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Larry Bridges "thebachelor" RSS Feed (Arlington, MA United States)

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Peter Nevsky and the True Story of the Russian Moon Landing: A Novel
Peter Nevsky and the True Story of the Russian Moon Landing: A Novel
by John Calvin Batchelor
Edition: Hardcover
49 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars "I was very, very young on the starry night it all began", November 26, 2014
One of the greatest novels I have ever read, "Peter Nevsky and the True Story of the Russian Moon Landing" is a story as vast, beautiful and sad as Russia. A deeply insightful, moving story about human relationships, it is also an exploration of the ruthlessness and violence of Soviet politics and a fascinating reflection on a possible alternate history for the Russian space program tantalizingly close to the true one. In addition, it is a fairy tale, as dark, frightening and bewitching as the oldest and best fairy tales. Although written in English, it feels as though it were truly written in Russian and translated into our language, and its operatic story cries out to be set to music by Mussorgsky or Prokofiev.

Batchelor's characters -- the larger-than-life heroes Oryolin, Strogolshikov and Zhukovsky; the beautiful, precious, doomed Katya; the vain, foolish, stubborn and yet lovable Peter, looking back at his life from a distance of seven decades with profound wisdom and humility -- will linger long in memory. And in Madame Romodanovsky, he has created a truly remarkable villain, one who chills as she bewitches.

Is "Peter Nevsky" a perfect novel? Perhaps not. I stand in awe of its epic scale and revel in its maximalist richness, but perhaps Peter's memoir becomes a little repetitive in its denunciations of the Soviet system of his youth. And yet this is a story told by an incredibly old man, with an old man's obsessiveness about the events that have haunted him all his life. There is also one major plot hole left at the end, when we never learn the fate of an important subsidiary character. It's all too believable that Peter would not know what happened to the person, but he should have mentioned he didn't know, which would have made the ending all the more powerful and tragic.

A glib and yet accurate description of this book might be "'The Right Stuff' meets 'War and Peace'" -- but that only scratches the surface. As an opera buff, Madame Romodanovsky would appreciate my applying Verdi's opinion of "Tristan und Isolde" to this book -- that he could hardly believe that its vast span had been conceived and executed by a single human being. As a longtime space buff, I have read over fifty realistic novels about spaceflight, written by Pulitzer, Hugo, Nebula and Edgar winners, Grand Masters, astronauts, scientists and engineers, legendary pseudonyms and unknowns, and of them all, "Peter Nevsky" is the very best.

by Allen Drury
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars "For a long time they sat there side by side", September 11, 2014
This review is from: THRONE OF SATURN, THE (Hardcover)
Epic in scale and scope, breathtakingly well-written, structured and paced with consummate skill, in parts almost unbearably suspenseful and moving, "The Throne of Saturn" would be a truly great novel were it not disfigured by the unbelievably racist depiction of one of its main characters.

In the late 1970s (about ten years after the novel was written), the Soviet Union prepares for a manned flight to Mars. The United States is quick to follow suit, over the strident objections of many politicians and media figures. Due to political pressure, a somewhat incompatible crew is selected for the mission: "Perfect Astronaut" Conrad Trasker, a tremendously brave and competent man who is not so perfect as he appears; "Jazz" Weickert, an astronaut nursing a grudge against NASA and Trasker for holding him back in his career; Pete Balkis, a medical doctor whose affection for Trasker may go beyond mere friendship; and Jayvee Halleck, a brilliant African-American scientist who...

Well, let's hold it right there, because the depiction of Jayvee is simply completely inappropriate. Jayvee clings to his sense of racial resentment like a security blanket, and is unwilling ever to believe that a white person might be genuinely well-disposed toward him. I'm sure there were and are many people like Jayvee of various minority groups in America, but it's just not right for such a person to be the one major black male character in a novel of this length, especially because various passages raise the possibility that Drury is using Jayvee's relationship with his crewmates as a metaphor for race relations in America in general.

There's an unbelievably patronizing passage on p. 99 (hardcover) in which Drury chastises Jayvee and people like him for not appreciating the speed and willingness with which white Americans granted civil rights to black Americans in the mid-20th century -- as though civil rights were something magnanimously granted by whites to blacks, rather than something blacks fought and died for and took for themselves during the Civil Rights Movement. The far more positive depiction of Jayvee's wife does not redress the balance, nor does the tokenistic introduction late in the book of a sympathetic black Congressman.

