Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Brighton Rock / by Graham Greene

"Before Hale had been in Brighton three hours, he knew they were going to kill him." (p.1)
At seventeen, Pinkie Brown, so named for his immensely pale complexion, is an up-and-coming gangster in the underworld of 1930's Brighton (UK). Though his slight build and unimposing visage would lend few to consider him a dangerous criminal, that is exactly what he is. Able to influence the actions of men much older than he himself and never thinking of backing down, Pinkie is a veritable sociopath, pathologically programmed to feel nothing but willful aggression, contempt, greed and disgust towards everyone. Currently, having just killed a middle-aged man in broad daylight after finding him out as traitor, Pinkie covers his tracks by feigning attraction for the one witness to his heinous crime, the delicate waitress Rose. As he steadily begins to gain influence, Pinkie puts in motion his plan to take over the city's organized crime outfit on a permanent basis.
But Brighton isn't all it seems. Amid the exuberant facade of bright lights and tawdry amusements, the seaside resort town, primarily seen as destination for weekenders and low-level retirees, appears a non-threatening locale. Yet beneath the veneer of leisure, celebration and showy attractions, the criminal element has long permeated the atmosphere, subversively coordinating the vices of gambling and prostitution for years, adding a more sordid form of enterprise to Brighton's thriving resort-town ways. If Pinkie is to succeed in his endeavors, he must take down the top dogs who've long been on the scene, operating in the shadows for as long as he's been alive.
Greene is a wonder, truly a master of characterization and one of the world's most unacclaimed treasures. This book is a testament to his unmatched skill. Nowhere in the fiction of the twentieth century is such depth of conscience given a voice and seldom has such an attribute of the human condition been seen through a character like Pinkie--a violent criminal convinced of the power of his own actions yet strangely heedful to the doctrine of atonement and eternal damnation. The book's prose, its stream of conscious (and conscience), the tenuous ties between criminals, the rule of law which sets honour among thieves vs. true and unconditional love are all carefully woven into the tapestry of this gem of literature. It's not hard to see why Greene is compared to the likes of Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Milton and Hesse, with his deft adherence to the nature of evil and the threadbare influence of love juxtaposed to it, a true scribe of his times.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto by Michael Pollan

From the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto looks at the history of Nutritionism and reductive science and their effects on the Western Diet. The first two sections of the book examine how the Western diet developed into a diet based largely on processed foods. Pollan explains the science and the politics behind this journey and the potential devastating effects it can have on our physical health.

The third and final section of the book suggests how we may modify our diet in order to lead a healthier life. Pollan is an advocate for a whole foods diet that limits the amount of processed foods and meat in the diet. He also recommends that people in the Western world, specifically North Americans, need to change their relationship to food. Eating shouldn’t be about eating as much as possible for the lowest cost in the shortest amount of time. Instead, eating should be an experience of preparation, reflection, and socializing like the diets of the French, Japanese, and those living in Mediterranean communities.

Don’t let the “manifesto” in the title deter you from reading or listening to this book. Pollan uses a factual approach to explain his case for adjusting the Western diet. The book does not preach at the reader, but rather suggests adjustments that need to be made to the modern diet in order to sustain a more healthy lifestyle.

In Defense of Food is available at the library in large and regular print, as well as in audio format. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is also available in regular print. These books are shelved in the general non-fiction area of the library. People interested in food and its context in social history may also want to read Paradox of Plenty: a social history of eating in modern America by Harvey Levenstein, Fast Food Nation: the dark side of the all-American meal by Eric Schlosser, and An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jackie Brown (DVD) 1997 / a film by Quentin Tarantino starring Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, Robert Forster & Robert De Niro

