Monthly Archives: April 2000

Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and other observations, Al Franken

Delacorte, 1996, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22330-X

It must be *so* easy to be an American political humorist. As a Canadian used to multiple political parties, a tradition of compromise and moderate politics across the board (with occasional curious results, like Conservatives selecting our first female prime minister and Liberals balancing the federal budget!), the American political landscape appears curiously simple, a matter of conservatives (“Republicans”), liberals (“Democrats”) and a gaggle of very small parties (“Weirdoes”).

On the other hand, this clear American right-versus-left dichotomy has allowed for a strong tradition of partisan political humor. It’s in this context that Al Franken steps in.

Al Who? You probably don’t recognize the name, but you may remember the character. Franken was a writer for Saturday Night Live, and incarnated -among others- the happy self-help guru Stuart Smiley, latter writing and starring in the so-so film STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY. It’s not really a surprise to find that the acerbic humor displayed in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot… and Other Observations is far removed from his goofy Smiley character.

Because, you see, Al Franken really does think that Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot. And he spends a suitable portion of the book proving it, with show excerpts, counter-arguments and an illustrated chart of Limbaugh’s weight. Sweet. Small wonder that there’s another book out there titled Al Franken Is a Buck-Toothed Moron, by Republican humorist J. P. Mauro.

Is it funny stuff? Absolutely. Remember that Al Franken was writing for Saturday Night Live well before it got boring. He unleashes the standard array of humor-writing tactics on Limbaugh and other assorted Conservatives, going from hyperbole to plain lies, strung along Franken’s testimonies of political events (which might of might not be true, but who am I to tell?) Suffice to say that unless you’re particularly sensitive about a particular person or issue, there’s bound to be worthwhile material in here. (And if you’re offended, well tough because this book has something in it to offend nearly everyone.) Don’t skim over the index.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that if the book is funny, then it’s inconsequential. Like all smart satirists, Franken means every word he writes. And, as the French-Canadian humor magazine “Croc” used to trumpet, it’s not because we laugh that it’s funny. Franken’s dissection of Limbaugh’s most ridiculous claims (Chapter 22: “The Regan Years: Rush Limbaugh is a big fat liar”) are worth a read, if only as an exceptional primer on how statistics can be twisted, resampled and plain hammered in order to support the arguments you’re making.

It doesn’t stop there: The chapters about Environmental Regulation, Tax, Health Care and Legal Reform are written in carefully modulated anger, barely covered by dripping sarcasm. It’s obvious that Franken didn’t conjure up these jokes out of spite and thin air; an extensive underlying research carefully supports each argument. It’s smart, and it smarts.

All in all, Rush Limbaugh is a Fat Idiot and Other Observations is a mordant, offensive, funny book about American politics. Sure, it occasionally isn’t very subtle. But it’s always clever, and that counts for something.

For Canadians, the carnival-like atmosphere of American political target-shooting is an added bonus.

The Uplift Storm Trilogy, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1995-1998, ??? pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Various

Brightness Reef: 1995, 659 pages
Infinity’s Shore: 1996, 644 pages
Heaven’s Reach: 1998, 557 pages

It’s easy to see why David Brin’s Uplift series has been met with such enthusiasm by science-fiction readers.

For one thing, it springs from a remarkably original premise. What if all sentient life in the universe (all hundreds, if not thousands of races) had to be deliberately engineered, “uplifted” from pre-sentient species? What if such sentient races had to serve their master race as clients to pay off the debt of sentience? What if this chain of uplift resulted in large clans and families of associated races? What if, in the middle of all this, humanity arrived on the scene with claims of self-evolved sentience and two client races -chimps and dolphins- of its own? The beauty of the Uplift series is in the framework suggested by these questions and their answers. The assumptions raised by Brin’s premise both pay homage to the traditional space opera clichés while bringing something new to them. In short, there’s been nothing else quite like it before, and that has a value of its own in SF.

The second selling strength of the Uplift series is Brin’s own writing style. He writes briskly, mixes decent science with great characters and rewards the reader by injecting a lot of fun in the proceedings. Brin’s own philosophy is enthusiastically optimistic. The Uplift series, like most of Brin’s stories, reflects this. His novels are fun, but certainly not mindless fun.

Many readers certainly like the result: All three first Uplift novels are still in print. The second book of the series, Startide Rising, won the 1984 Hugo and Nebula awards. The third volume, The Uplift War, “merely” brought home a Hugo.

