Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: "Too Many Women"

Rex Stout continued to gear up after WW II and 1947's Too Many Women reflected both the business boom in the post-war years as well as the reflection of women in the workplace at that time.

And we'll get into more in the review but for now, on with...

The Plot: The president of a large company comes to Wolfe when an employee who recently died in a hit-and-run accident is rumored to have been murdered. In order to keep the rumors from ruining the company Wolfe is charged with finding out if there is any truth and if there is to find the killer.

This sends Archie undercover at the company where he finds a bevy of beautiful secretaries and evidence that the murdered man was quite the lady-killer. But he wasn't the only one with romance in mind and in addition to that there are jealousies and in-fighting amongst the various employees on a professional level as well.

There are twists and turns aplenty as Wolfe and Archie not only try to figure out why the man was murdered but to prove to the police that it was murder to begin with! And there are enough women in the case that even Archie's vaunted charm may collapse under the effort!

My Take: I love Stout's stuff written at a contemporary time that is now past. He has a great talent for authentically capturing a way of life or a way of doing things that then becomes a snapshot for the time period.

Whereas his previous story, The Silent Speaker highlighted the tension between government regulation and business, this story takes the reader inside how companies operated in the post-war boom as well as seeing a little slice of the female workforce and the roles and attitudes women were relegated to at that time.

In addition, there is also Stout's usual quirky characters, strong personalities, driving passions, and psychological depths which continue to make his stories a joy to read.

Admittedly, Too Many Women does, occasionally, get a little bogged down in the detail and the action lags at a couple of points but it is not enough to ruin the rest of the story and the ending more than makes up for it.

Favorite Quote: Usually, I choose one of the more witty, cutting, or humorous quotes as a favorite but here I found Stout's description of Wall Street to be just as true today as it was in 1947: Those pyramids of profit down in the Wall Street section, ,sticking straight up nine hundred feet and more, are tenanted by everything from one-room midgets to ten-floor super-giants.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Flash Reviews: "Fast Forward"

I think I mentioned, way back when, that I watched this series religiously when it first aired on TV. Never missed a single episode. Out of all of them, this one was my favorite. This is the one that stuck in my head and whenever I thought of the TV series I would remember scenes from this episode.

So, given how much the show has suffered on being re-watched by me as an adult (as opposed to the teenager I was when it first aired), I was kind of afraid to re-watch this one.

The results were.... Well, you'll see....

The Plot: Motorcycle gang leader Pike (remember him from the pilot?) is released from prison as the judge overturns Pike's conviction for the murder of Jay Allen on a lack of evidence and the interference of the "vigilante" the Flash. Pike promptly sets about getting revenge -- first on Barry, taunting him and getting him to take a swing at him in public so that Barry gets suspended from the police force.

Angry over Pike's release, his suspension, and the fact that both Pike's lawyer and a local reporter have suggested the Flash may have been responsible for Jay's death, Barry decides to leave town for a week... despite the objections of Tina who thinks he needs to stay and fight.

Before he can leave, however, Pike unleashes his second revenge -- threatening to blow up the local dam and flood the city. Barry reluctantly becomes the Flash to save the city but finds instead a trap with a heat seeking missile. Pike explodes the missile behind the fleeing Flash and suddenly Barry finds himself cast ten years into the future.

The Central City of 2001, however, is not a place he recognizes. Pike has become mayor and rules over a corrupt, polluted, cesspool of a city. Worse, the explosion and time toss has robbed Barry of his abilities as the Flash and now has no way to stop him! How much will Barry be willing to risk in order to put everything right?

My Take: After the passage of about twenty years this story is.... actually not that bad. Don't get me wrong, there are still problems... lots of problems... but at least things are not absolutely horrible.

Most of the big problems with the story are what generally gets casually termed "Plot Induced Stupidity" these days. That's when completely nonsensical stuff happens because it has to happen in order for the plot to get where it needs to go.

For example, as I recall from the pilot, the problem wasn't that the police didn't have evidence that Pike was behind the crime wave, the problem was that they couldn't find him/catch him. Ergo, even if the judge threw out Pike's conviction for the murder of Jay Allen he still should have been in prison for the multiple counts of robbery, destruction of public property, assault, accessory to robbery, accessory to assault, Assault with a deadly weapon, etc., etc., etc. But the plot demands that he be released from prison so all those other charges get conveniently forgotten.

Then we're expected to swallow that a thug, who has been in prison and likely had all of his ill-gotten funds taken away from him, can still afford to somehow get hold of a military grade heat-seeking missile. Just the fact that we're expected to swallow the idea that this thug can *get* a military grade heat-seeking missile is pretty stupid. But, once again, the plot demands a big-ol' explosion so... military grade heat-seeking missile.

And of course, the big thing is Pike's mayorship. When I was a teenager this largely passed unnoticed by me but one of the things about growing up is that one becomes more politically savvy. The idea that the governor of the state that Central City is located in (and for the record the state is never given but still, it has to exist in a state) would allow Pike to get away with breaking state laws is ridiculous. And that's also ignoring the idea that the *Federal* government would allow Pike to get away with breaking the laws he does. Wouldn't happen. But the audience is expected to swallow Pike's Orwellian overlord control of one American city because the plot demands it.

The rest of the problems with the episode are more trope based rather than Plot Induced Stupidity. For one thing, this story is obviously a "Crisis" story. It's pretty standard stuff for the hero to have at least one story in which he or she starts to question their usefulness and threatens to or actually does hang up the hero spurs for a time. Of course we all know what happens -- the hero's faith is restored through one thing or another and they pick up the mantle again. The problem is that it's *such* a well-worn trope that a writer really has to either manage to invest the story with a lot of emotion or else be very clever in their approach and give it some kind of twist in order to make it feel fresh. And that doesn't happen here. There's also a little hint of It's a Wonderful Life to the episode which doesn't really help. In the Jimmy Stewart classic his character of George Bailey sees what life would be like if he'd never been born and "Fast Forward" doesn't go that far but Barry still gets to see what life would be like if he didn't exist for ten years so it's close enough. Thanks to the popularity of It's a Wonderful Life this sort of thing has become an overused trope as well.

