Friday, July 31, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: July 2015

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works 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: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
via Wikipedia
Imagine The Jungle Book set in an English cemetery rather than an Indian rainforest.  That, in a nutshell, is The Graveyard Book.  As I've written before, Neil Gaiman's work is hit or miss for me.  This one was a bullseye.

The basic narrative structure is Kipling but the world-building is Gaiman, with an assist from illustrator Dave McKean, his longtime collaborator.  A little boy, on the run from a man who had just murdered his family, wanders into an old cemetery.  The ghostly inhabitants take him in and do their best to raise him as clearly not one of their own.  They give him a near-anonymous name: Nobody Owens, Bod for short.  Bod's friends - truly his extended family - span centuries and social classes, including the outcasts in the Potter's Field.  His Bagheera is Silas, a being who resides between the worlds of the dead and the living.

Bod does have occasional interactions with the world beyond the graveyard.  He befriends a little girl.  He goes to school briefly.  Unfortunately, such adventures leave him vulnerable to the man who is still out to kill him for reasons unknown.  So he spends most of his life behind the gates of the graveyard where Silas and the others can keep him safe.

It occurs to me in reading this book that my issues with Gaiman have nothing to do with his style.  He's a wonderful writer.  But his stories tend toward horror and I've never been so keen on the trappings of that genre.  I prefer wizards to vampires and elves to ghosts.  But I'm always up for suspense and The Graveyard Book delivers nicely.  It's one of those reads where the pace picks up considerably at the end, as the reader sorts out what's going on just ahead of the characters. 

The Graveyard Book was my daughter's choice for me in our most recent family book swap.  The story has been adapted into a graphic novel in two volumes.  A film is in the works, too, to be directed by Ron Howard.
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 28th.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Title: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Author: Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
via Amazon
Our superintendent gave each of us a copy of Mindset to read over the summer.  There was much grumbling among the faculty over assigned reading but my own reaction was "Cool, free book!"  In truth, the book is extraordinary, the sort that challenges one's perceptions of life and the world.

Dr. Dweck, on the basis of decades of research, asserts that the key to sustained success in any endeavor comes not from talent but from mindset.  In the fixed mindset, one believes that our personal qualities can never change.  We're only as intelligent as we're ever going to be.  However, in the growth mindset, we believe that personal qualities can be developed over a lifetime.  Some of the book documents her clinical studies but most of the text is devoted to anecdotal demonstrations of the two mindsets in action.  The sections on education and parenting are the most obvious applications to my own line of work but Dweck also explores the worlds of business, sports and interpersonal relationships.

For me, the chapter on sports is the most fun.  Throughout the book, John McEnroe - a tennis player notorious for extraordinary talent paired with terrible attitude and work ethic - is Dweck's punching bag for the fixed mindset.  The more successful Pete Sampras is presented as an exemplar of the growth mindset.  She also compares three Hall of Fame basketball coaches. Bob Knight is the tyrant, shaming his players when they fail to live up to his expectations and thereby threaten his own sense of self-worth (fixed mindset).  John Wooden is the interpersonal master who won ten national titles over twelve years by investing in demanding but respectful relationships with all of his players, from all-time superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to the last guy on the bench (growth mindset).  Pat Summitt is the extraordinary leader behind Tennessee's Lady Vols, one of the most successful programs in women's college ball.  She started off in the fixed mindset but found greater success once she embraced the growth mindset.

Summitt's experience is really the whole point of the book.  Most people live with a combination of both mindsets rather than one or the other.  The growth mindset is something we can learn.  By doing so, we can find greater success and meaning in any endeavor.

I have read better-written books, though not many that make me think so deeply.  I expect I'll keep Mindset handy as I approach my relationship with my daughter, my job, my own personal goals, perhaps even the 2016 election.  I'd like to believe that I have more of a growth mindset than a fixed one but I know better than to believe that I always do.  I am grateful for having been "forced" to read the book.  I hope my colleagues will give it a chance.  I'm even thinking of sending copies to my extended family.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Star Trek: The Counter-Clock Incident

My friends and I have completed our journey, watching all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series. 

Episode: "The Counter-Clock Incident"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 2, Episode 6
Original Air Date: October 12, 1974
via Memory Alpha
Star Trek's animated series wraps up with a mind bender.   The Enterprise is unwillingly pulled into a negative universe: black stars against white space, movement, language and aging all running in reverse.  In a further time bending I don't entirely understand, the crew all revert to their childhood selves and very rapidly at that on their way back to their own dimension.  While the suspenseful tension was genuine, it's just the sort of Trek episode that drives me nuts.  The negative universe elements are fun to ponder but they stretch the narrative integrity to troubling limits.  I get anxious for all the wrong reasons.

