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The Borgias: Season 3
The Borgias: Season 3
DVD ~ Jeremy Irons
Price: $17.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great drama in Renaissance Italy between 1942 and 1500, May 26, 2015
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This review is from: The Borgias: Season 3 (DVD)
This is great entertainment; a vast story of ambition, warfare, ambition, greed, power, incest, and murder takes place at the height of corruption of the Catholic Papacy. Jeremy Irons continues to amaze with his ability to depict a man of ruthless brilliance and ambition who controls organized Christianity during the Renaissance. Alexander VI would have to be considered to be one of the most interesting Popes of all times since his secular ambitions outweighed his clerical duties. Irons is most convincing when he is angry or conniving, which is the way we see him most often in the third season. Alexander VI, previously Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, continues to strategically place members of his family, such as arranging for his daughter to marry a prince from Naples and his son Caesar to marry a noblewoman from the French court. Whereas the facts are bent a bit through the entire series, there is no doubt that the struggles of the Italian Peninsula made for great drama.

In the third season, Caesar Borgia takes charge and proves his military and diplomatic genius. Caesar Borgia was the model for Machiavelli’s classic book, The Prince. Caesar Borgia grows during the three seasons from a Cardinal under the control of his father to a man of intense ambition and strategy in the final season. The entire three seasons mark the growth of Caesar away from his father’s shadow to assuming the control of armies attempting to control all of central Italy.

Whereas the first and part of the second season focused intently on the rivalry of Alexander VI and Cardinal Della Rovere, the third season clearly shifts the rivalry from Alexander and Della Rovere to Caesar and the amazing Catherina Sforza, the Lioness, and one of the most interesting women of the Renaissance. Colm Feore is outstanding as Cardinal Della Rovere. Gina McKee was beyond outstanding in her powerful portrayal of Caterina Sforza. The writers gradually move the conflict from the Pope and the Cardinal to Caesar and Caterina where there is much drama.

Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter in the Borgia family, marries a prince of Naples and Spain, Alfonzo of Aragon, and their rocky marriage makes for much drama in the third season. Unfortunately for Holliday Grainger, the actress who plays Lucrezia Borgia, her character comes across as extremely self absorbed and spoiled.

The third season, like the first and second, is never ending entertainment. The film is beautifully realized with outstanding costumes and sets. Historic fact is stretched a good bit but the film makes up for it with high drama.

God Shuffled His Feet
God Shuffled His Feet
Offered by megahitrecords
Price: $6.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars Witty and entertaining, the best folk rock i have heard in the last 15 years, May 17, 2015
This review is from: God Shuffled His Feet (Audio CD)
It has been a long time since I was impressed with a rock/folk group but the Crash Test Dummies in their CD God Shuffled His Feet display witty excellence. I think the combination of witty lyrics, a unique baritone lead singer, and charming orchestration and arrangements of each number opened my ears and eyes to their magic fun. There is a pagan hedonism that underlies their lyrics, an ironic and accepting of the human condition. Every time I listen to this CD I find myself smiling. The lyrics are unique and thoughtful and combined with the upbeat orchestration the final product is just delightful.

The range of instruments and the perfect balance between vocals and instrumentation help make this CD a winner. Brad Roberts’ deep baritone is highly expressive and conveys a masculine sarcasm to the ironic lyrics. The lyrics have a range of meanings and many are quite sophisticated and show exposure to philosophy and literature. The CD might be described overall as refreshing and upbeat, witty and entertaining.

The Age of Louis XIV (The Story of Civilization VIII)
The Age of Louis XIV (The Story of Civilization VIII)
by Will Durant
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Full of ideas, art, history, philosophy - all beautifully told, May 13, 2015
I have now read two of Durant’s overviews of western history and civilization in his Story of Civilization series and they are excellent. This volume has a nice feature in that the youth of Louis XIV, this growing power, his love affairs, his later devout religious beliefs, and his death are all spread out and integrated into the other parts of the text, which gives the book a nice cohesion to center all the events within the lifetime of this ruler. Louis XIV must be judged by history but the facts of his life would indicate that he ruled France at a high point in the country’s influence and power but his aggressive ambitions resulted in a world war (The war of the Spanish Succession); his Catholic prejudices and suppression of the Huguenots was both cruel and weakened the economy of France; and he ruled as an absolute dictator despite all the pomp and circumstances, gardens and balls. France became the center of Western Civilization and the arts flourished, as we can bear witness to even today.

