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Piers the handyman 2007
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If you don't like book and movie reviews, well, this month I focused on them, taking a month mostly off from writing, trying without much success to catch up. I didn't review everything I read. Skip to the last page or so to get my normal fulminations.

I read The Fin by Rob Feight. This is a contemporary love story with a different flavor. The bare bones essence is that Zach, an aspiring novelist with a long-time friend who is a woman, Melissa, lacks direction in writing and in life, so goes from Florida to Hawaii in search of whatever. There he meets Joan and hits it off with her. Meanwhile Melissa realizes that she's more interested in Zach than she had realized, and follows him to Hawaii. She catches up to him just in time to realize that he now has another romantic interest. Which one will he choose? Okay, what's different is the sort of ongoing present tense style, punctuated by nice spot imagery. Zach accused Melissa of shooting down his compliments; raindrops splashdown with the intensity of miniature atomic bombs, her emotions permeate the air like night jasmine on a still evening, some girls he dated in college were even the kind he could take home to mom. He is looking for inspiration for his book, but it has no story line, no direction; it simply starts here, wherever he is at the moment, and goes maybe somewhere. So this is pleasant reading, with a certain feel for the average novice novelist. Great literature, no, but enjoyable in a mild way.

I watched Pacific Rim, a movie I would have liked to see in the theater but Wife and Daughter decided against. It is very much my kind of junk, with huge robots fighting huge monsters, a pretty girl, and good personal interaction. Formula, but formulas exist for a reason: they make good stories. What counts is what you do within the framework to make it reasonably original and effective. In this case, the monster robots are operated by not one but two human beings who must coordinate intimately, mind-melded, feeling each other's pain, people walking in harness, directing its movements, acting as the left and right sides of its brain. Naturally our handsome hero gets to team with the pretty girl, sharing her mind, and naturally it's not enough just to kill a monster. The monsters keep coming, and are getting smarter. They are from the beneath the edge of a tectonic plate under the sea, representing the vanguard of an alien invasion, and the only way to stop them permanently is to close the passage there, such as by nuking it. All done well; I enjoyed it and recommend it to others.

I watched RED 2, the sequel to RED, reviewed in an earlier column. This picks up where the first left off, with Bruce Willis now with the girlfriend he won before, still looking to stay peacefully retired. But there's mischief afoot, and old friends in the business want him to join them. When the bad guys come gunning for him, and threaten to literally flay his girlfriend, he does get involved. Girlfriend, originally totally innocent of this kind of life, gradually gets into it with a will, and actually is pretty effective at times in accomplishing their purposes. When they need the help of the tough balky killer “Frog” she more or less seduces him into helping, rather than see him tortured. “I can't believe you kissed the Frog!” one of them says. This time they need to locate and defuse a portable nuclear device. It’s pretty much a hilarious parody, not remotely believable but really, I can't think of when I've enjoyed a movie more.


I watched The Descendants, another great movie. Set in Hawaii without being at all romantic about the setting; it seems Hawaii is just like mainland America in most respects. I have a correspondent there, who says the same. Wife crashes while water skiing and is comatose; Husband has to take care of their two daughters, age 17 and 10, both rebellious in their fashions. It's not easy, especially when he learns that Wife was cheating on him and was planning to divorce him. He tracks down the man she cheated with, who is married with a similarly innocent family. What to say to whom? It's realistically awkward. In the end Wife dies without ever awakening and they scatter her ashes to the water. Those who don't know the truth proclaim what a great woman she was while those who do know it are stonily silent. It's a very nice continuing character study.