That said, as a series finale, it has some nice elements.  The moral of the story pertains to the usefulness of the aged, a theme Trek has explored before in TOS's "The Deadly Years."  It provides a metaphor for the show itself essentially being put out to pasture.  "The Counter-Clock Incident" is certainly stronger than the finale for the original series, "Turnabout Intruder."


Thoughts on Season 2

General Impressions

I expected a drop in quality for the second season.  After all, the original series started strong and finished weak.  It seemed reasonable to expect the same with the animated series.  But if there was a decline, it was negligible.  As I wrote regarding the first season, the best episodes don't measure up to the best of TOS but the worst are nowhere near as poor as the weakest originals, either.

Favorite Episode: "Albatross"

Six episodes don't leave much for picking.  "Albatross," I'm certain, would not be the choice of most critics but I liked it.  In any Trek series, I enjoy the episodes in which I am amazed by the complex problems the crew can solve in the last ten minutes.  "Albatross" resides comfortably in that fine tradition with two brutal crises pressing in on our heroes simultaneously: a plague aboard the ship and Dr. McCoy facing what is sure to be an unfair trial on an alien planet.  Plus, one of the characters looks like a six-foot-three Yoda.

Least Favorite Episode: "The Practical Joker"

I'm not opposed to a goofy episode.  We need one from time to time.  In fact, I want a "KIRK IS A JERK" shirt like the one the captain wears at one point.  The story also introduces the predecessor to TNG's holodeck.  But there is a scene with everyone on the bridge giggling for far too long.  It feels like an uncomfortable dinner party.  Again, as clunkers go, it's not bad.  But for the sake of the exercise, I had to pick one.

Favorite New Character: Bem

Bem is the cause of great mischief in the episode that bears his name.  He is a colony creature, meaning he is a cooperative organism composed of multiple composite organisms.  As such, he is able to separate parts of his body from one another.  He also has a most amusing way of referring to himself as "this one."  For example, he might say "this one has a hankering for some Saurian brandy" or "this one must excuse himself to use the loo."


At some point, I may tackle more Trek, likely the movies, TNG or perhaps both.  But for now, it's back to regularly scheduled programming.  I'll have one more wrap-up post for the entire series next week.  Family adventure posts shall return, now on Fridays, beginning August 21st.

Please visit the other participants on the list below.  Next week: Series Wrap-Up.

Maurice Mitchell

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Clone Wars: Cloak of Darkness

My friends and I are embarking on an exploration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Cloak of Darkness"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 1, Episode 9
Original Air Date: December 5, 2008
via Wookieepedia
Okay, I have had my fill of prison break stories.  I realize it's bread-and-butter for the Star Wars franchise but variety in narrative structure is always appreciated in a TV series.  This time, it's Grievous's minions breaking Viceroy Gunray - captured in the last episode - out of the Republic's ship, Tranquility.  There is nice development for Ahsoka in this one and excellent swordplay between Jedi Luminara Unduli (with Ahsoka assisting) and Grievous's agent, Asajj Ventress.  A few plot twists along the way are gratifying, too.  Even so, I'm ready for something other than a prison break.  Maybe next week?


via Wookieepedia
The character of Luminara Unduli first appeared in the novel Cloak of Deception by James Luceno, published in 2001.  She is a Mirialan.  Apparently, her headdress conceals extra-sensory organs.
via Wookieepedia
Luminara is voiced by Olivia d'Abo.  D'Abo was born in London, January 22, 1969.  Hers was a show biz family.  Mother Maggie London was a model and actress, father Mike d'Abo, for a time the lead singer of Manfred Mann.  She went to junior high and high school in the Los Angeles area.  She made her film debut in Conan the Destroyer when she was 15.

D'Abo is most familiar to television audiences as Karen Arnold, Kevin's much troubled, hippie older sister in The Wonder Years.   Her geek cred was secured in her memorable guest star appearance in Star Trek TNG's "True Q."  Full disclosure, I have long considered her to be one of the most beautiful women in the business.  Sadly, she has spent way too much on plastic surgery in recent years.

The voice work has been steady.  She has had roles in Batman Beyond, The Legend of Tarzan and Justice League.  She was married to music producer Patrick Leonard for ten years.  She has one son, Oliver, born in 1995.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Lair of Grievous."

