Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit

It’s wonderful to be back in Middle Earth
So does it live up to all the hype and hoopla? And then some. Was it faithful to The Hobbit as set forth by J. R. R. Tolkien? Well…as much as can be cinematically expected.  Some characters were missing, like the woodsman/bear guy. And some from the LOTR trilogy were thrown in for continuity, like Frodo, Galadriel and Saruman.  But in the hands of Peter Jackson, the experience was pure Tolkien.

For Bilbo Baggins, tucked into his homey Hobbit hole with his pipe and well-stocked larder, the adventure begins when he’s singled out by a wizard called Gandalf to act as a burglar. A burglar? That isn’t well explained in this first installment. The Hobbit is small, quiet, resourceful and, well, unexpected. The dwarves’ quest, which Gandalf is aiding, will at some point need some extreme sneakery.  And Bilbo fills the bill. The whole thing is hardly fair to Bilbo, but for some reason Gandalf feels he needs to see a bit more of the world. You know - experience hideous orcs, assorted goblins, wargs, stone giants and the like.

Quest stories are always fraught with possibilities: reversals, revelations, cliff-hanging dangers, unexpected encounters, you name it. This tale has it in spades. The special appeal of this one is that the main character, Bilbo the Hobbit, has the fortitude to rise up with sword in hand when he absolutely must. But he remains the genuine, unassuming little homebody that he was before setting out.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t grow from the experience. His first encounter with a wizard puzzles him greatly. The intrusion of the dwarves was distasteful at best. But as he travels with them, his astute little mind wraps around the meaning of the quest and the qualities of his companions. Bonds of respect and friendship form.

There’s a lot of warmth in this action-plus movie. As before, it’s set in the breathless panoramic beauty of New Zealand. You want to see this. We all need a little Middle Earth in our souls.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Nine Lives by Frank Say

The first novel in The Lake Pontchartrain Mysteries packs a wallop
Maybe it’s because Mr. Say is such a master of imagery. Maybe it’s because the story is so well paced. And maybe it’s because of the compelling call to faith in the presence of evil. Whatever it is, you won’t know what you’re being pulled into until you’re in too deep to stop.

Sam and Crystal brave a stormy evening for a night out, an occasion all too rare in their five years of marriage. Back home with long-time housekeeper/nanny Margarite, 3 1/2 -year-old Christian pauses his play the moment tragedy strikes on a downtown interchange.

Although Sam emerges from the pile-up virtually unscathed, Crystal is killed. It’s in the aftermath of grief, nightmares and strange voices that ominous signs of the occult begin to creep in. At the suggestion of Margarite, Sam takes the extreme measure of seeking palm readers in New Orleans. There he finds both solace and mystery – and a danger that sends him fleeing for home. Fear lessens as normalcy returns. But it seems the menace has followed him.
And there’s more bad news. Frank Say’s website is the only way to get his book, and only the e-versions seem to be available. This is most unfortunate, considering Frank is among the "50 Great Writers You Should be Reading,” a list released and published in 2010 by The Authors Show.

When I contacted him, Frank did say he had a limited stash of hardcopies available. You can reach him on the “News” tab of his website, One way or another, I do hope you’re able to secure a copy of Nine Lives. And let’s hope that someday soon, in the hands of a proper publisher who will do it justice, this book will be readily available on the shelf and through Amazon. Meanwhile, play his book trailer. It’s the best I’ve seen in a long time!
Frank Say
In addition to the series The Lake Pontchartrain Mysteries, Frank is working on a master’s degree in addiction counseling at Capella University.  Currently he resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and cat.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Accidental Advent of Wrapping Paper

Who the heck started this mess anyway?

Looking up a moment from wrestling gaily printed paper around an odd-shaped toy, I beheld the unbelievable paper carnage littering the dining room table, chairs, floor, and as far as the eye could see. Good grief. Why, back in my day (WWII) you had white tissue paper. That was it – unless you could get all the way to Indianapolis for the red and green stuff.  You just drew a sheet from a neat pile, wrapped the gift, and went on to the next. Ribbon was just a spool of narrow ridged stripping you curled on the edge of blunt Sunday School scissors.
Now one selects from a minimum of 5 rolls, cuts a piece to fit the package (which adds to a pile of unusable scraps), and then sorts through bags of bows for a proper, color-themed match. Gift bags would be a blessed option if only they came in suitable sizes and designs – and you didn’t have to mail its contents clear across the country.

