What I’m Doing

What I’m Listening To

The Sound of the Life of the Mind by Ben Folds Five.

You might expect that when a band has their first release in about 13 years, it might take them a minute to get their feet under them. Apparently, not so for Ben Folds Five. I don’t mean to say that they picked up where they left off exactly, but if you drew a line from Ben Folds Five to Whatever and Ever Amen to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and then extrapolated that line out, The Sound of the Life of the Mind would absolutely fall on that line. The album makes sense, and doesn’t rely on nostalgia. It’s just legitimately good music for people who used to like Ben Folds Five-style music.

Everything that made Ben Folds Five is present; they’re still the ironic nerd rockers they always were. Only Ben Folds Five could do a rock song describing the academic life as “rocking like a mother” (Rosa Parks and DNA, Joan of Arc and JFK), and then title their entire album after that song. Only Ben Folds could work a “don’t tase me bro” reference into a song, and the old Ben Folds Five irreverence is there too (If you can’t draw a crowd, draw d!c&s on the wall). All the old harmonies are there (listen to the first 30 seconds of “Michael Praytor, 5 Years Later”, and you’ll have no doubt which band you’re listening to).

Before listening to this album, I couldn’t have told you exactly how the “Ben Folds Five” sound differed from the Ben Folds solo-artist sound. But listening to it, there definitely is something different. Make no mistake, Mr. Folds has always been the one driving the truck as it were, but even though he used all the same tricks on his solo albums (harmonies, drum/bass backup, storytelling lyrics), it was different. The solo albums were definitely solo albums, and all of the non-Ben Folds, backup stuff really was just backup. You could have removed most of it without fundamentally changing the songs. Robert and Darren bring the bass and drums forward; without them the songs would be hollow.

“Do it Anyway” is a good first single, and showcases the fun side of the band, but for my money the best tracks are “Erase Me” and “The Sound of the Life of the Mind”.

And hey, if nothing else, they have Fraggles:

What I’m Watching

Written by a Kid on the Geek and Sundry youtube channel

When I last talked about Geek and Sundry, Written by a Kid had not yet premiered yet. Now it has, however, and it is awesome.

The premise is that they have a kid tell a story, and then they have someone direct the story however they see fit. Some of them are live action, some of the are animated, all of them are awesome.  The best part is that the directors take the story very seriously, with real actors and special effects as if this were some big budget Hollywood script, while at the same time directing something that makes absolutely no sense (such as the elite police “squat” team coming it to take out the monster). The kids are adorable, the stories are great, and the production value is through the roof. Take a quick stroll through Goth Boy, Scary Smash, Fire City, or Kendall the Knight to see what I mean.

While you’re over at Geek and Sundry, check out some of the other great shows. TableTop continues to be one of my favorites. For a sampler, check out the Fiasco episodes Setup, Part 1 and Part 2.

What I’m Reading

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

OMG you guys. Seriously.

Okay, I know that I’m a little late to the game, since these are super-well known (Wise Man’s Fear was a #1 New York Times Bestseller) but wow are these good. If you’re looking for the next big fantasy series, this is the one (er…the next big thing that’s already half way done, since it is a trilogy with 2 out of 3 books already out).

And when I say the next big fantasy series, I mean that literally (662 and 994 pages respectively). But I’m not joking to say that 1656 weren’t enough. Unfortunately, Mr. Rothfuss seems to be on the George R.R. Martin plan of book writing (making us wait forever and a day for the next gigantic, amazing book), so I think it will be awhile before we get book 3.

Hmm, what to say, what to say. If you’re into magic, and music, and plucky street kids, legends and how they are made, fairies and fighting and romantic interests, inn keepers, demons, and exotic foreign lands populated with secret ninja training, and (of course) a school for kids who do magic, then read these books. If you want to be swept up in an epic story with fantastic writing, then read these books. If you’re into fantasy, or not traditionally into fantasy but looking for a good intro into fantasy, read these books. I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like them.

Then come back here and we can discuss them. Highly recommended.

Mournful Mouse

We received a very strange book by the name of “The Adventures of Mournful Mouse”.

