Friday, October 30, 2009

Books Bought October

It's always dangerous posting the books you purchased in a certain month when there's two days left in that month and opportunities abound. But what the heck... Here are the books I've bought (so far) in October:

Audrey's Door (2009) - Sarah Langan

My Halloween read (or one of them) for this year. I enjoyed Langan's The Keeper a couple of years ago and thought it was time to read her latest. I've heard some good things about the book from several people, but what really sold me was the book trailer. Whew!

Mass Market Paperback; Price = $4.79

A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger Than You (NF 2007) by Paul David Tripp

My men’s group from church is reading this one. We meet every other Friday morning. At 6:15AM. (There’s coffee, that’s how.)

Trade Paperback; Price = $12.23

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (NF 2008) - Kenneth E. Bailey

My friend Jim S. recommended this one. Bailey (who holds degrees in Arabic Language and Literature, Systematic Theology and a doctorate in New Testament) explores how the people of Jesus’ time and culture would have understood His teachings. So far I’ve only read bits and pieces, but what I have read is fascinating.

Trade Paperback; Price = $17.16

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (NF 2008) - Francis Chan

Cindy and I have our little rituals. When we were first dating and would see movie previews at the theater, she'd say, "Will that be worth seeing?" I'd give an immediate thumbs up or down. She no longer has to ask; I just automatically give the thumbs up/down. She does the same thing when I ask if I'd like the book she's currently reading; just a nod or shake of the head. When I asked her about Crazy Love, she said "You really need to read this." So I bought it.

Trade Paperback; Price = $8.99

The Space Between: A Parent’s Guide to Teenage Development (NF 2009) - Walt Mueller

Sent to me after I made a donation to the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU).

Trade Paperback; Price = $0

Total Expenditures = $43.17

Next Time: What I actually read.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Twilight Zone, Episode 3: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday"

"Mr. Denton on Doomsday" (aired October 16, 1959)

Rod Serling must’ve loved westerns or maybe he simply understood that television audiences of the time loved them. The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel were just a few of the popular westerns on the air in 1959. Serling no doubt realized that western stories might pull in audiences to this weird new show called The Twilight Zone.

Even for seasoned western fans, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” does not disappoint. What easily could have been a cliché-ridden half hour instead becomes a clever, well-produced episode. Al Denton (Dan Duryea), the town drunk, is shown in the opening sequence singing for a drink. Unlike most TV drunks of the time, Denton is truly dirty and sloppy, a staggering mess. Fate literally steps in, allowing Denton a second chance at redemption in the form of a gun. But there’s a price: Denton was once the best gunfighter in the west. Now he’ll have to prove it again and again. It’s what drove him to drink in the first place. So is he now in the midst of deliverance or deeper in despair?

“Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is the first Twilight Zone episode with a true twist at the end, the kind of twist that would help define the series. It’s certainly not in my Twilight Zone Top Ten, but maybe the Top 50. (This episode also features a young Martin Landau and a very young Doug McClure.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Columbine (NF 2009) - Dave Cullen

The front cover of Dave Cullen's Columbine shows a mostly deserted Columbine High School (date undetermined) with a few scattered cars sharing the parking lot with large patches of melted snow. It's a scene you see at countless schools across the country hours after the doors have closed for the day. What makes the cover so striking is that the school grounds only take up a very small portion of the photo. The school is dwarfed by a huge gray sky that seems to stretch on forever.

For a long time, I found myself staring at that photo in wonder. Then I realized that the photo stirred something in me greater than wonder. It haunted me. Then it angered me. Then, strangely, it comforted me.

Although the story of Columine belongs to the students, parents, teachers and surrounding community, it is partly a masterful psychological study of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Harris was the mastermind, a true psychopath that literally saw himself as superior to nearly everyone else around him, a young man filled with absolute hatred for most of the people in his universe. He saw himself as a god, but in fact, he was quite small, a small young man raging against the world. Right or wrong, that's what the photo says to me. That one quiet picture unleashes a whole gamut of emotions that you can't deny while reading Columbine.

Regardless of what you've been told about what happened at Columbine, what you know is probably wrong. Dave Cullen spent nearly ten years researching and writing Columbine, which serves not only as a stellar account of what really happened on April 20, 1999, but also how the media got it wrong.

