Archive for June, 2008

The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. In September of 2006, Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite numerous treatments from the best doctors, about a year later the disease had spread to his liver and spleen and the consensus was that he had 3-6 months of relatively good health left. CMU had already asked him to participate in their “Last Lecture” series in which professors talk as if this was their last chance to impart wisdom to their audiences. After much argument with his wife about whether this assignment was the best use of his remaining time, they decided that the opportunity to inspire others and to leave a message for his young children was not one to be overlooked and on September 18, 2007, he took the stage.

The subsequent book is not a transcript of his talk, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” but includes many of its humorous and thought-provoking stories. It also continues to describe his life story after the “Last Lecture” became so well-known, a life that continues as of today (Note: Pausch died on July 25, 2008). It is a tremendous resource for anyone fighting a life-threatening illness and their families or for anyone considering their mortality and their personal legacy. I wish this book had been around when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in the 1990s. Our family was fortunate to have him alive for several years after the initial diagnosis, but I now realize we could have made even better use of that time.

This is a very optimistic tale with literally hundreds of anecdotes about his life, parents, family, students, dreams, mentors and the ideas that are most important to him. He begins by listing his six childhood dreams and telling how he has reasonably succeeded in fulfilling all of them: including being in zero gravity, authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia and being a Disney Imagineer. There are too many stories to mention here, but I do want to include one indicative quote from his story about cajoling his way into the PhD program at CMU: “It’s interesting, the secrets you decide to reveal at the end of your life.”

In discussing how to enjoy life, he identifies himself as the fun-loving Tigger character in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, not the sad-sack Eeyore. Benjamin Hoff also discusses the Eeyore Effect in his excellent book, The Te of Piglet, as “creating in our imaginations problems that don’t yet exist – quite often causing them to come true.”

The original lecture and much more information about Pausch can be found on his web site at


Charlie Bartlett on DVD

Charlie Bartlett on DVD. The trailer for this movie presents a typical high-school romantic-comedy with a bit of quirkiness to it, just enough to make it interesting. Talk about truth in advertising. The film is exactly that. It’s filled with stereotypical characters: the controlling principal, his beautiful daughter, the bully, the loner, the indulgent mom, and the oh-so-clever title role. But audiences should be aware that these are not one-dimensional people; they do have some nuances.

Charlie, after being expelled once again from a private boarding academy, ends up as the fish-out-of-water at a local public high school. When his complete social failure is compounded by a bad reaction to a treatment of Ritalin, he sees an opportunity for popularity and profit by becoming a student psychiatrist, dispensing both advice and drugs to his classmates. His success draws the attention of both the principal, played by Robert Downey Jr., and the principal’s daughter Susan, played by Kat Dennings. Dennings, who seems to be a younger version of the sexy Rose McGowan, reprises her role from “The 40 Year Old Virgin” as the skeptical teen. It is not the romantic relationship, but the one between Charlie and Principal Gardner that is the most complex and drives the story forward. They are in conflict on campus for control of the student body and in private for Susan’s affections. However, they not only recognize these areas of contention and each others weaknesses, but reach a level of mutual respect so that they can help each other.

Some viewers will dismiss the film as another teen comedy about searching for one’s place in life, but I liked the piano-oriented score, the clever quirks and the main relationship triangle.

Detwiler ball

I couldn’t help but smile while watching the end of the College World Series last night. Fresno State won the championship after right fielder Steve Detwiler recorded the final out by catching a line drive. Detwiler then immediately put the ball in his back pocket before joining the celebration with his teammates. He wasn’t shy about attempting to keep a souvenir of the victory, proudly showing the ball to members of the media in the locker room after the game and saying, “This ball, this is the last out right here. The national championship ball.” Given the acrimonious battle between Doug Mientkiewicz and the Boston Red Sox over the final ball used in the 2004 World Series, I wonder how the sometimes draconian NCAA establishment will handle this situation. I’m sure they would like the ball for display in their Hall of Champions in Indianapolis.

I can certainly identify with Detwiler’s desire to keep a memento of his team’s success. I played on many intramural teams in college, but we could never win a championship until the spring of our last year. It was a coed softball league and like Detwiler, I was fortunate enough to catch the final fly ball that sealed our title. I ran to my duffel bag and switched the game ball for another practice ball, which I then gave to the umpire so that he could return it with all the other equipment supplied by the school. It may seem like a silly thing to do, but I still have that ball more than twenty years later. So when I saw Detwiler tuck that ball away, I couldn’t help but smile.

