The other day I was a little aggravated by someone who declared that not only are point and click games awful; they're also ruining video games. I'm old, so I've seen pretty much the entire historical development of video games, from text based Star Trek games to Pong and Asteroids, to Donkey Kong (mostly played by me on a military base in the early eighties) to home consoles, etc, etc. When they first became ubiquitous as arcade games I was irked because I was really, really good at pinball and suddenly the pinball games were vanishing and being replaced by these upstarts. Upstarts that you couldn't influence with your hips, walking that fine line between bouncing the ball into the hole and tilting the machine.
So maybe I could understand why this person was upset about point and click games changing the landscape of gaming, except for the fact that these types of games have been around for many years, well before the rise of MMOs. And in fact there have been wildly popular point and click MMOs, or MMORPGs including Ragnorak online in the past and presumably more will come around in the future.
I think what is going on here is the perennial attempt by some gamers to segregate different types of games, with them playing real games and everyone else playing “casual games.” Some of these people seem to take the success of games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and recently, Flappy Bird personally, feeling that these games somehow take away from the “real gamer” experience. (I'm reminded of someone at a game store in the mid nineties who dismissed all role playing games as “You walk around and talk to people and then you walk around and get stuff.” How boring!)
Cameronwt wrote in to say, “Point and click adventure games are an iconic part of video game history. They started a trend of high quality puzzle games that were stimulating and challenging that are still held in high regard to this day. Current day point and click games are like any other genre, with some being standouts, but the spirit of the games are still strong, and anyone could pick up and enjoy them.”
My favorite old point and click game is probably Maniac Mansion and its successor Day of the Tentacle. Is there anyone who played it who wasn't a little tempted to put the hamster in the microwave? Right now I am playing a couple of games from Fire Maple, The Lost City and Secret of Grisly Manor, both on the Kindle Fire. I finished Mosaika a month or so ago and liked it enough to get others made by the same company. They are intriguing enough to keep me playing but not so compelling that I can't put them down in five minutes, which is about all the game time I can squeeze in at one time. I find them very soothing although I have heard from people who find them maddening because they find the clues are too obscure. I especially like the Lost City as the character who gets me going on the quest is a woman, unlike most of the other games like this I have played. She reminds me a fair amount of Amelia Earhart. If you're playing any of these games let me know how you like them.
In other gaming news Elder Scrolls Online has released beta keys good until the second. Did you get yours? More info here: http://www.elderscrollsonline.com/en/news/post/2014/02/27/beta-streams-t...
Possible conflict – my middle son is working on this game so I do have a vested interest in its success.
This week's bonus treat is a recommendation for Sue Alcock's class called Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. Taught in conjunction with Brown University and Coursera, so far this free class has been fun and interesting. The title initially put me off but the actual content is terrific. It just started on the 24th so you have time to catch up. The course syllabus is below. https://www.coursera.org/course/secrets
Unit #1: Just what are these secrets anyway?
Unit #2: What has survived for us to find? And what have we lost?
Unit #3: So how do you find things? Archaeology ≠ just digging
Unit #4: How do you get a date? (And why are dates so important?)
Unit #5: What do you do with what you find?
Unit #6: What is involved in the archaeology of people?
Unit #7: Where does archaeology happen? Who can play?
Unit #8: Who owns the past?
Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mylnowski has the best title. It can be read in so many different ways. Such as a warning; don't even think about it or I'll knock your block off. Or, don't even think about it in response to thanks; as in no gratitude is necessary. Or it could mean don't even think about it because everyone in your class can read your mind and they'll find out you cheated on your boyfriend. That last one is in fact what happens in Sarah Mylnowski's clever and fun romp through the trials of ESP in teens. (I know, last week's book was also about teens and ESP but trust me, this one is different.)
The story follows a class of sophomores as they get a bad batch of flu shots, which leads to them all (with the exception of a couple who didn't get the shot) developing telepathy. At first they don't realize this, they think everyone around them suddenly started being much ruder or more open about their worries. One young man is horrified and despondent when he discovers his family is hiding huge secrets from him. He goes from happy go lucky and sociable to being a depressed loner. But others find the telepathy working in their favor and use it to try and better themselves while still others are delighted to get the opportunity to cheat their asses off.