We were led to believe a group calling itself the Trench Coat Mafia was responsible, that they were hunting down jocks, settling long-standing feuds. None of that is true. The truth is far worse and far more chilling. Cullen shows, citing the killers’ journals, videotaped conversations and eyewitness accounts, that the attack was intended to kill not just a few hated students, but every single person at the school, over 2,000 students and faculty.

Cullen masterfully tells the Columbine story in an unconventional manner, using multiple time lines and points of view. This works because Columbine is such an unconventional story. There had been school shootings before Columbine, many of them, but none were quite like this one. Cullen doesn't pull any punches, but he doesn't exploit his subject either. He's got too much respect for the subject, his audience and his profession. That respect comes across on every page.

Columbine is often a painful book to read, but one we should not shrink away from. It belongs to that community, but it also belongs to all of us. It's a necessary reminder and an essential warning of what did and could happen anywhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

TZ Season One: "One for the Angels"

“One for the Angels” (aired October 9, 1959)

A sidewalk pitchman (“salesmen” we would call them now) named Bookman (Ed Wynn) is approached by Mr. Death (Murray Hamilton), informing him that his time on Earth has come to an end. Bookman begs for a little more time, until he can make one last masterpiece pitch, a big one, one for the angels. When Mr. Death feels he’s been cheated, he threatens to take, instead of Bookman, an eight-year-old girl.

Again, no spoilers, but “One for the Angels” suffers from Mr. Death being inconsistent and in some ways not very smart (unless you consider his actions part of his overall scheme). The episode also suffers from being too sweet, too sentimental, yet its heart is in the right place, allowing Serling to reflect on death and self-sacrifice, themes he would frequently revisit.

Marc Scott Zicree claims that veteran actor Wynn suffers from not portraying a convincing, fast-talking pitchman. I think that’s really the point: Bookman isn’t very good at what he does. He’s not a fast-talker and he’s not an effective salesman. (He even gives some of his products away to children early in the episode, evidencing both his failure as a pitchman and his generosity.) His inadequacies make his quest for the Big Pitch all the more improbable. Yet when the Big Pitch comes, it’s neither convincing to us nor should it be to Mr. Death. (Again, this could be part of Mr. Death’s plan, but I think I’m reading more into the episode than is actually there.)

While far from the best Serling would serve up in the show’s first season, “One for the Angels” is still enjoyable. It’s also fun to see a young Murray Hamilton playing Mr. Death. Hamilton would gain far more attention as Mrs. Robinson’s husband in 1967’s The Graduate and as the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Twilight Zone Season One: "Where Is Everybody?"

"Where Is Everybody?" (aired October 2, 1959)

A man (Earl Holliman) is seen walking through a deserted town. He doesn’t know his name, how he got there or where he’s going. He just wants to find someone, anyone, to talk to. Signs of other people are everywhere: a jukebox blaring in an abandoned cafe, a movie projector running in an empty theater, a freshly lit cigar in an ashtray at a police station desk, a telephone ringing in a phone booth. The man can’t help the feeling that he’s being watched.

It seems ridiculous to raise a spoiler alert to a show that’s half a century old, but I can’t bring myself to give away the ending. It’s an ending that probably carried more impact in 1959 than it does now, yet it still works. What doesn’t work is the man’s constant (and unnatural) commentary on what’s happening to him. (It’s a lesson that Serling would learn and use to his advantage in later episodes.) “Where Is Everybody?” is essentially a one-man show and while the subject matter was somewhat fresh fifty years ago, seeing the episode now is a bit unsatisfying only because we’ve seen "The Last Man on Earth" scenario so many times since. Yet Holliman’s performance contains a certain warmth and charm that’s hard to deny.

“Where Is Everybody?” was TZ’s pilot episode, the show that would either sell the series to the network executives or stop it cold. It was far from the best episode to air (even in the first season) and in many ways uncharacteristic of most of the episodes that would follow. But imagine what might have happened (or not happened) had the pilot episode been “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “Long Live Walter Jameson.” “Where Is Everybody?” did what it was supposed to do: it persuaded CBS to give Serling the green light. After that, there was no turning back.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone

I usually iron for about half an hour, which is about as long as I can stand it. I’m not very good at ironing (which you can no doubt attest to upon seeing me), but I keep at it. After thirty minutes, frustration sets in. (That usually equals one shirt and one pair of pants.) But thirty minutes is plenty of time for an episode of The Twilight Zone to keep me company.

