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The Associate
The Associate
by John Grisham
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Deja Vu -- or, The Firm Associate, February 1, 2009
This review is from: The Associate (Hardcover)
The good news is that this book reads just like The Firm. The bad news is that this book reads just like The Firm. What I mean is: there's not a lot that's new here... it's Grisham going where he's gone before... although the plot recalls the Duke Lacrosse case, which a few people might find interesting.

Some fans will find in this book what they want -- a David and Goliath story about a recent law school grad who takes a job with a powerful firm and finds himself in hot water with bad, scary people. In The Firm, the protagonist was a well-meaning young man who was the top of his class at an Ivy League law school (Harvard). In The Associate, the protagonist is a well-meaning young man who is top of his class at an Ivy League law school (Yale).

In both books the plot machinations are mostly interesting and move forward relentlessly... although there's only one dead body this time, late in the book. The long, middle section of The Associate -- while never dull -- does not develop the fever pitch that some of Grisham's other thrillers sometimes attain (especially The Firm).

At the very end, the pace finally begins to pick up a bit, but some will find the lack of final resolution a little disappointing.

Perhaps Grisham's biggest strength as a writer is that, within a commercial thriller, he manages to convey what it's really like to BE a lawyer -- and in this case, what it's like to work in a major New York law firm. It's doubtful anyone could've written this book without 1) actually being a lawyer, and 2) talking to people who've worked in one of those scary firms that occupies half a building in downtown Manhattan. It's a dog-eat-dog world in which people give up their souls and all their waking hours in the hopes of someday becoming partner. Needless to say, this is not a very attractive picture. Is it any wonder Grisham gave up the law?

The Prisoner: The Complete Series (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
The Prisoner: The Complete Series (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
DVD ~ Patrick McGoohan
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Never Been Surpassed -- Aren't You a Prisoner, Too?, December 16, 2008
This is a complete set of actor/producer/director/writer Patrick McGoohan's masterpiece -- a show that went over budget and was poorly understood in the late 60s... but which has since developed a cult following as a sci-fi/fantasy achievement more sophisticated than anything since -- even surpassing Star Trek in its intellectually challenging themes. "The Prisoner" surpasses even "Twilight Zone" for its mind warping endings. (Best episode in this regard is probably the outstanding "A, B, and C," in which the protagonist's dreams are invaded, yet he finds a way to turn the tables on the invaders!)

Most of what follows is an overview of The Prisoner. For details on DVD extras, jump to the last paragraph.

"The Prisoner" starts simply enough. A British intelligence agent (McGoohan) resigns angrily -- something we see in pantomine in the opening credits of every episode -- after which he is kidnapped and wakes up in a mysterious place called "the Village." It's a place, charming but isolated, where people are sent who know too much to be allowed to walk away.

We don't know whether the Village is run by Us or Them... for in the late 60s, Cold War paranoia was at a high point. If it is being run by Us (the West), the Village masters need to know for sure whether the protagonist (known as "the Prisoner" or "Number 6") intended to defect. They need INFORMATION.

It also might be run by Them: double agents pretending to work for the British but really in league with the Commies. In that case, they want to pick the Prisoner's brain for secrets. Again, they need INFORMATION.

The Prisoner, meanwhile, is equally anxious to find out which side really runs the village. No one trusts anyone! At first he wants only to escape... but fairly early on in the series, he declares he wants to "escape, come back, and wipe this place off the face of the earth."

So much for the premise. Everything above is essentially backdrop for the REAL struggle. As things progress, it becomes more and more apparent that this is an allegorical battle of the individual against society. THEY must break him; HE is determined to repel efforts to get inside his mind...

...yet even THAT is simplistic! McGoohan was subtle enough to understand that individual and society can't be mutually exclusive. Ultimately, they need each other. Societies need individuals for creativity, innovation, and leadership; individuals living outside of society face at best a brutal existence (a fact the marvelous episode "Many Happy Returns" explores). The question finally posed by the series is: can the individual maintain sufficient personal integrity while acknowledging that he/she is fated to be a "prisoner" of some society or another? What is the right balance? And so -- episode after episode explore not just the "spy who must escape" theme, but attempts by masters of the Village to make prisoners into happy little automatons.

