Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook

The Book: The Poisoner's Handbook

The Writer: Deborah Blum

The Dealio: This is the true tale of- as the book cover states- 'Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in the Jazz Age'. Covering a relatively short period of time (1910-1936), and a specific locale (NYC and the newly hatched offices of first Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, and first Chief Toxicologist, Alexander Gettler), this is equal parts murder mystery, political pot-boiler, chemistry primer and adventure. Blum writes in a spirited, enthusiastic way that snags your attention immediately- then never lets go.
Each chapter begins with a chemical description of a particular poison, then proceeds to illustrate cases highlighting its appearance in popular culture. Most importantly, it is the saga of two very determined, perfectionistic and quietly heroic men of science, who worked fearlessly, and often without appreciation or, well, even pay- to drag their newborn into the modern age and up into the spotlight. From there, forensics would fill many roles: crime detection, the recognition of threats to public welfare and health and even the creation of the FDA.

The Grading Session: 4.89 pengies out of 5. Clearly, well-researched, this story reads like fiction...but definitely is not. That is both thrilling and chilling. One particular case makes you wait 12 years for the villains to get their just desserts. But usually there is a payoff in every sequence. Too, the writer is very visual in her prose and I found I could picture everybody she introduced during the run of her pack of tales. I got a frisson of terror listening to the description of the 'dial painter' -later called 'radium'-girls who were instructed to wet the tips of their brushes with their tongues between brushstrokes, as they dipped the brushes into radium and applied the face of the watches. Yikes. Along the way, we rub shoulders with the likes of WoodrowWilson and Marie Curie, Mayors Jimmy Walker and Fiorella Laguardia, FDR and Jazz Age/Great Depression stars of stage and screen. What is not to love? Well, I'll tell you. There is one thaang, and it is the reason this book did not get 5 perfect, whole pengies:the reader, who has a strange cadence at times and mispronounces many words. At one time, she stops speaking so abruptly, I though the audio had actually died.
Speaking of which: which are the deadliest poisons? Why not read TPH yourself and find out? You won't be sorry. PS: I did not find this book to be horrendously gory, but if you have a tender might not be over the moon for this one.

Lessons Learned: There are a lot of criminals out there. Fortunately, every so often,a couple of sharp-minded individuals arrive upon the scene and correct the balance of that whole good/evil area. Aaaand, know how your mom used to say, 'just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't make it right!' ? Well, sorry, but she was right: after reading about people's abeager, playful misuse of radioactive elements for fun, and the wholesale consumption of wood alcohol during Prohibition, man, you just gotta say, 'What were you thinking, peeps?!' Lastly: if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is not only not too good, it is probably detrimental to your health, your sanity or your hair. Word.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Weird Sisters

The Book: The Weird Sisters

The Author: Eleanor Brown

The Dealio: The three sisters in the title, Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy), are, at first blush, as different as it is possible for three siblings to be. Rose has elected to get her doctorate in maths and is the 'stay-at-home' sister who organises everything and everyone with whom she comes in contact, and with a force and elan that Patton might envy. Bean, the center-stage hog, is a renown beauty, who took off for NYC as soon as she possibly could. With no intention of coming back home. Beloved family pet, Cordy, a Bohemian of the most extreme order, has spent her entire life haring off to this or that place, always sure that greener grass was right around yet another corner. All three Andreas sisters, offspring of a Shakespearean scholar/professor at 'Barnie', the tiny town's university, wind up back at the family home in Barnwell in the Midwest. Each has her own reasons, and do not want know what those reasons are. The cover story is that they are back home to help care from their mother, who has fallen sick. But what they learn about each other, themselves and their parents, makes for many eye-opening encounters, much drama, and, finally, an acceptance that change is not only inevitable, it- as we grow into adults- is inevitable.

