Monday, August 31, 2009

Recipe: Grilled Pork and Peaches

Hmm ... seems that not too long ago I was trying to post recipes on Thursday so that they'd be out there for the weekend. How'd that turn out?

So here's one from Men's Health magazine that combines grilling out and stone fruits in a lovely, late-summery, healthy sort of way.

2 pork chops
2 firm peaches or nectarines, halved and pitted
2 Tbsp. pine nuts (or not - they're expensive)
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled blue (bleu) cheese
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Preheat grill. Brush pork chops with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes per side; chops should be lightly charred but not burned. While chops cook, brush peach halves with oil and put on grill facedown. Grill for 5 minutes or until soft. Remove, slice and toss with pine nuts, onion, blue cheese and vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top each pork chop with half the mixture before serving.

Serve with a light salad of fresh arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Link me, m'dear

Life seems a little disjointed to me these days. This is art my blog imitating life. Or something.

Most recently watched: Oldboy, the 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner by South Korean director, Chanwook Park (whose Lady Vengeance I watched not too long ago). Simply incredible movie. It's similar to Lady Vengeance - Park seems to have a recurring revenge motif - in that the protagonist is imprisoned for a long time and then, once released, sets out to take revenge upon his jailer. Again, gorgeously shot (American movies seem so cluttered after watching these Korean films), a little long, terrifically violent (I had to watch the oral surgery scenes through my fingers) and utterly compelling. Great stuff. Steven Spielberg and Will Smith apparently want to remake Oldboy to which I vehemently say: NO F'N WAY.

Maple Bacon Toffee : available for only a few more days ('til 8/31!) at swanky San Francisco confectioners, Recchuiti. I think this sounds just scrumptious. The store site also has a recipe for applewood smoked bacon gougeres, which look like teensy little biscuits, and a way coolio blog that I intend on exploring soon (there's mention of a maple bacon donut ...). Thanks to Blonde Ambition for the tip!

Latest job that I wish was mine: writing the blog for the National Confectioners Association.

And lastly, Thursday I read that the Weather Channel's "hurricane expert" thinks that ol' Danny might "miss New England ... and hit the southeastern coast of Maine." Um, yeah. Since when is Maine not part of New England? Jackass.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Restaurant review: Street & Co.

Street & Co., a fine dining seafood restaurant on Wharf Street in Portland, Maine, certainly doesn’t need my help in advertising: it is a Portland institution, serving fine, fresh fish and shellfish in the same lovely space for twenty years now. But, since Mr. Mouse and I went there twice in four days, and since I need a blog post, here’s a review of our recent experiences.

Last Saturday we went with two other couples for a 7:45 p.m. seating. The restaurant was hopping, as it always is. There were several tables outside on the Wharf Street cobblestones; the air-conditioned bar and the two non-air-conditioned dining rooms were packed and turning over quickly. The dining rooms have tables at very close quarters: the staff certainly does not rush you out, but the set up is not conducive to lingering, particularly in the summer in the center dining room which also contains the open kitchen. It’s a super-cozy place to sit in February, however.

Mr. Mouse had beer (bottles only, and only a few local brews); the rest shared a bottle of white (Guy Bossard muscadet, $25.00 – rather sour to my taste) and a red (which was quite nice, but unfortunately I don’t recall what it was). Each couple shared their own appetizer: the Mouses had the ubiquitous mussels Provencal, a very generous panful served in a garlicky, buttery wine sauce ($9.95), with lots of fabulous Standard Baking bread for sopping. Another couple split an order of the mahogany clams: $1.00 more than the mussels but with many fewer shellfish.

For entrees, Mr. Mouse had what he always has, blackened swordfish ($26.95) while I had the bluefish ($24.95): both were off the menu and served with broccoli and smashed potatoes. Another diner had my perennial favorite – scallops in Pernod and cream ($26.95) and their spouse had grilled lobster - a whole lobster, split and served in the shell over linguini ($29.95) The best deal on the menu went to the third couple: they had the lobster fra diavolo ($42.95 and intended for two to share). Loaded with lobster and shellfish, and served over linguini in a spicy tomato-based sauce, they took home as much as they managed to eat.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mouse and I returned to Street & Co. to polish off a $50.00 gift certificate. We took the last two spots at the bar where we had a great view of the shucker serving up succulent oysters on the half shell. We shared a bottle of chardonnay (Sonoma-Cutrer, $34.00; very drinkable) and split a baby spinach salad with hard-boiled egg, Dijon vinaigrette and plenty of house-cured bacon, and an order of the mussels. These Tuesday mussels were tasty enough, but served with rather less broth than the weekend edition.

