Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Shack by William P. Young

This book has had unexpected success. The author and friends self-published the first 10,000 copies and it has gone on to sell 5.5 million copies in English and has been translated into a dozen languages. There are many reviews and discussions of the book available on and offline, some of which criticize the book’s theology. The story is not a true story, although the event that prompts the protagonist’s encounter with God (in the shack) is compellingly “real”; as a tragedy we often witness today. The character, named Mack, had his 6 year old daughter abducted and murdered while the family was on a camping trip. The shack is the place where the authorities found the evidence of her murder. Several months later, God invites him back to the very same shack, to meet with him. Actually Mack meets with three persons there– the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Critics have taken issue with what they see as distortions and/or softening of Christian theology in The Shack. Young has God explain the Trinity as relational, not hierarchical, and emphatically refutes any idea that God generates negative events, even for our own good. What God does, according to Young, is redeem such events, and the persons acting them out. The church as an institution is downplayed, and characterized mostly by its shortcomings. Young, asked in interviews about his church-going, focuses more on his “community of believers” than institutional religion, which may explain why his book is so popular. In one sense, the book is about “entering a relationship”, which is not a new theme in evangelical Christianity. Young also insists that evil comes from freedom, which is what we are born into. The story realistically communicates Mack’s anguish and despair, and keeps us interested even as the conversations begin to sound like lectures from a course called “God101: Forgiveness”. While a particularly Protestant expression, Christians of all stripes can be counted among the book’s audience. A good book to check out if you’re wondering what resonates spiritually in today’s society.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hands of my Father by Myron Uhlberg

Myron Uhlberg is an author of books for children, and this is his first book for an adult audience. It is not so much a story, as a bunch of childhood recollections that are roughly in chronological sequence, but do not work together to show any development of the principal characters – Myron, his younger brother, and their deaf parents. His brother is the least illuminated, with most of the focus on Myron and his father. The recollections range from trivial (what Myron picks out in a candy store, watching a neighbor tend his pigeons) to terrifying (his brother having grand mal seizures, his father cutting himself accidentally on a broken bottle). The book is noteworthy in its depiction of how people who were deaf lived then, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Myron describes a virtual wall between his parents and the hearing world, one constructed by ignorance and prejudice. (It would be interesting to learn how this wall has been affected by our presently more “enlightened” acceptance of handicapped people.) The author remarks on how incredibly close his mother and father were, leading him to speculate how their deaf condition may have served to increase their dependence and focus on each other. Both his parents came from hearing families, and they describe (to him) the pain of living as aliens in their family circles. But the author hesitates to examine these stories closely, seeming to tread more on the surface of their narratives. When he asks for a dog, he hears about his mother’s experience of having a dog in childhood, how she communicated with it, how it knew her moods and her inclinations in an instant. The dog had to go, after a biting episode – but the pain of the story is not about losing the dog, but the glimpse into what the dog alleviated - the darkness, the lack of relating. All Myron says is, he stopped asking, realizing he didn’t need a dog. His life was not like that. But then, he was not deaf.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This I Believe & This I Believe II / from NPR & Jay Allison, ed.

Fans of NPR will recognize This I Believe, a collection of oral interviews examining the core values, independent philosophies and personal credos of a variety of individuals. Virtually every walk of life is touched upon. Both celebrity and everyman, living and deceased, domestic and international, old and young are granted a voice. Originally conducted and cataloged by Edward R. Murrow and Studs Terkel for radio broadcast in the 1950's, this 2006 updated anthology displays the wide array of beliefs, influences and principles which have served as the backbone of mankind's contributions to society.
The likes of Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, John Updike, Carl Sandburg, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Albert Einstein grace the pages of the first edition while a later--2008--adaptation entitled This I Believe II includes excerpts from "Dead Man Walking" nun Helen Prejean, skateboarder Tony Hawk, musician Yo-Yo Ma, peace corp volunteer and activist James Loney and Hurricane Katrina survivor Robin Baudier. Jay Allison, an independent broadcast journalist and frequent member on NPR's special interest panel, does a good job tying in all of the various personal essays and making each presentation worthwhile.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rock Rants: Rock Music Memoirs, Insider Narratives and Groupie Tell-alls from Rock's Most Legendary Icons

Cobain Unseen / by Charles R. Cross
More a collage of Cobain’s personal letters, photos, notes and memorabilia with little interference from chronological details, Cross’s book is essentially a shrine published in memoriam of the deceased Nirvana front man. If any doubt remains that Cobain was (and will likely continue to be rendered as) the most iconic figure in Generation X pop culture, books like this one tend to reconfirm and proliferate—with venerating affectations only a melodrama like Cobain’s could provoke—his never-ending legacy.