To call these first three books a trilogy would be exact only in the most technical sense. The first novel, Sundiver, is more of a perfunctory prologue than a full part of the series. The Uplift War is considered by most to be merely a side-show to the events of the second volume. When you get down to it, when people talked about the Uplift universe, most were in fact referring to the events in that one book, Startide Rising.

But what grandiose events they were! In Startide Rising, the action took place on and around Kithrup, a forsaken toxic planet avoided by most Galactic Races. That is, until a human spaceship (The Streaker) crashlanded there after broadcasting the news of a stunning discovery. Before long, every galactic clans is fighting over the rights to take possession of the “wolfling” humans, and -most importantly-, the artifacts they discovered. Artifacts with the potential to unleash a religious war of multi-galactic proportions. In Startide Rising, we got to see the human members of Streaker struggle to get off-planet, avoiding the massive enemy fleets battling each other for the prize. But even though the novel ended on a triumphant note, many loose ends still dangled from Brin’s narrative, as well as tremendous potential for adventure. The Streaker was obviously still a long way from home.

And there matters remained for eleven years of “real time”, the delay between 1984’s Startide Rising and 1995’s Brightness Reef, the first volume of a “new Uplift Trilogy” slated to tie the loose ends raised in Startide Rising.

The publication of Brightness Reef was, at the time, hailed as a major event by publishing house Bantam Spectra (who was simultaneously pushing sequels to BLADE RUNNER and Hyperion) but resulted in a general feeling of disappointment by the general readership.

It’s not hard to see why. Brightness Reef begins on Jijo, one of the places farthest removed from the galactic mainstream affected by the events in Startide Rising. Jijo is, officially, a forbidden planet. Declared off-limits thousands of years ago by galactic authorities, it became a civilization-free zone where potentially-sentient species can evolve in form more suitable for uplift.

Unofficially, Jijo has a few extra features. A sudden astronomical event has made it so that no automated probe from the galactic authorities can survey the system, effectively leaving it unattended. As a result, six races have, at different times, illegally settled down on the planet to build colonies. As Brightness Reef begins, the five races still living together (including humans) have built a multi-racial community based on mutual exchanges.

But! Suddenly, at least three ships crash down on Jijo: A capsule carrying an amnesiac human, a ship containing a mysterious race that might or might not want to exterminate Jijoan society and yet another spaceship somewhere in the ocean…

Interesting setup, but it takes a heck of a long time for Brin to make anything with it. Almost five hundred pages, actually. Which practically means that most of the first volume is wasted in setup: All five alien races are introduced at once, with various degrees of success (Asx is fascinating, but Alvin is decidedly less so). There are no glossary, no dramatis personae to help out readers in Brightness Reef. (This presumably intentional flaw is corrected in the two latter volumes.) Things move at a snail’s place. Every characters seems to wait for something to happen.

This something happens at the end of Brightness Reef, as Jijoan society is attacked by its newest visitors, and the beginning of volume two, as the Streaker crew finally makes an apparition. Volume One can be discarded, because Infinity’s Shore neatly resumes the previous six hundred pages in its first forty.

Fortunately, Infinity’s Shore is more like the brisk Brin we’re used to. Things finally start moving, and before the ending is through, we’re once more where the Uplift series belongs: in space.

The third volume, Heaven’s Reach, is the Big One: Not only does it deliver everything we’ve been promised for the trilogy, but it also ties up the loose ends of Startide Rising in a very satisfying fashion. While the first two volumes are a bit skimpy on the gee-whizzness factor, Heaven’s Reach delivers in spades, carrying us through new places, new life-forms and, heck, new levels of understanding of the Uplift universe. Heaven’s Reach is the high-powered space opera that fans of the subgenre have been dreaming of, filled with exotic pan-galactic issues, fantastic space battles, superb nyah-nyah-nyah scenes and outrageous triumphs despite formidable odds.

It’s just a shame that we
have to be so patient and invest so much time in the first two volumes in order to get to this late embarrassment of riches. Even though one can appreciate what Brin was trying to do, structurally, with the series, it in no way excuses the bloated first volume and frustrating account of Streaker‘s path from Kithrup to Jijo. (Readers are justified in howling when they’ll find out that oodles of big-scale adventures are quickly flashbacked after practically a thousand pages of inconsequential Jijoan matters.)

