Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thoughts


I recently ran across these ancient Chinese proverbs about books and thought I'd share them. Don't expect too much, as they're fairly simple. But elegant.

A book holds a house of gold.

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

A book tightly shut is but a block of paper.

Kindle users can maybe adapt that last proverb into something like "A Kindle not switched on is but an expensive paperweight."

Trip report

One of the many nice things about living in the Philadelphia area is the vast array of interesting and fun destinations to choose from when you're in the mood for a day trip. While we often take a jaunt to the New Jersey seashore when we both have a day off (especially in the summer), my wife and I wanted to try something a little different earlier this week. So we took a ride into central Pennsylvania and visited the historic, quaint, and fascinating town of Jim Thorpe, PA.

The town features excellent shopping, restaurants, museums, and various attractions and activities, all surrounded by the majesty of Pennsylvania's Pocono mountains. And though the place feels like another planet when compared to the urban density of Philadelphia and its suburbs, Jim Thorpe is only about an hour and a half away from us.

The first photo shows a typical view of the main thoroughfare in Jim Thorpe. Historic buildings, craft-oriented shops, places to eat, and cheap parking carry the day in the town. It really is an easygoing, relaxing place.

Oh, how did Jim Thorpe get its unusual name? Glad you asked. Following the 1953 death of renowned athlete and Olympic medal winner Jim Thorpe, the Carbon County boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and adopted the name of Jim Thorpe in hopes of attracting attention and tourism to bolster the local economy.

But that wasn't enough. In a bold move, the town actually bought the athlete's remains from his third wife, reburied him in the new town, and erected a monument to the Oklahoma native, who began his sports career in nearby Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I did use the term fascinating when describing the place, didn't I?


The second photo shows my wife Alison examining some hand-crafted birdhouses, made out of dried gourds, that a shop on one of Jim Thorpe's many side streets had on display. Yes, she ended up buying one.

Anyway, if the place is geographically within your reach, look up a little information on it. You just may decide to plan a visit. We may actually stay overnight in Jim Thorpe at some point, as there are a generous handful of cute inns, all reasonably priced.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More on Midnight


With "Midnight in Paris" poised to become Woody Allen's most successful movie ever, I thought I'd write a little more about it. More precisely, I'm going to share my friend Ray Smith's thoughts on the film. You have the floor, Ray...

Just got back from a matinee of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, which several friends have recommended. I think it is one of his best in years, and I do mean going all the way back to Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. It is an airy trifle, but absolutely charming. He takes what could be a one joke idea and by the end, makes one of the most interesting and profoundest (and he'd hate that word) statements he has ever made about life and getting through it and the unbelievably strong appeal of nostalgia for many people.

If you are of a certain age and a certain Liberal Arts mentality, you will have a wonderful time guessing who is going to pop up where. Many of the great figures of early 20th century art, literature, even cinema, become the object of witty throw-away lines and flat out funny scenes. And the cast of unknown and well known actors keeps the whole enterprise buoyantly aloft. Everyone has heard about Kathy Bate's Gertrude Stein, but, for my money, Adrian Brody's spot-on, hilarious Salvador Dali is even better (see accompanying photo --Joe). And Owen Wilson, never a favorite of mine, literally channels Woody Allen's movie persona...if Woody Allen was a tall blonde raised in the Mid-west.

And what I have always loved about Allen: if he loves something, he is not afraid to be unabashed about it. The film starts with a stunning montage of Paris that, if you have ever been there, just makes you sit saying "Oh, yes!" It's like Bogart saying in Casablanca, "We'll always have Paris." All in all a delight.

Thanks for your take on the movie, Ray. Myself, I find it amazing and delightful to see "Midnight in Paris" week after week sitting in those "top ten films of the previous weekend" lists, right there amidst all the summer blockbusters. It's kind of surreal, in fact... which is probably quite appropriate given the film's time-bending and mind-bending subject matter.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pottermania


According to my recent poll, the upcoming film that Kindle Taproom readers are most looking forward to, and by quite a wide margin, is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, out July 15. Industry projections also predict that the new Potter will be the big movie of the summer. For what's it worth, I think the movie looks quite good from the trailers, and I'll certainly be there come mid-July.

