Podcasts of the Week Ending October 7th


What I’m listening to and what you should be listening to.

Have You Heard? :: Divided by Design: Race, Neighborhoods, Wealth and Schools

A history of racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools that is still feeding inequality to this very day.

To the Best of Our Knowledge :: What is School For?

I was worried that this would be peppered with corporate reform ideology and myths, but actually has some interesting stories on teacher burnout, multicultural studies, and the importance of the humanities.

The Truth :: Brain Chemistry

A funny/poignant audio drama about the life of a brain in a jar in the future, starring Scott Adsit of 30 Rock.

Hit Parade :: The Great War Against the Single Edition

It’s a good thing that Hit Parade is published infrequently, because I think I’m going to post every episode here.  This is the story of how record companies from the 1960s to the 2000s tried to make people by the more expensive full albums in order to get a copy of a popular song.  Deeply fascinating, with lots of Casey Kassem cameos.

99% Invisible :: The Athletic Brassiere

The hidden story of the sports bra (nee, the “Jock Bra”) and how it helped transform women in sports.

Snap Judgment Presents: Spooked :: A Friend in the Forest 

The Snap Judgment spinoff podcasts tells creepy stories for the month of October, and this contemporary ghost story from Ireland is particularly eerie.

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TV Review: Doctor Who (2017)


Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.

Book Review: Bitch Planet. Volume 1 Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson, and Taki Soma


AuthorKelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro (Artist.), Robert Wilson (Artist.), Taki Soma (Artist.)
TitleBitch Planet. Volume 1 Extraordinary Machine
Publication Info: Berkeley : Image Comics, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Writer Phillip Sandifer stated that this comic series is “most unapologetically social justice oriented book on the stands” so I thought I’d give it a try.  Bitch Planet is set in a future dystopia where noncompliant women are sent to a prison on another planet.  “Noncompliance” in this society is basically anything that doesn’t please men, so women who are angry, opinionated, independent, unattractive or overweight and attempt to control their sexual selves are the ones incarcerated.  In a lot of ways it builds on a tradition of feminist dystopia from The Stepford Wives to The Handmaid’s Tale.  The comic draws on the aesthetic of 1970s prison exploitation films and it is unsettling in its graphic depiction of violence.  It takes me a while to connect with characters in comics, but one who stands out is Penny.  Shortly after I finished reading this volume this comic was published in Unshelved which is a good introduction to the story.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)


Title: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 2008
Director:  Dave Filoni
Summary/Review:

Feeling all Star Wars-ish lately, I decided to watch this animated movie set in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Obi Wan and Anakin are leading clone armies into battle against the separatists and have to negotiate a treaty with Jabba the Hutt and have a padawan Ahsoka Tano delivered into their midst.  The animation allows for visual sequences that might not be possible/plausible in a live-action film, although some of the battle sequences remind me of 1980s GI Joe or Transformers cartoons (which may be good or bad depending on how much you enjoyed them).  I thought that the character work was pretty strong especially the interactions between Obi Wan and Anakin and Anakin and Ahsoka.  Much better than in the prequel trilogy where characterization and development was given short shrift.  But really this movie is worth watching for the scene in which R2-D2 basically uses a Baby Bjorn to carry Jabba the Hutt’s son.

If that’s not weird enough, we also meet Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who is coded as being fabulously gay with the voice of Truman Capote.  Padme is introduced late into the story, and while it’s good to see her, she is swiftly taken captive and doesn’t add much to the story.  But I found myself enjoying this movie despite myself.  I hear that the spinoff series is better, so I may give that a watch.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Return of the Jedi (1983)


Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  . People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Related Post: 38 Things About Me and Star Wars

Movie Review: Star Wars (1977)


Title:  Star Wars
Release Date: 1977
Director:   George Lucas
Summary/Review:
Rating: ****1/2

What can you say about this movie in 2016?  Most people know and love the movie and our popular culture is steeped in its motifs.  But this was the first time my children watched the movie and  the first time I’ve watched it in a long, long time (but still within this galaxy).  The kids generally claim not to like movies, but they liked this one and asked to watch it again, which is always a good sign.  I wonder what it’s like to watch Star Wars for the first time when it’s something that’s always been around and references are wound into our culture like mythology as opposed to when I was a child and it was brand new?  I was impressed that the movie holds up very well.  There are many things from the 70s, 80s, & 90s that seem to have dated much more than this.  Of course, I’m an old fuddy-duddy and prefer the somewhat slower pace and practical special effects of Star Wars to many of today’s blockbusters.  But really the stories and the characters are what made the movie what it is and what makes it persist.  So simple, rooted in older stories, yet so fresh and new at the same time.

