Star Trek episodes.  I've only posted two over the past few months but with the dawning of Year 5, Trek entries shall become a weekly feature at The Armchair Squid.  I'm aiming for Wednesdays.  Embrace the geek!

I will continue my more generic book reviews as well: comics, sports books and children's literature.

Family Adventures

I'm hoping for more family travels in the coming year - not big trips, necessarily, but perhaps more frequent ones.  We have a lot of friends we haven't seen in a while and I do regret not making it to the ocean this year - good goals to work toward.  I'd like to give camping a go next summer, too.  I did a fair amount of tent camping as a kid but we've never done it as a family, apart from one overnight in the backyard.

I'm planning a theme for my own Family Movie Night choices this year - more on that in a bit.  Food, always the best incentive for getting everyone out of the house, may make occasional blog appearances as well.  Family posts are likely to launch on Sundays.

via hermes' helix

The Armchair Squid began as a tennis blog.  I cut back a bit on my posts in the past year - weekly during Majors rather than daily.  I intend to continue the same for Year 5.  The US Open starts on Monday.  Expect my picks to win soon.

via Popdose

This is my trickiest blog topic.  Music is my day job and I do my best to keep blogging and work separate as much as humanly possible.  But music is everywhere and it's silly to pretend that it's not important to me in the rest of my life.  Generally, it has worked best for me to connect music to the other topics I blog about.  For the coming year, I plan to explore music in film.

In conclusion, I am eternally grateful to all of you who have shared in my explorations.  To borrow from Jon Wertheim, if any of you enjoys reading The Armchair Squid half as much as I enjoy writing it, we're all doing pretty well.  I hope you'll join me for Year 5.

If you're interested in previous State of the Blog posts, try the links below:


Squiddies 2013

The Armchair Squid turns four years old today.  It's time to hand out some hardware.  And the Squiddy goes to...

Biggest Surprise: The Walking Dead
via Webcomics Guide

The critics raved but I was still unsure about The Walking Dead comics.  Zombie narratives are definitely not my thing - too much blood, too formulaic, too hopeless.  And yet, there was something about the series that worked for me.  I think two factors helped me enjoy Walking Dead more than the standard zombie fare: 1) the series is drawn in black and white so the copious amounts of blood are not red and 2) we don't actually see the zombies very often.  The story focuses on the struggles of a small group of characters to make a new life in a post-apocalyptic world rather than a constant onslaught from the undead.  After four trade paperbacks (finishing with Volume 4: The Heart's Desire), I decided I'd had enough.  That's still a lot further than I would have expected to get.

Biggest Disappointment: The Man Who Knew Too Little
via Wikipedia

We had a pretty good year with Family Movie Night films.  The Man Who Knew Too Little, a 1997 Bill Murray vehicle, was the only real clunker in my estimation.  It's funny at times but the story falls well short of compelling.

Best Match: Australian Open Fourth Round: Djokovic vs. Wawrinka
via Live Tennis Guide

Stanislas Wawrinka (Switzerland) is not likely to threaten for Major tennis titles.  At age 28, he has never advanced passed the quarterfinals of a Slam tournament.  However, he is the sort of tough grinder who's difficult to root against.  In January, it really looked like he had Novak Djokovic, the top seed and two-time defending champion, on the ropes in Melbourne.  The Serb eventually managed a 12-10 escape in the fifth set and went on to win the title.

Best Story: "Sweet Caroline"

After the bombing at the Boston Marathon, baseball stadiums across the country played Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," a song adopted long ago by the Red Sox, in tribute.  When I heard the crowd at Yankee Stadium sang along with gusto, I couldn't help tearing up a bit.  However, the following from the Salt Lake City Marathon is even better.  Definitely worth a re-post:

Best Read, First-Time Category: Paper Lion by George Plimpton
via The Scores Report

Renaissance man George Plimpton was brilliant at playing the stuffy aristocrat on screen.  In print, he was humble, insightful and pretty darn funny.  Paper Lion is a seminal work in sports journalism, chronicling Plimpton's adventures while embedded with the 1963 Detroit Lions.  It's the sort of book that's embarrassing to read on an airplane because I can't stop giggling.  It also provides a wonderful glimpse of a simpler time in professional football - a must for any thoughtful fan.

