Friday, February 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 2014

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: Splinter of the Mind's Eye
Author: Alan Dean Foster
via Wikipedia
Does everybody have their geek hats on?  Alrighty, let's go.

When Alan Dean Foster was signed on to ghost write the novelization of Star Wars, his contract included a second book.  Splinter of the Mind's Eye, first published in 1978, was conceived as a low-budget sequel to the first movie if it failed at the box office.  Of course, we all know Star Wars was one of the most successful films in history and there was plenty of cash on hand to produce the big-budget masterpiece, The Empire Strikes Back.  But as the first full-length novel after the original, Splinter became a cornerstone of Star Wars's Expanded Universe, the enormous body of lower canon material which has been created over the decades since.

Splinter is a Luke and Leia story.  Han Solo is never even mentioned by name - Harrison Ford had not yet been signed for a sequel film.  Luke and Leia, unexpectedly detoured from a diplomatic mission, find themselves on a quest for the Kaiburr crystal, an object with great power and not fully understood connection with the Force.  Naturally, they must get to the crystal before Darth Vader and his minions get ahold of it. Along the way, they make new friends and enemies among the weird and wild creatures that make up The Galaxy Far, Far Away.

George Lucas has, over the years, waffled on the question of whether he knew the entire Star Wars saga from the beginning or if he made it up as he went along.  While he did not write Splinter, he did have a lot of control over its content so inconsistencies with the movies are well worth exploring. Luke and Leia are still a way's off from discovering their brother/sister relationship so they are free to test the sexual tension between them.  Yes, it's a bit icky when you know what's coming down the line but I, for one, do not believe that Lucas knew he would eventually make them siblings, or even the children of Vader.  There is a direct confrontation between Luke, Leia and Vader in Splinter, with a very different result from the duel to come on Bespin.

While I found the original Star Wars novelization a bit of a mess (review here), Splinter of the Mind's Eye is tidier.  It's hard to say it's a better book because the story isn't as good but it is a more polished work.  Star Wars devotees will find plenty to like and plenty to ponder.

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 March's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is March 28th.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

Episode: "The City on the Edge of Forever"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 28
Original Air Date: April 6, 1967
via Wikipedia
For many, "The City on the Edge of Forever" is the episode in Star Trek's original series, the one by which all others are judged.  It is one of two original series episodes to win the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (the other being "The Menagerie" - reflections here and here).  As such, I've been looking forward to this story.  In addition to general critical acclaim, I figured it would be the ultimate test of my patience with Trek where time travel narratives are concerned.  As discussed in previous posts, I feel it is a storyline the franchise generally doesn't handle well.  If the most revered tale in that vein can't change my mind, there's no hope for me.

The Enterprise crew discovers the "Guardian of Forever," a time/space travel portal.  Driven mad by an inadvertent drug overdose, Dr. McCoy leaps through the portal and apparently alters history.  Their own existence at risk, Kirk and Spock have no choice but to follow him in hopes of undoing whatever temporal damage has been done.
via Memory Alpha
They arrive in 1930s New York, approximately a week before McCoy's arrival in the same place. They have a most fortunate encounter with Edith Keeler, a young, beautiful missionary woman who gives them work and finds them cheap lodging.  Before McCoy turns up, Spock discovers the temporal dilemma. In the original time stream, Edith is killed by an automobile. In the new, McCoy saves her life. Her peacekeeping work is effective in keeping the US out of the Second World War, allowing for eventual Nazi world conquest, killing the space program that would ultimately lead to the Enterprise's mission.  To complicate matters further, Kirk has fallen in love with her.

My verdict: this is definitely a good episode.  Edith is a great character and the moral dilemma presented is exactly the sort of thing I love about Trek.  However, I still have my issues with the time travel.  If the time stream had changed when McCoy went back, not only would the Enterprise have disappeared but so would the landing party standing in front of the portal, Kirk and Spock included.  In fact, McCoy himself wouldn't even have been there to jump through in the first place, so history wouldn't have changed, and so forth.  Sure, it's fun and well-written but take a step back and it's messy.

via Wikipedia
Joan Collins (Edith) was born May 23, 1933 in London.  In show business from the age of 9, she didn't achieve the cultural icon status she enjoys today until 1981, when she landed the part of Alexis Carrington on Dynasty.  She made her big screen debut in 1951's Lady Godiva Rides Again and her credits include appearances in softcore porn adaptations of her younger sister's novels. Jackie Collins is, of course, one of the titans of the publishing industry but Joan is no slouch herself, having written 17 books with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.  She's an accomplished singer, too, including a performance with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong.

