Category Archives: Reviews

Hot

It’s not as hot and humid as when I stacked hay bales in the loft of my dad’s barn back in 1960, but it’s pretty stinking swampy out there. The weather forecast said 70% chance of thunderstorms this afternoon, but when I got home the sky was clear and blue, and I took my walk anyway. It rained this morning, and will likely rain again tonight, but for now the only moisture is suspended in the air, in molecule form, in high concentrations.

Last night I watched another new DVD acquisition, Robert Altman’s “Popeye.” What a strange movie. Awful script. The songs are just an embarrassment. But the actors seem to be having fun playing cartoon games, and the visuals are great, and Robin Williams sings the Popeye song all the way through at the end. It always leaves me feeling better when I’m done with it.

A Norwegian relative wrote me years ago from a vacation in Malta, saying he’d toured the Sweet Haven set, which apparently is (or was at the time) still standing as a tourist attraction.

Speaking of DVDs, I’m on the cheap plan with Netflix now, and I’m taking the opportunity to view some of the cable series everybody’s been raving about. This weekend I finished the final episode of “Rome.”

Continue reading Hot

Addendum to DVD review

It occurs to me, in thinking more about the film “Elling,” that it’s actually quite a pro-American movie.

As I mentioned, Elling, who has his doubts about the whole idea of freedom, is devoted to the Norwegian Liberal Party.

Later in the movie, the great symbol of freedom becomes a big American automobile.

I smell subtext.

So there’s that.

DVD Review: Elling

It was probably inevitable I’d pick up the Academy Award-nominated comedy from 2001, Elling sooner or later.

First of all, it’s a Norwegian movie (English subtitles). Secondly, the name of the title character is a derivative of the old Viking name Erling, a name with which I have associations. And finally, it’s about people with emotional disorders. I have some connections to that field of experience as well.

The Elling of the film is a middle-aged man who suffers from agoraphobia and fainting spells. He spent his early life living with his mother, and was placed in a mental institution after her death. While in the hospital he made one friend, a big, strong fellow named Kjell Bjarne (first and middle name; Scandinavians generally use both if they have them). Kjell Bjarne is obsessed with sex and extremely foul in his language (even in subtitles). However, as we soon learn, he’s entirely innocent in terms of actual experience with women.

The two are set up in an Oslo apartment, on a trial basis, by the Norwegian social welfare system. If they can learn to function in the outside world, they are told, they’ll be given greater freedom.

Elling isn’t entirely sure he wants such freedom. Continue reading DVD Review: Elling

Critic, spare that bird!

S. T. Karnick at The American Culture ably responds to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent attack on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gladwell’s notion that To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, is insufficiently hateful toward white Southerners and is unsophisticated in failing to embrace radical politics is a truly breathtaking instance of ignorant bigotry. It is also not original, and it is wrong.

Dark Light, by Randy Wayne White

Dark Light is another installment in Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series. I was quite pleased with it. The author has positioned this series so as to let his marine biologist/covert ops agent hero play around in both the international thriller and the mystery genres. This one’s a mystery, with the intriguing addition of a (possibly) supernatural element.

In the wake of a devastating hurricane that wreaked havoc on the economy and ecology of his Sanibel Island, Florida home, Ford gets drawn into a dispute between an acquaintance—an old fisherman he doesn’t even like a whole lot—and a property developer. The developer, as it turns out, is not only a crooked businessman but a serial rapist and killer. Ford and his friends end up competing with the developer and his henchmen in the exploration and salvage of a World War II wreck. This attracts the interest of an enigmatic neighbor, an beautiful old woman who sometimes doesn’t seem old at all, but is disturbingly seductive either way.

The supernatural element was what intrigued me most, fantasist that I am. Is the old woman the goddaughter of a famous beauty supposed to have drowned in the shipwreck, as she claims, or is she the woman herself, some sort of ghost?

Doc Ford and his friend Tomlinson are like the extreme poles famously described by Chesterton—one doesn’t believe in God; the other believes in anything. Ford’s unsettling experience with the mystery woman can be satisfactorily explained in purely materialistic terms. And yet, even Doc himself doesn’t entirely believe that.

You used to see this sort of story more than you do now, I think. Stories framed as realistic, but with the door left open just a crack for other possibilities. I like such stories.

Dark Light was an engaging mystery, with a pleasant aftertaste. Cautions for language and adult situations.