A couple of years ago I bought the first two seasons of The Twilight Zone (The Definitive Edition) at Costco, relatively on-the-cheap. (I hope to buy the remaining three seasons the next time I see them at a good price. Or maybe Santa will bring them?) It’s always fun seeing these episodes, but this past weekend I thought, “What the heck? I’m usually ironing on a regular basis, so why not take a look at some TZ episodes? Why not in the order that they aired?"

Why not?

So I plan to comment on the episodes as I see them in the order they were broadcast from 1959-1964. I’ll be referring quite a bit to Marc Scott Zicree’s excellent book The Twilight Zone Companion, but mostly commenting on...well, what I like. Stay tuned.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Forgotten Film

Last night a woman came into the library with her two daughters who were getting library cards for the first time. They were probably twelve or thirteen and clearly excited. Were they interested in the Twilight books? No. When I asked "Can I help you find anything?" their answers were Pat Benatar and Joan Jett.

Wow. Two names you don't hear every day, not anymore. I found a couple of CDs and showed them where all the books on Rock n Roll are and they were very happy. For some reason the movie Light of Day (starring Joan Jett) popped into my mind. I mentioned it to the girls' mom and she said "I remember that movie. Haven't seen it in years."

I remember seeing that movie in a theater in 1987, thinking that it was good, despite the fact that it was not the rock n roll movie I was expecting. It starred Joan Jett (whom I remember delivered a surprisingly good performance) and Michael J. Fox. I even remember thinking, "I'd like to see this movie again someday" after it was over. But I never did.

Rock n roll was important in the film, but the central focus was family. Fox and Jett played a brother and sister who were in a rock n roll band, much to the displeasure of their parents. (Read Roger Ebert's review from 1987 for more details.) The film was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima.

I'd love to see Light of Day again, but it's currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Graceling (YA 2008) - Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore's YA novel Graceling is far better than its book trailer, which comes as no real surprise. The trailer does give you the basic information: Katsa is a Graceling, a person born with an unusual gift. You can spot Gracelings by their eyes, each a different color. These graces vary in kind and importance: one might be able to talk backwards. Another might be able to predict the weather. Katsa's grace is....well, killing people.

It's a grace she uses in service to her king. She's not required to kill all the time, just when necessary. Often it's her fighting skills that are called upon as in the book's opening. Katsa is sent by the king to rescue a man kidnapped by the leader of another kingdom. While on this mission, Katsa learns that there's more to this rescue mission than she was led to believe. She's about to begin a journey that will reveal things about the seven kingdoms that she's never suspected. And, of course, she's going to learn something about herself. This is, after all, a "quest" fantasy.

Graceling will be familiar enough to most fantasy readers, yet sprinkled with fresh ideas and interesting characters. Sure, there's some formula at work, but the story kept me engaged, although there's a little too much romance for my taste. This is definitely one of the better of the Books for the Beast selections I've read this year. Recommended.

(Note that the new book in the Graceling series, Fire, is actually a prequel.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bullet (June 21, 1998 - October 6, 2009)

Our best friend Bullet left us today. Cindy and I were with him right up to the end as our vet eased his pain and suffering quietly, peacefully and with dignity. He was eleven. We had had him for nearly seven years.

Cindy and I attended a Greyhound Meet & Greet at a local PetSmart in 2001 and fell in love with the breed. I found Bullet through Greyhound Pets of America, an organization that brings former racers from the track when they're no longer deemed "fast enough." Bullet started his racing career in The Woodlands, Kansas (for three races) before settling in Melbourne Beach, Florida where he raced from November 2001 till March 2002. (He won two of those races.)

I don't want to dwell on Bullet too much for now, but do want to celebrate the time we had with him and the great joy he gave us. We miss him. Sleep well, Mr. B.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Books Read September

The Long Goodbye (1953), Farewell My Lovely (1940) - Raymond Chandler

I hadn’t read any Chandler since reading The Big Sleep a few years ago, so taking on two of his novels was a real treat. The Chandler imitators are a dime a dozen, but nobody captures the spirit of hardboiled like Chandler when he’s penning Philip Marlowe tales. Marlowe is a tough, hard-drinking thinker of a private detective getting involved in cases that have no tidy solutions, mostly because, beneath his jaded hard shell, he is a moral man who can’t help but at least try to do the right thing, even at a cost to himself. I love everything about these novels: the gritty L.A. atmosphere, the 1940s and 1950s feel, the language, the femme fatales, everything.

