Thursday, July 31, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Understanding Sabermetrics

Title: Understanding Sabermetrics: An Introduction to the Science of Baseball Statistics
Authors: Gabriel B. Costa, Michael R. Huber and John T. Saccoman
via Barnes & Noble
As long-time visitors now, I'm a big baseball fan.  The Orioles are my team and the last few years have been kind as far as recent history goes.  Like many baseball fans, I am fascinated by statistics, particularly the sabermetric approach which looks beyond traditional measures like batting average in order to determine a player's actual value to his team.  I've written about sabermetrics before, most recently here.

Understanding Sabermetrics is different from other books I've read on the subject - Moneyball and Baseball Between the Numbers - which were written by journalists.  Costa, Huber and Saccoman are all mathematics professors.  As such, their book delves deeper into the nitty gritty of statistical analysis.  It's a worthy study, to be sure, and I'm a numbers geek so it's fun but Understanding Sabermetrics isn't as readable as the others.  You really have to care about the subject matter to get much out of it.

That said, I'm glad to have read the book and I'll keep it around for quick reference.  It's short and therefore easy to flip through to find a particular formula.  The layout is like a text book, including problems to work through at the end of each chapter.  I was tempted at first but then reminded myself that I'm not actually a college math student.  I can just check the answers in the back and no one will care.  The authors even include materials from the sabermetrics courses they teach at their colleges, a primer for those looking to design their own.

The book's editing leaves something to be desired.  I caught one flat out mistake in their analysis but I was bothered more by the number of unanswered questions.  I realize they want us (not it) to do some of the work but the choice of what to answer and what not seemed arbitrary, or even sloppy.

This is definitely not the starter book if you're interested in learning about sabermetrics.  Moneyball is the better intro.  Still, I'll keep Understanding Sabermetrics on the shelf with my other baseball geek books.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Star Trek: Patterns of Force

Episode: "Patterns of Force"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 21
Original Air Date: February 16, 1968
via Wikipedia
The Enterprise travels to planet Ekos in search of the missing John Gill, a Federation observer and a favorite professor of Kirk's at the Academy.  All is not well.  The Ekosians have adopted Nazi Germany as their cultural model with Gill as their figurehead.  Our hereoes, joined by the oppressed Zeonians (Zionists) infiltrate the ranks to get to Gill and topple the regime.  The image of two Jewish actors (Shatner and Nimoy) in Nazi garb is a poignant one.  As Star Trek costume dramas go, I thought this one worked better than "A Piece of the Action" (reflection here).

"Patterns of Force" was banned on German television for nearly 30 years due to the imagery and the expressed claim that the Nazis were the most efficient government ever devised.  That was actually a commonly held historical view in 1960s USA.  That assertion has since been debunked in academic circles, citing the large, incompetent, ill-defined bureaucracies that governed the regime.

via Wikipedia
David Brian (Gill) was born on August 5, 1914 in New York City.  A trained dancer, he worked as a doorman before joining the vaudeville circuit.  No less than Joan Crawford convinced him to give film acting a try. 

Television guest appearances kept him busy through the '50s and '60s.  His most prominent big screen role was as the defense attorney in 1949's Intruder in the Dust.  That performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

Brian died of heart disease and cancer in 1993.  He'd been married to Lorna Gray, his second wife, since 1949.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Gene Luen Yang

Title: American Born Chinese
Writer and Artist: Gene Luen Yang
via Goodreads
Gene Luen Yang's highly acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese begins as three separate stories.  The first is based on the Chinese folk tale of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.  Sun Wukong strives to be accepted at the dinner parties of the other immortals.  In the second, Jin, a Chinese-American boy strives to be accepted at his California school.  The third is the strangest. Danny, an average, seemingly Caucasian kid, is embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee who embodies every cringe-inducing Chinese stereotype imaginable.  I'll admit that I didn't understand how the three threads interrelated until they were expertly woven together by the end.  That trick alone makes the book worth reading.

American Born Chinese reminded me quite a lot of Approved for Adoption, a movie we saw at the Green Mountain Film Festival in March (review here, fourth movie down).  The situations are different, of course.  Jin's background is Chinese, born to immigrant parents in the US.  Approved for Adoption's Jung was born in Korea, then adopted into a Belgian family.  There are similar themes, nonetheless.  Both Jin and Jung deliberately avoided friendships with other Asian kids, for instance.  American Born Chinese is a much lighter tale than Approved for Adoption and probably more accessible to children as a result.

Yang's book is a powerful reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to achieve the pluralistic society we claim as an American ideal. 

On the Coffee Table: Rutu Modan

Title: Exit Wounds
Writer and Artist: Rutu Modan
via Amazon
Koby is a young taxi driver in Tel Aviv.  He shares the cab business with the aunt and uncle with whom he lives.  His life gets turned upside-down when a young woman he doesn't know tells him she believes his estranged father may have been killed in a suicide bombing.  The woman, Numi, was his father's lover and has not heard from him since the attack.  One victim is still unidentified so the two new friends (Koby, reluctantly) embark on a quest to link the body to the missing man.