One thing that just bugs me on a personal level is also the stereotype of Pike's lawyer. She is smart, obviously making good money, and talented in her career... so of course she's in love with the scum-sucker Pike. Because intelligent, educated women *always* fall for the "bad boys". Ick. I really wish this trope would DIE. Sure, it happens sometimes in real life but it's usually pretty rare. A smart, career driven woman is going to want a smart, good, man but in Hollywood it seems to *always* happen that the smarter the woman is the more susceptible she is to the scum-sucker. And in this case it's even a scum sucker with enough grease in his hair to make the deep fat fryer at McDonald's jealous. Ick again.

There is also the laughable view of what things would look like in 2001. Hollywood is lousy at predicting the future. Seriously lousy.

The last of the bad for this episode is John Wesley Shipp's performance. Overall, it is solid but, as with the pilot, don't ask him to do "grief". When characters die Shipp's performance is... not good.

So with all the bad I've listed you might be asking why I still say the episode overall is pretty good. Because, the Plot Induced Stupidity (PIS for short because I'm getting tired of typing the words) is really no worse than the PIS in a *lot* of other TV shows and comic books. Once you just shrug and accept it the story gets pretty solid. Particularly it is fun to see the story coming back to ideas planted in the pilot -- namely that Barry became the Flash to be more or less a symbol -- a figure of justice rather than a man -- and he succeeded. Now, however, he must deal with the full meaning of that. He never really thought through what it might mean to be a symbol and now that he is one he struggles with the pressure of living up to it when he feels that he is only a man.

Barry also must pretty much finally face up to his powers. Throughout the series he's waffled a bit on them -- sometimes wanting them, enjoying what they allow him to do and sometimes hating them and wishing he could be rid of them because of the burden they place on his life. With this episode he has to finally make a decision and make his peace with his abilities. He either accepts the burden and quits whining or he gives them up... and quits whining.

So, taken as a whole, the episode isn't too bad and is at least watchable without cringing... or being tempted to turn it off... which is quite a step up from the previous stories in the series.

Flash Facts Trivia:
This episode has an explosion combining with the Flash's speed to "rip a hole in the space/time continuum" in order to allow the Flash to travel through time. In the comic books the Silver Age Flash used to travel in time quite a bit using a device called the "Cosmic Treadmill". The Cosmic Treadmill harnessed the Flash's speed in order to allow him to control his movement forward or backward in time.

In Pike's dystopian future the resistance movement has created a kind of shrine/museum to the Flash for inspiration. Again, in the comic books there was, and still is, a Flash museum in Central City. The difference being that the comic book Flash museum is dedicated to all versions of the Flash (Golden Age to Modern Age) as well as branches of the Flash family (like the characters Johnny Quick and his daughter Jesse Quick and Max Mercury).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Not Too Distant Future...

MST3K is, for the uninitiated (and I can't imagine there are that many of those left in the world), the acronym used for the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Said show consisting of one comedian (Joel Hodgson in the early seasons and Michael Nelson in the later ones) two robot puppets and a lot of bad science fiction movies which said comedian and robot puppets proceed to "riff" on.

The series lasted for a surprising 10 seasons and gained a cult following (although, with 10 season one might argue that the show wasn't all that "cult").

Despite the long run of the show I came to it very late in the game. Mostly this is due to the fact that my family didn't have cable for a long time and I was nearly off to college before they broke down and got cable. This is also due to the fact that when my family *did* finally get cable Comedy Central, which was producing the series then, was still a "premium" channel from our cable provider and one had to go up to the next price level to get Comedy Central, which was bundled with the likes of HBO and Showtime. And my parents weren't interested in springing for the extras.

So I was actually in graduate school before I got access to Comedy Central and MST3K. My roomates introduced me to the show but unlike the other shows they introduced me to (Red Dwarf, The X-Files, and Are You Being Served) MST3K didn't really "take" with me. I didn't understand the 'call backs' and it seemed as though I was also always coming in mid-episode and really not having any idea what was going on... Well, more so than usual. So, I wrote it off.

In the intervening years I've seen bits and pieces but, again, didn't really have time to sit down and devote myself to "getting" it.

Recently, however, the show was again brought to my attention. This time I was determined to sit down and really spend some time on things. So I watched a couple of episodes with Mike Nelson as the host and a couple of episodes with Joel Hodgson as the host and I "got it" more but I also still felt like I was missing something with the obvious call-backs. So, with the help of Google Video I set out on a safari... a hunt to watch the show from the very beginning in chronological order.

And when I say the beginning I mean the *beginning* -- starting with the episodes the crew first did on KTMA, a local UHF station in Minnesota.

And here's where we get to the part where rabid MST3K fans start howling for my blood.... In a way, I like the early KTMA stuff best.

Yeah, I said it.

"But," the fans will cry, "the later stuff was so much better! The voices were better, the writing was tighter, the jokes were funnier!" And you know what? They are. It's true. The writing is more on-target, the voice actors providing the voices of the robots are more polished and more certain in their craft, and the jokes... well, I won't say that *all* of them are funnier but they tend to keep on-topic a bit more and are often more pointed.

So, all that being true, why do I like the early stuff so much? Because of the rawness of it. The show was largely unscripted and it shows which means sometimes the actor/comedians fall a little flat and fumble for words or get stuck with pauses that go on a shade too long and the unscriptedness shows through but in contrast there was an... immediacy... for lack of a better word, there which lent things an unpredictable nature. You didn't know what was going to happen next because the very people doing the show didn't know what they were doing next!

There were also the reactions. At several points one actor or another would completely crack up at a joke someone else made. This actually ends up making things even more funny as you watch the cast struggle to get their own giggles under control. Laughter is contagious. This is especially true in some of the skits when viewers can clearly see Hodgson trying not to crack up.

There is also a kind of improv which can be seen when someone misspeaks or gets a common phrase slightly wrong which leads to another actor correcting them which almost invariably starts leading them on a bizarre (but funny) tangent.

