Thursday, April 29, 2010

One For the Ladies

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 
starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, and Ciaran Hinds

I believe I rashly promised that my next review would be of some work of art that chicks would enjoy.  I didn't have to think very long to recall this marvelous confection.  The Memsahib and I went to see this at the local art house (the wonderful Angelica in the Shops at Legacy in Plano).   The Mem doesn't care for violent action flicks, which tend to be relegated to pay-per-view at home.   I don't mind -- it's a good policy that steers us away from blockbusters and toward deserving smaller movies.  

I liked this one a lot.  Frances McDormand plays a governess terminated from her prior employ.  She is desperate for work and contrives to be assigned to bird-dog a flighty American babe played by the ubiquitous but ubiquitous-for-a-reason Amy Adams.  Ms. Adams is an American in London on the make and pursued by a variety of unacceptable gentlemen from whom Ms. McDormand seeks to protect her -- but not too vigorously.  In the meantime, Ms. McDormand's very proper Miss Pettigrew -- well, she lives for a day, and, we are led to believe, more to come.

The two principals are a delight to watch, and Ciaran Hinds steals the scenes he is in.  (He played Julius Caesar in the HBO miniseries "Rome.")  

This is not a movie that is going to make you forget the greatest chickflicks of all time, but the skill of its stars, the wit, and, to be blunt, the romance, must win over even the guy-est of the guys.  When it comes right down to it, most dudes will admit, if only to themselves, that they enjoy the game of romance.  They will indeed sit still to watch it on the screen. 

It's out of the theaters now, so rent it, download it, sit close to your honey, make sure the popcorn is buttered enough for the guy but not too much for the honey, and havs yourself a merry little evening.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why is Luke Wilson So Smug?

Why does ubiquitous AT&T pitchman Luke Wilson (brother of Owen) seem so -- I dunno, self-satisfied when he's making invidious comparisons between AT&T's services and Verizon's?  From here, it seems that Wilson has two problems:

(1)  Every iPhone owner I know holds two strong opinions:  (a) the iPhone is an absolutely phenomenal piece of technology that they dearly love, and (b) AT&T sux to a degree of suckitude previously unknown to humankind.  Spotty coverage is one problem, but the worst is dropped calls.   This is in sharp contrast to Verizon subscribers, who seldom have these difficulties.

(2) That is one terrible haircut.

So while AT&T is entitled to make a case for the quality of its wireless service, Wilson's sarcastic and unctuous attitude looks ridiculous to a public accustomed to AT&T's lousy performance.  Apparently he believes that the ability to talk on the phone and surf the internet at the same time is more valuable to consumers than the actual ability to place and complete calls.   It's as though Toyota had hired Pauly Shore to tout their renewed commitment to quality and safety.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I Know Lots of People Dying Isn't A Good Time, but Read It Anyway

The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow

Sometimes, when you're at loose ends, looking for something to do, the thought arrives that you must, before another instant passes, sit down with a book featuring a sociopath who just happens to have superb Gulf War infantry training and really, really poor impulse control, who has murdered a biker in prison  with an edge-sharpened license plate (in his defense, the biker was probably going to try to kill him eventually), who is given the opportunity to escape the death that unquestionably awaits him in the cell block by agreeing to pose as a guy he looks a lot like, a (deceased while in custody) SoCal surf and drug-dealer legend, for the purpose of being traded to a sadistic Mexican drug lord for an undercover US drug guy that the overlord has found out.  When you have a craving for some readage like that, really, nothing else will do.  Gotta have it.

You're in luck!  The Cool Hot Center can report that The Death and Life of Bobby Z fits your bill to a T.  And lest you think I may have strayed from my policy of not disclosing material plot points, let me assure you that you learn all of the foregoing within the first few pages.

I was enthusiastic about Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine  back a week or so ago, and Bobby Z is an equally bracing read.  Now, I am assuming that our readers here are aware we're talking about books where there is a lot of crime.  And I'm not talking about securities fraud or cybersquatting.  This is a book where everyone -- the US agent, lots of bikers, an army of Mexican drug guys, and the former right-hand-man of Bobby Z, all want the frequently-jailed narrator (real name, Tim Kearney) dead.  They do not succeed -- we know this because this book is in the first person -- and it's not just because he runs away successfully.