Street & Co. has been Mr. Mouse’s favorite Portland restaurant for years and has long served as our special occasion go-to place. The portions seem to be shrinking somewhat while the prices remain the same; whether this is in response to the economy, the dwindling fisheries or the fact that the longtime chef Abby Harmon left four years ago to start her own high-end eatery, Caiola’s. No matter. It’s still an excellent restaurant and a more sophisticated Maine seafood option when you’re tired of fried clams and lobster rolls.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year

The fall viewing season is rapidly approaching - thank goodness there'll be new t.v. soon! I've trimmed down my schedule a bit (in part because I may be giving up my DVR for a while (nooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!)) but Mondays are still triple-booked at the 8:00 p.m. (EST) slot ... here's what'll be on at the Mouse House:

8:00 - How I Met Your Mother (CBS/Sept. 21), House (Fox/Sept. 21), Heroes (NBC/Sept. 21)
10:00 - Castle (ABC/Sept. 21)

8:00 - V (ABC/Nov. 3)
9:00 - The Biggest Loser (NBC/Sept. 15)

9:00 - Glee (Fox/Sept. 9)

8:00 - Flashforward (ABC/Sept. 24)
9:00 - The Office (NBC/Sept. 14)

9:00 - Dollhouse (Fox/Sept. 25)

Also, Lost comes back to ABC in "early 2010" and darling little Better Off Ted (also ABC) will return "later."

So, also, thank goodness that I can probably catch Heroes online because even if I do keep the DVR, I can't access three shows at once and Heroes, since it has been so entirely el sucko lately, will just have to wait. Yes, I will continue to slog through the recaps for you because I am eternally hopeful that the writers will get their heads out of their asses and bring this show back to its shiny S1 potential. But you just know that's not going to happen because (1) the dang trailers are ALL focusing on frakking Hiro and his stupid time-travelling and (2) I've heard that Claire Bennet is going to have a bi-curious relationship when she goes off to college.

Now, I am absolutely in favor of same sex relationships on popular television shows. Done correctly (BtVS, Torchwood, etc.), they are healthy, normal, not titillating and something that is lacking from mainstream programming. But I have no faith whatsoever that Heroes will handle this well: it's going to be the blonde cheerleader snogging another girl for ratings. It'll be bullshit and, worse, it'll be damaging to those folks who are trying to portray same sex relationships in a positive and unsensational light. Stupid Heroes.

Enough ranting. What will you be watching?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

DVD review: GRΣΣK: Chapter Three

ABC Family’s GRΣΣK (rated TV-14 for language and suggestive dialogue) returns for a third “chapter” (covering the last couple of months of the school year) with this DVD release. This impressive television dramedy series, focusing on the social lives of a group of college students at the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University, picks up where Chapter Two left off, as school resumes after Spring Break in Myrtle Beach.

All the cast regulars are back: popular junior Casey Cartwright (Spencer Grammer), her geeky younger brother, frosh Rusty (Jacob Zachar), Cappie (Scott Michael Foster) Casey’s ex-boyfriend and president of Rusty’s frat, Kappa Tau Delta; Evan (Jake McDorman), Casey’s ex-boyfriend and president of the WASPy Omega Chi house; Ashley (Amber Stevens), Casey’s best friend and roommate; Rebecca (Dilshad Vadsaria), Casey’s Zeta Beta Zeta little sister and Cappie’s girlfriend; Cal (Paul James), Rusty’s gay friend who is legacy at Omega Chi; Dale (Clark Duke), Rusty’s Southern Christian roommate.

As in the first two chapters, the campus’s Greek social life is the focus of the show although this time Cappie does actually take a make-up exam. Episode 1, “Brothers and Sisters,” details the events of Greek Week, with Rusty and Cal struggling to maintain their friendship in spite of their rival fraternities, and Rebecca struggling to regain favored status in the wake of Spring Break’s drunken wet t-shirt contest. In episode 2, “Crush Landing,” Casey is upset to find out that Evan has hooked up with Frannie, her sorority Big Sister and soon-to-be archrival, but is soon distracted as she and Ashley compete for the attentions of the same guy.