There is also the lower production values. The fact that the Satellite of Love set is pretty much the main set with the mad scientists of Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Bealieu) and Dr. Laurence Erhardt (Josh "J Elvis" Weinstein) looking like they're being filmed in one of the broadcasting rooms of KTMA and the costumes are almost non-existent. And I like this as well. There's a kind of 'guerrilla filmmaking' to it and it reminds me of people currently on YouTube making their own little films with cheap computer effects and utilizing their friends and family members as cast and crew. These are people who make stuff out of the love of making stuff. These are people who believe in an idea enough to just fly by the seat of their pants in order to make it. And I really like people like that. Their product may not be the best in the world but I love them for their creative drive and the fact that they want to put something out there and see if anyone responds and if they do... great! If they don't well, then it's back to the drawing board. That kind of raw drive is there in the MST3K early episodes.

I also love the early stuff for the evolution. Viewers get to watch the show evolve over time. You can see the gears meshing and you can see how ideas and concepts change. For example, in the earliest episodes the Mad Scientists (or "Mads" as they later became known) don't appear at all outside of the theme song. Later they make brief appearances then finally they start making more frequent appearances with regular banter among each other as well as Joel. This is also the start of Beaulieu's character of Clayton Forrester calling Joel various pet names. You can practically see the actors throwing this out there, then deciding they like it and working on expanding it.

In short, if you've never seen the early stuff go and take a look. I love it. I love it for what it is and I love it for what it isn't. And if that makes me bananas well, then, dress me up in yellow and stick a Chiquita sticker on me.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Comic Book Peeved

I'm off on a comic book rant. You still have time to escape and save yourself......

Still here?


Round about 2000 a new comic book publishing company came on the market with a big splash. CrossGen Comics was the brainchild of millionaire Mark Alessi and he launched his scheme with lots of flash and splashy marketing.

The initial idea behind CrossGen was that it was designed as a coherent comic book universe. Each title had some ties to each other title and all could be read together or separately. Alessi also had a unique and yet old-fashioned way of handling the creative teams in that most of the writers, pencilers, inkers and colorists worked from the main studio in Florida. This hearkened back to the old days of the "Bullpen" at the publishing houses like Marvel and DC but by 2000 most writers and artists and Marvel and DC worked from their homes scattered across the country and even in other countries and they simply e-mailed scripts and art back and forth amongst themselves and the publishing headquarters. Alessi's bringing everything "in house" was supposedly a way of maintaining quality control and keeping costs down.

Another idea Alessi had, which was actually a pretty good one, was to have built-in 'skip' issues which allowed the creative teams to have some breathing room. Every fifth issue or so a 'guest' penciler, 'guest' inker, and/or 'guest' writer took over. These were almost always staggered as well so that readers didn't have a fill-in writer and a fill-in artist on the same issue... usually. This helped to keep the comics coming out on time and it also allowed some new artists to get some experience under their belt as Alessi usually used promising young artists for the fill-in stable.

And CrossGen comics *might* have worked. It really might have if Alessi hadn't gone overboard...

The company started with four titles -- Sigil, Mystic, Meridian, and Scion -- and those four titles spanned a number of genres -- Sigil was sci-fi adventure, Mystic was fantasy/sorcery, Meridian was a fantasy/coming of age story, and Scion was swords and knights. Each comic, however, took place on a different alien world which had some elements which put one in mind of Earth. Alessi took it as a point of pride that CrossGen did not put out a single title featuring a superhero. Although that is not to say there were not super powers present.

The thing which linked each CrossGen title was that, in the first issue of each comic one character was given a mysterious symbol by an equally mysterious person. This Sigil allowed them to tap different powers and their powers seemed to be related to their personalities. For instance, Samandahl "Sam" Rey, the hero of Sigil and a former soldier, found he had the power to reshape matter -- or rip it apart at the atomic level creating powerful explosions. While Giselle, the main character of Mystic found that her Sigil allowed her to access all the various kinds of magic which existed on her planet -- despite the fact that she had little interest in studying the various arts.

Eventually, overreach and bad business decisions doomed Alessi. He was trying to get into digital comics a good decade too early before there were all the current platforms to support them, and he far, far too rapidly expanded his line of titles. If he had been smart he would have stuck to the initial four titles for at least a year or two before expanding the line. Instead, between 2000 and 2003 the company added 12 titles in addition to the existing four! In addition to that CrossGen created a sub-imprint called Code 6 comics to publish comics which were jointly owned between the creators and CrossGen Entertainment. There were three titles published under the Code 6 banner.

Then, in 2003 the whole thing finally blew up. Rumors had steadily leaked that the company was bankrupt and unable to pay it's creators. The creative teams were rapidly jumping ship and eventually CrossGen formally filed for bankruptcy. Disney then sought and bought the rights to all of the CrossGen created characters.

For a time fans wondered about this. Disney was not really known for producing comic books and I (and many along with me) assumed that Disney would end up using the characters as fodder for their endless animated TV shows. Certainly they could have done worse. It has always bewildered me that Disney never turned Merdian into either an animated TV series or a live action one or an animated or live action movie. After all, the main character and story were squarely in Disney's demographic of young girls. The heroine of Meridian was a 14 year-old girl named Sephie who, upon the death of her father, finds herself inheriting the position of leadership of her people. She must then fight to stop her evil uncle from taking over the world all the while maneuvering through the perils of growing up, politics, and war. See? Perfect Disney heroine.

Instead Disney merely sat on the characters. In 2007 they allowed another small press publisher, Checker Publishing, to produce trade collections of the final issues of CrossGen's original comics run -- the stories that were never collected in trade because CrossGen died before they could be. But once those were produced the license ran out and Disney had no interest in renewing.

Then, last year, Disney bought out Marvel comics. Now that Disney had a comic book publisher under their belt they allowed Marvel access to the CrossGen stable...

And here's where we start getting to the rant.

