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Hidden Gems -- Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the eighth dimension (DVD)

Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the eighth dimension

A friend who watched “Buckaroo Banzai” with me in the theater the week of its release in the Summer of 1984 described it as "the most sublimely ridiculous movie ever made." Many years later and after this movie has gained a cult following and we still hear it mentioned in interviews and see it included in various "best of…" lists, I still cannot find anything else said or written about it that can improve upon my friend's one-sentence summary/description. They set out to make a hilariously silly and ridiculous movie, and, wow, did they ever succeed. 

The production company hired some of the best comic actors of the 1980s: John Lithgow (the patriarch from the TV show Third Rock from the Sun), Christopher Lloyd (The time-traveling scientist from Back to the Future) and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park and a frequent supporting character in Wes Anderson movies). In the title role, they cast an up to then little-known but very highly skilled actor named Peter Weller (a few years before he starred in RoboCop). It also stars Ellen Barkin and a stable of wonderful character actors -- the sort of actors you've seen a million times without knowing their names. 

A polymath -- Inventor, brain surgeon, and rock musician—named Buckaroo Banzai and his crime-fighting team, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, save Earth from evil alien invaders from the eighth dimension. Almost everything in the story happens for no apparent reason, so don't try to find one. The same goes for the various personal attributes of the characters. John Lithgow's performance as the alien invasion leader includes an inexplicably bad pseudo-Mussolini Italian accent. Why? Who cares? Why do they call one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers "Perfect Tommy?" Because he's perfect. Why do the "good guy" aliens look like Rastafarians when disguised as humans? Again, don't worry about it; just sit back and let the sublime ridiculousness wash over you like an absurdist, dadaist, farcical, sci-fi bath.  

(Remember to look for this DVD in the stacks under "A" for "Adventures." I first looked under "B" for "Buckaroo" and briefly thought it was lost). 

Posted on Oct. 23, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems -- The Outlaw Josey Wales (DVD)

In the 70s, Hollywood started to produce a different kind of Western, one that attempted to show a more historically authentic picture of people and events on the American frontier. An outgrowth of the social and political changes of the 1960s, these movies sharply departed from the older cliches of  "good guys in white hats" or the Native peoples depicted as either mindlessly violent or "properly" subservient and, of course, the cavalry riding into the rescue. Some classic Westerns also referenced the "Lost Cause" view of the defeated Confederacy. But the Westerns of the 70s sought to show the conflicts as more complex, the white people as not always the "good guys," and the native peoples not as the violent, dangerous "savages," but more 3-dimensional characters, often intelligent, thoughtful individuals trying to cope with the onslaught of an alien, more technologically advanced civilization displacing them. 

Released in the mid-70s, The Outlaw Josey Wales stars Clint Eastwood as a Civil War partisan who first fights then evades the winners who write the history. With excellent dialog and characters, the film avoids the typical cliches of the Western genre, taking us into complex and challenging moral gray areas without hitting the audience over the head with simplistic answers. The symmetry of the movie's structure gives a kind of "framing" to the story. The film does include the Civil War and its aftermath. This addition has resulted in criticism that the movie is somewhat "pro-Confederacy." But the main character's story arc shows that different motivations existed to fight for the South without presenting another installment of the "lost cause" narrative. We do not need to replace one overly simplistic and inaccurate interpretation with another. 

It also stars Sondra Locke and Chief Dan George.

Posted on Oct. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New Chess books September 2023

The imagery of chess revisited.   794.1 I314

In 1954-55, The Julien Levy Gallery in New York City held an exhibition of chess-themed art by the most notable surrealists and Dada artists of the time, as well as many others who became famous artists later on. Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Isamu Noguchi, Yves Tanguy, and others contributed chess sets.  Dorothea Tanning, Arshile Gorky, David Hare, Man Ray, Matta, Robert Motherwell, and others produced pivotal chess-related paintings, sculptures, and photographic works. This book, published as a 50th anniversary retrospective, includes previously unpublished materials, such as Andre Breton and Nicolas Calas's wine-glass chess set and Alexander Calder's chess set made of found materials, and thirty-five of Calder's chess-related drawings. You can also read essays about the artwork and the music scores composed for the exhibition. -- Adapted in part from publisher description on 


 Mike Basman.  Chess openings  794.122 B315

A clear guide to the opening phase of the game for players just beginning to study the game. Not intended as a comprehensive work, this book takes the novice through the essential concepts of opening play and reviews the most common openings that lower-rated players and beginners will most likely encounter. 


