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Archive for the ‘Dwight’s Picks’ Category

ellery1I am always on the lookout for good television shows to watch with my family. A few months ago, I decided to give this Ellery Queen Mysteries series a try, and boy am I glad I did. This rare gem of a mystery show is based upon the Ellery Queen mystery stories written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. It has everything you could want in a great TV series: great acting, a good plot formula, interesting stories, superb sets, and of course, a fun musical theme by Elmer Bernstein that you will find yourself humming for days after watching the show.

The cast of actors is excellent. Jim Hutton is great as the eccentric mystery writer Ellery Queen, who is brought in to solve difficult murder cases by his father, Inspector Richard Queen, played very well here by David Wayne. I liked the interplay between Ellery Queen and his father as they try to solve the cases together. Part of the fun was also watching Inspector Queen put up with his son’s eccentricities as they share an apartment together in New York City. I also liked Sergeant Thomas Velie  (Tom Reese), the Inspector’s right hand man, who will often assist Ellery Queen. This show has a long list of supporting actors that reads like a who’s who of famous actors in the 1970s, including Betty White, George Burns, Bob Crane, Larry Hagman, and another favorite of mine, Rene Auberjonois.

Ellery and his father are routinely hounded and challenged by two of my favorite characters, a pushy news reporter by the name of Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) and an amateur radio sleuth, Simon Brimmer (John Hillerman). Hillerman was my favorite actor on the show; his role as the the stuffy Brimmer, who always tries to one-up Ellery Queen by being the first person to solve the mystery on his radio show, was wonderful and brought to my mind the role he is most famous for, as the British snob Higgins in Magnum, P.I.

Set in New York City in the late 1940s, this show follows the same fun formula that made those stories so popular. Viewers are made aware that a murder is soon to be committed and they are introduced to the soon-to-be victim and the cast of possible suspects, who all have good reason for sending the victim to his or her untimely death. Once the person has been done in, Ellery Queen is brought in to help solve the murder by his long-suffering father and NYPD police Inspector, Richard Queen. Ellery finds clues that others usually miss, and right before solving the mystery, he will turn and look at the TV camera and remind viewers of the essential facts of the case, and then will challenge them to solve the crime. My favorite episode that you don’t want to miss is “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader” with guest star Tom Bosley. Ellery becomes a suspect in the murder of a comic book publisher when he goes to protest the use of his stories in comic book form. Every episode has an opening narration, and the one for this episode is classic:

In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!

The show was written and produced by Richard Levinson and William Link, who emphasized non-violent shows that depended on logic and deductive reasoning rather than weapons to solve a crime. They are best known for shows like Mannix, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote. And speaking of Murder, She Wrote, there are many similarities between it and Ellery Queen Mysteries worth noting. Both have great stories and acting (Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher is a real treat) and both feature a protagonist that is a mystery author. There is even an episode of season 9 of Murder, She Wrote (“The Dead File”) where Jessica finds herself ensnared in a comic murder mystery that rivals the fun of the Ellery Queen “Comic Book Crusader” episode.

The only real crime in Ellery Queen Mysteries is that this show only lasted for one season, for a total of 22 episodes. But if you haven’t seen it yet, you are in for a real treat. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Ellery Queen Mysteries

 

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coverlayout.inddTwo men exchange jobs for a year so that one of them, a comic artist named Etienne Davodeau, can write a graphic novel about their experiences.

Richard Leroy, a wine-maker, takes Etienne through the whole one-year process of creating a good wine from his vineyard in the Loire Valley region of France. Etienne  learns first-hand about the fine art of pruning the vines, selecting the right kind of barrels, using the right kind and amount of natural fertilizers, and knowing which grapes to pick – and not pick — at harvest time.

Etienne gets to experience first hand the hard work that goes into making a wine as sweat is in ample supply on these pages. They are visited by an  assistant of Robert Parker,  the famous American wine critic and taster, who makes the long trip to France to sample several of Richard’s wines.

