Thursday, December 31, 2009

Buddenbrook: The Decline of a Family / a novel by a Thomas Mann; trans. by Klaus Marie Brandauer

Among the pinnacles of German literature, Thomas Mann is one name which shines exceptionally bright. Born in Lubeck in 1875, Mann was the son of a moderately well-to-do town merchant and prominent baroness. Though he would publicly poke fun and even revile his bourgeios background he was, self-proclaimedly, quite fond of the culture which it preserved. His most recognizable feat was perhaps capturing, with sardonic candor and discerning commentary, the transition of German society from an age of loosely defined aristocracy to a united federation and forerunner to a republic. Published in 1900 after over three years of writing, Buddenbrook is seen by critics as, if not his best, at least his most autobiographical and densely layered novel.

In northern Germany nearing the end of the 19th century the Buddenbrooks of Lubeck represent one of the rich, highly educated families which at the time form the upper class level of Prussian society. Though prosperous and influential, the family is well-grounded in morality, sternly pious and deeply reverential towards established traditions of integrity and hard work. The Buddenbrooks live in a world where strict divisions of society are laid down. Distinctions between the labor classes, bourgeoisie and upper-middle class mercantile families are easily identifiable even within the relatively small town of Lubeck where the Buddenbrooks play a major role in maintaining the status quo in regards to both themselves and everybody else. Unspoken guidelines for whom their children should associate with, which schools they should attend, who they form ties to and, of course, whom they should ultimately marry go hand-in-hand with daily tasks. Both sides of the social spectrum are aware of the often costly implications an inappropriate match could have which is why it is so important that the couple’s youngest daughter Frau Antonia "Tony" Buddenbrook marry Herr Grunlich, a visibly successful businessman from Hamburg and a man seemingly of good taste and distinction, even if Tony doesn't like him.

Tony's poor opinion of her "chosen" mate isn't so inaccurate. As it turns out, within months after their wedding, Herr Grunlich is found out as a scoundrel, unworthy of all good society and especially of being wed to such a catch as Tony. The marriage promptly dissolves in divorce, a lamentable but necessary action which eventually puts the Buddenbrooks back into relatively modest standing among their peers. Other problems crop up though as Christian, the family's middle child chooses a life in the theater, a heretofore unheard-of and near scandalous profession to embark upon. As further indignities cause friction and highlight conflict, the family fortune, once worth nearly 100,000 marks, has now dwindled to an alarmingly low sum as collective debts force the once and still proud family to face reality.

Mann's novel is not so much about the family Buddenbrook epitomizing the ruling class as it is about their decline, a dissolution which parallels the demise of an entire epoch and the ultimate dismembering of the Hapsburgian Empire. Even as shrewd decisions are made by upstanding family members in order to preserve their "place", shifting paradigms of a world beyond their control force the family and indeed the whole of Germany to confront change and transition. Mann was one of the great commentators of his times. The turn-of-the-century changes affecting his native land, the growing nationalism, imperial transitions, political reconfigurations and the creeping advance of German militarism are perhaps best detailed through his exquisite works both fiction and non-fiction.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Writing / by Stephen King

Known as master of the macabre, Stephen King is more than just a superior storyteller, he's literally the embodiment of a life spent writing very entertaining and provocative fiction. His books just seem to have a way of attaching themselves to the reader. It’s irrelevant if you’re an aficionado of the horror genre, a casual fan of contemporary scare-thrillers or just a once-in-a-while reader, his prose is as accessible as it gets; his characters, their confrontations, the stories' settings, narratives and plot dynamics at once poignant, vivid and captivating. In this, his 2000 memoir detailing the how and why of his craft, King briefly describes his life as a writer beginning with his modest New England boyhood, his teaching days, initial attempts at publication, breakthrough novel Carrie and, finally, his over three decades of success as America’s premier horror novelist, not to mention one of the publishing world’s most marketable talents.

Describing his own relationship with the process of creating fiction in frank, succinct fashion and with open candor, King basically just tells it as he’s always viewed it, citing that writing is his “drug” and the reason he often spends weeks engrossed in nothing else but polishing his latest thriller. He also elaborates on some of the finer points of style and composition; things like creating characters, fashioning dialogue and manifesting original, provocative stories are thoroughly explained. Additionally highlighted are some of his own personal and surprisingly simple fundamentals to being a writer: writing well requires that you read a lot, “slay your darlings”, and that Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is still one of the most relevant guides to writing. (B KING)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Detour / by James Siegel

Paul and Joanna Breibard are childless Manhattan professionals who have traveled to Colombia to adopt what they hope to be their first child. But no sooner do they meet the newest addition to their family than they're kidnapped by left-wing militia who blackmail the couple, getting them to cooperate in a risky drug smuggling operation in exchange for their safety and the safety of their daughter. The plan involves Paul himself smuggling the drugs into the US alone. After being forced to swallow 36 condoms stuffed with cocaine, he's told he has 48 hours to deliver the contraband to a to-be-specified location in New Jersey. His failure to complete the transaction will mean death for both his wife and the baby.

After making it safely through customs and into America, Paul finds that his contact's residence has been destroyed, suspiciously having burnt to the ground overnight. Desperate, he contacts his faithful lawyer Miles Goldstein who links Paul up with Moshe Skolnick, a Russian mobster and character nearly as grisly as Paul's kidnappers. James Siegel has been compared to Dean Koontz and Harlan Coben as an author who writes action-packed thrill rides. His 2005 novel Detour was well-received by both fans and critics. Like Koontz, Siegel keeps the action suspenseful, writing in short paragraphs and swift, abrupt chapters usually ending in one cliffhanger or another. Readers who like these kinds of thrill rides will enjoy the near-warp speed pace of the novel, but those who like a little more substance to a character may not be so intrigued. The book does feature some creative sequences and is fairly unpredictable throughout. (FIC SIEGEL)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beautiful Lies / by Lisa Unger

Connecticut native Lisa Unger has lived in the Netherlands, England and New Jersey and had a high-profile career in publicity prior to becoming a full-time author. Her 2007 crime novel Beautiful Lies was selected as an International Book of the Month and was a finalist for "Best Novel" among the International Thriller Writers Organization.

New York City freelance writer Ridley Jones becomes famous one day after rescuing a toddler who suddenly wanders out into a busy intersection. The publicity from her daring act has some quirky after-effects though as, soon afterwards, she receives an old photo of a man, an oddly familiar-looking woman and a young girl. Accompanying the photo is a note with the words "Are you my daughter?". Understandably puzzled, Ridley speaks to her parents who eagerly affirm she is in fact their rightful daughter by birth. Still uncertain and needing confirmation, Ridley, along with her new boyfriend Jake tries to track down the source of the strange letter, uncovering some remarkable details and shocking secrets in the process.