Joan Collins has been married five times, including Percy Gibson from 2002 to the present.  She has three children and three grandchildren.  A devoted royalist, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1997.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On the Road: The Berkshires

From time to time, we are lucky enough to score an invitation from the Commish and Wild Turkey to join their family at his parents' vacation home in the Berkshires, a mountain range in western Massachusetts.  Previous visitors to The Squid may recall that the Commish and Wild Turkey are friends of mine from college, and particularly important ones for the fact that they introduced me to My Wife.  We had not seen them in about a year, I think, so we were glad for the chance to catch up.

Saturday evening's festivities centered around the following:

Our dear friends share our love for games.  We introduced a couple of our new favorites to them this weekend.
via Games by Play Date
Love Letter is a simple card game.  The manufacturer's description:

All of the eligible young men (and many of the not-so-young) seek to woo the princess of Tempest. Unfortunately, she has locked herself in the palace, and you must rely on others to bring your romantic letters to her. Will yours reach her first? Love Letter is a game of risk, deduction, and luck for 2 to 4 players. Your goal is to get your love letter into Princess Annette's hands while deflecting the letters from competing suitors. From a deck with only sixteen cards, each player starts with only one card in hand; one card is removed from play. On a turn, you draw one card, and play one card, trying to expose others and knock them from the game. Powerful cards lead to early gains, but make you a target. Rely on weaker cards for too long, however, and your letter may be tossed in the fire. 

The game is easy to learn and fast to play.  Strategy is subtle.  While the game is playable with just two, it's better with more people.  The artwork is satisfying.
via BoardGameGeek
Forbidden Desert is a cooperative game with a constantly shifting board.  Manufacturer's description:

Gear up for a thrilling adventure to recover a legendary flying machine buried deep in the ruins of an ancient desert city. You'll need to coordinate with your teammates and use every available resource if you hope to survive the scorching heat and relentless sandstorm. Find the flying machine and escape before you all become permanent artifacts of the Forbidden Desert.

As with Pandemic (review here), it's not a hold hands and sing "Kumbayah" sort of cooperative game - rather, it's get your act together or everybody dies.  I'd say it's easier than Pandemic but we've also only played the easiest level so far.  This game also has excellent artwork.  It's recommended for ages 10 and up but their seven-year-old daughter got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Overall, it was a fun weekend.  Too much of the vino on Saturday put a bit of a dent in my Sunday, I must confess, but an enjoyable time nonetheless.  Fortunately, we've already made plans to see them again in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Kidnapped

Title: Kidnapped
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
via Wikipedia
And so, my initially unplanned tour of Robert Louis Stevenson's Big 3 novels comes to an end.  After reading Jeckyll and Hyde in August (reflection here) and Treasure Island in December (here), rounding out the trio with Kidnapped seemed only natural.  Of the three, Kidnapped was the one I knew the least about beforehand.  Now, I'd have to say it's the one I like best.

The story was not quite what I expected.  After Treasure Island, I anticipated more pirates and seafaring adventures.  While there's some of that, Kidnapped is more a grand tour of the author's native Scotland.  Upon the occasion of his father's passing, young David Balfour is sent off with a letter of introduction to meet an uncle he never knew he had.  Said uncle is a crazy recluse who first tries to kill David but then has him, you guessed it, kidnapped by shady sailor types.  The boat shipwrecks but not before David befriends Alan Breck Stewart, a real-life Scottish Jacobite.  Most of the rest of the story follows the two on the lam from a bum murder rap.  It's the sort of story that would be torn apart by modern critics for its zig-zag narrative but it's a lot of fun.

Like the other two RLS novels I've read, Kidnapped is thick with details, particularly in setting - the author's wheelhouse.  I found it more enjoyable than the other two as suspense is better maintained throughout.  My own lack of foreknowledge may have helped.  After all, Jeckyll and Hyde would undoubtedly be more suspenseful if one didn't already know the plot twist. 

I think I've had enough of RLS for a while but I'm glad to have read the greatest hits.