Etienne introduces Richard to the world of the graphic novel, a subject with which Richard is completely unfamiliar. They start by visiting Etienne’s publisher, Futuropolis, and Richard gets to see the whole process of how a graphic novel is produced. Richard watches Etienne finish making the first proofs of the novel and is taken aback by how much paper is used to get these proofs. Richard also meets and interacts with the many people involved in getting the book finished and shipped.

They have the most fun (as does the reader) when they make special trips to enhance their learning of and appreciation for their very different vocations. Richard takes Etienne on a trip to visit a vineyard in Corsica and on trips to several wine exhibitions, including one in Angers that features mostly “biodynamic” or organic wines from all over France. Etienne takes Richard to several comic book festivals and they visit several well-known graphic novelists, including Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Jean-Pierre Gibrat. It was refreshing to see how upfront and honest Richard is about his opinions, how he shares with them that he does not  like many of their novels.  The graphic novelists are fine with that; they agree that their graphic novels, like a type of wine, are not meant for everybody.

In the end, both of these men find that they share many common values about their work and the products that they make. They are both passionate about what they do, and both men have a hands-on approach so as to control the quality of their products. They both want their products to be enjoyed by people, “something to gather around, a link between people.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, my first graphic novel . The black and white illustrations of Etienne Davodeau are excellent and really helped me understand and appreciate the steps that go into making both wine and graphic novels. This graphic novel has won several awards, including Gourmand Magazine Best US wine book translation and Slate Cartoonist Studio Award nominee.  It is unfortunate that this is his only graphic novel that has been translated into English.

If you are interested in wine, you should watch John Cleese’s excellent documentary Wine for the Confused and  the wonderful movie Bottle Shock.  Both are personal favorites of mine.

Check the WRL catalog for The Initiates

 

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big miracle 2012I’m usually a sucker for animal rescue stories and films (just look at some of my previous posts, including this one.).  While vacationing at the beach last week, I was presented with the opportunity to watch this movie, and I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to spend my valuable beach time watching yet another movie about animals that need to be rescued.  Well, I was glad I did, because The Big Miracle is exceptional for several reasons:

One extremely cute family of three whales, including an adorable baby whale, that get trapped in the ice five miles from the shoreline near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Their desperate calls for help are very moving.

Some extremely hazardous weather conditions,  including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit , high winds, blizzards, and treacherous ice, mean that their chances of survival are slim, and make for exciting drama.

An extremely unlikely group of people join together to help these poor whales, including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a wealthy oil tycoon (Ted Danson), a local TV news reporter (John Krasinski), and a local Inuit tribal elder (John Pingayak).  A typical movie like this pits the good-guy activist against the bad-guy industrialist, so it’s refreshing to see them all working together for once, even if they have ulterior motives for helping.

The actions of this group bring about some amazing results.  The local TV news reporter, who first discovers the whales, does a feature report about their plight for the local Anchorage news. The story is picked up by the national news, and quickly goes international. Before long, thousands of reporters from all over the world are descending on little Barrow, Alaska.

More importantly, the news reports bring people to the town who think that they can help in the rescue operation, including two brothers from Minnesota who have invented a de-icing machine.

The situation on the ground quickly becomes desperate, as the rescuers race around the clock and face crisis after crisis to save these whales.  I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a lot of ingenuity on the ground and help from the Alaska National Guard and an icy neighbor of the United States. And I won’t say if all three of these whales make it out alive (oops, maybe I have said too much).

This exciting, feel-good movie is based on true events in 1988 as set forth in Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.  The acting is top-rate, and I especially enjoyed Drew Barrymore as the Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer.  In one scene she dives under water to check on the health of the whales, which I found to be very memorable and sad.

I also enjoyed watching media clips from 1988 of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings when they were still in their prime. This gives the movie a sense of authenticity (reminding viewers that this was a real story) as well as a sense of nostalgia for older viewers like myself who remember watching these famous TV news anchors.