Between Ridley and Jake, things swiftly and compellingly escalate as aspects of Ridley's life become a swirl of treachery, betrayal and lies. Her family (parents in particular) are definitely hiding something; her path to the truth seems to become more obstructed at every turn. Finally it's her somewhat estranged Uncle Max, a real estate mogul turned philanthropist, who turns out to have be the most useful tool in Ridley's now near-desparate search. Ultimately Ridley unveils the truth about her mysterious past, her oddly-situated origins and a world she never new existed. Unger has a knack creating suspense-driven drama intermingled with well-fleshed out characters and intriguing romantic subplots. Readers will also enjoy how she describes the Big Apple, both its dark and shady side as well as its unmistakeable glamour and glitz.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed / by Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell is one of the more prolific crime fiction writers around, well-known by practically everyone even remotely into the genre. She's also tried her hand at several true crime books, her 2001 investigative account on Jack the Ripper claiming to have at last identified the real culprit responsible for the shockingly horrific murders of 5 (some say 6) prostitutes in London's east end during the summer and fall of 1888.
No serial killer can approach the infamy that the man known only by his pen name, Jack the Ripper, achieved in the late 1880's. One of the first to be classified as a "serial killer", Jack the Ripper was no doubt the nineteenth century's most notorious criminal, if not the most referenced murderer in all of history. Much of the attention surrounding the Ripper Murders is simply the fact that the real identity of the killer has remained unsolved, a condition only inflating the number of possible suspects, sparking numerous, ever-glamourized conspiracy theories and sustaining the ignominy of the real villain--whoever he may be. The case was not only ghastly in nature and method, it was peculiarly intriguing for a number of reasons: the social and political culture of the era, the murderer's indiscernible motives, loose theories involving celebrity suspects and the savagery of the crime contradicting modernist presumptions of civility. Mysterious clues left by the killer, and the he curious way in which the victims were "arranged"--each mangled corpse sprawled out on the ground usually with various internal organs missing--also contributed to the intrigue surrounding the case. Notes written to police at the time, letters claiming to be written by the killer and signed "Jack the Ripper", were used as evidence although no one was officially named as the prime suspect.
Cornwell's theory pins a man named Walter Sickert as the official murderer. An artist/painter of marginal fame and a man who kept a residence in the area of the murders during the period, Sickert was a gentleman who kept up with legitimate company and was known, even revered in certain circles. Yet he was also an individual who concealed a very secretive lifestyle. Since birth, Sickert suffered from a permanent sexual deformity, one which Cornwell postulates could have led to a violent, mysogynist disposition toward women and a need to act out his rage. Sickert's own artwork, Cornwell claims, even reflects Ripper-like undertones and particularly curious correlations to the Ripper murders, displaying denuded female figures positioned in strikingly similar patterns to that of the victims.
The book was actually a two year, multi-million dollar investigation (Cornwell traveled to England and actually purchased 19 of Sickert's original artworks to use as evidence) incorporating several highly sophisticated research techniques and DNA samplings. Yet despite all the effort, Cornwell was personally reviled by critics and fellow Ripperologists who stated that her investigation produced only limited circumstantial evidence; the context of which was solely conducive to her own theory and elicited facts which flew in the face of previously established patterns of evidence (e.g., Sickert was never, in over a century of scrupulously detailed analysis, among the 20 or so leading suspects and was even out of the country at indeterminate intervals during the murders).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Black Water (DVD) 2007 / a film by David Nehrlich & Andrew Traucki; starring Diana Glenn, Andy Rodoreda & Maeve Dermody

After spending the Christmas holiday at home, Australian sisters Grace and Lee along with Grace's husband Adam take their time traveling back to their jobs in Sydney, stopping off at various off-the-beaten-path locales, quaint remote lodges and assorted regional attractions. Yet terror finds them during a guided tour of a mangrove swamp when a vicious attack by a man-eating crocodile capsizes their boat, the beast killing the tour guide and leaving the trio trapped up a tree with the crocodile still lurking in the shallow water. Attempts to contact the outside world, gain access to the drifting boat and navigate the tree limbs in pursuit of a path out of the swamp prove futile, even fatal when Adam's efforts to retrieve the boat go awry and he too is taken under (and eaten) by the croc. Isolated, preyed upon and utterly alone, the stranded sisters await their fate with little hope of escape, rescue or survival.
What may suggest another generic creature feature from the outer casing, not to mention any preconceptions based on movies like Jaws, Cujo, King Kong or Jurassic Park, is actually an intriguingly gratifying film. The story, based on true accounts of crocodile attacks in this particular region of Australia, is less focused on the savagery of nature or man vs. beast battles and more concerned with the psychology of fear, the reactionary immobilization (both literally and figuratively) of an individual amidst stunningly perilous circumstances. A low-budget indie picture with little-to-no adapted or CGI effects (real crocodiles were used), Black Water transcends any limitations and emerges as an intense, moving experience.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance / by Stephen Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner

In 2005, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner wrote Freakonomics, a wildly successful book full of interesting stories and anecdotes about why incentives matter to consumers and how actions can have multiple, unforeseeable consequences. Many of these same speculations, weird coincidences and astounding correlatives fill their new book Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the original bestseller. Primary interest points included in this new volume concern the economical benefits of being a prostitute, how supplementing the atmosphere with sulfuric compounds might help solve global warming, why car seats may not be a safer alternative than seat belts and how walking home drunk may be a more dangerous alternative to driving home drunk.
Some parts of this book seem intended solely for offering quirky factoids on society rather than comment on how economic incentives really do have any practical application. Superfreakonomics is an easy, readable book to get into and most readers could finish it in two to three sittings. But it seems to enhance "economical" aspects of our lives which, while carrying some realistic weight, contain more charming and trivial significance than any authentic relevance. Leavitt and Dubner are well-researched, drawing their material from every conceivable field--economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, physics, etc.--and produce a book which is a very interesting read. But it doesn't seem to have any real objective, any purpose for advocating a need for being aware of why, say, certain shady, slightly unethical professions are sureproof get rich schemes while other law-abiding careers are doomed. Much of the book's concluding analysis sounds as if the authors are facilitating arguments for one cause or another simply for the sake of providing a better alternative.