This is all the more disappointing in contrast to the Pete Balkis storyline, in which Drury demonstrates far more sympathy for another oppressed minority than he does for Jayvee and his grievances. Pete's story explores emotional territory not entered by any other book I have read about space exploration, whether fiction or non-fiction. The unnamed US President is also a fascinating character, a tremendously complex and enigmatic figure whom the reader, like Trasker, is never quite sure whether to admire or dislike. And perhaps the book's most memorable character is the unforgettably named Percy Mercy, a magazine editor who clings to his misguided but sincere liberal ideals as fiercely as Jayvee clings to his resentment.

"The Throne of Saturn" is a true epic which justifies its vast length. As Drury hoped at the end of the acknowledgements, its characters and story will long remain in memory. Unfortunately, in the case of Jayvee, they are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $6.75

5.0 out of 5 stars "It began quietly", July 22, 2014
This review is from: Eater (Kindle Edition)
One of the most terrifying and disturbing books I have read in a long time, Gregory Benford's "Eater" deals with singularities in both senses of the word. It takes place in a universe utterly without intrinsic meaning or purpose, where humans are at the mercy of uncaring, powerful cosmic entities, and yet it is also a deeply human story of love, courage, and unspeakable, unbearable loss. It develops unexpectedly from one style and genre to another, moving from astronomy procedural to drawing-room comedy of manners to political intrigue to the highest of high-concept science fiction.

"Eater" is the story of the discovery of a black hole entering our solar system by a Hawaii-based team of astronomers, led by Dr. Benjamin Knowlton and his wife, Channing, a former NASA astronaut who is dying of cancer. Soon the third and, to my mind, most interesting of the main characters is introduced: Dr. Kingsley Dart, the British Astronomer Royal, a man with a past with both Benjamin and Channing and many unexpected skills, including an astonishing aptitude for navigating the corridors of power. These three will need every facet of their humanity when the black hole turns out to be a sentient being with ominous plans for Earth.

"Eater" is heartbreaking and enthralling in its treatment of the ravages of cancer, the philosophical conundrums of recording or "downloading" a human mind, and the chaos of a world under threat. Whether Benford intended it or not, the title has a chilling double meaning: the true "Eater of All Things" is the cancer ravaging Channing's body. If that menace were regarded as being as urgent as a black hole threatening to consume humanity -- which is what it is, actually -- the world would be a lot better off.

The Last Days on Mars
The Last Days on Mars
DVD ~ Liev Schreiber
Price: $9.99
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3.0 out of 5 stars "Happy, happy, happy", July 18, 2014
This review is from: The Last Days on Mars (DVD)
A few decades into the future, an international team of eight astronauts is exploring Mars. Less than 24 hours before they are scheduled to leave for home, an unexpected discovery leads a crew member to make a series of bad decisions, with disastrous results. Specifically, crew members are infected by Martian bacteria that turns them into... well, zombies, basically, although the movie never uses the "zed word".

As other reviewers have pointed out, "The Last Days on Mars" is more of a horror movie than a sci-fi film, although its sci-fi elements (the technology used to explore Mars) are realistic and convincing. The film is extremely well directed, designed and acted, especially by Liev Schreiber as chief systems officer Vince Campbell, and has a hauntingly melancholy musical score; therefore, I felt it would be unfair to give it less than three stars. However, this film is not entirely my cup of tea. Unlike one of the cast members interviewed in the "Making Of" feature, I prefer science fiction to be more hopeful, and not as doom-laden and pessimistic as this film is. I was also dissatisfied with the ending, although I can say no more without spoilers.

Most frustrating to me, though, was what I consider a major hole in the film's storytelling. Throughout the film, Campbell experiences panic attacks related to his guilt over an incident on the outbound trip to Mars. However, the audience never finds out precisely what the incident was; all we get are brief, unclear flashbacks. Some may regard this as a bold narrative device; I considered it a cheat.

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5.0 out of 5 stars "I had a mental image of a rushing winter landscape, under white skies", July 14, 2014
This review is from: Troika (Kindle Edition)
While "Troika"'s science fiction storyline is fascinating and memorable in itself, what is far more haunting about this novella is its pessimistic vision of the near future. "Troika" takes place in a time a few decades from now when a new Soviet Union has been established, and is, if anything, even more repressive and brutal than its predecessor; when the Soviet Union is the only country left capable of manned space flight, and science in general is on the decline; when the Internet has been eliminated, and (in the Soviet Union, at least) people are practically coerced into watching television continuously so as to absorb propaganda messages. Oh, and they also have driverless cars. Moreover, it turns out that human civilization is on the path to ultimate collapse due to humanity's mistake in not pursuing space exploration.

