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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hardy House in DC

As I've often noted over the years, I've competed in a 12-team American League fantasy baseball league with the same basic group of guys for 26 years. This year, we conducted our annual player auction in Washington DC at a hotel a couple of blocks from the Washington Nationals ballpark. The auction was held last Saturday, April 5. We began at 9 am and finished by about 4 pm (which is early for us).  Unfortunately, two guys fad to purchase players via long distance teleconferencing.

I'll post my roster soon. This post is actually about the baseball game we attended that evening -- a Nats game versus the Atlanta Braves, featuring young aces Stephen Strasburg and Julio Teheren. The Braves won 6-2. It was kind of a chilly evening with a pretty strong wing blowing mostly left to right, but sometimes in towards home plate.

One of the league members played host and he managed to get a fairly significant discount on President's Club seats for our group. Full price for these sets is $225, so I felt like a member of the 1% for an evening. Here's my ticket stub:



These Club seats are located in the closest sections directly behind home plate. I was sitting in about the 7th row very slightly on the Nationals' side of the infield. I took these two photos during the first inning. On the left is Braves leadoff hitter Jason Heyward walking to the plate to face Strasburg. On the right is Bryce Harper in the on-deck area :


The tickets included a pre-game meal that was simply delicious. Granted, the meal featured gourmet food that one does not ordinarily associate with a ballpark, such as prime rib, swordfish, kale salad, plantains, garlic mashed potatoes, etc. The tickets also included free wine or beer (Flying Dog Doggie Style was my ale of choice that evening), plus traditional ballpark snacks and more drinks throughout the game. That's right, open bar and individualized seat service all evening!




During the meal, seven members of our group sat next to the press conference room, pictured at left. Around the corner, fans in the Club could watch Nationals players hitting in a batting cage.

The Club bar provided temporary warmth on a chilly evening so I went back inside several times to catch bits of the NCAA Final Four games that were contested that night. Oh, and the dessert bar had gelato!









Here are some pics of most of the members of our group at the game, including last year's champion Bill Z. receiving his bobblehead trophy.
Gordon S., Rich, and Barry
Terry, Bill Z. Mike, and Bill Mc.



It was a terrific night after a fun day.



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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

NDT 2014

As planned, I dropped by the National Debate Tournament in Bloomington, Indiana, on Saturday, March 29, and watched the constructive speeches for a Kansas versus Northwestern match of two 4-0 teams. NU won that round and proved to be the Copeland Award winning team in 2014.

Both Kansas teams advanced to the elimination rounds and were defeated in the round of 32.

Georgetown won the tournament, as the same debaters impressively repeated their 2012 victory.

Between rounds, I met Kevin Kuswa, a Georgetown debater on the NDT champion in 1992. I coached Georgetown in 1984-1985. Kuswa is now coaching at Whitman College.

Photo credit: Joel Rollins


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Monday, March 31, 2014

Opening Day 2014

Baseball's opening day should be a personal holiday. This is "Joe Dimaggio Done It Again" by Billy Bragg and Wilco:





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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Zombie Comedy at ISA 2014



This morning at 8:15, I participated in an Active Learning panel at the 2014 International Studies Association  Annual Meeting. Specifically, I presented a paper on "Using Zombie Comedies to Teach Critical International Relations Theory." That link takes you to my academia.edu page, where you can also find previous papers from my "Comedy of Global Politics" project, including a couple on teaching.

Feedback welcome. Basically, I argue that zombie comedies undermine the standard narrative employed in the genre. The stories are not dominated by survival under anarchy. Rather, the characters in Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Warm Bodies seek stronger family and communal ties and deal with zombie threats rather easily (and cooperatively, as in a security community). Elite lifestyles turn out to be unsustainable.



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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

2014 NCAA Tourney

I'll post my bracket here in the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, I encourage readers to join me in the Yahoo! Sports Tournament Pick'em group, "Payne Twitter-Blog Followers": http://y.ahoo.it/YvNzyGof

I'm not sure if I have to provide more detailed sign-in information or not. The name of the private group is "Payne Twitter-Blog Followers" and the group slogan is "Who will defeat Wichita State?" The group, which uses the standard Yahoo! scoring system, can be found among the various groups associated with Kansas. Rock chalk!

