Friday, November 17, 2017


-- "This is Qatar Airways Flight Made-Up Number, Doha to Bali. I am declaring an emergency."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. What is your emergency?

"A passenger's wife just checked his phone and found out he was cheating, and she told everyone on the plane, so all the women want to kill him."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. Two armored divisions will greet your flight upon landing."

"Make it three. The flight attendants are helping."

-- A makeup artist went into a store called Sephora last week and saw a display of eye shadow that had been ruined. She snapped a picture and posted it to her Facebook page, saying the makeup had probably been ruined by a child. Her post sparked much comment, ranging from agreement with her and triumphant claims that the commenters' kids are taught not to do stuff like that to parents pointing out that not every mom can afford kid care and sometimes kids get away and out of sight for a bit. The two things that struck me were 1) She actually never saw a kid do this, so she really has no way of knowing. And 2) I don't know beans about eye shadow, but when I hear an estimate of $1,300 worth of product being destroyed I picture much larger quantities. Maybe the real offense is how much showoffy pay for what ought to be everyday stuff.

-- A kindergartner asks science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker at Five Thirty-Eight what the world would be like if there were no number 6, and sparks some interesting speculation from some math professors. Turns out that things would be very different, and maybe some things -- like life itself as we know it -- might be actually impossible. So I'm all in favor of keeping six and all of the other numbers we have, even though I'm kind of keen on Koerth-Baker's suggestion about renaming 6 as splorfledinger.

-- You may or may not agree with Daniel Ritchie's review essay on the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Coriolanus here in The Public Discourse. I kind of like it, but I'm prone to thinking that more of our problems come from how we respond to things around us rather than the things themselves, and that's generally where he goes. Either way, it's something else that a 400-year-old play can resonate with political and cultural situations of today. Nice job, Bill.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Grand Illumination

National Geographic is famous for its photos of events, people and phenomena from around the world. It inspires some great submissions from its readers, too, such as this one by Mike Olbinski.

Although I must confess that the bright orangeish light on the far right of the pic makes me uneasy. It's probably just another lightning flash, or maybe the sun setting in the far-off distance. But it bears an unsettling resemblance to a certain Lidless Eye...

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lord of the...What Did We Buy the Rights to, Again?

Author J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher was not happy with the big screen adaptations of his father's work, so when the last movie in The Hobbit showed, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would get the chance to make moving picture versions of either it or Lord of the Rings.

And there was a tug-of-war going on anyway -- the movies made mints and mints of money, which meant that studios saw the potential for even more hiding in the back of Frodo's little hole in the ground. But Jackson's versions of the first three movies were widely loved and seemed for many people to be the definitive cinematic version of the story. Even if Christopher Tolkien relented and sold the rights to someone else -- and there were plenty of people who disliked Jackson's take and wished for a "true" Lord of the Rings -- what kind of market is there in remaking a blockbuster that's less than 20 years old? How would this truer and purer LOTR get made?

Then along came HBO's Game of Thrones TV series, and a whole 'nother avenue seemed to open up. Perhaps the best way to offer a retelling of Middle Earth would be a small-screen version, using the length of a season to really open up the story and give it what it needed to work? We learned this past week that we will one day find out, as Christopher Tolkien recently retired from managing his father's estate and Amazon TV bought the rights to develop a TV series using the Middle Earth universe.

As more information comes out, it seems that the show's creators will look to a time between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the LOTR trilogy. This space retains the right to significant skepticism that what comes will be all that good, lining up roughly with the arguments presented by Jarrett Stepman here. Amazon TV has produced several shows, and I personally enjoy their take on Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books. I haven't been drawn to watch any of the other shows they've produced, some of which have good notices and some not.

But if the target audience is folks who watch Game of Thrones, then it's very possible that we'll have elves and hobbits and dwarves, only they'll be players on a stage not much like Middle Earth. Stepman overwrites the differences a little, but he's on target in that Tolkien, for all of his direct experience of real war, produced a fundamentally more optimistic work than Thrones' author George R. R. Martin. The choice to create new characters and storylines from whole cloth means an even greater chance that we'll see things that have names we know but little else.

It's hard to shake off the apprehension that Amazon's development people saw swords and magic and just started totaling up receipts. This doesn't mean a Middle-Earth themed TV show couldn't be made. The Silmarillion, Tolkien's tale of the creation of Middle Earth, humanity, the elves and whatnot, would be impossible to present as a movie but could easily be worked out over a TV season or two. The problem there is that The Silmarillion is exceedingly complex and probably pretty resistant to the kinds of leveling that TV series need in order to reach wider audiences. Getting it "right" would probably mean creating a show that might be watched by enough people to fill, say, Wichita.

So in the end I suspect we'll wind up with something that has Tolkien's name on it and, as I said, things in it that have the same names he gave to them. Even though they don't really much look like what he wrote about and the world isn't much like the one he envisioned. But we'll know how to deal with it.

Assuming we watched any of the Hobbit movies, that is.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Turn the Page

The idea of a James Bond adventure written by Donald Westlake stirs the imagination, and the veteran author was approached about the idea after Pierce Brosnan took on the role with Goldeneye. Eon Productions didn't buy the treatment, so Westlake reworked it some and filed it away. The good folk at Hard Case Crime publishers printed it earlier this year as Forever and a Death, but without the presence of any Bond-like character.

Engineer George Manville suspects something about his employer, multi-billionaire Richard Curtis, because Curtis seems to have it in mind to "remove" an environmentalist who survived the test of a brand new way to demolish and clear land for construction. Manville and the survivor -- student Kim Baldur -- find themselves on the run from Curtis and his minions when it becomes clear to them that the magnate has a more lethal demonstration of his technique in mind, in concert with the theft of billions of dollars from Hong Kong banks.

