“Y’all got cocaine eyes”

Blow

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$4.99 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Lead performance by Johnny Depp and Ted Demme’s direction

Cons: Penelope Cruz, basic story somewhat familiar.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

Consider this story: a young man comes from a modest background and aspires to make something of himself as most people do. His father tries to teach him about the value of hard work. But his advice goes unheeded. Instead the young man is attracted to the other side of the law. He soon becomes a focal point in his area of criminal expertise. But this will ultimately lead to his downfall.

That’s the story told in “Blow”, Ted Demme’s 2001 (final) film. It’s an entertaining story. But many experienced moviegoers will note the obvious similarities to works by cinematic masters like Scorsese (Goodfellas), De Palma (Scarface) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights).

Similarities to previous masterworks aside, “Blow” is a pretty good film in its own right for a couple reasons. One is superb direction by Demme, The other is a fantastic lead performance by Johnny Depp.

Blow tells the story of George Jung (Depp), who, as the film begins is a teenager living with his parents. His father (Ray Liotta) is a workingman while his mother is very materialistic. Jung sees his father do lots of backbreaking work for little money and does not want to follow in his footsteps. His father tries to tell him that “money doesn’t really matter”. Needless to say, his advice is unheeded.

In 1968, George is a young man who goes to California with his best friend. Out there he takes to lazing on the beach and soon meets some people who introduce him to a new lucrative world, the world of drug dealing.

First off George establishes himself as a mid-level pot dealer. He gets pretty successful at that until 1972 when he gets busted. He attempts to plead innocence with Bob Dylan lyrics and his claim that he “crossed an invisible line with a plant”. His plea fails and he is jailed. It’s in prison where he meets another inmate who introduces him to a more lucrative type of drug dealing, that of cocaine.

After getting out of prison, George attempts to establish himself as a cocaine dealer. And he becomes quite good at it. He has soon built up quite a “respectable” business. This business draws the attention of South American drug lord Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Escobar and Jung come up with a plan to import cocaine into the US. This is what would gain Jung his infamy, when he helps to establish the cocaine market in the US.

At the time of its release, Blow attracted quite a bit of controversy. Many people, especially those of the social conservative variety, claimed that it was too sympathetic in its portrayal of a drug dealer. I can’t really agree. It shows that Jung did do some bad things. But it never forgot that he was a human being. Plus, let’s not forget that many individual users choose to use the cocaine themselves.

Depp is superb. It’s easy to forget now after all the variations he’s played on Jack Sparrow for the past 12 year or so. But he’s truly an excellent character actor. He plays Jung as neither hero nor villain. But as man with both good and bad points.

Also great in the acting department are Liotta, Cliff Curtis as Pablo Escobar and Paul Reubens as a California drug dealer. However, the film’s weakest link in the acting department is Penelope Cruz. Cruz is pretty to look at. But her character here comes off as shallow and annoying. Maybe that’s how the character was in real life. But her constant screeching grated on my nerves after a while.

Also making the film a cut above is Demme’s direction. Demme, while clearly influenced by Scorsese, manages to make the film his own. He lets the tension in it unfold naturally and the atmosphere perfectly evokes the period it was set in. Also like the Italian American titan, his choice of music selections is well-done.

Blow, while not quite a full-fledged classic on the level of its cinematic forebears, is a well-done cinematic study of a complicated man.

Darkness Coming Down

Taxi Driver

 

$18.46 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s screenplay, the acting, the cinematography and atmosphere.

Cons: Will get under your skin big time.

(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

It’s a line. It’s one that you’ve doubtlessly heard many times. One that you’ve probably said many times. Sometime when you’re on the phone with a person and they say something and you’re not sure it was directed at you. So what do you say?

You talkin’ to me?

Of course 99% of people will know that line even if they haven’t seen Taxi Driver. That line has joined the likes of “Here’s Looking At You Kid” and “May the force be with you” in cinematic history.

As for the film itself: It would be an understatement to say that it holds up. It did not win any Oscars. Yet it still can be watched and admired (“enjoyed” might be too strong a word to use here) nowadays (I wonder how many people will watch and admire Titanic in 10 years).

