For starters, three that disappointed me.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) is the Coen Brothers’ cult hit in which aging radical (“I wrote the Port Huron statement—the original, not the later compromise draft.”) turned stoner bowler “Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) attempts to get compensation for his ruined rug (“It pulled together the room.”) which leads him into the noirish schemes of “Big” Lebowski (Jeffrey Huddleston), booklicker Philip Seymour Hoffman and eccentric artist Julianne Moore. The result is neo-noir filtered through the Coens’ comedic style (it’s like Harold and Kumar wandered onto the set of Blood Simple), but rewatching this, it didn’t work well for me. As Leonard Maltin says, it’s a shaggy dog story—nothing the Dude does changes anything, nor does it change him, which gives it a kind of pointless feel (and makes cowboy Sam Elliott’s assertion the Dude was the man we needed at this moment pointless too). John Goodman plays a psycho Vietnam vet (I think they’re trying to parody that cliche but it doesn’t work), and Steve Buscemi is a bad-luck bowling buddy. Ruthless People would double-bill well as they both involve convoluted kidnap schemes, or Burn After Reading, which did noir comedy better. “So my only hope is that the Big Lebowski kills me before the Germans cut my balls off.”
Much as I admire the late Steven Jay Gould’s science writing, I wound up skimming lots of AN URCHIN IN THE STORM: Essays About Books and Ideas. I think my big problem is that these essays were written for the New York Review of Books rather than his Nature column, so he’s recycling a lot of material on sociobiology and science history I’ve already read. He does an impressive job shredding anti-genengineering activist Jeremy Rifkin for scientific ignorance (while sharing some of his reservations), but overall unsatisfying and occasionally (as inevitable with prolific science writing) embarrassing, such as his dismissal of apes learning language as an obvious trick.
As an even bigger fan of Lord Dunsany’s fantasy, THE FOOD OF DEATH: Fifty-One Tales was a bigger disappointment. As I’ve mentioned before, Dunsany writes a lot about how we are all dust in the wind, but in a story such as “In the Land of Time” there’s much more going on. In these flash-fiction pieces, Time Destroys All is the whole point, and he insists on making it over and over and over, occasionally varying it to bewail how Commerce and Industry are destroying England, or combining themes to remind us that Time will eventually replace polluted, commercial London with green fields (while I’m quite happy criticizing commerce and industry, as you now, I’ve never thought Back to the Land was the solution—but of course I’m not a wealthy British aristocrat with vast country estates). All that being said, “Charon” is an excellent story and so are some of the others, such as “The Food of Death and “How the Enemy Came to Thlunrana.” Overall, though, weak.