Of course since they can all read each other's minds they can't keep things like cheating to themselves, once one of them does it they all know about it. And love, good grief, how are you supposed to have a nice quiet crush on someone when everyone, including your crush, knows all about it?
This story is told from the point of view of everyone, which is an interesting approach that works really well. The class becomes a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the events and emotions related. One character will say they did or thought x and the group narrator voice will say something like, “We agreed with her.” Or “We thought that was the biggest mistake she could make.” Having that extra layer of perspective is part of what makes this book so enjoyable. My mood, which wasn't bad to start with, improved measurably while I was reading Don't Even Think About it. In fact I thought about rereading it right away. I am definitely going to have to find more of this author's work, which should be pretty easy as she seems to be a prolific writer. Isn't finding a new author with a big back-list the best?
There is supposed to be an excerpt on this page but it is pretty blank. The books is not yet out, I read an advance review copy supplied by Net Galley, so maybe the excerpt is due to go up soon? http://sarahm.com/excerpt.php?bid=176
This week's bonus treat was chosen because of the trailer for the new 300 movie, which I seem to hear every three and a half minutes. It features someone wailing about witches serving their masters, which put me in mind of this fantastic, albeit rather old, video.
International espionage, psychic powers, family loyalty, tortured love, the iron curtain – who can resist this combination? Sekret by Lindsay Smith has all these things and more. Set in the Soviet Union shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this YA novel is told from the perspective of Yulia, a teen who has been in hiding with most of her family for some time. One day she goes to the black market to trade supplies for her mother's illegal clinic and is chased by suspicious looking people. When she makes it back home she discovers her mother and brother have been taken as hostages against her cooperation.
She is taken to a building that used to be amazing – the palace of some aristocracy before the revolution – but is now falling down and reeking of mold. There she meets several other teens, including blonde, buff Sergei and his polar opposite Valentin. Al of these teens have one thing in common – they have ESP with talents ranging from precognition to remote viewing. Yulia can sense the history of objects she touches, which makes living in the mansion intolerable. Everywhere she goes are the physic residues of torture, blood and pain. She is also haunted by the emotional memories of a girl who used to live with the other teens – a girl nobody wants to talk about.
From day one Yulia plans her escape but has enormous obstacles. If she runs her family will pay the price. How do you think about escape when everyone around you can read your mind? One of her captors, Rostov, is a chilling man whose very presence is painful. His brain gives off a noise that Yulia finds intolerable. He also has some terrifying skills, including the ability to reshape memories, both removing them and implanting new ones. The charismatic Valentin, nicknamed Valya, has the same ability, which makes Yulia doubt her feelings every time she is near him. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when she makes a list of people and put herself in the can't trust column.
While Yulia tries desperately to find a way to run away and keep her family safe her handlers put her to work doing two things; looking for a spy who is trying to steal space plans and looking for others like herself. If she brings them back they will face the same existence she does but if she doesn't help find them they may be found by another mind manipulator, who will leave them an empty shell.
There is a lot of suspense, and tension, in this novel, as Yulia works towards her seemingly unattainable goals. (Not to mention what happens if she does escape? Where does a single Russian girl who is being hunted go to hide out? And does she hide out forever?) While much of the conflict is external just as much is internal as she struggles with her conscience and her growing feelings for Valya. (Which may or may not be real.) Everything seems like a danger to her, from the blanket she sits on that overwhelms her with emotion, to her handlers and on to America, which is portrayed as pretty terrible. (No surprise there, there was a lot of propaganda on all sides of the cold war.)
Music plays an important part of this book, to the point where it is practically another character. If you are unfamiliar with the music of the time period you might feel a little lost.
Sekret is a fabulous novel that takes place in a time and place that isn't explored much these days. Fans of Code Name Verity should definitely give it a try, as should anyone who likes stories with brave, conflicted heroines.
You can read an excerpt here: http://us.macmillan.com/BookCustomPage_New.aspx?isbn=9781596438927
ETA - I read this book as an electronic advance review copy via NetGalley. It's not out quite yet but it should be soon.