McGoohan and his collaborators created a fictional place unique and yet so familiar that it serves to represent the whole world. There's the Control Room, intrusive government spying; the mysterious "Rover," a special effect that hasn't aged and which represents fear wielded by Authority... an enforcer in the form of an ominous white balloon; a mysterious little butler who never says a word, but always stands next to Authority; and the "Penny Farthing" bicycle symbol that serves as the Village's logo. Above all, everyone is known not by name but by a number... the Prisoner, or Number 6, has a relatively high number indicating his value to his captors. (He'd surely be given a position of authority if he cooperated.) But the real chairman of the Village is the ever-changing No. 2, who reports to the unseen No. 1, the shadowy uber-authority figure behind it all.

DVD Extras:

By far the best is the 16mm film on the final disk, showing location shooting at Portmeirion, a famous resort in North Wales. This priceless footage shows the original Rover (a horrible special effect that looks like a giant cupcake with a light on top) before McGoohan ingeniously replaced it with weather balloons. Then there's fascinating commentary on disk 5 with Production Manager Bernie Williams, and the alternate version of "Chimes of Big Ben" on disk 1. This alternate version shows the original music, opening credits, and closing credits -- which McGoohan wisely replaced. Still, it's fascinating to see how much the show evolved by constant improvements up till the first airdate.

Tessa of Destiny
Tessa of Destiny
by Leigh Ellis
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Romance Served Well Done, with Shakespeare on the Side, May 16, 2008
This review is from: Tessa of Destiny (Paperback)
"Perils of Pauline" for the well educated, or at least well read. A likable young beauty loses her mother, becomes great actress, tramps over most of the capitals of 17th century Western Europe trying to rescue her childhood sweetheart, finds a lot of new bedmates in the process.

This is basically women's romance fiction but may also appeal if you're a Shakespeare fanatic, which I am. The novel is rich with references to Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Commedia dell'Arte. The author clearly knows and loves these theatrical traditions.

The plot device of girl-disguised-as-a-boy-so-she-can-act-women's-roles-in-all-male-casts is well known to anyone who has seen "Shakespeare in Love." But this novel did it before Tom Stoppard did.

There are dwarves in this novel as supporting characters (apparently the Spanish king had some kind of weird fetish for them), and I like how they are portrayed with dignity and heroism... they're useful, as just about the only characters who don't spend the whole novel trying to bed down with Tessa.

Overall, quite entertaining.

Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon)
Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon)
by Dan Brown
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nice Try, But It's No Da Vinci Code, February 5, 2008
Angels and Demons is "Robert Langdon's first adventure" as the cover tells us, and can be considered a warm-act for Da Vinci Code (DVC), in many ways a similar book. It took Dan Brown several tries to get the thriller right. When he finally succeeded with DVC, the result was many, many millions in sales. But it was an uneven road getting there.

The biggest difference is plausiblity -- a critical issue for thrillers. (Michael Chricton never failed to score a bestseller because his emphasis is always on giving us a splendid illusion of total plausibility.) Although many aspects of DVC have been discredited, the premise of DVC does have a plausible idea behind it: the received, orthodox view of Christianity hides the fact that there were other versions of Christianity circulating in the early centuries before one of them won out. Therefore, despite the errors in DVC, it struck a huge chord with the public. Also, there are many narrow escapes in that book, but none of them are unbelievable.

What we're asked to believe in Angels and Demons is nothing short of fantastic.... should I say, miraculous. A man falls from two miles (two miles!) holding a piece of tarp that's no substitute for a parachute and then survives -- with nary a broken bone -- because he landed in a river! That's nearly a fatal flaw, but there's more: imagine a respected church official initiating a wild plot that risks blowing up the Vatican, merely to make his enemies look bad. An argument about Creation that hinges on the existence of anti-matter. (I didn't buy it: scientists have known about anti-matter a long time, and the starship Enterprise used it in the 60s!) Grusome murders that serve no real purpose other than to be gratuitous violence. Above all, an "illuminati" plot that's widely accepted despite no Illuminati ever showing up.

