Reviews and Recommendations

1
Betty Makes Damn Good Pies
2
The Vikings *is* Game-of-Thrones-Lite, and that’s why I like The Vikings more
3
Broad City … Once You’re In, There’s No Pulling Out
4
The Problem with The 100 (SPOILER ALERT)
5
Black Mirror—Reflecting Our Bleak Future?
6
3 Little Details That Made the Movie VICE so, so Bad
7
5 Things That Would Make Me Throw a Book Against the Wall
8
The Killing – the first two seasons
9
The Martian, by Andy Weir – A (sort of) Review

Betty Makes Damn Good Pies

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I recently watched David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, season one. Disappointed. To be fair, I had high expectations of the cult favorite. It’s rare for a show to live up to high expectations.

Still, my reaction was surprising, given that I love love David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. It’s a spooky mystery wrapped in a surreal atmosphere, a rare art movie with an engaging story.

Back to Twin Peaks. My first reaction was: this is slow. Well, actually it was: wow, does Kyle MacLachlan look young as Agent Cooper. The central mystery is the murder of a young woman, but neither the case nor the characters are all that interesting. And the show isn’t even that weird, as I assumed it’d be. Mostly, it annoyed me that the murder wasn’t solved by the end of the first season. Arrgh. There should be a law that bans season-ending cliffhangers for murder mysteries.

The best part of Twin Peaks is its music, which is probably more recognizable than any image from the show. It’s easy to understand why. The instrumental really sets the mood, a haunting melancholy. And if you know me, you know that melancholy has the same effect on me as flame on moths. However, the music began to sound repetitive after, like, two episodes. I was tired of it. Still, I give much credit to the music for the success of Twin Peaks. The signature melody is the soul of the show, which probably would not have been as memorable without the moody sound.

If you saw the show, you probably know why the title of the post is about pies and yet I’ve gone on to ramble about Twin Peaks.

You see, I’ve been on a cross-country road trip for about six weeks (the genesis of which is detailed here), and one of my hopes is to sample delicious local food everywhere. I got my wish along the North Shore Scenic Drive in Minnesota. The Drive is one of the most beautiful I’ve been on, and I heard it’s even more breathtaking when the fall colors arrive. What was initially intended to be a one-day drive turned into a multi-day affair. And that affair included meeting Grand Marais, definitely the quaintest town on the trip so far and certainly one of the most romantic I’ve ever seen.

One of the highlights of the Drive was my lunch at Betty’s Pies. I had two slices: the Great Lakes baked pie (apple, blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry) and the five-layer chocolate cream pie (dark chocolate, cinnamon meringue, whipped cream and chocolate whipped cream). Both pies were excellent, but I preferred the chocolate one. Each layer was delightful; together the whole was even better. It’s no wonder that the five-layer chocolate is the bakery’s most popular pie. I’m not a big sweets person, so I was glad that the pies were not too sugary as many pies tend to be.

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As all pie-lovers know, good pies are not just about the filling. The crust is also important—not as important as the filling but still crucial for support. The pie crust is kinda like the groom in a wedding—he is vital to the event, but everyone knows the bride is where it’s at. Here, the crust was properly flaky and light. Oh yeah, under-baked and doughy tasting crusts should be illegal too.

So there I was. Having a slice of pie heaven while visiting a small town. The whole time I kept thinking about Agent Cooper eating his beloved cherry pie.

Ready for some tasty Betty’s pies? If you can’t make it to Minnesota, you can order it online and have the pies shipped!

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The Vikings *is* Game-of-Thrones-Lite, and that’s why I like The Vikings more

Source: http://www.vikingstvstore.com; Fair use - commentary

Source: http://www.vikingstvstore.com; Fair use – commentary

I like the TV series Game of Thrones. When I heard that the History Channel’s The Vikings was GoT-lite, I thought: Oh, let’s give that a try, but I know it ain’t gonna be as good as GoT, cuz GoT is pretty splendid.