Neil Young Nation / as Lived and Narrated by Kevin Chong

In a time when Rock n’ Roll was dominated by performers from Britain and America, Neil Young was a Canadian guitarist who rose to the pinnacle of the industry and is still going strong today. A musician of extraordinary talent, moxy and creative ingenuity, Young’s career has spanned nearly five decades and has earned countless fans the world over. Kevin Chong, a music journalist and lifelong Young-devotee, takes an eclectic look at this iconoclastic figure, recounting how his own personal obsession with the performer has meshed with his real life interaction alongside him.

Queen: As It Began / by Jacky Gunn and Jim Jenkins; with an Introduction by Brian May

Probably the one Rock band which has had the most airtime of any one musical act owing to their anthem-like ballads which have filled sporting arenas worldwide, Queen is second-to-none when it comes to mainstream appeal and popularity. A book which was published within months of frontman Freddie Mercury’s death (a disclaimer at the end says that the other bandmembers were ignorant of his illness—he died of AIDS), ‘As it Began’ tells the definitive story of one of music’s most visionary acts, commenting on everything from their collaborative song writing to their flamboyantly innovative concerts.

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me / by Pattie Boyd w/ Penny Junior
From schoolgirl model-turned-supermodel posing alongside Twiggy to acting with the Beatles and finally on to superstardom as a 60’s and 70’s sex symbol, Pattie Boyd was the definitive Rock mistress as wife and muse to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton (Boyd's generally noted as being the inspiration for Harrison’s “Something” as well as Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”, “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues”) and a famous face of the glamorous Rock n’ Roll lifestyle. Here she details the good, the bad and the downright wild times reflecting on her two (failed) marriages to Clapton and Harrison and also delving into her current passion of photography and activism.

I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie / by Pamela Des Barres

Perhaps the most famous American Rock groupie of all time and a thoroughly “experienced” veteran of the glamorous Rock n’ Roll golden age, Pamela Des Barres—in her newest explicitly rendered memoir—dishes on her times spent among Rock royalty. Almost no name is unfamiliar as the likes of Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa, Don Johnson, Pete Townshend, Alice Cooper, Robert Plant, etc. grace the pages of Des Barres’ extremely intimate autobiography.
Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses / by Stephen Davis
The late eighties saw one band rise above the post-punk/hair-metal/thrash/glam scene to become the era's one hard rock group singularly recognized by its raw sound and fury. From lead singer Axl Rose’s screeched out lyrics of rage, misogyny, greed and apathy to guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin’s versatile guitar riffs, Guns n’ Roses was one band you could count on not only to never sell out, but to push the envelope of ferocity, havoc and reckless behavior in the Rock arena. Not only were they not very nice, 'Guns' truly carried an 'appetite for destruction' everywhere--Axl’s propensity for inciting concert riots, violent altercations between band members and a slew of rape, assault and drug charges ultimately resulting in their partial disintegration. Veteran Rock music biographer Davis’ reveals the many ins and outs of one of music’s nastiest power groups, wisely characterizing the band and its individuals from an unbiased viewpoint leaving their legacy to be determined by the reader.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Straight Man / by Richard Russo

Richard Russo won a 2001 Pulitzer for his novel Empire Falls, which examines the dismal lives of people in a small Maine town. The author of over 10 mainstream novels, he's recently broken into Hollywood as screenplay author and script editor for the films Keeping Mum, Ice Harvest and 2007's Bridge of Sighs, based on his novel of the same name. Straight Man takes an introspectively humorous look at Academic life following an acting English department head at a small college through a particularly turbulent period of the semester.

Professor William Henry Devereaux, Jr.--"Hank"--might be stuck as a tenured writing teacher at remote liberal arts college, but you don't have to tell him. He's well-aware of it. At the moment however, any midlife career angst he does feel is meshed against equally pressing issues like budget cuts forecasting doom for the already underfunded English department, lingering suspicions that his wife may be having an affair, unruly students, quibbling faculty and one particularly vital bodily (dys)function causing him indescribable pain. When a querulous incident involving a halloween mask, a live duck and a TV news camera makes Hank a 48 hour local celebrity, it's all he can do to maintain his composure and elicit control as acting head of the department.