"I can do that."
Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-age flight attendant for a crummy, transit airline specializing in shuttle trips back and forth between LA and Mexico. To supplement her meager salary, she trafficks money and drugs for Ordell Robbie (Jackson), an LA arms dealer and violent criminal currently under investigation by federal authorities. On a routine trip back into the US, Jackie's apprehended by police and briefly detained only to be released on bail (paid by Ordell) before she can be fully interrogated. Despite her freedom, Jackie, along with Max Cherry (Forster), the bondsman Ordell has hired, knows she's now a marked woman--her testimony to the cops along with a likely plea deal the only thing needed for a fatal indictment of her 'employer'. Knowing that sooner rather than later Ordell will try and remove her from the picture, Jackie decides on the only risk worth taking and boldly steps forward in her design, swindling Ordell out of several hundred thousand dollars in cash while giving the cops the slip and making a break for it with help from Cherry.
Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to Pulp Fiction, while originally not so well-received as its predecessor, ultimately found its place among loyal fans and continues to generate favorable approval. Like his previous work as a writer/director up until Jackie Brown, True Romance and Reservoir Dogs coming to mind in addition to PF, the movie's intended focus is as much on character, mood and atmosphere as it is on the plot. It's not just what's happening and why; it's who's doing it and how--personality, method and demeanor a major part of telling the story. Take, for instance, the scene with Ordell and his partner Louis (De Niro) in a van just after learning Jackie's made off with the cash, the camera steadily resting on Ordell's still gaze for over a minute before he soberly exclaims "It's Jackie Brown". The audience knows what's going on (and likely what will be said in some capacity) all the way up until the words are spoken. But the way in which it's done, how the vocal exclamation subtly stamps the mood consummately underlying the film's overall concept, is truly entrancing. People who think Tarantino self-consciously tries to be cool or that he uses shock value to entertain--rampant profanity and violence a trademark--should look closer at his use of dialogue in scenes more secondary to the climax, how much more craftily those situations convey depth and meaning in contrast to hyped verbal confrontations or violent action sequences.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Chameleon's Shadow / by Minette Walters

After being wounded in Iraq, Lt. Charles Ackland is deported home to England to have reconstructive surgery on the left side of his face. Yet when multiple operations fail to re-create his once youthful appearance, the man Charles used to be, both on the exterior and internally, is essentially erased. Once a gung-ho alpha male with a zest for life, Charles has permanently withdrawn from the world, setting up for himself an existence of permanent emotional isolation and limited interpersonal contact. All former ties with family and friends, including his serious relationship with one-time fiance Jen Morley, are expediently eradicated. Soon his morose livelihood leads him into contact with the murky underworld of vice and sadism, a world in which a peculiarly diabolical set of circumstances leads Charles to be suspected in connection to a series of heinous crimes.
Award-winning British mystery author Minette Walters delves into sinister territory in her latest standalone novel, showing the shadowy depths to which the human condition can sink. Charles may seem like a sympathetic figure early on, the deterioration of his physical condition and emotional plight peaking the reader's curiosity. But as the story evolves and events surrounding Charles' actions become more questionable, interest is taken to a different level where things aren't always what they seem. Walters has a knack for revealing the intricacies of relationships and her ability in portraying how trust is easily betrayed through malevolent personal motivations is nothing short of remarkable.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle / by George V. Higgins

Eddie Coyle is a foot soldier in a mid-level Boston crime syndicate. As a utility man and part-time gun-runner for a gang of small timers scoring the occasional bank heist, Eddie's world is the one he's known all his life. It's also the world which has him staring at 3-5 years in prison unless he can cop a plea deal. At 50, Eddie knows he's in no shape to do time, definitely not when his family--a wife and three kids--would have to go on welfare while he's in lockup. His only hope now is his "friends", the fellow hoods and small arms suppliers he routinely does business with. The insider knowledge of said individuals is the only thing Eddie has to trade for his safety. But Eddie's "friends" have their own safety in mind, especially as the heat bears down after a civilian was killed in their latest bank job. No fools themselves, they know Eddie's up against it. They know, just as Eddie does, that to save himself he must rat them out. Consequently, a decision must be made regarding not only his stake in the operation, but his permanent ability to discern and communicate certain information.

Once referred to as America's most prolific crime novelist, George Higgins has authored dozens of the spellbinding suspense thrillers. A prosecuting attorney with the DA's in Boston prior to becoming a full time writer, Higgins has been widely applauded for his ability to accurately portray authentic situations and realistic dialogue from the world of law and order. This book, one of his most popular, expertly conveys a broad spectrum of the criminal element existing in a typical metropolitan underground. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into an award-winning 1973 feature film (DVD FRIENDS) starring Robert Mitchum and Alex Rocco. The 2010 film The Town, adapted from the book by Chuck Logan, is basically the same story with only marginally differentiated character archetypes and plot points. Frankly neither's not really on par with Higgins' novel or the film with Mitchum. (FIC HIGGINS)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange; A Memoir / by Mark Barrowcliffe

"You may consider that you wasted your youth . . ." 