Tim spends a lot of time thinking about his life as a failure.  (He told the judge his problem wasn't breaking and entering -- it was breaking and exiting.)  Although, like Frankie Machine, he is highly competent at the things he needs to do to stay alive.  And in the middle of all the suspense and violence, you find passages like this:

"They had a lifeguard at the public pool in Desert Hot springs, he remembers.  They called her Big Blue because she wore a bright blue one-piece bathing suit.  No one ever actually saw her swim -- the popular theory was that if anyone started drowning Big Blue would just jump in and raise the water level so that the drowning person would just sort of wash up on the edge of the pool.  No one ever volunteered to test the theory, though, so Tim's memory of Big Blue was her sitting up in that big chair reading Mademoiselle magazine while chewing on beef jerky."

One more cool thing:  This book in its paperback version is 259 pages, and has 79 chapters.  There are numerous chapters that are 1 and 2 pages long.  You got some adult ADHD issues, this is the book for you.

Finally:  The first couple dozen chapters or so of this book take place in one of my favorite places in the entire galaxy, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park just over the mountains from San Diego.  I've hauled my bride, her grandchildren, and numerous unsuspecting friends over there to experience the desolate beauty of  this Death Valley Lite (and a cool little underground museum).  When I lived in Poway and needed to unclog the synapses I'd go by myself -- cup of coffee in Santa Ysabel, breakfast in the old mining town of Julian, then downgrade all the way to the desert.  And now, here it is, starring in this book. 

In my visits there, though, I never saw any pitched battles between a three-time loser accompanied by a six year-old boy and a phalanx of crazed Mexican drug czar minions.  So I was glad to see that someone had filled in this gap in my understanding of the area.


I promise I'll soon review something that chicks might enjoy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Pulpy, Corny Classic

A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins

In 1986 when I lived in Chicago I took a short story writing course with Asa Baber through Northwestern's night school.  Baber was an author (Tranquility Base, Land of a Million Elephants) and wrote the "Men" column for Playboy for many years.  Around fifteen students, and every last mother one of them a miserable writer, including yours truly, to judge from my aggregate published output to date of nothing.  (We pretend writers all thank Jah for Blogger.)  One night one of the smarmy young pretend writers in the class was making a dismissive reference to Harold Robbins, comparing him unfavorably to -- I don't remember, some writerly ideal like Mailer or Updike or the like, accompanied by the nodding agreement of the class.   I had never read a Harold Robbins novel, but I spoke up, probably rather more sharply than I should have, to note that Harold Robbins actually finished writing books, wrote books that attracted the attention of real editors, and were read by millions of real readers, many of whom may not have had the elevated tastes of these kids (who probably hadn't read Updike or Mailer since college), but who were not being fooled into reading something they didn't enjoy.  That shut 'em up.

In the intervening two-and-a-half decades, I still hadn't read a Harold Robbins novel.  I don't know how I came across A Stone for Danny Fisher, but I think I read somewhere that as Robbins's first novel (published in 1951), it had about it some of the grit and drive that may have dissipated somewhat in his later potboilers (The Betsy, Heat of Passion, The Carpetbaggers).  I am very glad I picked it up.

The cover tells some of the story:  A hot mid-twentieth-century chick with one of those hot mid-twentieth-century hot-chick hairdos and really hot mid-twentieth-century hot-chick foundational undergarments, a fleabag room, and boxing.  What's not to like?

The book has all these things, but quite a bit more.  It is about a boy growing into manhood in Brooklyn during the Depression.  He suffers from economic deprivation, limited prospects, and the curse of anti-Semitism.   He overcomes them to a point, but the logic of the life he has chosen soon drives him to become a very different kind of person.  He struggles with the demands of his new life, which is in sharp contrast to the joy he takes in the woman he loves.  