I watched the first couple episodes of The Vikings and wasn’t impressed. It was okay, but the production value wasn’t nearly as shiny GoT’s. To be fair, GoT probably had 5,000 times the budget. Then I watched more of The Vikings. By the end of the first season, I was hooked. Having seen three season, I can safely say that I love it more than GoT.

The two shows have one thing in common: political intrigue. But there are key differences. The Vikings has one dominant story line. My atrophying brain finds it very taxing to follow the multiple parallel plots of an epic like GoT. Some GoT storylines I just don’t care for that much, and I find myself zoning out while waiting for the show to return to the characters I care more about. Second, The Vikings is faster paced. Lots of fighting. So yes, The Vikings is lighter. Lighter is more digestible. And digestion is good. Sometimes less is more.

The story is about Ragnar, a Viking leader whose dream is to go overseas (i.e. England) and raid. And raid. And raid. Them Vikings like to raid so much you’d think they have nothing else fun to do. If you’ve seen Sons of Anarchy (another fantastic show), Ragnard might remind you of Jax Teller. They’re both smart, cunning, and ambitious. Most importantly, they’re patient, biding their time until it’s ripe. Whereas most of their peers would gobble up their marshmallows in seconds, Ragnard can wait for hours. Days.

Since modern-day Scandinavia is one of the most socially liberal and egalitarian places, it’s fitting that the The Vikings portrays a progressive culture as well. The people vote for their leaders. Unmarried people cohabitate without shame. People (even kids) talk about sex as a natural human activity, not a dirty taboo. When a woman complains about an abusive husband, she is believed by the authority, not dismissed like chattel. Upon hearing that, the English king mused that the Vikings’ pagan laws seemed more enlightened than the English’s Christian laws. However, I don’t know how much of the show is historically accurate.

Lagertha is probably the most unexpectedly fierce character on The Vikings. She is smart and headstrong, but the best part is that she kicks ass. She goes with the men on raids and cuts up people as easily as she chops turnips. One time she leads a group of shieldmaidens (female warriors) on a special covert mission, kind of like Viking navy seals. Shieldmaidens are prominent in Scandinavian legends, though scholars disagree whether such warriors actually existed.

My favorite character is Rollo. Cuz he fights awesomely and is awesomely sexy. ‘Nuff said. If you don’t find him hot then I don’t know what to say.

If you like ancient political dramas like The Vikings and GoT, another good show to check out is Rome. Unfortunately, that one had a short run (only two seasons), but it’s very compelling drama.

I’m a season behind GoT and I’m still looking forward to watching it, but what I’m really eager to see is the upcoming fourth season of The Vikings.

Broad City … Once You’re In, There’s No Pulling Out

 

Two young, goofy women deal with daily life in NYC—not the most original premise, but the humor of the TV show Broad City is all fresh. Less serious than Girls and less quirky than Portlandia, but funnier than both. Like Seinfeld, Broad City is a show that seems to be about nothing yet mines comedic gold out of the most pedestrian grounds.

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, who created and star in the show, are best friends whose specialty is getting into situations that go wrong. Ilana “works” at a company that promotes internet deals, yet the only time she produces results is when she hires free interns to do her work. Abbi is an artist, but her day job is cleaning endless disasters in the restrooms of an obnoxiously positive fitness club. “Oh Abbi, hey, I know you’re not working today, but we could really use some Abbi magic. There’s a pube situation in the locker room that is unprecedented.” Hahahaha. Yes, I’m juvenile.

One of the funniest scenes is in the premiere episode of season two, when Abbi mutters a double entendre about “pulling out.” Pure comedic beauty.

Broad City is not afraid to push satire into risky territory, touching upon ethnicity, rape, sex offenders, and anal sex. And this is the deftness of the show’s style: it embeds subversiveness into humor and teases out absurdities from serious matters. Under the jokey veneer are thought-provoking takes on the complexities of taboos. Their jokes don’t usually have political content (maybe they do, and I’m just too dense to get the nuances). It’s always funny first, then implicitly asks you what you think.