So…how did it all start? The Cliff Claven answer would be with the invention of paper in China, 105 A.D. But America’s gift wrap industry started with three poor brothers from Nebraska. In the early 1900s, Joyce (a man), Rollie and William Hall pooled their money to form The Norfolk Post Card Company, a wholesale business that operated out of an older brother’s book store. By 1911 the three opened a shop in downtown Kansas City selling greeting cards and assorted novelties.
Joyce C Hall

One day before Christmas 1917, the store sold out of tissue paper. To keep from disappointing customers, decorative envelope lining papers from France were brought out and offered for 10¢ a sheet. They sold quickly. They tried it again the next year at 25¢ with the same result.  Gift wrap quickly became their leading item, followed by Hall Sheen ribbon in the 1930s.

What’s the rest of the story? The man named Joyce happens to be the founder of Hallmark Cards Inc. Did you see that one coming?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to wrapping…


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving of the Future

Perhaps to be known as the Turkey-Time Tailgate
Forget family and feast. Thanksgiving, or whatever we'll call it in the future, now marks the onset of extreme shopping. The news is full of photos of the frenzy – from tent cities springing up in retail parking lots to the latest body count at the doors and on the floors. Mayhem and madness. And if anyone in the mob had any turkey, it wasn’t cooked by grandma.
We’ve become a nation of tailgaters. What used to be a fun time before the game is now standard procedure for midnight showings of wildly anticipated movies, the sale of popular books or blood-and-thunder games or the latest Apple product - and now for the shopping event of the year.

But is this all bad? Think about it. What is Thanksgiving these days besides an obligatory reunion of relatives who sort of hate each other. The critical aunt. The bossy mother-in-law. The two or more alpha males rabidly routing for opposite teams. The sulking teen glued to the iphone. The rampaging brats.

Now look at the friendly card game of total strangers in a parking lot. Granted, soon enough they’ll be pushing and shoving and threatening to stab each other in the stampede through the door. But the preceding 24-48 hour campout?  Priceless.

And there’s another positive to this, especially in these tough times. Doug Blackburn, General Manager of a Guitar Center, says it best:

Good luck Retail Warriors! Mountain Dew and coffee fueling my day. For those folks braving the shopping safe. We're glad you’re out there. You are a key part of feeding so many families in the industry. The retail sector needs a big Christmas season and this is where it starts. If you're staying home and shopping online for deals (there will be great ones out there) shop on websites that hire people for their brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon doesn't employee anyone in your town. It doesn't contribute to your city's tax base. Time to shine...happy bargain hunting!”

And considering our other societal scourge, isn’t shopping healthier than eating?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving: A Day for Giving Thanks

“The First Thanksgiving" (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris
Jahnavi Foster
 With few additions, the following commentary was shamelessly lifted from friend and author Jahnavi Foster's Facebook page. She's so good at researching these things! She begins:
"It should be noted that while Thanksgiving has become a holiday deeply associated with America, there have been numerous ‘harvest’, autumn, and ‘thanksgiving’ festivals throughout history including Grecian, Roman and Egyptian celebrations.

A day for giving thanks was celebrated by the early English settlers and the Pilgrims who settled in the “New World”. The winter of 1620 was a brutal one (nearly half of those who came over on the Mayflower died). Native Americans took pity on the travelers and taught them survivalist skills, which included planting and harvesting corn, the staple of the area.
And by the grace of God, they were blessed with a bountiful harvest season. The remaining 56 colonists were so grateful that they held a three-day festival to express their appreciation and gratitude [1621]. They invited Squanto and the leader of the Wampanoags, Chief Massasoit, along with 90 natives who had helped them survive their first year."

The first Thanksgiving more than likely had venison, ducks, and geese along with fish, clams, lobster and corn. Lacking flour, there wouldn’t have been rolls. Pumpkin pie hadn’t been invented yet, and cranberries weren’t native to the area. No mashed potatoes, either. Europeans of the day were suspicious of potatoes.

Jahnavi closes with, "It is a wonderful thing to have an attitude of gratitude–not just one day of the year, but every day. And if not every day - then let us at least remember to be grateful on the day that is set aside for this purpose. Thanksgiving: it really isn’t about the turkey, after all…."