Mania for the last Harry Potter movie also coincides with J.K. Rowling's recent announcement that all her Harry Potter books will shortly be available in e-book editions, sold exclusively through her own special website designed for that purpose, www.pottermore.com. It will be interesting to see if devices like the Kindle and the Nook, which are tied to specific retailers, can somehow acquire and display the e-books offered at Rowling's site.

Interestingly, while the new Pottermore web site will feature lots of new background material, written by Rowling, about the characters and situations in the Harry Potter novels, there hasn't been any announcement thus far about any new novels set in the world of the previous Harry Potter books.

But I'm betting that an announcement in that vein is not far off. After all, why curtail the mania now? Especially in today's economy, where anything that resonates so highly with the paying public should not be taken lightly.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Highway hijinks


Here are a few more bumper stickers I've recently spotted in my travels:

Keep honking, I'm reloading.

There are two types of pedestrians: the quick and the dead.

Cover me! I'm changing lanes.

Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the situation.

Despite the high cost of living, have you noticed how it remains so popular?

More to come!

Big-screen thievery


As reported around the web in the last day or so, Taylor Hackford is set to direct Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez in Parker, an adaptation of the Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) series of novels about a professional thief. Statham will play the title character and Lopez is playing someone named Leslie. There's no clear indication yet if the movie will adapt one particular book in the long-running series or just use characters and situations from the books in a new story. Filming is set to begin this August.

The Parker books are terrific, and it's a bummer that we won't be getting any new ones, as Mr. Westlake died on New Year's Eve in 2008, with more than a hundred published books under his belt. Many of the Parker novels are available on Kindle, including The Outfit ($9.99), Plunder Squad ($7.98), and Slayground ($9.79).

Jason Statham is seen in the accompanying photograph. He at least looks like a credible Parker. And while I'm not that excited about Jennifer Lopez having a big part in the film (she's too glitzy for the types of characters who populate the books), Taylor Hackford is a pretty solid director who should be able to replicate the mood and tension of the original works.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ha

Recently spotted on a bumper sticker:

Friends help you move. Real friends help you move the body.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Here be dragons


Like the books on which it is based, HBO's Game of Thrones was slow to seriously introduce magic, dragons, sorcery, and other traditional fantasy tropes into its story, preferring to draw in non-fantasy fans with solid storytelling elements involving strategy, intrigue, and fascinating characters before reminding everyone that, "hey, we are telling a story in the fantasy genre here!"

Well, after a few small tastes in earlier episodes, the season finale of Game of Thrones embraced the fantasy genre in full force in its closing moments, as it faithfully adapted the closing scene in the first book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. And what did those closing moments depict? Dragons! Darn good-looking ones, too, as well done as any in a big-budget movie.

And for you devotees of the show who aren't necessarily big fans of the fantasy genre? Don't worry, the flavor of the show won't appeciably change next season. You're just going to have a handful of ever-growing dragons who will help facilitate the political manuveurings of certain characters. It'll be fun, I promise. At least as much fun as the show's been so far.

Seeing Green


Hey, I'm not going to defend the movie to the ends of the earth, but I have to say that I'm mystified about the critical beating the movie Green Lantern is getting.

Is it a really great movie? No. For what was spent on the movie and what the many, many advertisements promised, I was expecting something more epic, more memorable, more "wow!". But you know what? What was there was fine. Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan is a flawed but decent man who becomes a flawed but decent superhero, learning some identifiable lessons in the process of getting used to his new powers. Yes, the movie's villains are serviceable at best, but they provide decent action-oriented and dramatic scenes.

Again, while not as wondrous as Warner Bros. Pictures told me it would be, I still enjoyed seeing Green Lantern. Even though it's more like an ambitious, extra-long episode of Smallville than a big-budget summer movie, the character moments are good, the special effects are generous and skillful enough to please, and I cared enough about the world the movie presented that I wouldn't hesitate to watch a sequel that would further explore the characters and situations presented in this initial installment.