Best Read, Re-Read Category: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
via Etsy

No one's better than the Bard and Macbeth is my favorite among his plays.  For my submission to July's Cephalopod Coffeehouse, I read an illustrated folio addition, artwork by Von.  Macbeth has it all: murder, intrigue, insanity, power lust, dark magic.  What's not to love?

Best Comics Find: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
via Amazon

I have long loved the film version of V for Vendetta but never got around to reading the original comics until last month.  After posting my review, I quickly learned that not all comic book readers are as impressed by Alan Moore as I am but he's definitely my favorite.  His allegorical rant against Thatcherism is highly compelling, the best graphic narrative I have seen so far.

Athlete of the Year: Andy Murray
via Roger Federer Fans

Andy Murray's entire career has been validated over the past twelve months.  Britain's #1 won his first Major at the 2012 US Open.  The real prize came just last month when the Great Scot ended the UK's 77-year title drought at Wimbledon.  Now maybe - just maybe - everyone will get off his back.  (Yeah, right...)

Post with Most Unexpected Consequences: A Comic Book Scavenger Hunt, A-Z: Fathom
via Westfield Comics Blog

One of the least interesting comic books I read for this year's A-Z Challenge inspired one of the most interesting conversations - most revolving around the merits of the cover art (or lack of merit, depending on perspective).  Discussion in that thread also lead directly to the creation of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse (details here).

Best Family Adventure: Lake Superior

We did not make it to the seashore this year but we did the next best thing by visiting the world's largest body of freshwater.   During our Michigan adventure, we took a boat tour of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Superior is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  I felt like I had reached the edge of the world, staring out across 150 miles of empty water.  Until this summer, it was the only one of the Great Lakes I'd never seen, except from an airplane.

Best Unexpected Benefit of Blogging: A Blogger Posse

At this point, I really shouldn't be surprised by the joys of making friends in the blogosphere.  However over the past few months, I've found an unexpected niche among a small enclave.  It started with Suze's Tiny Harmonies series in March, grew with A-Z in April and found a regular meeting place with the Cephalopod Coffeehouse.  Several of them are Coffeehouse regulars so if you'd like to get to know them, too - and why wouldn't you? - please join us for August's meeting.

Squiddy Posts from Previous Years:


Thursday, August 22, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Smile

Title: Smile
Author and Artist: Raina Telgemeier
via Diary of an Eccentric

I have never been a teenage girl.  But I grew up with one.  I also have worked with hundreds.  I know something of their struggle.  Yes, I know boys have issues, too, and those are not acknowledged often enough.  But I know enough to know that the adolescent journey for the women I know was very different from mine.  Comic artist Raina Telgemeier - in both this book and Drama (review here) - provides a frank, realistic and ultimately hopeful glimpse into that journey.

Unlike the fictional Drama, Smile is the true story of Telgemeier's own adventures with reconstructive dentistry during her pre-teen and early teen years.  One evening on the way home, Raina fell on the asphalt and knocked out her two front teeth.  Already on a path to orthodontia, the missing teeth only added to the ordeal, ultimately requiring four years to fix everything.

Of course, the teeth are only part of Raina's coming-of-age tale.  She endures many other trials of adolescence along the way - crushes unrealized, friends of questionable loyalty, puberty, identity crisis, etc.  Just like Callie in Drama, Raina is likeable but far from perfect, which only adds to her appeal for me.

Our Girl had already read Smile by the time I got to it and had, in fact, read through it several times.   She turns 10 very soon.  She is drawn to strong female protagonists.  So many troubling attitudes and stereotypes are perpetuated in books for girls that finding ones with genuinely positive role models can be a real challenge.  Telgemeier is 2 for 2 so far at our house.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Write...Edit...Publish: Vacation

Denise Covey is hosting Write...Edit...Publish, a monthly bloghop (details here).  August's theme is vacation and my humble submission is offered below.  My 719-word story is not copyrighted.  The supplemental photographs are not mine, but obtained through Wikimedia.  Please respond with comments only.  Be sure to visit the other participants as well.  The link list is at the end of my post.

