Monday, December 29, 2008

"No Man's Land" / a play by Harold Pinter

Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter is remembered as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, his numerous plays, scripts, and essays forever leaving a lasting impression on his generation. Known for portraying ambivalent characters within strongly conflicted atmospheres, his plays and movies are most notable for their tension-rendered scenarios, often executing scenes offset by harsh personal histories and constrained animosity. “No Man’s Land”, penned in 1970, depicts a confrontational meeting between two vague acquaintances and the subsequent dissolution and fallout as an end result.

"Down the hatch. Right down the hatch."

A bachelor in his sixties, Hirst may live alone but he's fond of sharing a drink with a friend every so often. A more or less struggling writer with little to do and less to get, he's pleased when he meets an old school acquaintance, Spooner, with whom he can share long-forgotten memories over a whisky and soda. Back at home the night takes an awkward turn, however, when one drink becomes too many and words transition into verbal taunts. With each man's mood escalating, the testosterone-charged atmosphere is only worsened when Hirst's two boarders, Foster and Briggs, invade the already unquiet setting. With all four soon well-intoxicated, a sobering calm steadily descends upon the scene, each character's sudden self-repose revealed as a distinct conviction of isolation and despair--'no man's land'. (822.914 PINTER)

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Testament / by John Grisham

Self-made billionaire Troy Phelan is a very proud man. Like anyone else whose personal worth registers over $11 Billion, he's rigidly protective of his assets. So it's not so odd that at age 80, Troy promptly decides to die, popping up out of his wheelchair, through a glass window and plunging down 33 stories to the pavement. Troy's suicide was in fact done with 'rational' intention, an act perpetrated to prevent his children, grandchildren, ex-wives and a horde of mooching lawyers from inheriting the fortune he'd worked so hard for. With stipulations in the current will (re-drafted just prior to the fall) admonishing Troy's sane diagnosis and with no reputable doctor to state otherwise, potential heirs are essentially "cut off" from the money. The uncontested and legally valid will bequeaths--with bittersweet irony--the bulk of the inheritance to one Rachel Lane, a heretofore unknown illegitimate daughter currently working as a missionary in remote South America.

Attorney and once-revered litigator Nate O'Riley is currently where many lifelong drunks find themselves--rehab. His wife long gone, alienated by his kids, and having forfeited his job and all but a few friends, Nate has used up whatever second chances he was once given. So it's somewhat a surprise when he's asked to go on a strange business trip to a remote region of South America--Brazil to be exact--to locate a missionary and dictate legal conditions pertaining to a vast sum of money she's just inherited. But even Nate has his doubts about maintaining sobriety long enough to reach her, much less pinpointing her exact location. While he's no Faulkner (even if he does inhabit the same hometown), John Grisham's long list of court room thrillers have never failed to entertain, making him a publisher's dream over the last two decades. It's the endearing nature of his characters along with his story's humanistic appeal which most garner applause and of course the southern gothic elements in many of his books always making for a dramatic story. Not so much of the legal jargon is dished out here though as 'Testament' definitely stays on the lighter side of things; its colorful depictions of the vulturous Phelan flock, Nate's will to succeed against addiction and the uniquely compassionate heroine all making for a one-of-a-kind inspirational story. Readers wanting an absorbing read for say, a really long trip, can't go wrong here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Called Out of Darkness: a spiritual confession, by Anne Rice

In this memoir, Anne Rice depicts her personal history growing up as a Catholic in New Orleans, her break with that tradition upon becoming an adult, and her subsequent return to the Catholic faith at age 57. This was my first time reading Rice, an author of Gothic vampire fiction who became a writer of inspirational fiction after coming back to the church. The first half of the book is about the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood, and how stirring and beautiful so many of these things were. Rice remembers feasting her eyes on flowering trees and vines which adorned stately homes in her neighborhood, and of churches filled with color – with statues and soft lights and incense. Church ritual and pageantry were an integral part of her school and family life. Despite the tragic circumstance of her mother’s alcoholism, made starker by her father’s long absences due to work, what Rice wants to impress on us is how the Catholic church was not simply an element in her life, but gave a structure and coherency to everything else. Her break with the church came out of her rebellion against its strictures – strictures regarding sex, regarding what books to read. What brings her back is not a change in her thinking – she deliberately informs us that she had no information on the present Catholic teachings , and desired none – but just an overwhelming need, a need to return to the God she loved. The book is different than other autobiographies in that Rice does not dwell on painful events, neither family deaths nor her own near fatal illness. She passes over them, going back and forth in time, trying to elucidate her main point. She regrets certain of the Church’s present teachings, and hopes that they will pass out of favor, as the old index of “Forbidden books” came to the end of its usefulness in 1966. She fails to grasp, in my opinion, that the doctrine that spawned the strictures is still present in Catholicism –for example, in Catholic confessional guides which help you to examine everything for purity. But it’s enough for her to be back, and she vows that nothing will ever make her leave again, no matter what “scandal” or “quarrel” the Church suffers from in the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Secrets & Lies (1996) DVD w/ Brenda Blethlyn, Timothy Spall & Marianne Jean-Baptiste; a film by Mike Leigh

