Saturday, March 30, 2002

Just finished: Christmas in Plains: Memories by Jimmy Carter. This very short book is basically exactly what the title says: a collection of memories of Christmas by former President Carter, mostly (but not exclusively) about his childhood in Plains, Georgia. It's a fairly straightforward and earnest little work, and it has a number of interesting anecdotes about Carter's early life. (My favorite involves the grapefruit truck that accidentally dumps its load on the road, and then the poor people of Plains scrambling to recover the grapefruits which they see as a wonderful bounty -- until, that is, they make their first ever attempts at actually consuming a grapefruit.) The book is unabashedly sentimental, and can be read through in a single evening -- it took me only a couple of hours. Not bad if you go for this sort of family remembrance (it's not a large enough work to be considered a "memoir"); for me it suffered a bit in that I read it outside the Christmas season. I imagine that during the Holidays this book might resonate more than it did. I found it nice and enjoyable.

(Side note, having nothing to do with the content of the book: it is illustrated by Amy Carter, the President's daughter. I found these illustrations -- simple pen-and-ink drawings -- horrid. That's just pure personal taste, though.)


It turns out that my Image of the Week, which I cited as a wonderful example of Byzantine mosaic, might not even be a mosaic at all. Rather, it could very well be a painting on wood. A misreading on my part led to my error, which I discovered when I encountered the same image on a different site which made clear that the image is a wood painting. That being the case, here's an actual example of Byzantine mosaic. Note, again, the details present in the color gradations of Christ's hair and beard. Note, again, the "glowing" nature of the work. And note Your Narrator covering up a moderately embarrassing goof. Sigh....

Major League Baseball's 2002 season is about to begin. In that spirit I offer this prediction, which will no doubt take its place in the hallowed halls of the most daring predictions of all time:

....wait for it.... it comes....

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be lousy.

You read it here first.

Thursday, March 28, 2002

In the space of twenty-four hours we lost Dudley Moore, Milton Berle, and now -- to me the cruelest of all -- Billy Wilder. Three that shall be missed most dearly.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Some people really want to build a space elevator. Part of me thrills to this idea; another part of me -- having read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy -- is scared by giving the bin Ladens of the world such a tempting target. But that, I suppose, would be a point in favor of building it.

And what a sight that cable would be! I wonder how far away from the Earthbound-terminal one could be and still see the thing. I wonder how much economic activity would spring up around that terminal, wherever it is. I wonder where that terminal would be, in the first place -- someplace with a high level of geological stability, I would assume. That would leave out California. This looks like a job for Nebraska.

(Thanks to Sean for the link.)

Reviews of John Williams's score to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones are starting to pop up on the Web and Usenet, including this one from Ain't It Cool News. The good news is that so far the buzz on the score is very positive. The bad news is that the thing isn't going to be released until April 23. It's going to be a long four weeks....

(....assuming, of course, that I do not succumb to temptation and track down the MP3's of the thing that are circulating now....must resist the Dark Side....)


Icon of Christ Pantokrator, Mount Athos Monastery

I've been somewhat interested in Byzantine mosaic ever since I read Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology, in which the protagonist is a mosaicist. There is something fascinating in a wondrous image being constructed from thousands of tiny pieces of glass. Particularly amazing is the detail in Christ's beard -- no uniform brown, but definite contours and light patches. I had never realized that this level of detail is possible in mosaic; the mosaics that I have seen tend to be done with larger tesserae, giving the images a "boxy" look not unlike the graphics on early-1980s home video game systems. Also fascinating is the fact that the images in the mosaics are so dependent on light heightens the religiosity of the image. A well-done mosaic, lit well, seems to glow under its own power. It is no wonder the Byzantines used mosaic so extensively in their religious iconography.

(Click on the image to see the Byzantine Studies page at Fordham University, where I found it.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

I posted a long-winded review of Howard Shore's Oscar-winning score to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to the newsgroup. It can be read, via Google, here.

Monday, March 25, 2002

I keep repeating to myself, like a Zen mantra, "The Oscars are meaningless....the Oscars are meaningless....the Oscars are meaningless...." Or, I borrow from William Goldman: "There is no 'best'....there is no 'best'....there is no 'best'...."

....and yet I'm still annoyed that Ian McKellan didn't win an Oscar. Oh well, maybe the Academy is waiting to see what he does in The Two Towers, when Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White....or maybe they're just a bunch of dingbats. I'd like to believe the former, but I fear that the "dingbat" theory will have to hold sway for now.

But at least they made up for it by finally giving Randy Newman an Oscar. What a fine, fine songwriter and musician. What belated recognition. (Not so belated as Cary Grant, who was the Ernie Banks of Oscars, but still belated.)