Eduard Gufeld [and others]. Bobby Fischer: from chess genius to legend  794.1092 F52

Interest in Bobby Fischer, his life, and his games continues long after his death in 2008. In this compilation, several of his contemporaries contribute chapters about their experiences with Fischer and the games they played with him. 


Mark Taimanov. I was a victim of Bobby Fischer  794.15 T133i

Speaking of Bobby Fischer, his victory against Boris Spasky in the famous 1973 World Championship in Reykjavík caused an upheaval in the world of chess, up to that time dominated by Russian players. But, before this, after he won all his games against Mark Taimanov during the candidates tournament (the "playoffs" of the chess world championships), the government of the former Soviet Union had an upheaval of its own. Russian domination of chess played a part, albeit a small one, in the Cold War.  Accused by the Communist Party of losing the games intentionally as a counter-revolutionary act, they banned Taimanov from playing chess competitively. Fortunately, he was also a concert pianist and able to make a living that way until Fischer's victory over Spassky proved Taimanov's innocence. In this book, Taimanov provides annotations and commentary on all 6 of the games he lost to Fischer in that match in Vancouver, and his memories of Fischer since 1960. 


William R. Hartston.  How to cheat at chess: everything you always wanted to know about chess but were afraid to ask    794.1 H335

A classic compilation of chess humor from the mid-20th century. It is a short, whimsical book without much in the way of practical advice. 


Posted on Oct. 6, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems -- Captain Jack Zodiac

Michael Kandel started out in his career translating the science fiction books of Stanislaw Lem into English. Having read both authors, Kandel's absurdist sense of humor must have helped him bring Lem's works into English. In Captain Jack Zodiac, Kandel creates a hilarious dystopian future world similar to ours in which an everyman sets out to fix what's gone horribly badly wrong -- in his life and in the world in general. As you can guess, nothing works out as he expects. 

No spoilers. 

I can only go into a little detail  or I'll ruin the experience for the readers when they enjoy this book for the first time. In the pages of this book, you will recognize ideas that have, since its first publication in 1991, appeared in movies, television shows, and other science fiction novels and stories. And yes, there's a surprise twist near the end. 

To give you more of an explanation for the "feel" of this book, I will tell you that I often "see" books as movies in my head as I read them. In the "movie in my head" I cast the following parts: 

Robin Williams is the main character. 

Billy Crystal and Carol Kane (reprising their characters from The Princess Bride) as the owners of the Mom and Pop gun store.

Last but not least, Robert De Niro, in all the manic glory he can bring to a comedic part, as the title character, Captain Jack Zodiac.  Enjoy!

Posted on Sep. 26, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems -- 1984 (DVD)

The number of movies I consider perfect I can count on one hand.  I am amazed that 1984 ever reached the theaters. In an age when studios insisted upon "happy endings" and most movies would not show "evil to triumph," to see a film stay so true to such a tragic book came as a bit of a shock to me at the time. The Great British actor, John Hurt, looked born to play Winston Smith, the quietly sad but defiant man who rewrites history for a living but hates the accumulating mountain of lies the totalitarian government tells its citizens. Equally so, Suzanna  Hamilton (sadly not well known to American audiences) was born to play Julia. And I could not imagine a better choice for O'Brien: Richard Burton, in his last feature film performance. 

Filmed in London in the year 1984, one of the many surprising qualities of the movie results from it having most (maybe all?) of its exterior scenes filmed at the times and in the places where the novel takes place. I recall as I watched this for the first time that I noticed how the real London of the actual year 1984 so closely matched Orwell's descriptions in the novel of the same time and place. 

Burton affects such a kindly, fatherly manner in every scene - you may find yourself liking his character. But those who read the book know that he embodies the "Orwellian" state. Burton made his O'Brien a particularly chilling character from the start when he makes the two lovers think he's on their side to the end, and throughout all the scenes of Winston's interrogation and brain-washing, he wears that same fatherly expression on his face and speaks with that same soft, pensive tone in his voice. 