In other words: critics, get a grip. This movie is more than worth the eight to ten bucks or so it costs to see it on the big screen. I'll even recommend paying the premium price to see it in 3D, which is how I experienced it. Since when do big summer movies need to justify themselves as great, nuanced works of museum-level art? Geez, it's Green Lantern. As long as there's a half-decent effort to deliver something fun, what's to complain about?

Wisdom

Recently spotted on a bumper sticker:

The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday tip #2


As much as we enjoyed Super 8 last Saturday (see my previous post), I started craving a movie that perhaps wasn't so adventure and special effects oriented. So my wife Alison accepted my idea of indulging ourselves with a second movie last weekend, so we headed out of the quiet suburbs into downtown Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon to catch Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris.

Funny, whimsical, and moving, Midnight in Paris turned out to be the great adult treat I thought it would be. Alison even liked it, and she's not exactly the biggest Woody Allen fan in the world, usually just seeing his movies because I like them. But we both got caught up in this tale of an American writer in Paris (Owen Wilson) being transported each night at the stroke of midnight to the Paris of the 1920's, where he pretty much meets up with every major literary and artistic figure- Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Salvatore Dali, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few- who was hanging around the City of Lights during that period.

Do deep, introspective scenes result from Owen's character, Gil Prender, meeting all these artistic geniuses? Nah, Woody mainly keeps things light and funny, an approach that mostly works just fine. While the movie could have benefitted from a little more complexity with its plot and characters, it was always a lot of fun to watch Gil make excuses each night to break away from his increasingly shrill fiancee and her stuffy parents to return to that stylish earlier time, to eat, drink and cavort with his idols.

There's no big, original lesson Woody is trying to impart with his story, just a few small truths that we all sometimes forget. But even those were secondary to the simple joys of spending time in both present-day and 1920's Paris, both quite beautiful, and both more than ample reason to see this engaging, charming movie.

Friday tip


If you want to see an exciting summer movie with a little heart, check out Super 8. We saw it last Saturday and liked it. It's basically about a couple of sad and troubled kids, Joe (nicely played by newcomer Joel Courtney) and Alice (the increasingly impressive Elle Fanning) who, along with their friends, get caught up in a dangerous adventure involving a scary monster from outer space.

During the course of the movie, what happens with the monster (mild spoiler here) has the happy side effect of helping Joe and Alice become less sad and troubled, as well as improve their relationships with the people important to them. At first I thought the movie's plot was a little too neat, but now I'm coming to appreciate the elegance and craft that went into the movie's screenplay.

The film also functions, visually and thematically, as a kind of tribute to the types of movies Steven Spielberg used to produce and/or direct in the 1980's, movies like E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, etc. You know, "kids in danger, but we're pretty sure they'll be okay in the end" movies. Super 8 was produced by Mr. Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams.

Anyway, it's a good film and worth a trip to the multiplex to see.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hmmmm...


I still have to read a few more reviews to get a true sense on which way the wind is blowing, but if I'm reading things right, the critics thought the previous iteration of the musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark was too artsy and often incoherent. Well, now that the show has been given a re-write and a facelift, those same critics are now saying the show is too simple, childish, and straight-forward.

In other words: boy, there's no pleasing some people.

Enemy down


Kindle Singles are inexpensive novellas, stories, essays, and other short-form literary offerings available for a song in the Kindle Store. They can be a refreshing reading choice between longer works.

I just finished the Kindle Single entitled The Enemy, by Christopher Hitchens. This longish article is essentially Mr. Hitchens' obituary of Osama bin Laden, and is heavily laced with the writer's assertion that the infamous terrorist leader was indisputably evil, not someone who, as some amazingly still state, "commited terrible yet understandable acts." No, Mr. Hitchens says, Osama bin Laden's many terrorist actions were not on any level a kind of justified response to wrongs inflicted on the people and political structures important to him (a group that actually changed fairly often, as factions fell in and out of favor with bin Laden), but rather nothing more than a concerted attempt to spread his evil intent outward throughout the world, much like the Third Reich's effort to spread Nazism.