Through the Nose of Buddha

When my friends and I visited Todai-ji in Nara, Japan, the Buddhist temple was still the largest wooden building in the world.  The Daibutsu within is 49 feet tall, also a world record at the time for bronze Buddhas.  In this house of enormity, my adventure involved a small hole.

The temple is supported by massive wooden columns.  At the base of one is carved a rectangular hole, punched all the way through.  According to lore, the dimensions of the hole match those of the Daibutsu’s nostril and anyone who crawls through is guaranteed enlightenment. 

Student groups love the challenge, of course, and all of the kids we saw made it through easily.  My companions – four Japanese 20-somethings plus one fit Australian woman – all successfully traversed the passage.  My turn.

I am not a big man.  At least, I don’t think of myself as particularly large, maybe a bit above average – 6’, 195ish pounds (183 cm, 88 kg for those in the more sensible metric crowd).  However, Japan is not built for people my size.  My own apartment was the worst.  I couldn’t close the bathroom door while sitting on the can because my legs were too long.  I was forever hitting my head in doorways, too – sure to elicit the exclamation: “I hate this #$&%ing country!” 

I didn’t really hate Japan, of course.  I loved it.  But what else is there to say at such a moment?

Considering the matter of the hole, my main worry was not my height so much as my width.  I have broad shoulders, even by Western standards.  I figured if I could get my shoulders through the opening I’d be fine.  So, I stretched both arms above my head and in I went.

Stuck.  Panic!  Fortunately, there was still enough of me outside the hole that I could wiggle back out.  I walked away relieved.  We continued our exploration of the temple.

My eyes kept drifting back to the hole.  Everyone else who tried made it through – not just the kids, either.  An older couple, surely less nimble than I, took their turn as well.  Pride was working its evil upon my brain.  Surely, there must be a way.

I hatched a new plan.  If I stretched one arm up and the other downward, my shoulders would be at a narrower angle, allowing them to move through the tight space.  If I entered the rectangular entrance by the diagonal, that would provide the greatest width for passage.  Geometry.  This could work.

On this second attempt, my shoulders passed through the entrance just fine.  Encouraged, I pressed on. 

Stuck.  Good and stuck this time.  Claustrophobic prophecies coming true.

It turns out, my hips are wider than I think they are.  My top was more mobile as anticipated but once my rump crested the plane of the entrance, I was firmly wedged.  I couldn’t reach far enough above my head to reach the other side to pull myself through.  I couldn’t get enough leverage to push back.  My aft section was similarly useless.

What the Hell was I going to do?  Would the monks have to bring grease or butter to ease me through?  Would they have to cut the hole? I could see the morning headline:

Stupid Gaijin Gets Stuck in Hole, Venerated Temple Defaced

Despair.  Other tourists gathered - amused, fascinated and perplexed.  No doubt, a few snapped photos.  I suppose I might have thought to be embarrassed if I hadn’t been so genuinely terrified at the prospect of being stuck forever.  I imagined starvation might gradually reduce body mass and allow me to slip free.  Or would they just have to wait for my corpse to decay?

Luckily, my friends swung into action.  One of the guys moved around to the front hole and grabbed my lead arm.  The others took the rear and pushed on my hindquarters.  After much grunting and struggle from all parties…

Whoosh!  I flew through the chute and out, landing on top of my friend.  Rarely have I felt more relieved.  Nothing left to do but laugh.

Much rejoicing.  More shutters clicking.

My enlightenment was two-fold. First, there are few greater exhilarations in life than accomplishing something you thoroughly believed was impossible.  Second and surely more important, the toughest problems require good friends.

The temple:

Tempio Todai-ji

The Daibutsu, from good nostril angle:

Tōdaiji Daibutsu

The hole (not me in the photo):

Pillar in Todaiji-Temple in Nara Japan

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.