If you're thinking about picking this up, let me be clear about a couple of things.  First, this is a story you've heard before.  As you read, you will find yourself predicting what happens next, and you will frequently be correct.  To adopt the boxing metaphor, Robbins telegraphs his punches.

Second, this is not sophisticated writing.  It is sometimes childishly simple.  Lots of adverbs.  (Most good writers profess to hate adverbs (I almost said "unanimously" hate adverbs.))  I'm flipping through the book right now, let's see  .  .  .  you'll find sentences like: "Slowly the beating of her heart quieted."  "Her hand reached up wonderingly and touched her hair."  "The dark rolled around me in gentle swirling clouds."

But -- and this must have been what I was sensing in 1986 -- there is something to hold your attention on every page.  Something that keeps you moving through the dialogue and exposition.   These simple and sometimes corny words tell the reader what is happening.   They don't tell you how smart the author is, they don't trick you with pointless plot devices, they just set forth the dramatic facts of the life of a young man the reader comes soon to care about.  It's a story.  Robbins doesn't apologize for it or dress it up.  He just flat tells it.

Folks, that's writing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Cool Hot Center's List of Presidential Virtues (Revised)

Not Bush
Black, or Blackish
U.S. Citizen
Over 35
Lived in the U.S. at Least 14 Years
Herald of a New Age of Bipartisanship
Kinda Sexy, Actually
President of Harvard Law Review
Extremely Smart
Valuable Community Organizing Background
Open, Media-Accessible Administration
Not Republican
Not Really a Socialist, so Much
Family Man
Beautiful Family
Esteemed Abroad
Cannot Be Judged by Former Radical and Race-Baiting Associations
Strong-Willed (Quit Smoking)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Summer Reads: A Vulgar Masterpiece and a Slick SoCal Crime Thriller

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston

We all learned in school that when we read a novel we must suspend disbelief.  Sometimes, to enjoy a work of art, we have to suspend disapproval.  In this case, we have to suspend our disapproval of people who punctuate almost every utterance with one or more obscenities.   Can you do it?  If you can, and you have a ken for crime novels -- there's a little mystery here, but it's mostly a crime novel -- pick up this number.

The voice is that of Web, a wiseass slacker, but turns out Web wasn't always a guy who cleans up what's left of one after one passes over (or, frequently, in this novel, is unnaturally killed).  He used to teach school; his father is a famous writer.  Too much more than this I don't want to reveal, except to say that (1) the death-scene cleanup business is fiercely competitive, (2) his best friend, roommate, and sometime employer is a tattoo artist, and (3) things get immeasurably worse for him when he tries to accommodate a hot chick whose father has committed suicide.  Seriously, who among us can't identify?

The particular brilliance of this fine novel is in the razor-sharp, and frequently hilarious dialogue.  Doubtful that too many readers of this blog hang out with guys like Web, but we all know smartmouths who can hardly express themselves other than in ironic asides.  It rings true.

And despite the gruesome subject matter, the text is not utterly drenched in blood.  (See the next novel for that.)  In fact, this is a real novel.  The protagonist grows and changes, and we like it, because we care about him. 

If you think you can get past the violence of the language (and violence to the language) and you have a natural affinity for the genre, this is one you should check out.

Continuity complaint:  At one point, Web points out a constellation to the toxic hot chick.  The constellation he points out is Corvus, the Crow, which is a rather obscure constellation and somewhat low in the sky when it appears, and I am doubtful that anyone could see it, much less identify it to someone who didn't know the night sky, from a moving car in the light-drenched Los Angeles night.

(P.S.:  I have seen news accounts that Mystic Arts is going to be made into an HBO series.)


The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow

I lived in the San Diego area so I'm a sucker for the novels of T. Jefferson Parker (who, thankfully, is one of our more wonderful crime fiction writers).  Don  Winslow paddles out into the same surf.  This one is a peach. 

