Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Liar's Diary paperback release

Recently I reviewed Patry Francis's great debut novel "The Liar's Diary."

Today it releases in paperback and, as Patry is battling a serious health-related matter (which she blogs about in a candid manner on her blog), all her friends and colleagues are blogging today in support.

Lots of luck with your book and thinking of you at this difficult time, Patry.

Here's the Review

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bit of a downer

So our close friends L&L and ourselves decided to get together yesterday and go see a film followed by supper at the new PF Chang's that's just opened near us.

What to see, we mulled. What to see.

I suggested There will be Blood. First, because Daniel Day-Lewis is a first rate actor, second because it's been nominated for eight Oscars, and third because there's been buzz that it's a brilliant film.

Everyone agreed on my choice.

Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview is magnificent (as usual), but I'm afraid one actor does not a brilliant film make. Director Paul Thomas Anderson's film is one great amorphous chasm of darkness. The plot, what there is of it, is basically dirt-poor, ambitious early twentieth Century American strikes gold (in this case oil) in California, becomes a tycoon, and retains his ruthless, competitive nature right to the last scene of the movie. We've had so many of these Hollywood stories I can't believe they think the public's going to hail it cutting edge cinema because of the cat-wailing musical scores and effects, which include an oil derrick burning and the deaths of a couple of oil miners and the murder of a man who claims to be Plainview's half-brother. (I will say Day-Lewis is nothing other than spell-binding when he realizes the man is not who he says he is--the tiniest facial expression speaks volumes and it is this scene which will probably win him the Oscar.)

A few twists are thrown in--the fact that Plainview's son is not his son, but rather an orphan whom he picked off the street and called his son because the presence of a fresh-faced child would help him cheat the farmers of their land, and a preacher who's nothing but a cliche--does nothing but highlight the lack of a riveting plot.

At two hours and thirty minutes, the film is bloated and could have done with the services of a good editor. The last scene is gratuitous. And there is much repetition in case we're such a dumb audience we won't pick up some 'vital' point and we are required to suspend reality. For example, the son has an accident and loses his hearing and we are then expected to believe he loses his ability to speak immediately.

By the time the movie ended, we were ready for PF Chang's and a few glasses of wine. Thankfully, the meal was wonderful and the overall somber spirits sitting through this film had invoked were rapidly dispelled.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

German 'green' ingenuity

Today, the 462 foot cargo ship MS Beluga left the port city of Bremen on its way to Venezuela. After it arrived in the open sea, it unwound a giant sky sail (a kite, really) measuring 462 square meters from its bow that can fly 600 feet above the vessel and power the ship.

If the experiment works, the ship will cut its carbon emissions by 20% for the entire voyage. It should be noted that there are about 100,000 ships carrying 95% of the world's cargo from country to country and the cargo companies use the dirtiest fuel (diesel)to power their fleets.

The kite device is the brain child of 34-year-old Stephan Wrage and the experiment has been financed in large part by the German government. Computers manage the mechanics of flying the kite. Reduction of greenhouse gases and saving our planet is the catalyst energizing the trial.

The cargo industry is very conservative (with a small 'c', probably a large one too) but they are watching with interest. Already orders for the kite are coming in. If it works, a giant kite measuring 5000 sq meters will be devised for the huge tankers and emissions could be reduced by 30 or 40%

Friday, January 18, 2008

About cloning

In the same week the USDA says that meat and dairy products from cloned animals will one day be available on our supermarket shelves because there's no difference in the animal and it's clone, we learn Stemagen Corp--a privately funded company in California--has managed to clone a human.

It was fascinating watching the interview of the scientist Dr. Samuel Wood who'd used his own skin cells as the "building blocks" of the process. He said he felt amazing and strange peering at the three cells of what would become a copy of him before he destroyed them.

I understand the whole argument that cloning should be allowed because it will advance the search for cures to disease, etc.

But I will take this a step farther. What is the real problem or dilemma in bringing a child into the world using this method? Why is it automatically unacceptable to do do? Why the knee jerk clamor for laws to prevent cloning? One expects organized religion such as the Catholic church, etc to jerk it's knee, but what about intellectuals and those who do not take the bible literally? Even Wood whom I imagine is intellectual in all aspects of his life felt duty bound to state he didn't ever wish to clone a human--whether that's really his position or not, it felt like morality creeping into the realm of science.

Isn't it intellectual bunk in today's sophisticated world to conclude we can't do this because it's a sin, against God (who's never ruled on it to my knowledge), that its immoral, that it's arrogance to create a carbon copy of oneself. The child would have the same genes as its father OR mother--maybe that's what's making people squeamish:that the genes of one sex is no longer required to produce a child--but that's all. Because it would be born in a different time period and exposed to different socio-economic situations and stimuli (the nurture side of the equation), it would NOT be the same as its parent.