With brilliant self-deprecating humour, novelist Mark Barrowcliffe, author of Lucky Dog and Girl 44, recalls his youth as a obsessive Dungeons and Dragons nerd. A pre-digital age role-player game "played by millions of boys and two girls the world over", Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) combined elements of magic and the supernatural with strategy and chance, offering participants the opportunity to escape into a wholly re-created world of pure fantasy. For a time it was this author's all-encompassing livelihood, the game's popularity peaking just when he reached adolescence (circa 1980) and quickly consuming all available time and interest until his early twenties. For Barrowcliffe, it was inconceivable that anything else could engage his attention. All conscious energy was devoted to furthering his skill level, enhancing his characters and generally immersing himself deeper into the D&D universe.

Not uncoincidentally, Mark's friends were wholly preselected on the basis of their affinity for the game and its accompanying mystical aspects, their wisdom on things like wizards, alchemy, dungeoneering and character classes attracting particular favor. Anything and everyone outside the D&D realm was dismissed as simply unnecessary. Even if you've never played Dungeons and Dragons and have only a hazy notion of what it is outside its vague characterization as a game in which some ill-adjusted or rather awkward-seeming boys sit around a table discussing (often heatedly) things like power quotients, orcs, dungeonmasters or cloaked figures, this is quite an amusing read. Barrowcliffe manages to bridge the gap between the bland, often satirical perception of the game and just what it is about D&D (and indeed much of the RPG culture) which incites such an addictive, almost rabid compulsion in select group of individuals over something which is altogether "make-believe". (823.914 BARROWCL)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Never Change / by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg is an American novelist gifted with an ability to generate sympathy for largely unappealing characters. Her novel Open House was an Oprah Book of the Month in 2004. In Never Change, lonely middle-aged Myra Lipinsky plods through her spinster existence until her job as a hospice nurse reconnects her with an old friend from her teenage years, a man now terminally ill with a brain tumor.
"I am the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom..." p.5
Self-characterized as something of a dateless wonder throughout her youth and into adulthood (though she "would have gone if asked"), 51-year-old Myra Lipinsky has become accustomed to the reclusive, independent lifestyle. Her nursing career's been rewarding enough to acquire what she feels is relative contentment and she does have her dog, Frank, for companionship. But when, by chance, she becomes caretaker to her long-ago hearthrob Chip Reardon, Myra finds that the unrequited love she once had in high school is still going strong, even if Chip is dying of cancer.
Thirty years later, Chip is still the same ("the boy Chip dressed up as the man Chip") and single, never having married though never lacking opportunities. His diminishing condition withstanding, Myrah finds to her delight that remnants of the pair's affable relationship from high school are still intact, progressively becoming more intimate as time passes. The mutual accountability warranted by Chip's illness and Myra's affection and compassion soon gives way to genuine chemistry shared by each, manifesting a "something-more-than-friends" kind of bond as Myra seizes the opportunity she'd secretly longed for so long ago while there's still time.
Berg is a very pleasant writer, "reassuringly predictable"* in her premise, story arc and resolution, depicting ordinary, anti-glamorous protagonists amidst equally run-of-the-mill situations. Though unpleasant and perceivably heartbreaking events are guaranteed to occur, rarely does the reader sense that Berg's heroines, in this case Myra, won't be able to overcome it. Emotional growth and enlightened revelations are major spotlight issues (i.e., Chip really can love Myra the way he's loved more attractive women, Myra really is cared for at large, even the most severe grief can be gotten over, etc.).
*Publishers Weekly

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This book has made a name for itself, becoming a best-seller last year, and ensuring an automatic interest in any other books Mr. Wroblewski may happen to write. He will probably get another out a bit quicker - this book supposedly took 10 to 15 years to write.

The book is about Edgar, who is a boy who cannot speak (but hears just fine) and is an only child somewhere in the wilds of Wisconsin. His parents raise dogs, and in their raising are not looking for the finest physical points or useful traits, but are trying to create a dog who is able to enter into communication deep enough with its master so that it brings knowledge to each enterprise – another mind, as it were, not just a helpmate.