Despite its somewhat misleading title, Straight Man--intended to connote a straight-forward individual in the company of fakers--is an amusing, jocular novel on the paradoxical absurdities of Academic life. Almost a Catch-22 styled plot with its abundance of oddball characters, multiple subplots and unseemly circumstances accepted as mere routine encounters, it's the truth conveyed within the sardonic narrative that readers relate to most. Hank's colorful running commentary about his various personal and institutional vexations lends American middle-age its due; and while you kind of sense that everything will turn out OK, that pitted feeling of life restrained by obligations is clearly identified. Though at times a bit rambling, the book is lightearted and entertaining and will connect with readers well-associated with the characteristics of a midlife crisis.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Oldboy (2003) DVD / a film by Chan-Wook Park starring Min-Sik Choi; based on the comic by Nobuaki Minegishi


"Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone."
Abducted by unknown perpetrators one rainy night, businessman Oh Dae-Suh has been mysteriously held captive for 15 years inside an isolated, oddly furnished cell. Now after his abrupt, unexplained release, a vengeful Dae-Suh actively seeks out the responsible party only to have his vindication efforts confronted by a peculiarly diabolical individual. As revelations concerning the reason for his confinement come to light, he's awakened to a startling secret about his own--now long forgotten--past which hides a frighteningly daunting truth.

Oldboy is an absolutely awe-inspiring film, one that clicks on virtually all cylinders. Instantly it engages the viewer with its clever cinematography, inventive storytelling and dark humor following a tenacious protagonist through a maze of self discovery. Add a powerfully rendered love story and a twisted, very noir ending and you have a sublimely original cinematic production. The movie's technical aspects are likewise as admirable. Park's direction and storyboard give the movie an undeniably flawless synergy--the scene sequencing, choreography and selective use of bleach bypass arguably as impeccable as anything before or since. An unprecedented film which will undoubtedly become a Hollywood remake, this flick is a definite must-see-before-you-die movie.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Poetry In Motion: New Poetry Books for National Poetry Month

Hallelujah Blackout / by Alex Lemon
"The happy-chopping music of night joggers
& the drinking fountains filled with horse flies,
Yellow jackets burping up from the mud
& buzzard bait puddling the paths,
Again & Again it purrs through this fallen den"
A poet and fellow with the National Endowment for the Arts, Alex Lemon published his first book of poems, Mosquito, while undergoing a multi-year recovery from brain surgery. Described by critics as "poems [that] pull the reader into a world of familiarities where they confront daily experiences in totally surprising ways", Lemon's poetry is by turns subtle, eloquent and transcendental while also managing to uniquely ascertain aspects of the human condition. Hallelujah Blackout is another splendid collection of poetry resonating with the reader long after the final line.
Ballistics / by Billy Collins
"All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and, last time I looked, no ridge."

A two-time poet laureate, Billy Collins' poems are recognizable for their clear, simplistic approach to themes of life, death, love, sadness and joy. Written in very easy to understand language and dotted with humor, candor, versatility and insight, this new collection, Ballistics, is a fine example of the charm that has made Collins a choice selection among poetry lovers, poetry haters and everyone in between.
Warhorses / by Yusef Komunyakaa
"I did what I did. To see
friends turn into ghosts
among the reeds, to do
deeds that packed the heart
with brine & saltpeter
was to sing like a bone for dust."
Pulitzer prize-winning free verse poet Yusef Komunyakaa has long been a favorite among serious readers of American poetry who've been drawn to his eclectic blend of perceptive intuition, imaginative style and emotional intensity. A Vietnam veteran and deep south native, Komunyakaa's latest compilation, Warhorses, explores the nature of war, enmity, violence and destruction in an intriguing and challenging assortment of lyrical artistry.
John Betjeman: Collected Poems / w/ an Introduction by Andrew Motion
"Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!"
Beknighted English poet John Betjeman is the quintissential example of dry wit at its best. A barde of extraordinary talent, range and intuition, his words simply mosy along in a manner seemingly absent of ambition and yet manifest the most incisive observations, touching on various everyday scenes like women drivers, drugstores, night clubs and dismal weather with sublime clarity and nuance. Among his many unanimous favorites are "Before Invasion, 1940", "Shattered Image", "Interior Decorator" and "The Retired Postal Clerk".