The Big Miracle is an exciting movie that I highly recommended watching, on or off the beach.

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Saving Otter 501

saving otterOtters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago.  Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501.  It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!

There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me.  Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century.  The 2000 or so that are left  (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.

There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional.  I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.

There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago.  A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited.  It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has  a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations.  To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.

Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501

 

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mad science This daily guide to memorable inventions and discoveries comes from Wired magazine’s popular blog “This Day in Tech.”  The book covers a wide range of subjects, including medicine, computers, food and war.  Each article is short (one page) and concise.  The daily entries also mention two other discoveries made on the same day, as well as two discoveries made in the same year. 

I found most of the articles to be entertaining and informative, the perfect material to use at your next cocktail party.  For instance, I thought it was interesting that on November 11th, 1930, Albert Einstein applied for a US patent for one of the few commonplace inventions of his life, a refrigerator that used a complex process involving ammonia, butane and water. It was exceptional because it didn’t use freon or electricity, but it was not nearly as efficient at cooling as standard refrigerators of the time, so it never became a commercial success. Modern researchers have tweaked his formula and have been able to increase the cooling capacity of his refrigerator, so the verdict is still out on Einstein’s fridge.

Some of these inventions didn’t catch on right away with the public. Sylvan Goldman of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City came up with one of the first grocery carts on June 4, 1937.  He wanted to make it easier for his customers to carry their groceries, and at the same encourage them to buy more, but the public initially resisted using them. Women thought they were unfashionable and men feared that using them would make them look weak.  So he hired male and female models to push them around in his supermarkets, and before long the grocery carts became a huge success.

Some of these inventions had unintended uses that became much more popular with the public.  My favorite one in this category involved a Dr. John Kellogg, a strict Seventh-Day Adventist who taught the importance of a healthy diet to his mostly wealthy patients at his sanitarium in Michigan. He came up with bland cornflakes as a way for his patients to achieve a balanced diet. But his brother Will saw a different opportunity by adding lots of sugar to those cornflakes and, with lots of marketing savvy, the Kellogg cereal company quickly became a big business.  John  of course was very unhappy with the way his brother Will was using his cornflakes, and he sued him in court and lost.

Most of these articles can be found on “This Day in Tech” blog on wired.com.  The  online versions are slightly longer than those in the book, with larger pictures and text size, so they are easier to read. The online stories aren’t indexed, though you could try a Google search for “This Day in Tech” and the title of the entry you want to read.  I enjoyed reading these both online and in print, so I would encourage others do the same.

Highly recommended!

Search the WRL catalog for Mad Science

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angrybird1I have been an avid birdwatcher for years and I am always on the lookout for new and interesting bird books in the library’s collection, so I was excited to see this on the library’s new book shelf.

This book is unique in that it shows what happens when real birds get angry.

Birds are grouped into four levels of angry behavior: annoyed, testy, outraged and furious.  Each level presents snapshots of a wide variety of birds, which include a photo of the bird, a helpful “rap sheet”  of useful facts about the bird that includes its species, physical description, known whereabouts, aliases, and a very brief description of its angry behaviors along with a one-page summary of the bird and its angry behavior.

I found a few of these birds and their behaviors to be quite common, like the Northern Cardinal fighting its reflection in a car window.  But most were new to me and I think they will be new to most readers here in the United States. I especially enjoyed reading about the following birds.

The Fieldfare is one of the annoyed birds. It is a medium-sized songbird from Europe that groups together for protection—when a larger bird like a raven encroaches on their territory, the alarm call is given, and a flock of fieldfares will mob the intruder and shower it with a burst of their collective poop.  This is not just nasty but can prevent the intruder from flying and staying warm, and can even lead to death.