A fan sent me Dr. Who, Series Seven. I'm not really a fan of Dr. Who, but did see scattered episodes when the actor was the one with the knee-length scarf; somehow the other actors now seem like impostors. I remember it as a rather crazy wild science fantasy adventure series, fun in places. When it comes time to change actors the Doctor simply takes a new host body; he's really the same person. The Doctor has the space/time traveling Tardis, a sort of telephone booth that is much larger inside than outside, that takes him anywhere and anywhen in the universe. The mean enemy alien Daleks kidnap Dr. Who and friends to help them solve a problem with their sort of insane asylum planet. A really cute smart nervy girl turns out to be a Dalek herself, to her chagrin. Don't worry; she shows up in later episodes as his traveling companion, and the mystery of her bugs him. Then there are dinosaurs on a spaceship, which I think is a new juxtaposition and a fun one as they ride a stegosaurus. It's a sort of Noah's Ark, preserving every type of animal. And a western-genre episode as an alien gunman demands that the town give up a particular person, or else. The Power of Three, wherein mysterious two inch cubes appeal all over the world, doing nothing for a year, then suddenly animating in different ways. It seems they are here to tally Earth people, so as to eliminate humanity before it spreads its contagion to other worlds. The Doctor must somehow muddle through to solve these problems, and does, barely. The Angels Take Manhattan was a supreme frustration, because it started interesting, with Dr. Who reading a novel about a tough sexy female private eye who packs a cleavage that would fell an ox at twenty feet. What imagery; I'd really like to see that. One of the Doctor's friends somehow gets sucked into the novel. It seems that statues are coming to life and moving, but never move when anyone is looking at them. They are closing in on Dr. Who. Then someone is caught in darkness, and lights a match, and a cherub statue is there and blows it out. Darkness—which doesn't end. I played it over, and it went dark at the same place. So it's a bad disc, and it leaves me curious about the rest of it. Sigh.


Then on the next disc, The Bells of St. John has a conspiracy uploading the minds of people. The mechanism is interesting: an ordinary seeming person looks at a victim, then slowly the head turns around and the back is a screen that draws in the mind. Until Dr. Who flies his motorcycle up into the building and braces the head woman. Then his head turns around to reveal a screen, which uploads her. To get her out of it they have to download all their captives, including that cute girl the Doctor is trying to help, thus freeing them. At the end he talks her into accompanying him in the time-traveling Tardis. I'm a sucker for brown-eyed brown-haired girls; when I met one in college I married her, and we've been together longer than the Dr. Who series has existed. The Kings of Akhaten has the cute girl, Clara, join the Doctor, seeking something interesting. He takes her to a kind of assembly of many different creatures, when she meets a girl child who wants to hide, because she must sing and she's afraid she'll get it wrong. They have to sing to make sure a grouchy old god doesn't wake and make real trouble. They do sing, but the god wakes anyway. He feeds on memories. Finally the Doctor puts him away with a relic—a leaf—that represents a future unfulfilled. There may be many memories of what happened, but the memories of what didn't happen, the unrealized future, are infinitely greater. That satisfies the god's hunger. I found this quite interesting, visually and conceptually. Cold War puts them on a Russian nuclear submarine that has inadvertently salvaged and thawed a 5,000 year old Martian warrior chief. Now it's the Doctor's and Clara's problem. Fortunately a martian saucer rescues the chief before he destroys Earth. Then Hide, a haunted house story. At one point Clara confessed to being a wee bit terrified, but said he didn't need to hold her hand. “I'm not,” he replies, showing his hands. Lovely! They succeed in rescuing the ghost who is not a ghost but a woman trapped in a pocket universe. And the monster chasing her only wants to find a companion; the Doctor brings her to him. Journey to the Center of the Tardis has a salvage crew snagging the Tardis, thinking it's a hulk they can claim. That messes it up, and they have to go to its center, which is a labyrinth, to try to get it working again, with surprises along the way. The Crimson Horror confused me with a mean old woman and obscure relationships and more mystery about Clara, who it seems has died several times but he rescued her by selecting different time nexi. Nightmare in Silver has them at a planetary amusement park where an exhibit is a chess playing cyberman who becomes real when physical electronic bugs get into him, and soon there's an army of largely invulnerable cybermen taking over. Finally there's The Name of the Doctor, when the Doctor visits the one place he should not, his grave, which is not a buried body so much as all times and places in flux. To save him Clara enters the glowing site, and to save her he enters it, but that costs him his body, and there will be a new host body. It's a bearded man. Not that I'm prejudiced, as a bearded man, but this looks promising. I hate to say it, but I think I am becoming a Dr. Who fan.