But a great ending redeems almost anything, and that’s what happens with this new Uplift trilogy. Sure, the first tome’s a bore, but then again the third one’s a blast.

Almost unexpectedly, this trilogy delivers the goods and then some. Fans of Brin’s Uplift series, and of space opera in general, owe it to themselves to read at least the last two books of the trio.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, Dave Barry

Crown, 1996, 214 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-517-59575-3

Okay reader, let’s step in the time machine!

Sit down in the chair, grab the controls, reset the dial to a primitive, dark and dangerous time. Be bold and go back to 1995. It’s wasn’t an easy time in that savage land known as America. The O.J. Simpson trial was on everyone’s minds. Bad dance music ruled the airwaves. TIME magazine boosted public interest in the Internet tenfold by pointing out that it contained plenty of porn. And, on August 24, a beast known by the name “Windows 95” was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

Dave Barry was there, and a fat publishing contract allowed him to chronicle this turbulent period in Dave Barry in Cyberspace. With his sagacious talent for vulgarization, he gives us a brief history of computing, a primer on the inner workings of computer, a buyer’s guide, a quick trip to Comdex -the biggest computer trade show on Earth-, embarks upon the Internet -as primitive as it was way back then- and makes insightful predictions about the future of computing and how it will affect everyone’s lives in the long run.

Oh, who am I kidding? Dave Barry in Cyberspace is a book-long collection of humorist Dave Barry’s usual insanity, cleverly focused on computers to target the geek book-buying public. The result hasn’t aged very well, but still contains enough laughs to entertain.

Take, for instance, Barry’s history of computing. It goes from the stone age (who didn’t have numbers, which seriously screwed up their taxes) to the Greek (Pythagora discovered that tipping equals 15%), Stonehenge (which, seen from above, clearly forms an “Enter Password” dialog box), steam-powered computers (using fourteen-ton diskettes), early WW2 codebreaking computers (nothing funny here), primitive arcade game (“it was only a matter of time before the American public demanded -and got- Pac Man”), MS-DOS versus Mac (“serious computer geeks ignored Apple because they wanted a challenge”) and the then-current, wildly popular Win95. (“Microsoft’s getting orders from primitive tribes that don’t even have electricity.”) “How would our ancient ancestors react if we were to show them a modern computer?” asks Barry. “Probably they would beat it into submission with rocks. They were a lot smarter than we realize.”

And that’s just the first chapter —not including the introduction.

The wit and comic aptitude that propelled Barry in several hundred newspapers with his syndicated humor column is readily obvious here. Even if some Stylistic Quirks[TM] tend to repeat themselves, the overall effect is pretty funny.

But never forget that behind the silly jokes and elaborate punchlines lie several hard kernels of truth. The frustration of computer usage, the suspicion of Middle America at seeing their lives invaded by techno-speak, the sheer uselessness of most computing activities, the appeal of disembodied communication through safely anonymous channels —all of those are here, and chronicled in a fashion that will be of interest to far more than 21st century anthropologists.

Even better; Barry treats the subject with a kind of satiric reverence that allows his book to be funny both to the computerphobic and the super-guru. Like most great comics, Barry’s biggest asset is not only to know what he’s speaking of, but to look at it from a carefully-cultivated idiotic point of view that overlays a solid knowledge of what he’s satirizing.

Already, five long years after the release of the book, it has begun to lose its immediacy and to gain in historical value. Nostalgia is beginning to fill such terms as “Windows 3.1”. Dave Barry in Cyberspace is in serious danger of becoming a time capsule for latter times. And a darn funny one, at that.

The Galactic Center Series, Gregory Benford

Various, 1978-1995, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

In the Ocean of Night: Quantum, 1978, 295 pages
Across the Sea of Suns: Bantam, 1984, 352 pages
Great Sky River
: Bantam, 1987, 340 pages
Tides of Light
: Bantam, 1989, 362 pages
Furious Gulf
: Bantam, 1994, 341 pages
Sailing Bright Eternity
: Bantam, 1995, 445 pages

Faced with the prospect of a six-book SF series, any sane reader can reasonably ask whether the results will be worth the required time and money. After all, it’s not as if one frequently hear complaints about books that are too short or stories that are too exciting.