While Israeli/Palestinian tensions are crucial to the plot, creator Modan avoids addressing the political issues directly.  In fact, the words Arab and Palestinian are never even used.  Instead, the story focuses on relationships including, eventually, the one developing between Koby and Numi as their mystery unravels.  Of the two, I found Numi to be the more appealing character.  It's the sort of romance where it's easier to understand in one direction than the other.  It's clear what he sees in her, not so much the other way around, except for Koby's resemblance to his father.

Modan's artwork is simple and uncluttered, her text also to the point.  The story is very sweet at times but pain is also clearly evident.  Exit Wounds is Modan's first full-length graphic novel and a potent debut, winning the 2008 Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Novel.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Far Arden

Title: Far Arden
Writer and Artist: Kevin Cannon
via Amazon
Kevin Cannon and I went to the same college, though not at the same time.  I know his business partner Zander Cannon (no relation) better as Zander was in my class.  However, I've gotten to know Kevin's work reasonably well over the past few years through the duo's collaboration on the online comic Double Barrel.  Kevin's primary story in that effort was Crater XV, actually a sequel to Far Arden

Also originally a web comic, Far Arden tells the story of Army Shanks, a pirate-ish guy who trolls the Canadian Arctic.  Far Arden is his quest: a mysterious tropical paradise hidden away somewhere in the frozen north.  He is joined by an old flame, an orphan in an arctic fox costume and two eager college students whose romantic involvement is not what it seems.  Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy (RCAN - is that really a thing?) is hot on his trail.

Kevin has developed a distinctive style.  His characters remind me of Don Martin of Mad Magazine fame but what sets Kevin's work apart is his use of sound bubbles.  Rather than the usual onomatopoeia - Pow! Wham! Kaboom! - he'll use more descriptive expressions: Listful Kick, Gesticulate, Hoodie String Pull, etc. 

I'll definitely be checking out more of Kevin's work and so should you - this is good stuff.  Far Arden is available in French, too.  The Cannons have done a fair amount of artwork for non-fiction graphic novels.  I think I'll try those next.

Family Movie Night: The Way We Were

Title: The Way We Were
Director: Sydney Pollack
Original Release: 1973
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

The Purple Penguin asked before we watched if The Way We Were is a happy story. Bittersweet was the best word I could think of to describe it. "Does it have a happy ending?" she asked.  I honestly couldn't remember.

Katie Morsky (Barbara Streisand) and Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) seem an unlikely couple.  She's a rock-the-boat student activist, he's a take-the-world-as-it-comes jock.  She's a Jewish girl on work-study.  He's a WASP boy on an athletic scholarship he doesn't even need.  And yet, they fall in love.  They get married.  Hubbell's writing talents take them to Hollywood where he pursues a screenwriting career, with only marginal success.  Meanwhile, the House Un-American Activities Committee is in full witch hunt mode, raising Katie's ire anew.

I still think bittersweet is the best description.  The love story is touching at times but ultimately very painful.  There was way too much kissing for our daughter's sensibilities. But long term, I think it's good for her to see that even if you land a mate who's smart, nice, funny and who looks like Robert Redford, it won't solve all of your problems.

A nice interview with Redford and Streisand about the film:


The writing and acting are both excellent.  The story is based on screenwriter Arthur Laurents's own experiences at Cornell and beyond.  The period elements are a lot of fun, especially the cars.  If I had more money than I'd ever need (I don't), I'd spend it on antique automobiles.  Late '40s convertibles would be the heart of my collection.  This was my second time watching the film, though I wouldn't say I ever need to watch it again.  Thus the 3 rating rather than a 4.

And, of course, there's the song, written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch.  If Barbara Streisand has a signature tune, this one's probably it:

On the Coffee Table: Shigeru Mizuki

Title: NonNonBa
Writer and Artist: Shigeru Mizuki
via Drawn and Quarterly
Manga artist Shigeru Mizuki is best known for his horror stories, particularly those involving yokai, haunting spirits from Japanese folklore.  He originally learned about yokai from Nonnonba, an older woman he knew while growing up in his home village Sakaiminato on the Japan Sea coast.  The book NonNonBa is a sort of fictionalized memoir of his own childhood.

I think it's fair to say that Mizuki had an unusual upbringing.  His father, the first man in his village to go to university in Tokyo, was a lot more interested in his more romantic pursuits like running a movie theatre than he was in fulfilling the basic expectations of a respectable job.  As such, the family was pretty much always on the brink of ruin.  On the bright side, his father eagerly encouraged his son's creative passions from a young age.

Nonnonba was not the only woman in his life.  In fact, while young Shigeru had memorable adventures with the boys in the neighborhood, the memories of most lasting impact all revolved around girls.  There was little Matsu who died of measles, TB-stricken Chigusa and, perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Miwa who was sold away to a geisha house.