Episode 3, “Let’s Make a Deal,” is one of the strongest episodes: Omega Chi hosts a Casino Night fundraiser and Casey, Rusty and Rusty’s new hunky-but-geeky RA, Max, band together to help Ashley win enough money to get out of her credit card debt. Cappie feels uncomfortable when Rebecca tries to buy him expensive presents; and Evan chafes at the restrictions his parents have put on his trust fund. In “Gays, Ghosts and Gamma Rays,” episode 4, Cappie deals with his and Rebecca’s break-up; Casey finds herself with a crush on Max; Cal’s grad student boyfriend, Michael, takes him to a gay bar; and Rusty tracks down an elusive, never-seen Kappa Tau brother.

Episode 5, “Pledge Experience,” shows Casey dealing with having a non-Greek boyfriend for the very first time, and finding it both refreshing and awkward. After Cal and Michael join Evan and Frannie for a swanky dinner, Cal is concerned that his Big Brother has sold his soul for his trust fund – and Frannie is fanning the flames.

In Episode 6 (“See You Next Time, Sisters”), Rusty’s engineering dorm holds a blow out party at Kappa Tau and Casey, Ashley and Frannie attend the national Zeta Beta Zeta convention. Episode 7 (“Formally Yours”) covers the Spring Formal season for the Greek system, with Casey worrying about Max’s ability to small talk with the ZBZs and Rusty bemoaning the fact that he didn’t go to his high school prom. Episode 8, “The Popular Vote” shows the Casey vs. Frannie ZBZ presidential race heating up, while Rusty and Cappie try speed-dating. Episode 9 is “Three’s A Crowd,” in which control-freak Casey has difficulty handing over the ZBZ reins to the new president.

Episode 10, “Hell Week,” sets things up for Chapter Four with a bunch of cliffhangers: Max gets accepted to grad school in California and Casey gets a summer internship in Washington D.C.; Frannie continues her gold-digging and manipulative ways; Rusty worries that he won’t make the final cut to be initiated into Kappa Tau; and everyone awaits a big decision by Rebecca.

GRΣΣK continues the realistic character development begun in previous Chapters (something that other shows might want to take notes on – I’m looking at you, Heroes). These kids are growing in genuine ways that make sense, making both good and bad decisions and learning (or not) from them. This is not so much college as students’ parents want to see, but the characters in this show have to deal with real stuff: drinking, sex, time management, peer pressure, jealousy, heartbreak. Kudos to ABC Family for mixing good messages in with all the fun stuff.

There are not much by way of extras in the 3-disc DVD set: a blooper reel (which consists of people flubbing lines and giggling; several commentary tracks; and a “20 Questions with the Cast of Greek”.

After having watched three Chapters of GRΣΣK on disk now, I find I have some real affection for this show, catching myself smiling fondly at the onscreen shenanigans. I’m not entirely sure I’m going to be able to wait for Chapter Four to come out on DVD – luckily, the next Chapter comes out just next week, airing August 31 on ABC Family Channel.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mini movie review: District 9

Dang! I can't decide whether the R rating is for all the crazy splattery bloody violence (perpetrated against both man and alien) or for the fact that variations of "f*ck" were in pretty much every single line of dialogue after the first ten minutes. I haven't heard that much cussing since I was watching Deadwood. Awesome!

District 9 is, in fact, awesome, a shining example of how to do an alien/action movie, but make it a smart allegory, include no cleavage whatsoever and do it on a tiny little budget. The F/X are fabulous, both the "prawns" and their tech (the alien mothership is a wonder to behold) and the explode-y bits. People do NOT get to outrun explosions in this movie (ahem, Michael Bay). And, holy shit: actual acting! The lead, Sharlto Copley, is fantastic. I hope this movie nets him more gigs.

Yes, the denouement is a little sappy, and the flick runs a little long, but jeesh - that ain't so bad. If you can stomach the genre and the violence, District 9 is a great sleeper movie. I think it's doing well. I'm very pleased about that.

Also, noteworthy trailers: for Jennifer's Body - can Amanda Seyfried*, geeked out in glasses, actually kick Megan Fox's ass? I sure hope so! and for Legion - Paul Bettany as an angel, I guess, here on earth to save a pregnant Tyra Collett from ... more angels? Sign me up. Ooh! and for Zombieland!!!

* Also, Kyle Gallner apparently gets eaten - is Diablo Cody a Veronica Mars fan or what?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What would zombies do?