Once again, comments only please.

As promised, following is the list of August's participants.  Be sure to visit them all:

Monday, August 19, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Robert Louis Stevenson

Title: Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster

Few books can claim cultural impact comparable to that of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  Robert Louis Stevenson's exploration of the duality of human nature has influenced literature, theatre, film (123 movies so far), television and even psychological terminology.  The American comic book industry, in particular, owes Stevenson an enormous debt.  The most obvious derivative is The Hulk but the broader concept of hidden identity is central to the superhero idiom.  My own interest in Jeckyll and Hyde was prompted by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, in which Jeckyll/Hyde is a core team member.

Reading the story in 2013 is a bit strange.  127 years after its initial publication, the once shocking plot twist is well-known, even cliché.  As such, the big reveal on page 76 of my copy has lost the impact it would have on the unsuspecting.  We are so jaded by the deluge of imitations since that one easily fails to appreciate the ingenuity of the initial work.  Original artistic ideas are scarce and should be treasured accordingly.

Given the familiarity of the basic narrative, the task of the 21st century reader is to appreciate the execution.  Stevenson's prose is richly detailed, quite often the case with Victorian era literature.  As such, the reading can be tough going even in a relatively short book.  However, there's no denying the Scot's masterful world-building.  In critique, Stevenson generally earns high praise for setting but I found his descriptions of characters - apart from Jeckyll/Hyde - to be lacking.  I don't know if I would pursue more of his books based on this reading.  I've managed to avoid Treasure Island to this point.  Maybe someday.

Nonetheless, I am glad to have read Jeckyll and Hyde for the sake of cultural literacy and geek cred.  As for the League interpretation, the physical dimensions of the character are altered.  In the original book, Jeckyll shrinks when he becomes Hyde.  In the world according to Moore and O'Neill, he grows, Hulk-like.  However, the character's amorality and violent tendencies are maintained.

Baseball Tunes: Wild Thing

In the 1989 film Major League, protagonist relief pitcher Rick Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen) adopted "Wild Thing" as his theme song, to play over the PA system whenever he came into a game from the bullpen.  The movie used a cover version by the punk band X, rather than the better-known Troggs recording.

I don't know if entrance music was a big thing in baseball before the movie but the idea has certainly taken hold since.  These days, it seems half the players - both batters and pitchers - have a song that plays when they enter a ballgame.  I actually think it's highly inappropriate for a team sport but I suppose the marketing people know what they're doing.

The song itself was first recorded by The Wild Ones in 1965.  However, it was the Troggs' 1966 cover that went to the top of the charts.  The middle instrumental section features an ocarina - certainly unusual for a pop song.

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: won, 7-3 (112-67-11 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: tied, 5-5 (99-81-10, 4th of 10)
Public League: 81.5 Rotisserie points (4th of 12)
My Player of the Week: Jason Heyward (Right Fielder, Braves) with 3 home runs, 5 runs, 4 RBI and a .385 batting average

via New York State of Sports

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Family Movie Night: Sky High

Title: Sky High
Director: Mike Mitchell
Original Release: 2005
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

Sky High is essentially Hogwarts for the superhero set.  Will Stronghold is an incoming freshman and the son of the two most famous superheroes of all, The Commander and Jetstream.  Only one problem: Will has yet to develop superpowers (echoes of Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon in the set up).  Terrified of disappointing his parents, he settles into the sidekick track along with his best friend Layla.

Of course, it's high school, so the usual drama inevitably creeps in.  Layla is secretly in love with Will but once his powers do emerge, he is pursued by the beautiful and popular Gwen Grayson.  Meanwhile, apparent bad boy Warren Peace bears a family grudge against Will and picks a fight in the cafeteria.  Of course, not all is as it seems...

Sky High is goofy, predictable and derivative but it's also a whole lot of fun.  Warren Peace, played by Steven Strait, is easily my favorite. Arch-nemesis as brooding teenager works very well.  There's a scene between him and Layla that makes the whole movie for me.

