Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Before I Die / by Jenny Downham

Truth sits upon the lips of dying men. -Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
16 year-old Tessa lives waiting to die. Terminally ill from a young age, she and her parents have exhausted all the options. Now in her final months Tessa stares down fate alongside family and friends until, in an effort to 'feel' alive, she embarks on a 'list of things to do before dying'. Sex, drugs, crime, love, fame, reunite parents, etc., each item is heedlessly pursued even as the necessary treatments and transfusions sustain her steadily depleting health. Readers won't confuse Tessa's list with any media-friendly, 'Make-a-Wish' endearment. It's a resentful pastime despite any sentimentality; only reaffirming her impending exit from a world that will continue without her. But not all's bleakness. As days, then weeks and months pass away Tessa's made 'aware' of each conscious experience (good and bad) amidst her vanishing livelihood, recieving what's given even after all is lost.

Frankness more than sadness gives this story its distinction as Downham illuminates the eternal fate with a rarely-glimpsed authenticity. A first-person narrative, it's dying seen through someone. Tessa's situation is unique but her behavior won't deny any real reactions or consequences; her illness doesn't make her a saint or forgive abuse. Her family and friends--perhaps more emotionally wrought than herself--still maintain intimacy with her, not some fragile creature. It's this deeply intrapersonal tone that edges the drama toward its staggering climax, depicting life's final moments like nothing before it. (YP FIC DOWNHAM)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Local True Crime Stories

Death Without Dignity: The Story of the First Nursing Home Corporation Indicted for Murder /
by Steven Long
This is a detailed account of the infamous 'nursing home' scandal involving six executives implicated in the murder of an 87-year-old woman and wrongful deaths of numerous other elderly patients. All of the horrific accounts of abuse and injustice within a corporate chain of Texas nursing homes are described as documented from the original Galveston DA’s investigation.

Sacrifice: The Tragic Cult Murder of Mark Kilroy in Matamoros: A Father’s Determination to Turn Evil into Good / by Jim Kilroy
The Kilroys of Santa Fe, TX enjoyed a fruitful life with their two sons Mark and Keith until Mark’s sudden disappearance shattered their livelihood. Mark was a third year pre-med student in 1989 when he disappeared during a Spring Break trip to South Texas. Nearly a month of searching availed nothing until officials crossed the border into Mexico and unearthed Mark’s dismembered remains. It was later discovered that Mark had been abducted by a drug cult and made the victim of a blood sacrifice ritual along with over 15 other people.

Out of Control: the Clara Harris Murder Case / by Steven Long
In 2002, Clara Harris became so distraught amidst her husband David’s extramarital affair that she ran him over with her car (twice) in the parking lot of a Houston-area Hotel. The case became a focal point for numerous 24/7 news shows. Harris was convicted and sentenced to 20 years pending appeal. An embarassingly deplorable made-for-TV movie aired soon after the trial.

“Are You There Alone?”: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates / by Suzanne O’Malley
In 2001, the nation was shocked to hear of a Texas woman who drowned her five children in her home’s bathtub and then called the police to confess her crime. Andrea Yates was the wife of a NASA engineer and seemingly happy mother of five boys when the horrendous event occurred in 2001, prompting endless debates over her mental stability during the trial. She was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Without a Trace: [Inside the Robert Durst Case] / by Marion Collins
Robert Durst was the son of a wealthy New York real estate mogul who, together with his brother, continued in the family business amassing a personal wealth into the billions. When Durst was seven, he reportedly witnessed his mother’s suicide; an event doctors later attributed to his bizarre and even schizophrenic behavior. It was his wife Kathleen who first disappeared in 1982 followed by the murder of his longtime friend Susan Berman in 2000 which first led authorities to suspect Durst of criminal behavior. Although questioned, he was acquitted in both cases only to be arrested for the murder of his Galveston neighbor Morris Black in 2001. Despite missing his court date and becoming a fugitive; he was let off again and given probation with a verdict of self-defense.