The artwork is beautiful, of course, with caricature images of the people set against more realistic backgrounds, a typical manga device.  It helps to juxtapose the playfulness of childhood with the gravity of life.  I enjoyed the book a lot more than Mizuki's more famous GeGeGe no Kitaro stories.  There's more of his work in my TBR stacks so I'll be discussing him again before too long.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Ring Lardner

Title: You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters
Author: Ring Lardner
via Goodreads
I picked up You Know Me Al on the recommendation of Laoch of Chicago who does his blogging over at Counterintuitivity.  The busher in question is Jack Keefe, a fictional baseball pitcher in the 1910s.  Al is his best friend back home to whom he writes his letters.  The language is earthy including the many misspellings of an uneducated man.

We get a very intimate view of Jack through his letters.  Frankly, he's an idiot.  Oh, he's very talented but constantly overestimates his own abilities and his value to his team, the Chicago White Sox.  He's also easily manipulated by those around him: women, teammates, coaches, team owners, etc.  He actually reminds me quite a lot of Forrest Gump - more the book character than the one played by Tom Hanks in the movie.

The book offers a view of a different America from today's and a baseball era long before utility infielders were millionaires.  No airplanes, all long-distance travel managed by train or boat.  The control of owners over players was total.  It doesn't help matters that, among many other flaws, Jack is terrible at managing his money.  Future Hall of Famers abound: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Chief Bender, John McGraw, etc.

You Know Me Al is a charming, light read.  I don't know if it would hold much interest for one not a baseball fan but I enjoyed it.

On the Coffee Table: Madeline L'Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeline L'Engle
via Wikipedia
I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was about my daughter's age, ten years old.   In sharing books with her this summer, I've been inspired to reread a few of the ones I don't remember so well.  Of L'Engle's Time series, the book that has always stuck with me was the third: A Swiftly Tilting Planet (my reflection here).  Wrinkle, while generally the most highly acclaimed of the bunch, didn't have quite the same impact on me.  While I'd still say I prefer the later book, I'm glad to have reread Wrinkle and certainly appreciate aspects of the story better now.

Meg Murry is a troubled 14-year-old girl living in a small town.  Hers is seen as the weird family with only her jock twin brothers passing as normal.  Both parents are scientists and Dad has gone missing while on a mysterious mission.  The story's most intriguing character is Charles Wallace, Meg's youngest brother, five years old with deeper connections to the broader universe than anyone understands.  Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin O'Keefe, Meg's surprising new friend, encounter inter-dimensional travelers who lead them on an adventure to save the world and find Meg's father.

While I had forgotten most of the story, the part that I've always remembered is the explanation of the first five dimensions, including the tesseract which is crucial to the adventure.  The book's only illustration demonstrates the fifth dimension with an ant and a piece of string. That picture is always my initial image when anyone starts talking about dimensions beyond the third.

Two lines from the book struck a chord with me in this rereading.  After Calvin, popular at school but a misfit in his own family, is invited back to the Murrys' for dinner, he says, "I've never even seen your house, and I have the funniest feeling that for the first time in my life I'm going home!"  Don't get me wrong, I had a very secure family life growing up but it took me a while as an adult to find home.

Later, when Mrs. Whatsit, one of the inter-dimensional guides, bestows her gifts upon the children to prepare them for the troubles ahead:
"Meg, I give you your faults."
"My faults!" Meg cried.
"Your faults."
"But I'm always trying to get rid of your faults!"
 "Yes," Mrs. Whatsit said.  "However, I think you'll find they'll come in very handy..."
Meg's handy faults turn out to be stubbornness, impatience and other qualities that would have been deemed unladylike when the book came out in the early '60s.  I love the idea of granting an insecure adolescent his or her faults. As adult authority figures, we often harp on the shortcomings of our young charges but their faults don't belong to us, they belong to them.  Some faults are highly inconvenient to the bearers, to be sure.  But those same qualities can prove to be strengths in the proper contexts.

Again, I'm glad to have reread A Wrinkle in Time.  I may give A Wind in the Door another try, too.  As a kid, that was my least favorite of the series.  Since my childhood, L'Engle added two more books to the Time series.  I may check those out as well.

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: August 2014 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, August 29th.  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, July 25, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: July 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: Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
Author: Bill Buford
via NPR
As explained in June's Coffeehouse post, our family is doing a book swap this summer.  Bill Buford's Heat was My Wife's choice for me.  My Wife is a Foodie, First Class - a genius cook with insatiable curiosity about her medium.  The vast majority of what I claim to know about food or drink is thanks to spending the past 15+ years of my life with her.  As a voracious reader, she also has numerous excellent books on the subject.

Heat's subtitle provides a thorough synopsis on its own.  Bill Buford was a writer and editor for The New Yorker when he first embarked on his personal cooking odyssey.  He begins by embedding himself in Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo in New York, revealing the same pirate ship atmosphere Anthony Bourdain exposed in Kitchen Confidential.  Curiosity eventually leads him to Italy to learn the old ways.

Buford covers a lot of bases on his journey from novice to master.  He paints vivid portraits of all the colorful figures he meets in the culinary world.  Ingredients and techniques are explored intimately.  Food is the window to history, culture, the quirks of the mind and the passions of the soul.  He reminds us that at its finest, great food is deeply sexy.