There were a couple of extra DVDs. Dr. Who: The Snowmen has Clara as a young governess in 1892 who learns one of her charges is terrified of the former governess, who fell in the pond and was frozen there, but who is now returning as an ice woman to punish her for being a bad girl. This is likely to be lethal, so Clara seeks the odd man she met, the Doctor. “Doctor who?” she asks without getting an answer. She locates the invisible ladder that leads to the spiral stairway that leads to the Tardis, which she runs around to verify that it really is bigger inside than outside. He has pretty much retired, but she manages to get him active, and he tackles the threat of magic ice becoming toothy snowmen who will destroy the world. Along the way is as close to a romance as I have seen in this series; at one point the Doctor even kisses Clara. Wow! I hope that doesn't freak out the innocent kids. He deals with the ice men menace, but then the ice woman kills Clara, and the Doctor will go on a quest to recover her in space/time. He pretty well has to; she's an awful cute girl. Then The Day of the Doctor, which is their 50th anniversary special, featuring three Dr Who incarnations and the fiery end of a planet, but by acting together they manage to save the planet by freezing it in time, and all is maybe well, for now. One Doctor gets married, and the one in this series, who I gather is #11 in the chain, will be with Clara. I was looking for the one with the long scarf and may have caught a glimpse when they had them all standing together. However, the last DVD also had a little pack of trading cards with pictures and dates for all 12 Doctors, and with that I was able to identify him: #4, Tom Baker, 1974-1981, at seven years the longest running one. I learn from the cards that the series was fallow 1989-1996 and 1997-2005, which maybe helps explain why I wasn't aware of it, though my lack of cable/satellite was I suspect the main reason, and it seems to be going strong now. So this series is fun, but no, I don't plan to go to one of their conventions.


I watched Woman Times Seven, a 1967 Shirley MacLaine movie, wherein she acts in seven little stories showing versatile changes. They are all set in Paris, but the roles are quite different: a widow who picks up a new man during the funeral procession, a housewife who returns home a day early to find her husband in bed with another woman, the wife of a writer who tries to be like the fabulous Simone he writes about, and on. All fun, and sexy for that time. I haven't seen much of Shirley before, but these prove her to be quite an actress.


I read Beyond the Veil by Joseph Grant. This one is different. Benjamin is a boy who lives with his mother and uncle, in a house in a glade in a forest. He has never gone beyond the glade or met anyone else, to his frustration. Is he a prisoner here? At dusk he sees the dancing fireflies, and wants to follow where they lead, but is not allowed. Then one night when he is ten there is a crash, and the house is empty except for him. What has happened? He follows the fireflies and finds himself in a kind of neverland where reality is a sometime thing. He meets a strange man who seems unable to answer a question directly. He finds a firefly who communicates through glows, including Yes and No. She guide him, but then he deviates from her path despite her desperate flashing, and gets trapped by a man whose interest is in causing him grief, literally: it is negative emotion the man feeds on. This is really ugly; there's the corpse-like body of a girl who seems to have been tortured almost to death, a prior victim. The firefly tries to help Benjamin escape, but by the time he does, she expires. He meets a live girl, but she is in another plane; they are ghosts to each other. Benjamin tries constantly to understand what's what, so that he can shape it to his will and return home, but it's a long, slow, painful process. It seems that he does have the power to shape reality, if he can only figure out how, but anyone or anything he comes to appreciate seems doomed. I regret the loss of the firefly and the girl, but it seems that separation from them is part of the price of his return home. This is a densely philosophic piece I can't say I properly understand; I recommend it only to readers who have a genuine interest in the ultimate nature of reality.


I read Vampire Dreams by Rex and Barbara Brocki. A boy, Jordan, is unusually precocious in childhood, both physically and mentally. In fact he's a kind of superboy who has to conceal his abilities to an extent so as not to attract unwanted attention. When his folks move to the Boston area he is 16, in tenth grade. There he meets a girl his age, Tia, and it is instant love. She has dreamed of him, literally, for years, and now at last they are together. But there are constraints: he's not sure he should tell her that he's a vampire, and she's not allowed to tell him she's a witch. Both species have a mixed history with normal folk, what with burnings and stakes through the hearts, so have learned to keep out of the public eye. In fact their subcultures are none too certain that they should even interact; they don't quite trust each other. That of course further complicates the idealized love of Jordan and Tia. But this summary hardly begins to describe the nuances of this novel. It sparkles with cleverness and information at every point, and is an education to read. In fact there is so much information that the story line is sometimes slowed. You really get to know how vampires and witches operate—it's not at all as nasty as ignorant folklore makes it—and how they cope. This is the first of two or more novels, and there's clearly a larger story developing.