Note about the Mechanics Institute copy: The film prints shown in the theatrical release of the movie had the colors "desaturated" (called the "Bleach Bypass" effect, which takes place during the process of making the prints from the negatives). This was done to "enhance the dystopian tone" of the film. But some of the early VHS and DVD releases have their digital images taken from the negatives and therefore without the intentional desaturated color. Subsequent DVD and Blu Ray releases reversed this lack of effect. I have researched the matter and checked the DVD in our collection to confirm that it has the original desaturated color of the prints initially shown in theaters in 1984. 

Posted on Sep. 13, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New Chess books in the library August 2023

Chess rivals of the 19th century: with 300 annotated games / Tony Cullen.  794.15 C967

Many historical chess books focus on individual 19th-century masters and tournaments, yet little is written covering the full scope of competitive chess through the era. This volume provides a comprehensive overview, with 300 annotated games analyzed by the players and checked by powerful chess engines. Players such as Max Lange and Cochrane, known to the chess public only by the name given to a fierce attack or gambit, are brought to life. Fifty masters are each given their own chapter, with brief biographies, results and anecdotes, and an endgame section for most chapters.  -- From Publisher description. 


Tactical training / Cyrus Lakdawala. 794.12 L192

It is undoubtedly the case that 99% of games are won or lost because one player either spots or overlooks a tactic. Consider your own games and just imagine how much stronger you would be if you never overlooked a tactical idea. The good news is that your tactical ability is not some genetically-acquired unalterable trait. Tactical ability can always be improved through the application of diligent practice. Tactical themes are repetitive. The same arrangements of pieces occur again and again, and a continual study of the subtle interactions between the forces will inevitably lead to a greater sharpness in actual play. In Tactical Training, experienced chess coach and prolific author Cyrus Lakdawala guides the reader through numerous tactical themes. Topics include Checkmating patterns, The 32 major combinational concepts, and numerous positions ranked in terms of the level of difficulty. The final chapter focuses on a 2020 online match between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, currently the top two ranked players in blitz, the form of chess where tactics predominate. -- adapted from publisher description. 


Chess pattern recognition for beginners: the fundamental guide to spotting key moves in the middlegame / Arthur van de Oudeweetering.   794.123 O932

[T]eaches the most important patterns you need to know in order to develop and mobilize your pieces, maneuver your pawns into positions of strength, put pressure on your opponent, attack the enemy king, and execute standard sacrifices to get the initiative. Ambitious beginners and post-beginners who study this book will soon experience a significant improvement in their results. -- from the back cover


First steps: 1 e4 e5 / John Emms. 794.1225 C20 E54

First Steps books are based on carefully selected instructive games which demonstrate exactly what both sides are trying to achieve. There is enough theory to enable the improving player to get to grips with the opening without feeling overwhelmed. John Emms' 16 other chess books in the collection of the Mechanics Institute Library shows he has proven one of the more popular authors with our membership. -- adapted in part from publishers' description.


The Soviet chess conveyor / Mikhail Shereshevsky. 794.1 S551

Recommended for advanced chess players and chess coaches. Many consider the author one of the best chess coaches of the former Soviet Union. The book contains plenty of annotated games and discussion of opening variations as well as general recommendations on the methods of chess coaching.  The annotations tend to go into detail about notable moves, rather than a "move by move" type of approach.  -- Adapted in part from the book's Forward. 


Shall we play Fischerandom chess? / Svetozar Gligoriʹc. 794.1 G55f

Since the turn of the 20th century some chess grandmasters have lamented that the intensive study of chess openings and chess theory would someday reduce the game to the same experience as doing math homework. They predicted that with all the possible sequences of moves examined and the "correct" lines of play already figured out, chess would die of boredom. We all know this did not happen. At the same time, a few continued to seek a way out of the dependence on memorization of opening lines and instead have a version of chess that would compel the players to use their imagination and rely on the soundness of their tactics from the very start. Bobby Fischer formulated the rules for "Fischerandom chess" which preserves all the key attributes of regular chess but introduces a random set up of the pieces on each players' back row. This book explains the history of chess variants in more detail and sets forth the rules of Fischerandom chess (actually a lot simpler than you might expect) in addition to presenting some representative games. 