The "proof" of the existence of the Illuminati -- a secret anti-religious association of politicians and scientists that controls the world -- is the appearence of ambigrams. These are clever word displays that spell the same word(s) when turned upside down. But if the existence of ambigrams were sufficient to prove the Illuminati in the story, then why not in real life? Dan Brown found an artist clever enough to create them (the artist's real-life name is John Langdon), so by Brown's own logic, that proves that in real life, his friend John Langdon is part of the Illuminati!

I read this novel in part because I wanted to see what Brown's take on Catholicism was in this novel. In DVC, Robert Langdon is hunted by a renegade bishop who is a member of Opus Dei. In A&D, he is trying to SAVE the Church from a cannister of anti-matter planted in the Vatican. Believe it or not, the views of the two books are ultimately consistent: religion is valid, orthodoxy is suspect. That's one thing I LIKE about Dan Brown.

In A&D, though, Robert Langdon is a little too much James Bond in Harris Tweed, slugging it out with the villain at great length, putting Harrison Ford or Sean Connery to shame. I much prefer the more believable, mellowed-out Langdon of DVC, since he is supposed (after all) to be a Harvard professor, not some kind of Superman.

Digital Fortress
Digital Fortress
by Dan Brown
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Plot hole bigger than the ultimate computer -- but fast paced, January 30, 2008
First, the good news. Writing a "commercial" thriller is harder than it looks (otherwise we'd all be millionaires), and it's clear that Dan Brown worked hard from the beginning to master all the tricks. Even in this, his debut novel, he shows many of the novelistic skills that would later contribute to the success of "The Da Vinci Code"... specifically, he keeps throwing twists at you and seems to have mastered the "cliff hanger" style of writing.

It's odd, then, that Digital Fortress sold only a few thousand copies initially, while Da Vinci Code is up to 70 million in sales. What gives?

Well, look at the bad news. There are many small errors that people quibble with in Digital Fortress, but there is one logic error in particular that is huge. The Digital Fortress of the title is a supposedly unbreakable code, the algorithm for which is posted on the Net. However, the code itself is used to encrypt it. The code is allegedly unbreakable because the public key is insufficient to break it; you also need the algorithm itself. So various characters spend the entire novel chasing down the key. However, by Dan Brown's own logic, that means that the premise doesn't make any sense... because he already told you that the key itself is not enough!

This may seem complex, but trust me, if you read the novel and think about it, you'll see that the premise of the story is illogical.

Beyond that, the style is flat and the characters are little more than archetypes, just as they are in Brown's other thrillers. In this case they are a beautiful woman who works for the NSA and her Georgetown prof husband. Odd, then, that Da Vinci Code should be so much more successful. Put it down to Dan Brown's talent for throwing you lots of plot twists and puzzles to solve. In Digital Fortress, these puzzles are not nearly as intriguing as in Da Vinci Code. In particular, he milks the ending of Digital Fortress for far too long. Good idea, but by that time we've had enough twists to satisfy us... and let's face it, the bad guys are already dead. He shoulda found a way to end more crisply, not overstaying his welcome.

That being said, you have to give him some credit even in this debut novel for proving that he could keep the twists coming.

Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 78: All Our Yesterdays [VHS]
Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 78: All Our Yesterdays [VHS]
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4.0 out of 5 stars It's no "City on the Edge," But Still Plays Well, January 30, 2008
This time-traveling episode... one of only three time-travel shows from classic Trek... suffers in comparison to "City on the Edge of Forever," but is good if seen in its own light. This is a "planet" show, concerning a planet whose sun is a few hours away from going nova. Fortunately for the residents -- but unbeknownst to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- these people have a time machine that allows each of them to escape by traveling to this planet's past.

The time machine exists alongside a library of what looks very much like DVDs. This is in the 1960s, a few decades before DVDs were a commercial reality. You slap a disc in the viewer to see a sample of a time period you'd like to travel to. The library and time portal are presided over by a Mr. Atoz (A-to-Z, get it???).

Many trekkies consider this episode a routine time-travel melodrama... Kirk, Spock, and McCoy end up accidentally trapped in dangerous time periods and have to get back to the present before the sun goes nova. Kirk gets trapped in a place that looks like 18th century England and is accused of witchcraft. (But explain to me why all these people speak English when this isn't even Earth -- oh well, by the 3rd season they gave up completely on that problem.) Kirk gets back first and tries to help Spock and McCoy. Scotty calls down to the planet. "Capn! We gotta beam ya up! It's now or never, sir!" It's a nail-biter at the end.