New Christmas Fiction

The Gift: A Novel / by Cecilia Ahern
Hard-nosed workaholic Lou Steffen doesn’t have time for sentimental Christmas festivities until Gabe, a mysterious homeless man, subtly teaches Lou what truly matters and how precious the gift of Christmas really is.
The Christmas Dog / by Melody Carlson
Betty Kowalski is feeling more alone and wretched than usual this Christmas with the lack of friends or relatives to celebrate with and her neighbor’s home renovations driving her up a wall. But when a cute dog shows up on her doorstep one night, she gets quite an unexpected Christmas surprise.
The Christmas List / by Richard Paul Evans
One day just before Christmas, James Kier reads his own obituary in his hometown newspaper. At first he thinks it must be a joke until certain events prompt him to take the situation seriously.
Home In Time For Christmas / by Heather Graham
Melody Tarleton never expected to become close with a strange hitchhiker she almost runs over with her car. But a peculiar brand of Christmas magic soon helps her discover a love which transcends all boundaries.
The Memory Quilt: A Christmas Story for our Times / by T.D. Jakes
It’s Christmas time in Chicago and Lela, a single woman down on her luck, finds solace in her church’s Virgin Mary themed bible study and soon begins to look life through with new eyes.
A Christmas Blizzard / Garrison Keillor
Wealthy loner James Sparrow intends to spend Christmas in Hawaii until he’s abruptly summoned to his North Dakota hometown where his Aunt is deathly ill. Permanently detoured after a blizzard leaves him stranded at his childhood home, James is suddenly confronted by ghosts from his boyhood past.
A Wish For Christmas: A Cape Light Novel / by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer
This season the people of Cape Light confront their past while looking hesitantly toward the future: David is a war veteran returning home after the death of his mother, Jack has remarried and now must try and to reach out to his new stepdaughter, and crabby old Lillian Warwick may feel independent but circumstances soon force her to reach out to those she would otherwise shun

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Lovely Bones / by Alice Sebold

One of the more interesting publishing stories of the decade was in 2002-2003 when The Lovely Bones by first-time novelist Alice Sebold staked a claim to the top spot. The book, in which a young girl's abduction and murder is retold by the victim (in spirit form), grabbed its fair share of attention and headlines from the more pedigreed works by Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code), James Patterson and Danielle Steel. Seven years later, the movie version starring Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz is set to debut, opening next month. Sebold is a former student of the University of Houston's M.F.A. program.

"The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life."
p. 363
Susie Salmon is 14 on December 6, 1973, the last day of her life. The oldest daughter of Jack and Abigail Salmon of Norristown, Pennsylvania, Susie meets her fate walking home alone from school after a confrontation with her peculiar neighbor George Harvey sees her raped, murdered and concealed, her corpse dismembered and boxed up. It's a while before the Salmons--both Jack and Abigail along with Lindsey, Susie's younger sister by a year, and Buckley, the toddler son--accept that Susie is really dead, not just missing. Questions linger until an elbow (Susie's), a remnant of the dead girl mistakenly left behind, is found giving finality to the case. The years following death of their beloved daughter and sister hold some ill after-effects, the family steadily becoming unhinged under the weight of their distress. Abigail's withdrawal of affection from her children and husband, her foray into adultery and ultimate flight from the home, Lindsey's alienation, Buckley's resentment, Jack's assurance of Harvey's guilt and self-destructive fixation over the inability to see him brought to justice all push things toward a near-irreparable disarray.

But Susie's mortal death hasn't totally suspended her from contact with her family. Susie, now an amorphous spirit in her own personal heaven, observes their world perceiving their collective grief, sensing each's pain, misery and despair. The spirit Susie actively "accommodate" each of her family members, witnessing her mother's betrayal and abandonment of the family unit, observing her sister Lindsey's bitterness finding some solace with a loyal boyfriend, relating to her brother's sense of being forgotten and, perhaps most poignantly, understanding her father's grief and how it's medicated through his unending obsession for revenge and justice. Susie is even able to "see" George Harvey, the boy he once was, the torturous childhood he endured, his pathological need to kill, his previous and subsequent victims (Susie was neither his first nor his only girl) and the utter remorseless indifference towards his crimes.

The Lovely Bones' popularity is well-merited. There's a sort of absorbing voyeurism to the characters, their lives evocatively illuminated through Sebold's superior prose, engaging hold on the reader and clever arrangement of the narrative. Susie's presence and cognition in relation to each of her family's lives--their innermost thoughts, their reactions and convictions, frustrations and revelations is profoundly entrancing, the attraction of the novel and pursuit through the chapters not so much about seeking a resolution as to be immersed in the almost ethereal atmosphere of the story.

London Boulevard / by Ken Bruen

Just out on parole after a three year stint in lockup, Mitchell (surname not given) once again resumes roaming the city streets, running amok with his hardscrabble lot of friends and petty criminals, shacking up in a dilapidated apartment with his favorite Irish call girl, his life resuming its playful but deviant pattern. But after an old friend uses him in a job in a loan sharking operation, Mitchell is soon involved in another assault, a brawl which gets the better of him and gets him thinking that his current lifestyle isn't working out. Deciding to pursue a more wholesome line of work, he takes a job as a live-in handyman for an old, once-famous movie actress named Lillian Palmer living alone in a creepy, steadily dilapidating manor house.
Mitchell's cushy new situation seems to be a great gig--good pay, clean place to sleep, nice clothes and fancy cars to drive around. But trouble seems bound to find Mitchell even if he's not actually looking for it. His old cronies from the syndicate have it in for him after a deal gone wrong and his crazy sister Bri keeps getting into her own messes and needing Mitchell to bail her out. Even when he finds what he thinks could be his soulmate--Aisling, a former call girl--Mitchell never can seem to escape the violent world of his past or the threatening loan sharks, druggies, and other bottomfeeders who only spell doom for his present and future. When a critical mistake threatens everything that's dear to Mitchell, he plots his own ghastly form of revenge on those who've made it their mission to ruin his life.
Irish mystery author Bruen combines hard-edged, intimidating yet intricate elements of the London underworld, its unmistakeable gritty and predatory landscape, with easily accessible prose. As a mystery, the book is a solid standalone story, effectively weaving a clever mix of characters and details which prolong the suspense and intrigue until an epic climax. Though the principle figures including Mitchell aren't particularly admirable or even marginally sympathetic--they're not supposed to be--they resonate a perfect quality which most readers of crime fiction will immediately recognize as necessary element for successful storytelling within the genre. The title London Boulevard is a reference to the 1951 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard in which William Holden's character becomes the caretaker/lodger at the home of a faded movie star.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New World Monkeys / by Nancy Mauro

Canadian author Nancy Mauro has lived in both Toronto and Vancouver and has recently working in New York City as a copyrighter and creative director for several magazines. She is also fellow with the University of British Columbia's well-known creative writing program. New World Monkeys, her debut novel, follows a young couple who decide to spend the summer in upstate New York only to meet with a quirky jumble of setbacks, problems and difficulties.

Their careers languishing in mediocrity and their marriage needing a tune-up, city dwellers Duncan and Lily decide on a summer getaway upstate to the town of Osterhagen, NY. But trouble finds them even before they reach their destination when they accidentally hit and kill a pig, a wild boar to be precise, on the drive into town. This slightly more than trivial incident soon transpires into some far-reaching repurcussions when the discover that the victim of their little car accident is, oddly enough, the town's beloved mascot--known and revered as the "Sovereign Lord of the Deep Wood".