Mother Love, Deadly Love: The Texas Cheerleader Murder Plot / by Anne Maler
Another bizarre criminal case involving a Houston woman which spawned two TV movies, the Texas cheerleader murder plot made headlines across the country and brought the port town of Channelview into the spotlight. Wanda Holloway, the mother of a Texas high school student, wanted so much for her daughter to be head cheerleader that she hired an assassin to 'eliminate' the competition. The formulated plot almost succeeded until police caught and convicted Wanda for attempted murder, sentencing her to 10 years in prison (9.5 of which was served on probation).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the Road: Travel Narratives and Memoirs

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville / by Bernard-Henri Levy
200 years after Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville forever forged his impression of US Democracy, one of his compatriots retreads similar grounds in this outside-looking-in perspective of life in America. Levy offers up observations on the good, bad, and backwards while trekking through the heartland and visiting with political pundits, entrepreneurs, movie stars, police, prisoners, and many more. (917.304931 LEVY)

La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind / by Beppe Severgnini
A blood-born Italian, Beppe explores the authentic Italy in this zany editorial on da boot, revealing another face to the culture of pasta, pizza, and Pavarotti. This isn't necessarily a book written just for tourists or even armchair tourists, but a tour-de-force perspective on one of the world’s most beloved destinations. (945.093 SEVERGNI)

The Caliph’s House / by Tahir Shah
Renovating a palace in Casablanca seemed a nice idea until author Shah and his family moved in to stay. After placating the previous guardians’ ‘ghostly’ ties to the place, they were utterly unprepared for the abrupt climate change of Moroccan culture. A woeful lack of restoration professionals soon necessitated visits to Tangiers, Libya and other remote Saharan locales. (964.38053 SHAH)

Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia / by Tim Bascom
This author was only three when his missionary parents were transplanted to Ethiopia at a time when the strife-ridden country was undergoing many problems. Bascom recounts how he and his brother were witness to riots in their school and attacks to their mission station which forced the family to relocate several times. (963.06092 BASCOM)

Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore / by Madison Bell
Novelist Madison Bell describes each section of her diverse hometown, one perhaps not associated so much with ‘charm’ despite its nickname Charm City—rendered so in 1974 to beef up tourism and revitalize the historic districts. Baltimore was one of the first coastal cities to profit from a renovated waterfront, a move prompting numerous other American cities to do the same. (917.5260444 BELL)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After Dark / by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a widely-publicized Japanese author whose works reflect a penchant for western tradition. In After Dark, he explores the theme of urban alienation through several disassociated youths amidst the witching hours of a Tokyo night.

To cite a western pundit's definition of 'metropolis' would be too small. "[Tokyo] is an urban creature. . . a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. " (p. 3). Near midnight in a city diner sits Mari reading alone until approached by Takahachi, a once-acquaintance who strikes up a conversation. Meanwhile across town, Mari's sister Eri lies asleep--deeply asleep--monitored by a mysterious guardian-presence manifested through an almost dreamlike trance. As the story's events unravel new characters are introduced--night people whose grim occupations highlight a nocturnal stream of consciousness and whose actions inadvertently accentuate Mari and Eri.

More of a post-modern montage than fantasy or horror, the story exists in both reality and dreams providing an almost metaphysical quality underscoring the action. Eri never speaks and yet is 'spoken through' by rehashed memories just as Mari's perspective--though never blatantly stated--is understood by the end.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Oh Yeah, Well ... !"

Viva La Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Wits and Wordsmiths / by Mardy Grothe

Spoken, written, 'texted', behind-the-back & below-the-belt comebacks for all occasions aren't on TV (or bathroom stalls), they're dredged up from the past in Mardy Grothe's compilation of real-life repartee. Herein is a collection of the classy--and not so classy--zings, slings, daggers and punch-lines elicited from the world's most renowned wise-guys.

To be sure, there's the usual line-up of Wilde, Moliere, Churchill, Groucho and Twain; but there's also the likes of Dolly Parton, Margaret Thatcher, and Calvin Coolidge. Stylistically it's not just one-liners as various spheres of laconic interplay are featured through political, literary, and relational vignettes; displaying the circumspect universality of clever wordplay. In addition, the author splices things up with inadvertent anecdotes, puns, and oxymorons providing the necessary alternative to straight-forward banter.

While it's apparent that Grothe tries taking on a mammoth singlehandedly, failing to capture in his little book what would no doubt be a library of volumes otherwise, it's still a fair-to-middling survey of what's out there. More of a traditional approach with it's clean-even-when-risque exposition, its dry retorts are decidedly more Shakesperean in taste (i.e., "...any news today?...Not one 'new'.", p. 47) reserving more commonly parrotted rejoinders (i.e., "Cram it with walnuts, ugly!", -The Simpsons) for the playground. Despite obvious shortcomings, the book does exhibit some explanation of what real wit is, altogether in it's various forms and often unconventional settings.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Hospital (1971) / w/ George C. Scott & Diana Rigg

Out of chaos comes clarity for one man in this black comedy on the medical profession. A chief surgeon at a major NYC hospital, Dr. Bock deals with more than just bloody carnage. His routine headaches also derive from dull-witted residents, bureaucratic red tape, and social upheaval--not to mention corrupt doctors subversively plaguing his practice. Professional duties have decimated his personal life--his wife's left him and his son's now long-estranged. Whatever influence of control he maintains, it dwindles in comparison to the vastly underfunded, understaffed, under-everything hospital viewed at large; which now, evidently, has a serial murderer on the loose.