More serious doubts are raised while considering that the Galactic Center series was written between 1978 and 1995, a period during which SF changed considerably and readers’ expectation adjusted accordingly. Even worse, Gregory Benford never enjoyed a reputation as a very accessible author, with his graduate-level literary style presenting postgraduate physics. Would the series suffer from disillusions of literary grandeur, outdated SF assumptions, difficult science or terminal boredom? To put it succinctly, it the Galactic Center series worth it?

This reviewer, donning his “Consumer Report” costume, doesn’t think so, but doesn’t expect readers to be satisfied with such an curt answer. Let’s examine the series and find out what makes it tick incorrectly.

In the Ocean of Night is a fix-up novel of stories published during the seventies. It opens with one of the most commonplace scenarios in turn-of-century SF; astronauts deflecting an asteroid headed for Earth. Things get less conventional after the asteroid ultimately reveals to be of artificial origin. In the Ocean of Night quickly becomes a prime example of what everyone will recognize as “seventies SF”, filled with ecological hysteria, marriage-à-trois, undigested literary devices and half-hearted attempts to combine mysticism with hard science. As a basic read, it has lost considerable interest and almost all of its freshness. There are good bits here and there, mostly in the protagonist’s communication with the unknown, but otherwise it’s not a novel that will set your mind of fire. Oh, and there’s a sasquatch in there. Not that he ever reappears later in the series.

Across the Sea of Sun is a direct sequel to In the Ocean of Night, starring the same protagonist -Nigel Wamsley- in events happening shortly after the first novel. Even though some threads are comfortably forgotten (G’Bye, possessed Alexandria), there isn’t much of a transition between the first and second volumes. Across the Sea of Sun is simultaneously more entertaining and more annoying than its predecessor, an unfortunate mixture of unwieldy literary devices used too freely, and a few late-minute twists that really kick the story in high gear. It’s supposed to be a rather good hard-SFish tale of space exploration, but there is a lot of fat in these 352 pages and readers will have to be patient in order to get to the entertaining epilogue. The shape of the series’ theme is gradually revealed. Again, Benford shows signs of staying stuck in the seventies when his protagonist gets enmeshed in yet another marriage-à-trois, though this one ends up featuring a transsexual instead of a possessed automaton. Hey, whatever gets you off, Nigel.

The third volume, Great Sky River, is a major, major let down. It happens sometime, someplace with people who speak a barely understandable dialect of English. These people are nomads, forced to flee and fight against marauding robots in a world dominated by mechs. We’ve all seen MAD MAX (or TERMINATOR 2, or…) and the initial setup is familiar, if intensely boring. The storyline follows the usual post-apocalyptic template, with the expected inconsistent enemies and hoards of hidden techno-goodies. This should have been a zippy tome, but it gets bogged down in useless trivia once again. Furthermore, only attentive (or imaginative) readers will be able to connect any part of this novel with the previous two volumes of the series.

At least Tides of Light takes Great Sky River‘s protagonist, Killeen, off his hellhole of a planet, only to fall on yet another hellhole of a planet also dominated by mechs. The showcase scene of the book is a rather intriguing descent through a planet’s core, smothered with fascinating but lengthy details and -we guess- backed up by pages of intricate calculations. Alas, the rest of the novel drags on and on without the benefit of an interesting gimmick. There’s an interesting twist at the end, unfortunately diminished by its predictability. There are passages from an alien point of view; these can safely be skimmed. The novel ends as it began; aboard a spaceship heading somewhere, giving the impression that this book really wasn’t worth much.

With Furious Gulf, the series *finally* moves in some kind of gear, though some will argue that it’s in reverse. Killeen and crew finally arrive somewhere important, but the readers shouldn’t get overconfident, because what follows is more than a hundred pages of various tripping through alternate universes. It makes even less sense than you can imagine. All this traipsizing around only serves to annoy and infuriate the few remaining readers, who by that time (and some fifty-odd dollars poorer) would be justified in demanding a few answers. Fortunately, the plotlines of the first two books finally intersect with the rest of the series a few scant pages before the end of Furious Gulf, with a reunion that won’t truly surprise most readers.

If you’ve come this far, you might as well read the last volume. Fortunately, Sailing Bright Eternity provides some good hard answers early on, which takes off the unbearable tediousness of some three hundred more pages of seemingly aimless wanderings through time and space in alternate dimensions. While there are some arresting images in the process, there is also a whole lot of tediousness. Benford goes everywhere, but ends up nowhere, and after so much investments, one has cause to wonder if that type of stuff isn’t too late and far too inconsequential. There is a conclusion of sort, though nothing that will truly knock your socks off. If ever you want to read only the essentials, simply turn to the concluding Timeline, which succinctly resumes in 4 pages all the events of the series. It’s pretty much everything you need to know.