Doing their best to conceal the fact that they're the real killers, Duncan and Lily settle into their old rundown mansion house only to suddenly find a human skeleton in their backyard. With the tension and unexpected problems with their new living situation getting the better of them, the bickering spouses excavate the remains and ponder what could've happened only to run into more hassles from curious, irritatingly pestering townspeople. More quirky and absurd incidents seem to crop up at every turn and the question for Duncan and Lily soon becomes one of survival--concerning both their little trip as well as their marriage. Mauro's a delightful writer, blending authentic relationship drama in with inventive humor and realistic situations. Even as problems seem bent on tearing Duncan and Lily apart, despair is rarely featured and a satisfactory resolution is never abandoned. New World Monkeys is a good, manageable read for all readers. (FIC MAURO)

L'Avventura [The Adventure] (DVD) 1960 / a film by Michelangelo Antonioni starring Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti and Lea Massari

"Tell me you love me."

A weekend boating trip comprised of several bored, wealthy, overpriveleged Italian friends leads to a desert island where most of the party playfully swims ashore, all content to frolick in the sunshine. All seem happy except for young Anna who's seen heatedly quarreling with her fiance Sandro. Pleading with Sandro to leave her alone, Anna departs the scene presumably seeking solitude on the island. Hours later Anna is nowhere to be found. No logical explanation can explain where or how Anna might have gone missing (hiding?). The island is little more than a barren rock perhaps half a mile in diameter and only a few boats have been noticed in the vicinity. Everyone scowers the premises the remainder of the day only to come up empty.By evening the search is abandoned by all accept Sandro and Claudia, Anna's closest friend, who each continue their efforts on the mainland. The ongoing search for Anna quickly dissolves into an affair between the playboy Sandro and vapid Claudia, the well-being and general existence of their mutual friend more or less forgotten about as they hedonistically indulge their passions while navigating the towns and villages, haphazardly seeking news as to the whereabouts of their once-companion.

Needless to say, Anna is never found, nor is she ever heard of again. But it doesn't matter. All that really matters in the minds and hearts of the film's characters is the next break from the ennui; instant gratification in the form of sensuality and lasciviousness offering a minor reprieve from idleness and dissipation. Anna, Sandro, Claudia and their flighty friends are afforded the luxury of avoiding a lifestyle of work and responsibilities, objectives and purposes, liabilities and commitments. In this world, which Antonioni brilliantly caricatures, it is impossible to be happy simply because of the need to be ceaselessly entertained. Each person is in fact addicted to diversion, seeking adventure--"l'avventura"--despite the fact that "adventure" is merely an abstraction of the mind, an imagined thrill which will invariably manifest itself as a desert island. (DVD AVVENTUR)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dali: Master of Fantasies / by Jean-Louis Gaillemin

With a life to match his far-reaching, spaced-out artwork, Spanish painter Salvador Dali was one of the twentieth century's most talked about artists, his surrealist pieces expanding the horizons the ever-blossoming Avant-garde movement. From his bourgeois Catalan upbringing to his Madrid art school days to his immersion in Freudian self-psychoanalysis, no part of his life was untouched by art; and, conversely no part of his art was uninfluenced by his deeply conflicted life.
This convenient yet richly illustrated pocket-size volume by art historian Gaillemin manages to frame not only Dali the man, but also reproduces much of the master painter's artwork (e.g., The Persistence of Memory, The Great Masturbator, The Lugubrious Game, First Days of Spring, etc.), and appraises his theoretical writings and essays. Also explored are Dali's relationships with the poet Lorca, filmmaker Andre Bunuel, and, above all, torrid love affair with his longtime wife and muse Gala. Everything relating to the artist's inner turmoil, his sexual confusion, happy though awkward childhood (his parents named him after his deceased older brother, proclaiming Dali as the reincarnation of the first son) and flamboyant behavior are addressed in this compact, manageable book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Company of Liars / by Karen Maitland

By 1348, the strain of Bubonic plague known as The Black Death had ravaged much of western Europe, the pestilence wiping out entire towns and villages on its way to eliminating fully one-third of the continent's population. Still untouched, residents of the British Isles clung to the faint hope that the plague would die out before reaching them, that by some divine providence they would escape the clutches of the most deadly scourge ever to lay waste to Christendom. But it was not to be. Even the decreased the volume of ships passing across the channel--mercantile trade having been severely limited in the years 1346 & 1347--between England's coastal ports and western Europe could not keep the country quarantined. By midsummer, swarms of infected persons were reported in the south of the country, the outbreak striking first in coastal areas near Weymouth, Gloucester, Bristol and Dorset and steadily migrating north and east into the heart of the countryside and soon the major cities of London, Leicester, York and Newcastle.

Suspecting the imminent outbreak, Camelot, a one-eyed old peddler of religious trinkets promptly decides to journey north away from his present station near Weymouth, hoping to outrun the plague before it firmly establishes itself on the isle. He and a ragtag assortment of other travelers--two minstrels, a storyteller, Zophiel the magician, a newlywed couple expecting their first child and a strikingly astute young girl, Narigorm, who can see into the future--slowly but surely make their way along the rough-trodden (and frequently muddied) path, through dense forests and cragged rocks, from village to village, town to town, often sleeping for days out in the cold before finding a bed. Theirs is a peculiar lot, full of odd, seemingly misplaced characters all wielding some special talent (or curse) and yet all are hiding something particular from the rest. Each has a secret just as each is conscious that death is never far behind, a mysterious, perhaps sinister confidentiality of which, for purposes unknown, must remain hidden.

This is an exquisite book and a shining example of historical fiction at its best. A story conceived by a masterful storyteller and penned by a superior writer, it flows brilliantly off the page, immersing the reader into the mien of the oft-depicted, but seldom realized medieval period when life was truly delicate. Reminiscent of Canterbury Tales while reverberating the characteristics of Tolkien or Marion Zimmer Bradley, Maitland genuinely achieves a fascinating first novel, a "plague novel" in the truest sense. (FIC MAITLAND)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month: New Native American Fiction

People of the Thunder / W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Three wanderers--the prophet Old White, a noble warrior named Trader and a mysterious shaman woman, Two Petals--travel across the North A
merican Southeast before it was ever America and long before it was ever civilized, striving to establish peace in a desparately savage land. The territory they cross is controlled by the Sky Hand tribe, ruled by the cunning and ruthless Chief Flying Hawk and his evil nephew Smoke Shield. Together this awkward, but curiously powerful trio must bring down Flying Hawk and Smoke Shield who themselves are bent on wiping out all but their own kind.

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008 / by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich, whose willowy novels and stories have mirrored her own Midwest-Native American heritage, has compiled a new collection of some of her most personal stories and essays. As expected, most of her protagonists are female and Indian, or Indian hybrids (Chipewa, Cherokee, Ottawa, etc. mixed with French & German ancestries) and their circumstances are embedded with varying degrees ambiguity over the fact. Some laugh, some cry and some simply ignore the constrasts present between their daily lives and the heritage of their ancestors, aspects of modern life overshadowing any semblance of customs and traditions their forefathers once shared even as Indian lore and mysticism crop up in the backs of their minds during things like thunderstorms, traffic jams, TV news and their children's gadgets.