The sections on the fall and restoration of the Stuarts of England is fascinating as was the section on Peter the Great of Russia. Charles X of Sweden is of great interest in the religious wars that raged during this period.

The section on the philosophers of the period was exceptional including lengthy discussions of the work of Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbs, and Spinoza. Durant is a wonderful interpreter of Spinoza’s concepts of God, or as reality as Spinoza tended to characterize God. I loved the section where Spinoza reasons that the natural laws constitute the will of God.

This is a wonderful book, full of ideas and history, beautifully told.

Death in the Afternoon
Death in the Afternoon
by Ernest Hemingway
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.59
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4.0 out of 5 stars A long rambling essay on the nature of bullfighting, April 16, 2015
This review is from: Death in the Afternoon (Paperback)
This is not a novel. It is a long extended and sometime rambling essay on the meaning and realization of bullfighting. The essay ventures into a range of related areas around the breeding of bulls, the training of the matadors, the role of the matador and his entourage, Spanish culture, good writing style, and the nature of the bull in the ring. I learned much I did not know. Even though the bull always loses, in fact even if the bull should kill the matador, the animal will be destroyed immediately after the fight, there is considerable risks in bull fighting. Hemingway is at his best in describing the strengths of these amazing animals and their native intelligence. The 4 year old bull in the ring is naive to the ring and this is his first encounter with an unmounted unarmed man. The bulls learn so fast that they only fight once since they would learn so much the first time they fight that they would certainly be killing machines the second time they were allowed in the ring. I found this concept fascinating and unexpected.

I will admit, the essay is long and rambles, sometimes seeming to have little direction or structure as Hemingway hops from topic to topic. However, Hemingway makes this blood sport understandable in a way that I never understood before.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.60
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4.0 out of 5 stars Satirical novel highlights how war is packaged and sold to the American public, April 14, 2015
This satirical book is primarily about how war is packaged for consumption by the American public. It is also about the young men who fight in war and the psychological shields of dark humor they develop to protect them from the absurdity. The book does a commendable job of contrasting the lives of lower middle class young soldiers with older upper class millionaires who may be genuinely patriotic but who profit from bloated defense department budgets. When young poor men go to war, a range of defense mechanisms develop and Fountain explores many of these psychological survival strategies in the compelling characters in this novel. The dialogue between the young men is full of testosterone while the dialogue of those with greater economic power is masked with platitudes. The message is clear, we should feel good about our football team and about our war. The young soldiers are not fools and dark humor, male one-up-manship, and a relentless sexual drive help drive the narrative.

The war in Iraq, with all its contradictions and ambiguities, is always present even if the entire novel takes place within a couple of hours at the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. The scene where the solders interact with the football players is insightful as we see male physical specimens who make millions of dollars playing football compared to the smaller, taut, bodies of the soldiers who make a bit more than minimum wage. The novel captures the mentality of the Bush era where the public struggled with the dissonance of support for the war and real questions about the legitimacy of our actions in Iraq. It is to Fountain’s credit that he places this dissonance in the minds of the young men who actually fought in the war. The reality of war and the illusion of war are ever present, especially in the mind of young Billy Lynn.