Most people familiar with cinematic history will know the background on Taxi Driver. How Paul Schrader wrote the script while going through a time of personal torment living in Los Angeles. How Martin Scorsese ended up with the script after Brian De Palma turned it down. How Taxi Driver became his second collaboration with Robert De Niro after Mean Streets (the movie that put Scorsese on the cinematic map). How the MPAA threatened the film with an X rating for (surprise surprise in this paranoid of sex day and age) graphic violence. How Scorsese desaturated the colors in the scene the MPAA complained about and this made the film even more effective. How Taxi Driver went on to become something of a box office hit (albeit not quite a smash on the level of say Jaws) and a critical favorite. How it got overlooked at the Oscars in favor of a certain boxing movie not named Raging Bull. If not, then that last paragraph was the summary.

De Niro plays Travis Bickle, an insomniac Vietnam vet loner. It’s the insomnia that leads him to apply for a job driving cabs. When we first meet Travis we learn a few minor details about his life. He seems at first like many loners we’ve known, both in the movies and in real life. As the story progresses we see him gradually become unhinged. There have been numerous movies that show the lead character doing just that. Some have done quite well. But few have done it as well as Taxi Driver.

While on one of his runs, Travis sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign worker for Senator Palantine (a senator whose rhetoric mirrors that of then future would be aspirants to public office like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura). He starts becoming somewhat obsessed with her and starts putting the moves on. At first she rebuffs him. But after a little pushing agrees to accompany him to a movie. Unfortunately, Travis chooses a porno movie and this of course does not go over well. The next woman to figure prominently in Travis’s life is 13-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Travis simultaneously becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and taking out Senator Palantine.

Up until the late 1960s, early 1970s, movies had more or less clearly established their heroes and villains. Then with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde in 1968 things began to change. The antihero began to emerge.

Travis Bickle in a way is the perfect big screen antihero. He begins the film as a more or less ordinary guy and gradually goes insane (although the movie does subtly hint there may have been signs of that beforehand). What makes him go crazy? The movie shows how the crime and pollution he witnesses around him is a factor albeit not the sole reason. Part of it is also a desire to leave a mark of some kind on the world. In a way by looking at Travis Bickle we also get a look into the minds of real life disturbed lunatics like John Hinckley and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Scorsese’s direction helps keep the tension in the film at just the right level. He knows when to underplay it and when to let it boil over. This is an instinct that has served him well throughout his career.

The cinematography works well. New York city is portrayed as neither heaven nor hell. But as a sort of purgatory. We see the demons all around be they Keitel’s pimp or a psychotic passenger in Travis’s cab (played by Scorsese himself) who talks openly about brutally murdering his former wife. Scenes of driving through rain or seeing the high amount of trash resulting from a garbage strike that affected NY at the time this was filmed help us join in Travis’ descent into madness. Bernard Herman’s score is another of the elements that make this film so effective.

As far as the acting goes, what more needs to be said? De Niro has given many a great performance over the years and some of the weak jobs he has taken recently cannot erase that. This may be his definitive performance. He shows Travis evolve from paranoid loner to crazy man to would be assassin to wherever he may be after the credits roll. Jodi Foster is just as good as the should be innocent girl who’s got a certain sense of wisdom beyond her years. Keitel, Peter Boyle and Scorsese himself are good in their supporting roles. Shepherd is a little wooden here and there. But this does not damage the film at all.

Taxi Driver, in addition to being a landmark of the cinema of the 70s, also opened the door for many of the films that would come along later. Movies like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down and Neil Jordan’s The Brave One (also with Foster) owe a debt in both style and content to Scorsese’s masterpiece. So if you’re looking for a film with great acting, a compelling story and one that does not pull punches at all, then Taxi Driver is the film to see.

Devoted In Death by J.D. Robb – good old-fashioned investigation

Devoted In Death by J.D. Robb

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See it at Amazon 

(4.5/5)

Pros: solved with good old-fashioned investigative work

Cons: Eve is a bit annoying

Devoted In Death is a 2015 addition to J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Like all books in the series, we’re in the future (mid-2000’s) and watching N.Y. Homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas as she works with her team to solve murders.