Saturday, March 23, 2002

Until today, if asked to name the single worst decision made by a sports figure in the last year (meaning decisions directly related to onfield-happenings, leaving out things like Jeff Kent's apparent motorcycle ride/truck washing), I would have named St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz's bizarre decision in the Super Bowl to only give Marshall Faulk seventeen carries, despite the facts that Faulk averaged 4.5 yards per carry in that game and the Patriots played the entire game in a defensive scheme that practically rolled out the red carpet for a power running game. That was a godawful decision, and because of that the Rams are runners-up.

But the worst sports decision has to be Michelle Kwan's dismissal of her longtime coach, Frank Carroll. Kwan lost again to Irina Slutskaya, this time at the World Figure Skating Championships in Nagano. Her skating since she decided to go it alone has been tentative and sloppy, nothing like what had previously been expected from Kwan. As for Carroll? His current star, American Timothy Goebel, like Kwan took bronze at the Olympics and silver at World's. But Goebel's star is on the rise. Kwan's is supposed to be shining brightly; instead it is on the wane.

One of the better writers of the space opera subgenre in science fiction is Timothy Zahn. His novels set in the Star Wars universe are probably the best available, and I've just finished Conquerors' Heritage, the second volume in his Conquerors trilogy. This is the story of a war between spacefaring humanity and what is at first presented as a ruthless conquering alien race called the Zhirzh. However, the second book of the trilogy is told from the Zhirzh point of view, and the war takes on a new light as it becomes clear that the whole thing is the sad result of a series of unfortunate mistakes, blunders, and failures of understanding. One of these errors is fairly obvious well before it is revealed at the end of Book Two, and the Zhirzh -- despite some interesting cultural habits -- don't seem "alien" enough. Zahn hasn't quite met John Campbell's challenge of showing an alien who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man. Those are really mere quibbles, though. Zahn tells a tight story with interesting subplots that come together in unexpected ways. I'm looking forward to reading the third book in this trilogy.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Congratulations to Timothy Goebel, who just won the silver at the World Figure Skating Championships in Nagano, Japan. (Of course, had Evgeny Pleshenko competed Goebel probably would have finished bronze.) As for the new World Champion, what can be said? Alexei Yagudin is far and away better than anyone else skating right now.

Just finished: Piano Lessons: Music, Love and True Adventures by Noah Adams. Adams, a commentator for NPR, wrote this book to recount a year he spent attempting to learn how to play the piano. It's a charming book that tells the story of what might be considered a kind of "midlife crisis".

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

There is always something kind of goofy about the World Championships of Figure Skating during Olympic years. They're always held just a month or so after the Games, and they invariably feel a tad anticlimactic, especially since just about all of the skaters use the exact same programs with which they competed in the Olympics, and some of the newly-crowned Olympic champions or runners-up end up not competing at Worlds. Notable absences this year include America's Sarah Hughes and Russia's Evgeny Pleshenko. (Not that it matters in the latter case; Alexei Yagudin right now is the skating equivalent of the 1990s Chicago Bulls.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

It's funny how we long to visit places that are far away, and yet we so often don't know what's in our own backyards. Years of living in Western New York, and I didn't know anything about this place until today.

Monday, March 18, 2002

The Simpsons delivered its best episode in quite some time last night, a hilarious take on three classic stories: The Odyssey, the tale of Joan of Arc, and Hamlet. As is usually the case in these types of episodes, the Simpsons themselves play the main characters with the regular townsfolk rounding out the supporting cast. Having Mayor Quimby as Zeus and the Old Sea Captain as Poseidon were brilliant touches, as was Moe as Claudius in Hamlet. The show doesn't hit these heights nearly as often or as consistently as it used to, but it's nice to see that they can still pull one out once in a while.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

The second installment of NPR's annual survey of Oscar-nominated filmscores is here. This week's discussed scores are Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (John Williams) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore).

I finished Aaron Copland's book What To Listen For In Music today. It is an excellent volume, designed to introduce laypeople to the inner workings and complexities of classical music. Copland's language is never overly technical, and people wishing to start digging beneath the appeals of mere surface beauty to find deeper pleasures in music will be hard-pressed to find a better starting point.