One of my book-review rules is not to give away any of the plot -- at least not any of the plot that doesn't appear in the first few pages.  This baby doesn't really get rolling until some ways into it, but you know, you just know, something is about to pop.  When the cover of the book displays a sinking boat and the name "Frankie Machine," and your main character Frank Macchiano is a pillar of the Pacific Beach recreational fishing community and a meticulous businessman, the pleasant rhythms of his daily routine are unlikely to continue.  And when it starts to pop, it doesn't stop popping until the final page. 

A lot of that popping comes from .38 caliber instruments. 

This book reminded me just a little of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, featuring a hero -- such as he is -- who never seems to be at a loss for the right thing to do.  Oh, he runs into a spot of trouble here and there, but Frank always seems to have an appropriately violent solution.  

Let's put it this way:  When I was reading this, I thought DeNiro should play this guy in a movie, and whaddya know?

One more thing:  This novel moves easily through the Cosa Nostra underworld of Southern California.  Almost every major character is recognizable as a thinly-disguised real-life thug to those who have done much reading in Mafia history.  You will find Jimmy "the Weasel" Frattianno, Frank "Bomp" Bompensiero, Jack Dragna, Allen Dorfman, Allen Glick, Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, and several others, all committing crimes looking very much like the crimes of their real-life doppelgangers.

Lotsa killing of bad men.  Highly satisfying.  Could not put it down.

No Woman Who Thinks This Is a Good Look for Her Should Be Questioning Sarah Palin's Judgment

Tina Fey may be the world's only beautiful woman who needs a makeover. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Prime Numbers Are Funny

 Occasionally I get the question, "Steverino, how can I write things funny?"  Actually  .  .  .  no one has ever asked me that.  And  .  .  .  nobody ever calls me Steverino.

But I do have a comedy tip for you today that you can use even if you are not a funny person.  This is something I noticed when I was writing some the earlier articles on this site.

Someone trying to write funny, if he or she is doing it right, pays attention to every single word, every single piece of punctuation.  The cadence of each sentence, and the rhythm when one strings sentences together.  How the text looks on the page.   We've all thought it:  That was a good joke, but he told it badly.  Works the same with text.  The smallest decision can have an impact on creating the proper gestalt for the generation of yuks.

Not everyone can write amusingly, and I can tell you for a fact that a number of commenters on this website would place me among the "not everyone" group.  But I am here to pass along to you one of the overlooked rules of comedy which you may use to add (what I concede is a very incremental quantum of) humor to your writing:

Prime numbers are funny.

Prime numbers, you will recall, are those integers that have only two positive integer factors -- one and themselves. So an even number can never be a prime, because it is divisible by 2 (as well as one and itself).  For example:

What I should have said is that prime numbers are funnier than non-prime numbers.  As the foregoing illustration suggests, a prime number alone is not enough to elicit chuckles -- rather, when used in preference to a non-primes when a sentence calls for the invention of a number, it tends to set the stage for the actual point of your gag-in-chief better than any other kind of number. 
So if you are drafting something light-hearted, and you need to make up a number, remember:   11 is funnier than 10 or 9 or 12; 17 is funnier than 16 or 18, or, for that matter, its odd brother 15.  But the real hilarity starts in the mid-double-digits:  61, 53.  And the funniest primes of all are those with more syllables:  47, 97.

I should add the qualification that if you need a particularly large number, or a decimal, the rule in its refined form is that the significant digits of the number should be a prime number.  So even though 673,000 is not a prime number, it is funnier than 674,000.  When I needed a fractional number for a exagerratedly small number of megapixels in the first article on this site, I used .079. 

You probably recall chortling uncontrollably.

As noted, even numbers are not amusing.  Imaginary numbers sound like they should be funny, but can really deflate a jape.  Transcendental numbers actually make the reader dislike the writer, and complex numbers bring even the most riotous tale to a complete stop.  Irrational numbers:  tragic.  Whole numbers -- well, they're only distinguished from counting numbers by the presence of zero, which is only funny as a punch line, for example:  "To calculate the number of times Marcus got lucky at P.J. Clarke's in a year, you take the amount of money he's spent there rounded to the nearest grand, times the inverse average relative humidity in the men's room, divided by the square root of the standard deviation of the distribution of ages of the women claiming to him that they're single.  Then you take that quotient and multiply by zero."  See.  Could be funny in a better joke, but you get the idea.