At first it seemed pretty cool; Sara’s Grandma bought this book from a lady who self-published it almost 50 years ago and sold it in the grocery store. It’s like a piece of literary history (and autographed too)! However, as you start to read it, there is something a little…strange about the book.

So let’s play a little game: I will show you the pages of the book, and you can read along. Out loud if you please.

We start off with a bang, right on the title page. Is that a pool of blood? Are we looking at some kind of murder scene? A fresh one too, based on the blood which is still dripping down. Maybe it’s supposed to be the tears of Mournful Mouse, who is sad because he CRIES BLOOD. Or maybe he cries when he thinks of all the people he’s murdered, I don’t know.

Okay, here’s where we start to notice the weirdness, especially if you’re reading out loud. Each page starts with a certain sing-song pattern, like a poem, only to end on a non-conforming last line, which neither rhymes, nor fits the meter of the paragraph. It’s like a maniac stole the book and finished all the last lines of the poems, mad-lib style. And they’re all in caps, as if to highlight the discrepancy, or possibly because the maniac who wrote the last line never talks, only screams his words like a lunatic.

My favorite thing to do with this book is to watch people read it out loud. They automatically fall into the rhythm of the book, and then try to enforce that rhythm on that last line. There’s just this look of confusion that comes over them, like “Did I make a mistake somehow? Did I miss the rhyme? Or maybe I mispronounced it, and sorrow should rhyme with friend? Am I supposed to talk really fast so that all these words fit?”

So does the “ANYTIME” box allow you to time travel, go to any time you want? That’s what the name would imply, but no, it takes you to “ANYPLACE” instead. So is it a teleportation device? Maybe it’s a Puzzlebox from hell, and the Triangle Man is some kind of Cenobite? I’m going to go with teleportation device, since the destination is clearly labeled as being in the United States. (or at least the text says the button is labeled, because I don’t see any labels in the picture. Maybe the writing is very tiny.)

Yes, that is angles, not angels. You will quickly see that this is not a typo! I love to watch people read “angle” and then go back and correct themselves to “angel” before getting to the next page. Just when you think this book is weird enough, we take a true trip into the surreal. Maybe the “ANYTIME” box is just full of drugs.

You know, I want to take a minute to ask why is the main character of a children’s book can barely contain his suicidal depression. Did that really seem like a good quirk for the protagonist of a kid’s book? And why are the Angles named things like Nosey, Brainy, and Hardwork? I was expecting something a little more like 90, 180 and 270.

Never ride with strange Angles my friend. So the book is supposed to teach us geometry? Or maybe the lesson is “there’s no place like home”? (I’m assuming Elmwood Lane and Hilltop House are where he lives, although that hasn’t really been mentioned anywhere. To be fair, this is book 2 of a series, so I’m sure the author assumed book 1 had already been wildly successful at this point.)

This “trip” ain’t over with yet, Mournful ol’ pal, because the moon (who is not made of angles, I’m just sayin’) is trying to eat your tail! Now, I can’t help but notice that the moon is in a different position when he gets home. Does this imply time travel? Perhaps inter-dimensional travel? But I thought “ANYTIME” was in the U.S.?

OH SHIT, LOOK OUT! THE CARNIVOROUS MOON FOLLOWED YOU HOME! Perhaps in the previous picture it just had it’s back turned. Hey, wait a minute, the last line rhymed! Where’d that come from? Okay, wait, I thought he learned his lesson that there’s no place like home? Five minutes with Grandma and he’s ready to jet again. Grandma’s such a buzz kill.

Apparently you need to “know the Angles” in order to operate the box. We didn’t see Mournful actually learning any geometry, so I guess when you meet the Angles they somehow implant information into your brain about how to compute the complex geometry required for star travel. But wait, don’t you just push a button? Where do the Angles even come into it?

I don’t know man, but there you have it. The long strange trip known as Mournful Mouse and the Anytime Box.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Not too long ago I finished reading the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larson, more commonly known by the title of the first book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I actually have a reason for not blogging this sooner, in that Sara is still reading the final book. I am especially sensitive about releasing spoilers to her, since while she was in the middle of the first book, I inadvertently revealed a huge plot point ruining the entire mystery of the book. It was roughly equivalent to someone walking up to you in the middle of the Sixth Sense and saying, “Isn’t it crazy that Bruce Willis is a ghost?” So I think this post should be pretty spoiler-free.

