Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "The First Phone Call from Heaven" - Mitch Albom

I can't say I really liked this particular book.  Again, it has a positive story - people are getting calls from dead relatives, with enough details to convince those called that they were their relative and that they were in the afterlife, which is magnificent.
I am a big fan of Mitch Albom's books - they tend to be very positive storylines and interesting stories.

Early in the book I had a foreboding that the book couldn't end well - it either had to belittle the faith of the "receivers" or have some "Stephen King" ending, neither of which were in line with what I read Albom's books for.

Spoilers ---------------------

I did find the conclusion to be a not very convincing "Stephen King" ending, preferable only to a "pooping on faith" ending.  The "somebody" having access to enough information and tech know-how to "fool" living relatives seemed far fetched and a little ex machina.

As a read, I don't regret reading it, but would not rank it among Albom's best.

Finished (E-Reader) - "Command Authority" - Tom Clancy

I'm really going to miss Tom Clancy (who died in October 2013), and his Jack Ryan universe.

"Command Authority" is a nice "finishing" book for Clancy/Ryan, as it really combines the history of Jack Ryan (Sr.) who is in the President of the U.S. in the present, and was a CIA analyst who spent a lot of time running around in dangerous situations as a younger man.  His son, Jack Ryan (Jr.) is also an analyst, and about the same age as Jack Sr. was during his spying adventures.

It seems Clancy didn't really like the Ryan character aging - he liked the young Alec Baldwin in "Hunt for Red October", but didn't like the older Harrison Ford in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" as he was older than the character Clancy identified as Ryan.

"Command Authority" flashes back on Jack (Sr.) 30 years ago on a case which is related to issues being dealt with in the present by Jack (Jr.).  It nicely ties in the "Jacks" to a fast paced story.

As I read the Clancy novels over time between my last 20's and now (in my seeming mid 100's), it is difficult to rank the stories.  I can safely say that I liked them all - ranging from OK to great.  However, I must acknowledge that I have changed over time and aged as rapidly as Jack Ryan (Sr.) in the books.  The first Clancy that you read is really an education in the genre, and shows you what a researcher and fan of the military and spycraft Clancy was.  There is a little lingo to learn (particularly the more military the books are) and you become more educated in how diplomacy, military, economics and politics work together and in opposition as you read more Clancy.

 I really liked "Patriot Games" due to the inclusion of the Duke and Duchess of Wales in the book (moved to more distant Royals in the movie), found Clancy becoming a little too politically right-wing when dealing with terrorism post-911, more black and white than he tended to be otherwise, which hurt the stories a little.  I think for the North American audience, the "hero" and "villain" in a terrorism-based story does not need to be explained, and there is much to be gained by showing why the "villains" believe so strongly in their actions.  They are still going to be blown away by the "good guys" but I think the tension is greater when both parties think they are "right" and "just" than if one side is painted a little too much in 2D.

"Command Authority" goes back to East-West tensions that were the peak of Clancy - the Soviet Union v. the U.S. - stakes high, "good" and "bad" clearly defined by geography.  Russia is seeking to expand territory back toward a more "Soviet" size, and the U.S. find itself defending countries who have relaxed their defenses after the U.S.S.R. fell.

The current world paralled the world that Jack (Sr.) inhabited 30 years earlier, so the flashbacks and stories meshed nicely, and the 30 year gap just means the frontliners of the past are the leaders today.

I was reminded of "Red Storm Rising" and "Hunt for Red October", earlier U.S. - U.S.S.R. stories, which, again, is a nice wrap-up on the Clancy/Ryan stories.

I think the story is readable for non-Clancyites, and can be read as the first Clancy experience, but a dedicated reader would appreciated the characters more if the 10 or so "Ryanverse" books are read in order - Clancy did a good job of evolving the Ryan (Sr.) character over time and kept many supporting players in the fold as well, many of which have well-defined and interesting back-stories.

If you don't want to go back that far, there are only 5 Ryan Jr. stories including this one: "The Teeth of the Tiger", "Dead or Alive", "Locked On", "Threat Vector" and "Command Authority").

TV Series - "Alphas"

Alphas is the story of a government agency consisting of about six folks, a psychiatrist who is counselling and mentoring "alphas" who are folks with some form of extraordinary abilities ("mutants" in the Marvel universe of comics), and a set of alphas who assist with finding other "alphas" for the purpose of helping those in need, or imprisoning those who are a danger.

I just discovered the series "Alphas", which has just been cancelled after 2 seasons.

I like these sort of series, as the bring "over" my comic book reading history into the television universe - S.H.I.E.L.D. is somewhat similar, as was "Heroes" and the short lived "Ordinary Family", all of which I really like(d).

I've just finished watching the first season, so it may suck in the 2nd, I'll have to see.

Update: Finished Season Two - great series, too bad it ended so abruptly.  A Third season might have tied up loose ends and finished off the series.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "David and Goliath" - Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell missed the mark on this book.

I really liked the stories he told (e.g. privacy-fictionalized accounts of getting into a 1st tier college, explorations of dyslexia, loss of parents, etc.).  All had aspects of the miraculous to them, but all also carried a needed message that all was not bleak, that there were lessons to be learned that could propel to "normalcy" or beyond.
The recognition that most thinks aren't a linear relationship - none is bad, some is good more is better, too much is bad) which he illustrates in class size (there is an optimum, too many or too few are harder to handle), harsh criminal penalties (too harsh begins to have drawbacks which outweigh the benefits, particularly if cost is considered), wealth (too much creates problems with parenting) and so on.