Monday, July 27, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Daniel James Brown

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
via Goodreads
In the 1930s, rowing was one of the most popular sports in the United States, the major races being broadcast on radio nationwide.  The annual Harvard-Yale regatta, inaugurated in 1852, was the first intercollegiate sporting event.  By the '30s, UC-Berkeley and the University of Washington had overtaken the eastern schools as the major powers in the sport.  The Washington Huskies, though, were still playing second-fiddle to their rivals in California.  The Boys in the Boat tells the tale of the crewmen who changed all of that, nine young men of humble origins in troubled times in what was still a remote part of the country.

For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of Joe Rantz, one of the oarsmen.  Essentially abandoned by his own family in his teens, he learned to survive on his own and put himself through college.  Crew provided a sense of purpose and belonging.  It also gave him a fantastic tale to tell for the rest of his life.  Through him, we get a sense not only of the group's extraordinary achievements but of the devastating impact the Great Depression had on the lives of families all over the country.

The most endearing characters of the book, however, are George Pocock, the boat builder at Washington, and Bobby Moch, the crew's coxswain.  Pocock overcame his own humble London origins to become a giant in the rowing world.  He supplied boats for Washington as well as most of the other major programs in the United States.  He also provided sage, invaluable mentoring for the coaches and rowers who came through the Washington program.

As for Moch, a crew's coxswain is inevitably the object of curiosity.  The little man or woman in a sport of giants, the cox steers the boat and manages the stroke rate for the oarsmen.  He (or she) is the only one facing forward and therefore the one with the best sense of the boat's position in relation to the competition, not to mention the finish line.  Moch, in particular, is quite the fearless smart ass.  His downright ballsy decision-making leads the team to greatness.  His personal history also provides an astonishing wrinkle towards the end of the book.

Of course, there's another essential backstory to all of this.  The Boys in the Boat also covers the Third Reich's preparations for the 1936 Olympics.  I visited Berlin's Olympic Stadium when I was eleven.  My knowledge of the event was limited to that of an average sports fan - i.e., I knew about Jesse Owens and not much else.  Jesse Owens, by any measure, was one of the most extraordinary athletes of his era and his four gold medals, heralded as the symbolic victory of a black man over the Nazis, is one of the great sports stories of the 20th century.  But the sad fact of the matter - for Owens, for the Washington crew, for the whole Olympic movement - is that the USA and its allies probably should have stayed away completely.  The Olympics were a triumphant, public relations bonanza for Hitler and his cronies.  They successfully deceived the world into believing that the horrifying rumors surrounding their regime were exaggerated.  If ever there were an Olympics to boycott, it was the '36 Games in Berlin.  But the world chose to look the other way, a decision made all the easier here by the plague of anti-Semitism in the United States.  And before we all wear out our arms patting ourselves on the back over Jesse Owens, it's worth remembering that it would still be another 28 years before the Civil Rights Act passed.  Brown's book pulls few punches, providing a sobering picture indeed.

The Boys in the Boat is an emotional experience.  As a sports fan, I was grateful for the insight into a sport I know nothing about.  As a student of history, I am humbled by those who overcame the considerable challenges of the era.  I recommend the book highly to anyone with an interest in the time period, whether they know anything about rowing or not.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Best of Enemies, Part Two

Title: Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part Two: 1953-1984
Writers: Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.
Artist: David B.
via Amazon
This is the second book in a two-part (so far) series.  My review of Part One is here.

We all know the contentious issues in US/Middle East relations these days: oil, Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia, economic disparity, radical Islam, despotism, human rights, etc.  It's easy to forget, however, that a lot of the battle lines were drawn during the global dynamics of the Cold War era.  For most of the time period covered in the book, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, interestingly, Iran were allied with the United States. Meanwhile, the other major powers of the region - most importantly, Egypt - were under the influence/protection of the USSR, though not technically Communist per se. 

Part Two covers a lot of ground: two wars between Israel and Egypt (plus Arab allies), the formation of the PLO, the Camp David Accords, the Iranian Revolution (which abruptly slammed the door on the alliance with the US), the Soviet-Afghan War and the Lebanese Civil War among other conflicts and maneuvers.  Just as in Part One, the authors maintain an impressive neutrality.  None of the parties involved is portrayed as virtuous.  They're all bad guys with lots of blood on every hand.  The lasting impression is the overwhelming complexity of the issues and the astonishing web that connects them. 

