Archive for January, 2006

Old Man’s War
Jan 30, 2006

On Friday, I received my latest package from Amazon, which included four CDs and two books, including John Scalzi‘s debut novel, Old Man’s War. Despite the fact that I have a solid list of things to read (before new stuff), I really couldn’t resist taking a little peek at the first chapter. Really, just the one chapter and then it’s back to Blueheart.

Before I finally went to bed Friday night, I was six chapters in. Closing the book after Saturday night at 6 a.m. Sunday, I had polished off more than half the book. This afternoon, I finished it and here I am, fifteen minutes after the last paragraph of the intro blurb to the sequel, staring at the cover.

John Scalzi takes us on a satisfying thrill-ride, tagging along with our protagonist, John Perry, as he joins the army in old age after losing his wife to a stroke. Immediately, he befriends six other geriatric soldiers, who vow to remain friends despite receiving duty stations in various combat units. We follow his exploits as he enters combat training, experiences his first battles, and gains notoriety after several strokes of ingenuity garner the attention of his chain of command.

Old Man’s War is fairly short, particularly compared with the books I have markers in at the moment, but it’s exceptionally well-written. The action is intense and dramatic. The characters are round, believable, and unique. The descriptions of planets, life forms, and intelligent alien species (particularly the ones fighting against our protagonists) are well-thought out and fairly thorough. If we can expect more novels like this in Mr. Scalzi’s writing career, you can mark me down as a fan.

My grade: A.

Officially Middle-Aged
Jan 27, 2006

Today, I have officially become middle-aged.

My thirty-fifth birthday isn’t for another half a week. But, today, I officially crest the hill and become middle aged.

Why? My son just became a teenager. Today is his thirteenth birthday. Having children who are teenagers is the cleanest and truest definition of middle age, is it not?

Happy birthday, son.

Sixes: Next 6 Books
Jan 25, 2006

Having recently finished American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Saturn by Ben Bova, I dug through some boxes for more reading material.

  1. Blueheart by Alison Sinclair – 21.46% read
  2. The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson – borrowed from a friend
  3. The Fading Sun trilogy by C. J. Cherryh
  4. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson – 51.11% read
  5. Encounter with Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes
  6. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Brilliant Bird
Jan 21, 2006

I am now the father of an eleven-year-old daughter. My last child has her birthday today. A magnificently bright, funny, and boisterous young woman, she is a brilliant flame that warms everyone around her.

Happy birthday, sister.

King Kong
Jan 21, 2006

My friend, Steve, and I decided to go check out a movie tonight. We discussed the possibilities available and decided on King Kong (2005), directed and produced by Peter Jackson.

Naomi Watts heads an ensemble cast, playing a struggling actress during the great depression, who gets talked into joining an expedition lead by a film director (played by a convincing Jack Black) to find an undiscovered island. This movie is basically a remake of the 1933 film.

King Kong, the gigantic ape, is portrayed by the computer graphics team with startling realism. All of the creature effects on this film were completely jaw-dropping. The crew of the ship seemed much more numerous on the fabled island than they ever were at sea, which seemed to me a pathetic excuse to have more some people to kill off in an absurdly ridiculous dinosaur stampede. The endless barrage of attacks by the island’s wildlife and natives against the intrepid crew of discoverer’s is unrelenting and quite over-the-top. Once the great ape is brought to New York, the escape into the streets and wanton destruction of numerous cars, trolleys, and innocent women, seems excessively contrived.

This was an entertaining picture to see, particularly on the big screen, where the special effects pop out and really grab the viewer. The $207 million budget is evident in the grand scale of the picture. The action is so non-stop in this movie that the fact that it is almost twice as long as the 72-year-old original is almost unnoticeable. The acting is solid but predictable (how is it that everyone is perfectly coiffed after a heavy, adrenaline-pumping chase scene?) and it all feels like an old movie. Still, it seems that Peter Jackson was primarily interested in showing off the power of a metric ton of cash. This one doesn’t add much, other than visual effects and 87 extra minutes of footage. Fight scenes involving the ape juggling a fragile human woman while fighting off three Tyrannosaurs at the same time were beyond head-scratching. Many of the creature fights felt like filler material, although very well produced, and didn’t add much to the story.