In this book, we meet a couple of killers. Unlike most books in the series, we know exactly who the perps are, we’re introduced to them from the get-to. We know exactly what drove them to the path they’re on, what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. No mystery for us to solve – we just get to watch Eve follow the clues to catch up to us.

Letting us in on the mystery from the very beginning is a different technique. I would say that it worked, it was a refreshing change of pace. However, it comes with one drawback. We are completely privy to the thoughts and actions of the killers. And, in this case, their thoughts and actions are extremely evil. We’re talking a level of violence and depravity and disregard for human life that goes beyond the pale. It takes a lot, sometimes, to read of evil to this degree, and some readers will be put off, for sure.

That aside, if you can stand the violence, Devoted In Death is a very good book. We get very good investigative work. It was refreshing that Eve is helped by a small-town sheriff. And that the sheriff is not a caricature of “small-town folk” but an intelligent man whose help on the case proves invaluable.

I also liked that “the team” solved this difficult case using old-fashioned common sense, logic, and pavement-pounding. Despite the fact that it’s 2061, and there are new-fangled devices, nothing “magic” was used to solve this case. Eve worked it the same as she would in today’s world.

My only complaint is a minor one. Robb likes to infuse Eve with several flaws, and she plays them for comedic relief. In this book, Eve is constantly getting tripped up by time zones, and trying to figure out what time it is in another location, and getting upset when the answers aren’t “logical” to her way of thinking. Things like this are cute, but not when they’re overused. Sadly, by the fourth or fifth time, it was just tiresome. Still, this is a minor complaint.

In general, I enjoy the In Death series, and Devoted In Death is one of the better ones.

Other books in the In Death series

Betrayal In Death
Celebrity In Death
Ceremony In Death
Concealed In Death
Divided In Death
Festive In Death
Glory In Death
Haunted In Death
Immortal In Death
Indulgence In Death
Innocent In Death
Interlude In Death
Judgment In Death
Midnight In Death
Missing In Death
Naked In Death
Obsession In Death
Origin In Death
Rapture In Death
Reunion In Death
Salvation In Death
Strangers In Death
Survivor In Death
Treachery In Death
Vengeance In Death

Cry Wolf by Tami Hoag: some good, some bad

Cry Wolf by Tami Hoag

 

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See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5)

Pros: intriguing mystery held my interest

Cons: annoying characters who spoke a lot of French

Some very good stuff.  And some very annoying stuff.  That’s my quickie review of Tami Hoag’s Cry Wolf. 

 

 

Our heroine, Laurel, comes back home – to the French villages of Louisiana, after facing a humiliating failure in her professional career.   She just wants to reconnect with her family, and enjoy some relaxing time to herself.

 

But she does not get much of a chance to rest.  Young girls are turning up dead along the Bayou.  At the same time, Laurel finds herself involved with the local ‘bad boy’ – thinking she sees the good man underneath all the bluster.

 

But when you get involved with someone you barely know, bad things can happen.  Is it possible that Laurel’s new love is somehow involved with the girls’ murders?  Or is someone else setting up an elaborate ruse, one designed to bring harm not only to Laurel but to the rest of her family as well?

 

That’s the premise of Cry Wolf and I’ll admit, I was pretty well hooked.  I turned those pages mighty fast to find out what was really going on.  I liked Hoag’s style of bringing lots of possible suspects into the mix.  Each time I was pretty sure I had it figured out, she would add a new twist and send me soaring in another direction.

 

Overall, a fascinating “whodunit” that definitely held my interest.

 

However, the book is far from perfect.  It suffers from a couple of flaws.  The biggest is that the characters were very hard to care about, and very hard to take seriously.  Each is a one-dimensional caricature.  The good girl.  The bad girl.  The good guy.  The bad guy.  The close-minded one.  The evil one.  You see the point – each character had no more depth than my fingernail.

