Friday, September 27, 2013

Books, Books and Comic Books

Here are the latest books I've read:

NON-FICTION

  • Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
    • This was a fascinating book about food and how some of it is manufactured to create "bliss points" and the ideal "mouthfeel".
      • Cheetos are designed to melt as soon as they touch your tongue in a taste of salt and flavoring but your brain apparently never quite registers them as food. So you keep eating them.
      • From my own experience, take Oreos for example. Thinking of them as a snack they really don't don't do anything for me. (My favorite cookie is chocolate chip.) But once I eat just one Oreo I can't get enough of them. And I don't even LIKE them that much!
      • My favorite factoid was that "fruit juice concentrate" is made from mainly grapes and pears from which the peels, fibrous bits and water is removed. That leaves only the fruit sugar. Thus, when a label says it contains "fruit juice concentrate" it sounds good but it really just means more sugar has been added.
  • Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed and Why It Still Matters by Roger G. Charles and Andrew Gumbel
    • Very interesting book about the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City for which two men were deemed responsible. The authors' research indicates that a larger conspiracy was responsible but that once McVeigh took credit the investigators dropped other leads. This means that, if true, a whole bunch of other people got away with the crime.
  • Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
    • I enjoy books about religions and how they came to be. Scientology has the added dimension of a highly visible celebrity component which makes the whole thing kind of gossipy.
  • Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall
    • This was a fun little book. The author presents stories and research about various sleep maladies like night terrors, nightmares, and sleepwalking. 
    • People have killed while sleepwalking. Is it murder?
    • Because of sleep cycles West Coast teams have better odds of winning Monday Night Football than East Coast teams.
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins
    • The evolutionary biologist explains how events earlier civilizations thought was magic (and developed myths to explain them) had scientific explanations.
    • Why are there day and night? What causes earthquakes and tsunamis? What is stuff made of? Who was the first man or woman? (Spoiler: no one.) Ultimately scientific method answered these questions.
    • I love science and I am not a believer of any creation myths so this book, which was beautifully illustrated by artist Dave McKean, was right up my alley.
  • Foundation: The History of England From its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
    • I adore British history!
    • This is only the first volume of the author's history. I have read and studied the Tudor era so I know quite a bit about Henry VIII, James I and Elizabeth I. I am not as knowledgeable about the earlier kings of England. The War of the Roses, the Hundred Years War and so on are harder for me to retain the details. Too many Henrys and Richards! And I can never keep track of all the dukes.
    • In between the history chapters are shorter chapters about the lives of the common people which adds a nice dimension to the story of England.
    • The next volume about the Tudor dynasty comes out soon and I am looking forward to it.
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
    • I really got a lot out of this book. We all have habits good and bad, things we do almost unthinkingly because they are so set in our brains.
      • The author's example is about backing out of the driveway. When we first learn to drive we are overwhelmed with all the information we need to process: start the vehicle, adjust seat and mirrors, look in all the mirrors, engage the gas pedal, etc...
      • But experienced drivers just hop in the car and we rarely need to THINK about the procedures we follow to back out the driveway because the whole process has now become habitual.
      • When you first learn to do something your brain needs to work harder. Once you have done it enough times you have developed pathways in your brain so it doesn't need to work hard anymore. That's why it can be so difficult to break habits: your brain wants to take the easy way out and resort to its old set ways!
  •  Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick
    • This was recommended by Lady Chardonnay and I really liked it. I went through it pretty quickly so I still need to go through it a second time and make a list of the books I somehow missed in my youth.
    • I hadn't even heard of some of these books! During the years when we were supposed to be reading books for book report purposes I was in 7th and 8th grades (I don't recall having to do extra-curricular book reports for any of my high school classes because I think we all read the same book.). I was attending a Catholic school at that point so I am not sure how that might have affected our choice of books on the shelves in our class! 
    • But I know that the library at Sonoma Valley High was pretty good. I checked out books all the time.
    • I went through a phase where I read every available book by Paul Zindel (probably most famous for The Pigman) and there were a bunch of books about the "dark side" of teenage life: Go Ask Alice (drug use), Mr. & Mrs. BoJo Jones (pregnancy), Lisa Bright and Dark (mental illness) and so forth.
    • Ah, the 1970s!
  • The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans by Ned Sublette
    • The author gets a fellowship at Tulane University in New Orleans for the academic year 2004-2005 and is thus living there in the year before Hurricane Katrina hits.