Posted on Sep. 8, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New and noteworthy -- Poland, a green land

Aharon Apelfeld (1932-2018) wrote numerous books, 12 of them in our fiction collection have all proven very popular with Mechanics’ Institute members. He wrote the most recent one to come out in English translation in 2005. Poland, a green land is a departure from his usual historical fiction writing. This story has more autobiographical elements and takes place in the present (but with echoes of the past). A Shopkeeper in Tel Aviv travels to his parents’ birthplace in Poland to discover two different “Polands.” People in his parents’ hometown greet him warmly at first, but then their mood turns dark when he tries to buy the tombstones from a desecrated Jewish cemetery that an earlier generation made into cornerstones for the town square.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New Chess books in the library July 2023

Jesus de la Villa The 100 endgames you must know workbook 794.124 D34w

In his immensely popular 100 endgames you must know Grandmaster Jesus de la Villa explained common endgame patterns that frequently occur and that any player can learn in order to improve their play. His students asked for more exercises to apply these lessons and he obliged, resulting in this workbook. He presents hundreds of exercises corresponding to the various chapters in 100 Endgames. Solving these puzzles will drive home the most important ideas, refresh your knowledge, and improve your calculation skills. --  [Adapted in part from the product description on] 


Andre Schulz. The big book of world chess championships: 46 title fights - from Steinitz to Carlsen 794.157 S388

German chess journalist Andre Schulz tells the stories of the world championship title fights in fascinating detail: the historical and social backgrounds, the prize money and the rules, the seconds and other helpers, and the psychological wars on and off the board. Meet some of the world's sharpest chess minds as they clash in what is known in some circles as the cruelest sport and drink in their tales. Read about the lonely geniuses, the flamboyant boulevardiers, the Nazi sympathizers, the communist darlings, and a troubled boy from Brooklyn. Relive the magic of Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Karpov, Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, and more. They are all great champions, but so different in character and playing style. Schulz's chronicle is an absorbing evocation of the battles they fought. He has also selected one defining game from each championship and explains the moves of the Champions and the ideas behind the moves in a way that is easily accessible for amateur players and highly instructive for beginners as well.  -- Publisher description. 


Taylor Kingston. The fighting chess of Edgard Colle 794.15 C69k

Kingston has examined hundreds of Colle's games in an effort to understand his skills and style, his strengths and weaknesses, and present an informed, balanced picture of him as a player. Colle emerges as a courageous, audacious, and tenacious fighter, who transcended the limitations his frail body imposed, to battle the giants of his day and topple many of them.   -- Publisher description.



The Mechanics Institute Library regularly replaces popular books that we either find badly worn or determine to be missing after a careful search. Here are some chess titles that we have recently added back to the collection. 


Jeremy Silman. The amateur's mind : turning chess misconceptions into chess mastery 794.122 S584am

Silman is one of the most highly regarded chess players, chess book authors, and teachers. This book has always had incredibly high demand.He has also co-authored some of his other books with our recently retired Chess Club director (and current member of the MI Board of Trustees), John Donaldson.  


Karsten Müller and Wolfgang Pajeken. How to play chess endgames 794.124 M95h

One of the classics of endgame instruction, this book focuses on practical application of the concepts it describes. Includes over 200 exercises. 


Konstantin Sakaev & Konstantin Landa. The complete manual of positional chess 794.12 S158

Originally written for chess teachers at the special sports school for young talents in Russia, the DYSS, Kanstantin Sakaev and Konstantin Landa present a complete set of instructions and tips for trainers and for self-improvement. You will learn not only how to enhance your fundamental knowledge and technical skills, but also how to work on your physical and psychological conditioning. You are handed basic and advanced tools to improve in a wide array of areas: quick development and fighting for the center in the opening, clean calculation and decision-making in the middlegame, tackling your fear of disturbing the material balance, and, last but not least, how to restrict the role the chess computer plays in your life.  -- Publisher description.

Posted on Aug. 22, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems -- Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky weaves a philosophical meditative narrative into a science fiction movie plot. A mysterious object hit the Earth in a small, unnamed country, creating a dangerous area around it they call "the zone." Only an illegal guide called a "Stalker" can bring people safely in and out of the zone. If you make it to someplace in the center, you get your wish – but it will not be what you asked for -- you will get what you truly want. And there is a price (besides the Stalker's fee). 

