Brussels Griffon



THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had put off reading this book for years now, knowing that it would be an intense and challenging read. But I didn’t know how compelling of a story it would be, so fascinating that I stayed up late turning the pages that unfolded the Price family’s drama. I would say the first three-quarters or so would rate four stars, but that last fourth wandered away into long passages of inner monologue and reflection. The story faded off with out a satisfying finish.

Kingsolver tends to write her characters in extremes, particularly the villains. Her “good” characters are certainly complicated and flawed although one notable African man is far too noble and giving to be believed, his willingness to forgive just too constant. A fanatical minister Nathan Price, who brings his wife and four daughters to Africa, is so extreme in his views and so unrelenting in his ignorance and refusal to try to understand African culture on any level that the reader knows he is destined for tragedy and probably dragging his family into it with him. And yet…couldn’t he have been a touch more human? So the main female characters play out the story influenced by the extreme poles of a crazy white ultra-fanatical white minister and an intelligent, selfless black educator/political activist. Not that the story is that simple by any means and there are tons of other characters who come to bear in the story.

Where the story slowed down for me was once the slow growing crisis finally erupted and the Price family splinters, going on to develop separate lives and cope with tragedy and loss. This works for quite awhile as the PoV shifts between the women, all adults now, but then continues and continues. Granted, it is realistic that decades would pass as they continue to come to grips with all they’ve been through, but their stories became less engaging and their voices somewhat tedious.

I am over-emphasizing the flaws though. Overall, the book takes the reader into the Prices family and provides a view of the Congo in the 1960s that I had not seen before. After reading a lot of reviews both here and on Amazon, I saw that a number of white readers felt Kingsolver was pushing her own agenda and provided an unbalanced view of the role of the USA and Christian ministry. While agree that she had an agenda, she has every right to tell stories that present her world views. As far as her presentation of the ministry, it was very obvious that Nathan Price was considered a fanatic and a rogue of sorts, disliked by his own colleagues. And the role of the USA in manipulating politics all over the world to advance American greed is based on fact.

Discussing these points makes me recall how reluctant I was to start the book. It is intense and the story is multi-layered and leaves one with a lot to ponder and discuss. It does all this while presenting a compelling drama that kept me fully engaged (until close to the end anyway.)

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THE WRESTLER: Then and Now




















Last week, I had the great good fortune to watch a special showing of THE WRESTLER, produced by Verne Gagne in 1974 (he also is the main star.) My husband worked on this film as a sound mixer and his name shows up on the credits. He was involved in the shooting around the time I met him, and it made a huge impact on him. As far as I know, it was only shown briefly in theaters before disappearing from sight. So my husband was super excited to get a chance to see it all these years later and we made a night of it.

At this point, I want to interject that the 2009 movie THE WRESTLER starring Mickey Rourke is one of my favorite films of recent years. I never thought for a moment that the films would be particularly comparable given the 1974 version was pretty much an amateur production even though Ed Asner (who was a big name at the time) was on hand as a main character.

Having said all that, I am not and never have been a wrestling fan. In 1974, wrestling was barely a blip on my radar, other than hearing my boyfriend at the time talk about this movie. Sure, I knew a  few people who watched it but they were usually somebody’s redneck grandparents. Wrestling was something to be made fun of, usually by chanting the timeless line: “Good God! Somebody call the paramedics!”

My kids went through a (thankfully) brief phase of watching pro-wrestling and so I wound up catching the show a few times. This was during the reign of Steve Austin and Chyna, who wound up doing porn a few years later and then in celebrity rehab even later than that. There was some entertainment value in the flash and noise but I found it fairly tedious and my boys lost interest. I give this history of my relationship with pro-wrestling as an admission that I am pretty much ignorant on the subject, its history and lore.

That didn’t stop me from going to see THE WRESTLER in 2009 when it came out. Not only was it a well-written, finely crafted, beautifully acted piece of work, but it left me with an appreciation of wrestlers and their unique skill set as athlete-performers. The Rourke movie was the dirty underbelly of WWE and its ilk, showing the lot of the aging and broken performers who hadn’t made a fortune, or been able to hang on to what money they did make in their heyday.

If Rourke’s movie was the underbelly, then Vern Gagne’s 1974 film is the golden tribute and idealization of what professional wrestling was supposed to be. The story itself is pretty incoherent and the plot doesn’t appear until about the last 20 minutes or so. A friend of my husband worked on the crew and watched with us. According to him, the film was recut into something totally different then the scenes they shot.