    • It is a memoir about how he and his wife settled in the city but also takes several long trips into the local history, especially the music scene. So many jazz greats were from New Orleans and today several rap stars hail from the city too.
    • One such musician is a man named Buddy Bolden (also known as King Bolden) who played the cornet in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He had some sort of mental troubles (possibly schizophrenia) and he was admitted to an insane asylum in 1907 where he eventually died in 1931. He was a huge influence on the music form that ultimately became jazz.
      • I grew up in New Orleans and its suburbs and I had never even heard of this guy (no known recordings of him exist)! But I just purchased Hugh Laurie's two jazz albums and one of the songs is called "Buddy Bolden's Blues". It sounded familiar to another song on my iPod and it turns out I have another version of that song by Jellyroll Morton from the "Big Ol' Box of New Orleans" CD set I own. I just figured it was about some fictional character. You learn something new every day!
    • In any case, what with the violence and drug dealing in the neighborhood the author and his wife eventually leave earlier than planned. And then the hurricane came.
  • The Revolution was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall
    • This book focuses on the following shows: The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
    • The preface starts off talking about the earlier dramas who broke new ground in their time like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and St. Elsewhere. But these newer shows, especially those from HBO's foray into the original drama programming arena, changed the way we looked at the main characters or heroes.
    • I have only seen three of these shows (Buffy, Lost and Mad Men). We didn't have HBO until about 5 or 6 years ago so I missed those earlier dramas. (Now I watch True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Girls, Veep, and Game of Thrones. We have access to the entire HBO library but I just haven't had the time or interest to go back and watch any of them. Maybe someday. Or not.)
    • I have to admit that I skipped the chapter on Friday Night Lights. I'm sure it was a fine show and a fine chapter but I just had no interest in it.
  • Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
    • Along with British history, I like books about mass killers. I am always fascinated by how people like Manson get these devoted followers. (I don't get it though.)
    • Having read Helter Skelter I knew much of the gist of this book but it adds more about Manson's background and brings everything up to date.
  • Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith
    • This isn't a book written in the normal sense. Rather Goldsmith edits and presents transcriptions of the audio from radio and television broadcasts that occurred during seven events in America: the assassinations of both JFK and RFK, The Challenger shuttle explosion, the Columbine shootings, the fall of the Twin Towers, the murder of John Lennon and the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett (they died the same day).
    • It's really interesting to see that things in the news world haven't changed much. A lot of the reporting is wrong and speculative just like that of breaking events on CNN or Fox news today.
FICTION
  • The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
    • A rare young adult fantasy book that is self-contained in one book!
    • I enjoyed it while I read and liked it but I find it isn't having much "sticking power" in my mind.
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
    • An odd bookstore, even odder customers, a mystical code and the possible secret to eternal life: what's not to enjoy?!
    • A fun book that might make a good movie as so much of it seems visual.
  • The Touch by Colleen McCullough
    • The last book I read by this author was one I DESPISED. But I had bought it eons ago and figured I might as well take a stab at it. It was okay but I am so over Colleen McCullough at this point.
  • Garden of Lies by Eileen Goudge
    • A woman has a baby girl fathered by her lover rather than her husband. Due to a hospital fire she's able to switch her daughter with another baby girl who looks more like the child she might have had with her husband. Then the story follows the two girls from there. This was pretty interesting (despite all the crazy coincidences that make stories like this possible) and has a sequel (which I'm reading now).
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Long Way Home Volume 1
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, No Future for You, Volume 2
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Wolves at the Gate, Volume 3
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Time of Your Life, Volume 4
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Predators and Prey, Volume 5
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Retreat, Volume 6
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Twilight, Volume 7
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Last Gleaming, Volume 8
    • These are compilations of 6 comic book issues each of the so-called "Eighth Season" of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer".
    • Thank goodness for the library. This is the way to read these kind of things.
    • I had to read them all to conclude the storyline but I am not compelled enough to start Season Nine.
  • Angel After the Fall, Volume 1
  • Angel: First Night, Volume 2
  • Angel: After the Fall, Volume 3
  • Angel: After the Fall, Volume 4
  • Angel: Aftermath, Volume 5
  • Angel: Last Angel in Hell, Volume 6
    • These are the compilations of 6 comic book issues each of the "Sixth Season" of "Angel". 
    • Similar to the Buffy comics, this was enough and I am done with them all. Comics just aren't the same as TV in this case.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Anniversaries of September