The Masked Lapwing is a testy bird that looks like a character from a Stars Wars movie. It likes to hang out in open spaces like golf courses and playgrounds. It  screams at any people who get too close, and it will not hesitate to use the sharp spurs on it wings, which like a pocket knife can inflict painful wounds on any intruders.

My favorite bird is the Northern Fulmar, an outraged bird from the Arctic regions that protects itself in a unique way, by vomiting a noxious stomach oil onto its predators (or victims).  This particularly nasty oil, which is based on their diet of seafood that includes fish and shrimp, can cause death  to other birds and some rodents,  but can also be used as an emergency source of nourishment for the Fulmar if the bird is unable to hunt for food.  I think the photo of a baby Northern Fulmar engaging in this behavior is particularly amusing.

Interspersed among the snapshots of these real angry birds are two other features. The first is a series of short feathered facts about birds getting angry and taking action.  The second feature is a description of several of the major birds from the mega-hit Angry Birds game, including Terence, Chuck, Matilda and Red.  Each bird gets a background story, a  description of what makes them mad and a rap sheet much like the real angry birds, all of which can help you better appreciate the game.

This book would definitely appeal to younger readers with the tie-in to the popular Angry Birds game. But the interesting stories, high-quality photographs, and well-organized content make this a must-read for anyone interested in birds.  Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Angry Birds

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I’ve always been a fish guy, and I’ve had aquariums for as long as I can remember.  About a year ago I made a special trip to Atlanta to see the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium.  I was totally blown away by the size of the exhibits and the incredible diversity of sea life.

I recently discovered this book on the new bookshelf, and I am again blown away by some of the same creatures I saw at the Georgia Aquarium.  Sea features over a hundred incredible photos of sea life from the acclaimed photographer Mark Laita.  The colors are so vibrant that these animals almost jump off the page (which thankfully they don’t do) and many are breathtakingly beautiful.

You will not want to miss my top three favorites: the incredible blue & green colors of the Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like an oversized jellyfish with long tentacles; the tessellate eel, a serpent-like creature with a yellow & white pattern with black dots; and a group of moon jellyfish, with the pale blue colors imbedded with electric neon-white flower patterns.

Laita explains in the introduction how he was able to achieve such amazing detail with his photos.  He did this by recreating the sea in his studio using custom built  fish tanks and lighting where he could frame the animals and control the exposure of his photos.  For some of the bigger creatures, like the whale shark, he visited several aquariums (like the Georgia Aquarium) to get their pictures.  Those pictures are much less interesting, and the colors look rather drab compared to those he took in his studio.  But most of the photos in this book are studio-produced and contain unique details like color that you won’t find in any other resource.

I liked the layout of the book, with a few exceptions.  His photos are presented one per page on a black background without descriptions or page numbers to distract from the visual experience.  There is a helpful information index at the back of the book that includes a small snapshot of each creature’s photo along with their name, temperament, maximum length and distribution.  Some people might find the lack of descriptive information on each page annoying (I found the lack of page numbers to be annoying), but you get used to it.  I do think it would take away from the visual experience if he had included them.  Laita provides very general information about how he took these pictures,  though he does not reveal technical details that many would like to know, like what cameras he used and  what programs he used to develop his pictures.  I would also like to have seen a few photos of his studio when he working on this project to see what his custom built fish tanks looked like and the size and position of the strobe lights he used.

Mark Laita has built quite a reputation as a photographer, and he has worked on a multitude of projects.  You can see many of his photos,  including those in this book,  on his web site,  www.marklaita.com.  You should definitely look at the photos from his latest project, Serpentine, which features amazing colors and  shapes of 100 of the most poisonous snakes in the world.  While working on this project he was actually bitten by a deadly black mamba snake, which he didn’t realize until the next day when he was looking at his photographs.  Check out the story from The Daily Mail.  The snake photos, like the sea photos in this book, are absolutely gorgeous. Hopefully the library will be able to get this book when it comes out later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea

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