Under the Beetle's Cellar

[Amazon Link]

This book I got sometime back in the 90's, and now, probably 20 years later it worked its way to the top of to-be-read list. (Looking at that list gives me somber thoughts about mortality.) Probably I bought it because it was nominated for a bunch of awards, as the author's Wikipedia page shows. I seem to remember reading another book in this series by Ms. Walker, but if I did, it was before I kept track of my reading.

The weird thing about that: after publishing four novels in the 1990's, to (apparently) critical acclaim, Mary Willis Walker seems to have stopped writing. Why? I took a few whacks at Google-seeking the reason, but came up blank. 'Tis a mystery! But in any case,…

The book is more thriller than mystery. Right from page one, we know the terrible premise: ten kids plus their school bus driver have been taken hostage by a wacko apocalyptic cult leader, held prisoner underground in his heavily-armed compound.

I say "taken hostage", but that's not quite right. Their presence is being used to stave off an assault by law enforcement, sure enough. But the cult leader's actual purpose in holding them is worse than that.

Enter the hero, Molly Cates, a journalist for a Texas magazine. She had previously done a story on the cult, and she gets drawn into the standoff. Could she have knowledge that might illuminate the twisted psychology of the leader? Could she bring her investigative powers to bear to help find a lever that might be used to free the kids? (Spoiler: yes, and mostly yes.)

A very decent page-turner, all in all. Ms. Walker avoids a too-saccharine conclusion. So be warned about that, if that's the kind of ending you prefer.

Moana

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

From the non-Pixar side of Disney Animation, a nice movie set in ancient Polynesia. And yet another girl heroine. Aren't they getting tired of that yet? Never mind, it tells an interesting story about likeable characters.

The title character is young and spunky, but under the thumb of her dad, the island chief, who expects her to take the reins someday. Unbeknownst to everyone, the island is about to be the victim of a slow-moving curse, caused by demigod Maui, who stole a green gem, the "heart of Te Fiti". Gradually, Moana gets her mission: she's got to find Maui, he has to reclaim his demigod powers, and together they have to return the gem to its rightful owner.

And yes, you've seen this exact same movie before. There's a wacky animal companion (Moana points out this cliché herself, so thumbs up for that.). There's a wise mentor. Maui is a wise-cracking sidekick. At numerous points in the movie All Seems Lost. But (sorry, spoiler) Moana's pluck, resolve, and bravery triumphs. So yay!

And, sue me, I liked it. I eagerly await Disney's next cookie-cutter movie, because these cookies are delish.

La La Land

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie won six (count them, six) Oscars and was nominated for eight more. (And, for a few seconds, it won Best Picture.) Don't get greedy, La La Land!

I watched with Mrs. Salad and Pun Daughter, and they were both less than impressed. And here I thought it was a chick flick! Mrs. Salad doesn't like any ending (spoiler alert coming…) that is less than unambiguously happy. And Pun Daughter couldn't see what all the hype was about. ("It's not as good as Hidden Figures.") For the record, I liked it fine, but I was in a forgiving mood.

First, as you are possibly aware, it's kind of a musical, with periodic breaks for singing, dancing, and general fantasy. But (unlike most musicals) it's very self-aware about that. Underneath that, it's the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and fundamentalist jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They both have their career dreams. After "meeting cute" (he honks at her on a crowded LA freeway, she flips him half a peace sign), they gradually fall in love. And this love turns out to complicate their dreams. What will give way?

The acting is impeccable, the musical numbers are creative, And it's the second movie in a row we watched with J. K. Simmons. How could I not give it at least four stars?

URLs du Jour

2017-06-19

Proverbs 24:3-4 is sweetly inspiring:

3 By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
4 through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

It's interesting that the ancient Proverbialist found "wisdom", "understanding", and "knowledge" to be three separate qualities. No quibbles here.

■ A couple of people disrupted a "Shakespeare in the Park" presentation of "Julius Caesar", in which the stabbee JC was made to resemble Donald Trump. In how many ways was that wrong? Andrew Klavan knows: The Attack on 'Julius Caesar' Was Wrong in Every Way. Key paragraph:

Putting on a tasteless and ugly version of Shakespeare is not an injustice, not an outrage, not an act of war. It is speech — the very stuff we right wingers are fighting to keep free. This is more than a mere matter of law. The First Amendment, which protects us from anti-speech legislation, is not worth the crinkly brown paper it's written on if the values of free speech are not upheld in our hearts and minds.

Andrew's right. If libertarians/conservatives want to be better than their opponents… then they have to be better than their opponents. If you (1) agree, and (2) you want to get somewhat depressed, read the comments (536 as I type).

■ Paul A. Offit writing in the Daily Beast reminds us of How Rachel Carson Cost Millions of People Their Lives. You probably know this already, but it was not due to her somnolent science writing, but her strident crusade against DDT.

Since the mid 1970s, when DDT was eliminated from global eradication efforts, tens of millions of people have died from malaria unnecessarily: most have been children less than five years old. While it was reasonable to have banned DDT for agricultural use, it was unreasonable to have eliminated it from public health use.

Pseudo-scientific advocacy kills. Good to remember.

■ Joel Kotkin asks (and answers) the question in the Orange County Register: Is America now second-rate? Spoiler:

America is likely to remain the dominant country in the world — economically, culturally and technologically — for decades to come. Unlike Germany, China, Japan or Russia, its population will not be shrinking in 2050, and it enjoys both advanced technology and vast resources. Trump may damage our image in the world, but even his clumsiness will not be sufficient to undermine our continuing pre-eminence.

I'm a little more pessimistic, primarily because we can't seem to muster the will to get our fiscal house in order.

@kevinNR recounts Planned Parenthood’s Century of Brutality (from the print magazine). You might know the genesis of Planned Parenthood's genesis in the Progressive movement, but the details are chilling.

[T]he word “planned” in “Planned Parenthood” can be understood to function as it does in the other great progressive dream of the time: “planned economy.”

As Kevin shows, the eugenicist memes live on today.

■ At Cato, Jeffrey Miron has a headline that basically sums up how I feel about pols these days: “Everyone is Terrible”. But (specifically), he notes the terrible bipartisanship displayed in the push for new Federal drug legislation.

Much discussion assumes liberals are more libertarian-leaning on drug policy than conservatives. This is partly right; liberals are more likely to favor marijuana legalization, for example.

But many liberals endorse marijuana legalization because they view marijuana as relatively benign, not because of a principled stance for freedom or a consistent understanding that prohibition of any substance almost certainly causes more harm than good. Thus politicians across the spectrum are indeed “terrible” on drug policy.

Drugs are not "benign". But drug prohibition is worse.