Children of the '80s will get a kick out of the soundtrack: all covers, many of the songs from John Hughes movies and other teen flicks of the era.  "I Melt with You," covered by Bowling for Soup, runs during the denouement.  "True," covered by the Cary Brothers, is Gwen's leit motif.  Critics panned the soundtrack but I enjoyed it.

However, the song "Sky High" by Jigsaw is not used in the film.  I will admit this is disappointing for me.  From the moment our daughter picked the movie, I had the song running through my head.  So, if only to cure my own ear worm...

On the Coffee Table: Neil Lanctot

Title: Negro League Baseball
Author: Neil Lanctot
via Baseballisms

Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution is the result of an ambitious project to provide an honest, nuanced history of African American baseball, specifically that of the teams in the Negro National League (NNL) from the early 1930s onward.  When told from the 21st century perspective, the story of the Negro leagues is that of six decades of exclusion from white professional baseball, generations of athletes denied the opportunity to exhibit their skills on the grandest stage.  While such portrayal is certainly historically accurate, it only tells part of the story.

There aren't a lot of balls and strikes in Lanctot's book.  In depth profiles of such star players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and even Jackie Robinson should be sought elsewhere.  Instead, the author focuses more on the business of baseball.  Before televisions invaded nearly every home in America, independent professional and semi-pro baseball teams - both black and white - were ubiquitous.  Baseball teams, like many other black-owned and operated institutions, were culturally essential to African American communities throughout the United States during segregation.  Such teams were symbolically important to those cultural leaders who supported the idea of self-sustaining black institutions.  Black baseball was not an industry in a vacuum either.  It suffered through the Great Depression, boomed during the war years, then suffered a slow, inevitable decline once the Major Leagues started to integrate in the late 1940s.  Lanctot's tome covers all of it evenhandedly, celebrating the successes but also critical of the mismanagement which contributed to the industry's demise.

I learned plenty I didn't know before.  Most intriguing, though also the most troubling depending on your perspective, were the Indianapolis Clowns, a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.  Many saw clowning sports teams as detrimental to integration efforts, compromising the image of African Americans in the broader culture.  The Clowns, to be fair, took the act quite a bit further than the basketball squad, posing for team photos in war paint and grass skirts, for example.  Both the eastern-based NNL and western/southern Negro American League (NAL) banned their member teams from scheduling exhibitions with the Clowns for many years.  However, the Clowns were ultimately admitted into the NAL in 1943 and were the only affiliated team to remain profitable into the 1950s.  The Clowns didn't even officially disband until 1988.  Despite their controversial history, the Clowns do lay one undeniable claim to baseball legacy: they were the first team to sign Hank Aaron to a professional contract.

The book is a bit academic for my tastes, certainly informative but dry for light summer reading.  I need pure escape in August with a return to the mines imminent.  On the other hand, I might not even have finished reading it if I'd tried during the school year.  I certainly feel better-informed and will likely refer back to the book from time to time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Baseball Tunes: Don't Stop Believin'

Millennia from now, cultural historians will ponder the eternal appeal of two songs released in 1981.  The first they will know because it never truly died.  As long as there are dance clubs in the universe, Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" shall live forever (Dr. Who fans know this to be true but I actually had the theory first - wife will confirm). The second one they'd forgotten about for a time.  In fact, it had a funny habit of disappearing for years, even centuries at a time.  Then it would emerge again to capture the imagination of a new era.  It is a song of hope, of determination, of destiny used to inspire athletic heroes and angst-ridden preteens alike.  Even the name of the band suggests epic adventure.  That second song, of course, shall be...

"Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey

As far as sports go, my strongest association with the song is Detroit Red Wings hockey games.  The sound system cuts out so the crowd can yell the "born and raised in south Detroit" line.  Never mind the fact that there is no south Detroit.  Or, there is but it's more commonly known as Windsor, Ontario.