The best part of this episode is De Kelly's stellar acting in the last few scenes. Spock and McCoy accidentally travel back to an Ice Age where (as luck would have it) a beautiful woman is also trapped. Spock starts acting like a teenager on steroids, because at this time -- 5,000 years ago -- his Vulcan anscestors are savage. Okay, that's not logical, but go with it. McCoy, for once, gets the moral upper hand over Spock. "I'm going to try to get back," says McCoy, "Because I have a life back there. And I WANT that life!" Indeed it is a life worth living, worth any risk to preserve: a life aboard the Enterprise (which by now we've come to see as our traveling home) a life of healing, exploration, accomplishment, and service.

And if that doesn't do it for you, consider: this is your chance to see the role Mariette Hartley was famous for before she did those commercials with James Garner.

Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 53: The Ultimate Computer [VHS]
Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 53: The Ultimate Computer [VHS]
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars William Marshall Creates a Monster, January 22, 2008
Computers are useful for doing boring things like adding up columns of numbers. But would anyone in their right mind want to give computers the GLAMOROUS jobs? Writing novels, composing hit songs... or commanding a starship? As McCoy points out in this episode, having computers replace people is okay as long as they don't come after YOUR job. For Capt. Kirk the prospect of being replaced by a computer is especially horrifying.

Kirk has the "honor" of trying out the spanking new M-5 computer (think of HAL on steroids), meaning he must periodically give up control to M-5. But it's a dubious honor from the beginning, and when Capt Wesley gives Kirk the backhanded compliment of being "Captain Dunsel," it's downright insulting. No wonder M-5 later tries to destroy Wesley's attack force. Maybe it was trying to exact revenge for all the insults heaped on Kirk! Our sympathies are always with Kirk and never for a moment with M-5 and its inventor, Dr. Daystrom.

For all its reputed intelligence, M-5 is ultimately very stupid because it is unable to understand the simple concept of war games and decides to destroy a bunch of ships for real. That's an acceptable premise only if you regard AI (Artifical Intelligence) as unreliable. Beyond that, handing over decisions about who lives and who dies to a machine ought to be obviously unacceptable even in the 23rd Century.

The episode has a marvelous moment when Spock -- whom Bones accuses of being in love with the new computer -- finally shows his true colors, saying that a starship runs "on loyalty... to a man." (As Kirk ironically says in Star Trek II, Spock was "the most human.") Lovely also is the casting of William Marshall as the half-mad genius Dr. Daystrom. In the 21st century, we wouldn't bother to mention that a black man played a genius with a super-high IQ, thank God. But in the 1960s this made a strong statement. The casting of Marshall was color-blind, taking advantage of his strong presence and marvelous bass voice (much like casting James Earl Jones as Darth Vader). Too bad that he's about a foot and a half taller than Shatner, so that Kirk is forever looking up. That might actually be astute casting, though, as the intent is to make Kirk feel small and unimportant for most of the episode.

Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 70: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield [VHS]
Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 70: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield [VHS]
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4.0 out of 5 stars If You're Half-White, You're Alright??, January 22, 2008
One of the most memorable moments in Star Trek occurs in this episode. Two aliens, each half-white and half-black, make the Enterprise their battlefield. Kirk and Spock try to mediate. Spock says, "Your war is surprising, given your genetic similarity." The alien responds, "Are you blind? I'm white on the right side. He is white on the left side!"

Bravo! Differences that seem trivial to any rational observer take on significance to groups looking for any excuse to hate each other. This is what the original show did best: use interstellar allegory to comment on the issues of the 1960s. Yet the message is timeless... Are racism and bigotry still with us? You bet! These aliens could be Sunnis vs. Shiites, Sikhs vs. Hindus, or Serbs vs. Bosnians. Whatever.

Two other things make this episode worth watching: 1) the guest performances by Frank Gorshin (representing the authoritarian faction) and Lou Antonio (representing the rebel faction) are strong, and each is well cast... Gorshin doing a sly turn that is sneering and arrogant, while Antonio is appropriately angry. 2) The centerpiece of the episode is a battle of wills between Commissioner Beal (Gorshin) and Captain Kirk for control of the ship. Beal's powers enable to him to take control of the helm, to take his "prisoner," Loki, back to their home planet. Kirk's only option to is to threaten to make the ship self-destruct.