Again, I don't know if you need a password to join.  You can apparently sign in with your Facebook or Twitter account -- without a password for the group.

Update: This is my bracket for the blog. In most competitions, I picked Florida to win:



Watch to watch Kansas play? First-round watch-party for Jayhawk fans:

KU vs Eastern Kentucky
Friday, March 21st at 4:10pm ET
Buckhead Bar & Grill
3020 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40245
502/456-6680

I intend to be there, but I may not arrive until 4:30 to 4:45.

http://www.eatatbuckheads.com/ for directions


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Monday, March 17, 2014

"Peace Through Strength"

Senator Kelly Ayotte

This morning, I attended a McConnell Center event featuring Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire. Though she recently sponsored popular bipartisan legislation, Ayotte delivered a highly partisan attack on the Obama administration's policy towards Russia.

Basically, Ayotte argued that the Obama's administration's "reset" policy toward Russia has been too conciliatory. Indeed, she said that this policy has failed and caused Vladimir Putin to take advantage of American weakness -- primarily in Ukraine. She emphasized these points as evidence of Barack Obama's weakness:
• "His decision in 2009 not to place NATO missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. 
• Obama’s choice in 2010 to “brush aside” the Russian invasion of Georgia, which happened during the George W. Bush administration, by pushing through a trade agreement with Russia.
• And Obama overlooking violations of one nuclear arms agreement at the same time the two countries were negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty."
She noted that despite American overtures to Russia, it has not been helpful in regard to the "humanitarian tragedy" in Syria or Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Plus, Russia has "a horrible record" on human rights.

In the question and answer session, Ayotte agreed with an audience member who claimed that the $17 trillion dollar national debt is America's number one concern. Indeed, Ayotte referenced Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mullen who said that the "biggest threat to our national security is our debt." Notably, the Senator's website has a debt meter on the front page.

Ayotte praised Ronald Reagan throughout her speech, but she definitely didn't emphasize either of the Bush presidencies.

Indeed, the partisan nature of the speech was as much about what Ayotte did not say as what she did say. Her attacks were pointed at the Obama administration, but she very carefully overlooked some pertinent details:
1. While Russia's attacks on Ukraine are a clear violation of international norms protecting state sovereignty, she did not mention the difficult rhetorical position the U.S. faces because of the Bush administration's adventure in Iraq. This has long been a problem, as I noted in 2008 in regard to Georgia.
2. Ayotte made passing reference to Georgia, but did not explain whether this Bush-era conflict should be tied to her overall argument about Russian adventurism, which she linked to American weakness. Was America weakened by more than a decade of fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan? She didn't say.
3. Oh, about that debt. Ayotte didn't mention that Bush's tax cuts (which, granted, are mostly now Obama's as well), plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, played a huge role in the accumulation of the $17 trillion debt -- and will play an even bigger role in the accumulation of future debt. Did that weaken the US and embolden Putin in 2008? 
4.  About those missile defenses and the alleged INF arms control violation, Ayotte didn't mention that the Bush administration unilaterally killed the anti-ballistic missile defense treaty with Russia in 2002. Would anyone want Russia to do that with the INF or START treaties? No. All signs suggest both the US and Russia are implementing the new START accord. The INF allegation is new and the Obama team is attempting to sort out the details via diplomacy -- much like the Reagan administration did with an alleged violation of the ABM treaty in the 1980s. 
By the way, Western European states favored the decision to scrap the missile defense system she mentions, primarily because the U.S. is aiming to deploy instead an alternative technology that many defense experts believe will be superior technology (Aegis on land).
5. Ayotte also didn't mention Russia's help in getting Syria to agree to eliminate its chemical arsenal. Or the role it plays in trying to prevent Iran nuclear weapons. Russia doesn't want a nuclear-armed Iran. 
Finally, Ayotte's policy suggestions didn't really offer new ideas to the debate -- or even ideas that are significantly different from the status quo. Today was all about carping about alleged weakness, not suggesting actual policy that would provide new leverage over Russia:
In response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Ayotte stopped short of calling for military intervention, but she urged Obama to order a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions sanctions on Russia.
Ayotte called for the U.S. and the world community to “alienate” Putin, to increase natural gas production in an effort to cut off Russia economically and to “revisit” the decision not to put missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Ayotte also backed freezing bank accounts and blocking visas for Putin’s top aides — which Obama had done earlier in the day.
The G-8, a group of the top industrialized nations, also may expel Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
Ayotte did call for more American military assistance to Ukraine, so that the country could defend itself -- and opposed the proposed defense cuts that are under discussion in Washington as part of planned deficit reduction.