The Grading Session: 4.29 pengies out of 5. Brown writes beautifully, but I really had scant sympathy/empathy with any of the sisters until the final 1/4th of the story had unspooled. Rose is a domineering malcontent who believes that life would be better for everyone, if they would simply acknowledge that she alone knew what was best for everyone (except herself, it turns out). Bean, gorgeous, thoughtless, and constantly craving the spotlight, has been caught stealing from her firm and fired...provided she pays back what was taken. She feels she is nothing without a man, and scrambles from unsuitable, selfish encounter to more of the same, all the time suffering Rose's ardent disapproval and Cordy's disbelief. Cordy, herself, is no one to talk: she is back in Barnie because she is pregnant and has no money, no prospects, no education and is a taddy bit worried about her future. One of the more colorful characters in the book, (ostentatiously so, to my mind), is Professor Andreas, a withdrawn, braniac of a man who speaks largely in Shakespearean quotations or SQs written into letters and hand delivered or mailed to the recipient. He of the extended 'just a minute' finger and unpredictable biases and angers, seems to be an attempt to wackify the family. Not really necessary, in this case. I also would not have gotten this book had I known the nature of the mother's illness (too close to the back door for me). However, Mom Andreas has some of the very best lines. I found the sisters and their father to be self-centered, smug and really not likable until the denouement. Until then, I wanted to give each of those characters a shake and a talking-to (which). None of which would have made any sort of impact, I am sure. What a shame when the writing was so lovely, balanced and impressive. But that's just me. PS: I am one of three (non-Shakespearean-ly named) sisters, so, I do have a basis for comparison.

Lessons Learned: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home...unless it is Cambridge, England. Deep in the hearts of every wanderer, there is a tiny candle-sized flicker of longing for home. While, deep in the heart/soul of every stay-at-home would-be Cinderella there exists the siren's call of the open road. Also, this: no one but our nearest and dearest has quite the enormous capacity to mortally wound...or so magnificently heal. Finally: if it seems like a bad idea, it probably is. If it seems like a really, really bad idea, run, don't walk away. And do not pause to glance over your shoulder.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Film: The Lincoln Lawyer (based on the book of the same name by Michael Connelly)

The Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizama, etc.

The Dealio: Mick Haller is a defense attorney who operates out of the backs of a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars, rather than offices. Living in the substantial shadow of a revered, now-deceased father, also a lawyer and a jurist, as well, Mick is asking himself if he has finally found a truly innocent client, in the person of Louis Roulet. Louis is the son of an upper crust LA family, now accused of a ferocious attack on a young woman with a murky background. Since Mick only has one speed- in the red- it is not long before he finds himself up to his ears in trouble, contradictions, lies and loads of misdirection.

The Grading Session: 4.86 pengies out of 5. Nice, spicy soundtrack...let's get that right out of the way. Then, McConnaughey was born to play this role, and moves into it with the effortlessness and ease of a cowpoke slipping into a pair of broken-in boots. Phillippe is very natural in his role as well. The supporting cast is superb, and my one gripe is two major departures from the book. I don't object to the one, since this movie holds the possibility of others to come (Haller is featured in at least two other novels centering on him, and several more as a support to Harry Bosch), one of the supporting characters has been renamed and given a slightly different personality from the that of the person in the book. That's understandable if there are more Hall movies in the offing. The other was the inclusion of a (fairly violent, but satisfying) scene towards the end. The only thing I can imagine is that the writer thought (and Connelly did participate in the screenplay) 'let's give the viewers a little pay-off before we sum up.' It works, but I was a taddy bit perplexed by its addition. Didn't need it; nice to think about, though.

Lessons Learned: This is not necessarily a new or distinct one, but it's a grand reminder: don't judge a books by its cover. Also- just because a lawyer hangs out with motorcycle gangs and snitches doesn't make him evil. Necessarily. Lastly: if it looks like someone has gotten into your house, DON'T GO IN!

Battle: LA

The Flick: Battle: LA

The Actors: Aaron Eckhart, Ye-No, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena, Michelle Rodriguez, etc.