That's not as silly as it sounds. The conflict results in an exceptionally tense, dramatic scene. What's wonderful is that it uses technology but doesn't depend on technology to resolve the dilemma. It's really about the characters' choices. Writers would revisit this famous self-destruct concept at the end of Star Trek III.

The episode is not without flaws. The aliens are obviously wearing face paint, like Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer. The tight trousers they wear (their costumes are deliberately made identical) show all-too-obvious bulges. But maybe that's intended; these are overtly male characters bent on aggressive behavior. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that the ending isn't fully satisfying. Kirk manages to get the Enterprise to its rendevous to innoculate a planet (saving a few billion people we never see) but nothing can be done to stop Beal and Loki from destroying each other. In that, Kirk fails.

But maybe that was the point. What can be done against such relentless hate?

Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 31: Metamorphosis [VHS]
Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 31: Metamorphosis [VHS]
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Cry for Love out in the Galaxy, November 5, 2007
Although not quite a 5-star episode, "Metamorphosis" is an almost perfect example of all that was uniquely Trek. If you could only show one episode to an alien visitor to show what Star Trek was all about, you might pick this one.

While trying to save an ambassador (Elinor Donahue), Kirk and co. are captured by an alien being, the "Companion." The Companian is trying to provide human company for a man, Zefram Cochrane, whom "she" has kept for over a hundred years. Kirk faces a problem: how to escape before the ambassador succumbs to fatal illness?

That might be a classic "Outer Limits" plot, but of course this is Trek, so there are twists that make this more humane. Kirk tries short-circuiting the Companion with Spock's help, but that doesn't work, so (on the advice of McCoy) he tries diplomacy. It turns out that Cochrane isn't a pet so much as a lover; and although this is touching and Platonic, there are sexual and even Oedipal overtones.

The most stirring moment (watch for it) is a visual one... after the Companion has given up immortality and changed into a mortal body, "she" views Cochrane through a colorful veil that suggests the flashing lights of the Companion. This has to be seen to be appreciated.

The character of Zefram Cochrane was reused in TNG movie "Star Trek First Contact" with an actor (James Cromwell from "Babe") who looks nothing like Glenn Corbett, the actor in this episode. There's a stronger thematic link to "Star Trek the Motion Picture," in which flashing lights suggest a romantic-erotic merger between human and non-human intelligence. In the end the message is: the need for love is universal.

Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 34: Amok Time [VHS]
Star Trek - The Original Series, Episode 34: Amok Time [VHS]
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5.0 out of 5 stars Spock Flips Out, September 17, 2007
This script by sci-fi legend Theodore Sturgeon is well done. But the 5-star rating is iffy (4.5 would be more appropriate). If you could preserve one Star Trek episode for future generations, would this be the one? The main message seems to be that sexuality is a difficult subject.

The episode fills what would otherwise be a mysterious gap in Vulcan biology. The Mr. Spock we know would never fall in love (except on that planet where the spores got him). Nor do Vulcans seem interested in raising babies, who are (after all) most illogical. Why, then, don't Vulcans die out? The answer is that once every seven years, the mating urge takes control. It's not pretty. Spock acts horribly, shouting and throwing food at Nurse Chapel. For this to happen to Spock of all people is deeply disturbing. The message seems to be: for those who can't integrate love and romance into their lives, when sex finally raises its head, it's terrifying.

Spock must go to Vulcan and join with his "wife," a remarkably beautiful female Vulcan (the first we ever saw I believe) named T'Pring. Their minds were joined when teenagers. Kirk and McCoy join the wedding party at Spock's request. It is touching that Spock invites McCoy, for once showing us his true estimation of the good doctor. On Vulcan, things don't go as planned; Kirk is chosen as "champion" to fight Spock and accepts only because he thinks he can help his friend by fighting easy.

Tension remains high. Near the end, it looks like there's no way out of absolute disaster, until the final, surprising scene. But like the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek II, it's kind of a cheat! Overall, an emotionally involving episode. Most memorable line: "Sometimes wanting is better than having. It is not logical, but often true." I don't know whether that's so or not, but I think of that line often.

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