The Senator openly agreed with many policies already taken -- she would not take military action, approves of some US signals with its military, etc. Indeed, the links I included above in her proposals point to policies the U.S. is already taking or considering.

Really, the conclusion was very bland given the "peace through strength" vision of Reagan she offered throughout the speech. It was as if an '80s defense hawk had ended a talk on the "window of vulnerability" by emphasizing that the U.S. should build bomber aircraft and nuclear submarines to supplement its arsenal....Oh wait, we already had those, so land-based missile vulnerability probably wouldn't cause world war III. .



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Friday, March 14, 2014

Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins
Does everyone remember an old joke about Michael Jordan from the 1980s? I first heard it while living in Chicago, but I'm sure it must originate from his North Carolina days:
Question: Who's the one man that can hold Jordan under 20 points per game?
Answer: Dean Smith (coach of Jordan's North Carolina Tar Heels) **
Well, Kansas Jayhawk basketball fans might soon be telling a similar joke about freshman star Andrew Wiggins.
Question: Who's the one man on the court who can hold Wiggins under 20 points per game?  
Answer: Joel Embiid
Embiid, Kansas's star 7' center has missed four games this season thanks to back injuries. In those games, teammate Wiggins has scored almost 100 points, averaging 24.3 per game. In the last two Kansas games, Wiggins has scored over 70 points and hit 21 of 35 shots. He's also averaged 8 rebounds in both games, plus had 5 total blocks to go with 8 steals. He's been a genuine athletic force and has dominated both games for long stretches of time.

KU vs. OK-State 3/1/14
Wiggins's seasonal scoring average is now up to 17.3 points.

Embiid has a stress fracture in his back and may not play again this season; thus, the apparent leap forward by Wiggins is a hopeful development for Kansas.

Wiggins has occasionally looked like the best player on the basketball court in Kansas games this year, but that has been much easier to see this week with Embiid sitting on the bench. Losing the star center doesn't make Kansas a better overall team, but it has highlighted the talent of his more highly recruited teammate.

I'm not saying that Wiggins is ready for the NBA. Frankly, I don't really care except that his presence in Lawrence and on the court would almost surely make Kansas a stronger team next season. I do recall that long-time NBA all-star Paul Pierce was a much better all-around Jayhawk player by his sophomore and junior seasons than he was during his less steady freshman year. I think he's the most comparable Jayhawk to Wiggins in my memory. He is also reminiscent of Ben McLemore, of course, but I thought the talented McLemore left with some holes in his game that another year at Kansas would have helped fix.


** Yes, I know Jordan tallied 20 points per game in his sophomore season at UNC.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Tourney Month

The madness of March basketball is about to begin. While I'm a Kansas Jayhawk basketball fan, let's not forget another KU strength:



The 2014 National Debate Tournament is going to be held at Indiana University in Bloomington, March 28-31. I'm hoping to drop by to wish the 'hawks luck, though I might go the prior weekend for the CEDA (Cross Examination Debate Association) national tournament.


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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Oscars for 2013 Films

Oscar statuettesThe Oscars are tonight and my wife and I have been using our leisure time these past few weeks to view nominated films and acting performances. Regular readers may recall that I saw only one of the films nominated for best picture during the 2013 calendar year. Until 2014, I didn't see many of the nominated acting performances either.