One event I remember from the time which is left out is the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.  Maybe they're planning to include that in another book.  Speaking of another book, I certainly hope they write one.  At the moment, this is all there is, even in the original French.  Obviously, there's plenty of material to explore post-1984 so I hope they'll continue.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Star Trek: How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 2, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 5, 1974
via Memory Alpha
In this week's episode, the Enterprise encounters a being claiming to be Kukulkan, god of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs.   The story was co-written by Russell Bates, a Native American of Kiowa descent.  Dorothy Fontana, associate producer for the show, encouraged Bates to draw upon his heritage and "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" was the result.

This was the episode that won the Outstanding Children's Series Emmy for Trek.  For me, it's not quite all that.  Our friends have encountered gods in their travels before, notably Apollo in TOS's "Who Mourns for Adonis?"  The lesson, though, is different this time.  Whereas Apollo was happy just to be worshipped, Kukulkan sought to teach humankind to be peaceful and was clearly disappointed in the result.  Once again, the moral judgment of superior beings is an important theme.

While the story is a bit of a rehash, the artwork is beautiful, even by TAS standards.  There were some extra hands on deck for the animation.  A crew of Japanese artists contributed to the work, finishing out their contract from another Filmation project: Journey Back to Oz.

via Wikipedia
Kukulkan originated with the Mayan culture though the serpent god, in various forms, appears in the imagery of other Mesoamerican traditions, notably as Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs.  Throughout the episode, Kirk repeatedly mispronounces the name as "Kuklukan."  Neither Bates nor his co-writer David Wise was on hand during Shatner's recording session to correct the mistake.  Kukulkan is voiced by James Doohan.

I have closed the list due to spam but if you'd like to join us for our last couple posts, let me know.  Please visit the other participants.  Next week: "The Counter-Clock Incident."

Maurice Mitchell

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Clone Wars: Bombad Jedi

My friends and I are embarking on an exploration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Bombad Jedi"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 1, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 21, 2008
via Yodapedia
Diplomacy is an important aspect of the Clone Wars story.  The Republic had to work hard to prevent worlds from throwing their lots in with the Separatists.  In "Bombad Jedi," Padmé, C-3PO and Jar Jar travel to Rodia in order to maintain relations.  Unfortunately, Senator Onacanda Farr, an old family friend of the Amidalas, has already cut a deal with Viceroy Gunray.  Even worse, taking Padmé prisoner is one of the terms of said deal.  Jar Jar and a reluctant Threepio set out to free her - not exactly a Dream Team rescue party but they are highly amusing.

There are a few little treats for the devoted fan in this episode.  Rodia is the home planet of Greedo, the bounty hunter whom Han Solo shot first at the cantina in A New Hope.  It's fun to meet his more respectable compatriots.  The story also reminds us that Padmé is a capable badass in her own right.  For me, I'm pretty sure this is the last episode I ever watched so everything from this point on will be new for me.

via Wookieepedia
C-3PO, human-cyborg relations, had the first ever spoken line in a Star Wars movie.  The character, along with R2-D2, was inspired by Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress.  The golden droid's appearance was based on the robot in 1927's Metropolis.  The metallic duo have been an essential constant in the history of the franchise.
via Wookieepedia
In nearly every appearance of the character in any medium ever, Clone Wars included, C-3PO has been voiced by Anthony Daniels.  Daniels was born February 21, 1946 in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England.  He studied law for two years at university before he dropped out to pursue acting.  While he was initially reluctant to audition for the part, the role of C-3PO has essentially been his career ever since.  He and Kenny Baker (R2-D2) are the only actors to appear in all six - soon to be seven - Star Wars feature films.  Between cartoons, video games, radio dramas and audiobooks, there has been a fairly constant stream of voice work, too. 

Daniel's is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon.  He has been married to Christine Savage for just over a year.  He has one son from a previous relationship.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Cloak of Darkness."

Friday, July 17, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Old Man's Cave

Title: Bone, Volume 6: Old Man's Cave
Writer and Artist: Jeff Smith
via Bone Wiki
The adventures of the Bone cousins continue in this sixth collection, comprising issues 35-39 of the excellent Bone comic book series.   My previous posts on the opus can be found here, here and here.