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Saying Grace" by Norman Rockwell

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I am so NOT into dystopia

Scene from "Falling Skies"
Which isn’t to say Hunger Games wasn’t well done

When it comes to zombie attacks, aftermaths of alien invasions, and post-apocalyptic militia cultures, count me out. Husband tunes in, I go upstairs to work on blogs.

I suppose all these dreary and danger-fraught survival tales stem from the times. What we’re experiencing now is a far cry from the prosperity and optimism that fostered the likes of Star Trek, Brady Bunch, Charlie’s Angels, or Friends. But even as a struggling, slum-dwelling continuity writer, I never sought gore, dirt, and desperation as my escape. C’mon, People! Where’s the comfort in that?
Nevertheless, I watched Hunger Games with Husband last night. Five minutes past the credits I wished I’d read the book(s) first. Author Suzanne Collins surely gave a better explanation for the oppressive situation in the Districts than Hollywood, which held about as much water as a spaghetti strainer. Near as I could figure, their poverty was punishment for attempting to secede from the union. Uh…okay.

The lust for murderous games, on the other hand, is quite plausible. At least it has precedence. Think ancient Rome and Nazi Germany. And probably Survivor, the Next Generation.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
That said, I found both the acting and action done to perfection.  It definitely held my interest despite one or two groans and eye-rolling. The kids in the cast, headed by Jennifer Lawrence, were immediately engaging. The adults less so, though the stylized hair, make-up and costumes were no more over-the-top than the 1970s. Or KISS.

So, yes, I’ll admit it was worth a look. But when I need to be transported away from grim reality, I’ll take a Disney fantasy or The Hobbit, thank you.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

High-Impact TV? Dream On...

  I was looking for my car in the grocery store parking lot when I heard vaguely familiar strains of unusually compelling rock music. Finally zeroing in on the source, I boldly approached. It was a sensible-looking compact, windows rolled up, and a well-groomed young man probably in his late twenties behind the wheel. I still can’t believe I had the nerve to tap on his window.

The cast of GLEE
I fully expected him to whip around, see a grandma, and recoil. But he didn’t even seem startled by the intrusion. The music? Oh, it’s “Dream On” by Aerosmith. Only this recording was by Glee. Glee? The TV show Glee? Yep.
Some time later Mental_Floss magazine devoted an entire issue to The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 15 Years. And there was Glee, coming in at Number 6. The blurb called it “The Show That Boosted the Record Industry.”

With the rest of the record industry on the skids, the author explains, music performed on Glee is enjoying phenomenal success on iTunes. We’re talking 11 million albums and 36 million single tracks sold by the end of 2011. Then there was the cast’s concert tour that scored another $40 mil. On Billboard’s chart of the Most Songs on the Hot 100 List, Glee’s is double that of the runner up – which happens to be Elvis.
Pretty good for a sleeper hit that debuted 2009 on Fox.

Friday, November 9, 2012

From off-beat to startling, these new books are testaments of the times

Probably the scariest of these discoveries is Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?  Subtititle: Trick questions, Zen-like Riddles, Insanely Difficult Puzzles, and Other Devious Interviewing Techniques You Need to Know to Get a Job in the New Economy. It was written by William Poundstone, author of How Would You Move Mount Fuji?which sounds like another candidate for this post.

Here’s one for the doom-sayer on your Christmas list: The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. It includes a searchable CD with all 11 handbooks (Really? How many worst-case scenarios can there be?) plus wallpapers, screensaver, and more. From the blurb: The worst of the worst, all in one place! Avoid the perils of mountain lions and blind dates, avalanches and teenage driving lessons, runaway golf carts, and Christmas turkeys on fire. Boasting more than 500 pages, this sturdy addition to the Worst-Case Scenario library could stop a bullet - just one more way to be prepared for the worst.”  

And for trivia junkies, I give you the Weird-O-Pedia, “The Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things.” It was compiled by Alex Palmer who, in spite of writing for such illustrious journals as The New York Post, Huffington Post, and Writer’s Digest to name only a few, appears to have entirely too much time on his hands.  No, I didn’t know humans were the only animals who eat spicy foods, that Germans eat an average of 71 pounds of apples a year, or that apples, celery and strawberries have the highest levels of pesticide residue when they get to the produce aisle. I didn’t even want to know that. He also includes a lot of potty-type stuff, so don’t buy it for Aunt Mable.