I noticed around 20 or so years ago that most of Hollywood's "science fiction movies" turned out to be simplistic, loud vehicles for CGI effects, with Manichean plots, pointlessly fast action sequences, and juvenile dialog. But long before this descent into mindless entertainment, Tarkovsky made this strange, slow-paced, beautifully crafted film. He sets the mood then builds suspense by means of dialog and the expressiveness of his actors. He shot in very muted color -- bordering on black and white -- and did not bother with special effects. His characters recite poetry and deliver lengthy monologues, contributing to the dream-like quality. By disconnecting the story from any specific time or place, he made this film timeless. 

Be careful what you wish for. You will get it. 

The Mechanics Institute has the Criterion Collection DVD of Stalker

Posted on Jul. 25, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Noteworthy new book - The Bones of Birka

The Mechanics Institute Library acquires new books each week. Some you will see on the new books tables, but members often check out some of the most popular books right away. If you do not know how to place a hold on a book, please call us at 415-393-0102 (or send a message to [email protected]). 

Quite a lot of what we think of when we think of "Vikings" comes to us more from popular culture than science or scholarship. Vikings never wore "horned helmets," for example, though we get the image from Richard Wagner who dressed his opera singers in truly mad costumes. Assumptions about Norse society implicit in movies and television shows mostly come to us from 20th and 21st century adaptations of the medieval sagas and not from the sagas themselves.  In short, most of the ideas we have about Vikings are either demonstrably false or unverifiable modern perceptions without evidence to support them. A wonderful antidote for those who have an interest in learning what we can know to be true has recently arrived in the library: The Bones of Birka : unraveling the mystery of a female Viking warrior, by C. M. Surrisi.

A "Trans" Viking? 

I found this a surprisingly quick read. Many may not think of archaeology as a dynamic field of study, but every time an archeologist digs up something new, that find can change or overturn previous ideas and explanations about how people in the past lived and what kind of people they were. Even technological advances, such as DNA testing of minute amounts of organic material still existent on bones, can lead to breakthroughs and brand new insights. This actually happened when scientists subjected the bones of a Viking (Norse) person discovered over a hundred years ago to DNA testing. A body considered since its discovery to be male and, judging from the grave goods, a high status warrior, tested as XX -- no Y chromosome to be found. 

To the surprise of the archaeologists, this discovery exploded through the popular media. They have had to field often contentious questions ever since. A trans Viking?! Really? But what does this DNA test result tell us, beyond the XX chromosome? 

From p. 120:
“A common observation made about the XX result was that the person might have been transgender.” The team didn't outright reject the idea but questioned it. “While we understand this line of thinking in the context of contemporary social debates, it should be remembered that this is a modern politicized, intellectual and Western term, and as such, is problematic (some would say impossible) to apply to people of the remote past. There are many possibilities across a wide gender spectrum, some perhaps unknown to us, but familiar to the people of the time. We do not discount any of them.” [emphasis added]

I cannot think of a better explanation for how we often make the mistake of applying the values, ideologies, customs, social norms and other contemporary frameworks for understanding human behavior to past societies and civilizations we know very little about. 

But this does not stop people from jumping to their own conclusions. In a tour de force of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, many of those questioning the researchers demonstrate an almost desperate need to dismiss or dispute the fact that a 9th or 10th century society buried a biologically female person with grave goods typical of a warrior (and without any grave goods indicating she was the wife of a warrior).

from p.118-119

“People… do not want to believe that the Vikings buried a female body with all the objects and honors they would a male warrior,” according to Neill Price, leader of the research team. “I still sometimes get questions like, "But can you prove that there wasn't originally a second male body also in the chamber, which has since somehow disappeared?”” I tell them, "No, we can't, but only in the same way that we can't prove there was never a second female body there either. Or three of them in a pile, or an ostrich, and anything else for which there is no evidence whatsoever."

We make progress one discovery at a time. Although this one does not tell us how Vikings constructed gender nor does it give us the full story of all the ways that someone with two X chromosomes made their way through life in Viking society, we do know that earlier depictions of Norse society no longer hold true. 

Posted on Jul. 19, 2023 by Steven Dunlap