As the story opens, Fone and Smiley are trying to find their way back to Thorn as she, in turn, sets off in search of them.  Meanwhile, the villagers of Barrelhaven struggle to recover from the recent, devastating attack by the Rat Creatures.  We learn more about the enemies in Old Man's Cave: the Hooded One and the Lord of the Locusts, both of whom are plotting against the Bones, Thorn and Gran'ma Ben.  Trust is the overarching theme in this book.  Can Thorn trust Gran'ma?  Can the villagers trust Phoney Bone?  True to the nature - and the genius - of the series, Volume 6 ends with as many questions as answers.  Needless to say, I'm definitely up for more.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

On the Coffee Table: James Kahn

Title: Return of the Jedi
Author: James Kahn
via Amazon
As I have written previously, Return of the Jedi is my least favorite among Star Wars's original trilogy.  However, that is a bit like saying chocolate is my least favorite flavor in Neapolitan ice cream (strawberry's #1 - for the record).  I still love it.  I've also made an interesting discovery regarding print adaptations of the films.  I like the novelization for Jedi the best among the three, just as I did with Marvel's comic book renderings.  The story benefits tremendously from expanded character development and - I can't emphasize this enough - more meaningful integration of the Ewok subplot.

The Ewoks are the main controversy surrounding Jedi.  To the purists, the furry little critters were an early sign that the franchise was going off the rails.  I was young enough in 1983 to think they were adorable but I've become more skeptical of their inclusion in the years since.  There is a point to them, of course.  George Lucas liked the idea of a primitive society taking out the high-tech Empire through bravery and cleverness, a reflection of what the Rebel Alliance itself was able to accomplish.  Ewok vs. Empire is David vs. Goliath, complete with rocks in slings.  But the fur balls, too often, smell more like marketing gimmick than narrative substance.

The Ewoks are better in the novelization.  In the film, the Ewoks make our heroes members of their tribe after a C-3PO storytelling session.  In the book, they are more resistant to joining the cause of the Rebellion.  Han, Luke and Leia each makes a plea for the Ewoks' support, though it is Wicket, Leia's first contact with the critters, who makes the winning argument.  It's a nice moment for the overall franchise, a moral exploration of the Rebellion's importance on individual, global and galactic levels.  If more of that discussion could have been included in the movie, I think a lot of the purists might feel differently about Ewoks.

The book is not better than the movie but I can say the former has definitely enhanced my appreciation for the latter.  A New Hope is the self-contained scifi classic.  The Empire Strikes Back provides the landscape for a broader franchise.  Return of the Jedi is the most intimate story of the three, establishing the moral challenge that lies at the heart of the saga.  Luke must confront Vader not because he must vanquish his enemy.  He must overcome the temptation to use his powers for evil.  This struggle is no fairy tale.  Every day, powerful people make choices between compassion and ambition.  More often than not, they choose the latter.  The world would be a different place if that were not so.  The novelization allows a broader view of the moral struggles for each of the principals which ultimately makes for a more compelling story overall.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Star Trek: Albatross

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "Albatross"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 2, Episode 4
Original Air Date: September 28, 1974
via Memory Alpha
There's nothing quite like an epidemic to keep a story moving.  As our heroes are leaving the planet Dramia, having delivered medical supplies, the natives arrest Dr. McCoy on charges of having caused a deadly plague on Dramia II 19 years before.  While Bones awaits what is sure to be a swift and unfair trial, Kirk directs the Enterprise to the infected planet to investigate.  A survivor willing to testify on McCoy's behalf is found but on the way back to Dramia, the entire crew (except for Spock) is turning blue, a sure sign they've been infected with the disease.  All are in peril in the final race against the clock.

"Albatross" takes heat from critics for inconsistencies but I enjoyed it.  I like the tension building from two separate but related crises.   There's also some nice Spock-McCoy relationship development in the final act.

via Memory Alpha
Demos (voiced by Lou Scheimer) is the Dramian commander who issues McCoy's arrest warrant.  Later, he follows the Enterprise in hopes of preventing the investigation of Dramia II.  Kirk tricks him by leaving the shuttlebay doors open.  When Demos lands without permission, Kirk gains the upper hand, impounding Demos's ship and claims the Dramian prisoner as a stowaway.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants.  Next week: "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Clone Wars: Duel of the Droids

My friends and I are embarking on an exploration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Duel of the Droids"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 1, Episode 7
Original Air Date: November 14, 2008
via Wookieepedia
The R2-D2 development story (there should really be more of those) from last week concludes as Anakin and Ahsoka rush to rescue him from General Grievous's clutches.  Grievous employs Gha Nachkt, a Trandosha scavenger, to access Artoo's memory banks, finding quite a treasure trove indeed.  Gha, realizing the increased value of his work, hints at renegotiation and pays a high price for his insolence.  (Seriously, has the guy never seen any gangster movies?)