It would be interesting if an edition of this book could be released that includes a CD of some of the works Copland discusses, because as he himself notes many, many times: proper enjoyment of music must involve listening, and listening to music is always preferable to reading a dozen books on music. Books like Copland's make for smarter listeners, which is all to the good. Reading this book I was constantly reminded of something Leonard Bernstein wrote in his wonderful The Infinite Variety of Music: We hear too much music, allowing it to become background filler material for our lives rather than attending to it as art in its own right, something in which to be engaged rather than something allowed to wash over us. A book like this, well-written, will create a keen feeling of curiosity in the reader, a desire to go out and learn more about the subject at hand. What To Listen For In Music absolutely succeeded on that level.

I've added a permanent link to The Berlioz Society, dedicated to the greatest of all French composers. His bicentennary is approaching next year. (Mini-rant: As much as I love the Impressions de France film at Epcot, it annoys me that it purports to include music from France's great composers, and yet includes not a note by Berlioz.)

The Man With the Golden Gun is probably the most problematic of the James Bond films. It has moments when it is very, very good; it also has moments when it is bone-chillingly awful. On balance, I have to say that I like it; its photography is too beautiful, John Barry's score is excellent, Roger Moore settles into the role much more nicely than he did in Live and Let Die, and Christopher Lee makes a wonderful Bond villain. We always talk about "chemistry" as it applies to two romantic leads, but there also has to be a kind of "chemistry" between a hero and the villain. TMWTGG has that chemistry in spades, in the idea that Bond and Scaramanga are the best in the world at what they do, and that in the end only one of them can survive. (Hmmm....give them both swords and this could be a Highlander movie.) This plays out in a gun-duel on Scaramanga's South China Sea island, and that sequence really is filled with tension. There is a genuine sense that Bond has, in fact, met an equal among all the villains with whom he tangles. I like that a lot.

Of course, it's not enough for a Bond film to have the bad guy simply want to do Bond in; there has to be some kind of "world-domination" plot. The one in TMWTGG makes amazingly little sense, and as such I tend to completely ignore it. It's really more of a Macguffin than anything else, designed to fill out the film's running time and provide for the requisite "escape from an exploding fortress" that caps off most Bond films. The film's attempts at scientific-sounding lingo surrounding this plot (something to do with hyper-efficient solar cells) are laughable.

The film continues, to some degree, with the sexism of Live and Let Die, with Bond clearly viewing women as nothing but sex objects. However, it isn't quite as obnoxious as in the previous film. There is even a fairly amusing scene where Bond is actually rejected by the girl as he attempts to wine-and-dine her; he attributes his failure to get her into bed to the Chinese sparkling wine they had with dinner, a brand he has clearly never encountered before.

The action sequences in TMWTGG aren't really anything to write home about, except for the gun duel. A couple of them are almost painful to watch, simply because someone thought it a bright idea to bring back Sheriff JW Pepper, a character stunning in his annoying-ness.

In summation: there is a lot to like in The Man With the Golden Gun, but there is a lot to dislike as well.

Saturday, March 16, 2002

SFSite's mid-March update has taken place. The highlight is an interview with author Gene Wolfe, one of SF and Fantasy's finest writers.

Friday, March 15, 2002

Random complaint #489: Can we come up with a new metaphor for a sports team that plays beyond expectations and earns a shot at the title? Today I saw a headline in the sports page: "Wyoming Steals Gonzaga's Slippers". I think it's time to officially retire the "Cinderella" metaphor from sports writing. (And besides, Gonzaga is playing -- or was playing -- in its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament. At what point is a team no longer a Cinderella team, and just a regular old, garden-variety good team?)

It's a good month for lovers of Miklos Rozsa's film music: new remastered releases of King of Kings and Lust For Life. Rozsa is one of the greatest of all film composers, up there with John Williams, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Bernard Herrmann. Any new release of his music is cause for celebration.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Remember that stunning photograph of the Afghan refugee from National Geographic Magazine in the mid-1980s? It has arguably become National Geographic's most famous photograph, being featured in many retrospectives of the magazine since then. Well, the woman -- who was anonymous at the time -- has been found again, alive in Afghanistan. She is older now, and a mother, but her eyes are still that same piercing green. Read the MSN article here.

Image: National Geographic Cover Gula

Read this week: "The Crowd", a short story by Ray Bradbury, from his classic collection The October Country. Bradbury is typically considered a science-fiction author, but his work in the horror field is extensive; he, Harlan Ellison, and Richard Matheson probably constitute some kind of Trinity of short-story horror writers. The October Country is a seminal collection of Bradbury's work, and "The Crowd" is a brilliant and disturbing work that asks the question: just how does that crowd that always gathers around a horrible accident always form so quickly? Good stuff, this. Bradbury is an essential writer of horror.

