Friday, February 27, 2009

Celebrate Women's History Month (March) and International Women's Day (March 8) With a New Biography

Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire / by Flora Fraser
Power and fame are often accompanied by scrutiny and speculation. And though today mass media lets the whole world in on the lives of politicians and their families, it was often the case, albeit on a more limited scale, 200 years ago when the world's most powerful man, Napoleon, had to deal with the shaming indiscretions of his younger sister Paulette "Pauline" Bonaparte. Her affairs and extravagance had become such an embarassment, that in 1802, upon discovering her in the company of one of his generals, Napoleon had Pauline conveniently married off and relocated to Haiti. But despite being a constant source of gossip in Paris, Pauline was ultimately one of the emperor's most faithful companions, even generating profits for his cause (a second marriage to a wealthy viscount) after military defeats had left him financially bankrupt. Upon his final abdication to the Isle of Elba, Pauline would routinely be seen making visits to his confines and was frequently at his bedside during his last years of illness. (B BONAPART)

Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt / by Joyce A. Tyledesley
Perhaps the most glamorous female rulers of the entire B.C. period, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt has been celebrated over time by archaeologists, historians and gender studies pundits, not to mention the likes of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, as a woman renowned for her romantic conquests. In this new analysis of her, noted professor of history Tyledesley probes some of the most overlooked questions along with some of the more common queries concerning the life and reign of this "Jewel of the Nile". While her associations with the the world's most powerful men of the day--most notably Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Pompey the Great--gave her name recognition, it was Cleopatra's political savvy like the furthering of trade between Africa and Europe and transitioning Egypt's then Hellenistic heritage into the Roman Era which helped cement her legacy. (B CLEOPATRA)

Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon / by Mark Bostridge
While the world of medicine had made quantum leaps by the year 1850, particularly in the realm of disease treatment and surgical procedure, it's sister profession of nursing still lagged somewhat behind. Legendary British nurse Florence Nightingale would change all that in the space of a few decades. Born into wealth as the daughter of titled aristocrats, her sharp mind and visionary foresight would yield tremendous strides and save countless lives during her tenure as military nurse during the Crimean War. So well-appreciated were her valor and progressive innovations in hygiene and sanitation, that the entire nation--led by Queen Victoria herself--would celebrate her legacy. Bostridge's comprehensive account of the "Lady With the Lamp" is a great tell-all for anyone interested in this extraordinary woman. (B NIGHTINGA)

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching / by Paula Giddings
Few women over the course of time have been as lauded for their courage as much as Ida B. Wells (Wells-Barnett). Continuing a struggle for equality and peaceful coexistence against insurmountable odds, Wells was a woman unalterably driven to end violence--particularly incidents of lynching--towards African-Americans at a time in America's history when women (especially women of color) were still seen as subsidiary figures in matters of public service and civil diplomacy. Spurred on by her vision of a time when social justice laws would be upheld regardless of gender, race or regional custom, Wells was often confronted but never off put by objectors to her cause, even becoming an active participant in the more nationalized Womens Suffrage Movement. Giddings new chronology of Wells' life follows her from her humble beginnings as the daughter of slaves in Mississippi to her period of notoriety as an outspoken--and often unpopular--individual during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (B WELLSBAR)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The English Major / by Jim Harrison

"It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn't" (p. 2)

At 60, Cliff is having a post mid-life crisis of sorts. A retired school teacher and part-time farmer in rural Michigan, he's currently having a devil of a time coming to grips with his wife leaving him, the seemingly inevitable foreclosure on his farm, and, perhaps most devastating, the recent death of his beloved dog Lola. So what better time to embark on the great American road trip? Figuring that he can reconnect with his Kerouac-ian soul and perhaps tie up some loose ends with his wife in Arizona, son in California and a former student he's always been drawn to, Cliff heads 'wagons west' (his car is a Ford Taurus station wagon) anticipating some exciting new horizons. What begins as a soul-searching quest for closure quickly becomes a joyride to sow up some wild oats which may have been bypassed in his youth. Cliff's liason with his married former student, Marybelle, is far more lurid than what Cliff (and the reader) could have imagined, the pair getting to know each other so well that Cliff's attraction becomes aversion by the time he drops her off in Montana. And any embittered--though spitefully gratifying--notions of Vivian's coming back to him are confirmed by her high-minded attempts to reconcile things; even though Cliff knows she's only angling to get some money out of his soon-to-be sold-off farm. Still, there's lessons learned along the way. One being that the best things in life may well be free, but they aren't always so great all the time.