CPA Boy and I had our 22nd wedding anniversary yesterday. We celebrated by having a late lunch at The Cheesecake Factory, watching a little TV and having the thermocouple (or something like that) replaced on our water heater. Yes, we know how to live it up, lemme tell ya!

My best friend Lady Chardonnay and I first met on September 21, 1980 so we have been friends for 33 years. In January we will reach the milestone of 1/3 of a century as best friends.

Meanwhile, she and her honey, aka Mr. Lady Chardonnay, will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary tomorrow. Hmm, as a blog nickname, "The Professor" might be better but then it makes it seem as though he's a cast member of "Gilligan's Island" so we'll stick with Mr. Lady C. (Wait, shouldn't it be Dr. Mr. Lady C?!)

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Jazz Singer


Over the weekend I watched "The Jazz Singer" (starring Al Jolson) for the very first time.


Turner Classic Movies started showing the documentary "The Story of Film" (it will run for about 15 weeks on Monday nights) last week and as part of it they are showing some of the movies discuss in that week's installment.

Hasn't everyone heard of "The Jazz Singer"? The first feature-length "talkie" and all that? Or have seen clips of one of the songs, probably "My Mammy"?

And for the record I actually saw the Neil Diamond-Lucia Arnaz version in 1980 or 1981. In those college days we saw movies all the time. The movie is nothing to blog about but the songs from the film were all hits for Neil Diamond: "America", "Hello Again" and "Love on the Rocks".

The Jolson version is basically a silent film --- lots of title cards standing in for dialogue like other silent films of the era. There is a musical score throughout and some sound effects are included. Then there are sound sequences whenever there is a song. Some songs take place in the synagogue and some are pop songs of the day.

The movie itself is surprisingly compelling. Jolson's dad is portrayed by Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who spent his career playing Asian characters (most notably Charlie Chan). Will Jack Robin (the former Jakie Rabinowitz) sing in his father's place for Yom Kippur services or will he make his Broadway debut?

The acting is much as you'd expect from a silent film. To our modern eyes it's even kind of terrible! But overall I think it is pretty good for its time.

It's still kind of hard to understand --- again, to my modern eyes --- how Al Jolson was such a HUGE star in those days. But star he was even though he is mainly forgotten today except for this film. Fame is fleeting indeed.

One small complaint is that Jolson was kinda old for the role of the kid who left home to make good in show business. But this is a fact of Hollywood that still exists today. I looked up his age; he was born in 1886 and the movie was made in 1927 so he was about 41 at the time. But one thing about the early 20th Century is that people always seem to look so much older than their actual ages.

Here's a still from the movie:
It's a scene of Jack (Al's character) and his mother. The actress (Eugenie Besserer) was born in 1868 so she was about 59. Al Jolson looks at least that old too!

Think about it. Here are a few actors around 41 and 42 years old now: Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Nathan Fillion, Vince Vaughn, and Ethan Hawke. Freaky. Even the guys in their 50s look pretty good: George Clooney, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Tom Cruise and so on.

The one part of "The Jazz Singer" that's controversial is the fact that part of it is performed by Jolson in blackface. He performs "My Mammy" in blackface (though he's directing his performance to his own mother) and acts in one sequence in his dressing room after he's made up. Some critics contend that Jolson used blackface as a "metaphor of mutual suffering" of both blacks and Jews.

You can find many articles on the Internet about this subject so I won't go into it further than to say that you can find many examples of blackface in classic movies, usually in some musical number. There's nothing like watching a wholesome Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney film and all of a sudden, there they are, performing in blackface!

I still have so many other movies recorded on the DVR! But at least I filled in another brick of my classic film education!