Sometimes a little too scholarly for leisurely reading, it's nonetheless worth doing the little bit of work needed to get through The Enemy. You'll learn a lot, and unlike much of Mr. Hitchens' other writing, you won't be distracted by any serious controversy. On this subject at least, I don't see very many Americans disagreeing with Mr. Hitchens' scathing biography and venomous good riddance to this long-despised international figure.

The Enemy is available on Kindle for $1.99.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Another big case


It continues to be fun catching up with the early entries in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" mystery series. E Is For Evidence is no exception. Stick around past the initial phases of a seemingly routine insurance investigation, which private investigator and series protagonist Kinsey Millhone occasionally performs in return for office space for her P.I. business, and things soon get cracking.

Before you can shake a stick, someone is framing Kinsey for insurance fraud, making it look like she took a bribe to cover up an arson finding in the days following a big warehouse fire. The guy who allegedly gave the bribe to Kinsey also says he's innocent, and hires Kinsey to find out who engineered the dual frame and why. Don't worry, it's all pretty easy to follow, though there are the usual array of crazy family members, and other eccentric types, who Kinsey has to travel between to get some answers.

Adding edge and drama to this particular series entry are a couple of big surprises, one involving the near death of Kinsey in a quite bombastic manner in the story's earlier going (I'll say no more) and the other concerning someone from Kinsey's past who 1) appears out of nowhere on her doorstep and 2) eventually presents (involuntarily, via Kinsey's snooping) some surprising and previously unknown sides of his personality to the amazed Ms. Millhone.

All that turns a pretty good mystery to begin with into one that has particular resonance when all is said and done. In E Is For Evidence, Kinsey takes some sizable physical and emotional lumps in her quest for the truth, lumps that will likely affect her down the road despite the strong front she puts up during the course of the story.

E Is For Evidence is available on Kindle for $7.99.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Good marketing

Recently spotted on the message board outside a local restaurant:

It costs more to drive here than to eat here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Class is in session


I caught X-Men: First Class over the weekend and enjoyed it. There's a terrific, memorable sequence showing the 1960's era Erik Lehnsherr (pre-Magneto) catching up to some Nazi war criminals hiding out in Argentina, as well as quite a showdown off the coast of Cuba involving the American military, the Soviet military, the X-Men, some mutants lead by Kevin Bacon's villainous Sebastian Shaw, and scores of missiles. Acting and effects are top-notch throughout the movie.

The one thing I could have done without, though, is the endless discussion between James McAvoy's Professor Xavier and Michael Fastbender's Erik Lensherr about the political state of mutantkind. As we've already experienced in three or four X-movies before this, Xavier again endlessly goes on about mutants needing to forge a lasting trust with humans, while Erik again endlessly dismisses that view and asserts that mutantkind must be ever wary and, in fact, should probably just dominate and rule humankind before humans try to control and enslave all the mutants. Back and forth, back and forth, the two characters chatter and chatter. What's more, several government types join the debate, too! Sheesh.

I understand that this philosophical argument has to be a part of any X-Men movie, but does it have to be front and center all the time? For once, I'd love to see an X-Men film where there's a colorful villain who has nothing to do with the political and social issues of mutant/human relations, and just wants to rob Fort Knox or something. The X-Men comics do that all the time: break up the heavier stories with occasional tales featuring good old-fashioned high adventure, and even a alien invasion here and there.

Having said that, though, I still recommend X-Men: First Class. In the end, despite my minor gripes, it's still a good time at the movies, stylish and fun. I just could have done with less of the point/counterpoint on the whole "can't we all just get along?" issue.

Questions, questions!


Before I move onto some other type of meaningless filler, here are a few more questions for the ages that you can ponder while scarfing down your tuna sandwich...

Why do people pay to go up to the top of tall buildings and then put money in binoculars to look at things back on the ground?

Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?

Why do Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?

