Palatable Messages

There's a saying in show biz that's been attributed to various people, including Samuel Goldwyn and Lester Del Ray, which goes "When I want to send a message I'll call Western Union." Possibly if they had said this today they would have said "I'll send an email or use an IM." Either way, the point is entertainment is entertaining only when you don't bog it down with lessons. But of course there are tons of exceptions and this week we're going to look at a few of those - including an Iranian film about girls who get in trouble when they dress as boys and sneak into a soccer game, John Grisham's latest book and Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy about catastrophic climate change.

Offside is an Iranian film about soccer fans who go to the qualifying game for the World Cup; Iran against Bahrain. This, of course, is a huge game and the entire city is going nuts. Several girls independently decide to go to the game, but girls are forbidden to attend sporting events featuring male players so they try to find a way around the rule by disguising themselves as boys. Unfortunately they get caught right away and are rounded up and told to stay in a sort of a pen next to the stadium, where they can hear the game but can't see it. This is torture to the fans and they try everything they can think of get the soldiers to let them go, or at least give them a play-by-play.

When I first heard about this film I didn't think I could watch it. My imagination ran away with me and I imagined all sorts of terrible things happening to these girls for daring to break their cultural mores. But Offside is a comedy and there is very little real danger. Most of the humor comes from the interplay between the soldiers and the girls, who want to know why they can't watch the game. The soldiers don't really know, and whatever reasons they come up with are easily trumped by the clever and patriotic fans, who just want to be part of the World Cup qualifying excitement. Filmed mostly at the actual 2005 game, this movie has an interesting half documentary half feature film feel. You can watch the trailer here.

John Grisham's books are hit and miss with me. There are some that I loved, like The Street Lawyer, and some that left me baffled, like The Broker. His latest, The Appeal, was interesting and horrifying. In fact I decided the best way to handle the book was to pretend it was supposed to be a horror story. The book starts at the end of a very long, very expensive trial, which has essentially bankrupted the attorneys for the plaintiff. On trial is an enormous company that is accused of systematically dumping toxic chemicals and contaminating a small town's water supply. The cancer rate in the town is now fifteen times the national average, earning the county the nickname "Cancer County." The plaintiff is a woman whose husband and child died within eight months of each other. When the jury comes back they stun the courtroom by naming a huge sum in compensatory damages. But the owner of the company swears the plaintiff will never see a dime and he sets about systematically destroying the value of his multibillion dollar company, but not before filing an appeal.

The case will go before the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is expected to divide nearly evenly on the verdict. Someone approaches the owner of the chemical company offering to get rid of one of the Justices and replace her with a handpicked candidate. Estimated cost – a mere nine million dollars. What follows is a fascinating look at election manipulation and various forces at work behind the candidates, set against the backdrop of the dying, infected town. The greed and waste is appalling, as is the damage to the town, both what was inflicted while the company was still there and the economic damage after it fled to Mexico, where there is little to no regulation of the toxic chemicals. This books works as well as it does because it shows us more than one side of each issue. We see from the perspectives of the billionaire, the injured widow, the legal teams, the judges and many others. That's what keeps the novel from sounding preachy and annoying. Instead it's riveting and terrifying and you'll probably want to hand it on to a friend to read so you can discuss what you've learned. You can read an excerpt from chapter one here. Don't let all those statistics in the first paragraph worry you; the rest of the book is easier to read.

Miss Snark, the anonymous agent with the terrific advice, has said you can't write a book about global warming. Global warming is neither a plot nor a character, so I get her point and I agreed with her for a time, until I read Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy about abrupt climate change and changed my mind. The series starts slowly, with the first book, Forty Signs of Rain, kind of difficult to read. There is a lot about the nature of science and how scientists think that definitely bogs down the plot, but by the time swimming tigers and massive flooding come into play everything is working nicely.

The books essentially tell the stories of Frank, who is temporarily working for the National Science Foundation, and a family called the Quiblers, father Charlie who works for a senator and takes care of the kids Joe and Nick, and mother Anna who works with Frank. There are also some Tibetan monks whose island is drowning as the oceans rise, and various other scientists, spies and homeless people to liven up the plot.

Forty Signs of Rain sets the stage for the rest of the series, ending with a terrible flood that damages much of a major US city. The next book, Fifty Degrees Below, details what happens when the Gulf Streams stalls, sending formerly warm areas into frigid winters, with Washington DC actually hitting the title number. The summers are still far too hot and of course all this dramatic weather means more carbon is burned to keep us puny humans at bearable temperatures, which means we just continue to speed up the process. Sixty Days and Counting is about various projects that are implemented to try and counteract as much of the carbon intake as possible, including a heroic effort to salt the too fresh water in the north in an effort to kick the Gulf Stream back into production.

Instead of a Russian mafia scary person or a fascist with a fist of iron as the bad guy, the real antagonist in this series is lack of money. Frank researches solar power and discovers a device invented in the early 1800's that could be scaled up enough to power cities but nobody wants to spend the money on it. The same with many other projects our heroes encounter, or invent; all the money is already invested in the pursuit of oil and there is little interest in exploring other avenues. Like The Appeal, this trilogy is both fascinating and infuriating and will leave you with plenty to think about. You can read an excerpt from chapter one of the first book here.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Wm Blake, who says, "Grindhouse – best movie ever? You decide. Zombies, explosions, ridiculous jokes, sharp shooting, cool motorcycles, really tiny motorcycles, knife fighting, helicopters mowing down zombies, and horrendous physical deformities." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at