Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There were parts of book three that dragged a little, several hundred pages of characters wondering around in Westeros with not much development. But the last few hundred pages were better as the action heated up. There are several surprises in the characters and plot that are seemingly par for the course for Martin. I was disappointed in the way one character met his end (anti-climatic) and sad to see a few other characters get killed off. I am warming on a few others that I didn't like previously.

The trend has been that characters with the most integrity are killed off, while the vile, treacherous ones live on. That changes a bit (only a bit) here, but it does worry me about the long term plot direction. I am interested and engaged enough to want to see how some of the remaining "good" eyes end up (as well as the bad guys get their comeuppance --- like Aryn I have a list!)

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel: Heroic Individualism (Spoilers)


I thoroughly enjoyed the new Superman film. It’s exciting, thrilling, beautiful, funny, and even at times sweet. The special effects were amazing. The fight scenes were out of this world.

The way they told the story was clever and creative. The Superman origin story is well-known and familiar. This film doesn’t deviate from the story we all know: Superman is sent from Krypton by his scientist parents to save him from the imploding planet. But the details and the how are told in a way to make it refreshing rather than a rehashing. Krypton itself is a fascinating and intriguing world. The hints, bits, and pieces provided about its history, culture, and people help provide greater context to the plot. (Caveat: for fans of the graphic novels, these may not be new at all, but I have not followed the graphic novels so it was all new to me.)

This is more than just another superhero story: the good guy fights the bad guys. What this movie does is show us why these are the good guys and bad guys: each side is motivated and guided by contrasting moral principles.

General Zod is not some psychotic maniac whose motivates are beyond comprehension nor is he just a megalomaniac setting out to rule the world (followed by evil laugh). He is driven by (what he sees as) the greater good of Krypton and its race of people. He is doing what he is doing as a way to preserve his race. Individuals are mere means to ends to the greater good of Krypton. There is little to suggest this is mere cynical cover for just wanting to rule. He is dedicated to the truth and importance of what he is doing. He is a committed collectivist.

This is in stark contrast with Jor-El. He and Lara conceived Superman (Kal-El) and sent him to Earth. Superman is sent to earth to save him and by extension continue Krypton, but it also so that Kal-El can choose his own path in life. Every aspect of life is controlled on Krypton. Reminiscent of Brave New World, each person is artificially conceived and genetically modified to be ideal for a specific role and station in life. There is no individual choice or self-direction. Jor-El and Lara see this as part of the demise of Krypton and seek a new way for their child. Superman is naturally conceived and birthed so that he may choose the man he will become and not have it decided for him.

The adult Superman we see is similarly guided by individualism. At the end of the movie, he tells the US general that he (Superman) is here to help when needed, but it will be on his own terms. He will not be dictated to and will not (indeed, cannot) be controlled by others.

Lois Lane is also, fittingly, her own individual. She is strong-willed, courageous, and ambitious. When her editor tells her to drop the story of an alien amongst us, she continues to investigate. When he refuses to run her story, she finds a way to get it out into the public anyway. When faced with danger, she responds bravely and competently. No damsel in distress is she.

What makes this movie so great is not just the exciting action or amazing special effects; it is the clear theme of individualism versus collectivism. The message is clear: the root of greatness and civilization is the free individual and each individual ought to be free to direct his or her life in peaceful ways.