The Reason For Crows: A Kateri Tekakwitha Story / by Diane Glancy
The real life Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680, birth-name Kahenta), daughter to a Mohawk warrior during the period when the Europeans were infil
trating the Native tribes of North America, is rehashed in this extraordinary tale of two cultures colliding and a young girl's passion in the midst of violence, pestilence and death. Nearly blind after the smallpox has wiped out most of her camp and nearly killed all of her family, a young, still-ailing Kateri is pitied by a Jesuit priest, Jacques de Lambervilles who cares for her at the mission. After nursing her back to health and reading the scripture to her, Kateri is converted to Christianity and begins a life of chastity and penitence, wholly devoted to her faith until her death at 24. Today, Kateri Tekakwitha has been venerated as a Saint among Jesuit catholics and several churches, even a summer camp in Maine, bear her name.

Runner / by Thomas Perry
Runner is Thomas Perry's sixth Jane Whitefield novel following Jane, a Native American female and skilled Indian guide with a knack for
"disappearing" who aids people who themselves need hiding. Currently Jane's living in upstate New York, married to a surgeon and keeping her own, other calling pretty much under wraps. Sure enough, though, action finds Jane in the form of Christine Monahan, a pregnant woman on the run from her abusive husband and another, more grisly assortment of shady characters seemingly bent on hunting her down. Soon both women are fleeing cross-country as Jane works fast, doing what she does best, pairing her neo-mystical Native American talents with her own tech-savvy, identity-falsifying skills to help Christine and her baby ultimately find safety.

War Dances / by Sherman Alexie
Alexie, himself a member of the Spokane tribe of the Pacific Northwest, is the award-winning author of Smoke Signals and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Much of his fiction has been labeled as a com
edically scathing characterization of the plight of Native Americans, his penetrating voice expertly mixing humor with anger and tragedy with comedy. His newest collection of short stories, War Dances, confronts family life through various ordinary characters, each flawed in their own unique ways yet appealing in a quite real, naturalistic sense. In his title story "War Dances", a dying man reflects back on the death of his own alcoholic father while in "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless", a married clothing salesman slowly falls out of love with his wife after she bears him three children. While all of his stories may not connect the same, the collection as a whole presents a "spiritedly provocative array of tragic comedies"*.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jar City: A Reykavik Thriller / by Arnaldur Indridason; trans. by Bernard Scudder

Ten years ago, no one would have considered Scandinavia a hotbed of mystery and crime literature. Recently though, Nordic crime fiction writers from countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and even Iceland (a country of only 200,000 residents) have become a fixture on bestsellers lists. Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason, winner of the 2005 Gold Dagger award, is the author of the bestselling Detective Erlendur series, which as of 2009 includes ten novels. His 2006 novel Jar City follows Erlendur as he investigates the murder of one of Reykavik's oldest residents.

Crime in general, but murder especially, is a rarity in the insular, self-contained island nation of Iceland, a country so small that everyone calls everyone else by their first name. So when one of the city's oldest residents, a man called Holberg, is found murdered in his Reykjavík apartment, everybody knows about it but few are talking when 50-year-old detective inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, a chain-smoking, divorced father of one, is called in to investigate. Holberg, it turns out, was no pleasant old man; Erlendur soon finds out about several vicious rapes likely perpetrated by him over the years, those crimes possibly being linked to two wrongful deaths and a suicide of the girls involved. The twisting search full of stubborn witnesses and crotchety old loners soon brings Erlendur to an abandoned forensic lab, "jar city". So named for housing an assortment of old research organs, the lab may have certain forgotten tissue samples which could hold some pivotal answers towards the case.

Meanwhile, Erlendur's personal life is fraught with its own problems. His daughter Eva, periodically on and off methamphetamines, is pregnant and never quite settled enough for Erlendur to find out where she's staying or what her exact situation is. Still paying alimony to his out-of-the-country, married again ex-wife, Eva is all Erlendur has for family and while she barely speaks to him, he's eager to make things right with her.

Like many popular mystery series, the character of Erlendur is rendered in the most familiar manner possible as a method of bridging the gap between reader and authority figure--in this case a detective who investigates murders. But Indridason's writing renders Erlendur not so much as obligatorily flawed as a character perfectly fitted to his situation. Iceland's not New York, LA or London; but it's also not small town USA or a cozy English country village. It's its own defamiliarized, isolated-unlike-any-other-place-on-earth locale with its own peculiar identity, customs, practices and secrets. No one but Erlendur could fit this scenario because no one else knows not only the city locals but the entire island. The story exposes Erlendur's familiarity with Icelandic culture, its atmosphere with its inclusive attitudes and colloquial customs which bind witnesses to their mistrust, indignation and obstinacy and makes for one well-conceived, expertly written mystery.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart / by Bill Bishop

In his first book, Bishop, a free-lance reporter from Austin, states that while American demographics may reflect increased diversity, sociological trends over the past few decades imply a wholly different landscape. In recent years, lifestyle choices among Americans have been leading "like-minded" groups to live together within exclusive, largely homogenous communities, a symptom of society Bishop refers to as "The Big Sort".
In an interview with Matthew Dowd, a chief campaign strategest for both George's W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, Bishop reveals that it was clearly understood by the mid-nineties that American communities growing in their uniformity and that, to a large degree, this 'clustering' trend was a defensive reaction to a society and world which were beyond the control of the individual. In previous decades, people's lives and sense of well-being were linked to memberships to their clubs, their trust in their local and federal governments, religions, etc. Yet these older, more established institutions were no longer providing the stability Americans wanted.
Bishop states that, within the last few decades, personal wealth and prosperity had disintegrated these social institutions. Individuals with financial freedom were choosing where they wanted to live irregardless of church, social organizations and even family units. Americans were now seeking refuge among people and places who share their "lifeworlds", or situations in which more fundamentally segregating creeds such as race, class or political orientation are the norm. Now, more than ever, personal tastes, beliefs, styles, opinions, and values are becoming important in choosing where and how persons want to live. Not only is this trend an alarming reflection of modern times, it could have significant impact and negative ramifications for the future of the country. Bishop backs his claims through the theory that uniformity breeds like-mindedness, a frightening sociological symptom which produces polarizing ideas and radicalism.
Bishop manages to deal with his subject comprehensively, even providing a somewhat even-handed approach to the topics of gender, class, race and political agendas. For the more politically minded, it's a book which investigates some of the key reasons for bi-partisanship in America today. Overall, it's an important book covering an important topic which will be sure and catch on with readers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Girls of Slender Means / by Muriel Spark

Award-winning Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (1918-2006) lived quite a globe-trotting life during her illustrious career as a writer, having her only child with her first husband in Zimbabwe, working for Allied Intelligence in London during WWII, and making a home in New York, Rome, Budapest and Israel prior to becoming a permanent resident of Tuscany by the time of her death. Her most well-known work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was well-received at its 1963 publication and continues to receive acclaim as a novel, a 1965 film starring Dame Maggie Smith and, most recently, an off-broadway play. Her short, poignant novella The Girls of Slender Means follows several young single women bonded together during London's post-war years.

