Friday, August 31, 2007

American Gods

Book: American Gods
Writer(s): Neil Gaiman

Wow. This is an amazing book, one of the most remarkable I've ever read. Gaiman is a genius, unquestionably. The variety of topics and ideas compressed into this novel is astonishing. I barely know where to begin plotwise, but I suppose the simplest way is to describe the novel's intriguing premise. Basically, we live in a world where the "gods" (with a lowercase g) of myth and legend still exist, and they exist via the belief of people. These gods are flawed and human-like and mortal, but do have special powers. Most of these gods are weak today because few people believe in them any more, and there are new gods, modern gods, such as Media, a powerful woman-like creature that is the television worshipped by millions. The story is set in modern day America, where we follow the adventures of an easy-going guy named Shadow who's just been released from prison and gets caught up in scams and cons by a god named Wednesday (Odin). Lots of things happen and the individual scenes are brilliant and incredible, but it takes long while before you can really see any plot or story forming: just stick with it as eventually everything will connect and make sense. The novel culminates in a huge battle between the old gods and the new gods, with Shadow right in the middle. It's an amazing story, and Gaiman touches on all kinds of aspects of American and modern life, history, religion, belief, and reality, but ultimately I was slightly disappointed at the conclusions because the book doesn't provide any answers or illumination, it merely stirs the pot and concludes life is a messy stew and then we die. There's no moral or explanation or belief system advocated; I would have preferred that, even if it was a belief I disagreed with. Instead, it merely seems Gaiman was just finding all this humorous and interesting, with no practical connection to real life. So when I finished the novel I was like, "That's it? There's no purpose or explanation to anything?" Gaiman has intriguing ideas, but in the ends just throws out the ideas with nothing to hang them on. Perhaps he didn't want to step on the beliefs of others, but as it is, I was left wondering what the point of the novel was. I guess you could just say it was mere entertainment, but it feels so much deeper than that and I wanted it to be deeper than that. But ultimately it seems that's all that Neil's given us, a good yarn, a tall tale and nothing more.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Getting Things Done

Book: Getting Things Done (2001)
Writer(s): David Allen

For a while now I've been hearing about this book. A lot of computer programmers are into it and aspects of it -- like the whole "Inbox Zero" concept -- are catching on worldwide. I finally had to check it out. It is extremely impressive. The writing itself is fairly routine, and the book rambles and repeats more than I'd like, but the overall concept is brilliant. Basically Allen starts with the premise that keeping track of projects in your head is a terrible idea because while your conscious mind forgets things, your subconscious does not. Consciously you might forget that you promised to trim the roses or sort those tax receipts or schedule your annual eye doctor appointment, but your subconscious knows and worries and frets in the background. Ever have one of those days (or weeks or months) where you feel like you worked hard and were busy and got nothing done? Or have you ever found it difficult or impossible to relax and watch a movie or something because you felt guilty and depressed about all this vague "stuff" you needed to be doing? Well, that's your subconscious at work, reminding you of all the things you have left unfinished. I'm extremely guilty of this and I've felt like crap about work for a few years now. There are just so many projects I start and want to do, but it's hard to keep up with everything. It's so easy to let things slip and get behind and then projects feel like mountains. Allen has some great tips on coping with these problems. There's nothing earth-shattering about these ideas: most are simple things like filing papers away, having a systematic structure to your workflow and life, etc., but what's different about Allen's approach is he reveals the benefits of being organized. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and crappy because you're so far behind on things, imagine feeling refreshed, revived, energized, creative, and inspired. That's what happens when you're organized.

Now most of us have tried to be organized, but we fail, and Allen covers the reasons for these failures. For instance, have you ever made the same "To Do" lists over and over, rewriting the list for a new day after you didn't finish most of those things the previous day? Well that happens because we don't know how to make proper To Do lists. First, To Do items (which Allen calls "Action" items) don't go on a calendar (are not tied to day) unless they really are date/time dependent. Calendars are sacred for date/time related events. Regular To Do items (action items) need to go on your Action Lists, and here Allen has another simple but brilliant idea: you separate your Actions into categories based on the type of task. For instance, have a "Calls" list, an "Emails" list, a "At Home" list, an "At Work" list, an "At Computer" list, etc. This makes much more sense than grouping unrelated tasks together at random on a traditional "To Do" list. This way when you find you're at the auto shop with 20 minutes to kill while your oil is changed or your colleague called and will be a few minutes late for a meeting, you can pull out your "Calls" list and make a few quick phone calls. You basically can match your environment and your energy level with your tasks. Haven't you ever been exhausted and though you just wanted to crash, but felt guilty because you knew there was work to be done but the thought of the huge project was too much to tackle right then? With David's system, if you looked at your list and saw you just needed to send a quick email or check a website for some information or make a phone call, you might decide you've got enough energy to do that, and thus the project moves forward a little.