Heat is the sort of book that makes me want to learn more - always a strong sell.  Occasionally, I feel Buford gets so bogged down in the details that the thread of the overall narrative is neglected for too long.  But his enthusiasm for sharing his newly acquired wisdom is infectious.  My own food knowledge lags far beyond that of my beloved.  I expect that for her, part of the appeal of an adventure like Buford's is a thirst for comparable experiences of her own.  I'm not ready to offer myself up as a kitchen slave at our local bistro but I can certainly appreciate the longing.

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 August's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is August 29th.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On the Road: Colorado

We just got back from a cousin gathering in Estes Park, Colorado.  It was our first time seeing my sister and her family in two years and our first time seeing our cousin and hers in 13 - a very relaxing trip and a great chance to reconnect with our broader clan.  It was also our daughter's first time in the Rockies.

A couple of recommendations:
  •  We stayed at Glacier Lodge, a lovely guest ranch.  SK Horses, based on the property, gives guided horseback tours, very accommodating for beginners and near-beginners.  Programmed activities are minimal and low key - a soda shop on Monday night, s'mores on Tuesday.
  • With several excellent cooks in our group, we ate most of our meals in but we did have a most enjoyable lunch at Smokin' Dave's BBQ & Taphouse.  I had the Hot Hog Smoked Sausage - a great choice though, true to form, My Wife's Catfish Po' Boy was probably better.
For all of you, a few photos from our adventure:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Star Trek: Return to Tomorrow

Episode: "Return to Tomorrow"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 20
Original Air Date: February 9, 1968
via Utterly Star Trek Review
There's definitely something special about a Trek episode in which we get to see Spock smile.

The Enterprise crew discovers highly advanced beings on what was presumed to be an uninhabited planet.  Or rather, they find the long-preserved consciousness of those entities.  Kirk, Spock and special guest Dr. Ann Mulhall all willingly submit to telepathic possession so their new friends can build robots to house their minds for the next thousand years.  But even superior beings are morally corruptible and Henoch, the one possessing Spock, hatches a murderous plan to stay in his organic Vulcan vessel forever.

via The Flaming Nose
Diana Muldaur (Dr. Mulhall) is well-known to Trek fans.   This was her first of two appearances on the original series, then 20 years later she played Dr. Katherine Pulaski for the second season of The Next Generation.  Muldaur was born August 9, 1938 in New York City.  She graduated from Sweet Briar College in Virginia, then studied acting with Stella Adler.

Muldaur spent more than a quarter-century in television but her biggest role didn't come until after Trek.  She played the ruthless Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law from 1989-91.  She received two Emmy nominations for the part.  Muldaur was also the first woman president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
via Memory Alpha

Friday, July 18, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Jerusalem

Title: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Author and Artist: Guy Delisle
via Wikipedia
I've been reading quite a lot of Guy Delisle's work over the past year or so.  Previous reviews can be found here, here and here.  Delisle is a Quebecois comic artist, best known for his travel narratives.  He and his family spent a year in Jerusalem when his partner, an administrator with Doctors without Borders - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) en Français, was assigned to help coordinate the organization's mission in Gaza.  Just as with their assignment to Burma, Guy is left to look after the kids and otherwise keep himself occupied.

I was surprised by Delisle's relative ignorance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict going into his adventure but he learned a lot quickly.  He travels well - unafraid to explore new places and strike up conversations with strangers.  In addition to his sightseeing expeditions, he shares the more mundane chronicles that make up daily life: buying a car, exploring grocery stores (a favorite topic in all his books) finding a decent playground for the children and, of course, waiting in traffic to get through checkpoints.  Not surprisingly, the history and tension of the region provide ample material, enough that one year doesn't feel like enough by the end.

I don't know if it's possible to write about Jerusalem without betraying bias.  Delisle's sympathy definitely lies with the Palestinians.  During their stay, there were attacks between Israel and Gaza quite a lot like what's happening in the region right now.  Given the conflict, his partner's work and the fact they lived in a Palestinian neighborhood, most of the people he talks to also side with the Palestinians.  Interestingly, he reveals that Israeli journalists are a lot more critical of the government and the settlements than the Western press ever are.

Overall, Jerusalem is an excellent book.  I think I preferred Burma Chronicles simply for my own ignorance of the country.  I learned more.  But that book's strengths hold for Jerusalem as well.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Locke & Key

Title: Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Garbriel Rodriguez
via Wikipedia
Even if you've never heard of Joe Hill, it's highly likely you've heard of his father.  Joe Hill is the pen name of Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen and Tabitha King.  For perfectly understandable reasons, Hill uses a pseudonym so he might have a writing career independent of his literary titan father.  It's an attitude I totally respect, yet there's no denying that writing page-turners runs in the family.  Call it nature or nurture, Hill definitely knows how to spin a yarn.