Monday, March 11, 2002

(Note: This is a story that I wrote shortly after the events of 11 September 2001. Its genesis was in a simple image that haunted me for quite a while afterward. I originally thought to write it as a poem, but I am not a good poet. This story was rejected by one market, and I have never submitted it anyplace else as I am quite ambivalent about the results I achieved. Nevertheless, I offer it here as some kind of offering in memory of those lost.)

The City of Dead Works

There is never any rest for me, the Ferryman of the Dead.

I pole my barge across the black waters and up to the pier. So many wait this time, many more than usual. I wonder what has happened, what event has sent me this many. "Come aboard," I say. "I will take your coin for passage." One by one they file past me, each handing to me the coin that they never knew they had. It is the coin which determines where they shall be taken to rest, its metal shaped and determined by life. The coins of these dead are gold, every one of them purest gold. Six thousand come aboard my barge, and each has passage for the farthest and greatest of destinations. In that moment I know that something truly dark has happened; the gold coins are always forged in moments of darkness. I am the Ferryman. I can give them no answers to what lies behind their haunted, questioning eyes. I can only take them on this, the last of all journeys.

When they are all aboard I take up the pole and push away from the pier. The barge always feels the same, no matter how many stand upon its decks. Whether six or six thousand, it is all the same to me. I guide us out onto the River Styx. Some of the people look worried, but there is no need for fear. This river can do them no harm. They are already dead.

This is to be a long journey, I know – it always is, to this destination. As I guide the barge through the black waters, I look on the faces of those who have come to me. As different as these people all look, they all have the same expressions of shock, disbelief, and withering sadness. Here is a man of business, talking into a cell phone. He is trying to call someone, anyone, who will tell him that it’s all a dream, that it didn’t happen, that he didn’t die in a blast of fire, smoke, glass and steel. There is a mother who is explaining to her daughter that they won’t be going to Disneyland after all. And there, a group of firemen stand together, realizing that soon they will meet all their brothers-in-arms who have gone into the infernos before them. So many now – colleagues once in business and now colleagues in death, people who have never before met but now have the gravest thing in common. As the current takes hold, I look back at the pier. There are more gathering there. There are always more. They will wait. Time does not exist for the dead.

"Please," a young man says as he turns to me, "I have to go home to my daughters."

"You are going home now," I reply. "To the home where all eventually return." Two black rocks slide past on either side, the rocks that mark the passage of the circling Styx.

"This can’t be," a woman cries out. "My mother needs me."

"She will be with you soon enough."

"When?" Her voice pleads, and yet there is no solace that is mine to give.

"I cannot say," I reply. "The Ferryman has no hand in Fate."

The tears come then, tears from the six thousand that run over the gunwales and into the river which has been fed by tears for centuries. All tears are born in the River Styx.

"Where will you take us?" someone asks.

"To the place you are promised," I answer. I recall the words of a poet: Will there be beds for all who seek? Yea, beds for all who come.

One our left we approach the Hills of the Damned, an endless stretch of shattered lands which reach away into the blackness. The waters echo with the cries of all those who have been taken to the Hills for the agony they have brought on the living. I consider the bag of six thousand gold coins, and I realize that I will have to journey to the Hills this day. There will be a person, perhaps more, who will pay me with a coin of black tin; but not on this journey. As the hills recede behind us, the unending cries of the damned become fainter and fainter until they are drowned out by the lapping of the waters upon the sides of the boat and the marker stones that we pass. The six thousand fall silent, each realizing that it is not a dream. I would offer solace, but as ever I cannot. I am the Ferryman.

We come around a particularly dark bend, and before us lies a very wide expanse of water, as if the Styx has become an ocean – which in some sense it probably has. And beyond that expanse are the thousands of twinkling lights that I have come to know so well. One man, a fireman, sees them too. "What is that?" he asks.

"It is the City of Dead Works," I reply. The lights of the city glow on the horizon, and every one of the six thousand turns toward them as the Styx impels us onward. As we come ever closer to the city, the glittering lights reflect off the black water.

"I don’t understand," someone else says. "The City of Dead Works?"

"Aye," I reply. "Behold!"

From behind us, golden light: the Sun of the Dead is rising as it always does when the dead come near the City. Above us the firmament is turning purple, then blue; soon the light of the Sun will illuminate the City of Dead Works. As the sky lightens, the true scope of that city becomes plain: it stretches away into the land, farther than any eye could see. Not even the highest-soaring raven, cavorting in the breezes and zephyrs of the dead, could take it all in. It is bigger by far than any one city ever built by the hand of men, because it encompasses some part of all of them. Perhaps it is bigger than all of the cities ever built. Now the sun’s first rays come up behind us, and the first buildings can be seen down by the water.