Any twit can babble commentary (you’re reading it now). Smart commentary is hard. Funny commentary is harder. Smart and funny—that’s the hardest. Glazer and Jacobson are subtle enough to not seem like they’re trying to prove how smart and funny they are. I kinda have crushes on them both.

Seinfeld was the last pure comedy (i.e. not comedy mixed with drama) I loved on network TV. Since then, the best pure comedies have been non-networks, e.g. The Daily Show, South Park, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David ended his show, and to my distress, Jon Stewart will be leaving soon (please change your mind, Jon). Good thing Broad City has come along. On Comedy Central, of course.

The show has gotten great reviews, with the second season even better than the first. Though still a bit under the radar, Broad City deserves many more seasons to come. The Comedy Central website has locked all of the episodes except the first one of the second season.  It’s only twenty minutes, and I’d watch it just for that one joke. I probably replayed the scene five times already, giggling like a doofus each time. Yes, that’s how mature I is.

I watch Broad City on Hulu Plus, where you can stream all the epis. I’m also watching The Vikings and Twin Peaks, and about to start on Empire. Between Netflix and Hulu, there’s really no time for anything else in life.

The Problem with The 100 (SPOILER ALERT)

WARNING: This contains SPOILERS for Season One of The 100.

What it’s like watching Season One.

14241926331751424193838223This is one of the main reasons why I can’t get into The 100. The frikkin’ false tension means that whenever a major character supposedly dies, I assume they’re still alive somehow. So far, I’ve been proven right, although that does mean the show delivers zero tension for me. Maybe Season Two gets better?

Black Mirror—Reflecting Our Bleak Future?

Source: IMDB

Source: IMDB

Black Mirror is a thinky British TV series set in a near-future UK. The vibe is like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The main theme is dystopian, but the culprit is really the masses, not so much the government. Basically, the future sucks because people suck. The masses are fickle and prone to mob mentality. When we get better technology, we can’t handle it since it enables us to do bad things in badder ways. Technology progresses so fast that our moral maturity can’t keep up. It’s like giving a toddler a tank to drive when the kid hasn’t even mastered the tricycle. So yeah, we is doomed.

The subtext seems to be that democracy, based on the whims of the masses, is bad. A valid criticism, but the depressing part is that we probably have no better alternative. (Aside from having me as dictator for life, obviously. And having my clones as successors. Because I am all that and a bag of Cheetos, as anyone who knows me will testify.)

My favorite episodes are the first and the third ones in the first season. In National Anthem (the first episode), someone has kidnapped a royalty. The ransom demand asks the Prime Minister to perform an act … um … that will make you cringe, to say the least. It’s also darkly comedic, as cringe-worthy things can be sometimes.

In The Entire History of You (the third episode), people have implants that record their life experiences. Kinda like a DVR of what you see and hear. You can re-watch your past as if it were a TV show, essentially. The good is that you can relive your happy past. But what about the unhappy parts? And the temptation to watch another’s past? This episodes falls under the “be careful what you wish for” category because what you want is not always what’s good for you.

Another thing I like about this show is that it’s pretty edgy—it touches upon or jokes about taboo topics. British media, compared to American media, seem generally more willing to offend.

Black Mirror is available on Netflix, which has seasons one and two (total of six episodes). Season three is in progress.

3 Little Details That Made the Movie VICE so, so Bad

This is not a movie review. I thought of doing a review of Vice, but in the end, I realized I didn’t care about it enough to do a proper review. And here’s why.

1. Every other guy ever is a murderous, raping scumbag. Those who aren’t rapists or murderers seem to need a reason to not rape or murder anyone (one is still in love with his dead wife and the other’s a cop).

Post11cI mean, seriously, given a place where you can do anything you want, why does the go-to have to be violence towards women? What happened to healthy fun stuff like parasailing naked or doing gymnastics atop elephants or trying to eat fifty cronuts? Portraying men as scum and women as victims is SO 2014, you guys.