In any case, based on my 2014 efforts to see the 2013 contenders, I'm going to rank-order the films and acting performances. Obviously, this is my completely subjective perspective -- and not an ideal way to think about art. Plus, I can only rank the performances I watched. That is a big limit since I failed to see four of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees -- including "Wolf of Wall Street" and "12 Years a Slave."

Note that these are not my predictions about winners in each category. Go to Inkling if you want predictions.  Spoiler Alert: "12 Years a Slave" is a fairly strong favorite, though Cate Blanchett is probably the strongest favorite. Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence might win another Academy Award, but she is no longer the favorite.

Note: Most of the Documentaries have been available on Netflix for many weeks.

Update note: Shaded yellow will indicate additions after the Oscars (and the original blog posting).

Best Picture

American Hustle **
Nebraska **
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Captain Phillips

Her
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

June Squibb (Nebraska)
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)

Best Director

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Best Documentary Feature

Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher)
Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill)

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen)
The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer)
20 Feet from Stardom (Nominees to be determined)

** I saw these films in the theater.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Baseball!!

I spent much of my Saturday afternoon watching a baseball game between two teams that were in last year's College World Series, University of Indiana and University of Louisville.

Indiana won  three of the teams' four match-ups last season, including the first round game in the CWS, and the Hoosiers won again Saturday 6-2. 

Nonetheless, the temperature was in the 50s and Jim Patterson Stadium is beautiful:




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Monday, February 17, 2014

Quacks

Sorry for the silence here. However, I have recently posted twice to the Duck of Minerva group IR blog:

Sunday, February 16, I posted "Academic Family Tree." It concerns a website that tracks dissertation advisers and their students in academia.

On Friday February 7, I posted "Nuland: Comic misunderstanding?" The post discusses a comedic reading of Ambassador Victoria Nuland's recent comment to "F*** the EU."



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Friday, January 24, 2014

Local Climate Action


Very soon, the University of Louisville will be announcing some terrific news. As it recently reported to the American College & Universities Presidents' Climate Commitment, from 2006 to 2013, University greenhouse gas "emissions have dropped over 27% from 246,929 to 178,679 metric tons."

The official goal is climate neutrality by 2050. However, the reported reductions have already enabled the University to meet its original goal of reducing emissions 20% by 2020. Back in 2007, this blog was noting the great distance the University needed to travel. We haven't arrived at the final destination, but there's much to celebrate. Particularly in a coal state.

The lion's share of the credit for this success likely goes to the recently retired Vice President for Business Affairs, Larry Owsley, though a lot of people have worked with Justin Mog, the University's Sustainability Coordinator, to make this possible. As previously reported, I've been involved in local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for much of the past decade. For the past five years, most of my contributions have been at the University level.

The original Green Energy pledge seems to have disappeared, but a relatively new effort by students offers some suggested individual actions (see above image).


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Monday, January 20, 2014

Service odds and ends

I neglected to blog about a couple of service contributions in mid-to-late December 2013.

First, I was interviewed by a former student about the new U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal. You can find his piece at Rudaw, a Kurdish Iraqi English-language outlet. I'm quoted at the end of the December 30 story:
Rodger Payne, Chair and Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky said that the new deal may help the Iranian economy, but might also raise fears among some of Iran’s neighbors. 
“The states that are unhappy either fear that Iran will become more powerful as a result of easing economic sanctions or by secretly continuing its nuclear program in violation of the agreement,” Payne told Rudaw. 
He said that some countries may still be in favor of a military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or advocate tougher sanctions. But “the world wants Iran’s oil, so there are limits on just how extensive sanctions can be in this case.”
That was accurate, but I was questioned about why some neighboring states oppose the deal. I personally think these fears are over-stated and that the deal looks very good, especially when contrasted to the prospect of American or multilateral military strikes.