What's frightening is how believable this future is -- even more so now than when this book was published, due to certain significant events in the interim. Perhaps the book can serve as a warning, and a message that it may not be too late for us to make choices that will change our own future. "Troika" is is science fiction at its finest.

Back to the Moon
Back to the Moon
by Travis S. Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.04
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Back to the Moon", again, May 7, 2014
This review is from: Back to the Moon (Hardcover)
Hilariously, not only does Taylor and Johnson's "Back to the Moon" share its title with a 1999 novel by Homer Hickam, it also begins exactly the same way, with a prologue recreating Apollo 17's liftoff from the Moon and a child watching it on television. While managing to avoid the levels of silliness reached by Hickam's novel, this is still not a very good book.

Much of Taylor and Johnson's "Back to the Moon" is astonishingly poorly written, with redundant phraseology, discrepancies of tone, grammatically incoherent sentences, and internal inconsistencies that should have been picked up by an editor. The engineer/scientist authors even confuse Newton's First and Second Laws. In some places, when nearly identical operations are carried out at different points in the book's spaceflights, descriptions and dialogue have simply been copy-and-pasted from one passage to another. Self-plagiarism is one thing, but it's especially rare to see a book plagiarize itself.

The characters are a bunch of cardboard cliches, with the two or three who show any sign of being interesting relegated to minor supporting roles. I've read a lot of novels about spaceflight recently, and I've noticed that the commander (assuming it's not a tough-as-nails woman) is always more or less the same character: a no-nonsense middle-aged white guy with a heart of gold, who loves his wife and kids, is always fearless and competent, and usually seems to be named "Bill" or "Rick". As such, this book's Bill Stetson is barely distinguishable from the commanders in "Stowaway to the Moon", "Prepared for Rage", Stephen Baxter's "Voyage", Ben Mikaelsen's "Countdown", and even "The Infinite Tides".

The book gathers some steam in its last quarter, becoming extremely suspenseful and even moving, but unfortunately also begins to suffer from a problem shared by other space novels (including "Stowaway to the Moon", Hickam's "Back to the Moon", and "The Martian"): so many crises ultimately arise on the mission that it's impossible to believe the crew survives them all. The book's defenders may point to Apollo 13 as a real-life precedent, but even that crew didn't have to deal with as many failures and emergencies as this one. I agree with "Back to the Moon"'s core message, and it is frequently entertaining (hence my three-star rating), but too often in a so-bad-it's-good way.

From Space to the Seabed (Great Adventures Series)
From Space to the Seabed (Great Adventures Series)
by Jonathan Rawlinson
Edition: Library Binding
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4.0 out of 5 stars "It was the end of a great adventure", November 14, 2013
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A few months ago I casually mentioned Project Sealab to a friend of mine, a man greatly interested in history, technology and exploration. Not much to my surprise, he had never heard of it. The heroism of these pioneers of the deep is practically forgotten, their accomplishments overshadowed by those of NASA's astronauts in the same era.

There could be no better introduction for young children to this long-ago adventure, and to the field of underwater habitation, than this simply written but informative and beautifully illustrated account. It is especially topical because of the recent passing of Scott Carpenter, the first astronaut-aquanaut and the figure on whom Rawlinson's account focuses. Undersea habitat research continues today with NOAA's Aquarius, which recently weathered near-closure due to budget cuts. Maybe this book can help recruit the next generation of aquanauts.