The version we saw involved Ed Asner playing a wrestling promoter who has a secretary with a heart of gold named Debbie. (Debbie looks disturbingly similar to Mary Tyler Moore, whose show Asner starred in at that time.)  A lot of dialogue takes place broken up by random appearances of actual wrestling stars but nothing seems to happen. Still, the film is fascinating with its obvious 1970s sets and costumes and no matter what you think of wrestling, it is so bad it’s good. What seems to emerge for the story is that Vern Gagne is irritated that pro-football gets all the attention. Even though wrestling has millions of fans, they get no respect. Gagne’s character seeks to right this wrong by holding his very own Super Bowl of Wrestling. Meanwhile, Ed Asner’s character wants to put Gagne up against his latest wrestler, a lethal new kid from England, of all places.

Throughout the movie, there are many, many scenes of professional wrestling of that era. While a chair or two get broken, it is a very different sport than you watch now. For one thing, less time is spent posturing and more time actually wrestling, not brawling. Still, in Gagne’s presentation, there is no admission of tampered with outcomes or rehearsed moves.  He maintains that wrestling is a sport and the outcome is determined by the match, not the promoter.

Rourke’s movie tears away that illusion but exposes how extreme it is physically, regardless of pre-planning. The outcome may be fixed but the performances are painful and physically demanding. One of the sharpest differences between wrestlers then and now is their physical appearance. In Gagne’s movie, very few wrestlers are “buff” by today standards. They are large and muscular, but have enormous guts and the muscles are not necessarily defined, much less bulging. A number of them bleach their hair but there are no costumes in the ring. The most flamboyant ones might affect cowboy hats and sunglasses, but they are positively subdued compared to today’s counterparts.

The real kicker, and I mean this literally, comes at the end of Gagne’s film. His signature move is a dizzying drop kick, followed by some sort of choke hold. At last, he comes up against the English kid (after some obscure machinations) who has famously said: “I ain’t never bit hit by no drop kick”. We see Gagne remembering that quote just as he flies into the drop kick and the camera closes in on the bottom of his shoe, just before it connects with the Brit’s face. End of film, roll credits.

SPOILER: If you’ve seen the 2009 movie-and you should if you haven’t-then you know how much the end mirrors the Mickey Rourke movie, ending with his signature move just before he hits the mat. I don’t think that Rourke was influenced by the 1974 film since it is doubtful that he ever saw it. But it really dovetails beautifully – the films are completely different but in the end, both are homages to a the sport of wrestling.

The Passage (The Passage #1)The Passage by Justin Cronin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this because of all the hype when it was published. It always aggravates me when a book comes out and is an automatic bestseller because the publishers have decided it will be so. Still, I was intrigued by the concept of a vampire dystopia even though both categories have been done to the ground. So perhaps going into it with a negative expectation helped warm me up immediately. But that alone could never have carried me through such a long work. I’ve read enough reviews to understand this book does not work for everyone but I was thoroughly absorbed by it and satisfied at the end, even though it set up for a sequel.

The story begins in the very near future, starting with the circumstances of the early childhood of one of the main characters. This section could easily be written by a Jodi Picoult or Jacquelyn Mitchard or any other mainstream author specializing in family drama and angst. In spite of that, I was immediately engaged, due to the writing and the knowledge that something epic would come out of it. Once the child, a young girl named Amy, is “discovered” abandoned, it becomes evident that she has some unique ability to bind people to her. Meanwhile, the army is conducting military experiments with death row inmates and for some reason, Amy’s name lands on their list of experimental subjects.

A sense of dread pervades the early parts but when the action takes off, the story does not disappoint. All of the cliches come to mind – late night page-turner, gripping, nail-biting etc. Then everyone gets run over by a truck. Ok, not exactly but time leaps forward almost 100 years. A new group of characters are introduced and I admit that it gave me a bit of a pause because it felt like starting a whole new book. But I soon was drawn into their situation and the smallness of the setting in opposition to the prior, more global story. Instead of moving all over the country (USA), the plot and action became as narrow as the lives of a small colony of survivors who have no idea what is going on outside their own walled off existence. Furthermore, their survival is still at constant risk, leaving few of them with any curiosity about the outside. They have adapted and adopted from a charter set up when the colony was built, evidently by FEMA during the later stages of the viral outbreak.

Somewhat spoilerish:

As for the vampire apocalypse the viral outbreak, stems from the escape of the original experimental subjects who have transformed into the ulitmate weapons the army had hoped for…except they are totally out of control, naturally. They are quickly dubbed vampires because of their bat-like tendencies (hanging upside down, clawed feet) and thirst for blood. But these vampires do not resemble contemporary romantic notions — you won’t find them on the covers of romance novels. They are hideous and violent, although possess supernatural speed and strength. They also multiply quickly, “taking up” one out of every ten victims. The idea of these creatures taking control of the country, possibly the world, is a whole lot easier to swallow than a bunch of slow-moving zombies shuffling around. While the “smokes” are not humanly intelligent, they’re not dumb or mindless either. They can survive the sun but in general, avoid light which is one of the few weaknesses that allow for survivors. They also prey on other creatures besides humans, enabling their population to continue even when humans become few and far between.