But this one really tears it: Goodnight iPad, a parody of the gentle classic Goodnight Moon, the one our kids and grandkids couldn’t go to bed without. Supposedly penned by Ann Droyd (right), the intent is to be relevant for the next generation.  So…is everything that happened before iPads irrelevant? Wow. How did we survive on nursery rhymes and fairy tales from medieval Europe?  Granted, it may be a hilarious spoof aimed at grownups. I don’t know. Amazon doesn’t have the Look Inside feature on it. So for now I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Product placement: How many can you spot?

From 007’s Aston Martin to the small screen – they’re everywhere
Pierce Brosnon's turn with the Aston Martin
Bloomberg Businessweek notes: “As the cost of making TV shows escalates—at a time of declining ad sales—television networks are scouring Madison Avenue for partners that want to give their products a little screen time.”

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is prime real estate for brand displays: Sears tools, Pella windows, and Ford pickups, to name a few of the most obvious.

The Amazing Race features Fords at every possible turn, Survivor tribes have gotten all kinds of bonanzas from Home Depot, and American Idol is driven by Apple iPods and judges sipping from red Coke cups. Strategies range from a brief glimpse of a product to having it play a key role in the plot.

So is it working? Are viewers racing from their TVs into the stores for the brands appearing with their favorite stars?
Judges with red Coke cups
According to a recent report by Nielsen, viewers remember product placement in scripted shows more than in reality programs. This surprised me because reality TV has always been the leading venue, with products actually tied to the themes and storylines.

Here’s a list from of the prime time shows with the most product placement in the past year (with number of occurrences and most prominent products):

An Apple in the House

10. The Amazing Race (161 - Travelocity, Snapple, Ford)

  9.  America’s Next Top Model (171 - CoverGirl)

  8.  Friday Night Lights (201 – DirecTV, Gatorade, Costco, Sam Adams, Under Armor, Ford, Applebee’s)
   7.  America’s Got Talent (220 – Orville Redenbacher, AT&T, Smurfs, Blackberry, MySpace, Twitter)

  6.  Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (224 – Sears, Pella, Kenmore, Ford, Tyson Foods)

  5.  The X Factor (312 – Pepsi, Chevrolet)
Scene from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
  4.  Dancing With the Stars (390 – Promos of Disney movies and Broadway shows)
  3.  Celebrity Apprentice (391 – Camping World, Australian Gold, ACN’s videophone, 7-UP Retro)

  2.  The Biggest Loser (533 – Subway, 24 Hour Fitness, Ziploc, Progresso, Extra sugar-free gum)
  1.  American Idol (577 – Coke, AT&T, Ford)

Yeah, I know. Now we’re too busy counting product displays to enjoy the show…

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trashing New York: Hollywood vs. Nature

Not so entertaining when it’s for-real
Just like you, I’ve been staring incredulously at the news reports ever since Sandy became a superstorm and slammed into our eastern seaboard. Living on the Texas Gulf Coast, I’ve been through my share of hurricanes. There was Alicia in 1983, a terrifying ordeal; and most recently Ike in 2008 that leveled at least as much real estate as Sandy. And we all know what a complete job Katrina did on New Orleans.

Movie - "The Avengers"

But this is New York. New Yorkers aren’t used to hurricanes. It’s been decades since they’ve had to deal with anything worse than the garbage collectors’ strike. And even though Hollywood utterly destroys The Big Apple at least twice a year, it’s never been by hurricane.
Real - Lower Manhattan
Which brings me to my topic. It’s a question that’s been nagging at me ever since I saw The Avengers: just how many times has New York been hit by Hollywood?

Wikipedia responded with a list of movies set in NYC, beginning in 1908. I quickly lost count of those involving total annihilation.
Movie - "Day After Tomorrow"
Business Insider was a little more compact in its offering: “Check Out 15 Movies in Which New York City Gets Destroyed” by Kirsten Acuna.  Interestingly, very few are based on weather. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) scenario is spectacular flooding due to global warming. 2012 (2009) features end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it tsunamis inspired by global warming and solar activity.  Deep Impact (1998) is yet another flood story worthy of Noah, this time caused by a meteor strike.  And I suppose one must consider Knowing (2009) which is incineration by solar flares, therefore counting as a natural disaster.

Crane collapse on 57th St.
All the rest, as you can see, entail monsters, space aliens, and war. Oh my.

Even the very real horror of 9/11 doesn’t match the extensive destruction of Sandy - except in loss of life, of course. Terrorists will always win that one. But Sandy was a superstorm, a merging of three storm systems, the like of which has never been seen before.