Rather than the traditional monthly delivery for comic books, Locke & Key is published in limited series.  Welcome to Lovecraft ran from February to July 2008.  The next story, Head Games, picked up in January 2009.  After witnessing the gruesome murder of his father, Tyler Locke and his family move across country to Lovecraft, their father's childhood home and current residence of Tyler's uncle.  The house is filled with doors of mysterious nature.  Bode, Tyler's younger brother, discovers the Ghost Door.  He steps through it, his physical body dies while he becomes a ghost until he re-enters the door from the opposite direction.

Bode also discovers the well and the entity who lives within it.  Said entity is also in touch with Sam, Dad's murderer, in jail back in California.  Sam escapes, then makes his way to Lovecraft in order to set the entity free, no qualms about killing again to accomplish this.

Tension mounts gradually to a thrilling ending.  Even as this initial story wraps up, new questions emerge to be answered - plenty of avenues for the tales to come.  Locke & Key contains ample gruesome violence but it all serves the narrative.  The storytelling is masterful and Rodriguez's artwork plenty creepy to match.  Locke & Key definitely works for me.

On the Coffee Table: Fables

Title: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Lan Medina
via Amazon
Fables is another popular comic book series which I tried a while back and it didn't take.  It is one of Mock's favorites and my college friend Zander Cannon has contributed artwork to the series so it was with a touch of regret that I didn't pursue the franchise further.  Goodreads recommended it, though, and I have to say that Goodreads has done pretty well by me recently so I decided to try again from the beginning.  Just as with Chew, I'm glad that I did.

For those unfamiliar with the story, fairy tale characters, led by Bigby (The Big Bad) Wolf and Snow White, inhabit a New York City subculture known as Fabletown.  They were driven out of their Homelands by The Adversary and are now doing their best to make a go of it in the mundane world.  Legends in Exile (issues #1-5) is a murder mystery.  Jack of beanstalk fame runs into Bigby's police detective office to report that his girlfriend, Red Rose, has gone missing, her apartment drenched in blood.

At first, I was resistant once again.  The setup felt a lot like Watchmen - a member of the team is killed, apparently by one of their own.  One sees this plot structure over and over again in comic books, everyone imitating the Alan Moore masterpiece.  But the story plays out differently, more along the lines of a classic mystery tale.  I guess I prefer my cliches on the older side.

I can't deny that I'm a sucker for the trappings.  Just as with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I'm inspired to go back to the source material in order to better appreciate the characters.  Just as the narrative keeps me interested, I'm ever eager to see who from folklore will pop up next.  The comic book series is coming to an end soon.  #150 will be the final issue, set to publish in 2015.

Star Trek: A Private Little War

Episode: "A Private Little War"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 19
Original Air Date: February 2, 1968
via Star Trek Fact Check
"A Private Little War" is one of Star Trek's more blatantly allegorical episodes. The Enterprise visits a planet where Captain Kirk had a formative experience as a younger officer.  He is surprised to find that the peaceful, primitive society he left has developed fire arms, suggesting external influence.  Sure enough, the Klingons have been sharing technology with one faction in order to further their own political interests.  This puts the Federation in the position of having to similarly fortify the other side - at least, that's Kirk's position.  Dr. McCoy does his best to convince him otherwise but to no avail.

All of this is an obvious metaphor for United States involvement in Vietnam, the front-burner issue in 1968.  No time for subtlety, either - Kirk and Bones reference 1960s Earth directly in their discussion of the matter.  Kirk takes the American government's position, Bones takes that of the war opposition.  Interestingly, Spock isn't able to weigh in on the matter as he's recovering from a gunshot wound back on the ship.  No place for logic when discussing matters of war?


Nancy Kovack plays the part of Nona, the beautiful, ambitious and manipulative wife of Tyree, tribal leader and old friend of Kirk's.  The early Star Trek writers were certainly drawn to the Lady MacBeth types.
via The Land of Cerpts and Honey
Kovack was born March 11, 1935 in Flint, Michigan.  She graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of 19.  Her acting career started in television as one of Jackie Gleason's Glea Girls.  She had guest appearances on numerous shows, including five on Bewitched.  Her highest-profile big screen role was Medea in Jason and the Argonauts.

Kovack has been married to the great Zubin Mehta since 1969.  The two met while he was conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On the Coffee Table: International Flavor

Title: Chew, Volume Two: International Flavor
Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
via Goodreads
The revolting yet exceedingly clever comic book series Chew continues in this second volume, collecting issues #6-10.  If you're new to the series, you can read my thoughts on Volume One here.  In International Flavor, the US government's ban on chicken meat leads our hero, Tony Chu, to the fictional South Pacific nation of Yamapalu where a mysterious fruit is being cultivated.  When the fruit is cooked, it tastes exactly like - you guessed it - chicken.

There are two story elements which I think will hold my long-term interest for a while.  The first is the budding romance between Tony and food critic Amelia Mintz.   The second is the various food powers belonging to some of the characters.  Tony Chu is a cibopath, meaning he instantly accesses the back story for anything he eats.  A couple of new powers are introduced in Volume Two:
  • A cibolocutor communicates exclusively through cooking.  Entire Shakespeare plays or Verdi operas are translated into food.
  • Another skill goes unnamed, at least so far: one character can, by eating a person, gain all of his or her specialized knowledge.  Yup, gross, I know.  That's Chew for you.
Chew definitely pushes my ickiness limits and, trust me, I'm a wimp.  But this series works and the story keeps me constantly curious about what's going to happen next.  I'm up for more.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Greetings, my dear friends!