Reading report: Cold Hit & Three Shirt Deal, by Stephen J. Cannell

Over the holiday, I read a couple more of Stephen J. Cannell’s Shane Scully novels, Cold Hit and Three Shirt Deal. It would be pointless, I think, to give either of them full reviews, unless one of them was bad (neither is), since I’m already on record as enjoying the series. So I’ll just post some thoughts, thought while reading.

1. Does the Los Angeles police department really allow an officer to be their spouse’s immediate superior? If they do, I think they’re nuts.

2. At one point in Cold Hit, Scully as narrator talks about the integration of female officers into the force. I thought the passage was interesting, because he listed good arguments the old guard used against deploying smaller, weaker female patrol officers. He largely answered them, not with a strong counter-argument, but by saying “It’s done, there’s nothing you can do about it.” I find that suggestive (in the inviting-of-thought sense). Probably it’s just me.

3. In spite of his theoretical advocacy of a co-ed police force, Cannell makes heavy use of the inherent pressures, interpersonal and job-related, that come from men serving alongside women in dangerous situations. One could, if one wished, read the whole series as a subtle argument against female recruitment. Again, that’s probably just me.

4. When I first picked up a Cannell novel, I didn’t expect much in the way of character development. Cannell is a television writer/producer, and that medium isn’t famous for the depth of its psychological insight (though The Rockford Files, one of Cannell’s shows, featured some of the best character writing ever done in the medium). I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps as a relief from the constraints of the one-hour series, Cannell goes very deeply into the psyches of his characters. Indeed, in Cold Hit, he probably took it a little too far at one point, having a certain character make a personal disclosure worthy of Oprah’s show, in the middle of a gun fight. But that’s a rare misstep.

5. One drawback of the series format is that it’s hard to allow the heroes to change as much as classic story structure demands. Cannell has done a wonderful job of solving that problem by making surprising changes in his hero’s relationships, especially in Three Shirt Deal. What does Scully do when his wife/superior officer, previously the prudent one in the relationship, now becomes the crazy risk-taker, and he has to act like the grownup? The results are amusing.

You Are What You See, by Scott Nehring

Scott Nehring is a sometime film writer and current film critic, who blogs at GoodNewsFilmReviews.com. He is also a Christian, concerned about re-taking popular culture—if not necessarily for Christianity (in the sense of making every movie have a gospel message), but at least for the encouragement of positive movies that elevate people’s lives.

You Are What You See (you can order it here, in electronic or softcover form) is his manifesto. (I need to mention that I received a free review copy.)

It would be easier to praise or pan his book if it had been the sort of thing I half-expected—either a call to “come out and be separate” from popular culture, or a point-by-point, guaranteed-or-your-money-back blueprint for cultural revolution. Instead, the author leaves a lot of room for individual decisions. Because freedom is part of the deal, and every Christian has his own gifts, strengths and weaknesses.

This is good. But it means the reader has to do a fair amount of work, forever asking himself “How does this apply to me, if at all?” “Where do I fit in the scheme of things?”

That, however, is the price of honesty and biblical fidelity. Continue reading You Are What You See, by Scott Nehring

Book Review: Hollywood Witches, by Thomas M. Sipos

For the record, I received a copy of Thomas M. Sipos’ comic horror novel Hollywood Witches by way of S. T. Karnick of the American Culture, for review purposes.

I love a good Hollywood story. The town’s like an old trollop with a million tales to tell, proud of her very corruption. Not for nothing is the Hollywood fable a traditional setting for morality tales (a triumph of hypocrisy in itself).

Thomas M. Sipos’ novel shows considerable promise and delivers a number of laughs, but gets weighed down by its lack of narrative discipline.

The chief eponymous witch of the story is Diana Däagen, a figure of satire, gargantuan in her vices and terrifying in her lack of self-awareness. A failed actress, she now works as “development executive” in a movie studio. She believes herself intensely spiritual and full of love for all humankind, but that doesn’t prevent her from treating her underlings like dirt, using black magic to thwart or kill her enemies, and planning to murder thousands of people at once—all for enlightened, politically correct purposes, of course.

There is no subtlety in Diana’s character. If you like characters in novels, even bad characters, to have sympathetic sides, you won’t find one here. Diana is pure black-hat witch, evil all through.

But of course she’s a Hollywood production executive, so that doesn’t strain credibility much. Continue reading Book Review: Hollywood Witches, by Thomas M. Sipos

Saint Julian, by Walter Wangerin Jr.

The legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller seems to have risen in the Middle Ages, and is today considered entirely folklore. Possibly inspired by the story of Oedipus, it tells of a young man of noble family cursed to commit an appalling, shameful crime. As with Oedipus, his very efforts to make the crime impossible actually bring it about, but Christians added the element of redemption, a demonstration that no crime is beyond the mercy of God.

Author and clergyman Walter Wangerin Jr. has written Saint Julian, a version of the legend (published 2003) in his own dreamy, poetic style. It’s not his best work, but it’s worth reading for those with eyes to see.

Medieval Christians believed that Julian lived at the beginning of the Christian era, but Wangerin places it in the epoch that produced it—somewhere in the Middle Ages, apparently during the Crusades. His book combines the classic style of the hagiographical tale with the allegory of Pilgrim’s Progress. Julian is a sort of Everyman, or Everychristian. Born to many advantages, blessed with physical beauty and rich natural gifts, he falls—almost innocently, one might say—into the sin of pride, seeing no need to curb his desires. His immoderation leads to a great sin, which brings upon him the curse of the tale. And when he commits his crime, it is again because of his intemperance. What follows is a long journey to discover the miracle of grace, a journey in which God is always guiding, generally unseen, along hard and painful roads.

Saint Julian lacks the emotional peaks and valleys that broke so many of our hearts in Wangerin’s greatest novel, the delightful The Book of the Dun Cow. In his attempt to mimic the style of medieval chroniclers, the author starts the book slowly, and probably loses a lot of readers along the way. The very universality of his themes tends to make the characters one-dimensional, like figures in a Gothic church painting.

Fans of Wangerin will enjoy Saint Julian, but not consider it his finest work. Those new to him would do best to start with The Book of the Dun Cow.

Relentless, by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz is a bold writer when it comes to experimenting with genres. In Relentless he gives us a comic horror science fiction thriller. It’s a very enjoyable and compelling book, but I’m not entirely sure all its parts work together.

I’ve said in other reviews that I admire Koontz’s general avoidance of the common (lazy) writer’s trick of telling stories about writers. But Relentless is about a writer (and his family). It could hardly have been otherwise, given the premise.

If horror means basing plots on our greatest fears, there can be no greater horror premise for a writer than a sociopathic critic. Negative critics are the enemies against whom there is no defense. Fighting a critic is a loser’s game. But how much worse if that critic wants you (and your family) dead? Continue reading Relentless, by Dean Koontz

Wicked Prey, by John Sandford

Minnesota author John Sandford (real name John Camp) has established a nice little franchise with his Lucas Davenport Prey novels. Davenport is a Minnesota state cop who also happens to be a millionaire. He enjoys driving his Porsche fast with the siren on. As skillful as the character’s handling of his car has been the author’s own steering of the series, keeping out of both the left and the right ditches on a pretty winding road.

The early Davenport books portrayed a cop who was also a designer of computer games. He used the same skills he employed in game design to out-think the most devious and insane of criminals, and more than once he applied a little private justice in cases where he was confident the courts would let a dangerous killer back on the streets. In that period, Davenport seemed to be gradually losing his own grip on sanity, torn between duty to the job and his personal commitment to protecting the public.

Sandford deftly saved Davenport’s sanity by having him meet and marry a female surgeon. As Davenport acquired not only a wife, but a foster daughter and a baby son, he grew happier and more stable. Unfortunately, he ran the risk of getting a little dull. The old edge seemed to be going.

With Wicked Prey, Sandford has found a solution to that problem too, bringing in another legal corner-cutter, close enough to Davenport to make his world perhaps even more dangerous and morally ambiguous than before. Continue reading Wicked Prey, by John Sandford

Is Black Achievement in School “Acting White”?

You might think any kid who can excel in school would have a few fans cheering him on, but for many black students across the country, academic achievement is equivalent to community betrayal. “[Other students] feel they’re supposed to be cool, and cool is not supposed to be making good grades in school,” reports a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper article from 2006, quoting Courtney Smith, who became a journalism major at Norfolk State. She didn’t care that the other students said she thought she was white and better than them. She just wanted to excel, but what does “acting white” have to do with that?

This idea, that some black students believe they have better things to do than to study hard, is the subject of Stuart Buck’s book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, released this week from Yale University Press. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, and studies back it up. The idea of “acting white” abounds within evenly integrated schools. Where students are mostly white or mostly black, Buck says they are more-or-less forced to get along, but in schools with black vs. white student ratios that are close to even, black students tend to define themselves against the academic achievers.