The Dealio: It's a far-from-original story: aliens do a dart-throw and come up with the decision to colonise Earth. Naturally. I mean, it really is the coolest place. Better even than Pandora. At first, everyone in the world believes that a flock of comets or whatever celestial hounds of hell have been unleashed- are heading, at warp speed toward Earth. However, some bright sparks who have especially well-honed skills of detection, realise that what is incoming is actually an alien life form. WhatEVER. The intent, and the outcome- is the same: destruction of the current populace. However, the actual plan has as its goal that Earth, now denuded of peeps, will serve to bolster the seven basic food groups of the non-carbon-based alien presence. In an amazing turn of events, the very first to know are the military. This, then, develops into the story of how a very determined bunch of Marines- and one USAF pogue- band together, against insurmountable odds, to wage a counter-assault on the aggressive would-be prospective tenants of Planet Earth.

The Grading Session: 4.79 pengies out of 5. Surprised? Okay, let's go through the numbers. First of all, thank God they didn't include the creepescent theme that plays behind the trailer. Ugh.
Next, although I did state that this was a far-from-original premise, those involved do a great deal with it, and there are some finely crafted bits for all the players to show what they can do, stretch their limbs a bit. All were very good, very true and believable. I really found the story compelling. But. Hasn't Michelle Rodriguez done the plucky, tough minded, moxie-ful femme a time or three in the past? Also- I really, really, really did not like the jittery handheld camera effect throughout. It was fairly nausea-inducing for me, and I have grown a bit tired of the effect, as director after director hops aboard this particular fad. Aaand haven't we seen the aliens-cobbled-together-from-junk deal too many times before? I found myself comparing these to the ones in District 9. And not really holding up to the comparison.

Lessons Learned: First of all: why are the aliens always picking on LA and NYC? Even as I am writing this, I must say that, in this instance, those choices make more sense than some of the others- like Paris, for example. I do not want to be a spoiler, so I won't tell you why, geographically, some of the choices of target cities make no sense. But if you see this one- and I would have you see it- you may share my confusion over this particular choice of targets. Next it's this: as we all know from countless movies of the past 50+ years, there is no possible way the aliens can shoot as well as the natural-born denizens of Earth. Why do they even try? Lastly: find the weakness in the aliens, and the rest is cake: extreme heat or cold? Bring it. Need air or water? Withhold it. Need pizzas or chicken? Call delivery, then, spike 'em with whatever you got (I recommend extreme heat or cold, hold the water and air toppings).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Millennium Triolgy

The Books: The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest)

The Author: Stieg Larsson

The Dealio: This is a series of three books, set mostly in Sweden, which are, ostensibly, mysteries, but could also be comfortably shelved with adventure books. The two main characters are the Girl in the Title (Lisbeth Salander) and the controversial journalist, Mikael Blomqvist (who has as his super power, the ability to attract and successfully bed any woman he sees, walks by, wants or knows, despite being described in the books as a bear of a man, over middle age and over weight, not very good looking, not particularly rich or powerful, but also possessing a wicked case of attention deficit disorder). In the course of the three books, both Mika and Lisbeth will log some serious jail-, isolation-, court- and bad-press time. Mika finds himself on the losing end of a defamation lawsuit at the beginning of the series, and , after being thrown a life-preserver in the form of a contract with an aged and ailing business magnate, removes himself from the heat of the fray in Stockholm, where is is a partner in an up and coming magazine, Millennium. His assignment: to find out what happened to the rich dudes favorite grand-daughter...nearly 40 years ago. In doing some looking before leaping behind the curtains exploring, with the help of a securrity agency, Mika runs into Milton Security's #1 researcher, a cryptic, mysterious, secretive and diabolically talented Lisbeth Salander. Along the way through the three interlinked stories (you really need to read these in order), these two join forces, then bods, then snarky hostility as they work to get the true scoop not only on Mika's jail-time producing slander case, but also the mysteries of her past, which have put Salander in peril, at risk and on the run since she was a 12 year old girl. Along the way there is enough high grade violence- much of it against women- to satisfy even the hardest-boiled Quentin Tarentino fan. There are some vivid court sequences and interesting secondary characters, but it often seems that Sweden's justice department-with all it tentacled arms thrashing about here and there, causing casualties wherever they turn up- has out-Ramparted Ramparts PD.