I have a guest post today over on Janie Junebug's blog, WOMEN: WE SHALL OVERCOME as part of her BULLY FOR YOU series.  It's a follow up to my recent review of Wonder by R. J. Palacio, focusing on the issue of bullying.  I hope you'll pay her a visit and offer your thoughts on my post.

Many thanks.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Family Book Swap: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Title: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Author: Haruki Murakami
via Amazon
As discussed previously, our family is doing a book swap this summer, each of us exchanging books with the other two.  This is actually the second book I got from My Wife.  My review of the first is currently set to post for the Cephalopod Coffeehouse on the 25th of July.  Haruki Murakami is one of Japan's most successful novelists, both domestically and internationally.  Despite my lifelong ties to the Land of the Rising Sun and my interest in its literature, I had never read any of Murakami's work before.  I'd read the other Murakami, Ryu Murakami, author of Almost Transparent Blue and other avant-garde classics, but never Haruki. 

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is two stories in one... sort of.  The unnamed protagonist (in fact, none of the characters have names exactly) is a professional data processor caught up in a turf war between larger, corporate data crunching entities.  In a parallel narrative, told in alternating chapters, the unnamed protagonist moves to a walled city where he is to serve as Dreamreader by running his hands over unicorn skulls.  Like a dream, each world functions by its own self-contained logic.  The two stories are clearly connected but, of course, one doesn't learn exactly how until late in the book.  As the title suggests, there are also occasional hard-boiled detective elements throughout, affecting a cross between Dashiell Hammett and William Gibson.

Both stories are completely bizarre but quite engaging.  Murakami's prose is beautiful, requiring a step back from time to time to admire.  A few of my favorite passages:
"I'd quit smoking five years before, but one pack of cigarettes on the last day of my life wasn't going to kill me."

"I must repeat: you are as yet unformed. You have doubts, you have contradictions, you have regrets, you are weak.  Winter is the most dangerous season for you."

"Sex is an extremely subtle undertaking, unlike going to the department store on Sunday to buy a thermos."
And, of course, the book was originally in Japanese so kudos to the translator, too: a Mr. Alfred Birnbaum.

My Wife also has a new Family Book Swap post about the book she got from our daughter.  Check it out here.

Family Movie Night: Despicable Me

Title: Despicable Me
Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Original Release: 2010
Choice: The Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Despicable Me is another film Purple Penguin had seen without us - several times, apparently - and she was eager to share.  Gru is a super-villain out to steal the Moon.  To do so, he must steal back the shrink ray which his rival villain, Vector, stole from him.  He enlists/adopts three orphan girls to infiltrate Vector's lair under the guise of delivering cookies - naturally.  In true Annie form, the charming orphans endear themselves to their adoptive father and Gru turns out to be pretty swell after all.

Then there's the minions.  To be honest, I expected there to be a lot more of the minions in light of their prominence in the franchise's promotional materials.  The minions are Gru's tiny, yellow, underground lackeys - Oompa-Loompas, essentially.  They are adorable and hilarious.  The movie was definitely at its best when they were around, though I suppose it's possible any more from them would have been too much. 

For me, the movie is just okay - funny at times, sweet at times, simple, harmless fun.  The story's predictable.  The computer animation is stellar, per industry standard.  The Penguin clearly loves it and wants to share the sequel with us next.  I'm hoping for more minions.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Songs of Summer

Ah, summer.  Sunny mornings full of possibility, lazy poolside afternoons and rockin' nights lit by tiki torches.  What songs bring back the sunscreen and beach-sand to you?  What songs defined your one perfect summer, be it decades ago or just yesterday?

Welcome to the Songs of Summer bloghop, hosted by the Armchair Squid, Cygnus and Suze.  Please join us by posting 5 of your favorite summer songs and sharing some memories about them.  Maybe between us, we can build the perfect soundtrack to accompany us over the next few months.  If possible, include links so we can hear these gems.  And, if you're in the southern hemisphere, join us to dance those winter blues away!

"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie is a song I remember from summer campfires.  Growing up in the endless asphalt of suburban Maryland, the woods of Pennsylvania and West Virginia were our escape.  Campfires were an important ritual, particularly at Cacapon, a West Virginia state park we visited a couple times.

"The Billboard Song" by Doc and Merle Watson was one of many goofy songs we learned at summer camp.  The version I remember had slightly different lyrics, probably simplified to teach to kids.  Before tracking it down for this post, I'd never heard the song in any other context.

"Who's Next?" was one of many Tom Lehrer songs I learned by heart on family road trips.  I've written about Lehrer before here.  This was one of the first to catch my ear.  I was a map nerd as a child, a sucker for a song with lots of place names.  It's also a great summation of international relations in the 1960s.