So Hollywood may score oftener, but in the cosmic quiddich match, Sandy catches the golden snitch.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why does a deer cross the road?

Because the sign told it to!
A radio station in Fargo, ND received this call which has since gone viral. I saw it first on AOL News, who’d copped the story from the Huffington Post’s Weird News section. Now people are sending it to me right and left.

It seems a woman identified only as Donna called in, concerned that deer crossing signs encouraged the animals to cross in high traffic areas. (What?) “It seems so irresponsible,” she said. “I’ve even seen these signs along the interstate!”

All of which leads us to the subject of wildlife literacy. Had Donna been active in such a cause, she may have realized the shockingly low percentage of deer able to recognize this symbolic silhouette. And realize that it means DON’T cross.
But take heart, Concerned Citizens. A solution to deer and driver safety has been found and implemented: 

 Yes, the highway department of Alberta, Canada has provided migrating herds their very own bridge. Rather than teach the deer signage, however, the Canadians rely on a clever system of fences for guidance.  See? Where there’s a will and an adequate tax base, there’s a way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Romance Novel

No, I’ve never read one. I tried one once, but it got bogged down in quivering flesh, rippling muscles, ad nauseam and never turned into an actual story. An article by Lizzie Jacobs, “Before 50 Shades,” however, made me curious enough to look into it a little more. Jacobs was reviewing Julie Moggan’s documentary, Guilty Pleasures, a film about romance novels and the people who love them.

An illustration from Pamela

I was surprised to learn that the genre was identified before the Victorian era. One of the earliest was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1740, it was the first novel based on a courtship, and told from the heroine’s point of view.

Jane Austen was truly one of the masters. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is widely considered to be the best romance novel ever written.

Then we have the Brontë sisters. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, included elements of both gothic and Elizabethan drama. How respectable is that?

Now things are more complicated. I counted no less than 16 categories on Harlequin’s site, each one rigidly defined. Want a happy ending? Pick up an American Romance. Like it hot? Select from the Blaze section. In the mood for a classy historical? Go for a Regency. It’s said that the discerning fan can name the category merely by the stance of the man on the cover. Really?

Categories aside, the industry has strict overall rules. Jacobs says of Guilty Pleasures, “We learn that redheaded heroes and men sporting back hair are a no-no.” She also invites us to “ditch your literary prejudices to understand why a romance novel is sold every 4 seconds – more often than the average person blinks.”

 Jacobs credits romance readers with being “far more concerned with understanding love than simply finding it.”

 So…still not a fan of bodice-rippers, but as a marketplace phenom it’s won my respect.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Good grief, Charlie Brown – it’s The Great Pumpkin Race!

I’ve seen lots of pumpkin stories lately, but this one from NPR News takes the cake. Pie, rather. Checking the story online, I found that several communities hold Pumpkin Regattas. I’m featuring this one even though I can’t begin to pronounce the name of the town.
Every year in Damariscotta, Maine, people hollow out giant pumpkins (anywhere from 500-700 lbs.), a tractor places them into the water, and competitors gingerly climb inside.  There are two divisions — paddleboat and powerboat — and thousands gather to cheer them on.
Geiger ready in his decorated pumpkin
Peter Geiger is a two-time champion in the paddle division. He has his pumpkins professionally decorated by a former airbrush artist. This year, it's a bat with foam wings extending out from the sides. He even has a two-person pit crew. In a last-minute adjustment, they scoop out extra pumpkin meat to correct a forward list.
The starter announces: "Paddlers! Ready! Set! Get wet!"

Geiger and the rest paddle feverishly to a pumpkin buoy a few hundred feet away and create a bottleneck as they paddle around and race back to the dock. Geiger comes in third, behind a competing pumpkin that wallows from side to side.
Mallory building his pumpkin boat
In the powerboat division, returning champion Topher Mallory bolts a wooden frame onto the flesh of his 550-pound pumpkin. The stern is large enough to mount a 10 horsepower engine — double that of most competitors. Mallory says he needs speed to win and to keep from sinking. "Because the minute you start moving, water inevitably comes into the pumpkin and it's just a law of diminishing returns," he says. "Before you know it, you're sinking. So to win, you’ve got to get your move on."
Topher Mallory & pumpkin of choice
But this year, even though he didn’t win, he adds, "There are not so many things in life that are as simple, as fun and as awe-inspiring as giant pumpkins."