The hype about the books was well deserved, they were great. However, at the same time, they were totally not what I was expecting. Even though I’m pretty late to the party (as usual), I really didn’t know much about the books. I think I had seen the movie trailer, so I had some vague notion that it was a shoot-‘um-up action movie. Therefore, I was a little surprised when it turned out to be something of a slow developing financial thriller! In fact, the aforementioned “girl with the dragon tattoo” is not even really the main character for most of the first and last books.

Please don’t take the previous two statements as criticisms of the books, because they are not. I was surprised, but in no way displeased. A slow developing novel can be a really good thing if done right, because it gives you time to really invest in a character, which makes you care about them more. This was done right. And don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of action: over the course of the books there are serial killers (plural), spies, drug running biker gangs, corrupt government officials, prostitution rings, deviant sexual behavior, and plenty of dead bodies, to say nothing of financial misappropriation on a grand scale.

You could say the tone is a little dark.

I had heard there was something bad, or gruesome in the first book, and that some people who read it weren’t sure if their wives would be able to handle it. It is important to note that the literal translation of the title is not “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” but rather, “Men who Hate Women”. Sure enough, I found that to be an appropriate title for the entire trilogy, because the entire series stands as a testament to fighting some pretty extreme violations of women’s rights. In particular there are some extremely uncomfortable moments in the first book that involve a man abusing his position of power over a woman in about the worst way possible. It’s probably worse than you’re imagining, and not for the faint of heart.

Therefore, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this to Sara. Not because I didn’t think she could handle it, and not even because I don’t think she would enjoy reading something so dark (although she doesn’t usually choose such). No, I hesitated because whenever we see anything that involves men being jerks, I seem to take the full responsibility for my gender. (Case in point, she didn’t talk to me for several days after we watched North Country.) Not to worry though, she seems to be enjoying the books well enough.

The first book stands alone from the other two, and is a little different. I preferred the second book to the first. It seemed like it got ramped up a little faster, and was a little more action packed. More Tom Clancy to the first book’s John Grisham.

Overall, highly recommended (but you already knew that, because everybody’s been talking about them since about forever).

I haven’t seen the movies, but everybody says they’re good. I’d probably watch them if I had them here in front of me, but honestly I don’t feel much of a draw to see them. I read the story, enjoyed it, and now it’s kind of done, you know?

One last note, I noticed as I was reading that Mr. Larsson seems to be very meticulous about certain details, particularly product names. There is one section, I think in The Girl Who Played With Fire, involving a very large shopping trip to IKEA in which every product is identified and named. I got a big chuckle out of this, because if you’ve spent as much time at IKEA as I have, then you will absolutely recognize all the product names.

This was also true when it came to meticulous street and neighborhood names. By the end of the 3rd book, I was absolutely sure I could navigate my way around Stockholm with no problem (but just in case you can’t, you can always check out the Millennium Trilogy map on Mr. Larsson’s website).

I did have one problem with the books, though. Has anyone in the history of the earth drank as much coffee? It was central to every scene, someone is always pouring the coffee, drinking coffee, going to a cafe for coffee, or getting up to put the coffee on. Coffee is made in coffee pots, in fancy espresso machines, and boiled directly in a pot on the stove. I don’t know if this was just a tick of Mr. Larsson’s writing style, something he falls back on to set the scene, or if Swedish people just drink a metric ton of coffee.

If you haven’t read the books yet, try not to notice all the coffee drinking now. Good luck with that.

The Hunger Games

I recently finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

I had heard a lot about this book, and I kind of got the impression this might be the “next big thing” now that they’re filming the movie and everything. So I randomly picked it up, and it was awesome.

(Side note, I am often picking the creme-de-la-creme, but it seems to me that I’m as likely, or even MORE likely, to enjoy a Young Adult (YA) book, than a so-called “adult book” (no, not that kind of adult book). Not sure if that says something about me, or about the quality of YA literature these days.)