Where the book loses me is the seeming need to assign "positive" attributes to these success stories.  It is great that compensating for dyslexia provided some excellent skill sets that made a few folks very successful.  But does it make sense to even formulate the question "would you want your children to be dyslexic?"?

I find this odd - isn't the "life lesson" that there are few dead ends enough?  Isn't the belief Stephen Hawking has that he wouldn't have had the drive to be as successful without his disabilty enough?  Do you really want to ask him whether he wants other to experience Lou Gehrig's disease?  (Stephen Hawking in not in the book but certainly could have been)

I found the artificial drive for this type of structure detracted from the tone of the book - it actually interfered with the lessons that could have and should have been drawn.

The re-telling and analysis of the biblical David and Goliath story was very interesting - the "slinger" vs. "foot soldier" military analysis that would predict a "David" win over a "Goliath" due to superior weaponry and tactics is not one I'd heard before.  That does change the tone of the story, but not the way Gladwell wants to spin the rest of the stories - most of the stories aren't really "better weaponry" stories they are more "glass half full" or "when life gives you lemons you make lemonade" stories.

I'd still recommend the book - each chapter is an interesting read - I'd just avoid some of Gladwell's analysis.

Finished (E-Reader) - "Johnny Carson" - Henry Bushkin

I really liked Johnny Carson, the man and the book.  I had read about Carson before, so was not particularly surprised that he had a difficult side (4 marriages might give you the same inkling).
I liked Henry Bushkin's book - it showed both sides of the man (Carson) from someone who worked, developed and buddied around with Carson for 20 years or so.

I was surprised how quickly and completely Carson could turn - complete trust to complete non-personhood.  I guess it is one of the unseen advantages to wealth and celebrity - lots of folks standing in line for social or business reasons - nobody would ever really be in an irreplacable position.

Carson does come off as an honest man - he is very clear that he has his agenda and you can work with it or find someplace else.  He had flashes of temper but didn't seem to really hold a grudge, and was reasonably willing to pay off those he wanted to disappear quite generously.

Bushkin rides the rollercoaseter, very high and very low, sees Carson being a very generous person, and sees him being quite a prick - basically seeing him as a real person.  Even though Bushkin ends up as an "outsider", you get the feeling that he would like it to have turned out otherwise, though not in any sycophantic manner.  Carson made Bushkin rich and successful, and Bushkin remains grateful, even though he was treated rather shabbily at times, particularly toward the end of their relationship.

It's nice to see "behind the scenes" at the Oscars or Vegas, though oddly not much on the actual Tonight Show, and to vacation with Carson.

I think both Bushkin and Carson come out of this book likable, and there is an honest recounting of their faults to see them as 3-D, not paper cut-outs.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Finished (Comics) - "Superior Spider-Man" - Marvel Now - 1-20

I haven't been thrilled with Marvel's handling of their flagship character, Spider-Man.

Over the past few years, they've retroactively changed Peter Parker's first serious romance, the ill-fated Gwendolyn Stacy, into a bit of a harlot, by having her sleep with Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) and secretly having twins through that union.  For those that aren't familiar with Gwen, her death in the early '70's at the hands of the Green Goblin is a seminal moment in comics - a complete shocker that still resonates to this day.

As if that horrible event wasn't enough, they also created a whole mystic "spider-totem" oddity, where Peter Parker wasn't the normal wallflower upon whom fate bestowed power, but the most recent of a series of mystical spider people (or somesuch).  He also started creating webbing out of his wrists, not the mechanical ones from the original stories (could have been out of his butt, so you rolls the dice, you takes your chances).

The coup-de-grace was the decision of the Marvel headless honchos to decide to remove the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson through a deal with the devil (Mephisto).  Basically, through sheer stupidity, Parker revealed his identity publicly as part of the Civil War storyline, which, predictably, had the effect of one of his villians (Kingpin in this case) taking out a hit on the family.  They tried to shoot Peter, who sensed the danger and pulled Mary Jane to the floor, and the bullet hit Aunt May, his 11,000 year old aunt. A distressed Peter and Mary Jane traded their marriage for the life of Peter's aunt (I did mention that she is a really old bat, didn't I?).  What this convoluted and uncharacteristic decision did was to remove the married Spider-Man, which many at Marvel felt was a mistake and never should have happened, without a divorce or widowing of Peter (though, really, both are preferable to making deals with Satan, I'd think).

I really stopped being interested in that character though that process.

I picked up the first 20 issues of "Superior Spider-Man".  This is the series which is an offshoot of Amazing Spider-Man #700, where a dying Dr. Octopus manages to take over Peter's body, leaving his own to die, thus making Spider-Man (powers and body) run by the brain of Dr. Octopus. A really unpleasant circumstance, but better than "Slut-Gwen", "Peter Parker - Mystic Spider", "no longer human Web Spinner" and "Hi Devil, how's it hangin'".

Ignoring the problems when Parker eventually regains his body and identity for the moment, the stories are pretty entertaining - a take with a much more arrogant Spider-Man taking his scientific mind to the task of eliminating the criminals - using spider-robots to patrol, ignoring the individual victims (sometimes) to achieve the larger picture, using lethal methods, if that seems to be the logical direction.

The problem when Peter returns, is that his alter-ego has now crossed the line to killing and maiming in non-accidental ways.  Can he actually convince the world that it was somebody else?

Oh, I know, why not make a deal with the devil?