I have told my "Twist and Shout" story before, here, but as that post was about a different song, I feel I should give "Twist and Shout" its due.  The connection to summer: my sister and I went to see Ferris Beuller's Day Off the day after school got out.  The movie changed my life.  The scene with this song blew me away.  I spent the rest of vacation falling in love with the Beatles, the first step on a road of musical self-discovery I still follow today.

My Wife and I have a long-standing joke about George Gershwin's "Summertime."  The jazz standard has been recorded over 25,000 times.  Every pop singer who sticks around long enough to record his/her covers album inevitably sings it.  Whenever we hear a recording by, let's say, Sting, we smile at one another knowingly, "Ah, he has reached the 'Summertime' stage of his career."  In fact, I considered simply using five different recordings of the tune for this bloghop but decided that would go against the spirit of the exercise.

Of course, it truly is a great song worthy of homage.  But then, which of the 25,000 to choose?  I don't know if this one's the best but it's certainly by one of my favorite singers, the great Sam Cooke.

Please be sure to visit others sharing their Songs of Summer.  Feel free to add your name to the list as well.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Star Trek: The Immunity Syndrome

Episode: "The Immunity Syndrome"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 18
Original Air Date: January 19, 1968
via Wikipedia
True confessions time: I'm not really a Trekkie.  Don't get me wrong, I like the show and have grown to admire the franchise tremendously over the years.  But in science fiction, my heart will always belong to Star Wars.   Part of why I wasn't so into Trek growing up was my devotion, instead, to Star Wars.  Gene Roddenberry's vision didn't hit me in quite the same way that George Lucas's did.

There's no denying that the two stories have been the dominant threads in American science fiction for decades.  While it's reasonable to assume that influence has run in both directions, specific examples can be difficult to pinpoint.  But an early incident in "The Immunity Syndrome" has striking similarities to one in the original Star Wars movie.  Lucas has admitted to Trek's influence in the writing of the first film and I believe this episode must have had an impact.

The Enterprise receives a distress call from the USS Intrepid, a ship manned by Vulcans.  Suddenly, the signal disappears and Shock reacts in horror.  The dialogue:
KIRK: Spock?
MCCOY: What is it, Spock? Are you in pain?
SPOCK: Captain, the Intrepid. It just died. And the four hundred Vulcans aboard, all dead.
And a little later, in sickbay,
SPOCK: I assure you, Doctor, I am quite all right. The pain was momentary. It passed quickly.
MCCOY: All of my instruments seem to agree with you if I can trust these crazy Vulcan readings. Spock, how can you be so sure the lntrepid was destroyed?
(Spock gets off the bed.)
SPOCK: I sensed it die.
MCCOY: But I thought you had to be in physical contact with a subject before
SPOCK: Doctor, even I, a half-Vulcan, could hear the death scream of four hundred Vulcan minds crying out over the distance between us.

Nine years later, in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi had this reaction to the destruction of the planet Alderaan:
Obi-Wan: I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.
Unmistakable.  Cool...

"Immunity Syndrome" is a great Spock vs. Bones episode.  The entity which destroyed the Intrepid is an enormous, energy feeding, single-cell organism from another galaxy.  That basic set up is an awful lot like "The Doomsday Machine" (my thoughts here) and the ultimate solution is similar, too: get inside and destroy from within.  But the journey to get to that answer is different.  To do the job, one volunteer must take the shuttlecraft on the suicide mission.  Both Spock and McCoy step forward for the gig - Doc out of scientific curiosity, Spock out of belief that he is better suited.  Kirk chooses Spock and the relationship between the two rivals runs very cold indeed.

via Enterprise-NCC1701
Eddie Paskey appeared in 57 episodes of Star Trek's original series, usually as Lieutenant Leslie.  Like Lieutenant Kyle (see here), Leslie rarely figured in the plot and served essentially as a familiar face in the background. Leslie only had lines in four episodes. He actually died in one episode, "Obsession," only to reappear alive and well the following week in "Wolf in the Fold." Paskey also occasionally served as a stand-in for both William Shatner and James Doohan.

Paskey was born August 20, 1939 in Delaware.  A strong childhood interest in cars led to a post-acting career running an auto-detailing business.  He and his wife Judy have four children.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Bloggers' Film Society

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to introduce Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society.  Each month, on the second Friday, we shall host a bloghop devoted to a particular movie.  We invite others to watch the same film and post their own reviews.
via Wikipedia
Our society shall debut on August 8th with Stand by Me, first released to theaters, not coincidentally, on August 8, 1986.  We hope that you, too, will watch this classic movie and join in our discussion.  Please sign on to the list below:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Family Book Swap: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Title: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Author: Judy Blume
For our family book swap, I chose one of my own childhood favorites for my daughter.  She agreed to an interview to share her thoughts.  She has chosen a new pseudonym for herself: The Purple Penguin.  A transcript of our interview:
Armchair Squid: So, Purple Penguin, could you please tell us what book you read?

Purple Penguin: I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.

Squid: Great!  Could you tell us what the book is about?