In Britain in 1945, the severe economic strain means that the practices of rationing and partitioned work duties must continue for a time while the infrastructure, particularly in London, is collectively rebuilt. For this reason, establishments like "The May of Teck Club" have been founded to aid the cause, its primary purpose being to house women of a young age so that they could safely live and work in London apart from their families. The women of the May of Teck are concerned with the news that Nicholas Farringdon, an anarchist intellectual writer and inspirational friend known to all the girls as Nicky, has been suddenly killed in Haiti. As news about the death catches hold, reminisces about Nicky coincide with each girl's lives, loves and convictions.

Their current romances, past love affairs, ambitions and dreams are mutually conveyed as their daily routines are collectively imbued with demanding duties, meager salaries and longing for a better situation. This is one of Spark's most concise, well-written books; winningly realistic and consistently witty with rare, appealing characters from familiar circumstances. All readers may not catch on to Spark's style immediately. The narrative tends to jump around a bit and a takes some re-perusing to get the characters right, but its a story which seems to mesh well more as a collective, first-person plural narrative--a singular tone amidst multiple voices. Fans of Spark's other works are sure to enjoy this one. (FIC SPARK)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Stranger Beside Me / by Ann Rule

American non-fiction author Ann Rule has made quite a career out of profiling true crime cases, illuminating the scene, the situation, the motives involved and, particularly, the intimate lives of the victims and villains. Yet a special twist is added to Rule's 1980 (and later 2000 reprint) book The Stranger Beside Me. Rule herself is, chillingly, one of the characters, having worked beside notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in a crisis center during her days as a Seattle policewomen, then considering him a "true gentleman" and "likeable co-worker". Only here does she reveal the shocking revelation of Bundy as not only a man she once referred to as "dear friend", but as a monster of unspeakable atrocities she herself can scarcely fathom.
At first glance, no one would have taken Ted Bundy for a serial killer. His conventional, handsome visage, amiable demeanor and intelligent speech had everyone fooled, so much so that his killing spree ran into the dozens, covering 5 states prior to his initial apprehension. And even then, due to lazy police work, he managed to escape, committing at least three more grisly killings in Florida prior to his final capture, conviction and death sentence.
A child born into rather unfortunate circumstances (the fact that his sister was actually his mother was hid from him until he was a teenager), Ted remained shy and introverted for most of his youth, never much of a troublemaker nor singled out by the institutional system as a potential problem for society. Through his stepfather's extensive collection of adult magazines, Ted had been exposed to assorted pornography, much of it particularly graphic, at an especially sensitive age, a symptom he would later attribute to sparking his acute interest in sexual violence. By his twenties, Ted had mastered a dual persona: well-mannered, socially-adept white collar professional vs. "the entity", his own term characterizing his pathologically motivated, sexually-driven need to kill. He effectively appropriated each in a more or less routine fashion, easily able to manipulate others (mostly women, all his victims were female) and conceal his motives and any criminal evidence after the fact. His first murder, an unidentified hitchhiker whose remains were never found, occurred in 1973 when Ted was 26. Successively in the years between 1974 and 1978, Bundy murdered over thirty women (the true count is still unknown), each killed in excessively brutal fashion, often bludgeoned to death, impaled, or otherwise sexually maimed.
This book is actually two stories. One describes the gradual disintegration of a seemingly normal, affable, intelligent man into a sexual psychopath so evil, so preternatural in his vicious killings, that one wonders if he was human at all. The other story is that of Ann Rule herself, a decent, hard-working, middle-aged mother of four who meets and befriends a nice young man working beside her in a crisis clinic. The slow but inexorable realization on Rule's part that this man whom she'd accepted as a "dear friend" is in fact an unspeakably violent serial killer is almost painful to read, her new afterward penned in 2000 revealing that she still hasn't "recovered" and "moved on". Yet, all told, it makes for a great read for anyone interested in true crime.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Last Convertible / by Anton Myrer

American novelist and WWII veteran Anton Myrer (1922-1996) wrote several well-received books, many of them on war, combat experiences the personal repercussions involved. The Last Convertible chronicles the intertwining paths of several youths entering their college years just prior to World War II.

"One minute we were a group of awkward,ill at ease strangers thrown together by chance, the next we were a force...comrades, partners, band of brothers, call us what you will."

The group of friends who would become known as the "Fusiliers" (George, Jean-Jean, Terry, Dal, Chris) all arrive at Harvard's freshman orientation in the early autumn of 1940, soon establishing solid mutual friendships among themselves and building loyalty to one another even amid attachments with several likable though somewhat garish females. Collectively, as each are caught up in the ensuing tumultuous years of the Second World War, their lives and subsequent relationship characterized and defined by the turmoil at home and abroad--also, to a lesser extent, through the affection each share for the "Empress", the green 1938 custom convertible. Preserving the memories for all is George Darrow, the leader of the group, who understands the importance of memory, legacy and, above all, love. George knows that love, with it's loyalty, pain, schisms, dreams; its essence often questioned, often broken, yet somehow is always redeemed defines the substance of life.

Through George's eyes, we watch as the group's fortunes rise and fall, their marriages bloom and are strained even as their own bonds of friendship grow, solidify and ultimately fall away. We read as their children grow, suffer, live and, in George's case, die (his son Ronny in Veitnam), carrying on the paradox and pathos of love and brotherhood vs. war and death as a way of life. With fine, lyrical prose, Myrer describes the pivotal World War II years and the impact and legacy the events surrounding the lives of those who lived it years after the fact. Thrilling and vivid descriptions of WW2 activity with it's inevitable trauma and loss are portrayed accurately even as romance away from the battlefield abounds with the flowery pursuit of true love throughout. This is an exceptional work by Anton Myrer, written almost as if he had lived the story himself. (FIC MYRER)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Heat (DVD) 1995 / a Michael Mann film; starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, John Voight & Ashley Judd

"You want to be makin moves on the street? . . . have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner."

When a heist involving a hijacked armored truck is executed in broad daylight, LAPD members are suprised later on to find the cash and most of the currency lying untouched still inside the cab. It's an unusual but not unheard of situation, one which well-worn chief investigator Vincent Hannah instantly pins, explaining the meticulously conceived plan for the robbery (lucrative offshore equity bonds the target, not the cash), how it was pulled off and surmising on the likely party of adept, experienced criminals involved ("this look like gangbangers workin' the local 7-11 to you?"). A skilled veteran with a well-practiced team working under him, Hannah is soon able to 'make' the culprits, certain they're the same unit, headed by professional thief Neil McCauley, who've masterminded several similarly unsolvable crimes. But with little-to-no evidence and only vague information on the identities of those involved, Hannah can only hope for a break in the case or to somehow catch McCauley in the act.