The Grading Session: Dragon Tattoo: 4.51 pengies out of 5; Played With Fire: 4.01 pengies out of 5. Hornets' Nest: 4.812 pengies out of 5. Although Larsson always maintained that he was a feminist, these books are so much less about female empowerment than about a sadistic, jaundiced view of females, which subjects nearly all who show up in his writings to graphic, high-grade torture, subjugation and perversity. It took a lot for me to continue with each of these books in their turn due to this repressive climate. But I also felt that the stories were engrossing- the 2nd least of the lot- and the last segments of the Hornets' Nest- the court-room sequences - galloped along with such speed and velocity that I was literally breathless during the entire telling.

Lessons Learned: Aside from the fact that the guy who wrote this series gave himself carte blanche to vicariously be absolutely irresistible to a steady stream of hot and cold running women, while being an average, everyday, out-of-shape, not-so-physically appealing specimen? Yup; checked that block thoroughly.
Then: Come on, you know this one by heart, so let's all just say it together: 'You simply can never judge a book by its cover.' This applies not only to Blomqvist, but also to the Girl in The Titles. Salander had, for decades, been labelled as a mentally ill, probably mentally defective female incapable of reading or writing. Weeeeeellll, not so fast, peeps. Surprises abound ahead.
Lastly this: decay and corruption can be found at the heart of the very last places you would expect to find it. In systems designed to protect and serve. In political offices which have, as their purpose, to root out decay and corruption. But, too, strength, decency, and unquestionable loyalty can be found hidden in some pretty unexpected places, as well. Lesson? Tread carefully,look both ways before venturing forth, always on the watch, and please be so kind as to leave your assumptions at the door.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Flick: The Adjustment Bureau

The Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackey, John Slattery, Jennifer Ehles (always and forever, my favorite Lizzy Bennet), Terence Stamp and John Stewart (as himself).

The Dealio: What role does free will actually play in our lives? Is it all that and a bag o' chips? Or is it, in reality, merely window dressing ('You can pick your brand of toothpaste or the color of your tie. But for the major things...Um, it's not really up to you'). That is the premise of this film- or it appears to be. A melange of genres- romance, comedy, adventure, fantasy, even parable- TAB is a well-crafted, intriguing and slightly unnerving tale, that focuses in on an Everyman, who is anything but. Damon's David Norris is a reformed bad boy politician (and I have to laugh over the things that earned him that label- he dropped trou at a college mixer and had pix taken of this momentous event, and he was involved in a bar-room brawl when he was 23 yrs old. Is it just me, or does that seem mild in comparison with things our real-life pols have been up to lately?). Into his life wanders modern ballet dancer, Elise (Emily Blunt), who captivates and inspires the soon-to lose-his-election Norris. Norris gives a whale of a kiss-off speech and people begin squaring up behind him to support his next run for public office. His reputation, as they say, is made. Unfortunately, through a miscalculation, he runs into the elusive Elise again, and this simply can not be allowed to stand. Seems as though there is an elite corps of men-no women, ya see- who, upon command of The Chairman (uh-huh), run around adjusting people who depart from their paths in life. David must make a decision: stop seeing Elise forever, or risk being permanently adjusted out of his memory. All of it. Da-da-da-DUUUUUUUUUHHHHHH!

The Grading Session: 4.719 pengies out of 5. Editing, again would have upped the pengie count. And the soundtrack was....forgettable.

Lessons Learned: First of all- and most importantly: Prendie was way ahead of the timeline for the resurgence of hat-wearing by men (don't believe me? Check out our garage, the guest room, our living room couch, the tansu...). Next, that there are certain things worth fighting for. And the payoffs for these are enormous. Lastly, this: plans are like pie shells, made to be broken. And that is not always something to regret. The fracture of one plan can enhance the resultant back-up one. But mindlessly sticking to a plan that is not working for me...that, I definitely would regret.