Why should this be so?  I believe there are three reasons:

(1) Things that are unexpected are funnier than things that are expected.  Prime numbers are of equal dignity with other integers, but because they are never the result of multiplication or division (other than when appearing as significant digits in non-primes), they appear in our daily lives marginally less frequently than other numbers, especially counting (natural) numbers.  They are thus marginally more unexpected and thus of marginal positive comedy value when employed in preference to non-primes.

(2)  They never appear in childhood multiplication tables, and thus do not have about them the faintly unwelcome fragrance of non-primes that were the answers to drills we resented when we were children.   That is, it's not so much that primes are so side-splitting -- it's that other natural numbers are so dreary.

(3)  There is something inherently funny about prime numbers that cannot be described.  I think maybe it's that they're exotic and mysterious -- theorums relating to large prime numbers remain under study -- but not so conceptually difficult that people don't feel just a little cool and proud that they know what prime numbers are.  For example, would this website be funny if it related to any other type of number?   (Link:  vulgarity alert.)

Alas, with the migration of childhood arithmetic to calculators, primes will probably lose their slight appeal to our subconscious, and their laff-riot potential will fade.  In the meantime, if you are a comedy blogger, switch the significant digits of all of your discretionary numerical references to primes and I can almost guarantee that you, too, can attract upwards of 13 unique hits a day.

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Follow Your Cool Hot Center on Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter
[NOTE on 1-4-13:  The Farrelly brothers are about to release a new comedy.  What did they call it?  Movie 47.  I'm telling you, men and women, I'm on to something here.]

Monday, April 5, 2010

Top Dozen Reasons Why I Wish the Burger King Were OUR King

(12) Believes in the virtue of vigorous capitalist competition.

(Artist: TRPollard Jr)

(11)  Is always cheerful.

(10)   Fully appreciates the value of espionage to maintaining balance of power.  (Link goes to latest commercial showing the King stealing McDonald's plans for the Sausage McMuffin with Egg, his predecessor having left the Breakfast Sandwich Reverse-Engineering Project scandalously underfunded.) 

(9)  His public appearances limited to 30-second televised segments with a beginning, middle, and end.

(8)  Frozen expression on his face is 100% natural.

(7)  Although unmistakably regal, he is by no means an elitist; he moves freely among the common people.

(6)  Goes way beyond "don't ask don't tell."

(5)  Very unlikely to lecture us about childhood obesity; almost certain not to demand that we like organic lettuce.

(4)  Ruling by divine right eliminates need for Congress. 

(3)  Will never give a 23-minute answer to a 7-second question; in fact, will give no speeches at all.

(2)  Gravely concerned over the effect on human life of the depletion of the ozone layer.

(1)  The man knows burgers; I like burgers.


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Follow Your CoolHotCenter on Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Move along, nothing to see here, folks.  Just verifying my existence to the blog search site Technorati.  Thanks for visiting.


Please check the archives for items of interest, and thanks again for dropping by.


Is Michelle Distancing Herself from Obama?

What on earth has happened to the spicy Michelle Obama? This is not a shy lady. Neither is she a woman without strong views on the news of the day. For awhile there, we would hear from her with some frequency on matters of public interest.  When Obama took office, I had expected that we would see a FLOTUS in the Hillary Clinton mode, very much in the foreground as an advisor to the President, and vocal in support of the administration’s policies. I thought it likely that she would seek public office herself someday.

I still think that.

And that’s why I find it most interesting that, as her beloved (I’m not being sarcastic here) husband is suffering an appalling decline in his personal popularity, and his initiatives, one after the other, leave the center who elected him mostly aghast, she is reportedly devoting her fierce intelligence and legendary energy to the encouragement of organic arugula. True, her gardening efforts have called attention to the levels of lead in urban soils, but other than that not even Michelle Malkin has found anything overtly political in the First Lady's switch in fertilizers from sewage sludge – really – to “White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand,” according to The New York Times. (Oops, I spoke too soon.)