Marvel decided to relaunch two of the CrossGen titles in order to test the waters. One of the titles they chose was Ruse. Now Ruse was originally CrossGen's answer to a Sherlock Holmes comic book. The main character, Simon Archard, solved mysterious mysteries in the city of Partington on the planet of Arcadia. There was a healthy dose of Steampunk to the story as Arcadia was a planet where technology advanced based on Victorian lines. There was also, however, a healthy helping of the supernatural. Under CrossGen Simon's snarky and independent assistant, Emma Bishop, was the Sigil Bearer with an ability to seemingly stop time but unable to use this power except in dire circumstances.

With the Marvel relaunch the decision was made to jettison the whole "Sigilverse" idea of CrossGen. This really didn't make much impact on Ruse as writer Mark Waid (who wrote much of the original run) seldom used the Sigil aspects of the series. So now Ruse takes place on Earth in the Victorian Era (rather than on a planet somewhere in the future), Emma Bishop has no powers but the city is still called Partington and it exists alongside London and there are still supernatural elements about.

On the whole the comic is delightful and a lot of fun... you should check it out.

BUT the other title Marvel decided to go with... was Sigil.

I LOVED the original Sigil run. It was fascinating and complex. Sam was a foot soldier, not a general or a leader, and he had been cashiered from the military and had turned mercenary along with fellow soldier and friend Roiya. When Sam recieved his Sigil Roiya was killed. Thanks to a mysterious man named JeMerik Meer, however, Roiya's soul was bound to her and Sam's starship. She was literally a Ghost in the Machine. Meer joined the group along with Zanniatti Oribatta, a young woman who had married the abusive leader of the planet Tanipal so that she could spy on him. Oh, and did I mention the war? The humans of this planetary system are at war with the Saurians -- a lizard-like race. More disturbing is the revelation that the Saurians literally "are what they eat" -- they take on the attributes and even knowledge of the things they eat and recently they've been eating the humans they take captive in the war... Over time Sam finds himself reluctantly pushed into the role of leader in the war and he discovers as well just how powerful his Sigil lets him be...

The comic ended without a resolution to the final story arc as CrossGen died. For a while, though, it was a really terrific space-opera romp. There was action and adventure, there was romance and mystery there was character development and kick-ass villains. It was everything you could want in a sci-fi movie but so rarely get.

So imagine my surprise when I go to my comic book shop and see an issue of Sigil on the stands and instead of seeing something like this:

I get this:

So I'm thinking: "Where's Sam? Where's Roiya? Where's Zanni? Where's are the spaceships? Who is this chick?"

I leaf through it and discover to my horror that everything I loved about Sigil is gone. Despite my disinterest the owner of my comic book shop slipped a copy into my bag for free. He was a fellow CrossGen fan and I guess he was hoping if I read it I might like it.

I read it anyway.

I didn't like it.

It wasn't *just* that my sprawling sci-fi epic was gone (although that alone would be enough to make me curse this change) it's that what they've replaced it with is unimaginative drivel.

That girl on the cover? That's Samantha "Sam" Rey, a 16 year-old high school student still dealing with the after effects of her mother's death a year ago in an as-yet undetailed accident. Sam is struggling in school, dealing with a female bully, and now seems to be suffering from strange dreams and even waking trances in which she sees another time, maybe even another world, where pirates fight for an unknown treasure. And now it seems that that world may be more than just a fantasy created by an overstressed mind. The world just might be real and Sam just might have a place in it.


The whole story is filled to the brim with paint-by-numbers plotting, stilted dialogue, characters who are overused stereotypes at best and paper dolls at worst. Even Sam's reaction to her mother's loss seems stereotypical and stilted as she goes and actually sits on her mother's grave and talks to her mother (at the risk of being late for school. I mean, seriously, she can't wait until after school to visit her mother's grave? Or wait until the weekend? Is she doing this daily? If so I really don't think that's necessarily healthy from an emotional standpoint.) There's nothing here that makes you care. The whole thing is so murky that you don't really know who's fighting or why. You don't know where or when Sam is, you don't know who the good guys are you don't know who the bad guys are, you don't know what's a stake, and, quite frankly, you aren't given a reason to care. It's okay to be mysterious in a first issue in order to hook a reader in but you have to give the reader SOMETHING! I've complained about this before (and I'll probably complain about it again somewhere down the road) a first issue has still got to give readers a reason to CARE. We have to know what the stakes in this game are. What happens if the good guys lose? What happens if the bad guys win? CAN our heroine be killed here? We've just not got enough to go on!

So, in short, if you're on old CrossGen fan (like me) or a new comic book reader go ahead and pick up Ruse but dear God stay away from Sigil.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

And THIS is Teaching....

*Warning: This post and the video to follow contains some swearing. Ask children to leave the room.*

True confessions time. I was a *very* poor student in grade school and most of high school.

Nowadays I would probably have been diagnosed as ADD or perhaps even ADHD but they didn't have those diagnoses when I was growing up so I just had to do the best I could.

And my "best" usually included having to go to Summer school in order to not be left behind a grade or have to go through remedial math.

And then, one day, everything just locked into place. I was on the Dean's List all four years in college, I was a member of Phi Alpha Theta the *honors* history society, I graduated cum laude with honors.

But for me to EVER even reach that point I had teachers who not only fought FOR me they fought WITH me. They were behind me on the uphill climb, shoving my butt up the mountain of education. If my teachers had not given such a damn I am convinced that I would not be where I am today.

Lately in the media I've seen a LOT of people attacking teachers. Saying they're overpaid and over compensated and implying that they are unimportant. And that makes me mad. It makes me mad because I'm where I am with a good career and the respect of my work colleagues because of my teachers and my parents. And I know a LOT of other people who are the same. They had teachers who supported them, pushed them, and believed in them -- even when they didn't believe in themselves. And yes, I was that way too. I had people tell me I was smart but I didn't necessarily believe them. It took my teachers and my parents' confidence that I *could* do this to eventually convince me that I could.

I've had and continue to have friends who are teachers and I've heard the war stories from the trenches. I've seen the days when they were exhausted and frustrated and upset because you know what? It's really, really hard shoving a student's butt up education mountain. And sometimes there are slips and ground is lost and as much as the student gets frustrated the teacher does too.