On December 12, I traveled up to Antioch College to speak as part of their Global Seminar in Governance. Most of the school's (very small) student body turned out to hear me talk about "Democratic Governance in a Global Context." I addressed various possible meanings of this phrase and favored global deliberation about American use of force in the alleged service of international purposes.


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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Zunar



Wednesday night at 7 pm, the Center for Asian Democracy is hosting the Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar, or Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, who will deliver the Annual Lecture.
He is expected to talk about the importance of free expression, the challenge of his work in Malaysia and the need for activism from cartoonists, satirists and comedians as well as human rights activists and social campaigners.
Last fall, I saw some of Zunar's political cartoons when participating in a workshop on "Comedy and Satire as Discourses of Protest in Asia." The images presented there were just terrific. Here's more info on Zunar:
[He] received the 2011 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning from Cartoonists Rights Network International. In 2010 the Malaysian government banned the publication of his book “1 Funny Malaysia” and then months later police seized and confiscated copies of his  latest book, “Cartoon-o-phobia,” and arrested him hours before its planned launch. He lost his appeal for wrongful arrest when the Malaysian appellate court ruled that police had cause to suspect the book was seditious.
To learn more about his life and work, visit his website.

Here are the logistical details:
7 p.m. in the Brown & Williamson Club at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, 2800 S. Floyd St.; visitors should enter through Gate 6. The talk and reception afterward are free and public, but guests are asked to register through a form on the center’s site

Updates (January 22): See this article in the Louisville Courier-Journal and this piece posted on the WFPL website.


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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jason Isbell



On Wednesday night, some friends and I attended the Jason Isbell concert at Headliner's. It was a terrific show -- and longer than I expected. The venue holds just under 700 people and it was packed with fans.

However, this was the first time I had seen Isbell fronting his own band, though I did see him twice when performing in the Drive-By Truckers. I blogged about one of those shows back in 2006.

The Isbell song "Outfit" was a highlight of that Truckers show and became something of a running joke on Wednesday night. Isbell told the crowd that he played "Outfit" every night, but that he never played it when someone in the crowd yelled out the song title. Of course, fans had been calling for it throughout the night -- and continued to do so after his warning.

I only own one Isbell CD -- "Live from Alabama" -- but this "Southeastern" show offered several songs from his new recording, including "Super 8," which has now been stuck in my head for a couple of days.  It doesn't appear that this show featured his full band, the 400 Unit.

Holly Williams, grand-daughter of Hank (and half sister of Hank III) was the warm up act and she was OK. Her sound was fine, but I didn't find much of distinction in her music.


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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Books of 2013


too much penguin @ home, pune
Photo credit: Rituparna Choudhury, Flickr
As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Allow me to repeat the ground rules: I will not list books that I reviewed, unless those reviews were published. In my academic job, for instance, I reviewed a number of books competing for a $100,000 award exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order."  However, only the winning entry is listed here. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books may include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links).

Non-fiction

Achieving Nuclear Ambitions by Jacques Hymans

The Tragic Vision of Politics by Ned Lebow

What’s Wrong with Climate Politics How to Fix It by Paul Harris

What We Know About Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel

The Race For What’s Left by Michael Klare

Scorecasting; The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim

The White Rat by Whitey Herzog

The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri

They Tasted Glory by Wil Linkugel and Edward J. Pappas

Additionally, I read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2013, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was edited again by King Kaufman and Cecilia M. Tan. 

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Hymans book quite deservingly won the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. I 
blogged about it at the Duck of Minerva. 

I read Lebow as part of my comedy book project. I appreciate Lewbow’s reading of realist tragedy, but I think his perspective is often much more consistent with critical international relations theory than it is with realism. 

The Harris, Emanuel and Klare books were all used in my fall Global Environmental Politics class. I really liked the Harris volume and the students seemed to especially appreciate the chapter on happiness. The Klare book is not as strong as other works by him that I've used previously in this class or in American foreign policy.