This week's bonus treat is a terrific comic from Randall Monroe discussing the consequences of birds being dinosaurs. http://xkcd.com/1211/ He is correct about that, btw. As Dr. Thomas Holtz says, “Dinosauria is "the concestor of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, and all of its descendants.” All of its descendants in this case including birds. For more about this, try this page:
My apologies for the lack of a column last week and the extreme lateness of this one. I am still computerless (the super slow one now won't boot at all. I bought one secondhand that turns itself off every five minutes, so hooray?). I am on a borrowed system now, which sounds like a jet plane desperately trying to take off. I managed to cobble together a quick column with some Papercraft ideas for Valentine's Day and will now hopefully post it, five days after I wrote it.
While not pink, red and white, or covered in flowers and hearts, this Ferris wheel can work well for Cupid's holiday because everyone knows that getting stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel is the most romantic thing in the world. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2028/03474/index.html And if you're not in a lovey dovey mood you can set it up in front of a fan blasting at top speed while pretending all the lovers are trapped in a hurricane.
This roller coaster can be used in a similar way. Either you can squeeze your honey as you both go through the sickening drops, or you can fling annoying happy couples over the edge as you rocket through the hills and turns. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2028/10208/index.html
For something a little more traditional, try this mobile, which features a couple of rabbits smooching and lots of hearts. Since it features nice bright colors it would make a good addition to a nursery, maybe to hang over a crib. (Do people still do that or did someone decide it isn't safe?)http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2023/mobile_heart-rabbit/index.html
Anyone who wants to be labeled ruler of Valentine's Day could make this tiara, which features large pink hearts. Think how much money you’re saving by making it out of paper instead of silver and rubies, garnets or spinels. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/10209/index.html If the tiara is too pink for the recipient maybe this gold crown with a red stone will work better. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/10211/index.html
This card is perfect for those who like to say “I love you” with a snail. Flowers are so yesterday, right? http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3031/g00597/index.html Don't worry, I've got those who want something a little more traditional covered. This card features two birds united in love. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3031/g00599/index.html It is much more elegant than the snail card.
This is a link to a “string decoration”, which can be hung from a ceiling, so it can rotate in space and react to air currents, or you can make it more two dimensional by putting it on your door. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/string-valentine/index.html The colors are oddly reminiscent of Autumn, but it is labeled as an official Valentine's Day decoration.
The Toymaker has a fantastic template for an elephant that delivers hearts, flowers and a little book, which is blank, just waiting for your love poetry. http://www.thetoymaker.com/Holidays/Valentines/Elephant.pdf
While you are at her site you should probably also grab this hanging heart basket, so you have a place to store all the hearts you break this year. http://www.thetoymaker.com/Holidays/Valentines/Valentinebasket.pdf
This week's bonus treat is the single greatest love song every written, bar none. Who can resist these lyrics?
I'm your only friend
I'm not your only friend
But I'm a little glowing friend
But really I'm not actually your friend
But I am
My apologies for the lack of a column last week. We have been having horrid weather, like the rest of the world, which resulted in our pipes freezing not once, but twice. Then we got a power surge and despite the use of surge protectors my computer gave a sad popping sound and died, taking my column with it. I'm now working on the one that died when a coke exploded over it a couple of years ago. It now functions but is slower than any other computer made in this century. This has also negatively impacted my schooling.
I'm taking a bunch more classes (genetics, paleontology, neuroanatomy, psychology, communications, history, social sciences, philosophy and business) and in between them I am not exactly bursting with mental energy. The perfect game to play as I recharge is one I got for either nothing or hardly anything called Bloons TD 5. Available on the Apple app store, Google Play and the Amazon Kindle, this little time waster is aggravatingly fun to play. As you can probably tell from the title it's a tower defense game, like Plant Versus Zombies. In the Bloons series monkeys fend off balloons called Bloons. (Is that monkey slang or the tribal name of the balloons?)
The towers in tower defense are a little confusing to me. I thought that the tower was what was being defended, as in protecting forts, castles, keeps and other structures from the invading hordes. But in this game, and apparently all the others, the towers are the soldiers etc protecting the structure. Is this named after the siege tower? I have no idea but if so then I guess calling them towers makes a little bit of sense.
The towers range in killing ability from super weak, a dart monkey, to ridiculously strong, a giant temple, which requires sacrifice to activate. (It slorgs up all the towers nearby and costs like a hundred grand in in-game money.) One of the reasons I enjoy playing this game so much is because there are so many combinations I can make. Only some of them will win the various mission maps and figuring out which ones to use is a bit of a brainteaser. There are some towers I prefer over others, such as the submarine and the monkey engineer. Each tower is purchased with in game dollars. You begin with x amount and earn one dollar for each balloon destroyed. You can also earn money with banana farms and the monkey engineer can make a balloon trap, which catches balloons and gives you a payout when it is full.