But no one goes into teaching to "get rich" and anyone who tries to tell you that is lying through their teeth. It takes a tough breed to be a teacher and it can be a thankless, thankless task.

Several years back, after I first entered my career, I ran into my old, 5th grade teacher. He asked what I was doing and I told him the whole litany -- a college degree (with honors), a Master's degree, and now the start of a great professional career. He turned to the person next to him -- who happened to be a young teacher with only a few years under his belt, and he said: "You see? Sometimes you get a chance to see that you did all right by them." Teachers don't measure their success in paychecks. Teachers measure their success in the happiness and fulfilment of the dreams of their students.

So fair warning. Don't ever stand in front of me and tell me that teachers aren't "worth it". Are there a few bad apples in the barrel? Oh, definitely, but show me ANY job where there aren't. But a few bad apples doesn't not give people the right to throw out the whole barrel or to say that all the apples in the barrel are rotten without even bothering to look. There are a lot of people out there who are making the big bucks their teachers never will and they're making that money because of those teachers.

And now you need to watch the video of this teacher/slam poet... because he sums it all up:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Breakfast Dish

So if you're like me sometimes you're running late in the morning and have no time for a decent breakfast. Well, I have now come up with the perfect dish that combines whole grains, protein, potassium, vitamin c and resistant fiber all in one.

I like to call it......

Modified Elvis Toast

You take a piece of whole wheat bread and you drop it in the toaster. Once your bread is nice and toasty you spread it with almond butter (you can use peanut butter but almond butter is a little better for you than peanut butter as it has fewer calories and more of the good kinds of fats and oils and less of the bad kind). Then you take about half a banana, slice it and lay the slices on top of the almond butter.

Munch away!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Aztecs"

Okay, I'm finally sitting down to work on this one.

And really, the delay has just been delay because it's not like this is a *bad* story. In fact, far from it....

"The Aztecs" was part of the first series but actually part of a kind of second wave of stories.

You see, while the BBC did go ahead and commission Doctor Who it was initially not approved for a full season run. The series original commission of episodes took it up to around the story "Marco Polo". As the show did prove popular, the BBC went ahead and announced to producer Verity Lambert that the Doctor Who team could continue on for a full season. As such, there was a slight scramble to hire writers to produce more scripts quickly to take the show to the end of the season.

John Lucarotti had written the script for "Marco Polo" and really impressed Lambert and the rest of the team. At the time of pitching the script for "Marco Polo" Lucarotti had also pitched a script idea for a story involving the ancient Aztecs. Recalling this pitch, Lambert told Lucarotti to move forward on the idea for that script to fill out the rest of the season.

There is also a somewhat commonly held belief that the costumes were not historically accurate in order to make sure they passed the censor board. This is not true -- the costume design team actually extensively researched Aztec clothing and replicated it very accurately.

And now on with the show....

The Plot: The TARDIS lands at a large, Aztec city and Barbara is quickly mistaken for a reincarnated high priest named Yetaxa -- favored of the gods. Unfortunately, the time traveling team is also cut off from the TARDIS, making them unable to leave until they can find a way back. Barbara sees this as an opportunity, believing that if she can rid the Aztecs of their rituals of human sacrifice then when the Spanish arrive they will not destroy the civilization. The Doctor warns her not to meddle but Barbara is insistent. Soon she finds herself embroiled in intrigues which threaten not only her own life but that of her friends as well!

My Take: It has been noted that, particularly here in the early days of the series, the historical stories tended to have a Shakespearean feel to them if not an actual Shakespearean tone and structure. That is really on display here as the actor playing the Aztec priest Tlotoxl goes into full-on Richard III mode. And it isn't just a viewer's interpretation, John Ringham, the actor in question, was more than upfront about it in interviews.

On the one hand, it makes for a delightfully villainous performance. On the other hand though it also occasionally makes for a performance made of canned ham. At one point Ringham, as Tlotoxl, actually turns and speaks directly into the camera thereby breaking the fourth wall by essentially speaking to the audience. No! No! No! You do not DO that!! Yes, it was a device used by Shakespeare and in Shakespeare it works. On television, however, it immediately reminds the viewer that they are watching a TV show. The cables on the suspension of disbelief bridge instantly snap. And as if that were not bad enough it's repeated in the opening recap of the next installment! Ack!!

Also, as a historian, I have a little problem with Barbara's assessment of the situation. Yes, I know the show was still at least paying lip service to the idea that the stories were supposed to educate children. And since it was aiming for children it didn't want to get too technical on them (although this was more a problem of the times -- the idea that kids needed to be spoon fed information. Nowadays we know we don't have to 'dumb things down' for them quite so much). Still, there is a metric crap ton of holes in Barbara's idea and as a supposed history teacher she really should have known better... And yes, I *am* going to divert here and discuss them. Go scroll down a bit if your eyes glaze over.

First, we'll give the show a pass on why a British high school history teacher would have "specialized" in Meso-American history. Hey, all us historians usually have a favorite field of history and sometimes it has nothing to do with where we live or our background but it has to be acknowledged that it *is* a little weird for Barbara to have this as a specialty.

Second, Barbara's assessment of the Aztec culture being destroyed by Spanish invaders simply because of the human sacrifice element of Aztec religion is simplistic in the extreme. Did the human sacrifice element contribute? Oh, yes, but Barbara's idea that eliminating that one element would save the Aztecs is just ignorant.

For one thing, the Aztec culture was already in decline when the Spanish arrived. There was corruption in high places. It happens. Given enough time if it hadn't been the Spanish the Aztec culture probably would have collapsed under it's own weight and evolved into something different from the rubble.

For another thing, the Spanish explorers/conquerors were there to bring back wealth for Spain. Gold and other precious metals, gems, etc. They were bound to destroy the Aztecs in the process of getting these items. It was sadly common for invaders to basically end up enslaving the local populace to get what they wanted. Again, all that follows was the times, this is *not* an attack on modern Spain, the Spanish people, or the Catholic church. History is ugly and there isn't a one of us whose ancestors didn't do something horrid at one point in time. Face up to it, deal with it, don't forget it, and move forward. That's what history is about.