A few random thoughts:
  • I liked that there wasn’t a Lex Luther character to complicate the plot, but that there was LexCorp stuff in the background. I am sure we will meet Lex in the sequel.
  • The “liquid steel” computer displays on Krypton were very cool. They also allude to the idea of Superman being the Man of Steel.
  • The fight scenes were a bit overdone. Lots of flying threw buildings that were probably unnecessary. Still, they were visually stimulating and provide that comic-book feel.
  • There is a brief scene were a young Clark Kent is reading Plato’s Republic. Yay Philosophy! (though Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics would have been a better choice.)
  • I liked the use of flashback to tell the story of Clark. This way the backstory gets told, but isn’t rushed through so we can get to the current action.
  • One of the things I disliked about the 2006 movie was the Christ imagery they used to depict Superman. The new movie does not engage in this except in one instance where Superman is briefly in a cross stance. No offense to Christians, but Superman is not a Christ figure. He might be a god-like figure here to help save us from evil, but he is not here to be sacrificed and die for our sins (the latter I take to being essential to being a Christ figure). Also, Superman was created by two Jewish guys. If anything, Superman is more of a Golem figure than a Christ figure. (A golem was a mystical Jewish super-strong creature created to defend the Jewish community from attack and injustice.)
Update 6/20: I forgot to mention this additional thought about the movie.
  • The 2006 movie shied away from the American connection to Superman with its infamous: "Truth, Justice, and all that" line. The new movie is not jingoistic, but it doesn't disconnect Superman from his American ideals. This Superman is proud of being an American: he tells the general, who's concerned that Superman would act against America, that "I'm from Kansas. It's about as American as it gets." Superman creators Schuster and Siegel created Superman as an American icon, as a hero to represent the ideals of "truth, justice, and the American way". They were children of Jewish immigrants assimilating and celebrating the principles of America: individual freedom and liberty, fighting tyranny, and a commitment to justice. The new movie stays true to Superman's roots by celebrating Superman's American-ness rather than, out of some PC concern or, worse, a rejection of these ideals, hiding this. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: The Confessor

The Confessor
The Confessor by Daniel Silva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exciting, intriguing thriller focused on the Vatican and the Shoah. I like Allon as spy thriller hero. The use of art restoration as a metaphor for Allon adds an element not often seen in spy thrillers. The self-reflection about his past and the way it affects him also adds an interesting element. This particular story was well-crafted and exciting with several twists. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I will say the ending (epilogue really) could have been its own book; Silva didn't need to tie up that end.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport

Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport
Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport by Heather Lynne Reid

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reid’s text does exactly what the title says: introduces the philosophy of sport. She covers the main stays of the discipline: the leading thinkers, the primary themes, and the central arguments. It does not go into great detail in any of these; the goal seems more to lay out the main elements and leave readers with enough context and direction to pursue particular issues on their own.

I have my quibbles with particular arguments: both in terms of presentation and content. Nonetheless, I think Reid presents and sticks to the standard main line of philosophy of sport. I think it could serve quite well as the primary text for an introductory level philosophy of sport class.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Review: Robert B. Parker's Wonderland

Robert B. Parker's Wonderland
Robert B. Parker's Wonderland by Ace Atkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like what Ace Atkins is doing. He is staying true to the characters, the style, and the overall feel of the Spenser series, but he is also nudging the series forward. I was curious what Parker would have done with Z when he introduced the character. But, since Z was left under-developed and without a history, Atkins can and is using him to explore the Spenser-verse in a new ways. Most significantly for the series going forward are the developments with Vinnie and Gino Fish.

As I said in my first Atkins review, this is Spenser and his world, but is also not Parker. That is a neat trick and real testament to Atkins ability. He has managed to continue Spenser without merely engaging in mimicry. Atkins is not quite as witty as Parker was, but Atkins brings a richer level of description. It may just be that I had grown so comfortable and familiar with Parker’s plots, but I am less sure (in a good way) about where the story is going to go with Atkins.

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Review: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A worthy follow-up volume to the first book. Just as cruel and dark, yet a few more glimmers of hope here. The GOT world is not a happy one; it is treachery on top of spite on top of barbarism. It is ruled by men and women who are either petty or evil, and often both. But what draws me into these stories is the small embers of integrity, honor, and goodness that poke through this darkness. There is great action, wonderful world-building and myth-making, and gripping suspense; GRRM is a master story teller. But I am not sticking around for that alone. The strength of character by those worthy of admiration (few indeed) is what ultimately, I think, holds these books together.

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