In my opinion, this will happen and in time it will be no more controversial than surrogacy as is increasingly happening with couples who want a child but can't conceive for one reason or other. People throughout the world should have the right to have children whether through sexual intercourse or cutting edge methods that advances in our technology allow. Why not use other pieces of our to DNA to create another human being? We use sperm and egg. The child would be a human being no matter.

In my opinion, we should be concentrating NOT on drafting laws to ban cloning--it's going to happen somewhere in the world--but rather on drafting good laws to protect how it will be conducted and to protect the rights of children born from cloning, if necessary. (For example, one good law would be that the USDA seal of approval can't be put on them making them eligible for consumption.)

After all, once it was strange to think a child's life began inside a test tube. No more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Juno

Here's one of the finest American independent films, a film displaying American humor at its finest, a film unafraid to show pathos without being maudlin, a film that'll leave an indelible impression in the mind for many years.

The film (from Fox Searchlight)begins and ends with a chair. Sixteen year old Juno MacGuff--an intelligent, unorthodox teenager who marches to the beat of her own drum--played by Ellen Page climbs upon her naked boyfriend Michael Cera (whose laidback characterization of an American teenager is pitch perfect )who's sitting on a recliner only to get pregnant. At first, she decides to have an abortion, then changes her mind and begins, with the help of her best friend, to look for prospective adoptive parents amid the local "Penny pages" and finds a couple (the woman played by Jennifer Garner) across from the "Puppies wanted" and other prosaic everyday advertisements. The journey toward delivery is split into four sections delineated by the passing seasons. Allison Janney plays her loving stepmother, a woman whose life revolves around dogs and dog-grooming but who can't have a dog at home because Juno is allergic, and JK Simmons (of Oz fame) is the dad. Janey shows Juno both sympathy and tough love and there is an excellent scene where the two argue for all of one minute and Juno--the moody, bitchy teenager--screams that she can't wait to be able to leave the house. Janey replies calmly that she can't wait either because then she'll be able to get two Weimeramer puppies.

An intriguing relationship with the prospective father--he's a musician like Juno-- begins to develop when Juno arrives at their door unexpected to give him them updates about the fetus's progress and his wife is at work, a relationship that reveals him as a man who's never grown up fully as the plot unfurls. It's a definite and plausible twist on the adult-child dynamic.

And the plot resolves in an unusual and, I must say refreshingly un-Hollywood, way that will propel it to importance in my judgment.

Go see it--it's terrific.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The morning his wife died

Via Scott Pack at The Friday Project (my UK publisher), I was alerted to this blog entry from another Irishman (or of Irish descent living in London) John Lenahan who writes extremely movingly about the death of his wife four years ago and thought I'd link to it. He empowers the piece with the use of imagery incorporating banshees and the shrieks of copulating foxes--a sound that's as otherworldly and eerie in Pennsylvania as it is in Ireland.


Having recently had a friend who died during the Christmas period, I related to what he described, and it brought back memories and sounds of the long night that my paternal grandmother Catherine died when I was an uncomprehending eleven-year-old silently watching from outside the bedroom.

Death is not something a great many Americans feel comfortable talking about, I have discovered, in comparison to Europeans--one sign thereof being their abundant use of euphemisms such as 'passed on' or 'passed' rather than the proper word 'died.' And to be honest, I never fully understood the importance of a funeral until I attended my best friend's in London where, as I sat alternately staring at the glossy coffin and watching the ceremony and listening to the words, it was revealed as in an epiphany. In one surging moment of intensity I comprehended fully. It wasn't about religion. It wasn't about ritual. It was about goodbye, a beautiful goodbye.

Anyway, Mr.Lenahan describes precisely how loved ones truly experience and seldom reveal.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

New Hampshire and on

I LOVE when the pundits and polls are wrong, as they were in New Hampshire last night--at least on the democratic side. It sure makes for exciting telly.

This year is going to be an exciting one in the US and there's going to be interesting debates and spats because all sorts of normally silent segments of the electorate are fired up--women over 45, voters between 18 and 45, hell-fire zealots, lefties and righties--if the Iowa and New Hampshire initial turn-out results holds. Makes for great politics and strengthens a democracy. Gone is citizen ennui and indifference.

As an independent--my leanings are obviously democratic given my background, but I do not vote the party line out of obligation or urge because I feel the Democratic party, like the Republican Party, needs to clean house as well--my view so far:

Sen. John McCain--a likeable warhorse who's well intended but not in touch.

Mitt Romney--a shiftshaper, opportunist. Too many of his ilk currently in Congress. Don't need another in the White House. Despise he will try to buy the Presidency if he runs out of donors. Founding Fathers would hate that.

Mike Huckabee--a charmer, and pretty smart except when it comes to his denial of evolution--this, unfortunately, raises its head as a criteria to be discussed in the sophisticated US every election cycle--and justice for all, and I don't believe the majority of the country is in the mood to have another four years of the dangerous 'same old-same old' from a Baptist minister-cum-politician.