And tied to that was the European ideas of superiority. No matter what the Aztecs were bound to be seen as "savages" by the Spanish and the process of "civilizing" them back then meant 'making their culture look like ours'. This, of course, destroyed the native culture in the process.

And finally (at least for this assessment where I hit just a few of the high points), at the time of the conquest Spain was a Catholic nation and they took as one of their duties an idea of spreading Catholicism as the one, true religion. As such, priests were dispatched to convert the native population. So in the context of this story, even if Barbara had managed to eliminate human sacrifice she could not have (and wisely did not try to) removed the Aztecs belief in their pantheon of gods. And no matter what, that belief system would have been targeted by the Spanish invaders as well and the stripping of it would have been another key in the destruction of the culture.

So, from a historical standpoint, Barbara gets a 'D' at least as a history teacher from me.

Okay, you can start reading the rest of the review now if you decided to skip over my historian's rant.

The rest of the story really is Barbara's story and, well, to be honest, I'm a little bit mixed about it.

On the one hand, it is an excellent showcase for actress Jacqueline Hill. That woman proves she was born to play royalty with her turn as Yetaxa. She pitches everything perfectly. She also gets a chance to show off Barbara's steel spine. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Barbara is a badass. Not only does she verbally put the smackdown on Tlotoxl on more than one occasion, she also physically does so when she saves Ian's life by grabbing a knife and putting it to Tlotoxl's throat.

Let me repeat that. She saves *Ian's* life (that's right, traditional hero dude saved by the chick!) by grabbing the knife off the belt of an Aztec warrior and then holding it to Tlotoxl's throat like she means business. Not a single shake, not a single hesitation, she's ice cold throughout. YES!

On the other hand, however, Barbara comes off as both a bit too stubborn and emotional in her crusade and she is slightly condescended to when both the Doctor and Ian tell her she's wrong to try to change Aztec society and that she is also doomed to failure. So in that way there is a slight whiff of the 'overly emotional female who can't take good advice' trope. And I really hate that trope. Thankfully it's slight and doesn't ruin the rest of the story.

Then, of course, there is the Doctor's "romance". Fans of old have often disliked the merest hint of an idea that the Doctor may have had an actual romance with the older, learned, Cameca but for me, personally, I find it sweet. There are also indications that the Doctor did hold Cameca in some regard and he regretted very much breaking her heart. At the same time there is also no shame in the relationship for, despite Cameca being from a less advanced culture, she is still consistently treated with respect in the script and she is shown to be wise, experienced and insightful.

Really, the script is great on all counts in treating all the characters with a great amount of respect. Sure, Tlotoxl is a bit stereotypical and his motivations are a bit muddied but he is always treated as a genuine threat and never as a joke to be laughed off or discarded. The warrior Ixta who becomes Ian's nemesis is also shown to be a fast learner and a genuine antagonist as he takes Ian's lessons about unconventional fighting and the element of surprise and turns them on Ian himself. And in the end, the audience ends up feeling great remorse for Autloc -- the other priest and the one who accepts Barbara's message. In one way, Barbara succeeds with him in convincing him human sacrifice is wrong but in another way she fails because in doing this she causes the older man to lose not only his belief but also his faith in all his civilization. He gives away his worldly possessions and leaves to wander the wastelands in hopes of finding something to put his trust in. It's very nearly heartbreaking to see.

Kudos must also be raised to the costumers, prop designers, and set designers all. The costumes are exacting and beautiful and really add to the flavor of the story. Likewise the props -- the jewelry, weaponry, and pottery are also well researched and wonderfully executed. And the set designers certainly do a terrific job considering their limitations. At this time the series was still completely studio-bound and not only that but forced to film in one of the BBC's smallest sound stages. Despite this the set designers go all out in recreating an Aztec city. The fakey-ness of the background paintings is detectable today, yes, *but* modern television screens produce a higher resolution than older ones did and the original tape has been cleaned up to provide a clearer picture as well. Taking that into account the backgrounds are still very effective in the story.

Overall, (because I've already gone on too long) if you want to see one of the highlights of the First Doctor's era then this is the story to see. There is action and when there isn't action the drama keeps one on the edge of the seat. There are great performances by all of the regular cast but William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill in particular shine here. Even where there is padding in this four parter it never really feels like padding. Arguably the best story of the show's first season.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What I'm Watching

Still busy with other stuff BUT....

Over the weekend, on a trip to the local library, I spotted a DVD box set of a series called New Tricks that looked interesting so I checked it out... and was really delighted (although I shouldn't have been surprised because it came out of the BBC....)

New Tricks stars Amanda Redman as Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, James Bolan as Jack Halford, Dennis Waterman as Gerry Standing and Alun Armstrong as Brian Lane.

The plot is perhaps a bit contrived but genius nonetheless...

Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman is a driven Scotland Yard detective on the fast track to a high administrative position when a mission goes wrong. Heading up a team to rescue a high-profile kidnap victim Pullman accidentally shoots a dog and fails to prevent the kidnap victim from getting injured.

Scotland Yard then creates a new unit called the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad and places her in charge as both a punishment for her failing and as a way of burying her for a while until attention dies down, at which point her career may be salvageable. The UCOS is designed to utilize retired police officers to help close Cold Cases when new evidence appears.

Unfortunately for Sandra Scotland Yard retirees do not seem to have a long lifespan post-retirement and so she finds herself with a rather motley and strange bunch that she is forced to try to corral.

Jack Halford, a former Detective Chief Superintendent is Sandra's former mentor and she turns to him to help organize the team. Halford is something of a "detective's detective" and is never willing to sacrifice the truth for expediency.

Gerry Standing is, on the other hand, an aging 'macho' detective type. He was forced out of the police department under a cloud of suspicion that he was on the take -- although he claims he never took a bribe. He has friends on both sides of the law, however. In addition, he tends to like to operate in a more old-school style of bending the rules in order to get a conviction and thinking that 'roughing up' suspects is all in a day's work in order to get a confession or information.