In a heat wave situation like Maine's got going on right now? I mean, multiple days in the high 80s degrees at 90% humidity has to play hell on the ol' putrefaction, no? I suppose that's one unintended benefit of global warming: when the inevitable zombie apocalypse arrives, they'll all rot to ineffectual bits and pieces that much faster because it's so dang hot out.

Speaking of zombie bits and pieces, have you heard about these?

Never Slow Dance with a Zombie - a YA book by E. Van Lowe. I haven't read it yet nor really know anything about it, but I've seen some good reviews and really, do you need to know more than what the title tells you with this one? No, you don't. Go read it and tell me what you think.

There's a new bar in Minneapolis: Donny Dirk's Zombie Den. The bartenders dress like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead, complete with white shirt, red tie and bloodstains. It's apparently in a kind of rough neighborhood but I'm seeing positive reviews pop up on the interwebs.

Zombie Girl: the Movie is streaming for free on Hulu and SnagFilms, for the next couple of days or so anyway. This is a documentary about this twelve year old girl who is making a feature length, gory, shuffling zombie movie called Pathogen. I have got to get on seeing this - and so should you!

(Thanks to Pop Candy for the last two links, btw.)

And finally, I found this site which is really an amazing clearinghouse for all things zombie: The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, of course.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dollhouse episode review: "Epitaph One"

Will someone please explain to me why FOX decided not to air this fantastic episode - which surpassed even the last two episodes of the season in tightly-written, well-acted excellence? Just as Joss intended, "Epitaph One" would have been a great series finale if Dollhouse hadn't been picked up again; conversely, it's an outstanding set-up for the upcoming S2.

It's a classic science fiction piece, post-apocalyptic, set in 2019 and flashing back to 2009 and the years between. The flashbacks tell, in tantalizing fragments, the story of the Worst Possible Scenario for the evolution of the Dollhouse's imprinting technology. This episode gave a huge amount of backstory that had been glossed over during the regular season, while at the same time moving the universe forward. Everything in "Epitaph One" is connected to something else. There is nothing in it that doesn't mean something.

The acting was a cut above the regular season too, largely due to the fact that Eliza Dushku was scarcely onscreen at all for "Epitaph One." Amy Acker and Felicia Day rock the hell out of their roles (although FD is given the worst dialogue), and the newcomers more than hold their own. Little Adair Tishler (formerly known as "Molly the Hero-finder" from Heroes) is just incredible. I expect great things for her career.

I read that "Epitaph One" has been iTunes's #1 download, which is possibly what FOX's marketing department was going for; I myself watched it on DVD. Hopefully the rave reviews and #1 spot will encourage FOX to keep supporting this show - which I really believe is only going to get better and better as it goes - I just wish they'd aired it as well so the widest possible audience could have gotten a glimpse.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mini movie review: Doomsday

It's been quite some time since I saw a movie as - what's the word I want: disjointed? hodgepodge? higgledepiggledy? - as Doomsday. Take 28 Days Later (what with the infection decimating Great Britain), The Road Warrior and Max Max Beyond Thunderdome (for the post-apocalyptic, crazed car chases and general stirring up of the post-apocalyptic populace, complete with an 80s soundtrack - which I guess is there to show how nuts this populace is), and Aliens (for the badass chick heroine and the military, smug in their high-tech weaponry and vehicles getting their asses handed to them), plus a little of Serenity (for the Reavers) and some Monty Python's Holy Grail (for knights and the exploding rabbit) ... that's Doomsday.

I'm absolutely not going to try to describe the plot. It's a find the cure for the disease that's killing everyone disaster thing and there's lots of explosions and blood and gore splashing everywhere, including on the camera (which was a nice touch the first time, but kind of goofy the second time). The soundtrack kicks ass as much as Rhona Mitra (the aforementioned badass chick heroine) but this movie is just one hot mess. I really wish Neil Marshall had picked one or two genres to focus on, rather than whirling it all together; The Descent was sooooooooo good, and this movie just felt like he couldn't say no to any idea that he had. Still, for a hot day when you're looking for something brainless and noisy, you could do worse. (But I'd check to see if The Descent was available first.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not all books, all the time

Lest you think that I've gone all brainy on you and have been doing nothing but reading Great Works of Litracha all summer, let me tell you what all I've been watching on the vidiot box:

Glad I saw it because it's a classic, Part I: Point Break - With all the positive buzz Kathryn Bigelow has been getting on her latest film, The Hurt Locker, I thought I should take a gander at some of her earlier works and when Point Break popped up on the cable, I gandered away. Yes, it's a dumb action movie - whose legendary stunts (talking while skydiving; catching up to someone while skydiving) have been tested out on Mythbusters - but it has these points in its favor: Swayze in all his golden glory, roundhouse-kicking bad guys while wearing a wetsuit; beautifully shot action sequences (although with perhaps too much emphasis on the slo-mo effect); and Keanu Reeves actually emoting!!!