TD5 features many different maps designed for various skill levels starting from beginner and ranging to extreme. Each level is further divided into difficulty, ranging from easy to hard. There are also some odd options such as running the map backwards or deflation. You get medals, tokens and experience points and monkey money for each map that you complete. You also have the option of playing missions, which come in extremely aggravating special missions and the less aggravating regular missions. These are more like mental puzzles as you have to figure out the right combination of towers to activate to beat the level. For instance how do you beat a lightning shaped map with only little machines that spew out tacks? (I still haven't figured that out.) The special missions alone have already eaten up several hours and most of my patience.
As I am once again overloaded with classes this column will likely be sporadic, short erratic for the next couple of months. One of my classes alone has twenty hours of lecture per week. Why? Why? Why?
This week's bonus treat is from the Missouri Department of Conservation. It's an important fact sheet about a new invasive species; zombies. It gives good advice about avoiding cauliflower fields, what to do if you catch one while you're fishing and which tree stands are the safest while climbing out of zombies' reach. http://mdc.mo.gov/zombies
So, Five Days at Memorial; holy cow, what a disturbing book. We read the article the book is based on for my disasters class and found it very upsetting. The book is even more so, as it details the atrocities outlined in the article. Written by Sheri Fink, it's about patients dying at medical facilities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While it focuses on possible euthanasia done at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, performed just as rescue is arriving, it also discusses other medical centers with high patient death rates. Ms. Fink also looks into the long history of “mercy killing”, giving everyone more reasons to dislike Napoleon Bonaparte.
The first half of the book is a play by play account of what happened leading up to, during and after the hurricane. It documents the perfect storm of lack of planning, overloaded infrastructure, panic, rumor, confusion and hubris that led to the hospital disaster following the natural disaster. The book looks at the history of Memorial as well as previous problems with drainage and flooding in New Orleans. Ms. Fink also relates some disturbing facts about the then parent company of Memorial Hospital regarding settlements they made in response to various allegations. (Here's an example: 54 million dollar fine for performing unnecessary heart surgeries, including open heart surgeries. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/health/2003-08-06-tenet-... This press release is regarding 900 million they had to pay in relation to alleged fraud. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2006/June/06_civ_406.html) I wasn't terribly surprised when the parent company is described as failing to give support during the disaster as they sound like your typical soulless corporation more interested in the dollar than healing patients.
The book raises many questions, some of which remain unanswered. If you need everything to be resolved you might be left unsatisfied. The biggest question in my mind was why? Why was the timing so strange? Why give “comfort care” to extremely ill patients just as an avalanche of rescue boats and helicopters appear? Why did so many people behave in questionable ways? Why do we as patients put up with medical providers deciding when people live and die? Why, why, why.
Even if the content of the book doesn't appeal to you the epilogue is a must read. The epilogue discusses changes in policy that have or should have been made since the Katrina disaster. Have hospitals made sure their generators and electrical support systems are out of range of flooding? What types of emergency plans have facilities put into place? One of the many disturbing subjects discussed is legislative change, with the idea that medical personnel will be protected from criminal and civil penalties for their actions during a disaster. It sounds as though a doctor could put an entire ward to death and get a hearty handshake and a “well done”.
You can read an excerpt here: http://www.npr.org/2013/09/03/217193724/exclusive-first-read-five-days-a...
This week's bonus treat is a Nebula Award nominated short story by the incredibly talented Harold Waldrop, who has written some of my favorite stories. Mary Margaret Road-Grader is set in an alternate history, or maybe years in our future, that is somewhat Mad Maxesque. The Sun Dance and Big Tractor Pull is a celebration where the people can gather, trade stories, compete against one another and buy, sell and trade cars. But the old ways are slipping away, replaced by new fangled things like using horses instead of automobiles. Into this changing landscape comes Mary Margaret Road-Grader. She wants to compete in the tractor pull, shattering the cultural mores. No woman had taken part in the past and just the idea of her participating sets the people on edge. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20010129/mary_margaret.shtml
I've been merrily reading my way through Simon Pulse's 31 Days of Reading, where they release a free book a day through the month of December. http://www.pulseit.com/go/article/view/events/264357/announcing_pulseits...! It's been a bit of a mixed bag with some really interesting, well written stories but there have also been a couple that were weirdly preachy. One of them, which had a promising beginning, turned out to be a bizarre religious screed with the protagonists all being reincarnations of martyred saints. And it was anti-science, in a sneering, misunderstanding kind of way. Another book had a terrible beginning, with a beyond ridiculous premise, that turned out to be a good adventure story, so long as I could pretend it was all happening in a different universe with a mentally ill populace.
