Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Something To Do With Death

C'era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) DVD (1968) / w/ Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards & Claudia Cardinale; a film by Sergio Leone
Jill: "You saved his life."
Harmonica: "I didn't let them kill him . . . that's not the same thing."
In an era of change and transition in a land far from civilized, one man bids for his portion of the American dream while another helps try to preserve it and still others aim to obliterate any chance could have. An outlaw fugitive shoots his way out of captivity only to find new enemies at the next turn, a bigger bounty on his head, more battles to be waged. A woman from the east seeking a new life arrives to find her fiance murdered, his children slain alongside him. All the while as ruthless ambitions are collectively played out, a solitary "man with no name" deliberates his own purpose-filled agenda, one not indifferent to morality yet still wrought with necessary evils. It is Once Upon a Time in the West, a time of order and civility striving to overcome violence and corruption, of progress and development in the face of lawlessness as a way of life.
The Western to top all Westerns, Sergio Leone's masterpiece is not only a staple of the genre, it's widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The cinematography itself--symbolic imagery, visual aesthetics and soundtrack--warrants instant appeal: barren landscapes as worn and desolate as the figures and faces which inhabit it, winds howling across unobstructed terrain mirroring civilization's unencumbered progress, tattered buildings withering under the elements reflecting man's own imperfections, etc. The cast is likewise distinguished. Henry Fonda, in his darkest role, portrays the very essence of evil as the psychopathic Frank, a ruthless mercenary only too obliged to kill on a whim. Bronson is the mysterious "Harmonica", a man bearing the scars from a wounded past consequently linking him to a singular, irreversible fate. Robards and Cardinale complete the leads as the sympathetic outlaw and sturdy heroine, each complemented by a well-positioned supporting cast all helping to lift the movie to its rightful place in film history.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Has Done So Much Ill and So Little Good / by William Easterly

For sixteen years, William Easterly was a senior research analyst with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) World Bank where he witnessed both the blight of global poverty and the further tragedy of ineffectual, often detrimental attempts at intervention on behalf of the world's wealthier, developed nations. Currently a professor of economics at NYU as well as a senior fellow with the Center for Global Development, Easterly's previous book The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, has also received rave reviews.
When the Red Cross was established in 1863, its mission was to alleviate suffering by ensuring that humanitarian aid would be provided on an impartial footing for all persons and nations alike. Over the years this credo has been bolstered and reinforced by numerous other philanthropic agencies, all of which have contributed multitudes of resources, capable man power and trillions of dollars toward the cause. Yet all the collective aid and funding has done abysmally little for the populations most in need of assistance and, in some cases, the situation has become even worse.
Easterly claims that much of the problem lies with the hegemonial ideologies inherent in westernized countries--a sort of "we know what's best for the rest of the world" attitude. All too often, high-minded humanitarian schemes are implemented by woefully ill-informed "Planners" who know little to nothing about the places and people they're trying to help, thus erring horribly in their inflexible designs for assuaging disease and poverty and, all too frequently, having said resources "absorbed" by the political regimes of suffering nations. The ineptitude of bureaucracies and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in accounting for aid apportionment, who mediates it and what happens after it exchanges hands is another major reason why places like Africa and South Asia are still dirt poor and continue to be ravaged by treatable illnesses such as malaria and tuberculosis.
Despite his cynicism, Easterly says there is hope. Sustainable development requires non-temporal, grass roots aid programs in order for progress to be made. Existing humanitarian organizations must coordinate their efforts through what the author terms the "Searchers", or aid agencies and NGO's adaptable to alternate methodologies and target-nation perspectives. Aid itself won't end poverty. Only the self-reliance and forward-minded efforts of those residing in the poor nations, with practical ideas and regulated support properly rendered from western institutions, can permanently put an end to poverty. That being said, well-coordinated aid that is concentrated on "feasibly attainable" goals can eliminate the suffering of multitudes in the meantime (p.382-383).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