This book is largely an embodiment of the "be careful what you wish for . . ." notion, entertaining the reader with quirky characters, instances of assumptions gone haywire, and nostalgia turned on its head, not to mention lots of intimately sordid details. While protagonist/narrator Cliff is refreshingly down-to-earth, he's also somewhat of a dirty old man. Which is why some readers may not be so appreciative of Cliff's detailed rendering of he and Marybelle's exploits and the flirtatious ways in which he entertains his thoughts about other loose female acquaintances (i.e., every waitress, barmaid, hotel clerk, etc.). There's fun to be had though, following Cliff as he geographically connects the dots and patchworks the various facets of his life, always ready to bear his lot even if he's not so keen on what it gives him. (FIC HARRISON)

Monday, February 23, 2009

The 400 Blows (DVD) / a film by Francois Truffaut

Life has not been kind to Antoine Doinel. A boy in his early teens, he's regularly singled out at school for poor performance and frequently punished for repeated instances of disruptive behavior. The unpleasantness is only compounded at home where his cold and austere mother constantly berates he and his father for perceived inadequacies. One day while he and school chum Rene play hookie, Antoine observes his mother clandestinely accompanied by another man, their intimate mannerisms confirming what could only mean an extramarital affair. In despair, a desultory Antoine's subsequent foray into further delinquency bears harsh consequences. Arrested for stealing a typewriter and trying to pawn it, he's tried as a felon and--with both parents' earnest approval--sentenced to a juvenile reform center and, from there, ultimately to a work camp for lost causes. As chronic escape attempts--and subsequent recapture--swiftly become his sole objective, Antoine adopts what will indelibly become his life's occupation--flight.

Arguably the film which sparked the French New Wave, Truffaut's masterpiece remains a timeless study of adolescent abandon and recklessness pitted against domestic instability and institutional ineffectiveness. Though "true and touching . . . and at times overwhelmingly sad"*, 400 Blows (1959) was one of the first films to realistically convey life as absurdly irrational and irredeemably tragic. This film and others similar to it, most notably those of Claude Chabrol and Jean Luc-Godard, introduced a new, innovative style of movies to the world. It was a brand of filmmaking absent of stereotypically cinematic devices such as fluid, clearly-cut scenes and unimprovised scripts; rather it was a form of art where self-expressionism and auteur theory (director as "author") were the dominant motifs. Essentially an autobiographic deconstruction of Truffaut's own youth, 400 Blows was the first film to feature Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine. Three successive sequels--Antoine and Collette, Stolen Kisses, & Bed and Board--would star Leaud, each chronicling Antoine's progression from adolescence into adulthood. (DVD FOUR)

*DVD & Video Guide. Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, ed. Ballantine, New York: 2006. p. 409.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton has a degree in cultural sociology, and this book is an exploration of the art culture, based on observations and interviews over a period of five years. She has written for the New Yorker magazine and art publications such as Artforum, and we get the full benefit of her insider’s point of view. Thornton shows us an art auction in New York City, a graduate school art class in southern California, an art show in Basel, Switzerland, a Venice Biennale, and spends time on the premises of an art magazine in New York City and of an artist’s workplaces in Japan. We also get acquainted with the contenders for the 2006 Turner Prize, awarded each year by the Tate National Gallery of Great Britain. The book covers a lot of ground, and appears to be a good representation of what was going on just a few years ago, when the art boom was at its height. We meet collectors who are interested in art, but perhaps more interested in making money by trading in art objects. All of the controversy surrounding this “invasion” of art by the marketplace is aired, and the book offers an interesting note by its choice of artist to visit, Takashi Murakami. This artist included a boutique of his company’s wares as part of an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Murakami, in a sense, has solved the problem of art expression versus profit by allowing the popular culture to affect what he creates. Speaking in his (not quite fluent) English, he says: “I change my direction or continue in same direction by seeing people’s reaction.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bright Shiny Morning / by James Frey