I'm not going to go into any details about the martyr book, not even the title, as I could only spoil it, but the other book is called Unwind and is by Neal Shusterman. It's set in an alternate future where the United States had another civil war; this time over reproductive rights. The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” armies went to war and only stopped fighting when a ridiculous piece of legislature is passed. Called the Bill of Life it states anyone who gets pregnant must carry the fetus to term, no matter what. If it has no heart and will die on delivery too bad, its erstwhile mother must go through the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. If the mother has an illness that won't let her body tolerate pregnancy, too bad, so sad, she'll just have to die so long as she doesn't do anything to harm the fetus. (There is absolutely nothing in the book about what happens to women who get abortions illegally, so I can only imagine that this world must be similar to the United States prior to Roe v. Wade, when women died horribly from illegal, unsafe abortions.) To make the pro-choice side happy I guess, children can be retroactively aborted from the ages of 13 to 18. This process is called unwinding and involves donating every part of the child to organ and tissue banks. (The parts supposedly retain their owner's previous thoughts, memories and emotions, so the kids are supposed to be technically alive. But this also means the donated parts can take control of their new owners. (I know, as I said it's completely ridiculous.)) Never mind that that this wouldn't make the pro-choice side happy. Equally unhappy would be the pro-life crowd, as chopping up teenagers isn't usually something they're lobbying for.
Parents can get rid of teenagers whenever they want. Anyone who accidentally gets pregnant can leave the baby on someone's doorstep and whoever answers the door is forced to take them in, a practice called storking. (This is one of the times the author gets overly preachy, talking about how easy it is to walk away from responsibility) They also have the option of putting the baby in an overcrowded state home. Either one of these choices seems like a fast track to unwinding, the fate of unwanted or unloved teens. Another big supplier to the harvest farms are religious parents, who tithe one of their children. These children grow up knowing that they will be unwound once they are of age, but are taught that this is the greatest gift they can give and are trained to accept their fate.
Now that the stage is set, what actually happens in the story? Is there a story or is it all just an excuse for making points about reproductive rights? There is in fact a story and it's not bad. We meet three teens who are being sent to be unwound for various reasons. One grew up in a state home, one is being discarded by his parents, (maybe for fighting?), and one is a tithe. They all collide, somewhat literally, on a highway and end up on the run. If they can survive until they turn eighteen they'll be home free. If Risa, the girl from the state home, chooses, she can try to get pregnant, which will give her a reprieve as obviously unwinding someone who is pregnant would violate the Bill of Life.
In the course of the story we meet many other kids slated for unwinding, including a teen whose parents had a bitter divorce, fought over who would get custody, then decided they'd rather unwind him than let the other parent have him. This rang truest to me of anything in the book. I have seen parents fight in court to the tune of thousands in lawyer fees and then in the end neither one of them wants the children. They just want to use the kids as a lever to hurt the other parent.
I found echoes of other stories in Unwind, including Logan's Run, with the theme of being sentenced to death, a sentence that stands solely because of age. Like Logan's Run there is plenty of action and suspense, lots of chasing and the threat of death everywhere. It's a fast read that is satisfying so long as you can suspend a lot of disbelief.
You can see a Google preview of the novel here: http://books.simonandschuster.net/Unwind/Neal-Shusterman/Unwind-Dystolog...
This week's bonus treat is in the classic style of the Christmas horror story. It's a comic from the very talented Emily Carroll. Called Skin, it gave me the shivers. It begins with a woman alone in the woods who makes a terrible discovery. What comes next is chilling. http://www.emcarroll.com/comics/skin/
We read a surprising amount of material in my Plagues, Witches and War class, much of which I liked quite a bit, including some stories I would never have picked up on my own. The book that I liked the most, by a strong margin, is Ghost Bride by Yangse Choo. A YA novel set in historic Malay, this gorgeous story takes place both in the secular and the spiritual world.