Other teams frequently co-opt the song, though.  In recent years, baseball's Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants have all used it as an inspirational anthem.  Lead singer Steve Perry is himself a native Californian and a die-hard Giants fan.  Apparently, he didn't like the Dodgers using it one bit!

"Don't Stop Believin'" was one of three top 10 singles released from the band's most successful studio album, Escape.  Both "Open Arms" and "Who's Crying Now" charted higher but 32 years on, there's little doubt as to which track has the strongest legacy. 

I must credit Suze with finding this one a while back - definitely worth sharing:

Some will win.
Some will lose.
Some were born to sing the blues.
Oh, the movie never ends.
It goes on and on and on and on...

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: won, 9-1 (105-64-11 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: lost, 4-5-1 (94-76-10, 4th of 10)
Public League: 82 Rostisserie points (4th of 12)
My Player of the Week: Anibal Sanchez (Starting Pitcher, Tigers) with 1 win, 19 strikeouts, a 2.45 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP
via Wikipedia

Sad tale: I lost to my daughter in the Maryland league this week - my daughter who stopped paying attention to her team almost the same instant she started, back in March.

Family Movie Night: Stop Making Sense

Title: Stop Making Sense
Director: Jonathan Demme
Original Release: 1984
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

When our daughter first became aware of specific bands, the first she could identify readily was The Beatles, known for a long time as simply "Daddy's Favorite Band."  It wasn't much of a shock.  The Beatles are a pretty easy sell.  The second band she was drawn to, though, was more of a surprise: The Talking Heads.   I never would have thought of them as a kid-friendly band but she loves them.  My Wife has a theory: David Byrne (lead singer) dances kind of like a seven-year-old.  Our Girl was about that age at the time.

As such, the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense was an excellent choice for Family Movie Night.  I had never seen it before and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The Talking Heads were a fun, high energy band and I'm sure they were great to see live.  The film is considered by many critics to be the finest rock concert movie ever made - not much in the way of gimmickry, just a solid presentation.  There are lots of wide shots of the band and individual performers, including Byrne, are generally framed in full-body or waist-up allowing the quirky charm to shine through.

Once the movie was over, I asked Our Girl what she thought.  "I loved it," she said. "Too bad we have to wait another year to watch it again!"  (FMN rule: once a year limit for each film)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Baseball Tunes: Build Me Up Buttercup

"Build Me Up Buttercup" was written by Mike d'Abo and Tony Macaulay and released as a single by the Foundations in 1968.  The song made it to #3 on the Billboard charts.  Side note: d'Abo is most famous as the lead singer for Manfred Mann but he's also the father of Olivia d'Abo, whom Wonder Years fans will remember as Karen, Kevin's older sister.

"Build Me Up Buttercup" is the seventh-inning stretch song for the Los Angeles Angels of Anahaeim (most cumbersome name in American sports?).  It is played right after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: won, 7-3 (96-63-11 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: lost, 4-6 (90-71-9, 4th of 10)
Public League: 83 Rotisserie points (tied for 2nd of 12)
My Player of the Week: Dustin Pedroia (Second Baseman, Red Sox) with 2 home runs, 8 RBI, 5 runs and a .233 batting average
Photo via BlackSportsOnline

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Family Movie Night: Not One Less

Title: Not One Less
Director: Zhang Yimou
Original Release: 1999
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

The Chinese film Not One Less is a fictional account of a 13-years-young substitute teacher trying to hold onto all of her 28 pupils while their regular teacher is away for a month. When one of her charges leaves the rural village to find work in the city, Teacher Wei goes after him. Her search feels a bit like an anxiety dream at times but the culmination is predictably inspiring.

In order to preserve a strong sense of reality, Zhang cast the parts with amateur actors whose real-life jobs reflected their characters.  The man playing the town mayor truly is the mayor of a small village, the TV show host really is a TV show host and so forth. The film coincided with a strong push by the Chinese government towards education reform. Government censors oversaw production closely so nothing in the film is overly critical.  The film suffered on the international festival circuit for its perceived political leanings but still did pretty well, winning The Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion among other accolades.