Star Trek: The Alternative Factor

Episode: "The Alternative Factor"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 27
Original Air Date: March 30, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"The Alternative Factor" was the first Star Trek episode to explore the concept of parallel universes. During a routine mapping assignment of an uninhabited planet, the entire universe suddenly winks out of existence, then back in again.  You know, ordinary Thursday stuff.  Obviously, they must go to the planet's surface to investigate where they encounter a strange, clearly tormented man: Lazarus.  Turns out, he is at war with his doppleganger in another dimension.  As the story develops, the Enterprise crew finds his anti-universe double to be the rational one and helps him to mend the breach between the two astral planes.

I found this story hard to follow.  I actually had to restart the episode ten minutes in because I'd already lost my way.  The effects used to realize the alternate reality are respectable for the era: superimposed images of the Trifid Nebula to represent the winking and action in the negative universe in color-negative.  However, the effects fail to cover up the weakness of the narrative.

A few noteworthy trivia tidbits:
  • I noticed changes in Lazarus's facial hair from scene to scene.  I assumed it was part of the dual-identity but according to Memory Alpha, the inconsistencies are rampant even from one camera shot to the next.
via Wikipedia
  • No Scotty in this episode.  Instead, Lt. Charlene Masters is the head of engineering.  Originally, there was supposed to be a romance between Lazarus and Masters but when Janet MacLachlan, an African-American woman, was cast in the role, the southern NBC affiliates balked at the idea.
via Wikipedia
Robert Brown (Lazarus) was born Robin Adair MacKenzie Brown on November 17, 1926 in Trenton, New Jersey.  He was a last-minute casting for the episode.  John Drew Barrymore was supposed to play the role but he failed to show on the day of shooting.  His absence would ultimately result in a six-month suspension from the Screen Actors Guild.

Brown had numerous television roles during the 1960s and 70s.  He had starring roles in both Here Come the Brides and Primus.  In addition to Trek, he made guest appearances on The Lawless Years, Perry Mason, Archie Bunker's Place and In the Heat of the Night, the last two a result of his close friendship with Carroll O'Conner.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Family Movie Night: Jaws

Title: Jaws
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Original Release: 1975
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Amazon
Amazingly, I had never seen Jaws before.  I was but a wee child when the film was first released and became the original summer blockbuster.  Scary movies generally aren't my thing so it's never been at the top of my must-see video rental list either.  However, any exploration of music in film would be incomplete without Jaws.  People who have never seen the film know the shark's theme music instantly, certainly one of the most easily recognizable leit motifs in all of cinema.

An enormous shark is eating swimmers off the coast of the fictional Amity Island.  When a young boy is killed, his mother offers a reward to anyone who can catch the offending beast.  After the amateurs make fools and occasional meals of themselves in the pursuit, an expert is hired.  Science, law enforcement and seafaring testosterone combine forces to hunt down the deadly fish.

Jaws is filmed mostly in and around Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, a part of the world we've come to know well.  While we've never been to the island itself, the Philosopher's Island (not its real name) is very close by.  The terrain is quite familiar.  In fact, I'm pretty sure one of the ferries featured in the movie is still in operation - or it was rebuilt to look exactly the same.

John Williams won his second Academy Award for the Jaws score.  The shark's theme incorporates a simple, effective and legendary half-step alternation which has served as a mnemonic device in ear training classes ever since:

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The movie is definitely scary.  Few films in history have built suspense more effectively.  There is both blood and severed limbs - pretty gross.
  • Before the movie, we assured Our Girl that sharks don't really act like this in the wild.  As My Wife likes to point out, one is statistically more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Star Trek: Errand of Mercy

Episode: "Errand of Mercy"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 26
Original Air Date: March 23, 1967
via Memory Beta
"Errand of Mercy" introduced the Klingons, the primary adversaries in Star Trek's original series. The race was originally intended to be Asian in appearance and quite Spartan in their approach to life and warfare.  They did not yet have the bulging prosthetic foreheads nor the well-developed language they would gain in later series and films.  Apparently, the Klingons became the enemy of choice for the show simply because the make up was cheaper and less time consuming than it was for the Romulans.

In our story, the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire are on the brink of war.  The Enterprise has been sent to the planet Organia to stop the Klingons from claiming it for strategic advantage.  Alas, the Klingons, led by the ruthless Commander Kor, march in, claim the locals as subjects and eventually capture both Kirk and Spock.  Fortunately for all involved, the Organians turn out to be far more than peacenik pushovers and take matters into their own hands.