I already blogged about Scorecasting a few weeks ago. It's a good book, though not flawless. If you enjoyed Freakonomics and would like to see that kind of thinking applied to various sports questions, then pick it up. I especially enjoyed the chapters explaining the Cubs long history of losing and the chapter explaining why football teams should "go for it" more frequently on 4th down.

None of the baseball books are classics, but the Herzog autobiography is a quick and interesting read. Herzog managed my favorite team (KC Royals) during an era when they were among the best franchises in the major leagues. 

I was frustrated that my former professor, Wil Linkugel, did not utilize contemporary baseball statistics when evaluating players who had very short careers for one reason or another. In contrast, Jonah Keri explains how the Tampa Bat Rays have taken advantage of the most current methods to become a winning franchise. 

Fiction

As I have in most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the genre fiction. The least interesting or entertaining books are listed last in each section.

Terrorist by John Updike

The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Slam by Nick Hornby

Person of Interest by Susan Choi. 

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

World War Z by Max Brooks

All of this fiction is worth reading. I don’t usually read books that are on the best-seller lists, but my wife recommended Flynn’s book highly, as did an old friend from college, so I read it and enjoyed it very much. Hornby’s book is perhaps directed at a young adult audience, but it is quite good. Both of the books by Updike and Choi are responses to the “war on terror,” but both frame their stories in domestic U.S. settings.

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

In the Midst of Death by Lawrence Block

Black Ice by Michael Connelly

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The Outfit by Donald E. Westlake (wring as Richard Stark)

C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

Promised Land by Robert Parker

Ipcress File by Len Deighton

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Sideswipe by Charles Willeford

The Prop by Pete Hautman

Dancing Bear by James Crumley

Tan and Sandy Silence by John MacDonald

Nature Girl by Carl Hiassen

Thanks mostly to 
Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse group of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story writers. These authors typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. Fleming’s James Bond (007) is not quite in this genre, but you knew that.

Most of these books are worth reading, though it was not a very good Travis McGee story and I was disappointed in less-than-their-best stories by Crumley and Dick.



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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Films of 2013


As I note every December, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, or from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix. Because I simply do not see that many new films in the theater, I cannot today write a credible post on the best movies of 2013. After all, I have not yet seen most of the highly touted films released in late December. Eventually, of course, I will watch them.

This year, I missed many of the summer blockbusters as well.

Indeed, most of the best films I saw this past year were recent films that I originally missed in the theaters -- or were late 2012 films that I viewed in theaters during early 2013.

To make this abbreviated 2013 list (split, as usual, into two sub-lists), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2013. In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2013 films I saw this year, so far as I can recall:

American Hustle **
Mud
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire **
Side Effects
The Way Way Back **
Blackfish (documentary)
Elysium
Europa Report
Upstream Color

I must say that this is a fairly weak crop of films and genuinely reflects the fact that I did not yet see most of the Oscar-bait movies that are in theaters right now.

The exception is American Hustle, which I wrote about last week. When I exited the theater, I overheard some of the younger viewers complaining about the film being too slow and boring. My daughters had friends who walked out or witnessed people walking out while they were seeing it.

But I liked it.

Mud might garner some attention by the Academy Awards, but I seriously doubt that any of the rest of my top list will be noticed (except, perhaps, in special effects or other technical categories, such as costuming or sound).

The second Hunger Games film is very good, fairly loyal to the book, and sure to help Jennifer Lawrence make millions and millions in the future. The rest of the list includes some films with provocative social or political messages though they are not especially heavy-handed (for the most part). I recommend them and think most movie buffs will enjoy them.

The following list includes the remaining 2013 movies I viewed during the year. They are not ranked very carefully, though I think that the ones near the top are superior to the ones near the bottom.

Computer Chess
Room 237
We're the Millers **
Now You See Me
It's a Disaster
This is the End **
The World's End
Warm Bodies
The Heat
The Bling Ring

** I saw these films in the theater.

That's right, we went to the theater twice during the summer to view stupid comedies with lots of drug-related humor. Yawn.