I watched The End of the Affair in “glorious black and white.” I must have seen a version before, because it came back to me as I watched. It is set in England during and after World War Two—I realize that's ancient history to most of my readers, but not to me, because I was a child in Europe as that war started—when an American writer meets the wife of a British civil servant and theyfall rapidly in love. She wants to leave her dull husband and be with the writer (well, who wouldn't?), but then after a near escape from a German bomb she ends the affair, to his mystification and heartbreak. What happened? It's that she thought he was dead, and bargained with God to save him: she would leave him, if only he lived. And he lived. That put her on the spot. She hated her bargain, and didn't really believe in God, but what could she do? I appreciate the dilemma. If I, an agnostic, had bargained with God to save my daughter from death, and then she miraculously recovered, I'd have a similar problem. Why didn't I? Because I did not see her death coming; I thought she was weathering through the cancer and would recover. Then suddenly she was gone. So if God wanted to convert me, He misplayed His hand. But this is a quality movie, addressing the question of whether you should honor a promise made to an entity you don't believe in. I see no easy answer.


I watched Bullitt, a gritty Steve McQueen police detective movie. He's assigned to protect a key witness for two days before the trial, but the bad guys break in and gun him down, and Bullitt then goes after the bad buys as the bodies accumulate. One good car chase in San Francisco, one great filling-station fire, one phenomenal glimpse up the bare legs of a horribly dead female victim, but not much else. Maybe it was spoiled for me by a bad spot in the disc I had to portage around. I've hit several dad discs recently; quality control may be deteriorating.


I watched OZ The Great and Powerful. I have a certain history with Oz, because nigh two decades ago I was working with a movie outfit to write Surrender Dorothy, a sort of sequel to the movie, wherein a wicked witch survived to make trouble for Dorothy. I had a bit of fun when the witch flew on her broomstick over Kansas and was annoyed because a city was misspelled: they had left out the T in Witchita. Also, the present-day Dorothy's dog was Tutu, as in ballet; I think Dorothy was a dancer. In the end that came to nothing, leaving me with a useless manuscript. Today I am more cautious about letting movie folk waste my time. This present one, with which I had nothing to do, is a prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, setting up the witches and Wizard. It does a fair job, showing how there were three witchly sisters, with only Glinda winding up good, and how the Wizard managed to defeat the bad ones using stage magic. Along the way he picks up Companions, as is usual in fantasy, consisting of a talking flying monkey and an animated china doll (they existed in the book), as well as Glinda. It's okay, it's fun, and it does the job. I still wonder, though about the Witch of the North/South (it changed), who was Glinda in the book but seems not to exist in the movies. That is, one of the poles is vacant. Surely there exits a fourth Witch? There may be a story there.


I watched Oblivion, future science fiction story with Tom Cruise. I think Cruise is a fine actor, but his connection to Scientology is a negative. It is set in post apocalyptic Earth, where it is said that aliens invaded, were fought off, but Earth remains in ruins, with only a small rear guard remaining to see that the aliens don't return. They blast any ships that appear. They are assisted by marvelous self-propelled globular machines, the drones. Jack Harper is part of that crew, who have had their memories of their prior lives wiped. If they perform well, they will be allowed to go to Titan and rejoin the rest of the survivors. Then a ship crashes, and when Jack investigates he finds that it was crewed by humans, not aliens, one of whom he manages to save from the killing machines. And that one turns out to be his wife from sixty years ago. Hmm. Just what was in that erased memory of his, apart from the phenomenal coincidence? He finds a book containing lines from the poem “Horatius at the Bridge,” from Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome, that suggest the nobility of dying for a good cause, and it starts to jog his memory. Coincidentally, that's one of my favorite poems too. Gradually the truth is uncovered. There is no happy colony on Titan, and some of the humans turn out to be androids, such as (I think) Jack's comely female co-worker and lover, and his rediscovered wife is surely slated for elimination lest she mess up the existing order. She's part of the resistance movement, which seems to be the real target of the drones, if aliens even exist. Jack finally goes on a suicide mission to eliminate the female overlord, but three years later returns to reclaim his wife and, now, daughter. I think it's another copy of the original Jack, as valid as the first one, merely lacking his final memories and experience; there is evidence that there are a number of such identities. It's my kind of junk. Now if Cruise should suffer a similar revelation about his religion, which has already cost him one wife and child...