Mostly glad I saw it because it's a classic, Part II: The Brood - The horror film that put David Cronenburg on the map in 1979 left me a little cold. It's slow, for one, with lots of talking and approximately one kill per half hour. The kills aren't particularly scary or shocking or gory either, although the climatic reveal of Nola birthing a Brood baby from an external egg sac, and then licking said newborn clean, definitely ups the ick/ewww factor and sets the stage for the director's subsequent body-horror films.

In the total waste of time category: Hellbound: Hellraiser II - Speaking of slow ... I recorded this one on the DVR and then ended up fast-forwarding through 90% of it. This sequel does not maintain the shock value of the very gory first film, and squanders what goodwill it has by stealing scenes from its predecessor. The Cenobites are used to even lesser effect as well: hardly ever on screen and then when they are, being ineffectual and not scary.

Not even close to a waste of time: 21 Jump Street - is on Hulu. Did you know this? I didn't know this - I just found out. The hair, the clothes, the music (terrible Richard Marx-ish stuff, not cool New Wave), Johnny Depp c. 1987 ... this is the cure for what ails me. I've only gotten through the first five episodes but gawd, they make me soooooo happy!!!!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This is the last of my vacation book reviews. Technically there's one more - The Island of Dr. Moreau - but I'm holding that to be part of my next Read It, Watch It, Watch It Again features ... if Blockbuster Online would just ever send me the first movie.

I did a really good job of selecting vacation books this year – not one of the ten I finished was a dog. (Can’t speak to the doggishness of the two I didn’t get to: The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch, and Neal Stephensons’ Anathem … except that I found both to be rather inprenetrable, but perhaps worth another try sometime.) But the final vacation novel, Donna Tartt’s lengthy (559 pages) The Secret History was just outstanding. Even though you learn who gets killed – and who kills him – on the very first page, this exciting book keeps you turning pages until the very end, learning the “why,” the “how” and the “then what?”.

Set on the fictitious Hampden College campus (a thinly veiled Bennington, the author’s alma mater), The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a poor and lonely student from California. In his first days at college, he decides that he wants to be part of the small, elite Classics department, taught by only one professor, populated by only five other students. Richard gains entry to the class and, eventually, to the camaraderie of the other students: brilliant, brusque, wealthy Henry, the ostensible leader; big-hearted and sophisticated Francis; the beautiful twins, Camilla and Charles, elegant and wary; and big, goofy Bunny (“don’t call me ‘Edmund’”) Corcoran.

At first Richard is in heaven, loving his classes and spending all his time with his fine new friends, drinking, smoking, eating extravagantly, enjoying weekends at Francis’s aunt’s country house. Things get weird when Henry, Francis and the twins re-enact an ancient Greek rite with terrible consequences. The situation goes from bad to worse when Bunny, insanely jealous that he wasn’t included, blackmails them, threatening to tell their secret. Henry decides that Bunny must be silenced; the four others enlist Richard to help; and one hiking trip later, the threat has been eliminated.

But the book isn’t even half over at this point! And Tartt painstakingly follows the survivors’ unraveling as they try to come to terms with what they’ve done. Each character is fascinating, in turn attractive, repellent, pathetic and scary. Even at such a great length, nothing seems extraneous in this book. I wanted to know everything about these people and, once I did, could not turn my horrified eyes away.

Telling the audience whodunit right at the start is an ancient mode of storytelling, as Tartt herself explains in the included author interview at the end of the book (which I rather wish I hadn’t read: she comes off as a completely pretentious bitch, which I only find redeemable by the strength of her prose. But still.) But just because the reader knows the action that’s about to happen, they still have to guess at the events leading up to it, and the motivations for it, and the fall-out from it. In Tartt’s extremely capable hands, knowing who killed Bunny Corcoran doesn’t at all diminish the excitement and enjoyment of the story unfolding page by page.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book reviews: A Great Deliverance and Payment In Blood by Elizabeth George

I can’t believe it took me seven books into vacation to reach the first British murder mystery (hereinafter sometimes referred to as “BMMs”); I love BMMs and once spent a whole vacation reading nothing but – PD James, Dorothy Sayers … now, thanks to the excellent suggestion of Nancy B. and Megan (B)K., I can add the Thomas Lynley novels by Elizabeth George to the roster.