I enjoyed this episode, one of my favorite so far.  The verbal sparring between Kirk and Kor is great fun and I like the fact that both Federation and Kligons get their comeuppance from beings they had grossly underestimated.

via Wikipedia
John Colicos (Kor) was born December 10, 1928 in Montreal.  Colicos built his career on the stage, appearing in numerous New York productions: Mary Stuart, King Lear, The Devils, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance and Soldiers.  His sci-fi credentials were extensive.  In addition to his appearances as Kor in both Star Trek's original series and Deep Space Nine, he portrayed Count Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica series and a mad scientist in the soap opera General Hospital.  There were film credits, too, including 1981's The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Colicos died after multiple heart attacks in 2000.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Family Movie Night: Stormy Weather

Title: Stormy Weather
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Original Release: 1943
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Stormy Weather was produced as a showcase for many of the top African-American entertainers of the 1940s, an era when lead roles for black performers were essentially nonexistent.  Based very loosely on the life story of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the movie is absolutely loaded with show-stealing talent, led by Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.  There are 20 musical numbers in all, a dazzling display of song and dance.  The story isn't exactly inspiring but the performances are so fantastic that it hardly matters.

With 70 years hindsight, there are some issues.  There are elements of minstrelsy in some of the performances, most prominent in a cakewalk incorporating Little Black Sambo imagery.  Big picture, though, the movie broke down a lot more barriers than it built, providing opportunities and exposure for the performers and broadening the possibilities for African-Americans in film.

Stormy Weather saves the very best for last.  Even if you never watch the entire film, you absolutely must watch the Nicholas Brothers' "Jumpin' Jive" sequence.  No less than Fred Astaire called it the greatest dance number ever filmed.  You'll feel this one in your hamstrings:

On the Coffee Table: The Green Lantern Chronicles

Title: The Green Lantern Chronicles, Volume One
Writer: John Broome
Artists: Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson
via DC Comics Database
During DC Comics's New 52 relaunch a few years back, the story that impressed me most was a bit of a surprise: the Green Lantern saga.  Prior to that, my only experience with the Emerald Crusader was the old Superfriends TV show.  As is often the case for me with these classic characters, I was inspired to go back to the beginning.  The Green Lantern Chronicles, Volume One covers Showcase #22-24 and Green Lantern #1-3, all originally published between 1959 and 1960.

Of course, as devotees already know, that's not quite the beginning for Green Lantern.  The character first emerged in 1940 during comics' Golden Age.  The hero's basic equipment was already there: a magic lantern (inspired by that of a New York subway worker) and a magic ring to go with it.  When the character was re-introduced in the late '50s, he got a Space Age origin story and the snazziest costume in comics.

I think the appeal for me with GL over other DC heroes is simply the fact that the basic set up is so wonderfully weird, even by comic book standards.  Abin Sur, Hal Jordan's predecessor as GL of Earth's sector, lies dying in his crashed spacecraft. The Lantern selects Jordan out of all the planet's inhabitants as best suited to carry on the responsibility.  Jordan takes it on with very little understanding of his powers or their purpose.  His Ring has to be recharged with the Lantern every 24 hours - such a modern world hindrance for a superhero.  Best of all is his weakness: he has no power over things that are yellow - so arbitrary!

Oh, then there's the, excuse me...Guardians who run the Green Lantern Corps for the entire universe from their home planet of Oa.  GL knows nothing about them, yet he obeys them unquestioningly.  The one time he is brought to meet them, albeit in virtual form, his memory is wiped immediately afterward.