Life As We Knew It (YA 2008) - Susan Beth Pfeffer

(This is one of the ten books I’m reading for Books for the Beast [hereafter referred to as BFTB], an upcoming conference on Young Adult literature.)

I have some problems with Life As We Knew It. The action that gets the story moving involves science. That science is essential to the novel’s premise and while I’m not a scientist, I have researched the premise and think Pfeffer’s premise is, if not wrong, at least weak.

As the book opens, the teenage narrator Miranda tells us (from her diary, a novel format I don’t like to begin with) that the moon was struck by an asteroid and thus moved closer to the earth, creating most of the problems detailed in the rest of the book. From what I could find, such an event is possible in theory, but for any object to have sufficient force to move the moon, it would have to at least equal the moon’s mass. Since the moon is at least 100X larger than the largest known asteroid, Pfeffer’s premise is weak at best. (Dr. Phil, please feel free to provide your expertise on this topic!)

This brings me to my second problem with the book: According to Miranda, the media was all over this event prior to its happening, but no one (especially the scientific community) warned of any potential danger associated with the asteroid striking the moon. Seems unlikely that they would say nothing.

I also felt that Miranda acted like a 12-year-old throughout the book, and not a 16 or 17-year-old. I will say, however, that some of the scenes of what life would be like after such a cataclysmic event are quite effective. Maybe I’m just the wrong audience.

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (NF 2009) - Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh

Thoughts previously published here.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (NF 2005) - Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is always thought-provoking and is also an engaging reader, which is why I listened to this audiobook again after having heard it two years ago. Very interesting stuff.

World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (NF 2008) - Thomas F. Farr

The concepts of democracy and religious liberty are closely tied to our nation’s history, yet the State Department has largely left religion out in matters of U.S. foreign policy. Veteran State Department officer Thomas F. Farr’s book explains why and argues that religious freedom should be an indispensable element of our foreign policy.

The Siege (2009) - Stephen White

I’d never read anything by White before now, but I may keep reading him on the basis of this one. The action takes place at Yale, where someone is holding an unknown number of students inside the building of one of the university’s secret societies. At various intervals, prisoners are released to deliver messages from their captor, messages which are sometimes confusing, sometimes deadly.

Ravens (2009) - George Dawes Green

When a Georgia family wins over $300 million in the lottery, two low-life drifters try to cash in on the winnings by holding members of the family hostage. It seems a lot of reviewers have dismissed Ravens as out-of-control, over the top and simply unbelievable. I think it’s one of the most revealing looks at the culture of greed and, oddly enough, how the Stockholm Syndrome works. (Check out the book trailer on Amazon.)

Unwind (YA 2007) - Neal Shusterman

Thoughts here.

Slammer (2009) - Allan Guthrie

Some people seem to gravitate to the jobs they're least suited for. That's certainly true of Nicholas Glass, a young rookie guard in a Scottish prison for violent offenders. Nick is indecisive, awkward, non-assertive and tentative - attributes that can get you into serious trouble in a prison, especially one like "The Hilton."

It's not long before both the inmates and Nick's co-workers size him up. They can smell fear on a man and it's all over Nick. Yet all Nick wants to do is hold onto the job so he can provide a decent life for his wife and young daughter.

Taunting by both colleagues and inmates escalates until Nick is pushed into a corner faced with a decision: unless he helps a group of inmates, someone on the outside will kill Nick's family.

Guthrie's premise is familiar, but how he handles and develops it is far from routine. Slammer is not only a full-throttle thriller filled with hard-boiled violence, it's also a commentary on what is true, what is false, and the ways we try to convince ourselves we know the difference. A lightning-quick read not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Wake (YA 2008) - Lisa McCann (BFTB)

This story of how Janie, a 17-year-old gets sucked inside other people’s dreams is a nice concept, but sketchy on background and character.

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (NF 2009) - David Dark

Nobody writes on Christianity and culture like David Dark. Dark is always a challenging, but rewarding read.

That's it for what I read in September. Get out there and read something.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

See the Trailer, Buy the Book

Book trailers have been around for a few years now. If you've never seen one, it's like a movie trailer, only for books. Sarah Langan has a trailer for her new book Audrey's Door, which has been a strong contender for my 2009 Halloween read. Thanks to this trailer (which is way creepy), Audrey's Door will no doubt shoot to the top of my Halloween choices. (Thanks to my friend Kelly for bringing this to my attention!)