"That one looks Egyptian," a woman says.

"The Great Library of Alexandria," I tell her. "Once the greatest repository of learning the world had ever seen, now only a memory to the living and a reality only to the dead."

A man points to a building high upon a rock. I nod.

"The Temple of Solomon," I say.

"There are ships in the harbor," says another. Thus for him I name the ships: Arizona, Indianapolis, Lusitania, Bismarck, Wilhelm Gustloff, Cap Arcona. And many, many others. I scan over the impossibly vast city and spot Dresden, as it was; and beside it the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And how many smaller villages, tucked into the hills beyond the City? None can say. The Sun of the Dead shines upon those hills now, and the great stone statues in the likeness of Siddhartha Gautama.

"I don’t understand," a young man says. "Why this City? Why here?"

I only shake my head as we continue to float by the City. I do not point out the fairly small, nondescript office building that sits near the water. It is not a particularly remarkable building; nor was it, really, until the fuse was lit. The six thousand almost don’t recognize it.


Not one word is uttered as we slide past the Alfred Murrah Federal Building. Then we turn away from the City of Dead Works, and head again down the waters of the Styx toward distant hills and the place where these people will join their brethren.

"Who lives in that city?" It is a priest in a fireman’s coat.

"No one lives there," I tell him. "The City of Dead Works is not for people. It is for the buildings and the ships. It is for the books and the music, the sculptures and the paintings which are gone forever. It is for everything destroyed by craven people in the name of foolish wars, for everything judged forfeit in the face of transitory desires."

The Styx takes us into the Golden Hills. Soon we will be there, and the six thousand will go where they belong. And then the Styx will complete its circle, taking me back to the pier where more dead await.

"We will be there soon," I say. "Soon we will be at the Elysian Fields, where all heroes go – for that is what you all are. It is what you have bought with your lives, with the shaping of your coins into gold." No one replies. We near the last bend now, and before us lie the Elysian Fields, where peace reigns and where heroes dwell; where all is light and voices are always raised in song. The Sun of the Dead shines warmly on Elysium.

But they do not see it. They, the six thousand, all gaze back behind us upon the City of Dead Works. It will soon be behind us forever as we round the last bend of the River Styx into Elysium. I know they all need one last look upon that City, and I do not grudge them that. For myself, I do not look back; the eyes of the Ferryman are ever forward. But I know. I know that the City of Dead Works is different now. I know that it has changed. I know that the people who come with me now to Elysium, the dead around me, look back on the two soaring towers of steel that now rise above the City where there had been no towers before.

I know these things.

I am the Ferryman of the Dead.


Six months.

I'm amazed that it has been that long. I was getting in my car and on my way to work when I heard the news on the radio: an airplane had struck the World Trade Center; details were still sketchy and more would be said as they became available. I was envisioning a Piper Cub or some such thing, not a jetliner. And certainly not both buildings being hit. I switched to NPR, and they hadn't broken the story yet either; Morning Edition's Bob Edwards finally said something about both buildings being hit while I was sitting in a drive-thru, waiting for a bagel. It is that incongruity which strikes me to this day: learning of what is perhaps the pivotal historical event of our time in so mundane a setting. Of course, there is nothing unique in that; in fact, it's just one more thing that ties the generations together. My mother learned of JFK's death while she was upstairs folding the sheets.

It's always impossible to judge a film by its trailer, but the trailer that aired last night on FOX for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was a pretty amazing thing to watch. So far Lucas has given us a trailer that highlights the love story and Anakin's movement to the Dark Side; now he gives us a trailer that highlights the story's epic scope and the galactic-scale events that will transpire in the new film. Is it May yet???? (Actually, I'd settle for April 23, when the film's score is to be released on CD.)

Sunday, March 10, 2002

NPR's program Weekend Edition Sunday has begun its yearly examination of the five Oscar-nominated film scores. Check it out here.

ABC's Bond movie of the week last night was Live and Let Die, which is without possible question the worst of all the Bond films. Yep, I said worst. The film that I see most often cited as the worst, A View to a Kill, is nowhere near as bad as this film. Let me count the ways that Live and Let Die is horrible:

1. It's the most sexist Bond film ever. Now, the Bond films will never be listed in Great Cinematic Hallmarks of Women's Equality, but a nadir was reached with this one. Here we have women more blatantly manipulated as sex objects than in any other Bond flick, with Bond stacking the deck of Tarot cards for no other reason than he wants to get it on with Solitaire. The other women are portrayed as stupid and incompetent.