 

And then there was the French.  I’m Ok if an otherwise-English book adds a few foreign phrases here and there.  Especially if you can gather most of the meaning from the context.  But this book incorporates French into nearly every conversation.  And even though I could make out most of it, I found it distracting and, frankly, annoying.  Worst of all – it turns out there’s a glossary at the back of the book to help you out.  When did I discover this fact?  After I read the last page of the story, of course.  Had I known all along that the glossary was hiding back there I might have used it.  But I’m not in the habit of checking out the back pages of a book to see if there’s anything of interest!

 

So – pick up Cry Wolf if you like a good “whodunit” and don’t mind thin characters.  And, if you don’t speak French, at least you’ll have my tip – turn to the back of the book!

 

Also by Tami Hoag

Deeper Than The Dead
Secrets To The Grave
The 9th Girl

14th Deadly Sin by James Patterson – still holds my interest despite its flaws

14th Deadly Sin by James Patterson

 

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See it at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: decent stories, great character development

Cons: main investigation was a bit convoluted

#14 in the Women’s Murder Club series is called 14th Deadly Sin.  James Patterson and Maxine Paetro give us a few different stories as well as some developments is our characters’ lives.

 

 

For those who don’t know, the series is about four women who get together and help solves crimes in San Francisco.  Lindsay is the detective.  Claire is the medical examiner.  Cindy is the reporter.  And Yuki is with the DA’s office.  However, in this book, Yuki gets a new job, one that has her looking at things from a whole new perspective.  Cindy has just written a best-seller.  Claire has very little “screen time” but she does utter one sentence which turns a murder investigation on its head.  So she’s vital to the story, even though she’s barely seen.

 

 

As for Lindsay, she has her hands full.  She’s a mom and a wife, now.  And she’s still solving the department’s toughest cases.  In this book there have been a series of robberies, some of which have included fatalities.  In all cases, the perps are wearing SFPD jackets.  Are these cop-wannabes? Or is it possible that we’re looking at a group of rogue cops?  Worst, could some of the very cops that Lindsay works with every day – officers in whose hands her life sometimes rests – be playing both sides?

 

 

In usual fashion, the story is told from multiple viewpoints.  When it’s Lindsay’s turn, she speaks in first-person.  All of the other stories are told from a third person point of view.  It’s an odd style, but it’s how all the books in the series work.  And, we have Patterson’s trademark short chapters.  Just a couple of pages before we’re off to a different part of the story, and sometimes a different voice.  It can be a bit choppy, but I don’t really mind. 

 

 

The main story, about the robbers in cops’ jackets gets a bit convoluted.  And, if I’m being honest, it had so many characters that I had trouble keeping track of them all.  There’s also an extra little subplot that gets tossed in for no reason other than mucking up an already messy investigation. 

 

 

On the other hand, Yuki’s story was quite interesting.  She’s taken a new job, and her first case is a real doozy.   It was great watching Yuki set her goals and go after them without looking back.  Best of all is that she stands her ground in a tough situation and comes out with her head held high.  I like this confident Yuki!

 

 

Cindy is barely present in this one.  She’s doing great professionally and while she’s been “on-again” and “off-again” with Lindsay’s boss, in this story they get to take things to another level.

 

 

Overall, 14th Deadly Sin is a decent book in a series that always holds my attention.  I enjoy watching these women grow and work together.  And, the ending of 14 definitely makes me look forward to 15 !

 

2nd Chance
3rd Degree
4th Of July
The 5th Horseman
The 6th Target
7th Heaven
The 8th Confession
The 9th Judgment
10th Anniversary
11th Hour
12th of Never
Unlucky 13

Love does not conquer all in rural 1980s Kentucky in Fenton Johnson’s new novel

The Man Who Loved BirdsMan-Who-Loved-Birds-cover

See it at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: characterizaton, evocation of place

Cons: ending

Fenton Johnson is an award-winning Kentucky-born writer whose third novel, The Man Who Loves Bird, follows by 22 years his second, Scissors, Paper, Rock (1994) (which appeared three years after his first, Crossing the River). He writes lush prose, somteimes bordering on the overwritten. I was interested in and convinced by his portrayal of charismatic marijuana grower, Johnny Faye, an illiterate veteran of the Vietname misadventure and of two people who become very enamored of him, Cistercians (Trappist) monk Brother Flavian, who has become restive with his increasingly capitalist community, and. Dr. Meena Chatterjee, a Bengali woman whose residence in the US is dependent on service in an underserved area. Her office/residence is in what was a (gas) filling station in what is presumably Bardstown, in the Kentucky Knobs, near the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

Johnny Faye, the title character, is comfortable in his own skin and content despite being the target of ambitious local prosecutor Vetch (rhymes with retch) who has failed to secure a conviction from juries of Johnny Faye’s peers. Johnny Faye is more concerned that Officer Smith (the generic violent policeman with the bland family name) is going to kill or do permanent damage to his squirrely son, Matthew Mark.