Brian Lane is, well, kind of like the character Monk only not quite as dysfunctional. Lane has a photographic memory, an exacting eye for detail, and is a walking filing cabinet. He was let go from Scotland Yard when, while suffering from depression, he was inattentive and allowed a drug dealer to die of overdose while in his custody in the holding cells.

As if all of the above were not enough, each one of the characters has to deal with their own personal emotional dysfunctions. Sandra has a string of failed relationships behind her and actively seeks out therapy to try to learn why she seems to self-destruct on these relationships. In addition, she is trying to deal with her compulsive drive to be the best while she has been sidelined and is unable to advance. She also must deal with the fact that she has been thrust into a "mother hen" role when it comes to these men -- a role that sits uneasily on her.

Thankfully, she has Halford to help her in this. Halford has a keen insight into the human heart and psyche and often acts as a mediator between Sandra and her modern way of doing things and the old ways that the other retirees are are set in. He also acts as a kind of 'father confessor' for Sandra, Gerry and Brian and tries to give them sage advice in dealing with their personal relationships.

Halford is not without his own scars, though. He left the force to care for his wife who was severely injured by a hit-and-run driver and her injuries eventually contributed to her death. Somewhat bereft without her, he keeps a memorial to her in his back garden and often talks to her in order to try to work out cases and problems.

Gerry has three ex-wives, three grown daughters and a string of one-night-stands behind him. He continues to live as an aging Lothario -- clinging desperately to his mid-life crisis long after mid-life. He does have some sense of responsibility, though, as he is determined to financially help out when his oldest daughter becomes a single mother (making Gerry a grandfather).

Brian is probably the most damaged -- the death of the drug dealer in his custody leading to a nervous breakdown. He takes medication to control his depression and he is a recovering alcoholic and manages to function despite having a low level of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a certain amount of social awkwardness. As he says of himself, he is too much "head" and not enough "heart" but he is truly devoted to his wife, Esther.

The series encapsulates what a lot of British drama does so well -- balancing genuine humor with serious drama and pathos. The characters are also flawed but never seem to be all about their flaws. They are not "pretty", they are far from young, and they don't fit the usual "hot" demographics that American TV shows chase so blindly. And, against the stereotype of the wise, sage, oldster, this show instead shows these older men as being terribly human -- prone to making mistakes, not always having the right answers, and still getting through life one day at a time just like the rest of us. It really is refreshing. The mystery plots are also really quite good and absorbing.

So check out New Tricks, you'll find that this series proves that 'old dogs' really can learn new tricks as well as using a few old tricks that, with the passage of time, have become new again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I've Been Reading

Still don't have a review of "The Aztecs" done -- I've been being lazy on that one. Plus I've started a new knitting project which has a definite time deadline and I need to meet that deadline.

Anyway, when I've not been knitting I've been taking a little break from the Nero Wolfe books in order to explore another mystery series.... Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books.

It's actually kind of an eerie coincidence because someone mentioned having read one of the books in an online discussion a bunch of us were participating in about good mystery books series. Shortly after that discussion I was bopping around the BBC Radio 7 website* and found a full-cast dramatization of Sayers' Strong Poison and started listening to it. Both of these things spurred me to go back to Wimsey.

Yes, I said go back to Wimsey. In another odd little coincidence just as with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe I had tried to get into Sayers' Peter Wimsey books back in my college days. Unlike with the Wolfe oeuvre, however, I clearly remember when I first tried to cut my teeth on Sayers' writing. I can clearly remember seeking her work out in my college library (it was housed on the top floor of the building which was a lovely place to read because there were a lot of tables and chairs near the windows so one could have a sweeping panorama of either the campus or the town depending on which side of the building you chose to sit on. But I digress...). As with Stout, however, I just couldn't get into it. Wimsey left me cold as I found Sayers' depiction of his drawl-y way of talking annoying and I thought him rather overly flippant to boot.

But I chose to go back and take another look at the books -- again, something that I rarely do -- and this time found that time and age and experience had weathered me to see a little more deeply. For their time period, Sayers' stories have a bite to them that is surprising.

For one thing, the Wimsey stories usually get classified as "Cozy Mysteries". A cozy mystery usually involves a murder which is often (but not exclusively) not described in gory detail so that it seems rather bloodless. For example, the victim may be shot at his desk and the description is just that -- that the victim is found shot and slumped over his desk. There is no description of the size of the bullet hole and no discussion of the wound bleeding out, etc. The suspects are a closed group -- a limited number who were either present at a secluded location or who would have had access to the murder victim. The victim and the pool of suspects are also often (but not exclusively) people who are of the upper crust (in the British tradition) and/or wealthy or famous in some way. In other words, the sort of people one wouldn't suspect of committing crimes or people who have honor or prestige to lose if they are suspected of murder.

Agatha Christie's stories are some of the most prominent of the cozy genre but there were others such as Margery Allingham with her early Albert Campion stories and Ngaio Marsh with her Roderick Alleyn mysteries. And Sayers is usually included in the bunch.

Sayers' work, however, distinctly breaks from the cozy tradition in several ways. For one thing, Sayers is not afraid to throw a little blood and a little suffering into the deaths of her murder victims. In fact, the description of the death of the murder victim in Clouds of Witnesses makes a point of the amount of blood involved.

For another thing, in a cozy mystery things such as extramarital affairs are usually handled discretely but with a slight overtone of shame -- usually towards the man who is stepping out on his wife. Sayers, however, doesn't care. Again in Clouds of Witnesses Wimsey's brother is found out in an affair but Wimsey's feelings on it are rather matter-of-fact. He acknowledges that it is a blow to his sister-in-law but at the same time he understands why his brother did it, respects his brother for trying to be a gentleman about it, and feels sorry for all those involved. Later on in the series Wimsey falls for a woman who had lived openly with a man without benefit of marriage -- something scandalous in Wimsey's aristocratic circles but something that doesn't bother Wimsey at all.