First comes love, then comes malaria by Eve Brown-Waite

A very enjoyable read. Eve Brown-Waite’s first novel is a memoir of her experiences of living abroad for a good cause, first by herself (in the Peace Corps) and then with her husband (employed by CARE in Africa). Her husband John is actually the Peace Corps recruiter who interviews her and who she falls for, big time. Fresh out of college as a political science major, Eve did some grass-roots organizing in college and found she had a flair for it, and liked the idea of doing something “meaningful” for people. We follow her through her eventual posting to Ecuador, right after getting seriously involved with John. So, on the plane bound for her first experience in a third world country, instead of feeling determined and resolute and/or nervous, she’s crying her eyes out missing her boyfriend. Eve may be guilty of exaggerating her reactions to the culture in Ecuador and later to Uganda, but emphasizing her culture shock makes for lighthearted reading. She is na├»ve, but she can adjust – as in how she first refuses to get a “house girl” to clean for her in Uganda, but finally changes her mind after a servant finds a nest of mambo snakes in her neighbor’s house, behind their dresser. Her account of life in both countries is very down to earth, grounded in particulars (like her toddler eating termites like the locals), and the goals and ideals of the organizations that send people to these countries are not unduly emphasized. But what comes across is the attraction these other cultures hold for us in their family, village, and community ties and customs – and how adrift we are from these in our “developed” lands.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Life As We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search for (and Synthesis of) Alien Life / by Peter Ward
Currently a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, Peter Ward has been closely involved with the NASA Astrobiology committee charged with researching the possibility of alien and extraterrestrial life. His latest book takes a hard look at what life on other planets--carbon and non-carbon-based--might be like. Comparing life of earthly origins to simulated "life" created from artificial matter in test labs, Ward goes into great detail hypothesizing on exactly what extraterrestrial lifeforms would consist of, pointing out the conditions which would theoretically comprise their evolution and makeup.
The Roswell Legacy: The Untold Story of the First Military Officer at the 1947 Crash Site / by Jesse Marcel, Jr. and Linda Marcel w/ foreword by Stanton T. Friedman
On July 8, 1947, an unidentified object crash landed in field near Roswell, New Mexico. Initial reports confirmed that it was a "flying disc". Hours later, government officials released a statement claiming it was only a weather balloon. Ever since then, conflicting follow-up reports, witness accounts, interpretations and conspiracy theories have been brought forth. Among the more reputable is the story of Jesse Marcel, Sr. An Air Force Major at the time of the crash, Marcel was the first military officer on the scene and would recount, decades later in a much publicized interview, details of the debris found at the crash site as being otherworldly in nature and featuring graphics and encoding which were indecipherable upon observation. This new book by Marcel's son testifies as to not only the accuracy of his father's experiences, but also the government cover up and hush efforts which have attempted to invalidate his testimony.
Flying Saucers & Science: A Scientist Investigates the Mysteries of UFO's / by Stanton T. Friedman
Professor Stanton Friedman may be the most well-known expert on the flying saucer phenomenon and, subsequently, its correlation to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. With several advanced degrees in nuclear physics and having worked on a number of (very classified) space and rocket propulsion programs, he may also be the most qualified proponent-advocate for the existence of aliens and UFO's. Here Friedman addresses several of the more intriguing questions on topics like the 1947 Roswell incident (he actually wrote the foreword for the preceding book--see above), human-alien encounters and abduction stories, assumptions and reality about the SETI program, whether interstellar travel is conceivably possible, and a myriad of probing concerns surrounding the government's covert involvement in some of the more prominent UFO cases.
Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters / by John E. Mack
For a period in late 1980's and early 1990's, Dr. John Mack, a psychiatrist and then Harvard professor, conducted one of the more exhaustive studies on the alien abduction phenomenon. Interviewing and analyzing countless professing "abductees" along with others attesting to UFO sightings, human-alien encounters and other trans-paranormal experiences, Mack summed up his concluding evaluation in this provocative book, basically leaving the validity of said abduction incidents open for interpretation but asserting that the profound lasting impact it's had on such individuals cannot be dismissed. The complex psychological implications involved and the drastic, transformative nature affecting the individual is too significant to discount; just as the notions some have that we might live in a multidimensional universe can't be chalked up as rubbish due to mere probability and conjecture.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970's / by Margaret Sartor


"If memory stores the spirit of our experience, then a diary, in its bona fide physical existence, surely retains the flesh and blood." (p.9)

In a memoir that will have a great many heads nodding in recognition, writer and photojournalist Margaret Sartor looks back on her youth in small town Louisiana during the 1970's. By all accounts, Sartor's was a very typical adolescence characterized by school, peers, dating, church and outdoor activities. The adventuresome middle child of a physician father and a homemaking mother, she and her family ("dysfunctional in the normal way") got along amicably in their comfortable estate house, a remnant of plantation days, embedded on the Ouachita River. It was here under cover of the moss-hung live oak trees scattered along the riverbank where much of the business of growing up took place--beer, cigarettes & making out as much a part of life as church youth group and prayer meetings.
The very capable resource of Sartor's own teenage diary comprises most of the book's content; the original text, formatted into mostly one or two-line entries, employed as the primary means by which the author tells her story. Undoubtedly, her depiction of life between the years 1972-1978 (her own ages 12-18) gives a very open, unadulterated viewpoint of class, gender, race, love and relationships as well as the more at-large issues of the day like the tail-end of Vietnam, Watergate, desegregation and price goudging. It's the personal revelations which will interest readers though, Sartor's captivating, intimate and above all honest disclosures on the one period in everyone's life which remains unavoidably memorable and inescapably well-preserved.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fathers and Sons / by Ivan Turgenev; trans. by Michael R. Katz

One of Czarist Russia's most recognizable authors and a staple of the literary world in the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev was among many noted Russian writers to contribute significantly during the time period. Well-traveled with a degree from Oxford and holding company with the likes of Emile Zola, Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, not to mention compatriots Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, his book Fathers and Sons(1862) has been labeled one of the greatest novels of all time.