Book Review: Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
Summary/Review:
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Flight by Sherman Alexie


Author: Sherman Alexie
TitleFlight
Narrator: Adam Beach
Publication Info: [Ashland, Ore.] : Blackstone Audio, p2008.
Summary/Review:

This novel is told from the point-of-view of “Zits,” a teenager of Native American heritage being passed through the foster care system and acting out in response.  After growing increasingly and gruesomely violent, Zits is magically transported into other peoples’ bodies at different times in history including an FBI agent working against the indigenous rights movement, an Indian child at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn, an Indian tracker working for the 19th-century U.S. Army, a pilot who trained an Islamic terrorist, and his own father.  These experiences help him learn the effects of violence both a personal decision and societal impact.  This is a pretty grim book but Alexie’s characterization of Zits brings an element of humor as well.  The conclusion of the book is a bit corny, but I think it’s an effective story reflecting on some serious issues in American history and today.

Recommended booksSlam by Nick Hornby, Every Day by David Levithan, and Waylaid by Ed Lin.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman


Author: Kate Orman
Title:The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1993.
Summary/Review:

This Doctor Who novel is epic in scope from contemporary Mexico to the Aztec empire to hippie London in the 60s to the John Lennon assassination to the sinking of Titanic. And yet, this may be the most internal story for the Doctor and his companions.  Their relationship is strained, especially the Doctor and Ace since she’s become something of soldier during her absence from the TARDIS. Worse yet, the Doctor faces an antagonist manifest as an Aztec god who is altering history.  The Doctor’s usual strategy of manipulating people and events fail and we see him at his most defeated. This novel is good in that it’s a rare story that’s set in Latin America in both precolonial and contemporary settings.  The only downside is that like Timewyrm: Exodus  it credits some historical acts of human evil to extraterrestrial influence.  This was the first novel by Kate Orman, who was also the first woman and first Australian to write for the Doctor Who line, and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement in how it reimagines what a Doctor Who story can be.
Favorite Passages:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the reason the sacrifices are made is to dispose of foreign warriors taken captive in battle – and to cause more and more battles to be fought?’”

“‘It’s already written in the book of history,’ he continued. ‘Painted in the records. Nothing I can do or say is going to change it. But there’s something else here, something that isn’t in the book, or wasn’t the last time I visited. Things have changed. Something’s wrong. Someone’s interfering. I need to find a way to read between the lines…’”

“‘Time travel,’ said Bernice, ‘is like banging your head on a brick wall. Only someone keeps moving the bricks.’”

Rating: ***1/2

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer


AuthorEoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Last Guardian
Narrator: Nathaniel Parker
Publication Info: New York : Listening Library, p2012.
Summary/Review:

The final installment in the Artemis Fowl series or so it would seem.  Opal Koboi has her biggest take over the world plot, Mulch Diggums has his biggest flatulence, and Artemis has his ultimate moment of genius.  And sacrifice.  Colfer’s humor stands out as Koboi raises an army with her minions occupying the bodies of the dead with comic results. It’s a nice distraction from the grim reality of a story that puts the entire world in peril.  This is a strong finale the series.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell


Author: Paul Cornell
TitleTimewyrm: Revelation
Publication Info: London : Dr Who Books, 1991.
Summary/Review:

The final book in the Timewyrm tetralogy is unlike any other Doctor Who story I’ve yet experienced.  For starters, one of the characters is a sentient church, there’s an English village on the moon, and much of the story takes place inside the Doctor’s mind.  That  may sound gimmicky but this a complex and ambitious novel that examines the Doctor’s grief and anguish through the previous incarnations who live in his mind.  This is a challenging book to read as it has a lot of characters and facets and leaps from one to the other rather quickly, but a very satisfying story that pushes the bounds of a Doctor Who adventure.  It’s also very influential as the revived television series has clearly mined this novel for ideas (and the author Cornell has also written screenplays for the show).

Recommended booksTimewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: When you reach me by Rebecca Stead


Author: Rebecca Stead
TitleWhen you reach me
Narrator: Cynthia Holloway
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This young adult novel is grounded in a realistic setting of New York’s Upper West Side in the 1970s with the protagonist Miranda dealing with going to school, a falling-out with a friend, and her mother appearing on a tv game show.  Added to this are mystery and science fiction elements such as Miranda receiving unexplained notes that predict the future and a seemingly homeless “laughing man” having a constant presence on the street near her school.  It’s a good blend of storytelling techniques that deals with children gaining independence, friendship, and second chances.
Recommended booksThe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, Tunneling by Beth Bosworth, The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer


Author: Eoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Time Paradox
NarratorEnn Reitel
Publication Info: New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2008.

Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I gave up on reading the Artemis Fowl series a while back because I felt it was becoming formulaic with diminishing returns.  But I had a change of heart, and after a decade decided to pick up where I left off.  It felt good to be reacquainted with the characters like old friends.  And this book strikes me as more mature than the earlier novels.  In order to save his mother, a teenage Artemis has to go back in time with Holly to face his most devious opponent yet: his 10-year-old self.  The novel oozes with philosophical ideas and pondering of mortality.  The book also features a group of people whose goal is to cause extinction of animals, which is particularly grim.  Sure, the formula is still there (Mulch Diggums shows up for some fart jokes and the ultimate villain is the same old character) but it feels refreshed and new.  I’ll have to continue reading the newer installments of this series.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Night of the Humans by David Llewellyn


Author: David Llewellyn
TitleNight of the Humans
Narrator: Arthur Darvill
Publication Info:  Bath, [England] : AudioGo/BBC Audiobooks, p2010
Summary/Review:

This Doctor Who New Series Adventures joins Amy and the Eleventh Doctor early on their travels as they’re drawn to an enormous pile of space junk known as The Gyre where they encounter noseless humanoids with Arabic names known as the Sittuun, who’ve also been shipwrecked.  The villains of the piece turn out to be primitive humans who believe they’re on Earth and condemn those who say differently as blasphemers. There’s also a shady character named Dirk Slipstream who is very Douglass Adams.   The book takes advantage of its medium in creating settings and characters that would not likely translate well to a low-budget television show, but the story didn’t hold my interest too well.  The audiobook is narrated by Arthur Darvill even though his character Rory doesn’t appear in the story.  He does enjoyable impersonations of Karen Gillan and Matt Smith, though.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Hunger Games


Title: The Hunger Games
Release Date: 23 March 2012
Director:
Gary Ross
Production Co:
Lionsgate
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Genre:
Dystopia | Science Fiction | Action Adventure
Rating:
***1/2

I had mixed feelings about the novel, and was concerned that the typical Hollywood spectacle in the adaptation would miss the point and glorify the violence of children murdering one another.  Luckily the filmakers took a restrained approach and while there are action-adventure tropes the film does not wallow in the violence and makes it grim and unnerving when it does happen. One of the effective aspects of the movie is the lack of music and sound at the most devastating moments.  The film faithfully follows the events of the book and with so many things to cover, the relationships among the characters are not developed as well.  It helps to have read the book previously to fill in those gaps.  Jennifer Lawrence puts in a great performance as the lead character Katniss Everdeen and Stanley Tucci also stands out as a slimy television presenter.

 

Book Review: The Clockwise Man by Justin Richards


Author: Justin Richards
TitleThe Clockwise Man
Publication Info: Random House UK (2005)
ISBN: 0563486287
Summary/Review: My Doctor Who obsession continues in the printed word with this adventure taking the Ninth Doctor and Rose to Edwardian London.  They are soon embroiled in a mystery that involves, yep, aliens.  It’s a good story and one that probably works best as a novel that wouldn’t translate to the screen.

Rating:  ***

Book Review: Doctor Who. Volume 1, Fugitive by Tony Lee, Al Davison, & Matthew Smith


Author:Tony Lee, Al Davison, & Matthew Smith
TitleDoctor Who. Volume 1, Fugitive
Publication Info: IDW Publishing (2010)
ISBN: 1600106072
Summary/Review: My Doctor Who obsession continues into graphic novels.  Here the Tenth Doctor enjoys an adventure in 1920s Hollywood, gains two new companions, and a new nemesis, The Advocate.  The comic format allows for a visual imagination that would not likely be convincing in a televised format but on the other hand the dialogue seems spare and simplistic.  Still, this is an enjoyable romp.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill


Author: Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
TitleThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 
Publication Info: America’s Best Comics (1999)
ISBN: 1563898586
Summary/Review:

This novel brings together several fictional characters – Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyl, and the Invisible Man – to solve mysteries in an alternate universe London.  The tone of the book is dark and the characters are highly-flawed and untrustworthy.  Moore unsettling writes in style that reflects the racist and jingoistic attitudes of the time.  On the other hand Mina is a strong female lead, and although the other characters grumble about her, they still follow her lead.  I’ll definitely read more in this series.

Recommended booksBoilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan, The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin, and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction
Rating: ***