It's only when a wayfaring young woman--Barbara--emerges with her own 'alternative medicine' that new life is breathed into the downtrodden doc. But even as their relationship blooms, mysterious deaths still perpetuate the hospital's already trauma-laden atmosphere.

A Paddy Chayefsky (Network, Paint Your Wagon) script combined with the talents of Scott and Rigg culminate in this award-winning dramedy full of biting satire and hilarious--if tragic--societal quandaries. Background footage of the hospital's raucous sideshow is gotta-see; so well does it mirror the frantic pandemonium commonly witnessed in person. No ounce of tranquility is found anywhere as tensions from all angles are thrust foreword, as if only the most frenzied setting could accurately depict a realistic emergency room. With Dr. Bock, it's not that he's undervalued or disrespected--rather, just the opposite. It's the ethical anguish he must confront which brings him to his knees; a morbid disillusionment with his own profession and the 'system' it abides by. Scott delivers another Oscar-worthy performance as an end-of-tether man on the verge of breakdown saved from the abyss by Barbara (Rigg), a worldly but sensitive woman privy to the inner-conflicts of exhausted men.

The Pursuit of Happyness, by Chris Gardner (with Quincy Troupe)

Chris Gardner is now chief executive of his own multi-million brokerage company. He wrote the story of his climb up from homelessness to financial security with Quincy Troupe, and this book was also made into a movie starring Will Smith.

He grew up in Milwaukee, with a caring mother but an abusive stepfather figure. The details of getting by, living on the edge and moving from place to place in an effort to get away from his stepfather, ring true, and the discipline he received from his mother seems to have kept him away any serious involvement with drugs or crime. In spite of her difficulties, she also instilled in him the importance of knowing who you are and staying true to your belief system. He enlisted and was trained as a Navy medic, and after his enlistment was hired by a San Francisco hospital. He leaves the medical profession and gives up his goal of being a doctor to enter the sales field, first in medical equipment and then securities.

He falls through the safety net after getting married with a young son, when he walks out on a job before starting a training program with Dean Witter. His life blows up with his wife leaving him and accusing him of beating her since he laid hands on her. He lands in jail and his many unpaid parking tickets surface, so he serves time, gets to the training program but has no resources left. His wife eventually turns over their son to him, and the reality of holding down his job and paying for daycare, food and the rest is the treadmill he walks for almost a year, until he can pay rent for a place.

How he manages and takes care of his son is impressive. This is worth reading just for showing how a homeless person sees the environment, how a simple thing like buying or not buying a soft drink is part of managing not only to survive but to stay on track.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Some Irish-themed Mysteries for St. Patrick's Day

The Irish Cottage Murder / Dicey Deere

Torrey Tunet is only a visitor in Ireland when a murder draws her into the thick of a strangulation case in the village of Ballynagh. Fans who enjoy “cozy” mysteries will delight over Torrey’s interaction with Ballynagh’s quaintness and hidden
secrets of village residents.

The St. Patrick’s Day Murder / Lee Harris

When an off-duty police officer is shot dead during St. Pattie’s day festivities in New York City, ex-nun Christine Bennett and her detective/boyfriend Jack search for clues amidst a seemingly senseless murder. Without a motive to go on, Chris and Jack must infiltrate the New York underground to find answers.

Dead Irish / John Lescroart

The mysterious suicide of a best friend forces ex-cop Dismas Hardy out of is retired career as bartender at an Irish Pub in San Francisco. As details surrounding dead friend Eddie Cochran’s private life emerge, Hardy becomes convinced that Eddie’s death was not a suicide, but a cold-blooded murder.

Malarkey / Sheila Simonson

Lark Dodge’s vacation getaway was supposed to help her get over a recent miscarriage and reevaluate her marriage to husband Jay all while visiting her father in rural Ireland. But when she discovers a dead body on the property where she’s staying, the new intrigue draws her attention away from her intended R&R and right into the thick of another mystery.

Irish Eyes / Kathy Trocheck

Ex-cop Callahan Garrity can’t resist a good St. Patrick’s Day party, especially one hosted by her old boss Bucky Deavers. But when Bucky is shot and wounded in a liquor store robbery soon after the party, Callahan searches for clues despite rumors that Bucky had been working for both sides of the law.