Sunday, September 26, 1999

The Hunt

Book: The Hunt (1990)
Writer(s): William Diehl

This is a WWII spy novel. Not a bad book, though you don't really know what's going on until about the halfway point. Good for a quick read. My recommendation is to skim until page 200 or so. It's all pages and pages of setup and the payoff isn't that great. Predictable toward the end, and the plot relies on some unbelievable coincidences. Some interesting characters, however, and the heartbreak of the dispassionate hero, as he learns his love is in a German concentration camp is truly moving. From that great emotion, however, the novel descends into a generic action thriller. I vote for more Dostoyevsky and less Clint Eastwood. Not quite up to Diehl's Primal Fear, though meticulously researched.


Friday, September 24, 1999

The Chessmen of Mars

Book: The Chessmen of Mars
Writer(s): Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read this a long time ago (back in high school) and I'd forgotten what a master storyteller Burroughs was. He remains one of my favorite writers; I'm going to find some more of his classics to read over the next few months. This story, part of Burroughs' Mars series, deals with John Carter's daughter, Lara, as a fierce storm sets her flier down in a remote part of Mars. As she attempts to return home, she is captured by various strange beings, including a bizarre parasitic species of large heads with crab-like feet who attach themselves to a species of genetically engineered headless humans. The heads are able to control the mindless bodies via a link to the spinal cord. Weird, yes. But Burroughs does more with this than most writers, for he gives the species characteristics appropriate for their kind. The brains, for instance, are intellectual thinkers who sneer at the organic and the practical. They think bodies are useless and strive to create the ultimate brain, a huge organ that can do nothing but think. Hilarious, when you think about it. (Burroughs had obviously met some people who fit that species perfectly.) The story is a delightful blend of adventure and romance, with a secret identity scam worthy of Shakespeare.


Wednesday, September 22, 1999

The Great Train Robbery

Book: The Great Train Robbery (1973)
Writer(s): Michael Crichton

Excellent, excellent book. It wasn't anything like expected. It's the true story of an 1856 train robbery in England. It's not exactly non-fiction, yet it's not a novelization of a real-life event either. It's more like a documentary, with some parts dramatized and other parts pure explanation. What's fascinating is the way Crichton reveals the mindset of the Victorian era, uncovering why this particular train robbery was so significant. I was enthralled at the sociological implications of technology, criminology, psychology, and other fields explored in this book. It's a terrific book that hasn't aged in the 25 years since it was written. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for an airing of the movie. (The robbery itself was an amazing feat considering the era.)


Tuesday, September 21, 1999

The Matrix

Movie: The Matrix (1999)
Writer(s): Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski
Director(s): Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

Frankly, I was disappointed by this movie. I'd heard lots of good things about it -- mostly that the story was really good (as in, it wasn't just a special effects movie). The story didn't do much for me. It was completely predictable. This might just be because I've been working on my own (unfinished) virtual reality novel and I threw out this plot about five years ago as being too cliche. Basically, the plot has Keanu Reaves as a guy who finds out his whole life is an illusion and it's up to him to save humanity from the machines that enslave them. (The whole bit about machines taking over the earth was ludicrous.) Still, the movie was well done, the special effects interesting (thought not great -- the "fast" fights were strangely slow), and some of the characters were pretty cool (Laurence Fishburne was great as Morpheus). But it certainly was not the spiritually moving, thought-provoking movie I'd come to expect based on the reviews. I got it on DVD with lots of extras and I haven't even bothered looking through them -- who really wants to study this limp movie like a religion?


Sunday, September 19, 1999

The Genesis Code

Book: The Genesis Code (1997)
Writer(s): John Case

I picked this up at a used bookstore; it seemed familiar. A while back I'd heard the author talk on KGO radio and his premise sounded intriguing -- creating a clone of Jesus by using DNA from hair and other "genuine" artifacts of the Church. Okay, I've just ruined the book for you. This is a one-joke book, and it's really annoying. You literally do not find out the key detail -- what I just told you -- until the last few pages of the book! It's lame, because from page one there are hints and mysteries and shadows but the author "cleverly" refuses to divulge what is happening. He does this poorly, by giving us a selective narrator. Instead of having a character talk to another with dialog, revealing the secret to us, he basically writes, "The man told him the secret and he was horrified." So you spend the whole book trying to figure out this great secret as characters do mysterious things and others kill and run and search -- but you don't have the faintest idea why any of this is happening! (Or why you should care.) Of course, in my case, I knew (or had a vague idea), so all the cloak-and-dagger was doubly annoying. I was hoping for a book that explored the religious and ethic impact of such a cloning -- what a fantastic idea -- but instead all I got was a routine mystery/spy/action novel with nothing new until the last page, and then, after dropping the bombshell, it ended. As a routine thriller; its not bad, though not as good as say, Ken Follett. Just don't set your expectations high, like I did.