Li Lan is a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times. Her mother passed away from smallpox years ago and her father spends his time smoking opium and neglecting his business duties. Not only are they financially beleaguered, they have also fallen in status. As the story begins Li Lan's father tells her that a wealthy family called the Lims has asked her to be a ghost bride to their deceased son, who was spoiled in life and expected to get everything he wants.
Li Lan's Amah, who has cared for her since her mother passed away, and cared for her mother before that, is horrified. Even though Li Lan tries to pass the idea off as a joke Amah is afraid of the bad luck talking about such matters can bring. Amah is very superstitious while Li Lan is more like her father, whose philosophy doesn't include luck or things like the God of Smallpox.
But soon the matriarch of the Lim family begins to treat Li Lan as though she is already engaged to Lim Tian Ching, the dead heir. She asks for something of Li Lan's and suddenly Lim Tian Ching invades Li Lan's dreams. These dreams are filled with luxurious, but impermanent and foreboding, luxuries. The tables are set for a feast, everything is decorated. The house is ready for a grand event which never occurs. These dreams terrify Li Lan, who has to struggle with all her might to wake up from them. When she and Amah seek help from a medium things spiral even more out of control. Li Lan is suddenly stuck in the afterlife, surrounded by all sorts of mysterious creatures, trying to find her way back home again.
The Ghost Bride is told in two different styles. For the first part of the book things move slowly, with lots of description. Then once Li Lan enters the spirit world things speed up and we see a lot more action. This was my favorite part, despite being the worst for poor Li Lan. (Yes I am a terrible person taking pleasure while others suffer.) I have been reading ghost stories, mythology, fairy tales, etc for more than forty years and I sometimes feel like I'm too familiar with much of the oeuvre. The Ghost Bride introduced me to a fascinating array of spirits, demons and gods. I would love to read more books set in Li Lan's world(s).
The Ghost Bride is a mixture of romance, mystery and history, all set in the classic Western ghost story framework. It takes place in an intersection of many things; Western and Eastern cultures, traditional and modern mores, the living and the dead. It is always these interstitial stories that make for the best reading. How much did I like this novel? Apparently I lent it to two different people at once, which led to a bit of a squabble as I only had the one copy. So maybe if you want to be more prepared than me you should pick up a few copies?
You can read an excerpt here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/143423725/Excerpt-of-The-Ghost-Bride-by-Yangse...
This week's bonus treat is the website of a designer called Ai Hasegawa who is working at the intersection of fantasy, biology, and design. She's doing some really interesting/mind-boggling work. I discovered her through her I Wanna Give Birth to... series, which looks at what would happen if a woman gave birth to an endangered animal that is considered a food source. Could someone carry a shark in their womb and then eat the shark? Instead would she feel a connection to the shark (or salmon or dolphin, etc)? Could she set it free in the ocean or would she want to have it around? These are all questions that crossed my mind when I read a short blog post about this project. You can learn more about her projects here: http://www.aihasegawa.info/ Be warned, her untitled video on Vimeo is possibly the most horrifying thing I've seen ever.
This week I wanted to talk about some new comedies that I have been enjoying. I'm just praying that they haven't been canceled between me writing and publishing this column. They're all shows with lots of lady characters, which is really nice after hearing so much jibber jabber about how women aren't and can't be funny. (Which is especially hilarious given that Carol Burnett just won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.)
I'll start with a program that has three male leads, one of them who has also kept American laughing for decades, and two female. The Crazy Ones stars Robin Williams as Simon, the patriarch of a very successful ad agency. Sarah Michelle Geller plays his slightly uptight daughter Sydney. Supporting cast includes Amanda Setton as someone Lauren, James Wolk as Zach, and Hamish Linklater as Andrew. Zach and Andrew are coworkers with a sibling rivalry type of relationship. Robin Williams is in prime form as a barely in control super creative person. This show endeared me within the first few minutes of the pilot when Andrew told Robin Williams' character that he felt as though Zach was being given preferential treatment. For instance, the gift of a leather jacket after a photo shoot. When Robin William's character hears this he immediately apologizes and tries to make it right. In this case that means giving Andrew a a whole passel of ducklings to raise, which isn't really comparable to getting a leather jacket, but it is really nice to see a character who can see that he’s wrong and then fixes things, instead of getting defensive and obnoxious. Be sure to watch this show straight to the end as they run outtakes in the last minute or so. Those are particularly interesting because they are often doing very different things than what ends up on the screen.