Rescue narratives are bread-and-butter for the Star Wars franchise.  Anakin takes a team of clones to plant explosives in the Separatist listening station while Anakin searches for Artoo in same.  R3-S6, Artoo's temporary replacement, reveals his true colors as an agent for Grievous, betraying the Jedi.  Ahsoka shows her nerve in a confrontation with GG while Anakin and the clones fend off various mechanical adversaries in the hangar.

via Wikipedia
Ron Perlman (Gha Nachkt) was born April 13, 1950 in New York City.  He is best known as Vincent in The Beauty and the Beast series and the title character in the Hellboy films.  Over the course of his long and successful acting career, he has specialized in roles requiring heavy makeup.  In addition to the two mentioned above, he has found such work in The Name of the Rose, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Star Trek: Nemesis.  His voice-over career has also been extensive, in both television and, of course, video games.

Perlman's appearance is just one of many indications as to how far animated television has come.  In Star Trek's animated series, regular cast members covered multiple voices in every episode.  Regularly paying for high-profile guest stars was far beyond the budget.  Also, with the explosion of animated media - Pixar, Ghibli, Simpsons, Cartoon Network, video games - voice acting is a far more lucrative career than it was in the mid 1970s.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Bombad Jedi."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Hungry Planet

Title: Hungry Planet: What the World Eats
Authors: Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
via Peter Menzel Photography
Menzel and D'Alusio, a husband-photographer/wife-writer team, have created a number of globe-trotting coffee table books.  They seek to document the everyday lives of ordinary people around the world.  The concept for Hungry Planet is simple in theory, no doubt arduous in execution: family portraits, all members gathered around the week's groceries.   The journey covers 36 families in 24 countries over six continents.  Profiles range from Darfur refugees in Chad to middle class families in the United States.  Family challenges range from healthy dietary balance to basic survival.

Hungry Planet inspires a number of emotional reactions for me.  I envy the authors' adventure.  I have harbored world travel fantasies from a young age.  In what wanderings I have managed, I have learned that the most meaningful discoveries are to be found not at major sights but in family homes.  I realize such a book requires far more money, time and energy than I am either able or willing to commit at this point in my life so I am grateful for the armchair perspective.

I am also grateful for the lifestyle which accidents of birth have afforded me.  Obviously, the differences between life in the Ecuadoran Andes and the Tokyo suburbs go far beyond what's on the dinner table but I would argue there is no more meaningful starting point.   As much is to be learned from the procurement and storage of food as from its preparation and consumption.  A sharp line is seen between the cultures of abundance and those of scarcity.  Anyone who has spent their life in more of the former than the latter as I have should consider themselves lucky indeed.  Occasional similarities are noteworthy.  Coca-Cola bottles are seen the world over, of course, but we are also treated to preparations for All Saints Day festivities in both Guatemala and Poland.

Each family profile includes photos, a recipe and demographic statistics for the country in question.  Interspersed with these chapters are essays by various food writers on global gastronomic issues: fast food, responsibilities towards the animals we eat, ocean stewardship, the health consequences of over-abundance, etc.  If any place is presented as the ideal, it is Okinawa, Japan.  As a result of healthy lifestyle choices and a reverence for the aged, the small island boasts the world's highest longevity rates.  But even there, the global reach of fast food culture has had a major impact on the health statistics of younger generations.  Fewer Okinawans are likely to reach age 100 in decades to come. 

The photography is excellent.  The text is good, too, though the editing is a bit funky.  Most of the writing is D'Aluisio's but Menzel adds his own notes and, of course, there are photo captions.  As such, the same story often gets told three times.  The captions themselves sometimes suffer form awkward placement on the page.  Overall, though, the book is very good and a wonderful exploration of daily life around the world.

In other exciting news, my wife recently blogged about our summer book swap.  See her post here.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Mock Squid Soup: August Blog List

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society!

This month, everyone gets to throw a movie of their own choice into the pot.  The week before our gathering, on Friday, August 7th, everyone is invited to post three clues about his/her movie for others to guess.  Our next regular meeting is Friday, August 14th.   No need to sign up twice.  I'll use the same link list for both.  If you are interested in joining us, please sign on to the list below.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mock Squid Soup: Winnie the Pooh

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society!  The plan for this month is for each participant to pick someone else's movie from our ever-growing society library.  The challenge for this month is to find a connection between one of your movies and one of someone else's in six films or less.  You may use cast, crew, filming location, caterer, whatever works.  Creativity will be praised and admired.

For my Six Degrees of Separation, I begin with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead...