Britten: Billy Budd [Blu-ray]
Britten: Billy Budd [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ John Mark Ainsley
Price: $29.89
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5.0 out of 5 stars "We're off to Samoa, by way of Genoa", November 14, 2013
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One of the most sheerly beautiful Blu-Rays I have seen, this Glyndebourne production of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" fills the screen with painterly images worthy of Rembrandt in their composition and chiaroscuro. Excellently acted and sung, the production presents Britten's adaptation of Herman Melville's classic novella in nearly ideal form. Jacques Imbrailo may not be quite beautiful enough to be the Handsome Sailor of everyone's dreams, but his heartfelt physical performance and emotionally powerful singing perfectly convey Billy's humanity, simplicity and tragedy. John Mark Ainsley is an excellent, thoughtful Vere, although he cannot quite pull off the nearly impossible feat of being convincingly an old man in the prologue and epilogue as well as a young, vigorous man in the rest of the opera. (As with "The Turn of the Screw", of course, Britten's opera more or less follows only one of the possible interpretations of its enigmatically ambiguous source text, in which Vere can be perceived as the real villain of the story.) I felt that the performance of Act II somehow fell slightly short of that of Act I, although there is no lack of emotional impact in such passages as the "Interview Chords", "Billy in the Darbies" (Britten's setting of the ballad which concludes Melville's story) and Billy's last words. All in all, a superb production.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw [Blu-ray]
Britten: The Turn of the Screw [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ London Philharmonic Orchestra
Price: $31.48
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I found it. I like it. Do you?", November 13, 2013
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This excellent but not necessarily definitive production from Glyndebourne worthily represents Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" in the Blu-Ray format. The decision to set the production in the 1950s, when the opera was composed, rather than in the Victorian era, has definite benefits but disadvantages as well. The story becomes more emotionally immediate, and perhaps it's true, as the booklet suggests, that the caste system was still present enough in 1950s Britain to make believable such elements as Mrs. Grose asking if she may "take the liberty" to kiss the Governess. On the other hand, the Governess' strength of character (for good or for ill) is less remarkable than in the original, in which one has to bear in mind that she cannot vote and has been raised with the unquestioning acceptance that hers is the inferior gender, socially, morally and intellectually (cf. Flora's resentment when the Governess tells her they need to work on "Miles' Latin").

The visual production is full of excellent touches, especially the coup de theatre at the end of the Prologue when the home movie of Miles and Flora is replaced by a projection of the windows of the Governess' train. I also liked how the revolving stage allows Flora's dollhouse to take on the role of the house of Bly itself on the other side of the lake from which Miss Jessel appears. However, I found the depiction of the ghosts somewhat over the top. Toby Spence cuts a chilling figure in his modern suit as Peter Quint, but does he have to play him quite so much like a "Doctor Who" villain? It's especially disappointing after Spence's human and likable Prologue. And must Miss Jessel look like Kristen Wiig playing a Korean water ghost on SNL?

Incidentally, the Prologue is staged with Toby Spence examining a chest of artifacts from the events at Bly, including home movies, the boat Flora makes beside the lake and Miles' teddy bear. This raises the interesting question of who precisely the Prologue **is**. (He is, of course, inspired by the character of Douglas in James' story, but the details of the framing device involving Douglas are omitted from the opera.) If he simply has the Governess' manuscript in his possession, he could be almost anyone -- a great-nephew of the Governess? Henry James? Peter Pears? -- and need not have any strong emotional connection to the events at Bly. In this production, however, his having the chest implies that he is someone connected to Miles and Flora's family as well as to the Governess. Could he be a grown-up Miles, whose death was merely a delusion on the Governess' part (although his hair color is different)?

Perhaps the most memorable and chilling moment in this production is the scene of the children going to church. From both the words of the libretto and Miles and Flora's actions -- especially what they do with Flora's doll -- it is clear that the children are uttering terrible blasphemies against Christianity. What makes the scene especially disturbing in this production is the realization that an audience in modern secular Britain presumably sees nothing wrong with children saying and doing these things. The ceremony of innocence is drowned, indeed.

Radio Shows: New Adventures Sherlock Holmes
Radio Shows: New Adventures Sherlock Holmes
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Don't interrupt, Watson", December 4, 2012
By 1948, the long-running Sherlock Holmes radio series had lost some of its luster. This is not so much because it no longer featured its best-known stars, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but because its scripts (written at this point by Edith Meiser) had become uneven in quality. There are some very good episodes here, but there are also many that are mediocre and forgettable.

John Stanley's portrayal of Holmes is like that of his predecessor in the role, Tom Conway, in that both are extremely convincing and authentic... but both also sound almost exactly like Basil Rathbone. It's as though Rathbone had spent so long in the role that American radio listeners would accept only one style of delivery and performance from an actor playing Holmes. Although Stanley's performance is consistently excellent (better than Conway's, in my opinion), in this regard it stands in contrast to the more varied portrayals of the character in later years across various media.

As written by Meiser and played by Stanley and Alfred Shirley, Holmes and Watson have a somewhat pricklier relationship than in other depictions of the duo. Holmes frequently tells Watson not to interrupt when he interjects a comment during a client's statement, and "Go to blazes" becomes a catchphrase for Watson when Holmes irritates him. Of course, there's an argument to be made that this is actually a depiction of an even closer male friendship than in other versions, in that Holmes and Watson have moved beyond the point of having to worry about hurting each others' feelings.