I watched World War Z, a zombie movie with redeeming aspects. A mysterious aliment spreads like rabies, by biting, and is conquering the world explosively. How can they stop it, if it can be stopped? Of course they have to try. It becomes the story of one man and his family, first escaping the madness of the city, then seeking the answer to the riddle of the plague. In the end they haven't discovered its origin or any way to cure it, but do find a way to avoid it: by being deliberately infected with a disease that the zombies recognize as unhealthy. They want healthy folk who will actively spread their kind, not unhealthy ones who won't last long, so ignore ill folk. That buys humanity time that may suffice. It just might work.


I read Metatron The Mystical Blade of Credence, by Laurence St. John. Two years ago I reviewed the first novel, Metatron The Angel Has Risen, saying that twelve year olds of any age should like it. They should like this one too, though it's a bit too pat for adults. Tyler continues where he left off, discovering more of his new super powers while trying to thwart a really mean bad guy who is trying to kill his dog and his family. He goes to Area 51 to collect the rest of his powers, and runs into real mischief there. Despite his formidable abilities, he still has the judgment of his age, which means he keeps fouling up. There will evidently be more in due course.


Considering the process of turning vegan, that is, eliminating milk and eggs from my vegetarian diet, I tried soy milk and almond milk. They taste similar to cow milk, but nutritionally are not at all the same, mainly with lower protein. I think similar is true for eggs: it's hard to get a competent nutritional substitute. There are those who will tell you that vegetarianism is not healthy and that vegetarians don't live as long as omnivores. This needs clarification: I'm a smart vegetarian, and I expect to live longer and healthier than stupid omnivores, including those who ignorantly condemn vegetarianism. I know that excluding a significant food source, meat, from my diet puts me at nutritional risk unless I actively compensate for the lost nourishment. Man is essentially an omnivore. So I actively compensate, by choosing an otherwise healthy diet and taking many supplements. Yes there are those who condemn supplements, including vitamins; I expect to outlive them also, and am uncertain which side they are actually on. The pharmaceutical industry thrives on widespread illness. Consider the campaign to discredit Vitamin C, pretending for example that it won't halt the common cold. Even some doctors believe this. I spend nothing on commercial cold nostrums, because I stop colds aborning, as anyone can. Similarly I compensate for having a sedentary lifestyle, writing—a recent article says that sitting all day before a computer is bad for you—by having a competent exercise program, including running, cycling, and strength exertion, mainly with dumbbells, not to become Mr. Senior America but simply to maintain muscle mass and a well-functioning system. In moderation; I don't push myself beyond my limits, which are slowly diminishing with age, but I also don't skip any exercises, and I keep me weight down, under 150 pounds. So it has been for forty years. So what about soy milk and such? They are more expensive than milk, and less nutritious, so I'll pass on them for now. But if anything should come along that matches milk and eggs in taste, nutrition, and price, I will gladly switch. With advances being made, that may not be long.