1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead featured Gary Oldman.
2. Oldman appeared in Planet 51 with John Cleese.
3. Cleese is the narrator for Winnie the Pooh.

Title: Winnie the Pooh
Directors: Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall
Original Release: 2011
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Toi reviewed Pooh in May.

I liked Pooh well enough as a young child but I didn't fall in love with the books until my early teens.  I needed a bit of maturity to understand the point of it all.  A.A. Milne's stories of the Hundred Acre Wood run a little deeper than merely cute or sweet.  Openness of mind and tenderness of heart are qualities we work hard to engender in the young.  But such qualities, once embraced, can leave one vulnerable in a cruel world, ultimately leading to mistrust and pessimism.  Pooh and his friends assure us that a return to a simpler view can remind us of what's important.  Confusion and misunderstanding are to be expected in life.  Learn from your mistakes, take care of your friends, hold hands when you're afraid and linger on your goodbyes.  

So yes, my expectations for a film interpretation are high.  Mood is everything.  The Wood is a quiet place as I read it - apart from Tigger, of course.  There is considerable and, to a point, understandable pressure on a 21st century filmmaker to make a children's story from the 1920s more accessible.  Too often for my tastes, that means amping up the energy.  The pace of the 2011 film is a little too vigorous for me.

But love for the books is apparent, not only for Milne's text but also for E.H. Shepard's equally charming illustrations.  The movie is built around three stories taken directly from the originals.  Pooh and his companions traipse clumsily through the book pages.  Animation is lovely, including a Backson sequence reminiscent of the classic "Pink Elephants" from Dumbo.  I'm not sure any film could live up to the books for me but I appreciate the genuine effort made here.

Trivia challenge again for August!  Pick your own movie to share.  Post three clues on Friday, August 7th.  Post your reveal and review on Friday, August 14th.  Meanwhile, please visit my friends today:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Star Trek: The Practical Joker

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "The Practical Joker"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 2, Episode 3
Original Air Date: September 21, 1974
via Memory Beta
Every once in a while, we get a Star Trek episode that's downright goofy.  In an effort to escape three Romulan battlecruisers, the Enterprise hides in an energy cloud.  But there's something funny about the gas in that cloud.  It inspires the ship's computer to play practical jokes on the crew: drinking glasses with holes, "Kirk is a jerk" printed on the back of the captain's uniform, a pile of food dumped on Scotty by the replicator, etc. 

I wasn't too impressed by this episode.  I'm not opposed to the humor.  Trek can get heavy and comic relief is welcome.  But "The Practical Joker" pushes the limit.  There's one scene when the entire crew, affected by the nitrous oxide in the cloud, giggles uncontrollably.  It runs just a touch too long, feeling like an uncomfortable dinner party.

However, there is one important development for the future of the franchise: the introduction of the rec room, a forerunner to TNG's holodeck.  McCoy, Uhura and Sulu seek a break from the practical jokes with a virtual walk in the woods but the computer's mischief extends to their fantasy world.  The idea of a computer-generated vacation isn't new for Trek.  The planet in the TOS episode "Shore Leave" creates fairy tale scenarios for the amusement of visitors.  "The Practical Joker," however, represents the first instance of such capability aboard the Enterprise.

L to R: Norm Prescott, Hal Sutherland (TAS director)
and Lou Scheimer, via Wikipedia

Lou Scheimer supplies the voice of a Romulan crewman.  More importantly, he was co-founder of Filmation and one of the producers for the series.  Scheimer was born October 19, 1928 in Pittsburgh.  According to family legend, Scheimer's father, a German Jew, once punched Adolf Hitler during a bar brawl.

As with his co-founder, Norm Prescott, Scheimer filled a number of roles for Filmation over the years.  He was credited as a composer (under the pseudonym Erika Lane, a combination of the names of his children) for the musical score of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  He died from Parkinson's disease in 2013, two days shy of his 85th birthday.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants.  Next week: "Albatross."

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Clone Wars: Downfall of a Droid

My friends and I are embarking on an exploration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Downfall of a Droid"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 1, Episode 6
Original Air Date: November 7, 2008
via Wookieepedia
Star Wars just wouldn't be Star Wars without R2-D2.  No replacement will do.   We fans all know it and Anakin does, too.  When Anakin loses Artoo during a space battle, the Jedi is determined to retrieve the droid.  Obi-Wan warns Anakin against sentimental attachments (What about our sentimental attachments, Mr. Kenobi?) but the reckless youth conveniently remembers he forgot to wipe the droid's memory.  Now that it's a security matter, Obi-Wan gets all scoldy and Anakin has to go after all.