Why is it that no matter what color bubble bath you use, the bubbles are always white?

Why do people keep running over a small piece of string a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, then reach down, pick it up, examine it, then put it down to give the vacuum one more chance?

How do all those dead bugs get into those enclosed light fixtures?

How come you never hear father-in-law jokes?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hammer's back


Again working from unused notes, plotlines, and drafts provided to him by the estate of Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins has produced another bang-up Mike Hammer thriller in Kiss Her Goodbye, a sharp and violent epic set in a 1970's New York wallowing in organized crime, casual drug use, and bad disco music. All but the bad music takes a hit when Mike Hammer comes to town.

Like the best franchises, this latest entry in the Mike Hammer series delivers exactly what fans expect, but in new and exciting ways. A quick example: a satisfying but familiar scene showing Mike essentially executing someone for the cold murder he committed all of a sudden displays new levels of freshness and originality when we see Mike not only refuse to be thwarted by the bullet-proof vest his unfortunate victim is wearing, but actually employ the vest as a means to intensify his victim's suffering (you'll have to read the book to see how). It was quite a scene, and one I've never run across in other thrillers.

Is the book nothing but violence? Of course not. Mike is an interesting guy who enjoys music, city life, good food (though nothing too pretentious), and, of course, the company of beautiful women. On that last point, Mr. Collins is just as skillful as Mickey Spillane at portraying a Mike Hammer who is fully devoted to his longtime love Velda yet still somehow manages to regularly bed other women... and without losing the reader's sympathies.

But as fun as all that stuff is, fans mostly read these books to see Mike Hammer search for criminals who've committed horrid crimes, identify them, and exact justice (or vengeance, if you prefer). And that's what Mike once again does here- many times- in a tightly-wound, engrossing tale that starts out as a small investigation into the suspicious death of a cop friend (ruled suicide but Mike doesn't buy it) that soon evolves into Mike exposing and confronting a huge organized crime scheme of international proportions.

At their best, Mike Hammer novels are like a bracing dose of good whiskey at your favorite bar after a day of drinking vending machine soft drinks during the course of a boring work day. And these recent Spillane/Collins collaborations, especially the last couple ("The Big Bang" and this one), have been firing-on-all-cylinders, straight-no-chaser Hammer.

So, yeah, if I haven't expressed myself clearly enough, I liked Kiss Her Goodbye a lot. You may, too.

Kiss Her Goodbye is available on Kindle for $9.99.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Coming down the pike


Here are a few things coming out soon or in the not-too-distant future that I'm pretty excited about. Perhaps you will be, too.

Carte Blanche, the new James Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver, was just released in England and will be available in the United States on Tuesday, June 14. Unlike previous writers who wrote James Bond novels in the wake of creator Ian Fleming's 14 Bond adventures, Deaver isn't writing about the same James Bond who fought Golfinger, SPECTRE, etc., but a totally rebooted Bond who's newly active in our modern era (he gained much of his experience in the current Afghan war, for example). If nothing else, Deaver's take should be interesting to see. Carte Blanche will be available on Kindle for $12.99.

On the movie front, director Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is now in production and has an official release date: May 11, 2012, which is incidentally my birthday. The film stars, among other top-notch talent, Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins and Helena Bonham Carter as his uneasy ally, Dr. Julia Hoffman. The movie is an update of the classic 1960's gothic soap opera. This should be good spooky fun.

In the wake of his highly successful Lord of the Rings movies, director Peter Jackson will return to the world of Middle Earth with a two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The first film will be called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and will appear in theaters on December 14, 2012. The story will conclude in The Hobbit: There and Back Again, coming out roughly a year later on December 13, 2013. If you want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the original literary source, The Hobbit is currently available on Kindle for $9.99. Pictured is the cover artwork from one of the numerous paperback editions of The Hobbit.

So, any of you folks looking forward to one or more of these upcoming releases like I am?

Uh oh

Current mental health statistics state that one out of every four people in the United States is suffering from some form of mental illness. So, think of your three best friends. If they're fine, then it's you.