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
by Donna Tartt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.72
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is the Great Expectations and David Copperfield of this decade, April 13, 2015
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It has been about a year since I finished reading The Goldfinch. I think I needed some distance to be able to reflect on the novel and make a careful assessment. In summary, overall this is an excellent novel. It is the Great Expectations of the decade with all the wonderful literary tricks and strength of narrative that Charles Dickens brought to his novels. The novel is the David Copperfield in the age of international terrorism, housing bubbles, drug epidemics, and class warfare. The section on the bombing of the metropolitan museum followed by the disorientation of a young boy could not have been better. It is true that creating a novel where the narrator is a highly engaging and sympathetic naive child certainly hooks the reader as they identify with the terror that this child experiences returning to an empty apartment to wait for his mother after the bombing. Like Dickens, both the good characters and the bad characters are drawn with such energy and skill that virtually every character is three dimensional and bursting with life. The scenes of upper East Side old money were astute. The arrival of the long lost father and his girlfriend were studies in cheap charlatans. The experiences in collapsed housing developments in Los Vegas were a highlight of the book, since the narrator has become a teenager and has some of the astute analytical skills of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. The drug induced world of these boys who drink vodka for breakfast and smoke a joint on the way to school was frightening because of the ring of truth that surrounded each escapade. This novel is exceptional which compares with such greats as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which is strong praise. One literary critic says that Tartt uses every literary trick in the book. Well Picasso used every painting trick in the book. It is not how many tricks you have in your hand, it is how you play the cards. Tartt deals the reader a full house.

The Charterhouse of Parma, Modern Library Giant
The Charterhouse of Parma, Modern Library Giant
by Henri; A New Translation By Richard Howard Stendhal
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A fast paced adventure of war and politics in Northern Italy, April 12, 2015
Such great writers as Honore Balzac and Italo Calvino have praised Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. During an interview, Al Gore indicated it was his favorite book. I was expecting too much. It is a novel full of astute observations about human nature, especially the self-serving aspects of our nature. The novel explores the three forms of power over our fellows, those being political power, the power of wealth, and the power of beauty. The book explores the tensions between emerging republican sentiments in Europe against the tyranny of hereditary petty despots. The book explores the power of women in a patriarchal culture. The book is written at a neck-break speed as if Stendhal had expanded upon Voltaire’s Candide. Whereas there is somewhat of an underlying plot, it is rambling with the ups and downs of human fortunes combined with the impulsiveness of the central character. The book is not a tight construction but rather a somewhat wild narrative of the manner in which human emotions constitutes the unpredictable course of life.

I was reminded of Candide in Stendhal’s character of Fabrizio. This handsome idealistic youth has one adventure after another, primarily brought about by his own impulsiveness and his tendency for all his actions to be emotion driven. The first such adventure is Fabrizio leaving Austrian Hapsburg dominated northern Italy and making his way to fight in the battle of Waterloo. This is actually the best part of the book, in my opinion, since Stendhal writes of the futility and stupidity of war with acerbic wit.

The most interesting character in the novel is Fabrizio’s young aunt, the Duchess Sanseverina, a great beauty with a quick mind. Whereas this young woman marries and elderly man with great wealthy who dies and leaves her his estate, she also becomes the mistress of the most powerful man in the court of Parma. It is Stendhal’s wisdom that also shows this character making bad decisions based upon emotion and having her overplay her cards on several occasions.

Like Candide, the pace of the book is fast with events quickly following events and often cascading out of the control of the characters. Also, like Voltaire’s Candide, the plight of many of the characters is related with lack of concern or investment. There are also odd narrative flaws in the novel where a character or event is built up as if it is critical to the novel and then these characters or events seem to evaporate. The novel slows down greatly when Fabrizio is imprisoned in a tower and he falls in love with the warden’s daughter. For some reason, Stendhal decided to end the novel by quickly relating the futures of each of the main characters. This part of the novel felt hastily written. When showing mankind at its worst, Stendhal is outstanding, but unfortunately this was only a portion of this overlong book.

by Chingiz Aĭtmatov
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.09
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4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful lyric short novel is well structured with a vivid central character, March 12, 2015
This review is from: Jamilia (Paperback)
This is a lyrical short novel that gets a bit sentimental but for the most part holds together nicely. Aitmatov is a talented writer. He has constructed a novel that has vividly drawn characters, a compelling and likable young narrator with whom the reader will certainly identify, a plot that develops naturally as the characters unfold, and a historic and cultural context that is certainly of interest to Western readers. The novel won the Lenin Prize which is understandable since it does not challenge Soviet ideology but it does indicate that culture is an underlay to that political ideology and that human nature emerges as the most vivid force in human interactions.