Penguin: It is about this ten-year-old fourth grade boy named Peter and his little brother named Fudge.  Fudge does a lot of silly and messed up things like knock out his two front teeth and snip his hair and when the hair falls down, it falls into Peter's turtle's bowl.  It's a really funny and good book.

Squid: Could you tell us what you thought of the book?  Did you like the book?

Penguin: I really liked the book because it was funny and I thought it was just a good book to read because I was just getting out of fourth grade.  I would rate it 4 out of 5 stars. 

Squid: And would you be interested in reading more books by the same author?

Penguin: Yes.

Squid: Thank you, Purple Penguin, for joining us.

Penguin: You're welcome.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Family Movie Night: Labyrinth

Title: Labyrinth
Director: Jim Henson
Original Release: 1986
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Jim Henson has been a personal hero of mine since I was old enough to know who he was.  My lifelong devotion to The Muppets is best described in this postLabyrinth was his second non-Muppet theatrical release and the last before his untimely death in 1990.

Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a sullen teenager who accidentally wishes her baby brother away, kidnapped by goblins.  The Goblin King (David Bowie - and he really can do those cool tricks with the crystal balls) tells her she must solve a labyrinth to reach his castle in thirteen hours before baby Toby is lost to her forever.  Adolescence sure is tricky!

The movie was a box office disaster in its original release.  With a $25 million budget, it made barely half that back in ticket sales.  I fail to understand why.  Okay, Jennifer Connelly was not the most dynamic teenage actress but Bowie's an awesome Goblin King and the movie is peppered with moments of flat-out artistic genius.  Dali and Escher influences abound.  In my favorite scene, Sarah falls down a hole where disembodied hands grab at her from the sides.  The hands form faces in order to speak to her, like so:
via Aisling Runs with Unicorns
The original script was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.  The Python influence is particularly evident in a bridge-crossing scene reminiscent of Holy Grail.  Bowie, in addition to acting, contributed several songs, including "Magic Dance":

Fortunately, the movie has enjoyed cult popularity since its video release and remains, at least to me, yet another strong element of Henson's legacy.

Wimbledon 2014: Champions

via Wikipedia
Wow, what a match!  Between Netherlands/Costa Rica and Djokovic/Federer, I spent quite a lot of the weekend on the edge of my seat.  Novak Djokovic (Serbia) won his second Wimbledon, his seventh Major overall.  He also regained the #1 world ranking and has to be considered the early favorite for the US Open.
via Wikipedia
For me, the only mystery with Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic) is why it took her so long to win her second Wimbledon or even her second Major tournament.  When she first won three years ago, she seemed to have both the game and the swagger to not only win more Slams, but perhaps dominate women's tennis for many years.  She's 24 now, plenty of time to claim a few more big prizes before she's done.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Kou Yaginuma

Title: Twin Spica, Volume 2
Writer and Artist: Kou Yaginuma
via Popdose
Asumi's adventures continue at Tokyo National Space School in Volume 2 of Twin Spica.  For my thoughts on Volume 1 of this excellent manga series, go here.  Since the last installment, I've introduced the books to both wife and daughter.  Daughter has already asked after Volume 3.

Volume 2 includes four issues from the comic book run ("Missions" 5-8) as well as three bonus stories.  As Asumi settles into life away from home, her relationships with the other students are developed.  Of particular interest in this volume is Marika, an ambitious girl but one with little patience for the company of others.  Meanwhile, Asumi's astrophysics teacher clearly has it in for her, apparently due to long-standing resentment of her father (Professor Snape equivalent?).

I continue to be impressed by Twin SpicaHarry Potter parallels are clearly evident but that is not to suggest that the story is unoriginal.  The development of the relationships between characters is particularly strong.  Asumi is sure to be a fixture at our house for a while.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Star Trek: A Piece of the Action

Episode: "A Piece of the Action"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 17
Original Air Date: January 12, 1968
via wellyousaythat
In a Star Trek costume drama,  the Enterprise visits Sigma Iotia II, a planet corrupted by too early contact with the Federation a hundred years before.  The crew of Horizon had left behind a book called Chicago Mobs of the Twenties.  The impressionable natives built the entire society around the text, essentially treating it as heaven-sent gospel.  If you ever wanted to see our heroes in zoot suits and Captain Kirk do a terrible Cagney impression, this is your chance!

The novelty of the episode is fun, as is seeing Vic Tayback in a guest star gangster role.  I couldn't help feeling, though, that the writing was a bit labored at times.  I could have done without Kirk and the goofy accent, too.  But again, the novelty is fun.

via Memory Alpha
Bela Oxmyx, the story's Al Capone-equivalent, is played by Anthony Caruso.  Caruso was born April 7, 1916 in Frankfort, Indiana.  He had a 50-year career in Hollywood career with 251 screen credits, usually in villain roles.  The lion share of his work was in television but there were film roles in the '40s and '50s, notably The Asphalt Jungle, Watch on the Rhine and A Gun in His Hand.  He was married to his wife, Tonia Valente, for 63 years, parting upon his death in 2003.