Trophy Wife is another show that has kind of a terrible title that belies the content. It definitely would have put me off if I hadn't see previews that intrigued me. I think it's meant to be ironic as the third wife Kate (played by Malin Akerman), who is blond, young and beautiful, and married to Pete, (played by Bradly Whitford) does look like your classic trophy wife stereotype but her life is pretty complicated. Her husband's two ex-wives and three children keep her hopping, especially since the two exes feel perfectly comfortable behaving as though they still live in the family home.
Ex-wife number one, Diane (played by Marcia Gay Harden) is a doctor with a domineering personality. She has a strong desire for control and treats Kate like a child. Jackie, ex-wife number two (Played by Michaela Watkins) is on the spacey side. She has trouble with boundaries, is a little flighty, has started numerous businesses, which I believe have not been terribly successful. I'm sure her most obvious personality traits make ex-wife number one feel that her control of the family is absolutely necessary.
Oldest daughter Hilary (Bailee Madison) is pretty grounded, although in the pilot (I think it was the pilot) she sneaks vodka to school (I think it was school) in a water bottle, which the trophy wife has to drink to keep ex-wife number one from finding out her daughter is drinking. This does not help trophy wife's reputation.
Warren, (Ryan Lee), the older son is a little clueless, halfway between childhood and being a teen. In a recent episode he and his little brother Burt (Albert Tsai) fight over a teddy bear that he has donated to Burt, later regretting his generosity. This results in dad acting as a judge, holding a trial a la Solomon and the baby, to determine who gets custody. The humor in this show rises from characterization, as it does in virtually all good comedy. With so many divergent personalities trying to mesh, while members of the family try to break stereotypical molds, there is plenty of opportunity for laughs.
Super Fun Night stars Rebel Wilson as an attorney (another attorney!) who gets together with her two best friends and vows to go out every week and have some fun. In the first episode I saw they put lots in a hat to decide on their destination, which turned out to be a piano bar. Rebel's character, Kimmie Boubier, has terrible stage fright, but as an attorney she is going to be need to be able to get up in front of a crowd, so she decides to go through with it. Unfortunately for her a new coworker who is super competitive decides to come to the event and show her up. Not only does poor Rebel have to get up and sing but she has to to do it in the same manner which gave her a phobia in the first place; singing directly after someone who is gorgeous and kills it.
Do I even need to say Rebel Wilson is terrific in this? Her character is much more upbeat than in some of her recent roles such as in Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids. Of course her character is going to have problems but her attitude is infectious and cheerful. In a recent episode she literally could not stop smiling, as she told the viewers of her video blog. My only real nitpick with this show is the incredibly annoying assumption that we the audience are going to find it hilarious when she loses her clothing. In the previews I think I saw her clothes falling off or giving her trouble several times, including catching her clothing in the elevator and her skirt being torn from her body. Also I really wish they would ditch the girdle or spanx or whatever it is they show her trying to struggle into. Who the heck wants to be uncomfortable all day at work or not have any room to breath at the piano bar? I got tired of fat jokes back in the seventies.
So now I'm out of space again, so maybe next week we'll talk about even more TV? Or maybe we'll talk about a book I just finished that I loved. Or maybe both? It's so hard to predict the future.
This week's bonus treat is very different from the usual fare. It's an essay from Sam Kriss called Book of Lamentations. It's a review of the new DSM-5, the book of mental illness diagnoses. But instead of reviewing it as a piece of medical information he reviews it as though it is a dystopian novel, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking. After a brief description of the sheer size of the "novel" the essay describes the manual saying "Not that this [the large size] should deter anyone; within is a brilliantly realized satire, at turns luridly absurd, chillingly perceptive, and profoundly disturbing."
Early this week I took the time to write a column about a memoir I had just finished. Sadly I had little positive to say about the book and in the end I deleted my column. It's kind of too bad because I thought the book was interesting but the author was just plain mean when maybe she thought she was being funny. (I don't think calling an older woman a 'wrinkled creature' is terribly amusing. Eventually, if we're lucky and don't conk out sooner, we'll all be old and wrinkled. And hopefully be having an awesome retirement.) For try number two I'll be slightly less negative while discussing a couple of television shows.