"The Case of the Lucky Shilling", like several other episodes early in this CD set, is connected to the Holmes canon by the reappearance of a supporting character or a family from the original stories. In this instance, Holmes and Watson help prevent the same family which suffered a murder in "The Empty House" from undergoing another tragedy. "The Case [sic] of the Engineer's Thumb" is a somewhat maladroit adaptation of a Conan Doyle story. Due to an understandable desire to involve Holmes more directly in the action, the climax is altered in a way which makes Holmes appear extremely stupid. A happy ending is also substituted for Doyle's unresolved conclusion.

"The Case of the Avenging Blade" is a somewhat silly affair involving a London monument being utilized in an attempted murder, the climax of which borrows a plot device from "The Empty House". "The Case of the Sanguinary Spectre", which discloses a canonically-unrevealed intermarriage between the families from "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Empty House", is not really a mystery at all so much as an anecdote, and would have been thematically better suited to the run of episodes under one of the series' previous sponsors.

"The Case [sic] of Shoscombe Old Place" is a reasonably effective adaptation of a Doyle story simple enough to fit well into the show's half-hour format. "The Adventure of the Wooden Claw" features a return appearance by Mr. Merryweather, the bank manager from "The Red-Headed League".

"The Case of King Phillip's Golden Salver", set at the Tower of London, features yet another appearance by a member of the Maynooth family from "The Empty House". "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" unfortunately fails as an adaptation because the original story, one of Doyle's best, is too complicated to fit easily into the half-hour format.

"The Adventure of the Serpent God", a Professor Moriarty story, may remind listeners of "Young Sherlock Holmes" as Holmes and Watson infiltrate a mysterious temple on the London docks. "Death is a Golden Arrow", a reasonably good story, shares with other episodes the fault of showing off Meiser's research (in this instance about archery) a little too much.

"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" is a reasonably effective Doyle adaptation, although the limitations of the half-hour format mean that the explanation of the Hon. Philip Green's identity is deferred until Watson's closing chat with the announcer. "The Adventure of Lady Waverly's Imitation Pearls" at one point features a flashback within a flashback within a flashback -- otherwise, another average episode.

Given Meiser's repeatedly demonstrated interest in "The Adventure of the Empty House", it's not surprising that she does an especially good job of dramatizing the story itself. Getting off to a zesty start with Watson explaining to the announcer why he **won't** tell the radio audience the story of "The Final Problem", this is a superb adaptation, very nearly as good as the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams version for BBC Radio. Astonishingly, the relatively unknown team of Stanley and Shirley delivers the most moving performance of the Holmes/Watson reunion scene I have ever seen or heard -- better than Merrison and Williams or Brett and Hardwicke. "The Case of the Very Best Butter" continues the upswing in quality, with a climax demonstrating Holmes' ruthless side.

"The Adventure of the Sinister Crate of Cabbages", another Moriarty episode, lives up to its title with its mixture of the sinister and the bizarre. It's not quite a complete story in itself, more an episode in Holmes and Watson's ongoing battle against the Professor, but it's certainly not boring or forgettable. "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" is another satisfactory Doyle adaptation.

"The Case of the Everblooming Roses" has a slightly unbelievable explanation, but demonstrates even more forcefully Holmes' ruthless streak and his willingness to see legal justice left unsatisfied in obedience to a higher morality. "The Case of the Accommodating Valise" is an amusing story about robberies at a railway station which includes a mind-bending scene in which Watson scoffs at the notion of Conan Doyle being knighted for his literary work because "He's no better than I am." Best not to think about that one too hard...

"A Case of Identity", the set's final Doyle adaptation, acknowledges that the original story is one of the simpler Holmes mysteries by having Watson encourage the listener to deduce the solution for himself or herself. Unfortunately, Doyle's plot is again altered to allow for the possibility of a happy ending not suggested in the original story. "The Complicated Poisoning at Eel Pie Island" brings the set to an excellent finish with a mystery which is both disturbing and satisfying in the way all the pieces click together at the end. A peculiarity of this story is that it apparently takes place in 1928, when Holmes and Watson should be in their mid-70s, and yet no overt reference is made to their advancing age. (Of course, Watson should be in his 80s or 90s in the framing sequences with the announcers on all these old radio shows.)

So, not as excellent as the Rathbone/Bruce sets, but lots of fun nonetheless, and recommended for the Sherlock Holmes or old-time radio fan.

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