Sen. Barack Obama--I like the guy, like his common touch, eloquence, fighting spirit and desire to change things. But what exactly does he want to change and what will he do? I'm unsure of what he represents currently.

Sen. Hillary Clinton--Who can't help feeling a soft spot for her after what she's had to endure from the zealots? I feel a strong pull toward her, but again what is it she's representing, exactly? Is she left of center or is she center? If she's center, we've had that before from the Democrats so where would 'change' occur? She's got backbone and I want to see it as rigidly on display as Joan of Arc held her standard on the battlefield.

We got a glimpse of her passion and concern for the country, our country, two days ago when she thought she was going to lose in New Hampshire. In her cracked voice, in her drawn face, in her intense gaze. She spoke from the heart. I want to see that more, and I want to know what she will change. I don't need to know everything at this stage, but I do need to know enough to believe she is the only person I want as my President, a President who will lead this great country back to its proper place in the world, a President who will serve ALL the people.

Sen. John Edwards--youthful and well-intended and I really like his desire to rein in the corrupt influence of big corporations. His doggedness and genuine desire to better the country will keep him in the race, though his ability to raise money will suffer as a result of his performances.

Friday, January 04, 2008

To Florida and back

Needing a little sunshine, we made a quick trip to Florida after Christmas to visit our friends who live near Orlando. We took Jet Blue for the first time and were very pleasantly surprised by the friendly staff and the fact we had leather seats and lots and lots of leg room. Friday was devoted to mimosas and catching up on their sun-washed deck beside the swimming pool. The next day saw us dining in a German restaurant at Heathrow where the hostess was delightful, the red cabbage so-so, and the homemade Wurst (German sausage) horrid.

An excursion to see the schools of West Indian manatee who leave the cold waters of the ocean in January and February for the warm waters of the St. John's river and Blue Spring State Park proved disappointing in that there were no manatee to be seen. However, Rick entertained us on our way to the "Boil"(a natural pool in the crystal
clear waters where scuba divers can submerge into the abyss of a huge underground cave) as he told us stories about how, as a kid, he and his school mates swam here with the manatee as kids and picnicked, etc.

A trip to Universal Studios was great fun in that we were with our friends, but the entertainment provided was extremely boring and therefore a bit of a rip-off in my opinion given the entry price. We've got absolutely no qualms paying whatever the price is when the entertainment is good, but when it's mediocre that's a problem. It cost $102 and change per person for entry into one park--either the Island of Adventure ride park or the studio as we didn't wish to do both--that included a requested upgrade they call 'speed pass' which enables one to skip the long queues snaking toward entry for each feature. (With Speed Pass, they mark off your pass as you enter each of the features, which seemed to mean you can't use speed pass twice for the same ride and must join the long queue, some waits for which were up to seventy (70) minutes). Shrek 4 was mildly entertaining, Men in Black mildly entertaining, Terminator a big yawn, and they need to get rid of the ET ride. (They did get rid of 'Back to the Future' which was a virtual ride and one I found really good the first time I visited the park seven years ago.) At one point I found myself in line to ride an indoor roller-coaster (which I hate) called The Mummy which I'd thought and been assured (by the gang) was to be a pleasant jaunt rather like a ghost train ride. Too late, I couldn't turn back and was sent careening into the darkness. It provided much non-Universal generated entertainment for Larry, Scott and Rick to see my reactions during the ride--though a real roller-coaster enthusiast would find the ride most prosaic if not unmemorable.

Some of the features don't permit one to bring one's backpack and lockers are provided--the first two hours are free and then the costs start to escalate. Lunch consisted of soggy fried food that is apparently trans-fat free--if you're a Brit who likes fish and chips, skip them--at Finnegans, which together with two beers per person brought our bill to over a hundred dollars for four after tip. All in all, I don't know how an average American family would be satisfied with their trip given the prices.

The weather changed yesterday, becoming as inhospitably chilly as Pennsylvania winter weather. before lunch, Rick had the foresight to suggest a return to Blue Spring park and what a great idea it turned out to be. The manatee were in. And there wasn't just ten or twenty or thirty. There were hundreds of them--adults and calves, some with algae permanently imprinted on their backs. They were magnificent. Such docile, beautiful, trusting creatures. No longer is one allowed to swim or pet them. As I watched them feed on the algae and play--turning and rolling over and over in the warm spring water, coming up every now and then to breathe air because they're mammals, quite a few scarred due to the acts of heedless and/or drunk people on speed boats, I felt an immeasurable connection to nature. It's right we're protecting these creatures who have no natural enemies except man. (The greatest number of deaths caused by idiots--think 'new money' types with beer and jet skies or the latest speed boats--disregarding the law as to speed limits while on the ocean in places where the manatee are swimming.)


Check out the baby manatee--one on its back--swimming among the herd.