"This is the life, innit, sweethearts?"
Widow Cynthia Purley is a woman doomed by fear and insecurity. Over the hill and over-involved in the lives of her now grown son and daughter, she's become a product of isolation and despair, unwilling to confront being left alone. Loving and considerate her children may be, her son Maurice and live-in daughter Roxanne are frustrated by their weepy mother's pandering intrusiveness, equally desirous to have their hands untied. Both have their own lives now, Maurice with his wife Monica, a new home and photography business and Roxanne, who despite living with Cynthia, is increasingly occupied with her job and new boyfriend. Meanwhile, not too far across town, Hortense Cumberbatch has just lost her adoptive mother to cancer. Resolving to seek out her birth mother after 30 years, Hortense goes through the process of locating her real family in between shifts at her optometrist practice only to find the results too far-fetched to believe. The records show Hortense, who's black, to have a mother who's white. When double-checks and second opinions confirm this as the actual truth, Hortense bravely decides to seek out her real mom for the first time.

Known as your favorite director's favorite director, Mike Leigh has long been one of the world's most influential filmmakers, his deeply intimate films revealing an unprecedented vision of dramatic realism. While at the center of this moving film are of two women--one bold, the other frail--mutually encountering a daunting truth, it's the peripheral characters, specifically Roxanne and Maurice, who complete the drama. Maurice played by Timothy Spall may be the only thing standing between Cynthia and the deep end, his shaky stability practically the fulcrum by which the family stays afloat. And yet his own life is weighed down by convictions of personal inadequacy and self-doubt, perpetually confronted with a wife unable to give birth and a need to sustain his teetering photo business. Seemingly held back by her circumstances, Roxanne might have the incentive but lacks the direction and most of all the means to get out from under. The story's ultimately defined by its two leads though, the culminating meeting and revelation between Cynthia and Hortense portrayed as an intensely awkward but wholly believable circumstance. (DVD SECRETS)

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Mercy / Toni Morrison

As one of the the United States' most repected living writers, Toni Morrison's books are always highly anticipated. Her newest weighs in at a very slim 167 pages and visits some familiar territory (slavery, motherhood, love lost, broken families, gender relations), but her elegant, lyrical prose continues to amaze.

This novel is set in the late 1600's on a farm in what will become the United States. The characters take turns telling their story in the first person, a bit reminiscent of a Greek chorus. They are all caught up in the web of slavery as is the entire nascent culture in which they live. The farm owner, Jacob Vaark, owns two slaves, one black, one Native American, uses the services of two white indentured servants, and also has one other young foundling of indeterminate race with servant status in the household. Through these characters, Morrison explores the full range of forced servitude in an era before slavery was limited to people of African heritage.

Vaark is a so-called benevolent slaveowner, who likes to feel that he is above the flesh-trade. Vaark and his wife Rebekka have lost all of their children to accident or disease, and so treat their subordinates as quasi-family, having none of their own. They work side-by-side and strive together to keep the farm running in a difficult natural environment.The group lives, if not in happiness, at least in peace until Vaark falls ill with smallpox and dies. Then the little world they've carved out for themselves in the wilderness quickly crumbles. Without the master of the house, neither wife nor slave nor servant has any status in the outside world. Perhaps more troubling, they no longer have the security of hanging together as a unit. Each is an orphan in a dangerous world, and the mechanisms of bondage have stripped their ability to connect to each other on the most basic of human levels.

Morrison uses language in a really beautiful way in this novel. Each character has a distinct voice and way of relating to the world around her. The author does not feel the need to fully explain everything that happens in the book -- some things she leaves to the reader to figure out, others she explains later through the voices of other characters. The plot is slight, but the characters are complex and their relationships to each other and to the world are even more complicated. Underpinning all of this is the knowledge that Morrison is describing the very beginnings of our American culture. This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you've finished reading.

New Diet Books

Body With Soul: Slash Sugar, Cut Cholesterol and Get a Jump on Your Best Health Ever/ by Randy Jackson
Long-time music industry rep and current American Idol judge, Randy Jackson’s not been hard to miss by people familiar with the most popular show on TV, or the entertainment media for that matter. Here he opens up about his own struggles with weight control and high cholesterol, revealing how overcoming these issues has revamped not only his physical condition, but his overall lifestyle and well-being. Whether you want to lose weight, lower cholesterol or just get healthier, Randy's new book can help recreate a whole new you.