A Great Deliverance and Payment In Blood are the first two books in the series (many of which have been adapted into films by the BBC). The investigatory team is Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eighth Earl of Something-or-Other and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. In the best BMM tradition, these two are terribly mismatched and at odds with each other immediately – Lynley an aristocratic, handsome, urbane rake, Havers a short and squat working class oaf. But neither is exactly as they seem. Lynley holds pain and compassion within his gilded breast; Havers has a very sharp mind and good instincts beneath her bad temper and manners. Plus, Lynley is the sergeant’s last chance to advance in New Scotland Yard: if she can’t figure out how to work with him, she’s doomed to being a beat cop forever since she’s already alienated every other available inspector.

In A Great Deliverance, Lynley and Havers’s first case together takes them out of London and into the tiny, lovely village of Keldale, in Yorkshire. There, a wealty farmer has been found decapitated in his barn, his elderly border collie killed as well, and his fat, unattractive daughter sitting next to him, saying “I did it. And I’m not sorry.” But the good people of Keldale refuse to believe that Roberta, a good, gentle, simple soul, could have killed her father. And so the hunt is afoot for Scotland Yard.

Payment In Blood has Lynley and Havers in Scotland at a hulking manor house, investigating the brutal murder of a playwright. The acting troupe also ensconced at the house is full of insufferable characters and suspicious pesonages. Havers, as usual, struggles with the preferential treatment given to the upper class, while Lynley is shocked to discover that the woman he loves is there, and there with another man. Right under their noses another murder is committed and both Lynley and Havers find the situation spiraling dangerously out of their control.

Elizabeth George has not broken any particularly new ground here. She stays true to form with the tropes of her police team and their country cases. But she does it all so very well: she has a lovely eye for detail, and draws her characters exceedingly well, giving even the minor ones depth and making it impossible not to care about the major players. George doesn’t shy away from the grimness of human behavior and instead has crafted two very strong BMMs – and good novels apart from their genre to boot. I look forward to investigating more cases with Lynley and Havers in the near future - and may have to look into their BBC live action adaptations.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Book review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The first stories were Tiger’s stories and they were stories of hunting and rending and teeth and blood. The world was a hard place then, and it hurt. Then Anansi, the Spider, the trickster, came and fooled Tiger, stole the stories away from him. And the people learned that life was full of song and dance and laughter, and even if it was hard, there was joy in it too.

Returning to the world he explored in American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s 2005 Anansi Boys is full of song and joy and laughter, and is a very good story indeed. “Fat Charlie” Nancy grew up perpetually embarrassed by his laughing, practical joke-loving dad. When, after years of estrangement, his father dies, Fat Charlie goes to the funeral and discovers that (1) his father was actually a god and (2) he is not an only child. If you want to see your brother, says the old West Indian woman who was Fat Charlie’s childhood neighbor, tell a spider. One night not too long afterwards, after a bottle of wine, Fat Charlie mentions offhandedly to a garden spider that he’s rescued from his bathtub that his brother should stop by.

So his brother does. Handsome, charming, lucky and fully aware of the benefits of being a god’s son, Spider descends upon Fat Charlie’s humdrum life and wreaks ample havoc upon it: seducing Fat Charlie’s fiancée, discovering financial inconsistencies at work which makes Fat Charlie’s shady boss nervous, getting Fat Charlie arrested, starting a cascade of events that lead to murder, séances and a trip to the West Indies. Fat Charlie is alternately fascinated and appalled by his brother but must concede in the end that his life is perhaps better – or at least more exciting – for having Spider in it.

Gaiman has done it again with Anansi Boys, weaving ancient folklore and modern storytelling with the greatest of ease. This is a lighter-weight book than American Gods, both in heft of subject matter and physical size (in fact, my only complaint was that it ended too soon – where it should have, story-wise, but I could have read twice the allotted pages because Gaiman is just that good). Instead of taking on all the old religions that built the United States, Gaiman this time focuses on the charming and devious “Mr. Nancy,” and what happens when a god’s child doesn’t know his godhead.