2. It's the most racist Bond film ever. Yes, it was made in 1972, but so what? Casablanca was made thirty years before that, and it managed to give us a black character that wasn't a complete caricature. This film's blacks are either stupid or evil, and in a few cases are stupid and evil. Yaphet Kotto actually played a halfway decent villain, but every other black in the film reeks with the air of stereotype and disdain.

3. The film isn't content to paint its women and black characters with a stereotypical brush. We also get some Southerners, the type who would later be seen in The Dukes of Hazzard. There is a writer out there, somewhere, who thought that the character of Sheriff JW Pepper was a good idea.

4. This criticism probably isn't fair, but the film's automobiles are all those ugly, gigantic 1970s gas-guzzlers that you now see populating junk lots. Cars in a Bond film should never be ugly.

5. Q does not appear at all in this film.

6. The film's action sequences are dull, dull, dull. The only moment of any excitement at all is the moment when Bond escapes the alligator farm, but then we head into a speedboat chase that goes nowhere.

7. The theme song to Live and Let Die, by Paul McCartney and Wings, would actually be one of the better Bond songs if not for the ridiculous middle "funk" section ("When you got a job to do you gotta do it well....") that sticks out like a sore thumb. The film's music isn't horrible, but John Barry is certainly missed.

Live and Let Die is not the film that started the trend in Bond films toward self-parody (that would be Diamonds Are Forever, Connery's last official Bond film), but this film picked that ball up and ran with it. Roger Moore is typically blamed for this, but I've always wondered: to what extent is the actor to blame for deficiencies in the material to begin with? Once the self-parody trend wore off in For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore was able to demonstrate that he could bring just as much gravity and lethal cunning to the Bond part as Connery.

Next up (I think): The Man With the Golden Gun.

Saturday, March 09, 2002

I've added a link to the left to a place I had totally forgotten about, though I used to frequent the place quite often: Odin's Castle. This is a site designed to be a clearing house on the Web for other sites devoted to history, mythology, and literature. There are a lot of excellent resources here. Check it out.

The most underrated, ignored, and generally shafted show on network television, Once and Again, again appears to have its neck on the chopping block. ABC has moved the show around its schedule for three years, and still it has a dedicated audience; however, when a show moves that much it doesn't get a chance to develop much more than that devoted audience. It is now on Mondays, and this appears to be its last chance to generate sufficient ratings to be renewed. A website devoted to saving the show, with a link to an online petition, can be found here.

Friday, March 08, 2002

Standard operating procedure here is for us to watch Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Thursday nights, after Friends. However, our ABC affiliate decided to air the current incarnation of Billy Graham, so for some unknown reason I watched the second half of last night's Survivor episode. Why on earth are people still watching this stuff? To me it all looks the same: a bunch of narcissistic TV-star wannabes wandering around some godforsaken place, scrounging for water, complaining about one another, babbling into the camera about how "[Person X] isn't doing squat to help the team/tribe/group". They then gather for some kind of inane contest -- last night's involved eating fish that was allowed to go rancid, making me wonder if the contestants had to sign a waiver pledging not to sue CBS if they ended up with food poisoning -- after which the losers head to an equally inane ritual with torches, a bonfire, and that Wonder-Bread host quizzing them about how things have gone wrong for them, how they'll get back together as a team, et cetera. Then we get the montage of people writing names on fake parchment while dramatic music plays, and then Mr. Wonder-Bread reads the votes in an order preselected to heighten the drama, and then the ceremonial extinguishing of the torch, blah blah blah blah....I never cared for Survivor in its first incarnation, with its celebration of sneakiness and smarm in the name of "playing the game", but at least it was something I hadn't seen before. Now, having watched exactly one episode of the Australian version, not a single minute of the African version, and only thirty minutes of this incarnation, I can honestly say: It's time for Survivor to go. Would the last one to leave the island please turn out the lights?

Ah, spring in Buffalo: when fifty-five degree sunny days are followed by thirty-three degree snowy ones. But at least our summers have never, not once since they started keeping the stats, hit one hundred degrees.

The Bills signed linebacker London Fletcher from the St. Louis Rams yesterday. He replaces Sam Cowart, who went to the New York Jets. Cowart is an outstanding athlete, but he has had problems with injuries and missed all of last season after getting hurt in the first game. Ah well, take heart, Jets fans: if Cowart stays healthy, your team just picked up a hell of a linebacker.

ER was actually decent last night, although the effort to create a kind-of Breakfast Club story using the romantically-entangled Carter, Luca, Susan and Abby was rather forced. Still, it was nice to see a different kind of storytelling on the show, one which didn't rely on wild and gory medical traumas and the impending demise of Dr. Greene. Of course, they made clear in the preview for next week that the Greene death-watch begins in earnest next week, with the sepulchral voice over intoning "From now on....every minute matters....every patient he sees...." while Dr. Greene walks in slow-motion toward the camera. Ick.