I’ve gone into detail about the vampire monsters because I think Justin Cronin did an exceptional job in creating unique beings in a genres that are so popular and exploited that it would seem impossible to come up with something original and fresh. Besides that, the novel has mythical and mystical themes that Cronin manages to pull off for the most part. I might have lost a little patience with the spiritual elements at times, but I admire an author who stretches a story to its fullest. Not every question gets answered by the end, but enough to satisfy me. I am looking forward to the next installment which will be out late this summer.

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DEAD MAN (1995) starring Johnny Depp

I really wanted to like this movie. Reading the reviews on Amazon, I think I should have loved it. I feel like a cretin because it bored the snot out of me. Nothing about it worked, not even Johnny Depp’s soulful eyes in a performance made when he was still really good.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have gone all crazy over this when I was in my twenties or teens. The symbolism and the Native American motifs and mysticism would have struck me as innovative, cutting edge, unique, etc. But since I’d never heard of this movie until coming across it on Netflix, I assume that it failed to connect in the box office so it wasn’t just me.

There are plenty who did see a lot in this movie and therefore the comment to those who found it dulling are always along the lines of “You just don’t get it.” Really? Whose fault is that then? Except I do get it, if that means comprehending what the writer/director is trying to say. It’s a “quirky” (I am so starting to hate that word) rite-of-passage story about a dull young man who stumbles through life and winds up on a journey with a Magical Negro, although in this case, not really a Magical Negro but rather a Magical Indian (Native American).

The film’s only strength is in the myriad performance by a large cast of familiar cameo performers. The sequence of scenes becomes mesmerizing as a pattern falls into place: funny, boring, boring, boring, GORY VIOLENCE, funny, boring boring GORY VIOLENCE…

I’ll give some credit for trying. It comes close to being original but came off as slow and pretentious. I’ve come to realize that Johnny Depp has starred in more movies that I dislike than movies I have enjoyed. This one was a definite clunker.

Terra Nova or Terra Bull?

I apologize for the awful pun but it seems appropriate for such an awful show. But the big question is: Why did I keep watching after the first episode?

Okay, I almost didn’t. But since we have On Demand, that gives me opportunities to watch television when I really shouldn’t. Meaning that there is nothing on worth watching so I could go read a book or do just about anything else. (Since I spend so many hours in front of the computer, I’m not about to log even more time there.)

True confessions aside, I started watching additional episodes of Terra Nova. Maybe I enjoy cataloguing all the things that are wrong with it in my head. Maybe I love dinosaurs so much…but wait a minute, entire episodes pass without so much as a dino head popping up over the trees.

I guess I’m just hooked on watching and thinking about all the things the writers and producers could have done so much better. Here’s another example of where big budgets are misspent on effects with no attention to plot and character.

None of the actors are particularly engaging although the central character, Jim Shannon, is okay. Commander Taylor, the leader of the Terra Nova colony, is probably the most compelling character on the show, or at least he was when he appeared to be complicated in the first couple episodes. Alas, he turned out to an upright good guy, a bit over zealous perhaps but with Good Reasons.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the show is that it devolved into basic good vs. evil plotting. The bad guys are awful in every way with no redeeming features. The good guys stand for everything moral and upright – and never hesitate to make absolute decisions that will affect everybody without consulting anyone else, never mind votes or polls. Worst of all, the only real villain in the show is a whining selfish young man who is utterly unconvincing as someone capable of wreaking havoc on civilization.

First recommendation for this show: Get a scary villain, stat. Find someone the audience will love to hate. A villain we believe will stop at nothing…and is capable and competent. Also charismatic enough for us to believe he or she can attract followers.

In the early episodes, we learned there were rebels among the colonists that were trying to sabotage Commander Taylor. Being an avid reader/watcher, I immediately thought the rebels would turn out to be the right-minded people and Taylor the stiff-necked Facist and ultimate control freak. But instead of playing up that aspect of Taylor, it slowly comes about that he’s a great guy who only does what is best for his colony. Kinda like the Pope, Taylor seems to be infallible. Jim Shannon becomes his lieutenant and right-hand man as they jump into futuristic vehicles and mix it up with various bad guys and occasionally some wild life.

Second Recommendation: More dinosaurs, please. More exotic and dangerous plants. The plots need less manomano combat although I appreciate that running away from T-Rexes would get old. But it so easy to forget this is a prehistoric setting, what with all the future technology and stereotypical bad guys running around.