Another great example of the practical nature of David's system is by grouping tasks by type you are able to only look at the tasks that are physically possible right now. If you are at a restaurant waiting for a date to show, it's not like you can be doing filing at the office. But you might be able to make some calls or send an email (if you have an email-capable phone). David suggests you create an "Errands" list, which I find incredibly helpful. Here you put every kind of errand you need to do at some point: stop at the bank, go to the post office, pick up light bulbs, groceries, refill the BBQ's propane tank, get a prescription at the pharmacy, etc. By grouping the errands and checking the list before you go out, you'll see efficiencies and make several stops in one trip instead of multiple trips. Haven't you ever gone out and gotten home only to realize you didn't pick up the dry cleaning right next door to where you just were?

All of David's ideas are simple, but the benefits are dramatic. The key is that he's very honest about how completely you must devote yourself to your system. If you rely on your brain to remember things, it will know it can't be trusted and will do things to remind you, like leaving things out instead of putting them away. Don't you do that? I have a paper on my coffee table right now that's been sitting there for over a month. It's there to remind me to make a phone call, but I have not done it. I only notice the paper at weird times, like at night, when I can't make the call. And the paper adds clutter and chaos to my home. Wouldn't it make more sense to file the paper away and add the call item to my action lists?

This is a terrific book and it has inspired me. I'm tackling my own home/life reorg of massive proportions. More on that in a future update!


Friday, August 24, 2007


Movie: War

I wasn't expecting much other than a simple action thriller, and while at times this was mediocre and we're purposely left in the dark as to what's going on, the "twist" ending is actually rather cool and works well. Decent if you're into this genre.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Rush Hour 3

Movie: Rush Hour 3

I barely remember the earlier films and this one definitely falls into the same category, but for mere escapism it's not too bad. You get a little humor and action, but the adrenaline ran out of this franchise three movies ago.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Scanner Darkly

Movie: A Scanner Darkly
Writer(s): Philip K. Dick (novel)

I'm a huge fan of the book (it's one of PKD's best) and thus I was wary of the film. But the adaptation is excellent. It really captures the spirit and essence of the novel and makes it much more accessible (as the plot, about an undercover narcotics cop tripping on drugs, is [deliberately] confusing to say the least). The rotoscoping animation technique is incredible: you can still recognize the real actors but the animation is totally appropriate for such an otherworldly novel. Excellent!


Friday, August 17, 2007


Movie: Invasion

While the idea -- alien infection taking over the population -- is trite, this is fairly well done, and even occasionally chilling. But most of the time it's predictable and the ending feels too War of Worldsish (in other words, a let down). It also can't make up its mind if it's a psychological thriller or an action film, dabbling in both ineffectively.


Friday, August 10, 2007


Movie: Stardust
Writer(s): Neil Gaiman (novel)

This started off annoying me. This is such a wonderful book, short and simple and elegant, and written with such a visual style that I figured it would make a terrific film. You'd hardly have to change a thing. But right off the bat the screenwriters changed one of my favorite items. In the novel a certain character is enchanted by a witch and cannot be freed until "Two Mondays come together in a week" -- and of course that impossibility happens at the end in a brilliantly clever way. But in the film, the enchanted woman instead reveals that she can't be freed until the witch is dead. Huh? Why ruin such a wonderful part of the original story? I can see no reason. And the movie continued in that vein, changing little things here and there, for no discernible reason. In many ways that's worse than changing major plot points because it's just annoying for no reason. My rating of the film dropped to a 9, then an 8 as the little things became bigger. Toward the end the film got ridiculous, introducing a flamboyantly gay character that just felt wrong in tone for the film, and then the film had a utterly different ending. In the new ending things end up about the same, to an extent, but the tone is different, and it ends with a lot more dramatic action, and while I can understand why the producers wanted a more exciting finish, it just didn't fit with the tone of the story. A few of the elements just felt wrong, like the witch manipulating a dorky Gumby-like doll to control a dead man.