Following their university term in St. Petersburg, young Arkady Kirsanov and his friend Yevgeny Bazarov head home to the Kirsanov's provincial estate where Arkady's father Nikolai cheerily welcomes both. Pavel Kirsanov, Arkady's uncle, feels rather put upon, however, by the youths presence--Bazarov's in particular--and their rather unobtrusive theories on the new philosophy of "nihilism" which contrasts vigorously to the older generation's more aristocratic principles. Arkady and Bazarov decide to travel to Bazarov's parents' estate where on the way they stop off at the home of Madame Odintsova's, a libertine woman sharing the pair's altruistic views and ideologies for the new age. Bazarov soon falls hopelessly in love with Odintsova, who remains decidedly uninterested but withstands his advances for the sake of her daughter Katya, who's genuinely in love with Arkady.

Bazarov's rejection is so disturbingly felt that he remains irascible for the duration of the pair's journey and stay at his parents home, a temporary falling out between he and Arkady prompting the decision return to Arkady's where the situation is hardly better. Back at the Kirsanov estate, an irksome Pavel, feeling increasingly irritated at Bazarov's morose attitude, intrusive mannerisms and opposing viewpoints, ultimately coerces the situation into challenge of honor--a duel.

A work deeply entrenched in the social context of the day, Fathers and Sons deftly examines the cynical, disillusioned mentality of Russia's new generation in contrast to their forebears established, more patrician regime. Both ideologies are craftily undertaken by Turgenev who eventually manages to superimpose both without necessarily undermining each's significance. Bazarov's high-minded belief in a world bereft of meaning is put to shame in the face his inescapable passion for Madame Odintsova. Conversely the pompous Pavel, who simply cannot abide anyone convinced that a society should operate without the sole intentions of the aristocracy, remains obtuse to any other form of social heirarchy or way of life. The redemptive power of love trumps all of these quibbling disputes however; peace and harmony found not through philosophical initiatives, but rather in the fulfilling relationships of marriage and family.

Monday, June 8, 2009

An Amateur Marriage / by Anne Tyler

Despite a naturally shy demeanor and general disinterest towards media & publicity attention, American author Anne Tyler is still recognized as one of the country's most prolific writers, having won a Pulitzer for her novel Breathing Lessons (1989) and a Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist (1985). An Amateur Marriage (2004) is a lighthearted but telling account of a marriage which is, frankly, just as the title describes it.

It's post-Pearl Harbor 1941 and patriotism runs high throughout the country, perhaps nowhere more fervent than in the Baltimore where eager young men march through the streets on their way to war. Yet 18-year-old Michael Anton feels reluctant to enlist, not wanting to leave his recently widowed mother alone to run their neighborhood grocery, especially for a dangerous and perhaps fatal stint as a soldier. These inhibitions are overruled the moment he sets his sights on Pauline Barclay for whom Michael feels that any life lived out of her favor would be hopelessly unworthy. Consequently, the younger and girlishly romantic Pauline can't help her feelings for Michael and a hasty engagement is swiftly set in motion just as Michael heads off to boot camp.

Following Michael's medical discharge the young but amorous pair are married and promptly settle into domestic life in the apartment above the family store. But Pauline's more cosmopolitan ambitions and restless temperament simply won't allow such an arrangement, especially once the couple's three children--Lindy, George and Karen--start arriving. Within years following their marriage and despite Michael's more conservative viewpoint, the family relocates to a home in the suburbs where even upon arrival, Pauline's well-vocalized yearning for more desirous prospects becomes a constant barrage in Michael's ear. Arguments and frequent bickering are commonplace in the Anton household, the couple's routine fallouts over anything and everything overriding their few happy moments. While fond and loving of their three kids the pair are, at best, less than adequate parents, consistently erring on matters of discipline and ultimately unable to prevent their eldest, Lindy, from running away at 17. Neither can Michael or Pauline prevent their marriage from its inevitable collapse as, after 25 years of their steadily decaying relationship, things dissolve in divorce.