Mad Money on DVD

Mad Money on DVD. Sometimes, surprises can be good. I wanted to see this bank caper movie in which three women conspire to rob the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank because I am a fan of both Queen Latifa and Katie Holmes. Diane Keaton is not one of my favorites, but she steals the show as Bridget Cardigan, the criminal mastermind. Cardigan’s husband, played by Ted Danson, has been out of work from his middle manager position for more than a year when he announces that they are nearly $300,000 in debt and must sell their house. Bridget soon discovers that her homemaking skills have little value in today’s computer-driven workplace and so she ends up as a janitor at the Fed. Just being surrounded by all that cash and watching the out-of-circulation bills being destroyed triggers her larcenous impulses. In classic Bree Van de Kamp style, she quickly works out a plan to siphon off some of the cash and recruits Nina (Latifa), a single mom who needs cash to send her sons to private school, and Jackie (Holmes), a free spirit with dreams of traveling the world.

The film is not a roll-on-the-floor comedy, but the interplay between the three women and also between the women and their male companions is heartfelt and interesting. As was done in “Michael Clayton,” director Callie Khouri chooses to time-shift the film, showing the gang being arrested in the first scene before telling the story of the previous three years and how the characters reached that point. I really hate that filmatic device, but it matters less in comedies than in thrillers. Once the back story is completed, the actual ending to the movie is pretty good and after the disappointing “Untraceable,” it was nice to be pleasantly surprised for a change.

The Mark of the Pasha

The Mark of the Pasha by Michael Pearce. When I tell people that my specialty is historical mysteries, they often ask who my favorite author is. As my list grows and grows and their eyes start to glaze over, I realize that I have too many favorites. But one author always near the top of my list is Michael Pearce. Like Boris Akunin, Paul Doherty and Edward Marston, Pearce writes multiple series with different settings. Though I enjoy his Sandor Seymour mysteries along the Mediterranean, it is his original Mamur Zapt books set in Egypt in the 1910s during the period of British occupation that I appreciate the most. The Mamur Zapt, Gareth Owen, is Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police, which makes him tangential to, but still a part of, the English bureaucracy as he investigates any crimes that have political implications. Owen negotiates his way through the four main Egyptian constituencies: the English, who want to maintain the status quo and the power that comes with it; the wealthy Pashas, led by the Khedive, who want progress, but not at the cost of losing their traditional power; the young Nationalists, who want a modern country without the English or the Pashas; and the millions of common citizens, who just want peace on their streets and enough food in their bellies. Adding to this combustible political situation are the Ottomans, the Germans, and occasionally the religious sheiks, who wield considerable influence among the people.

Pearce’s main strength is his ability to capture the atmosphere of Cairo and the surrounding countryside. His tone and the pace of his dialogue make you feel like you’re sitting at an outdoor café enjoying a leisurely cup of tea while the water carts sprinkle their liquid cargo in an attempt to dampen the dust raised by the market crowds. These are not books to be read in short, 15-minute blocks. You need to set aside a longer period of time so that the heat of the Egyptian sun sinks into your skin and relaxes your entire body. After a while everything just slows down, even as the Mamur Zapt closes in on the culprits.

Pearce also has excellent continuity and development of secondary characters throughout the series. Owen is assisted by Georgiades, a large Greek with a skill of gathering the rumors of the streets by just sitting and listening, and Nikos, a Copt, whose files contain secrets on everyone who has ever had dealings with the Mamur Zapt. There are several recurring characters among the other English stationed in Cairo, but it is Owen’s colleague in the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice that is most interesting. Mahmoud el Zaki is a young investigator and prosecutor, a member of the Opposition Party striving for new national identity for Egypt, but shares with Owen a deep sense of justice. Owen’s love interest is Zeinab, the daughter of a Pasha and with independent thoughts about her future and her relationship with Owen.