Really this could be a decent show, even if those two recommendations were followed. There’s still myriad issues though. For instance, the military troops are racially diverse but the colonists themselves appear to be all white with a few medium brown. Very creepy if you analyze what that means except that the colonist are totally background figures with no lines.

Meanwhile, the Shannon family provides all of the domestic drama on the show. The family scenes are excruciatingly painful to watch so they need to go away or be improved. Sadly for the actors, that would mean some recasting or intense acting coaching for all involved. Jim’s wife is charming enough and easy to watch, but she is kept completely unruffled at all times. Her role as a genius scientist/doctor is a solid one, but it is beginning to look like she is the only doctor in the colony, which makes no sense. As a mother, she is understanding, wise, and flawless, and nowhere near human.

As for the kids…the youngest is cute, so annoyingly cute and obviously exists for child-in-peril plots. The teenage daughter is beautiful and as intelligent as her mother, but crushing on a soldier. The teenage son has plenty of angst with his Dad, but the actor playing him must have gone to the same acting school as the villain.

I just had a revelation in thinking about the cast. The women are largely black-haired, brown-eyed and brown while the men are largely steely-blue-eyed individuals. Everyone is ripped of course, but you wouldn’t expect them to allow fat middle-aged or old people into such an ideal community.

From what I understand, it is more likely the show will not return. I can’t think of any good reason to save it but at the same time, I am so disappointed that so much money was wasted on something that could have been solid entertainment.

A Dud

Already GoneAlready Gone by John Rector
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story opens with a shocker, then moves quickly but even with splashes of gore and violence, there is a curious detachment to the proceedings. Eventually, things move into the realm of totally unbelievable. Eventually I stopped caring and finished it only to see how the author would wrap it up. Left me scratching my head.

I’d say this is a fast read for someone who likes action and violence with little regard to plot and character development. The one female character in the book is shallow and inconsistent. The reader is supposed to believe that the main character loves her beyond reason, yet there is no connection or even warmth between them.

I have almost forgotten the book already and by next week, it will be gone from my brain entirely.

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Chet and Bernie Do It Again

The Dog Who Knew Too Much (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #4)The Dog Who Knew Too Much by Spencer Quinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fourth book in the Chet and Bernie mystery series. I’ve enjoyed every single one of these books and while some may be marginally better than others, they are each entertaining and readable.

Spencer Quinn has created the most endearing and believable non-human character in Chet (the Jet), a large “police dog” who flunked out of K-9 training, but wound up as a partner to a private eye, Bernie. What makes Chet unique in the genre of thinking or talking animals is that while the novels are narrated by Chet and the action unfolds from a dog’s PoV, no one else can communicate with Chet. In other words, Chet’s best friend is a Jack Russell terrier named Iggy, but at no time do they “talk” to one another. Bernie might know something is up with Chet, and the reader knows exactly what Chet wishes he could tell Bernie, but at no time do they communicate by language or telepathy or any other device. This serves to make the stories more believable since Chet does nothing more remarkable than tell his own story.

The plots within the novels are generally satisfying although not groundbreaking. The entertainment comes purely from Chet’s commentary and canine way of thinking. The humans in the room might be having an earnest conversation filled with important information, but Chet is usually too busy sniffing out crumbs on the carpet to pay attention. No matter how bleak the situation (and the stories do have a dark underbelly at times), Chet’s mood is elevated by the appearance of food or just the thought of his beloved Bernie.

While the books can stand alone, there’s no reason not to start with the first one. I am already looking forward to the fifth.

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FEVRE DREAM by George RR Martin

Fevre DreamFevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No spoilers in this review.

This is Martin’s effort at telling a vampire tale. The main character, Abner Marsh, is a steam boat captain in 1857, aging, fat, and down on his luck. He is approached by a mysterious stranger who will only meet with him at night, and makes him an offer to good to refuse. No surprises about the stranger, although Abner Marsh isn’t so quick to catch on since he hasn’t been inundated for at least twenty years with books, movies, and TV shows about vampires.

Martin loves to provide details, especially when it comes to food. The book sags under the weight of drawn out lists of food and myriad details regarding steam boats. I am always impressed by his research and he did a great job of capturing the era, but for me, it was overkill and caused my attention to wander.

I liked Martin’s take on vampire lore in that he gave them a history and even a biological background. Still, their behavior overall was predictable and this novel had few surprises for me.

Having said that, by the end of the book, I was hooked by the story and the characters. However, the three star rating is due to the extremely drawn out beginning, in fact, the entire first half of the book dragged to the point that I doubted I could finish it. The two main characters are engaging yet never as complex as Martin’s SONG characters. I suppose everything Martin writes must suffer in comparison.

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