2. Armed, trained guards can’t shoot to save their lives. Not even a graze to the heroes throughout the entire movie.

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Where are they finding these guards?? They are useless. FIRE THEM.

3. THIS happened.

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This was where I proceeded to turn my brain off. From that point on, there were no more shits given to any of the mains. Because anyone who is stupid enough to turn down a full mind-and-body upgrade while there is an army after them does not deserve to live. In fact, I wanted to kill them myself.

Aaand that’s why I couldn’t take anything about Vice seriously. What was the last movie you couldn’t take seriously?

5 Things That Would Make Me Throw a Book Against the Wall

* Note: All these things are inspired by books I recently read, but I’m not going to specifically name any of the books because karma is a scary, scary beast. Yes, yes, I’m a cow…ard. Hur hur. Geddit, geddit? Uh, moving on…

1. Unhealthy relationships which are hailed as awesome ones.

Look, I get it. I get that no relationship is perfect. Mr. Cow and I fight quite a bit (mostly his fault, of course), but at the end of the day, we love and support each other and we make sacrifices which we don’t rub into each other’s faces, at least not unless we feel like it. But recently, this happened in a book:

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I thought this was a good conflict, because you know, sometimes people behave like dicks. What is NOT good is the fact that the MC totally fell apart because of her assholey husband, dropped everything including the Once in a Lifetime chance, and flew across the country to make up with this man-baby, and that was the happy ending. Just, no.

2. Major subplots which are never resolved.

Post10bI don’t usually mind questions that are left with vague answers, but in this case, it happened with a major subplot — I could even argue that this is the main plot because it was mentioned in the blurb — and there was no answer, not even a vague one. I still have no clue what the heck happened, which might be okay for small subplots, but not ones which are a selling point to the book. (I mean, I picked up the book because this very plotline sounded so interesting. BWARGH.)

3. Books without meaningful female characters.

Post10cBy “meaningful”, I don’t mean female characters need to be the main characters, but they do need to exist for reasons which are completely independent of their male counterparts. I’m not interested in books which delegate one-dimensional roles to the female characters, like “the wife/girlfriend/LI”. Also, can we please have more than just the ONE token female character? We do make up half the world’s population, after all.

4. Books that are obviously wish fulfillment for the author.

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These kinds of books become embarrassing to read, because I feel like I’m taking a peek into some hormonal teen’s diary. I blame the beta readers, the agent, and the various editors at the publishing house for this. I mean, really, at some point, did no one think to point out that 100 pages of sex with a wood nymph goddess thingy is kind of gratuitous?

5. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad.

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I hate black and white morality. Mostly because I feel that such simplicity insults my intelligence as a reader. Most people aren’t all good or all bad. I like complex characters, flawed MCs who do shitty stuff and antagonists who give you pause and make you think, “S/he has a point…” Give me your despicable good guys and compassionate baddies anytime.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to books?

The Killing – the first two seasons

Source: IMDB

Police procedurals don’t usually lure me, but the TV series The Killing reeled me in. In one weekend, I binged the first two seasons on Netflix. The show is tense, suspenseful, and gripping. And really bleak, both visually and emotionally.

In the first two seasons, two homicide detectives – Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) – investigate the murder of a teen girl in Seattle, a city that doesn’t seem to get a single ray of sunshine through all 26 episodes. Almost all scenes are washes of gray, and so are the characters. Family secrets, political intrigue, and personal struggles gnarl the case. And there are plenty of twists and red herrings to keep you guessing.

As complex as its mystery, The Killing isn’t all plot. The two leads are deeply carved and wonderfully played. Linden is hard, aloof, and mostly not very nice, but she betrays tenderness. She cares, perhaps too much. As her own rough past surfaces, you begin to understand the fears that drive Linden’s obsession with the case. Her single-mindedness may be great for solving crimes, but threatens everything else: her relationship with her son, her rapport with her partner, and her own mental cohesion. Ironically, it’s when Linden is at her toughest do you see the most of her vulnerability. I’m not sure if I totally like her, but she is definitely engaging.