Saturday, September 18, 1999


Movie: Rounders (1998)
Writer(s): David Levien & Brian Koppelman
Director(s): John Dahl

Interesting movie. It's about a law student, played by Matt Damon, who's into poker. Making a living at poker is called "rounding" (hence the title). He's good at it -- says that card-playing has nothing to do with luck, it's mostly skill. Shades of his math genius character from Good Will Hunting, but not so smart. His dream is to play at the World Series Poker Championships in Las Vegas, but he loses his stake in a game with a Russian mobster (an excellent John Malkovich). Swearing to his girlfriend he's done with poker for good, he of course falls back into it, encouraged by his hard-luck childhood friend (an awesome Edward Norton) just out of jail with debts to pay. Trying to help his friend, he gets deep in debt, and with his back against the wall he's got to play his way out, challenging the Russian mobster again. The basic "moral" is that this is what he was born to do -- he must live out his dream or be unhappy. Good, low key, a lot of bad language, and some terrific acting.


Wednesday, September 15, 1999

King Solomon's Mines

Book: King Solomon's Mines (1885)
Writer(s): H. Rider Haggard

Similar in style to some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stuff, this book was okay, but the foreshadowing was so strong it made the story too predictable. It's basically about a quest to find the lost diamond mines of King Solomon, and of course there are lots of trials and adventures along the way. Fun for a quick read, good for kids. I would have liked it more when I was younger, but somehow I missed it.


Sunday, September 12, 1999

Snow Crash

Book: Snow Crash (1992)
Writer(s): Neal Stephenson

The mammoth Cryptonomicon inspired me to purchase all of Neal Stephenson's other books. I started with his earlier novel, Snow Crash, what seems to be a "typical" virtual reality about a new software "drug" that kills computer programmers. The plot doesn't know whether it wants to be an action story (swordfights and armed assaults and chases play roles) or a detective story (researching the who, what, when, why of the killing gets overly technical and wearisome), but the world Neal creates is fascinating. Not the virtual reality world: there's little innovation there (at least to me), but the real world. It's a futuristic mesh of Bladerunner, 1984, and Something Else. For instance, all governments have been privatized -- so much so that one bandit rides around with a nuclear bomb on his motorcycle (in effect he's his own country). This new world is divided by franchises -- everything is a franchise (including religions and jails) -- a hilarious extreme. The characters are wild and different: YT as the 15-year-old skateboarder is particularly entrancing. The plot? Well, it was interesting, but it takes so long to get there it really feels like the payoff isn't worth it. (It basically takes the absurd assumption that Asherah, the pagan god of the Hebrews, created a mental virus that scrambles a person's ability to comprehend language, and the release of that virus is what caused Babel. Snow Crash, as the drug in the novel is called, is a resurrection of this virus, spread in modern day via a Protestant minister as "speaking in tongues" and a computer virus which has the mind virus embedded into an image of computer screen "snow" -- ones and zeros -- which only computer programmers can understand. Neal takes a hundred pages to explain this in a much more believable manner, but it's still stilly and a bit offensive if you're a Protestant.) Overall, entertaining, but take it lightly -- it isn't as deep as it purports to be.


Saturday, September 11, 1999

The Sixth Sense

Movie: The Sixth Sense (1999)
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan

Even better the second time around. Amazing performances, and this time I was really impressed with the direction. There were many places the suspense was heightened by excellent camera-placement decisions. This is a film that most dismiss as a mere gimmick, but the reason it works is because the film is excellently written with profound characters. My favorite is the way the little boy didn't want to tell his secret to his mother -- the person he was closest to in the whole world -- because it would change the way she looked at him. Meanwhile the mother is in agony because her son won't even tell her what's wrong. What a fantastic dilemma! Profound and heart-wrenching.