The Walking Dead – Carol
So a couple of weeks ago Rick tossed Carol out of the group, leaving her somewhere random. He says it's because she murdered two sick people and burned their bodies, but I think he did it because he's afraid she's becoming too much of a leader. Yes she did kill two people, in hopes of stopping the epidemic, but he's no moral compass with sparkling clean hands. He killed Shane in cold blood and he went a little nuts after Lori died. It's weird to me how people trust him to be in command when he was hallucinating to the point his companions were in danger.
On the Talking Dead, which runs after the Walking Dead and discusses the show, interviews actors and just plain gossips, they were discussing Carol and the likelihood of her returning to the prison. Both weeks they've discussed it they all decided no she would not come back, she would stay away. But I've never seen them ask a mother what she thinks.
Carol lost her little girl Sophie in a slow, grueling way. She had no idea of her child's fate but of course she agonized over what had probably happened the entire time Sophie was missing. She also lost her husband, although I say she's better off without him. Now she is a surrogate mother to the two little girls at the prison. She may have warmed one of them off, telling her not to call her mom, but it's obvious to me she cares deeply for them. She's also been reading to all the children and teaching them how to protect themselves. I can't imagine that she would willingly abandon them, especially in the care of a mentally ill, hypocritical murderer.
Furthermore the timing of her exile could not be worse. As an epidemic rages through the prison, dividing the populace into the very ill, the exposed, who are quarantined, and those who are healthy and trying to do the jobs of those who are ill or dead, the last thing they can afford is to lose a set of helping hands. When the very ill, possibly dying, are the ones who are operating the ambu bag for a patient in respiratory arrest you are in dire straits indeed. It was unfair to every person in the prison to get rid of Carol, who is strong, healthy, determined and tough. I hope she comes back and takes a stand.
Did I talk about this show yet? It's deranged. When I watched the opening scene of the pilot I thought it was a parody. I still think it's entirely possible that it is a parody but only the writing room is in on the joke.
James Spader plays an arch criminal who walks into the FBI office, kneels down in the lobby, puts his hands behind his head and waits to be arrested. Once their scanning system identifies him as a much wanted public enemy a million FBI agents surround him, both on the main floor and also on the mezzanine or whatever it is, and point their weapons at him. They're all in a circle so if they fire they'll likely shoot each other, but none of them seem concerned about that possibility.
Once they hustle him away and interrogate him he says he wants to work with a brand new agent called Lizzie something. He gets amnesty and Lizzie and they get his assistance catching a whole list of bad people. (One of them played by the every charismatic Isabella Rossellini.) Some of the casting for the villains is hilarious, such as casting Robert Sean Leonard, the actor who played Wilson on House, as the most dangerous man in the world. He doesn't look like he has a hostile bone in his body, making him a surprising villain. In other casting news I am once again baffled by the decision to cast actors who look as though they have had so much plastic surgery and/or botox that they'll never be able to move their faces again. When a character looks exactly the same no matter if they are supposed to be crying, joyous, frightened, or enraged there is a serious problem. I'm not going to name any names but if you watch this show for five minutes you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
The very best thing about this show? James Spader's character's hat obsession. I have never seen so many scenes take place in hat shops before. He even bought two hats at the same time while chatting with the FBI. We could change the name of the show from the Black List to the Hattery List. The second best thing is James Spader himself, who totally seems to be in on the joke. Especially when he's rattling off a string of the most overused cliches in the book. If you like camp, which may not even be aware that it is camp, you should enjoy this one.
I meant to talk about a couple of more shows but this ran longer than I anticipated. So maybe next week.
This week's bonus treat is hopefully not a repeat. It's Mark Twain's brilliant take down of James Fenimoore Cooper's writing. In part of the essay he explains that in one portion of the Leatherstocking Tales a Native American is tracking someone and almost loses them when they take to a stream to hide their tracks. Not to be so easily misled, he gets the stream to leave its bed and is able to follow the tracks left by the refugees when they walked along the bottom of the creek. Because that's how it works. I can't count the number of times I've followed people by looking at the footprints they leave in water. A child could do it. http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html