Not too many career criminals make it to where Neil McCauley is; not just in terms of age and financial security but having attained the skill, discipline, wisdom and expertise required for undetectable, high-stakes holdups. For McCauley, what he does is every bit as painstakingly precise as those in the law-abiding professions, his approach to his work as polished, proficient and vocationally sound as anyone, perhaps more so. When the ultimate 'job' is laid out before McCauley and his gang of loyal though less-immersed veteran criminals, the decision is made to go forward--one last job and then out for good. Carefully, the necessary tactics are employed to not only execute the operation, but to evade the 'heat' which would inevitably bear down if plans were made known.

Heat was one of the last, good American movies. With quality performances all around from great actors in their prime, masterful storytelling by Michael Mann and engaging, authentic action sequences, it definitely rates high on the list of movies-to-see-before-you-die movies. Everything fits into a complex but well-conceived format, incorporating multiple plots and subplots all illuminating a good chunk of just why it is that everything must be the way it is: McCauley has to be a criminal for the same reason Hannah can't be anything other than cop. In one pivotal, almost legendary scene between Pacino and De Niro, each confesses to the other (and the audience) the movie's most fundamental maxim, that each needs the other: McCauley: "I don't know how to do anything else." to which Hannah replies "neither do I." Accessibility is another reason it works. The film's sizable range of characters and situations is matched with appropriate depth and substance, creating a movie with both mainstream appeal and iconoclastic intrigue. (DVD HEAT)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Haunting of Hill House / by Shirley Jackson

A tale of subtle, psychological suspense, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has unnerved readers since its original publication in 1959. Stephen King among others has claimed it to be one the finest horror novels of the twentieth century.

"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within . . ." p. 1

A nineteenth century mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain, Hill House manor was originally intended to be a home for Crain and his family. But now, long after the ill-fated plans have self-destructed and years of neglect have enshrouded the house with ruin and decay, the daunting structure has essentially lain uninhabited for decades. Dr. John Montague is an expert on paranormal phenomenon and has acquired access to Hill House in hopes of finding scientific evidence of the supernatural. Accompanying Montague are three additional visitors. Eleanor and Theodora are two young women personally pre-selected by Montague in light of each's prior 'telekinetic' experiences. Luke Crain is the official heir to Hill House, and though he could care less about it, is willing to allow Dr. Montague's liberal use of the house in exchange for a generous sum of money.

Almost immediately upon settling in, all four inhabitants begin to experience strange events. Awkward sounds, abrupt temperature changes, ghostly apparitions, 'blood' spattered on walls and other odd, unexplained occurrences increasingly consume the atmosphere. Dr. Montague and his collection of fancy equipment constantly monitor the activity, sensing 'alternative' energy sources and "supernatural manifestations" nearly around the clock. Eleanor especially tends to experience singular phenomena to which the others remain oblivious, perceiving identifiable shapes in mirrors and able to communicate with 'voices'--"the dead are not silent in Hill House"--around her. As the time passes, the situation escalates with Eleanor seemingly a magnet for the supernatural, singularly attracting eerie sensations and interacting with the 'other' side. Slowly she begins interpreting aspects of the house's indescribably horrific past, coming to terms with her own daunting reason for deciding to accept the "invitation" to Hill House. Though the others are less prone to similarly engaging episodes, the physical horror of Hill House ominously manifests itself, distorting reality and stretching the bounds of the physical in increasingly dark, chilling and harrowingly intense ways. Soon all four discover that the 'visitor' status they've assumed may not be mutually understood by house's 'caretakers'.

The Haunting of Hill House remains one of the most important horror novels of all time and certainly one of the most singular haunted house tales ever written. It is certainly worth mentioning that at no time do we or the characters actually see any sort of visible ghostly manifestation; the phenomena are limited to cold spots, spectral banging on the walls and doors, messages written on walls, and torn, blood-spewed clothing in one room.  Truly, Jackson's writing itself is haunted, and she herself almost surely was in some manner. There is a degree of insanity in every page; the characters often engage in dialogue that is childish of a sort and certainly different from normal adult conversation. Eleanor is an especially appealing character to me because I share many of her doubts and fears and no one rivals Jackson in the ability to paint a deeply moving, psychologically deep portrait of the tortured soul. The ending itself is striking and perfectly fitting, I feel, and does much to keep the spirit of this wonderful novel in your mind and soul for a long time. This is not a novel to cast aside and forget; long after you have finished the book, Eleanor and Hill House will haunt your mind and soul. (FIC JACKSON)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer is “complete” (except for the follow-up book Midnight Sun, recapping the first book’s events from the hero Edward’s perspective) and the film for the second book is scheduled for release next month. I am a latecomer to the series, being neither a teenager nor a vampire enthusiast. But once I started Twilight, the first book (actually on a dare), I was delighted with what I had found. Now I have read them all and have the first movie, and am waiting for the second.

What is interesting to me is that so many other readers and critics classify this romance in the books between Bella and Edwards as a typical “young love” situation, impossibly unreal and the stuff that dreams are made of. A lot of older readers complain that there’s too much of Bella’s adoration of Edward in the book. I wonder if they are a minority, or other readers are suffering through this excess just to stay with the two of them, and follow their adventures.

I would venture to say that the real power of this series lies in what happens to them, and how their reaction to events tests their relationship and makes it grow. Yes, they are both attractive – Edward has a radiance from being a vampire that is unmistakable, and Bella must also have something, since so many of the boys in Forks are attracted to her. But it’s her essential caring for people - going to Forks to help out her Mom, understanding the nuances of the boy-girl relationships around her and being supportive of them, cooking for her Dad and always trying to work with and not against him – this is what Edward loves. Bella also has her essential truthfulness and empathy, for her Mom, her Dad, the young and eager werewolves, and for Jacob, who is the best of friends and at the same time the worst, since he demands too much of her. And Edward has faults…he is overly protective of Bella and often assumes danger where there is none.

What is captivating about the books is that Bella and Edward’s differences – not just their human/vampire traits, but their disagreements – these are not downplayed, but presented as issues that they have to work out to be together. Bella’s total prostration in the second book is dramatic, but is true to the essence of the nightmare that she lives through. Any reader of any age who has experienced loss can empathize with her. And by the third book, Eclipse, what Bella and Edward have gone through for each other has deepened their relationship in noticeable ways. Even though they have serious issues that they don’t see eye to eye on (such as Edward fearing for Bella’s safety when she’s with Jacob, and Bella wanting to give up her human life for Edward) each time they are together is so affirming to them both, that they can’t be separated by arguing. And both come to terms with each other’s beliefs - Edward finally trusting Bella’s judgment of the situation with Jacob, and Bella accepting Edward’s desire to “play by the rules” in their intimate relationship.