CSI, on the other hand, was as entertaining as always with a story involving the murder of four Buddhist monks, shot in the head at point blank range while they were praying. The "third-eye" imagery of the bulletholes was a nice detail. What an excellent show -- all the better because it actually shows science being done right, instead of resorting to lame pseudoscientific rubbish.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Continuing my fascination with All Things Presidential, I am almost finished reading Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times by Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps. The book is a fascinating look into the life of a White House reporter, a life which is a delicate balance of long hours, wearying travel, occasionally lousy food, coffee by the gallon, arrogant press secretaries, presidents suspicious of the press, and a front-row seat for historical events. Thomas tells her story engagingly, arranging the book around themes rather than simply delivering a sequential account of her life, which is a wise choice. It enables her to concentrate on her larger theme, the way the relationship between President and Press has changed since she arrived in the White House press corps in 1961, beginning a career which would include every administration since John F. Kennedy.

It is clear, pretty much from the outset, that she does not think that that relationship has changed for the better. She describes how she enjoyed personal, and fairly frequent, interviews with Lyndon Johnson; but as time has gone by the various press secretaries have become more involved in public relations than in the dissemination of information to the public. She relates one incident when she and Sam Donaldson attempted posing a question to President Reagan during a photo op, only to have the president glance at his top aides before replying, "I can't answer that. They won't let me." Thomas and Donaldson protested that Reagan was the president, to no avail. She also takes President Clinton to task for his own cynical use of the media.

It is always fascinating to read these first-hand accounts of events in our government, and Thomas's book is welcome in that regard.

The West Wing had an excellent episode last night, although it was slightly marred by NBC's ludicrous advertising leading up to it -- "The First Lady drops a bombshell! Don't miss the last five minutes!!!" Well, it wasn't really a bombshell -- just a fine character moment as the First Lady resolves a personal issue arising from her secret medication of the President, something contrary to medical ethics. The way NBC was promoting the show, I half-expected Mrs. Bartlett to reveal her secret lover or something. (Well, not really; Aaron Sorkin is a far, far better writer than that.) Anyway, it was great to see a return to what made me love the show in the first place: a character-driven show laden with intricate dialogue, self-referential jokes, and multiple storylines that demonstrated that politics can be as personal as public.

Now, if they'd just show the Emily Procter character more....say, every episode....

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

It really pays to check out the "bargain" table at Borders. While shopping there a few weeks ago, I took a passing glance at the bargain table and saw several copies of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, marked down to $9.99. That's a hell of a bargain, given that the book's original price is $40.00, and the normal markdown at Amazon is still $28.00. The book is a lavish volume that details a large number of mythical realms from literary works. Entries include Middle Earth, Narnia, Never-Never Land, Fionavar, Flatland, the various places to which Gulliver travels, and more. Any lover of fantasy should have this book, and having it for one-fourth the publisher's price is even better.

Monday, March 04, 2002

Ever a sucker for fantastic stories involving baseball, I enjoyed a new story by Gardner Dozois that appears in the current issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, entitled "The Hanging Curve". In the story, the scene is set with the ultimate baseball situation: the top of the ninth in the World Series, Game Seven, and the home team (in this case the Phillies) are one strike away from winning it all (against the Yankees, who are only down by a single run and have a man on base). The pitcher winds up, throws, and then the ball stops midway to the plate. It simply stops in midair, and all efforts to move it are met with complete failure. The ball becomes, literally, a hanging curve -- hanging there, in the air, for years as the players and then the game itself pass on. This striking image becomes the obsession of the home-plate umpire, who returns more than fifty years later to witness the ball's sudden conclusion of its original journey. Analyzing the angle the ball takes as it flies through the spot where a catcher's mitt once would have been, the umpire reveals what has been on his mind all these years: whether that pitch was a strike or a ball. The story is a nifty allegory about how, in the face of events of such unbelievable strangeness, we can still focus to exclusion of all else on those things that matter most to us.

The story also includes a few other neat details, such as Game Seven of a World Series only drawing ten thousand or so fans. Who knows how far in the future Dozois has envisioned this tale taking place, but to anyone alarmed by the recent refusal of baseball to clean up its act, such an image is very cautionary indeed.

(Gardner Dozois, by the way, is the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and of the yearly anthology series The Year's Best Science Fiction, as well as an impressive number of other anthologies in SF. He is also, by the evidence presented in this story, a fine writer.)