After this grand odyssey through more than two thousand pages, and the entirety of space, time and other universes, the final result is less than underwhelming. Benford seems to be writing in loops, most of them bringing us back to the very same point than twenty, fifty, three hundred pages previously. The effect is frustrating.

And yet, there is a lot of good stuff in the series. At first, it smoothly departs from “normality” in an interesting future (though the second/third book break destroys this comfort). At last, it presents a vast battle with new interesting opponents and imaginative skirmishes. But in the middle… the series has som
e serious structural problems. From totally unjustifiable breaks in action to lengthy over-padded segments to the maddening loops mentioned earlier, the Galactic Center series bring new meaning to the word “frustration”. The problems aren’t limited to the structure, as Benford’s writing also varies considerably in terms of clarity, going from intentionally opaque tripe to fast-moving thriller prose in a blink.

All of which could be forgivable, even quirky in a snappy three-hundred-pages book. But stretched out over six volumes… that’s overstaying its welcome. Just face it; for this amount of money you could buy six other books at random, and they’d end up, on average, being a far better buy than the Galactic Center series.

Designing Web Usability, Jacob Nielsen

New Riders, 1999, 432 pages, C$67.95 tpb, ISBN 1-562-05810-X

As someone who does web stuff for a living, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a book on the subject that will teach me new things. While there’s a huge demand for introductory material (HTML for Dummies, Introduction to Web Design, this sort of stuff), the market is far narrower for professional-level books and reference material.

Part of this scarcity can be explained by the twin factors of media and maturity. Obviously, the best place to find information about the web is on the web, not in bookstores. Only the web can cope with the lighting-fast pace of change that is the norm in Internet Time. Pro designers are advised to have a list of bookmarks, not a shelf of books. Furthermore, Web Design as a discipline is still in its infancy. Even the best professional shops are still, at some level, not completely sure of what they’re doing. (as a look through their own corporate web sites will quickly reveal) There are no “rules” anywhere, only guidelines. The formal literature is quasi non-existent.

In this context, Jacob Nielsen’s work (at http://www.useit.com/) is a breath of fresh air. He’s been in the usability business for more than ten years, and is constantly one of the most reasonable voices in the business. For Nielsen, Web Design is subvedient to one, and only one factor: What users want. You are not designing a brochure, you are not designing your CEO’s pet site; you are designing for your users. Only they matter. Only what they want, and how easily they find it, matters.

Elementary, you’ll say. And yet, in this crazy business where more tech is seen as a natural advancement, it’s curiously down-to-Earth advice. Designing Web Usability is a worthwhile book-length elaboration on this thesis.

For once, this is not a book for beginners or pointy-haired managers; Nielsen speaks the lingo and won’t make allowances for anyone who can’t follow. The baggage of knowledge assumed by the author is broad, but not too onerous; even budding webmasters will be able to make use of the book.

Ironically, there are maybe ten lines of HTML code, max, in the whole book: While intensely technical, this is a book that deals with more advanced concepts than simple coding, and who will probably age better because of it.

This being said, there are at least two weak points in Designing Web Usability. The first one isn’t Nielsen’s fault, given that it’s the occasionally-annoying page design, with its weird color and perplexing layouts. The other is a lack of a clear structure; while Nielsen’s intention seems to be to go from simple web page design to more overarching issues, this isn’t re-enforced in the writing. This lack of structure is also cause for some repetition late in the book.

Still, these two flaws are minor, and don’t really distract from the Nielsen’s main argument, which is minutely detailed with solid arguments and research. It’s one thing to present common-sense concepts, but it’s another to back them up with facts. This blend of entertaining writing, common-sense opinions (“Frames: Just say no”) and hard facts (Frames break information unity, aren’t indexed by search engines and are often inaccessible by the disabled) makes it easy to imagine a good future for Designing Web Usability as an essential read if not a classic in the field.

The book, in short, deserves to be read by anyone who’s seriously doing web design. Nielsen’s advice is sound and easy to apply. This is both a book you’ll read cover to cover, and you’ll refer to at appropriate times. Don’t be put off by the steep cover price; this is worth every penny you’ll spend on it.