Before we get started, let me just say that there will be spoilers later, but I will mark them. So if you don’t want spoilers, read until the spoiler alert and then stop.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where some kind of catastrophic war has half-destroyed the U.S., and it is now ruled by a despotic dictator in the corrupt, Roman-style “Capitol”. In order to punish the districts for their uprisings during the dark times, each district is required to send two “tributes”, children, who will fight to the death in an arena for the enjoyment of the masses.

I’m in.

The first book in the series is absolutely fantastic (I thought the second book was okay, and I didn’t like the 3rd, but that will be covered below in the spoilers). The book reminded me so much of a fantastic movie I saw years ago, called Battle Royale. For a second I was kind of annoyed at the similarities, but then I realized I loved that concept, and there was plenty of room in my heart for two stories about it.

Katniss Everdeen is a great protagonist. She’s smart, strong, competent, rebellious, and the consummate protector of the weak. I think the thing I liked about her the most is that she is a flawed hero, and she is aware of if. When Peeta or others care about her, she recognizes that she just can’t care about them the same way. She’s just not built that way. I thought that seemed very real. The romance in these books is very different than your traditional romance, very one sided (very different than, say, Twilight).

So that’s what I liked about the books. I would certainly recommend the first one, The Hunger Games, and even the second one, Catching Fire, which I thought was very good except for the ending. And then, of course, if you get that far you’re probably going to want to read Mockingjay as well, just for completeness. Overall a strong trilogy, and one I enjoyed.

*******************Okay kids, spoiler time!!********************

The problem I have with Catching Fire is the ending. I loved that they contrived a way to get them back into the arena, however, the ending just wasn’t very satisfying to me. A little too deus ex machina, with district 13 showing up to save Katniss with all this advanced technology. We knew there was something afoot, obviously (for example, Plutarch showing the mockingjay on his watch), but it was all just a little too tidy.

I guess the problem for me was that Katniss wasn’t really responsible for the ending. I like my protagonists to be, well, protagonists. In the first one, it was all her, and that’s part of what made her a great character. In the second one, all of this plotting, etc. is going on around her, and she’s completely unaware. Her role in the “true plot” of what was going on regarding the rebellion wasn’t very active.

That’s the perfect segue into the final book, because my main complaint about it is that Katniss and Peeta essentially become non-entities. The character of Peeta is literally removed from the story, and Katniss spends the whole time in some sort of psychological funk, stuck in district 13. Same for Finnick, who I thought was a really good character to come out of the second book. The three of them have almost no impact on the war whatsoever.

Even the one part that seemed a little more active, the assassination attempt on Snow, was a total waste of time. All the people who sacrificed their lives to get them to the mansion, and really they could have just sat behind the army and arrived at exactly the same time. It served absolutely no purpose, other than position Katniss to see the death of Prim (which could have happened anyway, if they would have just stormed the Capitol with the army). Remove it from the book entirely, and nothing is changed.

My other problem with book 3 was that I had a lot of trouble suspending my disbelief about the “defenses” of the Capitol. I understand Ms. Collins wanted to find a way to have Katniss entering an arena for the 3rd time, but it was very contrived. Never would a society protect itself almost exclusively with clever traps, regardless of the technology level. Can you imagine if Washington D.C. was protected by pods that would release killer bees of all things? Killer bees? Are you kidding me? That’s one thing when they’re used for entertainment against unarmed kids, but against an invading army? One of the main defenses was a complicated trap where the street folded up and there was a meat grinder hidden underneath! Sheesh.

The one thing Katniss accomplished in book 3 was to kill Coin. Even that, though, seemed like it could have been accomplished in some other manner. She was right to do it, but she never explained to anybody WHY she did it. They spent so much time talking about how much power Katniss had as the Mockingjay, and yet she never used it. I thought she was going to have a big speech to the crowd and use her power to bring Coin down. The arrow actually seemed anti-climactic.

So overall, I guess my criticism is: you have this great character, why not use her? Why take all of the power and decisions and action out of her hands?