But all these issues aside, the film, for the most part, contains the heart of the novel. The shortcuts and arbitrary changes will annoy the faithful, but those who have not read the book should enjoy the film. Judging the film alone is difficult for me since I read the book and can't help making comparisons, but I bet most would give it 8 or more out of ten. My rating is closer to 7, but that's mostly because I was disappointed it wasn't a more faithful adaptation (like the Harry Potter movies). I'd encourage people to enjoy both the movie and the book. It's a wonderful story about a young man who promises the most beautiful girl in the village he'll fetch a fallen star to prove his love, but when he crosses into magical land to retrieve it, he's shocked to learn the star is not a rock but a girl. Witches are out to kill the star to eat her heart to regain their youth, and the boy and the girl set off on a series of adventures where the boy, of course, falls in love with the star. It's magical and brilliant and charming and marvelous. If you aren't going to read the book, at least see the film.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Wyrven Mystery

Movie: The Wyrven Mystery

This is an older Naomi Watts movie. It's a period piece about an orphan girl who is raised by a man, who, when she comes of age, is interested in her romantically. She is horrified and runs off with a younger mate, and they are married and have a child. But then tragedy: her husband becomes ill and dies, and the baby, left with neighbors to protect him from the disease, also dies. But then some things don't fit and the woman starts to suspect that her baby was murdered, though she doesn't know why. The truth is a fascinating twist, but it takes way, way, way too long to get there, and the film is muddled by silly "scary" things like dark moody music, strange characters, cryptic words, and curtains blowing in the night. Stripped to its bones the story has some merit, but all the fluff weakens the story instead of making it more dramatic or interesting.


Saturday, August 4, 2007

A New Blog

Soccer: A New Blog

I've started a new Houston Dynamo blog on The Offside website. Check it out!


Friday, August 3, 2007

Becoming Jane

Movie: Becoming Jane

I knew little about this other than I saw that it was about the life of Jane Austen and how she became a writer, so I knew I needed to see it. It's very good, though the period nature of the piece does make the story a little difficult to follow and the flowery language hard to understand. Early on I was confused as to who was who and how all the characters were related (too many characters introduced too quickly) and some aspects of the plot -- concepts like doweries and social propriety -- are unfamiliar to modern viewer and make understanding conflicts challenging. However, if you just relax and enjoy the story, understanding will come. Basically the is the story of Jane falling in love with a man who her family do not approve of and all the difficulties that creates. Jane's experiences with love effect her writing as we see her begining to write Pride and Prejudice during the film, though I'd have preferred to see more emphasis on that storyline. Recommended.


Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Movie: The Bourne Ultimatum
Writer(s): Robert Ludlum (novel)

The only thing this movie seems to have in common with the novel is the title. The story takes up right after the second movie as Jason Bourne tries to find out who set him up in that movie and figure out who created him. But who cares about the shadowy spy plot: what makes this work is the non-stop action, and in that regard, the film works well. There are many great scenes where Bourne gets to show off his superior intellect, outwitting hundreds of CIA agents on his trail, and he ruthlessly defends himself as needed. It's great fun watching him turn the tables on evil people with power and that's what makes it a satisfying watch. But it's ultimately a popcorn flick (not that there's anything wrong with that).


Thursday, August 2, 2007

No Reservations

Movie: No Reservations

I really liked this. The story is simple enough: a chef who's so focused on food she neglects her life inherits her young neice when her sister dies unexpectedly. Their relationship is awkward at first, but a new assistant chef at work charms the little girl and helps the two get along, and the two chefs fall in love. There's nothing hugely innovative here, but it's extremely well-done and the characters are all likeable (excellent casting). Enjoy it.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants

Book: Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants (2007)
Writer(s): Lee Goldberg

Another excellent Monk novel, this one classically tongue in cheek about the TV show's history. On the show, the actress who played Monk's assistant in the first couple seasons was replaced. In this book, his new assistant meets the former one, and sparks fly. Monk, of course, is so selfish he wants both assistants to cater to his eccentric whims (he'll pay each only half a salary, of course). But of course there's a murder involved -- several, in fact, and Monk solves the crimes in his inimitable way. It's well done, though the murderer is quite obvious (I knew the moment the character was introduced), but Monk isn't about inscrutible mysteries but the fun of Monk using his OCD to figure it out.