In his introduction Nielsen promises that this is the first book of a series. Let him bring on the second one. And, for the sake of all web user’s sanity, let’s hope that his books find a wide readership: We could all use faster, simpler, smarter web sites.

(Pro web designers in love with frames, fancy graphical designs, big contracts with gullible clients and/or their own cleverness should steer clear of this book… they’ll feel naked after reading it.)

U-571 (2000)

(In theaters, April 2000) A fresh return to the rah-rah-rah school of war movies, a gleeful throwback to a time where cinematographic war wasn’t hell, and surely wasn’t complicated by abstract concepts of moral ambiguity. Here, our heroes are red-blooded Americans and our enemies are civilian-shooting evil Nazis. For once, no confusion and no dithering; just an old-fashioned wartime adventure that will glue you in your seat for a zippy 90 minutes. Director Jonathan Mostow delivers the goods and even though the script is strictly from the cookie-cutter school of screenwriting (the end is abrupt and every non-action scene should be subtitled Foreshadowing), it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be bored. Good special effects (except for the unfortunate end explosion) mesh with the convincing sets to create a good historical feel. This is everything you want in a good (not great) film: Heroes to cheer for, impossible odds, clear action and a thrilling victory. Be sure to buy a new sound system along with the DVD.

Timescape [Grand Tour: Disaster in Time] (1992)

(On TV, April 2000) This is a nice little under-rated (when was the last time you heard of it?) SF film that deftly adapts and expands a quasi-classic SF short story in a manner that is both reverential and worthwhile. Jeff Bridges is quite good as the protagonist, a hotel owner who discovers that his clients are even weirder than they seem. The special effects are a bit… er… primitive, but the strength of the story carries the film. An auspicious debut for David Twohy, who would go on to prove his dedication to the genre in at least two other interesting-but-flawed films (The Arrival and Pitch Black). Worth a rental if you’re an SF fan.

Jidu Zhongfan [The Suspect] (1998)

(On TV, April 2000) An assassin from the Hong Kong underground is released from prison after a twelve-year term for murder. As soon as he’s out, he is contacted for a political assassination. He refuses, only to find himself framed for the very same job he was asked to do. Now, he’s got to avoid the police, the mob and collaborate with a shadowy group that might or might not want him dead at the end. It’s unusual to see this willingness to talk about political issues in Hong Kong films, but unfortunately, The Suspect‘s “political insider” scenes sound naive and unconvincing. More interesting are the action segments, though pyro fans will be disappointed: Apart from two rather good set-pieces (including a big-budget sequence on a downtown bridge), the film is closer to “thriller” than to straight-out action film. Things pick up somewhat during the last thirty minutes, but not enough. Somewhat long.

Waan ying dak gung [Hot War] (1998)

(On TV, April 2000) This shows the gonzo attitude of Hong Kong cinema better than any textual description. While the beginning is conventional (terrorists kidnap government scientists, demand ransom), the rest of the film quickly becomes weird (protagonists undergo hypno-training to fight terrorists) and then some (one protagonist turns hyperviolent…) Mixing decent special effects with a few fun action scenes and decidedly unconventional dramatic twists, Hot War‘s dramatic arc is about as classically un-Hollywood as action Hong Kong films can be. Refreshing, if not totally successful from a technical point of view.

The Bear Went Up The Mountain, William Kotzwinkle

Morton, 1997, 320 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-5438-3

How’s this for a cute premise:

An English literature teacher isolates himself to write a novel. After he finishes the manuscript, it’s destroyed by a freak fire. Undaunted, the teacher writes another -much trashier- manuscript and leaves it under a tree for safekeeping. (Don’t ask why) Then, in another freak occurrence, a bear discovers the manuscript, reads it and finds out that there are a lot of sex scenes and that the fishing scenes are technically accurate (“This book has everything!” wonders the bear). Shortly after, the bear -now self-named Hal Jam- goes to New York and submits the manuscript to a major editor. Inevitably, perhaps, Hal becomes a literary success, goes on a book-promotion tour, thwarts a vice-presidential assassination attempt and generally becomes a superstar. Meanwhile, the poor English professor quietly goes bonkers.

A tall tale? A comic fantasy? Obviously, The Bear Went up the Mountain is an outright satire of the publishing industry, where the notion of a pure-and-true bear becoming a publishing superstar isn’t as much of a stretch as you’d expect. After all, few celebrities are so disconnected from the object of their fame than writers. No one seriously expect to have *proof* to connect Person to Book. Writers are almost expected to be eccentric. They don’t even have to be good conversationalists.

Plus, while the New York Publishing scene isn’t quite as insane as the Hollywood cinema crowd, it’s awfully close. In Kotwinkle’s novel, it’s difficult to be overly amused by the excesses of Hal Jam’s publishers / agents / so-called-friends because we expect them to happen, much like THIS IS SPINAL TAP isn’t so funny after fifteen more years of increasingly weird rock’n’roll acts. (Still, your reviewer chuckled when one character cockily declared something to the effect that “teachers are the most important part of the publishing scene, for without them there would be no readers.”)

The process leading to Hal Jam’s growing reputation is entertaining, as is the overall tone of the book. Seeing Hal Jam’s simple bearish though-process being confused for shyness, cleverness or ruggedness (Hemingway comes up frequently) isn’t exactly original -media idiocy is a big and obvious target-, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, it becomes obvious that Kotzwinkle’s initial concept can’t sustain a full-length novel. Hal’s amusing adventures are intercut with far less interesting scenes featuring the original novel’s author and while there is some funny stuff in there, it just can’t compete with the main plotline. Other vignettes, like Hal’s discovery of a musical gangsta group, also seemed tacked-on the main story without any discernible payoff. The narrative would have been far more adequately written as a novella, or even a short story, than a full novel.

To this padding problem, we can also add a badly-handled conclusion, which doesn’t quite match the tone and fun of the rest of the novel. Granted, some issues had to be settled, but unfortunately, the resolution chosen by Kotzwinkle robs the book of much impact. (The epilogue is amusing, though, and ties in nicely with one of Hal Jam’s book-long obsessions.)

Still, it’s all in good fun. The Bear Went up the Mountain isn’t a demanding read (it’s clearly written and set in large type) and as such -combined with the book’s other problems- should best be considered as an item to check out at the library, not really a potential purchase. That is, unless you’re a bear who wants to make it big in the publishing industry…

(Finally, a special mention should be made of Peter de Sève’s fantastic cover illustration, which perfectly captures the whimsical looniness of a grown Bear in busy New York.)

Frequency (2000)

(In theaters, April 2000) It so happens that Science-Fiction cinema is often best represented by modest low-key efforts rather than by big flashy blockbusters. Twelve Monkeys, 12:01 and Gattaca are three examples of SF films with minimal effects that nevertheless ranked as their respective year’s best SF films. Now Frequency joins their rank with distinction, popping up on SF fans’s radar screens with minimal fanfare but maximal effect. Time-travel tales are common, but they’re rarely as heartfelt as Frequency, which is -really- an ode to fatherhood disguised in SF trappings. A rather good script (despite more than a few causality problems) directed with tight efficiency supported by good acting; you can’t really go wrong with this film. Frequency works remarkably well and seems poised for a good enduring reputation.

The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000)

(In theaters, April 2000) As a childhood fan of The Flintstones (practically a French-Canadian institution), I was prepared to be very indulgent toward this rather unexpected sequel. And, really, the best I can say about the film is that it’s not bad. No one will ever mistake it for a good film, but it’s rather enjoyable if you don’t come in with high expectations. The set design really fits in the overall Flintstones atmosphere, and the actors mostly adapt to the characters (only Kristen Johnson’s Wilma doesn’t quite match, but that doesn’t really matter seeing how Mark Addy’s Fred and Jeanne Krakowski’s Betty really act like their cartoon counterparts.) The pacing of the film flags down noticeably in the second half and the film can never make up its own mind as to whether it’s supposed to be for adults or for kids, but it can be watched with some pleasure. Sometime, that’s all you want.

Fei hu xiong xin 2 zhi ao qi bi tian gao [Best Of The Best] (1996)

(On TV, April 2000) This “police school” story has numerous problems. One would be the relative lack of action. Two: the setup is implausible, given that you’d expect elite force recruits to be already at a high level of police skills, not the raw-recruit level we see in the film. Another problem is the clichéd episodic nature of the film, what with the usual bonding scenes occurring more or less in the order you’d expect. The ending is also problematic, with our protagonists putting down an insurrection of interned Vietnamese foreign nationals –any Hollywood film trying to do something similar would be crucified by interest groups. There are enough good scenes to warrant a look, but not much more.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

(In theaters, April 2000) Sit in your overpriced seats, my gullible friends! Watch in amazement as a plucky single mom takes on an evil money-grubbing corporate giant! Cheer as our spunky heroine sticks it to The Man! Laugh as she gets a two-million-dollar check for her efforts! Be entertained by this well-made, completely straightforward film by director Stephen Soderberg! Vote for Julia Roberts at next year’s Oscars ceremony! Do not ponder the repulsive subtext of the film! Do not question the film’s adherence to the “true story” of the events! Don’t be angered at the film’s gleeful representation of 40% lawyer fees! Don’t be annoyed at the glib glorification of the private arbitrage process! Above all, never pause to consider that this film shamelessly presents social justice as a form of lottery, where everyone who’s sick can be all right after winning a few million dollars! No, simply enjoy the film as it is, and conform to popular entertainment!

Wormwood, D.J. Levien

Miramax/Hyperion, 1999, 247 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-7868-6506-7

Hollywood has burned as many writers as it has attracted. Simply put, there is just too much money and too much fame in Hollywood for it to care about merit, intelligence or talent. The Dream Factory consumes more fantasies than it produces, and all too often, these crushed aspirations are those of the powerless writers. Fortunately, what doesn’t kill a writer only makes him a better one, so it’s not an uncommon sight to spot a “Hollywood revenge” novel in libraries. Witness Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty

The fact that the publishing world is a coast away, in Hollywood-jealous New York, must be of some help.

D.J. Levien is/was, by some measures, a Hollywood insider. He is the co-author of the film ROUNDERS (starring Ben Affleck) and has obviously spent some time in Tinseltown before sitting down to write Wormwood. The result, an uneven but suitably readable Hollywood revenge story, is ironically published by a Hyperion imprint bearing the name of a major Hollywood studio.

Wormwood tracks the career path of Nathan Pitch, a young man who comes to Hollywood with big dreams but no particular talent. In short order, he’s reduced to working as a mail-boy in a talent agency oddly similar to the world-renowned CAA (Creative Artist Agency). A short while after, he’s even lower down the scale, working for an marketing outfit that could have been named NRG but wasn’t. As if to illustrate the fickle nature of Hollywood (or is it bad plotting-by-coincidence?), a chance encounter sends him off upward again. It won’t last.

It’s quite obvious from the start that Wormwood will try to be funny but that it won’t succeed because it tries too hard to be a morality tale. The grander-than-life nature of the Hollywood elite and the psychologically desperate people serving it are naturally comedic drivers. But, aha, given that this is a Hollywood Revenge novel, it cannot be allowed for the flawed hero to succeed. The whole moral point of the story simply won’t allow it.

Granted, there are a few choice moments, such as when Nathan uses whatever clout he’s got to start a bidding frenzy over a highly literary book. It ends up with a very rich author and a studio that realizes that it just bought a property that can’t be adapted to the screen. (Wormwood makes it clear that Hollywood People who pay aren’t the people who read; a strongly-worded reading report becomes holy writ as no one will bother to read the source material.) Other good vignettes take place when Nathan fires off anonymous memos or joke-scripts and sits back as the intra-office Gestapo vows to find their authors. But these are only small moments of mirth against the inevitable downfall of Nathan Lane. Rule number one of morality tales; you can only deserve redemption by walking away from corruption.

There is one big insight in Wormwood, and it is in how it describes Hollywood as some kind of gigantic feeding frenzy, where everyone wants to be in the inner circle, but where the number of applicants is so huge that those in the inside can practically do anything, install any hoop, indulge in whatever quirk they wish. Furthermore, there is no real inner circle: the competition is so ferocious, the supply of applicants sufficiently large that anyone bucking the system can be immediately replaced by someone who will abide.

Heady stuff from a novel, but to its credit, Wormwood manages to give out just the right air of desperation that fittingly describes what one would credibly imagine the real Hollywood to be. Does it correspond to reality? Who really cares?

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel isn’t as enlightening. The gradual self-destruction of Nathan Pitch is obviously inevitable in the context of this morality tale, but no less maddening to watch. Few surprises are in store once we realize the nature of the text. Other, better books of the genre exist, but Wormwood will do the trick if ever there isn’t anything more enticing at the local library.