Sayers also tackles some more serious subjects. Also in Clouds of Witnesses one character suffers physical and emotional abuse from her husband. Sayers doesn't flinch from the depiction -- showing it in all it's horror and also condemning it. Then there is Wimsey himself. A veteran of World War I Wimsey suffers from "shell shock" -- or as we would call it today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sayers' depiction of one of Wimsey's flashbacks is heart-wrenching but also reads as very true-to-life. Unlike many of the other stoic heroes, Wimsey's war experiences have left scars on his psyche.

Wimsey is also not the traditional detective in other ways. The cozy mystery usually (but again not exclusively) features a non-professional detective -- someone not a part of the police force but usually friendly with officers of the law. Wimsey is the same in that regard but in most cozy mysteries the detective hero solves the mystery and never looks back. Wimsey actually ponders his part in things. He worries that he treats solving mysteries like a game and is not prepared for the consequences. He often shows remorse when his actions lead to the real killer being caught and convicted but knowing that his actions have condemned someone to death on the gallows (since at the time Sayers was writing England still had the death penalty. They have since abolished it).

The Lord Peter Wimsey stories are not, however, for the easily annoyed. Sayers herself was quite the scholar and sometimes her own scholarship sneaks into the books which make them seem a bit pedantic. Wimsey, as a character, can be rather an obnoxious idiot from time to time (although in a way that is part of his charm and what helps humanize him) and sometimes the plots drag on a bit too long.

If one is interested, though, in some mysteries which are a bit outside the ordinary for their time period and a detective hero with some fascinating flaws then Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey stories are well worth a look.

Oops, forgot to add....

* The BBC not only operates TV stations in Great Britain but radio stations also. The BBC radio stations tend to be divided by type with some stations devoted only to news, some to different types of music, etc. BBC Radio 7 is the station that is devoted to audio dramas. One of the great things about BBC Radio is that, unlike the TV programs, many of their radio programs are available to listen to online internationally. You can check out BBC Radio 7 HERE

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Knitted Stuff... Yet More!

I'm working my way through the Doctor Who serial "The Aztecs" but I've been busy so the review isn't ready yet.

In the meantime, here's more knitted stuff that makes me wonder... WHY?

The description of this states that it is a "perfect" addition to a sleeveless outfit.

Ummmm Dear Description Writer -- in case you haven't noticed.... this... "shrug" (seriously, they say this is supposed to be a shrug)... IS sleeveless!

Really, what is this piece keeping warm? It doesn't come up high enough to keep your neck warm, it's split in the middle so if you're wearing a top with a deep scoop neck or a v-neck (as the model is) it isn't keeping your chest warm, and it's sleeveless so it isn't going to keep your arms warm either.

It isn't long enough to be called a vest and in point of fact it ends up just kind of looking like... well... a bib.

The thing of it is that this design would actually make a rather nice vest. If it were longer and then worn over a shirt or blouse it would work rather well. As it is... why would you bother to knit this?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: "The Silent Speaker" 1946

Rex Stout came roaring back from the war years with a full-length book as opposed to the short story collections he had been producing for the past few years.

The post-war situation obviously inspired this story with the Bureau of Price Regulation standing in for the real Office of Price Administration and the National Industrial Association standing in for any number of business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

You see WW II brought about many governmental controls over industry in the name of mobilization for the war as well as a country which was still recovering from the Great Depression. As such, the government had taken over a number of industries and switched them to the production of items necessary for the war and the government had also set prices for many goods and services during this time in order to prevent gouging on items which had become more scarce or difficult to produce.

Of course, after the war was over many of these governmental controls remained in place in order to help ensure a smooth transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime one. This led to a certain amount of friction between the government and business as many businesses now wanted the government out of their hair.

It was this conflict which inspired Stout's story here.

The good news is that you don't have to be a history major to enjoy the story. Although if do have a background in history (as I do) it adds a little extra layer of satire to the story which is really enjoyable. That's right, *better living through history!*

Anyway, let's get on to the meat of the matter....

The Plot: Wolfe's funds are getting low so for a change he goes fishing for a case rather than accepting one that has dropped into his lap. In this case Cheney Boone, the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation is murdered right before he is scheduled to give a speech before the National Industrial Association. There is certainly no love lost between the BPR and the NIA but who would resort to murder and why? Wolfe sets out to solve the mystery to earn his fee but along the way the killer strikes again and proves to be elusive -- much to Wolfe's anger. With a reputation and a big, fat paycheck on the line Wolfe is determined to solve the case... even if he has to drag both organizations through the mud in the process.

My Take: As I said before, you don't have to be a historian to get this story. The rivalries and conflicts are as old as time and readers will probably see some echoes in the modern struggle between businesses and government regulation.

At heart, though, the story is about the personalities involved and, as always, Stout creates strong, memorable personalities for his characters. In particular is Phoebe Gunther -- Boone's secretary and one of the few women who win the open respect of the misogynistic Wolfe. Not only is she a match for Wolfe's intelligence she is also a match for Archie's razor sharp tongue -- giving back as good as she gets.

And Stout's Archie and Wolfe are at the top of their game here -- Wolfe, for once, even more so than Archie as Wolfe presents one of the most hysterically funny and terrible displays of a "nervous breakdown" ever committed to print. Again, Stout proves masterful at throwing in bits of humor among the seriousness of the investigation.

The investigation in question takes many twists and turns and, interestingly, it stalls out for Wolfe and Archie yet Stout manages to make even no new information seem tension-filled. Wolfe being blocked at every turn, missing the last crucial piece of the puzzle, leaves the reader waiting with baited breath as the pressures mount for Wolfe to solve the case. Will this be the first time Wolfe loses?

This story also has the benefit of being one of those adapted for the A & E TV series. As with the previous outing, Over My Dead Body, the adaptation is almost ridiculously faithful to the book. There are a few slight changes but none of them are jarring and, again, dialogue is lifted pretty much whole from the book -- proving (as if proof were needed) that Stout could write just as well if not better than any Hollywood script writer.

There isn't a foot put wrong here and The Silent Speaker is Stout weaving a book-length tale in his inimitable fashion.

Favorite Quote:
"Who's Wolfe working for?"
"There is never," I told him, "any question about that. He is working first, last and all the time for Wolfe."