Dr. Chaterjee (and Brother Flavian who is present and turns the boy over for the doctor) notices the welts on his back and knows that the vicious policeman also beats his wife. Her tentative status makes her afraid to buck local authorities, though she has a legal obligation to report the abuse. Johnny Faye urges her to protect the child, while dating Vetch and contemplating marrying her to cement her legal status. She is a more sympathetic character than I have made it sound, having fled the violence of Bangladesh’s formation, during which her parents were killed.

In that the novel is firmly based on a real case of licensed murder of a Kentucky marijuana grower, there is less suspense than there might be for a novel less tied to real events. The Reagan administration’s war on drugs, with a special focus on seizing the assets (land) of the Kentucky “cornbread mafia” is also firmly based on history, including the impunity of the side warring on drugs (the government). Other than what this reader knew before beginning reading the book, the endings are open (though one can easily plug in the later history of the “lawman” who got away with murder from the same historical records).

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(©2016, Stephen O, Murray)

At a San Francisco Books Inc. appearance, Johnson said that he conceived the novel in 1971, when he was a seventeen-year-old Kentuckian looking forward to going to Stanford. He also said that he drew on speeches by Reagan, Cheney, and W for Vetch’s speechifying. He wrote about the 1971 murder in a New Yorker article, spent time (and interviewed monks) in the Abbey of Gethsemani (a basis for his book Keeping the Faith [2004], which also included interviews with Buddhist monks)i, and spent six months in Kolkata (Calcutta) getting the feel for Bengali desperation.

(The University of Kentucky Press has reissued Johnson’s first two novels along with publishing The Man Who Loved Birds.)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Satire’s not dead. It just went home. To America that is.

America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide To Democracy Inaction

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$15.28 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Hilarious, offend-all satire that still holds up 12 years after publication.

Cons: Not designed to be read cover to cover so it doesn’t flow the way a traditional book does.

(Note: This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

There was a time when I was a regular viewer of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. In the early 2000s, before it became the cultural institution that it was until fairly recently, it was (along with The Onion) my one-stop shop for satire of current events and American politics. It worked especially well during an era of war, terrorism, idiots in charge, media talking heads focused on entertainment disguised as news, corporate cronyism and so on.

So when I heard in the early fall of 2004, that Jon Stewart and the cast and writers of the show would be releasing a book, I was excited. Having read Stewart’s 1999 collection of comic essays “Naked Pictures Of Famous People” I knew the man could write well and write funny. So I expected to see more of that hilarious Daily Show satire in book form. Upon buying America The Book, I was surprised to discover that in addition to skewering the news, it also skewers sacred cows throughout American history as well as the very concept of high school textbooks itself.

And I do literally mean high school textbooks. From the moment you open the cover of this 228 page tome, you will chuckle with amusement at the precise replication of one of those spaces for you to write your name and the condition of the book (Good fair poor bad) at the time you received it. But right below the conditions we see written: “We are fully aware that Dick Hertz, IP Freely and Haywood Jablome are not real people so please exclude them.” The book doesn’t stop lampooning textbooks there as it includes lots of charts, graphs, photo sections and end of chapter questions throughout.

This structural approach might be off-putting for some readers. It doesn’t quite flow the way a normal book does. But this wasn’t really designed to be read cover to cover.