But about a class of supplements, notably antioxidants: recent articles say they inadvertently facilitate cancer. The chemistry is devious, but the simplification is that the body uses oxidants to fight cancer, and if you block those, the cancer flourishes. This confirms my theory dating back decades—it can take that long for science to catch up with me—that there is a reason human beings don't generate their own vitamin C the way most animals do, and suffer colds and other nuisances because of it. A random mutation eliminated that ability in some folk, and natural selection caused them to take over the species. But what possible advantage could there be in not generating the antidote to minor illnesses? It ties in with lifespan. (Remember, this is my theory, not established doctrine. Yet.) When your life is nasty, brutish, and short, and you die soon after reproducing and raising your offspring, as animals in the wild do, a minor illness may slow you just enough to get caught and eaten by the panther, and can't be tolerated. But if you live twice as long as normal animals, as human being do—I recall a study showing that in terms of lifetime heartbeats, we live that long—you suffer the onslaught of a different class of illness, such as cancer. We have large brains and much accumulated information that helps us survive, indeed, to conquer the world, so our longevity pays. Now it's cancer we can't afford. I'm not being cute here; my daughter died of cancer. So the loss of the ability to generate a notable antioxidant, Vitamin C, may cause us mischief in the short term, but facilitate our longevity in the long term, and that's more important. We live longer because we don't make Vitamin C in our bodies. That's it. So where does that leave me, a profound believer in Vitamin C? Right where I've been all along: taking it as a supplement, but in moderation. If a cold comes, I take it in immoderation to stifle that illness. But after a few days, the invader routed, I scale back to normal, which is about a gram a day. Should I get cancer, I'll consider scaling back further. I see it as a kind of analogy to clothing: natural fur is great to keep a body warm, but going largely hairless and using clothing to compensate is more versatile, and has significantly aided man's conquest of the colder climes. The key is to use the right amount of clothing for the occasion: a bikini for a girl on the warm beach seeking a wide selection of potential mates, massive furs for residents of the arctic realm. Similarly, we should proportion antioxidants to the immediate need. In sum, use that brain-crammed noggin nature worked so hard and long to provide you with, making nuanced decisions. Too many of us, some scientists included, don't.


Lesser items: they have discovered that the sweet sap of maple trees rises from the ground, rather than descending from the crown. Experts are astounded. I say duh, it never occurred to me that the sap didn't rise. It's the roots in the ground that support the tree, sending up nourishment for the upper reaches, while the leaves harvest energy from sunlight and send that down to power the rest of the entity. How could they have ever thought otherwise? The chairman of Exxon, Ray Tillerson and former House Republican leader Dick Armey, surely two pretty solid conservatives who worship the Almighty Dollar, are suing to keep fracking away from their personal estates. What does that say for fracking's effects on the rest of us? But that's not the whole story. It's the noise nuisance and traffic hazards from the heavy trucks required that they object to. That's hardly the same as condemning fracking itself, which has formidable benefits along with its hazards. Like an aging nuclear plant or a pig farm, you may concede their necessity; you just don't want them in your own back yard. Column by David Brooks titled “The Lesson of the Prodigal” rehearses the biblical story of the younger son who blew his inheritance on riotous living, then was welcomed back by the father. The elder son, who had followed the rules and maintained his estate, was understandably annoyed. But there's another take on it: do we really want a society of smug hardhearted elder brothers, that is to say, the rich, self-righteously lecturing the poor for their supposed malfeasance? Today's world is hardly the way the rich choose to see it, just as was the case in Jesus' time. And a column by Susan Reimer titled “What Makes Us Happy?” You think winning a million dollar lottery will make you happy? Maybe for a while, but then will come taxes and needy relatives and you'll likely revert to your normal depression. I have been there, after winning the virtual lottery of being a bestselling novelist, then seeing it dissipate because of stupid decisions by publishers. (This is the standard writer's attitude; ask any former bestseller for confirmation.) No, lasting happiness for older people is calmness, peacefulness, and low states of arousal. That is, the joys of ordinary little things. She quotes 93 year old Roger Angell, a sports writer: “We've outgrown our ambitions.” This week Publix had Balanced Nutritional Drink—I simply call it glop—for sale 25% off. I quickly grabbed two packs, happy. I lost my cell phone; it had fallen off I knew not where. O, woe! My wife dialed its number, and it rang under the aluminum ladder in the garage. The prodigal recovered. I was happy. Our star jasmine plants started blooming early with their pretty little stars; that gave me joy. Yes, I care about the state of the world, global warming, and whether I'll ever get a movie made from one of my books. But meanwhile my real life and happiness is made of little personal satisfactions.


This column is over-length again, thanks mainly to my reviews of books and movies. Having taken the month of FeBlueberry off to catch up on those things, I am now further behind than before, with six books to read and more piles of videos. Sigh; work really does expand to fill the allotted space. But I can't hold off on writing much longer; it's like holding my bladder too long. Gotta let the good stuff out. I am starting on another collaboration with J R Rain, Jack and the Giants, which features a modern take on a beanstalk, and gearing down for Xanth #40, Isis Orb, whose main story was suggested by a ten year old girl. I guess I'll have to split my attention between them and the books and videos. My time remains jammed. There just does not seem to be enough life for me to do everything I want so much to do.

PIERS
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