Tyler is a sentimentalist but her characterization of two halves of a doomed union rings of genuine authenticity. Michael and Pauline aren't bad, they're just ordinary flawed individuals trying and failing to manifest any joy or prosperity in matrimony. The author's subtly clever about how she goes about it all. The mood is very "light" with divisiveness arising from mild personal dissatisfactions rather than ill-wrought grudges or resentment--more the Ropers from "Three's Company" than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet this doesn't dissuade from any realism or validity. Michael and Pauline are very much your archetypal 'normal' people living in mid-century middle America where any biased distinction of class, race, generation or upbringing can't be chalked up as a reason for the marriage's failure. The Antons fall short because they very evidently lack the tools to make it work. (FIC TYLER)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir, with Damien Lewis

Published last year, this is a personal account of the sufferings being undergone in Sudan in Africa during their civil war. Two different groups have long uneasily shared this land - nomadic Arabs, a minority with power, and the black tribes. Traditionally sparring for land in times of drought, periodic uprisings from the black community against the Muslim government in 2004 brought violent reprisal by Arab militants against black villages. This reprisal was sponsored by the government and fueled by racial hatred. Rape and brutal killings abounded, and Halima relates her experience of this genocide. The first half of the book tells about her childhood in the village and illuminates their traditions. Some are good, as her grandmother’s knowledge of healing herbs, and some are bad, such as the cutting and sewing of the girls’ genitals when they are eight years old. Halima’s father is a prosperous citizen and sends her to boarding school in the nearest town, where she begins to learn of the hostility between the Arabs and the blacks. As she conquers one obstacle after another in her education, political events unfold so that the horrors take place in an atmosphere already fearful and apprehensive. Her father wants to run to Chad, but her mom and grandmother want to stay, not leave their homeland. But the father knew better. Halima and her co-writer show us again how knowing what could happen does not reduce our helplessness in the face of civil disaster.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Matrimony Managment: New Books on Weddings and Wedding Planning

Do I Have to Where White? Emily Post Answers America's Top Wedding Questions / written by Anna Post
The unopposed queen of etiquette and still the one to go to for answers on what to do according to the finishing school code of conduct, Emily Post has long been the defacto authority on what's proper--an all the more commendable feat seeing as she's been dead 50 years. There are already 5 published editions of Post's official wedding etiquette, but this book offers something a little different with its easy-to-follow format and accessible content. In very basic Q&A style, great-great-granddaughter Anna dishes on just what and how a proper wedding should be got off, expounding on both formal and informal wedding ceremonies with insights on outfit accessories, stationary for the programs, and just who and how many guests to invite. (395. 22 POST)

The Green Bride Guide: How to Create an Earth-Friendly Wedding on any Budget / by Kate L. Harrison
Environmentally-friendly weddings may be in vogue but most veterans of these types of ceremonies will tell you they aren't always so affordable, or easy to plan. If you're going all out and will settle for nothing but a full-fledged carbon-neutral, energy efficient, vegeterian ceremony, Harrison states that you'll almost certainly need an experienced planner, one with enough savvy to orchestrate the eco-friendly details, save money and still maintain the style you're going for. Even couples wanting a more of mainstream atmosphere but still desiring a wedding comprised of thrifty, eco-conscious attributes will need spend the appropriate amount of time researching things like catering, facilitation and energy costs. (395.22 HARRISON)

The Knot Guide to Destination Weddings: Tips, Tricks and Top Locations from Italy to the Islands / by Carley Roney w/ Joann Gregoli
The trendiest way to get married nowadays is with a destination wedding. Or so say the editors of this stylish book covering nearly every detail on getting hitched in a locale other than where you live. With advice on everything from picking out the most oppropriate setting for your celebration, legal marriage requirements in foreign countries, calculating traveling expenses and hiring caterers in your destination of choice, this is a great informative resource for anyone wanting a wedding ceremony with an exotic flare. It's also got some great charts, worksheets and templates for remembering those oh-so-important small details. (395.22 RONEY)

Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings and Interfaith Services / Michael P. Foley
Frankly, this economy doesn't leave much room for loose budgeting and extravagance, especially when it comes to planning and executing your wedding day. Even the most important person involved at a traditional ceremony aside from the bride and groom--the minister--can have quite a lofty sum attached to his or her services. Understanding the necessary ceremonial rites, vows, blessings and procedures concerning all the vital details can be a key factor in determining just who to have orchestrating the most important day of your life. Fortunately, this book lets anyone and everyone (all persons of practicing judeo-christian faiths, that is) in on the exact rules and regulations for that special occasion. (265.5 FOLEY)