It would’ve been easy to do a book full of cheap humor and cheap shots. Yet Stewart and his co- writers effectively alternate between biting satire and cheap comedy. For instance, in the president chapter, we see several charts ranking presidents according to various reasons such as fattest and best facial hair (the latter list includes Lincoln, James A Garfield and a Clinton with a beard Photoshopped on). Right below the facial hair chart is a commentary on “our worst president…Warren G Harding”. The blurb purports to go into the reasons why Harding sucked, before explaining that those reasons have been thoroughly documented in the annals of presidential history, thus making a good case for why reading history is important and providing plenty of laughs along the way. (For the record, the piece goes on to explain that Harding’s presidency sucked because it was a taint “the anatomical area between the anus and the testicles”.

A comment a friend made a couple days ago about how the rise of 24-hour news channels may have been the worst thing to ever happen to the American media inspire me to go back to the chapter on the media. The chapter opens with a picture of Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the movie “Network” and on the second one the opening of the chapter titled “The Media: Democracy’s Guardian Angel”. Turn the page and you are immediately confronted by a picture of various famous news people along with network logos and on the ensuing page, the REAL beginning of the chapter, which is actually titled “The Media: Democracy’s Valiant Vulgarians”. Later on in that chapter we see a flow chart shows the course of the American media from its founding to today. This chart shows how Time Magazine begat people which “turned the cause of investigative journalism into the search for the sexiest man alive”. The chart then shows that People begat Us Magazine, which answers any questions unanswered by People. Us begets Instyle which Begets Lucky “a magazine for retards about shopping”.

The prime problem with a lot of topical satire is that it has a sell-by date. Consider movies that specialize in it. There are a good many that do not last over the years (consider how totally out of date the 2006 movie American Dreamz, with it’s satiric shots at George W Bush and American idol, seems only ten years later). Only a select few, most notably Dr. Strangelove and Network, hold up just as well over the years.

Fortunately, America The Book still holds up. In fact, like the aforementioned Network, a lot fo it is even more relevant today in an era where reality TV culture dominates nearly every aspect of American life and a buffoon from one of those shows is the leading candidate for president. So this is one book that can still be read and enjoyed today. While The Daily Show itself may be a shadow of its former greatness, this books works alternately as a reminder of when it truly was the place to go to laugh at an increasingly ridiculous world and a good source of laughter in these harsh times.

Obsession In Death – J.D. Robb – not the best

Obsession In Death – J.D. Robb

 

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See it at Amazon 

(2.5/5)

Pros: character development

Cons: mystery a bit lame

Obsession in Death is the 40th book of the In Death series by J.D. Robb.  Like all of the books, we follow Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the NY Police force as she catches one case after another. 

By this point, it’s the early 2060’s, and Eve is looking forward to a little vacation.  Until a couple homicides occur with a very personal connection to Eve.  The killer has left Eve a note.  These kills are a favor to Eve – their purpose: to take out someone who has betrayed Eve (in the killer’s mind).  Yes, the killer considers it their mission to take out Eve’s enemies and to prove their undying love/respect/admiration for Eve.

In general, I enjoy the In Death series.  Normally the mysteries are pretty intriguing, and the futuristic setting allows us to read about some fun technology advances.  Further, the series includes a host of characters who have truly grown on me – and have grown, themselves, throughout the series.  Overall, the series is a real pleasure to read.

That said, Obsession in Death is not the best of the bunch.

Frankly, I was bored.  The mystery is a bit weak.  Even the “big reveal” at the end was more of a whimper than a bang.  And worst of all, it’s solved more through a giant coincidence than any real detecting.  Sure, the team does what it can to try to figure out “who done it” but it’s a chance encounter on a street that really turns the case.  I find this lazy and just dull.

There is one good part of the story, though.  At one point, it seems likely that the killer might turn her rage to one of Eve’s loved ones in order to garner more attention.  As Eve starts naming who might be endanger she is amazed at the sheer size of the list.  The Eve from 30 books ago would have had a much shorter list of those to whom she feels close.  But this Eve has quite a few people she genuinely cares about.  Even naming several people who only appeared in one previous book.  It was nice to have this “walk down memory lane” of Eve’s past cases, and to have Eve recognize just how many lives she’s touched in a positive way.

So, good job, on the character-development.  But the overall story was still a bit lame.  I don’t think anything will get me to abandon the series, but Obsession was just not the best.