My grade: C+.

A Time 2 Love
Jan 20, 2006

On my way to work this morning, I stopped by Starbucks to get a mocha to start out my day. While I was waiting for the guy to finish making it, I noticed Stevie Wonder‘s brand new record, A Time 2 Love. The version they were selling at Starbucks included a bonus disc of six of Stevie’s hits.

After giving this a couple of listens (and uploading it to my iPod), I am astonished by his first album in a decade. It is a magnificent effort, featuring guest appearances by Kim Burrell, Aisha Morris, India.Arie, Doug E Fresh, Oscar Castro-Neves, Hubert Laws, Prince, Paul McCartney, Bonnie Raitt, and more. The album is full of songs that are destined to become classics. Solid song-writing and magnificent performances by everyone pervade the entire recording. Stevie Wonder is a towering genius.

Standout songs on this album include, well, all of them. My favorites include the bossa nova Sweetest Somebody I Know, jazzy ballad Moon Blue, upbeat From the Bottom of My Heart, the wistful duet How Will I Know which features Stevie’s daughter, the astonishing gospel-influenced ballad Shelter in the Rain, the danceable funk track So What the Fuss (which features Prince on guitar), and title track A Time to Love, featuring India.Arie and Paul McCartney. According to Stevie’s website, he’s garnered five Grammy nominations for this album and songs on it. I’m not at all surprised.

If you’re a Stevie Wonder fan, there is no way you can leave this CD out of your collection. If you’re not, but you’re a fan of good music, this is definitely a must-have. Stevie’s first album in 10 years is, by any measure, a grand slam home run. It surpassed my expectations with considerable room to spare.

My grade: A+.

Il Postino
Jan 19, 2006

I’ve had this movie sitting in a red Netflix envelope on the table in my living room for most of a week. This evening, having been rained out of my jogging, I sat down with my dinner and watched it.

Il Postino (1994) is the dramatized story of the friendship between a postal carrier, played by the late Massimo Troisi, and the exiled Pablo Neruda, portrayed by the venerable Philippe Noiret—also known as Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso. The movie chronicles their friendship, sparked by the postman’s sudden interest in poetry and his consuming passion for local barmaid, Beatrice (played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta). The world-famous poet helps his Italian friend see the beauty of his island home and find “le metafore”, his metaphors.

The story is a lyrical tale of a budding friendship, an uneducated man’s passion for which he can’t find his own words, and a glimpse of life in a rural Italian village that, while lacking in modern conveniences and infrastructure, maintains a quaint timeless charm. The performances of all of the actors are sublime and absolutely believable, charming, and unforgettable. The backdrop, an Italian island off the coast of Campania, is perfect. The score, which won its composer the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score (1995), is light and enhances the picture so completely that it would be impossible to imagine its absence. Of course, the poems of Pablo Neruda wander throughout the story, sometimes recited by the “poet” and sometimes read by the “postman”. For those who have read Neruda’s work before, this picture is certain to inspire a new hunger for his poetry. For those who haven’t, it’s almost impossible not to run to the library or the bookstore for a fresh-off-the-shelf volume.

My only regret in seeing this masterpiece is that I left it on that table for almost a week before I bothered to put it in the DVD player.

My grade: A.

Pez Day
Jan 18, 2006

I got to work this morning at 7 am. Before I realized it, eleven had come and it was time to find lunch. I descended the stairs near my cubicle and wandered into the company cafeteria. Today, apparently, was Pez Day. Everybody gets a free Pez today.