Diabetes Diet Cookbook: Discover the New Fiber-Full Eating Plan for Weight Loss / by Ann Fittante and the editors of America’s Leading Healthy Lifestyle Magazine
More Americans are at risk for diabetes than at any time previous. Yet influential knowledge on both control and prevention aspects of the disease have gained ground in recent years, specifically pertaining to the very practical elements of diet and nutrition. This brand-spanking new chronologue detailing exactly what at-risk individuals should eat and not eat is a can’t miss read for anyone involved with nutrition for diabetics.

Neris and India’s Idiot-proof Diet: a Weight-loss Plan for Real Women / by India Knight and Neris Thomas

Tired of stick figure women splayed over the covers of dozens of “health” books and magazines, many (all) of them digitally altered per the direction of publicity and marketing departments? Here, finally is a much-needed rebuttal to all the Madison Avenue stereotypes in this book by two women eager to bridge the divide between perception and reality. Knight and Thomas provide some good diet info but also advise on the importance of establishing your own milieu so to speak when it comes to health and appearance.

The Park Avenue Nutritionist’s Plan: The No-fail Prescription for Energy, Vitality and Weight Loss / by Jana Klauer
Word on the street is that optimum health and sustained body control is obtained as much by lifestyle pattern as it is by diet and exercise regimens. Veteran nutritionist and health practitioner Jana Klauer confirms these hypothesis while simultaneously expounding on reasons why certain people never break from yo-yo dieting and fluctuating weight patterns. Anyone looking for a compendium to the South Beach or Sonoma diets will recognize many similar aspects in this, Klauer’s latest nutritional diatribe.

Southampton Row / by Anne Perry

Investigator Thomas Pitt may no longer be an ‘official’ police detective on staff at London’s Bow Street station, but he’s no less uninformed about goings on within his sector, having insider access to oft-concealed capital murder cases through his ties with Special Branch. Only slightly worse for wear after being relegated to remote investigative duties following some treacherous dealings in head office, Pitt and his razor-sharp wife, Charlotte, have kept busy trapsing after the city’s abundance of crooks, deviants and layed-low criminals, not to mention coming in contact with some bizarre society circles.

His penchant for intrigue withstanding, even Pitt is more than a little unsettled when he and Charlotte’s much-needed vacation is put off after a murder tied to the recent Parliament election falls into their hands. On the upside the case is no less a prestigious one, involving several inner circle politicians--most notably the pompous Charles Voisey--in the mysterious death of a well-known society spiritualist. Early leads turn out to be less than clairvoyant, however, as clients of the dead medium, Voisey’s opponent’s wife to be specific, are revealed as largely ambiguous—if not altogether unreliable—sources of information. With Charlotte sent north of the city to search for background details on the deceased, Thomas and his sister-in-law Emily must wade through the foggy streets of London’s Southampton Row (and an even foggier political climate) to try and pin down the real reason behind the “séance murder”.

For years Anne Perry has entertained mystery fans with her own interpretations of life, love and crime in one of history’s most fascinating periods and places—Victorian England. Her recent Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels, depicting a husband and wife detective team trailing cases closely-linked to issues of the day have been her most well-received with the pair’s engaging—often perilous—investigations never failing to dazzle readers. Though a bit further along in the series this story’s not hard to follow as the context provides enough background info for anyone to pick up on preceding events. This book's police procedural aspects will attract readers who'll like how the case weaves its way through high-profile intrigue and entreaty, ultimately tagging the real culprit behind the glamorous medium's death. (MYS PERRY)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Steppenwolf / by Herman Hesse

A veteran of the First World War, German author Herman Hesse was one of the interwar years' most venerated figures, assembling a uniquely esoteric body of work as a poet, novelist, philosopher and artist. A westerner with a penchant for eastern wisdom, Hesse's buddhist-centered novel, Siddharta (1923), was well-recieved by nations the world over and continues to be a cross-cultural influence today. Steppenwolf, published in 1927, details the emotional progress of a man unequivocably disturbed by his own intellectual frustrations.

When the young nephew of a woman running a boarding house chances to find a manuscript left by one of the wards, he's uncomfortably exposed to the brutally honest world of a man internally tortured by the paradoxical human condition. The treatise and preceding memoir are all tied in to the figure of the "Steppenwolf", a dual-souled (man-wolf) individual for whom life in the generic context is woefully ill-suited.

The journal depicts narrator Harry Haller as a man both deeply disturbed and deeply perplexed at the world around him. One of a rare, but no less real, breed of men naturally predisposed to forlorn melancholy, Harry is an individual perpetually at war against himself, involuntarily immersed in a constant reality of bottom-dwelling misery. Not only is there no escape from his pit of despair and angst-ridden existence, his burden is increasingly compounded by a perceived ignorance in others towards any similar sentiment or frame of mind. But this is only one side of his dual persona.