I confess that it has occurred to me that Mrs. Obama might have her finger a little more firmly on the pulse of public regard than does her man, and is looking forward to a time when she might want to offer herself up for voters’ approval. A prominent public embrace of POTUS’s widely loathed – at least for now – initiatives on health care, immigration, judicial appointments, international blame-taking, and all the rest would make deniability, uh, implausible:

I stand before you now as one who, according to the Congressional Avoirdupois Office -- created with bipartisan support at my request -- advocated for policies that resulted in a net aggregate reduction of 157 million tons of suet from the growing bodies of our nation’s children and adolescents during the four years I served this country as its First Lady. That, in turn, has reduced childhood diabetes and other lard-related illnesses to the point where our nation can safely reduce its reliance on professional healthcare, which, as you know, has declined in recent years for some reason." [Wink, eye-roll.] [Wild cheering.]

I’m not saying that her trademark project of fighting childhood obesity is unworthy. Every FLOTUS has assigned herself some uncontroversial cause or other, and this is a pretty good one. But during this period of enormous change accompanied by enormous controversy, her disappearance from the hustings is notable. Thinking ahead, that one is.

By the way:  Turnips, carrots, spinach, chard, black kale – the President has reportedly vetoed beets – it’s not surprising that Malia and Sacha have lost weight. What’s surprising is that they haven’t run away. If you’re invited to the White House for dinner, you might sneak in some Skittles for the young ladies; and, as a gift for the host, Obama’s own personal weight-loss aid:   a carton of Marlboro Lights.

Friday, April 2, 2010

You Can Say You Knew Her When

I interrupt this blog for some special pleading. The charming daughter of some fine friends of mine (Claire Colmar, daughter of Craig and Teri Colmar), is a finalist in a competition for a role on the hit show “Glee.” If you haven’t watched the show, I urge you to do so; it’s one of the Memsahib’s favorites and also one of my guilty pleasures.

May I ask you to go to the following site and vote for Claire, and pass it along to others? It appears that one must register on the “Glee” site to vote, but I suggest to you that this is a small price to pay to advance the career of this quite talented and serious young actress. (Register first, then go back and paste in the following link, and click the “save vote” box in text materials below her video.) Wish I had a photo to post, but the “Glee” site is resisting allowing me to copy her image.

Many thanks.

Vote for Claire Colmar here:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking for a Good Mystery? Avoid This One

Wild Indigo, by Sandi Ault

If you are looking for a mystery/thriller with a Native American slant and even an intriguing dose of mysticism, run, don't walk, away from this volume and pick up something by Peter Bowen or Kirk Mitchell. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books I have put aside without finishing, and this is one of them.

I can even pinpoint the exact moment when I came to this unhappy conclusion (no spoiler): The heroine, Jamaica Wild, explains that the reason she does not have blinds on the windows of her home is because she wants to be able to see the surrounding mountains through them.

Ms. Wild's lack of awareness that blinds may be opened to view objects through their accompanying windows will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far. Ms. Wild is dumb as a stump. And not entertainingly so. She never says anything interesting, unexpected, witty, or suggestive that she is capable of solving the mystery. She is weirdly forgetful and unable to interpret some pretty obvious circumstances.

Indeed, the entire pueblo is a pretty dull place  None of the other characters, with the possible exception of Momma Anna, who tends to speak in sentences of no more than five words, ever says anything that suggests you'd like to be seated next to him or her at dinner.

But a mystery with a stiff central character (even one who is in every scene, and is telling the story) can be redeemed by good writing. Alas. The writing is writing-class poor. The book seems not to have had an editor's care. From page 5: "I looked through the shattered windshield, the scene beyond it in fragments like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the green of the forest land rising to the blue and purple shoulders of the Rocky Mountains, the high peaks watching like guardians over the normally peaceful, ancient village of Tanoah Pueblo." Multiply this cliched, redundant, unlikely, dull, and plot-stopping level of irrelevant detail by several hundred pages, and you can put away the Ambien.

Don't get me started on the wolf.