Aitmatov’s strength lies in beautiful description and the ability to produce vibrant fully developed characters with a very few careful brushstroke sentences. The character of Jamilia glows and is fully developed within the first 20% of the book. The choice of the young, inexperienced narrator, the young brother in law of Jamilia, has the strength of Mark Twain’s use of the naÔve young person gradually introduced to the mysteries of adult passions. It is well written, even if a tiny bit sentimental. It is a poetic and yet well structured novel. It is recommended.

by Jerzy Kosinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.25
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3.0 out of 5 stars A courageous book in 1969 but it has not aged well, March 12, 2015
This review is from: Steps (Paperback)
This 1969 award winning book did not age well. Times have changed and titillating paragraphs don’t hold the power in 2015 that they may have held in 1969. The book is not really a book of short stories since many of the vignettes are just one or two paragraphs or a page of dialogue between lovers. There is no narrative structure, a reader could start at the last page and work forward and not miss anything. Kosinski’s better book, The Painted Bird, is held together by a naÔve child narrator and is chronologically ordered and geographically centered. Not so with Steps. If there is a narrator, it is a sexually experienced adult. There is no central geographic boundary for these paragraphs with many of them taking place in Western Europe while others take place in authoritarian Eastern European countries. There may be a message here that authoritarian governments suppress so much spontaneous behavior in their population that the sense of spontaneity emerges behind closed doors as sexual and violent variations. In other words, the more authoritarian the form of government, the more secretive and kinky the sex by the population; an interesting hypothesis on which Kosinski has real experience.

There is also minimal characterization, just actors acting out various scenes of sexuality or violence. But the book is also courageous in that it attempts to explore aspects of sexuality and violence that are not often discussed and to also hint at some existential meaning-making that human beings will overlay upon their desires and instinctual passionate behaviors.

Whereas women were most often the victims of violence in this book, women were also characterized as attempting to make the most sense around sexual attachments. However, the book tends to treat violence and highly intimate sexual behaviors in a similar manner. So gang rape is described in the same neutral tone as sex during menstruation. They are not equivalent and yet the tone of the book would present an equivalency. I realize many readers would not agree with me on this point.

I appreciate the brevity and Kosinski’s willingness to tell the tale, to get to the point. However I was left with a sense that the vignettes were somehow related to his personal experiences. The sexual experiences especially seemed autobiographical and not removed enough from the musing of the author. A few strengths and a few weaknesses results in a score of 3.

DVD ~ Kenneth Branagh
Price: $5.68
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5.0 out of 5 stars When bigotry and hate meet efficieny, watch out!, March 2, 2015
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This review is from: Conspiracy (DVD)
This film gives us a realistic and frightening view of human nature and the ways in which human beings can construct a complete ideological mindset that denies the humanity and worth of other human beings. When prejudice and bigotry become efficient and technology driven, watch out.

The film is dialogue driven and small segments of action add just enough movement to help the viewer remain both engaged and entertained in a relatively complex and intelligent script. The actors are superb with Stanley Tucci stealing the show with a cold efficient underplay of his role.

This slice of history kept me entertained from beginning to end as I watched the complex swaying of the Nazi Reich’s leaders in the military, industry, and judiciary engage in a group think process that outlined a plan to exterminate the Jewish people from Europe. This 1942 meeting or conference marked a turning point in the German assault on the Jewish people since the no longer supported the movement of Jewish people out of German territory or their use as slaves in the labor force but rather moved toward extermination with Co2 gas chambers for mass killings.

Kenneth Branagh is great as SS Officer Reinhard Heydrich, whose masterful art of arm twisting ensures that those who have any objections to the extermination of the Jews are forced into line with the rest of the group. Stanley Tucci underplays the role of Adolf Eichmann, whose efficiency and use of the machinery of government supports this awful genocide.
Colin Firth plays legal Scholar Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who drafted the Nuremburg Laws, often discussed in the film, which are the codification of racial purity upon which the policy of extermination was based.

The film is frightening in the manner in which is shows the banality of evil, the ways we can convince ourselves and our reference group that some other group of humans are less than and thus deserving of death and extermination.

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