Though it was as much by scandal as by literary merit that James Frey came to notoriety--his memoir A Million Little Pieces about his junkie/rehab days discovered as being not altogether accurate--his work has still been recognized as a unique new voice in contemporary literature. In his first real fiction book, Frey examines the social and cultural diaspora of Los Angeles through a hodgepodge of historical tidbits, quirky factoids and poignantly characterized iconoclasts.

Predilections and bias aside, it has to be said that if any one city were so thoroughly influential that it's legacy encompassed the globe, it would be Los Angeles. Yet "city" may not even be the most appropriate terminology to describe the mammoth conurbation that is Los Angeles County proper, as absurdly flamboyant and yet intricately manifold community as any one concentrated metropolis ever was. LA is the entertainment capital of the world, the glamour capital of the world, the pop culture capital of the world. It is the [adult film] capital of the world, the gangbanger capital of the world, the surfing capital of the world, and, in no small order, it is the natural disaster capital of the world. Also, not unlike other cities though in far greater proportion of diversity, it can be said that LA is the "world" capital of the world where dozens of ethnicities, nationalities, races and creeds all congregate into one teeming mass of post-modern civilization.

Dylan and Madi are two young lovers just arriving from Ohio to chase down their dreams. Amberton Parker is a mega-movie star whose public life hides a very private secret. Old Man Joe is a homeless drunk who looks 70 even though he's only 39. Esperanza is a bright young first-generation American permanently scarred by one incident of public humiliation. Though their lives are hardly similar and despite the fact that they will never meet or experience the same of anything together, they are all a part of that absurdly glamorous but maddeningly depraved, ridiculously wealthy yet atrociously disparate, increasingly dangerous and frequently violent cosmopolis that is Greater Los Angeles. It's a world where dreams can definitely come true, but also, and perhaps more defining, it's a place where shattered dreams and nightmares are far more prevalent.

For what it's worth (and there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book for any wrong or unintentionally skewed references), this work of general fiction spliced into an almanac-style travelogue is unique if only for its subtle--almost subliminial--insights into one of the world's most recognized places. If you've never experienced Southern California up close, this is the book to read before, or even if you never plan on, traveling there. Frey does right by letting everyone in on the secret: all things considered, the downside(s) of LA pretty much overwhelms any conceivable upside. And yet it's so diverse--"worlds within worlds within galaxies"--who's to claim the one identity which could accurately describe it? (FIC FREY)

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Than It Hurts You / by Darin Strauss

David Strauss received lots of attention for his two previous novels, Chang and Eng; The Real McCoy, both of which were fictional recreations of notably curious historical figures. His latest, the more contemporary and less lighthearted More Than It Hurts You, is a rather somber testimony on the subtle ways in which preconception and prejudice are still active in society.

Josh Goldin is a can-do man. All his life he's been the guy who could do anything he put his mind to. Now a successful salesman for a large marketing firm, he's sure that his life can't get any better with his beautiful wife Dori loyally by his side and their infant son, Zach, growing up before their eyes. But even if things weren't so good, Josh knows he's capable of fixing it. So when he and Dori's parenting skills are called into question and the right to raise their own child is jeopardized, Josh takes the steps he feels are necessary to protect his portion of the American dream, even if it might end up costing him everything.

Dr. Darlene Stokes is a the head of pediatrics at a large city hospital. A physician of extraordinary skill as well as a professional of unquestioned integrity, Darlene has never made a wrong diagnosis . . . and she knows this time is no exception. Having attended Zach Goldin after he was twice brought to the emergency room exhibiting life-threatening symptoms, Darlene is prompted to make a difficult decision, one that involves accusing the Goldins--Dori in particular--of harming their own son. Darlene knows she's putting everything at risk, everything; including her own reputation, the hospital's image, the profession's credibility and--most of all--the life she'd worked so hard to create for herself. But she also knows her concluding analysis is correct and that no matter how threatening the situation to herself may be, her professional ethics and the well-being of the infant patient demand she come forward with her convictions.