 

Other books in the In Death series

Born In Death
Celebrity In Death
Ceremony In Death
Concealed In Death
Devoted In Death
Divided In Death
Festive In Death
Glory In Death
Haunted In Death
Immortal In Death
Indulgence In Death
Innocent In Death
Interlude In Death
Judgment In Death
Midnight In Death
Missing In Death
Naked In Death
Origin In Death
Rapture In Death
Reunion In Death
Salvation In Death
Strangers In Death
Survivor In Death
Treachery In Death
Vengeance In Death

Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Brecht’s Lover by Jaques-Pierre Amette

 

Die Archivbilder zeigen den deutschen Dramatiker Bertolt Brecht als 20jŠhrigen (l) im Jahr 1918 sowie eine undatierte Aufnahme des Dichters (r) aus spŠteren Jahren. Brecht wurde am 10. Februar 1898 in Augsburg geboren. FŸr seine ersten StŸcke "Trommeln in der Nacht" und "Baal", die beide 1922 zur ErstauffŸhrung kamen, wurde er mit dem Kleist-Preis ausgezeichnet. Die mit dem Komponisten Kurt Weill verfasste "Dreigroschenoper" wurde 1929 in Berlin mehr als 250mal aufgefŸhrt und machte ihn international bekannt. 1933 flŸchtete Brecht vor den Nationalsozialisten ins Ausland. 1949 RŸckkehr nach Ost-Berlin, wo er mit seiner Frau Helene Weigel das "Berliner Ensemble" grŸndete. Bertolt Brecht starb am 14. August 1956 in Berlin an den Folgen eines Herzinfarkts. dpa (zu dpa-Themenpaket "100 Jahre Brecht" vom 2.2.1998 - nur sw)

See British edition at Amazon 

(4.5/5)

Pros: atmosphere, characterization

Cons: no solution for the enigma of Brecht

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the forms for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

One of the two perfect and nearly unmatched metal masterpieces. 100%

From all the things I’ve learned in life so far, time is one of the ultimate tests in determining the lasting value of a piece of art or entertainment. Morbid Angel’s debut album “Altars of Madness” came out in 1989, and to this day, many death metal fans across the globe still consider this one of the greatest albums the death metal genre has to offer. The time not only relates to this album’s release, but the time relative to my own experiences have helped me conclude it’s essentially perfect.

As of writing this, it’s been nearly 11 years since I decided to become a proper metalhead, and this month marks 10 years since I bought and first listened to Morbid Angel’s “Altars of Madness.” I remember first getting this album vividly. I was a few months away from graduating high school, and especially relative to now, I was still pretty young as a metalhead. I popped this album in my car’s CD player on my way home from the local FYE and was floored by the sheer quality of songwriting, aggression, flashy musicianship, and sheer evil oozing from the music.

In that decade plus, I’ve digested tons of different metal albums from all the different niches under the heavy metal umbrella, and while there’s been a good amount that came close to matching this Tampa death metal classic, only one has matched this album in terms of quality (that honor belongs to the Nocturnus album “The Key”), and none have beaten it.

MUSICIANSHIP

If the musicianship on this album isn’t perfect, it’s as close as it’ll ever get. At the time this album came out, the death metal genre was gradually evolving into its own genre and not feeling as much like a more extreme offshoot of the thrash metal genre (examples of such “death thrash” albums being the likes of Kreator’s “Pleasure to Kill” and Sepultura’s “Morbid Visions”). “Altars of Madness” still displays some thrash influences, but also seamlessly fuses the blastbeat fury of the grindcore genre that was taking its own shape around the same time (best exemplified by albums like Napalm Death’s “Scum” and Unseen Terror’s “Human Error”). Combine the thrash influences with grindcore aggression and occult themes, out comes an album that obliterates anything in its path all the while displaying top-tier musicianship.