I also saw a number of comedic post-apocalyptic films this year (one is also in the drug-humor category) and thought that It's a Disaster was the best of the bunch. Both This is the End and The World's End seemed promising at first, but the writing was not up to par once the disasters struck. Warm Bodies borrows greatly from Romeo and Juliet, which is about the best that can be said about it. I rarely laughed during The Heat, though my spouse seemed to enjoy it far more than I did.

Computer Chess is a nerdy period film that is quite quirky and well worth your time on Netflix. Room 237 is a sure-to-be-cult documentary that explores some really odd theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

I found The Bling Ring to be fairly tedious and lacking in story. It was like a prolonged music video -- but by a band that is not very interesting.

Here's the annual list of movies I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2014): 12 Years a Slave, 42, 56 Up, Admission, All is Lost, Anchorman 2, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Cockneys vs. Zombies, Dallas Buyers Club, Despicable Me 2, Dirty Wars, Don Jon, Drinking Buddies, The East, Ender's Game, Enough Said, Frances Ha, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, Her, How I Live Now, Inside Llewyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Love is All You Need, Manhunt, Much Ado About Nothing, Nebraska, Oblivion, Our Nixon, Pacific Rim, Philomena, Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, Short Term 12, Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Stories We Tell, The To Do List, Thor: The Dark World, Trance, You're Next, We Are What We Are, Wolf of Wall Street, and World War Z.

Hat tip there to Metacritic.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2012 movies from last year's wishlist:  Amazing Spider-Man, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bourne Legacy, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, End of Watch, Farewell My Queen, Flight, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, John Dies at the End, Killer Joe, Lawless, Not Fade Away, Prometheus, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, This is Not a Film, To Rome With Love, and West of Memphis.


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Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle



Friday afternoon, my spouse and I went to see American Hustle, the latest David O. Russell film starring Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence.

If you haven't seen the film, but intend to see it, stop reading this post because it includes spoilers.

The film is based on the  late-1970s and early-1980s Abscam scandal featuring political corruption (mostly bribery), which resulted in the conviction of the mayor of Camden NJ (a story-line emphasized in the film), half a dozen members of the House of Representatives, plus a U.S. Senator. The FBI videotaped many of the politicians accepting cash bribes.

Interestingly -- and this is the primary focus of the movie -- the FBI was aided by a colorful con man they employed to help convince the targeted politicians to accept cash in exchange for political favors. The con man, played in the film by Bale, had a British mistress/partner-in-crime (Adams) and a whistle-blowing spouse (whom he described as cuckoo) (Lawrence).

In the film, just about every character is playing some kind of con, ambitiously trying to get ahead in life by deceiving others, cutting corners, or breaking the law. The movie opens with Bale meticulously performing a sophisticated hair styling operation to hide the fact that he is bald on the top of his head. Later, however, the FBI agent (Cooper) is revealed to use small rollers to produce the natural-looking curls he sports throughout the film. Yet, in one key scene, the FBI agent tussles the criminal's comb-over.

The acting is almost uniformly terrific throughout the film. Adams and Bale are especially good. Lawrence is a talented actress, and does a very good job providing the film's comic relief, but I thought she was too young for the part she plays. Lawrence is Bale's aggrieved spouse and they have a son (roughly age 5 or 6) by one of her prior relationships. I suppose she could have been a teenage bride and mother, but the real con man's spouse was about 40 at the time of Abscam and the couple had been married for almost 20 years.

In any case, despite that minor distraction, I've now seen at least seven of Russell's feature films and American Hustle rates among his very best. For my tastes, it is quite difficult to top Three Kings, a movie I've shown in my class on "Global Politics Through Film." The film works as a synecdoche for the Persian Gulf war and has implications for the second given its particular anti-war message in an oil-state setting.

Russell also directed last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which netted Lawrence an Academy Award for Best Actress, and The Fighter, which earned Bale an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Russell was Oscar-nominated for his direction of those two films. I wouldn't be surprised to see this cast and perhaps Russell himself earn some 2013 nominations. Adams should be a very strong candidate for Best Actress.

Four stars for me.

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