I would, of course, recommend reading all sixteen books from the beginning. The current book takes place soon after the end of World War One. I was disappointed that Pearce chose not to set any books during the war and instead has the series timeline jump over it with no references to any of the series’ characters having seen combat. Irregardless, this story depicts a more modern post-war world. The Nationalists still seek to bring things to a crisis by attempting to assassinate the Khedive, but are now using current scientific knowledge to create bombs. Owen and Zeinab are now married and she is working as a hospital administrator and thinking of babies. The languid pace of previous books is sometimes lost as the use of modern motorcars replaces the arabeahs, but much of the action takes place around the hammam, the traditional bathhouse. The investigation of the conspirators proceeds slowly but surely with few surprising twists, but as these books are more about character and atmosphere rather than mystery, it should satisfy most of Pearce’s loyal followers.

Devil May Care

Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks. With both the James Bond books and films, audiences accept the fact that, in the end, Bond will survive, the master plans will be foiled and the criminal either dead or on the run. The appeal lies in the action during the chase, the beautiful women, the intelligence and ruthlessness of the villains, and in seeing how much trouble Bond can get in before managing his escape. Since the ending is a given, I will be a bit more liberal in my plot description. Therefore, if you wish to avoid possible spoilers, stop now and just know that Faulks’ first attempt at a Bond novel is well-paced, but not spectacular.

Bond is brought back early from one of his sabbaticals in order to investigate an industrial pharmacologist, Dr. Julius Gorner, who has plans to turn England into a country of drug addicts. Also appealing for Bond’s help is a Paris banker named Scarlett Papava, whose sister, Poppy, is being held captive by Gorner. The adventure leads them to Tehran and then onward to Gorner’s secret factory in the Iranian desert. After being captured, they learn that Gorner’s impatience means that he has designed alternate plans in order to speed up the destruction of England. You know what comes next.

The holders of the Bond franchise are attempting to return the character to its original edginess and to take advantage of today’s interest in nostalgia both in the films with Daniel Craig and by having Faulks try to capture the style of Ian Fleming in the books. The story combines many elements of the early Bond stories including Dr. No (Gorner and No share the same first name and a lack of manual dexterity covered by a glove), Goldfinger (an athletic first meeting between Gorner and Bond and Gorner’s use of an Asian henchman), and Live and Let Die (attacking the West with narcotics). Set during the Vietnam War, there are many references to Bond’s earlier assignments. Some readers will appreciate the effort to integrate this story into the character’s timeline, but I found their overuse to be distracting.

Even worse is the fact that Faulk’s two main characters besides Bond aren’t consistent. Gorner seems to contradict himself. At one point when he has Bond in his clutches, he says, “I’m not one of those idiots who looks for a protracted or picturesque death for their arch-enemy.” Yet, he had kept Bond alive for several days after capturing him and then sent him to die in a massive plane crash. And Scarlett also has nonsensical moments. She creates a fictional sister in peril in order to get Bond to help her find Gorner, but knows Bond’s on assignment to find him anyway and needs no additional incentive beyond completing his mission because she’s actually the new 004, working for M as well. Then, as they’re planning their final escape in the desert, she insists they save her non-existent sister; a request that Bond ignores because he already suspects that Poppy isn’t real. Further, the idea of a woman advancing to the double-0 level in the very conservative British Secret Service by the early 1970s seems a bit too much.

Despite these flaws, this first entry from Faulks is a fine summer read and an acceptable addition to the post-Fleming Bond novels, though I still prefer many of the John Gardner books over this one. If your summer includes time for a trip, then VisitBritain has created a Bond itinerary for fans to follow while in England.

Untraceable on DVD

Untraceable on DVD. I am a huge fan of Diane Lane, going back to her role as a sexy singer in “Streets of Fire,” but this film was a huge disappointment. The trailer led to expectations of a wired version of “Silence of the Lambs,” with Lane portraying the cyber crime FBI agent Jennifer Marsh; something similar to her role as a Secret Service officer in “Murder at 1600” (one of my favorites). What audiences get is an uninspired, predictable plot, which devolves to the level of a teen horror film when a supposedly intelligent and fully-aware character walks blindly into the killer’s trap. The supporting characters are too thin, though Joseph Cross is not bad as Owen Reilly, the criminal who kidnaps his victims and devises intricate killing machines that operate only when people visit his website, The murders are unnecessarily gruesome and completely overshadow the cat-and-mouse game between Marsh and Reilly. Fans of the movie-making process will appreciate the bonus features, but fans of Lane would be better served renting almost anything else from her long career: The Outsiders, The Cotton Club, The Perfect Storm, Hard Ball, Unfaithful, Under the Tuscan Sun, Hollywoodland, though maybe not Judge Dredd.

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