While it's in no way perfect and definitely not as fun as 'Real McCoy', Strauss's More Than It Hurts You is a book which won't be soon forgotten, if only for its intimate portrayal socio-economic bias and underhanded media exploitation. While the book's characterization of both Josh and Darlene is thoroughly comprehensive, the story leaves (perhaps intentionally) some questionable loose ends concerning both, prompting the reader to contemplate whether each's actions were really as conducive to the outcome as Strauss would have you believe. Darlene is the book's most solid character and while sympathy is clearly intended more towards her circumstances, it doesn't necessarily convince the reader that Josh's actions are wholly unjustified, just as the media frenzy and its ensuing victimization of Darlene's not altogether believable. (FIC STRAUSS)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Some Valentine's Day Mysteries

A Catered Valentine's Day: A Mystery with Recipes / by Isis Crawford
With orders piling up for Valentine's Day, catering sisters--and part-time sleuths--Bernie and Libby Simmons have teamed up with the 'Just Chocolate Sweet Shop' and its owner, recently widowed Marnie Gorman, to manage all the preparations. The girls are aware that with all the hustle and bustle it's easy for minor mishaps to happen, orders getting reversed and so on. But no one's calling it an accident when Marnie's dead husband Ted turns up in the wrong coffin in the wrong grave at the wrong funeral. Soon, as strange secrets about the deceased Ted start to emerge, Bernie and Libby can't help but become embroiled in another mystery, one which threatens to sour their oh-so-sweet plans for the perfect Valentine's Day. (MYS CRAWFORD)

Deadly Valentine / by Carolyn G. Hart
When bookstore owner/amateur sleuth Annie Darling and her husband Max were moving into their new home, she could never have imagined their new neighbors would be so friendly. Even a bit too friendly in the case of their next door neighbor, the voluptuous Sidney Cahill, who not only makes a pass at Max upon first acquaintance but seems to be on 'friendly' terms with every man on the block from what Annie gathers. It's an issue having a guarded Annie reconsidering whether to go to the neighborhood Valentine's Day bash. Reluctantly attending only to please her mother-in-law, Annie and fellow partygoers are shocked when Sidney is found dead--murdered--during the festivities. The ensuing investigation is chock full of motives and suspects as Sidney's flamboyant mannerisms have stirred the ire of more than a few jealous housewives. But Annie knows that to find out the truth, she must filter out all the preconceived notions and finger-pointing in order to pin down the real culprit in this, another spellbinding "Annie Darling (nee Laurance)" mystery. (MYS HART)

The Valentine's Day Murder / by Lee Harris
What better way to cap off the perfect Valentine's Day party than by taking a walk on a frozen lake? Or so Val and his two friends--Matt and Clark--thought when they set out. But when the dead bodies of a murdered Matt and Clark are discovered, an absent--and presumed fugitive--Val is pegged as the culprit. Before long, a rigorous manhunt ensues with police eager to capture Val and prove him guilty. Meanwhile, convinced of his innocence, Val's wife Carlotta pleads with investigating authorities concerning her husband's case only to be castigated and ignored. With time running out, a desperate Carlotta turns to the only person who will listen--ex-nun turned private investigator Christine Bennett, who may be the only person capable of discovering Val's whereabouts and proving his innocence. (MYS HARRIS)

Plum Lovin' / by Janet Evanovich
Despite a personal history loaded with mysterious men, Stephanie Plum still can't believe it when Diesel, a rogue character from her past and rival bounty hunter, shows up at her front door just days prior Valentine's. Even though Diesel only wants to comprimise on matters dealing with current target and personal friend Annie Hart, Stephanie still can't help mixing business with pleasure as both she and her sexy counterpart try and locate Annie. But someone else is on the trail too, someone whose intentions may not be so honorable. As the chase ensues, Stephanie Plum knows one thing is for sure, she's in for a little more than she bargained for on this particular Valentine's Day. (MYS EVANOVICH)