(Doesn't the old man realize how important Artoo is going to be to future stories?  Oh right, he doesn't even remember owning a droid...)

Meanwhile, the replacement droid, R3-S6, is woefully incompetent.  He mistakenly wakes up two IG-86 assassin droids which then attack Anakin and Ahsoka.  He accidentally turns on a tracking device that draws Grievous to Anakin's position.  It's almost as if he's undermining the young Jedi intentionally...
via Wookieepedia
General Grievous is Anakin's nemesis.  The character first appeared in Tartakovsky directed Clone Wars microseries in 2004.  George Lucas wanted the cyborg villain to be introduced ahead of the theatriacal release of Revenge of the Sith in 2005.  Papa George intended Grievous - 80% machine in Lucas's estimation - as foreshadowing of Anakin's own future.

Like Vader, Grievous always seems to have an escape plan when the mission goes awry.  He also shares Vader's lack of regard for his underlings, beheading battle droids with one sweep of his robotic arm when they annoy him.  The most meaningful revelation of Grievous's character so far came at the end of "Destroy Malevolence."  Ashamed of his own failure, he cuts off communication with his master, Count Dooku, before he scampers away via hyperspace.

via The Disney Wiki
Matthew Wood is the voice of Grievous.  Wood was born August 15, 1972 in Walnut Creek, California.  While he does have acting credits, including appearances in all three Star Wars prequel films, he is primarily a sound engineer.  He has received two Oscar nominations for Sound Editing: There Will Be Blood in 2007 and Wall-E in 2008.  He currently holds the position of Supervising Sound Editor at Skywalker Sound.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Duel of the Droids."

Monday, July 6, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Salman Rushdie

Title: The Moor's Last Sigh
Author: Salman Rushdie
via Amazon
Salman Rushdie is probably the most famous Asian-born author in the world, and for all the wrong reasons.  In 1988, he published The Satanic Verses, a book so controversial in the Muslim world that Iran's Ayatollah declared a fatwa, calling for the author's assassination.  Until now, I'd never read any of Rushdie's novels.

The Moor's Last Sigh was Rushdie's first novel to be published after the hubbub.  The book provides the fictitious family history of narrator Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby, a Portuguese-Jewish-Indian man living in double-time.  For him, one year of chronological time equals two years of biological aging.  By the time he reaches ten years of age, for instance, he looks like he's 20.

Even with his temporal quirk, the narrator is the story's least interesting character.  The colorful personalities span four generations.  The family's history provides a window into the grand sweep of India's volatile history in the 20th century.  Moor's parents are both based on real-life figures.  Mother Aurora Zogoiby was inspired by artist Amrita Sher-Gil, father Abraham by arch-criminal Dawood Ibrahim.  All of the characters are thoroughly detestable, from Moor on up.  As such, it's difficult to find a rooting interest.  The footholds are found in the author's frequently beautiful prose and his occasional moments of trippy magical realism.

While I admire Rushdie's skill, I had a hard time getting into this one.  I was charmed by clever puns and Shakespeare and Wizard of Oz references but the playful language often goes a bit too far, pulling me out of the narrative rather than further into it.  I appreciate the unusual perspective on Indian history and the glimpse into the country's niche "Western" populations.  But the lack of likeable characters detracted from my enjoyment of the overall narrative. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Star Trek: Bem

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "Bem"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 2, Episode 2
Original Air Date: September 14, 1974
via Memory Alpha
"Bem" combines a couple of prevalent Star Trek themes: the testing of the Enterprise crew by an alien being and avoiding interference with a primitive civilization.  Ari bn Bem, a native of the planet Pandro, is aboard the ship as an independent observer.  Against Kirk's wishes, he accompanies the away team to a newly discovered world.  He soon justifies the Captain's misgivings, getting himself captured by the locals.  Meanwhile, a seemingly divine entity warns our friends against interfering with the reptilian humanoid society she protects.

via Memory Alpha
Bem is a colony creature, meaning he is a cooperative organism composed of multiple composite organisms.  As such, he is able to separate parts of his body from one another, allowing him to get up to all kinds of mischief.  There are precedents in nature among simpler life forms, known as superorganisms.  Coral is a good example.  The name Bem is derived from a sci-fi industry acronym: Bug Eyed Monster.  He isn't one, of course, but the idea still appealed to screenwriter David Gerrold.  Naturally, Bem is voiced by James Doohan.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants.  Next week: "The Practical Joker."