It's hard to imagine that Westlake, famed for his direct and unadorned storytelling style, would have felt that Forever was ready for publication. The protagonists set up by the first half of the book largely disappear in much of the second half, and it clearly demonstrates the need to be trimmed of several repetitive scenes and a latter half that wanders away from the people we've spent a couple hundred pages getting to know.

Forever features an interesting villain, a fascinating villainous plot to gain power and more than one great gem of a Westlake scene. But for whatever reason, the author did not revisit it before his death to pare it down and perhaps retool several spots for better narrative flow and to make more sense.  This is one case in which the unsolved mystery of what a Westlake-written Bond would be like is far better than the solution that his estate and Hard Case Crime have offered.
After a detour to the Jack Reacher of the past in Night School, Lee Child brings us back to the present-day travels of the drifting knight-errant in The Midnight Line, days after he and Michelle Chang broke up a seedy internet-based murder ring in Make Me. Reacher has continued to drift around as he wishes, and Chang has decided she can't do that, so she has gone home to Seattle. Reacher hops a bus and at one of the courtesy stops, he spies a woman's West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. A Point graduate himself,  Reacher wonders what would bring someone to part with something that signified years of hard work and achievement. So he starts to ask about it, first with the pawn shop owner and then with the person who brought it to him, and so on. Although most of the people he speaks to are reluctant to answer him and seem to have more to hide than just a simple transaction, Reacher is a persistent questioner. The trail takes him to Wyoming and people with other kinds of secrets to hide as well.

Line is surprisingly intimate for a Reacher novel, with a small cast and a lot more focus on other people involved the story. While there is a villain whose greed starts the whole mess into which Reacher pokes his nose, much less time is spent on the bad guys of the story and some of the ones who fill that role turn out to be less bad than unfortunate. Reacher's trademark fights are sprinkled much more lightly through the story and he more frequently uses the threat of violence to get what he wants. These factors make it a much more introspective and thoughtful outing than we're used to with the big fella, offering a different flavor to what has more often than not been a formula in some of his books.

Child still drops in a couple too many descriptive digressions in which Reacher or someone else analyzes something for several pages, and his writing of Reacher's thought processes in setting his travel directions, in both the front and back ends of the novel, feel artificial and mannered. Midnight Line is a really good Reacher novel and a good candidate for the series' top two or three, but a little fine tuning along those lines and others could have made it something really special.
Michael Connelly has given Harry Bosch a long history of chasing criminals in the Los Angeles area, first with the LA police department and then, more recently, as a part-timer with the San Fernando PD. In Two Kinds of Truth, Connelly brings the two strands together, as new developments in an old case threaten the conviction of a murdering rapist and a double homicide in San Fernando points to a much larger and more dangerous scheme.

Back in his earliest days as a detective -- before we met him in The Black Echo -- Harry and his partner arrested Preston Borders in a rape/homicide case. Borders was convicted but a modern DNA test of the evidence suggests another man committed the crime. Harry doesn't believe this, so he decides to investigate the matter himself despite official disapproval from his old department. In the meantime, a double murder at a storefront pharmacy in San Fernando shows signs of connections to illegal drug rings and organized crime. Harry has to decide how much risk he will take in order to unravel those connections and hold the top crooks responsible.

The parallel tracks of the two cases make for an interesting contrast, as Harry remembers his days as a new detective, learning under a veteran partner. In the current case, he is the seasoned veteran teaching young detectives how to work the crime and draws from the lessons he has learned. A short time undercover on this case offers a new experience for him, opening a window into the lives of people he has frequently dismissed. There are great supporting player appearances by his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller and Haller's lead investigator, Cisco, and also Harry's former partner Jerry Edgar.

Although the story is good and offers some good development for Harry as a character, it's weighed down by uncharacteristically second-rate writing by Connelly. In several places, he commits the cardinal sin of telling us something about a character or event instead of showing us or putting the information in the mouth of someone in the book instead of his authorial voice. There's a third minor mystery that feels far more like a padded epilogue than part of our story; it needed some much stronger connections to fill any useful role. Truth is not a bad book -- Connelly may not be capable of anything lower than a "meh" -- but it works under the weight that some more effort could have made it much better than it turned out to be.

Monday, November 13, 2017


It's easy to look at the major events of today's news and just become disgusted. Everyone's vile, it seems, and their vileness is small and cramped. It's a parade of people who do wrong things that don't even make any sense. Shooting someone to steal money is wrong but there is a logic to it. Shooting kids in a church? Coercing someone over whom you have power to have sex with you is wrong but there is a clear end in mind. Coercing someone over whom you have power to watch you masturbate? Megalomaniacs who want to rule the world make sense, even if they are evil in their intent and actions. Megalomaniacs who want to rule Twitter?

So on the treadmill I watched Silverado, and the good guys won, and the bad guys lost, and the music and the horizons were wide open, and my spirit feels a little less cramped for awhile.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I’m certain that when Stephen King saw this list of the world’s longest novels, he felt either inadequate or challenged. We’ll know which sometime in the next several years, I would imagine, depending on whether he spins out one book or several.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Heavy Metal Thunder!

You can find the rest of the finalists for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo awards here. My favorite is the one above from Katy Laveck, in which it is obvious that the simian riding pillion is belting out Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." What else would you sing on a motorbike?

Although I have to give the penguins headed to church photo some props as well.