Sunday, March 03, 2002

Scully's baby is in mortal danger, Mulder is in hiding, and The X-Files is wallowing in disarray. It's a shame to see the show sinking slowly, but I can at least take heart in that Chris Carter has decided to pull the plug rather than keep flogging it any longer. Two years ago (or thereabouts) the show lost that feeling that it was actually building toward something, that there was a "truth" that really was "out there". I will grant that the mytharc involving Baby William has to a small extent restored that feeling, but so many plot threads have been left behind that I really don't think any satisfying resolution is now possible. Oh well, just a few more episodes to go and then the whole thing is history. (And next week's bonus: the new Star Wars Episode II trailer will air on FOX, just before The X-Files. Can't wait for that.)

Saturday, March 02, 2002

NPR's Morning Edition featured an interview with film composer John Williams yesterday. Listen to it here.

Just when I thought that ER was returning to something similar to its former glory, it showed some signs that all is still not well the other night. First, we get a cameo by Eriq La Salle. Nothing wrong there, as he is a fine actor and his character was central to the show for many years, but earlier this season we were given a Very Special Episode in which we were supposed to "say goodbye to Dr. Benton". But, it turns out that La Salle's contract wasn't actually up; he still owed them some episodes -- which I guess now they're using up in strange fashion. It's kind of like if the Denver Broncos called up John Elway next year and said, "You know, your last contract still had five games on it, so we'd appreciate it if you'd play those and then call it quits again." Weird.

But worse, of course, is the fact that the show's writers are obviously going to treat us to watching Dr. Greene's downward spiral into death by brain tumor. In all honesty, I've seen enough drawn-out terminal-illness storylines on various TV shows that all I can do right now is yawn for this one. The best such storyline I've ever seen was a few years back on NYPDBlue, when Det. Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) died of complications following a heart transplant. That storyline played out over just five episodes, the last of which was probably the best single death of a beloved character I've ever seen on TV -- it was by turns harrowing, touching, and in the end heartbreaking as we watched Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) try to deal with his friend and partner's impending passing. The five-episode story arc was just long enough to be involving and just short enough to be jolting as all such unexpected deaths should be; and the even better stroke of genius was that it was executed at the beginning of the TV season whereas many lesser shows would draw it out so that the death could occur during May sweeps, probably even the season finale, as ER seems to be doing. I have grave doubts (no pun intended) that the writers of ER are in the same league as David Milch, the great writer responsible for the NYPDBlue story.

This week's listening: The Music of COSMOS. Carl Sagan's amazing PBS series Cosmos is a landmark in science television (and probably television in general). The show's production values were remarkable, and the series holds up fairly well today, even though more than twenty years have passed since its making and the shifts in scientific knowledge that are inevitable. One of the show's most successful facets was its use of music. The show drew from a very wide array of musical sources, from the classical repertoire to New Age electronica to ethnic folk music and so on. A soundtrack album was produced when the show originally aired in 1980, but as with so many soundtrack albums of that era it was incomplete. A 2-CD set of the soundtrack has now been released, and it is a wonderful listen. One would not necessarily expect something like this -- basically a compilation recording -- to work so well as a whole, but the musical selections are so well chosen that they seem to blend together organically into a compelling work of its own. The selections are occasionally bracketed by sounds of Planet Earth -- thunderstorms, oceans, a rocket launch countdown, et cetera -- which adds to the overall effect. What has been produced is a sort-of amalgam to the famous Voyager Record, whose creation was spurred by Carl Sagan in the first place.

Friday, March 01, 2002

No reader of fantasy literature should be unfamiliar with the work of Lloyd Alexander, author of the classic Prydain Chronicles (based on Welsh mythology, particularly The Mabinogion) and other works based on the mythologies of other cultures. His books are children's literature, but anyone who sees in that distinction some indication of "lesser quality" is a person who is not really interested in fine storytelling, but rather in intellectual pomposity. Harsh words, but there it is. Anyway, a happy occasion is the reissue this month of Alexander's novel Westmark, the opening book in a trilogy set in a country called Westmark that is full of political intrigue and revolutionary fervor. The trilogy is only fantasy in that the story takes place in a make-believe locale, but there is no magic, no wizards, and no giant beasts; it's more of a historical novel set in a place that never was. Westmark has been out of print for a number of years, and now it can be had again. Read it.

(Addendum: The WESTMARK reissue is part of the launch of Firebird, a new imprint by Penguin Books that is geared toward "excellence in fantasy and science fiction". They are to be commended and supported in this endeavor. Godspeed, Firebird!!!)