After acquiring my tofu stir fry and a V8, I approached the cashier lady, who indicated the large bowl of Pez packages. Most of them were Sesame Street characters. There were a few of a girl (Snow White, maybe?), a handful of Ernies, a few Elmos, and few Big Birds, but I was looking for my favorite—Cookie Monster, one-time guest of Martha Stewart’s show and subject of a controversy after the producers of the show reduced his cookie intake.

I don’t eat very many cookies myself, because I’m a lacto-vegetarian and most cookies contain eggs, but I still adore Cookie Monster. He’s funny, simple-minded, and singularly focused on his favorite food. His likeness was on a pediatric toothbrush I had to use after I injured myself late last year. He’s been making kids laugh for more than thirty years.

Down at the bottom of the bowl on the cashier’s counter, I found the Monster—his googly eyes and big grin looking up at me. And now, he’s on my desk. Me have Cookie Monster!

Saturn
Jan 17, 2006

Last night, I finished reading Saturn by Ben Bova. I’d been picking away at it since November. I’m a just-before-bed reader usually, so I don’t spend hours curled up in a large chair in the living room reading a favorite book.

This particular work by the great science fiction master, Ben Bova, is the story of a group of people in an orbital habitat en route to Saturn. The habitat, capable of supporting a population in excess of ten thousand, is filled with miscreants, malcontents, and personae non gratae — in short, the unconventional nonconformists that the religious conservatives that control Earth can simply not abide. Naturally, the moral purists that run things want to run the people of this habitat, too. Several agents are placed aboard who are tasked with establishing a regime to govern these nonconformists by the strictest of dogmatic guidelines.

Dr. Bova is a talented writer and has won more awards for his writing than I’ve had birthdays. In this book, the plot and characters were intriguing. It seemed, though, that most of the characters were one-dimensional. Despite the fact that this is basically a space ship filled with the unwanted nonconformists, there are no criminals, no mention of anything artistic at all, drab boring uniforms (tunics, tunics, and more tunics), and no freakish personalities. The characters are wooden and two-dimensional generally, almost completely devoid of non-stereotypical personality characteristics. Here’s the evil administrator guy trying for absolute power. Here are the soulless fanatical religious conservatives pulling his strings. Here’s the newly repaired na├»ve girl with a giddy crush on the administrator guy. Here’s the nanotechnology professor, banned on Earth and any other place sensible. Here’s the droll science administrator. Nobody does anything outside of the stereotypical response their archetypal character would do.

Despite the dryness of the characters and the predictability of the plot, I enjoyed the story. There were a few unexpected twists and the intrigue of the political/religious connivings made me wonder if the power-starved HR director would be able to extract himself from the tentacles of the evil fanatics. I was intrigued by how sheepishly such a massive group of nonconformists marched along, in lockstep to the missives handed down by the administrators.

If you’re a science fiction fan, this one deals more with the political and religious aspects of trying to gain power in an autonomous habitat in space than it does with exploring space, discovering Saturn up-close and personal, or any scientific discovery at all, other than a cursory glimpse at life in the Jovian atmosphere, hints at nanotechnology, and whispers of the technology of the famous-yet-doey-eyed-for-scientists daredevil’s spacesuit. This is, apparently, the seventh of thirteen novels of the “Grand Tour”. It was an enjoyable ride, but it seemed a little formulaic to me — not a classic, not great, but decent.

My grade: C+.

Important Science Fiction Novels
Jan 16, 2006

I was noodling around Wikipedia earlier and found a list of science fiction novels. I decided to go through the list and delineate which of these I’ve actually read.

Here they are:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Battlefield Earth
  • Childhood’s End
  • Dune
  • Ender’s Game
  • Flowers for Algernon
  • Frankenstein
  • Helliconia Spring
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Hyperion
  • The Lathe of Heaven
  • The Martian Chronicles
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Red Mars
  • Ringworld
  • The Time Machine
  • The War of the Worlds

I really should read more of these.