Beyond the trappings, Green Lantern faces all of the same problems the other superheroes do, fighting evil-doers and managing his love life.  The early stories in this collection don't do a whole lot for character development but seeds are already planted for the broader GL universe, one of the most fascinating in comics.  I'm definitely in it for the long haul with this character.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Star Trek: The Devil in the Dark

Episode: "The Devil in the Dark"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 25
Original Air Date: March 9, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"The Devil in the Dark" plays on a hypothetical I've often wondered about myself: what if there were a life form based on some element other than carbon?  The Enterprise visits on a vital mining colony on Janus VI to investigate a creature who has been killing miners.  Sensors and phasers are ineffective because the critter is silicon-based rather than carbon-based.
via Memory Alpha
Apparently, this was William Shatner's favorite episode.  In his words, it was "exciting, thought-provoking and intelligent, it contained all of the ingredients that made up our very best Star Treks."  I enjoyed it, too, though there were a few sections that dragged, particularly an extended mind meld between Spock and the creature.  I appreciated the authenticity of the miners.  They came across as run-of-the-mill blue collar types - all credit to the actors for that.

via Memory Alpha
Ken Lynch (Chief Engineer Vanderberg) was born July 15, 1910 in Cleveland, Ohio.  He built his career in 1940s radio, performing in numerous dramas in that medium, including Hop Harrigan, One Thousand Dollars Reward and Gunsmoke.  He had a substantial resume in television, too, with multiple appearances on Perry Mason, McCloud and Bonanza among many others.  He managed to score a few roles in major films as well, including North By Northwest and Anatomy of a Murder.  Lynch died of a virus in 1990.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: A Friendly Gathering

My dear friends,

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse has been up and running for nine months now.  What began as a simple idea to share my passion for books with other enthusiastic readers has become the central feature of my blog - my own monthly treat.   That it has become important to anyone besides me is extremely gratifying, far beyond my own aspirations.

My original concept was a narrow one: each participant sharing about one book each month.  Many follow that vision to the letter, though they clearly read more than I do in a given month.  Some give a rundown of all their conquests.  Some don't manage to finish a book but give a progress report.  One participant regularly includes a link for each review from the month.  Occasionally someone signs up twice entirely by accident.  While not everyone follows my concept exactly, I feel everyone is participating respectfully and with best intentions.  Okay, I did delete one obvious spam link a few months ago but I think all has worked pretty well thus far.  We all love books and enjoy sharing our thoughts about them with other interesting, articulate people.  The "rules," such as they are, don't matter so much.

I promote the Coffeehouse as "A Friendly Gathering," the friendly part being the most important.  Obviously, we all come to books with differing perspectives and predilections.  I'd certainly hope that we can be respectful of one another's opinions.  Just as importantly, I would hope if anyone takes issue with the organization of the enterprise - either on my part or anyone else's - that we might address the matter together calmly and politely.  I want everyone to feel welcome.  Anything I can do to foster that environment going forward is all to the good.

Happy Reading!

A Squid

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Family Movie Night: Blancanieves

Title: Blancanieves
Director: Pablo Berger
Original Release: 2012
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
What if Snow White were really a carnival act bullfighter in the 1920s?  Such is the concept for Blancanieves, a Spanish black-and-white movie, presented silent-film style.  A visually dazzling film, Blancanieves simultaneously celebrates, reinvents and pokes fun at the old Grimm fairy tale.  Most of the story revolves around the women: mother, grandmother, step-mother, child, young woman, etc.  All are stunningly beautiful, of course - base-level requirement in Spanish cinema.  However, Blancanieves's (Snow White's) relationships with the men in her life are well developed, too.  Her history with Dad is heartbreaking in the beginning and end, but quite sweet in the middle.  One dwarf falls in love with her, another tries to kill her, yet another is a cross-dresser.

After we went to see the latest Thor movie, Mock, Drama Guy and I discussed the bigness of films these days.  All of the big budget epics are CGIed up the wazoo and it would be nice to see someone find a different approach.  Exploring the possibilities of black-and-white seems a promising direction.  Blancanieves is definitely a modern film but the homage to another era is effective and refreshing.  I assumed the project was inspired in part by The Artist but Berger had already storyboarded his movie before he knew anything about the other film.  He was furious that someone had beaten him to the punch on the idea.

My favorite unexpected treat was the name of the bull calf Blancanieves is scheduled to "fight" in the big arena in Seville: Ferdinando.  That's almost surely a tribute to Munro Leaf's children's book, The Story of Ferdinand.  It's a nice touch, particularly given the fact that Leaf wasn't even Spanish.  He was from Baltimore.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The film was released with a PG-13 rating in the United States for violence and sexuality.
  • Evil Step-Mom is into S&M. Blancanieves sees her riding on her lover's back and putting him on a leash - nothing graphic but there's no missing the point.  It all goes over Blancanieves's head and it did for Our Girl, too.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 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, February 28th.  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: