Personal Areas:


This is my main personal homepage which I update weekly. I've got links to all my various websites via the popup menus above. I keep a month's worth of news here before I move it to the Past News page.

Wondering why my "news" is all books I've read and movies I've seen?

Back in college I was given an assignment to write a mini-biography. Rather than do the traditional, I wrote mine as a chronological list of the influential books in my life, explaining what they meant to me (both at the time and later). This turned out even better than I expected -- the saying "you are what you eat" really ought to be "you are what you read" (or watch, in the case of movies).

Since I'm trying to do more reading and serious movie-watching and I've been wanting something with which to update my personal site regularly (instead of once a year, the way I usually do), a reading/movie list seemed ideal. It will motivate me to keep up with my reading, and this log will be a great way to record my thoughts and impressions. I want it for myself (I read and watch so much it's good to keep track of it), and it might prove interesting to readers who'd like to know more about me. I have an eclectic mind and broad tastes, so be forewarned that there's little logic in my selections. I read (and watch) just about anything, as the mood hits me.

Hope you like this. Feel free to any time!

Click on any book or movie title to order your own copy from

Recent Happenings

November 6, 1999

Movie: El Mariachi (1992)
Writer/Director: Robert Rodriguez

The DVD of this movie is totally cool -- it's a dual-edition, with Rodriguez's Desperado on the second side. El Mariachi is essentially Rodriguez's first film. It's in Spanish, and amazingly, he filmed it for a paltry $7,000! This is for an action movie, folks! (The sequel, Desperado, cost $7 million!) The DVD has Rodriguez's audio commentary and it's terrific if you're into learning about movie-making. Tons of explanation and hints and tips on making a movie cheaply. (There's even a separate "10-Minute Film School" video on the DVD.) The commentary begins right at the Columbia Pictures logo, with Rodriguez, with biting wit saying, "This logo probably cost more than my whole movie!" As to the movie itself, it's not perfect. There are dozens of little flaws, gaffs, and glitches (I think they're cool). Rodriguez was fully aware of this, a side-effect of the non-existent budget (of the seven grand, he says only six hundred dollars actually shows up on the screen -- the rest was used to buy and develop the film). He originally intended to sell the movie to the Spanish language direct-to-video market and basically just hoped to recoup his costs. He was just practicing. Unfortunately, his movie went on to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival and the movie was picked up for wide release by Columbia, so now the whole world gets to see this marvelous film. It's worth it, too. To compensate for any flaws, Rodriguez edited the movie a frantic pace. There's cut-cut-cut, zooms, slow- and fast-motion, and the whole movie has an incredible feeling of action though there's not a single stuntman, crew, or explosion! A lot of this had to do with budget: for instance, Rodriguez couldn't afford Hollywood prop guns, so he borrowed some real machine guns from the local cops (the movie was film in Mexico). Real guns aren't designed for blanks, so they jam after one round. This meant no continuing shooting was possible. So Rodriguez would film the shot from multiple angles and zooms and then edit it all together to make it seem like continue action. Turns out the choppy effect is far more dramatic than a guy standing there firing for ten seconds. Basically this movie doesn't seem low-budget from watching it. It's a great action movie. The plot's cool: a mariachi (guitar player) is mistaken for a killer who carries his guns in a guitar case. The mariachi is chased and "accidentally" kills many of the bad guys (like the way Inspect Clousou always does things). It's funny, exciting, and if you weren't told how little it cost, you'd never know. You won't mistake it for a multi-million dollar blockbuster, but it looks better than 90% of the crap that's shown on cable TV. If you check this out, I highly recommend the DVD version. Besides the invaluable commentary, there's Rodriguez's neato movie short, "Bedhead." It apparently won awards and was aired on PBS. It's the tale of a little girl being tormented by her bratty brother and what she does for revenge. Hilarious! If you're a Rodriguez fan, you can also check out his ultra-violent From Dusk Till Dawn.

November 5, 1999

Movie: The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Screenwriters: Josef Rusnak & Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez
Based on the book Simulacron 3 by Daniel Galouye
Director: Josef Rusnak

This was a cool movie. I was hesitant, as the previews I saw last spring didn't explain much, and the critics didn't like it (I don't know why). I thought it was great. The liner describes the movie as a "sci-fi film noir" which is exactly what this is -- it's more of a murder mystery than science fiction, though of course, there are science fiction elements within it. The basic plot is that a scientist has created an artificial world within a computer -- a simulation of 1937 (his childhood). When the inventor's murdered, his assistant is suspect, and he's forced to journey to 1937 to try and clear himself. What he discovers blows his mind -- and possibly yours. The ending's a bit predictable -- but the lush photography, elaborate sets, and fascinating dual characters (all the actors play dual roles, one in modern day, one in 1937) make it so you don't care. The movie starts off a bit slow and you're not sure where it's going, but all in all, I liked this much better than The Matrix. It's also simular to Dark City (which is visually interesting and has more special effects but I didn't like quite as much as this). The DVD's got a director's commentary (which I haven't listened to yet) so it's got added value (I hate DVDs that just give you the movie and nothing else).

November 2, 1999

Book: Unnatural Causes (1967)
Author: P.D. James

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Supposedly, mystery fans the world over love P.D. James' mysteries, but if this is characteristic of them, I'm definitely the opposite of a fan. If anything, James has a gift for making an exciting subject like murder boring. The book is tedious, glacier-paced, and as each character is introduced, we're given several pages of meaningless background material. The mystery itself is basically a "Who cares." The plot has a mystery writer discovered dead, floating in a dinghy, his hands chopped off at the wrist -- exactly like the opening scene of the novel he's writing. James seems to think this is a stunning opening, innovative as all get out -- I found it boring and pointless. I didn't like any of her characters, and thus didn't care one way or another what happened in the book. The murder mystery itself (i.e. the plot), wasn't bad, but I was so disinterested it's hard to judge. James is a good writer. Her style and diction is concise and elegant, remarkable in some ways, but there's something about her style that turns me off. It reminds me a lot of John LeCarre, who I can't read to save my life. Two paragraphs and I'm zoning, my mind drifting off. Nothing captures my interest for some reason. Strange and sad, but I've learned to accept it. I've stopped even trying to read LeCarre, and while I might give James another chance in the future, she's heading for that same inglorious position in my library. I liked her Children of Men and I'd had great hopes for one of her mysteries, but this one really let me down.

October 31, 1999

Book: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
Author: J.K. Rowling

Almost as soon as I finished the first one, I started on the second. It's just about as good, picking up right where the previous book left off, and continuing to delight and inspire. Harry's a terrific hero: modest, imperfect, and with a heart of gold. He always wins, but not without help from his friends, and not by how you'd expect. Yet he's perfectly believable as the hero. Too many stories create larger-than-life heroes that are just ridiculous, while others take a nobody and suddenly have them doing noble and heroic things that just don't fit their mediocre character. Harry's wonderful! Makes me wish I had children to read the books to!

October 30, 1999

Book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997)
Author: J.K. Rowling

I first heard of Harry Potter on a TV news report describing the British phenomenon -- kids lined up for blocks at bookstores in malls waiting for the next book in the series! My mother, as a teacher, had to find out what Potter was all about, and so this weekend when I visited, I read her copy (I started at 10 p.m. Friday and finished it before noon on Saturday). First, just forget the controversy that the Potter books are light or weird or demonic or whatever. This book is a delightful fantasy. Though geared toward children, it's very well written and surprisingly literate (and long at over 300 pages). It's witty and the silly adventures of the kid heroes are wonderful. I loved the charming characters and the plot was surprisingly complex -- about one hundred times more intelligent than a typical children's book (like a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery). There are clever twists and nothing's quite as simple as you assumed. This book is good enough I wouldn't mind reading it again the second I finished it (instead I rushed out and bought the sequels). If you like humor, fun, and adventure, you'll like this book. While it's not metaphorical like C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, it's a good versus evil story using magic as the medium. If this is what it takes to get children today to read, I vote for hundreds of sequels!

October 27, 1999

Book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (19??)
Author: Agatha Christie

It's been a long time since I've read this book, or any Agatha Christie for that matter. I forgot how literary she was -- with mysteries one thinks primarily of plot, but this is a well written book. Compared to many Poirot novels this isn't my favorite, but you keep reading to find out what and how Poirot solves the murder. Christie's spoiled me for other mystery writers -- I have yet to find any that even vaguely come close to her deft touch. She's the best! There are a number of Christie books I bought but haven't read; I really must dig them up and get reading. I love her mysteries, especially Poirot stories.

October 24, 1999

Movie: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Writers & Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

If you haven't heard of Blair Witch, you must be living under a rock. This movie has turned Hollywood on its ear. An extremely low budget ($22,000) independent movie, it's made over $100 million! Released in theatres in July, it's now out on video. I got my copy on DVD and was very impressed. First, it's not scary at all. But it is authentic. It's presented as the video diary of a group of film-makers who go off to film a documentary on the Blair Witch and never come back. The "scary" stuff is nothing more than strange sounds and mysterious piles of rocks and sticks that appear during the night. There's no blood, no "fake scares" that populate so many of today's movies (where the killer turns out to be a neighbor visiting or a cat looking for food). It's just a simple tale of a group of frightened, nervous college students going insane. The script is remarkable -- I couldn't detect a flaw in it, which is good, because this kind of "real video" would suffer tremendously if there's any flaw in acting or dialog. Apparently a great deal of the movie was improvised, which explains why it feels so authentic. (My hairdresser complained that she thought it realistic until she noticed the girl's hair, after a week in the woods, still looked groomed.) To summarize: not a great film, but a good one. Don't expect too much or you'll be disappointed. But it's a remarkable achievement in this day where a typical Hollywood movie costs $30-$50 million!

October 23, 1999

Book: Red Dragon (1981)
Author: Thomas Harris

As Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies, and this summer I enjoyed the thrillride of Harris' diabolical Hannibal, I figured it was a good time to read the novel that introduced the character of Hannibal Lector to the world. I purposely didn't expect much; after all, Lector's barely in the book, and Harris's masterwork was Silence, right? Wrong. Though I've only seen Silence as a film, Red Dragon is far superior. Silence was about the hunt for a serial killer, with mind games from Lector thrown in to mystify and amuse. We only get glimpses into psyches. Hannibal is the same, as it exposes more of Lector's past. But Lector's not your average serial killer; he's an extraordinary being. Despite what he does, it's hard to not like Lector. Dragon is also about the hunt for a serial killer, but it allows us to see into his mind. It's amazing. First you're presented with his awful crimes, then, when you begin to understand him, you feel sympathy for him! And he's not as sympathetic a character as Lector by any means. Obviously much of the psychology is simplistic and pat; but that's why we read novels and watch movies, because they're easier to understand than real life. I enjoyed this remarkable book very much. Like Silence its subject isn't pleasant, but it's presented in such a clinical fashion it isn't sensationalized.

October 21, 1999

Book: The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell (1996)
Author: Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series has been a favorite of mine for decades, but his last few disappointed, and Hell, unfortunately, falls into the same category. In the original series, Jim DiGriz is a crook -- a rat -- but when Harrison turned DiGriz into a cop, married him, and threw a couple kids into the picture, the series went downhill. There's still some of the Rat's classic humor in this book, but too little, and the inane plot that just goes around in circles doesn't help matters. I had great hope upon reading this line on the opening page: "My morale plummeted as the name slithered across my eardrums. Of all the beautiful bores on Lussuoso, Rowena was possibly the most beautiful -- and certainly the most boring. I had to flee -- or commit suicide -- before she came in." That's classic Jim DiGriz -- unfortunately, he rarely appeared in the balance of the book. I usually read a SSR book in a couple hours -- this one required work.

October 18, 1999

Book: Tom Brown's School Days (1857)
Author: Thomas Hughes

This book has two technical problems: one, it's old, and two, it's not written in English. Or rather, it's written in English and not American. It's an interesting read simply because English school life 150 years ago is so different from life today, but it's not an easy read. There was much I found incomprehensible. (For instance, what does being "floored" mean? It's apparently something bad, perhaps a punishment, but I have no idea what. There's lots of similar jargon that makes some scenes complete mysteries.) The book is written with exquisite detail, which, while it's good and often important, makes for slow reading. For example, despite the title, it takes a few chapters before Tom even goes to school. I liked the story, however: it's basically the characterization of Tom Brown and his growth and progress into a young man. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call this a classic, but it's interesting and I'm glad I read it.

October 16, 1999

Movie: Double Jeopardy (1999)
Writers: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook
Director: Bruce Beresford

I'd seen a little about this, but while the concept intrigued me -- a husband frames his wife for his murder and when she's released double jeopardy means she can't be tried for killing him a "second" time -- and I've been a huge Ashely Judd fan since Ruby in Paradise, I was prepared for a typical Hollywood generic thriller. This one was definitely above average. Judd's awesome in the lead role (which is good, as she's in nearly every scene), and her relationship with parole officer Tommy Lee Jones is terrific. There's some great action, some nice emotion, a few genuine scares. "Concept" movies like these are easy to do badly; this one is very well done, and while it doesn't move much beyond the plot, it's an enjoyable ride (and we get to watch Ashley Judd the whole time).

October 16, 1999

Book: Stardust (1999)
Writer: Neil Gaiman

To demonstrate how good this book is, I'll say this: I read it (238 pages) in one sitting (I started it this morning and finished it this afternoon). If there's such a thing as an instant classic, this is it. Gaiman -- most famous for his incredible Sandman graphic novels, is an amazing myth-making genius. This book is up there with Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The tale is simple and pure and beautiful: a boy sets out to retrieve a fallen star to impress his girlfriend. The journey is magical and delightful and the fairie world Gaiman takes us to is believable (and reminiscent of the fantasy of George MacDonald). Gaiman's use of wit, language, and incredible imagination makes this book a delight. For instance, one of the characters is enslaved by a witch. Asked if she's a prisoner forever, she replies, "Not forever. I gain my freedom on the day the moon loses her daughter, if that occurs in a week when two Mondays come together." Hilarious! This book reminds me a lot of Clive Barker's neat The Thief of Always in that it's a modern take on fantasy, but I liked Stardust better. I'd love to recommend it for young kids but it does include a bit of "modern" language and some to the sexual scenes are unexpectedly graphic (elegantly written, but detailed); these don't necessarily harm the story (they in fact add to the charm), but they do change the target audience. For adults who believe fantasy isn't just for children, this is highly recommended. I can't wait to read it again!