This is a lovely idea, and the book largely works on the entrancing quality of this belief. Many who have spent time with dogs can attest to the companionship and the “depth of understanding” that seems to lie beneath the relationship.

Wroblewski can write attractive prose, and the challenges of Edgar shouldering his share of the work, when his father unexpectedly dies, absorb us as they absorb him. Then there are obstacles upon obstacles. His mother gets pneumonia, no one can help (why, we aren’t told) and things unravel until they have to ask his father’s brother to come help. This person’s villainy is hinted at, but never explained.

Halfway through the book, Wroblewski casts the father as the vengeful ghost in Hamlet. This device is hard to uphold (can Hamlet be 14?), and each plot turn seems like another wedge inserted to keep everything upright.
Suffice to say that you keep reading, hoping for something better, hoping for resolution. Wroblewski works his drama for all that it’s worth – whether he delivers or not is up to the reader.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Bright Forever / by Lee Martin

On a summer evening in a small midwestern town, nine-year-old Katie Mackey rides her bike to the library and doesn't come back. Katie being the darling daughter of town magnate Junior Mackey, everything is immediately committed to searching for the missing girl. But with few leads, fewer suspects and only marginal circumstantial evidence, the investigation soon grows cold, unable to net even the smallest details as the days go by. Yet while the authorities know very little, certain key individuals know all too much about the disappearance.

The real story is steadily revealed by a handful of loosely connected individuals, each offering their collective input, regrets, suspicions and secrets about the night in question. Gilley is Katie's sensitive older brother, so filled with remorse over his inability to keep his sister safe that he's willing to do anything (well, almost anything) to see things righted. Then there's Henry Dees. Welcomed into the Mackey home as Katie's tutor, Mister Dees may be a respected high school math teacher, but he's also a bit of a creepy loner whose voyeuristic habits haven't been so discrete as to go unnoticed. Lonely simpleton Claire Mains may not be a suspect, but her own suspicions about her n'er do-well husband Raymond R. can't be quelled, sentiments strongly echoed by more than a few others. Ultimately the fact that Raymond R. looks the part is enough to convince an indignant Junior Mackey who, ignoring all due process of law, subsequently takes justice into his own hands.

Readers will enjoy how Martin, author of River of Heaven, combines an omniscient narrative with multiple first-person perspectives, able to reveal the most intimate of intimate details about the story and surrounding context. The characters aren't so appealing though. Dees, with whom the most confidences are exchanged, is an irritatingly sensitive guy with little to do but mope about his lot as an outcast amid the splendor of the Mackeys, their charming home and vibrant children. Gilley is totally one-dimensional as the all-american older brother, never quite real enough to express anything but sentimental fondness for the world around him. And while the two villains, Raymond R and Junior Mackey, bring welcomed attitude and action, they do so in predictably flagrant fashion providing the story with little depth or substance. (FIC MARTIN)

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Painting Novels

I, Mona Lisa / by Jeanne Kalogridis
In this empassioned novel of Renaissance Italy, author Kalogridis examines the woman behind that mysterious smile depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa—Lisa di Antonio Gherardini. Her life and the eventful, often bloody, circumstances surrounding the commission and painting of her portrait are vividly described in this fascinating book.

Girl with a Pearl Earring / by Tracy Chevalier
A young girl becomes the friend and muse to renowned 17th century Dutch Painter Johannes Vermeer after she’s hired on as a servant at his Amsterdam home. Chevalier’s fictional story behind the famous painting is as charming as the portrait itself.

In the Company of the of the Courtesan / by Sarah Dunant
Amid the sacking of Rome in 1527, a young Courtesan, Fiametta Bianchini, escapes the city and heads to Venice in the company of her escort Bucino Teodoldo, a dwarf. This story and its heroine were inspired by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, which is featured on the cover.

Luncheon at the Boating Party / by Susan Vreeland
In her latest fictional rendition chronicling the events surrounding a famous painting, Vreeland tracks artist August Renoir as he labors under the Paris sun on his impressionist masterpiece, “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Accompanying the often unpleasant heat is the stress of trying to get just the right people in just the right light, not to mention the unwanted attention of critical onlookers and a host of other distractions.