Buck’s presentation of the groupthink dynamic makes the book for me. It’s fascinating to read how group psychology can emerge wherever young people can be divided, regardless the meaning of the groups. Instinctively, people will favor their group over other groups, even when there’s no intrinsic strength in their group. It’s us vs. them, whoever they are. That’s the dynamic at play when black students accuse other black students of “acting white.” Humans are tribal, Buck observes, and homophily or friendship with those like you is strong within races and ethnicity groups. I think it’s fairly strong among political parties too. Continue reading Is Black Achievement in School “Acting White”?

Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

Faceless Killers

I caught a few minutes of a BBC dramatization of one of the Kurt Wallander mysteries this season, but I was distracted and don’t even remember which story it was (it might even have been this one, the first novel of the series). Still, I’ve decided I need to acquaint myself with the booming Scandinavian mystery scene, and so I picked up Faceless Killers. I enjoyed it, with some reservations.

The hero is Detective Kurt Wallander, a policeman in the rural town of Ystad (pronounced EE-stad), Sweden. Wallander is no McGarrett, no supercop. He’s barely keeping it together, in his personal life and his profession. His wife recently left him, which spun him into depression and heavy drinking. His adult daughter simply disappeared from his life, though she makes occasional contact. His artist father is sliding into dementia. Meanwhile at work, it’s his bad luck to be the senior detective on the squad (his superior is on holiday) when an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered in their home. A whispered statement by the female victim suggests a “foreigner” was responsible. Somehow the word gets out, and there are reprisals against local refugee camps.

Wallander manages to do his job creditably, but sometimes it’s touch and go, thanks in particular to exhaustion and imprudent drinking. Leads are followed until they play out, and Wallander manages to get himself pretty severely beaten up more than once. There’s even an almost-comic car chase, in which Wallander follows a suspect driving a stolen car, in a commandeered horse van.

The story lost some steam toward the end, though I had no trouble sticking with it. As a conservative American, I had mixed responses to the ethos of the story. Wallander is surprisingly conservative (it seems to me) for a Swedish cop. Although heartily anti-racist, he has serious doubts about Sweden’s open borders policy, a sentiment which sat pretty well with me. On the other hand, as a typical Swedish civil servant, the idea of a right to bear arms is entirely foreign to his universe. I had a hard time, puritanical American that I am, swallowing his guilt-free pursuit of another man’s wife.

Still, it was an interesting story, and not quite what I expected. I may read more Henning Mankell.

A note on the translation—it could have been a lot better. The translator opted too often for literalism over idiom, and the story suffered for it. I need to get into the translation business. It would appear they need me.

Always Say Goodbye, and Bright Futures, by Stuart M. Kaminsky

In March of 2009, mystery author Stuart M. Kaminsky moved with his wife from his Sarasota home to St. Louis, Missouri, in order to wait for a liver transplant (he’d contracted hepatitis during service as a military medic in France in the late 1950s). Two days later he suffered a stroke, making him ineligible for the surgery, and he passed away the following October.

The online accounts of his death I’ve read give no hint how (or whether) Kaminsky’s health affected his writing plans. But these last two novels in his Lew Fonesca series (my favorite of his four detective series) possess an elegiac quality, as if the author was tying up loose ends.

I’ve told you about Lew Fonesca before. He’s a bald, skinny process server in Sarasota, Florida. During most of the series, he lives in the back room of his tiny office, next to a Dairy Queen. He gets around chiefly by bicycle. He doesn’t want to own anything, and he doesn’t want people in his life. He’s chronically depressed, overcome by the death of his wife, in a hit-and-run accident in Chicago a few years back. He drove south until his car broke down in Sarasota, and settled where he stopped.

And yet he doesn’t stay alone. Over the course of the books he acquires a staunch friend in the old cowboy Ames McKinney, who backs him up in tight spots. An old woman he once helped took in an unwed mother he rescued, and now he’s sort of an unofficial godfather to the baby. He has a girlfriend. There’s a “little brother” (who likes going around with him because shots tend to get fired). A therapist. And (in the final book) a Chinese man who sleeps on his floor, for reasons you’ll have to read the novels to learn.

You might think these books would be depressing. They’re not. In fact—it occurred to me while reading Bright Futures—they’re actually rather funny. Lew Fonesca, like some farcical Job, is the butt of a cosmic joke. The God in whom he claims not to believe (he’s a lapsed Episcopalian) seems to be playing games with him. Continue reading Always Say Goodbye, and Bright Futures, by Stuart M. Kaminsky