Part British police caper, part West Indian voodoo, part Douglas Adams-esque insanity, part folktale, Anansi Boys is great fun, great storytelling and, at the very least, completely identifiable to anyone who has ever been embarrassed by or frustrated with a family member. If all stories now belong to Anansi, then there is no question in my mind that Neil Gaiman is absolutely one of his boys.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mini movie review: The Host

There’s nothing like a creature-feature to while away a hot summer night: I recently watched The Host (2006, Korean with English subtitles) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Set along the Han River in Seoul, the plot is very simple: an enormous monster comes out of the river and snatches up a little girl. The little girl’s distraught family – father, aunt, uncle and grandfather – try to rescue her. There’s a little more to it than that, of course. The government gets involved due to a reported virus carried by the monster (hence the movie's title); and the government itself is the one responsible for the creation of the beastie, having dumped a bunch toxic chemicals down the drain in the first place. The whole family, with the exception of the little girl, are complete nitwits, struggling against their own natures as much as against their external foes. The girl, on the other hand, is smart, brave and clever, managing not only to stay alive in the monster’s lair, but to help and protect a younger boy as well.

The monster itself is glorious, sort of a giant mutated polliwog with fangs. Largely CGI with some animatronics, it’s awfully good, lurching around on land but then gracefully swinging like a gibbon from the struts on the underside of the bridge, grunting, snarling, drooling, gobbling people down and then regurgitating them back up.

This flick does a nice job of balancing comedy with horror - for most of the movie, the family's attempts at rescue border on farce - although it’s not gory or scary enough to merit true horror film status. Fun stuff and worth a look for sure.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Book review: Deerskin by Robin McKinley

I’ve read one or two of Robin McKinley’s Young Adult books before; Deerskin is not like those books. Yes, the sure-footed story-telling is there, and the characters that leap off the page, and the magic and mystery. But Deerskin, while still a fantasy, is indeed a fairy tale for adults (as one of the book jacket quotes gushes) – it is, in part, nightmarish, unthinkable, the grimmest fairy tale imaginable.

All as she was growing up, the Princess Lissar was ignored, overshadowed by her beautiful, generous, overwhelming parents – the queen the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and the king clever and brave and handsome enough to win her hand. When the queen died, the king went mad with grief for she was his life, and while she was living, they only had eyes for each other. The princess grew up quietly, unnoticed except by her beloved pet dog, a greyhound-esque hound named “Ash,” a gift from a neighboring kingdom’s prince as slight consolation and comfort at her mother’s death.

At the princess’s seventeenth birthday, she got a coming-out party, and the court was amazed to discover that this princess, who had been for so long completely eclipsed by her mother’s beauty, was actually the very image of her mother. The nightmare did not truly begin, however, until the king realized the same thing.

Lissar and her devoted dog fled the castle and the unspeakable horror (which McKinley does, in fact, speak of in awful, heart-rending detail) contained within it. Through strength of will, resilience of body and not a little magic, she and Ash embarked upon a journey that brought them wonder and danger, loyalty and betrayal, healing and home. The brutalized princess had lost her memory, repressing not just recent events but all prior history, and eventually found her way to a far off kingdom where she got work in the prince’s dog kennels. I know I’m being very vague with the plot, but this is an excellent story and it deserves to be read, not spoiled here.

McKinley makes a note at the beginning of the book which says:

There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault’s fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin began.
All the old, unDisneyfied fairy tales are violent, often horrifically so: two out of every three princes dying during impossible quests, evil stepsisters hacking off bits of their feet to squeeze into party shoes, princesses dancing all night until their feet bleed. Donkeyskin and Deerskin go much further than any of those. This modern fantasy novel is indeed a fairy tale, following the traditions and tropes, but it is brutal and disturbing, no less so because McKinley writes so well.

But it is also full of strength and love – and dogs. Lots of dogs, actually – McKinley is obviously a dog person. Lissar regains much of her strength in the royal kennel, surrounded by happy dogs and puppies. For every act of wrath there is one of rebirth. I read a lot of fantasy novels but rarely does one stay with me for very long after I’ve closed the cover. Robin McKinley’s striking Deerskin is one that has.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

District 9

It's gonna be good.* I'm gonna see it.

*A "low budget" R-rated sci-fi film about sick and starving aliens who come to Earth and get shoved into a South African ghetto and exploited by the world's governments, said movie produced by Peter Jackson and under no pressure from Hollywood studios to pander to the masses? You're damn right it's gonna be good. Opens August 14.