Her partner Holder is a likeable dude that brings levity to an otherwise deathly serious show. As a detective new to homicide, Holder is the apprentice to the veteran Linden. But Holder offers more than what you would expect. He may seem silly, even loserish at times, but under the slacker veneer is a man who is thoughtful and caring, with much to contribute to the partnership. It’s no surprise that he may be driven by some of his own dark history as well.

The Killing isn’t for everyone. It is slow, but I didn’t mind the pace because I was absorbedThe show, basically a Seattle noir with a Nordic vibe, reminds me of the Swedish Stieg Larsson movies.  After all, The Killing is a remake of a Danish TV show. Also, if you like the miniseries Top of the Lake*, you will probably like The Killing. Both have the same measured pace, depressing vibe, and intimate focus on a female detective.

The first story arc spans the first two seasons (13 episodes each). Much to my disappointment, the series was canceled after four seasons. Boo.

* Top of the Lake is a beautifully filmed missing-persons mystery set in New Zealand, starring Elisabeth Moss. Those who have seen the TV series Mad Men will recognize her as Peggy Olson. She is equally compelling in both shows.

The Martian, by Andy Weir – A (sort of) Review

This pseudo-review is of a book originally available for free on the author’s own website. After people clamoring to “take it with them” on an e-reader, Mr. Weir uploaded it to Amazon in 2012 and charged the minimum 99¢. Then the movie people came calling, and then the Big Publisher. The Martian is in production, slated for a November, 2015 release, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. 

I’m intentionally not saying much about the plot here because…spoilers.

 

I don’t review books, or let’s say I never have.

See, if I really love a book, I’m usually so immersed I’m not paying attention to why I’m loving it. I’m lost in the story. And frankly, analyzing a story I connect with kind of…ruins it for me. I cherish that little bubble of having had an emotional tie to a piece of entertainment—be it literature, a movie or a television show. If I start digging too deep, I might see the flaws and lose that lovely naivete.

But reading The Martian by Andy Weir gave me a unique experience, not the least because there were points in the story where I was so stressed out I had to put my head up and gulp air. What really got me was that there were so many points in the book that I yanked myself out of the story. Out of sheer giddy surprise. And so, I decided to write about it, and to recommend it.

Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers.

  1. I don’t generally read sci-fi. The concepts have gotten a little big for me. Quantum-this and plasma-that. I haven’t kept up with science enough to read hard-core sci-fi seamlessly. If I don’t understand a concept, I have to go figure it out, and that means spending more time on Wikipedia than on the story. I don’t have that much leisure to expend on one book, so I tend to pass on sci-fi.
  2. I am picky to the point of ridiculous about the books I read, and I’m a total contrarian. If a book’s “the THING,” I probably pass just because, though not always. I’ve never read a Twilight book or a FSoG book, or just about anything Oprah recommends. (After reading a few of her early recommendations, I concluded we REALLY don’t have the same taste in books. This is helpful, though. It’s as important to have opinions/reviewers you know you disagree with as those you do, in my opinion. A consumer has to have ways of making choices.)

So why was I drawn to The Martian? I can’t really say, except that I read an article about it in Entertainment Weekly and the book sounded so fascinating. An astronaut gets stranded alone on Mars and has to survive. Whoa, cool! The simple premise sends the mind spinning with all sorts of possibilities.  And then there was the opening sentence of the book: “I’m pretty much fucked.”

It didn’t hurt that the EW article was as much about the author as the book and I found Andy Weir instantly likeable. A writer I wanted to support. I bought the book and downloaded it to my Kindle, two years late to the party, but ready to go.