So, I would beg to differ from those who say that the series is all about finding someone irresistible and compelling who is actually very alien and dangerous for you. I think that all the life and death scenarios in the Twilight Series work because they stem from the protagonists’ real choices. I also think that these kind of life and death scenarios are happening to us all the time, but on a level that we can only dimly recognize. Our choices in life and their results are revealed over time to be just as irrevocable as those choices made by Bella and Edward.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Books on the NFL

More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL / by Brian Billick; with Michael McCambridge
Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick explains the NFL from the top down, first detailing the increasingly complex infrastructure of each team's corporate makeup, the heavily weighted financial stipulations and the impending collective-bargaining crisis which threatens the game as we know it. He also explains player acquisition and salary cap designation in very easy-to-understand terms, detailing the inner-workings of the annual April draft, how each prospect is analyzed and evaluated and, additionally, how the free agency market has essentially made for a far more unpredictable scenario than other sports.

The Billion Dollar Game: The Improbable Collision of Culture, Commerce and Competition on Super Bowl Sunday / by Allen St. John
No one thought at the time of the Super Bowl's inagural game in 1967 that the January championship would become the equivalent of a national holiday--a billion dollar holiday at that. The "game" is now a two-week festival centered in the host city yet ongoing in locales the world over, rivaling the Olympics and World Cup in attention and global popularity. The 14-day build up attracts waves of media conglomerates, party groupies, corporate sponsors, industry bigwhigs and popular entertainers indicating that the actual Sunday event, as St. John so aptly states, has become largely overshadowed by this marketplace atmosphere which crudely detracts from the credibility of the game itself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

By The Light of the Full Moon: Werewolf Fiction

Night of the Wolf / by Alice Borchardt
The year is 350 AD. As Roman forces sweep across barbarian lands, a battle of another kind culminates when a rogue werewolf named Manael is confronted by Dryas, a wicked Druid priestess bent on wiping out Manael and the rest of his kind. Borchardt (Anne Rice’s sister) wrote this prequel to accompany her first werewolf novel The Silver Wolf, a story in which a fledgling female werewolf named Reagan fights to preserve her heritage during Europe’s Dark Ages.
High Bloods / by John Farris
With LA in the near-future steadily succumbing to a werewolf epidemic, humans have formed Lycan Control, a militaristic effort to oppose werewolves and prevent further carnage and destruction. But with the hoard of werewolves ("human 28 days out of the month but ravenous under a full moon") increasing daily, will Lycan Control have time to execute its mission before its too late.
The Wolfen / by Whitley Streiber

When two New York City police officers are viciously attacked and brutally mutilated, the detectives assigned to the case steadily begin to suspect the culprit(s) to be from a pack of wolf-like creatures recently having been spotted in the area. But these “beings” which stalk the city by night are smarter than they look and are all too eager to savagely prey on those who try to eliminate them.
The Nightwalker / by Thomas Tessier
As a Vietnam veteran, Bobby Ives still experiences combat flashbacks in addition to memories associated with a possible past life. After a night of roughousing, Bobby begins feeling strange and soon afterwards comes to the realization that his ‘self’ (both body and soul) is transforming into a werewolf. In desperation and with time running out, Bobby starts seeking for a reversal treatment.
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf / by Viktor Pelevin; trans. By Andrew Bromfield
On the streets of modern-day Moscow a 2,000-year-old werefox named Hu-li masquerades as an underaged prostitute preying on the ‘life energy’ of unsuspecting men. But when Hu-Li meets Alexander, a werewolf disguised as a Russian intelligence officer, her predatory lifestyle is challenged by new feelings for the handsome lycan and his oddly appealing philosophical values.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Small Place / by Jamaica Kincaid

A native of the Caribbean island of Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid (born Elaine Potter Richardson) is the renowned author of the novels Annie John and Lucy as well as numerous essays and articles for various magazines. Though moving to the U.S. in her youth, Kincaid's strong ties to her homeland remain fervent, a sentiment resonating in this book in which she shares her opinions on the island's colonial heritage, its transition to independence and modern-day economic problems.
With lyrical, descriptive prose, Kincaid examines the history of Antigua, first viewing the island through the eyes of the typical North American tourist who, upon descending onto the lush, beautiful island would wonder why an airport would be named after a Prime Minister. "Why not a school, why not a hospital, why not a public monument?" It's because its the only facility on the entire island nice enough to bear such a name. "You have not yet seen a school in Antigua, have not yet seen the hospital in Antigua, have not yet seen a public monument in Antigua". From Kincaid's interpretation, the transition from colonialism to independence has done more harm than good, merely serving to establish a commercial and governmental enterprise that benefits only a select few mostly non-islanders. In effect the everyday people of Antigua are nearly as oppressed, neglected and exploited as they were during British colonial rule.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: a Novel / by Susanna Clarke

With this, her breakthrough novel published in 2004, British author Susanna Clarke established herself squarely in the middle of the fantasy/magical realism genre. Though the novel's length (782 pages) and breadth of detail has undergone some scrutiny, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is clearly a superior work, blending the genres of history, culture, sorcery, magic and mysticism into a prolific, engaging tale.

Though the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment had rendered much medieval superstition obsolete by the year 1800, remnants of the old ways of magic and sorcery still aroused intrigue in select circles. In Britain especially, a country long affected by fascination with the supernatural, persons and groups preoccupied with magic were prevalent. 

In 1806, a group in the north of England have formed a society known as The Learned Society of York Magicians. Essentially it involves several men who've accommodated magic (and its Faerie world counterpart) as a topic of scholarship, publishing some quite lengthy though largely unappealing papers derived from texts "on" (but not "of") magic. An intriguing new development occurs when the society discovers a reclusive, mysterious man named Mr. Norrell living a very ordinary life at a nearby abbey. The astounding thing about Mr. Norrell is that he is the proprietor of a library containing many lost and forgotten books, all "of" magic and all holding many strange, wondrous secrets from England's mystical past. Consequently, having absorbed the content of his collection over many years, Mr. Norrell is a real magician. 

After meeting with the society (and with some gentle cajoling from its members), Mr. Norrell agrees on a trip to London where, in addition to a number of other fantastical feats, he resurrects a beautiful young woman from the dead. Instantly Mr. Norrell is engaged in service to the government whereby, despite his slight reluctance, he performs some quite astounding military maneuvers in the war with Napoleon. All is well until another magician named Jonathan Strange arrives, attracting favor not only for his equally magisterial conjurations and tricks, but for his refreshingly eager ambition and desire to display both. Though Mr. Norrell is initially pleased to discover another practicing magician, it soon becomes clear that each's ideas of how to use magic are very different. For Mr Norrell, magic is a very delicate matter, something to be undertaken with extreme caution and heed to the potential ramifications. Strange on the other hand sees no reason why magic can't be taken to its most powerful extreme. Their continued opposition soon escalates into a situation beyond the control of either man. 

Authentic, sophisticated and scrupulously convincing, Susanna Clarke's masterful novel featuring the interwoven themes of history, magic, enchantment and sorcery is as complete a work on man's confrontations with the mystical realm as may ever be published. Fans of Neil Gaiman will find this awe-inspiring novel a worthy undertaking. Even its length, if viewed by the elongated standards of novels in the early nineteenth century, which in style and approach 'Norrell' closely resembles, can be understood and forgiven.