David Vincent handles the bass and vocal work on this album, and according to some sources, David had a cold at the time he was recording vocals for the album, and was forced to cranking out more raspy death metal vocals rather than lower-pitched growls. If that’s true, then I’m glad he was sick at the time because I can’t imagine this album being as awesome as it really is with different death growls. The raspy growls in this album perfectly match the tone of the guitars, as they enhance the nefarious atmosphere engrained in the instrumentation, and he’s largely intelligible in his vocal work. His bass lines aren’t as prominent in the album as they would be in an Atheist album (another band all death metal fans should check out), but they’re noticeable enough and they bolster the guitar riffs very well. However, listeners are treated to a neat bass solo at around the 2:04 mark of “Suffocation,” showing David’s skill on the instrument.

Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle are the two guitarists on this album, and both deliver top-notch riffs and guitar solos. Trey and Richard are talented in all the right ways; they can not only deliver mind-blowing guitar solos (particularly Trey), but they crank out catchy and fast, hard-hitting guitar riffs that’ll be stuck in your head for days. Their riffs are dynamic but at the same time, complement each other perfectly. Most of the songs have a perfect blend of slow and fast riffs (such as opening song “Immortal Rites”) while some others specialize in a narrower range of tempos (such as “Bleeding for the Devil” being an outright high-speed massacre and album closer “Evil Spells” being a mid-paced crusher). Both Trey and Richard dish out some of the coolest guitar solos you’ll hear in a metal album. Granted, they’re not quite as proficient shredders as Tony MacAlpine or Chuck Schuldiner, but they’re titan forces to be reckoned with in this department. Some of the best solos can be found in songs like “Chapel of Ghouls,” “Damnation,” “Visions from the Dark Side,” and “Suffocation,” but all of the songs on this album have excellent delivery on all aspects.

Pete Sandoval handles the drums on this album, and there’s a reason why so many metalheads consider him one of the best drummers in death metal; this man is a beast!! Pete delivers a nearly unparalleled massacre of the kit all the while not missing a single beat. Granted, many death metal bands nowadays have drummers that can outdo Pete in sheer technicality, but Pete is better because he actually has wits on how to make the songs good with his drumming. He’s fast and technical, but will vary the tempo and show some restraint in all the right places so that the listener can actually memorize and appreciate his excellent skills. All of the songs are excellent displays of Pete’s drumming skills, but I think his best work is on the song “Blasphemy.”

SONGS

Normally, I’d pick out the best songs here, but that’s an impossible task. All of the songs here are amazing from head to toe. All of the songs have their own nuances that make them killer in their own way, like the opening backwards riffing and chilling keyboards highlighting the breakdowns in “Immortal Rites,” the choppy, blasting fury and bass solo in “Suffocation,” the epic breakdowns in “Maze of Torment” and “Chapel of Ghouls” (with the latter being tastefully accentuated with keyboards), the occult ritual of the Ancient Ones in “Lord of All Fevers and Plagues” reengineered into a death metal format, the blastbeat-laden onslaughts of “Bleed for the Devil” and “Damnation,” the opening gunshots followed by a salvo of high-speed brutality in “Blasphemy,” and the blast of fury in the otherwise slower album closer “Evil Spells.” Name a song, and you’ll find plenty of awesome sonic elements to love in each and every one of them.

PRODUCTION

Tom Morris produced this album, and this was recorded at Morrisound Recording, which has become synonymous with the death metal rush of the late 80’s/early 90’s. The staff at Morrisound did an excellent job producing the album, as the instruments and vocals all come in clear. However, there’s a strong air of roughness that pervades the recording, all the while not making anything in the recording sound like crap. This greatly enhances the evil nature of the music and lyrics.

MISCELLANEOUS

As the icing on the cake, Dan Seagrave was contracted to make the cover art for the album. I’m glad it panned out that way because Dan’s extremely detailed painting of tormented, creepy, ghoulish faces perfectly matches the extremely aggressive and nefarious music contained in this album. Dan has cranked out many awesome album covers for the top-tier death metal bands back in the day, but this is one of his greatest works.

If you’re a fan of the horror anime Doomed Megalopolis, I would recommend listening to this album after watching that OVA series because the tone of the music perfect matches the tone of the anime.

FINAL WORD

I almost never give out 100% ratings, so this should give you an indication of how excellent this album is. If you’re a death metal fan or if you’re thinking of breaking into extreme music and haven’t gotten this album yet, GET IT NOW!! You won’t regret it at all.

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