When I got to the end of chapter one I had my first big surprise moment. I thought, “I should tweet about this while I’m reading.” I was hooked. Hard. And I wanted to share my excitement. Why should that be a surprise? Most books I love have compelling first chapters, but I’ve never had the urge to want to tell anyone to READ THIS BOOK after a first chapter. As a writer, I was instantly aware that Weir had masterfully pulled off a feat with an extremely high degree of difficulty, a triple-cork 1440 of sorts. Eight pages. Action, character, setting and problem were all fully established in eight pages. Even though there is a good deal of techno-speak and mechanical jargon, it’s all accessible to a layperson, easily visualized, mostly because the protagonist, Mark Watney, narrates in a stunningly every-man voice. He’s a Mars astronaut for crying out loud, but his parts of the story feel a bit like having your next door neighbor tell you an amusing tale over beers across the fence. If your neighbor was an astronaut. And had been stranded on Mars.

After 7-ish pages of describing how he came to be in this predicament, and just what the predicament is, Watney wraps up Chapter One this way:

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah, I’m fucked.

So yeah, I was hooked.

We spend the first chunk of the book with Watney on Mars. He’s totally alone, unable to communicate with Earth, and by sticking only with that part of the tale, the reader feels the isolation, too. I remember at one point musing, “I wonder what NASA’s thinking” and I imagine Weir must have fought the urge to tell that side of the tale in parallel from the get-go. But to do so would have significantly deflated the tension. First we had to know that Watney wasn’t going to settle for being “fucked” and actually had the skills and moxie to do something about it.

This is one of Weir’s gifts. To convince the reader that one man, alone on a planet, can fight the slimmest of odds with a hammer and duct tape. And to make us believe every bit of it. This is a sign of a highly skilled story-teller, and they are the authors I want to spend my time reading. I’m not saying anything about The Martian is absurd—I don’t really know how duct tape works in the Martian atmosphere—but if it is absurd, it doesn’t matter, because I believe. Just like I believed that Claire walked between standing stones in 1945 Scotland and ended up in 1742 in Outlander. Just like I believed that an evil force was inhabiting a Native American burial ground in Pet Sematary.

And of course, Weir’s Mark Watney has more at his disposal than a hammer and duct tape. He’s got mad skillz, as the kids say. He was the mission’s engineer and he’s a trained botanist, which just so happen to be the skills most useful for an astronaut stranded on Mars. He’s a masterful problem solver and outside-the-box thinker. Just the kind of guy who becomes an astronaut. He’s special, and yet so very unpretentious.

The Watney sections of the book are presented as log entries, so while we’re in his head, they are meant for keeping track of his doings, for outside eyes to read later. Which, thankfully, means not a lot of navel-gazing. There are some angsty moments, especially when he’s missing human contact, and we get his victories large and small (with exclamation points!) and his annoyances (with snarky commentary), but the doses of “woe is me” are very small, making natural-optimist Mark all the easier to root for.

The secondary characters, are fun to hang around with, too, especially NASA director of Mars operations Venkat Kapoor. One part admin, one part techie, one part humanist, ultimately practical and always empathetic, he balances nicely with Watney, and the other NASA/JPL characters revolve around him like moons of various size and importance.

I happily raced through the book over the course of a long weekend, (taking breaks when the tension ratcheted a little too tight) and as I sat at LAX waiting for my flight home, the final “surprise” moment caught me. My eyes teared up and I hitched a breath. I looked up to see if any of the people across from me had funny looks on their faces, if they’d heard my little sob. I had to turn off my Kindle, and this time I did tweet. I’m in the midst of the last phase of Andy Weir’s The Martian and I keep having to stop. Tears/worry/terror. So good. So effing good!

The Martian is not hard-to-grasp sci-fi. Mostly it’s a story of survival, the ultimate Man vs. Nature tale with an intrepid, unflappable and funny protagonist. I believe most sci-fi writers would say the best of their stories center on characters, that the science enhances rather than demands to take center stage. That is certainly the case in The Martian. It is a story that readers of all genres can enjoy by the simple fact of it being a good tale well told. If, like me, you wouldn’t normally pick up a sci-fi novel, I encourage you to take a chance. Put yourself in Andy Weir’s capable hands and go for a ride.

In case you haven’t figured it out, Curious Puppy gives The Martian Four Paws Way Up.

 

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