Sunday, February 28, 2010

Slime mold of the day

Saw something very much like this on the trail in Foothills Park on Sunday, but lacking a camera I must now rely on the wonderful folks at Mykoweb for the photo. These were quite tiny, looking like minuscule, brilliant salmon eggs carefully arranged on a bay laurel log. What the world needs is a nice full-color field guide to the slime molds. Don't you agree? (By the way, they are not fungi, despite the label below.)


Watching the current season, and catching up on season 1 via DVD. Glenn Close, with her beady animal eyes, raptor beak, and plastic mouth, is perfect, and clearly enjoying every moment. I haven't yet decided whether the other actors are up to the task of taking her on. But it's a kick so far.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carre's Cold War spy novels are among my favorite books: meditations on the peculiar character of their time, but also on the human condition. Not to mention that they are highly effective thrillers and beautifully written. Few novelists have achieved so much so efficiently, working in so narrow a genre, and so entertainingly.

Post-Cold War, there was a gradual decline. I'm somewhat reluctant to admit that I eventually lost interest... until I was browsing for some escapism recently at Kepler's Books, and Alan Furst's endorsement of A Most Wanted Man jumped off the cover. OK, Alan, you sold me.

And it's a good read. The plotting is, as they say, brisk, the writing unmistakably le Carre. So what's not to like? Well, the characters, for one. Our hero, Tommy Brue, is a le Carre stock character, the almost washed-up, 60-year-old Brit trying to live up to, or live down, the legacy of his dad. The love interest, Annabel, is further evidence that le Carre is constitutionally incapable of creating a compelling female character. OK, he still has the remaining 50 percent of the human race to work with, right? Wrong: the hapless victim of this intrigue, a Chechen named Issa, is himself a crude caricature.

Is there then a single well-rounded, believable character in the book? Indeed there is, thankfully: the German spymaster Bachmann, a highly competent Smiley-type whose little shreds of conscience and credulity prove to be his undoing.

We read le Carre for the Smileys and Bachmanns, but we also need a supporting cast of convincing foils for our flawed heroes. We don't get them here. Maybe the master has lost his touch, but I am inclined to think that the source of the problem is his righteous outrage at the post-9/11 new world order, with his despised American spooks firmly in charge. We can only hope that the age of Obama, whatever its flaws, will restore John le Carre's faith in moral ambiguity, in all its glorious shades of gray.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vatican top ten pop albums

As an employee of a Catholic institution of higher learning, I feel eminently qualified and indeed entitled to comment on the Vatican's recently released top ten list, which is presented below in order of release. I give +1 for good choices and -1 for bad, 0 for neutral. Tally at the bottom.

Revolver by the Beatles: Off to a great start, Benny! (That's how we refer to the current Pope when we see him around campus.) +1

If I could Only Remember My Name by David Crosby: I confess I don't know this album at all, but any list that includes Crosby, Stills, or Nash to the exclusion of Young is a non-starter. -1

The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd: What you been smokin', Benny? -1

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac: Annoying, but kind of a cheese-pop classic. (Note: the only women on the list... no Aretha? No Madonna?... Papa don't preach, I'm keeping my baby?) 0

The Nightfly by Donald Fagen: The best Steely Dan album of all (sorry Walter), and a pretty hip choice. +1

Thriller by Michael Jackson: No-brainer. +1

Graceland by Paul Simon: A very pleasant album, but maybe not Paul's best, and let's face it, this would be nothing without the South African backing band (and their tunes). 0

Achtung Baby by U2: Another safe but boring choice. First step toward Bono's beatification? 0

(What's the story) Morning Glory by Oasis: Honestly, this is the best you can come up with for alternative rock? No Nevermind? No 3 Feet High and Rising? -1

Supernatural by Carlos Santana: Santana only has one guitar solo, but it's a damn good one. Too bad you can't say the same about the songs. -1

Total: -1

OK, that's close enough to neutral to earn a passing grade.